Is Commonweal Moving to the Right?

August 28, 2013 at 5:14 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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I began reading the liberal Catholic magazine, Commonweal, when I was a teenager. I remember gobbling up the latest issue in 1965 during the coffee break from my file clerk job the summer before I started college. A few years later, my best friend from college, the future theologian Margaret O’Gara, began taking me home for conversations with her father, Commonweal’s editor,  James O’Gara. I felt amazingly honored to be a “Commonweal Catholic,” committed “to a church that’s open and pluralistic,…a visible manifestation of Jesus’ presence in the world,” as O’Gara put it in his final Commonweal column in 1999.

I’ve continued reading Commonweal and sometimes subscribing to it throughout the nearly fifty years since then, finding it more analytic than The National Catholic Reporter and vastly more progressive than most other Catholic journalism.  I was even a “Commonweal Associate,” for a few years after we moved back to New York, making an annual donation and attending  Associates’ receptions. But I gave that up. Now I’m wondering whether I should let my subscription go too.

A major gripe I have with Commonweal–and have had for some time–is the pitifully low percentage of articles and reviews by women that they publish. In the August 15 issue, for example, women wrote three of the seventeen pieces, but that’s only half the story. One of the three was a one page review of a television mystery series, one was a one page “Final Word” column, and one was a half-page poem about a recipe book.  And the gender make-up of this particular issue is not, I’m sorry to say, atypical.

Now the truth is that few contemporary publications do all that well with gender equality. As Sarah Sentilles notes in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, in 2011, “The Atlantic published 184 articles and pieces of fiction by men and 64 by women; 18 of their book reviewers were men and 8 were women; and 24 of the authors reviewed were men, compared to 12 women. Harper’s Magazine published 65 articles by men and 13 articles by women; 23 of their book reviewers were men and 10 were women; 53 of the authors reviewed were men, 19 were women. The New York Review of Books published 133 articles by men and 19 by women; 201 of their book reviewers were male and 53 were female; and they reviewed 75 male authors and only 17 female authors.”

But Commonweal is an ostensibly progressive publication in a undeniably misogynist religious tradition, Roman Catholicism. Catholic women are already stuck with an all-male priesthood, a non-inclusive language lectionary (this past Sunday’s reading from Hebrews about God disciplining sons!) and condemnation for controlling our own reproductive functions. To which Commonweal adds poems about recipe books. (And yes, I know, the magazine had a women editor, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, for fifteen years, and currently has one female associate editor. It’s not enough!!)

I also wonder what Jim O’Gara, who started out in the Catholic Worker, would think of some of the political/economic articles in Commonweal these days. I’m thinking, for example, of  Charles R. Morris’s piece in the September 4, 2012, issue predicting with enthusiasm a U.S. economic boom based in the hydraulic fracturing of natural gas.  Lots of ostensibly liberal journalism outlets do this sort of thing, of course–consider for example the PBS “ad” about how small farmers who lease their land to the natural gas industry are flourishing. But Commonweal?

Finally let me share with you my most recent perplexity about where Commonweal falls on the political spectrum, its treatment of same-sex marriage. In truth, I thought Commonweal did better on the contraceptives mandate compromise than a lot of other white male Catholic publications: “this will do,” they editorialized. And in their most recent issue, the Commonweal editors do take the U.S. bishops to task for their “overwrought predictions of moral decline and social calamity” in response to the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision–even as they wonder whether “severing the connection marriage has forged between sex, procreation, and family formation will undermine the expectations our culture places on the institution.”  Then, in the same issue,  three male, apparently white,  authors hold forth on the decision’s other problems. God forbid that an assessment by a member of a group with its own history of marriage discrimination be included in the conversation.

But what really stokes my concern about a Commonweal move to the right is a fourth piece about same-sex marriage, this one by the conservative Catholic journalist, Joseph Bottum, that appeared on the Commonweal blog page on August 23rd. In it, Bottum, once an adamant opponent of same-sex marriage, now offers a “Catholic case” for accepting it, based in pragmatism–the battle is lost, and continued opposition is alienating the young–and the fact that the traditional sacredness of marriage has been lost in any case.

There’s quite a lot that’s interesting about Bottum’s essay, as the appearance of not one, but two, commentaries on it in the New York Times suggests. What I wish to point out, however, is that Bottum, the author, is a former editor of First Things,  the neoconservative journal founded by Richard John Neuhaus, and writes regularly for the National Review and The Weekly Standard, both also conservative publications. Furthermore, one of the two Times follow-up pieces is by the conservative Catholic columnist, Ross Douthat.

The question of where someone or something falls on the political spectrum is a tricky one,  affected by many factors. It might have seemed a liberal triumph when a number of  moderates joined the American Baptist Churches after their own Southern Baptist Convention was taken over by conservatives in the 1990s.  But the change also moved the American Baptists to the right. And some conservatives clearly think Joseph Bottum has moved to the left by accepting same-sex marriage and publishing about it in Commonweal.  Me, I’m not so sure.

Cynthia Barnett’s “Blue Revolution”

August 21, 2013 at 11:01 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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I became a water activist in the early 2000s, when I heard Maude Barlow say that by the end of the century, at the rate we were going, there wouldn’t be any clean water left on the planet. Eventually, however, I came to think that climate change—droughts, melting glaciers, the salination of groundwater—was the world water crisis. Now I am not so sure.

Cynthia Barnett’s Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis* is a galvanizing examination of the U.S. water crisis and a proposal for how to solve it. In the first three chapters, Barnett explores the U.S. relationship with water that caused today’s water shortages. At the heart of this crisis, we learn, are massive past interventions in the natural flow of water—the building of dams, canals and levees. The Florida Everglades and the Sacramento –San Joaquin Delta in California are outstanding examples. To remedy the damage done to our water supply by the building of just such infrastructure, politicians and corporations now perversely propose to build even more of it.

American obliviousness to the extent of our water use makes the crisis even worse.  Our single greatest use of water in the U.S. is for energy production—hydropower, thermal, even solar. Next comes irrigation, with agribusiness draining aquifers at a terrifying pace and the Federal government still subsidizing water-intensive crops in very dry sections of the country. Almost as problematic are widespread efforts by municipal water systems, under the influence of global water firms, to enact technical fixes to water shortages. These include long-distance pipelines (an official in Nevada proposes piping water in from the Mississippi River) though such fixes only generate a new set of problems. And then there’s our obsession with turf. When other details of Blue Revolution have escaped my aging brain, I will still remember Barnett’s characterization of the 63,240 square miles of water-gulping back yards and golf courses across the U.S. as a “fifty-first state”!

Barnett presents water use and management in Singapore and the Netherlands as examples of approaches we would do well to adopt. But the heart of the “blue revolution” is what she calls a “water ethic,” a contemporary take on Aldo Leopold‘s 1949 “land ethic.” In place of any more humongous, expensive technological hydro-fixes must come a whole new ethical approach to water. All the people who lust after endless inexpensive supplies of water have to face up to the fact that the resources aren’t there. Instead we must use less water, plain and simple.

The heart of Barnett’s argument is chapter 11, “An American Water Ethic,” with its stress on water conservation and reuse, especially rainwater harvesting. San Antonio,Texas; Monterey, California; and Perth, Australia, are the models here, saving million of gallons of water (and millions of dollars) annually by having convinced their residents to reduce their water use substantially. The underpinnings of such a change, however, are increased community involvement in water-use decisions, and on an even deeper level, educating ourselves to understand water as an essential, even sacred, element of life.

And what about climate change? In some parts of the book, I regret what strikes me as Barnett’s creation of an either-or between the two: green revolution vs. blue. It seems to me that we need both.

But by its conclusion, Blue Revolution had also convinced me that at least sometimes Americans are choosing ostensibly green options to the detriment of blue essentials. The use of millions upon millions of gallons of water laced with sand and toxic chemicals to frack for a supposed transition fuel, natural gas, is one example. The massive use of water to irrigate corn for use in ethanol is another.

In the end, I’m sure you will agree that what we need is a true land-and-water ethic; the earth won’t survive without it. May we deepen ourselves in this double ethic and do everything we can to share it far and wide.

Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis. By Cynthia Barnett. Boston: Beacon, 2012. Paperback. $16.  296 pp.

This post is a slight revision of a review that appeared in the most recent issue of Gumbo, the monthly newsletter of the Grail in the U.S.

Pope Francis and Those Disloyal U.S. Nuns

August 14, 2013 at 10:42 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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Earlier this month the environmental columnist Sharon Abercrombie posted an article on the National Catholic Reporter‘s Eco Catholic blog page, “Francis’ Call for Amazon Protection Echoes Work of Sr. Dorothy Stang.”  I find it provocative for several reasons.

Sister “Dot” Stang  was an American sister who spent forty years in Brazil, working with indigenous people in the Amazon rainforest. The Amazon Basin, as Abercrombie reminds us, comprises forty percent of Latin America and produces twenty percent of the world’s oxygen, a non-optional substance. Sister Dorothy worked to help the indigenous people of the rainforest in Brazil to learn sustainable farming practices. She also got them into contact with lawyers to defend them against loggers and ranchers intent on driving them off their land in order to clearcut the rainforest and raise huge herds of livestock there. In February of 2005 Sister Dorothy was shot dead by killers hired by just such loggers and ranchers. They were angered by her efforts to protect the people and the rainforest. In the years since her death, the situation in the Amazon has grown even worse due to government-sanctioned agribusiness and the construction of hydroelectric dams and mining infrastructure.

Abercrombie’s article suggests that during his recent visit to Brazil, Pope Francis emphasized the same values that Sister Dorothy lived and died for, telling the Brazilian bishops that the defense of the Amazon is relevant not only for the future of the church but of the whole society. He met with and encouraged some of the same indigenous peoples that Sister Dorothy served.

I am glad that the pope highlighted protection of the Amazon during his visit to Brazil. The church, in my opinion, spends far too little time stressing the environment as a “right to life” issue. Yet as the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)  begins its annual meeting this week, I can’t help reflecting somewhat sardonically on the connections between the Pope’s words about the Amazon, Sister Dorothy’s work, and the current situation of the LCWR.

First of all, let’s recall that although she held dual US-Brazilian citizenship, Sister Dorothy was a member of a U.S. province of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a group that belongs to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Now, in point of fact, as Abercrombie mentions, Sister Dorothy did spend some of her time in Brazil “organizing religious services and spiritual formation classes for children and adults alike.” But a major emphasis, and the cause of her martyrdom, was her political-environmental work against ranchers and loggers doing enormous harm to the Brazilian rainforest, actions Sister Dorothy understood to contradict Catholic social teaching.  She seems to have spent little (or no) time denouncing homosexuality and abortion.

In other words, Sister Dorothy was exactly the kind of U.S. Catholic sister whom the Vatican condemned in the “doctrinal assessment” it issued in April of 2012–a document which the current pope declined to rescind or even modify. The archbishop whom Pope Benedict sicced on U.S. sisters is still overseeing their meeting this week in Orlando, Florida.

Yet the values that this emblematic U.S. Catholic sister died for are precisely the values expressed by the new pope during his recent visit to Sister Dorothy’s adopted country. And commentators have remarked that this pope has said very little about the pelvic issues that have obsessed the Vatican and the hierarchy since Vatican II– something the sisters were also criticized for in the doctrinal assessment. Pope Francis had better be careful, or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith may be issuing a negative assessment of him before long.

Fracking, Fracking Everywhere and…

August 7, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about fracking lately. I started out reading Tom Wilber’s carefully argued book, Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale (Cornell University Press, 2012). Then in July we had the HBO premiere of Josh Fox’s second documentary on fracking, Gasland II (still available On Demand, to be followed, no doubt, by the DVD.) And activists are organizing ferociously to stop Gov. Andrew Cuomo from approving fracking here in NY state. He has postponed the decision a number of times, thanks, we believe, to public outcry. Last weekend I collected seventy-five signatures on Food and Water Watch‘s anti-fracking petition to Cuomo in an hour at our corner green-market . A lot of the folks I approached were pretty charged up.

Some, however, were apathetic, uninformed, or both. Several said “I’m not interested in political issues.” Other Grail members who gathered signatures in Brooklyn said some people they approached had never heard of fracking. So let me describe it, briefly, before addressing the one big problem that underlies it –the greed of the natural gas industry and its investors.

“Fracking,” short for hydraulic fracturing, is a method of drilling for oil and natural gas. It was invented in the nineteenth century, and has been used for many years to drill for oil in softer rock formations. This kind of fracking was less harmful to the environment than the current form of fracking. Since the decline of oil supplies in recent years, however, “unconventional” fracking has been used to drill into hard rock forms like shale to release natural gas. To do so, the drillers inject between two and ten million gallons of water laced with sand and toxic chemicals into new L-shaped wells. Some of the toxic fluid trucked into the well area leaks out and poisons the ground even before the fracking begins. After the remaining fracking fluid cracks the rock, gas is released, but some also seeps into the groundwater which people depend on to drink, irrigate their crops etc. Sometimes fracking for natural gas causes earthquakes. Some of the toxic fracking fluid returns to the surface to be trucked away to public water recycling plants which are rarely able to handle the poisons adequately. (Dick Cheney got an amendment put into the U.S. Clean Water Act exempting the natural gas industry from having to reveal which toxic chemicals they put into the fracking fluid.) In addition, the cement well-casings through which the fracking fluid is injected sometimes crack causing the natural gas—methane—to leak into the atmosphere. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, something the natural gas industry fails to mention when they tout natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to a clean energy future. Furthermore, the gas fracked in the Marcellus Shale area (northeastern Pennsylvania and western NY) contains a dangerous level of the radioactive substance radon in it, which, experts predict, will increase lung cancer rates. And don’t get me started on the harm done to the environment by the multitude of pipelines that will have to be built to transport the liquified natural gas from fracking wells to populated areas for use (or to the coastline for export).

But the mainstream media, and “frackademics” (whose research is funded by the natural gas industry) persist in claiming that fracking for natural gas is safe. An article in yesterday’s New York Times reports that a new portable laser gas detector will enable the gas industry to detect the kind of methane leaks that make drilling for natural more damaging to the climate than burning oil. This new ability to measure methane leaks is going to be a game-changer, according to the vice-president of the company producing the measuring device.

With regard to climate change, however, the question is not whether the gas industry can measure methane leakage from fracking wells, but whether it will. If we look back at the history of fossil fuel mining and drilling—mountaintop removal in West Virginia, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico—there is nothing to suggest that the industry will police itself regarding methane leakage into the atmosphere (or regarding methane leakage into the groundwater, or fracking fluid leakage into the groundwater, etc., etc.)  And I am not reassured by the statement in yesterday’s Times article: “The Environmental Protection Agency, which has a history of requiring new controls as technology improves, intermittently hints that it might regulate methane emissions…”

Why not? Because since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the regulation of a whole range of dangerous industrial practices affecting our food, drugs, water, air, bridges, roads, and so forth, has been steadily weakened. (See Wenonah Hauter’s hair-raising Foodopoly for examples.) And one goal of the budget cuts being endlessly pushed in Congress is to further such deregulation. Sequestration has forced the furloughing of the staffs of agencies that are already not protecting our environment; how on earth will they regulate methane leakage?

Of course, the natural gas industry could self-monitor methane leakage, fracking fluid spills, radon levels, etc.  But why would it? Such monitoring—and God forbid, remedying the problems—would cost money. And the only purpose of the natural gas revolution in the United States is to make money, plain and simple.  Fracking is the next best hope of the 1%, safety be damned.

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