15 July, 2010

The Dalai Lama Gets It, Thomas Merton Got It, Will the Bishops Ever Get It?

Those who have read my blog posts will have noticed how frequently I have cried out for leaders in the Church to speak and act with compassion toward those who find themselves in difficult circumstances. No doubt some bishops are compassionate most or some of the time. But there have been too many public examples where leadership has not acted in a compassionate manner.

A recent reflection by the Dalai Lama reminds us of the centrality and importance of compassion.
He begins by recounting that as  youngster, “I felt that my own Buddhist religion must be the best--- and that other faiths were somehow inferior.” I too had a similar experience growing up in a predominantly Catholic town in a metropolitan area of over four million Catholics. We never fought with, or even said nasty things about “non-Catholics.” Because they were a minority we just lived as if they weren’t around. If, God forbid, we were invited to Sunday service, Bible school, or a wedding in a Protestant Church we proudly (or with eyes focused on the ground in embarrassment) replied, “I’m a Catholic, and we don’t (or can’t) go to other churches.

This highly defensive attitude began with the Council of Trent’s response to the Reformation and lasted until Vatican II attempted to renew our church by returning to our roots and engaging in a reality-based conversation with the modern world, including Protestants, the Orthodox Churches, and the major world religions.

As a sociologist, I fully understand any group, denomination or religion placing emphasis on its identity, marks showing who they are, and establishing group boundaries. This process, however, can lead to conflict and, “…dangerous extremes of religious intolerance”  between groups as well as to its opposite, mutual dialogue, understanding, and often acceptance and positive cooperation. The latter was the intent of the Vatican II Fathers. The Dalai Lama goes on to say,
Though intolerance may be as old as religion itself, we still see vigorous signs of its virulence. In Europe, there are intense debates about newcomers wearing veils or wanting to erect minarets (There is a recent example of this in the US. also) and episodes of violence against Muslim immigrants. Radical atheists issue blanket condemnations of those who hold religious beliefs. In the Middle East, the flames of war are fanned by hatred of those who adhere to a different faith.
The Dalai Lama goes on to say,
Such tensions are likely to increase as the world becomes more interconnected and cultures, peoples, and religions become ever more entwined. The pressure this creates tests more than our tolerance--- it demands that we promote peaceful  coexistence and understanding across boundaries…. While preserving faith towards one’s own tradition, one can respect, admire and appreciate other traditions. [Emphasis added]
I know what the Dalai Lama means. After years teaching at a Baptist college, I was finally asked to give the devotional at the fall faculty workshop. Although I was familiar with and could do a passingly decent job “praying Baptist Style,” mine had to be a little more “Catholic.” I began, “I’m the Pope!!! One of the pope’s titles is ‘pontiff’ which means “bridge-builder.” I consider myself a bridge-builder. I’m a Yankee in the South, I’m a city boy in a pretty rural area, and a Catholic in a Baptist community.” I then explained this a little, quoted some Scripture (using my "New International" version of the Bible), bowed my head and led us in a spontaneous prayer. After the meeting a faculty member who was a preacher and very anti-Catholic came up and hugged me, saying, “Seb, I always knew you were a good Christian.” That day I had affirmed what I had been learning over the years: we can move from antagonism to tolerance and from tolerance to respect and acceptance. That preacher remained Baptist till his death and I’m still a Catholic, but we took steps toward respect and acceptance. We learned to have compassion on each other.

The Dalai Lama recounts his meeting with Thomas Merton, an American Trappist Monk in 1968, shortly before Merton’s death. The two holy men confessed to each other how much they had learned and grown from deep encounters with each others' religion. One of the things they learned and experienced together was the centrality of compassion in all the great religious traditions.

Whether within our own Catholic tradition, between Protestants and Catholics, or between Christians and the other great religious traditions, why can’t we begin with what we hold in common? It reminds me of political liberals and conservatives who sit down and tear each other apart fighting over “midnight basketball” versus building more prisons as the best solution to street crime. If they could really agree on the fact that both want to have safe streets, there might be cooperation and compromise that would lead to workable solutions that both sides could whole-heartedly support.

Just before the Dalai Lama gives a number of examples of compassion he says, “The focus on compassion that Merton and I observed in our two religions strikes me as a strong unifying thread among all the major faiths And these days we need to highlight what unifies us.”

It seems to me that within the Catholic Church also we need to reassert compassion for the other, whether it is between so-called ‘liberals / progressives’ and ‘conservatives’ or between the clergy and the abused. As I have mentioned in some earlier posts, in recent times most situations that clearly called out for compassion within the Church are related in one way or another to sexuality:
  • The early stone-walling by the bishops regarding the pedophilia crisis,
  • The lack of reaching out to victims with deep pastoral concern for the abused,
  • Neglecting the nine year old girl whose mother secured an abortion for her after she was raped by her step-father and was carrying twins (I speak at this moment not about the abortion itself, but the lack of compassion for the little girl),
  • Insufficient attention to the homosexuals who may be executed in Uganda if the Anti-homosexuality law is passed.
  • Lack of attention to the small girls who were expelled/not admitted to a Catholic school because they had “two moms" (The “Phoenix Case). But notice that in the Archdiocese in a similar case, diocesan Catholic School Administrators said they will accept all children).
Perhaps the hierarchy can learn how better to respond to these intra-church situations and to inter-religious affairs by reflecting on the words of the Dalai Lama on Compassion. Of course all of us must be more compassionate!