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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Other Catholics

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The U.S. Catholic Bishops and the Election of Donald Trump

November 14, 2016 at 10:19 am | Posted in Catholicism, Climate Change, The Hierarchy, U.S. Politics | 9 Comments
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When I began writing this article in my head, I envisioned accusing the U.S. Catholic bishops of colluding by their silence in the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.

But as I began researching the matter, I realized that the bishops actually colluded in Trump’s election, that is, by what they said about the election, as well as by their silence about it.

Now let me be clear: I am not suggesting that every Catholic bishop in the United States colluded personally in Trump’s election. A few may have raised questions about him or his policies and statements. What I aim to indict here is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and its leaders, who are elected by and represent the American bishops.

In truth, the USCCB did not say or publish a great deal about the election. But what they did publish is very telling. On October 13, four weeks before the presidential election, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, the president of the USCCB, issued a “news release” under the heading “The Gospel Serves the Common Good, Not Political Agendas.” Here are the first two sentences of the first paragraph of that ”news release.”

“At this important time in our nation’s history, I encourage all of us to take a moment to reflect on one of the founding principles of our republic – the freedom of religion. It ensures the right of faith communities to preserve the integrity of their beliefs and proper self-governance.”

The second paragraph elaborates on the fact that the truths of the faith are not formed by a consensus of contemporary norms. The third paragraph calls on public officials to respect the rights of people to live their faith without interference from the state. And a middle sentence of the last paragraph says, “Too much of our current political discourse has demeaned women and marginalized people of faith.”

A priest friend recently said that the bishops could not speak out against Trump because it would be a violation of the separation of church and state. But this “news release” clearly speaks out for Trump, or if not Trump per se, then for the Republican candidate for president who was, in fact, Trump. This is so because the words “freedom of religion” are code for the culture wars agenda that the bishops have pushed throughout the Obama administration. “Freedom of religion” of course, means the bishops’ freedom to deny gay people the right to marry and adopt children and to deny women the reproductive health covered under the Affordable Care Act. Certainly this statement, and the court cases the USCCB have backed in recent years, are nor referring to the “religious freedom” of American Catholic women, the vast majority of whom report using or having used artificial contraceptives while sexually active.

It is also worth noting that the word “immigrants” appears nowhere in Archbishop Kurtz’s statement, although Donald Trump’s statements about Mexican immigrants contradict Catholic social teaching and were rebutted by Pope Francis.

The next “news release” from Archbishop Kurtz on behalf of the USCCB appeared the day after the election. The first two paragraphs congratulate Donald Trump and other elected officials, call for unity and acknowledge that “millions of Americans who are struggling to find economic opportunity for their families voted to be heard.”

The longest and most substantive paragraph, however, begins with the following sentence: “The Bishops Conference looks forward to working with President-elect Trump to protect human life from its most vulnerable beginning to its natural end.” It includes in that category of human life “all people, of all faiths, in all walks of life…migrants and refugees…(and) Christians and people of all faiths suffering persecution around the world, especially in the Middle East.” Then the final and longest sentence in the paragraph says,

“And we will look for the new administration’s commitment to domestic religious liberty, ensuring people of faith remain free to proclaim and shape our lives around the truth about man and woman, and the unique bond of marriage that they can form.”

I would argue that this “news release,” like the October one, makes quite clear that the most important thing about the election of President Trump is his working with the bishops on “life” issues and “religious freedom,” that is, outlawing abortion, depriving women of basic reproductive health care and gay people of their rights. Trump’s commitment to turning back already inadequate climate change regulations and deporting perhaps millions of the members of the growing majority group in the U.S. church are secondary.

Two events provide context for these statements. First, on the Sunday before the election, a Catholic priest, Frank Pavone, head of the anti-abortion group Priests for Life, held an aborted fetus up over an altar, with a crucifix behind it, and spoke out in favor of Donald Trump and the Republican platform because of their position on abortion. By Monday evening, the night before the election, the released  video of Pavone and the fetus had several hundred thousand views.

The diocese of which Pavone is a priest, Amarillo, Texas, issued a statement saying that they were opening an investigation into Pavone’s actions and that his actions and the presentation in the video that he released are inconsistent with the Catholic faith. The archdiocese of New York, where the Priests for Life organization is located, stated that it does not have a relationship with Pavone and has no comment on the video. There has been no news from the Amarillo Diocese since, nor any further comment from the archdiocese. The video seems to have been taken down.

Then two days after the election, Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former archbishop of St. Louis and of a major Vatican secretariat under Benedict XVI, in an interview published in the Italian conservative daily Il Giornale, said that President-elect Donald Trump will uphold Christian values, and that he doesn’t “think the new president will be inspired by hatred in his handling of the immigration issue.” Burke went on to state that Trump understands the fundamental vales that are of importance to Catholics and will do everything he can to fight abortion.

To be fair, one U.S. bishop, Mark Seitz of El Paso, spoke out after the election about his concern for “brother and sister refugees and migrants who have escaped …unimaginable violence and suffering in their home countries…about our bothers and sisters who are Muslim who may be singled out…” But even this was after first expressing his joy that those at the first stages of their lives prior to birth would be receiving more protection. At least when he segued into his concern for refugees and migrants, Bishop Seitz began the sentence with “but,” acknowledging that the election of Donald Trump brings with it certain tensions, not to say contradictions. I have been unable to find anything from any other bishop, and certainly not from the USCCB itself, that was nearly as strong as Seitz’s statement.

Let me conclude, then, by making a few obvious points. Donald Trump has been divorced twice—the only president in the history of the country for whom that is the case. He has claimed the right, on a widely viewed video, to assault women sexually, and has been accused of sexual harassment or assault by twelve or thirteen women. I myself strongly suspect that he has paid for abortions for more than one of the many women he has forced himself on sexually over the years. Why wouldn’t he have done so?

Trump has also called Mexicans criminals and rapists, and promised to deport millions of undocumented immigrants. And let’s be clear, many of these are the same people who are  saving the U.S. Catholic Church from the plummeting memberships that afflict mainline Protestant denominations. Trump is also planning to revoke the nuclear arms deal the Obama administration forged with Iran–one of the most significant steps away from nuclear war in recent years. And he has declared the global climate catastrophe about which Pope Francis, the head of the universal Catholic Church, has spoken out in galvanizing and unambiguous terms, to be a hoax.

This is the man whom Cardinal Burke believes, and that almost all his brother U.S. bishops seem also to believe, is going to uphold Christian values? Seriously?

 

 

 

 

 

The Folly of the Cross

October 3, 2016 at 1:54 pm | Posted in Catholicism, Climate Change | 6 Comments
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Here’s a review of a book about the history and influence on Dorothy Day of a spirituality called “Lacouturism.” It was published on the Pax Christi Metro New York webpage a few months ago.

The Bread of the Strong: Lacouturisme and the Folly of the Cross by Jack Lee Downey. (Fordham 2015).

It’s almost a truism among progressive Catholics, myself included, that the changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council were good ones. But it also seems that the world is not in much better shape—is perhaps in worse shape—than it was in 1965. In The Bread of the Strong, Jack Lee Downey, assistant professor of religion at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, offers some hints as to why this may be the case.

The Bread of the Strong is a study of the distinctly pre-Vatican II spirituality of a French-Canadian Jesuit, Onésime Lacouture, and his followers, and of the massive impact of that spirituality on Dorothy Day. The book traces the trajectory from Lacouture’s maximalist spirituality to Day’s radical politics.

The first three chapters of The Bread of the Strong explore Lacouture’s life and the development of his spirituality. Once intending to become an academic, Lacouture underwent a series of powerful mystical experiences during his formation at a Jesuit mission in Alaska. He emerged from these experiences with a radically changed vision of the faith in which academic theology, and even much of the Catholic Christianity of the time, were vile, inadequate pursuits.  Fundamental to Lacouture’s transformed world-view was an absolute dichotomy between nature and grace, Christianity and paganism, self-mortification and pleasure. Lacouture preached this ascetic theology passionately in clergy retreats over the next several decades. So absolute and unambiguous was his position that the Jesuits eventually silenced him.

One participant in the Lacouturist retreats, Pittsburgh diocesan priest John Hugo, was so profoundly influenced by their ascetic spirituality that he began giving his version of the retreats to Catholic laypeople in the United States. And let me be clear: these were retreats aimed at “spiritual withdrawal and moral perfectionism,” albeit with a social-justice dimension that Lacouture himself did not include.

Dorothy Day was one of the laypeople who participated in these Hugo-led retreats. Day, after her conversion, had struggled to integrate her radical sociopolitical activism with her newfound Catholic faith. Peter Maurin’s spiritual iconoclasm helped Day to integrate these seemingly contradictory dimensions of her identity. But Downey shows that it was the Lacouture retreats, with their emphasis on  “a redemptive spirituality of suffering” and ego-transcendence that solidified Day’s spiritual/political identity. This identity in turn undergirded Day’s heroic leadership of the Catholic Worker from the early 1930s to her death in 1980.

I myself am not much inclined toward asceticism or self-mortification. And as a feminist theologian, I have argued vociferously against the nature/grace, spiritual/material, male/female binaries that characterized the Church for millennia.

Yet I am also aware that the challenges facing the human race, and perhaps especially those of us who consider ourselves non-violent, or justice seeking, are nearly incomprehensible. Take, for example, the climate crisis that Pope Francis addresses in Laudato Si’.  The vast majority of us do not begin to comprehend the changes in our consumerist, convenience-oriented way of life that saving God’s creation demands. What kind of spirituality, what return to self-sacrifice and self-mortification, is required so that we will be able to face up to these inconceivable challenges?

Pope Francis Criticizes Gender “Choice”

August 4, 2016 at 4:52 pm | Posted in Catholicism, feminism, Vatican, women | 1 Comment
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Conservative Catholics–especially conservation hierarchs–must have been pleased to hear that yesterday, Pope Francis criticized the idea that children are being taught that they can “choose” their gender. I guess the rumors that he might be a “feminist”pope can be put to rest.

Apparently, according to the reports,  Francis’s denunciation is linked to his previous condemnations of “gender theory,” something that certain countries and groups are ostensibly forcing on people in the Global South. I guess this is a broader version of something a conservative Canadian Catholic said to me years ago, that the West was forcing homosexuality on Africans. I replied that the West must have begun forcing homosexuality on Africans fairly early, since a Ugandan king had had a bunch of male Christian converts executed for refusing to have sex with him in 1885 and 1886.

It’s a pity Francis, who has gone out of his way to promote scientific views about climate change and other significant issue, didn’t bother to learn a bit about transgenderism before make such a claim. I am by no means a scientist, but I began to think about some of this stuff in 1992, when I took a seminar in feminist theory–perhaps what the pope now calls “gender theory”–as part of my Ph.D. studies in American religion. In particular, I read an assigned article about intersex infants, something about which I had been totally ignorant previously. Too bad I can’t remember the author’s name, but there’s plenty of info about intersex infants online.

Apparently, a certain percentage of infants are born with ambiguous genitalia–unusually small penises, large clitorises, a penis and a clitoris, and a considerable number of other possible internal and external variations on what’s considered  normal. I was struck particularly to learn that it was fairly common (in those days, at least) for doctors, if they possibly could, that is, if the infant had any kind of male genitalia, to use surgery to make the infant a boy. (I bet you’re shocked to hear that!)

Furthermore, the DNA of a significant number of people deviates from the standard male or female genetic make-up. At an Olympics, in the 1980s I believe, all the women athletes were tested to make sure they were really female, and a number of them were found to be male genetically and were sent home. They hadn’t had a clue that that was the case. More recently I also read that traces of pesticides in drinking water are increasing the number of intersex infants.

Now not everyone who chooses to transition to another gender was born intersex. But being assigned the wrong gender at birth because of intersex characteristics is certainly one reason people transition. There may well also be psychological causes.

And let me say also that I, as a long-time feminist, have on occasion been concerned about some transgender discourse, especially in the media–the Caitlyn Jenner kind of thing–that seems to reinforce the gender polarization that I have been working for decades to undermine. Wanting to be a woman surely needs to be distinguished from wanting to a highly over-sexed caricature of one.

All that aside, it’s pretty clear to me that what’s happening isn’t really that kids are being taught they can be any gender they want, as if gender is a commodity to be purchased. Rather, it seems to me that some adults have begun to have mercy on kids who are profoundly uncomfortable with, even distraught about,  the gender identity they were assigned, through ill-advised surgery or in some other fashion. As the Year of Mercy comes to an end, I am praying that Pope Francis also learns to make these distinctions  and doesn’t add, even unintentionally, to the suffering of those children.

 

 

 

What Is Required of Us?

July 27, 2016 at 11:30 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The following is a book review that was published today on the web page of Pax Christi Metro New York, the New York branch of the Catholic peace movement.

The Bread of the Strong: Lacouturisme and the Folly of the Cross, by Jack Lee Downey. (Fordham 2015).

It’s almost a truism among progressive Catholics, myself included, that the changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council were good ones. But it also seems that the world is not in much better shape—is perhaps in worse shape—than it was in 1965. In The Bread of the Strong, Jack Lee Downey, assistant professor of religion at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, offers some hints as to why this may be the case.

The Bread of the Strong is a study of the distinctly pre-Vatican II spirituality of a French-Canadian Jesuit, Onésime Lacouture, and his followers, and of the massive impact of that spirituality on Dorothy Day. The book traces the trajectory from Lacouture’s maximalist spirituality to Day’s radical politics.

The first three chapters of The Bread of the Strong explore Lacouture’s life and the development of his spirituality. Once intending to become an academic, Lacouture underwent a series of powerful mystical experiences during his formation at a Jesuit mission in Alaska. He emerged from these experiences with a radically changed vision of the faith in which academic theology, and even much of the Catholic Christianity of the time, were vile, inadequate pursuits.  Fundamental to Lacouture’s transformed world-view was an absolute dichotomy between nature and grace, Christianity and paganism, self-mortification and pleasure. Lacouture preached this ascetical theology passionately in clergy retreats over the next several decades. So absolute and unambiguous was his position that the Jesuits eventually silenced him.

One participant in the Lacourturist retreats, Pittsburgh diocesan priest John Hugo, was so profoundly influenced by their ascetic spirituality that he began giving his version of the retreats to Catholic laypeople in the United States. And let me be clear: these were retreats aimed at “spiritual withdrawal and moral perfectionism,” albeit with a social-justice dimension that Lacouture himself did not include.

Dorothy Day was one of the laypeople who participated in these Hugo-led retreats. Day, after her conversion, had struggled to integrate her radical socio-political activism with her newfound Catholic faith. Peter Maurin’s spiritual iconoclasm helped Day to integrate these seemingly contradictory dimensions of her identity. But Downey shows that it was the Lacouture retreats, with their emphasis on  “a redemptive spirituality of suffering” and ego-transcendence that solidified Day’s spiritual/political identity. This identity in turn undergirded Day’s heroic leadership of the Catholic Worker from the early 1930s to her death in 1980.

I myself am not much inclined toward asceticism or self-mortification. And as a feminist theologian, I have argued vociferously against the nature/grace, spiritual/material, male/female binaries that characterized the Church for millennia.

Yet I am also aware that the challenges facing the human race, and perhaps especially those of us who consider ourselves non-violent, or justice seeking, are nearly incomprehensible. Take, for example, the climate crisis that Pope Francis addresses in Laudato Si’.  The vast majority of us do not begin to comprehend the changes in our consumerist, convenience-oriented way of life that saving God’s creation demands. What kind of spirituality, what return to self-sacrifice and self-mortification, may be required so that we will be able to face up to these inconceivable challenges?

On Francis, Hillary and Hope

June 13, 2016 at 10:41 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Lately I have been thinking about a pattern that threads through a number of recent debates.

My reflections were launched last summer when conservative Catholics like Richard Viguerie reacted with dismay, or even outrage, to Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’.  I perceived such conservatives as wanting to have it both ways: if a pope condemns contraception in an encyclical, that’s obligatory teaching; if a papal encyclical declares climate change a moral issue, it’s optional. Admittedly, I also criticized some of my feminist colleagues for their naiveté in claiming that the Pope could have easily reversed Catholic teaching on contraception in Laudato Si’ in light of the dire effects of population on the climate. But I was a good deal more incensed by Republican Catholic climate change deniers arguing that the pope should stick to subjects he knows something about (i.e. doctrine and morals).

Then, in April, the Washington Post reported that the Vatican might restore to canonical status the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) , the group that separated from the Catholic Church over certain teachings of the Second Vatican Council. In particular, the article suggested, the group might be readmitted without accepting two of the documents that progressive Catholics like me consider fundamental to Council teaching: Dignitatis humanae the document on religious liberty, and Nostra aetate, the declaration on the church’s relation with non-Christian religions, particularly the Jews. I was outraged by the very idea of Pope Francis and his administration allowing a community of Catholic priests to reject such fundamental Vatican II teachings as the right to religious freedom, especially for the Jews. I agreed strongly with Jamie Manson who asked, in the National Catholic Reporter, how the Vatican could possibly engage in such discussions with SSPX and yet refuse to reach out to ordained Catholic women who have been excommunicated?!! I had not yet noted the similarities between my outrage in this case and the conservatives’ outrage at Laudato Si’ .

Which brings us to the presidential election. I announced on my Facebook page the other day that my husband and I have switched our support from Bernie Sanders to Hillary Clinton because of the dire threat that Donald Trump poses to the democratic governance system of the United States and even to planetary survival. A lot of my Friends registered their agreement  with me. Some, however, stated that they could never go there. One linked  her comment to an article detailing the neoliberal conservatives who are supporting Clinton and how Clinton is a militarist. A number of socialist friends here in Brooklyn have said that they will never support Clinton under any circumstance; they plan to vote for Jill Stein or write in Bernie Sanders.

Of, course, these folks have a perfect right to vote for whomever they want, and to critique Secretary Clinton for various positions and actions she has taken. Indeed, the battle will only just be starting if and when Clinton defeats Donald Trump; we will have to ride her hard during whatever time she is in office, to prevent the kind of horrific triangulation her husband engaged in

It does seem to me, though, that there are certain similarities between the fierce and unambiguous rejection of Clinton in one case and the outrage by Catholics across the political spectrum in response to various actions by Pope Francis.  Negotiation, adaptation in face of the hard realities of the present seems to have become less and less unacceptable.

It was in a letter announcing his 2016 “Jubilee Year of Mercy” that Pope Francis first reached out to the SSPX, proclaiming  that during the year, confessions heard by SSPX priests would once again be valid. This is, in a certain sense, highly ironic, because when Pope Francis officially launched that same Jubilee Year of Mercy several months later, he explicitly linked it to the Second Vatican Council, the Council that the SSPX in large part rejects. In particular, Francis emphasized  Vatican II’s merciful avoidance of the anathemas fired like rockets by a number of previous councils.

A presidential election is not the same as the Jubilee Year of Mercy, or even the Vatican’s negotiations to reunite with one of the most traditionalist groups of priests in the world. Yet I can’t help wondering if something of the Pope’s tone might not help us as we move through this historic, possibly life-threatening, election. Perhaps we ought to consider the possibility of being merciful, having hope, imagining that even neoliberal militarists can change their ways (not without  strong encouragement from us, of course).

And before you conclude that such movement between adamantly opposed positions is inconceivable, let me end with a story. At the beginning of June, an official of the Vatican Secretariat of State, one of the Vatican’s highest-level departments, met two women from the group Roman Catholic WomanPriest s(RCWP) group, one of them a bishop. The women presented the official, whom they called a “wonderful priest,” with a letter to Pope Francis that included a petition to lift RCWP excommunications and end all punishments against their supporters as well as to begin a dialogue with women priests.

Who knows who Hillary Clinton may be meeting with in 2017?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Letter in The Nation

May 2, 2016 at 2:11 pm | Posted in Anti-Catholicism | 3 Comments
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I know I promised not to post anything else for a while, but this letter, which appears in the May 9-16 2016 issue of The Nation magazine, is quite short and may amuse you.

 

Not-So-Ancient History

In light of the virulent anti-immigrant sentiment widespread in the United States these days, the reminder in the March 28/April 4 issue of Thomas Nast’s 19th-century anti-Catholic cartoons is more than welcome [“Papist Invasion”]. As a scholar of American Catholicism, I have on more than one occasion reminded others of the similarities between current anti-immigrant discourse and Nast’s portrayal of Catholic bishops as salivating crocodiles coming ashore to consume American youth.

But I can’t help also being amused by the appearance of this sidebar in The Nation, since, in the late 1940s, The Nation itself published a series of ferociously anti-Catholic articles by an associate editor, Paul Blanshard. The articles were later published in book form as the best-selling American Freedom and Catholic Power. As Philip Jenkins, by no means a Catholic advocate, observes in his 2003 book The New Anti-Catholicism, “While Blanshard does not conjure up crocodilian Catholic bishops, the image is certainly implied.”

It sometimes surprises me that I, an Irish-American Catholic, am such a dedicated reader of The Nation. And I imagine your Nast sidebar has Paul Blanshard turning over in his grave.

Marian Ronan
New York City

 

 

The Good-Enough Death

April 27, 2016 at 11:44 am | Posted in Aging, Catholicism, Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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The following is a review-essay on Ann Neumann’s book, The Good Death, published  by the Marginalia Review of Books last Monday, April 25. It’s much longer than a standard blog post, so I won’t post anything else for a while to give you time to read it. Also, I haven’t got a clue how to get rid of the box around the first page. Luddites of the world, unite!

Ann Neumann, The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America, Beacon Press, 2016, 212pp., $26.95

 

At first glance, a reader might take Ann Neumann’s The Good Death for a standard critical study — an analysis of the “complicated legal, religious and ethical labyrinths that surround dying in America,” as a blurb on the back cover suggests.

And indeed, The Good Death does a fine job, in slightly more than two hundred pages, of delineating the contours of those labyrinths. Already in the first chapter Neumann begins exploring the many reasons why death is such a fraught topic (and experience) today: we no longer see death up close, as we did when plagues, infections and childhood diseases were common. Eighty percent of us die in institutions.

Then, too, in the 1970s, for the first time in history, the very definition of death changed. What was once clearly indicated by the simultaneous ending of “heartbeat, breathing and brain function” became more and more complicated. This was especially the case because innovations — respirators, defibrillators and feeding tubes, among others — made it possible to keep the heart and lungs functioning indefinitely. Scientists attempted to define death as living without brain function, but disputes about even what constitutes total loss of brain function persist.

Neumann continues to detail the obstacles to a “good death” throughout the rest of
the book. One is the long-standing Christian belief that pain is the result of sin and
that the endurance of it makes human beings better. Even today, the U.S. Catholic
bishops, in their Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care, state that “patients experiencing suffering that cannot be alleviated should be helped to appreciate the Christian understanding of redemptive suffering.”

In the past this principle was applied to childbirth and even dental care, but it continues to influence end-of-life practices in our time. Doctors often prescribe (and families agree to) painful treatments for patients near the end of life because they believe that extending life is what matters, no matter the cost. Linked to the sacralization of suffering is the widespread notion that to refuse to continue treatment of a family member, even if it causes them great suffering, is to betray them.

Another obstacle to the good death is the disastrous state of the U.S. health care system. In 2010 we spent over a sixth of the U.S. economy — 2.7 trillion dollars — on health care, double what was spent in 2000. And although we overspend all other developed nations by $3000 per patient per year, a 2014 study ranked the U.S. last among those nations in the quality of its health care.

Part of the reason for this dismal outcome is that half of that $2.7 trillion was spent on 5 percent of the population, those in the last year of life. And a stunning percentage of that money was invested in what biomedical ethicists call “futile treatments,” therapies, drug courses and trials that prolong but do not actually lessen illnesses. Such calculations risk sounding venal, implying that the dying simply are not worth more than a certain amount of money. But Neumann explains convincingly how much genuinely effective and often inaccessible medical care the money spent on futile end-of-life treatment would provide. She also makes clear the extent to which state laws and

the prison system collude in blocking the right to die with dignity.

Even the hospice movement, from which Neumann admits having learned a great deal as a volunteer, sometimes contributes to the difficulties of achieving a good death. The founder of the modern hospice movement, Dr. Cicely Saunders, was a staunch opponent of assisted dying, believing that pain and suffering could always be addressed. Those involved in the hospice movement today often believe that the end of life, even when it involves great suffering, presents patients with an opportunity for personal growth that aid in dying ostensibly short-circuits.

As Neumann explores the specifics of these labyrinths, she expresses fairly clearly her support for aid in dying, that is, for the right of terminally ill, mentally competent individuals, after meeting the legal requirements for such a decision, to take life-ending medication. The passage of laws allowing such aid in dying in Oregon, Washington, and Montana, interestingly enough, resulted in state residents becoming more knowledgeable about hospice and palliative care, and doctors’ increasing their referrals for hospice care significantly. Some of the most informative conversations Neumann recalls were with end-of-life activists and the staff of aid in dying organizations like Compassion & Choices.

But all of this notwithstanding, Neumann never portrays death as simple or uncomplicated.

 

I had a number of reasons for wanting to read The Good Death. Unlike Neumann, who began thinking about death only after the loss of her grandmother and father when she was in her thirties, I had been aware of it since the age of five. One day, out of the blue, my beloved grandfather suffered a heart attack and just disappeared: poof. And then in my teens, a doctor told my aunt, who in turn told me, that the dose of morphine he was giving to her husband to lessen the pain in his diabetically-infected and soon–to-be-amputated leg would probably kill him. It did.

But what really got me thinking about U.S. medical practices in the face of potentially fatal illness were two cancer surgeries I underwent in the early 1990s. With the first, I woke up in terrible pain after a hysterectomy, only to be told by the recovery room nurse that if I took painkillers too soon, I would become a drug addict. An RN friend disabused her of that notion, but not for several hours.

Then, two years later, after the removal of a malignant tumor from my colon, the surgeon sent me for a chemotherapy consult. The oncologist told me that I had a 20 percent likelihood of recurrence with the chemo and a 20 percent likelihood without it. When pushed, he said he himself would certainly not choose the chemo; it would nauseate me for a year. But when the surgeon learned of my decision, he went nuts, virtually accusing me of endangering my own life. I was thrilled when I finally escaped from his “care.”

After these experiences, nothing that Neumann writes about the national obsession with futile treatments or the need for aid in dying surprises me or seems overstated. The very possibility of death is so outrageous to some medical practitioners and some patient’s families that they cannot stop themselves from doing everything, no matter how hurtful, to avoid it.

 

One worry that I carried with me until the last few chapters of Neumann’s book concerned her treatment of Roman Catholicism. Of course, given the pivotal role the Catholic Church plays in end-of-life controversies in the United States, there is no way Neumann could avoid including the church and its teachings in her analysis. And I myself am deeply disturbed by the efforts of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to use “religious freedom” to deny women affordable reproductive health coverage.

But as a specialist in American Catholicism, I am also aware of the anti-Catholic discourse that snakes its way through U.S. history and culture. As I read The Good Death, I worried that Neumann might be using her considerable writing talent to extend that discourse. Indeed, soon after the book’s publication, a review in the Jesuit magazine America characterized Neumann’s treatment of Catholic teaching on death as “dismissive or condescending.”

 

Already in the third chapter Neumann addresses the role of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the 1990 Supreme Court decision affirming the right of the family of Nancy Cruzan, who had been in a persistent vegetative state for years, to have her feeding tube removed. The USCCB’s two amicus briefs against the ruling argued that feeding tubes constitute “comfort care” and are therefore compulsory; removing them is euthanasia.

Neumann does not, interestingly enough, mention that in an earlier end-of-life case, the parents of Karen Ann Quinlan used statements by Pope Pius XII to argue for the right to have their daughter’s respirator removed. The pope had said in a 1957 address that refusing to insert an artificial respirator in a patient, even if it would result in death, did not constitute euthanasia and was therefore permitted.

That teaching notwithstanding, the bishops did oppose the right of Nancy Cruzan’s family to remove her feeding tube in 1990. But it was the Terry Schiavo case (2001-2005), according to Neumann, that really set them off. This was so, we learn, because the Schiavo decision comprised a sort of one-two punch, coming as it did after the passage of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act in 1997. The justice system, the bishops finally realized, was directly challenging their authority.

Thus, after the court-permitted removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube and her subsequent death in 2005, a “small but significant minority” of Evangelicals and Catholics, with the unflagging support of the bishops, came together to fight the twin crimes of euthanasia and abortion. Neumann finds it hard to understand how some medical advancements, like the ventilator or contraceptives, can be any less “natural” than those the church approves, like metal feeding tubes inserted into a patient’s stomach. So do I.

In some respects, Neumann finds the broader influence of the Catholic Church on U.S. health care regarding end- of-life issues even more damning than its attempts to influence particular right-to-die cases. We learn that there are, according to the website of the USCCB, 629 Catholic hospitals in the U.S., serving, “one out of every six patients: that’s nineteen million, emergency room visits and more than one hundred million outpatient visits a year.”

And while those Catholic hospitals generally follow standard medical procedure, they are forbidden to do so when such procedures fall outside the “Ethical and Religious Directives for Health Care Services,” a list of seventy-two guidelines issued by the USCCB. Many of these guidelines involve reproductive services, but Guideline 58 addresses the use of feeding tubes for those in persistent vegetative states. Catholics are instructed that even the belief that a patient is never likely to regain consciousness is not sufficient reason to withdraw medically assisted nutrition and rehydration. This is so even if the patient’s advance directives authorize so doing.

Furthermore, Neumann explains, employees of Catholic health care institutions are forbidden to give patients information about other institutions where their advance directives would be honored; some employees have been fired for so doing. “The hard power of the church, which retains its ability to decide the types of care millions of patients receive daily — even to decide what options people can be informed of — has combined with the soft power of public opinion and coercion” to limit end-of-life choices, Neumann argues.

Despite all of this, I decided, after finishing The Good Death, that Neumann’s critique of the Catholic Church does not constitute anti-Catholicism — or if it does, I forgive her for it. I did so despite the fact that Neumann is more critical of the Catholic Church than of any other single locus of power in the end-of-life arena of the culture wars. I did not even make the decision because Neumann herself, as it turns out, is a Catholic. Since the clergy sex-abuse scandal took center-stage in 2002, liberal Catholics, as Philip Jenkins argues persuasively, are more likely than others to engage in anti-Catholic discourse.

Rather, I decided The Good Death is not anti-Catholic because Neumann’s treatment of the subject of death is extraordinarily humane and nuanced. This is the case in large part because of the stories of her relationships with individuals, some dying, others not, that are woven throughout the book. But Neumann is not using stories to introduce or connect arguments about death in our time; her encounters with these people are, in effect, her argument. She begins with her own father’s death and how horrified she was by it. Then she goes on to visit, and revisit, the lives of other men and women — many of them people she encountered as a result of her decision after her father’s death to become a hospice volunteer.

 

And in the book’s last chapter, Neumann draws on the experiences and attitudes of fully nine of the people she’s written about previously to weave together her final reflections on the good death. Neumann’s engagement with the complexity of their positions on the end of life, shaped by her considerable affection for many of them, is far removed from the vitriolic tones of anti-Catholicism, racism, and other hateful discourses.

Consider, for example, Neumann’s relationship with the paraplegic, Bill Peace, and through him, with the wider disability rights movement. Neumann first encounters Peace when, as the blogger “Bad Cripple,” he attacks Neumann’s position on assisted dying, calling it the first step on a slippery slope toward the total devaluation of the disabled. Eventually, the two meet for lunch and a powerful if sometimes-contentious friendship ensues.

It is not that Neumann is not critical of Bill and many other disability rights advocates. She finds their claims to know better than anyone else about the best way to die, even better than the dying themselves, to be arrogant. But Neumann is also forced, because of her relationship with Bill and his fellow activists, to consider whether her ignorance or avoidance of disabled persons contributes to the institutionalization of inequality.

She is even forced, to some extent, to understand the ferocity of their opposition to her position on assisted dying. Peace’s refusal to “go gentle into that good night” shapes Neumann’s nuanced reading of the end of life as much as the successful fight of a dying truck driver to get the state of Montana to allow assisted dying does, or the decision of a retired psychiatrist and close friend, Evelyn Livingstone, to go on living as long as she can.

Neumann uses these and six other stories to trace the complexity of the very idea of hope in the face of death. Sometimes lives are marked by a “deep hope” that does not delude the one who hopes but can be based on “incremental emotional needs” like going for a walk or enjoying the day. For Neumann, this characterizes the “good enough death” that her friend Dr. Evelyn Livingstone is slowly undergoing.

But hope can also be a blind faith, a hope against hope, that results in death being much, much worse for some people, or even drives others to try to make legally obligatory the practices fundamental to hope at all costs in the face of death.

Ultimately, Neumann argues that that there is no good death, just a “good enough death,” one made possible only by looking death straight in the eye and acknowledging its inevitability. Such a good enough death is strikingly different from the kind of death undergirded by denial, the profit motive, and the glorification of suffering.

As a result, Neumann is also forced to acknowledge that there are no quick solutions or easy answers to the questions she has raised. In the end, what we do is engage in the work of grief, and that itself is sometimes a form of vanity. We talk about the dead as if they are ours, clinging to “fragmentary stones,” remembrances by which they become part of us.

And we go on. After her friend Evelyn Livingstone dies, Neumann assures us, she will visit Marvin, Evelyn’s widower, who is statistically unlikely to outlive his wife by very long. And when Marvin dies, Neumann will mourn him too.

 

The Ecofeminist Theology of Elizabeth Johnson: A Review

April 22, 2016 at 4:41 pm | Posted in Catholic sisters, Catholicism, Climate Change, Environment, Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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In the half- century since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, debates about its true meaning have proliferated. Did the Council continue the Catholic tradition or rupture it? Did it renew the church or eviscerate it?

In his 2013 book, A Council that Will Never End, theologian Paul Lakeland introduces a more helpful, less polarizing category: the “unfinished business” of Vatican II, that is, the issues that were raised but not moved very far forward at Vatican II. Primary among these, for Lakeland, is the relationship between the horizontal and the vertical: between the laity and the ordained, but also between the bishops and the pope.

Let me suggest another category to accompany Lakeland’s, that of the “unstarted business” of Vatican II. Two issues virtually unaddressed at the Council are the role of women and the implications of the doctrine of creation for church and society. Indeed, there are only fourteen direct references to women in all of the Council’s sixteen documents. And because the church at the Council had finally come to terms with the modern emphasis on the dignity of the human person, the further significance of God’s unity with creation may have been more than the Council fathers could handle.

In recent decades, of course, women, and creation—particularly the environmental crisis—have become increasingly pressing issues. Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ certainly comprises a welcome update to the Catholic understanding of creation and its growing destruction—though it is less than groundbreaking on the question of women. Latin American liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff have also powerfully addressed the link between the destruction of the earth and the oppression of the poor, with Brazilian ecofeminist theologian Ivone Gebara pushing their analyses even further. We can only speculate about how much more influential such work might have been had the Vatican under John Paul II not seriously repressed it.

No work has done more to move the church forward on the issues of women and the environment, however, than the ecofeminist theology of Elizabeth A. Johnson. Johnson is of course best known for her 1992 book She Who Is. But already at the end of her first book, Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology (1990) Johnson addresses Jesus Christ as the savior of the whole natural world and all of its creatures. In fact, in that book she paraphrases one of the signature expressions of Vatican II, “reading the signs of the times,” by writing that “Jesus could read the signs of the sky.” (140)

Then, in She Who Is, Johnson addresses the presence of God in the whole cosmos, not only in human beings; especially in her chapter on Spirit-Sophia, she argues that the presence of Spirit-Sophia is mediated through the natural world as well as human history. She also addresses the suffering of God, which is central to the question of the horizontal and the vertical, because a God who suffers is one with the horizontal in a way that an impassible deity can never be.

Then, a year after the publication of She Who Is, at the annual Madeleva Lecture at St. Mary’s College in Indiana, Johnson connects the “ecocide crisis”—desertification, ocean harm, species extinction, and so forth—with the “two-tiered universe” in which women and the earth are both exploited. Here she explicitly links three of the most pressing unfinished/unstarted Vatican II issues: women, creation, and the dominance of the horizontal by the vertical.

Johnson’s next two books, the first about the Communion of Saints, and the second, Truly Our Sister, about Mary of Nazareth, might seem focused on human beings rather than on the wider natural world. But Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints actually gives the communion of saints an ecological dimension in which the whole world will share in life after death, and identifies Mary with the Creator Spirit who vivifies the evolutionary development of the entire community of life.

Then, in Quest for the Living God, Johnson’s most famous (or infamous) book, one chapter focuses on the Spirit as the “Vivifier” of the Natural World and another, “The Crucified God of Compassion,” discerns a cruciform pattern in all of creation, because the Spirit dwells throughout a suffering creation. This emphasis on the God who suffers was a primary reason for the USCCB’s 2011 condemnation of Quest, since according to the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, that suffering is caused by sin, so God cannot suffer.

Johnson rebuts this assertion in her 2014 book, Ask the Beasts, a study of the relationship between Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the Nicene Creed. Since all species suffer, and non-humans cannot sin, then sin, Johnson argues, is not the cause of suffering. Instead, Johnson acknowledges that while God is fullness of life beyond suffering, it is also “right to say that God suffered and died on the cross because the human nature of Jesus who suffered is precisely the Word of God.”

Furthermore, according to Johnson, the logic of incarnation extends divine solidarity from the cross into the groan of suffering of all creation. The cross illuminates that the God of love whose love continuously sustains and empowers the origin of species is a suffering God who is in solidarity with all creatures dying through endless millennia of evolution from the extinction of species to every sparrow that falls to the ground.

Johnson’s compelling argument that God suffers is fundamental to moving the unfinished business of Vatican II forward, especially the problem of the relationship between the horizontal and the vertical, since the argument that God cannot suffer is invoked in the service of the hierarchical binary between the transcendent God (and the Church authorities who identify with that God) and the female-identified non-transcendent/material /earth/creation. Women and creation, the earth, are in fact the horizontal, traditionally bifurcated from and subordinated to the ostensibly omnipotent male God and those believed to image him: priests, bishops, and popes.

The survival of the church, and of God’s creation itself, depend on our understanding better the intimate connections between these three issues and acting on them. There are a number of ways to do this. One is by deepening our knowledge of Elizabeth Johnson’s work. Her book-length theologies are highly accessible. But fortunately, in 2015, Orbis Books published a collection of her articles, including a section on the “Great God of Heaven and Earth,” which can serve as an excellent introduction to Johnson’s ecofeminist theology.

But since, as Johnson makes clear, the issues of women, creation and hierarchy are so intimately connected, even work that focuses on only one of them will point ultimately to the other two. If you can’t get your parish discussion group to begin by reading Johnson, then perhaps they will begin by reading Laudato Si’. Questions regarding women and the hierarchical structure of the church are almost certain to follow.

This post appeared as a book review on page 1a in the April 22-May 5 issue of The National Catholic Reporter under the title “Theologian’s work connects God, women and creation.”

 

Bibliography 

Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology, Crossroad Publishing 1990, 1992, $19.95

She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, Crossroad Publishing, 1992, 2002, 2014, $32.95

Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit (Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality), Paulist Press 1993, $7.95

Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints Continuum 1998, $42.95

Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, Bloomsbury Academic 2006, $39.95

Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, Continuum 2007, $24.95

 Abounding in Kindness: Writing for the People of God, Orbis 2015, $24.00

Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love,, Bloomsbury Continuum 2015, $32.95

 

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