Food Stamp Need Increases Massively

November 29, 2009 at 6:59 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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With all the grim statistics emerging lately about unemployment, home foreclosures, and related matters, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by today’s front-page article in the New York Times concerning massive increases in the number of Americans on food stamps, but I am.  It’s the details that get you: “the program is now expanding at a pace of about 20,000 people a day…there are 239 counties in the United States where at least a quarter of the population receives food stamps…in more than 750 counties, the program helps to feed one in three blacks…in more than 800 counties, it helps feed one in three children..nearly 12 percent of Americans receive aid, 28 percent of blacks, 15 percent of Latinos, and 8 percent of whites…use has grown by half or more in dozens of suburban counties from Boston to Seattle including such bulwarks of conservatism as Orange County, where the rolls are up more than 50 percent…at least half of Americans receive food stamps, at least briefly, by the time they turn 20. Among black children, the figure is 90 percent.”

Such changes are hard on right-wing ideologues, however. In the 1990s, some conservatives tried to abolish the program. because it encouraged sloth. To give credit where credit is due–one doesn’t get this opportunity often–it was the  administration of Bush II that changed that, leading a campaign to erase the stigma attached to food stamps by calling them “nutritional aid.” And of course, some neocons still denounce the program for encouraging people not to work, as if anyone in their right mind would avoid taking a job in exchange for (approximately) $130 per household member a month in bread, cheese, canned veggies, etc.

The greater challenge is the one that faces those who used to denounce recipients of food stamps as lazy but now need aid themselves. As a Mr. Dawson of Martinsville in southwestern Ohio says, “I always thought it was people trying to milk the system. But we just felt like we really needed the help now.”

Needing food stamps hasn’t changed Mr. Dawson’s attitude, however. “Like many new beneficiaries here,” the article goes on to say, “Mr. Dawson argues that people often abuse the program and is quick to say he is different. While some people ‘choose not to get married, just so they can apply for benefits,’ he is a married churchgoing man who works  and owns his home. While ‘some people put piles of steaks in their carts, he will not use the government’s money for luxuries like coffee or soda. To me, that’s just morally wrong,’ he said.” Others, however, have managed to shift their attitudes now that they are getting help.

Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic bishops of New Jersey have called upon all the Catholics in that fair state to pray that a bill permitting homosexual marriage does not become law. It’s comforting to know that the bishops have got their priorities straight.


Bishops Fight for Immigrants’ Health Care?

November 24, 2009 at 10:57 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Yesterday in Politico  Jeanne Cummings discussed the US Catholic bishops involvement in the current health care debate as I did a few days ago. Catholic pressure in the debate is significant, Cummings maintains, because Catholics comprise the single largest religious group in Congress–30%–and extend across party lines.

In the health care debate, Cummings goes on to say, the bishops have consistently identified three priorities: abortion, freedom of conscience clauses, and the rights of immigrants.  But it seems unlikely the bishops will put anything like the kind of effort into immigrant rights that they have put into the abortion question:

“’I don’t think the Catholics in the pews will get quite as focused on a message of immigrants as they have been on the question of abortion,’ said Stephen Schneck, a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America. ‘And I’m not convinced the church leaders are willing to expend the political capital with those Catholics in order to promote the cause.’

“Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), a Catholic who participated in the intense negotiations over the final abortion language, said the pressure from the church to ease restrictions on immigrants was ‘not even close’ to the abortion language tug of war.”

According to Cummings, there may be good reasons for these differences in emphasis; the bishops worked with the Democratic party and the Hispanic Caucus in the House to bring about incremental improvements in the situation of immigrants vis-a-vis health care, especially that they should have the right to buy insurance with their own money on the new exchanges. 

But Cummings also says that on abortion, the stakes  are much higher for the bishops than they are on immigration. She concludes:

“So one unanswered question is whether the church will criticize — by name — those Republican and Democratic lawmakers who don’t stand with it on the issue of immigrants, much as some bishops…have been willing to criticize by name those lawmakers who opposed the abortion coverage amendment.”

Stay tuned.

The Stupak Amendment

November 22, 2009 at 3:23 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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In writing this blog, I am violating one of the basic rules of survival in reform Catholic politics. That rule is “Never mention abortion.”

This is not to say that Catholics (and others) on the right and Catholics (and others) on the left don’t talk about abortion  a lot. In fact, almost all the time, it sometimes seems. But those of us in the middle, working to get women ordained, or to get the lectionary readings to be less sexist, or to get the bishops to pay more attention to peace and justice, tend to avoid it.

I remember when I was on the Women’s Ordination Conference Board of Directors, circa 1999. Something terrible happened to our national office–a fire or a flood or something.  Frances Kissling’s organization, Catholics for a Free Choice, whose offices were nearby, offered to let the WOC staff use their space. Or maybe they offered to let the board meet there. I can’t remember the details. What I do remember is how some of the board members reacted: better we should meet out on the sidewalk. In winter. We were to have nothing to do with those people. Period.

Now I should perhaps say that I am not an unambiguous advocate of abortion. I have never belonged to the “mere fetal tissue” camp. Something happens when women have abortions, something at the very least that most of them will remember and have feelings about for years to come. I would much prefer that women have easy access to contraception and sex education and not get pregnant in the first place.

But it is also the case that I am not a member of the “abortion is qualitatively different from all the other evils of the world” camp. I think that an early abortion is much less serious, than, for example, children in sub-Saharan Africa being allowed to starve to death or die of horrific diseases, (deaths we Americans could do a lot to stop with the trillion plus dollars we spend annually on war) .

That being said, it would appear that the Stupak amendment to the House version of the health care bill, passed on November 6, will make abortion considerably less available for a not insignificant number of women in the US.  Admittedly, as Jon Healey of the Los Angeles Times writes, the amendment would  “restrict only the new insurance marketplace (a.k.a. the “exchange”) that the bill would create for uninsured individuals and small businesses. It would have no direct effect on the group insurance policies that cover many American workers and their families.” And it may well not have much effect on very poor women, at least in the seventeen states that provide abortion coverage through Medicaid, or on women of means. (That last one’s a big surprise!) 

What the amendment does do, as Healey explains, is threaten the availability of insurance coverage for abortions for the working poor and lower middle class — “those who would receive subsidies under the House bill to buy insurance through the exchange: those making 150% to 400% of the federal poverty line — up to $43,000 for a single woman. ”

It’s also pretty clear that the  Bishops’  lobby and some Roman Catholic congressmen were pivotal in getting this amendment passed. During negotiations over the amendment, according to an article in the New York Times,

“…representatives of the nation’s bishops made clear they would fight the bill if there were not restrictions on abortion. In an extraordinary effort over the last 10 days, the bishops conference told priests across the country to talk about the legislation in church, mobilizing parishioners to contact Congress and to pray for the success of anti-abortion amendments.

“The bishops sent out information to be ‘announced at all Masses’ and included in parish bulletins, and urged priests and parishioners to tell House members: ‘Please support the Stupak Amendment that addresses essential pro-life concerns.’ They added: ‘If these serious concerns are not addressed, the final bill should be opposed.'”

I will leave you to think about this for yourself. But not, of course, without a few closing observations: 1) The US Catholic Bishops have been to a massive extent unsuccessful at “selling” the church’s position on contraception and abortion to American Catholic women. The last time I checked, Catholic women got abortions at exactly the same rate as other American women.    2) They are also unable to do anything about Americans in upper-middle and upper income brackets having abortions so 3) They have decided to do all they can to prevent women who earn $43,000 and under from having abortions and 4) If they don’t get what they want in this regard, they will do everything they can to defeat legislation that would provide coverage for something on the order of forty million Americans currently without health insurance.

As I said, I will leave you to think about this for yourself.

Happy 50th Anniversary

November 16, 2009 at 11:04 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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2009 seems to be a big year for anniversaries. In January it was a half-century (a half century!!) since the calling of the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII. I used to be embarrassed that when I was a teenager I considered the council the most important thing that ever had happened. How parochial of me, I thought.  But some author I read recently described contemporary Roman Catholicism, with its 1.2 billion members, as the largest religious body in the history of the world. So maybe my enthusiasm wasn’t all that parochial. Thank you, good Pope John. Please pray that your successors don’t manage to eradicate every trace of your legacy.

And then today on the radio comes the equally earth-shattering announcement (!!) that it’s the fiftieth anniversary of the first Broadway performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. If I was embarrassed at being wild about Vatican II, what is there to say  about my girlhood enthusiasm for what was surely the most sappy and sentimental of all R&H’s productions? Indeed, Hammerstein himself died less than a year later. But I still get chills when someone intones “The hilllllls are alive…”

The NPR commentator tried to give the S of M some gravitas by observing that it was one of the first productions to address the Holocaust, and I suppose that’s true. So did the film production of the Dairy of Anne Frank,  whose fiftieth anniversary is also this year. But they could hardly have made The Diary of Anne Frank into a musical, or at least, we can be grateful they didn’t. So The Sound of Music  continued to fill my heart with joy for quite a while. In truth, I am seriously tempted to order the 50th anniversary cd right now…

In what I think of as the culmination of my years in grade school , in 1960 or 61, my mother took me to see The Sound of Music on Broadway, while Mary Martin was still playing Maria. I was ecstatic. I stood at the stage door afterward and got Martin’s autograph; she wrote on her picture, “To Marian, with every best wish. Mary Martin.” I still have it, in my pink teenage memory box.

On the way to Penn Station to get the train back to Philly I said to my mother, “I wonder what parish Mary Martin belongs to?” To which my  mother replied, “Marian, Mary Martin is Jewish, so I don’t think she belongs to a parish.

Sometimes I wonder who that girl was who thought you had to be a Catholic to play a Catholic on Broadway. Happy anniversary to her, too.

Thanks to Some Catholic Bishops!

November 14, 2009 at 1:43 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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You may have already seen the statement from the Roman Catholic bishops of California in support of Catholic sisters; I have been running around lately–to the American Academy of Religion in Montreal, to Philadelphia to meet with the Women’s Ordination Conference group there–and so had overlooked it.

It’s encouraging to learn that there are at least some issues on which some American Catholic bishops are not gutless wonders (the lifting of the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying  bishop not  being one of these issues.) The bishop here in Brooklyn has likewise refused to help fund the investigation, though the cynic in me wonders if this is as much about the economic downturn as it is about SOS (Support our Sisters!)

It occurs to me that the letter of support from the California bishops may be a sign not only that they are not gutless, but also that they are not entirely oblivious regarding public relations. When the news first came out about the “visitation” of the communities and the investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, I commented to my long-suffering Baptist minister husband: it’s hard to imagine an activity more (un)calculated to get the public  incensed than beating up on a bunch of (increasingly) elderly women who helped literally millions of us to learn to read and write and pray.


Beyond Identity Politics

November 11, 2009 at 1:57 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Lift and Separate,” a review essay in this week’s New Yorker, revisits the question of why feminism is unpopular (at least here in the US). Levy’s article examines Gail Collins’s When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present  and Leslie Sanchez’s You’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe: Sarah, Michelle, Hilary, and the Shaping of the New American Woman. Collins, we learn, writes of Lindsay van Gelder’s apprehension that  she be remembered only for the invention of bra-burning–although feminist bra burning was in fact mythical. “It’s as if feminism were plagued by a kind of false memory syndrome, ” Levy observes. While feminists were actually dealing with issues like child care and equality in employment, we were portrayed as anarchist incendiaries. As a result, feminism is (ostensibly) over, replaced by a sort of universalized women’s identity politics.

Sanchez’s book, according to Levy, is an articulation of such an identity politics, with Sarah Palin as its standard-bearer:

“‘Most of us are Sarah Palins to one degree or another,’ Sanchez asserts. Palin ‘so very clearly reflected the lifestyle choices, the hard work ethic, and traditional values that so many women admire.'”

Never mind the utter laughability of describing the governor of a state as “traditional,” Levy adds. Younger women of the contentless  identity politics persuasion are happy to benefit from the hard-won equality of women, but they don’t want be associated with the movement that struggled to achieve it.

I wondered if this acceptance of the benefits of feminism while rejecting feminism itself might have spread to younger women scholars of religion as well. A friend, at last weekend’s annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion–the biggest gathering of religion scholars in the world–was worrying about decreasing numbers attending presentations by the Feminist Theory and Religious Reflection section, one of the AAR ‘s leading sponsors of feminist religious studies scholarship. 

My experience of the meeting, however, was quite the contrary. At practically every session I attended, smart young female scholars of religion used feminist scholarship and theory (as well as postcolonial, queer, critical race, and a wide range of other theories) in their insightful and highly ethical presentations.

I was especially happy to attend fine presentations by a number of  impressive younger Catholic women scholars across a range of subjects and disciplines. Particularly impressive, for me, was a presentation by a Catholic feminist theologian from India, Susan Abraham, now at Harvard Divinity School.

Abraham’s paper was part of a panel on “Rethinking Identity Politics,” a topic that overlaps Ariel Levy’s article quite nicely. Drawing on Alberto Moravia’s The Politics of Difference and Ananda Abeysekara’s The Politics of Postsecular Religion: Mourning Secular Futures,  Abraham addressed the disturbing tendency of “difference” to become commodified, that is, to be swallowed up into more universal and comfortable categories, even by the black and yellow and brown subjects of difference themselves. 

The way to think outside this commodified identity-difference frame, Abraham argues, is to mourn the dead bodies that are disappeared within it. And by this she means not a theoretical, discursive mourning, but an actual, performed mourning.   The voices of the dead are messianic and counter-hegemonic, Abraham tells us. Mourning the dead is the way beyond spurious multiculturalism.

This brings us back to the achievements of the feminist movement–suffrage, equality in employment,and so forth. Ariel admits, at the end of her article, that one of the failures of the women’s movement is that it never secured decent care for the pre-school children of US women. And of course, if such child-care were available, it would have made things better for millions of us.

But there was never any consideration of care for the children of the undocumented women harvesting the food we were eating then (and now) just as there will be no health care for undocumented women and their families forthcoming from the current Democratic administration (with its equally-employed female cabinet secretaries and consultants). The urgent task, young Catholic feminist theologian Susan Abraham tells us, is identifying and mourning the bodies.

Let’s Look South?

November 5, 2009 at 1:47 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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As I reported earlier, I am struggling to get my mind off the Vatican and the hierarchy. I thought about writing a blog about the collusion of the bishops of Maine in the defeat of same-sex marriage in that state earlier this week. But decided I would be attributing something to them that they probably did not earn. After all, same-sex marriage has been defeated every time it has come up for a vote anywhere in the US, even in states where there are many fewer Catholics than in Maine. In any case, writing about it all would have only reinforced my mania. 

So I’ve decided to make a sort of horizontal move–looking south and east, to what would seem to be the more inspiring leadership of the church in Africa. At the end of October, the Tablet, the “International Catholic Newspaper,” as it describes itself, reported that Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, the archbishop of Cape Coast, in Ghana, had been appointed the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace,    something that sounds like a  positive development.

The article, by Peter Mickens, describes Turkson as “gracious and accommodating,” with a popular touch. He also tells of his  having attempted to duck his appointment as archbishop of Cape Coast in 1992 because he wanted to finish his Ph.D. from the Biblicum in Rome. After all, as we  should realize, once appointed, he couldn’t defend his dissertation  because it would not be canonically possible for a bishop to be questioned by ecclesiastical subordinates(!)  Even without having completed the degree, Turkson is now more highly educated than any currently serving cardinal by virtue of having completed his course work.

Though rumored to be a rising star, the Ghanaian cardinal is said to have a refreshing lack of ecclesiastical ambition, as his (unsuccessful) attempt to duck the episcopacy shows. A previous Tablet article, about Turkson’s  lecture  at Cambridge University in 2007, “”What African Can Give the West,” shows him to be acutely aware of the need for greater solidarity between the church in Europe and in Africa. The article also addresses Turkson’s “papability” directly:

“If, in the fullness of time, the world sees its first African Pope since Gelasius I (492-496), and if that man were to be Cardinal Peter Turkson, we could expect a number of new trends: a renewal of missionary vigour, a drive for social justice, and a renewed openness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.”

But a concluding aside in the more recent Tablet article on Turkson’s  appointment as President of the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace makes a person wonder:

“But will Cardinal Turkson and his views find a welcome in the Roman Curia? And, more importantly, will the cardinal be given full authority to shape policy in his own office? A sign that he may have trouble doing so was the announcement of the Justice and Peace office’s new secretary, or second in command, two days before his own appointment. This other new man, Bishop-elect Mario Toso SDB, is a former rector of the Pontifical Salesian University and considered a highly qualified scholar of the Church’s social teaching. But it is doubtful that, given the chronology of events, the cardinal was consulted about selecting this Italian confrère of Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone SDB. One wonders who will really be in charge. ”

And what will be the cost of getting the guys in Rome to listen to him? Some of the most striking parts of Rembert Weakland’s recent memoir are  his reflections on the ways in which Pope Paul VI,  a basically good man in Weakland’s estimation, watered down the teachings of Vatican II so as to protect the Curia from feeling criticized. 

It’s really hard to stop obsessing about the Vatican.

Help me, Sister!

November 3, 2009 at 9:30 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

My good friend and Sister of Sion Celia Deutsch has written to tell me that the name of the parish to which we both belong is actually Our Lady of Ransom and not Our Lady of Refuge. (I misname our parish in the letter to the Apostolic Nuncio in my previous post. ) 

What I take from this is that if it weren’t for Catholic sisters, some of us wouldn’t even know what parish we belong to. Write your letter of support today!!

Letter to the Nuncio about Catholic Sisters

November 2, 2009 at 3:35 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Lots of actions are being undertaken to support American Catholic sisters in face of the current Vatican investigations. If you wish, you can sign on to a National Catholic Reporter ad in support of the sisters, sponsored by Catholics Speak Out at the ever valiant Quixote Center in Washington (only $15!). Or you can add a letter to the ThankYouSister webpage. I’ve done both of these things and urge you to join me.

But I’ve also read that the single most effective thing we can do is write directly to the Vatican representative (“the Apostolic Nuncio”) in Washington. Personal letters count the most.  I am posting my letter to the current nuncio, Archbishop Sambi, for your information and perhaps as a model for your own letter:

Archbishop Pietro Sambi
Apostolic Nunciature
3339 Massachusetts Avenue NW,
Washington, DC 20008

Dear Archbishop Sambi:

I am writing concerning the current Vatican visitation of congregations of American Catholic sisters and investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

I am a life-long Roman Catholic. My grandparents were Irish immigrants, utterly loyal to the church. I attended  Catholic schools and a Catholic college here in the US for fourteen years. I am an active member of Our Lady of Ransom Parish here in the Diocese of Brooklyn, to which I contribute $1200 a year, a fair amount in this part of the world. In addition, I earned a Ph.D. in Religion with a specialization in American Catholicism and am currently Research Professor of Catholic Studies at a seminary here in New York City.

I can say without hesitation that Catholic sisters were and still are the single greatest influence on my lifetime membership in the Catholic Church and on my decision to spend my life researching and teaching about the Church. In my experience, whatever concerns the Vatican may have about the “lifestyle” or “doctrinal irregularities” of American Catholic sisters pale in comparison to the witness to the Gospel that these women live out in their daily lives. I simply cannot imagine my life as a Catholic without their presence and example.

 I would also like to point out that after Vatican II these sisters who are now under investigation were precisely the ones who remained faithful to their vows by continuing as Catholic sisters. Of course, there’s nothing that the Vatican can do to the thousands and thousands of American Catholic women who left religious life. But you need to understand that it comes across as distinctly mean-spirited to go after the ones who remained faithful.

 Finally, I’d like to point out that Catholic sisters, unlike diocesan priests in this country, worked for decades without remuneration. A sister (now dead) who taught me in high school and with whom I remained in contact over the years told me that when she was the superior at my high school, in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the check from the Archdiocese for the sisters’ work was frequently late, and she was hard pressed to find the resources to feed the sisters until it arrived. This was in the early 1970s, long after middle-class American Catholics had stopped knowing what it was to be hungry. It’s hard to believe that in addition to this kind of treatment, American Catholic sisters are now being investigated.

 In summary, I would urge–indeed, beg–you, Archbishop, to do all that you can to see that the Catholic sisters who belong to American congregations currently being visited, and who are governed by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious now being investigated, are treated with gratitude and largesse, not with vindictiveness or mean-spiritedness.  Anything less will make the institutional Church look distinctly ungrateful for the lifetimes of service and devotion American Catholic sisters have given to Christ and the Church.

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