Is this pope Catholic? The debate heats up

With Catholic leaders still sweating after the Extraordinary Synod on the Family firestorm, Pope Francis has once again tried to cool things down -- by publicly affirming core church doctrines.

The question, however, was whether Catholics could balance edgy front-page headlines about sex, divorce, cohabitation, homosexuality and modern families with the pontiff's orthodox sermons, which have received very little ink in the mainstream press.

"We know that today marriage and the family are in crisis," said Pope Francis, opening this week's Vatican conference on "The Complimentarity of Man and Woman in Marriage." It drew 300 leaders from a many world religions, including Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and several branches of Christianity.

Rather than yielding to the "culture of the temporary," the pope said, it's time to stress that "children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother. ... Do not fall into the trap of being swayed by political notion. Family is an anthropological fact -- a socially and culturally related fact. We cannot qualify it based on ideological notions or concepts important only at one time in history. We can't think of conservative or progressive notions."

Two clashing Orthodox takes on doctrine -- past and future

When two global religious leaders embrace one another, someone is sure to turn the encounter into a photo opportunity. 

The photo-op on Nov. 7 was symbolic and for many historic. The elder statesman was the Rev. Billy Graham and, rather than an evangelical superstar, the man who met with him at his North Carolina mountain home was Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev. This visit was linked to a Hilarion address to a gathering of Protestant and Orthodox leaders in Charlotte, organized by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. 

After generations of work organizations such as the Episcopal Church and the World Council of Churches, the archbishop said many Orthodox leaders now realize that -- on issues of sex, marriage, family life and moral theology -- some of their ecumenical partners will be found in evangelical pulpits and pews. 

"In today's pluralistic world, the processes of liberalization have swept over some Christian communities. Many churches have diverted from biblical teaching ... even if this attitude is not endorsed by the majority of these communities' members," said Hilarion, who is the Moscow Patriarchate's chief ecumenical officer. 
 

Foggy faith in 'mushy middle' of American religion scene

Crack open a traditional hymnal and most American Protestants will be able to belt out the classic hymn, "Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!"

The last verse states: "Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! All thy works shall praise thy name, in earth and sky and sea. Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty, God in three persons, blessed Trinity."

Also, most practicing Catholics will be familiar with these Catechism lines: "The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. ... The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the 'consubstantial Trinity'."

The language is mysterious and ancient. Yet according to a new survey probing what Americans believe on crucial theological issues, a majority of those polled -- 71 percent -- believe in the Trinity.

But what about that whole "God in three persons" thing? Not so much.

Three questions, three fault lines in American pews and puplits

If the goal is to map the evolving landscape of American religion, the late George Gallup, Jr., once told me, it was crucial to keep asking two kinds of questions.

The kind attempted to document things that never seemed to change or that were changing very, very slowly. Thus, Gallup urged his team to keep using old questions his father and others in the family business began asking in the 1940s and '50s, such as how often people attended worship services, how often they prayed and whether they believed in God.

The second kind of question, he said, tested whether these alleged beliefs and practices affected daily life.

"We revere the Bible, but don't read it," he warned, in one 1990 address. "We believe the Ten Commandments to be valid rules for living, although we can't name them.

"We believe in God, but this God is a totally affirming one, not a demanding one. He does not command our total allegiance. We have other gods before him."

About that time, I shared a set of three questions with Gallup that I had begun asking, after our previous discussions. The key, he affirmed, was that these were doctrinal, not political, questions. My journalistic goal was to probe doctrinal changes that revealed fault lines in churches. The questions:

Pope Francis sends warning to Catholic camps on left and right

After the media firestorm surrounding the recent Synod of Bishops on family issues -- with reports about plans to modernize doctrines on homosexuality, divorce and other sexy issues -- Catholic activists are bracing for the sequels.

Mark these dates. First there will be the "Year of the Family" preceding a "World Meeting of Families" next Sept. 22-25 in Philadelphia. The three-week Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family will follow that.

That pivotal synod at the Vatican opens on Oct. 4, 2015, and faces the tough task of issuing pastoral guidelines in response to the heated debates at this year's synod.

The world will be watching that Sunday as the pope preaches in the opening Mass. That sermon will be a challenge, since the official lectionary has already established Mark 10: 2-16 as the day's Gospel.

Two voices on opposite sides of the ultimate cancer issues

As millions of people now know, Brittany Maynard's husband Dan Diaz will celebrate his birthday on Oct. 26. They will gather with friends and family and then, days later, the 29-year-old Maynard plans to take the prescription drugs that will end her life.

The couple cleared legal, professional and financial hurdles to move from California to Oregon, where she is eligible for physician-assisted suicide. The clock was ticking -- due to a malignant brain tumor -- toward a "nightmare" she did not want her loved ones to have to endure with her.

As a spokesperson for Compassion and Choices, which evolved out of the old Hemlock Society, she shared the details of her diagnosis and choice at TheBrittanyFund.org and then through major media.

"Now that I've had the prescription filled and it's in my possession, I have experienced a tremendous sense of relief. ... It has given me a sense of peace during a tumultuous time that otherwise would be dominated by fear, uncertainty and pain," she wrote, in a CNN.com essay.

"Now, I'm able to move forward in my remaining days or weeks I have on this beautiful Earth, to seek joy and love and to spend time traveling to outdoor wonders of nature. ... When my suffering becomes too great, I can say to all those I love, 'I love you; come be by my side, and come say goodbye as I pass into whatever's next.' "

Too strong for television: Tragic stories from the vicar of Baghdad

The 5-year-old boy was named Andrew, to honor the British priest who baptized him at St. George's Anglican Church in Baghdad.

 When Islamic State forces moved into Qaraqosh, the boy's parents faced an agonizing choice that has become all too common in the ancient Christian towns of the Nineveh Plain. The choice: Convert to Islam or suffer the consequences. 

Andrew was cut in half, his parents said, while they were forced to watch.

 The traumatized parents were later reunited with Canon Andrew White, long known as the "vicar of Baghdad." This is one of many stories he has been sharing with journalists -- for years he acted as special envoy for the Archbishop of Canterbury -- in an attempt to raise awareness of the hellish details behind the now-familiar television images.

 A recent trip to Washington, D.C., brought him to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, a setting that raised agonizing questions about the massacres carried out by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria -- which has claimed the power to establish a new Islamic caliphate in the region.

A (liberal) church-growth strategy to save the Episcopal Church

Once upon a time, the Anglican bishops at the global Lambeth Conference boldly declared the 1990s the "Decade of Evangelism." 

 This effort was supposed to spur church growth and it did, in the already booming Anglican churches of Africa, Asia and across the "Global South." But in the lovely, historic sanctuaries of England and North America? Not so much.

 "There was some lip service given to evangelism at that time," said Ted Mollegen, a businessman with decades of national Episcopal Church leadership experience. Membership totals continued to spiral down and the Decade of Evangelism "basically faded away without much success ... because of a lack of effort and institutional commitment."

 The Episcopal Church then created a "20/20 Vision" task force committed to doubling baptized membership by 2020. The goal was a renewed evangelism emphasis, along with programs for spiritual development, emerging leaders, church planting and improved work with children, teens and college students. Mollegen was the task force's secretary and a founding member of the Episcopal Network for Evangelism.

Episcopalians, however, promptly entered yet another period of doctrinal warfare and schism, symbolized by the departure of many large evangelical parishes following the 2003 election of a noncelibate gay priest as bishop of New Hampshire. Mollegen served on the national church's executive council from 2003-2009.

Technology shapes content: High Holidays with the online flock

The idea was really simple, in terms of technology: Since many Jews could not attend High Holiday rites, why not put microphones in key locations and let them listen on their telephones? 

It wasn't as good as being there, but -- for shut-ins -- it was better than nothing.

Decades later, some Jewish leaders mounted cameras in their packed sanctuaries and let people watch High Holidays rites on video. Again, it wasn't the same as being there, but it was better than nothing and, certainly, better than listening on a telephone.

Jewish leaders who tiptoed into these technologies "didn't change what they were doing, they just put a telephone near it," said Rabbi Robert Barr, founder of Congregation Beth Adam, a 30-year-old independent congregation in Cincinnati, Ohio. "When cameras came along, they just aimed cameras at what they were already doing. They didn't change anything."

That isn't what this self-proclaimed "humanistic" congregation is trying to do with it's global OurJewishCommunity.org congregation, which began with High Holidays services in 2008 and has been meeting in cyberspace ever since.