Vatican Condemns Hallowe’en

October 31, 2009 at 10:10 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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You know, dear readers, that lately I have been backsliding on my long-term commitment not to pay attention to the Vatican. It’s the road to distruction, thinking about what these guys are up to. There’s no end to it. If you think much about it, you’ll go berserk.

But I just have to tell you about this one more thing. Then I’ll get back on the wagon (spoken like a true addict!). A blog linked to the Baltimore Sun, “In Good Faith,” reports that the guys  in Rome have now condemned Hallowe’en as evil. So help me. They say  it’s a” pagan celebration of ‘terror, fear and death,’ and warn parents against “allowing children to dress up as ghosts and ghouls.”

Myself, I am terrifically concerned about the war in Afghanistan. About global warming obliterating entire island and coastline cultures. About Obama selling out to the prinicipaties and powers. But the kids coming looking for candy in a few hours? Not much.  



Who’s Keith?

October 31, 2009 at 9:52 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Fifteen months or so ago, my husband Keith and I moved back to Brooklyn after eleven years in Berkeley, California. One of our reasons for so doing was to spend more time with our six-year-old granddaughter, Macy. Since Macy learned to talk, you should know, she has called Keith “Banca” (“Banka”?), her way of saying “Grandpa.”

October is a big month for us, with three birthdays in a one week period: Keith’s, Macy’s, and that of Macy’s mom, Phebe. When the Russell-Brown family arrived at the door of our apartment for one of the birthday celebrations this year, Phebe said, “Wow, Macy. Three birthdays in one week–yours, mine, and Keith’s.”

“Who’s Keith?” Macy replied.

“Keith’s Banca,” Macy’s Daddy said.

“Oh,” Macy replied. “I thought his name was Banca.”

When I was a kid, at my working class parish in Philly, they told us that you couldn’t make your First Holy Communion until you were six, when you “reached the use of reason.” Maybe this is a story about Macy reaching the use of reason. Or maybe it’s just a story that shows that grandparents and grandkids should live near each other so that eventually they can get each other’s names right.

Catholic Sisters III

October 27, 2009 at 2:28 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Seems as if Ken Briggs had already used the phrase “Double-Crossed” as a title under which to describe the treatment of women religious by the Vatican. I certainly did not use his title intentionally, though it would be harder to argue that it wasn’t lurking these somewhere in the back of my head. Just goes to show you what an effective title it is! Imitation is the highest form of praise, etc. Apologies, Ken.

And while I’m still on the topic of Catholic sisters, let me add that my former student, Benedictine Sister Suzanne Fitzmaurice, has written to say that her community at Mt. St. Scholastica monastery in Atchison, Kansas, is going to be featured on Religion and Ethics Newsweekly next Sunday evening. There’s a preview on the Religion and Ethics Newsweekly webpage. I suggest we all tune in and see what one of the congregations being investigated by the Vatican is up to!

Vatican Welcomes Traditional Anglicans

October 27, 2009 at 2:16 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments
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Well, Pope Benedict XVI’s recent announcement that traditionalist Anglicans–including married priests, bishops (sort of), parishes and dioceses–will soon be welcomed into the Roman Catholic communion is certainly getting a lot of press.  For Ross Douthat, in the October 25  New York Times, “Benedict’s Gambit,” as he calls it, may be geared to a deeper conflict than the presenting intra-Christian one ( sex)–“Christianity’s global encounter with a resurgent Islam.”

For the British novelist A.N. Wilson, in the Op-Ed section of that same issue of the Times, the Pope’s gambit may be a good thing, despite its conservative motivation. By weakening Anglicanism in Britian, the overture may bring about the demise of the Established Church there,  a “move toward the complete secularization of Britain, and an acceptance of its new multicultural identity.”   

And in response to Bob Abernathy’s question on Religion and Ethics Newsweekly about whether the Vatican is “fishing” for converts here,  John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter  replied that “the Vatican’s line is that even though we didn’t solicit them, when people knock on our door we have a responsibility to open it up.”  If Allen’s personal interpretation of these developments deviates at all from this Vatican “line,” he certainly doesn’t share it in this interview.

I don’t want to waste my time reiterating what these and many other commentators have said about the pope’s “gambit,” but I do want to make two ponts of my own:

The first is that I am deeply ashamed of the actions of the leaders of my church. To my many Episcopal friends and former students, I apologize. Commentators can talk till hell freezes about how none of this was the Vatican’s idea, but it’s hard to deny that the Roman Catholic Church is interfering here in the affairs of another Christian communion at a time when that sister-church is confronting great internal conflict. This I believe is a violation of the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. To suggest that it is somehow the culmination of years of ecumenical dialogue seems to me a travesty.  With this in mind, I look forward to reading soon some analyses of the Vatican’s actions in light of the Vatican II document on ecumenism.

Secondly, that the particular Christians ostensibly to be welcomed into the Roman Catholic Church are Anglicans is of some significance to me.  I am a second generation Irish Catholic; my father’s parents emigrated to the US sometime before the 1916 Easter uprising in part at least to escape English (and Anglican) oppression. (Also poverty, for sure.)

One of the reasons I have remained a Catholic over these many less than easy years is because of my loyalty to Irish Catholicism (and to the working class culture to which that Catholicism was linked for more than a century). As a Catholic women’s ordination activist I am often asked why I don’t just become an Episcopalian; because, I respond, my grandparents would turn over in their graves.

Now, however, it would seem that not just Anglicans, but extremely traditional (misogynist, homophobic) Anglicans are going to be welcomed into the Church to which I and many other Irish American Catholics have remained loyal for a century and a half. So here’s my question: are these guys going to become pastors of Catholic parishes, the ones my ancestors built with their 25-cent-a-week contributions over entire lifetimes , the ones Protestant mobs in Philadelphia tried and is some cases succeeded in burning down in the 1840s because we didn’t want to read the (Anglican) King James Bible in the public schools?

In an article in the National Catholic Reporter,  the optimistic John Allen suggests that this will not be the case.  Instead,  “bishops’ conferences around the world can create personal ordinariates, a special structure that’s tantamount to a non-territorial diocese, to accept Anglicans under the leadership of a former Anglican minister who would be designated a bishop.” Such “personal ordinariates” are “similar to the structures created throughout the world to provide pastoral care for members of the military and their families. The structures are in effect separate dioceses, presided over by a bishop and with their own priests, seminarians, and faithful. They are also similar to “the canonical status of a ‘personal prelature,’ currently held by only one Catholic group: Opus Dei.”

I note, however, that the current bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn, Nicholas DiMarzio–the one who kept wondering in public, before the 2008 election, how good Catholics could possibly vote for Obama–is a member of Opus Dei. So “personal prelatures” aren’t all that separate. And since some commentators have hypothesized that this move by the Vatican is at least in part an attempt to solve the priest shortage, I guess it all remains to be seen, doesn’t it?

Catholic Sisters II

October 27, 2009 at 12:44 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

It seems I owe Ken Briggs an apology. He’s the author of a book about Vatican mistreatment of American Catholic sisters titled Double-Crossed, the very title of my last blogpost. I can assure you that I did not consciously steal Mr. Brigg’s wording. It would be harder, though, to argue that the connection wasn’t lurking back there in my unconscious someplace. Well, as they say, imitation is the highest form of flattery: the phrase really seems to describe the current situation (as well as the past: Briggs’s book was published in 2006, well before the current investigations).

On a happier note, my former student, Benedictine Sister Suzanne Fitzmaurice, writes to say that on Sunday November 1 a segment on Religion and Ethics Newsweekly will feature the life of her Benedictine community at Mt. St. Scholastica in Atchison, Kansas. (One of the reasons Sister Suzanne, who’s the Vocation Minister for her monastery, has time to think about this is that the Benedictines, as an international congregation, aren’t subject to the Vatican investigation, which applies only to American congregations of sisters). There’s a preview of the segment on the Religion and Ethics Newsweekly webpage.


October 21, 2009 at 10:57 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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As you may have noticed, I am somewhat preoccupied with the cross (see book cover on right!). So a recent post on the Commonweal webpage grabbed my attention. It’s called “Cross Examination,”  and addresses the recent “visitation” of American Catholic sisters by the Vatican, and the accompanying investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for possible doctrinal irregularities. It’s written by “Sister X.”

Truth in advertising requires me to begin by saying that I have boundless respect for American Catholic sisters. These women built the American church with virtually no compensation.  One of my great heroes is a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur,  Mary Daniel Turner, who was, in fact, the executive director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious during the renewal of religious life after Vatican II. The LCWR has been a model of collegiality and commitment to the Gospel for decades. I find the idea of their being examined for doctrinal irregularities scandalous.

Sister X’s article is a deeply thoughtful “examination” of these developments. She begins by stating her desire to believe in the good will of the institutional church. Nonetheless, she “feel(s) that American women religious are being bullied.” This is the case in particular because the visitation is funded by anonymous donors and the report at the end of the investigation will be kept secret.

Sister X’s situation of the visitation and investigation in wider church contexts is particularly insightful.  One of the ostensible doctrinal lapses of the LCWR is its support of women’s ordination. Indeed, Catholic sisters were a driving force behind the first US women’s ordination conference in 1975. But Sister X extends this trajectory: the Vatican dismissal of the possibility of women’s ordination in 1976 “shut down any formal discussion of women’s equality in the church. For many women religious, the emphasis shifted then to justice concerns.”

She also hypothesizes that the American bishops who initially called for the visitation are trying to reclaim the moral authority lost in the sex abuse scandals by exercising power over women religious.  And she  wonders whether visitation questions about the “quality of life” of American sisters (whether they live in community, pray together enough, wear habits) are not best understood as part of the larger battle in the church over the meaning of Vatican II–the church as “fortress” vs the church as the pilgrim people of God in service to others.

For me, the last part of the article is most memorable, however. When news of the investigations first came out, I commented to a friend that the Vatican was wasting its money because in twenty years, the vast majority of American Catholic sisters will be dead. Sister X’s treatment of this side of the investigations is both lyric and mournful. If the Vatican wants to know about sisters’ “quality of life,” she riffs, “let me tell you about a common form of liturgical life in our community”–the burial of a sister, in a service without a priest because priests are in such short supply. (If the Vatican is really concerned about sisters’ quality of life, she adds, they should ponder the relationship between their own decision not to ordain women and what the resultant lack of priests does to the sacramental quality of sister’s lives.)

The woman whose burial Sister X describes had been a “hospital nun. “At the motherhouse you could always tell which sisters had been hospital nuns,” Sister X tells us, because “they were the fastest eaters at any table–a speed developed over years of eating in hospital dining rooms. You didn’t linger when you had other nurses to supervise and patients to tend.”

As she stands at the grave, Sister X thinks about the rows of nuns’ tombstones in that cemetery and across the United States,  “the many thousands of nuns who faithfully served the church for a lifetime, building up its schools and hospitals. They kept their vows. They didn’t cost the church $2 billion in legal settlements. Their gravestones don’t memorialize ecclesiastical appointments, ministerial accomplishments, educational degrees, or elected congregational positions. For religious women the headstone notes date of birth,  date of profession of vows, and date of death The facts of lifelong fidelity are simple and few.”

Ultimately, the burial gives Sister X another idea about the reason for the investigations. What Rome is really asking, she ventures, is ‘”Why don’t you have more  nuns to bury? What aren’t there more of you?”

She then answers their question: “Do they really wonder why our numbers shrink and shrink? They might ponder their own actions.”


(This post is dedicated to Sister Teresa McElwee, SNDdeN, on the occasion of her eightieth birthday.)

Muslim-Christian Dialogue on the B.Q E.

October 14, 2009 at 9:08 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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From time to time I think back with pleasure to an experience I had last summer. My flight from Dallas to LaGuardia had been very much delayed and I decided to take a cab home to Ditmas Park. By the time we got onto the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the cab driver and I were deep in conversation. 

The cabbie, as it turned out, was a young Muslim who had recently emigrated to the United States. When I asked where he was from, he made me guess. The Middle East? Nope, he responded; Africa. But where? Algeria? I guessed. Close, he said: Morocco.

I complimented him on his English. Oh, it’s not nearly as good as my other languages, he replied. Arabic? I asked. Yes, he replied, but also French, Spanish and Berber.  Seems like with all those languages, I responded, you could do something besides drive a cab. Oh, but I like driving a cab, he said.

And did he like living in the United States? Yes, very much. Were people nice to him? Mostly. A few not, but nonetheless, he still likes it here. Some Americans do not  understand, he mused, that you cannot be a good Muslim and hate other people, or be a terrorist. The two things don’t go together.

And did he have a family? Yes, he replied, two girls. The name of the first girl has vanished from my memory, but the younger, the driver told me, was named Mariam, after Mary of Nazareth. Many Christians do not realize, he added, that there are more references to Mary of Nazareth in the Koran than in the Bible. I responded: my name is almost the same as your daughter’s: Marian.

When we got to Ditmas Park and I began to get out, the driver also got out and began to walk around to my side of the car. Oh, there’s no need to get out, I said; my suitcase isn’t very heavy. But he came around anyhow, and when he got to me, he gave me a hug. 

Things are not be going well in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iran and even Iraq. But on the B.Q.E. that day, my new friend and I made a little progress.

Clergy Sex Abuse, Intolerable; E. Coli, Less So

October 9, 2009 at 9:57 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I became aware of the legal battle between the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport and the New York Times and several other prominent newspapers in September when I spoke about my book, Tracing the Sign of the Cross,  at a meeting of the lay Catholic group Voice of the Faithful in the Diocese of Bridgeport. The group was unexpectedly enthusiastic about my presentation, for which I was grateful.

Over dinner the group’s leaders filled me in on the diocese’s seven year fight to keep sealed its records about the transfer of priests accused of sex abuse. The diocese’s argument is that releasing these documents would violate defendants’ constitutional rights as well as the church’s First Amendment rights against civil interference.

On Tuesday, the Times  reported that the US Supreme Court had declined to delay the release of these documents ordered by a lower court. It also said that this refusal to delay releasing the documents suggests that the court will also refuse to review the decision, giving the newspapers (and others) access at long last.

My first thought when informed about the years of litigation in this case is that the diocese’s actions here undercut former America editor Tom Reese’s observation that massive financial settlements with sex abuse victims would take money away from badly needed church programs for the poor. Here, I thought, it was diocesan refusal to release documents and subsequent endless appeals that were taking money away from church programs for the poor. (This may be mitigated by the fact that the legal work is being done pro bono by attorneys who lived in the diocese.)

I was reminded of this court fight between the Diocese and the newspapers when I read in last Sunday’s Times  an article on a seemingly unrelated topic, the flaws in the US ground beef inspection system that resulted in the paralysis of Stephanie Smith, a 22 year old children’s dance instructor in Minnesota.

The immediate cause of Smith’s paralysis is a virulent strain of E Coli called O157:H7, which sickens tens of thousands of Americans annually. Most of those stricken with this and other strains of E.Coli recover, but about 10% of these cases “develop into a condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can affect kidney function,” and, “in the worst cases, like Ms. Smith’s, the toxin O157:H7 penetrates the colon wall, damaging blood vessels and causing clots that can lead to seizures.” 

The article, which is quite lengthy, details the aspects of ground beef production that lead to E. coli contamination. But what really grabbed my attention were similarities between the actions of the corporation who distributed the ground beef that caused Ms. Smith’s paralysis (as well as those of the US Department of Agriculture) and the actions  of the Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport:

“Cargill…declined requests to interview company officials or visit its facilities…

“The meat industry treats much of its practices and the ingredients in ground beef as trade secrets. While the Department of Agriculture has inspectors posted in plants and has access to production records, it also guards these secrets. Federal records released by the department through the Freedom of Information Act blacked out details of Cargill’s grinding operation that could be learned only through copies of the documents obtained from other sources. Those documents illustrate the restrained approach to enforcement by a department whose missions include ensuring meat safety and promoting agriculture markets.”

Or, as an administrator in the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service observed, “I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health.”

Admittedly, the Times pursued this story with the same tenacity it pursued the records of the Diocese of Bridgeport. But the discussion of the harm done to victims of E. coli in the Times article is vastly more nuanced—with some seriously harmed and others less so—than any discussion of harm done to clergy sex abuse victims that I have ever encountered. And are any of us Catholics—or anybody else for that matter—rushing to form a group called “Voice of Those Paralyzed or on Dialysis from E. Coli”? I think not. Sex abuse is a whole lot more galvanizing.


October 2, 2009 at 11:50 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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I have to confess that there are some things I don’t get about the current uproar over health care reform. 

I admit that the programs being proposed, if any of them pass, will constitute major social change, and will therefore inevitably provoke serious resistance. By the same token, I wonder a bit what’s going on in the minds of a number of us as the debate proceeds. 

To fill you in on the context of my perplexity, perhaps I should say that I recently joined the ranks of America’s “senior citizens.” I turned 62 last spring and began taking Social Security. I am totally amazed that anyone would send me $800 a month without my having earned it. I know, I know, I really did earn it, but it still amazes me that the system works and this money gets deposited in my bank account. I am also fortunate because I have relatively good health insurance through my husband’s job, which is not to say that in our thirteen months in Brooklyn I haven’t already had some classic go-rounds with the anonymous webpage of an insurance company we’re tethered to. 

My husband and I also have three grandchildren, the oldest of whom, Macy Russell Brown, is six years old and lives not far from us here in Brooklyn. Macy is tall and thin and blond and looks like the heroine in a children’s book; she’s also extraordinarily articulate–I’m sure she’ll have her own blog soon. I’m also pleased to report that she has good health insurance through her Mom’s job. 

One day last week I got a brochure from the AARP about health care reform. Since senior citizens are among those most opposed to this reform, the brochure is no doubt needed. It assured us that the proposed legislation does not mandate “death panels” and will not result in the rationing of health care or any cut-backs in Medicare. Given the political climate, it’s crucial that such things are excluded from health care reform. I myself do not favor forcing senior citizens to commit suicide (!)

Anybody with a brain in her head knows, however, that the current system is not workable, that Medicare, for example, is heading into the tank, and that the increasing costs of health care are going to bankrupt the country by and by. In addition, the practice of people expecting every test and treatment known to humankind is not sustainable. In a recent discussion about my 93 year old mother who’s in a nursing home and sleeps all the time, no longer recognizes us, can’t see, can’t hear and can’t walk, a nurse apologized before suggesting that my mother is getting ready to die. When I asked why on earth she was apologizing, the nurse said many families, upon hearing this, would demand that the family member be hospitalized and every measure taken to keep her alive. If this sort of thing is what my fellow senior citizens mean by “no rationing,” it’s hard to imagine what’s going to happen to us all. 

I myself hope that it doesn’t come to the point where medical care I need is denied me. I have a pretty nasty genetic defect that causes abdominal cancers and it is more than possible that I will need many of the bells and whistles of American health care to keep me alive as long as Americans are accustomed to living these days. But if my receiving that treatment meant that our granddaughter Macy wouldn’t get the care she needs at her much younger age, I like to think I wouldn’t hesitate. And the way things are going, there may well not be the resources left over for her if I get everything I need, or think I need. Indeed, a lot of little girls not so different from Macy aren’t getting the care they need right now. 

If what “rationing” really means is facing up to the fact that resources are limited, and that younger people need to get basic health care before the elderly get treatments like open-heart surgery, organ transplants, or stem cell therapy, maybe we need to give “rationing” a second thought.

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