The Church of Anti-Football?

January 27, 2011 at 11:47 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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In the past few years, my church’s fixation on abortion seems not to have receded very much. Most recently, we have the spectacle of Sister of Mercy Margaret McBride being excommunicated for chairing an ethics committee that decided that the death of a fetus alone is better than the mother of the fetus dying along with it. Before that we observed the US Catholic bishops opposing the extension of health care to millions of Americans on the off-chance that the bill providing the coverage might increase abortions, though experts assured us that this was not the case. And before that a number of those same bishops, including the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops,  Cardinal George of Chicago, denounced the University of Notre Dame for inviting the first African-American president in the history of the country to be its commencement speaker exclusively because of his position on abortion. As George Dennis O’Brien argues in his new book, Roman Catholicism is becoming the “Religion of Anti-Abortion.”

But Anti-Abortion is not the only kind of religion. As Ben McGrath puts it in his provocative article in this week’s New Yorker, the United States has a secular religion–football. Such a notion is hard to dispute at any time, but just now, as many millions of American families are gathering around football’s flat screen altar for the greatest liturgy of the year, it’s a no-brainer. And if McGrath is correct, the Religion of the Anti-Abortion is not the only one facing serious conflicts; the secular religion of football is confronting a few as well.

These conflicts circulate around what McGrath’s characterizes as “the concussion crisis,” and particularly around the growing awareness of a condition called CTE–chronic traumatic encephalopathy.  CTE is “a condition that is believed to result from major collisions—or from the accumulation of subconcussions that are nowhere near as noticeable, including those incurred in practice.”

The public was introduced to this condition in a series of articles by New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz. In the early part of the 2000s, Schwarz began learning of increasing numbers of former NFL players who seemed to be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Some had become homeless after losing their capacities. Others had committed suicide.  Journalist colleagues began to call Schwarz the “Alan Brockovich” of football for this heroic (and unpopular) work. Mothers of young football players were some of his most avid readers. McGrath’s narration of Schwarz’s work is such a terrific read, it would be worth your attention even if there were nothing more to it.

But of course there’s a lot more to it. As McGrath indicates, football players are being harmed at all age levels. In Spirng Hill Kansas an honors student dropped dead from a subdural hematoma after making an interception at his high school’s homecoming game. Another high school player dropped dead of a “heart stoppage,” and a third committed suicide after sustaining a season-ending concussion. And these are just the anecdotes; wait till somebody starts collecting the statistics.

Some will argue that high school students, as minors, deserve protection, whereas professional football players have a perfect right to render themselves brain-dead if they want to. But as McGrath also points out, “two-thirds of N.F.L. players are African-American, and the white players do not typically come from New Canaan. The sport has long had a heavy underclass or, at least, working-class strain.” So the people getting their brains smashed may not be aware that they have very many other options.

I could end this right here, but I’d like to return for a moment to the matter of my church being the Religion of the Anti-Abortion. The fact is, Roman Catholicism is also intimately involved in the American secular religion of football. Catholic high schools and colleges all over the US field football teams. But the US bishops don’t seem too concerned about the serious harm that these young men risk by playing this sport. Unless I missed something, the US bishops have not as yet attacked the University of Notre Dame for endangering the lives, or perhaps I should say, the Life of their players.

I can only speculate on the reasons for this. Perhaps the bishops think they have no right to intervene in a matter which, unlike abortion, is personal. Perhaps, although they feel perfectly free to tell women what they should and should not do with their bodies, they don’t feel entitled to issue such orders to men. Or perhaps the financial implications for Catholic high schools and colleges are just too massive. In the last year for which there are figures, the University of Notre Dame earned $59.8 million from its football program, though that is down from previous years. And a lot of other Catholic schools are in financial difficulty as well.

Maybe a bishop will write back and fill us in.


Beatifying Pope John Paul II

January 16, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I am not enormously enthusiastic about the beatification of Pope John Paul II which, we learned this week, is scheduled for May. JPII was a very smart man and deserves a great deal of the credit for making Roman Catholicism the second largest religious group on earth. And he is certainly a celebrity for many.

He also reversed, or at least undercut, the ground-breaking, hope-inspiring work of Vatican Council II. He not only spearheaded the defeat of Communism in Eastern Europe, he also learned from Communism, and from a career in the Roman Catholic hierarchy, how to control millions of people. Beatifying, and then quickly canonizing him, is an example in action of what feminist philosopher of science Donna Haraway called “the god trick.” People divinize those who embody a way of life to their own benefit. The current pope justifies his unilateral decisions by beatifying somebody who did the same sort of thing before him.

I could go into more detail about the actions of JPII that cause me to say all this, but the International Movement We Are Church has done an excellent job of outlining most of what I would say on its webpage. Why don’t you check it out?

Gabby in the Crosshairs

January 10, 2011 at 10:03 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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If you’re anything like me, you’ve been following pretty closely the condition of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, shot in the head by an assassin at close range Saturday. Thanks God she seems to be pulling through.

There’s been a lot of commentary about the incident. A good bit of it focuses on the extreme rhetoric of American politics. The New York Times in more than one article suggests that the Right and the Left are equally guilty of using violent, polarizing language.

However, I myself haven’t come across any progressive rhetoric that encourages shooting Tea Partiers, along the lines of the crosshairs image that appeared on Sarah Palin’s blog. Have you?

And in case you’re wondering what this has to do with American Catholicism: I am profoundly grateful that Sarah-baby left the Catholic Church for an independent Pentecostal church years ago. If only Christine O’Donnell would follow her.

A Wonderful Read

January 8, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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The following is my review of American Madonna, a terrific new book about devotion to the Virgin Mary in Mexico and among Mexican migrants in the US. It’s for sale on Amazon and from other on-line book sources.

American Madonna: Crossing Borders with the Virgin Mary. By Deirdre Cornell. Orbis Press, 2010. 190 pp. $18.00

In her first book, A Priceless View, author Deirdre Cornell returns to her childhood home, Newburgh, NY, to share the life of the burgeoning migrant community there. But by the last few pages, she knows that she will leave. And her prediction is fulfilled: in 2004, Deirdre and her husband Kenney and three children move to rural Oaxaca, Mexico, as Maryknoll lay missioners, to deepen their understanding of the migrant cultures surrounding them in upstate New York. In American Madonna, Deirdre welcomes us into that experience.

At the heart of Deirdre’s reflections is Mary, the Mother of God. Here in the U.S., what with women’s liberation and the assimilation of white ethnic Catholics into the American middle class, devotion to the ostensibly sweet, passive Virgin Mary would seem a thing of the past. Yet as Deirdre observes, pilgrimages to sites of Marian apparitions around the world have mushroomed in the modern period, while the Madonna, bearing the marks of her various local inculturations, helps huge numbers of Latin American migrants in their journeys across the border to a new life in the North. Indeed, as Deirdre makes clear, the Virgin Mary is an ideal patroness for our globalized age, crossing borders during her lifetime between Israel and Egypt, and in her Assumption, between earth and heaven, even as she has accompanied travelers, missionaries and migrants across borders over the centuries.

Deirdre organizes American Madonna around three different manifestations of Mary: the Virgin of Solitude, the mourning Mother at the foot of the cross who watches over the capital of the southeastern Mexican province of Oaxaca; Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose apparition to St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin in 1532 marks the beginning of the inculturation of Christianity among the indigenous peoples of Mexico; and my own particular favorite, Our Lady of Juquila, whose diminutive triangular figure has protected hundreds of thousands of pilgrims at her shrine on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca since 1719. In all cases, the Madonna crosses borders with her devotés, whether they are the Spanish missionaries who brought her with them to the Americas, the pilgrims journeying over hazardous terrain to reach her, or the migrants who bear her north and sometimes return home to her motherly embrace.

It would be a pity for you to conclude from this that American Madonna is a theological study of the Virgin Mary, however. It is that, in part, but it is also much more. Indeed, what makes this book a wonderful read is the deftness with which Deirdre weaves together the multiple strands comprising the reality of the Madonna. The lives of Mexicans encountered on both sides of the border comprise one such strand; the history of the various Marian apparitions and the communities they inhabit is another. A third is the complex figure of the Virgin herself, her ancient history, her sexist appropriations, the protection and liberation she bestows on her followers. Yet another is the anthropology of pilgrimage and community, rendered accessible by clear writing.

And pulling it all together is the lyric voice of the author herself, from the wonderful portrayal, in the first chapter, of her own journey away from and back to Mary, to the traditional benedición with which her Oaxacan neighbors send her and her family back to the US at the conclusion. Indeed, it becomes clear as one drinks in this book that the “American Madonna” of the title is as much the mother who brings her high-risk twins to term in the middle of her time in Mexico as it is the Madonna with whom she crosses and re-crosses borders throughout. Those of us still inclined to wonder how the Virgin Mary can inspire communities and individuals to resist their oppression have only to read Deirdre’s mesmerizing connection of the bonding process between mother and child–in this case, her own–with the solidarity engendered by devotion to the Virgin Mary in Oaxaca. As she asks, “Can we from the dominant culture catch new glimpses of our mother–even when she does not look like us–in images that originated beyond our borders?”

(This review was published in a slightly revised form in the December 2010 edition of Gumbo, the monthly newsletter of the Grail in the USA, a women’s movement of which Deirdre Cornell and I are both members.)

Kudos to Sister Carol and the NCR

January 3, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Last week, the National Catholic Reporter, the progressive US Catholic new source, named Sister Carol Keehan “person of the year” for 2010. Sister Carol, you may recall, is the head of the Catholic Health Association in the United States. By leading her organization to endorse the legislation, she and a number of other Catholic sisters involved with Network, the Catholic social justice lobby are widely credited with turning the tide in the battle for health care reform last year by calming fears that the proposed legislation would increase the number of abortions in the US. Many believe that Bart Stupak and other pro-life congresspeople changed their vote because of the sisters’ assurances.

I want to join the NCR in congratulating Sister Carol and the other Catholic sisters who took these brave actions. At any time, it’s risky for sisters in canonical congregations to take positions that seem to disagree with the bishops or the Vatican. In the middle of a Vatican investigation of US women’s congregations, as we in the US are just now, it could border on suicidal. But the sisters decided, as they have so many times in the past, that the needs of the poor–in this case, the millions in the US without health insurance–outweighed more pragmatic considerations. Throughout my entire life, women like Sister Carole have been my heroes.

The US bishops, of course, have not been enthusiastic about the sisters daring to speak for the church, if, in fact, that’s what they were doing. Throughout history bishops and popes have come down hard on women who dare to trespass on their authority. On Religion Dispatches today, Eugene McMullan weighs in on the current episode. Why don’t you check it out?

Budget Cuts and “Death Panels”

January 2, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Well, the snow is melting, a week after it arrived. There’s nothing like a blizzard to make some of us, at least, grateful for central heating, and here in the Ronan-Russell household, for having finally found a hardware store with a shovel to sell.

But now that the local population has calmed down about the blizzard, I’m afraid the next great cause of popular enragement is headed our way: “death panels.” According to the newspaper of record, on January 1 the  Obama administration established by regulation “end of life” provisions that were so enraging when first proposed that they had to be excised from the health care legislation that finally passed. And even after those end of life provisions were removed, according to the Times, 30% of all Americans over sixty still believed that “Obamacare” stipulated “death panels,” by which they mean that it gives doctors the right to mandate euthanasia for those deemed no longer worthy of living. Never mind that the very need for these new regs refutes their convictions. There’s trouble coming.

Let me first acknowledge that the prospect of being condemned to death, at any age, is a terrifying one. But that such a fear should translate into belief on the part of many, in the face of evidence to the contrary, that the new health care legislation gives the government the power to do so–this deserves a little analysis, don’t you think?

First of all, let’s get clear about what the regulations actually do stipulate: they allow payment to physicians who “advise patients on options about  end of life care,…( including) advance directives to forego aggressive life-sustaining treatment.” A number of people I’ve consulted, including a Catholic RN friend who worked in a hospice for many years, believe that “advance directives” are the only sure way for seriously ill people to protect themselves from being forced to go on living in great discomfort after an otherwise fatal event such as a massive heart attack. People over 70, my friend argues, should have “do not resuscitate” orders.

So why do so many people believe that the new health care law mandates killing them and their friends, when it actually helps them to protect themselves from unnecessary prolonged agony? One explanation might be that here in the US, in contrast to many other democracies, we really do have “death panels,” that is judges and juries who condemn people to death. It’s called the death penalty. Maybe some of us older folk are unconsciously projecting onto the new health care law our knowledge that the government certainly does order people killed, just not privileged white people.

And of course, we have another kind of “death panel” in the US: insurance companies, which regularly decide whether people are allowed to have life-or-death surgery, tests, or treatments. I distinctly recall being coached by an oncologist in San Francisco a few years back about how to get the company that covered me to pay for the regular colonoscopies I needed to prevent the recurrence of the genetically-linked colon cancer that had already killed four close family members. “They’re going to say you need the test every five years,” he said, “so I’ll say you need it every year, and they’ll let you have it every other year.” And that’s what happened.

The third kind of  “death panel” here in the US is the one operated by individual states. Before “Obamacare” these functioned by not providing health care to lots of people who then became seriously ill and died because they weren’t diagnosed until it was too late. And during the economic downturn, according to the Times, almost every state has had to make painful cuts to the Medicaid it does offer. In Arizona, this includes ending Medicaid coverage for heart, liver, lung, pancreas and bone marrow transplants–life-or death procedures–in order to save $1.4 million of the state’s $8.9 billion budget.

So if anyone asks you about US death panels, you can assure them that such things exist and are functioning–but they’re not the kind of death panels that a third of the over-60 set seems to envision. And then perhaps you will join me in praying that “Obamacare” survives the anticipated Congressional onslaught and dismembers as many of these death panels as it can.

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