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.
Tags: Belize, Flatbush Brooklyn, NYC adult homes, NYC adult protective services, NYC co-ops, NYC rent stabilization laws
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.
Tags: abortion, Catholic sexual teaching, Gary Gutting, homosexuality, John Allen, Katha Pollitt, Pope Francis, Roman Catholic Church, The Frontiers of Catholicism
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 blog, Gutting 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 World. Burns, 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.
Tags: "Sister Trouble", Catholic Sisters, Leadership Conference of Women Religious, marian ronan, Nuns, Vatican doctrinal assessment, Vatican visitaion of U.S. Catholic sisters
Well, my new book, Sister Trouble: The Vatican, the Bishops, and the Nuns, came out on Saturday. It’s available for sale on Amazon.com; 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.
Tags: Americs magazine, Catholic women's ordination, excommunication, Father Gregory Reynolds, machismo, Phyllis Zagano, Pope Francis, Roman Catholic Church, Vatican
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.
Tags: Congo, education of African women and girls, Nigeria, Notre Dame High School Moylan PA, photovoltaic grids, potable water, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur
In 1961, when I was 14, my family moved from the tiny stucco house in which my brother and I had shared a bedroom for seven years to a bigger stucco house a few miles south. A number of noteworthy changes accompanied the move: finally being able to have my wooden dresser, previously out in the hall, inside the room where I, and I alone, slept; the crabapple tree in the yard that bloomed for my birthday every spring; and the regional rail line, with a stop at the bottom of the hill, that carried me to the museums and bookstores and libraries of Philadelphia.
Another change was less welcome: instead of going to Archbishop Prendergast, the Catholic girls’ high school where my parochial school classmates went, I was forced to enroll at Notre Dame Moylan, staffed not by the order of sisters at my grade school, the West Chester IHMs, or even some of the other familiar archdiocesan orders–the Chestnut Hill SSJs, or the Glen Riddle Franciscans–but by an order of nuns I’d never heard of, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. What I couldn’t get over was that if we had bought a house on the opposite side of the street, we’d have become members of the next parish north, St. Madeline’s, whose girls went to “Prendie,” as we called it. But we were on the Saint Rose of Lima side of the street. So I started taking the bus every day out Rose Valley Road to Notre Dame.
As it turns out, this bizarre wrong-side-of-the street development was one of the most significant of my life. The “Ess-En-Dees,” as we called them, turned out to be the most educated and internationally sophisticated adults I had ever met, introducing me to literature, music, world events, and equally to the point, to a progressive, justice-oriented Catholicism about which I had never dreamed. My years at Notre Dame overlapped with the Second Vatican Council, of course, so I wasn’t the only white-ethnic working-class Catholic being introduced to a renewed, mission-oriented church. But the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur introduced us in a galvanizing, unforgettable way. I have been grateful to them, and in communication with them, ever since.
Forward-fast the DVR forty years or so and picture me in another house, this one a few blocks from the University of California, Berkeley, and the Graduate Theological Union, where my husband and I are teaching. It’s the height of the real estate boom, 2005, and my brother the tax attorney informs us that if we are going to sell that house, we should sell it right now. So we do. And we make a sock of money. I won’t go into the details except to say that when the fourteen outrageous offers, each double what we paid for the place, come in, I say to my esteemed companion,” Keith, I’m not sure it’s ethical to sell this house for so much,” to which he replied, “Oh, for God’s sake, Marian, if we sell it for less, somebody will buy it and then resell it for that much.” We did, however, undertake a certain kind of penance for making such a killing–we gave a chunk of it away.
And this is where the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur came back into the picture. I learned from one of their newsletters that the congregation, which is international in scope, had undertaken a photovoltaic–that is, solar–project to make electricity available to the schools, clinics and hospitals they staff in The Democratic Republic of Congo and in Nigeria. Launched in 2005, the SND African Photovoltaic Project now provides electricity, clean water, and internet access in Fugarand and Awkunanaw, Nigeria, as well as in Ngidinga, Lemfu, Kitende and Pelende, Congo. In the last three of these locations alone, the photovoltaic project serves 1100 hundred primary school students, 840 secondary students, and 220 people in hospitals and clinics.
These figures are impressive, of course, but perhaps a tad abstract for Euro-Americans like me (like us?) whose lives are almost incomprehensibly easier than those of the people of central Africa. Until the photovoltaic project began operating in Ngidinga, Congo, in 2008, for example, the x-ray machine in the sisters’ hospital had never been used, for lack of electricity. And one of the major obstacles to women and girls being educated in Africa is that they spend huge amounts of time hauling clean water over long distances; because of the clean water provided by the photovoltaic project, women and girls can not only come to school–they can learn to use Microsoft Word on a computer, and can watch educational videos over the internet for the first time in their lives.
Each of the six photovoltaic systems cost $300,000, an amazing amount of money for a congregation of Catholic sisters to raise. And Keith and I are proud to have played a small part in that. The six systems are now in place, but that’s just the beginning of the effort. Among the sisters’ goals for the future are to
Maintain and grow the systems in Nigeria and Congo
Educate sisters and co-workers in skills related to the project, such as: electrical engineering, business management, construction, oversight etc.
Having invested in this transformative endeavor, it only makes sense that we would support the sisters as they continue their work for the health and education of the people of Nigeria and Congo. Please won’t you join me?
Tags: Charles. R. Morris, Commonweal magazine, DOMA decision, fracking, Harvard Divinity Review, James O'Gara, Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, Margaret O'Gara, Ross Douthat, Same-sex Marriage, Sarah Sentilles
I began reading the liberal Catholic magazine, Commonweal, when I was a teenager. I remember gobbling up the latest issue in 1965 during the coffee break from my file clerk job the summer before I started college. A few years later, my best friend from college, the future theologian Margaret O’Gara, began taking me home for conversations with her father, Commonweal’s editor, James O’Gara. I felt amazingly honored to be a “Commonweal Catholic,” committed “to a church that’s open and pluralistic,…a visible manifestation of Jesus’ presence in the world,” as O’Gara put it in his final Commonweal column in 1999.
I’ve continued reading Commonweal and sometimes subscribing to it throughout the nearly fifty years since then, finding it more analytic than The National Catholic Reporter and vastly more progressive than most other Catholic journalism. I was even a “Commonweal Associate,” for a few years after we moved back to New York, making an annual donation and attending Associates’ receptions. But I gave that up. Now I’m wondering whether I should let my subscription go too.
A major gripe I have with Commonweal–and have had for some time–is the pitifully low percentage of articles and reviews by women that they publish. In the August 15 issue, for example, women wrote three of the seventeen pieces, but that’s only half the story. One of the three was a one page review of a television mystery series, one was a one page “Final Word” column, and one was a half-page poem about a recipe book. And the gender make-up of this particular issue is not, I’m sorry to say, atypical.
Now the truth is that few contemporary publications do all that well with gender equality. As Sarah Sentilles notes in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, in 2011, “The Atlantic published 184 articles and pieces of fiction by men and 64 by women; 18 of their book reviewers were men and 8 were women; and 24 of the authors reviewed were men, compared to 12 women. Harper’s Magazine published 65 articles by men and 13 articles by women; 23 of their book reviewers were men and 10 were women; 53 of the authors reviewed were men, 19 were women. The New York Review of Books published 133 articles by men and 19 by women; 201 of their book reviewers were male and 53 were female; and they reviewed 75 male authors and only 17 female authors.”
But Commonweal is an ostensibly progressive publication in a undeniably misogynist religious tradition, Roman Catholicism. Catholic women are already stuck with an all-male priesthood, a non-inclusive language lectionary (this past Sunday’s reading from Hebrews about God disciplining sons!) and condemnation for controlling our own reproductive functions. To which Commonweal adds poems about recipe books. (And yes, I know, the magazine had a women editor, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, for fifteen years, and currently has one female associate editor. It’s not enough!!)
I also wonder what Jim O’Gara, who started out in the Catholic Worker, would think of some of the political/economic articles in Commonweal these days. I’m thinking, for example, of Charles R. Morris’s piece in the September 4, 2012, issue predicting with enthusiasm a U.S. economic boom based in the hydraulic fracturing of natural gas. Lots of ostensibly liberal journalism outlets do this sort of thing, of course–consider for example the PBS “ad” about how small farmers who lease their land to the natural gas industry are flourishing. But Commonweal?
Finally let me share with you my most recent perplexity about where Commonweal falls on the political spectrum, its treatment of same-sex marriage. In truth, I thought Commonweal did better on the contraceptives mandate compromise than a lot of other white male Catholic publications: “this will do,” they editorialized. And in their most recent issue, the Commonweal editors do take the U.S. bishops to task for their “overwrought predictions of moral decline and social calamity” in response to the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision–even as they wonder whether “severing the connection marriage has forged between sex, procreation, and family formation will undermine the expectations our culture places on the institution.” Then, in the same issue, three male, apparently white, authors hold forth on the decision’s other problems. God forbid that an assessment by a member of a group with its own history of marriage discrimination be included in the conversation.
But what really stokes my concern about a Commonweal move to the right is a fourth piece about same-sex marriage, this one by the conservative Catholic journalist, Joseph Bottum, that appeared on the Commonweal blog page on August 23rd. In it, Bottum, once an adamant opponent of same-sex marriage, now offers a “Catholic case” for accepting it, based in pragmatism–the battle is lost, and continued opposition is alienating the young–and the fact that the traditional sacredness of marriage has been lost in any case.
There’s quite a lot that’s interesting about Bottum’s essay, as the appearance of not one, but two, commentaries on it in the New York Times suggests. What I wish to point out, however, is that Bottum, the author, is a former editor of First Things, the neoconservative journal founded by Richard John Neuhaus, and writes regularly for the National Review and The Weekly Standard, both also conservative publications. Furthermore, one of the two Times follow-up pieces is by the conservative Catholic columnist, Ross Douthat.
The question of where someone or something falls on the political spectrum is a tricky one, affected by many factors. It might have seemed a liberal triumph when a number of moderates joined the American Baptist Churches after their own Southern Baptist Convention was taken over by conservatives in the 1990s. But the change also moved the American Baptists to the right. And some conservatives clearly think Joseph Bottum has moved to the left by accepting same-sex marriage and publishing about it in Commonweal. Me, I’m not so sure.
Tags: Aldo Leopold, Blue Revolution, Cynthia Barnett, Florida Everglades, land ethic, Maude Barlow, San Joaquin Delta, U.S. water crisis, water ethic, world water crisis
I became a water activist in the early 2000s, when I heard Maude Barlow say that by the end of the century, at the rate we were going, there wouldn’t be any clean water left on the planet. Eventually, however, I came to think that climate change—droughts, melting glaciers, the salination of groundwater—was the world water crisis. Now I am not so sure.
Cynthia Barnett’s Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis* is a galvanizing examination of the U.S. water crisis and a proposal for how to solve it. In the first three chapters, Barnett explores the U.S. relationship with water that caused today’s water shortages. At the heart of this crisis, we learn, are massive past interventions in the natural flow of water—the building of dams, canals and levees. The Florida Everglades and the Sacramento –San Joaquin Delta in California are outstanding examples. To remedy the damage done to our water supply by the building of just such infrastructure, politicians and corporations now perversely propose to build even more of it.
American obliviousness to the extent of our water use makes the crisis even worse. Our single greatest use of water in the U.S. is for energy production—hydropower, thermal, even solar. Next comes irrigation, with agribusiness draining aquifers at a terrifying pace and the Federal government still subsidizing water-intensive crops in very dry sections of the country. Almost as problematic are widespread efforts by municipal water systems, under the influence of global water firms, to enact technical fixes to water shortages. These include long-distance pipelines (an official in Nevada proposes piping water in from the Mississippi River) though such fixes only generate a new set of problems. And then there’s our obsession with turf. When other details of Blue Revolution have escaped my aging brain, I will still remember Barnett’s characterization of the 63,240 square miles of water-gulping back yards and golf courses across the U.S. as a “fifty-first state”!
Barnett presents water use and management in Singapore and the Netherlands as examples of approaches we would do well to adopt. But the heart of the “blue revolution” is what she calls a “water ethic,” a contemporary take on Aldo Leopold‘s 1949 “land ethic.” In place of any more humongous, expensive technological hydro-fixes must come a whole new ethical approach to water. All the people who lust after endless inexpensive supplies of water have to face up to the fact that the resources aren’t there. Instead we must use less water, plain and simple.
The heart of Barnett’s argument is chapter 11, “An American Water Ethic,” with its stress on water conservation and reuse, especially rainwater harvesting. San Antonio,Texas; Monterey, California; and Perth, Australia, are the models here, saving million of gallons of water (and millions of dollars) annually by having convinced their residents to reduce their water use substantially. The underpinnings of such a change, however, are increased community involvement in water-use decisions, and on an even deeper level, educating ourselves to understand water as an essential, even sacred, element of life.
And what about climate change? In some parts of the book, I regret what strikes me as Barnett’s creation of an either-or between the two: green revolution vs. blue. It seems to me that we need both.
But by its conclusion, Blue Revolution had also convinced me that at least sometimes Americans are choosing ostensibly green options to the detriment of blue essentials. The use of millions upon millions of gallons of water laced with sand and toxic chemicals to frack for a supposed transition fuel, natural gas, is one example. The massive use of water to irrigate corn for use in ethanol is another.
In the end, I’m sure you will agree that what we need is a true land-and-water ethic; the earth won’t survive without it. May we deepen ourselves in this double ethic and do everything we can to share it far and wide.
* Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis. By Cynthia Barnett. Boston: Beacon, 2012. Paperback. $16. 296 pp.
This post is a slight revision of a review that appeared in the most recent issue of Gumbo, the monthly newsletter of the Grail in the U.S.
Tags: Amazon, Amazon Basin, Brazilian rainforest, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Doctrinal Assessment, Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Pope Francis, Sister Dorothy Stang, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur
Earlier this month the environmental columnist Sharon Abercrombie posted an article on the National Catholic Reporter‘s Eco Catholic blog page, “Francis’ Call for Amazon Protection Echoes Work of Sr. Dorothy Stang.” I find it provocative for several reasons.
Sister “Dot” Stang was an American sister who spent forty years in Brazil, working with indigenous people in the Amazon rainforest. The Amazon Basin, as Abercrombie reminds us, comprises forty percent of Latin America and produces twenty percent of the world’s oxygen, a non-optional substance. Sister Dorothy worked to help the indigenous people of the rainforest in Brazil to learn sustainable farming practices. She also got them into contact with lawyers to defend them against loggers and ranchers intent on driving them off their land in order to clearcut the rainforest and raise huge herds of livestock there. In February of 2005 Sister Dorothy was shot dead by killers hired by just such loggers and ranchers. They were angered by her efforts to protect the people and the rainforest. In the years since her death, the situation in the Amazon has grown even worse due to government-sanctioned agribusiness and the construction of hydroelectric dams and mining infrastructure.
Abercrombie’s article suggests that during his recent visit to Brazil, Pope Francis emphasized the same values that Sister Dorothy lived and died for, telling the Brazilian bishops that the defense of the Amazon is relevant not only for the future of the church but of the whole society. He met with and encouraged some of the same indigenous peoples that Sister Dorothy served.
I am glad that the pope highlighted protection of the Amazon during his visit to Brazil. The church, in my opinion, spends far too little time stressing the environment as a “right to life” issue. Yet as the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) begins its annual meeting this week, I can’t help reflecting somewhat sardonically on the connections between the Pope’s words about the Amazon, Sister Dorothy’s work, and the current situation of the LCWR.
First of all, let’s recall that although she held dual US-Brazilian citizenship, Sister Dorothy was a member of a U.S. province of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a group that belongs to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Now, in point of fact, as Abercrombie mentions, Sister Dorothy did spend some of her time in Brazil “organizing religious services and spiritual formation classes for children and adults alike.” But a major emphasis, and the cause of her martyrdom, was her political-environmental work against ranchers and loggers doing enormous harm to the Brazilian rainforest, actions Sister Dorothy understood to contradict Catholic social teaching. She seems to have spent little (or no) time denouncing homosexuality and abortion.
In other words, Sister Dorothy was exactly the kind of U.S. Catholic sister whom the Vatican condemned in the “doctrinal assessment” it issued in April of 2012–a document which the current pope declined to rescind or even modify. The archbishop whom Pope Benedict sicced on U.S. sisters is still overseeing their meeting this week in Orlando, Florida.
Yet the values that this emblematic U.S. Catholic sister died for are precisely the values expressed by the new pope during his recent visit to Sister Dorothy’s adopted country. And commentators have remarked that this pope has said very little about the pelvic issues that have obsessed the Vatican and the hierarchy since Vatican II– something the sisters were also criticized for in the doctrinal assessment. Pope Francis had better be careful, or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith may be issuing a negative assessment of him before long.
Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about fracking lately. I started out reading Tom Wilber’s carefully argued book, Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale (Cornell University Press, 2012). Then in July we had the HBO premiere of Josh Fox’s second documentary on fracking, Gasland II (still available On Demand, to be followed, no doubt, by the DVD.) And activists are organizing ferociously to stop Gov. Andrew Cuomo from approving fracking here in NY state. He has postponed the decision a number of times, thanks, we believe, to public outcry. Last weekend I collected seventy-five signatures on Food and Water Watch‘s anti-fracking petition to Cuomo in an hour at our corner green-market . A lot of the folks I approached were pretty charged up.
Some, however, were apathetic, uninformed, or both. Several said “I’m not interested in political issues.” Other Grail members who gathered signatures in Brooklyn said some people they approached had never heard of fracking. So let me describe it, briefly, before addressing the one big problem that underlies it –the greed of the natural gas industry and its investors.
“Fracking,” short for hydraulic fracturing, is a method of drilling for oil and natural gas. It was invented in the nineteenth century, and has been used for many years to drill for oil in softer rock formations. This kind of fracking was less harmful to the environment than the current form of fracking. Since the decline of oil supplies in recent years, however, “unconventional” fracking has been used to drill into hard rock forms like shale to release natural gas. To do so, the drillers inject between two and ten million gallons of water laced with sand and toxic chemicals into new L-shaped wells. Some of the toxic fluid trucked into the well area leaks out and poisons the ground even before the fracking begins. After the remaining fracking fluid cracks the rock, gas is released, but some also seeps into the groundwater which people depend on to drink, irrigate their crops etc. Sometimes fracking for natural gas causes earthquakes. Some of the toxic fracking fluid returns to the surface to be trucked away to public water recycling plants which are rarely able to handle the poisons adequately. (Dick Cheney got an amendment put into the U.S. Clean Water Act exempting the natural gas industry from having to reveal which toxic chemicals they put into the fracking fluid.) In addition, the cement well-casings through which the fracking fluid is injected sometimes crack causing the natural gas—methane—to leak into the atmosphere. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, something the natural gas industry fails to mention when they tout natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to a clean energy future. Furthermore, the gas fracked in the Marcellus Shale area (northeastern Pennsylvania and western NY) contains a dangerous level of the radioactive substance radon in it, which, experts predict, will increase lung cancer rates. And don’t get me started on the harm done to the environment by the multitude of pipelines that will have to be built to transport the liquified natural gas from fracking wells to populated areas for use (or to the coastline for export).
But the mainstream media, and “frackademics” (whose research is funded by the natural gas industry) persist in claiming that fracking for natural gas is safe. An article in yesterday’s New York Times reports that a new portable laser gas detector will enable the gas industry to detect the kind of methane leaks that make drilling for natural more damaging to the climate than burning oil. This new ability to measure methane leaks is going to be a game-changer, according to the vice-president of the company producing the measuring device.
With regard to climate change, however, the question is not whether the gas industry can measure methane leakage from fracking wells, but whether it will. If we look back at the history of fossil fuel mining and drilling—mountaintop removal in West Virginia, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico—there is nothing to suggest that the industry will police itself regarding methane leakage into the atmosphere (or regarding methane leakage into the groundwater, or fracking fluid leakage into the groundwater, etc., etc.) And I am not reassured by the statement in yesterday’s Times article: “The Environmental Protection Agency, which has a history of requiring new controls as technology improves, intermittently hints that it might regulate methane emissions…”
Why not? Because since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the regulation of a whole range of dangerous industrial practices affecting our food, drugs, water, air, bridges, roads, and so forth, has been steadily weakened. (See Wenonah Hauter’s hair-raising Foodopoly for examples.) And one goal of the budget cuts being endlessly pushed in Congress is to further such deregulation. Sequestration has forced the furloughing of the staffs of agencies that are already not protecting our environment; how on earth will they regulate methane leakage?
Of course, the natural gas industry could self-monitor methane leakage, fracking fluid spills, radon levels, etc. But why would it? Such monitoring—and God forbid, remedying the problems—would cost money. And the only purpose of the natural gas revolution in the United States is to make money, plain and simple. Fracking is the next best hope of the 1%, safety be damned.