“Christ the Spouse”: Pope Francis and Women’s Ordination

March 31, 2014 at 4:48 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments
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(The following is longer than my usual blog-post–1500 words instead of my usual 750 or so–so you may want to put your feet up.)

Well, what John Allen of the Boston Globe calls “pope- mania” continues unabated. On NPR’s “Weekend Edition” a while back, Sylvia Poggioli quoted U.S. and European journalists to the effect that Pope Francis is bringing about the “biggest change in the Catholic Church in a thousand years.” And when I gave a copy of my book, Sister Trouble, to Sister Helen Prejean at a celebration of the twentieth anni- versary edition of Dead Man Walking  in November, she told me that with the new pope, all the trouble between the nuns and the Vatican is going away.

I hope these women are right. I really do. A well-informed nun-friend assures me that the current heads of the Sacred Congregation for Religious are much better than the former head, the one who initiated the “visitation” of U.S. women’s religious communities in 2009. On the other hand, Pope Francis recently made Gerhard Mueller, the conservative prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), a cardinal. The CDF investigated and then subsequently issued a harsh doctrinal assessment of the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). And the pope has not ordered the retraction of that assessment.

What really concerns me, however, is not the theopolitics of various Vatican prefects but the words of the pope himself. In particular, I am concerned about the sections on women (103 and 104) of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (EG)  (The Joy of the Gospel). Francis has, of course, received praise, even adulation, for this document, which, like many of his public statements and interviews, places a long-needed (re)emphasis on justice and love of the poor.

But a number of Francis’ statements about women in EG are troubling. These include what he writes about women’s “sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets,” as well as their “feminine genius”. These are surely references to John Paul II’s 1988 Mulieres Dignitatem, and his ideology of “complementarity,” no matter what the citation in EG suggests. But what concerns me most is the first half of a sen- tence in section 104: “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion…”

At first, I hoped the word “Spouse” was an intentionally more gender-neutral term than the distinctly gendered “Christ the Bridegroom” that has been used to dismiss the possibility of women’s ordination for decades. Alas, when I examined the versions of EG in Italian and Spanish (one or the other of which is surely the language in which the document was written), I discovered that “Christ the Spouse” is simply an-other example of bad Vatican translations into English: In Italian and French (and in German), the words mean “Christ the Bridegroom” or “Christ the Husband.”

Now the metaphor of Christ, or God, as the Bridegroom, appears throughout the Jewish and Christian scriptures and in many other Christian writings. It is one of a wide range of metaphors for the relationship between God and God’s people. What some of us will recall, however, is that “Christ the Bridegroom” played a pivotal role in Inter Insigniores, the 1976 CDF declaration, approved by Paul VI, that dis missed the possibility of women’s ordination. John Paul II does not use “Christ the Bridegroom” in his 1994 apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which declares women’s or-dination as contrary to the faith, and which some conservative Catholics believe to be an infallible statement. Francis’s use of the phrase “is not a question open to discussion,” how-ever, is surely a reference to the last paragraph of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which states that the Church has “no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” And in his 1988 apostolic letter on the dignity and vocation of women, Mulieres Dignitatem, John Paul uses “Christ the Bridegroom” twenty-eight times. For him, “Christ the Bridegroom” sets absolutely the limits of woman’s vocation.

In 1993, before the publication of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Sister Elizabeth J. Picken, CJ, published a rebuttal of a previous article by the conservative Catholic theologian, Sara Butler, MSBT, “The Priest as the Sacrament of Christ the Bridegroom”; both appeared in Worship magazine.. Picken argues compellingly that Butler, following Inter Insignores and Mulieres Dignitatem, uses “Christ the Bridegroom” as the singular framework for ordination in a way that makes the relationship between God and God’s people essentially gendered. (Butler, Sara, “The Priest as Sacrament of Christ the Bridegroom.” Worship, 66:6 Nov. 1992, 498-517. Picken, Elizabeth J. “If Christ is Bridegroom, Must the Priest Be Male?” Worship, 67:3. May 1993, 269-278.)

There are, we learn, multiple problems with this approach. First of all “Christ the Bridegroom” is a metaphor, but Butler makes it a “primordial symbol” that cancels out, or tries to subsume within it, other equally or more important, metaphors. In point of fact, Picken argues, the primary analogy of the Christian tradition is the relationship between Christ and the Church, the covenant between them, not between husband and wife. The core meaning of this bond is fidelity, not nuptials. In the He-brew Bible, the covenant of fidelity is sometimes represented between God and single leaders of the whole people: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, etc.; also between womb and infant; between lord and slave; between shepherd and flock; be-tween gardener and vineyard. In addition, sexuality is used in ways that extend beyond marriage to represent the covenant; sometimes the prophets describe the people of Israel as prostituting themselves to foreign gods—breaking the covenant. Similarly, the author of Ephesians says that marriage partners are to model themselves on the pattern of Christ to the church. But Butler, and the papal documents she defends, have got it all turned upside down. Christ’s fidelity to the church is the model for marriage partners; marriage partners are not the model to which Christ and the church should conform.

Picken also details other ways in which the theology of Christ the Bridegroom is reductive, profoundly narrowing of the tradition. Butler, and the documents from Paul VI and John Paul II, limit the whole question of ordination to the framework of Christology. They fail to take into account the Christian anthropology (theology of the human being) and pneumatology (theology of the Spirit) that are also essential parts of the meaning of ordination. For example, using Christ the Bridegroom to argue that the priest must be male draws on one view of Christian anthropology, complementarity, that presumes opposite roles for men and women. But there are also Christian anthropologies of differentiation that understand sex roles to be interchangeable. Butler, and those in her camp, believe that if a pope draws on the theology of complementarity, that settles the question. But complementarity is not an infallible doctrine; quite the contrary.

Similarly, pneumatology, and ecclesiology in relation to the Eucharist and the church, are almost ignored in these documents, making them a primarily medieval interpretation of ordination. (I am using the word “medieval” literally here.) Picken draws on the great twentieth-century theologian Yves Congar to make her point here: “Christ, ‘by his Holy Spirit, builds up the Church and raises up and institutes its ministries.’ If it is Christ by the Spirit that builds up the Church,” Picken asks, “is it required that the ordained minister be of the same gender as Christ?” Or to put it more baldly, is the Holy Spirit also a bridegroom?

Lest we be too disheartened by Pope Francis’ use of the theologically and scripturally reductive symbol favored by his predecessors to limit women’s roles in the church, I refer you to a critique of Evangelii Gaudium that appeared on the America magazine blog page last December. It was written by another Jesuit, Francis X. Clooney, the brilliant professor of comparative theology at Harvard Divinity School. Clooney expresses disappointment with two sections of Evangelii Gaudium: 254, on “non-Christians,” Clooney’s own area of expertise, and 103 and 104, on women. With regard to the latter, Clooney stresses that “the language of Christ as ‘Spouse’ ‘giving himself in the Eucharist,’ while a beautiful image, is out of place in this Exhortation, an echo of another view of Church.”

Clooney’s post is well worth reading. What particularly strikes me, however, is its title: “Pope Francis: Still Finding His Own Voice?” Clooney argues that the whole section on non-Christians “is not sufficiently integrated with Francis’ more exciting vision, in the rest of the exhortation,” of “an outward looking Church that is in the streets, with the people, soiled and wounded in the work of justice, combatting the real enemies of economic and political degradation and the deprivation of human dignity.” He argues as well that the sections on women seem to be “in someone else’s voice.” What’s needed, Clooney tells us, is for Francis to speak about these questions in his own voice and not just as the successor to John Paul II and Benedict.

From Father Francis’ lips to Pope Francis’ ear.

 

(This article is a slight revision of an article by the same name that appeared in the March-June 2014 edition of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference. EqualwRites is published three times a year, and you can subscribe by sending a donation of any amount to SEPA WOC PO Box 27195, Philadelphia, PA 19118. Make your check payable to SEPA WOC.)

 

Changing Slowly

March 27, 2014 at 5:11 pm | Posted in The Hierarchy, women | 3 Comments
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Last week I went up to the American Bible Society in Manhattan to hear Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston speak about Pope Francis on the first anniversary of his papacy. As I mentioned in my last post, I’m giving a talk soon myself about gender under Pope Francis, so I thought it might be good to hear what O’Malley had to say. I also thought it would be good to hear what I took to be the program’s respondents had to say about the pope, including Matt Malone SJ, the editor of America, Rusty Reno, the editor of First Things,  and Mollie Wilson O’Reilly, associate editor and columnist at Commonweal, along with the program’s moderator, Ken Woodward.

Cardinal O’Malley, whom Deacon Greg Kandra calls “the most powerful Catholic in America” because of his connections with the pope, didn’t do a bad job. (O’Malley got to know the former Cardinal Bergoglio when he served as a bishop in the Virgin Islands; he’s  now one of eight cardinals the pope has named to reform the Curia.) I was grateful that O’Malley wore his brown robe–he’s a Capuchin, that is, a variety of Franciscan–and not some outlandish hierarchical get-up. (The only time I ever saw Cardinal Dolan, speaking at a vespers service sponsored by Pax Christi New York a few years back, he marched in in a scarlet cassock, biretta and mozetta; so much for the monastic egalitarianism of the divine office, I thought). O’Malley’s talk was also pretty low-key, describing Pope Francis as a thoroughly Ignatian Jesuit, even down to his fascination with Francis of Assisi, a fascination shared by the Jesuit founder, Ignatius Loyola.  In O’Malley’s estimation, Francis also embraces the introspection that characterizes Ignatian spirituality,  keeping him focused on God even in the midst of an activist ministry. Such discernment, we learned, is part of what makes the Pope able to make the changes for which he has been much praised, instead of necessarily carrying on the practices of previous papacies.  We were assured, however, that these will be changes in pastoral practice–not in doctrine. (Whew!)  It will be difficult for Francis’s successors to roll back these changes, though the cardinal didn’t elaborate on why this is so. He also spoke about Pope Francis’s “church of the poor,” and the joy of the faith that Pope Francis exudes.

After O’Malley’s warm, enthusiastic comments about Pope Francis, the moderator indicated that it was now time for the panelists to ask the cardinal questions. That was when it came to me that three of the leading Catholic journalists in the country were not, in fact, going to respond to the cardinal’s talk; they were simply going to ask questions. Some of the journalists’ questions were very much to the point, but the cardinal’s answers were pretty vague, and the journalists definitely didn’t push him. When Wilson O’Reilly brought up the widespread disappointment concerning the pope’s not having done anything about sex abuse in his first year, the cardinal assured her that the committee was coming, and that the pope’s love for people energizes everything he does. When Malone asked about the dangers of the celebrity culture surrounding the pope, O’Malley said trying to run away would make it worse; people just love what the pope symbolizes. When asked about women’s roles in the church, the cardinal said changes were coming. Nobody mentioned abortion, gay marriage, contraception, or women’s ordination. The last paragraph of the Catholic News Service article on the event says “Questions were asked by…” and names the three panelists, period. One assumes they aren’t the most powerful Catholics in America.

It wasn’t entirely Cardinal O’Malley’s fault that the format of the program focused almost exclusively on him and afforded the journalists a minimal role. Nor was it his doing, I guess, that eighty percent of the presenters were male and all of them white. The American Bible Society is a conservative evangelical group, and in my experience, when Protestant evangelicals dialogue with Catholics, they identify with some of the most conservative aspects of Catholicism. On the other hand, speakers have been known to request changes in format.

News coverage suggests that if Pope Francis had he been the speaker, he might have behaved differently–asking the panel members their opinions, for example, or engaging members of the audience. The changes the pope is trying to make would appear to be trickling down slowly, even to those he has chosen for leadership.

 

 

 

 

 

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 Amazon.com 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!

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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.  ( :

http://news.wgcu.org/term/marian-ronan

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.

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