Book Tour–Ya’ll Come!

March 20, 2014 at 11:56 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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As you perhaps remember, last October I published Sister Trouble, a collection of my articles about the crackdown on U.S. Catholic sisters by the Vatican and the U.S. Catholic bishops that began in 2009 and culminated in a harsh “doctrinal assessment” of the largest group of Catholic sisters in the country, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, in 2012. The volume also includes several pieces on why Catholic sisters are so important, and a longer essay on the history of male efforts to control celibate women throughout the history of the church. The link to Sister Trouble on is to the right of this post.

Thing is, nothing stays the same for very long. About the time I was completing the Sister Trouble manuscript, Pope Francis got elected. When I gave a copy of Sister Trouble to Sister Helen Prejean at a celebration of the 20th anniversary edition of Dead Man Walking last November, she said “Oh, with the new pope, all that stuff with the Vatican is just going to go away.”

Part of making a publication successful is promoting it, so I am going around giving book talks here in the Northeast this spring. The talks are listed below. But what with the arrival of Pope Francis and the changes he is making in the Catholic church, I’ve expanded the subject of my talk from the recent experiences of U.S. Catholic sisters per se to the larger question of gender and sexuality in Catholicism under Pope Francis. I’ve been doing a lot of reading, and am having great fun putting my thoughts together. And I’m sure the discussion afterward will be lively!! If you’re near Philadelphia, New York City, or North Jersey, I’d love to see you. And if you come, you can get a copy of Sister Trouble without having to pay postage and handling.  ( :

Gender Trouble: Catholic Sisters, Women Priests and LGBTI Catholics in Pope Francis’s “New” Church

Drawing on her new book, Sister Trouble: the Vatican, the Bishops, and the Nuns (Amazon 2103), Marian Ronan, American Catholic studies scholar, writer, and former president of the Women’s Ordination Conference, will discuss the ways in which Catholic teaching on sexuality and gender will, and won’t, change under good Pope Francis. Copies of her book will be available for sale.

Sunday, March 30.  4 -6 PM, St Luke and the Epiphany
 Church, 330 S 13th Street, Philadelphia, PA 

Sunday, April 6. 3-5 PM, 20 Washington Square North, Manhattan, New York City (The sponsors of this event, however, have given it a less incendiary title: “Gender Issues Facing Pope Francis: Catholic Sisters, Women Priests, and LGBT Catholics.”)

Sunday, May 4, 2- 4 PM, St. Mark Lutheran Church, 100 Harter Rd., Morristown, NJ.

What if We Prayed–or Preached–Differently?

March 12, 2014 at 11:44 am | Posted in Environment | 9 Comments
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Lately, I’ve been reading Thomas Berry. Berry was a “geologian”–an ecological theologian–who began decades ago talking about the environment, and the universe, and the cosmos, and how we’d better start taking them all more seriously. At Grailville, the Grail’s organic farm in southwest Ohio, we were reading Berry’s articles on this sort of thing in mimeographed form, before they were published, in the mid-1970s.

Just now I’m reading Berry’s The Great Work (1999). Throughout its two-hundred pages, Berry argues that we must leave behind the current era of planetary destruction  and move into a period when we humans become present to the Earth in a manner that is mutually enhancing. What we need, he tells us, is a new story of the universe, a “numinous revelatory story that could evoke the vision but also the energies needed for bringing ourselves and the entire planet into a new order of survival.” (71). Fifteen years after the book’s publication, with glaciers melting and extreme weather events multiplying, we need such a story even more.

But where do we get it? Reading Berry has me asking this question as I’ve attended various Catholic services during and just prior to this holy season of Lent.

First there was the Gospel for the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, Matt. 6:24 to 34. It’s a well-known reading, in which Jesus urges his followers not to be anxious about their lives. God knows we need to hear that.  But I was struck by the passage about the birds. “Consider the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap…Yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” 

Now two thousand years ago, this was a perfectly reasonable thing to say; religions like Judaism were working to get people to recognize their dignity and not behave like animals. But today, we are destroying approximately three hundred species a day, and we know, as Jesus did not, that these species are an essential part of planetary survival, providing, for example, bacteria to be used in the drugs of the future, not to mention in food production, cleaning the air, etc. Maybe it’s time we stopped telling ourselves that we are of more value than other species. When I mentioned this to the priest on the way out after Mass, he looked at me as if I’d said that Jesus had actually been a hedgehog.

Then there was Ash Wednesday, with the famous verse spoken by the minister as she/he applies ashes to foreheads: “Remember you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” As with Jesus’ statement about the birds, there was good reason for the authors to use the word “dust,” (or “sand,” as it was in the Latin)  when the original story was written in Genesis. There’s a lot more sand in the Middle East than there is in North America, so lots of people probably did end up getting buried in it. And even today, most people no doubt get the basic idea–the burnt palm from which the ashes come is a metaphor for death. And more people get cremated all the time. But imagine if the verse were “Remember you are earth, and unto earth you shall return,” and the minister rubbed dirt on our foreheads each Ash Wednesday. Or that he (would that it were she!) preached that we really do come from the earth and will return there. Maybe then we Christians would start demanding that the government no longer allow the destruction of our topsoil at the current terrifying rate.

Finally, there was the liturgy for the first Sunday of Lent, at a progressive parish in Manhattan. I made it through all three readings without being reminded directly of the contributions the Christian tradition has made to human alienation from the cosmos. But then there was this verse in the Offertory hymn which was aimed at inspiring hope in the worshippers: “Look to God when cynics say our planet’s doom is sealed. Look to God by whose great pow’r the dead were raised and the lepers were healed.”

Of course, if you take the words literally, they’re fine. Earth’s doom isn’t sealed. But half the people in this country believe that climate change is a fraud. And a good number more believe that it really is coming, but that that’s fine too, because it’s just a sign of the end times and the return of Jesus. Maybe hymn writers need to be a bit more careful about encouraging such attitudes.

And some of us who are less confident about the end times as a solution note that in its 2013 report, the UN’s 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that we have approximately fifteen years to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions before certain aspects of climate change become irreversible. Maybe those of us who fear doom is over the horizon aren’t so much cynics as realists. And maybe genuine hope involves demanding that our clergy start preaching about planetary survival and that our government stop allowing the fossil fuel industry to trade that survival for big bucks.

“Secrets of the Vatican”

February 27, 2014 at 6:00 pm | Posted in Vatican | 8 Comments
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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”?


Antibiotic Resistance

February 15, 2014 at 11:45 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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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!)

Florida. Nebraska. Brooklyn.

February 5, 2014 at 3:58 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments
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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.

Diabetes, the Food Industry and Us

January 22, 2014 at 12:45 pm | Posted in Food | 4 Comments
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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.)

Interview about Catholic Sisters, the Church, and Women

January 13, 2014 at 10:24 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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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.  ( :

Francis as Person of the Coming Year as Well?

December 30, 2013 at 6:35 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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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.

Solstice Hope

December 21, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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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.

Pope Francis

December 12, 2013 at 4:46 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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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 Catholicismhistorical 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.)

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