Remembering William Birmingham

September 25, 2015 at 10:55 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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As baby-boomers like me get older, we increasingly suffer the loss of dear friends and beloved mentors. Of course, it’s not only in the later decades of life that these things happen; one of the Grail women who influenced me most, Eleanor Walker, died in 1979. But it certainly gets more frequent.

Two members of the generation ahead of mine whom I loved dearly were Bill and Mary Louise Birmingham. Life-long New Yorkers and Catholic intellectuals, they encouraged me to pursue the post-working-class life of reading and writing that I yearned for. Mary Louise died four years ago, just short of her ninetieth birthday. Bill followed recently.

The following is a memorial for Bill that I wrote for Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the U.S.

I first met Bill Birmingham and his wife Mary Louise at Grailville in the late 1960s. They were there leading a program; I don’t remember the theme, but I definitely remember them. I still have a copy of a contrapuntal reading that Bill put together for that program or one soon after, about the Holocaust. One side of group read aloud “And praised be the Lord,” and the other side responded “Auschwitz.” And then the first side said again “And praised be the Lord,” and the second side responded, “Buchenwald.” And so on. I can still hear it.

When I moved back to New York from Ohio in 1983 I began going to visit Bill and Mary Louise at their apartment in Stuyvesant Town, on the East Side of Manhattan. They had moved back to the city from New Jersey after their five kids were grown. We became good friends. They were both enormously kind to me. And interesting. And funny.

What I would like to remember about Bill, in particular, today, however, is that he was a significant Catholic intellectual, something that had a major impact on me. Nobody in the working class world I grew up in was editing a major Catholic journal as Bill and his good friends Joe and Sally Cunneen were doing when I knew him. Next to me on my desk here is a volume of articles that had been published in that journal, Cross Currents, between 1950 and 1990. Edited by Bill, the collection includes articles by Karl Rahner, Martin Buber, Jürgen Moltmann, Leonardo Boff, Thomas Berry and others. Under the editorship of Bill and Joe and their predecessors, Cross Currents introduced American Catholics to a wide range of distinguished intellectuals and theologians. I remember how thrilled I was the first time one of my articles appeared in Cross Currents; Bill said that it had “narrative drive.“ I have rarely felt more honored.

In the four years after Mary Louise’s death I also felt deeply honored to be included in the monthly dinner gatherings held by the Birmingham sons, daughters, grandchildren, nieces and nephews at Bill’s apartment in Stuyvesant Town. Even as he aged, Bill was still unfailingly warm, thoughtful, and welcoming. It saddened me when he finally had to move out of the apartment where I had visited with him and Mary Louise for so many years. But I also rejoiced that he was able to spend his final months in the home of his oldest daughter Moira and not far from one of his other daughters, Meg.

How blessed we all were to have had Bill Birmingham in our lives.

The Religious Freedom Battles

September 10, 2015 at 10:02 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Here’s my National Catholic Reporter review of a new book about John Courtney Murray, the American Jesuit who spearheaded the Vatican II document on religious freedom, and connections between that ground-breaking document and the US Catholic bishops’ recent use of “religious freedom” to undercut the freedom of Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

By Barry Hudock
Published by Liturgical Press, $19.95

After four Fortnights for Freedom and multiple Catholic lawsuits over the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act, an observer might well conclude that religious freedom is a fundamental tenet of the Catholic faith. In Struggle, Condemnation, Vindication, Barry Hudock sets readers straight about how recently the Catholic church came to accept religious freedom at all and the fierce battles that preceded such acceptance.

(Continue reading here.)

My Letter in the Catholic Tablet

September 4, 2015 at 10:47 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Two posts ago, before the crabapple tree and the carrot soup, I shared with you my letter to the Catholic newspaper of the Diocese of Brooklyn, The Tablet, about Bishop Di Marzio’s column on Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’. I said that since the letter hadn’t been published, I would share it with you.

Well, I was wrong. The Tablet actually published the letter on September 2, under the heading “Ecology’s Connectivity.” A friend from Pax Christi had emailed me after she read my post to say that she once sent a letter to The Tablet and concluded after a length of time that they weren’t going to publish it. But some time later, they did. The Tablet is slow to publish letters, at least by today’s high-speed standards. I should have listened to her.

But the publication of my letter suggests something else about The Tablet‘s editors: they don’t have a clue about the significance of Pope Francis’s claim that the environment and consumerism are as morally grave as abortion and contraceptives. Bishop DiMarzio does, though, at least at the unconscious level; that’s why in his column he makes abortion the greatest environmental threat. And I’ll bet the bishop put a lot more energy into the Fortnight for Freedom in June than into the Pope’s World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation last Tuesday, too.

Crabapple Tree Photo

September 3, 2015 at 12:03 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Photo by Hanh Pham, SJ

Photo by Hanh Pham, SJ

You may or may not remember that a while back I posted a blog about the crabapple tree in my family’s backyard when I was a teenager. I said I was going to post a photograph, not of that tree, but of another crabapple tree, taken by my former student at the Graduate Theological Union, Hahn Pham.

Well thanks to Susan Klein, my IT instructor in San Antonio, I am finally able to post the photograph. Thank you, Susan!

If it’s as hot and muggy where you are as it is here in Brooklyn, maybe the snow will give you some hope.

Carrot Soup

August 29, 2015 at 12:38 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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It could seem, I suppose, that I spend my every waking minute analyzing papal encyclicals or reviewing books about gender and the Catholic church.  But that’s not true.

Take last Sunday.  At the end of the 11:30 AM Mass at Our Lady of Refuge, my parish at the western end of Flatbush here in Brooklyn, a lay leader got up and made an announcement. He said there were a lot of carrots left over from this week’s food pantry and they would be distributed on the way out of church. I didn’t think too much about it.

When I  got outside, however, another gentleman walked up to me and offered me a good-sized bag of such carrots. My husband and I are by no means in the U.S. economic 1 percent, but Refuge is about 2 percent white, so I may well be in the 1 percent there.

“Surely somebody needs these more than I do?” I responded.

“Please, just take them,” the gentleman responded. So I did.

The distance from Refuge to our apartment is about .9 of a mile, so I had occasion to think about how many carrots were in the plastic bag as I walked home. When I weighed them, there were approximately 5.5 pounds of carrots, each two or three inches long and maybe three-quarters of an inch in diameter.

My esteemed companion said “You could always just compost them.”

But  I couldn’t.

The carrots reminded me, somehow, of my five years on the Grail’s farm in southwest Ohio in the 1970s, and particularly of my dear friend Elise Gorges who ran the kitchen there for thirty years or so. Elise died a year and a half ago. I myself never harvested carrots from the Grailville garden, but I just couldn’t imagine Elise throwing all those carrots out.

I’ve got this app on my iPad for recipes from the New York Times, so I plugged in “carrots” and found a very simple recipe for carrot soup. It took me half an hour to cut both ends off the hundred and fifty or so little carrots and give them a scrub in the dish pan. The recipe called for six cups of chicken broth but I didn’t have any on hand and would have to walk over to the food co-op to buy some.

“What would Elise do?” I wondered.

I remembered I did have a bunch of vegetable bullion cubes over on the spice shelf, so I boiled some water, mixed the bullion cubes in , and then cooked the carrots in the liquid for thirty minutes. While they were cooking I sautéed some dried thyme and a bunch of onions (not quite as many as the recipe called for, but seriously, I was not going out to get more!);  when they were done I salted and peppered them. When the carrot and the onions had cooled off a bit, I put it through my forty-year-old Cuisinart food processor.

For supper my husband and I each had a bowl of the carrot soup, along with a grilled cheese sandwich (he’d gotten good at making grilled cheese sandwiches when his sons were little). All told, I made fourteen cups of carrot soup, so we have enough for three more meals in the freezer.

I think Elise would have been pleased.

The Greatest Environmental Threat?

August 23, 2015 at 4:42 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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As you perhaps know, earlier this week the Associated Press reported that in the month after it was published, fewer than half of the Catholics in the United States had heard of Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’. And only 23% of U.S. Catholics had heard about it at Mass.

Because of this, I was pleased to see that on July 22 the Bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn, Nicholas Di Marzio, chose to use his regular column in the diocesan newspaper, The Tablet to tell the people of the diocese about Laudato Si’, and to urge them to study it using resources provided on the web page.

That is to say, I was pleased until I got to the following paragraph in the article:

“If we are to look at our environment in our world today, the most dangerous place for human beings seems to be a woman’s womb. In our own country, almost one million abortions are performed each year, not to count the worldwide number of abortions. Truly, the environment that is most dangerous to human beings and the one which causes the most direct threat is the misunderstanding of contraception and population control. Abortion can never be an answer to our ecological and psychological problems as human beings. Pope Francis says, ‘To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.’ He goes on to say, ‘A just society recognizes the primacy of the right to life from conception to natural death.'”

I was somewhat shocked by the bishop’s suggestion that abortion and contraception are the greatest threats to the  environment in today’s world. Pope Francis does speak out several times against abortion and against lack of respect for life more broadly. But the remarkable thing about the encyclical is that in it Pope Francis explains that these sins are integrally connected with other grievous sins against the poor and creation. Without saying so explicitly, he undercuts the ideological hierarchy of his predecessors in which sexual sins are vastly more serious than social ones.

I decided to write a letter to the Tablet explaining that what DiMarzio says is not what the encyclical says. I figured the odds on the letter getting published were .00000000000001. A month later, I realize that those odds were too optimistic.  So instead of sharing my thoughts in the Tablet, I’m sharing them here with you:

Dear Editor,

My deepest thanks to Bishop DiMarzio for his recent “Put Out into the Deep” column on Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care For Our Common Home (July 22). I was especially moved by the Bishop’s memories of how his own grandfather “Francesco,” embodied one of the points Pope “Francesco” stresses in his encyclical, never wasting what God has given us, never colluding in today’s “throwaway” culture.

I am also grateful that Bishop DiMarzio’s calls us to study Laudato Si’ and provides a link to the Tablet’s on-line study guide. With Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and other religious people around the world, not to mention atheists, Marxists, and “nones,” reading and responding to the encyclical, it certainly seems fitting that we Catholics should do so as well!

My one concern about the Bishop’s column is that he seems to suggest that the environment that causes “the most direct threat” to human beings is “the misunderstanding of contraception and population control.” Of course, Pope Francis does clearly state on several occasions in Laudato Si’ that abortion and lack of respect for life are part of the throwaway culture that threatens God’s creation.

But it would be a mistake to say that Laudato Si’ places abortion and contraception at the top of a hierarchy of sins against God’s creation. It is no coincidence that in his chapter on “integral ecology,” that is, on the inherent connection between all things, Pope Francis stresses the integral connection between environmental destruction and “the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the poor… buying the organs of the poor for resale, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted. This same use and throw away logic generates so much waste because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary.” (123)

Pope Francis affirms the Church’s teaching on the preciousness of unborn life. He also challenges us to realize that this precious life extends to all of God’s creation–the earth we live on, the water we drink, the plants we eat and the air we breathe, and that we must revere all of it.


Marian Ronan, Ph.D.

Research Professor of Catholic Studies

New York Theological Seminary

475 Riverside Drive

NY, NY 10115.

Aren’t Nuns Wonderful?

August 10, 2015 at 10:37 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Some of the people I love and admire most in the whole world are Catholic sisters. But almost none of them fit into the Singing Nun, Whoopi Goldberg, or even Maria von Trapp caricature that too many people think they do. I can forgive the purveyors of popular culture for exploiting the image of these hard-working, in large part justice-oriented women this way, but I have no time for ostensible scholars who do so. The following is my review of a book by one such writer, published by a highly regarded academic press, whose “aren’t nuns wonderful” caricature is really problematic. My review appears in the current issue of the journal Church History.

Dedicated To God: An Oral History Of Cloistered Nuns. By Abbie Reese. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Xvii+ 247pp. $34.95 cloth. Church History, 84, pp 485-487.

Dedicated to God is a portrait of the Corpus Christi Colettine Poor Clare Monastery in Rockford, Illinois, by photographer and independent scholar, Abbie Reese. Based on interviews Reese did with the monastery’s twenty nuns over a six-year period, Dedicated to God is an appealing exploration of cloistered religious life in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

In addition to a first-person preface and epilogue, Reese’s volume comprises nine chapters on themes of cloistered religious life. These alternate with eight edited oral histories drawn from Reese’s interviews with individual nuns. The thematic chapters, written in the third person, also draw extensively on Reese’s interviews.

The nuns in Reese’s oral history come from varied backgrounds; some were older when they entered, some younger; their educational levels vary; some transferred from other orders; one is a convert and one a Filipino. They have occasional disagreements, of course, but most of these occur because, as one sister says, “a woman by nature likes to arrange things and have her kitchen the way she wants…” (34). At one point, Reese mentions that she once repeated to the Abbess something a nun said in an interview, and the Abbess disagreed. But nuns would not otherwise have occasion to know they hold divergent views, Reese assures us, because they “would not find occasion or opportunity to discuss philosophical differences of a cloistered calling” (230).

In almost all other respects, however, the nuns are in astonishing agreement about almost everything: the austerity of their way of life, the purity of having given their lives wholly to God; the unity of all the sisters, based in their vow of obedience; the enormous joy they feel.

In her 2008 study of the early history of the Poor Clares, The Privilege of Poverty: Clare of Assisi, Agnes of Prague, and the Struggle for a Franciscan Rule for Women, Joan Mueller, herself a member of an active Poor Clare congregation, observes that in many histories of the Franciscans, Franciscan women’s experiences “have been basically ignored.”(University Park PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006: 2). And in an otherwise enthusiastic review of Carole Garibaldi Rogers’s Habits of Change, a previous volume on Catholic sisters in the Oxford Oral History Series, historian Margaret Susan Thompson notes “a scarcity of women who represent more traditional approaches to religious life.”(Journal of Women’s History, 26:4, 182–190 [Dec. 2014]: 184.) An oral history of cloistered Poor Clare sisters helps to fill these lacunae. And the volume’s thirty-six black and white photographs are of high quality.

Unfortunately, a number of problems outweigh these contributions. One of these is a certain lack of accuracy. Reese acknowledges that she is not a Catholic, but an editor should have caught her missteps, for example, referring to Rome as the “birthplace of the Catholic Church”(67); claiming that the vows of “poverty, chastity, and obedience” are “universally” taken by “all” in religious life (the Benedictines do not do so, as Margaret Susan Thompson observed in an email to me) [2]; referring to novices as “novitiates” (163); and other errors.

More troubling is Reese’s use of oral history. Oral historians have documented a shift in the understanding of the role of an interviewer from one of observation to that of participating in a “shared experience.” Reese, in her preface, claims the latter approach, one of “co-authorship” and “shared authority,” invoking the work of Alessandro Portelli (xiv, xiii).

This methodology has its critics, however. Some argue that there is no “shared authority” if a historian’s scholarly knowledge isn’t included in their product—as it too often is not in Dedicated to God. And Reese herself admits Portelli calls attention to the fact that “memory, including collective memory, is faulty” (xiii). But nowhere in Dedicated to God is there the least hint that the memories of the Rockford nuns may be faulty. Instead, their stories reveal “transcendent truths”(xiv).

One instance of potentially faulty memory in Dedicated to God is that no nun ever refers to the Second Vatican Council (1961-1965), or to “Perfectae Caritatis,” the Council document that, over the signature of Pope Paul VI, called for the renewal of religious life and a return to the charism of congregational founders. It is virtually inconceivable that any Catholic religious order would not have held a general chapter to discuss their way of life after Vatican II. But in their interviews none of the Rockford Poor Clares seem ever to have mentioned such a meeting. Perhaps they are all happy to forget any attempt to renew “the cultural time capsule that is the monastery,” as Reese puts it (92).

But there were 45,000 fewer U.S. sisters in 1975 than in 1965 when the Council ended. Some of those no longer present in 1975 had died, of course, but the majority “left the convent.” Too bad Reese’s “shared authority” methodology didn’t include interviews with the former Rockford Poor Clares almost certainly included in that number.

And returning to the charism of their founder, St. Clare of Assisi, would have presented the Rockford Poor Clares with other problems. For example, what would it mean for their adulation of total obedience and agreement concerning their way of life that Clare struggled fiercely with popes and cardinals to maintain her sisters’ right to the absolute poverty mandated by Francis of Assisi?

From Maria Monk to Maria von Trapp, from Whoopi Goldberg to Mother Teresa, Americans are spellbound by nuns. Reese’s idealized portrait of the Rockford Colettine Poor Clares is likely to be quite popular. In March, the otherwise competent critic, Casey N. Cepp, published a glowing review of it in the New Yorker (March 5, 2014). Indeed, given its fine photographs, Dedicated to God would make an attractive coffee table book. But why would a distinguished academic press publish it?

Parish Matters

August 3, 2015 at 9:51 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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The Spirit’s Tether: Family, Work, and Religion among American Catholics, by Mary Ellen Konieczny. NY, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013. Paperback, $29.95. 249 pp.

The Shared Parish: Latinos, Anglos, And The Future Of U.S. Catholicism, by Brett C. Hoover. NY, NY: New York University Press, 2014. Hardcover. $49.00. 237 pp.

These days, the parish is not exactly the focus of attention for many progressive Catholics. Some of us may belong to a parish, but more of our energy goes into reform groups like Call to Action, SEPA WOC, Dignity, etc. And small faith communities are often—though not always—at the center of our spiritual life.

Nonetheless, parishes influence the identities of many of the sixty-seven million Catholics in the United States. In 2014, in fact, there were 17,483 U.S. parishes. And as two recent books suggest, we can learn a good deal about the American church from studying them.

In The Spirit’s Tether, University of Notre Dame sociologist Mary Ellen Konieczny examines the impact of participating in one or the other of two Catholic parishes in a an unidentified Midwestern city. She does so to cast light on ways in which parish beliefs and practices underpin the polarization that she and other scholars believe characterizes contemporary U.S. Catholicism. Drawing on interviews she did at both parishes over nearly two years concerning the subjects of marriage, family, and work, Koneiczny argues that while secular political attitudes and elite discourse contribute to the culture wars in the U.S., “polarization is also constituted among Catholics through local level social processes.” (8)

Konieczny identifies a number of divergent beliefs and in the two parishes that she studies as expressed in metaphors for church, worship practices, and convictions about marriage and family. At “Our Lady of the Assumption” the first of the two parishes studied, the primary metaphor for church is “family,” with God the Father and the priests of the parish at the head of the church and husbands the head of a family. (My use of quotation marks indicates the likelihood that the author is not using real parish names). At “Assumption” clergy and members place major emphasis on natural family planning, opposition to abortion, and having large families; mothers, whenever they are financially able, stay home to raise the children and leave their secular careers behind. Worship is formal, and priests at “Assumption” hear confessions seventeen hours a week, including throughout Mass.

At “St. Brigitta,” on the other hand, the primary metaphor for church is community, and clergy and members place great emphasis on equality and social justice. Though there are several different forms of worship at “St. Brigitta,” Konieczny describes the Sunday Mass celebrated in the parish gymnasium, with lay readers (including former priests), a dialogue homily, popular music, and kids playing games at the edges of the gathering. She also interviews those who attend the “gym Mass”: members hold a range of opinions regarding abortion and birth control, and even when mothers stay at home for a period of time to raise kids, they still identify with their careers or professions, and families where parents both work struggle to attain the proper work-family balance. Konieczny concludes from her analysis of these two selected parishes that attitudes and practices in parishes make a significant contribution to polarization among contemporary U.S. Catholics.

In the second parish study, The Shared Parish, Brett Hoover, an assistant professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University, explores the complex relationship between two groups within one Catholic community, Latino and Anglo Catholics in the Midwestern parish of “All Saints” in the “Diocese of Port Jefferson” (Both of these names are pseudonyms, in the interest of privacy). Hoover documents and analyzes the specific ways in which these two groups do and do not interact and why this matters.

In the first three chapters, Hoover recounts the history of “All Saints,” from a tiny Catholic parish in a Protestant town beginning in 1860 to the contemporary ethically mixed parish he studied, and the various methods Anglo and Latino/a Catholics there use in their interactions with one another. He then explores different approaches to the idea of “unity” in each group. His account of the impact on the Latino community of the Anglo pastor’s washing his Chicano concelebrant’s feet during the Holy Thursday liturgy is deeply moving.

In the final chapters, Hoover explains that various more “Protestant” approaches to analyzing interculturalism in Catholic parishes don’t really work because Catholics don’t just “choose” their parishes; they “share” them. They do so because they are Catholic, something that motivates each group to negotiate and interact with one another. Finally, The Shared Parish explores visions and practices that move communities beyond what sociologists call “cultural encapsulation,” or perhaps, “polarization.” These include the U.S. bishops’ use of the term “multiculturalism” in place of the once-preferred language of “assimilation” or “the melting pot.” Even more effective, Hoover suggests, is for leaders to draw on the theology of communion, in which parish members can understand that they are celebrating the same Eucharist despite doing so in different languages. Such a transformation involves not just a change in thinking, but the modeling by leaders of different feelings, rights, and obligations.

It’s tempting to compare these two studies and to come down in favor of Hoover’s. This is so because of the “ideal types” methodology that Koneiczny uses to consider “Assumption” and “St. Brigitta.” “Ideal types,” invented by sociologist Max Weber in the early part of the twentieth century, focuses upon and simplifies two extreme examples of a social group so as to highlight the differences between them. Critics say this contributes to polarized conclusions. So Konieczny, in effect, uses a polarizing method to explain polarization in American Catholicism, a circular process.

Yet it would be a pity to dismiss The Spirit’s Tether on these grounds, because the author does, in fact, use a multi—or at least bi—disciplinary approach, integrating ethnography into her sociological analysis. And the interviews on which she bases her argument about parishes and polarization are, in themselves, quite interesting. A conversation on a particular subject between Konieczny and one or more members of “Assumption” and then “St. Brigitta” begins each chapter. Konieczny also uses parts of interviews to illustrate her arguments throughout the chapters. Although marriage, the family and work are not my favorite topics, I was quite intrigued, for example, by the experiences she describes of various couples negotiating work, family life and belief in the twenty-first century.

It’s a pity, though, that the author uses such rich material to illustrate what seems to me an unhelpfully binarized conclusion. Surveys indicate that only two percent of U.S. Catholic women use natural family planning, so at least some differences between Parish A and Parish B are perhaps better described as those between a tiny minority and a much, much larger group within the American church rather than between opposite poles.

Hoover’s methodology, using ethnography, sociology, Latino/Latina studies and theology, is far better suited to contemporary complexity and results in a richer and more helpful study than Konieczny’s. And, paradoxically, by introducing communion as a tool with which to approach differences between ethnic groups, Hoover suggests a solution to the problem with which Konieczny is primarily concerned but which her method seems to reinforce.

Lest I seem totally unbalanced in my preference for The Shared Parish, let me say that I consider it a limitation of both studies that they consider only parishes in the Midwest. I wonder what each author would make of my parish here in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn where the population is a third Caribbean, a third Haitian, a third Latino, and two percent white, and where Pentecostal Catholics and Our Lady of Guadalupe devotés march with feminist theology professors and other professionals in a massive People’s Climate March?

(This review appears in the July-October 2015 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference. My analysis of The Shared Parish also comprises part of a review of that book that appeared in the May 8-21 2015 issue of the National Catholic Reporter).

The Work Continues: Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the Struggle against Nuclear Weapons

July 29, 2015 at 9:25 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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By David Harrington Watt and Marian Ronan

(The following is an article that appears in the August 2015 issue of The Friends Journal. My co-author and friend David Watt is himself a member of the Society of Friends, as well as a professor of history at Temple University. The article is drawn from a talk he gave for the Hiroshima-Nagasaki Day Memorial of Pax Christi Metro New York in 2012).

Over seven decades, members of the Religious Society of Friends have worked to protest, commemorate, and educate about the U.S. nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some would say that this work began with Albert S. Bigelow, who, though he did not actually become a Quaker until 1955, resigned his captain’s appointment in the U.S. Navy soon after hearing of the bombings and a month before qualifying for his pension. Then, in 1958, Bigelow and three other Quakers set sail from San Pedro, California, in a 30-foot ketch named the Golden Rule for the Marshall Islands in an attempt to halt nuclear tests scheduled there.

Before the U.S. Coast Guard prevented them from completing their action, Bigelow and his shipmates encountered Earle L. Reynolds, an expert on the radiation effects of the Hiroshima bombing, and his wife, Barbara. The Reynoldses were so inspired by Bigelow et al that they became members of the Society of Friends. Soon after, they sailed their yacht, the Phoenix (now known as the Phoenix of Hiroshima) into the off-limits Marshall Islands testing ground, where Earle was arrested. Throughout the rest of his life, he and others sailed the Phoenix into various national waters to protest the testing of nuclear weapons.

In addition to those direct actions, in the late 1940s and early 1950s Seattle Quaker Floyd Schmoe started and led Houses for Hiroshima, a project that rebuilt houses for 100 Japanese families made homeless by the bombing. Funds for the project were raised by Pacific Yearly Meeting in California and Japan Yearly Meeting. And in the mid-1950s, some Friends housed a number of the Hiroshima Maidens, a group of 25 young Japanese women severely disfigured by the effects of the atomic bomb who were brought to the United States to undergo plastic surgery. Then, in 1975, Quaker-affiliated Wilmington College in Ohio established the Hiroshima Nagasaki Memorial Collection to house the 3,000 books and documents in both Japanese and English that Barbara Reynolds had gathered in the years following those in which she and her husband, Earle, were in Hiroshima for his radiation research. This is still the largest collection of materials outside of Japan related to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And in the decades since then, Friends groups in the United States and around the world have commemorated and mourned the horrific nuclear attacks of 1945; for example, young Quakers at the 2005 annual session for Britain Yearly Meeting launched hundreds of floating candles to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the nuclear attacks.

Yet despite the many protests, commemorations, and educational efforts about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Quakers and other peace advocates still have their work cut out for them. A majority of Americans still favor the bombings. A 2009 poll conducted by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute of registered voters across the country suggests that about 61 percent of the American people think that the United States did the right thing in August of 1945; 22 percent think the United States did the wrong thing; and about 16 percent are unsure or undecided.

We believe it crucial that these percentages be shifted massively and soon. For the United States to be a moral nation, its citizens must acknowledge the harm and injustice of what our government did. The history of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki informs (or fails to inform) contemporary life-and-death conversations about nuclear weapons. We believe that the first step toward helping Americans confront the reality of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is to communicate to them the real story of the first and only (so far) nuclear attacks in human history.

August 1945

On August 6, 1945, with no clear prior warning to Japanese civilians, the U.S. government dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. When the bombing was announced, the United States warned that unless the government of Japan surrendered and unless that surrender was completely unconditional, the United States would continue dropping atomic bombs on the cities of Japan. On August 9 another atomic bomb was dropped, this one on Nagasaki. Although it is impossible to determine precisely how many people were killed by the atomic bombs that were dropped in August of 1945, it does seem clear that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed about 60 times more people than were killed by the attacks of September 11, 2001. Most of the Japanese killed were, of course, children, women, and old men.

The Comforting Story

As we have mentioned, the vast majority of Americans approved of the bombings in 1945, and many continue to do so today. But why? A major reason is that they have heard again and again what we are going to call the “comforting story” about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The comforting story goes like this. In July and August of 1945, President Harry S. Truman was faced with a stark choice. He could either use the atomic bomb or he could order an invasion of Japan that would cost at least 500,000 American casualties. Truman and his advisers did not want to use the atomic bomb for they realized that using it was a terrible thing to do. But in the end they realized that they had no choice. Doing so enabled them to save the lives of hundreds of thousands—and perhaps millions— of American lives. Doing so also enabled them to treat the Japanese people with compassion. In order to save Japanese lives, Japanese people had to be killed. This story, which was invented in the fall of 1945 by people like Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, has been repeated over and over again for nearly seven decades. It is a good story. Americans have grown very attached to it. People who question it are often accused of being un-American. People who question it sometimes lose their jobs. Alas, the comforting story is simply not true.

Problems with the Comforting Story

There are many reasons why the comforting story cannot be true. To begin with, evidence suggests that there was actually very little debate over whether or not to use the atomic bomb. It seems clear that General Leslie Groves, who played a leading role in the discussions, never even considered the possibility of not using the weapon he had helped create. Furthermore, in August of 1945, no invasion was imminent. No invasion could have been mounted until the fall. In any case, in August of 1945 American leaders did not believe that an invasion would produce half a million American casualties. All of the estimates Truman had at his disposal were far lower than that. And by August of 1945, everyone knew that.

We believe that the first step toward helping Americans confront the reality of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is to communicate to them the real story of the first and only (so far) nuclear attacks in human history. The United States certainly did not have to drop a bomb on Nagasaki. Bombing Nagasaki seems to have served no real purpose whatsoever. Japan was already defeated. If the United States had pulled back from its demand that surrender be unconditional, then it is quite possible that Japan would have surrendered immediately.

Alternatively, the United States could have simply waited until the Soviets entered the war against Japan. (The Soviets had promised to do so on the ninth of August.) Soviet entry into the war would very likely have led to Japanese capitulation. Then, too, the United States did not have to drop a bomb on a city such as Hiroshima. It could have demonstrated the power of the new weapon by dropping the bomb on a true military target or even on a place in which very few people lived. And of course the United States certainly did not have to drop a bomb on Nagasaki. Bombing Nagasaki seems to have served no real purpose whatsoever.
In summary, there are many different reasons to  believe that the comforting story is untrue. Nearly all historians who have written about Hiroshima and Nagasaki agree on this.

So what were the real reasons the bombs were dropped?

This is not a question that historians can answer definitively. When they try to answer that question, they almost always rely on a combination of observations: the men who decided to use the bombs had run out of patience; they were determined to end the war as quickly as possible. Also, the decision makers had come to believe that killing large numbers of civilians was often completely justifiable. They wanted to be sure that not one more drop of American blood would be spilled than was absolutely necessary.

Historians also believe that some of the men who decided to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki suspected that God had given atomic weapons to the United States so that America could carry out His wishes. They longed to see a demonstration of the amazing things that atomic bombs can do. In addition, they wanted to intimidate the leaders of the Soviet Union and to create a sense of terror and hopelessness among the people of Japan. Some U.S. leaders felt that the Japanese people were not human beings in the fullest sense of that term. And finally, they longed to exact vengeance for Pearl Harbor.

Nearly all historians would say that there was no single reason that atomic bombs were used against the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There were many different reasons the bombs were exploded.

Lessons learned

In summarizing this material, we do not suggest that making more widely known what most historians say happened at Hiroshima and why these things happened will solve the problem of nuclear weapons. As with civil rights, climate change, and other life-threatening issues, action is required, action which Quakers and other peace activists must lead or participate in.

Nevertheless, we believe that certain lessons can be drawn from historians’ accounts of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One lesson is that stories that are comforting, widely accepted, and supported by the prestige of important governmental officials are sometimes completely untrue. Indeed, citizens have an obligation to view stories that are comforting, widely accepted, and supported by the prestige of important governmental officials with particular skepticism.

The second lesson we want to offer is this: Americans often say that the leaders of countries such as North Korea and Iran are not wise enough or virtuous enough to be trusted with nuclear weapons. We think that people are right to say that. We also believe, however, that the leaders of the U.S. government are not wise enough or virtuous enough to be trusted with nuclear weapons. When it comes to nuclear weapons, there are no grounds for U.S. self-righteousness. As we communicate this message widely and emphatically, we trust that many more Americans will be moved to action.

Thoughts About Elizabeth Johnson’s “Ask the Beasts” after Pope Francis’s Creation-Care Encyclical

July 17, 2015 at 2:23 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Anything written about Catholicism and the environment demands reconsideration after the publication of Pope Francis’s attention-grabbing creation care encyclical on June 18, 2015. This includes my earlier review of Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts.

A major question involves the place of women, and of feminist theology and activism, in Catholic teaching on climate change and environmental destruction. As I argued previously, despite the occasional action to the contrary (such as washing women’s feet on Holy Thursday), Pope Francis adheres to the traditional Vatican position on women and sexuality. That is to say, he continues the teaching on complementarity enforced by his papal predecessors. In this teaching women are intrinsically passive and receptive and men active, just as Christ is the male Spouse and the Church is the receptive, obedient “wife.” It seems likely that the Pope himself actually holds these positions, but even if he didn’t, given the institutional church’s focus on sexual teaching since Vatican II, his moving in any other direction would risk a civil war. What Pope Francis says about population and abortion in Laudato Si’ certainly suggests that his position on women and sexuality are consistent with the teachings of Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI.

In my review, I situate Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts within the history of feminist theology. Doing so at the time made sense, given Johnson’s historic role in Catholic feminist theology and particularly given the ferocious criticism of her previous book, Quest for the Living God, by the U.S. Catholic Bishops (This condemnation was subsequently reiterated by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). In my review, I argue that Johnson showed considerable courage in publishing Ask the Beasts since she includes in it some of the theological positions singled out by the U.S. bishops.

What I do not say is that in various places in the book, Johnson also is careful to emphasize the basically orthodox Catholic positions she holds on the transcendence of God along with God’s profound love and connection with creation. In these passages she is rebutting the bishops’ suggestions that she is, in effect, a pantheist, someone who denies any separation between God and the material world.

Furthermore, at a lunch we shared after I had published my review of Ask the Beasts, Johnson told me that some feminists had criticized the book because it says very little about women. I myself had overlooked this fact because I was at the time unable to think of Johnson’s work outside the context of her massive contributions to feminist theology– even her book on Darwin and the Nicene Creed, neither of which are exactly feminist texts (!). But as I reviewed Ask the Beasts after our luncheon conversation, I had to admit that Johnson says very little about women or feminism there. (Though I would argue that her reconfiguration of God’s relation to creation in light of evolution is implicitly feminist because it undercuts the classic Christian polarization between women/earth and the “male” God in heaven).

Later in our luncheon I asked Johnson a question. Now I put that same question to you.

The issues that Pope Francis addresses in Laudato Si’ are matters of life and death. Might it then not be wise for at least some of us to stop talking about the feminist issues that have been the cause of so much conflict between the Vatican, the hierarchy, and Catholic women, and to focus instead on spreading the Pope’s call for “integral ecology”?

Some conservative Catholic bishops, priests, politicians, and churchgoers have tried to dismiss the Pope’s words as going beyond the scope of his knowledge and authority. Should Catholic women activists and theologians criticize the encyclical from the left, objecting, for example, to his dismissal of population as an environmental issue because it can be seen to be so closely tied to issues of reproductive freedom? Or should we put our own deeply held concerns about women’s equality in the Church aside and support Pope Francis? After all, isn’t he downright heroic to have put out such a stinging critique of the neo-liberal capitalism, overconsumption, and market economy that are doing so much harm not only to the air we breathe, but to the lives of our sisters (and brothers) in sub-Saharan Africa, in the Pacific, and the fields of  California?

To illustrate where I come down on this question, let me tell you a story. Since the publication of the encyclical, I have a been working with an ad hoc group of Catholic laywomen and sisters here in New York City to draft and send out a series of inserts about Laudato Si’ to be published in parish bulletins. I myself wrote the first series of inserts which other members of the committee then edited and sent out to parishes. At a certain point the chair of the committee said she hoped I didn’t mind that she hadn’t included my name as the author of the inserts. She didn’t want anybody to Google my name and find my blog or all the books and articles I’ve written on Catholic feminist issues and then dismiss the inserts as too radical.

I said I didn’t mind at all.

(This post is the revision of an addendum to my review of Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts that was recently circulated for discussion among members in seventeen countries by the International Grail Movement.)

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