“Secrets of the Vatican”

February 27, 2014 at 6:00 pm | Posted in Vatican | 8 Comments
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As you may have discerned, I am not a wild fan of the Vatican. I have been working for forty years to get women ordained in the Catholic Church, and such endless banging of the head against Vatican walls has not warmed me toward the boys over there. I also think that the church’s teaching on homosexuality, if not changed significantly, will seriously reduce our numbers sooner or later, even in Africa. That’s certainly what’s happening in the U.S.

But I also spent the 1990s getting a Ph.D. in religion, with a specialization in Catholicism. During that time I learned a good deal about anti-Catholicism. I learned, for example, that in the mid-19th century, a bestseller, The  Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed, virtually identified Catholicism with pornographic sexuality. The book was later almost completely discredited, but it has been reprinted many times. And lest you think U.S. anti-Catholicism is a purely pre-Civil War phenomenon, consider that during the 1960 presidential campaign, leading U.S. Protestant ministers, including Norman Vincent Peale, portrayed John Fitzgerald Kennedy as a Vatican stooge, more or less. And as historian Philip Jenkins argues in The New Anti-Catholicism, since the onset of the sex abuse scandals, Americans say things about the Catholic church that had been socially unacceptable since JFK’s election.

So I wasn’t too hopeful about the February PBS Frontline “documentary,” “The Secrets of the Vatican.” The title itself sounds like something Maria Monk dreamed up. In fact, the film is about problems during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But a title like that wouldn’t attract leering millions, would it? And the PBS channel here in New York showed the documentary in the 9 PM slot, instead of the usual Frontline slot of 10 PM. I wonder why?

It’s hard, too, not to call to mind Maria Monk during the first fifty minutes of the eight-four minute film, devoted as they are almost exclusively to clergy sex abuse and lewd homosexual practices ostensibly by very many priests and hierarchs in Rome. This is not to say that I am in favor of child sex abuse (!), or clerical hypocrisy either. But things have come to a point where it’s almost impossible to say anything positive about the Catholic church without someone bringing up clergy sex abuse–and this applies to many liberal Catholics, not just Protestants and seculars. In point of fact, the Catholic church is the single largest provider of health care in the world. Some Vatican congregation supervised all of that under the last two popes. Should they maybe get a mention, along with the congregations that covered up clergy pedophilia and adult sodomy?

The film’s characterization of various aspects of the Vatican State, too, is problematic, overstated, sensationalized. Take, for example, the ominous references to the Vatican’s being a free-standing state, with no accompanying mention that before 1861, the Papal States constituted a significant portion of Italy, from one coast to the other. In 1870, it was deprived of all its territory except Vatican City and became the smallest state in Europe.  Some challenge the Vatican’s right to be a state at all, but it has as much historical legitimacy as the British monarchy, or more.

Similarly, Thomas Doyle’s description of the church as an absolute monarchy is seriously over the top. I have said myself on numerous occasions that the governance structure of the institutional church is that of an absolute monarchy. Please note the qualification there: of the institutional church. Doyle, a canon lawyer who has fought heroically for the rights of sex abuse victims, says the church is an absolute monarchy down to each individual member. If that were true, I’d be in jail. And I am theoretically self-excommunicated for continuing after 1994 to speak out in favor of the ordination of women. But that matters only if one of my pastors since then cared to pursue the issue. None of them have, or would. Lots of them are similarly theoretically self-excommunicated.

Some may dispute my argument that “The Secrets of the Vatican” is anti-Catholic because of the enthusiasm shown for Pope Francis in the last quarter of the film. And indeed, this section of the film is more nuanced than the rest, with some of those interviewed offering cautions about how much (or little) Pope Francis will be able to do in the few years that may be available to him; he was 77 years old when elected, after all. But the “pope-mania” expressed in the last quarter of the film also strongly reinforces, by contrast, the film’s portrayal of the previous two popes as demons.

Dealing with representations of the Vatican is a tricky business. There’s a lot in the Vatican that really does demand reform. But I refuse to err in the opposite direction, becoming a participant, even inadvertently, in the virulent anti-Catholicism that has poisoned this Protestant country for much of the last few centuries. In point of fact, last October, Boz Chividijian, Billy Graham’s grandson, and the head an organization fighting clergy sex abuse in Protestant settings, wrote in the Huffington Post that he believes, with regard to sex abuse, that Evangelicals are worse than Catholics. I wonder what the odds are that a future Frontline documentary will be titled “Secrets of the Evangelical Underground”?


Antibiotic Resistance

February 15, 2014 at 11:45 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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You may wonder what antibiotic resistance has to do with American Catholicism. But the Catholic Church is pro-life, right? As my brief piece below, that appeared previously in the weekly news of the U.S. Grail reports, thousands of people die each year from antibiotic resistant infections, in large part because of the behavior of the factory farm industry.  Surely a pro-life church would be opposed to that, and its clergy would be speaking forcefully against it from their pulpits!


On Christmas Eve, I got a pain in my right index finger. The next day, the finger had swollen up like a cigar and hurt something awful. Luckily, the antibiotic that the doctor prescribed cured the infection in a few days. But not everybody is so lucky. Resistance to antibiotics is a growing problem. Each year, at least two million Americans fall ill – and 23,000 die – from antibiotic-resistant infections (AR)

One of the causes of AR is doctors prescribing unneeded antibiotics–for colds, for example. But another major cause is low-dose antibiotics fed to cattle, pigs and chicken on factory farms to speed their growth and increase profits. Currently, 80 per cent of the antibiotics in the US are used on food animals. A fact sheet on the Food and Water Watch website details the problem.

In December, the FDA at least acknowledged this by issuing a “voluntary regulation that urges drug companies and agriculture corporations to apply a standard of ‘judicious use’ when distributing antibiotics to food animals.” The Natural Resources Defense Council and others argue that this move is inadequate because it still allows giving antibiotics to healthy animals to prevent disease-a loophole that could continue indiscriminate use. (“Preventive” antibiotic use is common in factory farms where crowded conditions cause diseases to spread rapidly.)

To prevent the steady increase in antibiotic resistant bacteria, it’s crucial that Congress regulate the unneeded use of antibiotics in food animals. Please sign the Food and Water Watch petition to your members of Congress expressing your support of House and Senate bills to do exactly that.

(Note that this post is way under 500 words!)

Florida. Nebraska. Brooklyn.

February 5, 2014 at 3:58 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments
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First, a confession: you haven’t heard much from me in the past month because I’ve been in Florida. My husband and I drove down to Clearwater to keep an eye on his ninety-two year-old Mom, Betty, while one of his sisters had double cataract surgery and the other went to Hawaii. Although we have friends who post pictures on Facebook all throughout their vacations, Keith thinks it’s not smart to announce over the internet our absence from an apartment on the western edge of Flatbush, Brooklyn. We wouldn’t want anyone stopping by to pick up some free electronics. And I couldn’t quite get my head around writing as if we were in Brooklyn. So–silence.

I also found it hard to write much because Keith’s Mom was a lot worse than we had anticipated. We kind of thought we were going on vacation and would visit Betty two or three times a week. But since Keith was last there, his mother had at least one small stroke (we suspect more) and some nasty skin cancer surgery, and she was not at all the Betty we once knew. Last summer, she was driving herself to church and to the hairdresser; now she needs help getting out of her chair and gets confused really fast. Keith drove over to her independent living facility from our pink and turquoise efficiency apartment on Tampa Bay almost every day. He also took the opportunity to upgrade her into assisted living, get her switched to in-house doctors, get her hearing-aid fixed, and try to take the whole thing in. It’s a sobering experience to see somebody go from cheerful, energetic and independent to confused, grouchy, and needy in such a short time.  I didn’t always go over with Keith; I did a certain amount of walking up and down Clearwater Beach and reading Margaret MacMillan’s unforgettable study of the years leading up to World War I. But I also spent a lot of time talking with Keith about his Mom and what it means for a parent to be so clearly moving toward death.

In the middle of all this, we drove over to St. Petersburg one night to see Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. It was deeply moving to watch such a brilliantly crafted narrative of the relationship between a father in decline and his family while we were trying to take in the sudden decline of the last remaining of our four parents. We were mesmerized by the trip to Lincoln Nebraska the younger son of the Bruce Dern character, Woody, takes his father on to pick up the million dollars he most certainly didn’t win in a sort of Publishers’ Clearinghouse scam. The austere black and white photography of the Nebraska landscape seemed better suited to the issues we were confronting than the brilliant Florida sunlight (though I must confess, the sunlight cheered me up as well).

We arrived back in Brooklyn on the weekend. Keith has called his Mom several times. His sisters are on the job, but Betty sounds as confused and unhappy as when we were there with her. It’s snowed twice since we got home. The black and white and gray remind us of Nebraska.

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