Thursday, September 26, 2013

A new agenda for the Catholic Church?

Ever since his election, Pope Francis has made a reputation for himself as outspoken. Since then, the secular media have been in a frenzy trying to interpret his comments and present him as the pope who is going to secularize the Roman Catholic Church. But nothing could be further from the truth.

As many have observed, Francis is delightfully frank and even provocative, in the good sense of the word. He seeks to challenge the Catholic Church, but he has no intention whatsoever of secularizing it, turning it upside down and inside out. Yet during his pontificate he will probably shake it up a bit. Something that is urgently needed. He has already started.

Many of his comments have been taken out of context, often by journalists who are atheists, or agnostics at best, and sometimes by progressives in the Church who identify him as a kindred spirit and reformer. Yet still others see regard him as a very traditional pope, much like his predecessor, Benedict XVI, in spite of a penchant for speaking out on controversial issues.. 

Although I have never met the man, and only know what the media have written about him, my intuition is that he is neither the secularizer that many journalists see, nor the wild-eyed reformer of the progressives, much less the rigid traditionalist that the hierarchy prefers. Francis is his own man. He has been that for many decades already. His lifestyle is very different from that of his predecessors. 

Casa Santa Marta, next door to St' Peter's

The pope's most recent comments were made in an interview published in La Civilta Cattolica, a Rome-based Jesuit journal. This interview was conducted by the Italian journalist Father Spadaro over the course of three days in the pope's room in Casa Santa Marta, where he has chosen to live instead of in the papal palace. After his election, Francis had heard a distinct "no" about living in the papal apartment, which he claims would have kept him far from the people to whom he was ministering. A slightly edited translated transcript is available in America: The National Catholic Review.

I have chosen to read this interview carefully, which I suspect many of the journalists or their editors who came up with sensational headlines neglected to do. This 12,000 word interview is well worth the time.

It begins with Father Spadaro's description of that room. The room conveys both the simplicity of Francis and his complexity: 

The setting is simple, austere. The work space occupied by the desk is small. I am impressed not only by the simplicity of the furniture, but also by the objects in the room. There are only a few. These include an icon of St. Francis, a statue of Our Lady of Luján, patron saint of Argentina, a crucifix and a statue of St. Joseph sleeping. The spirituality of Jorge Mario Bergoglio is not made of "harmonized energies,"  as he would call them, but of human faces: Christ, St. Francis, St. Joseph and Mary.

The papal bedroom, which may still be a bit too much for Francis

Francis cites three Jesuits whom he considers his models. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, Francis Xavier, and a figure who is not as well known, Peter Faber, whom the pope calls, “the reformed priest,” someone for whom interior experience, dogmatic expression and structural reform were inseparable, as by implication for Francis himself. All three men were roommates at the University of Paris. Incidentally, all three were contemporaries of John Calvin, although the pope does not mention him. Nor does he mention Francis of Assisi, whose lifestyle is very much a model for the pope. 

For Francis the church is the people of God, in the spirit of Vatican II, and not just the hierarchy. He sees the church as a "field hospital" where serious wounds must be treated first. "The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules," he explains. "The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all."

When it comes to the controversial issues of abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptives, for which he has been widely quoted as urging change, Francis warns that they have to be talked about them in the context of the teachings of the church. There has to a balance between the dogmatic and moral teachings of the church, but for him the message of the saving love of God must be paramount.

When prodded about the hot-button issue of homosexuality, Francis responded, "A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person."

           Pope Francis being interviewed on the question of homosexuality on a return flight to Italy

Has Francis rejected the church's teachings on abortion and gay marriage? Hardly! But he is saying that the church should not emphasize these teachings at the expense of showing mercy to those who contravene the rules. The love of God must be proclaimed in a simple yet profound way.

On the role of women in the church, Francis asserts that women are essential for the church."The challenge today is this: to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised for various areas of the church.” This statement can hardly be construed as advocating that women become priests.

On all these contentious issues, Francis is not Martin Luther dressed up in Jesuit robes. He is a reformer not in the sense of turning the church upside down but but rather in pleading for the church to stop focusing on minor issues and emphasize the Gospel instead. This is a profound but needed remark. He always speaks from the heart. That is the source of all his pronouncements. 

Francis knows what the Gospel is and, most important, he is willing to live in accordance with it. The Gospel for him is the message of Jesus Christ. And anything that stands in the way of that message must be rejected. If that makes him a revolutionary, so be it. This is what the New Testament teaches.

Pope's study in Casa Santa Marta

His refusal to live in the papal apartment is a recent example. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires he had already set a style of life that was marked by simplicity. He used public transit instead of a limousine.

On a recent trip inside Italy he condemned "the idolatry of money." In the interview he claims that he is not a right-winger, but it is unclear whether he means in the political or ecclesiastical sense. Yet he would not have been elected if his fellow-cardinals had suspected that he would overthrow everything in the church.

Has Francis set a new agenda for the church? I doubt it! What he has done in a few carefully chosen words, is remind the church and anyone else who is interested what the real agenda of the church is. That agenda was set already about 2000 years ago by Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, that agenda has sometimes been neglected. If Francis only keeps on reminding the world of this, he will already have transformed the church more than many of his predecessors put together.

Other churches could learn something from Francis. Have they also concentrated on minor matters at the expense of the Gospel? It is easy to deny this, but it takes someone like the pope to open other eyes as well. Thank you, Pope Francis!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Pornography and religion

Recently the Canadian Broadcasting Commission (CBC) aired a panel discussion on three topics: The first was the role of Putin in arranging an agreement about containing and destroying Syria's chemical weapons. The second dealt with the controversy surrounding the Quebec Charter of Values that bans "ostentatious" religious symbols that I have written about previously. The third, however floored me since it had nothing to do with politics, although it had plenty to do with symbols, in this case sexual symbols.

It concerned the "smashing" new video of Miley Cyprus, called "Wrecking Ball" that has rocketed to the top of the charts.  Although this explicit video has nothing to do with politics, yet, as one of the panelists noted, many more people watched this video than those who are aware of the situation in Syria. Porn trumps politics.

This raunchy video may not be pornographic to everyone, but many people would consider it as such. It is not something you would want young children to watch. Nudity on TV is common today, even if a disclaimer is added. Pornography has gone mainstream. It can now top the popular music charts, and it is used to spice up movies and TV programs. This is all about ratings and money.

It was not always this way. I remember when I was in my early teens, "girlie" magazines were available, but were not easily accessible. What was available was often airbrushed and tame by contemporary standards. Today, because of the internet, everything is accessible, even to young children. I don't consider myself a prude, but this has gone too far. Unfortunately, we cannot turn the clock back again.

Pornography, which derives from the Greek πορνεία, porneia, meaning fornication, has been defined as the explicit portrayal of sexual subject matter for the purpose of sexual gratification. The Greeks and Romans already had pornography. Today, a variety of media are available, including books, magazines, postcards, photos, sculpture, drawing, painting, animation, sound recording, film, video, and video games.

Porn is pervasive. It can be found almost everywhere. Last time I wrote about the pervasiveness of religious intolerance. The pervasiveness of porn, however, is perhaps even greater. I don't know which is worse. Both of these evils need to be exposed, as I try to do in this blog, which is geared to politics and faith, but touches on many other aspects of life as well. 

 For the internet alone, I discovered these rather disturbing figures: 
  • 4.2 million pornographic websites (12% of total websites)
  • 68 million daily pornographic search engine requests (25% of total requests)
  • 34% of average users received unwanted pornographic exposure
  • 1.5 billion pornographic downloads per month (peer-to-peer) (35% of total downloads)
  • 42.7% of internet users view pornography
  • 72 million worldwide internet users visit adult sites per month
If that is not disturbing enough for you, these figures about kids and porn might change your mind:
  • 116,000 daily requests for child pornography
  • 100,000 websites offer illegal child pornography
  • 11 is the average age of first internet porn exposure
  • 12- to 17-year-olds are the largest consumers of porn 
  • 90 percent of 8- to 16-year-olds have viewed porn online
Pornography is big business. It has been estimated that every second $3,075.64 is spent on pornography, while 28,258 people are viewing pornography and 372 people are typing in adult search terms. $13.33 billion was spent in the porn industry in 2006, and that has increased since then. In the US, porn revenue exceeds the combined revenues of all professional baseball, football, and basketball franchise and the combined revenues of ABC, CBS and NBC. World-wide pornography is a $57 billion world-wide industry.

Why do so many people watch it? While pornography is typically associated only with men, a significant portion of Internet pornography users are female: 72% of internet pornography viewers are male and 28% are female. Women generally use internet porn differently, being more interested in cyber chat rooms instead of just viewing pictures or videos, which is what males prefer to do online.

According to researchers, the majority of internet pornography users appear to do so on a recreational basis, with 43% spending less than one hour per week and 6-10% using it more compulsively, spending six hours or more per week engaged in internet pornography. Then it becomes an addiction.

Internet pornography addiction has been defined as "a pathological preoccupation with online sexual behaviors in an effort to create a mood-altering experience." This is something that affects all relationships. Those who have a partner who views internet pornography often experience this as an act of betrayal similar to an affair. I will not deal now with the role of shame, which is a very complex factor.

Internet pornography use also affects their spiritual connection. Many Christians admit it makes them feel disconnected from God. Religious involvements are often found to be a protective factor for such problem behaviors as crime, illegal drug use, and alcoholism. But research has been mixed as to whether religiosity is a protective factor in internet pornography usage.

At a policy level, religious belief was found to be related to supporting more restrictions on access to internet pornography. It was discovered that weak ties to religion and a lack of a happy marriage were the strongest predictors of cyber-porn use .But other researchers found that religiosity was not significantly associated with negative emotions related to viewing sex on the internet or in predicting negative emotional reactions to viewing internet pornography among college students.

In fact, it was found that although there was an inverse relationship between religiosity and sexual addiction, there was no significant relationship between religiosity and involvement in internet porn. Instead, there was actually a direct relationship between higher spiritual belief scores and cyber-porn involvement.

It has been theorized that males who have stronger spiritual beliefs may be more likely to engage in solitary cyber-porn because pornography is perceived as more permissible than premarital sex or extramarital sexual relationships. Since internet pornography is generally conducted in the privacy of one's own home, Christians can often maintain rigid doctrinal attitudes, public religious fervor and outward appearances, while ignoring their own private practices. Although religiosity is normally a protective factor for many social problems, it may not be for the private accessing of Internet pornography, and that it may actually be a risk factor. That may help to explain why Christians are also involved pornography.

Pornography is contrary to Christian beliefs and values. It reflects a mechanistic view of the human anatomy and its functions that is contrary to the Scriptures. It focuses on a single aspect of the person -- sexuality --and neglects others. It is reductionistic. Thus we objectify people and no longer see the whole person. When we view others through this narrow lens, it changes our understanding of everyone, including ourselves. That is why pornography needs to be rejected.

Yet that is often difficult since pornography is addictive, and not merely compulsive behavior. The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) includes a new section for behavioral addictions, but includes only one disorder: pathological gambling. The neurochemical dopamine is the central player in all addictions, including pornography.

Many Christian men, myself included, as well as women, have struggled for years against pornography. It is not easy. The same thing is true for practitioners of other faiths, even non-believers. Religion, which is often protective and helpful in fighting addictions of various kinds, has a risk factor when it comes to pornography.
As we have seen, pornography is pervasive and addictive. We know that religion can play both a positive and a negative role in the battle against pornography. Religion from now on should be used in a positive way so those who are addicted to pornography can receive additional resources to win the battle.

Pornography must be dragged out of private viewing rooms and condemned for being just as dangerous and destructive as many other sexual sins such as adultery. Pornography must be exposed as a very public sin, which has enormous consequences for many people: financial, social, ethical and spiritual, and thus should no longer be hidden.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The pervasiveness of religious intolerance

Religious intolerance can be found everywhere, all over the globe. If you think there is no religious intolerance in your own country, you haven't been looking very hard. It is easy to wag your finger at other countries, but such intolerance is present in every country. Bigotry knows no boundaries.

Recently I wrote about how politicians can misuse religious symbols. I wrote specifically about the Canadian province of Quebec, where the minority government of Premier Pauline Marois wants to ban the use of all "ostentatious" religious symbols by everyone who is paid from the public purse. This week her government introduced the necessary enabling legislation under the guise of a charter protecting Quebec values.

The negative reaction was immediate, predictable and loud. Ostensibly secular in motivation, the politics of this ban is obvious: Marois hopes that this ban will deflect the attention of voters in the next election from the less than sterling economic policies of her government. Instead, it is threatening to blow up in her face, but it may also hurt those whose cherished religious symbols-- hijab, kippa, turban, or cross -- are threatened.

The Quebec Charter of Values is not only a political ploy but also a crude racist and sexist document that appeals to some elements of Quebec society and ostracizes certain minorities, especially Muslims. For public workers, wearing a hijab will no longer be permitted. In other words, Muslims are not welcome in Quebec, although no one will put it quite so bluntly.

Poster illustrating symbols that are permitted (top) or not permitted (bottom)

A Bloc Québécois member of parliament in Ottawa has appropriately called this "ethnic nationalism." Her forthrightness, unfortunately, led to her immediate expulsion from her party that is overtly separatist and thus supportive of the provincial Parti Québécois.

The federal government also practiced religious intolerance when it did not allow certain potential immigrants to enter Canada, but did open the doors to anti-Muslim spokespeople. That made it very difficult for Prime Minister Harper to respond immediately when the charter of values was first announced.

Other counties are equally guilty. France, as is well known, has almost a decade banned headscarves as well as other religious symbols. But clearly this ban is directed against Muslims who want to wear the hijab.

Many xenophobic right-wing parties in Europe target Muslim immigrants in order to harvest votes. They have become popular not only in France but even in the Netherlands, which has had a centuries-long reputation for tolerance. Eurabia is the term that describes the fear of many Europeans, who see their countries being flooded by Muslims.

Russia, on the other hand, has always been xenophobic. Thus it is hardly surprising that in one of the southern republics where there are many Muslims the principal of a village school banned the hijab. This prompted President Vladimir Putin to explain, "There are no hijabs in our culture."

In Russia not only Muslims are under attack. Every dark-skinned person in that country reports being beaten regularly by skinheads. While this is not religious intolerance, it is an example of the blatant xenophobia that often expresses itself in attacks on people of other faiths, even other Christians.

I experienced this religious intolerance personally while teaching philosophy at Moscow State University. I had some Russian Orthodox colleagues who were priests and who objected to my presence there. Their attitude was aptly expressed in a comment that was overheard at an Orthodox school where I was invited to teach  a course, but that invitation was later rescinded, "What can we Orthodox learn from Protestants?" These priests were in part instrumental in forcing my departure from the university.

Religious intolerance is practiced by adherents of every religion. In India Hindus have destroyed mosques, while in Egypt Muslims have burned down churches. Religious minorities that are victims of intolerance in one country or region, often become intolerant when they form the majority in an other.

In Nigeria religious intolerance peaked with the reintroduction of sharia in many northern states. Under sharia, all women, including Christians, had to have their heads covered in public. While some countries banned the hijab, Nigeria insisted on it, at least temporarily, in some parts of the country.

Even the US, which prides itself as a bastion of freedom and religious tolerance, was shamed with the arrest of Pastor Terry Jones, who had threatened to burn 2,998 copies of the Qur'an -- one for every victim of the attacks on September 11, 2001.

Israel, which was founded as a refuge for Jews after the Holocaust, has reduced the Palestinians, whether Christians or Muslims, to second-class citizens solely because of their ethnicity and religion. A people that should practice religious tolerance because of their history have become intolerant of another people whom they are unwilling to acknowledge as a people. It is ironic, but sad.

Throughout the Middle East religious intolerance has become the norm it seems. Except for the Christians there, who constituted the majority before the rise of Islam, but have now been reduced to an ever-dwindling minority, the majority religion in each country, whether Judaism in Israel and Islam in the rest, demonstrates its intolerance, even of fellow believers who happen to belong to another sect.

I could provide many more examples of religious intolerance, but these will suffice to prove the point.

The chief problem with religious intolerance is that, sooner or later, it explodes and a lot of innocent people are hurt. Not only those who practice intolerance but especially those who are the victims. The world needs to stand up and condemn this intolerance and protect those who have been hurt.

In Quebec it is extremely unlikely that the newly introduced legislation will pass without major changes. Yet serious damage has already been done. The provincial Parti Québécois has damaged the cause of separatism, but it has done even greater damage to many minority groups who will now become even more reluctant to stay in Quebec and integrate into Québécois society. The cause of immigrant women especially has received an unintended setback.

This is a tragedy that could have been avoided, if Marois and her government had not been blinded by the prospect of short-term political gain. The same sad story can be repeated in countries everywhere. Religious intolerance is tragic for everyone concerned, not only the victims but also those practice that intolerance. Let us stop religious intolerance and instead work together for the common good.


Saturday, September 7, 2013

Start negotiations on Syria

The civil war in Syria has already led to the deaths of more than 100,000 Syrians, and more than two million have fled the country. How long will it take and how many will have to die yet before this tragedy comes to an end? And what should the outside world do as the tragedy continues to unfold?

As I am writing this, the US Congress has not yet approved President Obama's request for a limited military strike in Syria. Increasingly, there are doubts that he will get the necessary support. I hope and pray he does not. Then the world has a chance to rethink the situation there and start negotiations with both Iran and Syria.

First, and perhaps the most important objection to military action is that it is wrong. Let me explain that I am opposed to war. As regular readers of this blog know already, I am an advocate of active non-violence. That may sound naive to many people, but it is based on a studied rejection of the just war theory that most Christians have endorsed for centuries, at least since Augustine.

I have to admit that immediately after the August 21 massacre of 1,400 or so people, many of them children, I too was so outraged that I felt that the Assad regime, which has been blamed for these deaths, allegedly by the use of sarin gas, should be punished in some way. This was a lapse on my part.

On further reflection, I realize that that is not the best or the most appropriate response. Like much of the world, I was enraged by the photos of dead children, but once again I have reverted to my anti-war stance. Something needs to be done, but a military strike is not the answer.

Second, the situation in Syria has become stalemated not only militarily but also politically and economically. The government there still functions and enjoys widespread support, while the opposition is fractured and has no central leadership. In addition, the country has been so devastated that the rebels have very little to return to and thus very little to lose by continuing the civil war.

Who should the world support in this situation? Some nations, like Russia and Iran continue to support the Assad regime, while most nations have sided with the opposition, although many do so with reservations. Saudi Arabia provides military aid, and the US now wants to punish the Syrian government with a missile strike. Yet only a few nations are willing to support military action by the US.

Third, the case against the Syrian government has not yet been proven. One the one hand, as some people argue, why would the Assad regime use such a weapon against its own people? The opposition, on the other hand, is so divided that one of these groups may have used it to alienate the Syrian government even further in the eyes of world opinion and thus topple the government, something they have been unable to do so far through the use of force.

As was the case in Iraq, the world is dubious about the US claims of mass destruction in Syria. The Russian government is demanding proof before it will approve military action by the US at the United Nations. The British parliament has already voted down such approval because the evidence is not there, at least not yet. Canada does approve, but will not provide any support other than moral.

World opinion increasingly is turning against any missile action. Much of the world no longer trusts Obama. Not only has he reneged on many of his promises but he is also responsible for raising the use of drones to a new level. Also the treatment of Bradly Manning and the hunt for Edward Snowden by the US are totally unacceptable to much of the world. At the G20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, this change in attitude to Obama was very evident. Much of the world is unwilling to endorse military action in Syria.

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury

Even Christian church leaders have weighed in. The former and the current Archbishop of Canterbury, who is the nominal head of the world-wide Anglican communion, have both warned about the consequences of a military strike, even a limited one.

Fourth, the missile attack will prove difficult to limit, and eventually the Americans will probably have "boots on the ground," which is how many Americans define war. That, of course, would lead to the bloody and costly war that the US desperately wants to avoid, especially after Iraq and Afghanistan. American public opinion is so dead set against any further US further military involvement overseas that Congress will likely not approve Obama's request. I hope and pray that is the case.

If Assad would resign after such an attack, which is not likely, Syria would probably disintegrate into large chunks along ethnic and sectarian lines. Then retaliation would be the order of the day. Thousands of men, women, and children would be killed, and millions more would be driven from their homes.

This human disaster would be almost unimaginable in scope. It may eventually cost trillions to put the country back together again, money that could be better spent avoiding this disaster and providing much needed aid to those who are already suffering. The tragedy that is Syria today is great enough without compounding it.

What can be done, even at this late moment? Diplomacy is the answer. Specifically, the US must approach Iran and enlist Iranian support for negotiations to end the civil war in Syria.  The time is ripe for seeking Iran's help in ending the violence in Syria.

 President Hassan Rowhani of Iran

Iran’s new President Hassan Rowhani has just won a landslide majority after he campaigned on engagement with the West, and defeated the isolationist conservatives. After the attack in Syria he condemned the use of chemical weapons. Of all the election candidates, he is certainly the most open to overtures from the US. Even though the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, is the one who ultimately makes the decision on matters of war and peace, the president has input and thus should be approached. The Iranian leadership is divided on how to deal with the US.

Iran has been the most stalwart ally of Syria for decades already. Even after the attack, Rowhani pledged that Iran would work with Russia to stop any military intervention and criticized the push for a strike on Syria as a political maneuver. But Iran is currently on a charm offensive in order its image world-wide. Thus now is the opportune moment for the US to send overtures to initiate discussions about everything, including Syria.

Syria needs Iran. Iran is the only country that is able to sway the Syrian government. Iran provides large credit-export loans and training to the embattled Assad regime and thus has huge leverage over Syria.
The US similarly has major leverage on Iran. Its sanctions have cut its oil exports in half and new sanctions that were recently declared commit it to cutting the other half. Rowhani has ambitious plans for the economy that are effectively on ice until these sanctions are removed.

The US should solicit Iran to help in pressuring the Assad regime to enforce a temporary cease-fire and come to the table. In the meantime, the US and its Gulf allies, should apply pressure on the rebels to do the same. The cease-fire may be precarious, but it is better than the current bloodshed.

The US has already reversed its position in trying to block Iran from participating in the Geneva II talks on Syria. Late last year, Iran drew up a six-point peace plan that called for an immediate cease-fire between the rebels and the government. 

I any discussions with Iran, everything should be on the table, including Iran's nuclear program. Ways must be found to address Iran's concerns without threatening the entire Middle East. 

By foolishly drawing a "red line" Obama has worked both himself and the US into a corner from which it is difficult to withdraw. Obama has already said that the infamous red line is the world's doing, but few people believe him. Congress should provide Obama with an exit by rejecting his request for military action. If that happens much of the world will give a huge sigh of relief; then the negotiations with Iran can begin in earnest. 

I am praying for such a resolution to the current crisis. I became of age during the 60's at the height of the Vietnam War when the anti-war slogan "Make Love, not War" was popular. Maybe it is time to resurrect that slogan and make it a reality today, especially in the Middle East.