Apocalypse Soon?

October 19, 2011 at 8:19 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Last spring, I took part in a seminar on the environment at Columbia University’s Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life. A decade earlier I became involved in the environmental movement because my reading had convinced me that very little time remains before we destroy life on this planet. Another participant in the Columbia seminar, Irene Diamond, was utterly scornful of environmental apocalypticism, however, and of the (mostly male) environmental leaders who become famous, in her opinion, by pushing such apocalyptiism.

Since then I have done a lot of thinking about the ethics (and tactical value) of environmental apocalypticism, especially for those of us who are Christians. I plan to do some writing about this topic in the coming months. I begin with a review of a recent book on the subject, Paul Collins’s Judgment Day: The Struggle for Life on Earth (Orbis Books, 2011. Paperback. 291pp. $22.00).


With Judgment Day, Paul Collins, an Australian Catholic religion writer and historian, nudges Christian environmentalism in the tougher, no-holds-barred direction favored by some secular environmentalists. The book’s title signals such a shift. And Collins’s eight galvanizing chapters—the first one entitled “Cursed”—lay out the specifics of the judgment human beings are bringing on themselves. “It is no use kidding ourselves, “ he tells us, “…that (we) will somehow find a technological fix for the damage we have wrought …we are presiding over an unnatural apocalyptic extinction that results directly from our activities and decisions.”

While indicting modern consumerism and narcissism in general, Collins is particularly critical of the ecologically oblivious anthropocentrism of many of the world’s religions, and the failure of religious leaders to intervene forcefully in the crisis. The Catholic unwillingness, especially under Pope John Paul II, to confront the pivotal problem of overpopulation comes in for denunciation. Similarly, Collins maintains that “Little or nothing of significance has been heard from the US (Catholic) bishops on environmentalism.”

One of the strengths of Collins’s book is its comprehensiveness. Early chapters on global warming and population lay out the parameters of the crisis. His chapter on the environmental dimensions of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures would make an excellent resource for a congregational study group. A chapter on Catholic and Protestant “geologians,” from Francis of Assisi through Teilhard and Thomas Berry, is likewise useful. And the conclusion, in which Collins turns to deep, “trans-religious” ecumenism and a new “poeticizing” imagination as a way beyond the environmental crisis, is provocative and inspiring.

And yet I have some concerns about this book. Collins shares one of my deepest fears about the crisis bearing down on us, that participative democracies are ill-suited to deal with its extremely tight time frame. Yet Collins’s book in some respects displays the very tendencies toward crisis- induced, hierarchical domination that he also worries about. His use of the phrase “environmental thugs” to characterize Christians and others who are destroying the environment may be justified, but also conjures up the very people I fear will be enforcing environmentalism before long. His tendency throughout the book to write in the first person plural reminds me of a classmate at the black seminary I attended who confronted a lecturer with the question, “Who ‘we,” white girl?” And is there really not even one female geologian or environmentalist whose work Collins could have drawn upon? Or can we no longer afford such trivial matters in this age of environmental crisis?

My greatest concern about Judgment Day, however, is that Collins’s chapter on “geologians” culminates in the environmental thinking of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, and Collins returns to Heidegger in his concluding argument. Now Heidegger was one of the great philosophers of the twentieth century, and he influenced a large number of other leading thinkers. But he was also a Nazi, and a significant number of scholars argue that his Nazism and his philosophy are, in fact, linked.

In particular, Collins’s use of Heidegger’s condemnation of technology is troubling, because it is reminiscent, in some respects, of the Nazi ideological invocation of the romantic naturalness of the German people, the Aryan volk. Perhaps Collins’s reading of Heidegger manages to avoid Heidegger’s Nazism, but the fact that Collins doesn’t so much as refer to it is troubling in itself. If we are left with a choice between environmental destruction and even moderate forms of fascism, we are truly between a rock and a hard place. As Collins concludes his book, “Despite the overwhelming odds we face, we have to hang on to hope.”

(This review first appeared in the August 2011 issue of Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the USA.  The US Grail is a branch of the International Grail, a movement of women in seventeen countries around the world.)


Anthony Ruff on the English Translation of the New Roman Missal

October 17, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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Last week, fifty or sixty other folks and I turned out to hear Anthony Ruff, a Benedictine monk and liturgist at St. John’s School of Theology/Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota, speak on the English translation of the new Roman Missal. US Catholics will begin to use this translation in worship on the first Sunday of Advent. Ruff’s talk was sponsored by the new New York chapter of Call to Action, a national Catholic reform organization.

Father Ruff attracted national attention last February when he wrote a letter to the US bishops withdrawing from a speaking tour to introduce the translation across the country, and the letter was published in America, the Jesuit weekly magazine. Ruff had served as chairman of the music committee of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), the group at the center of the English translation process until the Vatican rejected its work and imposed its own version. In that letter Ruff wrote:

“The forthcoming missal is but a part of a larger pattern of top-down impositions by a central authority that does not consider itself accountable to the larger church. When I think of how secretive the translation process was, how little consultation was done with priests or laity, how the Holy See allowed a small group to hijack the translation at the final stage, how unsatisfactory the final text is, how this text was imposed on national conferences of bishops in violation of their legitimate episcopal authority, how much deception and mischief have marked this process—and then when I think of Our Lord’s teachings on service and love and unity…I weep.”

This was also the gist of Ruff’s talk in Manhattan last week, but in much more detail. That Ruff is a professor was evident: he distributed a three-page handout detailing the process in which the Vatican undercut years of work and multiple revisions by the English-speaking bishops, their liturgy committees, and ICEL. The handout also included comparisons of the old and new translations, with the wordiness, clumsiness, and outright errors of the new version highlighted. Throughout Father Ruff stressed the problem of the top-down authority structure of the Catholic Church, which makes possible such harmful, stupid and erroneous actions. At one point he stated with what seemed to me to be some amazement that the Catholic Church is an absolute monarchy.

I found two things about Ruff’s presentation striking. The first is what a balanced, even sweet man he is. With him, there was none of the rage that is sometimes expressed at Catholic reform gatherings.  In point of fact, he admitted that his is a fairly conservative approach to the liturgy, which led him to become an expert in Gregorian chant. Indeed, he opened by saying that the last time he was in New York, he had stayed with the editor of the conservative Catholic journal, First Things. But of course, this makes his public opposition to the new translation all the more damning. Even sweet, Gregorian-chant-singing monks know top-down violations of human dignity when they see them. When such a person tells us not to be taken in by the lies that are being circulated about the excellence of the English translation, we know we can believe him.

My other reaction runs in the opposite direction. Father Ruff is clearly a faithful, devout, and honest man. But it was not until he himself had his work and expertise dismissed that it came to him that the Catholic Church is an absolute monarchy, “with those at each level unaccountable to those below them.” (When the Vatican imposed its own translation, Father Ruff had to completely rewrite the musical settings he had developed for the previous ICEL translation.) But the people who had their work on the birth control commission trashed by Pope Paul VI back in 1968 already knew this, as did advocates of women’s ordination when, twenty-five years later, Pope John Paul II claimed that the prohibition of women’s ordination is infallible teaching. Is it really necessary to wait until the work which we and our Catholic co-workers have personally accomplished gets trashed by the Vatican (and often the hierarchy as well) to realize that the governance structure of the Catholic Church is incompatible with the Gospel?

Who’s Ruining Your Neighborhood?

October 11, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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What I love most about Ditmas Park, the neighborhood on the south side of Prospect Park here in Brooklyn where my husband and I live, is the extraordinary richness of the population. I can look out our front window and see the most amazing collection of people walking by: veiled Pakistani women pushing their kids in strollers, young white professionals taking their kids to the playground on the corner, Indian women and girls in saris with their men in white robes, men and women speaking Russian, Caribbean-Americans, people from all over Latin America speaking Spanish (or not), Orthodox Jewish men in yarmulkes and their wives in wigs, lesbian couples holding hands, and mixed-race couples of every conceivable combination. You name it.

One of my favorite among these neighbors is Mardi, as I will call her, the Caribbean-American night shift home health aide for the 102-year-old Jewish woman on the sixth floor who has lived in our building her entire life. Mardi doesn’t have an easy time of it; besides the night shift, she works another job in the daytime, to keep body and soul together. And since she doesn’t have $11,000 sitting around, as I do, when she got her front teeth removed, she got nothing to replace them.

Mardi was coming in the other night as Keith was leaving.

“Do you know who’s ruining the neighborhood?” she asked him. “The homosexuals.”

I was glad she had said this to Keith and not me, because I’d have been tempted to say, “You should tell that to the Jewish families who moved out to Midwood when the West Indians came .”

Which puts me in mind of a conversation I had when, in the mid-1980s, I was living out in Sunset Park, a strongly Latino section of Brooklyn. I told my Puerto Rican hairdresser that I loved the neighborhood, to which he replied,”Too bad you weren’t here before the Dominicans ruined it.”

Which reminds me of a comment made to my mother by the African-American serving woman at the 60th reunion of my mother’s graduating class at Chester High School, in Chester PA. Chester was once a prosperous shipbuilding city on the Delaware River, south of Philadelphia, which went into decline after World War II. This caused the white people (including us) to flee to the suburbs in droves. “You were lucky,” said Mom’s server. “You got here before the Korean’s ruined Chester.”

Which reminds me of the white Anglo-American Protestants who believed, in the middle of the 19th century, that the Irish Catholics fleeing to the US to avoid the Potato Famine were going to destroy American democracy, while at the same time allowing them to kill themselves digging ditches and canals and building the railroads for peanuts.

Which reminds me of the Irish Catholics who opposed the abolition of slavery because they were sure the freed slaves would work for less than they did and take their jobs, which in fact did sometimes happen, though lynching seems an unfortunate way for my ancestors to have dealt with the problem.

Which leads me to this question: Who, besides you, is ruining your neighborhood?

On Being a Catholic TV Star!

October 3, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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When I was a kid, I wanted to be a television star. Actually, I wanted to be Annette Funicello on the Mickey Mouse Club. It took me a while to grasp that being fat, nerdy, and seriously near-sighted–the other kids called me “bottle-bottoms” because of the thickness of my glasses-made such a development unlikely.

I gave up too soon. In the fall of 2010, I led the program section of the Annual Assembly of Pax Christi New York Metro. Our subject was the scary intersection between the world water crisis and war. An interview on the topic was broadcast by NET, the “New Evangelization Television” of the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Brooklyn. I was very excited that my Annette Funicello side was finally being recognized.

I believe that interview is no longer on the NET website. But now I’ve been interviewed again!!  Several of us Pax Christi types were interviewed on NET’s show Currents concerning an evening Pax Christi sponsored on the documentary film The Forgotten Bomb, with the film’s director and star, Bud Ryan. The film reminds viewers of the horrors of the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and of the moral responsibilities for those bombings that our country has never assumed. It’s really worth watching.

The three-plus minute interview on NET provides a useful introduction to the film, with comments by Bud Ryan, and by Rosemarie Pace, Director of Pax Christi Metro New York. But be sure to watch until the end, where Marian Funicello Ronan appears. I especially hope that the various readers  of this blog who have suggested from time to time that I am not the most faithful of Catholics hang on to see and hear me, because I quote Pope Paul VI with considerable enthusiasm. I’m so happy to be a Catholic TV star!!

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