I Am (Not) Fat

August 4, 2017 at 12:04 pm | Posted in Catholic sisters, Health | 3 Comments
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In case you didn’t know, being overweight is a big issue in the United States these days (no pun intended). The Centers for Disease Control report that in 2013-2014 37.9% of Americans over the age of 20 were obese and 70.9% over the age of 20 were either obese or overweight. That’s more than two-thirds of the population.

However much a threat this epidemic poses to the health of a great many people, the response to it is something less than unified. This weekend,  a long article  in the New York Times Magazine called “Losing It in the Anti-Dieting Age” explores a number of the complexities. Apparently, there’s a lot of push-back against dieting, against trying to lose weight. It’s tacky. It’s discriminatory. It’s anti-feminist. There’s a “fat acceptance movement.”  Researchers disagree about whether dieting actually works, whether there’s even any point in trying. The article also includes lots of info about Weight-Watchers and Lean Cuisine and Oprah and companies that deliver healthy food to your door. No mention, of course, that a large percentage of overweight and obese people are poor and cannot possibly afford the various consumerist dieting regimes.

I read the whole article with interest. I did so, in large part, because when I was a young person, I was fat–overweight, I guess I should say. When I graduated from high school in 1965, I was 5 ft. 6 in. tall and weighed. 160 lbs., which is slightly over a normal Body Mass Index. And believe me, I knew it.

I had not always been fat. There are photos of me before kindergarten looking tall and thin. But when I was five, my beloved grandfather, “Poppie,” died suddenly from a heart attack. My parents and I had lived with him and my grandmother, “Dommie,” till I was two-and-a-half, and visited them often after we moved to our own house. Indeed, the first thing that was ever said about me, after I popped out of my mother’s belly, was “Oh, she looks just like Daddy.” My grandfather’s  death was devastating. Even Dommie’s moving in with us afterwards didn’t remedy things; she was never herself again. I can still hear her sighing as she walked me to the drugstore for an ice cream cone.

The next year I entered grade school at St. Joseph’s in Collingdale, just south of Philadelphia. It was 1953.

Over the years there has been a lot written about how dreadful the Catholic sisters were who taught in the kind of post-war urban parochial school I attended–how they hit kids, and screamed at them, and so forth. Let me just say that there were three separate first grade classes when I started at St. Joe’s, and my class had 106 kids in it; three kids in every two desks.  I am surprised that the nun didn’t kill a few of us. One of my happiest memories from those days is buying an ice cream cone at the Dairy Queen on my way home from school.

Then, when I was seven, a sibling was born with a rather disturbing birth defect. I will not go into detail, specially as said sibling will probably read this post.  But we shared a bedroom for the next seven years, and it understates the case to say my parents were not very good at dealing with emotions.

Presto! Fat Marian.

My overweight, if not obese, situation continued till my early thirties, when I was living at Grailville, a Catholic feminist commune in southwest Ohio. For some reason, I took up running, and continued running for years following. I lost thirty pounds.

I gained the weight back in the 1990s: I unintentionally lost ten pounds after I had surgery for colon cancer in 1994–getting a chunk cut out of your colon does not facilitate eating–and it scared the bejesus out of me. I began eating ice cream between meals. Soon I was approaching the big 160 again. In 2000, however, the psychoanalyst I was workingwith  suggested that I might want to lose some weight, and I did. Since then I have been absolutely determined to keep the fat off.

The weird thing about these experiences is that I have never stopped thinking of myself as fat. I recently had occasion to lose a serious amount of weight–I got down below 120 lbs–as a result of a gastrointestinal bug and then my annual colonoscopy. So I needed to eat more, to get up to a normal weight. But  I don’t have a mental category for “I should eat more.” The only thing I understand is “I should eat less.” Maybe this is only true for people who were fat as kids, when your self-image is being formed. In any case, I have been following a rigorous eating schedule and am now back up to 119 pounds.

Finally, I have a  recommendation for people who are trying to lose weight, and that is to walk. I read somewhere that walking is the best kind of exercise because you can build it into your schedule and then just keep doing it, for example, walking three or four subway stops on your way to work, and then doing the same thing on the way home. The other good thing about walking is all you need is a pair of shoes and some sun block. No paying gym fees.

If you live here in Brooklyn, perhaps I will pass you on my walk today in Prospect Park. I’m leaving as soon as I post this blog piece.

 

 

 

 

Catholic Women, Liturgy, and the Transformation of the World

May 1, 2017 at 2:39 pm | Posted in Catholicism, feminism, women | 3 Comments
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Those of you who read my blog with any regularity may have come across my references to the Grail, an international women’s movement that I have been active in since my senior year in high school (fifty-two years, in case you’re counting). The Grail is not very well-known these days, at least in the U.S., but it played a significant role in securing a place for lay women in the Catholic Church in the 20th century. The following is a revised version of my review of a book that explores the place of the Grail in one aspect of Catholic modernization in the twentieth century, the Liturgical Movement.

There Were Also Many Women There: Lay Women in the Liturgical Movement in the United States, 1926-1959 by Katherine E. Harmon (Liturgical Press, 2012). 412 pp. Paperback: $39.95 (but on sale right now for $25.97 at https://www.litpress.org/Products/6271/There-Were-Also-Many-Women-There); eBook, $31.99.

Despite the positive impact of the women’s movement over the past half century, many kinds of sexism continue.  One is the omission–exclusion–of women from histories of various developments and movements.

One history from which women have been significantly excluded is that of the liturgical movement in the Roman Catholic Church. In There Were Also Many Women There, historian Katharine Harmon examines the influential and largely undocumented role that women, that is to say, laywomen played in the Roman Catholic liturgical movement in the United States. (All Catholic women are considered laywomen, even nuns, because women cannot be priests). To do so, Harmon first explores the European origins of the liturgical movement, and then focuses on the liturgical movement in the U.S. The Grail movement, the women’s community in which I have spent my entire adult life, figures significantly in both sections of the book.

So what is the liturgical movement, and why is it important? Begun in the 1830s, the liturgical movement was an effort to reform the worship practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Some consider it an attempt to return to the romanticism of the Middle Ages, but Harmon demonstrates that the movement was, from the outset, a profoundly social development. It was social because it moved Catholic worship beyond the isolation of the Latin Mass, where individuals had engaged in private devotions like the rosary and encouraged instead responding to and singing together during the Mass. In effect, the goal of the movement was to make the liturgy a socially unifying experience, so as to bring the liturgical participant “into union with the Christian community and, thus inspired, to expand this spirit outward for the renewal of society.”(11)

Launched in Benedictine monasteries in France, the liturgical movement took on new energy after the catastrophic effects of World War I. Active, intelligent liturgical participation in the oneness of Christ’s body would enable God’s grace to permeate and redeem the world. Not coincidentally, the Society of the Women of Nazareth, the group which became the Grail movement, was itself founded in 1921, to convert the world from the callous and demoralizing values evidenced by the war.

Harmon acknowledges that the Women of Nazareth and the Grail Youth Movement they launched in 1928 were not explicitly part of the European liturgical movement. But she argues that the massive colorful religious performances that the Grail staged with thousands of Dutch girls in stadiums beginning in 1932 was “one of the most courageous and public realizations of Catholic Action (the lay Catholic turn to social justice) in the years between the world wars.”  She also quotes an early article about the Grail in a publication of the US liturgical movement stating that the Grail movement was paradigmatic of the essential relationship between liturgy and lived Christianity: The Grail seemed “to be enlivened with a living appreciation of liturgical life and an active understanding of the real meaning of the lay apostolate.” (45).

After the Grail’s arrival in the U.S. in 1940, the liturgical dimension of the movement became even more explicit. U.S. co-founders Lydwine van Kersbergen and Joan Overboss attended and spoke out at national liturgical meetings, and nationally recognized leaders of the liturgical movement led courses and celebrated the Eucharist at Grail centers. And in the U.S., as much or more than was the case in Europe, the Grail celebration of the liturgy, including the singing of Gregorian chant, the creation of other chant-based liturgical music, and liturgical dance, was inextricably connected to the Grail’s commitment to Catholic Action—social justice—and the fostering of an integrated life on the land.

Lydwine van Kersbergen stressed that “the first principle in the training of lay apostles is the understanding that the experience of the sacred liturgy is the integrating center of life” (224).  The great Catholic social justice activist Dorothy Day made retreats with the Grail outside Chicago and at Grailville and commented enthusiastically on the unity between prayer, singing and action in the Grail. For Day, this same integrated vision was at the center of the Catholic Worker movement. And as Harmon demonstrates, thousands of other U.S. women also took their Grail liturgical training back with them to parishes and lay groups across the country.

So why does this matter? Because the liturgy, and especially liturgical singing, were fundamental to the formation of the generations of Grail women who helped the change the Catholic Church and the wider society in which that church played an influential role. And many of these women went on from that formation to engage in amazingly hard, brave, and even heroic work to establish what they understood to be God’s kingdom on earth. I am thinking here of the Dutch Grail women who continued to hold underground meetings during the Nazi occupation of Holland, although they knew they would be sent to concentration camps if they were caught. And others who stayed at their mission stations in Africa and Latin America in the face of horrifying violence—in one case, remaining in central Africa even after a Grail member was murdered in her bed in the next room during a tribal civil war. And then there were the women who worked their entire lives for subsistence at the Grail’s farm and national center in southwest Ohio and other Grail centers.

The Grail is currently active in eighteen countries around the world. Over its near century of existence, it has supported, enlivened and educated thousands of women and girls, running schools and hospitals, leading pioneering programs in progressive education, feminist theology, social transformation, and agriculture. And for many years the Roman Catholic liturgy was at the heart of such action for social change. What will provide the foundation for desperately needed action in 2017, in the face of the rise of nationalist populism and religious wars around the world?

Prophetic Obedience

April 25, 2017 at 10:29 am | Posted in Catholicism, constructive theology, ecclesiology, Vatican | Leave a comment
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This reviews appears in the April 21 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

PROPHETIC OBEDIENCE: ECCLESIOLOGY FOR A DIALOGICAL CHURCH
By Bradford E. Hinze
Published by Orbis Books, 288 pages, $42

I have to confess, I’m pretty wary of the word obedience. So wary, in fact, that I almost declined to review Bradford Hinze’s new theology of the church.

I’m glad I didn’t. Prophetic Obedience is precisely the kind of constructive theology that enables post-Vatican II Catholics like me to overcome the binaries that have hindered us since the election of Pope John Paul II: freedom vs. obedience, the horizontal vs. the vertical, the magisterium vs. the sensus fidelium.

Hinze traces these binaries back to Second Vatican Council itself. He explores many of the ways in which the Vatican II vision of the church as the people of God, of all the baptized on the road together, impacted a wide range of ecclesial bodies as well as community organizations after the council. And he shows how a conservative faction of the bishops and the Vatican attempted to replace that vision with a “communion ecclesiology” stressing centralized authority and the magisterium.

The struggle between the people of God and communion ecclesiologies goes back to Pope Paul VI’s insertion of an “explanatory note” into the Vatican II Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. The note forbade the college of bishops from ever acting without the approval of the pope. Another devastating blow was the 1983 promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law stipulating that bishops’ synods, episcopal conferences, diocesan synods, and parish councils had nothing more than advisory (“consultative”) authority.

Yet Hinze does not react to the damage done to the ecclesiology of the people of God with an attack on communion theology. He acknowledges, in fact, that communion ecclesiology, with its stress on the unity of the church, is also an important part of Vatican II teaching. Instead, he traces the problem to one form of communion ecclesiology, a form fixated on unity and authority to the exclusion of the voices of God’s people. The ascendancy of this form of communion ecclesiology, Hinze argues, “eclipsed” but did not extinguish “the new dawn of the People of God as it was emerging during the two decades after the council.”

To remedy this eclipse, the author offers a new ecclesiological vision: prophetic obedience. Prophetic obedience is the fundamental marker of a dialogical church, a church that deepens in its commitment to normative expressions of the apostolic faith — Scriptures, creeds, liturgies and official teachings — as it welcomes the wisdom of all the faithful.

In constructing this new ecclesiology, Hinze expands considerably on previous understandings of both prophecy and obedience. Prophecy is no longer only a word or message received that leads to a corresponding proclamation or witness; it is also the result of heeding, receiving and responding to the voice of the Spirit as expressed by all of God’s people and the whole of God’s creation.

Fundamental to this understanding of prophecy is the practice of lamentation. Drawing on the book of Psalms, Hinze explains laments as people calling out to God to listen and respond to their pain and suffering. The two driving forces within lamentations, we learn, are the desire to know why particular suffering is occurring and how long it will continue. Jesus came to understand his mission by listening to the laments of the people. And the laments of God’s people today form a crucible from which compassion and discernment are forged. Without heeding the voice of the Spirit in the laments of all of God’s creation, the church cannot fulfill its prophetic calling.

20150413cnsbr8833480px.jpg
Dayanna Renderos Ruiz, 9, receives Communion during a Mass at St. John of God Church in Central Islip, New York, April 11, 2015. (CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

The author also expands the idea of obedience well beyond the notion of blind capitulation to authority that gave me pause when I first read the title of his book. To do so, he revisits the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity, and in particular, the obedience they practice. A standard framework for understanding obedience is Jesus obeying God the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prays, “Not my will but thine be done” (Mark 14:36). Many theologians have configured the entire Trinity around this structure: The Father speaks, the Son responds in pure obedience, and the Spirit is the passive recipient of the interaction.

Hinze, however, expands this understanding of obedience by offering an alternative vision of the Trinity in which all three persons practice obedience, though in distinctive ways. For example, the Spirit, as seen in Genesis, is the active agency of God present in a chaotic world. The Father is obedient to this Spirit when he hears and responds to the groaning of creation. He is likewise obedient to the Son when he hears and responds to Jesus’ suffering by raising him from the dead. Drawing on the “polyphony of scripture,” Hinze illustrates the obedience of all three persons to one another and draws on this model to present a compelling ecclesiology of prophetic listening and response as the calling of all the people of God. The church can move beyond a paternalistic and hierarchical exercise of authority only by living out this vocation.

Multiple aspects of Prophetic Obedience deserve acknowledgement. One is the way the author weaves repeatedly and effectively throughout his book the theme of the prophetic identity of the people of God and their calling to obey the Spirit in the laments of all creation. Another is Hinze’s integration of the post-Vatican II experiences of women, women’s religious congregations, and people in ecumenical and interfaith grassroots organizations into his ecclesiology. He does not just theoretically advocate prophetic obedience to the voices of God’s people, he enacts it.

Finally, Hinze makes use of a considerable range of extra-theological scholarship, for example, the works of Judith Butler, Michel Foucault and Charles Taylor. Using such material nuances his argument but also risks making the book less accessible to those who would benefit most from it: Catholics in parishes. Given the compelling case Hinze makes for the pivotal role of prophetic obedience in the renewal of the church, we can only hope that somebody creates a parish version of his book very soon.

[Marian Ronan is research professor of Catholic Studies at New York Theological Seminary. In May, the Apocryphile Press will issue her new book, Women of Vision: Sixteen Founders of the International Grail Movement (co-authored with Mary O’Brien). All book reviews can be found at NCRonline.org/books.]

This story appeared in the April 21-May 4, 2017 print issue under the headline: Listen, respond to voices .

Religion is Over, Right?

April 13, 2017 at 11:45 am | Posted in religion, secularism | 3 Comments
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In 1968, for a number of reasons, I transferred from Trinity College in Washington to Temple University in Philadelphia. At Temple, I decided to major in religion. Temple had one of the first secular religion departments in the country, and I had always been fascinated by religion; in my family, Catholics had married Protestants for three generations. But I also brought with me a lot of credits in theology and philosophy, so majoring in religion was the fastest way to finish.

A member of the Catholic laywomen’s movement I belonged to there in Philly was studying social work at Temple. We were standing together on a sidewalk on Broad Street when I mentioned that I was going to major in religion. My Grail sister, Ann,  responded, “Why are you going to major in religion? Religion is over!!”

Ann was referring, I believe, to a theory, much discussed at the time, called “the secularization hypothesis.” It claimed that the world would soon be entirely post-religious, secularized. I recall that as we spoke I could see a Catholic church on a corner up the way. In Philly in those days there was a Catholic church every ten blocks or so, and the “parish plant”–parochial school, church, convent and rectory–often took up an entire city block. And the five or six Sunday Masses were often full to overflowing.

Given the developments in the decades since then, it can seem that my friend was correct. We have all heard about the “nones,” and the precipitous decline in attendance at liberal Protestant and white Catholic churches.

A recent report from the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life suggests, however, that I may have the last word in that conversation. In “The Changing Global Religious Landscape,” Pew researchers argue convincingly and in some detail that by 2060, not only will there be more Muslims than Christians in the world, but that the religious population across the board will well outnumber the “nones,” the religiously unaffiliated.

Why is this the case? In large part because the religiously affiliated, and especially Muslims, are having significantly more children than the nones are:

“In contrast with this  baby boom among Muslims, people who do not identify with any religion are experiencing a much different trend. While religiously unaffiliated people currently make up 16% of the global population, only an estimated 10% of the world’s newborns between 2010 and 2015 were born to religiously unaffiliated mothers. This dearth of newborns among the unaffiliated helps explain why religious “nones” (including people who identity as atheist or agnostic, as well as those who have no particular religion) are projected to decline as a share of the world’s population in the coming decades. By 2055 to 2060, just 9% of all babies will be born to religiously unaffiliated women, while more than seven-in-ten will be born to either Muslims (36%) or Christians (35%).”

This may seem not to affect the population make-up here. There are a great many religiously unaffiliated people in Europe, the US, and in Asia. But the religiously unaffiliated in these places have a much higher death-rate–are much older–than the religious do, while the greatest population growth will be in sub-Saharan Africa, where the vast majority is either Muslim or Christian.

Maybe my decision to study religion wasn’t so ill-advised after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Women of Vision

March 16, 2017 at 4:13 pm | Posted in Catholicism, feminism, women | 7 Comments
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Well, you haven’t been hearing from me much of late. But I have an excuse!

I’ve been finishing a book that I’ve been working on since the middle of 2015. It’s called Women of Vision: Sixteen Founders of the International Grail Movement, and it’s almost done. As I understand it, the book may well be out in April, published by the Apocryphile Press, Berkeley, CA.

Here’s the copy from the book’s back cover:

Women of Vision is a book that expands significantly public knowledge of the contributions of Catholic laywomen to church and society over the past century.

Despite historic advances in women’s recognition and equality in recent years, the significant roles played by Roman Catholic laywomen in church and society still go largely unacknowledged. With Women of Vision: Sixteen Founders of the International Grail Movement, Marian Ronan and Mary O’Brien contribute substantially to remedying this situation.

Founded in the Netherlands in 1921, just after World War I, the Grail movement was focused, from the outset, on using laywomen’s extraordinary gifts to resolve the crises in which the world found itself. By 1961, the movement had spread to twenty other countries, including Brazil, Australia, the Philippines and nine African countries.

Drawn from interviews done with Grail founders in many of these countries, Women of Vision highlights the relentless and often heroic work done by Grail women, founding and staffing hospitals and schools, supporting indigenous women and girls, preparing local women for church and Grail leadership, and in some cases, assuming governance roles in their own countries and at the United Nations.

If i weren’t such a technological nitwit, I would also include in this post the cover of Women of Vision. But I can’t figure out how to do that; maybe I’ll be putting that up next time.

In any case, you may be sure I’ll be providing you the link to the book on Amazon as soon as it’s available. Stay tuned

Resisting Nuclear Catastrophe

January 19, 2017 at 2:13 pm | Posted in Catholic sisters, Manhattan Project,, war and violence | 3 Comments

The following is a slightly revised version of a review that appeared in the latest issue of Kerux, the newsletter of Pax Christi Metro New York. With a president about to be inaugurated who favors intensifying the nuclear arms race, Zak’s book is even more timely than it was when he wrote it. And God knows, we need to be inspired to go out and resist all the madness..

Almighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age. By Dan Zak. New York, NY: Blue Rider Press, 2016. 336 pp. $27.00 (hardback); $13.99 (eBook).

In the coverage of the death of Fidel Castro in November, the 1962 Cuban missile crisis came up again and again, but always as if it were part of ancient history. No mention at all that today there are 15,375 nuclear weapons on the planet, or that the Doomsday Clock, indicating how close we are to nuclear catastrophe, is at three minutes to midnight.

What’s to be done about this massive public obliviousness to the threat of nuclear weapons? One strategy is to educate people, as Dan Zak does to astounding effect in his 2016 book, Almighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age. But the education Zak undertakes in his book is not of the policy-wonk kind. It’s education through storytelling, the kind of storytelling that mesmerizes the learner.

At the heart of Almighty is the saga of the July 2012 infiltration of the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge Tennessee by three Transform Now Ploughshares activists, Sr. Megan Rice, Gregory Boertje-Obed, and Michael Walli. Y-12 was (and still is) a site where thermo-nuclear warheads are overhauled and upgraded. Already in the book’s prologue, Zak has the Ploughshares activists preparing for their incursion into Y-12, baking bread to share with their captors, pouring the human blood they will spread on Y-12 walls into baby-bottles, and setting out. And in the last chapters, he has Sister Megan, released in 2015 after two years of imprisonment, back tying a peace crane onto the gates of Y-12 to protest the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

In the chapters between, the author weaves, with extraordinary finesse, the whole story of nuclear weapons production and use by the United States. He begins with the Manhattan Project at Columbia University during World War II, where the secret research took place that led to the development of the first atomic bomb. The subject of this segment of Zak’s story is Selig Hecht, the Columbia biophysicist who was deeply involved in the secret research, but who later joined with Albert Einstein and other scientists to denounce the bombings and stress the horrific future nuclear weapons made likely. Zak’s nuanced description brings Hecht alive in an unforgettable way.

But Hecht’s story and the dozens of others that comprise Almighty are by no means mere beads on a string. In Hecht’s case, as in many others, the stories are woven together with mastery. Who, for example, do you think lived across the hall from Hecht and his wife during the Manhattan Project? Dr. Frederick Rice and his wife, Madeleine Newman Hooke Rice, and their daughter, Megan. Sister Megan Rice cited the secrecy around Hecht’s work as one of the causes of her concern about nuclear weapons.

Of all the stories in Almighty that will not leave me for a long time, that of U.S. testing of nuclear weapons on the Marshall Islands is sure most unforgettable. Within a year of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. had removed all of the residents from the Marshall Islands’ Bikini Atoll, to a “sparser atoll” 125 miles away and began testing nuclear weapons there. As the U.S. military removed the people, they told them that they had been “chosen by God” because testing the weapons was “for the good of mankind.”

Ultimately, the radiation from U.S. tests on the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1958, if parceled out evenly, would equal that of 1.6 Hiroshima-sized detonations  a day for twelve years. The U.S., upon granting the Marshall Islands its independence in 1986, settled all claims for $150 million dollars. The story of Tony deBrum, who was nine years old when the first nuclear weapon was tested on Bikini, and those of other Marshall Islanders gravely affected by the testing, only makes U.S. actions all the more horrifying. And this is but one of the multiple galvanizing narratives throughout Almighty’s 300-plus pages.

Readers of this blog who live not too far from New York may be interested to know that Sister Megan Rice, one of Almighty’s pivotal heroes, will be leading the annual retreat of Pax Christi Metro New York this year ( nypaxchristi.org ). It’s taking place on the weekend of March 10 to 12, at the Maryknoll Sisters Center, near Ossining, NY. Zak’s book is a terrific introduction to the retreat, but if you can’t get there, read the book anyhow. At a time when each of us needs to be stepping up in the face of new threats of nuclear disaster, Almighty provides much-needed inspiration.

 

My Ambivalent Christmas

December 24, 2016 at 2:41 pm | Posted in Capitalism, Christmas, Climate Change | 6 Comments
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I have to confess, I am having a hard time with Christmas this year. Part of it, of course, is the election of Donald Trump and his nomination of billionaires, generals, climate change deniers and anti-labor activists to the cabinet. Not much to carol about in all this.

I am also sobered because last fall, in the perfect preparation for the Trump election, I took a course title, “Marxism, Science, and the Anthropocene,” offered by the Marist Education Project at the Brooklyn Commons on Atlantic Avenue. (Anthropocene is a term used to indicate that human activity has radically altered the earth’s geological reality.)

Now to say that I had not previously thought of myself as a Marxist is to grossly understate the case, growing up as I did as a working-class American Catholic in the 1950s. Communist executions of Catholics priests and bishops in China and eastern Europe didn’t much incline us in that direction.

But the Marxism course changed all that. As a result of reading and discussing Andreas Malm, John Bellamy Foster, Ian Angus, Jason Moore, Donna Haraway and others, I came away convinced that capitalism is the cause of climate change and the Anthropocene. The problem is the essential place of growth, especially the growth of profit, and thus infrastructure, in the capitalist system when the earth is fundamentally and irrevocably finite. The unfettered ecstasy generated by growing GDP and a rising stock market illustrates the problem pretty well.

As a result of having my imagination reconstructed around the incompatibility of capitalism and God’s creation, I have found the  consumer obscenity of the Christmas season pretty hard to swallow. Why in the name of Jesus (literally) do we buy all this stuff? Nicholas DiMarzio, the bishop of the Catholic diocese of Brooklyn, in which I live, even had buttons handed out to every member of the diocese half way through Advent. He requested that we all wear the buttons in the weeks remaining until Christmas. Here’s the checklist on the button:

(X) Shop

(X) Cook

(X) Go to Church

Kind of like George Bush urging us all to go shopping after 9/11.

I am trying to focus on the fact that Mary and Joseph were homeless people and that the beauty of God’s creation was a central part of the celebration of Christmas throughout Christian history. Green grow the holly and all that.

But I am also getting ready for 2017. As Mark Hertsgaard argues in the January 2—9 issue of The Nation, we’ve got to take to the streets to prevent the incoming administration, the billionaires and the fossil fuel moguls, from destroying this undeniably limited creation that the infant Jesus came to save.

A Different Take on Mary

December 15, 2016 at 3:04 pm | Posted in feminism, Uncategorized, women | 1 Comment
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This review appears in the December 16th issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

12162016p19phb.jpgTHE VALIANT WOMAN: THE VIRGIN MARY IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICAN CULTURE
By Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez
Published by the University of North Carolina Press, 256 pages, $27.50

Let me begin by confessing that I was never much of a Virgin Mary girl. There was something about Mary’s sweetness and humility that didn’t do much for me. For years, I would have said that the name of my confirmation saint, Joan of Arc, tells you more about me than my baptismal name ever could.

Imagine my astonishment, then, when a remarkable new book made me wonder if I had written off the Virgin Mary a bit too quickly. That book is The Valiant Woman, Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez’s exploration of the Virgin in 19th-century American popular culture. In it, readers come to see that well before the contemporary women’s movement, images of Mary had a more complex and sometimes liberating impact than many of us might ever have imagined.

Hayes Alvarez begins her study with the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, an event many U.S. Protestants took as further proof of Catholic ignorance and idolatry. Yet even then, in part because of the growing changes in gender roles that accompanied industrialization, Protestants were also drawn to images of the Virgin, images the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception brought into greater public awareness.

Figures of the Virgin attracted Protestant attention in part because they reinforced traditional female domestic roles. But other images of Mary, and sometimes the same images, also served to introduce new female roles. One such image was that of Mary as the queen of heaven, which, despite its origins in Catholic teaching and devotionalism, spilled over into popular images of women as the queen of the household. Queenship, even domestic queenship, can imply more female power than is initially apparent.

In The Valiant Woman, Hayes Alvarez draws on a wide range of historical contexts, literary sources, art criticism and theology. For example, part of the Virgin’s attraction for American Protestants was the pivotal role she played in European artwork, the knowledge of which demonstrated upward mobility. Some attempted to distinguish legitimate artistic portrayals of Mary from mere (Catholic) devotional art. But Hayes Alvarez uses the writing of the popular Protestant art historian Anna Jameson to show that the interconnections between the two were hard to avoid. Particularly in her extremely successful book Legends of the Madonna, Jameson used Catholic culture and thought as the necessary context of great Western religious art, even as she made knowledge of that art an indicator of rising-class status and Protestant morality.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Jameson’s interpretations of Marian art also connect seemingly incompatible gender roles for women. For example, according to Jameson’s standards, maternity is an essential characteristic of paintings of the Virgin, yet she rejects any association of that maternity with female subordination. As Hayes Alvarez observes, during this period, Jameson and other writers, Protestant as well as Catholic, “drew on Marian models of womanhood to endorse female domesticity,” and resist shifts in gender norms. But they also used Mary — her suprahumanity, her queenship, her motherhood of God — to “expand female power within and beyond the domestic sphere.”

In her epilogue, Hayes Alvarez fast-forwards The Valiant Woman to the semicentennial of the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1904. Even then, some U.S. Protestants condemned the Roman Catholic church as “the church of the Virgin Mary,” the worship of whom overshadowed the worship of Christ. And some Protestants still used the Virgin Mary as a symbol of sentimentalized womanhood. But by and large, there was much less Protestant interest in the Virgin Mary than there had been during the previous 50 years.

This was the case, in part, because Catholics were not as much of a threat as they had they had been, so Catholic symbols were less a focus of attention. But it was also the case that the “entrenchment of the market economy” made separate spheres for women and men less necessary, and because of the successes of the women’s movement, feminists no longer needed to couch arguments for or against women’s freedom in traditional religious symbols.

The close readings of 19th-century American fiction, journalism, and art criticism on which Hayes Alvarez draws may be challenging for some readers. But the required attention pays off. Just the opening chapter, exploring the conflicts and conversations related to the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 and 1855, is worth the price of admission. And if you’re anything like me, the remaining chapters will radically transform whatever childhood notions you retain about that sweet, humble, obedient Virgin.

[Marian Ronan is research professor of Catholic studies at New York Theological Seminary. The Apocryphile Press will publish her co-authored book Women of Vision: Sixteen Founders of the International Grail Movement in 2017.]

 

Trump, White U.S. Catholicism, and the Fate of God’s Creation

November 27, 2016 at 6:49 pm | Posted in Climate Change, The Hierarchy, U.S. Politics, Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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In a blog posted soon after the presidential election, I argued that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops colluded in the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency. But that’s not all there is to Catholic collusion in the Trump phenomenon, not by a long shot.

In a preliminary analysis published on November 9, the Pew Research Center reported that 52% of U.S. Catholics voted for Trump.  But 60% of white Catholics voted for Trump. And while only 26% of Latinx Catholics voted for him—67% went for Clinton—the percentage of Latinx voters going for Clinton was an 8% decline over the percentage that went for Obama in 2012. This was another component of the Trump victory

And when we examine the individuals central to Trump’s campaign, the picture is no less disheartening.   Though I could find nothing about her current religious affiliation, if she has any,  Trump’s campaign manager and current top advisor, KellyAnne Conway (née Fitzgerald) graduated from a Catholic high school and from Trinity College, once a leading Catholic women’s college.

Then there’s Steve Bannon, the former head of the Breitbart News, an unambiguously  anti-semitic, white nationalist news site, and soon to be Trump’s chief counsel in the White House. Bannon is a Catholic. In a talk he delivered at the Vatican on June 27, 2014, sponsored by the Institute for Human Dignity, he spoke of “a crisis both of our Church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism.” The U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, who has also recently assured us of Donald Trump’s Christian values, arranged to have Bannon speak at the Vatican conference.

Then there is Paul Ryan. An article I read recently argues that we should be more worried about Reince Priebus, Trump’s soon-to-be chief of staff,  than Steve Bannon. Why? Because Priebus will ultimately be more influential than Bannon—having major impact of administration hires, for example. And he is totally on board with Paul Ryan’s campaign to eviscerate the social safety net. And what’s Ryan’s religious affiliation? Roman Catholic, of course. At least the U.S Catholic Bishops did call him out for the cuts to social programs he proposed during the 2012 election, something they hardly did at all with regard to Trump’s threats during the 2016 campaign.

Now this is by no means the first time in U.S. history that white Catholics, and their bishops, have come down on the wrong side of pivotal ethical issues. In his recent book American Jesuits and the World, the distinguished scholar of U.S. Catholicism, John McGreevy, documents how the American church, and the Jesuits, were strongly pro-slavery for a stunningly long time. I believe the church called slavery “just servitude.”

And in the 1950s, the Catholic press, and the highly influential archbishop of New York,  Francis Cardinal Spellman, strongly backed anti-Communist and anti-gay “witch-hunts” by the Catholic senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy was eventually censured by the U.S. Senate, and died, probably of alcoholism, in 1957.

But the support of slavery and of Senator McCarthy by American Catholics and the U.S. bishops pales in significance beside their support of Donald Trump. This is so because Trump is a complete climate change denier, pledged to roll back President Obama’s already inadequate climate change initiatives, and restore the fossil fuel industry. And he has already appointed a “notorious climate change denier” and “head of a coal industry funded think tank,” Myron Ebell, to lead the transition at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Some may think this is no more significant than the threat Trump poses to Muslims and undocumented immigrants. But as an editorial in this week’s issue of The Nation argues compellingly, climate change is the “worst crisis that human beings have ever faced.” And as the U.S. Catholics who voted for Trump, and those who work for him, and the bishops well know, this is an increasingly irreversible crisis that the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has called out emphatically in an encyclical, the primary teaching instrument of the Catholic Church.

But who cares about that? What really matters to the majority of white U.S. Catholics,  a minority of Latinx Catholics, and the vast majority of the U.S. Catholic bishops, is the “right to life.” And everybody understands that the earth, God’s creation, has nothing to do with life.

 

 

 

The Other Catholics

November 20, 2016 at 4:38 pm | Posted in Catholicism | 1 Comment
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Here’s a review of a new book by my friend and colleague Julie Byrne. The review also appears in Gumbo, the monthly publication of the U.S. Grail, and EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.

 

The Other Catholics: Remaking America’s Largest Religion by Julie Byrne. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2016. Hard-back, $29.95; e-book, $28.99. 390 pp.

For many progressive U.S. Catholics, myself included, the years since the Second Vatican Council can seem remarkable, even groundbreaking. Eucharistic communities forming and welcoming all kinds of people—the divorced and remarried, LGBT Catholics, married priests. Not to mention increasing numbers of women priests and women bishops leading growing congregations.

In her new book, Julie Byrne, without dismissing the achievements of progressive Catholicism since Vatican II, brings to our attention Catholics who were making such changes well before Vatican II, and who continue to embody such changes today: the “independent” or “other” Catholics. Byrne is the author of the enormously engaging O God of Players: The Story of the Immaculata Mighty Macs (2003), made into a movie in 2009. And once again, in The Other Catholics, she brings an astonishing narrative drive to a wide range of little-known historical and contemporary ethnographic materials. There’s nothing like a good story.

Byrne introduces the “Other Catholics” by telling us that the term was first used in the 1890 U.S. Census, when six Catholic churches besides the Roman Catholic Church were presented as options: a church that would evolve into the Church of Antioch, the main focus of her research; a church formed to protest the doctrine of papal infallibility; the Polish National Catholic Church; and three others. The Census continued to count independent Catholic jurisdictions until 1936. But because the Roman Catholic Church is a “behemoth of size and influence”—with members comprising a fifth of the U.S. population—not very many people are aware that there’s any other kind.

Byrne shows, however, that independent Catholic churches have exerted significant influence whether many people know about them or not. By “participating in common Catholic patrimony, remixing it with other traditions, and giving sanctuary to alternative practices, independent Catholicism serves as a catalyst, cavern, and clarifier of Catholicism as a whole,” and even of American religion more broadly.

In support of her thesis, Byrne traces the “lineage of western independent Catholicism” from the galvanizing early eighteenth-century French missionary and bishop, Dominique Marie Varlet, who almost by accident started the independent Catholic Church of Utrecht; through the career of Joseph René Vilatte (1854-1929), the first independent Catholic bishop in America; to the lives of Patriarch and Matriarch Meri and Herman Spruit and their successor, Archbishop Richard Gundrey, who built the independent Catholic Church of Antioch in the United States. And along the way, Byrne includes many other amazing stories, about groups that split off from, merge with, and fertilize the Church of Antioch during its evolution. The reader comes away strongly aware that there have been big differences within Catholicism for a long time, and that practices like ordaining women, having married bishops, welcoming LGTB people, respecting personal experience and other seemingly contemporary advances have, in fact, long been practiced within Catholicism.

Byrne’s portrayal of independent Catholics is noteworthy in many respects, but several points stand out for me. One is how the Church of Antioch, and related independent groups, no matter how many differences emerge among them, remain faithful to certain Catholic characteristics: the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and ordination, and their stress on apostolic succession, which, it seems to me, replaces connection with Rome as a main source of authority. Another aspect of independent Catholicism of which I was totally unaware before reading The Other Catholics is the strong influence within it of mysticism and related traditions like theosophy, esotericism, and spiritual healing. There has been quite a bit beyond the Baltimore Catechism in some branches of Catholicism for many years.

Some groups that Byrne includes in the category of “independent” or “other” Catholics may or may not appreciate being thus categorized—Roman Catholic WomenPriests, for example, some of whom delivered a petition to the Vatican not long ago. And I myself wonder whether Byrne’s subtitle—“Remaking America’s Largest Religion”—is a bit too simple (though my experience is that publishers mandate titles with sales more in mind than accuracy). Perhaps “Helping to Remake America’s Largest Religion” would be better.

All this notwithstanding, it would be hard to overestimate the contribution that Julie Byrne’s book makes to the conversation about the present and the future of Catholicism.

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