Drinking Water as a Pro-Life Issue

August 27, 2009 at 11:41 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Commentators have been raising questions lately about the commitment, or lack thereof, of American religious leaders–and particularly the American Catholic bishops–to the current effort to reform American health care. Frances Kissling finds the bishops’ preoccupation with abortion, rather than with wider aspects of health care, troubling.

Readers will have their own thoughts about whether “abortion neutrality,” as the bishops phrase it, should be a health-care-reform deal-breaker. But the bishops may need to be reminded that  there’s nothing simple or uncomplicated about being “pro-life,” as a recent New York Times  article, “Debating Just How Much Week Killer is Safe in Your Water Glass,” illustrates.

According to author Charles Duhigg, research in recent years has suggested that the weed killer atrazine, used widely by farmers, lawn care workers, and gardeners, is dangerous at much lower concentrations than has been previously believed. And levels of atrazine have been found to be spiking in drinking water supplies around the country.

What exactly is the problem with this? As Duhigg reports, 

“In recent years, five epidemiological studies published in peer-reviewed journals have found evidence suggesting that small amounts of atrazine in drinking water, including levels considered safe by federal standards, may be associated with birth defects, including including skull and facial deformations and misshapen limbs–as well as low birth weights in newborns and premature births.”

And defects and premature births, Duhigg goes on to say, “are leading causes of infant deaths.” Moreover, as the concentration of atrazine in the water rises, the incidence of birth defects are believed to grow.

But despite these studies, the Environmental Protection Agency has denied that Americans are being exposed to unsafe levels of atrazine, and that regulations concerning  atrazine are adequate to protect human health. A study of the EPA by the Pew Charitable trusts argues, however, that the EPA has been working with weak laws and that needed research at the agency is seriously underfunded; another problem is “institutional inertia” against change. In the meantime, an estimated thirty-three million Americans have been exposed to atrazine in their tap water. And those who would argue that the research is not conclusive–since testing pesticides on pregnant women is unethical–need to know that atrazine is already banned in the European Union.

Nowhere does the Times article directly connect the increase in fetus-harming, infant-killing atrazine in US tapwater and the policies of the previous administration, but it’s not hard for the reader to make that connection. Stephen A. Owens, the recently confirmed new assistant EPA administrator for prevention, pesticides and toxic substances has said that atrazine is one of the substances the agency will now be taking a hard look at.

This brings us back to the bishops.  When they oppose the Obama administration for its position on “life,”–when my own bishop here in Brooklyn tells members of the diocese they can’t be faithful Catholics and support President Obama–precisely which fetuses do they think they’re protecting?


Guadalupe Hits the Best Seller List!

August 26, 2009 at 9:17 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Well, the plot has thickened. Our Lady of Guadalupe,  the book which grabbed my attention when I encountered an ad for it  in The New Yorker  a while back, has now hit the  New York Times Book Review non-fiction bestseller list. It burst onto the list at # 6, between manifestos by right-wingers Mark R. Levin and Bill O’Reilly. You never know what’s going to grab the American imagination! Clearly, the Times best-seller list reflects the tastes of more than Manhattanites. 

I note, however, that in my earlier post I got the second author’s name wrong. He’s not Monsignor Lopez, he’s Monsignor Chavez. According to the book page on Amazon, Father Chavez is “one of the most renowned experts on the Guadalupe apparitions and the postulator of St Juan Diego’s cause for sainthood” as well as “the first Dean of the Catholic University Lumen Gentium of the Archdiocese of Mexico, co-founder and Dean of the Higher Institute for Guadalupan Studies and honorary Canon of the Guadalupe Basilica.” His co-author, Carl A. Anderson, is CEO of the Knights of Columbus. I wonder where they met?

And now you can download the book on your Kindle. for $9.99! If I had one, I might be tempted. If you do, let me know what you think.

Church and State on Climate Change

August 25, 2009 at 8:33 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Well, I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is that in a poll on climate change conducted in 19 countries around the world by WorldPublicOpinion.com,  the majority of people  want their governments to make climate change a priority. The bad news is that the US was one of only three countries polled in which a majority of citizens do not want their government to do so. The other two are Iraq and the Palestinian territories, countries that could be said to have other things on their minds.  While 74% of Britons favor climate change as a priority, 44% of Americans do so. Good luck, President Obama.

Interestingly enough, one US group that does not fit into this profile is Catholics. Last April, a Zogby International poll  commissioned by the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change reported that 58% of US Catholics agree that “global climate change is an urgent problem that must be addressed now,” and   “66% say that we should act now even though we don’t know everything about climate change.” Zogby also reports that 65% of those holding these positions believe their faith calls upon them to care for God’s creation, while 51% say that their faith requires them to support public and government policies that address the causes and impacts of climate change. 

These percentages seem not to be the result of any specific efforts by the church. Only 31% of those polled were aware of statements on the environment made by recent popes. They are likely also not aware that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has been speaking out on climate change since 2001,  that the bishops have called for a conversation about climate change in parishes, dioceses and other Catholic organizations, or that the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change  provides a wide array of resources for prayer, education and activism.  Indeed, in my frequent forays into the world of Sunday Mass, I have never once heard a preacher refer to climate change. If the US church were to make a concerted effort here, who knows? The country’s sixty-some-million Catholics might actually influence the terms of the debate.  

Whatever US Catholics do or do not do about climate change,  the situation seems to be about to improve. Sort of.  Experts at the Pentagon and US intelligence agencies now say that climate-induced crises such as violent storms, drought, mass migrations and pandemics could “topple governments, feed terrorist movements, or destabilize  entire regions.” The US must lead the world in reducing fossil fuel consumption and thus the emission of global warming gasses, or US security will be at risk. Hurricane Andrew, in 1992, destroyed Homestead Air Force Base in Florida; Diego Garcia, an atoll in the Indian Ocean that’s central to logistics in the Middle East, is in danger of flooding; and the shrinking of the polar ice cap is forcing us to defend an entirely new shipping channel.  According to General Anthony Zinni, we have to face up to this sooner or later. Either we’ll  pay the costs of reducing climate change now, or else we’ll pay for it farther down the pike. This argument “could prove a fulcrum for debate in the Senate next month when it takes up climate and energy legislation” we’re told.

Hot dog. Faith is all very well and good, but now we’re going to see some action.

Guadalupe in Unexpected Places

August 11, 2009 at 9:04 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

So I am speeding through this week’s New York Times Book Review (8/9/09), and there, at the end of a piece on books about “revolutionary visuals” appears an ad I hadn’t anticipated. It’s advertising a new book from Doubleday, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of the Civilization of Love. 

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. New York, after all, has long been home to a large Latino community, including an increasing number of Chicanos. And home for more than a century to many other kinds of Catholics as well: Guadalupe, Our Lady of the Americas, belongs to us all. 

But the ad does seem to have a particular slant: the second author is identified, not with his first name, but with his title, “Msgr. Lopez.” And the blurb at the bottom of the ad is from none other than Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, the somewhat-less-than-progressive Archbishop of Denver. What’s going to turn up next in the “liberal media”?

The cover of the book is attractive, and you can even get Our Lady of Guadalupe as an ebook, though for the same price as the hardback, $22.99. (Doubleday may need to chat with Amazon about this.)

Myself, I’m holding out for another book on Guadalupe to be published soon by NYU Press. Written by the CUNY anthropologist, Alyshia Galvez, In the Name of Guadalupe: Religion, Politics and Citizenship among Mexicans in New York is a study of Mexican immigrants around the city who translate their devotion to Guadalupe into the political activism with which they challenge exclusionary notions of citizenship. The chapter I read was galvanizing. I’ll keep you posted.

Mourning Comes for the Archbishop

August 6, 2009 at 3:54 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Since my recent book, Tracing the Sign of the Cross, addresses mourning and the inability to mourn among post-Vatican II American Catholics, it’s not surprising that I am particularly aware of references to grief in Rembert Weakland’s new memoir,  A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church.

Weakland was the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Milwaukee from 1977 to 2002, and one of the “Dearden bishops” who supported a liberal, collegial interpretation of Vatican II. He was also a Benedictine monk who was elected the head of his abbey at an early age and then the Abbot Primate of the Benedictine order.

I should perhaps begin by saying that I find the memoir deeply moving for a number of reasons. The sheer range and depth of Weakland’s contributions over a lifetime are breathtaking–not only the things he accomplished when he was archbishop of Milwaukee such as spearheading the writing of the American bishops’  letter on economic justice or providing a platform for the women of his archdiocese to share their thoughts about abortion–but the impressive work he did before becoming archbishop.  His thoughts on visiting monasteries and convents around the world as Abbott Primate of the Benedictine order, for example, in themselves provide an invaluable introduction to the emergence of Catholicism as a global church.  (There will be plenty of commentary on the sexual scandal that marked the end of Weakland’stenure as archbishop–I have written something myself on that side of things that will appear elsewhere–so need to go into it here!)

But what strikes me most are the archbishop’s expressions of sadness and grief, feelings, it seems to me, that many American Catholics may also experience in relation their church.  “It has always saddened me,” Weakland writes, that the Vatican’s effort to suppress liberation theology “led to the de-vitalization of the Church, a lessening of its identification with the poor, and the withering of the zeal that had characterized”  it (177). Nor is it just the other guys whose failures grieve him; he also grieves his own failure to lead the archdiocese in ministering in a sufficiently life-giving way to  the  Black Catholic community in Milwaukee (260). And if he is too effusive and nostalgic about the period during which the bishops’ letter, “Economic Justice for All,” was written, the archbishop suggests that he does so not only because it was “one of the most important and formative periods of (his) life,” but also because, “…in so many ways I grieve” (292). Much of this grieving, I might add, was over the reversal of the promise of Vatican II during the papacy of John Paul II.

Yet Weakland’s engagement of his (and in many cases our) losses does not make Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church  a morose or depressing read. Quite the contrary. Instead, the archbishop’s thoughtful, even-handed consideration of the events central to the history of the church after Vatican II offer, for me at least, an opportunity to work through some of the disappointments and losses of that period. Indeed, reading the memoir renewed in me a sense of hope for the church that I have not experienced to such an extent in some time. 

This connection between grief and new life in Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church came home to me particularly when I arrived at the epilogue. In a nod to his training in medieval studies, Archbishop Weakland launches each section of the book with a selection from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. He begins the last part of his reflections with a short passage from The Knight’s Tale. Here’s the translation:

What conclusion may I draw from this long train of argument but advise that joy should follow our grief, while thanking Jupiter for all his goodness? And before we leave this place I suggest we make of two griefs one perfect joy that shall last for ever. Now watch: there where we find the deepest grief, there shall we begin the cure.

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