A Complicated Catholicism

March 18, 2021 at 10:19 am | Posted in American Catholicism, feminism, racism, | 4 Comments

I am given to describing myself as an Irish-Catholic from Philadelphia, but that is only three-quarters true. My father’s people were Irish Catholics through and through, but on my mother’s side, Catholics had married Protestants for three generations. It should be no surprise, then, that I am married to an American Baptist minister.

Part of the story begins when my mother’s maternal grandmother, Hannah Kelly, an Irish domestic, married her employer, John Turner. I read somewhere that Irish immigrant women preferred to marry white Anglo-Saxon Protestant men because they didn’t go off to build bridges or dig canals, get killed, and never be heard from again. On Sunday mornings, while John Turner, who was, I believe, the superintendent of a factory—an iron mill, perhaps—took the kids to the Episcopal church with him, great-grandmother Hannah would sit in her rocking chair and say the rosary. I have the rocker in my living room. Eventually John Turner took to coming home from work drunk on Saturday afternoons and beating her, claiming she had “the brains of an oyster.”

But to complicate the story further, their eldest child, Jane, eventually married a Catholic and “converted back,” as I am given to saying; one of the many baffling aspects of my religious identity was that I had Catholic cousins on the Protestant side of the family.

One of Hannah’s younger daughters, Elizabeth, my maternal grandmother, married an ostensibly Protestant if very Irish-looking young man named Jim Dodds who was himself the product of a Catholic-Protestant union. One story was that, as a kid, his father would pay him to go to Mass, and then his mother’s sisters would pay him to go to the Protestant church, and he would pocket all the money and go neither place. Neither he nor my grandmother were very much church-goers; my mother and her sister grew up titular Methodists, but my mother became an Episcopalian as a young woman.

That younger sister, the aunt after whom I am named, got married when she was quite young to a British-Catholic immigrant and became a Catholic herself. My mother subsequently became engaged to an Irish Catholic, my father, Joe Ronan, and planned to convert, but the Franciscan sister who gave her catechetical instructions announced that all Protestants go to hell. This put my mother off since most of her family—well, a lot of them—were Protestants. When she and my father subsequently got married in the rectory office, the priest refused to include the flowers that had been delivered because theirs was a “mixed marriage.” 

I often think about these several generations of cross-denominational entanglements in my family when writers argue that white ethnic Catholics lived in “ghettoes” before the Second Vatican Council. In my experience, this was not exactly the case.

My mother did promise to raise the children Catholic, however, and to send them to Catholic schools, a promise she kept, though I never quite understood why; she was never a particularly obedient person. In any case, as I result, I landed in one of the first grade classes at St. Joseph’s parochial school, in Collingdale, a working-class Philadelphia suburb, in 1953. 

Now I was born in 1947, and the years 1946-1947 saw the largest US population increase in the 20thcentury; men came home from the war in ’45, got married, and had their first kid. As a result there were three first-grade classes at St. Joe’s in 1953, each with over a hundred children enrolled. People talk about how violent the Catholic sisters who taught those classes were. Myself, I have never understood how they avoided killing some of us.

The 1950s were not the most theologically liberal years for American Catholicism, either.  Basically, the same absolutist, anti-Protestant teachings that alienated my mother during World War II got preached regularly from the pulpit. Now given the disciplinary rigor of the post-war church, I most certainly did not put my hand up and disagree when the priest announced that all Protestant were going to hell. But you may be quite sure that the announcement raised a few questions in my mind, since my Protestant grandmother, who had lived with us since my grandfather’s death, was home baking me cookies at that very moment.

The culture of my family complicated my identity in other ways as well. My father eventually because the president of his union local—albeit, one of the most racist unions in the country, the IBEW—and was emphatically pro-labor. He would sit at the dinner table and say, “If you ever vote Republican or cross a picket line, you will go to hell.” I am given to saying that this was the beginning of my theological education. And my father was proclaiming this in a Republican-dominated county where most people, including my father, believed they had to register Republican or risk losing their jobs. 

Nor was my father a particularly pious Catholic. I hardly remember him saying anything religious at all. We certainly didn’t say grace before meals in our “mixed” household. And when Daddy came home from working the night shift at the Philadelphia Electric generating station, he was given to saying, “What do you say we go to the 8 (AM Mass) and get it over with?” But he was a “practicing” Catholic: went to Mass every Sunday, sold chances door to door to support the parish, and sang in the parish choir after his retirement from PE. And when I came home and announced that I just eloped with my previously-divorced American Baptist minister husband, he asked, “Are you still a Harp?” (“Harp” is a 19th century derogatory term for the Irish, which they used for themselves as some African Americans use the term “nigger.”). For him, our Catholicism was as much an ethnic identity as a religious one. “Yes, Daddy. I’m still a Harp,” I replied.

I was wildly enthusiastic about the Second Vatican Council in part because of the steps taken there toward Protestant-Catholic reconciliation. I was also drawn to what I perceived to be the extraordinary beauty of the liturgical movement which influenced the Council and shaped the liturgical renewal that the Council initiated. During the last year of the Council I became involved in the Grail, an international Catholic laywomen’s movement that had played a significant role in the liturgical movement, and whose liturgies and Divine Office chapel services at the Grail’s US city centers spoke to me very deeply.

As I began spending more time at Grailville, the Grail’s organic farm and national center in rural southwest Ohio, this plot began to thicken. In 1972 and 1973, in response to increasing numbers of women enrolling in divinity schools, the US Grail joined with the liberal Protestant organization, Church Women United, to sponsor two week-long summer programs at Grailville, “Women Exploring Theology.” The two events comprised one of the first in-depth free-standing explorations of a possible Christian feminist theology. (The soon-to-be- influential feminist theologian, Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, a participant in one of the programs, said doing so was the first time it ever occurred to her that theology wasn’t the purview of dead white men). 

The programs germinated into a six-week, credit-bearing course for women, “Seminary Quarter at Grailville,” where women from seminaries all over the country gathered to study with some of the earliest feminist theologians. Some of the leading Christian-feminist leaders of the future in the US—pastors, theologians, organizers—launched their trajectories at “SQAG.”

It might seem that such events would have melded very well with the marginal, union-based Catholicism of my upbringing, but that would be an optimistic reading. As is unfortunately the case, many revolutionary movements draw on a somewhat—or very—inflexible ideology to drive them, and Christian feminism, especially in its early years, was no exception to this. Regarding pioneering feminist theologian, Mary Daly, the Christian feminist ethicist Beverly Harrison argued compellingly that Daly’s Catholic, and then ex-Catholic, feminist theology was for the most part the reversal of the hierarchical neo-Thomism Daly had learned in her first Ph.D., at the School of Sacred Theology at St. Mary’s in Indiana. In neo-Thomism, men were on the top and women were on the bottom; in Daly’s feminist theology, women were on the top and men on the bottom. More complicated analyses were unpolitical.

I began encountering this sort of thing at Grailville in the mid-1970s, when Seminary Quarter was underway. A Sister of Loretto, whose name I have mercifully forgotten, had given a presentation on feminist theology, and some of us were discussing it with her afterwards, over lunch in the dining room. Whatever I said, the sister responded, “You know, you’re not a real feminist.” 

And that has been true for the rest of my life, as I have for example, raised questions about the racial problems confronting the Catholic women’s ordination movement, even as I served as the president of the Women’s Ordination Conference board. When, as WOC board president, I spoke with the heads of several Black Catholic women’s movements, they assured me that women’s ordination was not an issue for them; what they were concerned about was racism. *

And of course, I raised questions about class as well. I had earned a Master of Divinity degree in the 1980s at a majority African American school, New York Theological Seminary. I did this In large part because of my discomfort with the economic privilege at the uptown Union Theological Seminary, where I had taken a few courses. But I also did so also because the tuition was low and classes at NYTS were at night and I needed to work in the daytime to support myself.  I thus resonated particularly with a speaker—Professor Sheila Briggs, I believe—at a conference in Milwaukee in 2000 celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Women’s Ordination Conference. who asked, “When are we going to start ordaining poor women?” Ordination, as it is currently understood, requires graduate education. Recently I have been greatly taken by Marxist-feminist Nancy Fraser’s argument that Second Wave feminism basically sold out to neoliberal economics, “lean-in feminism,” so to speak. 

I trace my tendency to “make everything so complicated,” a failing of which I have been accused many times, back to my Catholic-Protestant-union identity, though my doctoral work in poststructuralist feminist religious studies probably didn’t help. In recent years, this interpretive “hermeneutics of mess”, as my doctoral advisor Laura Levitt would say, has come to inform, in particular, my preoccupation with the climate catastrophe and nuclear war, the pressing crises of our time. In April 2019 I gave a talk as part of a panel following the annual meeting of Women Church Convergence, a national coalition of progressive Catholic and Catholic-rooted groups, addressing the question, “How can equality flourish in the Catholic Church?” 

I titled my talk “In Some Ways We Are All Equal” and began by stating that I very much support the ordination of women and the rooting-out of sex abuse in the Catholic Church, two of the most pressing issues for very many progressive US Catholics. But I argued that if we achieve both of these goals, and then civilization is wiped out by environmental catastrophe or nuclear war, neither of the other achievements is going to make much difference. In the question and comment session after the panel, the audience, made up primarily of older, white women, made no reference whatever to my argument. They focused instead on racism in the Catholic Church, also an important issue, but similarly secondary to planetary survival. The talk was later published by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference and read and discussed at the meeting of the Grail’s International Council in Tanzania in summer of 2019, so it was by no means totally ignored. Still, the panel made me think, once again, that many of us would prefer to avoid complicated issues.**

In recent years, my complicated Catholicism even seems to be generating a feed-back loop. Given my profound concern about climate change, I was an enthusiastic supporter of Pope Francis’s 2015 environmental encyclical, Laudato Si’. Now let me be clear: as a Catholic feminist, I have spent many decades criticizing the centralized, monarchical governance structure of the Catholic Church. Never would I have imagined giving talks about a papal encyclical, much less to several socialist groups, as I did after Laudato Si’ was published. A number of my Catholic feminist colleagues—the National Catholic Reporter’s Jamie Manson, for example– spoke out against the encyclical because it failed to affirm contraception as a remedy for the environmental harm done by the increasing global population. But experts assure us that population is not the problem; if the poorest three billion people disappeared from the planet, carbon emissions would not be reduced at all. It’s consumption and profit-making that are the problem, as Francis argues convincingly.  But the freedom of European and American women to use contraceptives is apparently more important than planetary survival.

In the years since Laudato Si’ was published, I have grown increasingly convinced, as the Bengali writer Amitav Ghosh argues in The Great Derangement, that the world religions will play a pivotal role in the fight against climate change, because they already exist, and are organized. This is particularly the case with the Roman Catholic Church because it is the largest organization in the world, with 1.3 billion members, and has an internationally recognized figurehead leader. Maybe organizational centralization isn’t entirely bad after all.

As I engage with this “complicated Catholic” reading of the current world crises, I feel myself surrounded by my Catholic/Protestant/union forebears, as well as the rigid white-ethnic priests and nuns and feminist theologians like Mary Daly,  who partly shaped my younger self,  feminist theorists like Judith Butler and Donna Haraway whose work underpins my current world-view, and armies of environmental thinkers and activists from Rachel Carson to Pope Francis to Greta Thunberg. Surrounded by such a large—and complicated—cloud of witnesses, who knows how my thinking will evolve in the years to come?

This article appeared in the March-June 2021 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southestern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference, pp.6-8.

      *https://www.academia.edu/22455039/Marian_Ronan_-_Ethical_Challenges_Confronting_the_Roman_Catholic_Womens_Ordination_Movement_in_the_Twenty-First_Century_-_Journal_of_Feminist_Studies_in_Religion_23_2  2007

** https://marianronan.wordpress.com/2019/08/20/in-some-ways-we-are-all-equal/

White Feminism

March 7, 2021 at 6:08 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The following is a review that appeared in the March issue of Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the US, part of the International Grail Movement.

White Feminism: From the Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind. By Koa Beck. 240 pp. Atria Books/Simon and Schuster. 2021. Hardback. $27. 

It’s hard to imagine a more timely publication, just after Black History Month and during ongoing protests against racism, than Koa Beck’s White Feminism. Beck is a woman of color, a lesbian,  a widely published journalist, former editor of Jezebel and Vogue magazines, and a Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

I anticipated that Beck would situate the history of feminism in the racist positions held by early suffragettes like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and indeed she does. But she goes on to lay out in detail the exclusion of women of color during many subsequent stages of the women’s rights movement after Stanton and Anthony. When the much-adulated Quaker suffragette Alice Paul organized the 1913 Washington Woman Suffrage Procession, for example, she excluded any mention of the “negro question” from publicity, for fear of alienating Southern suffragettes. Then, when Black women’s groups showed up, she ordered them to the back of the march. And indeed, after the Nineteenth Amendment passed, women of color were excluded from voting under Jim Crow. And throughout the rest of Paul’s career, working for the Equal Rights Amendment,  she tried to exclude all reference to race and class, for fear it would dilute the strength of the gender equality message.

From Paul, the author continues the history white feminism by detailing how Betty Friedan and the National Organization for Women, beginning in the 1960s, focused on women working outside the home, with no recognition at all of women in poverty and how their domestic service enabled such women to get professional  jobs. From there, Beck launches into an analysis of how feminism became branded and the Sheryl Sandberg “Lean-in” feminism—white women in corporate leadership—became the central focus of feminism. 

But White Feminism is by no means only a history how white feminism excluded women of color and poor women from the movement. It is also a sort of memoir of Beck’s own experience as a journalist, how she, and the subjects she kept proposing to write about, were so often rendered invisible by the very often white editors of the women’s publications for which she worked. And those kept out included not only women of color, but also poor women, transgender persons, immigrants—the most excluded. I personally learned a lot, In particular, from Beck’s discussion of discrimination against non-cis-gendered people. I had thought that cis-gender actually meant heterosexual, when, in fact,  gay cis-gender men sometimes worked to exclude transgender women from recognition.

The book really does a fine job of showing the primary reason for the exclusion of so many “others” from white feminism, beyond a commitment to white superiority: the turn to individualism, feminism as a self-empowerment strategy. And in the third section of the book, Beck lays out a number of ways to return to the solidarity, the collectivism of the pre-feminist women’s labor movements and Black struggles.

I have one concern about the book, however: the use of the term “white feminism.” Now let me acknowledge that in my experience, publishers often mandate a book’s title , explaining that something like “White Feminism” is much more likely to sell than a more complex, accurate title. But what Beck is critiquing is much more an ideology than a racial group. And in some ways, “white feminism” is at least as much the “neo-liberal feminism,” the massive turn from post-war economics that Nancy Fraser identifies with the end of second wave  feminism during the Reagan/May era, than with whiteness per se.

And Beck acknowledges this in a number of places. The title of Part II is “White Feminism™”— “white feminism” as a brand. And she regularly claims that a change in ideology, not just is personal behavior, is what’s called for. She likewise refers on a number of occasions to “white feminists and those who aspire to whiteness,” which is not exactly a racial category. And one of the most striking illustrations of her critique of “feminist” CEOs—“Girl Bosses”—is the story of Miki Agrawal, the half-Japanese, half sub-continental Indian woman founder of Thinx underwear, who worked forcefully for the commodification of feminism.

But in many other places, Beck refers to white feminists without any quotation marks. I guess all us white feminist are commodified, buying expensive memberships in exclusive women’s clubs and wearing high-end “Feminist” t-shirts. Then again, maybe a little more nuance in Beck’s analysis might advance the collective action against racism, sexual oppression, and poverty that White Feminism is calling for.

Anti-Capitalist Feminism

February 8, 2021 at 4:46 pm | Posted in Capitalism, Climate Change, feminism | 2 Comments

The following is a revised version of review that appeared in the February 2021 issue of Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail movement in the United States.

Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto. By Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser. 85 pp. Verso. 2019. $12.95. https://www.versobooks.com/books/2924-feminism-for-the-99

I first heard of the work of Nancy Fraser in 2018 in a Marxist Education Project course here in New York City. I learned a great deal from the course but was too intimidated by the complexity of the book we read, Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory (Polity 2018), coauthored by Fraser and German social philosopher Rahal Jaeggi, even to consider reviewing it.

Then, in 2019,  Fraser followed up on that publication with an equally significant but definitely less daunting Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto. The fact that Fraser has co-authored this volume as well as the previous one, this time with her  New School colleague, Cinzia Arruzza, and the Purdue global studies professor, Tithi Bhattacharya, gives you a sense of her ongoing commitment to feminist collaboration.

Given my enthusiasm for this book, my decision to begin my review with a discussion of its final twenty-five  pages, its “Postface,” may seem odd, but that’s what I’m going to do. One rule that I have never forgotten from my early grant-writer training is that you always start  with a problem statement. But Fraser and her co-authors never got such training. Instead, they go straight to laying out the eleven theses of their manifesto, and only in their “Postface,” the problem that prompts it. They name this problem  a “crisis of capitalism,” but one that is by no means only economic, but also political, ecological and social reproductive.  And they find this social reproductive dimension of the crisis especially important because since the end of the second wave of feminism and the onslaught of neoliberal economics beginning in the late 1970s, social reproduction has received so little attention.

So what is “social reproduction,” and why is it in crisis? According to Fraser et al., social reproduction comprises the enormous amount of time and resources  that go into birthing, caring for, and maintaining human beings. But capitalism offloads this work and cost onto women, communities, and states, so as to maximize its own profits. Capitalism refuses to compensate those whose work underpins its own functioning 

Now Fraser has long been critical of second wave feminism because of its failure to integrate social reproduction as well as women’s economic inequality into its platform. Her critique focuses on the shift from distribution to recognition in feminist discourse–inclusive language and more women’s pictures on web pages, for example. And economically, the entry of women into the waged labor market was perceived as feminist progress, and indeed it was, for some. 

But the abolition of the “family wage,” with unionized benefits, was a catastrophe for many other women, especially women of color, who, along with their lower-class spouses, were forced into working multiple precarious jobs to make ends meet. And women from the Global South were imported into the US precisely to care for the families of professional white women (and men) so as to be able to send remittances to home countries devastated by neo-liberal austerity policies and debt. “Lean-in feminism,” as Fraser and her colleagues make abundantly clear, is really the liberation of a very small percentage of women.*

For Arruzza, Bhattacharya and Fraser, the crisis of social reproduction is parallel to the other crises of capitalism, precipitated by the assumption that there will always be sufficient energies to reproduce societal bonds and labor, just as there will always be sufficient environmental resources to support humanity, and there will always be the political resources to deal with catastrophes like pandemics and climate disasters.

The inadequacy of this thinking provides the foundation for the eleven theses that justify the authors’ call for a Feminism for the 99%. They begin by highlighting the effects of the global women’s strikes beginning in 2016  that brought attention to more than labor issues, then move on to the bankruptcy  of “stand alone identity politics” that obscures the harms of neoliberal economics. As an alternative, we must fight for social/political structures that enable everyone, poor and working-class women and men, immigrants, queer, trans and disabled people, and victims of domestic abuse. A radicalized feminism also recognizes that we are facing a crisis of society as a whole, based in the cyclical collapses of capitalism, which are then ostensibly remedied by repeated economic bail-outs  that save the 1%.

Thesis 5 folds into this crisis the gender oppression caused by the subordination of social reproduction to work for profit, oppression that harms in particular differently raced, gendered and nationalized individuals. Capitalism is also at the root of gender violence, with men in precarious jobs more inclined to domestic abuse and the privatization of social services making domestic shelters less available. Additionally, capitalism, based from the outset on  racist and colonialist violence,  continues to be so especially through austerity measures and debt punishment in the Global South and the importation of women of color for low-waged domestic labor to “free” professional white women.

The manifesto further asserts that real feminism is essentially eco-socialist, fighting not only the climate crisis per se, but the capitalist structures that underpin it: Big Pharma, Big Ag, Big Oil. And these can be defeated only by global solidarity, not merely by the corporate leadership of “warmongers in skirts.” Additionally, the manifesto shows that capitalism is fundamentally incompatible with democracy because it is funded by neoliberal democratic government subsidies even as it develops fossil-fuel generated manufacturing around the world and funds right-wing authoritarianism.  All of this hurts women and their children, especially women in the Global South and women of color, vastly more than it hurts white “feminists.”

Ultimately, Arruzza, Bhahattacharya, and Fraser argue compellingly that the only solution to these overlapping crises is for all radical movements, including women’s movements, to join in an “anti-capitalist insurgency” against climate change, racism, labor exploitation, social reproductive expropriation and racial dispossession. Lean-in feminism that invokes abstract, meritocratic, anti-racist corporate diversity and “green capitalism” simply isn’t going to cut it. Only a broad-based insurgency, based in acknowledgment  of significant differences and privileges, as well as the needs, desires and suffering of our various groups, can triumph.

In thinking about the application of the authors’ manifesto to women like me, , one part of their critique  of “second wave feminism”—the feminism that contributed to the current crises—struck me: the negative impact of the tendency to identify professionalization with women’s liberation. My own women’s movement, the Grail, moved from living in community, on subsistence —we got room and board and $50 a month when I did so in the 1970s—to a stress on professionalization and intellectual training. Many of us who started out living on subsistence in community for the sake of the common good went on to become lawyers and non-profit executives and university professors. 

It’s hard for me to imagine things any other way. But perhaps Feminism for the 99% will inspire us to rethink the individualism and economic privilege that accompanied such a shift and to join in action with movements of people who never enjoyed those benefits.

Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Knopf, 2013.

Watch Out for “Fallout”!

December 31, 2020 at 4:12 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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(The following is a review that appears in the Winter 2021:125 edition of Kerux, the newsletter of Pax
Christi Metro New York.)

Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World.  By Lesley M.M Blume.185 pp. Simon and Schuster. 2020. $27.00.

Just before the seventy-fifty anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, I took my copy of John Hersey’s Hiroshima down from the bookshelf where it had been for years and read it. As an old friend was given to saying, I mostly don’t read my books; I feel warmly toward them.

But with Hiroshima, I decided it was time. And when I read it, I was blown away, primarily by Hersey’s brilliant interweaving of the personal, devastating stories of five Hiroshima residents who underwent the catastrophe. 

So when I heard Lesley Blume being interviewed on “Fresh Air” about her new book, Fallout, which documents how John Hersey uncovered the details of the effects of the US bombing of Hiroshima and the massive cover-up of that bombing, I had to go out and buy a copy. 

Blume is a journalist and an award-winning non-fiction writer. She begins Fallout by laying out the details of the bombing of Hiroshima and the media’s early coverage of the news, as well as how the government convinced the public that the bomb was a conventional weapon and downplayed the effects of radiation. She then follows Hersey’s journey to Hiroshima in May 1946, almost a year after the bombing. 

Blume also details the significant challenges that faced Hersey and the New Yorker editor, Wallace Shawn, regarding the publication of Hiroshima, navigating, as they had to, the rabbit warrens of federal approval. But when they did master those challenges, it’s hard to overstate the impact of the publication of Hiroshima, first in one entire issue of the New Yorker the following December, and subsequently in the millions of copies sold in English and many other languages.

Hersey played a major role in helping to prevent nuclear war since the end of World War II, and his book has inspired generations of activists. This is so, in large part, because he told the overlapping stories of the effects of the bombing on the lives of five actual human beings, “victims whose eyeballs had melted and run down their cheeks, others whose skin hung from their bodies or slipped off their hands like gloves,” He enabled them “to speak for themselves,” as Nick Turse notes in his detailed “Tom Dispatch” review of the Blume volume. (https://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/176753/tomgram%3A_nick_turse%2C_one_hundred_second

The story Blume tells of Hersey’s writing and publishing Hiroshima is itself a galvanizing read. Yet her emphasis on the government cover-up of the dire effects of nuclear war is now more important than ever, because we are in a new—or perhaps an ongoing—era of such obfuscation. You are perhaps unaware, for example, because almost everyone is, that the threat of nuclear war, and the massive build-up of nuclear weapons after the previous limited downsizing of our nuclear arsenal, was hardly mentioned in the recent presidential campaigns or their news coverage. 

Yet Donald Trump and his administration were hell-bent on pulling the US out of various nuclear treaties that had modestly lessened the nuclear threat for some years, while the military budget has expanded steadily since well before that administration.  A billion dollars went into research last year on something called “hypersonic weapons systems.” (https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/01/national-pride-stake-russia-china-united-states-race-build-hypersonic-weapons) They are named that because they travel so much faster than the speed of sound that they can “dodge defenses and keep an adversary guessing about the target.” This at a time when the federal government failed to support states, local governments, and struggling families during the pandemic.

Is it any wonder that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists puts the Doomsday Clock at one hundred seconds to midnight, closer than it has ever been since they started using the clock in 1947?

I imagine that a lot of us are working hard on very important issues like the effects of the pandemic, ending wars, and Black Lives Matter.  But we also need to start organizing and working relentlessly to change the behavior of the US government on nuclear weapons.  The survival of humanity depends on it.

*https://tomdispatch.com/nick-turse-one-hundred-seconds-till-the-apocalypse/

** https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/01/national-pride-stake-russia-china-united-states-race-build-hypersonic-weapons

Strongmen

December 5, 2020 at 2:07 pm | Posted in Authoritarianism,, violence, | Leave a comment
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Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present. By Ruth Ben-Ghiat. 384 pp. W.W. Norton & Co. 2020. $28.95.

When I began reading Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s new book, I assumed, given the subtitle, that it would comprise a series of biographies of 20th and 21st century authoritarian leaders, from Mussolini to our own DJT. I was mistaken, though the book does include details of the lives of an amazing number of such men, seventeen in all.

Instead of biographies, Ben-Ghiat offers a nuanced analysis of authoritarian regimes from 1922 to 2020 and the characteristics of the strongmen who ruled during these years. She begins by showing how such strongmen have undermined or destroyed democracy across three successive eras. First there were the fascist dictators who took power, in part at least because of the horrors of World War I: Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco. She next lays out the coup-empowered regimes between 1950 and 1990 that generated strongmen like Gaddafi in Libya, Pinochet in Chile, and Sese Seko in Zaire. She then details the era of elected strongmen, from Berlusconi in Italy, to Erdogan in Turkey, to Putin in Russia, to Donald Trump in the US.

Part II shifts from the historical eras that produced recent strongmen to the tools that such men use to seduce the masses. These include propaganda, corruption, and violence. An important part of strongman propaganda is having “direct communication channels with the public, allowing them to pose as authentic interpreters of the popular will.” We know exactly what’s she’s talking about there!  

Another big part of strongmanism is tyrants taking over profitable businesses, laundering money, and making clandestine real estate investments. As for violence, much is known about Hitler’s concentration camps but less about Franco’s execution of 50,000 Spaniards, as well the Italian fascist genocide of Libyans, torture in Chilean stadiums under Pinochet, and the murder of Libyan journalists under Gaddafi.  More recently elected dictators use subtler forms of violence, like the murder of dissenters after the 2016 attempted coup in Turkey, and the Putin government’s poisoning of critics. As for our own soon-to-be former president, Ben-Ghiat links the huge annual increase in US hate-crimes since 2016 to Trump’s rallies instructing his followers to see violence as positive. His policies of mass incarceration of immigrants continued those of previous administrations but were much more brutal.  Then, in August 2019, thousands of Trump Facebook ads warning of an immigrant “invasion” ceased, after a White nationalist shot dead twenty-one people in an El Paso Walmart, having written that the attack was a response to the “Hispanic invasion.” And Ben-Ghiat doesn’t mention, as far as I can remember, Trump’s retaliation against government employees who dare to contradict him, but that’s a kind of violence too. Not to mention the more than a quarter-million people dead thus far from Covid-19. 

The chapter I was most taken with, however, is Ben-Ghiat’s exploration of toxic virility as a strongman characteristic. Many strongmen boast of their virile powers, appear bare-chested in photographs, brag of their control of women, and appeal to ordinary men by making them feel better about their own sexual transgressions. They also often come into power after an increase in women’s status in society–remember Hilary Clinton?  A 1933 sculpture of Mussolini’s profile resembled the tip of a penis, and was so popular, people bought copies for their coffee table. And lest you dismiss any connections between then and now, Steve Bannon is Mussolini’s great admirer! Interestingly enough, this “masculinist” dimension of Ben-Ghiat’s analysis has been dismissed by several otherwise enthusiastic male reviewers.

One of the things that I really love about Strongmen, however, is that it ends by detailing how many of the autocrats she studied were brought down by people who once supported them.  But she stresses that even after strongmen fall, they remain as “traces within the body of their people.” This is especially so because many of the enablers of strongmen rewrite them as freestanding demons, individually responsible for the evils that, in fact, required massive collaboration to unleash. To counter future authoritarianism, she tells us, we must prioritize “accountability and transparency in government.” She also emphasizes the role of the US in the establishment of authoritarianism around the world, since Mussolini. All this demands serious consideration as we move into the Biden administration.

This review appeared in the December 2020 issue of Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the USA.

Womanpriest

December 2, 2020 at 2:59 pm | Posted in women | 3 Comments
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Womanpriest: Tradition and Transgression in the Contemporary Roman Catholic Church. By Jill Peterfeso. NY, NY: Fordham University Press, 2020. 272 pp. Paperback. $30.00.

I became involved with the women’s ordination movement in 1975 when two of the leaders of the Grail, on the staff of whose organic farm I was serving at the time, told me I was going with them to the first women’s Ordination Conference in Detroit. I was not terribly interested in the issue at the time, but those were the days when people still actually obeyed orders.  So I went, and the conference transformed my understanding of the issue. 

Seventeen years later, when I was beginning my doctoral studies at Temple, I became involved in the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference through Regina Bannan. From there I became a member of the national Women’s Ordination Conference board and served as president of the board for several years.

But I was not enthusiastic about the first Roman Catholic Womanpriest (RCWP) ordinations on the Danube in 2002, or the ordinations in North America and elsewhere that followed. In those days I more or less belonged to the Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza “ordination is subordination” school.

But Jill Peterfeso’s splendid new book, Womanpriest, has forced me to reconsider that position. The book is an ethnographic study of members of the RCWP group that burst on the public stage in 2002, and of the Association of Roman Catholic Womanpriests (ARCWP) that more or less split off from the original group in 2010.  Ethnography is based on field work with a particular group, involving interviews, observation, data collection, etc. But Peterfeso expands this into a kind of dialogic ethnography in which she includes, especially in the introduction and conclusion, some of her own experiences in womanpriest communities, and how this has influenced her own Catholic identity 

Peterfeso draws from her research a number of themes that embody and clarify the reality and impact of RCWP and ARCWP on contemporary Roman Catholicism.  In chapter 1 she details the ways in which womanpriests use the deeply personal narrative of “calling” to dispute the Vatican’s claim that their ordinations are illegitimate. Focusing on the centrality of the experience of “being called” in the lives of five prominent womanpriests, Victoria Rue, Juanita Cordero, Gabriella Velardi Ward, Mary Grace Crowley-Koch, and Kathleen Kunster, Peterfeso argues that such narratives enable these womanpriests to dispute Rome’s claim that only men are “called”, and that they are nothing but activist agitators. Rather they are multidimensional, faithful, reflective women who, in order to obey God’s call, must disobey a patriarchal institution.

Peterfeso begins chapter 2 with the story of a Havertown priest writing to our own SEPA-WOC, claiming that WOC members are not “true Catholics.” She goes on to show that the retention of “Roman Catholic” in the title of the group demonstrates a commitment to Roman Catholic identity, and the ways in which Roman Catholicism since Vatican II has sent out mixed messages, bringing the word “conscience” into the Catholic vernacular as well as refusing women who feel called the right to follow their consciences. Recent Roman Catholic history is precisely what inspires womanpriests to craft ways to make Roman Catholicism work.

These methods combine “conflict and creativity” (chapter 3). In response to what they perceive as the decline of the celibate-male-priest-centered Western Roman Catholicism, womanpriests create “discipleship of equals” communities that give members a way of moving their Catholicism to a better, fuller expression. But such creativity brings conflict with it, as when ARCWP split from RCWP over issues of governance, particularly how to have leadership without authoritarianism.

Womanpriest ordinations (chapter 4) are a prime instance of such creativity and conflict, demonstrating as they do womanpriests’ location on the line between reforming and transforming the institution. Such ordinations elicit not only Vatican condemnation as “contra legem,” but also feminist theological critique for its ostensible collusion in institutional “subordination.” But they also focus badly needed public attention on the issue of women’s subordination in the institutional church, and this is no small achievement.

The emphasis on the centrality of the community in the celebration of the sacraments is another of the transformative effects of womanpriest leadership (chapter 5). Here, too, however, creativity and conflict overlap, with some participants seeing the ontological nature of the sacraments and apostolic succession as more important than community participation. But in this case, as in many others, the most significant thing, in Peterfeso’s estimation, is that womanpriests engage in actions, not just argumentation. (And there’s a photo of our own Eileen DiFranco in the middle of the chapter!).

Peterfeso’s next chapter examines how womanpriests’ reality as “worker priests,” due to the unavailability of congregational salaries, facilitates their involvement with other groups and church leaders, roles that can be both inspiring and confusing. Then, in chapter 7, Peterfeso explores, in a way that I find deeply moving, how the actual bodies of womanpriests have the potential to reposition the gendered, sexual and sacred natures of the priesthood, a revisioning that is especially needed in light of the sex abuse crisis.

What is, for me, however, the most moving part of Womanpriest is Peterfeso’s concluding chapter, in which she brings into clear view the dialogic dimension of her ethnographic research. She does so by returning to material in the introductory chapter about her involvement in a womanpriest congregation in St. Louis, Therese of Divine Peace Inclusive Roman Catholic Community.  Initially, Peterfeso was unable to decide what to make of the womanpriest Masses there. Did they remind her of the thousands of Catholic services she had attended throughout her life or did they unsettle her because womanpriest culture is unlike the Catholicism that she knew?” Such concerns led her into a reexamination of larger questions about Roman Catholicism as well as about women and religious authority.

By the end of her research, however, Peterfeso realizes that her initial uncertainty about the womanpriest phenomenon had receded considerably. At the beginning, for example, she missed kneelers—RCWP liturgies are rarely in churches. She also had mixed feelings about the “enthusiastic affection” of RCWP liturgies which deviated from the relative anonymity of standard Catholic Masses. Gradually, she came to like engaging more directly with others, as in shared homilies, concelebration of the Eucharist, and interacting more before and after the liturgy. Her research also made her more unhappy about the many manifestations of the institutional church’s “history of viewing women as less holy than men.” Ultimately, she writes, “Like the Roman Catholic liturgy, like the Catholic liturgical calendar, my annual visits to Therese are becoming ritualized. I find comfort in this familiarity” (120).

These shifts in her personal assessment of the womanpriest phenomenon did not stop Peterfeso, scholar that she is, from raising further critical questions, such as those about the whole future of the womanpriest movement—its small, aging membership, for example—or about conflicting attitudes toward women in the fastest growing part of the church, the Global South. But the shift in her own perceptions illustrates graphically her compelling argument that participating in a womanpriest community, and experiencing a womanpriest celebrating the liturgy, is one of the surest ways to bring people around to supporting women’s ordination.

It is not possible, even in a long review like this one, to do justice to the careful and original thinking Jill Peterfeso brings to the issue that is so important to us, women’s ordination. But if what I have written here doesn’t send you dashing out (or dashing on-line!) to buy a copy of Womanpriest, consider this: I now think that ordination isn’t always subordination. And I think that dancing back and forth across the line between tradition and transgression may well be just the strategy we need to reform the Roman Catholic Church.

This review appeared in the Nov. 2020 to February 2021 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.

My Catholic Line-in-the-Sand

November 17, 2020 at 3:54 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments
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As many of you know, I am a lifelong Catholic. A number of my great-grandparents were Irish immigrants. I did fourteen and a half years in Catholic schools and colleges. I have been a registered member of a Catholic parish for virtually all my life, with a few possible exceptions, as when I was living on communal farms in the 1970s.

But I recently cancelled my membership at the ostensibly liberal Jesuit Church of St. Francis Xavier in Manhattan. I never plan to join another parish or, God help me, give another penny to the institutional church, except to the nuns, who are barely part of the “institution.”

Here’s a timeline of the events that led up to my decision:

In truth, I was already pretty freaked by Cardinal Dolan inviting Trump, even if he also included Hilary Clinton, to speak at the Al Smith Dinner in 2016. Then there was his phone call last April with 600 Catholics, many of them bishops and the heads of Catholic institutions, adulating Trump . I was so scandalized by that that his inviting Trump but not Joe Biden to speak at the 2020 Al Smith dinner a few weeks before the election didn’t surprise me at all. (And just so you know, Dolan is the head of the archdiocese in which Xavier is located, though I used to commute in from the diocese of Brooklyn.)

I had already been deeply disturbed by the number of Catholics, particularly white Catholics, who voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Though the total percentages are disputed, white Catholics seem to have voted for him by more than half in 2016, as did a great many of them in 2020. My father, the shift worker, must be spinning in his grave, having told us as kids that if we ever voted Republican (or crossed a picket line) we would go to hell.

Another thing that’s been driving me nuts is the “spiritual communion” prayer offered at Xavier and, I assume, at a lot of other Catholic churches since the onset of the pandemic and the closing of churches. Just what everyone needs, isn’t it, is to hear that their communion at Zoom Masses isn’t real? As if Vatican II didn’t teach us that the Word of God is also the Body of Christ? One of the comforts of this period of Zoom liturgies was when the celebrant at a lay-led Eucharist inviting us all to bring our own cup of wine and piece of bread to the celebration with us. How’s that for ordaining everybody?

But the two things that really pushed me over the line—this may surprise you—happened at the Xavier Zoom Mass on August 9. That day was the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki. Now the Jesuit Pope, Francis, has stated unambiguously that nuclear weapons are immoral. And thanks to Trump’s recklessness, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has positioned the Doomsday Clock, the indicator of the imminence of nuclear war, at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it’s every been since they began counting in 1947,. But the Jesuit priest who celebrated the 11:30 Mass that day, including a carefully prepared reflection on the scripture readings, never mentioned the Nagasaki bombing. This though the founder of the Catholic community in Nagasaki was Francis Xavier, the saint after whom the parish is named. And the bomb was dropped several thousand feet from the Catholic cathedral in Nagasaki, just as the community was gathered for the Sunday morning Mass.

I emailed the priest a few days later to express my distress over this omission. He is by no means young; perhaps he was unaware of the anniversary? He never responded to my email.

I thought about all of this for quite a while before terminating my membership, but finally decided I had no choice. I by no means intend to stop being a Catholic. There are several small Catholic Eucharistic communities, led by womanpriests or laypeople, that I join on Sunday mornings. And as my husband, the Baptist minister, is given to saying, I will be a Catholic till the day I die, no matter what institutional failure I am currently enraged by: after all, when I fall down and skin my knee, I say “Jesus, Mary and Joseph.”

But I have decided that I am finished with the institutional church, especially here in the US, where most of the bishops ignore what even the Pope is saying. I feel a bit sad, but enough is enough.

Enlightened

November 15, 2020 at 6:33 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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Well, I wrote to you a while ago about the health problems I had been dealing with. I am now excited to report that I can see light at the end of the tunnel, figuratively and almost literally.

I am still tired from the pneumonia I contracted in September, but I have recovered from the pneumonia itself. So I was able to have my second cataract surgery last week, on November 9. The check-up the next day showed that the surgery had gone very well. I am about to end my week of pasting a plastic eye patch over my right eye before bed every night. And I am a week into the multiple eye drops that my long-suffering husband has been putting into that eye four times a day, a process that ends in three more weeks.

I am also going in in three weeks to get a prescription for new eyeglasses, which will move my distance and reading vision to 20/20. But my current distance vision is already vastly better than it had been for several cataract-impeded years. And I got a pair of reading glasses for the shirt-term at the local Duane Reade on Wednesday for twelve dollars.

I must admit, walking around without glasses has been a strange experience for me. I have been wearing glasses since I was eleven years old, that is to say, for sixty-two years. I keep pushing my glasses up my nose even though I am not wearing any. And I have discovered that at my age, wearing glasses makes me look less old than not wearing them, because they cover up the black circles under my eyes. So I really can’t wait for that new prescription.

I am also wildly excited to report that I am going out to Woodside to get my hair cut on Wednesday–and I am going by myself! Now that I can see again, my esteemed companion has agreed to my going out on my own. He was going everywhere with me, or driving me there, between my first cataract surgery and the second, because I really couldn’t see straight, and he didn’t want me falling down and breaking something!

Also, the day before Thanksgiving, I am getting a crown put in to replace one of the two eye teeth that broke during my recent ride through hell. The other one I will get done, but not until well into the new year. I have had enough medical procedures to last me quite a while.

Thanks to all of you who responded to the earlier post about my health, “Humbled.” It meant a lot. And I promise that soon, I am going to write about something besides my health troubles, God willing.

Meantime, stay well!

Humbled

September 26, 2020 at 4:54 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Over the summer, I had gotten back to blogging. But then, after August 23, I stopped again.

I’m writing this post to explain what happened.

Towards the middle of August, there was a small event that may have been a warning: eating supper one night, my top left eye tooth broke and popped out. My dentist had been mulling over whether to do a root canal on it when his office shut down for the pandemic. I guess that problem is solved.

Then, on August 31, I had the first of two cataract surgeries, both of which I had been greatly anticipating, since the pandemic had forced my earlier appointments to be cancelled back in March. Not being able to read street signs, house numbers, etc., is pretty annoying.

The surgery went fine, but afterwards I began feeling sicker and sicker, with symptoms the details of which I’ll spare you. On September 6 we went to an urgent cares place and I was diagnosed with pneumonia. For the next ten days or so, I felt pretty bad, but the antibiotics seem to have done their job. Most of the symptoms are now gone, except for feeling really tired and a little stupid which apparently can follow pneumonia for quite a while..

The other after-effect is that my primary care physician more or less ordered me to postpone my second cataract surgery until November to avoid a reccurrence of the pneumonia. Apparently pneumonia sometimes follows anesthesia. If you have ever had cataract surgeries, though, you may recall that between the two surgeries, the vision in one eye is seriously different from the vision in the other. My husband is now walking everywhere with me for fear I’ll fall down and break a bone.

With more than 200,000 people dead from the corona virus, I really can’t complain about all this. No ventilator, even. But it was a pretty humbling experience I am almost never sick. One of my doctors is given to telling me I’m an “extremely healthy seventy-three year old.” So I’ve been pretty puzzled by the whole experience. Maybe I am actually going to get old someday, and need to be helped when I walk, or to feel so tired I can’t just sit down and write like a wild woman. What a thought!

As for now, though, I’ll be back to you soon.

Because Internet?

August 23, 2020 at 11:12 am | Posted in class,, Internet,, Writing, | 3 Comments
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I think back, occasionally, to an experience I had a few years ago. I was teaching a January interim course on environmental racism at New York Theological Seminary, the Black Hispanic and Asian interdenominational seminary up near Columbia where I have an appointment.  I have been teaching in majority Black seminaries since the late 1990s.

It has long been my practice, when teaching a seminary course, to have the students write a two-page paper to the assigned readings, a practice I learned from my own dissertation advisor, Laura Levitt. When I read the papers, I correct them for spelling, grammar and punctuation, as well as content. I deduct half a letter grade for every five errors, but if the student rewrites the paper, I restore the grade. Students at the American Baptist Seminary of the West, in Berkeley, where I taught for ten years, were fascinated, and in many cases, deeply grateful for the corrections. One of them asked me once whether, if she made the corrections I had indicated, that would make the paper better. I said I certainly hoped so. In some cases, no one had ever had a paper marked for them before.

Three students from Union Theological Seminary, across the way from NYTS, had cross-registered for the environmental racism course. After the second class, when I had returned the papers, they came up and asked me how I justified the corrections I had made. “The Chicago Manual of Style,” I responded. They subsequently dropped out of the course.

I assumed at the time that their offense at my corrections had something to do with class, though a friend who taught at Union at the time said they would never have had a paper marked in such a way; Union professors occasionally wrote a comment at the end of a paper, and the grade, but nothing else. Union is an Ivy-League seminary, with tuition something like four times as high as the tuition at NYTS. The three students themselves were all Black, but I still figured they wondered how this woman from the inferior seminary across the street had dared correct them. I myself had enrolled in the M.Div program at NYTS in the 1980s after taking a few courses at Union because my working-class self was seriously put off by the economic privilege of many of the students at Union. It was also the case that the NYTS courses were offered at night, and I had to work in the daytime to support myself.

In recent months, I have begun to think that their objections might have arisen from something besides class, however. I began thinking about this after I read the Times review of Gretchen McCulloch’s book Because Internet, on the impact of the Internet on writing.  I, for example, require that quotations of more than forty words be indented separate from the other writing but not have quotation marks around them, which is standard literary practice. But I now see indented paragraphs with quotation marks around them in many of the publications I read on-line, even fairly high-class ones. One publication, I forget which one, puts a quotation mark at the beginning of indented paragraphs but not at the end. And the New York Times book review puts book titles in quotation marks, not in italics; the latter was once accepted editorial practice, but clearly, no more.

The Times reviewer indicates that McCulloch thinks that formal language—academic papers, one would think—will retain explicit rules, but I am more skeptical. The seminary attempts to remedy the current chaos with its own style guide which every student receives when they enroll, but good luck with enforcing what the guide says. Kind of like wearing face masks. Who are you to tell me how to punctuate my paper?

 

 

 

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