AIDS and the (Non?)-Issue of Catholic Women’s Ordination

September 18, 2009 at 11:29 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , ,

I’ve been advocating for the ordination of women in the Catholic church for almost thirty-five years. I have gone to conferences, served on boards, picketed cathedrals, raised money, collected signatures, and ground my teeth over this issue for more than half my life.

I must confess, however, that in recent years, as I learned more about the situation of women–including Catholic women–in other parts of the world, I began to doubt that the ordination of Catholic women ought to be my primary concern.  As I said in a talk I gave to a Voice of the Faithful group up in Connecticut last week, most of the Catholic women in sub-Saharan Africa aren’t  excluded from ordination by the Vatican. They’re excluded by the fact that they spend so much time hauling water over long distances that they don’t have time to go to school and learn to read, which pretty much eliminates seminary. Catholic women’s ordination risks being an elite, primarily Euro-American issue.

In his book, From Crisis to Kairos: The Mission of the Church in the Time of HIV/AIDS, Refugees and Poverty (Paulines Africa 2005), the Nigerian Jesuit theologian Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator calls seriously into question the happy binary that I use to underpin this argument, however–the polarization of Catholic women in the US who are preoccupied with ordination from those in Africa who are preoccupied with poverty, lack of education, and disease.

Orobator’s book is a critique of theological understandings of the church (ecclesiologies) that fail to take contemporary social contexts into account. In particular, any acceptable African Catholic ecclesiology must be written in relation to the three issues designated in the book’s subtitle: AIDS/HIV, poverty, and widespread refugee crises. Orobator’s book examines, in particular, the reality of the church in East Africa–Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda–in light of these issues

Orobator’s chapter on the AIDS crisis is where I began to see the weakness in my north/south binary. Sub-Saharan Africa, as you may know, is afflicted by AIDS to a greater extent than any other region of the world.  In 2003, “3.2 million new infections were recorded there, bringing the total number of PWA (People with AIDS) and orphans in sub-Saharan Africa to almost 30 million and 11 million respectively,” with 2.3 million lives lost from AIDS in 2003 alone (86-88).  And though the situation has improved slightly since then, sub-Saharan Africa is still the most AIDS-afflicted region in the world.

Orobator makes clear that ministry to PWAs in East Africa is carried out almost exclusively by women. This is the case not only because of the shortage of priests there but also because of the stigma associated with AIDS that contributes to the neglect of AIDS victims.

Further, we are told, Catholic PWAs long for the sacraments, especially the sacrament of reconciliation, which, of course, the Catholic women who minister to them cannot provide. Orobator argues that women in AIDS ministry “need…to be empowered to function as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist and to preside over liturgies of reconciliation and anointing of the sick,” but “ecclesiastical stumbling blocks ..deprive them of the ability to carry out basic pastoral care of the sick and dying.” This is all the more ironic and unjust, Orobator notes, because “not many priests are prepared to travel the same material, emotional, spiriutal and pastoral distance as women do in the name of the church to find, tend and console PWA” (137).

Interestingly enough, Orobator attempts to avoid “reducing” this problem to the issue of Catholic women’s ordination.  “In the Catholic church, orthodox opposition to the ordination of women appears radically uncompromising. This debate falls outside the scope of this book” (137).

Given the hsitory of Vatican retaliation against Jesuit theologians who think outside the box–Rahner before Vatican II, Roger Haight today, to name only two– Orobator is probably wise to limit himself to arguing for “extraordinary” sacramental powers for women in AIDS ministry.  He would surely not have become the head of the Jesuit seminary in Nairobi and more recently a Jesuit provincial if he had stuck his neck out here. But he also knows that African Catholic bishops even before Vatican II were begging the Vatican to allow the ordination of married men to plug the massive ministry gap in sub-Saharan Africa. The need is enormous.

And just because the question of women’s ordination “falls outside the scope of (Orobator’s) book” doesn’t mean that his readers can’t see the connections for themselves.

The Pencil Case: Recession in Microcosm

September 16, 2009 at 12:38 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
Tags: ,

I have decided to get organized. To get my purse organized, to be precise.

I have this notion that the way to do this is to buy two pencil cases and put my make-up and whatnot in them. Then I can transfer them easily from purse to purse. Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? I’d like the cases to be four inches by eight inches, more or less, with a zipper.  And made of plastic, so I can wash the make-up etc. off them periodically. I’d like them to cost $2.00 each. You probably can envision such a pencil case. Many of us carried one to school as kids.

To find such a pencil case, I began by checking out local stationery stores–you know, Staples, Office Depot, etc. Well, there are cloth pencil cases for $5.00 and 8.5 by 11 pencil cases with holes punched into them to go in a ring binder for $8.00.  And biggish plastic boxes for pencils, costing $9.99

So then I went to the web. Thus far I have not found a $2.00 plastic pencil case. But there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other possibilities, ranging upwards from that Staples’ $5.00 model to the skies. Some of my favorites are the various Case-it (r) Z-Zipper 2 in 1 Zipper Binders for $21.99 each and the Kipling Freedom Pen Case/Cosmetic Bag for $19.50 to $22.00. But my absolute favorite is the Kate Spade Jane Street Becca Pencil Case. It’s Kelly green leather, it has pencils and an eraser in it, and it costs $75.00.

If anybody has any questions about how the American economy went down the tubes, I recommend they go shopping for a pencil case.

PS. I have to confess, I finally did find a plastic pencil case. It cost $1.12 at the 99 cent store around the corner. It has a picture of Hanna Montana on it and comes with a little ruler and an eraser. But it’s flimsy and won’t last long.

“I Want My Stuff!!”

September 15, 2009 at 9:49 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , , ,

As you may by now have determined, I read a lot. This blogpage could easily be called “An American Catholic Reader on the Margins of World Christianity.”

And I pay pretty close attention to what I read. But something I read this morning grabbed my attention to such an extent that I almost jumped up from breakfast and ran to the computer. (Almost. I love my oatmeal and banana).

What struck me so forcibly was an article in the op-ed section of this Sunday’s  New York Times, “The Recession’s Racial Divide,”  by Barbara Ehrenreich and Dedrick Muhammed. Ehrenreich and Muhammed begin by discussing the increasing sense of white grievance in the wake of the recession and the election of the first black president, then observe that nonetheless, it’s African Americans, far more than aggrieved whites, who are suffering from the economic downturn. Black unemployment is now at 15.1%, while white unemployment is 8.9%; here in NYC, black unemployment is rising four times as fast as white. As a result, foreclosures on black homes are also rising disproportionately.

As sobering as all this is, I did not find it surprising. What did make me sit up and take note was Ehrenreich and Muhammed’s linkage of the popularity of the “prosperity gospel” in some black churches in recent years with the severe impact of the recession on African Americans. They write:

“If any cultural factor predisposed blacks to fall for risky loans, it was one widely shared with whites–a penchant for ‘positive thinking’ and unwarranted optimism, which takes the theological form of the ‘prosperity gospel.’ Since ‘God wants to prosper you,’ all you have to do is ‘name it and claim it.’ A DVD from the black televangelist Creflo Dollar featured African American parishioners shouting, ‘I want my stuff–right now!'”

Ehrenreich and Muhammed draw on the work of religion scholar Jonathan Walton to argue that prosperity preachers “reassured people about subprime mortgages by getting people to believe that ‘God caused the bank to ignore my credit score and bless me with my first house.'”  This inclined a good number of African Americans to “substitute the individual wish-fulfillment of Norman Vincent Peale for the collective-action message of Martin Luther King.”

In the 1980s, I had occasion to reflect on Peale’s “power of positive thinking” because I worked in the office building behind the Marble Collegiate Church on 5th Avenue in Manhattan where Peale had pastored for many years; I used to watch members of the congregation arriving for services in limousines.  It occurred to me that maybe the power of positive thinking has to do with who is doing the thinking.

In my book, Tracing the Sign of the Cross, I explore the post-immigrant American Catholic turn to optimism in first half of the twentieth century, linking the Catholic sex/gender wars since Vatican II to the collapse of that optimism beginning in 1970. In the 1960s, white-ethnic American Catholics believed they were going to achieve the American dream their forebears had long struggled for, but in the 1970s, it all came crashing down, in the economic recession, conflict over Vietnam and integration, and the dashing of the Vatican II dream of a democratic church. Four decades of Catholic culture wars ensued. I pray that the impact of the death of the fantasy of prosperty is less devastating for African American brothers and sisters, though it’s hard to imagine how this would be the case.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America  will be published by Metropolitan Books in mid-October.

PS. Healthcare for All

September 4, 2009 at 12:03 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Or to avoid the kerfuffle on health care reform among the American bishops which I risk reinscribing in my last post, see instead the July/August issue of the very Catholic Network Connection, dedicated to health care reform…

Apology and Praise

September 1, 2009 at 9:32 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , , , ,

My friend from college, Celia Deutsch, came over for dinner Friday night. Celia is a Sister of Sion who teaches at Barnard and is active in Jewish-Catholic dialogue and scholarship internationally, nationally, and here in the diocese of Brooklyn. During our conversation Celia assured me that our bishop, Bishop DiMarzio, did not say what I quote him as saying in my previous post–that you can’t be a faithful Catholic and support Obama. Several other  acquaintances said something to this effect in my presence, but Celia is the Rock of Gibraltar, so I offer my apologies to the bishop. If only she could assure us that no other American bishops have said such a thing.

One who is certainly not doing so is Michael J. Sheehan, the archbishop of Sante Fe, New Mexico.  Sheehan, in an interview with the National Catholic Reporter on August 12, “decried” the combative tactics of the minority of U.S. bishops who spoke out against the honorary degree awarded by the University of Notre Dame to President Obama last June. These bishops’ opposition, according to the article, was based on the president’s refusal to advocate the criminalization of abortion.

“I believe in collaboration,” the article quotes the archbishop as saying. “I worked under Cardinal Bernardin and he taught me how to collaborate, how to consult. So I am very committed to the concept called shared responsibility. I think involving people in the process all the way along – my priests, my lay people, I am open to talking to them, working with them. Consultation, collaboration, building bridges not burning them. And you can get so much done when you have collaboration and you build the bridge with other people, whether it’s priests or laypeople, deacons, whoever.”

Such a collaborative approach, Sheehan noted, brought New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson around to opposing the deathy penalty, something he had long supported. The single-issue approach is counter-productive, Sheehan argued, comparing it–in a statement not calculated to advance Amish-Catholic dialogue!–to the apporach of the Amish: “We’d be like the Amish, you know, kind of isolated from society, if we kept pulling back because of a single issue.” Both the Vatican and the majority of American bishops oppose such a single-issue approach, he added, as well as the use of sanctions like the refusal of communion to enforce it.

The article concludes with this final quote: ““I seek to teach, to teach, and not to use sanctions. To teach, to talk to people. Like I say, we got more done this year with the state legislature by connecting with people and by saying our piece in a hopefully reasonable, and not an emotional and hysterical, way. Hysterical activity doesn’t bear fruit, and there’s been some hysteria in these areas.”

Blog at
Entries and comments feeds.