Because Internet?

August 23, 2020 at 11:12 am | Posted in class,, Internet,, Writing, | 3 Comments

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?




Pandemic Ramblings III

August 10, 2020 at 9:54 am | Posted in Climate Change, Covid-19,, Environment, Health | Leave a comment

A year and a half ago, back when people used to fly on airplanes, I went out to Claremont , California, to visit a bunch of Grail elders at a retirement community there, Pilgrim Place. During my daily walk around town, I noticed something that interested me: in front of a number of the beautiful and pricey homes were signs that read “Immigrants and Refugees Welcome Here.” And in front of those homes, or in their driveways, were multiple SUVS, vans and small trucks. I guess the residents didn’t entirely grasp why a good number of immigrants were coming north from Latin and Central America: droughts and famine caused in large part by green-house gas emissions.        And now, as I walk past the elegant Victorian-style mansions north and south of our apartment building here in west Flatbush, what do I see? “Black Lives Matter”  signs on their lawns and SUVs and trucks parked out front and in the driveways. I guess the residents don’t grasp that there are a number of reasons why people of color “can’t breathe,” not just cops with knees on their necks. Of course, lest you think anything is simple, the owners of some—a few—of these mansion and SUVs are themselves people of color. Their breathing must be pretty good.

And speaking of those mansions—I often wonder, as I walk past them, who is going to do all the landscaping and painting and repair and reconstruction of them if Trump and cronies manage to keep all immigrants out. I never hear a word of English from the current bunch of workers. Maybe all the recent college graduates who can’t find jobs would like to come out here to south-central Brooklynns to mow the lawns and repair the gutters?

And speaking of SUVs: when I was walking just north of the Parade Grounds where the soccer ball had smacked me, the day after Hurricane Isaias blew threw here, I passed a part of a huge tree that had broken off and fallen down. It didn’t hit the SUV, but it hit a big light pole, and that hit the rear-end of the SUV and smashed it. Nature’s revenge.

During my morning walk, I often think about my cataracts, especially after Hurricane Isaias, with all the branches down on the sidewalks. I can barely see them, so I have to be very careful. Occasionally I see someone walking toward me with what I think is an ice cream cone up near their face; turns out to be a cell phone! Or somebody walking with what I take to be a child, except it’s actually a dog. My cataract surgeries at the end of March and the beginning of April were cancelled at the last minute, with the end of elective surgeries. I try not to complain, with all so many people dying of covid-19. Now the surgeries are back on. I made my first of nine trips up to Weill Cornell Ophthalmology the other day, including covid-19 tests three days before each surgery. Fingers crossed. I really need to be able to see punctuation again!

Today on my walk, I passed a guy sitting on the step in front of an apartment building wearing a black tee shirt that read “No Lives Matter.” Wonder what that means? Maybe he’s a climate activist.

With that, I leave you. I have a book review to write.


A Previous ‘demic: Polio

August 9, 2020 at 4:14 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

When I go on my daily walk up to Prospect Park, I pass a number of mansions where people, of late, have been putting many books out on the steps or the sidewalk. Lockdown culling, I guess.. On a recent walk I picked up a copy of historian David Oshinsky’s 2005 study,  Polio: An American Story: The Crusade that Mobilized the Nation against the 20th Century’s Most Feared Disease.   It won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for history.

I found it hard to imagine a book more relevant to the current crisis. Also,  I have always been fascinated , or more to the point, horrified by polio: around 1950, when we were both about three years old, a close cousin  developed polio, and I didn’t. I have never forgotten that near miss, especially as I walk vigorously around Brooklyn.

The first thing that struck me as I read Polio was what Oshinsky argues was a major cause of the disease, in contrast something I read recently about mortality rates in Ireland, between 1870 and 1950, as detailed in a book that my Irish book group read recently–that the Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe to Dublin during that period had much lower death rates because they had higher levels of hygiene than the for the most part poor residents of Dublin. But the polio epidemic, at least for a long time, according to Oshinsky, happened among upper middle class and upper class families precisely because they had much higher levels of hygiene than the lower classes and had thus wiped out their own immunity. Wash your hands–sometimes!

Also striking were the details about the distribution of the Salk vaccine after it had been developed and approved. Mayor Wagner of New York and other leaders were “shocked to learned” that the Eisenhower administration had made no plans for the distribution of the vaccine, believing that the drug companies “could best handle it on their own.”(218) Neither the president nor his advisors believed that national distribution of the vaccine was a “legitimate government action”: it risked provoking outcries against “socialized medicine.” Also, such a federal distribution program would set a “undesirable precedent.”  Even the American Medical Association objected to injections being given by anyone but MDs in their offices. Eventually, the epidemic shifted to poorer families because they couldn’t afford the three shots of the vaccine that the more prosperous were able to pay for. And the cost of the covid-19 vaccine is…

Oshinsky also suggests, in a sort of testimony to those who think that the current pandemic is a hoax, that the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis–the March of-Dimes foundation–had overplayed the extent of the polio epidemic in the interest of raising larger and larger amounts of money, albeit money they spent to fight polio. And in a similar sort of nod to vaccine skeptics, Oshinsky reports that after a long war between Jonas Salk, the inventor of the first polio vaccine, and Albert Sabin, the inventor of a subsequent live-virus vaccine, the country switched, in the early 1960s, from the Salk to the Sabin vaccine, a vaccine that had been first tested on mentally ill incarcerated adults.  But in 1996 it switched back becauseit was being shown that Sabin vaccine itself caused some cases of polio.

And with that, I leave you to ponder our current ‘demic.





Hiroshima at 75

August 6, 2020 at 9:29 am | Posted in nuclear war | 3 Comments

Back in the day, Eleanor Walker, my mentor in the Grail movement, was given to saying that she didn’t read her books; she “felt warmly toward them.”

One of my books that I have felt warmly toward over the years but never read is John Hersey’s Hiroshima.  With the 75th anniversary of that bombing today, on August 6, I decided that it was time to read it.

When I began to read, I realized that I also hadn’t actually read the subtitle:  The Story of Six Human Beings who Survived the Explosion of the Atom Bomb over Hiroshima.  For the book is, indeed, a masterful interweaving of the stories of six individuals who lived through the bombing—what they experienced before, during, and soon after the blast. At first I feared that the book might be too much of a happy story, since it focused on survivors, but I soon gave up on that: the book details what the survivors suffered as well as what those around them suffered and in many cases died from. But the only way Hersey could collect their stories was if they had, indeed, survived.

Another thing I totally overlooked was that the book was published in 1946—a year after the bombing—and had previously been published in The New Yorker. How on earth did Hersey ever gather the detail he weaves into these stories in such a short period of time? It did not surprise me to learn, however, that he had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction two years before Hiroshima, so extraordinarily well-told are those stories.

The six “individuals” whose stories Hersey interweaves are Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk at the East Asia Tin Works; Dr. Masakazu Fujii, the head of his own private hospital; Mrs. Hatsoyu Nakamura, a widow with two children; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German Jesuit: Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the large, modern Red Cross Hospital, and the Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church.  All six were in different locations somewhat removed the center of city when the bomb exploded at 8:15 in the morning, which is part of the reason that they survived.

A year after the bombing, Hersey tells us, Miss Sasaki was a cripple, having suffered extreme damage to her legs when the Tin Works collapsed; Dr. Fujii’s hospital, which had taken him decades to build, had collapsed into a river and he had nothing to rebuild it with; the widow Nakamura and her children were destitute; Rev. Tanimoto’s church had been destroyed and “had no prospects of rebuilding”; Father Kleinsorge, who had labored ferociously to help others after the bombing, was back in the hospital with radiation sickness; Dr. Sasaki was not capable of doing the work he once could do. “The lives of these six people, who were among the luckiest in Hiroshima, would never be the same” (114).

A number of details have stayed with me from reading Hiroshima. One is of a survivor passing by a victim whose face had fallen off and another seeing someone with fluid from their melted eyes running down their cheeks; that the radiation sickness caused three stages of suffering and sometimes death for victims, but that the bombing also caused a wide range of weeds and plants to spring up. I guess radiation isn’t all bad!

It also struck me, though it did not particularly surprise me, that the details of the bomb’s heinous effects were repressed by the US, who had occupied Japan immediately after the bombing of Nagasaki three days later, but that Japanese scientists circulated the information widely. Also striking was that the Methodist minister, Rev. Tanimoto, who worked like a crazy person reaching out to suffering survivors despite his own radiation sickness, had access to many fewer resources than the German Jesuits in Hiroshima, who had been able to rebuild their chapel and provide food to survivors fairly soon after the bombing.

Finally almost inconceivable to me was Hersey’s reporting that many survivors of the bombing did not complain about their suffering; they believed they experienced it out of loyalty to their country and the emperor. Similarly, I could hardly believe that a good number of them remained indifferent throughout their lives about the ethics of the bombing. It was just the kind of thing countries did in order to win, they believed. Others, however, hated the US ever after, as well they might have.

It can be tempting to read Hiroshima as a well-written story of something that happened three-quarters of a century ago to people on the other side of the world. But to do so would be a serious error, since various experts like William Perry are warning us that a new nuclear arms race is now underway, with the psychotic in the White House legally empowered to push the nuclear button without consulting anyone. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists now puts the hand of the Doomsday Clock at a hundred seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been. If we don’t want to pass people on the street whose faces have fallen off or enable the melting of other people’s eyes—or our own—we have to remember Hiroshima, protest nuclear funding, and most important of all, vote in November.

This article may appear in the August 2020 issue of Gumbo, the monthly publication of the Grail in the US.




Pandemic Ramblings II

August 3, 2020 at 11:33 am | Posted in Catholicism, Covid-19,, Trump | 1 Comment

When I went out on my morning walk the other day, I was thinking about the question of who wears masks and who doesn’t. Some speculate that women wear them more than men. I guess that’s true, though I also see couples where the man is wearing a mask and the woman isn’t. And there are really a lot of men pushing kids in carriages, or with babies strapped to their chests, wearing masks. But I suspect that the current intense heat and humidity are more important than gender differences. After I have walked for twenty minutes,  my black cotton mask is seriously wet. Not a great encouragement for any of us.

i have long believed that if everybody in the US just lived in the west end of Flatbush, out here in Brooklyn, they would stop hating the “other,” because there are just so many different kinds of others here. I regularly pass people speaking a foreign language—often a language I  can’t identify (Russian, Ukrainian? Chinese, Korean? Creole?). Sometimes I don’t hear a living soul speaking English during my entire walk. Another thing that often strikes me is how people—women, often—wearing strict religious clothing like Muslim women in veils and orthodox Jewish women in wigs—have cell phones shoved up against their faces. I wonder what they’re reading or watching? Finally, it cracks me up how people from every possible ethnic/racial/religious background seem to have their teenager children–especially teenage girls—giving them trouble, arguing, scowling, dressing distinctly differently from their parents. We all have a lot more in common than we think.

This morning while I was walking I was mulling over a series of articles about how the “devoutly Catholic” William Barr is less the head of the US Justice Department than he is DT’s “defender in chief,” in part because of his commitment to absolute presidential power. What the articles got me wondering about is how the US Catholic bishops have over the years refused communion to Catholic politicians who would not oppose the legal right to abortion, even if they personally would not have an abortion but have not said a word about Barr defending someone who brags about grabbing women by their crotches and has been accused of sexual misconduct numerous times. And then there’s Barr leading the Justice Department when it reinstated the death penalty after Pope Francis defined the death penalty as “inadmissible” in the Catholic catechism. I guess unborn fetuses and the right to fire gay employees are the only things that really matter.

Finally, the other day after my walk, I heard Amy Goodman do the second of several interviews with Noam Chomsky on “Democracy Now.” What struck me about the interview was Chomsky’s comment on all the articles and reports claiming that Trump’s behaviors are fascist. Fascists, Chomsky pointed out, were intelligent and extremely well organized—that’s how they almost conquered the world. Trump et al, on the other hand, don’t have the faintest idea what they are doing—they’re just destroying essential parts of the social infrastructure because they can and to please their corporate supporters.

Well, I guess I’ll ramble home now. Talk to you again soon.


Fatal Diagnosis

July 22, 2020 at 3:26 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

I was really excited when I learned last Friday that our local bookstore, Greenlight, up on
Flatbush Avenue, was reopening. So I decided to walk up and pay a visit.

I never imagined that I would buy a book with a picture of Donald Trump on the cover, but when I got to the bookstore, I decided in a flash to buy a copy of Mary Trump’s new book Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man  (Simon and Schuster). Besides wanting to support Greenlight, I wanted to help run the sales up to two million, from the one million that had sold on the first day of publication.

And then, I never imagined that I would read a book about the Trump family, but when I got home I sat down and did exactly that. This post is a not a review of the book: there are plenty of good reviews out there, like the one that appeared recently in The Guardianas well as a number of interviews with the author. But I am going to share a few of my thoughts with you about the book.

The first thing that grabbed my attention is that the author’s name, Mary L. Trump, has “Ph.D.” after it on the cover. This is, in my experience, fairly unusual. Very, very many authors, particularly those of works of non-fiction, have Ph.D.’s but don’t get that advertisedon the cover. My speculation about why the publisher did such a thing is that they wanted people to know that the author, despite her last name, is not an idiot. (Mary Trump’s Ph.D. is in clinical psychology, the perfect preparation for her analysis of her family).

The second thing I want to share with you is that Too Much and Never Enough is actually a well-written, thoughtful book. Definitely not a John Bolton (or an anticipated) Michael Cohen exposé.  Dr. Trump does a fine job of laying out the history and psychological dynamics of  the Trump family as the context for the president’s ongoing pathological behavior. Basically, Fred Trump Sr.’s treatment of all five of his children was so violent and cruelly unempathic that it guaranteed that one of them, Donald, would turn out exactly like him.

And Donald did. Fred Sr., when talking about his accomplishments, would repeatedly say that everything was “great,” “fantastic,” and “perfect.” He bullied his oldest son, Fred Jr., for being weak and not domineering enough, modeling for Freddy’s younger brother Donald what he’d better do if he didn’t want the same treatment. One of the most devastating sections of the book is Dr. Trump’s narration of how the entire rest of the family abandoned Freddy–her father–when he was taken to the hospital and died of a heart attack . No one went with him in the ambulance. Donald went out to dinner. He is brother died alone

Mary Trump concludes her fatal (for us) diagnosis of her pathological  president-uncle with several devastating observations:

The simple fact is that Donald is fundamentally incapable of acknowledging the suffering of others. ‘Everything is transactional for this poor broken human being.’…I can only imagine the envy with which Donald watched Derek Chauvin’s casual cruelty and monstrous indifference as he murdered George Floyd…I can only imagine that Donald wishes it had been his knee on Floyd’s neck…But he can never escape from the fact that he is and always will be a terrified little boy.

Donald’s monstrosity is the manifestation of the very weakness within him that he’s been running from his entire life. For him, there has never been any option but to be positive, to project strengthen matter how illusory, because doing anything else carries a death sentence; my father’s short life is evidence of that. The country is now suffering from the same toxic positivity that my grandfather (Fred.Sr.) deployed specifically to drown out his ailing wife, torment his dying son, and damage past healing the psyche of his favorite child, Donald J. Trump.

In conclusion, if there’s any take-away from Mary Trump’s well-written, terrifying book, it’s that we have to get out and vote in November, and get everyone we know to vote as well. Joe Biden isn’t perfect, but compared to Donald Trump, he’s absolutely enough.



Pandemic Ramblings

July 18, 2020 at 5:31 pm | Posted in Environment, Pandemic, | 7 Comments

I used to be driven crazy by all the single-use plastic bags strewn on the streets and sidewalks here in New York City. I would pick up and recycle as many of them as I could. And then the city banned single use plastic bags! Suddenly, huge numbers of New Yorkers were carrying reusable bags over their shoulders, on the subways, on the streets, everywhere. I was thrilled.         So now what have we got? Single use face masks strewn around, and latex gloves as well. Not as many of them as there were plastic bags, of course…Certain advantages to having to pay for the PPE, and their not being entirely available…


I was also thrilled when the soccer fields and playgrounds up on the Parade Ground, just south of Prospect Park, reopened. Beautiful young people in contrasting tee-shirts kicking soccer balls back and forth, and parents pushing kids on swings, at long last. But as I was walking across the parade ground one day last week, bam, a soccer ball came over the fifteen foot fence and smacked me in the right chest, just below my shoulder. Getting hit with a soccer ball isn’t nearly as bad getting hit with a baseball, of course, so it could have been a lot worse. And the ball didn’t hit me in the face and smash my glasses. I have to admit, though, that there are signs around the athletic fields that say, more or less, that because the fields are active, it is important to be careful. I never took the warnings seriously…until now! When I have walked across the parade ground since that day, I have definitely paid more attention to the soccer balls than to the huge splendid trees and the gorgeous children…


I keep reading that the coved-19 lockdown is being really good for the environment. Substantial reduction in the CO2 levels because of so much less flying and driving cars. Sounds e ncouraging, but I have my doubts. The city of New York suspended and now, I think, ended, the compost pickup around the city. Not enough money for it in the budget because of the economic slowdown. And restaurants and coffee places won’t allow me to use the reusable cup that I have carried with me for years; might spread the virus. And apparently there’s been a huge increase in car sales in the New York metropolitan area, because people think the subways are going to be unsafe long into the future. And then there’s the massive increase in merchandise being bought through the mail, with packaging going out in the trash. Thank heaven, the city is still picking up recycling, though where it’s all going, God knows.


But my Jesuit parish, St. Francis Xavier in Manhattan, continues to live-stream the 11:30 Mass Sunday mornings. And my (non-essential) cataract surgeries are back on the calendar for late August and mid-September. I may actually be able to see again one of these days. So I have few things to be grateful for!


Stay well, you all.

The Eucharist and The Food Crisis

July 10, 2020 at 4:03 pm | Posted in ecological theology, Food, The Eucharist, | 1 Comment

So here’s my latest review, published in the National Catholic Reporter earlier this week.


Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice

July 8, 2020 at 4:02 pm | Posted in American Catholicism, Dorothy Day, The Catholic Worker | 2 Comments

The following is a review published in the July edition of Gumbo, the monthly publication of the United States Grail. I have retained references to the Grail because they may be helpful to those of you who have never heard of, or know very little about, the Grail.
Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century. By John Loughery and Blythe Randolph.

Simon and Schuster. 2020. 378 pp.

In September 2015, Pope Francis addressed the U.S. Congress, something no pope had ever done before. In his talk, Francis spoke of four Americans who offer us a new way of seeing and interpreting reality: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day.

Everyone had heard of Lincoln and MLK, of course, and even Merton is widely known, due to the sale of millions of copies of his 1948 autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. But what about Dorothy Day?


Many Grail members know very well who Dorothy Day is, because she is a small but significant part of the history of the U.S. Grail. The first recorded contact between the Grail and American Catholics was a 1936 letter to her from the co-founder of the U.S. Grail, Lydwine van Kersbergen. In 1943, with the Grail planted in the Midwest, Day, on sabbatical from the Catholic Worker, participated in a three-week Grail program on rural living, liturgy, and the women’s apostolate. She later made a silent retreat at Super Flumina, the Grail’s farm in Foster, Ohio. Over the years, she also sent women to the Grail from the Catholic Worker, including Helen Adler and Jane O’Donnell. She did so, I once heard, because she thought such women were better suited to the Grail’s order than to the Catholic Worker’s anarchy. I myself have a postcard from her which I received when I was part of the Grailville community in the 1970s.

Today, Dorothy Day’s reputation has grown considerably, in part because of the pope’s 2015 invocation, but also, and somewhat ironically, because her cause for canonization is advancing in the Catholic Church. Dorothy herself once said that being called a saint constituted “marginalization,” though she also evidenced considerable devotion to the saints.

Another sign of the growing interest in Dorothy Day is the publication of a new biography, Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century, by a major secular publishing house, Simon and Schuster. Authored by a noted writer of non-fiction, Joseph Loughery, and an experienced biographer, Blythe Randolph, the book updates the many previous studies of Dorothy Day (hereafter referred to as DD) and is, perhaps even more importantly, a terrific read.

At one level, the book leads us through the various stages of DD’s life in interesting detail, enabled by its 378 page length: from her birth into a solid, middle-class Republican family in Brooklyn in 1897 through the life changing experience of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906: her years in Illinois where she developed a religious sense and was baptized as an Episcopalian, through her years in New York City, after having dropped out of university, writing for radical newspapers, and becoming a Communist activist; her conversion to Catholicism after giving birth to a daughter, Tamar; her extraordinary encounter with the peasant philosopher, Peter Maurin, and their founding of the Catholic Worker newspaper and the Catholic Worker community. Equally galvanizing are the descriptions of DD’s arrests for protesting US militarism in its many manifestations and the conflicts within the Catholic Worker over DD’s strict enforcement of pacifism as a primary principle during World War II and thereafter. Also engaging are descriptions of the struggles DD herself underwent during her lifetime residence in Catholic Worker houses of hospitality, given their inclusion of not only poor but often crazy or violent men and women. And the relational struggles with her own daughter Tamar, and Tamar’s nine children.

Loughery and Randolph weave engaged threads throughout this narrative. One that engrossed me, as a reader/writer, was DD’s serious absorption in books, especially modern fiction, from her high school years on. The authors rebut allegations that DD was a rigid and traditionalist Catholic by exploring the wide range and sometimes distinctly extra-pious quality of that reading, including works by George Orwell, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and many others. Also fascinating is the history of DD’s relationships with significant intellectual figures throughout her life, from Eugene O’Neill and William Carlos Williams in the 1920s to Thomas Merton, Ignazio Silone, W.H. Auden and others in later years


Another thread, one that may well constitute the book’s primary contribution, is its emphasis on the tensions, even contradictions, within DD’s beliefs, commitments and activism. Loughery and Randolph note that already in 1963, A Commonweal review of DD’s book about the Catholic Worker, Loaves and Fishes, calls her “the most admired sign of contradiction in American Catholicism.” Her objections to the sexual revolution of the 1960s, including contraceptive use, alongside her relentless anti-war activism, serve as one example of such tensions, as well as her demands that activists respect those in authority, even those with whom they (and she) disagreed fiercely.

Such demonstrations of DD’s contradictions by the authors can play an important role in the ongoing canonization process, in which DD risks being prettied up to serve the purposes of the institutional church. I was amused by their quotation from Cardinal Spellman, the fierce proponent of the Vietnam War, that DD was “not a sufficiently dutiful daughter of the Church.” A few years ago, New York’s Cardinal Dolan, at an event in DD’s honor, described her as “an obedient daughter of the Church.” Truth is, both contentions are correct, depending on the issue.

Another of the book’s strengths is that Loughery and Randolph don’t take sides on questions that often divided the Catholic Worker community. I was struck particularly by their treatment of DD’s s position on homosexuality. Already in the 1950s, in line with her strict acceptance of Catholic sexual teaching, DD had described homosexuality as “loathsome.” At the same time she certainly had, and knew she had, a number of political and literary associates who were gay. Quite a few Catholic Workers living in houses of hospitality were as well. In the 1970s, when the Catholic Worker received a letter thanking the paper for its opposition to anti-Semitism and then asking why it didn’t address the oppression of gay and lesbian people as well, DD opposed publishing the letter. “In effect, ’Don’t ask, don’t tell,’ had been the Catholic Worker policy for decades,” the authors conclude. I was especially struck by the non-judgmental nature of this description when, in the Acknowledgements section, both of the male authors thank their husbands for their support.

There is much more to recommend about this book, including the authors’ amusing parenthetical comments throughout, and the fact that Loughery/Randolph’s narrative of DD’s life provides an amazing overview of the twentieth century. You may not feel inclined to read a nearly 400- page book, but in these strange times, there may not be anything better to do than curl up with Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century.

My Catholic-Christian Eco-feminism

July 6, 2020 at 3:17 pm | Posted in Catholicism, Christian theology,, ecological theology, Environment, feminism | 3 Comments
Tags: , , ,

The following is the English version of an article, published in German in January, 2020, in the Swiss feminist journal, FAMA. It subsequently appeared in the publication of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference, EqualwRites, and a longer version was distributed as a resource paper by the Global-Justice Overcoming Poverty Network of the International Grail.


I became involved in Christian environmentalism almost by accident when I joined the Grail, the international Catholic laywomen’s movement, in 1965, my senior year in high school. The Grail had come to the US in 1941 and began working almost immediately with the Catholic Rural Life Conference, a precursor to the Back to the Land movement. I began spending summers on the Grail’s 365-acre organic farm in southwest Ohio and eventually lived for four years as part of the community there. Older members were reading Teilhard de Chardin’s reflections on the Noosphere, and Thomas Berry, the geologian-author of the Universe Story, led discussions of his work with us. At one point I was even in charge of the chickens, though I found them hard to reason with.

I was always an urban type at heart, however, so I returned to New York in 1983 and undertook graduate studies in religion, focusing primarily on gender and literary theory. Then, in 2001, as a professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, I had occasion, again almost by chance, to participate in a week-long program on the world water crisis led by Maude Barlow, the Canadian water activist. Barlow said something to the effect that a billion people didn’t have access to clean water at that time, three billion wouldn’t by 2050, and with the way things were going, by the end of the century, there wouldn’t be any clean water at all

Barlow scared the daylights out of me. I began teaching courses on Christian ethics and the world water crisis to seminary students and organizing them to gather signatures on a petition to ban plastic water bottles. One Good Friday I preached a sermon on Jesus’ words “I thirst” in a Seven Last Words of Christ service at the biggest black Baptist church in Oakland, proclaiming that the world’s thirsty were expressing themselves in the words of Jesus.

By the time we returned home to New York City in 2008, and I accepted a research appointment at the multi-racial New York Theological Seminary, I had concluded that climate change and the world water crisis were virtually the same. I began working with the Grail’s national and international climate action groups and publishing articles and reviews about climate change and the wider environmental crisis.

Also, because of my appointment at a majority African American seminary, I became particularly concerned about environmental racism, the way that climate change and other environmental degradation does vastly more harm to people in the Global South, and to communities of color here in the US, than to white Europeans and Americans. With my husband, who is also a seminary professor, I have co-taught several courses on environmental racism and preaching, to prepare students to address the climate crisis in their churches. Many of these students were astounded to learn of the racial dimensions of the climate crisis because they had previously experienced the environmental movement as comprised of privileged white people who love polar bears and wilderness. The works of Robert Bullard, the founder of the U.S. environmental justice movement, and Peggy Shepherd, the head of We Act for Environmental Justice here in Harlem, have been extremely important in these efforts.

I have also been strongly influenced in recent years by research on the deep relationship between capitalism and climate change, as elaborated in Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital, for example, as well as in the works of Ian Angus, Jason Moore and Nancy Fraser.  But I am inclined to agree with the distinguished Bengali writer, Amitav Ghosh, who argues, at the end of The Great Derangement, his study of the cultural factors underpinning climate change, that the world religions have the greatest potential to change global attitudes and actions regarding the climate emergency. This is so, he suggests, because they are already organized, and in some cases, speak with a centralized voice.

The primary example, for Ghosh and for me, of religion’s global impact on the climate emergency is, of course, Pope Francis’s 2015 environmental encyclical, Laudato Si’. Now let me be clear here: as a Catholic feminist for forty-five years, I have spent much of my life criticizing the monarchical governance structure of the Catholic Church. Imagine my astonishment when I was invited to speak about a papal encyclical in several different socialist settings!!  I am beginning to think that a centralized religious organization with a globally recognized leader isn’t, in some circumstances, entirely bad.

My writing, teaching and activism have also been strongly influenced by the works of two eco-feminist theologians, the Catholic feminist, Elizabeth Johnson, and the Protestant process theologian, Catherine Keller. Johnson is perhaps best known for her 1992 work She Who is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. In that book, Johnson argues that God/Spirit-Sophia is mediated through the entire natural world, not only through human history. Then, in her 2007 book, Quest for the Living God, Johnson dares to assert that God suffers, because God’s Spirit dwells all throughout a suffering creation.

Johnson expands this vision of the God who suffers in her 2014 book, Ask the Beats: Darwin and the God of Love, inwhich she delineates the relationship between Darwin’s Origin of Species and the Nicene Creed. Since all species suffer in the process of evolution, the logic of incarnation extends divine solidarity from the cross to all creation.  This God 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.

The fissures that underpin the climate crisis are a primary concern for Catherine Keller, too. While Johnson connects God and creation through the cross, Keller draws on process philosophy/theology as well as Paul’s letters to delineate in place of a transcendent sovereign who wills human dominion and radical antagonism, a persuasive God, enfolded within all creation. But while earlier process theology stresses an overall oneness of God with the universe, Keller draws on the Christian mystical tradition to invoke an apophatic God, a silent cosmic creator, in whom we are all one. Since human beings are enfolded with the rest of creation in this divine mystery, we are called to a loving agonism—struggle—with one another toward the emergence of a new, messianic possibility.

Keller’s theology draws on a re-envisioning of evolution, and in particular, the work of the revolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, in which species evolve through collaboration rather than competitive “survival of the fittest.”  Such a science-based reconfiguration of hierarchical theology demands from us all a recognition of the deep intersectionalism between the human and extra-human elements of creation. In some respects, this shift to a new science moves Christian ecofeminism even beyond Elizabeth Johnson’s interweaving of Darwin and the suffering God of love and has profound implications for contemporary politics as well as the planet and the Christian tradition.  Keller’s latest book, Political Theology of the Earth, does a remarkable job of exploring these implications.

What has perhaps influenced my thinking more than anything else is Keller’s insertion of the silence of God into the heart of the cosmos.  A number of Catholic feminist and liberation theologians, including Ivone Gebara and Elizabeth Johnson. have drawn on the apophatic, mystical tradition to connect this God of unknowing to the relatedness at the heart of reality. Keller goes on to envision a messianic contraction, an utter transformation emerging from the heart of this divine silence in which the entire cosmos is enfolded. For me, this vision of God has replaced the transcendent God at the heart of the theology in which I was educated and which far too often underpins Christian attitudes toward the current planetary crisis.

Thanks to Johnson, Keller, and others, it is this vision of a compassionate and persuasive God in whose transformative silence all creation is enfolded that will, I trust, energize my eco-feminist writing, teaching and activism in the months and years to come.


Marian Ronan, “Theologian’s Work Connects God, Women and Creation.” The National Catholic Reporter, April 22-May 5 2016, 1a.

Marian Ronan, review of Catherine Keller’s Political Theology of the Earth.  The National Catholic Reporter, September 6-19, 2019, 28.


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