Stephen Colbert: Was Jesus Just Selfish?

“If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.” – Stephen Colbert, Catholic comedian and social satirist

Read more about Stephen Colbert’s Catholicism.

In the Wake of Japan Disaster, Must We Accept Nuclear Power?

The U.S. Navy reported today that it had detected low levels of airborne radiation at the Yokosuka and Atsugi bases, about 200 miles to the north of the Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactors. They are moving ships out of range.

“While there was no danger to the public, Commander, Naval Forces Japan recommended limited precautionary measures for personnel and their families on Fleet Activities Yokosuka and Naval Air Facility Atsugi, including limiting outdoor activities and securing external ventilation systems as much as practical,” a statement said. “These measures are strictly precautionary in nature. We do not expect that any United States Federal radiation exposure limits will be exceeded even if no precautionary measures are taken,” it added.

News reports, scientists, nuclear energy corporate officials, and government spokespersons are reiterating that the nuclear reactor meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, is not like Chernobyl. It’s more like Three Mile Island. Apparently, this is supposed to allay public concern.

For anyone who lived down-wind of the Three Mile Island reactor when the radioactive core was breached on March 28, 1979, this news is anything but comforting. (Read “In the Valley of the Shadow: Ten Years after the Accident at Three Mile Island” by Joyce Hollyday.)

The arguments made by the nuclear industry today are that huge improvements have been made in the safety and efficiency of nuclear energy production — much of which is true. But the nuclear corporations still have no answer to radioactive waste or the multi-generational devastation to all living creatures when the unforeseeable occurs — as has happened in Japan.

Below, Sojourners reprints a commentary by Vince Books written at the time of the Three Mile Island disaster. Vince actually worked on the construction crew of the plant and eventually became a committed advocate against nuclear power:

The Metropolitan Edison Company (Met-Ed) is proud. Proud of progress on that island. Proud to be helping to solve America’s energy problems. And proud to be splitting atoms, heating water, forcing steam, turning generators, and producing electricity. It is, however, Met-Ed’s other contributions that will long be remembered. These include iodine 131, cesium 137, strontium 90, and plutonium, to be followed perhaps by an assortment of cancers and birth defects. Met-Ed is leaving more than footprints on the sands of time.

The residents of central Pennsylvania are sleeping. Or at least they were when something went terribly wrong out there on Three Mile Island. It was 4 a.m. March 28, 1979. There was a mal-function in the secondary cooling system of Unit 2. More malfunctions followed, and the trouble was compounded by what appeared to be human error. Inside the four-foot thick concrete walls of the containment building the Unit 2 reactor was heating up and beginning to destroy its fuel. A plume of radioactive gas was released. The wind was blowing north. Continue reading “In the Wake of Japan Disaster, Must We Accept Nuclear Power?”

Joan Chittister: Sin and ‘The Good Life’

Sr. Joan's recent lecture in Boston was cut short due to a false fire alarm.
I like Joan Chittister’s understanding of “the good life” and the wages of sin. Personal piety is important because it keeps us grounded in God. But we are grounded in God only so we can spread the good news to the world in which we live. Spreading that “good news” means consorting with those who society deems as “sinners.”

In American society, it is socially unacceptable to be poor. To be poor calls into question the great American “bootstrap myths” and the myth that market capitalism can advance humanity, and that myth that a system of American democracy that allows for an unfettered market will create a stable economy. What’s “good news for the poor” in this context is, indeed, revolutionary.

When Pope John XXIII talked about “the signs of the times,”–poverty, nuclearism, sexism–I began to read these new signs with a new conscience and with a new sense of religious life in mind. Most of all, I began to read the scriptures through another lens. Who was this Jesus who “consorted with sinners” and cured on the Sabbath? Most of all, who was I who purported to be following him while police dogs snarled at black children and I made sure not to be late for prayer or leave my monastery after dark? What was “the prophetic dimension” of the Church supposed to be about if not the concerns of the prophets–the widows, the orphans, the foreigners and the broken, vulnerable, of every society?

We prayed the psalms five times a day for years, but I had failed to hear them. What I heard in those early years of religious life was the need to pray. I forgot to hear what I was praying. Then, one day I realized just how secular the psalmist was in comparison to the religious standards in which I had been raised: “You, O God, do see trouble and grief…. You are the helper of the weak,” the psalmist argues (Psalm 104). No talk of fuzzy, warm religion here. This was life raw and hard. This was what God called to account. This was sin.

When the Latin American bishops talked about a “fundamental option for the poor,” I began to see the poor in our inner-city neighborhood for the first time. When Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. finally stood up in Birmingham, Alabama, I stood up, too. I was ready now. Like the blind man of Mark’s gospel, I could finally see. The old question had been answered. The sin to be repented, amended, eradicated was the great systemic sin against God’s little ones. For that kind of sin, in my silence, I had become deeply guilty.

I had new questions then but they were far more energizing than the ones before them. I began to look more closely at what “living a good life” could possibly mean in a world that was so full of suffering, so full of greed.

I began to realize that “a good life” had something do with making life good for other people. Slowly, slowly I began to arrive at the oldest Catholic truth of them all: all of life is good and that sanctity does not consist in denying that. Sanctity consists in making life good for everyone whose life we touch.–Joan Chittister, OSB

From Joan Chittister: In My Own Words, edited by Mary Lou Kownacki

Photos from South Sudan: Celebrating a New Country

In a remarkable move at the close of a Sudan’s national referendum on secession, Salva Kiir, the political leader of Southern Sudan, called on his people – from inside a Catholic Church no less – to forgive the national government of Sudan for its decades of violence again Southerners. “May we, like Jesus Christ on the cross, forgive those who have forcefully caused their deaths,” Kiir reportedly said.

David Berrian with the international Nonviolent Peaceforce put together a great slide show celebrating the elections in Sudan.

South Sudan Votes from David Berrian on Vimeo.

The oil-producing south, now called South Sudan, seceded after 99 percent of the people voted for independence in hopes of ending the bitter cycle of civil war, as well as the horrendous genocide in Darfur. Read more about Sudan’s election here.

Why It Makes Jesus Cry When UnitedHealthcare Screws People

By Rose Berger and Heidi Thompson

This week UnitedHealthcare told a young stroke victim that her health insurance with them does not include the rehabilitation necessary for her to walk, eat, or speak again.

This “hip, young, vibrant and beautiful woman,” as her sister described her to us, entered the hospital in December. After more than a month in recovery from a highly unusual massive cerebral stroke, her sister said that UnitedHealthcare has now “pulled the plug on her rehab and is sending her home with me.”

The victim’s sister, who prefers to remain anonymous, does not live in the same state; nor is she equipped to provide the care needed. “My sister cannot walk, stand, wash, toilet herself, count or read, and speaks only garbled phrases.” The hospital insists that it will discharge her, or start to bill her sister daily, even though she has told them repeatedly that her “only current option is to take her to a handicapped-accessible motel room.”

When insurance representatives were questioned on the wisdom – or basic human decency – of sending her incapacitated sister home with her to a motel, she was told “this is a ‘social problem’ not a ‘medical problem’ and thus, the insurer has no duty to continue rehab.”

Whoa, United Healthcare! You think that’s a “social problem”?

Denial of coverage for this young American woman who worked for and earned her health coverage is not a social problem.  It’s a “criminal problem.” It’s called stealing from the sick to feed the greed of the rich. Sadly, this is not an isolated case. In 2009, UnitedHealthcare in New York was investigated and found seriously wanting. Rather than go to court, UHC coughed up$350 million to settle the class-action suit. In 2007, UHC agreed to pay the largest settlement in the Nebraska Dept. of Insurance’s history when UHC was found to have violated 18 Nebraska laws more than 800 times in a one-year period. My conclusion is that UHC has a “criminal problem.” But we’ll let the lawyers and courts sort that one out.

However, we can tell you what definitely is a social problem: the fact that across America today there are thousands of people who have insurance, yet are denied care.

Another social problem is that our elected officials appear impotent in the face of health insurance companies’ power and swagger. While we are glad for the tiny baby steps forward with the health care reform legislation that we Americans achieved last year, this sad story shows how far we have yet to go.

For-profit health insurance companies, no matter what reforms or regulations we put in place, are not the answer. By their very definition, health insurance companies profit by denying sick people medical care.

That’s the way insurance works. You pay the insurer, betting that at some point you will get sick and you will need care. The insurer takes your money but doesn’t take care of you when you do get sick, at least if the insurer is UnitedHealthcare. As health care advocate Donna Smith said in a recent column, “Americans know that health insurance is not health care.” In this case, UnitedHealthcare has once again made the point.

“Writing a check to Blue Cross or Humana or Aetna or Cigna or UnitedHealthcare,” says Smith, “is not any guarantee at all of anything except that we’ve sent money to an insurance company. That’s it. Armies of administrative people make sure they guard the gates to the actual delivery of health care. The generals who make sure those administrative soldiers hold the line are far behind the scenes in white coats and locked offices to make sure no insurgent patients without payment in place actually get near them. In the health care delivery world, the disconnect between those who would give us care and those of us who need it is systemic and growing worse.”

But back to our original point. Why does this make Jesus cry? Unquestionably one of Jesus’ hallmark characteristics was his concern for and ministry with the sick. From healing the lepers and the woman with an issue of blood to healing Jairus’ daughter and the Roman soldier, Jesus publically called to account the levitical “health care” system of his time.

The religious purity laws of the day — what we might call “pre-existing conditions” — created “a system of social boundaries,” writes biblical scholar Richard Ascough, which served “to remove socioeconomically burdensome populations, and especially the chronically ill, from society.” What the system said was just not possible to heal, Jesus showed was very possible with few resources and a little compassion. It wasn’t that the system didn’t have the ability or finances to heal the sick; it was that the system didn’t care.

“I am enraged, bewildered, and powerless to take on the U.S. health ‘care’ system,” this young woman’s sister told us. She has left phone messages with her UHC “inpatient Care Manager” faxed letters requesting a written explanation for why coverage has been denied. To date, she has not heard back. “I want people to know what it means in basic human terms to watch a loved one sent home when medical help might give her back some minimum quality of life.”

Somewhere tonight we’re sure a UnitedHealthcare insurance representative is praying for forgiveness for what he or she has done to this young woman who is sick and needs support. We’re equally sure that Jesus will offer that forgiveness — but not without shedding a tear.

Christian Pacifism: It’s A Bible Thing.

Jim Foxvog from Plow Creek Mennonite Church in Bureau County, Illinois, has a great page set up on the biblical basis for Christian pacifism. This is an excellent source of scripture quotes for forming one’s conscience on the issue of pacifism and faith.

Plow Creek Mennonite (mission statement: “A global village practicing the peace of Jesus”) is a great Christian community providing a powerful spiritual witness in middle America. Stop by and visit if you are ever in rural Tiskilwa, Illinois.

“What would Jesus do? [WWJD] ” Christians rightly ask. Jesus was perfectly capable of self defense.  He chose not to defend himself, to let his enemies kill him and even asked that his murderers be forgiven.  We are to follow in his ways.  There’s a great bumper sticker: “Whom would Jesus bomb?” [WWJB]  We are specifically called to follow Jesus example of suffering love and non-retaliation (1 Peter 2:21). Jesus died for the life his enemies (Rom 5:8,10).  Jesus gave this as the specific reason to love our enemies, “so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:45 ) — to be like him! Jesus was questioned about the death penalty.  God specifically commanded it in the Old Testament.  Jesus did not say it was undeserved.  His answer: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone” (John 8.7).  Does not the same reasoning apply to a nation seeking to “punish” another “evil nation”?

God will take care of us and is fully capable of handling those who do evil. We should not fear people, even those who could kill us (Matt 10:28).  This is the basic truth, not some sweet cliché. We are conquerors in all things by being in Jesus — nothing can separate us from the love of God (Rom 8:37-39).

It is a deeply held popular belief that the only way to stop evil is with by violent force.  This is the theme of most adventure stories of all genres, of comic books and TV shows and movies.  If we trust violence more than we trust God, this is idolatry. God’s truth is that our real enemies are spiritual (Ephesians 6:12) and are to be opposed by spiritual means (2 Cor 10:4). Our culture teaches us to oppose evil with violent force. But God, who created the universe,  shows us that the world is not founded on violence, but is built and designed differently.  Love is what works because that is how the totality of all that is was designed.–Jim Foxvog (Biblical Pacifism: Christian Pacifism is Scriptural Position)

Christian Support for Repealing DADT Is a Double-Edged Sword

Most Americans – including Christians – now support equal rights for gays and lesbians serving in the US military.

A new poll by the Pew Research Center indicates that 58 percent of Americans support equal rights for gays and lesbians in the armed forces. Large majorities of Democrats (70%) and independents (62%) favor allowing gays to serve openly. Republicans are divided (40% favor, 44% oppose).

But let’s look at the religious breakdown too:
62 percent of white mainline Protestants support equal rights for gays in the military
52 percent of black Protestants support equal rights
66 percent of Catholics favor allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly

Let me be clear, I’m very glad to have Christians moving toward a strong stance in support of equal rights for gays and lesbians in all sectors of society. This is a positive step forward for the society at large and Christians should be part of it.

The Pentagon report released yesterday finds significant support for repealing DADT among the the younger “blue collar warriors,” while a vocal minority of top brass will be uncomfortable with the shift. And don’t get me wrong, I want the churches to continue to support fair and equal treatment for gays and lesbians.

However, there are other sticky questions I want to raise.

Are the Christians that want a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell also supporting gays and lesbians within their own churches? Do they advocate for LGBT justice and liberation? Do they invest in and promote gay and lesbian leadership and open their congregations to new, liberating ways of reading scripture in the context of the LGBT life experience?

Secondly, are the Christians that want a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell also calling into question military service in a era when the U.S. has the second largest standing army in the world (behind China) and has troops stationed on all 6 inhabited continents?

I can support equal rights for gays in the military – but there’s the bigger question: As a Christian should I be supporting military participation at all? And how do Christians critique the prevailing “Empire consciousness” and offer instead our “prophetic imagination” or “alternative consciousness,” as theologian Walter Brueggemann calls it, on issues of war and peace?

If Christians are supporting the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, then are they also advocating strong teaching in their churches on the Christian pacifist tradition or the rigorous moral “just war” process that any Christian – gay or straight – must go through before participating in any given war?

When Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God,” what does he mean? Or when he says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you”? Or “To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic”?

Early generations of Christians refused to participate in war (though those who did were counseled and sometimes asked not to seek communion for a period of time, but were not cut off from community). Soldiers who subsequently converted to Christianity often left military service, viewing it as incompatible with their new life.

Why? Largely because of idolatry. Military service forced them to put the gods of nationalism ahead of the God of Jesus Christ. Military service also fostered hatred for an enemy, an attitude viewed as antithetical to Christ’s teachings. “Love of enemies is the principal precept of the Christian,” said the Tunisian theologian Tertullian in the first century. Until the time of Constantine no Christian writing allowed for Christians to participate in war. Military valor was not a virtue. True victory was won through love.

In a democracy that enshrines civil rights and “justice for all,” it is right and good for Americans to support the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and promote LGBT civil rights in the society at large.

Christians, however, have another set of values to examine. For traditionalists it may be whether you can be gay and Christian. For progressives, it’s whether you can be Christian and ‘Army Strong.’

Rose Marie Berger, author of Who Killed Donte Manning?, is a Catholic peace activist and regular writer on faith and justice.

“Thou Shalt Not Live for Punishment or Reward”

Isa ibn Maryam

“Love God and do what you will,” John of the Cross wrote. It’s only when I got old enough, experienced enough and wise enough in the ways of mystics that I knew what John really meant. It’s not what we do that makes us holy. It’s what we love that makes the difference between being simply a spiritual virtuoso and being a saint.

The Sufi understood the paradox very well. They tell a story about Isa ibn Maryam: Jesus, Son of Mary. One day Isa saw a group of people sitting miserably on a wall, moaning out loud and full of fear. “What is your affliction?” he asked. “It is our fear of hell,” the people complained.

Then Isa came upon a second group. They were emaciated and wan and full of anxiety. “What is your affliction?” Isa asked them. “Desire for Paradise has made us like this,” the people cried.

Finally, Isa came upon a third group. They were scarred and bruised, wounded and tired but their faces were radiant with joy. “What has made you like this?” Isa asked. And the people answered, “We have seen the Spirit of Truth. We have seen Reality,” they sighed. “And this has made us oblivious of lesser goals.”

And Isa said, “These are the ones who attain. On the Last Day, they will be in the Presence of God.”

If we live our spiritual lives only in fear of punishment or in hope of reward, rather than in the awareness of the One because of whom all life is worthwhile, we can be religious people but we will never be holy people. Then life is simply a series of tests and trials and scores, not the moment by moment revelation of God who is present in everything that happens to us, in everything we do.

Sanctity is about how we view life. It is not about spiritual exercises designed to evaluate our spiritual athleticism or a kind of spiritual bribery designed to win us spiritual prizes we do not deserve.

Coming to know the sacred — the energy of air, the possibility in children, the beauty of regret, the value of life — is what makes us holy. –Joan Chittister

From Becoming Fully Human by Joan Chittister

Anglican Bishop Mark Ryland: ‘Workaholism is Not a Christian Virtue’

The Anglican Bishop of Shrewsbury, UK, has warned against growing workaholism, and has commended relaxation and hospitality instead. In his regular diocesan update, Bishop Mark Ryland lays out the necessity for sabbath, rest, and renewal.

By way of information: The U.S. does not have “national holidays” like they do in the European Union – in the sense of days on which all employees in receive a day free from work and all business is halted. The U.S. federal holidays are technically apply only to federal employees. States and local jurisdictions decide how they will follow them. And private businesses don’t have to follow them at all. Ryland writes:

I wonder if we British don’t really value rest and relaxation? We seem to make a virtue out of unceasing work; we boast about how busy we are, as if the hectic pace of our lives is proof that we are important and significant. We feel guilty when we’re not working and we’re suspicious of anyone who lifts their nose from the grindstone for too long. In France, the whole country basically shuts down for the month of August and everyone heads for the beach or the mountains. While the number of public holidays in Britain is eight; on the continent it’s ten or eleven. Despite working more hours, it is debatable whether our country is any more productive. Indeed, Britain has one of the highest records for workdays lost due to sickness in Europe.

In our fast paced world, tales of emotional exhaustion and spiritual bankruptcy are not uncommon and stress is a recognised illness. People feel stretched and overloaded – indeed it is expected of them! I noticed a recent advert on TV that promised to keep you looking fresh, even after sixteen hours. It seemed to be applauding those ‘tough people’ who worked sixteen hour days. Crazy!

We were not, however, designed to be forever on the go. Fast paced lifestyles and little sleep rob us not only of energy but also of relationships. This seems to be a particular danger in the Church where it is all too easy for work and ministry to become the other woman or man in a marriage. We rob ourselves, however, when we desire autonomy or when we imagine we are indispensable, declaring that we can manage alone, that we don’t need anyone or anything else to help us. As Charles de Gaulle once said: ‘the graveyards are full of indispensable men’.

Jesus may have worked long hours teaching and healing but he knew that he needed to draw aside, to step out of the rush and away from the demands laid upon him. He knew of his need to find peace and to reconnect with his Father, gaining spiritual energy and sustenance in solitude. Exhaustion is a fact of life. The prophet Isaiah reminds us that even young people grow tired and become weary. He tells us that the remedy for weariness is rest, waiting on God, waiting to be filled with his strength. So if the prophets recognised the need for spiritual refuelling and Jesus prioritised time alone with his father, how much more do we need it?

We need to relearn this… I need to relearn this! More than that the world needs us God’s people – his Church – to model a healthy rhythm of work and rest for we live in a world that is a long way out of balance. In our society, young and old seek oblivion in alcohol; anti-depressants are amongst the most prescribed medications. People are yearning for real rest as the lie of consumerisms’ ability to satisfy in any meaningful way is being exposed. This deep recession gives us an opportunity and a choice. It could mean that we go on blindly working harder and harder to obtain the things we have grown used to possessing; or it could mean a time to take stock and count our blessings for what we enjoy – what Archbishop David Hope called an opportunity to model a lifestyle of ‘enoughness’.

If you’re like me, it will be an evening fishing on the river; if you’re like the Archdeacon of Salop, it will be playing with your model railway in the attic: a walk in the park; reading a good book; playing games with your children and grand-children, listening to the radio, visiting neighbours and friends – there are so many simple and inexpensive ways to discover re-creation.

As a creator of community, the church is called to model the true worth of human beings as men and women made in the image of God. Making room for the marginalised and the newcomer, providing opportunities for people to meet, relax, play together and strengthen friendships, is a wonderful way to help people belong and feel cherished. In these simple acts we proclaim good news to our neighbours: ‘you have great worth, regardless of how much or how little you accomplish. You have value because God is your Father and, in Christ, you are loved as his very own.’ –Bishop Mark Ryland

Kristof: A Church Mary Can Love

supermaryWhen I was in Venezuela in in 2004, the country was 95% Catholic and 60% of the people lived in poverty. Hugo Chavez–for better or worse–was trying to change the poverty statistics. But he was alienated from the Catholic hierarchy (the cardinal had plotted a coup against Chavez) and he was not well-connected to the popular Catholic Church on the ground.

It was with this “popular church” that I spent most of my time. In one very poor barrio high in the mountains above Caracas, I met Norma who talked to me about there being “two Catholic Churches”: one is the hierarchy and one is the people.

She said: “The bishop in his black cassock and scarlet came once to our barrio and said it was the most horrible place and he hated coming here, but I said this is my life, my reality, can it be so terrible for him? Our question is why are the church hierarchy not coming to be involved with us rather than always expecting that we will be involved with them?”

I remembered Norma’s wisdom when I read Nick Kristof’s wonderful op-ed in the New York Times titled A Church Mary Can Love. I’m reprinting the whole thing here, as a sign of encouragement to all of us downcast and discouraged by the Vatican’s child abuse scandal. Read Kristof’s column below:

I heard a joke the other day about a pious soul who dies, goes to heaven, and gains an audience with the Virgin Mary. The visitor asks Mary why, for all her blessings, she always appears in paintings as a bit sad, a bit wistful: Is everything O.K.? Mary reassures her visitor: “Oh, everything’s great. No problems. It’s just … it’s just that we had always wanted a daughter.”

That story comes to mind as the Vatican wrestles with the consequences of a patriarchal premodern mind-set: scandal, cover-up and the clumsiest self-defense since Watergate. That’s what happens with old boys’ clubs.

It wasn’t inevitable that the Catholic Church would grow so addicted to male domination, celibacy and rigid hierarchies. Jesus himself focused on the needy rather than dogma, and went out of his way to engage women and treat them with respect.

The first-century church was inclusive and democratic, even including a proto-feminist wing and texts. The Gospel of Philip, a Gnostic text from the third century, declares of Mary Magdalene: “She is the one the Savior loved more than all the disciples.” Likewise, the Gospel of Mary (from the early second century) suggests that Jesus entrusted Mary Magdalene to instruct the disciples on his religious teachings.

St. Paul refers in Romans 16 to a first-century woman named Junia as prominent among the early apostles, and to a woman named Phoebe who served as a deacon. The Apostle Junia became a Christian before St. Paul did (chauvinist translators have sometimes rendered her name masculine, with no scholarly basis).

Yet over the ensuing centuries, the church reverted to strong patriarchal attitudes, while also becoming increasingly uncomfortable with sexuality. The shift may have come with the move from house churches, where women were naturally accepted, to more public gatherings.

The upshot is that proto-feminist texts were not included when the Bible was compiled (and were mostly lost until modern times). Tertullian, an early Christian leader, denounced women as “the gateway to the devil,” while a contemporary account reports that the great Origen of Alexandria took his piety a step further and castrated himself.

The Catholic Church still seems stuck today in that patriarchal rut. The same faith that was so pioneering that it had Junia as a female apostle way back in the first century can’t even have a woman as the lowliest parish priest. Female deacons, permitted for centuries, are banned today.

That old boys’ club in the Vatican became as self-absorbed as other old boys’ clubs, like Lehman Brothers, with similar results. And that is the reason the Vatican is floundering today.

But there’s more to the picture than that. In my travels around the world, I encounter two Catholic Churches. One is the rigid all-male Vatican hierarchy that seems out of touch when it bans condoms even among married couples where one partner is H.I.V.-positive. To me at least, this church — obsessed with dogma and rules and distracted from social justice — is a modern echo of the Pharisees whom Jesus criticized.

Yet there’s another Catholic Church as well, one I admire intensely. This is the grass-roots Catholic Church that does far more good in the world than it ever gets credit for. This is the church that supports extraordinary aid organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas, saving lives every day, and that operates superb schools that provide needy children an escalator out of poverty.

This is the church of the nuns and priests in Congo, toiling in obscurity to feed and educate children. This is the church of the Brazilian priest fighting AIDS who told me that if he were pope, he would build a condom factory in the Vatican to save lives.

This is the church of the Maryknoll Sisters in Central America and the Cabrini Sisters in Africa. There’s a stereotype of nuns as stodgy Victorian traditionalists. I learned otherwise while hanging on for my life in a passenger seat as an American nun with a lead foot drove her jeep over ruts and through a creek in Swaziland to visit AIDS orphans. After a number of encounters like that, I’ve come to believe that the very coolest people in the world today may be nuns.

So when you read about the scandals, remember that the Vatican is not the same as the Catholic Church. Ordinary lepers, prostitutes and slum-dwellers may never see a cardinal, but they daily encounter a truly noble Catholic Church in the form of priests, nuns and lay workers toiling to make a difference.

It’s high time for the Vatican to take inspiration from that sublime — even divine — side of the Catholic Church, from those church workers whose magnificence lies not in their vestments, but in their selflessness. They’re enough to make the Virgin Mary smile.