Israel and Palestine 101

November 29, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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Well, after that last endless post on the US Catholic Church and contraception, you’ll be pleased to know that this one is going to be very short.

I have to confess that there’s a whole lot I don’t understand about the struggle between Israel and Palestine. In addition, I’m a Catholic, and Catholic anti-semitism before Vatican II contributed a good deal to the Holocaust, and thus, to the creation of this struggle. Furthermore, Catholics comprised 60% of the Nazi army. And the Vatican helped various Nazis to escape Europe after World War II.

As a result, I don’t take a position for or against Israel.

Today, however, I received through the internet a link to a six-minute film made by a Jewish group, Jewish Voice for Peace, that helps to clarify the struggle between Israel and Palestine. You may want to take a look at it. Also, on the Jewish Voice for Peace webpage, there’s a section devoted to “Israel/Palestine 101.” Maybe you’ll want to read that, too.

As a Catholic, I figure I should just shut up about Israel and Palestine. But I’m glad to hear what some peace-loving Jews have to say about it.


Further Thoughts on the Church and the “Obamacare” Contraceptives Mandate

November 26, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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A number of things about the behavior of the US Catholic Bishops during the recent presidential campaign scandalized me, to use an old-fashioned word. But nothing equalled my horror at the bishops’ decision to stage their “Fortnight of Freedom” campaign in protest against the Affordable Care Act’s mandate of free contraceptive coverage four months before the presidential election. The following is a slight revision of an article I published last spring in EqualwRites, the Philadelphia Catholic feminist newsletter for which I’ve been writing for nearly twenty years. I think some of what I discuss there is worth reviewing as we move toward implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in a second Obama administration.


The re-election of Barack Obama would seem to have settled the question of the Affordable Care Act, which the Republican candidate promised to eviscerate on his first day in office. But the conflict between the US Catholic bishops and the Obama administration over the act’s mandated provision of contraceptives is unlikely to end any time soon, alas. The bishops, as you will recall, rejected the administration’s proposed compromise that insurance companies, not employers, cover the costs of contraceptives under the ACA. The bishops even claimed that individual employers be exempted from providing such coverage if it violated their “freedom of religion.” I imagine Cardinal Dolan and Co. are planning new forms of protest even as I write.

As we anticipate the next stage in the bishops’ war to control women’s reproductive functions,  there are, I believe, two aspects of the previous round of controversy that deserve attention.  The first is the failure of a wide range of journalists and commentators, including white male liberal Catholic commentators, to so much as hint that the question of contraceptive coverage has anything to do with women.

Before I examine what these commentators said, let’s clarify a few points. Not only do 98% of US Catholic women report having used contraceptives at some time, a significant majority of Catholic women—62%—supported the Affordable Care mandate that Catholic and other religious hospitals and universities provide free contraception coverage as part of their insurance coverage. Indeed, a majority of US Catholics across the board support that mandate.

But the commentators, even Catholic commentators, rarely addressed this reality in the months leading up to the election. Early on there was Michael Sean Winters’s article, “J’accuse,” in the National Catholic Reporter.  Let’s set aside Winters’s outrageous comparison of the contraceptives mandate with the first in a series of anti-semitic events, the Dreyfus affair, that culminated in the Holocaust. (“J’Accuse” is the title of a famous newspaper article by the French writer Emile Zola accusing the French government of antisemitism for convicting Captain Dreyfus of  treason.) Only once in the entire article does Winters use the word “woman,” and that in reference to Sister Carol Keehan, the head of the Catholic Health Association, presumably one of the 2% of Catholic women who has never used, or needed, contraception (and who at that point agreed with him). Instead he states, in typically Catholic binary language, that “It is a mistake of analysis to see this as a decision about contraception. The issue here is conscience.” No reference is made to the National Institutes of Medicine ruling that contraception coverage is an essential part of preventive health care for women, never mind to the millions of actual US Catholic women whose health, and sometimes lives, depend on such care.

And Winters isn’t the only one. The NCR, in its February 9th editorial, echoes Winters’s claim that “conscience, not contraception, is the essential issue,” while not using the word “women” once. And on the PBS News Hour, Mark Shields and David Brooks likewise managed to reject the HHS mandate two weeks in a row without uttering the word “women.” On Weekend Edition, NPR’s Scott Simon, apparently oblivious to the statistics on US Catholic women’s support of the mandate, opined that just because Catholic women use contraceptives doesn’t mean that they support the denial of religious freedom to their church. And in their February 24 editorial, the more moderate Commonweal also rejected the mandate on the basis of religious freedom, though it does at least nod in women’s direction in the last paragraph.

A few Catholic women—Gail Collins in the New York Times, and moral theologian Lisa Fullam on the Commonweal blog page—did indeed speak out. By and large, however, the most recent phase of the contraceptives controversy was a phallic struggle between white Catholic men, bishops and lay journalists, on one side, and the Obama administration. The majority of US Catholics and even larger majorities of Catholic women, people of color, and Millenials, support the mandate. This struggle may be about conscience, but it’s even more about anyone daring to tell old white guys what to do.

The other dismaying aspect of the current  “(some) Catholics against the HHS mandate” brouhaha is that it feeds into a growing Right Wing effort to undermine access to contraceptives in the US and around the world. As Mark Oppenheimer explains in a January 20th New York Times op-ed piece, after decades of supporting the use of contraceptives, increasing numbers of US Evangelicals are now joining Catholic conservatives in their opposition to them. One aspect of this is the “Quiverfull” movement, which advocates large families, as exemplified by the Duggar family, the enthusiastic Rick Santorum supporters featured on the reality show, “19 Kids and Counting.”

All these kids jumping around can seem rather jolly, but there’s scary stuff underneath these developments. One is the increasing support for the argument—also advanced by the institutional Church—that most contraceptives are abortifacients. This is argued because oral contraceptives and others that contain hormones make the endometrium less receptive to embryonic implantation. But the embryo, opponents of contraception argue, is a person from the moment of conception. Or, as the American Association of Pro-Life ObGyns puts it, “There is an unarguable logic connecting the contraceptive act and the abortive act.

But as Jamie Manson argues convincingly on her NCR blogpage,* even Catholic Health Association ethicists have acknowledged that neither the IUD nor Plan B work by preventing implantation; instead, they prevent fertilization. At first, the argument against Ella seems more compelling, since its “chemical structure is similar to that of RU-486,” an acknowledged abortifacient not covered under ACA. But Ella comprises a much smaller dose of the chemical similar to the one in RU-486 and functions to delay or prevent ovulation. As an article from the British medical journal the Lancet indicates, only if Ella is given in a dose far beyond that provided under the ACA can implantation be impaired.”

Scientific evidence does not deter those determined to deprive women of reproductive health care, however. Thus far, attempts to enforce this belief by getting the “personhood” amendment added to state constitutions have failed, but the “personhood” movement continues its efforts. Meanwhile, Republican members of the House Foreign Affairs committee voted eleven times in October of 2011 to block funding for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which provides reproductive services to women, men, and young people in 150 countries around the world.

Surely Michael Sean Winters, Mark Shields, the NCR, and the rest, in their opposition to the ACA-mandated contraceptives coverage by Catholic universities and hospitals, do not intend to support the drive to make contraceptives illegal. I fear that by eliding women, and especially Catholic women, from the conversation, they have done so despite their good intentions

Giving Thanks for Father Roy

November 22, 2012 at 11:30 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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Well, on Monday, as many of us were planning our Thanksgiving menus, the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers announced that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had dismissed Father Roy Bourgeois from their order. Bourgeois had been a member of Maryknoll for forty-five years. The cause of his dismissal was his refusal to renounce his participation in the ordination of a Roman Catholic Womanpriest, Janice Sevre-Duszynska, in August of 2008, and his support of women’s ordination more broadly.

For me, the remarkable part of this announcement was that it didn’t come sooner than it did. The Vatican notified Bourgeois soon after the 2008 ordination that he was excommunicated, or, as they prefer to put it, that he had excommunicated himself by his actions. In the four years since then, Bourgeois met twice with the Maryknoll leadership to discuss the situation, most recently, last June. An article in the National Catholic Reporter quotes Bourgeois to the effect that “the discussion made no mention of his removal, but instead focused on the rights of conscience of Catholics and ‘the importance of people of faith and members of Maryknoll to be able to speak openly and freely without fear … of being dismissed or excommunicated.'” A letter from Maryknoll in March 2011 did state, however, that Bourgeois faced laicization and removal from the order if he did not comply with Vatican demands that he publicly recant his support of women’s ordination.

My own assumption is that Maryknoll did all that was in its power to prevent or at least postpone Bourgeois’s expulsion. Apparently a vote among the leadership last spring resulted in a draw, a pretty remarkable outcome almost four years down the pike. People who don’t follow the women’s ordination controversy in the Catholic Church closely might wonder why I say this. A woman on a listserv to which I belong found Bourgeois’s expulsion “shocking. But let’s be clear: the institutional Catholic Church considers ordination one of the most grievous sins it’s possible to commit. In a 2010 document, the Vatican placed the ordination of women in the same category of grave sin as the sexual abuse of children by clergy. When criticized that clergy guilty of sex abuse were not excommunicated, as those involved in women’s ordination are, the Vatican spokesperson suggested that being defrocked was more serious than excommunication. Excommunication, after all, can be reversed. As my husband used to say about the cops when we lived in Philadelphia, “These boys don’t play.” Maryknoll took considerable risk by not giving Roy Bourgeois the boot sooner, though I myself think the group’s Nov. 19th statement goes too far in its attempt to make up with Rome.

One of the  reasons for Maryknoll’s dragging its feet on the expulsion, of course, is that Bourgeois is a genuine American Catholic hero. As narrated in his recently published autobiographical booklet, My Journey from Silence to Solidarity, Bourgeois was a decorated Vietnam war veteran who went on to do missionary work in Bolivia and El Salvador. These experiences so radicalized him that he joined with other activists to protest US involvement with violent Latin American dictatorships and to found the School of the America’s Watch. Though he doesn’t report exactly how much time he has spent in jail for his protests, it’s likely that historians will one day list Bourgeois with American Catholic justice activists like Dorothy Day, Phil and Dan Berrigan, and Liz McAlister.

Bourgeois’ analysis of injustice in Latin America led him eventually to protest the inequality of women in the Catholic Church. Indeed, he met the woman at whose ordination he preached, Janice Sevre-Duszynska, because she was a member of through the School of the Americas Watch. I am myself uncomfortable with Bourgeois’ decision to illustrate the section on women’s ordination in My Journey from Silence to Solidarity with photographs of US civil rights and German anti-Nazi activists for obvious reasons: excommunication is significantly different from lynching or execution. But like the anti-apartheid hero Patricia Fresen, Bourgeois’s experiences beyond white European and American divinity schools and faith communities makes his use of such analogies understandable. Compared to the many American priests and bishops who privately favor women’s ordination but wouldn’t dare to speak out for fear of retribution, Roy Bourgeois is a real gender-justice hero.

My main concern now is how Bourgeois will live in his old age. He’s 74, not a good time for starting over financially;  members of religious orders depend on their orders’ facilities and resources for retirement and end-of life care. Perhaps School of the Americas Watch has been paying into a 401(K) for him, though it’s hard to imagine. The rest of us can show our gratitude by buying a hard copy of My Journey from Silence to Solidarity. Send your check to Roy Bourgeois, P. O. Box 3330, Columbus, GA 31903 (706-682-5369). The price is listed as $7 (including postage and handling) but you can always include something extra.

No Closure

November 8, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The following is a review of No Closure: Catholic Practice and Boston’s Parish Shutdowns by John C. Seitz. Harvard University Press, 2011.  Hardback, $39.95; e-book, $30.44.  248 pp. 

Much has been written about the relationship of the Roman Catholic Church to the “modern world.” One stream of conversation has it that the church “entered the modern world” at Vatican II. But the church helped to create the modern world as well. The Spanish monarchs who sent Columbus off, for example, were Franciscan tertiaries, while Michel Foucault argues that the Catholic practice of private confession was fundamental to the construction of the individual, that lynchpin of modernity. It’s closer to the truth to say that the church decided to exit the modern world when the liberal revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made evident the high cost of participating in that world. But exiting an era in which you’ve played a major role for five hundred years is tricky. Even the reintroduction of the “perennial philosophy” of St. Thomas Aquinas was as much a mimicking of the clarity of the Scientific Revolution as it was a return to Aquinas’s work which had been both ground-breaking and controversial in its time.

Reviewers will tend, I suspect, to portray John C. Seitz’s book, No Closure: Catholic Practice and Boston’s Parish Shutdowns, as a study of the laypeople who resisted the closure of a number of churches by the Archdiocese of Boston beginning in 2004. Indeed, the ethnographic interviews Seitz conducted with a range of former parishioners serves as the foundation of the study. Yet even the ethnographic nature of the book, as Seitz acknowledges, is complicated, since he not only interviewed the occupiers, (or vigilers, or resisters, as they are also called) but participated in the occupations—sometimes sleeping all night in the churches and taking part in tasks like cleaning the churches and fixing broken objects..

Like the nature of Seitz’s ethnographic role, No Closure’s argument itself is not a simple one, though it is well worth the effort required to comprehend it.  By situating the Boston church occupations within the very changes and continuities of post-war Catholicism, Seitz offers one of the most valuable readings yet published of the complex nature of the relationship between the church and “the modern world.” As he writes in his introductory chapter, his project “intends to understand resisters as they carried…the imprint of wider struggles related to changes in the church and society across the twentieth century” (17).

Seitz accomplishes this by “braiding” together what readers might expect to be highly divergent actions, motivations and beliefs on the part of occupiers and representatives of the archdiocese as well. While some might assume the refusal to give up two different Italian parishes, in North and East Boston, to be motivated by traditional or conservative beliefs in saints, statues, and relics, for example, Seitz shows that the occupiers were equally motivated by a Vatican II sense of themselves as “the people of God.”

On the other hand, it may seem that the archdiocese’s demand that people leave their parishes behind is a classic instance of episcopal authoritarianism based in traditional, pre-Vatican II theology.  Drawing on a nuanced comparison of pre- and post-Vatican II texts for the ritual dedication of a church, however, Seitz shows that the authorities intent on shutting down the churches had shifted from centuries-old Catholic language about the sacredness of places and objects to a distinctly modern, post-Vatican II emphasis on the primarily symbolic nature of those places and things. The authorities then used this “modern” framework to justify their call for what may be construed as highly traditional obedience and sacrifice.  One of the most revealing parts of No Closure involves the discovery, by the occupiers of one of the churches, of altar relics consecrated at the dedication of the church but discarded in a sacristy drawer as the church was being “closed.”  The recent return to traditional reverence ostensibly expressed by kneeling during the canon of the Mass is not terribly evident in this apparent dismissal of the communion of saints.

Seitz’s interpretation of the vigilers’ practice of bringing consecrated hosts supplied by anonymous priests into the occupied churches for legitimate lay-led communion services also embodies the complexity of the resisters’ Catholicism.  In a review in the National Catholic Reporter, Kathleen L. Sullivan quotes Seitz in such a way as to suggest that practices like this were really tactics by the occupiers to appear “more Catholic” than archdiocesan authorities.  But in the context of the book’s larger argument, this importation of the Body and Blood of Christ was also a genuine expression of devout Catholicism, over against the archbishop’s cavalier closing of what the occupiers had longed believed to be the center of their faith, the parish. Seitz’s reading here suggests that Catholic reform groups who base their claims to legitimacy on apostolic succession, or who allow only officially ordained but married priests to celebrate the Eucharist, are also, in some respects, adhering to traditional Catholic beliefs.

It’s not possible in a review of this length to do justice to Seitz’s nuanced reading of the interrelationships between continuity and change, between tradition and modernity, in the beliefs and practices of the Catholics who occupied Boston Catholic churches, and for that matter, in the beliefs and practices of the archdiocesan authorities who ordered those closings and the parishioners who accepted them. Considering the ways in which the title of the book itself embodies such Catholic “braiding” may be a good way to bring these brief reflections to a conclusion, however.

At the simplest level, of course, No Closure communicates the fact that some Boston Catholics did not allow their parish churches to be closed. Yet Seitz knows well and acknowledges that while a few of the churches survived, sometimes with diminished status, others did close, or would eventually; indeed, one of them, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in East Boston, saw its occupation ended in April, 2012, seven years after it began.

But No Closure means more than this. It even means more than that some of the occupiers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel have continued vigiling outside their recently closed church.  As Seitz details in his moving epilogue, there is also “no closure” for those who moved, either promptly or eventually, from their closed parishes to new parishes, to Protestant churches, or to no churches at all.  Their complex, braided, modern-premodern-postmodern Catholic experiences are never again going to fold neatly into some clear, essentialized Catholic identity, if in fact they ever did.

This leads to a final meaning of No Closure, the one that is, for me, most moving. From time to time we encounter in the media suggestions that indictment or execution of or even apology from those responsible will bring “closure” to families who have lost loved ones.  Such references too often make mourning sound quick and easy, which, of course, it’s not. Neither will some quick and easy closure bring an end to the mourning of American Catholics, whose losses since Vatican II have been profound, as John Seitz’s fine book makes abundantly evident.

(This review appeared originally in the October 2012 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.)

Get the Government Out of My Flooded House!!

November 2, 2012 at 10:37 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Well, as the clean-up from SuperStorm Sandy progresses, some Americans seem less opposed to government intervention than they used to be. Residents of Staten Island, the only Republican leaning borough of New York City, are outraged that help is not coming to them faster. Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey (who sounds for all the world like my Philadelphia working-class relatives) is actually grateful to President Obama for acting quickly.

On Wednesday, October 31, my Congresswoman, Yvette Clarke, sent out an email about government services available in the light of Hurricane Sandy:

FEMA : Federal Emergency Management Agency. Individuals and business owners who sustained losses in designated counties can begin applying for assistance by registering online, or at a toll-free number 7am to 10pm seven days a week.

TRANSPORTATION: The states of NY and RI have access to $13 million in quick-release emergency funds from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the first installment of Federal Highway Administration funds to help begin repairing roads, bridges and tunnels. The Federal Transit Administration will send experts to offices established by FEMA to provide guidance in damage assessment and recovery, and to direct transit agencies to available federal assistance programs. The FAA Air Traffic System Command Center is maintaining constant communication with airlines, the military, business aviation, and airports affected by the storm, all of whom will advise the FAA about flight schedules and plans to resume operations into affected areas. .

HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES: The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and FEMA activated ambulance contracts to support state requirements to evacuate patients as needed and requested.  HHS has personnel deployed in support of state response efforts, including two 50-person Disaster Medical Assistance Teams providing triage and basic care in shelters in NJ. HHS also has personnel supporting 350 ambulances in New York that were activated through FEMA’s ambulance contracts. An additional Disaster Medical Assistance Team remains pre-staged in the mid-Atlantic, prepared to deploy quickly along the East Coast if needed.

NATIONAL BUSINESS EMERGENCY OPERATION CENTER: FEMA activated. More than 330 representatives from retail, transportation, food and groceries, building management, and other industries receive daily briefings on key federal response efforts. These briefings assist in federal and private sector planning efforts, and provide a forum to discuss response efforts and challenges that may arise for maintaining business operations.

HOUSING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT: The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is coordinating with FEMA and affected states to identify housing providers who may have available housing units, including public housing agencies and multi-family owners. HUD is also speeding federal disaster assistance to NY and NJ to provide support to homeowners and low-income renters forced from their homes in the most heavily impacted areas. The President’s major disaster declarations for NY and NJ allow HUD to offer foreclosure relief and other assistance to some families in the designated counties. HUD has granted a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures and forbearances of  (FHA)-insured home mortgages.

AGRICULTURE: TheUS Department of Agriculture regional Food and Nutrition Service leadership is working with state commissioners and program administrators to meet food needs for emergency shelters and feeding sites and to assist with Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) requests.

Republicans, by and large, think that the free market will take care of problems like old age and Hurricane Sandy. In 2005, President George W. Bush introduced a major initiative to privatize personal Social Security accounts and to permit Americans to divert a portion of their Social Security tax (FICA) into investments. When the economy collapsed in 2008, a lot of us, for whom Social Security is a significant portion of our incomes, were grateful that Congress had ditched that idea.

Then, in 2011, during one of the debates in the presidential primaries, Mitt Romney called for the privatization of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the agency at the center of government response to Sandy. You can see him arguing that position here. I imagine he will be holding a press conference later today claiming that that was not what he meant.

The question is, will we Americans, with our notoriously short attention spans, be able to forget, between now and next Tuesday, the role the federal government is playing in the recovery from SuperStorm Sandy? 

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