Almost 10 years ago, anticipating the 2008 presidential elections and beginning to rally progressive religious forces for political activism, a model for “postmodern worship” – interfaith Christian worship – was introduced at a Washington DC Politics and Spirituality Conference. This so-called “St. Thomas Mass” – although it was hardly a Catholic Mass – had an ordained Catholic priest, Fr. Richard Rohr, presiding and an evangelical minister, Jim Wallis, as its homilist.[i]
In the ensuing decade, Fr. Rohr continued his interfaith activities. In a taped sermon at New York City’s Trinity Wall Street Episcopal Church,[ii] Father Rohr says that he has spoken from that pulpit before – in the summer of 2011 – and, in the words of Steve Skojec, preaches “about how in politics and religion we like to set up ‘obstacles’ so that refugees – the poor, people of color, and gays – can’t ‘pass through.’”[iii] Skojec finds it the usual “social justice” pabulum.
It’s what happens after the sermon, however, that makes Skojec sit up and take notice. Father Rohr “stands to receive ‘communion’ within the sanctuary. He receives both bread and wine — this is all they are, since Episcopalian/Anglican orders are not valid — and then appears to receive instructions on distribution, at which point he begins to dispense the not-Eucharist to those in the congregation.”[iv]
He points out that “This is, of course, a serious violation of Church teaching.”[v]
That charge probably doesn’t disturb Father Rohr very much. After all, he has given the sermon at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena at least twice.[vi] He has lectured at Fuller Seminary, [vii] which comes out of the American evangelical tradition. He has conducted a workshop on the Enneagram at Paradise Valley United Methodist Church[viii] and was a speaker for the United Church of Christ Downeast Spiritual Life Conference entitled “Spirituality in Our Times: One Journey, Many Paths.”[ix]
Emerging Church/Alternative “Orthodoxy”
At one of Father’s lectures at Fuller, titled “Emerging Christianity,” he describes the emerging “consensus” around the world about “what’s happening,” a movement that, he believes, “has all the earmarks of the Holy Spirit.” He calls it “spiritual globalization,” “an utterly new reformation,” in which denominational differences are of minimal concern.[x]
How is this possible? To survive as a Roman Catholic, with its “huge history,” he says, is already to have your feet planted in two places. He points to the great religious traditions – such as Franciscans, Jesuits, Dominicans, Benedictines – which operate “as satellites” of the Church and which have “amazing freedom and a whole different set of priorities and goals.” They exemplify how Catholics have learned what he calls “double belonging” – an idea that he wants to use as a base for understanding the “emerging church” phenomenon.
This is distinct from what he describes as “dualistic thinking” – the “I’m completely right and you’re completely wrong” way of thinking that became so prevalent, on both sides, as Protestant and Catholics each had to prove themselves right. The faith was reduced to intellectual affirmation of doctrine: “Our theology determines what the utterly free God is allowed to do.”[xi]
Conversely, non-dual thinking – another term for contemplation in Father Rohr’s lexicon – is the direction many Christians, regardless of denominational background, are turning (emerging) and these are Father Rohr’s people: “I often feel more natural sense of unity with this cross-the-board consensus than I do, to be very honest, with young Catholic priests.”[xii]
“Non-dual thinking” creates its own myths: “It still surprises me that Jesus,” says Father Rohr, “who is so consistently inclusive – in his table fellowship, in who he touched, in who he healed; he makes the outsider, as you well know, the hero of most of his stories – would create a religion that was largely exclusionary….in my Church, the Eucharist, our table fellowship, is now reserved for Roman Catholics in good-standing. It’s a reward for proper behavior.”[xiii]
He continues: “Now you all know what I’m going to say next. You and I love and foloow a Jesus who was criticized in his lifetime for eating with ‘prostitutes, drunkards, tax collectors, and sinner.’ That’s the very quote. Unbelievable. Unbelievable that we can so change the rules around. They say, if you want to tell a lie and get away with it, tell a really big one. And, for some reason, it works with most people. They say: ‘Well, there must be smarter people than I over in Rome that know that Jesus changed his mind after the Resurrection.”
So, Father says, each of the denominations has a piece of the truth. “The great crown that is Christ is just too big…for any one tradition to hold on to….What emerging Christianity is recognizing is that the future of Christianity is necessarily ecumenical. There is no way we can go forward, continuing to believe these myths and these lies and these half truths and these self-serving illusions about one another.”
In Father’s view – and he stresses that these are his own emphases – this emerging church has 4 pillars:
1. It will do “honest Jesus scholarship,” liberated from doctrinal pre-conclusions, such as the Catholic idea of seven sacraments. Father doesn’t advocate throwing those concepts out – that’s dualist thinking – but to include them in whatever emerges and transcends them;
2. It will reclaim Jesus’ authentic issues of racism, sexism, and classism rather than overemphasize minor issues such as abortion, birth control or homosexuality;
3. It will develop a contemplative foundation, practicing non-dualistic thinking that transcends anything limiting “the mystery;” and
4. It will discover new structures that won’t compete with organized religion or oppose it but will coexist within them.
Is Father Rohr a Catholic Speaker in Good Standing?
Given the above, one has to ask: is Father Rohr a Catholic speaker in good standing with the Church?
The answer is that elements within the Church bureaucracy are very supportive of Father Rohr’s thought. For example, he was a speaker at the 2013 Louisville-based Festival of Faiths[xiv] – an annual event hosted by the Center for Interfaith Relations (formerly the Cathedral Heritage Foundation) in partnership with the Archdiocese of Louisville and its Cathedral of the Assumption. Despite the Archdiocesan connection, this is not an event to evangelize Catholicism but to “promote interfaith understanding, cooperation and action” by inviting Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and Christians of all “traditions” to discuss, each from his or her own perspective, given issue, topic or theme.[xv] It is a venue that suits Father’s ideas well and one that has included at least one Catholic bishop among its speakers.[xvi]
Here lies the “emerging church,” then, nestled within the traditional structures that fed and shelter it, while creating a parallel “transcendent” spirituality. Good luck with that.
[i] See: http://www.speroforum.com/a/10039/The-Thomas-Mass-and-Father-Richard-Rohr
[ii] Trinity Wall Street Episcopal YouTube Channel, “Sunday Sermon: Father Richard Rohr, OFM, December 6, 2015:” www.youtube.com/watch?v=vqLeFfyqqeo
[iii] Steve Skojec, “Catholic Priest Receives & Distributes Episcopal Communion,” 1Peter5 Blog, 12-9-15.
[v] John Paul II, Ecclesia De Eucharistia, #30; Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1400)
[vi] All Saints Church Pasadena, “Resurrection: Not a One-Time Miracle,” 4-3-16: www.youtube.com/watch?v=XU5f72VVvsg Father Rohr begins his address by saying that he’d spoken at All Saints four years earlier and was honored to be invited back.
[vii] November 17, 2010
[viii] March 7, 2015 http://pvumc.org/2015/02/09/richard-rohr-speaks-at-pvumc-enneagram-event/
[ix] August 24-25, 2012
[xi] Video 23:55
[xii] Video 25:30
[xiii] Video 28:05
[xiv] Festival of Faiths: “Fr. Richard Rohr: Finding God in the Depths of Silence,” 5-15-13: www.youtube.com/watch?v=uaMVKnpsDA8
[xv] Festival of Faith Mission Statement: http://festivaloffaiths.org/
[xvi] E.g., Archbishop Joseph Edward Kurtz, Louisville, KY will be a 2016 festival speaker.