The Fr. Richard Rohr Phenomenon
by Father Bryce Andrew Sibley
During the past few years, I’ve noticed among Catholic circles a marked increase in the attention paid to the work of Fr. Richard Rohr. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Fr. Rohr wrote and spoke often on the Enneagram, but lately he seems to have abandoned “personality spirituality” for the now-popular “male spirituality.” Through several recent visits to my own diocese, Rohr has attracted quite a local following. So, in order to better understand the increasing “Rohr phenomenon,” I decided to purchase his most recent book, Adam’s Return, and attend a conference given by him titled “Men Matter: A Quest for the True Self.” Surprisingly, there were over 400 people in attendance, some having traveled hundreds of miles to be there. After reading the book, going through a few of his other writings, and then listening to his presentations, I have come to believe that Fr. Richard Rohr adheres to some very questionable, if not dangerous, beliefs. Although most of what he says and writes may appear harmless to most people, the discerning Catholic reader will notice that underneath the surface lie ideas and opinions, some of them fundamental to Rohr’s message, that reside outside of the realm of orthodox Catholic teaching. I would like to look at a few of these ideas here.
God the “Mother”?
Rohr began his presentation by speaking about the phenomenon of the “Father Wound” that he has noticed in young men throughout the world, but especially in the U.S. Many young men, he claims, grow up with weak, abusive, or absent fathers, which leaves the young men wounded. From that wound flows what Rohr calls a “Father Hunger” — a desire to have an authentic father figure in their lives. Rohr’s “masculine spirituality” uses symbols, archetypes, and rituals that, he argues, speak especially to males in order to help cure the “Father Wound.”
But Rohr fails to demonstrate a true Christian solution to the problem he diagnoses. I would argue that such a remedy must encourage a healthy family life and authentic fatherhood on earth, but most importantly must be founded in having the young men become aware of God the Father’s paternal love for them. Part of the reason that Rohr is unable to provide this solution is because of his flawed concept of Revelation, especially regarding the paternity of God.
Rohr makes it very clear that he does not want to be limited to having to call God “Father.” He writes in Adam’s Return (which was the basis for his presentations) that we must “find public ways to recognize, honor, and name the feminine nature of God….”
Rohr bases this claim on his belief that “God is the ultimate combination of whatever it means to be male and whatever it means to be female.” He asserts that God is in no way sexed, and here he seems to be in agreement with the Catechism, which states: “In no way is God in man’s image. He is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the difference between the sexes” (#370). However, this does not mean that it would be proper to refer to God as “Mother.” Rohr’s thesis runs into the problem of Divine Revelation: Christ has definitively revealed God as Father. To say that God could just as easily be called “Mother” is in direct contradiction to Divine Revelation. As the Catechism states, “Jesus revealed that God is Father in an unheard-of sense: He is Father not only in being Creator; he is eternally Father in relation to his only Son, who is eternally Son only in relation to his Father…” (#240).
Rohr’s problem also extends to his vision of the Church. During his presentations, he made several negative references to patriarchy, particularly to the Church as a patriarchal institution (patriarchy finding its roots in the Latin word pater, meaning “father”). The vague references he made during the conference become clearer when seen in relation to what he writes about the patriarchal dimension of the Church in his book Simplicity, in the first chapter, titled, “God the Father — God the Mother?” Here Rohr describes the structure of Catholicism as patriarchal. Jesus was happy to call God “father,” but “presumably that has something to do with his patriarchal culture.” The Gospel text then “reveals the beginnings of the bias against women,” and the beginnings of patriarchy. Our “liturgical texts are almost completely patriarchal, and they perpetuate this narrow image of God.” But fortunately (according to Rohr), “we belong to the first generation of the Church that has come to consciously recognize our patriarchal biases.”
Like many others today, Rohr thinks that patriarchy carries a negative connotation. Once again, however, he runs into the problem of Revelation. It was Christ who became incarnate as male, who deliberately chose men to lead His Church.
Although the Church is patriarchal by structure and office, the true symbol of the Church is not Peter, but Mary. Maybe having a more developed image of the Church as feminine would assuage Rohr’s desire to have God reveal Himself in feminine terms.
The ultimate irony here is that, while concentrating on the problem of rejecting our earthly fathers, Fr. Rohr rejects his heavenly Father. He also rejects the spiritual fathers whom God has called to be representatives of His paternal authority on earth. It follows logically that if someone rejects the definitive Revelation of God as Father, then it is very difficult to teach men to be good Christian fathers (or males) themselves.
The reality of sexual difference — that man was created as male and female by God for a reason — is a basic teaching of Catholic anthropology and theology. Pope John Paul II wrote beautifully about the significance of sexual difference in his apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem, in which he calls the reality of man being created as male and female a “truth which is immutably fixed in human experience” (#2). At first, I was encouraged to see that Rohr appeared to ground his “male spirituality” in the reality of sexual difference as one truly positive aspect of his presentation. However, when I took a closer look at some of his other writings, particularly those dealing with homosexuality, I began to question whether Rohr really holds a strong belief in the importance of sexual difference.
The website of Soulforce, a homosexual advocacy group, carries a letter written by Fr. Rohr (dated 2000) supporting this organization’s mission. Soulforce claims that its purpose is non-violent resistance to the “spiritual violence” perpetrated against “gay,” lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons by social and religious groups. The Soulforce website defines spiritual violence as “the misuse of religion to sanction the condemnation and rejection of any of God’s children.” Soulforce claims that spiritual violence is a misuse of God and religion to perpetuate society’s prejudices against “gays,” lesbians, etc. Needless to say, Soulforce protests the condemnation of homosexual activity and homosexual “marriages” by the Church and other religious organizations.
Rohr’s support of Soulforce and its goals is rooted in his interpretation of Jesus’ all-inclusive love. He writes that the Church has failed to live up to the Gospel values by “judging” and “excluding” homosexuals. He hopes that the Church will realize the error of her ways, but until she does he hopes that Soulforce will maintain its loving, inclusive position because “our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered brothers and sisters have been left outside of [Christ’s] realm of grace for far too long.”
Since homosexual activity is the ultimate denial of sexual difference, Rohr’s support of homosexual-advocacy groups such as Soulforce (and thus his implicit support of homosexual activity) is a radical contradiction of the apparent importance he places on sexual difference in his presentation on “male spirituality.” As the Catechism states, “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.’ They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved” (#2357). “They do not proceed from a genuine sexual complementarity” clearly states that homosexual activity runs counter to the God-given meaning of sexual difference.
There is yet another irony. While Rohr endorses the work of a homosexual advocacy group (on that group’s website), he criticizes political conservatives active in the 2004 presidential election for their preoccupation with what he refers to as a “body oriented morality.” He writes in an essay posted on the website of his Center for Action and Contemplation, “In the upcoming years we must find ways to address this ‘body oriented’ morality, which has always held churchy people captive, but now seems to be widespread. The body holds human shame and inferiority, and people can be most controlled at that level…. We [i.e., political conservatives] want body morality, not really a demanding Biblical morality. No concern about social values, or justice values, or basic truthfulness, just puritanical concern for keeping human bodies so called ‘pure,’ by preoccupation with issues like abortion, those terrible gays, and stem cell research. All of which can be addressed by a more nuanced morality. But America does not like nuance or compassion…. These body issues, these pretensions at being pro-life, demand very little change of 90% of the population, but allow us to remain preoccupied with trying to change others. How convenient for the ego. How disturbing for the future of religion and state.” Rohr echoed these same sentiments in his conference when he said that religious people often use religion to condemn others, particularly those who participate in abortion and homosexual activity. Religious people do this, he claimed, so that they do not have to hear the Gospel message and transform themselves. (Of course, Rohr is condemning those who condemn.)
So, if Rohr thinks we should look beyond these “body issues” to a more “demanding Biblical morality” why is he so concerned with the “body issue” of homosexuality?
“He Was Paying No Debt”
And so our discussion of the body brings us to Rohr’s thinking on the Redemption that Christ brought about in His body. In the first chapter of Adam’s Return, Rohr makes this very puzzling assertion regarding the Incarnation: “‘Incarnation is already redemption,’ and you do not need any blood sacrifice to display God’s commitment to humanity. Once God says yes to flesh, then flesh is no longer bad but the very ‘hiding and revealing’ place of God.” Rohr is saying that the crucifixion of our Lord was not necessary for redemption; that the Incarnation already brought about redemption. This is made more evident in this passage from his critique of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, supposedly taking the teaching of John Duns Scotus as his justification: “As many of you know, I am a strong proponent of the Franciscan understanding of the redemption, based on the teaching of Blessed John Duns Scotus in the 13th century. He did not believe in any ‘substitutionary atonement theory’ of the cross: Jesus did not have to die to make God love us, he was paying no debt, He was changing no Divine mind. Jesus was only given to change our mind about the nature of God! (Imagine what we are saying about the Father, if he needed blood from his son to decide to love us! It is an incoherent world with no organic union between Creator and creature. No wonder so few Christians have gone on the mystical path of love, since God is basically untrustworthy and more than a little dangerous.) For Duns Scotus, Jesus was the ‘image of the invisible God’ who revealed to us a God’s eternal suffering love for humanity, in an iconic form that we could not forget. He was not ‘necessary,’ but a pure gift. The suffering was simply to open our hearts, not to open God’s — which was always open.”
I will not belabor arguing the point in detail that the crucifixion and death of our Lord was not only part of God’s eternal plan but also necessary for the atonement of sins. I would hope all faithful Catholics already know this. Rohr’s teaching here is at best confused. It does not seem clear to me that the “substitutionary atonement theory” teaches that the death of Christ was necessary for God to love us or to change His mind about us. What the atonement theory does teach, however, is that there is a real debt rendered to God when we sin, which is our death. How can we, of ourselves, mend a relationship initiated freely by God Himself? How could our sin, our rejection of the free friendship offered us by God at the creation, result in anything else but our death? In terms of our sinfulness, only God can fix what we broke, and He did. Christ died in our place. He himself suffered the real punishment for our real sins — He paid the debt — and therefore those who accept Christ have access to divine life.
Instead of focusing on Rohr’s error in claiming that Christ’s death was not necessary for redemption, let’s look at his teaching on Original Sin and how his teaching leads to an erroneous proposition. In the section on Original Sin in Adam’s Return, Rohr says that Original Sin “names the ‘corporate body pain’ that we all suffer from together.” It is the “tragic flaw in all of us” and we should not “waste time blaming anybody” for its existence. It is the collective hurts that have been passed on to us by our parents, just as they were passed on to them. Baptism washes away this “original wound” and “our endless capacity for self-rejection and self-hatred” by “situating one’s life in a much bigger picture.” For Rohr, Original Sin is the “original wounding,” it is the “shadow self that you do not understand,” “the dark side that seems to be in everything,” “the common pain of being human.” “It does not deserve punishment. It deserves tears.”
Clearly, Rohr has a very weak understanding of Original Sin. Once again, I do not think it necessary to go into great detail about the teaching of the Church on Original Sin (see the Catechism, #388-421). It should suffice to say that Original Sin comes as the result of the sin of the first man. It resulted in the loss of the state of grace and a tendency toward sin that is passed on through human nature. It is more than just a “tragic flaw” or an “original wound” — it is a loss of grace and divine friendship, which is what necessitates a Messiah and Redeemer. One paragraph from the Catechism explains this point particularly well: “The doctrine of original sin is, so to speak, the ‘reverse side’ of the Good News that Jesus is the Savior of all men, that all need salvation, and that salvation is offered to all through Christ. The Church, which has the mind of Christ, knows very well that we cannot tamper with the revelation of original sin without undermining the mystery of Christ” (#389).
Here we see the real root of Rohr’s redemptive theology. His “tampering” with the correct understanding of Original Sin truly leads to an undermining of the saving mystery of Christ. If Original Sin is nothing more than a “tragic flaw” or “shadow side,” if Original Sin is not seen from the perspective of the fall from grace, then the just penalty due for that, and hence the necessity of salvation, of Christ, His message, His death and Resurrection are all meaningless. As the above quote from the Catechism points out, one cannot have the Good News of salvation that comes through Christ without the bad news of condemnation that comes through Adam. Without a proper understanding of Original Sin, Christ is reduced to nothing more than a prophet who teaches us to love ourselves, and this is unfortunately who Rohr’s Christ turns out to be.
“People Who Creatively Hold the Tension of Opposites”
As we have already seen, Rohr is fond of the theology of John Duns Scotus. It is fair to say that between Scotus and St. Thomas, and therefore between Scotists and Thomists, there exists a significant difference in their regard for human reason. In comparison to Thomists, Scotists manifest a marked distrust of the native intellectual powers of the soul. This leads them, in some cases, to a greater trust in the will and the emotions, not only in theological discourse but also in the spiritual life. Rohr’s descriptions of the spiritual life often unfold in this vein, especially in Simplicity. He claims that “we tend to find out if things are true or false by engagement with them instead of thinking or theorizing about them.” But there are dangers in relying primarily on experience.
Throughout his talks, Rohr made a number of negative remarks about those who search for answers in religion instead of being willing to put themselves in a “liminal space” deprived of answers. There were also several subtle snide comments reserved for those concerned with orthodoxy and doctrine. Rohr has several sections in Simplicity criticizing those who feel compelled to be “right” dogmatically. Rohr claims that one should renounce being right and instead “‘go deep in one place’ and let your God lead you to a place of surrender, love, and humility.” Speaking from his own experience, Rohr writes, “I have found that a great deal of wisdom comes in the world through people who creatively hold the tension of opposites on difficult and complex issues.”
While elaborating on this nebulous position, Rohr makes condescending remarks about those who hold fast to dogma and doctrine, especially young laymen and young clergy. In Adam’s Return he asks why so many intelligent young people are attracted to “very conservative politics and fundamentalist religion.” He surmises that the reason is that young people need order in their lives, and they find this in tradition and dogmatism. He also notes that many young laymen and young clergy today have a longing to return to an earlier and false innocence that never really existed. As they get older, and hopefully undergo some form of “mystical” experience, however, Rohr hopes that they will realize the inadequacy of their youthful views. Rohr also notes in several of his works that Jesus never spoke about moral issues such as homosexuality and abortion. Jesus’ sole concern was effecting justice, loving the poor and marginalized, and bringing about the “Kingdom of God.”
However, God has given us the gift of reason so that we might understand His laws and meditate upon His Revelation. Faith is a supernatural gift for the intellect, which allows us to know what God knows. Both faith and reason must work together in spiritual life, and this necessarily creates in the Church a place for doctrine and dogma. By refusing to search for and acknowledge a definitive right and wrong, especially in the moral life, one becomes a fool, not a sage. It is just this type of muddled thinking that is used to justify the moral relativism present in the Church and in the world. And certainly this leads to moral chaos, when no one can claim to know right from wrong.
Rohr’s critique of the young who search for orthodoxy betrays a subtle ad hominem argument — he contends that it is just because the young are young that they believe such things. He does not address their position, but casts off the position outright simply because of their age.
In reference to his insistence on getting back to Jesus, Rohr seems to forget that there are other writings in the New Testament, also inspired by the Holy Spirit. For example, in his first letter to the Corinthians, we hear St. Paul making such dogmatic statements as, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts [active homosexuals], nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God” (6:9-10).
We also hear St. Paul say such things as, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths” (2 Tim. 4:1-4). These passages seem pretty insistent on dogma and sound teaching.
A central theme of Rohr’s “male spirituality” is the importance of ritual for the transformation of the male. Through these rituals, these rites of initiation, the man is supposed to experience his powerlessness through some form of suffering, and later emerge as Jonah from the whale, a transformed and more spiritually aware man. Traditionally, the sacred liturgy and the rituals surrounding the Sacraments were the way in which Catholics (both men and women) experienced this ritualistic initiation and transformation (especially through the Sacraments of Initiation). Rohr, however, criticizes Catholic ritual for not having any efficacy in the form that it presently takes. His concern is that the Sacraments lose the ability to transform if their accompanying ritual does not produce a desired psychological effect.
I will be the first to admit that there is something lacking today in the Church’s sacramental celebrations, but Rohr’s proposal for solving this problem is strange. Instead of advocating an authentic renewal of the Sacraments and the rituals surrounding them, he has taken it upon himself to create new rituals that, he hopes, will speak to the men of today. In fact, the appendix of Adam’s Return gives an outline of a sample rite for men. The sponsoring of such male rituals is one of the main activities of Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Men from around America pay hundreds of dollars to “find themselves” in the New Mexico desert. What makes these rituals problematic for discerning Catholics is that they draw from and retain elements of various pagan rites of initiation.
Rohr argued at his conference that the rites that inspired him are Native American. Most disturbing was Rohr’s description of crawling around naked on all fours with a group of men in a Native American sweat lodge. He gushed about what a powerful experience it was for him. But Christ came to free us from such pagan rituals.
Rohr’s almost uncritical adoption of religious rituals alien to the Gospel brings us to the main problem with his theory of male initiation. Rohr’s rites can in no way bring about Christian redemption or a thorough understanding of who we are as baptized sons of the Father and brothers of Jesus Christ. Only a deep surrender to the person Jesus Christ, through prayer and confession of His Name, in and with the means made available through the Church, can do that. Only in Christ will man come to know who he truly is and find the spiritual transformation he is seeking. Pagan ritual cannot provide this.
To his detriment, Rohr, in his writings and conferences, gives the impression that Christ is not truly the divine Son of God, whose sufferings redeemed us from our sins, but rather just another guru, prophet, or great moral teacher, who like so many others before Him came to show us the path to self-enlightenment. Constantly quoting Buddha, Joseph Campbell, and Hindu aphorisms, Rohr’s syncretistic vision of Christ strips the Incarnate Son of God of His divinity and His uniqueness as mankind’s only Savior. Rohr’s unfortunate flirtation with paganism or Arianism leaves his wounded men naked, on all fours, crawling in the dark on the floor of the New Mexico desert, looking blindly for meaning in their lives, instead of humbly approaching Christ, their Lord and Savior.
At the conference I explained to another attendee that I did not think Rohr should call his “male spirituality” Catholic. This individual responded that I was being too rigid in my interpretation of Catholicism, that Rohr just has a very “broad” sense of what it means to be Catholic. To which I posed this situation in reply: Imagine that you, a Cajun, traveled to some state in the Midwest and went to a restaurant advertising that it sold “Cajun food” and you ordered a bowl of gumbo. But what was brought out to you was a bowl of watery soup with a few pieces of steak floating in it. Would you call that authentic “Cajun food”? Of course not. No Cajun in his right mind would. Then why would you be more dogmatic in your approach to food than in your approach to your faith?
In sum, Rohr’s presentation of his so-called “male spirituality” should certainly not be called Catholic. Though he claimed at his conference to sit in the “larger Christian and Catholic tradition,” he fails to demonstrate how referring to God as Mother, encouraging homosexual advocacy, denying the spiritual reality of Original Sin, denying the necessity of the Cross for redemption, and promoting pagan rituals resides within the Catholic or even Christian tradition.The Rev. Bryce Sibley, STL, who holds a Licentiate degree from the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family in Rome, is Pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Parks, Louisiana, in the Diocese of Lafayette.