Dreaming with the Spirit: Theological Imagination and the Challenges of Pastoral Ministry Today

2022 AssemblyAUSCP NewsJune 29

By Daniel P. Horan, OFM, PhD1


To describe our time in history as a time of crisis might be received by some as an understatement. The global climate catastrophe is an environmental crisis; growing income inequality and rising inflation is causing an economic crisis; the gratuitous Russian war against the people of Ukraine constitutes a political, moral, and humanitarian crisis; the ascendency of white nationalist and white supremacist ideology results in a growing crisis of domestic terror and ongoing racial injustice; all that led to the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and all the denials and conspiracy theories that have followed, presents us with a constitutional crisis; and the unprecedented polarization in the church, the unabashed disdain for Pope Francis in some circles, continued revelations about sexual abuse and its cover up, and the cooption of too many religious leaders by political and special interest groups means we also face an ecclesial crisis. These are but a small sampling, to which we could add so many more areas of our shared life in the church and world. As ministers of the Gospel—those, like all the baptized, who have been called to be “missionary disciples,” as Pope Francis says—each of these and the other crises of our times become challenges for pastoral ministry.

The thing about a crisis is that sometimes it exists on its own, or at least it appears as such. One might think of natural disaster such as a hurricane or a blizzard. At first glance, it may seem as though these are one-off, isolated, and independent phenomena; “acts of God;” or “freaks of nature.” Viewed myopically, that is very often the case. However, in many instances when a crisis arises, something else also occurs; namely, the sometimes slow realization that there are other crises in our midst, some of which may even have been underlying causes of the presenting crisis. Take a hurricane, for instance. In addition to the acute emergency and need to care for the injured and those still in harm’s way, it may become evident that a given municipality was quietly surviving a crisis of racial segregation, which came into stark relief when assessment begins of who suffered disproportionately from the storm. It may surface that the municipality or nation was quietly suffering from a crisis of emergency preparedness or management, that funding had been redirected away from critical infrastructure over the years, which set the community up for greater consequences than might have been the case otherwise. Or, as many of us might assume even in this hypothetical case, it could become clear that the crisis of global climate change has contributed to the ferocity and power of this destructive weather event.

Sometimes the presenting crisis draws our attention to additional concurrent crises or even underlying or foundational crises that may at first appear unrelated or even previously invisible. As it concerns pastoral ministry specifically, I believe this is the kind of phenomenon we are facing today, especially as it relates to theology. In talking with the organizers of this year’s assembly, I was encouraged to reflect on some of the “cutting edge” theology that is being done today with an eye toward helping us uncover resources for “the path to a better future” as described in the second part of your assembly theme. Over the past year, I found myself pondering this charge. At first, I wasn’t sure how to narrow the focus of my presentation such that I could do justice to any particular theme, scholar, or school of thought in contemporary Catholic theology in such a brief period of time. But the more I considered the “signs of our times” and the manifold challenges we face today in society and the church, I found myself returning to two related crises that do not garner appropriate attention in nearly any area of our ecclesial lives: pastoral leadership, theological reflection, or social-justice activism, to name a few. These two crises are: (a) The crisis of theological imagination; and (b) what I’ve come to call in recent years the crisis of “Holy Spirit atheism.” When it comes to the theological imagination, despite its absolutely essential function in the work of theology, we continue to witness the atrophying and foreclosure of imagination in too many aspects of the life of the church, particularly among church leaders. Fear of change, desire for certainty and control, and a hunger for power has led to an increasingly allergic reaction to the existence and movement of the imagination in the life of faith and in faith seeking understanding. These same dynamics are also at the heart of the phenomenon of “Holy Spirit atheism,” which is the willful ignorance or even outright denial—in practice if not always in theory—of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the world, church, and lives of all Christians. When we have little or no functioning pneumatology in our thinking, discernment, or actions, hubris reigns and we delude ourselves into thinking we are the ones solely responsible for the preservation of the church and even the protection of God.

As I hope to make clear later in my presentation, I believe these two concurrent crises—that of theological imagination and belief in the Holy Spirit—serve as underlying crises that contribute to multiple challenges in pastoral ministry today. What follows is organized into three parts: (1) first, I will talk about the crisis of theological imagination, (2) next, I will talk about the crisis of “Holy Spirit atheism,” and (3) finally, before a short conclusion, I will highlight five challenges of pastoral ministry today and show that a renewed sense of theological imagination and a robust pneumatology can aid us in walking together along the path toward a better future.

II. The Crisis of Theological Imagination

In the wake of the rise of a “hermeneutics of suspicion” during the twentieth century, when it comes to religious faith and theological discourse, theologian Garrett Green has argued for a return to “the faithful imagination” in the postmodern world.2 Aware of the ways in which that which is associated with imagination has been cast as the opposite of the “real world” or “historical fact,” especially in the age of modernity, Green is sensitive to the manifold ways the language of imagination is so often misunderstood.3 Nevertheless, Green makes an impassioned argument on behalf of retrieving the category of imagination in contemporary theology.

It is time to acknowledge unapologetically (in both senses of the word) that religion—all religion, including the Christian—speaks the language of imagination, and that the job of theology is therefore to articulate the grammar of Christian imagination. Theology must become imaginative— again, in both senses of the word—for it must understand itself to speak the language of imagination, and it must pursue its task with imaginative creativity: in short, it must articulate the grammar of the Christian imagination imaginatively! Such a theology (you could call it postmodern if you insist) will sound oddly orthodox to liberal ears, for doctrinal orthodoxy insists on the integrity of the scriptural imagination, testing it continually for conformity to the biblical paradigm. For God has chosen to reveal himself to the world in a manner accessible only to the imagination.4

Green’s point is that theology in general, and Christianity in particular, is as a matter of fact imaginative. One only has to look at what we propose as our inspiration to recognize this fact. Take the Gospels—take Luke-Acts, for example—here we have an instance in the first few pages of the text in which the redactor places in Mary’s words a contestation to the whole premise of the Incarnation. “This is impossible,” Mary exclaims! To which the Angel, representing another kind of logic—that of the divine as opposed to the human—responds with an invitation to engage the divinely inspired imagination and read the compass of her heart. From a place of shock and terror, confusion and disorientation, Mary is able to turn to her “God-Given Compass” to reorient her thinking and therefore her life. Her fiat is not arbitrary or undiscerned, but guided by what we might call orienteering skills few people (including Joseph at first) knew how to deploy even in her own time.

Another example of this comes through the prophetic proclamation of St. Paul at the opening of his First Letter to the Corinthians in which he reminds the early Christian community of the consequences that befall those who guide their way of being-in-the-world not by the “wisdom of God” but by the “wisdom” or “logic” of the world. In short, what we claim to believe as Christians will be seen only as foolish or a scandal (a skandalon in Greek, a stumbling block to belief). Paul invites us to engage our imagination to read a different kind of guidepost, to direct our lives by means of a divinely inspired orientation.

Imagination includes the ability to think possible the impossible and to govern one’s life according to a logic or wisdom not of our making.

Just as the imagination grounds the very possibility of the Christian experience in the early church, so too must a recovery of the imagination ground the formation of theological thinking and pastoral practice. What is required of us as ministers in the church is to serve as contemporary stand-ins for Luke’s Angel and the Corinthians’ Paul. We must invite those we walk with in ministry to look beyond the immediate and epidermal conceptualization of “the truth” as presented today in increasingly partisan and unilateral ways, to ask questions about what lies beneath the surface and the superficial.

As the philosopher John Kaag notes, imagination is the foundation of human meaning-making and the necessary conceptual tool for developing theological frameworks for understanding today what is essential about our collective identity. Or, as the twentieth-century American philosopher John Dewey once put it: “When old and familiar things are made new in experience, there is imagination.”5 Kaag writes:

In its everyday use, the imagination is understood as a creative power— perhaps the creative power—by which human beings get on with the meaningful business of living. It is the imagination that allows us to escape the mediocrity of our daily lives, to transcend the self-imposed boundaries—conceptual, personal, and social [I would also add ecclesial]— that limit our growth. It is the imagination that generates a work of art, and it is the imagination that grants us the ability to interpret artworks. It is the imagination that keeps culture and science “on the move.” In short, it is the imagination that makes us fully human.6

One of the persistent challenges I see in the church today, especially within the ecclesial polity of the United States, is this absolute fear so many have toward thinking deeply, embracing the full and ongoing development of doctrine, recognizing the dynamism of divine revelation and, as John Kaag might describe it, a general allergy to being “imaginative!” Those who assume “tradition” is a synonym for stasis or that “orthodoxy” means the reduction of faith to simplistic propositional claims or that “moral living” is about binary checklists that categorize everything—but especially sexuality—into childish, naïve, and absolute “yes” or “no,” “good versus bad,” categories. The world is and has always been more complex than such delusional longings for absolutism would suggest.

Within the first-century Palestinian Jewish context there was no ready-made category or language to help the first followers of Jesus of Nazareth make sense of what God had done in their contemporary moment. With no exaggeration, if they first followers and those early communities of faith did not rely entirely on their imaginative faculties to form new ideas, create space for renewed understandings of the divine, and develop new narratives to convey God’s self-disclosure—literally none of us would be here today. There would be no Christianity. As our Easter lectionary readings remind us, the need for imagination continued to be essential when addressing contemporary problems and concerns not previously seen in the community—like who could be admitted to the church, only Jews or anyone? In the third and fourth centuries, when the Christological and Trinitarian doctrinal formulas were being articulated, imagination was again needed—imagination that was expressed in inculturate contexts and language.

Fast-forward to 1958 through 1965 and think about the absolute necessity of imagination in considering that “what the church has always taught” about so-called religious liberty, or those of other religious traditions, or the function of consecrated life in the church, or what constituted the church itself, and so on, needed to be re- expressed, renewed, re-imagined.

Why would anybody think anything is different today than in any other time or place in the church? Maybe it’s not debates about the meaning of homoousious or whether you had to convert to Judaism before Christianity or the triune God or religious liberty, but today we continue to face challenges in pastoral ministry and theological coherence that require the imagination. I’ll talk about these and other themes later, but immediately I think of examples like the LGBTQ community or women in the church or the American church’s continued complicity in white supremacy. The only way to faithfully address the challenges before the people of God, which is the church, is to engage our imagination with an understanding that all the baptized have been given the sensus fidei to do just that.

I want to suggest that to exercise the imagination in this manner we need to, at minimum, cultivate within ourselves (in order to model it for others) three traits: That of Empathy, Compassion, and Memory.

To empathize is to imagine. One must “get outside of themselves” to consider the circumstances, narrative, and history of another. What is their experience like? What truth do they know, what reality do they occupy? The expression “to walk a mile in another’s shoes” is apt in this regard, because empathy requires the figurative and analogical transportation of ourselves to the realm of an other, which is an activity that can only exist in the realm of the imagination. How good are we at empathy? What function does the naming and cultivation of empathic emotions and thoughts play in our programming?

Compassion also requires imagination. It is striking how many times the canonical Gospels convey that Jesus was “moved with pity” for this person or that person. As you know, the etymological root of the word compassion means “to suffer with.” Oftentimes the burdens, pain, and anxieties of others cannot be transferred or shared in a literal fashion. And yet, to mindfully direct our attention and energy toward the experience and reality of another empathetically moves us beyond the pity of societal condescension toward the agapic compassion or empathy of Christ. In an age when we are as isolated and insulated as we wish to be, it requires discipline, openness, and imagination to suffer-with others, to be compassionate.

Memory might seem like an odd trait to cultivate when thinking of Christian imagination and the skills necessary to interpret the “the Wisdom of God,” but it is absolutely essential. Memory in this case is twofold. First, we must call-to-mind (anamnesis) the dangerous memories of Christianity, the truth of God’s Incarnational love and the impossibilities God makes possible in our history. This “God-Given Compass,” as it were, does not align well to the maps made by the cultural cartographers of our world, especially when the maps have been drawn with latitudes of capitalism and longitudes of violence. We must work to become people who re- member, that is re-constitute or bring-together, the fragments of our religious history anew. Second, we must recall the histories and narratives of others—not others as we have fashioned them with our stereotypes, judgments, or scapegoating, but the histories and narratives of others in the manner Jesus saw beyond the taboos, social conventions, and stereotypes of his time to embrace women, non-Jews, the ill, the sinners, those at the public and religious margins, and all others written off by the logic and wisdom of the world.

The cultivation of these skills reinforce our imaginative capability so that we can come to make sense of the “Kingdom or Reign of God” that points us toward our Creator by directing us outside of ourselves. As ministers of God’s word and sacraments, we should not just offer different answers than the world does to the pressing life questions of those we serve; we ought to offer an entirely different way of seeing the world that rejects simple answers and one-size-fits-all solutions. Pardon the expression, but, ironically, it does not take much imagination to see how the crisis of theological imagination in the church today continues to cause tremendous harm to the people of God.

III. The Crisis of Holy Spirit Atheism7

The renowned Vatican II peritus and leading Catholic theologian of the twentieth century, Jesuit Fr. Karl Rahner, wrote at the outset of his important 1967 theological treatise The Trinity that the doctrine of the Trinity has been so neglected over the course of Christian history that most “Christians are, in their practical life, almost mere ‘monotheists.’” He goes on to state that, accordingly, “We must be willing to admit that, should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged.”8

Rahner’s point is not to suggest that the doctrine of the Trinity is unimportant. On the contrary, he recognized its extreme importance to Christian orthodoxy. Instead, he was observing that for the most Christians—including Christian leaders and even many professional theologians—little heed is paid to one of the most distinctive and important aspects of our confession of faith. And what was true fifty years ago remains true today: apart from marking ourselves with the sign of our faith and praying the doxology, both of which affirm the triune God, little recognizable thought or attention is typically given to the Trinity.

One of the unrecognized yet significant consequences of this widespread phenomenon is what I have become accustomed in recent years to calling “Holy Spirit atheism.” I think it’s important that I note from the outset that by this I do not mean that most Christians outright or consciously reject the divinity of the Spirit. Rather, I have a sense that many Christians—and especially many church leaders—think and act as if the Holy Spirit did not exist and therefore this phenomenon is largely implicit in the daily life of the church as institution.

I think it is easy for most people to pray to “God the Creator” or “God the Father,” and it is likewise inescapable to reflect on and pray to the incarnate Word in Jesus Christ. For better or worse, most Christians can conjure images that help them think of the corresponding divine person in God and Christ to address in prayer or reflect on in meditation. Jesus’s full humanity also makes him more easily relatable, although far too many Christians of Euro-American descent still picture a false historical Jesus of the Nordic or Western-European sort. But where does the Holy Spirit factor into our prayer lives? Each Sunday we proclaim the Spirit is “the Lord, the give life” whom we “adore and glorify,” but do we really believe in the Holy Spirit?

Over the years I have come to think that like the general atrophying of our regard for the Trinity that Rahner diagnosed, we have suffered both the theological and pragmatic consequences of persistent neglect of pneumatology—that important, necessary, and sustained consideration and study of the Holy Spirit. And it this has consequences that are extremely far reaching in both prayer and praxis.

If, as we profess, the church was birthed at Pentecost with the sending of the Spirit, then the ongoing presence and action of the Holy Spirit should be the founding principle of how we think of the church. But the actions of many church leaders, pastoral ministers, and ordinary Christians alike suggests instead an attitude of “it’s all up to me.” We see this in the rhetoric about the perceived need to police who participates in the Sacraments or personally adjudicate who is or isn’t “worthy” to receive them. This reflects a mistaken sense of self-importance and implies that God is not at the helm or operative within the Body of Christ. I have already written and spoken publicly about some of the more high-profile instances of this, particularly in recent weeks on the West Coast of the United States. In addition to the well- documented political and financial incentives, one might ask what motivates this kind of sick behavior that would treat the sacramental presence of Christ as a weapon or a reward to be distributed according to one’s individual judgment? Frankly, I think lack of faith in the Holy Spirit is at least a partial cause of this twisted thinking. Bishops, priests, deacons, religious sisters and brothers, and all the laity inclined to treat the Eucharist in this manner may be inclined to honestly think that they need to protect God!! That they are somehow in a position to—what exactly?—preserve the sanctity of the gift of God’s own self? How absurd! How idolatrous! How blasphemous!

If such ministers of the Eucharist actually believed in the Holy Spirit, they would realize that it is God who accomplishes the sacred mysteries of our Sacraments and it is God who can take care of God’s self. Jesus had no problem dining with betrayers, deniers, thieves, and other miscreants that he personally invited to follow him and to whom he handed on the ministry of his divine love, and to whom he promised to send the Holy Spirit. So what is our collective hang up? Do we think ourselves better than Christ? (Frankly, I sometimes wonder if some of our brother clergy and lay ministerial colleagues actually do!)

Another example of such Holy Spirit atheism, and one that is far more egregious, are the choices made by some church leaders to cover up abuse for the sake of maintaining the church’s public reputation belies a presumptuous attitude that stands in conflict with the Christian belief that God is active in the church and world. In retrospect, I find myself wanting to ask these leaders: Is it really only up to you? Are you sure that if you were to actually be honest and transparent about the simultaneous sinfulness and holiness of the church (which is a tenet of orthodox Catholic faith) then…what? The institution would suddenly crumble and disappear?

As has been made clear in every public sexual abuse or financial scandal of the local and universal church, too many leaders profess faith in the false religion of bella figura and not that of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is a reason that Jesus makes such a point of talking about the corruption that lies within the individual and not what appears on the outside. Such arrogance masquerading as orthodoxy is perhaps one of the greatest professions of disbelief in the presence of God’s Spirit in the Church and World.

While perhaps not explicitly thought or expressed in this way, the actions of many church leaders and other ministers speak loud enough. If one actually believed in the ongoing divine work of the Holy Spirit, by which all the faithful are united in baptism, then the humility of their positions as ministers and not mini-monarchs or corporate CEOs would place trust in the Spirit and they might have done the right thing. Instead, too much of the harm, sin, and crime that has been uncovered—and continues to be uncovered—reveals a reliance not on God but on one’s self. This is something that we presbyters and other church ministers need to be mindful of on a regular basis.

And it’s not just the bishops. We presbyters, secular and religious, need to recalibrate our own sense of entitlement and clericalism in this regard. Earlier this year I wrote about a persistent reality that I called “clerical fragility.” All of you know exactly what I was describing, even if you never heard the term before. There is in the post- Spotlight, post-Dallas Charter, post-Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report world a sensitivity and self-consciousness among many priests about the stereotyping, the continued scrutiny, the ongoing legal and sometimes canonical investigations into horrific patterns of abusive cover up. I have heard it said—by religious and diocesan clergy—that they feel as if they are the victims now; that they are the unfair targets; that there is an unjust “guild by association,” and there is an increasing refusal to cooperate or engage with the work of truth-telling, accountability, and reconciliation. My daring to speak the truth publicly enraged some priests, who accused me of further “attacking them,” while neglecting to actually see that I was sharing my own experience in the process. I heard from dozens of priests around the world, most of whom affirmed everything in my description. One diocesan priest from the state of Pennsylvania wrote to me and said this gave voice to what he had witnessed for twenty years—he said he had never once experienced an honest, non-self-defensiveness conversation about the clergy abuse crisis in his diocese and among his brother priests. Not even after the 2018 grand jury report. How quick we can be to forget that we are ministers of the Spirit, it is not up to us and it is not about us; it is up to God. When we make it about ourselves, then we have slipped into idolatry.

Another way I see this implicit “Holy Spirit atheism” manifested is around the suppression of the sensus fidelium, which is the technical term used to describe the manner in which all the baptized faithful participate in the magisterial teaching of the church in terms of reception and contribution. Through baptism all the faithful have received the sensus fidei, an ability to recognize, perceive, or “sense” divine revelation and the faith. It is a universal characteristic of the members of Christ’s Body. When we talk about the sensus fidelium we are talking about what the people of God actually believe, which is made possible by each of member of the church having the sensus fidei. Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) addressed this, stating: “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief” (12).

However, both the laity and the ordained too often neglect or even outright suppress this matter of faith when it comes to the consultation of those outside hierarchical leadership. Far from some modern “liberal agenda,” the importance of this teaching was something Blessed John Henry Newman drew attention to in his 1859 book On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine. And yet, as with the defensive responses of some in Newman’s time, there are some today who maintain a propositional, unidirectional, top-down understanding of the development of doctrine and church discipline that can only be decided by those who are ordained and be passively received by the lay faithful. Avoiding or rejecting the role of the sensus fidelium is, it appears to me, another rejection of the Holy Spirit’s work in the church when transmission of orthodox faith is understood as the prerogative of and dependent on the ordained alone.

Finally, on a related note to the sensus fidelium, the contemporary fear over frank conversations about doctrine and church discipline hints at an underdeveloped or nonexistent faith in the Holy Spirit. Such seems to be the case with those who scream schism or invoke “heresy” at the prospect of discussions about the discipline of presbyteral celibacy or the role of women in the Roman Church, such as the German bishops have suggested in their synodal process in recent years. It seems to me that this sort of call reflects a deep trust in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, which unites together all the baptized and continues to be giver of the church’s life. Those afraid of it appear to forget about the Spirit’s existence or active role in the life the church.

We would do well to remember that it is not simply up to us and should instead adore and glorify the Holy Spirit by recognizing God’s continued presence and action in the world, even if that action is not exactly what you may personally want or desire, even if that action may make you personal uncomfortable or challenge you to change. Let us begin again to believe in the Holy Spirit, who has indeed spoken through the prophets and continues to do so today. As ministers in the church, we have no other choice. If we fail to believe in the Holy Spirit, through our words and deeds, we may continue to serve an institution, but it won’t be the church of Jesus Christ.

IV. Five Areas in Need of Theological Imagination and Belief in the Holy Spirit

In closing, I want to highlight five pastoral challenges we face in ministry today. To be clear, this is not an exhaustive list, unfortunately. There are still many others, but I think these five examples that show how today the Catholic Church, particularly in the United States, is in need of renewed theological imagination and a serious reaffirmation of belief in the Holy Spirit. Part of what inspires my focus on these five areas is my own experience in recent years listening to and studying young adults, both those who have courageously decided to stay in the church and those who have, often for good reasons, decided to disaffiliate with Catholicism. I continue to hold as my vade mecum, the 2018 final document of the Pre-Synodal meeting of young people in Rome in advance of the 2018 Synod on Young People. This document continues to be an inspiring and challenging summary of today’s young people, in their own words, telling those of us in older generations, especially in ministerial leadership, what it is they need and what it is they are most concerned about. They use the term “dream” almost a dozen times in this amazing text, including citing Pope Francis back to himself at the end.

A. The Scourge of Hubris and Hypocrisy

Enough. Enough pretending that Holy Orders is magic or that we become anything other than the human servants of the Body of Christ God is calling us to be. Even those of us who are most against clericalism cannot help but be affected by the long shadow of exceptionalism and separatism that has informed both the laity and the ordained for centuries, at least since the mid-thirteenth century. Young people make clear that they want honest, humble, human pastoral ministers and church leaders who are not afraid to admit when they don’t know something, admit when they are wrong, and to seek advice and consultation. Generation Z is furiously allergic to any hint of hypocrisy and they can smell it a mile away. Most young people cite hypocrisy of church leaders as a leading reason for their disaffiliation. And I tend to think Jesus Christ is on their side! We would do well to recall that Jesus reserved his most strident condemnation in the gospels for religious hypocrites, those who put heavy burdens on the backs of others but refuse to lift even a finger to assist them.

I believe Pope Francis has a good sense of imagination. His down-to-earth and folksy speaking and preaching imagery cuts through the bullshit of ecclesiastical self- importance, which has nothing to do with the gospel. This is why young people, and not-so-young people, including those not affiliated with the church, like him so much. Young people in the 2018 document are not calling for us to throw out our liturgical or other traditions, but to be authentic in owning our own humanity. They want ministers and leaders who actually strive to be in relationship with Christ, own up when they fail along the way, and pick back up to try again.

Do we have the theological imagination to see ourselves as partners in the work of the gospel and not the divinely mandated dictators of souls? Do we believe that the Holy Spirit works through us, that God does not need us to protect God or the church, but that the Spirit seeks to move in us and through us to serve our fellow Christians? I have told my students for years that the clearest sign to me of the existence of the Holy Spirit is presiding at the Sacrament of Penance — if you go in thinking you have all the answers, that it’s up to you to be judge and jury, then you will cause unbelievable spiritual and emotional harm. Instead, if you go in simply praying that God use you as an instrument of peace and reconciliation, knowing that the penitent is already forgiven by God, then something else is possible. One way I think this looks in practice is summed up well by my late Franciscan brother, Fr. Mychal Judge, the NYC Fire Chaplain and first victim of 9/11. His well known prayer is: “Lord, take me where You want me to go; Let me meet who You want me to meet; Tell me what You want me to say, and Keep me out of Your way.”

We are too often the reason people leave the church. Which has a legacy going back to Jesus’s earthly ministry when his earliest followers were the ones trying to regulate who could or could not approach Jesus and who could or could not minister in his name. We need to reimagine our place in the relationship to others, trusting the Spirit is the one really at work in the world.

B. Reimagining the Church’s Relationship to the LGBTQ Community

The Catholic Church is facing a serious identity crisis, one that has its roots in a false imaginary and failure to recognize God’s Holy Spirit. For too long the theological imagination that has governed all discussion and thinking about LGBTQ persons has been exclusively shaped by a narrowly conceived thirteenth-century reclamation of Aristotelian metaphysical categories and an incomplete ethics controlled by teleology. We have a serious problem if we think that nothing of consequence has been learned during the last eight-hundred years about human personhood, about the world, about natural and social sciences, about physics, about theology, or about anything else. And yet, with straight faces, church leaders continue to claim that their simplistic understanding of Thomistic philosophy and the ostensible ethical implications contained therein supersedes all that has been learned and experienced over the last near-millennium. No wonder people, including young adults, are simply walking away .

As a theologian and philosopher, let me make this clear: I am not saying that everything needs to be thrown away from the Middle Ages (I just taught a weeklong intensive course on the philosophy of John Duns Scotus in San Diego last week!). What I am saying is that we need to recognize that not all things that appear novel are necessarily “new” or inherently wrong. Thomas Aquinas was condemned in 1277, three years after his death, because he was using “pagan” philosophy and engaging in creative theological imagination, which scared his contemporaries (including the Archbishop of Paris). It took time for what was then the “cutting edge” engagement with known science and experience to be accepted. But something has happened in our own time where too many church leaders have forgotten that theology is fides quaerens intellectum, that theology is an ongoing, dynamic process that requires the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit!

There is nothing wrong with being LGBTQ. Period. The medical communities and the psychological communities have affirmed this without reservation, and the lived experiences of LGBTQ persons themselves have affirmed this. And yet, too many in church leadership refuse to listen; refuse to consider that maybe, like Aquinas listening to the “Pagan” philosophy of Aristotle, that we should be listening to the best science that we have today. Things have got to change. People are dying. People are experiencing spiritual and emotional harm because of such pastoral malpractice and failure to engage in deep and faithful theological re-imagining led by the Spirit.

There are theologians who are doing this important work now. The work that so many praise Thomas Aquinas for centuries later, but condemn his contemporary inheritors today. This is not a matter of superficially “dissenting” from moral teaching, it’s about taking a serious look at what and how we establish the foundations upon which that moral teaching relies.

C. Women in the Church

One of the things that the young adults make clear in their 2018 document to the synod fathers at the Pope’s invitation is that they are tired of the way women are not given equal standing in the church. Now, they don’t call for a change in who is admitted to Holy Orders—although the question of the diaconate remains an open question and ought to be addressed—instead they talk at all levels of church authority and ministry. People like Jesuit moral theologian Jim Keenan or scholar Phyllis Zagano have rightly pointed out that there is, today, nothing really standing in the way of the pope creating a woman cardinal. You do not have to be ordained to be admitted to the College of Cardinals. And yet, clericalism has restricted our theological imagination, leading to broad assumptions about the need for one to be ordained to the episcopacy, etc. There’s a reason why the late Cardinal Avery Dulles refused to be ordained a bishop after being created a cardinal: he was too good a theologian! His theological imagination was sharp enough to know that it was absurd for an 80+ man to be ordained to the episcopal office when he’d have in effect a titular See with no actual people in it. What would be the point? Likewise, how many other offices and positions of leadership have been assumed to require admission to Holy Orders with no real theological basis? That Pope Francis, whose theological imagination is robust, has recently decreed non-ordained members of religious communities could now serve as provincial and general superiors, the false assumption that Orders precedes ecclesiastical authority has been torpedoed. And, perhaps hopefully, we have seen recently senior curial appointments given to women.

What are we so afraid of as a faith community? What inhibits our theological imagination from following the logical trajectory of Jesus’s ministry, especially when those who—across all four gospels—demonstrated their deepest loyalty to his mission were the women who refused to abandon him, who never denied him, who didn’t betray him, and who were the first witnesses of his resurrection? How sad, how pathetic, how atrophied the Body of Christ is when more than half of it is not fully heard or treated as equal members. Great harm has been done and continues to be perpetrated against our sisters in faith, but this is also harm that is being brought upon the whole church when we stifle the Spirit’s ability to move through all those God calls to the service of the Reign of God.

D. An Honest Reckoning with White Supremacy in the Church

Famously, in 1968, the Black Catholic Clergy Caucus began their statement on the Church in the United States with the following line: “The Catholic Church in the United States, primarily a white racist institution, has addressed itself primarily to white society and is definitely a part of that society.” Collectively, church leaders in the US have not yet adequately responded to this accurate assessment. Instead, milquetoast statements have been issued (two before, and two after 1968) that have not sufficiently grappled with the fundamental truths beneath the righteous accusation that the Catholic Church in the US is “primarily a white racist institution.” This is largely because the US Catholic Church has, historically, been composed of a majority of people considered to be white, or admitted to a status of whiteness over time (such as the Irish, Italians, and Eastern Europeans). This has meant that the operative lens through which church leaders have viewed themselves and the church writ large has been that of white supremacy. We see this made manifest in numerous ways, from racist depictions of the Holy Family—a first-century, middle-eastern Jewish family from Palestine portrayed as white, northern Europeans—to who is or is not admitted to seminaries and religious communities.

What makes white supremacy so insidious is that it covers over its destructive consequences to those who benefit from the very same system. This is why white folks are often so “surprised” to learn about how people from minoritized communities experience the same contexts, communities, or spaces of worship. Until white church leaders and pastoral ministers learn to expand their theological imagination to be informed by anti-racist resources and the experiences of their siblings of color, only more harm will continue. I know it can be scary to face things that one thought were certain and be faced with relearning a lot one thought one already knew, but this is where trust in the Holy Spirit comes in. A robust theological imagination that is faithful to God’s Word cannot exist without belief in the Holy Spirit, and without both of these elements operative—alongside the concurrent commitment to humility and lack of defensiveness—nothing will change for the better. And the sins of racism—both commission and omission—will continue within our faith community, including among its leaders and ministers.

E. The Need for Ecological Conversion

Finally, the last example I want to raise is that of the global climate crisis facing the whole planet today. I have written and spoken numerous times in recent years that I believe the number one life issue facing the church today is global climate change, for the simple reason that none of the particular “pro-life” themes we traditionally hold up will matter if there is no habitable planet on which human and nonhuman life can survive. What good is it to end abortion or euthanasia or the death penalty if there is no planet on which to live?

As Pope Francis has said time and again, “everything is connected” and we need to develop an integral ecological imagination that takes that as our starting point in assessing the world. We have been and continue to be dominated by a twisted logic of human exceptionalism known as anthropocentrism, making everything we do predicated on what it does for me specifically or our species generally. We have seen what such thinking has resulted in and we are running out of time to mitigate the devastation that is coming.

Young people know this better than we do. This is why they have little patience for institutional religions that tout the “goodness of creation” or the importance of “Christian values” while at the same time ignoring the climate crisis in our midst. Most of us may be long gone before the absolute worst of the impacts are felt (though we are seeing early signs even today), but our younger generational siblings and their children will not have such a luxury. This does not even begin to touch on what ecological sins we are perpetrating on nonhuman creation, those other aspects of creation God has loved into existence and that are suffering from anthropogenic climate change. Indeed, the Holy Spirit is the “giver of life,” and in the Psalms we call for the Spirit to “renew the face of the Earth,” but as St. Augustine reminds us, grace requires our cooperation.

Our refusal to do anything about this, our failure to preach truthfully and forcefully about ecological sin, our willful ignorance in the face of overwhelming environmental tragedies will be our fault and ours alone. I think about the so-called goats in Matthew 25, the ones who protest “but when did we see you hungry Lord?” claiming vincible ignorance as justification for their inaction. We know now what we must do, but do we have the courage to engage our theological imagination to see ourselves as part of the very creation we are collectively set on destroying? Are we willing to follow the Spirit’s lead in renewing the face of the earth?


These five areas of challenges in pastoral ministry today are but a glimpse into the manifold ways a renewal in theological imagination and belief in the Holy Spirit are needed for our forging paths toward a better future. As challenging as some of the issues I have raised today appear, the good news is that I have great confidence in the resources of the tradition, the potential of a renewed theological imagination, and trust in the power of the Holy Spirit—all that is needed is humility, openness, and courage on our part. So, let’s get to work — for, as the Second Letter to the Corinthians reminds us, “Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor 6:2).


  1. This is a draft text of the keynote presentation delivered at the 2022 AUSCP Assembly in Baltimore, MD.
  2. Garrett Green, Theology, Hermeneutics, and Imagination: The Crisis of Interpretation at the End of Modernity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  3. Green, Theology, Hermeneutics, and Imagination, 187-206. For more on the modern shift toward dichotomizing the category of imagination, see John Kaag, Thinking Through the Imagination: Aesthetics in Human Cognition (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014), esp. 25-56.
  4. Green, Theology, Hermeneutics, and Imagination, 205-206. Green is by no means the only person to engage the imagination in theological terms. For example, see Richard Kearney, The Wake of Imagination (London: Routledge, 1988); Richard Kearney, Poetics of Imagining: Modern to Postmodern (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998); Paul Avis, God and the Creative Imagination: Metaphor, Symbol, and Myth in Religion and Theology (London: Routledge, 1999); David Brown, Tradition and Imagination: Revelation and Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); David Brown, Discipleship and Imagination: Christian Tradition and Truth (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Edward S. Casey, Imagining: A Phenomenological Study, 2nd edition (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000); and Trevor Hart, Between the Image and the Word: Theological Engagements with Imagination, Language and Literature (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2013); among others.
  5. John Dewey, Art as Experience in John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925-1953, ed. Jo Ann Boydson (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986), 12:277.
  6. Kaag, Thinking Through the Imagination, 3.
  7. Portions of this section have previously appeared in Daniel P. Horan, “The Church is Suffering from Holy Spirit Atheism,” National Catholic Reporter (March 20, 2019).
  8. See Karl Rahner, The Trinity (New York: Herder & Herder, 1997). AUSCP Keynote (D. Horan, OFM)

You may also be interested in…