Tags: "Secrets of the Vatican", "The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk", "The New Anti-Catholicism", Anti-Catholicism, Boz Chividijian, Catholic clergy sex abuse, PBS Frontline, Philip Jenkins, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis, Pope John Paul II, Thomas Doyle
As you may have discerned, I am not a wild fan of the Vatican. I have been working for forty years to get women ordained in the Catholic Church, and such endless banging of the head against Vatican walls has not warmed me toward the boys over there. I also think that the church’s teaching on homosexuality, if not changed significantly, will seriously reduce our numbers sooner or later, even in Africa. That’s certainly what’s happening in the U.S.
But I also spent the 1990s getting a Ph.D. in religion, with a specialization in Catholicism. During that time I learned a good deal about anti-Catholicism. I learned, for example, that in the mid-19th century, a bestseller, The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed, virtually identified Catholicism with pornographic sexuality. The book was later almost completely discredited, but it has been reprinted many times. And lest you think U.S. anti-Catholicism is a purely pre-Civil War phenomenon, consider that during the 1960 presidential campaign, leading U.S. Protestant ministers, including Norman Vincent Peale, portrayed John Fitzgerald Kennedy as a Vatican stooge, more or less. And as historian Philip Jenkins argues in The New Anti-Catholicism, since the onset of the sex abuse scandals, Americans say things about the Catholic church that had been socially unacceptable since JFK’s election.
So I wasn’t too hopeful about the February PBS Frontline “documentary,” “The Secrets of the Vatican.” The title itself sounds like something Maria Monk dreamed up. In fact, the film is about problems during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But a title like that wouldn’t attract leering millions, would it? And the PBS channel here in New York showed the documentary in the 9 PM slot, instead of the usual Frontline slot of 10 PM. I wonder why?
It’s hard, too, not to call to mind Maria Monk during the first fifty minutes of the eight-four minute film, devoted as they are almost exclusively to clergy sex abuse and lewd homosexual practices ostensibly by very many priests and hierarchs in Rome. This is not to say that I am in favor of child sex abuse (!), or clerical hypocrisy either. But things have come to a point where it’s almost impossible to say anything positive about the Catholic church without someone bringing up clergy sex abuse–and this applies to many liberal Catholics, not just Protestants and seculars. In point of fact, the Catholic church is the single largest provider of health care in the world. Some Vatican congregation supervised all of that under the last two popes. Should they maybe get a mention, along with the congregations that covered up clergy pedophilia and adult sodomy?
The film’s characterization of various aspects of the Vatican State, too, is problematic, overstated, sensationalized. Take, for example, the ominous references to the Vatican’s being a free-standing state, with no accompanying mention that before 1861, the Papal States constituted a significant portion of Italy, from one coast to the other. In 1870, it was deprived of all its territory except Vatican City and became the smallest state in Europe. Some challenge the Vatican’s right to be a state at all, but it has as much historical legitimacy as the British monarchy, or more.
Similarly, Thomas Doyle’s description of the church as an absolute monarchy is seriously over the top. I have said myself on numerous occasions that the governance structure of the institutional church is that of an absolute monarchy. Please note the qualification there: of the institutional church. Doyle, a canon lawyer who has fought heroically for the rights of sex abuse victims, says the church is an absolute monarchy down to each individual member. If that were true, I’d be in jail. And I am theoretically self-excommunicated for continuing after 1994 to speak out in favor of the ordination of women. But that matters only if one of my pastors since then cared to pursue the issue. None of them have, or would. Lots of them are similarly theoretically self-excommunicated.
Some may dispute my argument that “The Secrets of the Vatican” is anti-Catholic because of the enthusiasm shown for Pope Francis in the last quarter of the film. And indeed, this section of the film is more nuanced than the rest, with some of those interviewed offering cautions about how much (or little) Pope Francis will be able to do in the few years that may be available to him; he was 77 years old when elected, after all. But the “pope-mania” expressed in the last quarter of the film also strongly reinforces, by contrast, the film’s portrayal of the previous two popes as demons.
Dealing with representations of the Vatican is a tricky business. There’s a lot in the Vatican that really does demand reform. But I refuse to err in the opposite direction, becoming a participant, even inadvertently, in the virulent anti-Catholicism that has poisoned this Protestant country for much of the last few centuries. In point of fact, last October, Boz Chividijian, Billy Graham’s grandson, and the head an organization fighting clergy sex abuse in Protestant settings, wrote in the Huffington Post that he believes, with regard to sex abuse, that Evangelicals are worse than Catholics. I wonder what the odds are that a future Frontline documentary will be titled “Secrets of the Evangelical Underground”?
Tags: antibiotic resistance, factory farming, Food and Drug Administration, Food and Water Watch, Grail in the US
You may wonder what antibiotic resistance has to do with American Catholicism. But the Catholic Church is pro-life, right? As my brief piece below, that appeared previously in the weekly news of the U.S. Grail reports, thousands of people die each year from antibiotic resistant infections, in large part because of the behavior of the factory farm industry. Surely a pro-life church would be opposed to that, and its clergy would be speaking forcefully against it from their pulpits!
On Christmas Eve, I got a pain in my right index finger. The next day, the finger had swollen up like a cigar and hurt something awful. Luckily, the antibiotic that the doctor prescribed cured the infection in a few days. But not everybody is so lucky. Resistance to antibiotics is a growing problem. Each year, at least two million Americans fall ill – and 23,000 die – from antibiotic-resistant infections (AR)
One of the causes of AR is doctors prescribing unneeded antibiotics–for colds, for example. But another major cause is low-dose antibiotics fed to cattle, pigs and chicken on factory farms to speed their growth and increase profits. Currently, 80 per cent of the antibiotics in the US are used on food animals. A fact sheet on the Food and Water Watch website details the problem.
In December, the FDA at least acknowledged this by issuing a “voluntary regulation that urges drug companies and agriculture corporations to apply a standard of ‘judicious use’ when distributing antibiotics to food animals.” The Natural Resources Defense Council and others argue that this move is inadequate because it still allows giving antibiotics to healthy animals to prevent disease-a loophole that could continue indiscriminate use. (“Preventive” antibiotic use is common in factory farms where crowded conditions cause diseases to spread rapidly.)
To prevent the steady increase in antibiotic resistant bacteria, it’s crucial that Congress regulate the unneeded use of antibiotics in food animals. Please sign the Food and Water Watch petition to your members of Congress expressing your support of House and Senate bills to do exactly that.
(Note that this post is way under 500 words!)
Tags: aging parents, Alexander Payne's "Nebraska", Bruce Dern, Clearwater Florida, stroke
First, a confession: you haven’t heard much from me in the past month because I’ve been in Florida. My husband and I drove down to Clearwater to keep an eye on his ninety-two year-old Mom, Betty, while one of his sisters had double cataract surgery and the other went to Hawaii. Although we have friends who post pictures on Facebook all throughout their vacations, Keith thinks it’s not smart to announce over the internet our absence from an apartment on the western edge of Flatbush, Brooklyn. We wouldn’t want anyone stopping by to pick up some free electronics. And I couldn’t quite get my head around writing as if we were in Brooklyn. So–silence.
I also found it hard to write much because Keith’s Mom was a lot worse than we had anticipated. We kind of thought we were going on vacation and would visit Betty two or three times a week. But since Keith was last there, his mother had at least one small stroke (we suspect more) and some nasty skin cancer surgery, and she was not at all the Betty we once knew. Last summer, she was driving herself to church and to the hairdresser; now she needs help getting out of her chair and gets confused really fast. Keith drove over to her independent living facility from our pink and turquoise efficiency apartment on Tampa Bay almost every day. He also took the opportunity to upgrade her into assisted living, get her switched to in-house doctors, get her hearing-aid fixed, and try to take the whole thing in. It’s a sobering experience to see somebody go from cheerful, energetic and independent to confused, grouchy, and needy in such a short time. I didn’t always go over with Keith; I did a certain amount of walking up and down Clearwater Beach and reading Margaret MacMillan’s unforgettable study of the years leading up to World War I. But I also spent a lot of time talking with Keith about his Mom and what it means for a parent to be so clearly moving toward death.
In the middle of all this, we drove over to St. Petersburg one night to see Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. It was deeply moving to watch such a brilliantly crafted narrative of the relationship between a father in decline and his family while we were trying to take in the sudden decline of the last remaining of our four parents. We were mesmerized by the trip to Lincoln Nebraska the younger son of the Bruce Dern character, Woody, takes his father on to pick up the million dollars he most certainly didn’t win in a sort of Publishers’ Clearinghouse scam. The austere black and white photography of the Nebraska landscape seemed better suited to the issues we were confronting than the brilliant Florida sunlight (though I must confess, the sunlight cheered me up as well).
We arrived back in Brooklyn on the weekend. Keith has called his Mom several times. His sisters are on the job, but Betty sounds as confused and unhappy as when we were there with her. It’s snowed twice since we got home. The black and white and gray remind us of Nebraska.
Tags: diabetes, genetically modified organisms, high fructose corn syrup, obesity epidemic, Type 2 diabetes
Last August, as some of you know, I got a surprise. After my annual checkup, my doctor emailed to say that I had a pre-diabetic glucose level.
I won’t go into my ignorance about Type 2 diabetes; I honestly thought you had to be fat in order to get it, and I wasn’t, so I ate whatever I felt like. What really amazed me, though, is the number of people I subsequently encountered who said they were also pre-diabetic. And then there were the two close friends who shared with me that they have full-blown Type 2 diabetes. Truth is, my friends and I are part of, or risk becoming part of, an epidemic of Type 2 diabetes in the U.S. and many other countries around the world.
To begin with, let’s get clear about the extent of the epidemic. Ninety to 95% of all U.S. diabetes cases are Type 2. (Type 1 diabetes, which often begins in childhood, is linked to genetics and/or viruses. Type 2 diabetes is linked to diet, weight, and exercise.) In 2013, according to the American Diabetes Association, 25.8 million Americans, 8.3% of the population, have diabetes, though 7 million of these cases are undiagnosed. And though only 1% of this number, or about 215,000, are under the age of eighteen, until fairly recently, Type 2 diabetes in children was almost unheard of. And childhood Type 2 diabetes is projected to balloon in the future.
Also, 79 million Americans have pre-diabetes. This means, according to the Centers for Disease Control, they “have blood sugar levels that are higher than normal, but not high enough for a diagnosis of diabetes. They are at higher risk for developing Type 2 diabetes and … without lifestyle changes to improve their health, 15% to 30% of people with pre-diabetes will develop Type 2 diabetes within 5 years.” Twenty-five per cent of seniors have diabetes, and as many as 1 in 3 American adults will have diabetes by 2050 if present trends continue. Furthermore, diabetes is a major cause of heart disease, blindness, kidney disease, nerve damage, hearing loss, and limb amputation; it contributes to over 404,000 deaths annually. Finally, 85% of diabetes patients are overweight or obese.
There’s no use pretending that those of us suffering from Type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes don’t share some responsibility for our condition. But the food industry, and the politicians they lobby, are more responsible than we are, because the obesity epidemic that is one of the major causes of the diabetes epidemic parallels almost exactly certain major changes in U.S. agriculture that began in the 1970s. That’s when the federal government stopped paying farmers to limit their production, a practice that had stabilized the price of farm products. Instead, they began to pay farmers according to how much they produced, resulting in a huge increase in agricultural output.
But to do this, farmers had to make major changes in what and how they farmed. In particular, the new farm policy led farmers to grow more and more corn, and to use more and more chemical fertilizers and pesticides on that corn. This enabled corn plants to grow much more closely together, resulting in greater output from fewer acres. Greater output lowered corn prices, so beef farmers could afford to feed their cattle corn instead of grass. This lowered the price of beef. The use of antibiotics also increased the amount of fat in beef. Fast food hamburgers are now one of the single greatest causes of obesity in the country.
In addition, corn plants were genetically modified to increase the amount of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that could be made from their kernels. Putting aside the health problems caused by consuming genetically modified food, the massive increase in the production of this corn led in the 1980s to a parallel massive reduction in the price of HFCS. Today, HFCS is the primary sweetener in fast and processed foods, in particular, sweetened beverages, consumption of which is another major cause of the obesity epidemic. As these changes in U.S. agriculture were taking place, fast foods became cheaper and cheaper.
Of course, none of this would be possible without government support. U.S. tariffs make imported real sugar two or three times more expensive than U.S. genetically modified sweeteners. And farmers couldn’t survive on the low prices agribusiness pays for the corn they grow without government subsidies. In effect, our taxes are funding the obesity and diabetes epidemics—as well as the food industry itself.
One thing we can do to stop these epidemics is to stop eating foods made with high fructose corn syrup and other genetically modified corn products—like the corn oil that fast food French fries are cooked in. But doing so is, for the most part, an option only for educated people who read labels, research food ingredients, etc. and have choices. Unfortunately, the people most harmed by the obesity and diabetes epidemics are poor people and people of color. Compared to non-Hispanic whites, Hispanics are 1.7 times as likely to have diagnosed diabetes and non-Hispanic blacks 1.8 times as likely. Cheap food is all some people can afford.
Education could help to change this situation, of course. But the real solution is to take our government back from the food industry and its lobbyists. We need to tell our federal and ￼￼￼￼￼￼state representatives that funding the destruction of our people’s health is totally unacceptable. We have to tell them this over and over and get our families and friends to tell them too, until this insane situation is rectified.
(A version of this article appeared in the January 2014 edition of Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the USA.)
Tags: Catholic church and women, Catholic Sisters, U.S. Catholic sisters, Vatican, WGCU
Last weekend I was down in Ft. Myers, Florida, talking with the SW Florida branch of the Catholic reform group Call to Action about my recent book, Sister Trouble and the 2012 Vatican crackdown on U.S. Catholic sisters. I hope to share with you what I said there in a future post.
In connection with the book talk, however, I was interviewed on the local NPR station, WGCU. In lieu of a blogpost, here’s the link to the interview. I suspect you will have no trouble recognizing my sweet, receptive feminine voice. ( :
Tags: Bill Moyers, Moyers and Co., Pope Francis, pope-mania, The Nation magazine, the ordination of Catholic women, Thomas Cahill, women and poverty
Well, what the NCR’s John Allen calls “pope-mania” seems only to be increasing as the year winds down.
Last night, Bill Moyers started his weekly show by interviewing the popular writer and Jesuit-educated Thomas Cahill on Pope Francis and poverty. Now truth be told, Cahill sometimes sounds like a pre-Vatican II cleric; at one point in the interview he explains, in all seriousness, that there are two tendencies in the world–kindness and cruelty. About those who are sometimes kind and sometimes cruel (i.e., most of us), he had nothing to say. Nonetheless, there he was, holding forth about the pope as a living example of the Sermon on the Mount: blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, etc.
Then, in this morning’s New York Times, we find a former head of the World Bank, Robert Calderisi, explaining that although Pope Francis may seem radical, he is actually promoting traditional Catholic social teaching, from Pope Leo XIII, through Pius XII, to pope-to be John XXIII. This may come as something of a shock to the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who not so long ago condemned U.S. nuns for being too concerned about such matters, as well as for the majority of U.S. Catholic bishops, who have been making clear for several decades that Catholic social teaching (unlike sexual teaching) is at the bottom of the church’s ideological hierarchy and therefore entirely optional.
But for me, the most astonishing example of ongoing pope-enthusiasm is Harvey Cox’s article on Pope Francis and liberation theology in the January 6/13 issue of The Nation. To grasp the full significance of this, you need to understand that before the election of JFK, The Nation was a blatantly anti-Catholic magazine, publishing, for example, a series of virulently nativist articles by Paul Blanshard that eventually became the best-selling, American Freedom and Catholic Power. Yet here in that same magazine we have the distinctly Baptist (though not Southern Baptist) Harvey Cox announcing with glee that Pope Francis may bring about a second act for the enormously influential liberation theology repressed by his two authoritarian predecessors.
Those who have read my previous posts about Pope Francis know that I am less than enthusiastic about his position on women, especially women’s ordination. Announcing that “the door is closed” on an issue does not constitute a theological argument, as a scholar-friend pointed out recently. And I was appalled once again by the apathy of all the commentators cited here regarding the pope’s position on women’s ordination. It’s just not something the pope can do anything about, said Cahill. And Cox cites the ordination of women (but not the ordination of married men) as an (in fact the) prime example of the ways in which too many people have excessively high expectations of what Francis can do. That the inferior status of women in the the world’s largest religious organization may contribute to the fact that the majority of the world’s poor are women seems beyond the imagination of these white male commentators. Anyhow, everybody knows that feminism is over.
But even I am forced to admit that after so many years, having a pope speak out about the poor is a terrific first step. Let’s pray that Pope Francis does even more brave and wonderful things in 2014.
Tags: Bernd Heinrich, chestnut trees, ethanol, milkweed, the monarch butterfly, winter solstice
Well, for seasonal affective types like me, the winter solstice is something wonderful. I probably won’t really be able to tell that tomorrow is a minute brighter than today was, but the thought of it makes me happy.
Accompanying this oddly situated reminder that winter will come to an end are not one but two hope-inspiring pieces today in the New York Times. The first is by a retired biology professor from the University of Vermont, Bernd Heinrich, narrating his experience of successfully growing American chestnut trees in his 600 acre forest in western Maine. Chestnut trees, we learn, were once thirty percent of the hardwood forests of the eastern U.S. but were almost totally wiped out by a fungal blight a century ago. Within fifty years, an estimated four billion trees had vanished.
But Heinrich planted four chestnut seedlings in 1982, and several of them are now thirty-five feet tall. And their seeds are being “planted” throughout the forest. Heinrich did not have a lot of hope for his four seedlings, but there they are, thirty years later, thriving, and reproducing.
The second article tells of a growing movement to rescue the endangered monarch butterfly. The effort focuses on getting people to plant milkweed seeds on their land, lawns, wherever. Members of the movement are doing this because milkweed seeds are the monarch caterpillar’s only food, but the number of milkweed plants has declined massively in recent years.
The author admits that there are a number of causes of the decline of the monarch butterfly–drought, extreme weather, illegal logging in Mexico, fungicides, and pesticides, among others. But the greatest threat to the monarch butterfly, we learn, is the serious decline of its milkweed habitat in the Midwest and the Great Plains, where many monarchs breed. The milkweed decline was precipitated by the federal government’s order in 2007 that gasoline be laced with corn-based ethanol, and their then allowing farmers to take land out of federal conservation reserves to meet the soaring demand for corn. Since then, 17,500 acres of reserves that were previously available for wildlife and wild plants like milkweed have been converted to corn.
But now, a number of groups are growing and distributing milkweed seeds, encouraging people–and by no means only farmers–to plant them. The response has been enthusiastic.
Both articles acknowledge that many problems still face the chestnut tree and the monarch butterfly. The fungus that killed the chestnuts is present on other trees in the Northeast and could wipe them out once more. And the effort to save the monarch butterfly is in a sense more symbolic than substantive; we could win that battle and still lose the larger war against environmental destruction.
But on this shortest day of the year, it cheers me no end to think about those chestnut trees in western Maine, and the possible revival of the monarch butterflies I visited once in southern California–
a tiny but real increase in the sunlight as we bundle up for winter.
Tags: Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator SJ, Catholic women's ordination, Gene Burns, Pope Francis, The Frontiers of Catholicism, Time magazine's Person of the Year 2013
Well, with Time magazine naming Pope Francis its “Person of the Year” for 2013, what John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter calls “pope-mania” has reached a new high.
And it’s hard to disagree with Time‘s selection, as we read through their many examples of Francis’s hope-inspiring behavior. To highlight a few:
- Francis’s challenge to the church to shift its energies to the poor.
- His “Who am I to judge?” regarding homosexuals
- His abolition of the honorific title “monsignor.”
- His appointment of a council of cardinals for “real consultation.”
- His challenge to the church to end its fixation on culture-war issues.
- His openness to Jews, Muslims, and evangelical Protestants.
- His enthusiastic, unscripted Wednesday audiences, including his call-and-response interactions with the crowds.
- His humility.
And yet I am still keeping my distance. For one thing, those of us beyond a certain age have been disappointed before, with the papacy of John XXIII and his Council, which we believed would change the church. Believed it, that is, until his successor ignored the conclusions of another “consultative body,” the Papal Birth Control Commission, and issued Humanae Vitae. The next two popes went on to undercut many of the changes called for by “good Pope John” and his Council.
The sad truth is that the Catholic Church is an absolute monarchy. Monarchs may consult all kinds of people, but they hold the power. And as amusing as it may be, in a body given to saying over and over “As the Church has always taught,” the absolute monarch who succeeds the current one can and may well reverse any number of his initiatives. Witness the way in which Francis himself is undermining John Paul II’s repression of liberation theology. No wonder the conservatives are upset.
Another aspect of Time’s encomium to the new pope also gives me pause–its trivialization of Francis’s rejection of women’s ordination. By Time‘s telling of it, the ordination of women is the least of the problems most of the world’s Catholic women face. The authors quote the Archbishop of Addis Ababa regarding Pope Francis’s position on women: “’It could help a lot,’ he says, ‘because he is saying women have a great role in the church and in society.’” Some commentators even speak of the possibility of women cardinals. But will unordained women cardinals be made heads of dioceses? Will they be elected pope?
Not all churchmen in the Global South trivialize women’s ordination. The Nigerian theologian A.E. Orobator, himself a Jesuit provincial as Pope Francis once was, notes in his East African ecclesiology that the greatest desire of people in East Africa who suffer from AIDS is to receive the last sacraments before they die. But since only women minister to people with AIDS–priests don’t go near them–most AIDS victims die unanointed. Those who say that genital mutilation and education are vastly more important than women’s ordination downplay the fact that the Catholic Church owes its members spiritual as well as practical ministry. The exclusion of women from ordination denies men, women and children the sacraments, and not just in the North.
In his brilliant study of the post-Vatican II church, The Frontiers of Catholicism, historical sociologist Gene Burns explains that the Catholic church did not give up its claim to absolute truth when Vatican II recognized the rights of religious freedom and freedom of conscience. Instead, it shifted its claims of absolute truth from doctrine to moral teaching–sexuality and gender–which, because it is based in “natural law,” is binding for all, not just Catholics. Thus the ideological hierarchy that had operated in the Catholic church for centuries was reconstructed, with sex/gender teaching on the top and most important; doctrine at the middle level, and somewhat important, but less so than sex and gender; and social teaching at the lowest level and optional. If you have some doubts about this explanation, try to remember the last time a U.S. bishop excluded a politician from communion for supporting legislation that harmed the poor.
Pope Francis is trying to change this ideological hierarchy, trying to move social teaching up somewhat. Conservatives have taken to reminding us that not everything the pope says is infallible–only “faith and morals”–precisely to prevent such a reconfiguration. But as for knocking “morals” off the top of the hierarchy, Francis isn’t so silly as to try. Women, I fear, will continue to be described in terms of our receptivity and complementarity, that is, our beautiful passivity. Christ will continue to be the “bridegroom” whom women can’t represent for the crudest of reasons. And women’s ordination will be the sop good Pope Francis throws to the conservatives to keep them from opposing him outright.
(All right, all right! It’s more than 500 words.)
Tags: bells of mindfulness, ecology, environmentalism, Joanna Macy, Richard Rohr, Sister Miriam MacGillis, Teilhard de Chardin, the spiritual, Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Berry
The following review is longer than 500 words because I wrote it before I decided to slow down. ( : Previous versions of it appeared in two of the world-famous rags for which I write: Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the US, and EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.
Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth. Ed. Llewellyn Vaughn-Lee. Point Reyes, CA: The Golden Sufi Center, 2013. 280 pp.
Odd as it may sound in this era of “spiritual but not religious,” I am wary of the word “spiritual.” You might be, too, had you lived eleven years in Berkeley, California, the land of beautiful people chanting OM in two-hundred-dollar Lululemon outfits.
But I decided to read Spiritual Ecology anyway because the climate change work I’ve been doing makes my need for a stronger spiritual base painfully apparent. You can spend only so much time reading and writing about the pending end of the planet without needing a serious infusion of hope.
I began by reading three essays by Catholic environmentalists—Thomas Berry, Sister Miriam Therese MacGillis and Richard Rohr—and another by Thomas Berry students Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim. I had read Berry’s early work in mimeographed form at Grailville in the 1970s and was glad to return to it here in his “The World of Wonder.” Berry, who died in 2009, drew on his mastery of world religions and Teilhard de Chardin to fashion a Universe Story in the service of planetary transformation. In “The World of Wonder” he challenges us to literally see the natural world as a sacred antidote to the imminent extinction of species brought on by individualism and the industrialism. Yet he manages to communicate this as a fundamentally numinous task, one that gives the reader hope.
The interview with Sister Miriam MacGillis highlights the central role of Berry’s Universe Story in hands-on farming and environmental education at Genesis Farm in northwest New Jersey. And the co-founders of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, Tucker and Grim, acknowledge Berry implicitly in “The Next Transition.” The culmination of the 13.4 billion year evolutionary process, we learn, is a “Great Transition” or “Turning” from hyper- individualism and environmental destruction to kinship and sustainability—a hopeful vision indeed.
Yet my favorite essay in this bunch is Franciscan Richard Rohr’s feisty “Creation as the Body of God.” Rohr begins with a refreshing acknowledgment of the big role that “very poor Christian theology” and its harmful notions of physicality and embodiment have played in our current environmental crisis. What about “our supposed belief that the Eternal Word of God became ‘flesh,’ ” he wonders. (235) He then uses Christian theology, from Paul and Augustine, Duns Scotus and Aquinas, to Gerard Manley Hopkins and Sally McFague, to argue that the world is indeed the body of God. It seems, Rohr suggests, that the only thing that will make us recognize our common oneness with all people and all creation is the common suffering that our planetary destruction promises. But God and God’s goodness will have the last word.
I was also deeply moved by the Native American selections in Spiritual Ecology–in large part because they embody the union of spirit and matter that “very poor Christian theology” tears apart. In “Listening to Natural Law,” Chief Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation, tells us that the spiritual side of nature is absolute, for which we must give constant thanks, but that we’d also better get off our lazy asses and make our leaders change their ways. Similarly, in her essay “In The Time of Sacred Places” indigenous activist Winona LaDuke details the indivisible connections between religious rituals, the people who celebrate them, the ancient land where they live, and the creatures that live with them. Examples include the relationship between the Winnemem Wintu of Northern California and the Nur salmon there, and between the Abnishanaabeg of Lake Michigan and the wolves and wild rice that sustain them. Similarly, the subcontinental Indian activist Vandana Shiva identifies food itself as the inextricable bond between creator and created.
Unfortunately, another batch of essays in Spiritual Ecology is a good deal less helpful than these memorable depictions of the oneness of all creation. Written by white male “spiritual teachers,” they draw primarily on exhortation and repetition to get the party line across: CREATION IS SACRED they tell us, again, and again, and again. One of the offenders in this regard is the editor of the collection, Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughn-Lee. In his introduction and again in the final essay, Vaughn-Lee reinscribes repeatedly the either/or that underpins so much of modern culture—but this time it’s either separate, isolated, materialist lives or else virtuous ones lived in unity with nature. God forbid he acknowledge that many of us live lives that oscillate between the two. And Jungian analyst Jules Cashford reinscribes another noxious polarity by adulating Gaia, the “Earth Mother,” even as he quotes exclusively male scientists and environmentalists throughout his essay.
Fortunately, a number of other essays offset these spiritual-in-the-worst-sense efforts. Whatever concerns I have about Buddhism being otherworldly are swept away by Zen Roshi Susan Murphy’s history of a genetically patented hybrid tomato raised by Mexican farmers for $2.50 a day, fumigated with toxic chemicals whose wastes are then shipped to Alabama to poison the black community there while the tomatoes are sold on plastic foam trays in cardboard boxes made in Canada and shipped all over North America in refrigerated trucks whose coolants destroy the ozone layer. This is a juggernaut, Murphy reminds us, in which we all collude. For Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist bells of mindfulness some of us have had the pleasure of hearing have become less beautiful but no less essential: they’re the floods, droughts, melting sea ice, and hurricanes that signal global warming. Only if we become mindful of the damage we are doing to Mother Earth is enlightenment possible.
And for Buddhist eco-philosopher and spiritual activist Joanna Macy, the western individualist ego is being replaced by a wider construct, an “ecological self.” Rooted in our collective mourning for the imminent demise of the planet, we are coming to realize, for example, that we are not protecting the rainforest down there, but rather we are the rainforest protecting itself.
Spiritual Ecology is by no means the only volume that introduces westerners to the foundational oneness of nature and the spirit. For those who want to begin understanding that oneness, however, the essays I’ve discussed here, and others in Spiritual Ecology, are a pretty good place to start.
Tags: arthritis, diabetes, Getting older, meditation, yoga
Well, as you may have noticed, I’ve been AWOL for a while. My last post, about our friend Trevor, was at the end of October. November was a pretty crazy month–a week at
Grail meetings outside Cincinnati, not to mention getting out there and back, followed by a bunch of doctor’s visits. And then turkey-mania, with grandkids dashing around the apartment.
But in the past I’d have shoved a blog post (or four) in around the edges. This time I didn’t. You see, I’m trying to slow down.
I began thinking about slowing down in August, when my GP told me I have a pre-diabetic glucose level. I was shocked. I had the mistaken notion that you have to be overweight to get diabetes. Since I wasn’t, I ate whatever I wanted. If an article wasn’t going well, I had five chocolate chip cookies. And ice cream for desert. I’d just walk farther the next day, or do an extra half-hour on the exercise bike. Immediately upon getting the diagnosis, I changed my diet substantially, but it was a little depressing. Especially since another medical condition forces me not to eat artificial sweeteners. And then in the fall, I got arthritis in one of the wrists I had broken in 2011.
I have many friends who have much worse health issues then these: some who have had rheumatoid arthritis for years; some who actually have Type 2 diabetes. But there was something about dealing with both of them that forced me to think more about the need to slow down (that and my husband retiring in June and moving his office into the apartment.) I’ve taken up yoga, which helps the wrist a lot, as long as I do it every day. I’ve even begun meditating.
I was thinking about the need to modify my headlong tendencies back in the middle of November when NPR played an interview with the South African novelist, Doris Lessing, who had just died. Lessing said that when she finished a book and sent it to the publisher, at first she would feel really good, and think that she didn’t have to do anything else. But after a half hour or so, she would start thinking about what she would write next. It reminded me of myself. I actually retired from teaching in 2008. But teaching was always, in a certain sense, what I did to finance my habit—writing. And writing is kind of like owning your own business. It’s really hard to retire. You cannot imagine how many times a day I have an idea for an article.
I thought maybe I should stop blogging, because it’s ideas for blog posts that pop into my head most often. But I would miss being in touch with you all. So I’ve decided to keep on writing, but try to make the posts shorter. The twenty-five year old P.R. guy who encouraged me to start the blog (as a way to sell my books) said posts should be about five hundred words. So I’m going to give that a try. I also had a fantasy about changing the title of my blog to “An American Catholic on the Margins of Old Age,” but I can’t figure out how to change the settings. ( :