Baptist take on spirituality

Don Whitney knows what happens when people hear that a Southern Baptist seminary is offering a doctor of philosophy degree in spirituality. "For many people, connecting 'Baptist' and 'spirituality' is like 'military' and 'intelligence.' They just can't picture those two words together," said Whitney, director of the new Center for Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

But for Baptists, he stressed, it's crucial to underline the word "biblical" in front "spirituality," in order to stress the center's ties to Protestant reformers who rejected what they believed were the errors of Rome.

When Whitney and his colleagues talk about spirituality, they emphasize images of the great Charles Spurgeon spending hours in Bible study before preaching, laypeople meditating on the symbolism in John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress" and missionaries weeping while praying for the lost. They do not focus on monks chanting ancient prayers day after day, night after night, generation after generation.

"Why should we go to people who have locked themselves behind a door for 50 years if we want to learn about true spirituality, when the Bible tells us to go out and be salt and light in the world? ... This is not to say that we shouldn't go outside our tradition in order to learn, but we are saying that it's important to go to our own guys, first," said Whitney.

"We believe that biblical, Evangelical spirituality has not been tried and found wanting. It simply has not been tried."

The potential impact of this project is great, if only because 20 percent of all students attending U.S. seminaries study on Southern Baptist campuses. The center opened in January and seminary leaders believe they can handle five students in the Ph.D. program and 10 in their doctor of ministry program. While graduate programs teaching spirituality exist in a few U.S. seminaries, this Ph.D. program is the first targeting scholars and clergy among evangelicals.

One of the first challenges the center will face is defining "spirituality," a word that means one thing on the Oprah Winfrey Show and something else altogether then it appears in textbooks describing traditions in various world religions. For modern Americans, the word is so vague that it's almost meaningless, said church historian Michael Haykin, who teaches in the Southern Seminary programs.

Nevertheless, the word has great power and its appeal must be understood by anyone who wants to understand contemporary American religion.

When most Americans hear "spirituality," said Haykin, they think of "all of those areas in their internal experiences in which they come into contact with things that transcend daily life. ... It's all incredibly nebulous. The key is that the whole ritual of institutionalized, formal religion has nothing to do with this, for most people today."

Thus, researchers keep running into increasing numbers of un-churched adults who identify themselves as "spiritual," but not "religious." These seekers are interested in "spirituality" that is connected to emotions and personal experiences, but not in formal "religion" that comes packaged with history, doctrines and rules.

Meanwhile, many Protestant believers are anxious to escape what they believe is the dry, formal, merely rational approach to worship and prayer that dominates mainstream churches. Some turn to charismatic or Pentecostal churches and some turn to the so-called "emerging churches" that try to weave some ancient Christian prayers and disciplines into their progressive, "postmodern" take on faith.

"What unites all these people is an emphasis on personal experience," said Haykin. "For all of them, 'religion' is a bad word, something they are trying to get away from."

The Southern Seminary programs, he added, will emphasize that Protestant pioneers such as John Calvin and Martin Luther were interested in early Christian spirituality, but rejected what they believed were newer Catholic traditions. Then again, students will also study the works of latter reformers, such as the Puritans, who stressed personal piety while criticizing what they saw as the formalized, ritualized traditions of the Presbyterians, Lutherans and others.

This cycle keeps repeating itself, generation after generation.

"We already have people accusing us of trying to smuggle a kind of Roman Catholic approach to faith into an evangelical seminary," said Haykin. "What we are saying is that the Protestant reformers were trying to get past the whole medieval Catholic world and reconnect with the ancient church and its approach to the spiritual life. That's what we are trying to do, too."

Memory eternal: Healer for the healers

Some of the seminarians in the Bible Belt chapel were shaken when Dr. Louis McBurney described -- in gentle, but clear terms -- the hurdles and pitfalls that awaited them in their first churches.

"I talked about ministers' problems and how, sometimes, professional counseling was what was needed," said the witty physician, whose counseling work was built on his evangelical faith, as well as psychiatric credentials from the Mayo Clinic. "When I was through, the seminary president strode to the microphone to deliver the benediction. He said, 'Lord, we're glad that you have called us to be your servants and that all we really need is Jeeee-sussss. Amen.'

"There is still a whole lot of resistance out there to ministers getting help."

McBurney shared that story in the mid-1980s, a decade after moving to Colorado with his wife, Melissa, to open a private and for years secret facility dedicated to helping ministers save their marriages and careers. I visited the Marble Retreat Center as a journalist, entering with the understanding that patients could remain anonymous and that I wouldn't publish its exact location. It was crucial, you see, for troubled clergy to be able to tell their flocks that they were spending two weeks taking a break in Colorado -- period.

The lodge, in those years, was packed with symbolic details, like the toy owl named "Sigmund." There was always a fire burning in the stone fireplace in the 12-by-15 foot den that patients simply called "the room upstairs," even on summer days. The flames consumed dozens of tear-soaked tissues during group-therapy sessions.

McBurney was a true pioneer, serving as a healer for men and women who -- as spiritual leaders -- struggled to find a haven in which they could face their own sins. The 70-year-old therapist died recently of complications from head injuries suffered in a household accident. He was semi-retired and his work continues at the lodge in the Crystal River Valley, which has worked with 3,600 patients in 36 years. Today, there are nearly 30 centers that do similar therapy for clergy, part of a national network ( that the McBurneys helped create.

"The world has changed and we can be thankful for that," said Dr. Steve Cappa, who now leads the center with his wife, Patti. "It's hard for us to explain the kind of religious stigma that surrounded discussions of mental illness when Louis and Melissa began their work, especially if you were talking about trying to help troubled ministers."

The challenges clergy face are easy to describe, yet hard to master.

* Lay leaders often judge a pastor's success by two statistics -- attendance and the annual budget. Yet powerful, rich members often make the strategic decisions. As a minister once told McBurney: "There's nothing wrong with my church that wouldn't be solved by a few well-placed funerals."

* Perfectionism often leads to isolation and workaholism, with many clergy working between 80 and 90 hours a week.

* Clergy families live in glass houses, facing constant scrutiny about personal issues that other parents and children can keep private.

* Ministers may spend up to half their office hours counseling, which can be risky since most ministers are men and most active church members are women. If a woman bares her soul, and her pastor responds by sharing his own personal pain, the result can be "as destructive and decisive as reaching for a zipper," McBurney said.

* While most clergy sincerely believe they are "called by God," they also know they are human and, thus, wrestle with their own fears and doubts. Many ministers have dreams in which they reach their pulpits and discover they are naked.

To be perfectly frank about it, said McBurney, it shouldn't be hard for traditional believers to understand that Satan tempts ministers in unique and powerful ways.

Yet, in the end, sin is sin and most ministers know it.

"Pastors are used to telling people about right and wrong," he said. "Knowing what to do is not their problem. They feel a special sense of guilt because they know what God wants them to do, but they can't do it. ...

"It's hard for ministers to confess their sins, because they're not supposed to sin. They also struggle to believe that God will forgive them, because they have so much trouble forgiving themselves."

Seminaries, celibacy and doctrine

When it comes to nightlife in Washington, D.C., Dupont Circle is one of the places where people go to be seen.

So Amy Welborn wasn't surprised to see familiar faces while visiting the hot spots with a friend in the late 1970s. It was easy to spot the Catholic University seminarians -- with their girlfriends -- even though the future priests were not wearing clerical garb.

"It was the spirit of the times," said Welborn, now a popular Catholic writer and online apologist. "Dating was pretty normal for seminarians and some seminaries did little to discourage it. Some actually encouraged dating because that was supposed to help seminarians get in touch with their sexuality. ...

"People thought celibacy would take care of itself and, of course, some people thought the whole celibacy thing would disappear at some point in the future."

Times change. One thing is certain as teams of Catholic examiners begin a wave of confidential "Apostolic Visitations" at the 229 U.S. seminaries. While rumors swirl about a Vatican crackdown on homosexuality, the insiders who examine seminary life will follow 12 pages of guidelines that repeated focus on preparing priests for life without sex.

The celibacy issue is hot, according to the "Instrumentum Laboris."

While the document -- as posted on the World Wide Web -- contains one or two clear references to homosexuality, there are a dozen or more direct or indirect references to mandatory celibacy and its role in the training, or "formation," of priests.

Can't ask. Can't tell.

If a Catholic child steals a candy bar, church doctrine calls this a small sin.

But if a priest embezzles a large amount of money, this act is much more serious -- a sin that severely corrupts and threatens the soul.

Both of these acts involve theft, but Catholicism does not believe they have equal weight. They do not have the same "parvity of matter," noted Father Donald Cozzens of John Carroll University, who once led a seminary in Ohio.

"It doesn't help to look that up in a dictionary," said Cozzens, whose recent books on the modern priesthood have generated both heat and light. "That's a theological term that describes the relative gravity of immoral thoughts, acts or behaviors. There are different levels of honesty and dishonesty. There are levels of language and cursing."

But when it comes to sex, there are no misdemeanors. Every "deliberate, willful sexual sin is, from the church's perspective, a felony -- a mortal sin," he said.

This may sound trivial, but it isn't for Catholics who worry about their church in an age of turmoil, tragedy and scandal. Cozzens is convinced that this basic question about the relative nature and consequences of sins must be discussed soon, before Vatican officials begin a long-awaited "apostolic visitation" of American seminaries.

Cozzens is known for asking questions that fray nerves on left and right. In the past five years he has described what he calls a thriving "gay subculture" in some seminaries. He noted that most cases of clergy sex abuse have involved "ephebophilia" with under-aged boys, not "pedophilia" with prepubescent children. He has detailed the impact of plunging Catholic birth rates -- below two children per family -- on parental attitudes about their children taking holy vows.

Now he is convinced that teachings about the "parvity of matter" are making it harder to tell the healthy seminarians from the dangerous ones. It is almost impossible to have candid conversations about sexuality, he said.

"This state of affairs is further complicated by the fact that, according to church teaching, no individual is to be compelled or asked to reveal the 'state of his or her soul,' " he wrote, in a recent Commonweal essay. "As a consequence, the candid dialogue needed to form mature celibates is hampered and the specter of sin hangs heavy in the air. In such a climate, behavioral signs that might indicate future difficulties are often masked or simply missed."

The logic is simple. If seminarians are struggling with sexual temptations, they know that these thoughts and emotions are just as sinful as the sexual acts, he said, in a follow-up interview. It doesn't matter if the temptations involve children, teens or adults. If seminarians raise these issues in confession, they know that their superiors cannot mention these struggles in a setting that would threaten their ordination.

The result is a cloak of secrecy that covers discussions of sex. Professors cannot ask and the seminarians do not have to tell -- in public.

Cozzens said he knows of cases in which "seminary faculty simple did not feel they could ask a seminarian, 'Have you even thought about sex with a child?' If they did that they would, in effect, be asking that man to betray his conscience in a setting that would kill any chance he had of being ordained."

It is crucial to emphasize, he said, that raising questions about this "parvity of matter" issue is not the same thing as suggesting changes in the church's core teachings about sex and marriage.

It is also possible to draw a line between this issue of sexual secrecy and related debates about mandatory celibacy and the ordination of homosexuals. Based on his work as a clergy vicar, Cozzens remains convinced that gay priests are no more likely to violate their celibacy vows than those who are straight.

But it is time for candid questions, he said.

"There are men who, quite frankly, are grateful for the current sexual climate in our seminaries," said Cozzens. "It makes their efforts to hide a piece of cake. ... If our teachings changed on sex and the 'parvity of matter,' there would be all kinds of questions asked that some seminarians do not want to answer -- at least not in front of others."

Symbols & Substance in Alabama

Susan Pace Hamill's colleagues on the law faculty at the University of Alabama were puzzled when she decided to spend her hard-earned sabbatical studying the Bible.

Why study Greek at Samford University's evangelical Beeson Divinity School? What was a tax-law specialist who had worked in New York City and Washington, D.C., supposed to do with a Masters in Theological Studies degree?

Hamill wasn't exactly sure herself, but she certainly wasn't trying to start a political crusade.

"If you divide the world into people who are on the side of money and people who are not, then I'm on the side of money," she said. "I'm a corporate lawyer. It's what I do."

Then she read an article about Alabama's income, property and sales tax laws that shook her faith as well as her legal convictions. One statistic cut deep: A family of four had to pay taxes if it earned $4,600 a year, a figure that was light years below the $17,601 poverty line.

Before long before she was writing statements such as this: "Alabamians are, or at least claim to be, a Christian people. ... However, in one glaring case Alabamians have strayed far from the direction that God's moral compass provides. When one examines the suffering and hardship Alabama's tax structure inflicts on the poorest and neediest among us, one cannot fail to see the enormous gap that exists between what God's moral values demand and what we have allowed our state to become."

The typical essay quoted 20-plus Bible verses per page, with special attention given to prodding ministers and wealthy Christians. Hamill added hard statistics and legal scholarship, seeking "10 witnesses and DNA" to build an ironclad case. The bottom line?

"Alabama's tax structure," she wrote, is the "sort of system condemned by the Old Testament Prophets and by Jesus as inconsistent with God's Word."

Hamill called her Beeson thesis "An Argument for Tax Relief Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics" and, after a burst of local news coverage, lots of people started reading it -- including Republican Gov. Bob Riley. This rock-ribbed Southern Baptist conservative proceeded to propose the biggest tax increase in state history, telling Alabamians that "we're supposed to love God, love each other and help take care of the poor."

The $1.2 billion tax package lost on Sept. 9 by a crushing 68 to 32 percent margin. Nevertheless, Hamill believes the cause might rise again. It would certainly help if certain media and political elites took off their ideological blinders.

She isn't the only person who thinks that. Gregg Easterbrook of the New Republic was appalled by the lack of support Riley's crusade received from the proud progressives in the national media. This is especially true in comparison with the oceans of digital ink spilled over a 2.5-ton granite monument in the Alabama Supreme Court rotunda.

Major newspapers and networks, he noted, swarmed over the Ten Commandments story, but ignored the tax-reform effort. It's fair to ask, "Why?"

"Why does the crackpot judge get 24-7 coverage," he asked, "when the noble governor gets almost none? Because the snarling judge and his intolerant followers show Christianity in a bad light; by granting them attention, the media make Christianity look bad. Gov. Riley's crusade to help the poor shows Christianity at its luminous best. Therefore the media ignore Riley."

Hamill isn't that harsh. But she agrees that a symbolic chunk of granite received more than its share of coverage, especially in contrast to the substance of the tax-reform plan, which would have affected paychecks, schools, businesses and grocery bags.

The ultimate question, she concluded, is whether citizens honor the content of the Ten Commandments and the civic principles that flow out of them. That's a big story, too.

"The plan failed," she said. "Does that mean the moral message failed? I hope not. I hope and pray that the movement down here is just getting started. Sometimes grassroots movements take time.

Plagiarism and the pulpit

One thing great preachers enjoy about traveling is that they can hear other people preach. But the American orator A.J. Gordon received a shock during an 1876 visit to England. Sitting anonymously in a church, he realized that the sermon sounded extremely familiar -- because he wrote it.

"The man in the pulpit was reading it verbatim without saying a word about the source. After the service, Gordon introduced himself and we can just imagine the pastor's reaction," said the Rev. Scott Gibson, director of the Center for Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary outside Boston.

Perhaps the pastor read one of Gordon's books or found the sermon in a journal. He might have lifted it from a major newspaper, because it was common in those days for sermons to be published in Monday editions.

But the preacher never thought the author would cross the Atlantic and land in one of his own pews, said Gibson, who is studying the history of plagiarism in preaching. It has always been hard for an offender to believe that a church member has read the telltale source or that a visitor with an excellent memory happened to be sitting in the right place at the wrong time.

"This is not a new problem," said Gibson. "Some people think the World Wide Web came along and suddenly you had thousands of pastors copying other people's sermons with a few clicks of a mouse. But there has always been a lot of laziness out there.

"Preachers get busy and they run out of time and then they just plain steal."

The temptations are timeless, but the Internet has raised waves of new ethical questions.

In his study, Gibson defines "plagiarism" as preaching someone else's sermon research or content without giving public credit for it. But is it plagiarism to use an outline or text the pastor has legally obtained -- even purchased -- from one of the thousands of preaching sites that have sprung up online? Is it acceptable to use a respected site such as without telling the congregation? What about quoting from the anonymous inspirational stories that arrive daily in everypastor's email? Is it wrong if a megachurch pastor has support staff members who do "ghost" work as researchers and writers? Does a preacher have to reveal each and every source of inspiration?

"It's hard to footnote sermons," said the Rev. Haddon Robinson, an internationally known teacher of preaching in Dallas and Denver before arriving at Gordon-Conwell. "There's no way to make people in the pews understand all of the sources you are using, especially if they're highly academic sources. I don't think anyone expects preachers to stand up there and quote all of their reference books and commentaries by name."

But all preachers read and hear stories and insights that they want to share with their flocks. It makes a sermon more colorful to feature a quotation by an author " who simply says something better than you can," said Robinson. Attributing direct quotes also adds authority, especially when quoting figures such as Martin Luther, C.S. Lewis or Billy Graham.

This is safe territory.

The danger is when pastors appropriate entire outlines or sermon texts and claim them as their own. Perhaps the strongest temptation is to personalize anecdotes that happened to other people. But it only takes seconds, noted Gibson, for a preacher to cite the source of a story or to say something like, "I heard a great sermon on this biblical text by pastor so and so and I want to share some of his insights with you." Some pastors add additional references in the Sunday bulletin or in study pages on the church website.

It's easy for preachers to play it straight, said Gibson. The question is whether many congregations have become so mesmerized that they will overlook plagiarism.

"Some people get so caught up in the experience of hearing that great preacher," he said. "It's not so much the content. It's his persona. It may not matter to them that he is using someone else's sermons. What you hear people say is, 'He's our preacher and it doesn't matter what he's doing. Let's move on.' "Some churches today just don't care."

Degrading the Catholic bishops

Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings rarely cover religious rites, but they would certainly show up if Rome decided to use Pope Benedict XIV's "Degradatio ab ordine pontificali."

This 1862 rite for the "Degradation of a bishop" is not for the liturgically faint of heart. In it, a bishop who had committed disgraceful acts was stripped of the symbols of his office -- mitre, crosier and ring. The prelate leading the rite would say: "Rightly do we pull off thy ring, the sign of fidelity, since thou has made bold to rape God's own bride, the Church."

Try to imagine that on Nightline.

When reclaiming the book of the Gospels, the prelate would exclaim: "Give us back the Gospel! Since thou has spurned the grace of God and made thyself unworthy of the office of preaching, we rightly deprive you of this office."

Finally, someone would take a knife or "a shard of glass" and lightly scrape the thumbs, fingers and forehead of the disgraced bishop, or someone standing in for him. The goal was to remove to "the extent of our powers" the anointing of his holy office.

"It's like playing a film of an ordination rite, only backwards," noted a conservative Jesuit scholar who, in an act of ecclesiastical self-preservation, always uses a nom de plume. He published his translation of this obscure text in Catholic World Report's anonymous "Diogenes" column.

"To use our modern jargon, this rite would have been a 'teaching moment.' The point would have been to act out what it means to be a bishop and what it means for a bishop to fall."

No one would dare use such a rite today. These days, bishops slip away quietly. Some hold press conferences, which offer a more modern approach to shame.

So far, a dozen Catholic bishops -- in America and around the world -- have resigned during the current wave of sexual-abuse scandals. Bishops have resigned for health reasons, legal reasons, psychological reasons and, sometimes, to move to a less public form of ministry. What is missing is any sense that these resignations have spiritual significance.

What Catholics need right now is a strong dose of liturgical catharsis, according to this Jesuit "Diogenes."

"There are souls at stake. There are spiritual consequences to what is going on," the priest said. "What many faithful Catholics have been saying is that too many bishops have failed to keep the promises that they made to God and to his church. It's not a just matter of making bad management decisions. It's a matter of defending the faith."

The bishops are the key. During their Dallas media blitz they approved a "zero tolerance" policy for priests and deacons guilty of sexual abuse of minors. This was a crucial step, since about 2 percent of U.S. priests have been accused of sexual misconduct. But a stunning Dallas Morning News investigation has shown that 60 percent or more of U.S. bishops have been accused of failing to stop sexual abuse or covering up past crimes. On this, the new "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" is silent.

The bishops also avoided debate to clarify how this charter will affect the overwhelming number of cases -- some say it's as high as 96 percent -- that involve the homosexual abuse of adolescent males. An attempt to discuss the impact of doctrinal dissent in seminaries was greeted with silence. Both of these explosive issues had been emphasized in an April document signed by U.S. cardinals after they met with Pope John Paul II.

The bishops approved a "zero tolerance" policy that will have an immediate impact on their priests. The question is whether a "zero tolerance" policy will be created for bishops.

This appears unlikely. If there are going to be any rites for the "Degradation of a bishop," they will almost certainly have to be held in secular courts.

"Would it be a 'zero tolerance' offense if a bishop lied to a judge or a grand jury? Yes, I think it would be," said Robert Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. "Yes, I think we could see some bishops in jail."

It's the doctrine, stupid

Rome would not issue a bishop a red hat and send him to New York City unless he had demonstrated at least some ability to stay cool in a media firestorm.

So reporters in Rome must have been baffled last week when Cardinal Edward Egan uttered this twisted response when asked about his views on gays in the priesthood.

"I would like to say this," the cardinal told the New York Times. "The most important thing is to clean up the truth. And the truth is that I have never said anything."

Yes, most U.S. bishops are saying as little as possible right now, especially about the issue that dares not speak its name. One reason the cardinal of New York was so flustered was that the dean of his own cathedral, the Rev. Msgr. Eugene Clark, had just preached a sermon that echoed in newsrooms as well as in pews. Clark said the Catholic hierarchy has been sinfully silent on homosexuality, in part because it feared being accused of fanning the flames of prejudice.

"When it was said that homosexuality was fixed at birth (which is not true), and therein required civil rights protection, many bishops and others hesitated to criticize homosexual demands for moral acceptance," said his printed text. "Some priests drifted into homosexual circles, then into homosexual license and then into man-boy relationships. ...

"The failure of church authorities to approach the subject as a problem gave these delinquent priests a freedom they should not have had."

A few parishioners stormed out of St. Patrick's Cathedral, while others applauded.

What was lost in the furor was that this sermon was not primarily about homosexuality. Clark didn't just attack homosexuality. He attacked the whole sexual revolution, with a special emphasis on its impact in Catholic higher education -- especially in seminaries.

But this crisis is not just about sex. It's about doctrine. Specifically, Clark said the current scandals are rooted in a fad in moral theology called "Proportionalism." The Vatican condemned this theory in the 1980s, yet it remains popular, he said.

"Simply, it said that while abortion, fornication, adultery, divorce, remarriage and contraception all remained sins, they could be permitted" if someone had a serious enough reason -- a "proportionate reason" for committing the acts, he said. "It severely damaged moral sexual life among vast numbers of college students and young married Catholics. While most priests and seminarians saw the obvious flaws in Proportionalism, it is now clear that some did not."

Some priests, said Clark, decided that their emotional and psychological needs were so great that they had just cause to break their vows and seek sexual release. After all, weren't the experts -- Catholic and secular -- saying that celibacy was an out-of-date concept, one that might even be unhealthy?

"A priest who believed this," said Clark, "could see it as a proportionate reason to put aside sexual abstinence."

This would lead many priests - gay or straight - to remain silent about church teachings on sex and marriage. This would lead some priests to argue that "celibacy" may not always be the same thing as "chastity."

This would surround the church's clerical structures in a fog of secrecy and stall reform.

Thus, Pope John Paul II told the U.S. cardinals that the current crisis is not just about priests with sex problems. It's about children, parents, marriages, homes and a warped culture. It's about doctrine. The church must deal with its own problems, so it can get back to healing souls

To do that, it will need bishops and priests who will answer tough questions.

"People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood ... for those who would harm the young," said the pope. "They must know that bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality, a truth as essential to the renewal of the priesthood and the episcopate as it is to the renewal of marriage and family life.

"We must be confident that this time of trial will bring a purification of the entire Catholic community, a purification that is urgently needed. ... So much pain, so much sorrow must lead to a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate and a holier church."