Much quoted St. Louis archbishop to head top Vatican court

burke.jpgSt. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, who has become a major player on the national Catholic scene because of his outspoken opposition to giving Communion to pro-choice Catholic pols, is getting a promotion of sorts.

He’s leaving St. Louis — and the country — to head the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s highest court. The court generally operates out of public view, but has been busy in recent years dealing with sex-abuse cases, particularly those that involve the defrocking of a priest.

In a message on the archdiocese’s website, Burke says:

I am deeply humbled by the trust which His Holiness has placed in me, and, in priestly obedience, I have pledged to serve our Holy Father to the best of my abilities. Although you will no longer pray for me as your archbishop, especially during the celebration of the Holy Mass, I ask your prayers for me, that I may faithfully and generously cooperate with God’s grace in fulfilling my new responsibilities.

No doubt, many will see the pope’s choice of Burke to head the court as a blessing for his position on denying Communion to John Kerry four years ago.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, the oft-quoted Jesuit and church analyst, said in a statement: “The appointment should make pro-choice Catholic politicians very nervous. He will be a strong voice in the Vatican for cracking down on pro-choice politicians.”

On another matter…Looking at the calendar, I see it’s June 27.

I’ve heard countless rumors through the past two months about when the pope might accept Cardinal Egan’s retirement (several times I heard it was imminent). But you have to figure that if it doesn’t happen soon, before things slow down for the summer, the cardinal will still be here for football season (that’s what I call autumn).

A book I wish I had written

A Unitarian Universalist minister from the Boston burbs has written a book about religious themes and imagery in the songs of Bruce Springsteen.

It’s called “The Gospel According to Bruce Springsteen.” We’ve had “Gospel according to” books about the Simpsons, Peanuts, Oprah, the Beatles and others, so why not the Boss?

tjndc5-5jxfie2138mu5zbynvg_layout.jpgI’ve been a big Bruce fan since I was around 12, when a friend’s older brother played “Thunder Road.” I realize that Bruce fandom can get really over-the-top intense — seeing thousands of middle-age fans pump their fists in unison, singing along to every word, is kind of spooky — but I still love the guy.

Yes, Springsteen’s songs have often dealt with the search for meaning, for a place in the world, for a sense of justice. In many of his best songs, he’s used religious imagery to show the Big Themes pulsing through everyday life.

There’s plenty of grist for the mill, so I look forward to getting a copy of “the Gospel” by Rev. Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz, pastor of First Parish Universalist Church in Stoughton, Mass.

Springsteen was raised Catholic, of course, and loved to tell stories from the stage about being pushed around by nuns. Today, he prefers to talk about politics…

One of my favorite songs is “Reason to Believe” from Bruce’s “Nebraska” album. By creating very simple settings, with minimum detail and sparse language, he raises questions that people ask themselves all the time. Here’s the lyrics (even though a song is not a poem and really can’t stand alone with the music…):

Seen a man standin’ over a dead dog lyin’ by the highway in a ditch
He’s lookin’ down kinda puzzled pokin’ that dog with a stick
Got his car door flung open he’s standin’ out on highway 31
Like if he stood there long enough that dog’d get up and run
Struck me kinda funny seem kinda funny sir to me
Still at the end of every hard day people find some reason to believe

Now Mary Lou loved Johnny with a love mean and true
She said baby I’ll work for you everyday and bring my money home to you
One day he up and left her and ever since that
She waits down at the end of that dirt road for young Johnny to come back
Struck me kinda funny funny yea indeed how at the end of every hard earned day you can find some reason to believe

Take a baby to the river Kyle William they called him
Wash the baby in the water take away little Kyle’s sin
In a whitewash shotgun shack an old man passes away take the body to the graveyard and over him they pray Lord won’t you tell us,
Tell us what does it mean
At the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe

Congregation gathers down by the riverside
Preacher stands with his bible, groom stands waitin’ for his bride
Congregation gone and the sun sets behind a weepin’ willow tree
Groom stands alone and watches the river rush on so effortlessly
Wonderin’ where can his baby be still at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe


You would think it’s impossible to regulate the reincarnation of living Buddhas

Anyone who reads Harper’s magazine knows that the first half of the magazine is usually filled with strange memos — real memoranda — from all sorts of institutions.

They often make for funny, quirky or outright bizarre reading.

Someone handed me a copy of the March 2008 issue, which includes this order from the Chinese government that appears to regulate the process by which Buddhists declare that a particular lama’s soul has been reincarnated in a young boy:

From “Management Measures for the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism,” an order issued last year by China’s State Administration of Religious Affairs. Translated by the International Campaign for Tibet.

The China Buddhist Association will issue living-Buddha permits. When the reincarnated living Buddha has been installed, the management at his monastery shall submit a training plan to the local Buddhist Association, which shall report to the provincial people’s government for approval.

6a00d83451df0c69e200e54f4711008833-800wi.gifLiving Buddhas that have historically been recognized by drawing lots from the golden urn shall have their reincarnated soul-children recognized by drawing lots from the golden urn. Requests not to use the golden urn shall be reported by the provincial people’s government to the State Administration of Religious Affairs for approval.

Once a reincarnated living Buddha soul-child has been recognized, it shall be reported to the provincial people’s government for approval; those with a great impact shall be reported to the State Administration of Religious Affairs for approval; those with a particularly great impact shall be reported to the State Council for approval. When there is a debate over the size of a living Buddha’s impact, the China Buddhist Association shall officiate.

Reincarnated living Buddhas may not reestablish feudal privileges that have already been abolished.

Applicants to be reincarnated living Buddhas may not be reincarnated if the provincial people’s government does not allow reincarnations.

Whatever you do, don’t say that James Dobson makes stuff up

Gary McCullough, director of Christian Newswire, sent out a release today saying, basically, that Barack Obama has made a potentially career-ending blunder by challenging the evangelical leader James Dobson (that’s him).

The headline says that Obama’s blunder is of “Epic Proportion.”

jamesdobson.jpgI knew that Dobson is an influential evangelical leader, but not that “Susie Q. evangelical” — McCullough’s term — will be so outraged by Obama saying Dobson “was making stuff up” that undecided evangelicals will rush to John McCain’s side.

Dobson had accused Obama of distorting the Bible, prompting Obama’s reaction.

McCullough writes:

Barack Obama may have made a political blunder that will impact more swing voters than any other single factor: he insulted Jim Dobson’s integrity.

By picking a public fight with America’s most popular religious radio personality, Obama negated his best advantage with unaligned voters; evangelical Christians.

The evangelical community had been fairly unimpressed by John McCain. But Obama has shown a grave lack of political wisdom: he did not let this sleeping dog lie.

And he concludes:

Until this flurry, McCain’s standing with the evangelical community was undefined, and tepid at best. Moreover, it is commonly accepted that McCain cannot win without the evangelical vote. Obama’s treatment of Dobson did two things; it eliminated any sympathy for the abuse he took for attacks on his religious associations, i.e. Rev. Wright, and two; Obama insulted the single, most powerful influence on evangelicals.

Insulting Dobson’s integrity will cost Obama dearly with this critical swing vote. His mistake could prove to make the difference in November — in favor of McCain.

New Yorkers following Archbishop O’Brien to Rome

Archbishop Edwin O’Brien is on his way to Rome, where he will receive his pallium on Sunday from Pope Benedict XVI.

obrien_web1_2.jpgO’Brien, of course, is the archbishop of Baltimore — and a former auxiliary bishop of New York. I understand that a lot of his old friends from New York are also heading to the Vatican for the big event.

A pallium is a band of white wool that is worn around the neck and shoulders. It is given to “metropolitan archbishops,” who have jurisdiction over at least one diocese beyond their own.

It is supposed to symbolize an archbishop’s authority within his province and his communion with the pope.

O’Brien, long considered a contender to become archbishop of NY, became archbishop of Baltimore last year. He has not been made a cardinal yet — his predecessor, Cardinal Keeler, is still young enough to vote in a conclave — but it will come eventually.

The pallium Mass will be broadcast live by EWTN at 3:30 a.m. Sunday and re-shown at 9 p.m.

Prominent rabbi wins in court, but debate will go on

For several years, much of the Orthodox Jewish community in New York and beyond has been riveted by accusations against Rabbi Mordecai Tendler, a prominent rabbi from Monsey who comes from a very prominent line of rabbis.

In 2005, the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents Orthodox rabbis, expelled Tendler because of accusations of womanizing. It was a shocking stand from an organization that does not generally make waves.

Tendler’s congregation, Kehillat New Hempstead, also let him go.

tendler_mordecai2.jpegTendler denied that he did anything wrong. But the charges against him have been hashed out — passionately — on Orthodox websites and blogs by both supporters and critics of the rabbi. At one point, Tendler asked a California court to force Google to identity four anonymous blog writers.

One woman who accused Tendler of using his authority to seduce her into a 3-year affair filed a civil lawsuit against her former spiritual leader. But New York’s top appeals court dismissed her case yesterday, ruling that the woman could not make a legal claim based on seduction (whether she was seduced or not).

The majority ruled that “no cause of action can be maintained for an extended voluntary affair between consenting adults.”

Tendler’s lawyers are saying that he is vindicated. Clearly, not everyone will see it that way. The court said that Tender’s accuser could not sue him on “seduction” grounds. The court did not say that an affair did not happen.

Disagreement over what really happened will go on.

Church ‘travel writer’ coming to Mamaroneck on Sunday

Suzanne Strempek Shea was raised Catholic, but had stopped going to church by the time Pope John Paul II died.

She watched the incredible funeral procession and was caught up “in the fervency of the mourners.” Why were they so moved?

So she decided to go back to church — but to Protestant churches, which she had always wondered about. What went on there? Every Sunday for a year, Shea visited a different church.

7224.jpgThe result is her new book: Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith (Beacon Press).

Shea will visit Mamaroneck United Methodist Church this Sunday (June 29) at noon to read from her book and sign copies.

“There are so many ways people worship in this country, just within the realm of Christianity, and I knew only one way,” she told me. “The way I was raised, if you went to any other kind of church, the roof would fall in on you.”

I’m still not quite sure why the death of John Paul II — and the incredible reaction to it — inspired Shea to visit Protestants and not reacquaint herself with Catholicism. But her journey was bound to be a fascinating one, regardless.

She started off with a Baptist Easter service in Harlem and just kept going: a cowboy church in Colorado; visits with Shakers and Quakers; Joel Osteen and Rick Warren’s megachurches; Jimmy Carter’s church in Plains, Ga.; the San Francisco African Orthodox church that worships to the music of John Coltrane; Barack Obama’s Chicago church; and on and on.

She even found out that people speak in tongues right in her town in western Massachusetts.

Shea found a passionate faith — particularly in evangelical churches — that she hadn’t found in her own Catholic Church.

“Evangelicals spend their entire morning and afternoon there,” she said. “They bring bottled water, books for the children, and spend the day. This is their Sabbath. There is a real mysticism, people caught up in the healing component in some churches. It’s like a performance, in a way. People are getting so emotional…”

In many parts of the country, church is where people go for community, Shea told me.

suzanne-strempek-shea.jpg“Some people I spoke to at Rick Warren’s church said ‘I moved to the area, saw people driving over and wanted to meet people,’ ” she said.

What did Joel Osteen preach about when Shea was in Houston? Diet tips.

“There was no mention of God,” she told me. “It’s reaching out to what people need and aren’t getting in their communities.”

Shea doesn’t sound too eager to re-embrace Catholicism: “There is so much that, I wish, would make Catholicism a lot more vibrant — including a lot more people, including God a lot more, even.”

Mamaroneck UMC is at 546 E. Boston Post Road.

Scarsdale’s Miller to ‘oversee’ Hebrew Union College

miller.jpgScarsdale’s Marjorie L. Miller has been appointed chair of the Board of Overseers of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s New York campus.

HUC-JIR is the primary seminary and academic center for Reform Judaism.

Miller is a former president of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale and is an honorary trustee of Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers. She has been a member of the Board of Overseers since 2003.

“Her devotion to the Jewish community, professional expertise in education and social work, and commitment to the Reform Movement will serve as a source of wisdom and guidance as together we advance the mission of our institution: preparing leaders for the Jewish people,” HUC-JIR President Rabbi David Ellenson said.

PCUSA revisits (again) its requirements for ordination

010.jpgPresbyterian Church (USA)’s 218th General Assembly is underway in San Jose, meaning that hundreds of Presbyterians are attending committee meetings, sorting through great piles of resolutions and amendments and other paperwork, and preparing for lots of votes.

That’s the Presbyterian way. (You have to love the John Calvin bobblehead doll in the exhibit hall.)

It also means that a debate is underway (or an old debate is continuing) on the status and future of Amendment B. This is the 1996 amendment to church law that requires “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness” and is supposed to rule out gays and lesbians for ordination.

There have been several efforts over the years to strike Amendment B from the books, all failures (so far).

Last night, a committee recommended that the full Assembly delete the amendment. The committee had several overtures to choose from, including one put forth by the Hudson River Presbytery, which includes PCUSA churches in Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and northern counties.

The committee approved this proposed amendment put forth by the Boston Presbytery:

“Those who are called to ordained service in the church, by their assent to the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003), pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions. In so doing, they declare their fidelity to the standards of the church. Each governing body charged with examination for ordination and/or installation (G-14.0240 and G-14.0450) establishes the candidate’s sincere efforts to adhere to these standards.”

At some point, the full Assembly will consider the amendment. If it passes, the amendment would still have to be approved by a majority of presbyteries across the country.

The Rev. Chris Shelton, a minister from the Hudson River Presbytery, is blogging about the GA. He writes:

And so, I refer you back to the beginning of these thoughts — “Lift up your hearts!” However you feel about the actions taken by these committees, the time for prayer is now. These are exciting, trying, and tiring times here in San Jose. The Commissioners and Advisory Delegates need our continued prayers for strength, for wisdom, for the sustaining hand of the Spirit. Pray for all our sisters and brothers as we face the challenging conversations ahead.

I should note that PCUSA lost 2.5% of its membership from 2006 to 2007. Here’s a brief from the AP:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) _ The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) suffered its worst annual membership decline in decades last year.

The Louisville-based denomination reported 2.2 million active and confirmed members in 2007, a loss of 57,572 members and a 2.5 percent decrease from 2006. It’s the denomination’s largest membership loss in terms of numbers since 1981 and the steepest percentage loss since 1974, when it fell 2.7 percent.

The church has steadily been losing members since peaking at 4.25 million in the mid-1960s.

“Any decline in membership is a disappointment, to be sure, because those numbers represent members we know and love who are no longer part of our congregations,” said the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, who is completing a 12-year term as stated clerk of the PCUSA.

Opinions differ about the cause for the decline, including controversies over homosexuality, low birth rates, an aging white population and a societal move away from institutions in general. Some congregations also have left for a more conservative Presbyterian denomination.