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.)

Spiritual Ecology: A Review

December 6, 2013 at 3:55 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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The following review is longer than 500 words because I wrote it before I decided to slow down.  ( :   Previous versions of it appeared in two of the world-famous rags for which I write: Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the US, and EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.

Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth. Ed. Llewellyn Vaughn-Lee. Point Reyes, CA: The Golden Sufi Center, 2013.  280 pp. 

Odd as it may sound in this era of “spiritual but not religious,” I am wary of the word “spiritual.” You might be, too, had you lived eleven years in Berkeley, California, the land of beautiful people chanting OM in two-hundred-dollar Lululemon outfits.

But I decided to read Spiritual Ecology anyway because the climate change work I’ve been doing makes my need for a stronger spiritual base painfully apparent. You can spend only so much time reading and writing about the pending end of the planet without needing a serious infusion of hope.

I began by reading three essays by Catholic environmentalists—Thomas Berry, Sister Miriam Therese MacGillis and Richard Rohr—and another by Thomas Berry students Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim. I had read Berry’s early work in mimeographed form at Grailville in the 1970s and was glad to return to it here in his “The World of Wonder.” Berry, who died in 2009, drew on his mastery of world religions and Teilhard de Chardin to fashion a Universe Story in the service of planetary transformation. In “The World of Wonder” he challenges us to literally see the natural world as a sacred antidote to the imminent extinction of species brought on by individualism and the industrialism. Yet he manages to communicate this as a fundamentally numinous task, one that gives the reader hope.

The interview with Sister Miriam MacGillis highlights the central role of Berry’s Universe Story in hands-on farming and environmental education at Genesis Farm in northwest New Jersey. And the co-founders of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, Tucker and Grim, acknowledge Berry implicitly in “The Next Transition.” The culmination of the 13.4 billion year evolutionary process, we learn, is a “Great Transition” or “Turning” from hyper- individualism and environmental destruction to kinship and sustainability—a hopeful vision indeed.

Yet my favorite essay in this bunch is Franciscan Richard Rohr’s feisty “Creation as the Body of God.” Rohr begins with a refreshing acknowledgment of the big role that “very poor Christian theology” and its harmful notions of physicality and embodiment have played in our current environmental crisis. What about “our supposed belief that the Eternal Word of God became ‘flesh,’ ” he wonders. (235) He then uses Christian theology, from Paul and Augustine, Duns Scotus and Aquinas, to Gerard Manley Hopkins and Sally McFague, to argue that the world is indeed the body of God. It seems, Rohr suggests, that the only thing that will make us recognize our common oneness with all people and all creation is the common suffering that our planetary destruction promises. But God and God’s goodness will have the last word.

I was also deeply moved by the Native American selections in Spiritual Ecology–in large part because they embody the union of spirit and matter that “very poor Christian theology” tears apart. In “Listening to Natural Law,” Chief Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation, tells us that the spiritual side of nature is absolute, for which we must give constant thanks, but that we’d also better get off our lazy asses and make our leaders change their ways. Similarly, in her essay “In The Time of Sacred Places” indigenous activist Winona LaDuke details the indivisible connections between religious rituals, the people who celebrate them, the ancient land where they live, and the creatures that live with them. Examples include the relationship between the Winnemem Wintu of Northern California and the Nur salmon there, and between the Abnishanaabeg of Lake Michigan and the wolves and wild rice that sustain them. Similarly, the subcontinental Indian activist Vandana Shiva identifies food itself as the inextricable bond between creator and created.

Unfortunately, another batch of essays in Spiritual Ecology is a good deal less helpful than these memorable depictions of the oneness of all creation. Written by white male “spiritual teachers,” they draw primarily on exhortation and repetition to get the party line across: CREATION IS SACRED they tell us, again, and again, and again. One of the offenders in this regard is the editor of the collection, Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughn-Lee. In his introduction and again in the final essay, Vaughn-Lee reinscribes repeatedly the either/or that underpins so much of modern culture—but this time it’s either separate, isolated, materialist lives or else virtuous ones lived in unity with nature. God forbid he acknowledge that many of us live lives that oscillate between the two. And Jungian analyst Jules Cashford reinscribes another noxious polarity by adulating Gaia, the “Earth Mother,” even as he quotes exclusively male scientists and environmentalists throughout his essay.

Fortunately, a number of other essays offset these spiritual-in-the-worst-sense efforts. Whatever concerns I have about Buddhism being otherworldly are swept away by Zen Roshi Susan Murphy’s history of a genetically patented hybrid tomato raised by Mexican farmers for $2.50 a day, fumigated with toxic chemicals whose wastes are then shipped to Alabama to poison the black community there while the tomatoes are sold on plastic foam trays in cardboard boxes made in Canada and shipped all over North America in refrigerated trucks whose coolants destroy the ozone layer. This is a juggernaut, Murphy reminds us, in which we all collude. For Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist bells of mindfulness some of us have had the pleasure of hearing have become less beautiful but no less essential: they’re the floods, droughts, melting sea ice, and hurricanes that signal global warming. Only if we become mindful of the damage we are doing to Mother Earth is enlightenment possible.

And for Buddhist eco-philosopher and spiritual activist Joanna Macy, the western individualist ego is being replaced by a wider construct, an “ecological self.” Rooted in our collective mourning for the imminent demise of the planet, we are coming to realize, for example, that we are not protecting the rainforest down there, but rather we are the rainforest protecting itself.

Spiritual Ecology is by no means the only volume that introduces westerners to the foundational oneness of nature and the spirit. For those who want to begin understanding that oneness, however, the essays I’ve discussed here, and others in Spiritual Ecology, are a pretty good place to start.

Trying to Slow Down

November 30, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments
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Well, as you may have noticed, I’ve been AWOL for a while. My last post, about our friend Trevor, was at the end of October. November was a pretty crazy month–a week at
Grail meetings outside Cincinnati, not to mention getting out there and back, followed by a bunch of doctor’s visits.  And then turkey-mania, with grandkids dashing around the apartment.

But in the past I’d have shoved a blog post (or four) in around the edges. This time I didn’t. You see, I’m trying to slow down.

I began thinking about slowing down in August, when my GP told me I have a pre-diabetic glucose level. I was shocked. I had the mistaken notion that you have to be overweight to get diabetes. Since I wasn’t, I ate whatever I wanted. If an article wasn’t going well, I had five chocolate chip cookies. And ice cream for desert. I’d just walk farther the next day, or do an extra half-hour on the exercise bike. Immediately upon getting the diagnosis, I changed my diet substantially, but it was a little depressing. Especially since another medical condition forces me not to eat artificial sweeteners.  And then in the fall, I got arthritis in one of the wrists I had broken in 2011.

I have many friends who have much worse health issues then these: some who have had rheumatoid arthritis for years; some who actually have Type 2 diabetes. But there was something about dealing with both of them that forced me to think more about the need to slow down (that and my husband retiring in June and moving his office into the apartment.) I’ve taken up yoga, which helps the wrist a lot, as long as I do it every day. I’ve even begun meditating.

I was thinking about the need to modify my headlong tendencies back in the middle of November when NPR played an interview with the South African novelist, Doris Lessing, who had just died. Lessing said that when she finished a book and sent it to the publisher, at first she would feel really good, and think that she didn’t have to do anything else. But after a half hour or so, she would start thinking about what she would write next. It reminded me of myself. I actually retired from teaching in 2008. But teaching was always, in a certain sense, what I did to finance my habit—writing. And writing is kind of like owning your own business. It’s really hard to retire. You cannot imagine how many times a day I have an idea for an article.

I thought maybe I should stop blogging, because it’s ideas for blog posts that pop into my head most often. But I would miss being in touch with you all. So I’ve decided to keep on writing, but try to make the posts shorter. The twenty-five year old P.R. guy who encouraged me to start the blog (as a way to sell my books) said posts should be about five hundred words. So I’m going to give that a try. I also had a fantasy about changing the title of my blog to “An American Catholic on the Margins of Old Age,” but I can’t figure out how to change the settings. ( :

Stay tuned!

Trevor Addendum

October 29, 2013 at 11:37 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Trevor’s pastor, Dr. Russell, informs me that Trevor actually gets $45 a week, not a month, as I said in my post yesterday. That’s certainly better, but I’m grateful that’s not how much cash I’ve got in my wallet.

Our Friend Trevor

October 28, 2013 at 4:49 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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When Keith and I came back to New York in 2008, we bought a co-op in a sixty-or-so unit apartment building on the western edge of the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. After World War II this was a Jewish neighborhood; then a lot of Caribbean immigrants moved in. By the time my husband became the pastor of an American Baptist congregation six or eight blocks from here, in 1978, the neighborhood also had Haitian and Latino communities in it. And today, there are also lots of (subcontinental) Indians, and three blocks further west, a section called “little Pakistan.”

The 1920s apartment building reflects these changes. On the upper floors are two Jewish women, one ninety-five years old, one 103, who have been here their entire adult lives. But there are also Caribbean and Latino families who came after most of the Jewish renters moved out. And more recently, some young professional couples–Russians, secular Jews, white ethnics, WASPS–moved in. Most of us own our apartments; the building became a “co-op” in 1989. A co-op is different from a condo in that we own shares in the apartments and elect a board that makes decisions about financial and residential matters. What enables the renters to remain here with us are New York City’s rent stabilization laws, which control how quickly rent goes up and make it difficult for the real estate firm that owns the unsold units to evict the (for the most part) less economically well-off renters still occupying them.

Our friend Trevor and his mother and younger brother lived in just such a rent-stabilized apartment, directly above us, until recently. Trevor is in his mid-forties, his brother Michael is in his late 30s, and their mother, Geraldine, is younger than you might think, but retired. The rent stabilization laws allow a renter to be away for up to six months out of the year without losing their lease, so Geraldine spent about that much time in Belize each year, while Michael stayed home and worked. Trevor, however, had had a really bad stroke in 2006, and has been on Social Security Disability since then. He was working in construction in Tampa when he had the stroke but came home to live with his mother.

Trevor is tall and thin and walks with a cane, hunched over; he has no front teeth–one of many local residents who can’t afford $11,000 for dental implants–and has a terrible time talking. I often met him on the street, walking out to Prospect Park or back, where we both went to get our exercise. We would chat a bit, and I got better at understanding what he was saying. One day I met him outside the supermarket up on Church Avenue and he was loading bottles and cans out of a supermarket cart into a recycling machine that paid five cents an item. It occurred to me that he may be the only friend I’ve got who collects and cashes in bottles and cans.

I also met Trevor’s Mom on the street once in a while when she was back from Belize. She would invariably get to complaining about hard it was to live with Trevor, but spoke highly of Michael. She was in Belize in September when I came home to see Michael packing a rental truck out in front of the building.

“We’re moving,” he said.

I said, “Oh, I need to get your address so I can come and see Trevor.”

“Trevor’s not coming,” he replied.

Turns out Geraldine had written to say that she was not coming back from Belize. And Michael was moving in with his girlfriend. Which left Trevor, for the moment, in the apartment. Trouble is, his name wasn’t on the lease.

So the management company that handles the rental units got Trevor hooked up with Adult Protective Services–better than putting him out on the street, for sure. After a while, they moved Trevor to Surf Manor, an NYC “adult home” out in Coney Island, where he shares a room with another guy and gets three meals a day. The home gets his Social Security check and gives Trevor forty-five dollars a month for incidentals.  Unfortunately, Surf Manor is reputed to be one of the worst “adult homes” in the city, with residents at one point suing for a long-term bedbug infestation, and the majority of the residents mentally ill and hardly being cared for.

Trevor now comes to see us a couple of times a week. He walks to the old neighborhood from Coney Island, three miles each way, leaning on his cane. I think we’re becoming his family, more or less. Keith is going tomorrow to see the social worker at Surf Manor because Trevor’s Medicaid drug card has expired and he can’t get his cumadin prescription refilled; I think he takes the cumadin to offset the effects of the stroke. Trevor said he tried to explain this to the social worker at Surf Manor, but she didn’t understand him. Odd to think that I would be better than a social worker at understanding the speech of a disabled man. Keith has decided to describe himself as Trevor’s pastor. Maybe he actually is.

Trevor has taken to asking us for money, because he hardly has any. I don’t think he’s conning us; Keith gave him twenty dollars at one point and he came back the next day to tell us he’d lost the twenty–could he have more? A con probably wouldn’t have told us. A clergy friend of mine is going to let me write checks to his congregation as a donation and  then give me the money in cash so we can at least take it off our taxes. We’re planning to give Trevor five dollars at a time in case he loses it.

I tend to avoid homeless people on the street. I give them some money but scurry away. It doesn’t feel very Christian not to answer the door when Trevor comes, though. Maybe I should find it a comfort that some Central Americans are as rotten to their family members as some Anglos (or whatever we are). But I don’t.

The Pope! The Pope! The Pope!

October 11, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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Well, you have admit, Pope Francis is getting some serious media coverage.  As John Allen quips in the National Catholic Reporter today, “If a Las Vegas casino had opened a betting line eight months ago on the likelihood that within a year the most popular figure on the planet would be the pope, one has to imagine the odds would have been awfully long.” But here’s Francis, making headlines everywhere. In the latest  summary of articles on Christianity that I receive weekly from the New York Time, three of the pieces are about the new pope.  And there were two articles about him in the last issue of The Nation, that former hotbed of  anti-Catholicism.

This outpouring of interest in and enthusiasm for the pope inspires several thoughts in me. First of all, it suggests that the Catholics won the Reformation. Roman Catholicism is the biggest organized religion on earth, with 1.2 billion members. One journalist–don’t ask me which one– suggested recently that the pope is now  the global symbol not only of Christianity, but of religion. I can imagine a few Muslims taking issue with this. But as for Christianity, it’s hard to dispute. Part of the problem is the clothes—who wants to photograph the head of the World Council of Churches in a suit and tie when you can get these guys in archaic dresses and hats? The universal fixation on the pope also suggests that the Catholic emphasis on, not to say brutal enforcement of, unity does have its upside. Why talk to the 476 and counting heads of various Protestant denominations when you can just call Rome? Nearly a half a millennium after the posting of his ninety-five theses, Luther must be turning over in his grave.

But as Allen also mentions in his NCR article, despite the new pope’s enormous popularity, there are still a few sticking points. Allen calls them Francis’s “Older Son Problem,” referring to the elder sibling who got seriously pissed over his father’s ecstatic welcome of the returned prodigal brother. These include, according to Allen, some faithful Vatican personnel who were not pleased by the pope’s references to the “leprosy” of the Vatican court; some pro-life Catholics who feel less than appreciated by the pope’s suggestions that their efforts have been “over the top”; and some evangelical Catholics who have toiled heroically to defend and clarify orthodox Catholic identity and who suspect the pope is pulling the rug out from under them.

As for me, however, I’m with Nation columnist Katha Pollitt and University of Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting: it’s Francis’s support of church teaching on sexuality that renders problematic this great outpouring of enthusiasm.  As Pollitt wonders, is warm Pope Francis’s  acceptance of church teaching on contraception, abortion, and the exclusion of women from ordination  “Sexism with a Human Face”?  In his New York Times blogGutting answers the question unambiguously: “Unless the pope is prepared to reject the hierarchy’s absolute condemnation of these actions (any abortion, any homosexual act, any use of artificial contraceptives) and revise the official teaching, his comments reflect merely changes of style and tone.” Gutting finds a few glimmers of hope—references by Francis to the infallibility of the faithful in matters of belief and to the “uncertainty” that always accompanies spiritual discernment.  But Gutting does not expect Francis to change Catholic sexual teaching.

Pollitt’s and Gutting’s concerns call to mind the explanation of the ideology of the post Vatican II church in Gene Burns’s illuminating 1994 study, The Frontiers of Catholicism: The Politics of Ideology in a Liberal WorldBurns, a sociologist, argues convincingly that after Vatican II the hierarchy—the ranking—of the various Roman Catholic ideological positions underwent rearrangement. Before the Council, Catholic theological doctrine was the single most important part of Catholic thinking, with social and sexual teaching equally important but secondary. In the nineteenth century, for example, abortion and belief in the separation of church and state were equally gravely sinful, but heresy was worse.

With Vatican II, however, the church’s (belated) acceptance of the modern world undercut the primacy of Catholic doctrine per se. By admitting, for example, that a human being does not have to be Catholic—to believe in Jesus Christ and the Roman Catholic Church—in order to be saved, the church undercut the absolute status of its theological doctrines.

But as Burns explains, no institution gives up its claim to absolute truth and power willingly. After the Council, then, the RCC replaced its claim to absolute doctrinal truth with a claim to the absolute truth of its sexual teaching, based not in the Catholic tradition, but in Natural Law. According to Natural Law, all human beings are forbidden to have abortions, to engage in homosexual acts, to divorce their spouses. The Catholic church became the keeper of this universally mandatory law. Thus in the ideological hierarchy, as defended and enforced by the Catholic Church,  universal (Catholic) sexual teaching is on the top, and mandatory for all; Catholic doctrine comes second, and is mandatory only for Catholics;  and Catholic social teaching comes third, and is optional, that is,  subject to individual “prudential judgments” (as the American bishops sometimes put it.)

It sometimes seems as if Pope Francis isn’t privy to this ideological hierarchy–or at least he doesn’t grasp that social justice is entirely optional. Who knows–under his leadership, the Catholic ideological hierarchy may be rearranged again; maybe all three kinds of teaching will get put on an equal level.  If the Catholic ideological hierarchy changed after Vatican II, it could, conceivably, change again.

But let’s not kid ourselves: such ideological reconfigurations don’t happen easily, or quickly, as the repression of liberation theology by John Paul II in the 1980s suggests. In the short-term, and for a good while thereafter, Pope Francis will be keeping sexual teaching on the top (and, to switch metaphors, women and gays on the bottom) no matter how warm and loving the style in which he does so.

My New Book Is Out!

September 30, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments
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Well, my new book, Sister Trouble: The Vatican, the Bishops, and the Nuns, came out on Saturday. It’s available for sale on;  an eBook version will also be available there in a week or so.

And just to whet your appetite, here’s the description. Y’all come!

In April of 2012 the Vatican issued a harsh “doctrinal assessment” of the largest organization of Catholic sisters in the U.S., the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The “assessment” was the culmination of a three-year investigation. Simultaneously, the Vatican had been conducting a visitation of 340 active (non-cloistered) congregations of U.S sisters. What do these developments mean?

This is the question Catholic scholar and activist Marian Ronan sets out to answer in Sister Trouble: The Vatican, the Bishops, and the Nuns, her galvanizing collection of articles about the investigations, the doctrinal assessment, and the issues that connect them.

In the first section of Sister Trouble, Ronan chronicles the conflict from the 2009 launch of the investigations to the 2012 actions of bishops appointed to oversee the Leadership Conference. She also examines the condemnation of Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s book, the link between the sisters’ support for the Affordable Care Act and the Vatican crackdown, and the dispute over the ultimate meaning of the Second Vatican Council that underlies the conflict. The articles sizzle with Ronan’s distinctive and sometimes acerbic humor.

Readers curious about the Vatican crackdown will learn a good deal from this first section of Sister Trouble. But the talk that comprises the second section provides much-needed context for understanding the conflict. Here the author examines in particular the treatment of dedicated celibate women throughout church history and the threat they have always posed to the supposedly absolute gender boundaries with which male leaders justify their domination of the church.

Finally, in the concluding section, Ronan makes clear her reasons for undertaking Sister Trouble—because she cares so deeply about Catholic sisters. In the first article, she uses a statue of Joan of Arc to trace a genealogy from one U.S. Catholic sister to another and finally to herself. Then she draws on Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain to explore how the sisters shaped the lives and characters of generations of Catholic women. And in the final essay, Ronan steps beyond the current conflict to bid farewell to three recently deceased sisters whose lives of commitment profoundly influenced her own.

As theologian Tania Oldenhage has written, Sister Trouble is an “urgent, clear-sighted and deeply moving account” of the conflict between the Vatican and the nuns. It’s also a testimony to the legacy of Catholic sisters throughout the ages.

Sucker Punched by the New Pope?

September 26, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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The following is a somewhat revised version of my article that appeared on Religion Dispatches last night. There’s a reason I’m an academic and not a journalist: attending to the twenty-four hour news cycle makes me a nervous wreck. Minutes after I mailed my article to RD,  in which I suggested that Pope Francis’s Latin American upbringing might have contributed to his attitude toward women, an email appeared announcing that Francis had denounced machismo in his interview published in fifteen Jesuit publications last week. Once this post is up, I’m going back to my research.

Sucker Punched by the New Pope?

 Soon, many optimistic, not to say naïve, Catholics—and Protestants—will be shocked to learn that the kindly new Pope Francis has excommunicated an Australian priest for supporting women’s ordination. Perhaps it’s all right to be obsessed with some pelvic issues after all.

According to the National Catholic Reporter, Rev. Gregory Reynolds, of Melbourne, was notified on September 18 that he had “incurred latae sententiae excommunication for throwing away the consecrated host or retaining it ‘for a sacrilegious purpose’” (Somebody in Reynolds’s small Eucharistic community had apparently given the host to a dog) as well as for “speaking publicly against church teaching.” A letter to the priests of the archdiocese clarified that Reynolds’s support of women’s ordination was a primary reason for his excommunication.

I am not among those shocked by this development. As enthusiastic commentary about the new pope flowed out from the media in recent weeks, I was reminded of a comment my husband used to make about the police in Philadelphia back when we lived there. Some poor kid shoplifted something and BAM, there’d be three police cars surrounding him. “These boys don’t play,” my hubby would say. Neither do popes and cardinals, no matter how benign they seem.

Other Catholic feminists—Mary Hunt, for example—expressed wariness of the new pope even before Reynolds’s excommunication. It was not lost on us that even in the first interview, on the plane from Brazil, Pope Francis drew the line at women’s ordination. Indeed, the clear hierarchical distinction between genders underpinned by the refusal to ordain women has been the line in the sand since just after the Roman persecution of the church. But since John Paul II’s 1994 statement declaring women’s ordination absolutely off-limits, it’s been a twofer: something the church “has always taught,” and an example of “papal infallibility.” Never mind that papal infallibility applies only to church doctrine; no pope is going to undercut his own authority.

Of course, the boys’ declaring women’s ordination the line in the sand is something just this side of a death wish for the church. Despite attempts to obscure the fact, the men now in seminaries can’t begin to replace the priests retiring and dying, or to reverse the parish closings that necessarily follow. I have been arguing for forty years that women’s ordination is a fundamentally conservative issue; I cannot tell you how many Catholic women I know who would have been perfectly happy living their lives as grunt parish priests, baptizing and marrying and burying people. Instead, they’re picketing cathedrals, or writing articles for Religion Dispatches.

Of course, Pope Francis’s position on women’s ordination doesn’t mean he won’t initiate other more moderate reforms in the Catholic church. Indeed, his position on this issue may well be an olive branch to the conservative wing of the church so as to be able to introduce other changes. Pope Bergoglio is a strategic centrist; in Argentina he proposed civil unions as a compromise between the right-wing bishops on one side and the Kirchner government’s efforts to legalize gay marriage on the other

Then again, describing Pope Francis as a “strategic centrist” may credit him and the rest of the institutional church with more coherence than is warranted. I concluded a previous version of this article with speculation that Pope Francis’s origins in a machismo culture played some role in his excommunication of Rev. Reynolds. Just after I mailed it to Religion Dispatches,, an NCR blog by Phyllis Zagano appeared in my inbox. Francis had apparently spoken negatively about machismo in the original Italian version of his famous interview published last week by fifteen Jesuit journals. But somehow, the English version published in the Jesuits’ America magazine omitted the statement. Since then, America has apologized.

Maybe the pope sucker punched us by excommunicating Father Reynolds. Maybe he knew nothing about it. Maybe we’ll get a kiss tomorrow. Stay tuned.

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