spiritual activism

Pope Francis: A Breath of Fresh Air?

The following article was written by Matthew Fox for TIKKUN Magazine and published there, December 8, 2013. I recently wrote a book on Pope Francis, or better a book to him, entitled Letters to Pope Francis. The book was released in Italian on Thanksgiving Day. In it I challenge him to live up to his purposefully chosen namesake and warned that people would hold his feet to the fire because no other pope had ever taken up that name, icon that it is, and that most people do know what St Francis of Assisi stood for: Ecology and non-chauvinistic relationships to the plant and animal worlds; a preferential option for the poor; and (this may be slightly less acknowledged) an admirable and almost startling balance of gender justice and consciousness. In his celebrated poem, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” he moves back and forth, back and forth, between masculine and feminine names for the sacred.

People who care about such matters recognize fresh consciousness in the pope's refusal to move into the palatial headquarters known as the papal apartments; in his refusal to drive in limousines and his call for bishops and cardinals to follow suit; his trips to embrace embattled refugees on islands off southern Italy; his visits to favelas or slums in Rio de Janeiro as well as his work in the same in Argentina over the years.

These actions, plus his strong words denouncing the “idols” and “gods” of the marketplace together seem to be framing a story of a different kind of pope and papacy from anything we have had since Pope John Paul I, who was (most probably) murdered after thirty-one days in the office some thirty-four years ago. It raises hopes in the minds and hearts of activists and progressive Catholics, many of whom have left the church behind but still recognize its potential power as a source for good in many parts of the world.

Theologically, Pope Francis is speaking the radical language of Vatican II abandoned by his two predecessors: that the church is NOT the hierarchy but “the people” whose “sensus fidelium” actually matters. The effort to poll parishioners about such subjects as birth control, abortion, women's rights and homosexual unions is a first, though quite lame effort, as the survey was unprofessionally done, asking for essay answers and not direct answers. In many cases it has been ignored by the bishops, who are simply filling in the blanks according to their own theological whims.

One sign that Pope Francis is being heard is the steam emerging from people who do not want to hear about justice, economic equality or church as people of God. (Rush Limbaugh, for example, had lots to complain about and did so loudly regarding the pope's recent take on Wall Street, calling the pope's words “pure Marxism.”)

But right-wing Catholic nay-sayers are caught in something of a trap. It will be interesting to see how they emerge and this includes stalwart power brokers like the four right wing Catholics on the Supreme Court, all of whom voted for “Citizens United”--Scalia, Thomas, Alioto and John Roberts. Throw in Kennedy, another Catholic though not so extreme right (for his scandalous vote in favor of Citizens United). Then there is Newt Gingrich, a new convert to Catholicism (under pope Ratzinger); aspiring presidential candidate Paul Ryan (whose philosophy owes much more to atheist Ayn Rand than to the Gospels or papal pronouncements but who still claims to be a stalwart Catholic); Rick Santorum; John Boehmer.

How these politicians dance around this pope's pronouncements on economic justice will be a spectacle that deserves watching. Recall how the Catholic bishops under Pope John Paul II were instructed not to give communion to Catholic politicians who advocate for the right to abortion and how this cost Kerry the election in 2004. Will the same threats obtain for Catholic politicians who deny rights of the poor? And who are shills for the interests of the “deified market” (the pope's words) and “a “new tyranny” (the pope's words) of current day capitalism? Stay tuned.

The pope has essentially told the shrill right wing Catholics who received such support under the previous two popes, to chill out and to cease reducing theology to “a condom” or a set of rules, and to get moving on social and economic justice. There are currently Catholic writers who have made a living denouncing social justice such as George Weigel and it will be interesting to watch them squirm also with this new pope. Weigel is famous for complaining about Catholics who take some of the teachings of the church and leave others out. He did the same with: 1) the war in Iraq --he was and is a committed neocon who has never apologized for getting us into Iraq, despite both of the popes he so admires being against it; and 2) economic alternatives to Wall Street rape of Main Street, i.e, consumer capitalism.

Yet he constantly trumps his version of Catholicism, which is really papalism, as the only way. “The truth of what is taught by the pope and the college of bishops is not a matter for debate” he tells us in his most recent (and scariest) book, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church (page 61). Will he continue to invoke papalism after reading what this pope is preaching?

How is it then that Weigel supported the invasion of Iraq when two popes opposed it? Why did he run from papal teachings on distributive justice? And from their teachings on the death penalty? When it comes to seminary training, Weigel says it should begin with the Catechism and only then move into Biblical studies which “should build upon this solid foundation so that each candidate has a deep understanding of what the Church teaches—and why.” He says this is the way one learns to think “with the Church” as if the Church is the maker of catechisms—not the people of the world or the carrier of Sacred Scripture. (By the way, the great idea for a catechism came from none other than the pedophile champion, Cardinal Law, as I make clear in my book, The Pope's War.) Yes, we will soon learn what really constitutes the theology of our hard right Catholic propagandists, and I suspect that for many if not all of them Wall Street will trump the Vatican.

But beyond the Catholics squirming in and out of political office, there are the larger issues that the pope is addressing to the capitalistic system itself at this time of history.

Being the first pope from what we call “the third world,” Pope Francis can be expected to understand the tides of history and of economic oppression differently from being the recipient of years of abuse than from being the source of it. I end my letters to the pope suggesting that he and the Dalai Lama make a world tour together, hitting most continents to speak to the “Revolution in Values” that our times call for. This is not because change comes primarily from the top down, but because a few at the top (whom the media will be almost required to report about) can, by speaking out together, put wind in the sails of those millions and indeed billions who pray for and/or work for a saner world. Together they could speak to the obvious and real moral issues of our day:

  • economic inequality based on a system of avarice not only at the top but in the consumer bottom and middle;
  • gender injustice (something the Catholic Church has to address internally as well);
  • ecological destruction;
  • unemployment, especially among the young;
  • the pressing need for religious and spiritual interfaith or deep ecumenism;
  • the necessary and desired marriage of science and spirituality (as opposed to silly fundamentalism either by religion or by science).

The young could be deeply inspired by such a road show and I have no doubt that the two principals would themselves learn from one another. This pope has displayed a refreshing humility and eagerness to learn from other religious leaders as in his book of dialogs with Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Argentina (who is also a PhD in science). It is a fine book and they got together over a two year period to produce it.

Teachings of Pope Francis that stand out include some of the following.

1. A walking of his talk of simpler lifestyle. Pope Francis was well known in Argentina for taking public transportation to work and refusing any limousine-like service, which so many prelates take for granted. He has done the same in his new position as pope, where he chooses not to live in the papal apartments but in a far more modest guest house or hotel in the Vatican (might he give over the apartments to Rome's homeless?). He drives a Ford Focus in Vatican city. He has also drawn some press recently for sneaking out at night from the Vatican in the simple priestly garb of black suit and color and hanging out with homeless in the streets of Rome. One senses he is trying to walk the talk and follow his own preaching about simplification. And he is putting pressure on other prelates to do the same.

2. As for his talk, he tends to mince no words when speaking of the divergence of wealth and poverty today. He speaks to globalization this way: “The globalization that makes everything uniform is essentially imperialist...it is not human. In the end it is a way to enslave the nations.” (Fox, Letters to Pope Francis, 24; subsequent citations are from the same) Is globalization enslaving the nations? Serious words worthy of a serious discussion.

3. He says: “Christianity condemns both Communism and wild capitalism with the same vigor” and one needs to reject the “wild economic liberalism we see today” and “seek equal opportunities and rights and strive for social benefits, dignified retirement, vacation time, rest, and freedom of unions.”

4. He praises St Francis because “he brought to Christianity an idea of poverty against the luxury, pride, vanity of the civil and ecclesiastical powers of the time” and for this reason “he changed history.”

5. He takes on the neocon preoccupation with “world terrorism” and the fear such language arouses when he declares that “human rights are not only violated by terrorism, repression or assassination, but also by unfair economic structures that create huge inequalities.” How important is that? To equate economic structures with terrorism? Yes, Wall Street terrorizes. Ask any Main Street citizen.

6. He denounces the “flight of money to foreign countries” as a sin because it dishonors “the people that worked to generate” that wealth. He also condemns those who hide their wealth in off-shore accounts to avoid paying taxes that are so important for the common good.

7. Pope Francis has said: “The option for the poor comes from the first centuries of Christianity. It is the Gospel itself.” And he remarked that were he to preach sermons from the first fathers of the church on the needs of the poor, he would be called a “Maoist or Trotskyte.” (119)

8. He critiques clericalism as a “distortion of religion” and says priests should not declare “I am the boss here” but listen to the community. “The Catholic Church is the entire people of God,” he declares, a la Vatican II—not words the previous two popes were at all home with. (85)

9. “Human rights are violated by...unfair economic structures that create huge inequalities.” (71)

10. On Holy Thursday Pope Francis washed the feet of young people in jail, including the feet of some women, one of them being Muslim. It is a custom to do this ritual after the memory of Jesus who also did it—but the Catholic right wing is up in arms about his daring to wash women's feet, and those of a Muslim woman!

11. He endorses the concept of small communities over what he calls “hierarchical mega-institutions” because these better “nurture their own spirituality” and after all the “origin of Christianity was 'parochial and later organized into small communities.” (94)

12. “Repair my church in ruins” he said on taking over the office of the papacy. He seems to get it. The schismatic church of John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) has left a Catholicism which the young have abandoned en masse. They left a church in ruins run by fascist leaning Opus Dei cardinals and bishops all over the world. One Catholic paper in India declared “there is a civil war in the church.” I for one do not believe this pope or any pope could return Catholicism to its previous state—or should. As I concluded in my book, The Pope's War, I see in the destruction of the Catholic Church as we know it the work of the Holy Spirit. It is time to simplify the message and the presence of those who follow a Christ path. It is time to travel with backpacks on our backs, not basilicas. The pope's work will not bring Catholics “back to the church” but hopefully it will inspire Christians and non-Christians alike to consider the basic teachings of Jesus around compassion and justice and start acting accordingly.

13. Says Pope Francis: “The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any human goal.” We need, he says, a “balanced social order that is more humane” and that resists consumerism. “Money has to serve and not rule.” It is a “savage capitalism” that teaches “the logic of profit at any cost” and exploitation of people.

14. Says the pope: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” Structures can “give us a false sense of security” and “rules makes us harsh judges...while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us, “give them something to eat.'” He wants to decentralize the church for “excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the church’s life and her missionary outreach.”

15. Unfettered capitalism is a “new tyranny” “Today we are living in an unjust international system in which 'King Money' is at the center.” This “throwaway culture discards young people as well as its older people.....A whole generation of young people does not have the dignity that is brought by work.” A “diminishing of the joy of life” is the result of such idolatry (125f) and interestingly he chose a parallel phrase, the “Joy of the Gospel” for the title of his most recent pronouncement.

In his recent document entitled “The Joy of the Gospel” Pope Francis speaks bluntly as all the prophet do. He says No—as all the prophets do. He denounces “trickle-down” economics as “never having been confirmed by the facts” and being built on a “crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power....Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.” Following are some of his No's presented in his own words:

1. “No to an economy of exclusion....An economy of exclusion and inequality kills....Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”

2. “No to the new idolatry of money....While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few.....Self-serving tax evasion has taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits....Whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a defied market, which becomes the only rule.”

3. “No to a financial system which rules rather than serves. Ethics is seen as counterproductive, too human, because it makes money and power relative. It is felt to be a threat, since it condemns the manipulation and debasement of the person....Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and a return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favors human beings.”

4. “No to the inequality which spawns violence. [Violence happens not]simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded form the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root. Just as goodness tends to spread, the toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear.....Evil crystallized in unjust social structures...cannot be the basis of hope for a better future.”

Pope Francis speaks out against an “education that would tranquilize the poor, making them tame and harmless.” And he defines injustice as “evil.” He has invited liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez to the Vatican and the word is out that he will canonize Archbishop Romero.

A different kind of papacy? Surely from the past two popes; much more like Pope John XXIII. Does that mean we go back to papalolatry? Absolutely not. But it does mean that it is good that a person in the public eye is keeping his sights on values that matter and speaking up for the kind of people of conscience who read and act on the values that Tikkun represents.

When it comes to issues of women, Pope Francis has much to learn (including how women were leaders in the early church). But I think he is capable of learning. On homosexuality, he has uttered a telling line, “Who am I to judge?” that certainly distances him from the previous two popes. On issues of abortion, at least he has spoken to the need to care about the women involved. Pope Francis is not perfect—none of us is—but he is an ally to all those seeking a world of justice and therefore peace.

Beyond Gun Control: Other Issues Raised by the Unspeakable Events at Newtown

Like everyone else, the president included, the Unspeakable, that is to say, evil acts of murdering twenty children and six of their defenders has left me speechless. Evil does that. Awe does that. As poet Adrianne Rich put it, "Language cannot do everything--chalk it on the walls where the dead poets lie in their mausoleums." But we do communicate in words, and after the shock wears down a bit, one struggles for understanding and for learning from this horrible event. Politicians are beginning to talk again about gun regulation vs NRA and especially regarding automatic weapons, which are the weapons the killer used on his mother and all the kids. And that conversation is long overdue.

But I want to talk about something else. If you look at all the perpetrators of this kind of violence, whether in Aurora or Happy Valley or Virginia Tech or Tucson or Newtown, what they all have in common is this: They were all young men. What is it about young men that makes them so prone to such violence?

I recall once being at a gathering and sitting with Malidoma Some, the spiritual teacher from West Africa, when a young man got up and started raving and ranting at everyone in the room. Malidoma leaned over and said to me: "See what happens when young men do not have rites of passage."

Malidoma should know, for if you are familiar with his story, in a nutshell it is this: He was kidnapped as a boy from his tribal village and taken many miles away to a Jesuit seminary where other boys who had also been kidnapped were being taught. He received a fine education but at the age of sixteen he threw one of the Jesuits out a second story window. Conclusion? He didn't have a "vocation" to be a Jesuit. He left and walked home, a very long hike through jungles.

When he arrived he was very angry--not just at the Jesuits but at his tribe, who never came to rescue him. Two years of anger and hostility in the tribe passed and finally the elders came to him and said: "You are impossible to live with. You are full of rage. This year you will take the rite of passage you missed with the thirteen year olds." So, at the belated age of 18, he took that rite of passage which was quite severe; of the sixty-five youths who went into the jungle with five elders, four or five did not survive it.

But Malidoma did survive it, and it not only made him a man who could deal with his rage, but also gave him his vocation, how he was to be an active and contributing member of his community or tribe. Much of Malidoma's teaching is about the value of a rite of passage, especially for boys. And what happens when rites of passage are absent.

Part of a rite of passage is leaving one's home, one's mother and one's father, as it presages becoming a mother or father one day. It also includes incorporating one's own capacity for motherhood internally, instead of projecting it on to women in one's life.

It is of significance, I believe, that Adam Lanza shot his mother first. This woman who did so much for him, who even home schooled him as a sophomore, who taught him how to use weapons (in what seems like a clumsy but well-meaning way to appeal to his 'masculinity') was the first to receive his full frontal rage. All the adults whom he shot at the school were women--the principal, the psychologist, the teachers. And they all bravely stood up to him to defend the children.

Education has become very womanly in our culture. In California today, 84% of teachers are women. Where are the men? Men are less and less drawn to teaching because the pay is so modest, but also because as youngsters they rarely see men as teachers and educators (see The Trouble with Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do by Peg Tyre).

The effort to define educational success by exams serves girls better than boys, who more often than not learn by doing and by bodily action rather than by sitting in desks seven hours a day and, if fidgety, being diagnosed with a "disease" and often given drugs for it.

Boys are two times more likely to be "diagnosed" with so-called "attention deficit disorder" than are girls. And four and a half times more likely to be expelled from school. Fifty-eight percent of college graduates in America last year were women and only 42% were men, and the gap keeps growing. Four times more teenage boys commit suicide than teen-age girls.

There is an underlying issue to consider here. The late and great E.F. Schumacher wrote that the number one purpose of education, the bottom line so to speak, is about values. How comfortable is our education system with talking about Values? If we are not talking about values, then we are presupposing that the consumer-driven, "get to the top" value system of our culture is reasonable and sustainable and healthy and indeed what life is all about.

Many people complain that in a pluralistic society and education you cannot talk about values because religious differences (or the difference of having no religion) arise. But I have laid out a value system in my book called The A.W.E. Project: Reinventing Education, Reinventing the Human, that I have tested in public schools and that has been appreciated by Muslims and Christians, Jews and atheists. I call it the "10 C's" and I think it takes us beyond religious differences and into a deep conversation about shared values.

I offer the list here: Cosmology (and ecology); Creativity; Contemplation (calming the reptilian brain); Compassion; Chaos; Critical thinking; Courage; Community; Ceremony and celebration; Character development.

Among the questions we need to talk about are these:

  • What constitutes healthy manhood?
  • When is a boy a man?
  • What is the meaning and meanings of being a man?
  • Is carrying a gun manliness?
  • Is power over others manliness?
  • Is being number one manliness?
  • Is angry revenge manliness?

Our culture and its promotional industries offer their answers to these questions, but I have tried to address the deeper and more archetypal meanings of masculinity in my book, The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors for Awakening the Sacred Masculine.

We need to be teaching such matters in our so-called school system. We are rarely doing so.

I am not just talking about teachers when I talk about education. I once sat at the headquarters of WASC, the body that accredits all the schools including universities of Western United States, and listened to the head honcho tell me: "If you had $5,000,000, your new school would be on a fast track for accreditation. We just did that for a fundamentalist college that had five million in cash."

I said to myself, "So if Hitler walked in the room with five million dollars in his pocket his school would be accredited on the spot?" No values whatsoever. None but the values of the "market place," of consumer capitalism. Shame, shame, shame.

Education needs reinventing from the inside out. Who accredits our so-called accrediting bodies? And what values are discussed and/or taken for granted there? Are any of the "10 C's" in the mix? And if not, why not? I was struck at that meeting that the head honcho never asked a single question about the content of our education, that is, about values.

And so, while reflection on this horrible event continues, I recommend not only a discussion about gun regulations but one much deeper. Our schools are failing us in so many ways. Our families and religions (whose rites of passage have become quite wimpy) are failing us also.

We need to consider the multiple ways in which youngsters learn, especially boys, and quit cutting money for the arts and sports. We need to address:

  • Rites of passage
  • Creativity as being at least as important as exam preparation and testing
  • Values, including the values our educational system itself is committed to (is the Great Unspoken Value to make us all Consumers in a consumer-driven economic system?)
  • What manhood (and womanhood) means.

To do these things is not only to create violence prevention; it is also to create a new society. One that puts community before competition and values of justice and sustainability before those of materialism and its very narrow version of success. One that honors stillness and our capacity for contemplation and not just racing to the top in competition. One that values Creativity over memorizing answers to tests.

Become a Beacon of Peace in the world – Join Matthew Fox for the Summer of Peace

Dear Friend of Creation Spirituality, One of the world's most beloved creation-centered medieval mystics, Francis of Assisi, offered the prayer that untold numbers have echoed -

Make me an instrument of Thy peace.

But how do you do that? How do you become an instrument of peace?

Gandhi opened a doorway to the big picture in his urging to “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

But in addition to this encouragement, we also need the practical steps and actions we each can take to create peace within ourselves and in the world. So what are those steps?

No one can say what those steps and actions are for you. Only you can know that. But if you want to learn hundreds of insights, ideas, possibilities and practices that can help you create more peace in your life and in the world, I invite you to join me for the Summer of Peace 2012.

I’m a featured speaker in this free 3-month series of live and online events that will empower you (and thousands of others in this growing, global movement!) to create peace from the inside out.

Get all the details here: http://summit.summerofpeace.net

I will be joining  inspiring peace leaders including Arun Gandhi, Alice Walker, Jack Kornfield, Ambassador Anwarul Chowdhury, James O’Dea, Belvie Rooks,  international peace activist Azim Khamisa, Civil Rights activist Bernard Lafayette and many others.

I invite you to join with me, and these remarkable peace pioneers,  in midwifing the birth of a new human consciousness rooted in the principles of peace, compassion, and equality for all.

The Summer of Peace is a must-have experience, if you want to…

  • Experience inner peace and the physical, emotional and spiritual ease that blossoms from that harmony.
  • Create harmonious relationships with your family, friends, coworkers and community members.
  • Discover new ways of communicating that create deeper trust, love and intimacy in all your relationships.
  • Learn how to forgive people who have harmed you in the past.
  • Learn how to forgive yourself for harm you have inflicted on others.
  • Heal painful wounds within yourself, family, community and nation.
  • Make a commitment to peace and to become a beacon of peace in the world.
  • ...And so much more!

Featuring more than 80 of the world’s leading peacemakers, the Summer of Peace is your opportunity to  discover the actions that YOU will take to be the change you wish to see in the world.

You can listen to the Summer of Peace calls from the comfort of your home or office, and the live calls are completely free.

Please join me. Make a commitment to a world of peace and sign up for the Summer of Peace now: http://summit.summerofpeace.net

Yours truly,

Matthew Fox

P.S. During the Summer of Peace, you’ll also find out about community actions and local projects you can get involved in. Together, we’re birthing a new human consciousness--rooted in peace, justice and equality for all living beings!

Join me here: http://summit.summerofpeace.net

Posting 95 Theses at Cardinal Law's Basilica

Just before we started the event I asked my 30 year old woman translator if she was scared.  “No,” she said. “Even though we don’t know what is going to happen, I am looking forward to it.  It is important that we do this and what happens will happen.”  Courage!  Always a sign of the spirit. The action at Cardinal Law’s basilica was memorable for many reasons: the crowd that gathered (it was announced beforehand in the paper), their questions; their passion in taking on the policemen especially around the right to hang the theses on a gate; the beauty of the morning with sun shining from an all-blue sky; the length of time we stayed there—about 80 minutes (much larger gathering than Wittenberg);  the Vatican plainclothes police with dark sun glasses staring at me the whole time; and above all the strategy and courage of the young people who created the excellent poster which looked like a medieval Manuscript in a large type that yet was practical and easy to read; their flexibility in adapting to the policemen’s tactics, for example they smartly engaged the moment and the Vatican plain clothed police when the crowd had dispersed.  I was away from this engagement but saw dramatic interaction from where I was.  I so look forward to seeing their film.  I especially wonder if Stephano the filmer got the attack by the Vatican thugs of the second film maker on film?

How right Barbara was about 1) Vatican police dictating orders to Roman police and 2) the thugs that are policing the Vatican these days. Just as I learned after my Wittenberg action how much darker the Vatican was than I had anticipated, so with this Italian, Roman, action, I learned how much darker still were the forces and veritable police state ruling not only Vatican City but, in many respects, Rome itself.  Penny Lernoux’ words are chilling: “Ratzinger is only a front man for the German-Polish mafia,” she said.  Or Barbara’s words: “The Vatican is run by a gang of mafia thugs.”

Our protest was non-violent and remained that way in the face of violence on the part of the Vatican police.  Are Italians forbidden to preach or to listen to a preacher in a public square?  Was the Basilica event an historic moment?  One of empowerment for Italians vis a vis the church?  Consider that Italy never underwent the Protestant Reformation (but only the counter-Reformation of the Council of Trent).

Our videographers and photographers were taking pictures of the police videographers and photographers and vice versa.  It was like a scene from old East Germany.  The Stasi.  That was the feeling emanating from the Vatican police.

Before we began, one of our people went into the church to scout things out.  Many policemen were inside.  He went up to one and said, “I heard there was going to be a demonstration here today,” (or something close to that) and the policeman got very agitated and said: “No there won’t be.  We will see to that.”  So that was our first clue that our demonstration would be outdoors and even outside the fence.  But as it happened, even that distance was not enough to satisfy the Vatican police (who apparently have very broad jurisdiction in Rome itself).  During the course of my presentation and the q and a period of about 80 minutes, the sheet containing the theses were taken down (I took them back at one point from the policeman who took them down), put up again, taken down, held up by some of the participants standing by, etc. etc.  Up-down, Up down, Up-down.

A man who asked some very sophisticated questions about my presentation (he had the air of a lawyer about him and was of mature age), ended up in a shouting match with the policeman who was literally receiving phone calls from higher ups on his ear phone telling him what to do.  From the pained look on his face I had the distinct impression that he wished he was elsewhere—like rescuing a cat stranded in a tree or even a spouse form domestic abuse or handing out traffic violations—just anywhere other than in a church courtyard on a Sunday morning being dictated to by plainclothes police with their phones in their ear and hearing a presenter calling for a religious reformation (or revolution?).  The shouting match between the police and this “lawyer” person was about 1) who owned the property we stood on and 2) Who owned the fence demarcating this property from the church steps and on which we hung the theses.  The “lawyer” said in an angry voice to the policeman, “my taxes paid for this sidewalk and fence so keep your hands off the preacher’s theses.”  There was considerable back and forth.

Meanwhile, “radio radicale” was there the entire time with a microphone in my and the translator’s face and with a number of questions posed as soon as I finished my presentation.  My presentation followed my 4 points I laid out in my “New Reformation” book—how our day paralleled Luther’s day in four respects: 1) invention of printing press/invention of electronic media 2) politics as rise of nationalism/politics as globalization and sparks of democracy 3) rise of humanist scholarship of which Luther was a part/rise of scientific and theological scholarship of our time and 4) corruption in the highest places of the church/corruption in the highest places of the church including Cardinal Law overseeing this particular cathedral, he who passed one priest from parish to parish who abused 150 boys and who now sits on a commission in the Vatican appointing bishops around the world!  A woman professor told me she took a 3 hours train ride to be present for the event.  She taught anthropology and religion and invited me to come to her university to lecture—they would pay for my trip to Italy she said.

Before we began, one man came up to me who was about 44 years old and said: “I no longer call myself a Catholic but simply a Christian.”

All the while the young members of our team were alert and smiling and doing their assigned tasks whether taking video, guarding the theses, mixing with the group, translating, photographing the cops, hanging around me for protection.  (They had arranged all that beforehand among themselves with no coaching from me.)  They did it with smiles on their faces. They gathered with the plainclothes Vatican cops when the event had finished and argued vociferously about their demands to see their papers and my documents as well.  “We have done no crime so you have no right to demand our papers,” they declared.  But maybe they had committed a crime.  The crime of inviting people on church soil to think.

Their final act was to keep the thug Vatican cops demanding my papers engaged while one of their group quietly slipped away, came rapidly up to me and said “walk away fast” to the taxi stand at the side of the church.  Drama.  A day of drama.  Working with the young people was marvelous.  They were alert, flexible, prepared, strong, smiling, committed, competent, brave.  Intergenerational wisdom indeed!  Intergenerational courage also.

A number of people requested copies of the theses to read and study.  We told them that they would be posted in the Italian version on the Fazi web page.  Among phrases I heard from thoughtful Italians in conversation during my visit: “The church is dead.”  “We are a culture today with no new ideas. Old people are running things in a very old way.”  “Unemployment among the young is at 24%.  Many are being supported by their grandparents and parents even after college graduation sincere there are no jobs to be had.”  “A growing tension between the young and old.”  “Old money is running everything. “ People are scared with the bad economy.  The women’s movement is very weak.  “We are a conservative country.  Even liberal minded people have trouble imagining women priests.”  You can get a college degree for just $2000 per year but there are no jobs after school.  “The one thing Italy gives the world consistently is…Beauty.  That is our only gift to the world.”

I ask myself: Why are the Italians seemingly so keen on my work at this time?  One reason is the timing.  There is a lot of anger among Catholics and it is clear that first a Polish papacy and then a German papacy have not always sat well with Italians.  Another is that there is no love lost for Ratzinger himself.  In my time there and even near St Peter’s I did not see one poster for sale of Pope Ratzinger.  Another is that Aquinas with his non-dualistic philosophy is SO Italian in spirit in so many ways and the Augustinian mind-sets of the two recent popes is not at all of the Aquinas mind-set.  Furthermore, we need to remind ourselves that the Protestant Reformation did not penetrate Italy; it affected it by way of the counter-reformation but that did not question the powers of the papacy.  My 95 theses do put deeper questions.  Is calling for a Reformation in the church today rousing a sleeping giant in Italy?  The Italian capacity for real spirituality in the creation spiritual tradition is vast.  Is the Roman Catholic church, together with the media, not perfectly set up for non-violent resistance? For church-step sit ins?  For filling the jails?  For exposing the darkness of the Vatican and its ways at this time in history?

All in all, it was a most amazing trip—perhaps the most amazing gig in my life.  The people I met from the publishing house, Vito and our public dialog at the amazing conference of writers, his passion and radical critical mind, the many serious and passionate and intellectually-solid interviews on radio, in magazines and newspapers, and the amazing TV program.  The filming and event at Law’s Basilica.  Much to remember and to build on.

The abuse at the hands of church has been going on for so many centuries—buttressed by an ideology of suffering and penance and sin, that I had no idea what Romans have suffered at in the hands of the Roman Catholic church.  This is one reason a number of commentators called “original blessing” a “Copernican revolution” for a religion based on punitive images of God and a consciousness of sin. A difficult thing to do, to change it. I recall a Native American woman who was also a Catholic returning from a ceremony at the Vatican to beatify Blessed Tekawitha: “There are evil spirits in that place, (i.e. the Vatican)” she recalled.

I think most Catholics today—Italy, Ireland, United States, Latin America and parts in between—are in a complete state of disgust.  This morning’s Boston Globe quotes some Catholics in Ireland.  One says: “When we were growing up, you believed in the church more so than you believed in God….Now the whole thing is transformed.  You believe in God but you don’t believe in the church.”  And a priest, Fr. Tony Cullen, says: “I’d like to see the clerical church die, and the proper church emerge, the church of the people.”  What to do?  How create new structures?  Stay and fight?  Abandon it altogether?  Fight from the outside?  All of the above?  One thing is certain: The clerical church is dying.