“And Jesus said, ‘Don’t Frack.'”

November 29, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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As the planet heats up, and the markets decline, the hydrauling fracturing of shale rock to mine natural gas is more and more an issue across the country. Here in New York, our barely Democratic Governor, Andrew Cuomo, would seem to be doing all he can to open the New York section of the Marcellus Shale to drilling for natural gas, and thus to “fracking”–the shortened term for hydraulic fracturing–despite the opposition of thousands of state residents.

Some, of course, are in favor of fracking, because of the jobs it’s supposed to create, the profits to be gained from marketing a new form of energy, and because a domestic fuel helps free us from our dependence on foreign oil. Some even argue, because natural gas discharges less CO2 into the atmosphere when burned than oil and coal do , that it will help to prevent climate change. But as Elizabeth Kolbert argues convincingly in this week’s New Yorker, these arguments minimize (when they don’t outright ignore) the enormous damage that fracking does to the environment. This includes discharging large quantities of methane into the atmosphere, contributing more to climate change than CO2 does. All told, fracking is a very bad deal, even for the cash-strapped farmers who lease their land to gas companies, and then get sick from the pollutants discharged on their property, or watch their water catch on fire. (For more on all of this,  try watching Josh Fox’s galvanizing film, Gasland.)

For the next two weeks–until December 13–residents of New York state have several opportunities to weigh in on the harms of fracking. They/we can do so by commenting on the inadequacies of a document released in September by the NY Department of Environmental Conservation, the “Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement,” (SGEIS), which paves the way for fracking in New York State.

The first opportunity is to turn out for the last in a series of DEC hearings on SGEIS to be held tomorrow, November 30, from 1-4 and 6-9 PM at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, 199 Chambers Street, in Manhattan. You arrive, sign up, and get up to three minutes to comment on the document, that is, on fracking. There’s also going to be a press conference there at noon during which you can wave anti-fracking signs, and an anti-fracking rally at 4:30 PM (ditto on the signs.) Here’s some information about what to say when you comment.

Or if you can’t make it to Manhattan tomorrow, you can send comments about SGEIS to the DEC, or record your comments for the DEC on-line. The anti-fracking activist group “United for Action” provides excellent suggestions for what to say about SGEIS on its web page.

Finally, of course, Jesus didn’t say “Don’t frack.” But I am struck, as the hope-filled season of Advent gets underway, by how many of the readings speak of water, as when we hear from the prophet Joel, in yesterday’s morning prayer, that  “all the streams of Judah will flow with water.” Surely God doesn’t intend that water to be full of carcinogens, or to catch on fire.

Chicken Fame

November 20, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

I would never even have a blogpage except that my technologically astute and Mandarin speaking niece Emms/aka Maggie Ronan created one for me. So what would I know about pingbacks?

Turns out they are notices you get when another blogpage has linked to yours.

Another reason, besides stupidity, that I didn’t know what pingbacks are is that I had never gotten one until the other day.

So what other blogpage do you think I heard back from? The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, wishing I would say something nice about them? Sister Elizabeth Johnson, thanking me for my praise  of her book?

Not on your life. My first pingback was from Chicken-ark.com, a blog about raising chickens, building chicken coops, etc. (Turns out a chicken ark is a certain kind coop. Who knew?)

In the interest of expanding the number of my followers, I am seriously considering renaming my blog “An American Catholic on the Margins of Chickenland.” Be sure to check back and see what I decide.

Who Needs Theologians?

November 17, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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As you may know, at the end of October the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a document that confirmed its March critique of Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s book, Quest for the Living God.  According to the National Catholic Reporterthe document “restated that on several critical points the book is seriously inadequate as a presentation of the Catholic understanding of God.‘ Myself, I was astounded to hear this; I fully expected that the bishops would retract their earlier statement and issue a profound apology to Sister Johnson.  (  :

Several things popped into my head as I read the bishops’ statement. One was  Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s assertion, after he was elected president of the USCCB, that the bishops are “THE teachers.” Now given the figures on US Catholics published recently in the National Catholic Reporter–that 40% of US Catholics do not believe that bread and wine really becomes the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, for example–it’s not hard to understand why the bishops might want to ramp up their authority.

But the survey also reports the growing level of education among US Catholics, compared even to a few decades ago–the number of college graduates, for example, has increased by 50% since 1987. Bishops as THE teachers harks back to time when immigrant Catholics were grateful to learn to read and write in their parish school. In fact, it goes back even farther,to the Middle Ages, when clerics were the only literate members of the community (the archaic meaning of the word clerk, from which clerical and clergy are derived, is precisely a person able to read, or to read and write).  For many of us, in the North and West at least, those days are no more.

My second thought in repose to the bishops’ critique had to do specifically with Sister Johnson’s book. As I said in a previous post, I have never been a great admirer of Sister Johnson’s work. In my estimation, it’s an (admittedly effective) representation of the work of much more original thinkers. It’s also astonishingly middle of the road. Let’s me be clear here:  Johnson came up through the ranks in a theology department in which Avery Dulles was one of the senior members. I was so intrigued by the idea of such a moderate thinker being called out by the US Catholic bishops that I actually got a copy of the book and read it.

In some ways, my previous estimation of Johnson’s work was confirmed–Quest for the Living God is fundamentally a synthesis of various theologies of God from the second half of the twentieth century–something Johnson herself would be quick to acknowledge in this case, I suspect, since the book is clearly geared to the general public.

But I had not anticipated that I would be as deeply moved by Quest as I was. At a time when I (and many others, I’ll warrant) are deeply discouraged by and about the institutional church (as well as the US government, and many other institutions), Sister Johnson reminds us, almost lyrically at times, that there is a God beyond all of this, one who also, paradoxically, suffers with us, and is connected to us in creation. As I read the book, it came to me that originality isn’t everything.

It’s possible, of course, that some aspects of Quest aren’t entirely up to snuff. An also moderate Catholic theologian friend of mine finds Johnson’s presentation of the relationship between God and nature problematic; maybe it is.

But at a time when fewer and fewer US Catholics are receiving a Catholic education, and are increasingly less open to institutional doctrinal pronouncements, what do the bishops do? They speak out abrasively against a book that has the capacity to strengthen the faith of a wide range of US Catholics. If the bishops had any sense, they’d have thanked Sister Johnson for her invaluable contribution to the “new evangelism,” while adding a P.S. about a few changes they’d recommend for the second edition.

Only Child Sex Abuse Matters

November 12, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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It would be difficult to calculate the number of news stories I have heard in the last twenty-four hours about Joe Paterno being fired as the head football coach at Penn State for not reporting an alleged case of child sexual abuse to the police. Let me begin by saying that  if the accusations against Jerry Sandusky, Paterno’s subordinate in the Penn State football program, are true, it’s a great pity. I sincerely hope that these presumably still young people get the help they need to lessen the impact of what has been done to them.

For many years, however, it has seemed to me that there’s something excessive, something almost hysterical, about the reaction to child sex abuse in this country. I have argued that among my fellow liberal US Catholics, the invocation of the innocence of sex abuse victims is a way of fighting back against the institutional church’s endless invocation of the innocence of aborted fetuses. My victim is more innocent than your victim, so to speak. But of course, this explains nothing about the uproar at Penn State–though I have hardly heard a story about Joe Pa’s grievous omission that did not refer at least once to the Catholic Church.

One cause of my bafflement regarding the uproar over child sex abuse is that huge numbers of even more dreadful harms befall children all the time with very little response, never mind outrage, here in the US. One example is the death of children, mostly under the age of five, from  water-borne diseases. Four thousand children die every day–that’s approximately 167 an hour–from diseases like cholera, typhoid fever, hepatitis A and other diarrheal diseases, brought on by drinking dirty water. Some may think that sex abuse is far worse than death, but myself, I’d choose even a damaged life over an early death any day. Maybe the difference in response has to with the fact that the children dying from water-borne diseases don’t look like “ours” or that if we thought about it, there really is something we could do about such deaths. After all, providing clean water to the whole world would hardly dent the US military budget

But just for the sake of argument, let’s concede that white USies aren’t going to be as concerned about the deaths of millions of black and brown children elsewhere as they’re going to be over harm to their own children. Let’s turn, then, to the context of the current sex abuse upheaval, football. According the New York Times,

“About 5 to 6 percent of (college) football players and about 8 percent of National Football League players suffer concussions or other forms of brain injury. (That translates to 3,264 to 4,284 of the nearly 68,000 collegiate players and 130 of the 1,700 N.F.L. athletes.) Among the 1.2 million teens who play high school football, the group that accounts for most sports-related concussions, between 4 and 6 percent sustain concussions, or about 43,200 to 67,200 injuries a year. However, the real incidence is probably higher, as more than half of high school athletes who suffer concussions are suspected of failing to report the injury, researchers say.”

Even if only a smallish percentage of these players end up, say, with dementia, or Parkinson’s disease, this is a stupifying number.

According to NPR this morning, Joe Pa has been involved in the Penn State football program since 1949–that is, 62 years. Any idea how many Penn State players sustained brain injuries during that period? Ever hear of anybody getting fired for that?

My friend Tania suggests that comparisons like these are odious, that these other horrors–child deaths from water borne diseases, brain injuries–don’t lessen the horror of the sexual abuse of children. No doubt she is correct. Still, as I turn on the radio to hear the next news broadcast, I know very well what I’m going to be hearing about, and there’s something about that certainty that should give us pause, don’t you think?

Still Life with Chickens

November 6, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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So you haven’t heard from me in a while because I’m in Loveland, Ohio, outside Cincinnati, at the tri-annual general assembly of the US Grail, a branch of the International Grail. The Grail is a women’s movement in seventeen countries around the world. We’re meeting at the Grail’s organic farm and conference center. I’ve been coming here since I was a college student, in the late sixties.

The topics addressed at the meeting are pretty interesting—Thursday, the Grail’s enviironmental work, Friday our work at the United Nations, particularly with the Commission on the Status of Women, and Saturday, our spirituality. But to tell you the truth, what I’ve really been thinking about is chickens.

Now just so you know, I’m a city girl. I was born in a city, and have lived in cities for most of my adult life. When I was a kid, my Mom and Dad used to take me to Manhattan on a Trailways bus (my Uncle Hughie worked for Trailways and got us free tickets). They’d walk me around  and tell me that New York is the greatest place on earth. I believed them.

So perhaps you can imagine my amazement when I found myself on a farm in Lovelend, Ohio, circa 1974, in charge of a coop full of chickens. The Grail had, since it’s US founding in the early 1940s, been deeply involved in the back-to the-land movement and the Catholic Rural Life Conference.  For many years (but no more) in order to join the Grail you went to the Grailville farm and got formed. My experience with the chickens was at the tail end of the formation-on-the-farm era.

I was really terrible with the chickens. Let’s be clear: I’m a writer. I basically make my way from the library to the computer to the coffee pot and back. The chickens baffled me. When I brought the bucket of food into the chicken coop, the chickens would be in the manger (or whatever you call it). I would put down the bucket and shoo them out. By the time I picked up the bucket again, they’d be back in the manger. They were not responsive to reason. I also regularly left the lights on in the chicken coop. The rooster would crow in the middle of the night. The people in the house closest to the chicken coop would then call me and I had to walk over and turn off the lights.

Before long, one of the Grail women in leadership sent for me and said it seemed that the chickens were not my greatest strength, and so, instead, would I please compile an inclusive language prayer book for the Grailville community. I did so, and basically, never looked back. Within the next decade I co-authored a series of books that grew out of a series of feminist theology programs we had at Grailville.

So why, you may ask, am I thinking of chickens this week, between sessions on climate change and the UN? Because while I’m here I’m staying with a Grail friend who lived here on the farm with me in the seventies, and then married the son of a local Grail member, had a family, and lives down the road. She’s a fabric artist, and her husband runs his own construction company, but in previous years, he was a farmer. Soon after I arrived, Becky announced, with some enthusiasm, that she and Pat are now raising chickens. She took me out to the ingeniously designed coop and showed them to me. There are eight of them, and a rooster, and they lay eight eggs a day. But there’s no manger, and no lights, either. They mostly eat vegetable waste left over from the family meals. Becky says that if you don’t wash the eggs, you don’t even have to refrigerate them. I think I’m going to eat a couple of them for breakfast, for old time’s sake.

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