"Atheocracy" is not the kind of word that gets tossed around in bars.
Nevertheless, Bishop James Conley recently defined that term and defended its use while speaking in a pub in the heart of Denver's trendy Capitol Hill neighborhood. The goal, as always, was to use this "Theology on Tap" forum for an informal, frank encounter with young Catholics and others who might be curious.
"America today is becoming what I would call an atheocracy -- a society that is actively hostile to religious faith and religious believers. And I might add -- the faith that our society is most hostile toward is Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular," said Conley, who is serving as apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Denver until Pope Benedict XVI names a new archbishop.
"I think we all recognize that there is a new mentality in America, one that has grave risks for all believers -- and puts in jeopardy all faith-based movements for social change and renewal. An atheocracy is a dangerous place -- morally and spiritually. ... We risk becoming a nation without a soul, a people with no common purpose apart from material pursuits."
What happened next was as ironic as public discourse gets these days.
Although Conley was speaking in an isolated part of Stoney's Bar and Grill, some patrons in the establishment began making snide remarks. Eventually, one man aimed obscene remarks at the bishop.
On top of that, the management said some workers complained about serving the bishop and the crowd that came out to hear him on a cold weeknight. It seemed that allowing a bishop to talk theology while sharing a few beers with his flock was too controversial for some customers and bar staffers.
The story spread quickly in the Catholic blogosphere.