Righteous Over Gaza

August 13, 2014 at 11:43 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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As I explained in a previous post, I was shocked to learn the history of the relationship between the State of Israel and the Palestinians, how the Israelis drove the Palestinians off their land, even attempting to eradicate Palestinian traces from the landscape. Aware as I was of the history of Western (and Christian) antisemitism, I had avoided the whole question of Israel and the Palestinians. And I do believe that the current killing of Palestinians in Gaza and the destruction of Gaza by the Jewish Israelis is totally unacceptable, something the international community must stop.

Yet even as I acknowledge all this, I must admit I am also deeply disturbed by the self-righteous tone of many of the anti-Israeli articles, listserv posts and demonstration announcements coming my way of late. By mentioning this I do not mean to suggest that I agree with the majority of Americans who blame Hamas for the current conflict. I don’t blame Hamas. At least, I don’t blame them any more than I blame myself and the rest of us supposedly virtuous USies.*

To begin with, as I’m sure you’ve heard, the United States is helping to fund the Israeli military, at the rate of $3 billion a year. That’s somewhat, but not massively, less than the amount Congress says we can’t afford to intervene in the refugee crisis on our borders. And as a result of this $3 billion, we help to guarantee that the Israelis, whether they are the attackers or the attacked, will lose a minute number of soldiers and civilians compared to the deaths and destruction in Gaza. And let’s be clear: my husband and I are funding the Israelis, as you are if you are paying U.S. taxes. I am not refusing to pay those taxes now,  just as I did not refuse to pay them during the invasion of Iraq, a military catastrophe that we not only made possible but implemented.

And that’s not the only reason we and our European allies are not entitled to feel righteous toward the Israelis. Another is that the U.S. fought with the Europeans who had gone to war against the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Then, as part of the League of Nations, we agreed to  the establishment of the British Mandate for Palestine, which took what is now Israel , Gaza, and the West Bank out of Arab hands. With the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the British had pledged themselves to establishing a Jewish State in Palestine, and after World War II, that state was established; Gaza came under the control of Egypt, and the West Bank under Jordan.  I myself have often wondered why the victors in World War II didn’t give Bavaria to the Jews for a homeland, considering the crimes the Germans had perpetrated against them. But since the British already controlled Palestine, I guess it was just easier to hand a chunk of that territory over to the State of Israel. We colluded in this mess from the beginning.

The other reason many of us here in the U.S. and Europe have no reason to be righteous about the ongoing catastrophe in Israel/Palestine is that Christian antisemitism and the Holocaust did and still do play a major role in Israeli violence. There are those who question how the Israelis can continue to invoke the Holocaust as a justification for their actions, as if a people can recover from a genocide in a few decades, or even seventy-five years. Those who take this position need to get real. In my studies of the history of Ireland, I have been struck by the extraordinary length of time that it takes for a people to truly work through and move on from  traumas such as  massacres and famines. In The Shadow of a Year  Irish historian John Gibney documents how Catholics and Protestants in Ireland used a Catholic uprising and massacre in 1641 to justify violent attacks on each other up to and including the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the late twentieth century. I wonder how long we USies* will continue to fixate on 9/11 and use it to justify our own Middle Eastern wars?

But the Jews have sustained persecution by the Christian West since well before 1641–since at least the 4th century, when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire. In Constantine’s Sword, James Carroll argues that, had it not been for pogroms and conversions, in 2000 there would have been two hundred million Jews in the world, not a mere thirteen million. Seventeen hundred years of ethno-religious persecution, even without the Holocaust, might well result in a culture of paranoia.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I am not on Israel’s side. I believe it is a telling sign of the dysfunction of the entire international order that the slaughter of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza, and the inhumane blockade that facilitated the conflict, continue.

But I also think that those of us with Christian roots, or who are citizens of the United States, have an obligation to be extremely careful about how we talk about this conflict. Self-righteous condemnation of Israel risks making us sound all too much like the Euro-American antisemites and colonizers who played a major role in getting this conflict going in the first place.


*”USies” is a term I  formulated so as to avoid describing myself and other resident of the U.S.  as “Americans,” a term some Central and South Americans find offensive.


Please Come to the People’s Climate March September 21!

July 30, 2014 at 3:17 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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I don’t need to tell you about the dangers of climate change. The recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is hair raising–and they’re noted for the moderation of their reports. The U.S. report is equally chilling. It used to be that if you had kids and grandkids you were supposed to be concerned about this. Now if you’re planning to live fifteen more years you need to be afraid.

On September 21, climate action groups from around the world, including religious, spiritual, and interfaith groups, are converging on New York City for what we hope will be a huge march down the middle of Manhattan to get the attention of world leaders who will be gathering later that week for a climate change summit at the UN. World leaders have been pretty much AWOL on this subject. Some of the best, like Germany, who pride themselves on green technology, are importing increasing amounts of coal from the U.S. where numbers of coal burning power plants are being phased out. I kid you not. We need to scare these guys and gals to death.

To accomplish this, we need you to come to the People’s Climate March on September 21. If you live in the NY metro area you absolutely HAVE GOT TO COME. And if you live somewhere else, you should really try. Imagine telling somebody in 25 years that you participated in the  climate change equivalent of the March on Washington! Won’t you be proud? Churches and non-profits are arranging for places where out of towers can stay, so you just need to get yourself here.

This is how you sign up for the March:

1. First, click here on this link: http://facebook.com/events/301805359975258/

2. Then, RSVP for the March by clicking “Join”

Then start making plans!


Contextualizing the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Contested Land, Contested Memory

July 19, 2014 at 10:26 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments
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(Apologies to the regular followers of my blog if you receive this post twice; when I published it the first time, it was mailed out to you but did not appear on my actual blog page, so I am posting it again.)


It is my hope that this review essay will shed some light on the current round of seemingly endless hostilities between the State of Israel and various Palestinian groups. The post is longer than usual;  I trust it will reward your perseverance.


 Contested Land, Contested Memory: Israel’s Jews and Arabs and the Ghosts of Catastrophe. By Jo Roberts. (Toronto, Ontario: Dundurn, 2013). Paper. 304 pp. $24.99. Kindle, $8.69.

As a member of the post-World War II generation, my Holocaust learning followed a fairly standard trajectory: watching The Diary of Anne Frank in 1959, Holocaust with Meryl Streep in 1978, Lanzmann’s Shoah in 1985. Then, in graduate school, I read that Catholics constituted 60 percent of the Nazi army and that after the war the Vatican used “ratlines” to sneak Nazis to Latin America. I concluded that, as a Catholic, I was not entitled to an opinion about the State of Israel.

I suppose I considered my silence penance for centuries of Christian antisemitism. But as I read Jo Roberts’ stunning new book, Contested Land, Contested Memories, I began to wonder if my motives were entirely virtuous. Perhaps they included naiveté. Or romanticismhow comforting it is to believe that unambiguous good has triumphed over absolute evil! Or maybe it was sloth that underpinned my stance, sloth in the face of an unbelievably complex situation.

As its subtitleIsrael’s Jews and Arabs and the Ghosts of Catastrophesuggests, Roberts’ book includes the Holocaust frame within which I and millions of others understand contemporary Israel. But it expands that frame to include what the current million-and-a-half Palestinian Israelis, Palestinians in exile and those in the Occupied Territories call the Nakba, the catastrophe that befell them as a result of the 1948 War of Israeli Independence. Included as well are the ghosts of that catastrophewhatever memories remain after Jewish Israeli attempts to eradicate them from national consciousness, as well as the ghosts of that other catastrophe, the destruction of European Jewry. The words Shoah and Nakba both mean catastrophe.

Underlying Roberts’ analysis is a scholarly conversation about collective memory, initiated by the sociologist Emile Durkheim in the late nineteenth century and continued by his student, Maurice Halbwachs. Collective memory is a memory or memories shared by a group that contributes significantly to the group’s identity. Halbwachs expanded the concept with a second notion, that of “instrumental presentism.” In this case, groups not only remember, but their leaders choose which past events should be remembered and which forgotten in order to make the past useful to the needs of the present. By the late twentieth century, scholars such as Peter Novick were applying collective memory directly to the Holocaust, a fitting use since Halbwachs himself died in Buchenwald in 1945.

Initially, Roberts uses collective memory to explore the ways Jewish and Palestinian Israelis have understood 1948. For the Palestinians, the Israeli Declaration of Independence and the subsequent Arab-Israeli war meant the expulsion of most Palestinian Arabs from the new State of Israel; for those who remained, it meant the destruction of their society, their culture, entire villages, the land itself. For Jewish Israelis, on the other hand, 1948 meant that David had triumphed over Goliath, the vastly stronger Arab League.

Because the Palestinian Arabs lost the 1948 war (and several thereafter), Jewish Israelis had the upper hand in the political reconstruction of the collective memory of 1948. In the decades that followed, Israeli textbooks presented the Israeli defense forces as having had nothing to do with the seven hundred thousand plus refugees who poured out of what became the State ofIsrael during and after the war; the Palestinians simply chose to flee. And in those same years, Israel eradicated as many traces of Palestinian culture as they could, bulldozing towns and villages and mosques, constructing high-rises over cemeteries, replacing Arabic geographical names with Hebrew ones.

Yet the Nakba was not the only catastrophe rewritten in the years after 1948. For me, as a Christian, one of the most stunning sections of Contested Land, Contested Memory is Roberts’ narrative of David Ben-Gurion’s using the 1961 Eichmann trial to make the Holocaust the center of a new, unified Israeli identity. Who knew that Zionists, before 1961, stereotyped Holocaust survivors as victims or Nazi collaborators? Who knew that Sabra (socialist) Zionists looked down on Mizrahi (Arab) Jews for their Arabness and their excessive religiousness? Yet after the Eichmann trial, Mizrahis felt more at home in Israel and Zionists and Holocaust survivors came together around the Holocaust as the foundation of the State of Israel. In the 1960s, victimhood became central to Jewish Israeli identity and extermination by Palestinians and other Arabs a constant threat. As the Zionists had argued, Jews are safe only in a Jewish state.

Roberts makes clear that such transference of collective trauma is by no means limited to Israelis. Throughout history traumatized peoples have attempted to reconstruct their identity by obliterating the collective memory of the Other; the Shoah and two millennia of Christian anti-semitism led to the attempted obliteration of the collective memory of the Nakba. But the ghosts of collective trauma refuse to be obliterated; they live on, in this case, in Arab Holocaust denial, guerilla attacks, and suicide bombings. One catastrophe begets another.

Writers besides Roberts have used the discourse of collective memory to understand the transmission of catastrophe. In The Shadow of a Year (2013), a book of particular interest to me as a descendent of Irish Catholic immigrants, John Gibney traces massive misrepresentations of the Irish Rebellion of 1641 for Irish Protestant as well as Irish Catholic political purposes from just after the rebellion to the Northern Ireland Troubles of the last sixty years. Irish Protestant convictions that Catholics had massacred hundreds of thousands of their forebears in 1641 contributed directly to the catastrophe of an Gorta Mór, the GreatPotato Famine of the 1840s. And who knows what shadows—ghosts—of ostensible Irish Catholic barbarism hovered around the May arrest and questioning of Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams for a purported political assassination in 1972?

Yet Contested Land, Contested Memory distinguishes itself from other studies of collective memory on several counts. To begin with, Roberts’ fine writing makes the discourse of collective memory accessible in ways that scholarly studies often fail to do. And because the catastrophes that concern her happened fairly recently, Roberts is able to use the memories of actual Palestinian and Jewish Israelis to frame her subject matter. Stories of Jewish Israelis discovering with horror that their home or vacation cottage stands on the site of an obliterated Arab dwelling, or of Palestinians’ attempting, often without success, to return to a beloved village or mosque, bring the ghosts of the Nakba to life.

For Roberts, as the book’s title suggests, the land itself is central to her story. The prolific vines overgrowing an abandoned and deteriorating Arab structure on the book’s cover and spine alert the reader to this from the outset. Narratives of the destruction of towns andvillages (and sometimes the murder of their inhabitants) during the 1948 war are sobering enough, but to read of continuing efforts to remove all traces of Palestinian material culture throughout the more than a half century of Israel’s existence is genuinely shocking.

Equally unforgettable is Roberts’ documentation of the Jewish Israeli remaking of the land itself, not merely the structures on it, in the interest of obliterating Arab traces. After Independence, we learn, Palestine’s traditional rural landscape was transformed into a socialist-modernist one: tens of thousands of olive trees, the signature tree of the Arab-Palestinian culture and the source of its two primary exports, were uprooted, even as whole forests of other trees were planted tomake the land look more European.

In her close attention to the land, Roberts actually expands John Gibney’s historiographic portrait of the shadows of Irish catastrophe. Two decades before the Potato Famine, as they were mapping Ireland, the British Ordnance Survey transliterated the names of geographical locations across Ireland from Gaelic to English, a language many of the Irish did not even speak, never mind read. This is what colonizers do, Roberts observes.

Some of the conclusions Roberts draws in Contested Land, Contested Memory are discouraging. The State of Israel has moved steadily to the right politically since the election of Menachim Begin’s Likud party in the 1970s. The identification of Mizrahi Jews with Likud because of previous discrimination they had suffered and the arrival of a million Jewish Russians in the 1990s has contributed to an increasingly racialized society. In 2012, 70 percent of ultra-Orthodox Israelis, a group whose numbers have exploded in recent years, supported barring Palestinian Israelis from voting, while 71 percent supported their forced “transfer” (explusion) from Israel. Today, more and more, as Roberts observes, “Palestinian Israelis are the intruding stranger in the Jewish homeland,” the Other who maintains the margins of Jewish Israeli identity. Connections with the most recent outbreak of hostilities are obvious.

Nonetheless, Roberts finds reason for hope. Already in the 1980s, Jewish Israeli scholars known as “the New Historians” had begun heroically documenting the other origin of the State of Israel, the Nakba. Since then, groups such as the Jewish Israeli NGO Zochrot (Hebrew for “remembering”) have formed to bring forward the hidden history of the Nakba. For Zochrot, a major effort is leading Jewish Israelis on tours of villages and urban neighborhoods that had Arab populations sixty years ago. Scholars and journalists also continue to write about these unacknowledged ghosts. For Roberts, the very nature of these efforts “allows for a glimmer of hope, the potential for…’multiple narratives with multiple beginnings’ to tell the history of this land.” Reconciliation is possible only when the ghosts of both catastrophes are acknowledged and a new history constructed from them.


Two events occurred as I was reading Contested Land, Contested Memory. One was the visit of Pope Francis to Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel. The pope’s decision to go from Jordan straight to Bethlehem, his references to the “State of Palestine,” and his unscheduled stop at the barrier between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, while making him unpopular with some, hint at a shift in the global view of Israel and Palestine. A reference to “competing narratives” in a New York Times article about the pope’s visit also suggests that long-buried memories are resurfacing.

But even as Pope Francis was visiting Israel, the 9/11 Museum opened at the World Trade Center Site in Lower Manhattan. Certain aspects of the museum are contentiousthe presence of a gift shop, and the location of the remains of unidentified victims below ground, for example. But overall, the museum stands as the representation of yet another unambiguous narrative, the barbaric terrorist attack on innocent Americans of September 11, 2001.

Yet perhaps because of my reading of Roberts, it came to me that I had virtually no knowledge of why the terrorists had attacked the Twin Towers. When I asked others about this, nobody knew. They were just terrorists, my friends replied; it’s what terrorists do.

But with a little effort, I learned that al-Qaeda had, indeed, stated its reasons for the attack. Already in 1998, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri had issued a fatwa to “kill the Americans and their allies…in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque (the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) and the holy mosque (in Mecca) from their grip…” And in a 2002 letter, bin Laden described the U.S. support of Israel as the motivation for 9/11. Later he claimed that the idea of destroying the towers had first occurred to him when he witnessed Israel’s bombardment of high-rise apartment buildings during the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war.

The mass killing of civilians can never be justified, and other motives besides the ones mentioned here doubtless contributed to the 9/11 attack. But as Jo Roberts articulates powerfully in Contested Land, Contested Memory, catastrophe begets catastrophe. Only when communities face their ghosts and reconcile with one another can they prevent the next catastrophe, the one that is otherwise surely on its way.

Catholics and Contraception: A Page Turner

June 28, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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A while back, I mistakenly thought a Catholic Studies scholars’ group I belong to was going to read Leslie Woodcock Tentler’s Catholics and Contraception: An American History (Cornell 2004) so I sent off for a copy from Amazon.  (Someday I am going to analyze my addiction to Amazon Prime, but not today.) The brand new hardback copy of Catholics and Contraception (C&C) that I received cost $2; lucky Tentler and I aren’t in this business for the money.

Truth in advertising requires me to admit that I spent most of the 60s and 70s in Catholic women’s schools and then living in residential communities of the Grail, an international women’s movement; we had  more arguments about lesbianism than about contraception, and I was more upset by the Vatican rejection of women’s ordination in 1976 than by Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical condemning artificial contraception  When I finally got married, at the age of 47, I had already undergone a complete hysterectomy. Of course, I had school friends with seven or ten or twelve siblings, and I got to know the mothers of such families in the Grail. But generally speaking, contraception was not my issue.

C&C examines contraception in U.S. Catholicism from 1873 to 1970, with an epilogue addressing the following three decades. My initial inclination, after finishing the book, was to go on a rant about how these men–popes, bishops, and priests for the most part, along with the occasional male lay leader– could have dared to tell married couples, and women in particular, what they must do with their sexuality. But this would have been a projection of the current situation onto the past. The striking point I took away from C&C  is how very much has changed in an astonishingly short period of time. As Tentler notes, according to a study done in 1970, fully 78 percent of U.S. Catholic women aged twenty to twenty-four were limiting their families by a means other than abstinence or rhythm; during the controversy over the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptives mandate, I in turn read that 97 percent of Catholic women surveyed reported having used artificial contraceptives at some point in their lives. But before the 1960s, this was much less the case.

A good deal of this change Tentler attributes to the “non-reception” of Humanae Vitae by the vast majority of American Catholics, (as well as the Vatican II emphasis on freedom of conscience, and the sexual revolution). Not all aspects of these changes were positive, in Tentler’s estimation, leading as they did to sexual promiscuity, high rates of divorce, and out-of-wedlock births. Ultimately, we learn, the Vatican decision to condemn contraception based on little more than the pope’s “no” undercut massively the church’s own authority. More’s the pity, Tentler suggests, since many of the positive aspects of Catholic teaching about sexuality and marriage went down the tubes along with the ill-advised encyclical.

Yet it’s not only what Tentler says about the effects of Humanae Vitae that I found fascinating. I also learned much that I had not known about Catholics and contraception in the century before that encyclical. I had no idea, for example, that a number of moral theologians had initially condemned rhythm–the only contraceptive method (besides sexual abstinence) that the church eventually allowed to couples attempting to limit the size of their families. These earlier moral theologians believed that even the rhythm method would create a “contraceptive mentality” in users. And Tentler would seem to agree; after the failure of rhythm, Catholic couples often did move to the pill.

I was also initially annoyed by Tentler’s extensive attention to the experience of priests and bishops regarding contraception. The first five chapters draw to a considerable extent on interviews Tentler did with these men, as well as on archival material by and about them. “A book about contraception according to Catholic priests. Thanks a lot,” was my first response. Yet Tentler’s research on the clergy demonstrates what a mess the question of contraception was for almost the entire American church, not married couples only. Many priests were reluctant at best to question laypeople in confession about their use of contraceptives, even when bishops demanded that they do so. And Humanae Vitae only exacerbated the crisis of priestly morale and identity that occurred after Vatican II, especially among younger men; fully 50 percent of American priests disagreed with the substance of the encyclical. This surely contributed to the departure of a large number of American men from the priesthood in the decades that followed.

But Catholics and Contraception does more than fill readers in with details about the past. It also provides an essential context for the current, seemingly endless disputes over the contraceptives mandate of the Affordable Care Act. Indeed, the Supreme Court is expected to issue their decision on the Hobby Lobby case any day now. But the context Tentler provides is particularly important in relation to the claims of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other conservative Catholic groups that the contraceptives mandate is a violation of Roman Catholic religious freedom.  But it’s not only non-Catholics working in Catholic institutions who will be deprived of free contraceptives under the ACA if the mandate is gutted; most sexually active U.S Catholics working in those institutions will be as well. The Roman Catholic religious freedom under consideration in these cases is that of the 447 Roman Catholic bishops in the U.S. and the relatively small number of priests, nuns and laypeople who agree with them on this issue. The institutional church has never afforded the vast majority of Catholics “religious freedom” regarding the use of contraceptives. Most days I doubt it ever will.


June 18, 2014 at 3:56 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 14 Comments
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As you probably know, I am far from being a Buddhist. I am, in fact, a “cradle Catholic”–baptized a few weeks after birth and then processed up through the massive parochial church and school system in post-war Philadelphia. When I fall, I mutter “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” on my way down.

Lately, through, I have been thinking about the Buddhist concept of impermanence. Impermanence (anicca), as Paul Knitter explains in Without the Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, means that everything that exists is in constant movement–constant flux. It’s closely linked to another Buddhist concept, interdependent origination (pratityasamutpada), which means that everything changes because everything is interrelated.

I began thinking about this toward the end of April. At the beginning of April, Keith, my husband, developed a cold, which got a lot worse after he preached six times during Holy Week (!) and then drove up to see the grandkids in Massachusetts the weekend after Easter. When I finally got him to a walk-in clinic over on Atlantic Avenue, the osteopath took several X-rays and announced that Keith had an aneurysm in his aorta and that we should go directly to the emergency room at nearby Methodist Hospital. We did, and sat there for five hours, during which time the doctors took more X-rays and announced that it could be an aneurysm but could be a number of other things and that Keith should go to his GP for a cat-scan. The next day we did that, and the following day the GP called to say that what Keith had was pneumonia; he prescribed some antibiotics.

But the doctor also told us that there was a “shadow” on Keith’s kidney, and that after he got over the pneumonia, he needed to get that checked. So ten days later Keith had an MRI up at New York Presbyterian, and the next day the doctor called to say that Keith had a “mass” in his kidney that would have to be removed. We scheduled an appointment with a renal surgeon immediately.

That same night, the hard drive on my computer crashed. I have had a personal computer since 1984, and never before had anything crashed. The next day, the phone rang and a voice that sounded familiar but subdued informed me that a dear friend, Eileen Holahan, with whom I had spoken two weeks before, had fallen in the parking lot of her apartment building, hit her head, lost consciousness, and died a week later, never having regained consciousness. The voice sounded familiar because it belonged to Eileen’s sister, who had come across my phone number in Eileen’s address book. Eileen had been a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur at my high school in the early 1960s; singing in the glee club that she directed is one of the happiest memories of my adolescence. Eileen was 85 years old, but she was in good health. I really couldn’t take in that she was dead. And her funeral was the same day that Keith had his appointment with the surgeon, so I couldn’t go, something I still regret.

Keith had his surgery last Friday, and it went really well. The growth was such that the surgeon had to take out only ten percent of his kidney. And although it’s highly likely to be malignant, they got the growth quite early–thanks to the nitwit aneurysm diagnosis and the case of pneumonia that required the cat-scan. No chemo or radiation will be necessary. How often do you get to be grateful for having caught pneumonia?  Keith is home now, feeling stronger by the day, walking around the block morning and afternoon. And even before his surgery, Keith drove me over the Apple Store on 14th Street where I got my hard drive replaced.

But as I said to a friend, I feel as if I’ve seen a ghost. The ghost of impermanence, and its twin, interdependent origination. Everything out there is in motion, bumping together, and making the future a lot less certain than it seemed. I am trying to be grateful.


What Would Dorothy Do?

June 2, 2014 at 5:33 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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When I started blogging, back in 2009, the young publicist at Columbia University Press who got me started told me that blogging means having a conversation with other bloggers. From his point of view, what you’re reading may not be a blog at all, just a writer’s webpage, since I rarely respond to another blogpost.

But that  may be changing. A while back I subscribed to a blog on the massive religion website Patheos The Deacon’s Bench, by journalist and Roman Catholic permanent deacon Greg Kendra. Often the deacon’s posts are primarily quotations from and links to other posts about Catholic happenings. But Kendra usually makes pretty clear his opinions about said happenings, sometimes in just a few words.

Deacon Greg, as he calls himself, is clearly a good man, and a competent journalist. But I am considerably to his left on most issues, so it’s not unusual for me to find myself talking back to him as I read his posts, or do the dishes, or walk around Brooklyn. On May 29, for example, Deacon Greg posted an article “Catholic Worker Hosts ‘Women Priest.’ What Would Dorothy Day Think?”, including a long quote from the Columbia Missourian about Roman Catholic WomanPriest (RCWP) Janice Sevre-Duszynska celebrating the Eucharist at St. Francis Catholic Worker House in Columbia, Missouri.

Now Deacon Greg makes it pretty clear what he thinks about Catholic women’s ordination, posting, for example, links to various bishop’s announcements of the excommunication of recently ordained RCWPs, or about an RCWP deacon repenting and renouncing her ordination. I wasn’t surprised, then, that he followed the news about the RCWP Catholic Worker liturgy with a long 1966 quote from Dorothy Day about her unflinching obedience to the Catholic Church. Yet Deacon Greg knows very well that when Cardinal Spellman, in 1951, ordered Day to take the word “Catholic” out of the title of the newspaper she had founded and  in which she had criticized the cardinal for breaking the cemetery workers’ strike, Day respectfully declined.

There were, of course, no ordinations of women during Day’s lifetime,  so we don’t really know how Day would have reacted to them. She was certainly an orthodox, even rigid, Catholic on sexual matters. Yet she also had little time for clericalism; a friend who worked on the The Catholic Worker while Day was alive tells of Day once getting really angry because there were three articles by priests in the previous issue. Not for nothing was Day one of the most influential Catholics in the history of the American church.

It’s also the case that Day’s legacy is vastly more complex than her journalistic statement of obedience suggests. The Catholic Worker is not only Catholic, but anarchist. Dorothy Day may have pledged obedience to the Catholic Church, but Catholic Workers didn’t always obey her, or each other.  On more than one occasion the level of conflict at a Catholic Worker farm was so extreme that Day was forced to sell it and start another farm a few years later. Some years ago, the daughter of a dear Catholic friend of mine, now deceased, left the church and married a Jewish Buddhist. One of her daughters recently spent several meaningful years at a Catholic Worker house in Chicago. And for more than a decade, my friend Karen Lenz edited EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference, even as she “led” the Philadelphia Catholic Worker (if anybody can really be said to lead a Worker house).

What Deacon Kendra and a lot of other institutional Catholics don’t get is that the orderly Catholic/non-Catholic, form/matter world of the neo-Thomist revival no longer exists (if it ever did). As the postmodernists taught us, there isn’t just an inside and an outside anymore ; there are multiple complex phenomena that hover at or beyond the margins of supposed discrete spaces, making contemporary conversation enormously complicated. Because of this, my colleague Julie Byrne will soon publish an ethnography of an independent Catholic church, to be titled “The Other Catholics,” and Roman Catholic WomenPriest liturgies are often more pious and orthodox than the Masses at my parish church here in the Diocese of Brooklyn. This is also why, from time to time, I intend to write back to Deacon Greg, to complicate the supposedly neat Catholic categories he takes for granted.

The Vatican and the Nuns: Episode 973

May 7, 2014 at 2:04 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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A few weeks back, in my article on Pope Francis and women’s ordination, I told a story about meeting Sister Helen Prejean at an event celebrating the publication of the twentieth anniversary edition of Dead Man Walking. I gave Sister Helen a copy of my book, Sister Trouble: The Vatican, the Bishops, and the NunsShe replied that with the new pope, all of the trouble between the Vatican and American sisters was going to go away.

I had my doubts. As I explain in the central article in Sister Trouble, popes, bishops, and theologians have been attempting to get celibate Christian women under control since just after the Roman persecutions. The history of sisters (women religious) is studded with stories of famous mother foundresses running from one diocese to another to escape the local bishop’s crack-down on their congregations. Some of these women were subsequently excommunicated. Some of them were then, ever more subsequently, canonized.

So when the address by the head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, accusing the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) of disobedience, was posted on the Vatican website on Monday, I was sorry, but I was not surprised. Good Pope Francis never retracted the hostile doctrinal assessment against the LCWR issued by Müller’s predecessor, Cardinal William Levada, in 2012. And Pope Benedict XVI had appointed Levada and Müller both. After which Pope Francis made Müller a cardinal.

The two emphases in Müller’s address are that the LCWR had decided to give an award to the nun-theologian Elizabeth Johnson CSJ, whose book, Quest for the Living God was condemned by the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2011, and that they have persisted in publishing material about “Conscious Evolution,” the discourse spearheaded by Barbara Marx Hubbard. In his address, Müller compares Conscious Evolution to Gnosticism.

I plan to write at further length regarding this latest episode of the Vatican and the bishops trying to bring the nuns to heel. At the moment, however, I will put aside the sheer idiocy of Müller resurrecting the pitiful business of the USCCB condemning a book by as orthodox and middle-of-the-road a theologian as Elizabeth Johnson (though it is worth noting that the head of the Committee on Doctrine at the time of the condemnation of Johnson’s book, Rev. Thomas Weinandy, has a reputation for being one nasty, hostile human being). And as for U.S. Catholic sisters integrating “Conscious Evolution” into their ministry and spirituality, has anybody read Teilhard de Chardin or Thomas Berry lately? Teilhard’s works were, in fact, censored by the Vatican, but in 2009 a Vatican statement made all of that seem ridiculous (sort of like canonizing previously excommunicated Mother Foundresses).  As for Berry, by applying his “New Story of Creation” to the Christian faith, he took far greater risks, it seems to me, than Hubbard’s freestanding discourse does.

The real issue between the nuns and the Vatican is gender, plain and simple. However benign Pope Francis may be, he shares, as I have argued, the embarrassingly medieval theology of gender that his predecessors promoted. Indeed, the institutional church has been using control of women and sexuality as a weapon against the modern world since at least the liberal revolutions of 1848. Women–and sexuality–are the only things the popes were able at least to try to keep under control as the separation of church and state, the loss of the Vatican territories, etc., took away their ancient “secular” powers.  Hence the Vatican condemnation of contraception after Vatican II, when the bishops had finally accepted “the modern world.”

Today, in 2014, the Vatican and the bishops can’t even keep the vast majority of Catholic women under control. During the (unfortunately ongoing) uproar over religious freedom and the ACA contraceptives mandate, 97 percent of U.S. Catholic women surveyed reported having used contraceptives at some point. And it’s not just in the U.S.: several years ago, in an on-line chat, an African (Kenyan) Catholic (lay) woman studying for an MA in international relations in Nairobi said to me,”Who are these Catholic bishops, that they think they can tell us women what to do with our sexuality?”

This leaves nobody but the nuns for the bishops and the Vatican to control. According to Pope Francis’s theology of gender, women–but today, really, only nuns–are supposed to exhibit the “feminine genius”—to be warm, sensitive, intuitive, and complementary. Kneel down and kiss the bishops’ feet, that is. But as I argue in a variety of ways in Sister Trouble, the boys made a big mistake. After World War II, they used the sisters’ commitment to obedience to force them to get educated; they did this to avoid making the church look bad if secular counterparts were better qualified than than the sisters were. And the sisters obeyed.

What the men in authority got for their trouble was women like Sister Elizabeth Johnson. But they never give up. Johnson’s book, in my opinion, was condemned, impart at least, because Johnson dared to publish it without an imprimatur, an official statement of permission. And now the idiots in Rome are resurrecting the whole episode, and criticizing some of the smartest women in the history of the church, the LCWR, for not asking permission before publishing material regarding a line of thought that seems fruitful to them.  And they wonder why American Catholic women aren’t rushing into religious life?

Forgiveness, with Margaret Farley

April 18, 2014 at 11:46 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Last weekend I went down to Cranaleith, the Sisters of Mercy retreat center north of Philadelphia, for a program on Holy Week and forgiveness with Margaret Farley. You perhaps have heard of Farley; she’s the Catholic sister whose book, Just Love, was condemned by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2012. She was also one of the signers of the controversial 1984 New York Times ad which stated that there had been various positions on abortion throughout the history of the Catholic Church. Non-lay signers were forced to recant or be expelled from their orders. Farley was also one of the speakers at the first conference on Catholic women’s ordination in Detroit in 1975, to which the Vatican also did not respond positively (!).

Farley’s two presentations offered a different–or perhaps deeper–perspective on the suffering and death of Jesus than many of us have been hearing this week. (Obviously, what I am saying here is my interpretation of Farley’s words, not her words.) Farley argues that the passion is not primarily about suffering and death, but about relationships, and particularly about forgiving those who do harm. And harm here includes not only interpersonal offenses, but also, but especially, the “exponential explosion” of oppression around the world in our era–destitution, war, genocide, trafficking. Farley describes these acts as attempts at obliteration, like the violence done against Jesus.

But Jesus said, “Father forgive them,” and we too are called to the radical decentering that is forgiveness, even against the worst of crimes. Such radical decentering is quite different from the interpretation of forgiveness that the Church has sometimes marketed–that Jesus authorized the disciples to forgive some sins but not others. The only judgments Jesus made, Farley reminds us, were directed at the righteous and the arrogant; otherwise, he “desired mercy, not sacrifice.” Forgiveness, according to Farley, is also not passivity in the face of abuse, the masochism that some identify with the crucifixion; when those who harm do not stop, sometimes the readiness to forgive is all that’s possible. And resistance to violence and injustice are essential. But God’s forgiveness of humanity for the violent obliteration of Jesus is paradigmatic. Crimes against humanity may even bring about unprecedented cries for forgiveness, unprecedented calls for the healing of relationships.

Farley explored several Holy Week themes that help us better to discern what is asked of us regarding forgiveness.  One is Jesus’ question to James and John, after they rather obliviously ask if he will do whatever they want: “Are you able to drink from the cup that I drink…?” What Jesus asks, Farley suggests, is whether they–and we–are able to enter into the forsakenness of the crucifixion which is also the physical and spiritual forsakenness of all people, not only ourselves. The cup figures all forms of suffering, while the cross on which Jesus was crucified conveys that relationship–God’s with us, and ours with our sisters and brothers–holds even in the face of incalculable violence. Later in her talk, Farley also explored Jesus’ words to the women of Jerusalem on his way to Calvary, “Weep not for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” At the heart of their exchange, Farley suggests, is the oneness of Jesus’ suffering with the suffering of past and future generations; Jesus identifies with creation across time and space. His words call us as well to solidarity with sufferers and to action on their behalf. This is what gives us hope, what enables us to believe that relationships will hold, even in the face of evil. Jesus forgives and so can we.

When I mentioned to some of my friends that I had gone to hear Margaret Farley, and how deeply moved I was by her words, many of them asked the same question: What did she say about the Vatican’s attack on her book? In point of fact, she never referred to it. I guess she had forgiven them.






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