I’ve been blogging for three years, and make it a point not to respond directly to comments. But so many people think I’m “anti-Catholic,” I need to address this issue. (I have been writing all day…on a roll, finishing Madrid before diving into Basque Country. But I want to organize and share my thoughts on this.)
For years, my travels have caused me to think about organized religion. (When I got my history degree at the UW, one of my favorite classes was “History of the Christian Church.”) And for years, I’ve believed that anyone who enjoys getting close to God should pack their spirituality along with them in their travels. For two decades, I walked the tightrope of being a Christian tour guide wanting to facilitate spiritual growth among the religious ones in my secular groups without offending those who didn’t have a faith.
One of my favorite tour guiding challenges was to organize “back door fellowships” on Sunday mornings, with an open, sharing atmosphere where spiritual people — from conservative Catholics to Buddhists to tree-huggers to Methodists to curious European bus drivers who’ve never seen this on a tour — would enjoy the chance to share spiritual ideas stimulated by their travels. We’d learn a few things about our bus-mates that would normally never come out in the everyday chit-chat of a tour social scene. I’d routinely get well over half the group to attend, and it was always a rewarding hour spent together. And we rejoined the group without having created a divide between us and those who choose sleep over worship that Sunday morning on the Rhine (or wherever).
My most political travel educational experiences have been as a participant in Center for Global Education tours put on by the Lutheran Augsburg College in Minneapolis. Through these, I developed the same Christian passion for “sanctity of life” that anti-abortionists have. But I defined “life” as something much broader than a fetus — rather, I kept a special focus on how structural poverty denies innocent people (precious children of God) the fulfilling life their Creator envisioned for them here on earth.
Most of the Central American staffers for CFGE were Catholics. I learned that many Catholics doing the Lord’s work in Central America are excommunicated for their “social and economic justice” politics, and they just keep on keepin’ on. I was inspired by their belief that part of their vow of obedience to the church was disobedience to the Church. (I draw a huge distinction between little-c church and big-C Church.) While many angry atheists hate God because of bad things the big-C Church has done, I cut God a little slack in that regard, knowing that Church government is made of people — as feeble-minded and plagued with greed, power, and corruption as political and business leaders can be.
Because I work observations about religion into my travel writing, I anger a lot of people unintentionally. I actually had death threats against me before a lecture in San Diego a few years ago from a fundamentalist Muslim group because I wrote that many parents throughout Islam were naming their children Saddam and Osama. The angry Muslims took my point very wrong. My point was that good people can celebrate courageous people in their culture standing up to empire (much like many good people supported Geronimo and Lenin and Spartacus and, of course, Jesus). Brutal and corrupt a dictator as Saddam may have been, to people who have a different perspective, he symbolized taking back control of natural resources from the USA. (I believe that, more than his meanness, was his downfall. There are lots of mean dictators with longevity…but not many who violate US claims to their natural resources.)
So, those San Diego Muslims thought I was insulting Islam, when I was actually explaining to ethnocentric Americans how someone so universally despised in our country could have a local following — and how good people might even name their children after him. (San Diego provided me with a police escort for my visit…and I gave the lecture without being hurt. It was kind of exciting.)
In a similar way, I can write things that some Catholics love and others hate at the same time. So, to all those who say, “Rick, stop picking on the Catholic Church, don’t disparage the Catholic Church, lay off the Catholic Church, don’t be so anti-Catholic” — let me say this: I believe Christian churches offer Christians spiritual nourishment. Like different ethnic restaurants can offer the same quality nourishment with entirely different menus, I think different denominations can serve different congregations. Spiritually, I love to “eat Lutheran.” While some would say only Baptists or Catholics or Latin-speaking Catholics or hat-wearing Wisconsin Synod Lutheran women will go to heaven, all of that seems kind of small-minded to me (and, I imagine, to God). If you want to feed your faith…just eat and eat where you like the menu. It occurs to me that “ecumenism” is one of my favorite words. I love to think it, do it, even say it. Ecumenism.
I consider myself a Lutheran Catholic (as Martin Luther would). My beautiful wife is Roman Catholic through and through. For years she was on the worship board of the Lutheran church in our little town, contributing her rich Catholic heritage to our worship style and making my church, Trinity Lutheran, a better place. I can’t ever remember wanting anything so bad as for our daughter Jackie to be accepted to Georgetown University so her mind could be nourished and shaped by Jesuit higher education and professors. Our son, Andy, has had a great four years at Notre Dame (a Holy Cross Catholic school).
Yes, my brother-in-law, John Jenkins, is the president of the University of Notre Dame. I have a tremendous respect for him — personally, intellectually and spiritually. He is an inspiration in every way. And we differ in our style of Christianity. Ten years ago, when I was writing the script for a Lutheran (ELCA) video designed to tell the story of Martin Luther and the Reformation (which we filmed in Germany), I asked Father John for help (because I strove to make a balanced script and didn’t want to offend Catholics with our history). John and I worked on it. But, finally (and wisely), John said, “For the good of our relationship, I need to end this collaboration.”
(The video was an exciting project — eventually it was sent to all 11,000 ELCA churches, and is used to tell the story of the Lutheran Church to all those congregations. It’s on YouTube and available with four other shows I’ve done with the ELCA on a “Faithful Travel” DVD at our website. Until my Iran show, it was about the toughest scriptwriting challenge I’ve had.)
But back to my brother-in-law, Father John. Today Notre Dame is embroiled in a controversy because they’ve invited President Obama to speak at the graduation ceremony. Conservative Catholics who can’t accept a leader who differs from them on the abortion issue are trying to stop the event. (They’re even pestering Father John’s dear mother.) That 95 percent of the seniors on campus want Obama to give the talk doesn’t matter to them. Some people just “know” what’s right, and can’t accept people who differ.
This is not the first controversy that Father John has confronted, and it won’t be his last. He is a principled Catholic leader making sure Notre Dame is right up there with its secular competitors as one of the nation’s leading universities. And he will not be bullied by people who think they have a lock on the definition of sanctity of life. I believe in the sanctity of life. Father John Jenkins believes in the sanctity of life. And the people threatening to stop supporting Notre Dame because Obama is coming to South Bend do, too. The idea in this country is that no one gets to be the boss of what everyone else thinks. I like it that way.
Am I anti-Catholic? Some would think so. I choose to be Lutheran — it’s just so right for me. The woman I love is a Catholic. I’ve sent both of our children to Catholic schools. I don’t hesitate to say when I believe the Church (big-C) is wrong. I love what the Catholic Church has done in supporting people in Central America. I don’t like what the Catholic Church has done (past or present) in Spain. Do I hold it (and religious wars, and pedophiles, and witch burnings, and the other things that make people really angry about Church) against God? Nope. And when I’m hungry, I’m glad there’s a good place to eat nearby — and people willing to cook.