Happy Almost Easter!

March 28, 2013 at 4:24 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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Well, its Thursday of Holy Week. Time for what we Catholics call “The Triduum” –three days of services during which we follow Jesus from his last supper, to the Garden of Gethsemane, through his passion and death, to his resurrection on Easter Sunday. It’s quite a journey.

For me, though, the journey got underway big time last weekend at the Palm Sunday Mass at my parish church, Our Lady of Refuge here in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. At that Mass we read for the first time during Holy Week the New Testament Passion story (this year, from St. Luke). Then, probably because the Passion takes longer to read than the usual Sunday Gospel, the pastor, Michael Perry, got up in the pulpit and instead of giving a sermon simply reread the epistle, Philippians 2.  There are times when I might have regretted such a  choice, but the passage from Philippians is, in my opinion, spectacular–a liturgical proclamation that’s at the heart of the Christian faith:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

a thing to be grasp,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross.

Therefore God has highly exalted him

and given him the name

that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

Now I know there will be all sorts of objections to this text–it adulates suffering, there are many other religions so why should every knee bow to Jesus, it ignores women, etc. In the past I myself have offered these criticisms (and more) of other biblical and theological texts.

But I still want you to know, Philippians 2 moves me very deeply.

Perhaps my saying this will make more sense if I add that my first conscious encounter with Philippians 2 was singing the Gregorian setting of it–the “Christus Factus Est”–along with other Grail women when I lived at the Grail’s national center outside Cincinnati in the 1970s. I still close my eyes and sing it to myself from time to time, decades after Gregorian chant has pretty much died out in the Grail (and other places).

Perhaps  listening to a recording of  the “Christus Factus Est” will help you to understand why the text moves me as deeply it does–in a way that my talking about it cannot. (Had I found a recording by a group of women, you might understand the strength of my feelings even more.)


Catholics Other Than the Pope

March 19, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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If, like me, you are getting reaaaaally tired of hearing about the new pope and the Vatican, you may enjoy my review of three new books about Catholics. It appeared in the most recent edition of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.


Sacred Dread: Raissa Maritain, the Allure of Suffering, and the French Catholic Revival, by Brenna Moore. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013). 293 pp. Paper, $30; e-book, $21.

Raised by the Church: Growing Up in New York City’s Catholic Orphanages, by Edward Rohs and Judith Estrine. (Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2012).  238 pp. Hardbound, $22.95.

Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church, by Timothy Matovina. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012). 312 pp. Hardbound, $29.95; e-book, $16.19.

In recent years, what with attacks by the Vatican and the hierarchy on US sisters, affordable health care, and lgbt equality, it hasn’t always been easy to remain Catholic.  But as the three books reviewed here demonstrate, the Catholic tradition, past and present, is no less enriching for all of that—growing, changing, providing insight into vital issues.

I begin with Sacred Dread, Brenna Moore’s study of the French philosopher, mystic, and Jewish convert to Catholicism, Raissa Maritain, and the French Catholic Revival (1905-1950) of which she was a part. Moore is one of a cadre of young Catholic feminist scholar here in the New York metropolitan area (among them, Jeannine Hill Fletcher, Elena Procario-Foley, and Julie Byrne) making significant contributions to Catholic studies. Moore’s book introduces readers to the extraordinary work of a woman who has, for the most part, been eclipsed by her husband, the French Catholic neo-Thomist philosopher, Jacques Maritain. I was reminded throughout the book of how much the female member of this pair has been overshadowed by the male: whenever I read “Maritain,” I would think of Jacques, and then remember that the book is actually about Raissa.

The central question of Sacred Dread, as Moore tells us, is “How did suffering and anguish achieve such a prominent presence in so many French Catholic revival  works, and how can this fascination with suffering be understood.” Feminist theologians like Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock have in recent years condemned the Christian doctrine of vicarious suffering. But the French Catholic Revival, spearheaded by figures such as Leon Bloy, Charles de Foucauld, Charles Peguy, Simone Weil, and Maritain herself, had an enormous and in many respects positive impact on American Catholicism, suffering and all.

Moore’s analysis does not ignore the problematic side of the Revival’s focus on suffering and abasement, for example, its use of Jews and women as the primary figures of such suffering. But it also places this focus in an historical and social context that does the phenomenon far more justice than do blanket liberal feminist condemnations. Even before the horrors of the two world wars, French Catholics were turning to the suffering of Jesus and Mary as an alternative to the naïve optimism of nineteenth century Romanticism and scientific positivism. Maritain was a Russian Jew who emigrated to Paris at the age of ten and turned, at the Sorbonne, from liberal secularism to a vision of this “sacred dread” that sustained her through the extermination of European Jewry. Moore’s reading of the life of this remarkable woman adds much-needed nuance to liberal feminist scholarship on Christianity.

In 1946—not long after Maritain and her husband returned to Paris from their exile in New York City—the  unmarried mother of newborn Edward Rohs left him on the steps of a Sisters of Mercy orphanage in Brooklyn.  Raised by the Church is a memoir of the next nineteen years of “Ed’s” life, as he moves up through the post-war Catholic orphanage system, and of what becomes of him after he leaves. Interwoven with this personal narrative is the history of the child welfare system in New York.

Compared with Brenna Moore’s sophisticated analysis of Raissa Maritain, Rohs’s memoir is almost innocent, but I enjoyed every word of it.   A resident of five different orphanages in the gender and age-segregated New York Catholic orphanage system, Rohs shares his experiences in a moving, deeply personal style. Early in the narrative, for example, he reports his shock at the disappearance of mother figures when he moved up from orphanages staffed by Catholic sisters to those staffed by brothers. For the rest of her life, he treated one of the Sisters of Mercy from his childhood, Sister Johanna McLaughlin, like the beloved aunt he never had.

Perhaps most striking, for me, are the stories Rohs tells of an experience of physical and sexual abuse by a lay counselor in one of the orphanages and of attempted sexual abuse by a visiting Catholic brother at another orphanage when he was a bit older. Although Rohs admits to experiencing both trauma and rage in response to the first case, (less so to the second), he is ultimately forgiving, if not of the perpetrators, then of the institutions in which they acted. With regard to treatment by the sadistic lay counselor, Rohs writes, “”these memories are wrapped within the larger context of a child being raised in an environment that lacked sufficient staff trained to listen and respond to me.” Rohs went on to work in the Catholic orphanage system himself, and later, as a professional in the New York State Office of Mental Health. Writing of the violence experienced by young people in the New York state system, Rohs describes his own isolated incidents of abuse at the hands of people who were supposed to protect him as “peanuts.”

The chronological structure of this review, and even the subtitle of Timothy Matovina’s book—Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church—might lead a reader to assume that “Latino Catholicism” is a contemporary phenomenon. And indeed, that’s what many of us think: all these Hispanic immigrants came to the US in the twentieth century, the way the Germans, the Irish and the Italians did in the nineteenth. But as Matovina clarifies immediately, there were Spanish-speaking Catholics in the territory that is now the US four decades before the English founded Jamestown, and seven before the first English Catholic settlement in Baltimore. And nativists were killing Spanish-speaking priests in the Southwest even as they were burning down white-ethnic Catholic churches and convents in the Northeast before the Civil War.

But it’s the present as well as the past that drives Matovina to call for—and enact—a remapping of American Catholicism in light of the mutual transformation of the US Church by Anglo and Spanish-speaking members.  For, as we learn, forty-five per cent of all Millennial Catholics (born between 1979 and 1987) are Latinos, as are two-thirds of Catholics under the age of thirty-five who attend church regularly. If we are concerned about the future of the church, then, it is crucial to absorb what Matovina tells us about Hispanic church leadership; parishes and apostolic movements like Cursillo; worship and devotional practices to Our Lady of Guadalupe and others; Latino involvement in Catholic networks of education, health care, social service, ministry, pastoral training and publications; as well as how Hispanic Catholics are passing on the faith to the next generation. It is impossible, in a review of this length, to do justice to the sweeping and comprehensive study of the Catholicism of Spanish-speaking Americans past and present that Matovina offers in Latino Catholicism. I was struck, however, as I worked my way through his nuanced arguments, by the extent to which the future of Latino Catholicism is threatened by problems that also undermine the rest of the American church. Matovina argues convincingly, for example, that the future of US Latino Catholicism, in large part, will be determined by the quality of Hispanic ministry, especially to Hispanic youth—pastoral juvenil. And studies show that the most effective youth ministries are led by paid pastoral staff. But the vast majority of Latino ministers in the US Catholic Church are deacons, who are, by definition, not paid, and by women, who for the most part earn lay ministry certificates because they can’t afford the academic ministry degrees generally required for paid positions. In 2006 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops likewise replaced its Hispanic ministry office with a less well-funded office of “cultural diversity.” Why all this underfunding of the future of US Catholicism? Because of the costs of the sex abuse crisis, as well as the lost contributions of alienated former Catholics and of Latino Catholics who are joining evangelical churches in significant numbers.

This depressing conclusion is not what you may have anticipated from a review that begins by referring to the “enriching” Catholic tradition. But difficulty, and even betrayal, have always been part of that tradition. I can do no better, then, than to close with the final lines of Latino Catholicism, the words of San Antonio Archbishop Patricio Flores:

“’Let us not falter,’ the Lord told his apostles when they struggled against the  winds. He tells us, now that we are in mid-sea, ‘Courage, do not be afraid. It is I.’”

Note to the New Pope: Half of the World’s Poor Are Women

March 14, 2013 at 5:33 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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(Or as Ronald Reagan would have put it: “Pope Francis, tear down this wall!”)

Well, we have a pope. After two weeks of speculation, prediction, even handicapping, the first non-European pope in over a thousand years, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, stepped out on the Vatican loggia at 8:22 Central European Time yesterday to be introduced to the world.

In some respects, the election of Cardinal Bergoglio is a very promising sign. As an archbishop from the most populous Catholic continent on earth, Latin America, the new Pope Francis I symbolizes a shift that has been a very long time coming, from Eurocentrism to the church of the Global South. And his reputation as an advocate for the poor, emphasizing the Christian Gospel of love, washing the feet of AIDS victims, and more, can’t help being a good thing.

The new pope’s ethnic heritage will stand him in good stead as well, since his parents were Italians, and he speaks Italian fluently—not a bad thing for a pope—even as he has never served in the Vatican curia, the focus of much criticism and concern in recent months. He is also the first Jesuit pope in history. Being a member of the largest religious order in the Catholic world certainly can’t hurt.

For a church that isn’t exactly known for headlong change, this may well  be the best we Catholics could have hoped for. But let’s be clear: Pope Francis is a conservative, as anyone elected by this conclave would have been. From the beginning of his career, he has opposed liberation theology, the Latin American-rooted progressive theology that has inspired many liberal Catholics, myself included, since the 1960s. And he is opposed to homosexuality.

Most people have already heard more than they need to about the problems the new pope will face: the sex abuse scandal, corruption at the Vatican Bank and throughout the Vatican administration, secularism in the West, reaching out to the burgeoning church in the Global South. Good luck to him on all counts, I say.

For me, though, the kicker, the “line in the sand,” as Archbishop Timothy Dolan would put it, is the church’s benighted attitude toward and treatment of women. This could be perceived as the opinion of a privileged North American woman who cares more about gender than about the poor to whom this new pope is dedicated. But let’s be clear: half of the world’s poor are women, and the church’s efforts to deprive the Catholic women among them of contraceptives, of the use of condoms that could protect them from HIV-AIDS, and of the ministry of women priests who would baptize, absolve, and bury them, is no service to them.

Even as President Ronald Reagan challenged Michael Gorbachev to tear down the wall between East and West, the much-loved Pope John Paul II put every effort into freeing the Catholics of Eastern Europe from religious and political oppression. The new supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis I, has the opportunity to end another form of oppression, the second-class status of women in the Catholic Church. Pope Francis, bring down this wall!

(This is a faintly revised version of an article that appeared on Religion Dispatches on Wednesday, March 13, 2013.)

What Color is Vatican Smoke?

March 13, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Yesterday the eyes of the world were fixed on a chimney over the Sistine Chapel, eager to see the color of the smoke that would pour out. And at 6:45 PM, the smoke that they saw was black, indicating that the current conclave of cardinals had failed to elect a new pope. (As of Wednesday morning, a decision has yet to be made.)

From a balcony across the square, however, smoke of a different color rose—pink smoke—generated by women priests and ordination activists. Their action, announcing that women deserve to be recognized as Catholic priests—and eventually as cardinals and popes—replicated “pink smoke” demonstrations held in front of US cathedrals during the 2005 conclave that elected Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI.

And even as these two clashing shades of smoke were rising over the Vatican, reform Catholics in various parts of the U.S. were coming together to view Pink Smoke Over the Vatican, a documentary film about the movement for Catholic women’s ordination, and, in particular, about Roman Catholic Womenpriests (RCWP), a group that began with the 2002 ordination of seven women on the Danube River and has expanded to include several hundred women priests and bishops and the communities they lead.

(Read the rest of this article on Religion Dispatches)

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