Francis as Person of the Coming Year as Well?

December 30, 2013 at 6:35 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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Well, what the NCR’s John Allen calls “pope-mania” seems only to be increasing as the year winds down.

Last night, Bill Moyers started his weekly show by interviewing the popular writer and Jesuit-educated Thomas Cahill on Pope Francis and poverty.  Now truth be told, Cahill sometimes sounds like a pre-Vatican II cleric; at one point in the interview he explains, in all seriousness, that there are two tendencies in the world–kindness and cruelty. About those who are sometimes kind and sometimes cruel (i.e., most of us), he had nothing to say. Nonetheless, there he was, holding forth about the pope as a living example of the Sermon on the Mount: blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, etc.

Then, in this morning’s New York Times, we find a former head of the World Bank, Robert Calderisi, explaining that although Pope Francis may seem radical, he is actually promoting traditional Catholic social teaching, from Pope Leo XIII, through Pius XII, to pope-to be John XXIII. This may come as something of a shock to the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who not so long ago condemned U.S. nuns for being too concerned about such matters, as well as for the majority of U.S. Catholic bishops, who have been making clear for several decades that Catholic social teaching (unlike sexual teaching) is at the bottom of the church’s ideological hierarchy and therefore entirely optional.

But for me, the most astonishing example of ongoing pope-enthusiasm is Harvey Cox’s article on Pope Francis and liberation theology in the January 6/13 issue of The Nation. To grasp the full significance of this, you need to understand that before the election of JFK, The Nation was a blatantly anti-Catholic magazine, publishing, for example, a series of virulently nativist articles by Paul Blanshard that eventually became the best-selling,  American Freedom and Catholic Power. Yet here in that same magazine we have the distinctly Baptist (though not Southern Baptist) Harvey Cox announcing with glee that Pope Francis may bring about a second act for the enormously influential liberation theology repressed by his two authoritarian predecessors.

Those who have read my previous posts about Pope Francis know that I am less than enthusiastic about his position on women, especially women’s ordination. Announcing that “the door is closed” on an issue does not constitute a theological argument, as a scholar-friend pointed out recently. And I was appalled once again by the apathy of all the commentators cited here regarding the pope’s position on women’s ordination. It’s just not something the pope can do anything about, said Cahill. And Cox cites the ordination of women (but not the ordination of married men) as an (in fact the) prime example of the ways in which too many people have excessively high expectations of what Francis can do. That the inferior status of women in the the world’s largest religious organization may contribute to the fact that the majority of the world’s poor are women seems beyond the imagination of these white male commentators. Anyhow, everybody knows that feminism is over.

But even I am forced to admit that after so many years, having a pope speak out about the poor is a terrific first step. Let’s pray that Pope Francis does even more brave and wonderful things in 2014.

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Solstice Hope

December 21, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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Well, for seasonal affective types like me, the winter solstice is something wonderful. I probably won’t really be able to tell that tomorrow is a minute brighter than today was, but the thought of it makes me happy.

Accompanying this oddly situated reminder that winter will come to an end are not one but two hope-inspiring pieces today in the New York Times. The first is by a retired biology professor from the University of Vermont, Bernd Heinrich, narrating his experience of successfully growing American chestnut trees in his 600 acre forest in western Maine. Chestnut trees, we learn, were once thirty percent of the hardwood forests of the eastern U.S. but were almost totally wiped out by a fungal blight a century ago. Within fifty years, an estimated four billion trees had vanished.

But Heinrich planted four chestnut seedlings in 1982, and several of them are now thirty-five feet tall. And their seeds are being “planted” throughout the forest. Heinrich did not have a lot of hope for his four seedlings, but there they are, thirty years later, thriving, and reproducing.

The second article tells of a growing movement to rescue the endangered monarch butterfly. The effort focuses on getting people to plant milkweed seeds on their land, lawns, wherever.  Members of the movement are doing this because milkweed seeds are the monarch caterpillar’s only food, but the number of milkweed plants has declined massively in recent years.

The author admits that there are a number of causes of the decline of the monarch butterfly–drought, extreme weather, illegal logging in Mexico, fungicides, and pesticides, among others. But the greatest threat to the monarch butterfly, we learn, is the serious decline of its milkweed habitat in the Midwest and the Great Plains, where many  monarchs breed. The milkweed decline was precipitated by the federal government’s order in 2007 that gasoline be laced with corn-based ethanol, and their then allowing farmers to take land out of federal conservation reserves to meet the soaring demand for corn. Since then, 17,500 acres of reserves that were previously available for wildlife and wild plants like milkweed have been converted to corn.

But now, a number of groups are growing and distributing milkweed seeds, encouraging people–and by no means only farmers–to plant them. The response has been enthusiastic.

Both articles acknowledge that many problems still face the chestnut tree and the monarch butterfly. The fungus that killed the chestnuts is present on other trees in the Northeast and could wipe them out once more. And the effort to save the monarch butterfly is in a sense more symbolic than substantive; we could win that battle and still lose the larger war against environmental destruction.

But on this shortest day of the year, it cheers me no end to think about those chestnut trees in western Maine, and the possible revival of the monarch butterflies I visited once in southern California–a tiny but real increase in the sunlight as we bundle up for winter.

Pope Francis

December 12, 2013 at 4:46 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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Well, with Time magazine naming Pope Francis its “Person of the Year” for 2013, what John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter calls “pope-mania” has reached a new high.

And it’s hard to disagree with Time‘s selection, as we read through their many examples of Francis’s hope-inspiring behavior. To highlight a few:

  • Francis’s challenge to the church to shift its energies to the poor. 
  • His “Who am I to judge?” regarding homosexuals 
  • His abolition of the honorific title “monsignor.” 
  • His appointment of a council of cardinals for “real consultation.” 
  • His challenge to the church to end its fixation on culture-war issues. 
  •  His openness to Jews, Muslims, and evangelical Protestants.
  • His enthusiastic, unscripted Wednesday audiences, including his call-and-response interactions with the crowds.
  • His humility. 

And yet I am still keeping my distance. For one thing, those of us beyond a certain age have been disappointed before, with the papacy of John XXIII and his Council, which we believed would change the church. Believed it, that is, until his successor ignored the conclusions of another “consultative body,” the Papal Birth Control Commission, and issued  Humanae Vitae. The next two popes went on to undercut many of the changes called for by “good Pope John” and his Council.

The sad truth is that the Catholic Church is an absolute monarchy. Monarchs may consult all kinds of people, but they hold the power. And as amusing as it may be, in a body given to saying over and over “As the Church has always taught,” the absolute monarch who succeeds the current one can and may well reverse any number of his initiatives. Witness the way in which Francis himself is undermining John Paul II’s repression of liberation theology. No wonder the conservatives are upset.

Another aspect of Time’s encomium to the new pope also gives me pause–its trivialization of Francis’s rejection of women’s ordination. By Time‘s  telling of it, the ordination of women is the least of the problems most of the world’s Catholic women face. The authors quote the Archbishop of Addis Ababa regarding Pope Francis’s position on  women: “’It could help a lot,’ he says, ‘because he is saying women have a great role in the church and in society.’” Some commentators even speak of the possibility of women cardinals. But will unordained women cardinals be made heads of dioceses? Will they be elected pope?

Not all churchmen in the Global South trivialize women’s ordination. The Nigerian theologian A.E. Orobator, himself a Jesuit provincial as Pope Francis once was, notes in his East African ecclesiology that the greatest desire of people in East Africa who suffer from AIDS is to receive the last sacraments before they die. But since only women minister to people with AIDS–priests don’t go near them–most AIDS victims die unanointed. Those who say that genital mutilation and education are vastly more important than women’s ordination downplay the fact that the Catholic Church owes its members spiritual as well as practical ministry. The exclusion of women from ordination denies men, women and children the sacraments, and not just in the North.

In his brilliant study of the post-Vatican II church, The Frontiers of Catholicismhistorical sociologist Gene Burns explains that the Catholic church did not give up its claim to absolute truth  when Vatican II recognized the rights of religious freedom and freedom of conscience. Instead, it shifted its claims of absolute truth from doctrine to moral teaching–sexuality and gender–which, because it is based in “natural law,” is binding for all, not just Catholics. Thus the ideological hierarchy that had operated in the Catholic church for centuries was reconstructed, with sex/gender teaching on the top and most important; doctrine at the middle level, and somewhat important, but less so than sex and gender; and social teaching at the lowest level and optional. If you have some doubts about this explanation, try to remember the last time a U.S. bishop excluded a politician from communion for supporting legislation that harmed the poor.

Pope Francis is trying to change this ideological hierarchy, trying to move social teaching up somewhat. Conservatives have taken to reminding us that not everything the pope says is infallible–only “faith and morals”–precisely to prevent such a reconfiguration. But as for knocking “morals” off the top of the hierarchy, Francis isn’t so silly as to try. Women, I fear, will continue to be described in terms of our receptivity and complementarity, that is, our beautiful passivity. Christ will continue to be the “bridegroom” whom women can’t represent for the crudest of reasons. And women’s ordination will be the sop good Pope Francis throws to the conservatives to keep them from opposing him outright.

(All right, all right! It’s more than 500 words.)

Spiritual Ecology: A Review

December 6, 2013 at 3:55 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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The following review is longer than 500 words because I wrote it before I decided to slow down.  ( :   Previous versions of it appeared in two of the world-famous rags for which I write: Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the US, and EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.

Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth. Ed. Llewellyn Vaughn-Lee. Point Reyes, CA: The Golden Sufi Center, 2013.  280 pp. 

Odd as it may sound in this era of “spiritual but not religious,” I am wary of the word “spiritual.” You might be, too, had you lived eleven years in Berkeley, California, the land of beautiful people chanting OM in two-hundred-dollar Lululemon outfits.

But I decided to read Spiritual Ecology anyway because the climate change work I’ve been doing makes my need for a stronger spiritual base painfully apparent. You can spend only so much time reading and writing about the pending end of the planet without needing a serious infusion of hope.

I began by reading three essays by Catholic environmentalists—Thomas Berry, Sister Miriam Therese MacGillis and Richard Rohr—and another by Thomas Berry students Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim. I had read Berry’s early work in mimeographed form at Grailville in the 1970s and was glad to return to it here in his “The World of Wonder.” Berry, who died in 2009, drew on his mastery of world religions and Teilhard de Chardin to fashion a Universe Story in the service of planetary transformation. In “The World of Wonder” he challenges us to literally see the natural world as a sacred antidote to the imminent extinction of species brought on by individualism and the industrialism. Yet he manages to communicate this as a fundamentally numinous task, one that gives the reader hope.

The interview with Sister Miriam MacGillis highlights the central role of Berry’s Universe Story in hands-on farming and environmental education at Genesis Farm in northwest New Jersey. And the co-founders of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, Tucker and Grim, acknowledge Berry implicitly in “The Next Transition.” The culmination of the 13.4 billion year evolutionary process, we learn, is a “Great Transition” or “Turning” from hyper- individualism and environmental destruction to kinship and sustainability—a hopeful vision indeed.

Yet my favorite essay in this bunch is Franciscan Richard Rohr’s feisty “Creation as the Body of God.” Rohr begins with a refreshing acknowledgment of the big role that “very poor Christian theology” and its harmful notions of physicality and embodiment have played in our current environmental crisis. What about “our supposed belief that the Eternal Word of God became ‘flesh,’ ” he wonders. (235) He then uses Christian theology, from Paul and Augustine, Duns Scotus and Aquinas, to Gerard Manley Hopkins and Sally McFague, to argue that the world is indeed the body of God. It seems, Rohr suggests, that the only thing that will make us recognize our common oneness with all people and all creation is the common suffering that our planetary destruction promises. But God and God’s goodness will have the last word.

I was also deeply moved by the Native American selections in Spiritual Ecology–in large part because they embody the union of spirit and matter that “very poor Christian theology” tears apart. In “Listening to Natural Law,” Chief Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation, tells us that the spiritual side of nature is absolute, for which we must give constant thanks, but that we’d also better get off our lazy asses and make our leaders change their ways. Similarly, in her essay “In The Time of Sacred Places” indigenous activist Winona LaDuke details the indivisible connections between religious rituals, the people who celebrate them, the ancient land where they live, and the creatures that live with them. Examples include the relationship between the Winnemem Wintu of Northern California and the Nur salmon there, and between the Abnishanaabeg of Lake Michigan and the wolves and wild rice that sustain them. Similarly, the subcontinental Indian activist Vandana Shiva identifies food itself as the inextricable bond between creator and created.

Unfortunately, another batch of essays in Spiritual Ecology is a good deal less helpful than these memorable depictions of the oneness of all creation. Written by white male “spiritual teachers,” they draw primarily on exhortation and repetition to get the party line across: CREATION IS SACRED they tell us, again, and again, and again. One of the offenders in this regard is the editor of the collection, Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughn-Lee. In his introduction and again in the final essay, Vaughn-Lee reinscribes repeatedly the either/or that underpins so much of modern culture—but this time it’s either separate, isolated, materialist lives or else virtuous ones lived in unity with nature. God forbid he acknowledge that many of us live lives that oscillate between the two. And Jungian analyst Jules Cashford reinscribes another noxious polarity by adulating Gaia, the “Earth Mother,” even as he quotes exclusively male scientists and environmentalists throughout his essay.

Fortunately, a number of other essays offset these spiritual-in-the-worst-sense efforts. Whatever concerns I have about Buddhism being otherworldly are swept away by Zen Roshi Susan Murphy’s history of a genetically patented hybrid tomato raised by Mexican farmers for $2.50 a day, fumigated with toxic chemicals whose wastes are then shipped to Alabama to poison the black community there while the tomatoes are sold on plastic foam trays in cardboard boxes made in Canada and shipped all over North America in refrigerated trucks whose coolants destroy the ozone layer. This is a juggernaut, Murphy reminds us, in which we all collude. For Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist bells of mindfulness some of us have had the pleasure of hearing have become less beautiful but no less essential: they’re the floods, droughts, melting sea ice, and hurricanes that signal global warming. Only if we become mindful of the damage we are doing to Mother Earth is enlightenment possible.

And for Buddhist eco-philosopher and spiritual activist Joanna Macy, the western individualist ego is being replaced by a wider construct, an “ecological self.” Rooted in our collective mourning for the imminent demise of the planet, we are coming to realize, for example, that we are not protecting the rainforest down there, but rather we are the rainforest protecting itself.

Spiritual Ecology is by no means the only volume that introduces westerners to the foundational oneness of nature and the spirit. For those who want to begin understanding that oneness, however, the essays I’ve discussed here, and others in Spiritual Ecology, are a pretty good place to start.

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