TIME Religion

Football and Religion: The Odd Relationship Between God and the Gridiron

Notre Dame's 'Touchdown Jesus'
Notre Dame's 'Touchdown Jesus' Joe Robbins—Getty Images

Mark Edmundson teaches at the University of Virginia and is the author of Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game.

The peace and forgiveness taught in church are not values reflected on the field—but football shows the division of our ethical consciousness

When I played high school football, we knelt down before every contest. The coach asked God and the Lord Jesus Christ to help us play a fair game, not do significant bodily harm to the opposition and not to sustain serious injury ourselves. The coach asked that we might win the game if we were deserving. Then we said a prayer: usually it was the “Our Father.” Football, it seemed, was a Christian game.

Things haven’t changed all that much, at least from what I can tell. Pro and college teams still pray before games; coaches still invoke Jesus and God. When certain players hit the end zone, they hold a finger up in the air: I owe it all to you, Lord. When a man goes down and stays down, players from both squads get on their knees and pray for him. When I visited the University of Virginia football team this fall, matters were little different than they were forty years ago in my high school locker-room: the head coach invoked God’s blessing and led the team in prayer.

We’ve come to take this fusion of football and religion pretty much for granted. So too do we take the fusion of military values and football values as a matter of course. We’re not surprised when representatives from all four service branches bring the colors out before the game or when Navy jets stream over at half time. Nor are we much surprised when coaches talk about God and the Savior and when we see footage of players praying before games. It’s no surprise that Notre Dame, a school dedicated to religion, is also dedicated to football. No one seems perplexed that a mural depicting the savior with his arms raised is visible behind the stadium: Touchdown Jesus, he’s called.

Football is a game beloved by conservatives. Conservatives love football; conservatives love faith. What more is there to say?

Well, maybe there’s something. You don’t have to read the Gospels with exquisite care to see that the values espoused there are not quite football values. Jesus is many things to many people. But it would take a great deal of ingenuity to deny that he is a prophet of forgiveness—forgiveness and non-violence. When someone strikes you, what are you to do? On this Jesus is unequivocal. You must turn the other cheek. When someone sins against you, do you take revenge? No, not at all. Jesus tells us to forgive trespassers time after time. On the cross he looks out at his tormentors and speaks a simple and memorable sentence: Father forgive them, they know not what they do.

Jesus can get angry at times. When he sees the money changers operating in the temple, he picks up a whip and brandishes it at them. He picks up the whip. But he doesn’t hit anyone with it. And when he sees a fig tree that will not bear fruit, he blasts it. Why does he blast it? No one really knows. He blasts it because he does. But the temple whip flourishing and the fig tree blast are about the most violent things we see Jesus do. Mostly he is the advocate or peace, love and forgiveness.

It’s odd then, isn’t it, that football and faith, and the Christian faith in particular, should be so resolutely aligned in American culture? It never occurred to me when I was a young Medford Mustang, on my knees asking Jesus for a clean game and a victory, that Jesus might not have fully approved of the violence that was about to unfold on the field. For football is not about forgiving someone seven times seven; football is not about turning the other cheek. Football is about deploying violence: in football you blast your adversary with all the might you can muster.

And it’s odd then, isn’t it, that in America devout believers go off to church on Sunday to hear the gospel of the mild and forgiving savior, and then go home, turn on their TVs and watch young men try to bust one another’s spleens? What kind of country are we—what kind of culture are we—that can put together the Savior and the bone-crushing power sweep and not notice that there may be some contradictions involved?

But if you think a little more about it, you begin to see that football isn’t just a touch contradictory in itself: it reveals a rift in American faith. Because the majority of Americans are not just Christians per se: they are Judeo-Christians. That is, they belief that the Gospels are the word of God, but they believe that the Hebrew Bible is God’s word as well. And the Hebrew God, God the Father, whatever else you may say about him, is not a pacifist. He does not tell his followers to turn the other cheek. When Sodom and Gomorrah displease him, he destroys the cities nearly to the last. When the Amalekites infuriate him, he demands that Saul destroy them: man, woman and child. (And when Saul doesn’t, the Lord is enraged with him.) When pharaoh won’t let the chosen people go, the Lord kills the first born of every house and then drowns pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea.

The Lord God of hosts can be a loving god as well. He creates man and installs him in paradise. He preserves his people in the desert. He guides them in their times of tribulations. But pacifist, mild, readily forgiving? Yahweh is none of those things.

What football shows us Americans is how dramatically our ethical consciousness is divided. We can go to church and listen to the gospel of peace and forgiveness and then go home and watch the carnage on the field for a simple reason: that’s a tension we live with all the time. The religion that most of us follow allows us to be forgiving (when we wish to be) and retributive (when we wish to be). It really is up to us which way to go at any given moment. For we have sacred sanction for both paths. The Buddhists for instance do not worship any god who deploys violence: they follow the example of Gautama, the Buddha, who claimed to be nothing more than a mortal man. (Or they try.) When a Buddhist behaves violently (and plenty have and will) he has no religious sanction for it. For the Christian—or rather the Judeo-Christian—this is not the case.

There is a great deal to say about the ramifications of living in a country and a culture that allows so much leeway for ethical behavior. But for now, one might simply say that the game of football—which has become our national game, the mirror of our national identities—matters for a lot of reasons. One of them is the way it reveals some of the unspoken and unacknowledged dimensions of our lives to us, in compressed form. Though when that happens, we may of course not much like what it is we see.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Religion

Vatican Official Calls Brittany Maynard’s Assisted Suicide ‘Reprehensible’

"The gesture in and of itself should be condemned"

A Vatican official condemned the planned death of Brittany Maynard on Tuesday, calling her decision to end her life rather than succumb to a terminal form of brain cancer “reprehensible.”

Monsignor Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, one of the Catholic church’s leaders on bioethical issues and head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, called the decision to end one’s life undignified, the Associated Press reports. “Brittany Maynard’s act is in itself reprehensible,” he told the ANSA news agency. “What happened in the consciousness we do not know.”

The official stressed that he did not mean to pass judgement against Maynard herself, but rather took issue with Maynard’s argument that people faced with devastating, terminal medical conditions should have the freedom to end their lives at a time of their choosing. “The gesture in and of itself should be condemned,” Carrasco de Paula said.

[AP]

TIME Religion

Southern Baptists Strike a Different Tone than Catholics in Conference

Pope Francis leads the synod of bishops in Paul VI's hall at the Vatican
Pope Francis looks on as he leads the synod of bishops in Paul VI's hall at the Vatican on Oct. 6, 2014. Claudio Peri—Reuters

As Catholic bishops emphasized welcoming gays, Southern Baptists voiced more concern about mainstream acceptance of gay marriage

Marriage has been in the Christian spotlight this October. The month began with Pope Francis bringing together 250 Catholic leaders to discuss marriage and the family at the Extraordinary Synod of the Bishops in Rome. This week, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention is hosting a three-day conference in Nashville. The topic is “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage,” and the purpose is “to equip Christians to apply the gospel on these issues with convictional kindness in their communities, their families and their churches.”

At first glance, the two gatherings may seem similar. Both brought together various church leaders to discuss marriage and family. Both groups hold formal positions against gay marriage and seek to affirm and strengthen straight marriages. Both events were framed in prayer and liturgical structures, whether it was a candlelit prayer service at the Vatican or a Christian praise band rocking out on stage in Tennessee. Men were the primary speakers and participants at each gathering, even though both made an effort to include a handful of women’s voices.

But the differences are eye-catching. The Catholic bishops discussed a host of issues families face around the world from war to economics to cohabitation; the Baptists honed in on the growing acceptance of homosexuality in Western contexts. The Synod sessions happened behind closed doors; the ERLC event is live streamed. The Catholic Church is comprised of more than one billion people and has a two millennia history; the Southern Baptist Convention has a smaller network of 50,000 churches and is just 170 years old, though it often signals views in the mainstream evangelical community.

The most noticeable difference was tone. Pope Francis opened the synod on the family by asking the church leaders to speak freely, and saying his goal was to listen. “A general condition is this,” he told them on day one, “Speak clearly. Let no one say ‘this cannot be said.’ … At the same time, you should listen with humility and accept with an open heart what your brothers say.” The bishops took him at his word, and that openness inspired lots of debate on how to welcome gays within the confines of Church teaching.

The ERLC conference, by contrast, is not an open forum—dissenting voices are not included in the presentations. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, opened the gathering on Monday in a defensive posture, saying that Western society is experiencing “a moral revolution” happening “at warp speed,” one that now celebrates things that were previously condemned. “We are accustomed to speaking from a position of strength,” Mohler said, explaining how traditional evangelical opposition to homosexuality is no longer mainstream.

Sin is a central topic in Nashville, and one that was noticeably absent from the Synod’s public documents. Mohler suggested in his opening remarks that Christians should approach gays in ways “not about their sin (homosexuality) but about our sin (all shortcomings).” Glen Stanton, director for Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family, continued the theme: “Every one of us is stricken with an eternal disorder called sin,” he said in his talk called, “Love my (LGBT) Neighbor.” “How do we love gay and lesbian people? … The great equalizer is our sin.”

On the whole, the conference makes clear its strong on moral opposition to homosexuality. Many of the prominent speakers champion a pointed opposition to mainstream culture, and nearly all use the phrase “someone who experiences same-sex attraction” or “a homosexual” instead of using preferred, self-identifying terms of LGBTQ persons. Erik Stanley, a lawyer with the Alliance Defending Freedom, compared the show Modern Family to a gateway drug for accepting gays and described Matthew Shepard’s murder as a gay hate crime hoax. Barronelle Stutzman, a Washington state florist who declined to make a wedding flower arrangement for a gay couple, said, “They can destroy me but they cannot destroy God and his word.” The crowd gave her a standing ovation.

Some speakers have hinted at a more welcoming tone. Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, a former lesbian women’s studies professor who converted to evangelicalism, stopped living as a lesbian and married a male pastor, explained that she learned the hospitality gifts she uses as a pastor’s wife from her years in the lesbian community suffering from AIDS in the 1990s. She shared how she converted because a pastor was her friend who did not invite her to church but made her feel safe by turning off his air-conditioning and offering her vegan food to accommodate her then-progressive lifestyle choices. “I never felt like a project,” she said.

Russell Moore, president of the ERLC, offered a nuanced approach to the practical challenges of changing sexual ethics. Moore said he would not attend a gay friend’s wedding ceremony because that would involve participating in their marriage vows, but he would attend their wedding reception. He also would not cut himself off from relatives “who are lost or in situations you disagree with—Jesus never did that.” Churches should care more about issues like gay and lesbian homelessness, he said, and young couples should be thinking about the long-term commitments of their wedding vows and what they mean if one partner gets Alzheimer’s disease or has an affair. Moore even suggested Christians can learn something from Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign: Christians should not marginalize gays over other sinners. “If there is some particular sin that has to be whispered in our congregation, then we are not truly Christian,” he explained.

What’s happening in Nashville gives the world a peek at the kind of culture different church leaders are cultivating in the midst of changing societal views on sexuality. For the evangelicals and Baptists in Nashville, it is time to double down. And that’s a reminder of just how dramatic the Vatican’s tone shift under Pope Francis—however small that opening may be—actually is.

Read next: What Christianity Without Hell Looks Like

TIME Religion

Secret Service Arrests Ten Commandments Statue Smasher

State workers for the Office of Management and Enterprise Services remove the damaged remains of a Ten Commandments monument from the Oklahoma State Capitol grounds on Oct. 24, 2014 in Oklahoma City.
State workers for the Office of Management and Enterprise Services remove the damaged remains of a Ten Commandments monument from the Oklahoma State Capitol grounds on Oct. 24, 2014 in Oklahoma City. Sean Murphy—AP

The assailant told authorities that Satan made him do it

Secret Service have arrested a man who allegedly slammed his car Thursday night into a controversial Ten Commandments monument near the state capital building in Oklahoma City. The statue is now smashed to pieces.

Officials said the suspect, whose name has not been released, ran his car into the monument at about 9:00 p.m. Thursday night, reportedly saying that Satan made him do it. Oklahoma City’s KOCO news station reported that the suspect also threatened to kill President Barack Obama and said he urinated on the monument before knocking it over.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which has sued to have the monument removed, condemned the desecration of the statue. No evidence suggests there is a connection between this incident and a Satanic group wishing to install a monument to Satan alongside the Ten Commandments.

The vehicle involved in the incident was left at the scene and has been impounded.

[KOCO]

TIME Malaysia

A Guy Held a Dog-Petting Event and Got Death Threats From Muslim Hard-Liners

TO GO WITH AFP STORY: Malaysia-energy-da
A boy plays with dogs outside his long house in Nahajale, Malaysia's Sarawak region, on Sept. 25, 2011 Mohd Rasfan—AFP/Getty Images

Hard-liners in Malaysia insist he “should be stoned to death” because dogs are considered unclean

A Malaysian social activist has received death threats and torrents of online abuse for organizing a dog-familiarization event that religious conservatives claim insults Islam.

More than 1,000 people attended the “I Want to Touch a Dog” event in the affluent Bandar Utama neighborhood on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur on Sunday to learn about Islam’s views on canines and become familiar with the animals, which are a source of fear for many Malaysians.

But the event’s planner, Syed Azmi Alhabshi, has now been forced into hiding after hard-liners insisted he “should be stoned to death.”

Traditionally, dogs are considered haram, or forbidden, in Islam as they are thought of as dirty. But while conservatives advocate complete avoidance, moderates simply say Muslims should not touch the animal’s mucous membranes — such as the nose or mouth — which are considered especially impure. Even if that happens, they say, there is a special cleansing ritual that can be followed.

How to touch dogs in an Islamic way was the point of the “I Want to Touch a Dog” event. Although officially haram, many Malaysians own dogs for security, partly because of a worsening national crime wave. (Malaysia’s Selangor Islamic Religious Department, an influential clerical body, says that Muslims can own dogs as working animals, for security, hunting and other functions.)

Siti Sakinah, an NGO worker, attended the event with her children in order to “overcome their fear and to learn that dogs are also creatures created by Allah that need love and care,” she told the Malaysian Insider.

On Thursday, respected Malaysian human-rights campaigner Marina Mahathir wrote an op-ed in the Star newspaper defending Syed Azmi and slamming the “ignorance” of those orchestrating the hate campaign.

“I didn’t realize that kindness is now considered despicable but then the world has turned upside down,” she wrote. “Never mind that the intention of those who attended was to learn about one of God’s own creatures and how to treat them kindly.”

The dog debate in Malaysia is in fact nothing new. In colonial times, local people were forced to deal with an alien influx of dogs brought by British planters and officials, which in turn made the pets fashionable among many prominent Malays, including royals.

At this time, a vibrant and largely cordial discourse thrived between the kaum tua (old conservatives) and kaum muda (young moderates) about how to handle dogs. The issue was even documented in a book by celebrated American historian William R. Roff.

Today, however, this polarity is hugely politicized. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government has brazenly fostered religious conservatism to win the ethnic Malay vote, and some of those attacking Syed Azmi say that he is part of a Zionist plot.

One Facebook user’s comment — as reported by the Malaysian Insider — illustrates the level of paranoia in the hard-line camp. The user said the dog-familiarization event was part of “a Jewish agenda to Christianise Muslim-Malaysians through subtle measures.”

Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert based in Kuala Lumpur for the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies, tells TIME that the conservatives “have been dominating the discourse and want to continue imposing their perspective.”

Marina argues that the storm has been cooked up by authorities attempting to maintain control. After all, she asks, “how does hating anything and everything make us happy and better Muslims?”

Read next: Shari‘a Law Is Threatening LGBT Rights Across Muslim-Majority Southeast Asia

TIME LGBT

Houston’s Pastors Outraged After City Subpoenas Sermons Over Transgender Bill

Ted Cruz
Sen. Ted Cruz is surrounded by preachers as he addresses a crowd at a Houston church Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014 about a legal dispute involving several pastors fighting subpoenas from Houston city attorneys. Pat Sullivan—AP

City officials have subpoenaed the sermons of five pastors who oppose the Houston's new equal rights ordinance

Houston, with its left-leaning, openly gay mayor governing an influential conservative and evangelical base, is a city politically divided. That division has been made clear in recent days after the city subpoenaed sermons of several pastors who oppose a recently passed equal rights ordinance for gay and transgender residents. The subpoenas are an attempt by city officials to determine how the preachers instructed their congregants in their push to get the law repealed.

The city’s subpoenas targeted sermons and speeches by five Houston pastors with ties to religious leaders attempting to repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, which bars businesses from discriminating against gay and transgender residents. The law, passed into law by Mayor Annise Parker in May, is often derided as a “bathroom bill,” because it allows transgender individuals to choose whether to use a male or female restroom.

This summer, a group of local pastors and religious leaders began gathering signatures in an attempt to get a referendum to repeal the law on this November’s ballot. But City Attorney David Feldman blocked that attempt by throwing out thousands of signatures he said didn’t meet the criteria to qualify, incensing groups opposed to the rule.

Local religious leaders claim Feldman illegally disqualified the referendum and have filed a suit against the city. Mayor Parker, meanwhile, has pledged not to enforce the ordinance until there’s a court decision. But the move by the city to subpoena Houston’s pastors, who have been vocal on the issue and have urged their congregants to support a repeal referendum, has drawn national attention. Republican Senator Ted Cruz said in a statement that the subpoenas were “shocking and shameful,” and Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins has called for the city to drop them as well.

“The chilling effect of government scrutiny of our pastors is unconstitutional, and unconscionable,” Perkins said in a statement. “Mayor Parker’s use of her bully pulpit to silence pulpit freedom must be stopped in its tracks.”

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott also issued a letter saying the city impinged on the pastors’ First Amendment rights and called for the subpoenas’ immediate reversal. “Whether you intend it to be so or not, your action is a direct assault on the religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment,” Abbott wrote to Feldman. “The people of Houston and their religious leaders must be absolutely secure in their knowledge that their religious affairs are beyond the reach of the government.”

University of Houston law professor Peter Linzer says the city reached too far in issuing the subpoenas. One subpoena sent to Pastor Steve Riggle, for example, asks for “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to [the equal rights ordinance], the petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity.” However, Linzer says it wouldn’t impinge on the pastors’ First Amendment rights if the city only asked only for sermons or speeches related to the signature drive. “Let’s assume they gave instructions to cheat,” Linzer says. “That would be relevant speech and I don’t see how they would have any First Amendment protection for that.”

Among those fighting the city’s move is the Alliance for Defending Freedom, a religious freedom advocacy non-profit whose lawyers have filed a motion trying to quash the subpoenas. “I haven’t seen any indication that the city is backing down,” says Erik Stanley, the group’s senior legal counsel. “But we’re hopeful that they will. The only thing we can figure is they were subpoenaed because they spoke out against the ordinance. And they urged people to sign the petition. They exercised their constitutional rights to speak out.”

Still, Mayor Parker and City Attorney David Feldman appeared to backtrack on the subpoenas Wednesday, saying they had only recently learned of them and that outside lawyers handled the lawsuit. They argued the city is merely looking for communications from those pastors regarding the petition drive, but that the subpoenas’ language was inappropriate.

“There’s no question the wording was overly broad,” Parker said in a news conference Wednesday. “But I also think there was some deliberate misinterpretation.” Feldman, the city attorney, called the uproar over the wording “ridiculous,” but also has argued that if a pastor is speaking about political issues from the pulpit, it’s not protected. The mayor’s office declined to comment further for this story.

On Friday, The Houston Chronicle reported that the city would remove the term “sermon” from the subpoenas. Mayor Parker, however, said that relevant sermons regarding the petition drive could still be gathered.

TIME Religion

What I Learned About God After My Son Died

Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love
Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love Courtesy Penguin Random House

A new memoir, Rare Bird, chronicles the loss of a child, and the emotional and spiritual aftermath of tragedy

When Anna Whiston-Donaldson’s 12-year-old son, Jack Donaldson, drowned in a creek behind her family’s suburban Virginia home three years ago, she turned to her blog, An Inch of Gray, which she had previously used to post about her kids and daily life. There, she chronicled her emotions, grief and spirituality. Eventually, she realized she wanted to write a book, which became the recently published Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love, from which this is excerpted.

We begin visiting a different church. We don’t feel Jack’s absence as keenly here, even though it meets in a local elementary school in the same room where he attended Cub Scout pack meetings for five years.

We go at first to support the young pastor who showed up for us the night of Jack’s death, but then we keep coming. I have yet to tell him about a conversation I had with my pastor Linda three hours before the accident.

“Did you know there’s a new church coming to Vienna this fall?” I asked. She didn’t. I continued, “Well, I was reading their website during lunch, and I have a feeling we’ll be connected to them somehow.”

Strange. I guess I thought we could lend the church space in our building or maybe I would help them order materials for their Sunday school classes. Looking around the elementary school cafeteria now, months later, I know I got it wrong. I see two friends who recommitted their lives to God after Jack’s accident and started bringing their families here. I see the family we went to the beach with summer after summer when the kids were small, who understand what a precious person we lost in losing Jack. I see his math teacher, who got to teach him for only the first two days of seventh grade, but who is helping shepherd his classmates through their grief.

I see men who put on raincoats and traipsed through the mud, thinking surely they would find Jack injured but alive. And there are the couples who formed small groups in our neighborhood initially to talk about God and the death of a young boy, but who continue to meet and support one another week after week as more deaths and cancer diagnoses rock our small community. We are connected to this new church, just not in the way I had expected.

I don’t know if this is where we belong, but I’m open to it, even though I have worshiped in the same church my entire life. I’m not worried. What would have once seemed like a sea change feels more like a blip in comparison to losing Jack.

And whether I’m here or across town, I need church. I am not one who regularly sees God at the ocean, in the mountains, or in a sunrise, although since Jack died, I am increasingly finding Him there. God and I tend to meet in community, and even though I dread the exposed and vulnerable feeling I get walking into His house now, I can’t stay away.

It has nothing to do with obligation or religion. I need to show up, sit on the hard plastic chair, and say, “Here I am, Lord.” For me. I sing when I can, but I don’t push it if I don’t feel up to it. Margaret sometimes moves up to the front rows where the tweens sit, and I feel more freedom to cry than I do from our exposed perch in the balcony of our home church where my emotions continue to embarrass her.

The pastor, Johnny, jokes with Tim that he knows when we’ll visit because when we do, they always seem to have Jack and Margaret’s favorite hymn, “In Christ Alone,” on the schedule. They’ll start the music, he’ll scan the congregation, and bingo, there we are, wiping dripping eyes and noses with the back of our sleeves, because even though crying is inevitable, I don’t always remember tissues.

It feels a bit weird to be at a different church, even just part-time, but if we’re learning anything, it’s that life is weird. I take communion, but I don’t serve it anymore. I am not here as a leader or a giver. I don’t go out of my way to meet new people and make them feel welcome and comfortable, as would be my instinct. Instead, I am here to partake and absorb and let God’s words fall down on my head. I soak up the truth of who He is. I tell Him I am open to receive grace and comfort. I remind Him I trust Him, even though His ways are not mine and I am still sad and hurt.

I don’t know if I’ll speak at women’s retreats again or lead Bible studies. I don’t know how long I’ll work in a church. The look of my faith may be changing in light of Jack’s death, as I step back from what I saw as my work and my effort of growing closer to God and being a good Christian, but God hasn’t changed. It seems like this is a season for me to rest in love and just keep showing up.

Excerpted from Rare Bird by Anna Whiston-Donaldson Copyright © 2014 by Anna Whiston-Donaldson. Excerpted by permission of Convergent Books, a division of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Religion

What the Vatican Really Said About Homosexuality

Pope Francis leads a mass honouring the canonisation of two Canadian saints in St. Peter's basilica at the Vatican on Oct. 12, 2014.
Pope Francis leads a mass honouring the canonisation of two Canadian saints in St. Peter's basilica at the Vatican on Oct. 12, 2014. Vincenzo Pinto—AFP/Getty Images

It's not the big shift people think it is

The Catholic world and the media were riled Monday by a Vatican document interpreted by many as signaling a softer church stance toward homosexuality, but the inclusive tone of the document is a long way from actual policy change.

At issue are three words most people have never heard of: Relatio post disceptationem. That’s the name of the document the Catholic Church’s Extraordinary Synod of the Bishops released Monday, one week into the Synod’s gathering to discuss the state of the family in the modern world. It translates, “Report After Debate,” and it was read aloud in the Synod hall to kick off the Synod’s second week. One of the report’s 58 sections—the one causing the biggest stir—is titled, “Welcoming homosexual persons.”

“Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community,” the passage begins. “Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?”

For a Church that has historically linked the word “homosexual” with the word “sin,” the idea of welcoming gays in any capacity can appear to be a significant move. Headlines immediately spoke of a “dramatic shift” and a “more tolerant” stance from the church.

But before rushing to conclusions, everyone, on all sides, should calm down.

First, here’s what the document actually is:

The relatio is a mid-Synod snapshot of 200+ Catholic leaders’ conversations that happened in the Synod hall last week. It is a starting point for conversations as the Synod fathers start small group discussions this week. It is a working text that identifies where bishops need to “deepen or clarify our understanding,” as Cardinal Luis Antonia Tagle put it in Monday’s press briefing. That means that the topic of gays and Catholic life came up in the Synod conversations so far and that it is a topic for continued reflection.

Second, here’s what the document is not:

The relatio is not a proscriptive text. It is not a decree. It is not doctrine, and certainly not a doctrinal shift. It is also not final. “These are not decisions that have been made nor simply points of view,” the document concludes. “The reflections put forward, the fruit of the Synodal dialogue that took place in great freedom and a spirit of reciprocal listening, are intended to raise questions and indicate perspectives that will have to be matured and made clearer by the reflection of the local Churches in the year that separates us from the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of bishops planned for October 2015.”

So, what does all of that mean? Cardinal Tagle perhaps said it best when he said at Monday’s press briefing, with a smile, “The drama continues.”

The relatio reaffirms at several points that marriage is between a man and a woman. Substance on that point is not changing. The Vatican has been repeatedly clear that this Synod will bring no changes to doctrine, or even a final document with new rites. To “welcome gays” does not mean the Church is no longer equating “gay” with “sin.”

Instead, tone—as it has always been with the Francis papacy—is what is on the table. The style that Pope Francis lives is one that starts with a spirit of embrace, of mercy, and not with sin. It begins with figuring out at what points embrace is possible before determining the points at which it is not. That may be one reason why people like top Vatican watcher John Thavis are calling this mid-synod report “an earthquake.”

But it is also important to remember that the Synod on the Family is almost a two-year-long process, and this snapshot is just that, a snapshot of one week in that process. There will be more such snapshot documents in the coming months. The conversation started earlier this year when bishops around the world surveyed their congregations about family life, it kicked off more formally last week with the gathering in Rome, next the bishops will take the conversations back to their communities, next summer there’s the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia (a traditionally conservative American diocese), and then finally next fall there will be the second Synod with even more bishops from around the world with even more discussion.

Looking for revolution can be misleading. It can mar the actual story of what is and what is not happening. Casual Vatican observers—especially those in the United States, where conversations about sexuality have a different trajectory than in the Vatican or in many developing countries—should be careful to not read into the conversation what they want to hear. The interest in a relatio, a relatively obscure document, does however point to another shift: people actually care about what a group of bishops is doing.

That itself, for many, may be a revolution.

Read next: Pope Francis Wouldn’t Have Wanted the Nobel Peace Prize

TIME Religion

Pope Francis Wouldn’t Have Wanted the Nobel Peace Prize

Pope Francis Attends His Weekly Audience at St Peters Square
Pope Francis waves to the faithful as he holds his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square on March 19, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. Franco Origlia—Getty Images

Accepting the honor would've been out of character for the Holy Father

Malala Yousafazi and Kailash Satyarthi were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize Friday morning. Pope Francis, a hotly-rumored choice for the honor, did not. And that’s almost certainly just how Pope Francis would want it to be.

Popes do not win the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s just not done. Not even Pope John Paul II was awarded the prize, even when it was widely rumored that he would be its recipient in 2003 for his opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

MORE: Pope Francis, 2013 TIME Person of the Year

Part of the current Holy Father’s global appeal is that he shies away from accolades. They do not fit with his mission, or the ethos of humility that he is trying to infuse into Holy See culture. This is a man who pays his own hotel bill the morning after being named the heir of Saint Peter, even though the Vatican owns his hotel anyway. He is a man who wears old shoes and simple robes, and who refuses to live in the Vatican’s apostolic palace. He has his eyes on a bigger prize, to quote words of the Apostle Paul, toward the upward call of God.

Friday, he again showed that characteristic humility. The announcement of Malala’s win came at 11 a.m. Rome time. Typically, every day this week at 11 a.m., Pope Francis has been finishing a coffee break with the bishops from around the world gathered for the Extraordinary Synod of the Bishops on the Family. (The gathering is the first major policy event of his papacy, and one he specifically called so that church leaders could discuss practical issues facing modern marriages and families.) But this morning, he quietly snuck out of the Synod hall a few minutes before the Nobel Prize committee announced the honoree. Whether it was his intent or not, that move made sure that he would not be in front of any cameras or an audience that might have applauded him if he had won.

Malala’s win also means that Mother Teresa, who won the prize in 1979, remains the most prominent Catholic in history to have received the honor. It is fitting for Pope Francis, by his absence, to continue the legacy of honoring women’s role in society—not only has he been working to bring attention to challenges of family life in the Middle East, but he also has shown sensitivity to women and to their leadership in Church life.

Plus, in what is one of history’s ironic twists—or some might say, providentially recurring themes—Mother Teresa opened her acceptance speech with a prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, the saint for whom Pope Francis chose to be named.

“Lord, make a channel of Thy peace,” the prayer begins, “that where there is hatred, I may bring love; that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness; that, where there is discord, I may bring harmony; that, where there is error, I may bring truth; that, where there is doubt, I may bring faith; that, where there is despair, I may bring hope; that, where there are shadows, I may bring light; that, where there is sadness, I may bring joy.”

For many, Pope Francis is doing just that, Nobel or not.

Dias reported from Vatican City

MONEY Charity

The Surprising Reason People Are Mobbing Church Pews

This Jan. 12, 2014 photo shows people gathered for mass inside Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Buffalo, N.Y., during a “Mass Mob.”
A "Mass Mob" in January packed the pews of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Buffalo, N.Y. Carolyn Thompson—AP

So-called "Mass Mobs" are flooding beautiful old Catholic churches in Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, and other cities to raise money and boost enthusiasm among the faithful.

The term “flash mob” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2004, defined as a group of people meeting in a public place to perform an “unusual or seemingly random act,” before heading off again on their merry way, in also random fashion. While the original inventor of the flash mob came up with the idea as a way to mock hipster conformity, the concept was nonetheless broadly adopted (of course!) by the trend-following masses. Within weeks of the first flash mob, there were copycat events all over the world.

Mobs have since popped up everywhere from Target stores to Manhattan’s Katz’s Deli (the latter for a group re-creation of the fake orgasm scene in “When Harry Met Sally”). The movement has also been coopted by Russian political operatives, who reportedly paid people to form a flash mob in support of Vladimir Putin; by corporate brands like Oscar Mayer, BMW, Arby’s, and IKEA, which are known to hire “random” flash mobs for marketing events; and even by hoodlums who conduct “flash robs,” in which a group of young people floods a store and grabs as much stuff as possible before running off without paying.

In the next evolution of the flash mob, the masses have turned their attention to, well, mass. Credit for the rise of the Mass Mob goes to a group in Buffalo, which organized its first event at Saint Adalbert Basilica last November and followed that up with a handful of flash mass (in both senses of the word) attendances at other churches in the city. At a Mass Mob in January, for instance, Buffalo’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church received a helping hand in the form of 300 parishioners, when a typical Sunday mass sees fewer than 100 churchgoers.

“Maybe it will inspire people to come a few times a year,” Christopher Byrd, one of Buffalo’s Mass Mob organizers, said of the group’s efforts. “And it gives the church a little one-day boost, attendance-wise and in the collection basket.”

The idea has proven inspirational in another way, with similar Mass Mob groups and events popping up in cities such as Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. A recent Mass Mob at Detroit’s St. Florian church, for instance, resulted in a crowd of 2,000 people for a mass that’s usually attended by about 200, and the collection basket topped $19,000, also roughly 10 times the norm.

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