Bicoastal Perplexity

June 25, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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So I’ve been away again. June 8 to June 19 I went to California. I could have told you before, since my heroic companion was holding down the fort here in West Flatbush. Truth is, though, I was run ragged the whole time, visiting with many friends. And therein lies a tale.

Keith (said companion) and I moved to northern California in 1997, and we lived there for eleven years. It all seemed like a fairy tale at the time. Keith got invited to interview for the presidency of the American Baptist Seminary of the West in Berkeley. He didn’t even apply for the job. They flew us out and interviewed us. Two days after we got home, they called up and offered Keith the presidency. They wanted him so much, they hired me, too. (I suppose I should be embarrassed to admit that, but mostly, I’m grateful.) We flew back out, made an offer on a house and bought it. It cost almost five times as much as the row house we owned in Philadelphia while I was doing my Ph.D. there; after the closing, we went home and I threw up.

But mostly, we were just plain thrilled.

We had been to California on vacation once and thought it unbelievably beautiful. The thing is, going someplace on vacation is really different from living there, especially if the place is as far away as Europe but in the opposite direction. The seminary paid to ship our stuff, but we drove our car out because we were going to need it in the Bay Area. My first inkling that the distance might be a problem came when we got to Wyoming, after endless driving, with still more to come. In addition, people in the town where we stopped were dressed exactly like the cowboys on the t.v. shows I watched as a kid. “Keith,” I said, “I think we’ve made a terrible mistake.”

And how far Northern California was from what we considered the actually existing world in 1997 had nothing on how far it became after September 11, 2001. Because then, as you know, we not only had to fly six hours to get home but also stand in line at security for two hours to demonstrate that we weren’t terrorists. In addition to which, Keith’s sons, who were not long out of college when we went West, gradually got married and had kids. The weddings and Christenings started to pile up.

Now let me be clear. There were many things about Berkeley that I simply adored–and still do. The teaching I did at the Graduate Theological Union was the most meaningful work of my entire life. And the seminary presidency was a very good position for Keith as he approached the end of his career, though he never took to Berkeley the way I did. And the weather!! The locals considered it cold if the temperature dropped below fifty.

But the distance from Berkeley to New York was an endless problem, no pun intended. When Keith stepped down from the seminary presidency, we decided to move back home. All of both our  families were (and are) on the East Coast. And many of our friends.

“No one ever goes back to the East,” an acquaintance said.

“We are,” we replied.

And we are pretty happy at having done so. Except…

Except eleven years is a long time to live someplace. We, and I in particular, made a lot of friends in eleven years, without even taking into account the scores of seminary students I taught, and the dozen or so Grail friends (some from the East) who moved to a retirement community in Claremont, CA, just as Keith and I were moving back to NYC.

So while we are glad to be home, now there’s a new problem–or a reversal of the old one. It’s way too far from New York to California, but I am still flying across the country, now to visit the dear friends I made even as I was coming to realize that California is way too far away.


Tectonic Shifts

June 11, 2013 at 5:34 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Paul Baumann’s review essay in the June 3rd essay of The Nation is noteworthy on several counts. An article by the editor of the liberal Catholic journal, Commonweal, about a new book, Evangelical Catholicism, by George Weigel, “the neo-conservative leader of American Catholicism’s war on Vatican II,” as Baumann describes him, would be noteworthy in itself. That it is an incisive analysis of the crisis facing the American church makes it doubly so.

But to grasp the full significance of this review you need also to understand that it appears in a magazine that published some of the most anti-Catholic articles in the post-World War II period. Written by Paul Blanshard, one of The Nation’s editors, they were eventually collected in a book, American Freedom and Catholic Power. In The New Anti-Catholicism, scholar of American religion Philip Jenkins says that Blanshard’s plan of resistance against Catholicism in that book echoed the anti-Catholic proposals of the Ku Klux Klan. Yet now we have a nationally recognized Catholic journalist publishing about Catholicism in that magazine and even offering pointed criticisms of the institutional church there.

Baumann begins by situating Evangelical Catholicism within the context of the American bishops’ fevered opposition to Barack Obama’s first-term agenda, including their attack on the University of Notre Dame for inviting Obama to give their commencement address in 2009. The bishops’ opposition culminated in the “Fortnight of Freedom” attack on the contraceptives mandate of the Affordable Care Act during the 2012 campaign, followed by their rejection of two successive compromises the administration proposed on same. This uproar reveals how “deeply divided and directionless the once formidable and coherent” American church has become, tutored as the bishops are by neo-conservative intellectuals. And, Baumann assures us, if Evangelical Catholicism is any indicator, the divisions are only going to get worse.

For those mercifully unfamiliar with Weigel’s legacy prior to this latest book, Baumann provides a helpful overview, noting, for example, Weigel’s rebuttals of the US bishops’ fine 1980s pastoral letters, “The Challenge of Peace”and “Economic Justice for All.” The much more conservative successors of those “Vatican II” bishops seem to have completely swallowed Weigel’s neo-con arguments, however, almost passing a pastoral letter in the summer of 2012 that described the economic downturn as a result of the nation’s moral failings–divorce, same-sex marriage and of course, abortion. Regulations of financial institutions or how to allocate public funds to the needy are questions of individual conscience, however. This, Baumann tells us, bears a “striking resemblance” to Weigel’s recommendations in Evangelical Catholicism.

Weigel’s “evangelical Catholicism,” we learn, is the successor to the “tribal Catholicism” of previous centuries, where bishops stressed building churches and hospitals and supporting the poor. Instead, the Catholics of the future will “speak of their faith in an evangelical idiom once considered Protestant…(in which) ‘friendship with the Lord Jesus’ will be as integral as Mass on Sunday.”

Moreover, according to Weigel, this new Catholicism is essential to the survival of human rights and democracy. Conversion to Catholic natural law morality is the only way forward.
Baumann, not exactly a Nation secularist, agrees that the Aristotelian/Thomistic tradition has resources to offer American democracy. But, he assures us, that’s not all we need as we deal with our increasing multiculturalism. Weigel is the avatar of rigid and reactionary approaches to such diversity, Baumann tells us, and Evangelical Catholicism/em>is a repetitious diatribe. The cause of our current crisis is not, Baumann argues, the “permissive morality of liberal elites, but our economic system.” The Vatican II fathers taught that the only way forward for the church is to let modernity in even as we engage it critically. But Evangelical Catholicism advocates closing as many doors as possible.

The first “tectonic shift” in all of this is, of course, the publication of an article by a Catholic journalist in a once virulently anti-Catholic magazine. The second is the call by an extremely conservative American Catholic for an “evangelical Catholicism” that is seriously far removed from the sacramental Catholicism of previous millenia. And the third? That the US bishops are falling for such neo-conservative propaganda. As Baumann observes, almost parenthetically, Cardinal Dolan, the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, recently hired as his spokesperson one of the political consultants from Sarah Palin’s presidential campaign. (Palin, you may recall, is a former Catholic who converted to evangelical Protestantism and seems less than committed to Catholic social justice teaching.)

Jesus. Mary, and Joseph.

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