Richard Rohr on the Emerging Church

Here’s a video teaser in which Spencer Burke (off camera) chats with Richard Rohr about some of ideas underpinning the upcoming The Emerging Church conference in March, which is basically a “gathering of the tribes” — Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, Evangelical — for a weekend of visioning and community-building.

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I must confess to sharing the sense, that Rohr speaks of in this video clip, of sometimes feeling more at home with non-Catholics who are engaged in the emergent conversation, than with my fellow Catholics when they seem to be invested in a neo-conservative attempt to roll back Vatican II — preferring a nostalgic view of the church, to the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ. Of course, there are those Anglicans, Protestants and Evangelicals who appear to prefer idolatrous ecclesiologies to the gospel as well, so that problem is not limited to Catholics by any stretch. But hopefully, in bringing together Christians of different “tribes” who share a common hunger to discern the will of the Holy Spirit, we can all be nurtured in a shared sense of our call to be the body of Christ in our day.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Bob

    I don’t understand why Rohr would have a horse in this race. Seems like the emerging church is an Evangelical phenomena. Emergent seems to be a reaction against a rigid, doctraire, fundamentalist Protestant. Catholicism never really had this problem or it has the ability to absorb and incorporate different ideas and movements. Protestantism tends to break over little points of doctrine. I know Rohr reaches many types of folks.

  • Carl McColman

    Maybe you live in a different part of the country than I do — but it seems to me that “rigid, doctrinaire, fundamentalist” Catholicism is very much on the march. I think this is what Rohr refers to by the “young priests” who want to roll back the culture of Vatican II. I’m not suggesting that the post-Vatican II church doesn’t have its problems — Catholics of all ideological stripes know it does — but the answer won’t be found in reasserting a romanticized authoritarian model of the church. Mainstream Christianity is hemorrhaging membership, although this trend is mitigated in Catholicism by the large influx of Catholic immigrants. Emergent Christianity, whether Catholic or Protestant, seeks to address what’s really going on in our cultural transition away from old models of church, and seeks to discern where the Holy Spirit may be leading us in the midst of our unprecedented social and cultural shifts.

  • Liz

    Unsure if any of this will make sense, but I’m going to try anyway. Begging your patience.

    My husband and I have been “students” of Richard Rohr for years. We’ve read many of his books, watched lots of his teachings. We were considering going to the conference in March, but my husband’s going to have his knee replaced instead (ouch!).

    I must admit, I find myself torn a lot these days. I’m a cradle Catholic who was raised in a charismatic Catholic community (actually had lunch with Fr. Richard when I was a youngin’). When I hear Fr. Rohr speak about the emerging church movement, I can feel the rightness of it. It certainly does feel like the working of the Holy Spirit.

    I have to say though…I really love much of the very traditional Catholic “stuff.” I love the rosary, holy water, the bells, incense, eucharistic adoration. And I find so much wisdom in many of the encyclicals that come out of Rome. I am in awe of the Mass.

    Quite selfishly, I am all for ecumenism and coming together…as long as I don’t have to give up my “stuff.” (Shades of George Carlin there.)

    Seems like the people who share my love of tradition, are quite fearful of the emerging church movement and the people intrigued by the emerging church movement are confused by my love of tradition.

    I’m hopeful I will find a coherent way to blend both.

  • Cori

    Perhaps I’m mixing one thing with another but as far as I understood a major characteristic of the emerging church is a revival of certain traditions, especially in terms of symbolism and ritual. The protestant church (and especially evangelical circles) have been starved of all of this for a long time and there is a return in emerging circles to things like using candles and incense, being open to labyrinths, Celtic forms of worship etc etc. It’s really quite postmodern in merging the old with the new. I think what they want to leave behind are the stifling traditions that prevent growth – such as the separation of secular and sacred, the role of women, an emphasis on buildings over what actually happens in those buildings etc.

    I’m from a protestant evangelical background but have gotten involved with Catholic spirituality through the emerging church conversation, so I don’t think there need to be fears about losing some of the things you love in this movement. As far as I understand it…!

  • Carl McColman

    Liz, I agree with Cori. I think beauty is an important component of Catholic spirituality, and I think the emergent folks are very interested in how to integrate beauty into worship and spiritual practice. I think there will always be a place for the rosary, the Eucharist and other sacraments, and devotion to the saints in Catholic spirituality, no matter how “emergent” it becomes.

    What saddens me is when some Christians (Catholic or otherwise) attack other Christians because they express their faith in different ways. Centering prayer is a good example here. I’m amazed at how many Catholics believe centering prayer is “wrong” because it incorporates practices that are similar to transcendental meditation. Similarly, the web is filled with conservative Protestants and evangelicals who attack the emergent movement because — ta da! — it is “too Catholic”!!! I’m sorry, but I feel sad when Christians turn on Christians because the trappings of their spirituality are different. I say, “Love Jesus and then follow your heart,” and I believe that the Holy Spirit will take care of the rest. Every one of us is created in the image and likeness of God, and every one of us stands continually in the need of grace and forgiveness. If we can remember that there’s more we all share in common than the little things that divide us, I think we’ll all be better off.

    Back to your feeling of being torn: my thought is, follow your heart. If you’re drawn to say the rosary, say the rosary. If you’re drawn to study Fr. Richard’s teachings, study them. If someone criticizes you because your spirituality is different from theirs, try to be loving and forgiving. But don’t change yourself just to please someone else.

    Meanwhile, my prayers for your husband, that his knee surgery goes well and his healing is swift and complete. And maybe we’ll meet at another conference down the road.

  • Liz

    Thanks for your responses.

    I am saddened by the attacking as well. Jesus’ words “By their fruits you shall know them,” have reverberated through my mind and heart over the past several years. It seems to me that any attacking is indicative of bad fruit.

    This is what confuses me because it seems like wonderful people whom I love dearly are always attacking each other.

    I love Fr. Rohr’s viewpoint in that it isn’t about starting a new denomination…we don’t need new denominations. It’s about taking the emerging dialogue and bringing that spirit into the faith community of which you are already a part. I love that.

    As for Centering Prayer, I have read Fr. Keating’s book on that and listened to him speak. I’ve tried to incorporate it into my life, but whenever I attempt it, I fall asleep! I’m not a very good meditator. I think that is why I like both yoga and the rosary. They give my body and mind something to do, so my heart can be free to just bask in God’s presence.

    I would make a terrible Cistercian. LOL.

    My husband will be grateful for your prayers! It is a necessary surgery but comes with a certain amount of anxiety and uncertainty.

    We so hope to make it to New Mexico some day to participate in one of the conferences at Fr. Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation, and a March conference would have provided a much needed respite from our bitter Minnesota winter. However, all things in their proper times.

  • Mark F

    This man has some valid observations but his thinking his also hopelessly muddled too. As many of us do, he seems to be taking his own experiences with Church orthodoxy and basing his whole ministry on them. Sure, we enter the faith at a certain level and at that level ritual seems appealing. But Fr. Rohr seems to be stuck in the state of permanent (and homosexual) adolescence. We do not need new rituals. We do not need pagan and homosexual therapies. These pagan rituals are about a mile wide and an inch deep. I should know; I tried them myself. The sacrifice of Christ in the Eucharist, his love for us sinners, and our love for our fellow man in Christ, and the sacrament of confession – these are the rituals to practice over and over again, each time in prayer for the Holy Spirit to enlighten us more. We need to deepen our own understanding of the Church’s timeless rituals. Fr. Rohr complains about a false romanticism of the pre-Vatican II Church, but he’s the one with the false romanticism for what Vatican II said and did. Notice he does not refer to the actual documents of Vatican II, but to the “spirit” of it, i.e., his own imaginings of tearing down the Church and creating a new, pagan and homosexual church in its place. What this generation needs is not more of Fr. Rohr and the neo-pagan, anti-Christian Joseph Campbell, but more of Alphonsus Ligouri, Louis de Montfort, John Bosco, Therese of Lisiuex, and Maximillian Kolbe.

  • Carl McColman

    No offense, Mark, but you come across as seriously paranoid, not to mention homophobic. Since when has Rohr been promoting a “homosexual church”? I certainly don’t see that in any of the books or tapes of his that I’ve read or heard. I don’t know enough about his male initiation rituals to comment on whether they are “pagan” or not, but even if they are, I’d like to point you to a definition of paganism that was published in Attwater’s Catholic Dictionary in 1958 (i.e., pre-Vatican II): “In paganism, especially before the Christian revelation, the Church has always recognized the existence of natural goodness and truth, the seeds of which the Fathers declare are to be found everywhere. All that is wise and true in the philosophies of antiquity, of Plato, of Plotinus, especially of Aristotle, has been incorporated into the Catholic system; all that is good and beautiful in their literature, arts and culture, whether of Hellas or Honolulu, is welcome to the Catholic mind.” In other words, Catholicism welcomes the natural goodness of the pagan world, which would extend even to pagan-inspired rituals of initiation.

    Mark, I would suggest that your hostility toward homosexuality, paganism, and, apparently, Richard Rohr may be unconsciously driven not be your fidelity to Catholicism so much as by a deep-seated fear of the feminine and/or a fear that God is angry and that you must earn his favor. That, incidentally, is a “pagan” notion that unfortunately is rampant within Catholicism and other forms of Christianity today, and which Jesus attacked head-on with his message of radical grace and unconditional forgiveness. Of course, I don’t know you, so I could be way off-base. But given the tenor of your comment, I would suggest that you take a closer look at your hidden assumptions about who God is and what it means to relate to him.

  • Liz

    I really don’t get the post about Fr. Rohr being stuck in a permanent homosexual adolescence. I’m not quite sure how you would get that from the posted video clip.

    If anything, I’ve always found Fr. Rohr to be very intelligent and thought provoking. And able to hear differing points of view without devolving into defensiveness.

    The whole homosexual aspect really has me puzzled. I’ve read Fr. Rohr’s book on male initiation and been to a one-day seminar with him on the subject. There was nothing the slightest bit homosexual in any part of either. In fact, if anything, he leans (much like all initiation rites for men) towards what could be called the macho…though I don’t think he’d term it that way. He’s very adamant that men need to be pushed to the physical edge in order to have a truly meaningful initiation into adulthood. He bases this belief on his own extensive anthropological research. From the reaction that I witnessed on the part of the men at the seminar, I’d say they agreed with him.

    And while the seminar was focused on men’s spiritual work, Richard Rohr had nothing but respect and openness for the women present. Actually, I’ve never seen him have anything but respect and openness for everyone. Course, I’m not watching him all day every day.

    As for any questions about his orthodoxy, I’d suggest that he is quite orthodox. But I’m not thinking preVatican II. I’m thinking Early Church Fathers.

  • Bob

    I’ve had a couple of conversations with Fr. Rohr’s organization and listened to a couple of his CD sets. Good wisdom for living is shared. If you Google his name you will find writings that are critical of what he is doing. I left the Roman Catholic faith for Evangelicalism due to a priest that wouldn’t affirm even the Nicean Creed. I know Rohr is sympathetic and affirms practicing homosexuality. His male initiation probably has about 15% practicing homo-sexuals. He although is anti-abortion and against pre-marital sexual intercourse he would deny the blood attonment, Original Sin, demonic oppression, male priesthood, all roads lead to God, Real Presense as understood by the recent Catechism. He practices the ecumenical Thomist Mass. He is syphthic to the teaching of Crosan,Borg and Spong. I guess my issue with Roman Catholicism is why his superiors still allow him to carry on. I know his superiors have confronted him in the past. Rohr uses Catholicism for his base to draw folks to likes of EckhartTolle and Oprah. There is no real Christianity in his teachings.

  • Liz

    I hate to make this all about Richard Rohr instead of the Emerging Church, but…

    I think you’re right, Bob, in some of your assessments of Rohr’s beliefs, but I’m unsure about others.

    For instance, I know that Rohr is sympathetic to homosexuals but not so sure that extends to the practice of homosexuality. This would be very much in keeping with the Catholic Church’s teaching.

    I also think he is in favor of ordaining women, but that opinion alone wouldn’t put him outside the church.

    I’m less certain about your statement about his belief about the Real Presence, simply because I’ve heard him say that he believes in the Real Presence and also because both his bishop and the Vatican have affirmed him as in keeping with church teachings. That would have been impossible if he was teaching against the Real Presence.

    There was a letter on the CAC website that specifically addressed many of the concerns you have stated. I can’t find it right now…I’ll keep looking and see if I can locate it.

  • Liz

    I do have to add that my previous post is only based on my own experience/reading/listening.

    It is very much a possibility that others could have additional information that would change my opinion.

    One thing about Richard Rohr, he is a lightening rod and does tend to generate strong emotions on both side.

  • Liz

    I had to go to wikipedia to find the letter Rohr wrote to his detractors. I don’t know if this will come up as a link. If not, just copy and paste into your browser.

  • Bob B

    Well, I work in the Church, am a Secular Franciscan, am a lifelong Catholic and an “observer” of Richard Rohr. I do think that some of his stuff is “edgey” but so was Jesus. The black and white for me does lie in the Magisterium and I’m not sure Rohr doesn’t toe the line and cross over from time to time. With that being said I do believe in the Emerging Church perhaps not in the sense it’s meant by others but the Church is a living breathing organism and is the body of Christ.

    I’ve been in Ministry for 22 years and the Church is changing, emerging. There is a renewal in the Traditions of the Liturgy and an expansion into the outer fringe. I see it as a creative tension although many see it as a threat. I believe it’s not an issue of “either or” but rather “both and”, the determining factor of course faithfulness to the teachings of the Church. We have an awful lot of room under the umbrella of the Catholic Faith. Take for example the Charismatic movement and the Byzantine Rite. Put the 2 side by side and you wouldn’t even know they’re both Catholic. Jesus’ prayer is that all may be one, and it is still our prayer today in the Liturgy. Many Protestants are migrating back to the Traditions of the Catholic Church. Just surf the web at different prayer movements like Lectio Divina and Contemplative Prayer. We have Liturgy in the venacular, Liturgy for Hispanics, Native Americans and others that include cultural norms in the Liturgy, so why not celebrate the Latin Rite it’s our heritage, why not include some of the old Traditions in a new way. We need to be solid in who we are as Catholics and then dialogue with other denominations about our commonalities and build on them. This is true Eucmenism. We are a living and breathing Church, we can’t help but act it. After all I do know the Person in charge quite well and regardless of what many think and unlike some of the higher ups in the banking industry he’s not going to let us run it into the ground and give us a $150 million bonus for doing it.

  • Judi

    The post-modern emergent church movement is in most (not all) ways, incompatible with Christianity. The post-modern emergent church movement uses the term “conversation” a lot. It is simply a “conversation” about God. To be a part of that movement requires NOTHING of people. Fr. Richard Rohr does have “a horse in that race” because in many ways, he seems to have beliefs that are more like the protestants than the Catholics. The information about him is readily available from his website. Judge for yourself. As for the Emergent movement, it is for people who are babies in Christ. Some of them might grow up, (let us pray for that), but others will stay babies to their potential eternal detriment. As a person who was involved in that movement for a short while, you can see I am not impressed by any of it.


    In response to Mark F:
    Conservative Catholics are doing the same thing with the Vatican Council that all of us Catholics have done for so many years with Scripture. We interpret it according to the litereary form we are most accustomed to in the chuch, the legalistic literary form.

    For the first time, an ecumenical council took as pastoral approach, similar to the gospels, and did not end with “let them be damned”. Conserbatives have not known what to think about that so they have supplied their own “anathemas” and are frustrated by non-legalistic talk about the “spirit” of the council. The spirit of the council is like the forest that can’t be seen because of all the missing anathema trees.