It’s the Polity, Stupid.

July 28, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Thirty years ago last fall I enrolled in a Master of Divinity program in a Protestant seminary here in New York City. It’s not as if I had never met a Protestant before; on one side of my family, Catholics had married Protestants for three generations. So I grasped that there are differences.

Most of my relatives were standard mainstream Prots, however—-Methodists, Episcopalians, the odd Presbyterian. But New York Theological Seminary is majority Black, so what I encountered were lots of Baptists, as well as Pentecostals and independents. Pretty different in many respects from UMCs and Episcopalians.

One aspect of the NYTS curriculum that fascinated me were courses that the various Protestant churches required of their ordination candidates—-denominational history and polity courses: Baptist History and Polity; Presbyterian History and Polity; Methodist History and Polity.

I had practically never heard the word “polity” before, so I looked it up: “A form or process of civil government or constitution. From polis, city.” So each denomination has a different governance process and structure, much the way nation-states do. I was particularly taken with the polity of Baptist and other congregationalist churches because it’s so different from Catholic polity. The congregation hires and fires the minister and owns the property. There’s usually some kind of umbrella organization for all the churches in a particular region, but the local congregation has almost all the power.

Since the election of Pope Francis, there’s been a lot of speculation about whether various changes are in the offing in our own Roman Catholic denomination. Early on I got an email from the head of the New York chapter of the reform group Call to Action with links to two articles discussing such possible changes. The first was an article in the British Catholic newspaper The Telegraph reporting that “Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras said he was backing more posts for women after the Pope named him… to lead a task force of eight cardinals from around the world to reform the Roman Curia, an alleged hotbed of intrigue, infighting and corruption. The cardinal’s comments, made to The Sunday Times, were backed by Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi on Sunday.”

The second, in the National Catholic Reporter, reported that a “Vatican official responsible for the sainthood cause of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador announced Sunday that the cause has been ‘unblocked’ by Pope Francis, suggesting that beatification of the assassinated prelate could come swiftly.”

Both of these developments sound promising. I myself am especially hopeful that the possible beatification and eventual canonization of Archbishop Romero signifies a reversal of John Paul II’s vicious repression of liberation theology, a theology that is at the heart of my faith.

But some of us are old enough to recall that there was also a great deal of hope during the reign of Pope John XXIII. “Good Pope John,” unlike his predecessor and his successor, went to great lengths to save European Jews during the Holocaust and introduced significant changes into the Catholic church by calling Vatican Council II.

Yet Pope John XXIII’s successors, especially Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, undermined and reversed many of the changes introduced by their predecessor and the Council he called. In point of fact, as Benedictine Father Anthony Ruff announced with astonishment after the Vatican trashed the translation of the Roman missal on which he and others had labored for ten years, the Roman Catholic Church is an absolute monarchy. But at least in secular absolute monarchies, the son or daughter of the previous monarch may have some faint inclination to continue the parent monarch’s policies. In a celibate absolute monarchy, the next guy (I use the term advisedly) can reverse previous decisions with the wave of his wand. Maybe the Vatican and the hierarchy place as much stress as they do on the unchanging truths of the Catholic faith precisely to obscure the arbitrary reversals that the church’s absolute monarchical structure allows.

All of this leads back to the question of polity. The Second Vatican Council taught that the laity as well as the ordained are “the people of God,” and many of us believed it. Had we taken a course in polity at seminary we might have asked what changes in the church’s governance structure would underpin this theological pronouncement. Instead, we continue to fixate on the color of the smoke coming out of the Vatican chimney and hope against hope that the new guy will treat us a little better than his predecessor did, though we know that everything he does can and may well be reversed by the monarch who follows him.

(This post is a slightly revised version of an article that appeared in the June-October 2013 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s ordination Conference.)



July 25, 2013 at 10:55 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

The last few days I’ve been pretty much AWOL, reading an unbelievably absorbing book, Unearthed, by Kenneth Sayre, a philosopher at the University of Notre Dame. I’m not going to give you the subtitle, because it’s the kind publishers force on authors in hopes of increasing sales. The subtitle ought to be “Our Ecological Catastrophe and What We Can Do About It.”

I’m also not going to review Professor Sayre’s book today, though I hope to do so before long. Instead I want to share with you my reaction to his argument. But first, Let me tell you a bit about my environmental background, and then summarize Sayre’s argument.

I am basically an extremely urban person. I live in a densely populated section of a huge and densely populated US city and I adore it. When I was in my twenties I spent some serious time on two different farms, one outside Cincinnati, and one in rural Nova Scotia. While on these farms I heard quite a lot about the land and the environment, and I did learn some things. I have been washing and re-using plastic bags since 1975; I was a serious vegetarian for ten years, and even now, Keith and I eat a whole lot less meat than the average American couple. Then, in 2002, I heard the Canadian water activist Maude Barlow give a series of presentations on the world water crisis. After that I became a water activist of sorts, teaching and lecturing about it in churches and seminaries. Within the last few years, I have also been increasingly concerned about climate change. The Grail action group I belong to is working to prevent fracking in New York state.

But somehow, I just didn’t get it. Until Unearthed. I guess I thought there are all these environmental problems that are going to be really harmful unless we solve them. But in this book, Kenneth Sayre argues in an utterly convincing fashion that the entire way of life that we have led upon the planet since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution–1750, more or less– is fatal to the biosphere on which all living things depend. He does so through a whole succession of amazingly clear, rational, and unpoliticized arguments. Since forever, we learn, there has been a life-sustaining balance between the incoming energy on which the biosphere depends and the waste it produces (entropy). With our increasingly massive use of fossil fuels, however, as well as the destruction of the ecosystems that are fundamental to life, and the production of unrecyclable wastes like plastic, this equation is completely thrown off. The causes of this destruction of the biosphere are the values of pleasure, comfort, convenience, acquisition, and wealth that drive developed societies. Mainline economics, which is predicated on endless economic growth, underpins these values.

Professor Sayre goes into a lot more detail than this, of course. But there’s something about the evenhanded, descriptive way in which he lays out his case that convinces me completely. For me, nothing will ever be the same.

The really tough part, though, is that Sayre finishes with a chapter on the values with which we have to replace the negative, consumerist values that drive our environmental catastrophe and the actions we need to take to bring this value shift about. And this is where my whole life begins to come into question. I mean, I eat a lot of beans, don’t you know. But why on earth (no pun intended) do I wear make-up, which pollutes our water, and dry my hair with a hair-dryer that uses electricity the production of which gives off CO2 and helps to destroy the ozone layer?

And why do I ever by new clothes? I mean, the stuff in my two (!) Ikea closets could probably clothe several families in Tanzania. And all this without considering where the food Keith and I eat comes from. Do I really have to stop eating my morning banana, shipped in from Colombia? Yes. And then there’s my IPhone, my IPad, and my IMac.

It’s enough to make a girl feel totally unearthed.

Where Do You Do Your Laundry?

July 11, 2013 at 4:22 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments
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As I may have mentioned, I live in a six-story apartment  building (54 apartments I think) in the middle of Brooklyn, NYC. At a certain point, in an attempt to gentrify the neighborhood,  they started calling the neighborhood “Ditmas Park,” which was the name used by the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who lived here when Brooklyn was the suburbs of Manhattan. But really, we live in west Flatbush.

Our apartment is on the first floor, which means it can be  pretty dark. All kinds of plants have died here from lack of light. One advantage to being on the first floor, though, is that we can sit and watch the neighborhood walk by on its way to the street where the stores are, Cortelyou Road. It’s not everywhere that you can watch Hindu women  and saris, Muslim women and their daughters from Pakistan and Yemen veiled  head to foot (even their faces), couples talking Russian, families from across Latin America talking Spanish, Jewish families, mostly not wearing overblouses and yarmulkes (the Orthodox having moved farther out decades ago), very many Caribbean folks talking the Queen’s English (sort of), and old and young white gentrifiers yakking along with everybody else.

I really love living here. But I have to confess that sometimes it also makes me feel superior, to have transcended (as it were!) the kind of boundaries that diminish our supposed democracy. Until there’s a laundry crisis, that is.

Something has gone wrong with the laundry in our basement. My financial consultant has advised me not to tell you just what. But my usual bi-weekly trips down to the basement to jam the laundry into the washing machine, followed forty-five minutes later by another trip to transfer it to the dryer(s), followed an hour later by folding or hanging the clothes onto hangers and sliding them back into the closets, are in abeyance. When the baskets under the bed got stuffed beyond functioning, we had to think of something else.

The something else was a trip to the commercial laundromat six blocks away, at the corner of Cortelyou Rd. and E. 16th St. Compared to our basement laundry, the local laundromat is really something. Forty washers, more or less, some requiring eighteen quarters, some requiring eight. No spiffy money cards as at home. Forty dryers. Fifteen or twenty folks using them, almost all women. We were the only white folks in the place. Lots of different kinds of music playing pretty loud. Seriously hot and muggy.

Keith had helped me carry the laundry down to the laundromat–three big bags. The plan was that we would get the machines going, I would sit there while the clothes washed, and then call him to help me fold them and carry them home after they were dry. But I more or less became a nervous wreck as I was trying to get the machines going–poured the bleach into the wrong slot, put the laundry detergent in too soon, and was being driven nuts by the music. So I was the one who went home.

Eventually Keith called me on his cell and I returned the six blocks for the folding and carting part of the adventure. The woman on the folding table across from me had clearly been doing this for a long time; if one sock got over the dividing line, she would say “Is that your sock there? You wouldn’t want to lose track of it.” From which I took it I’d better be more careful with our socks. (Keith assured me that she had been every bit as tough with the Caribbean woman who had preceded me.) At a certain point I just threw all the unfolded and sometimes damp clothes back into the bags and dashed home to deal with them in our quiet bedroom. Some are a little wrinkled as a result, but oh, well.

Rumor has it that our laundry room in the basement will be accessible by the time the baskets under our bed are full once again. And if it’s not, there’s a Chinese laundry down on Newkirk that will pick up our clothes and wash and dry them and bring them back, even if that means I have to iron them all afterwards. I’m kind of proud of living in such a diverse neighborhood, but you don’t want to get too carried away with such things.

Writing in Community

July 3, 2013 at 4:47 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments
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Well, last week’s post on this blog page was my two-hundreth. This one is my two-hundred-and-first.

WordPress, my blog site provider, informs me of the number of my posts every time I do one. I couldn’t help noticing when the announcement hit two hundred. Even I think that’s a lot.

I began blogging in August of 2009, just after my last book, Tracing the Sign of the Cross, was published. The blog was supposed to help sell the book. Good luck with that. As a friend said, if American Catholics really do suffer from an inability to mourn as I argue in Tracing, they probably don’t want to read about it.

I also had a notion that a blog would be a good place to pursue my then-growing interest in World Christianity, more specifically, Christianity in the Global South. I was taken up with the notion that the future of Catholicism was in Africa and Latin America. I even got a research appointment at the Center for World Christianity at New York Theological Seminary in Manhattan.

But soon, the blog more or less became an end in itself. Sometimes I write about Catholicism, or about gender and Catholicism, which have been major interests of mine since the 1970s. Sometimes I write about the environment—climate change, water, fracking—which are the things I worry the most about. Sometimes I just write. I have considered changing my tag line from “An American Catholic on the Margins of World Christianity” to “An American Catholic on the Margins of Catholicism” or even “An American Catholic on the Margins of Almost Everything.”

I began writing long before I had a blog page, of course. I started wanting to be a writer when I was a kid. When I was twelve I had forty-two pen pals, most of them from Girl Scout camp. In high school and college, I wanted to be a poet, till it dawned on me that only geniuses support themselves as poets, and not even geniuses most of the time. I published my first genuine article in an education journal, The Reading Teacher, in 1974. I also made good money as a grant writer between 1979 and 1992.

I suppose I hoped for a while that I would become a famous writer and get invitations to go places and talk about my books and articles. But I am really terrible at promoting myself–a common characteristic of shanty Irish, I’m told. At the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion one year, my mentor, Laura Levitt, said to me “There’s Judith Butler. Go tell her what a brilliant job you did using Gender Theory in your chapter on Mary Gordon.” I almost fainted at the thoughtOne of my books, about Sophia, did make some money, but I wrote it with two United Methodist minister friends, Hal Taussig and Sue Cole. By the time we split the royalties three ways, they were pretty modest. (And I have to confess that Hal and Sue did most of the promotion!)

But I don’t really care about all that. What has come to me over the years is that writing is something that  I do for and within the communities I belong to: The Grail Movement; the Catholic women’s ordination movement, especially the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference branch of that movement; Pax Christi Metro New York, the local branch of the international Catholic peace movement.  Most of the hundred or so people who “follow” my blogpage are members of those communities, as well as family and friends.

I suppose I could be out there promoting my writing as if I were James Patterson or somebody. I got an email last week from CreateSpace, the Amazon wing that’s publishing my collection of articles about the nuns, coaching me on how to get more buyers. One of these days I may read it. But what really matters to me is the conversation I’m having with you all, in Philly, in the Grail, around the country. And I love it when you comment on my posts, so please would you join the tiny group of those who do and say something back now and then?  Xox.

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