The Synod on the Family and the End of the World

October 27, 2014 at 4:46 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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By now, it’s hard to imagine anyone who hasn’t heard about the recent gathering of Catholic bishops in Rome to discuss certain unbelievably important issues related to sexuality. The document presented for discussion, the relatio, used such radical terms as “welcoming” with regard to gays and lesbians, and the possibility of divorced and remarried Catholics being allowed to take communion.  Some conservative bishops have objected to the very mention of such things, for example, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who has said that causing “confusion” in the church is “of the devil.” And in the Sunday New York Times, the conservative Catholic columnist Ross Douthout argues that reversing Catholic sexual teaching, in particular, the teaching on divorce and remarriage as adultery, would put the church on a “precipice.” The is so, we’re told, because the sinfulness of divorce is rooted in the “specific words of Jesus of Nazareth.” If Pope Francis does allow such a reversal, we learn, it “would encourage doubt and defections…and eventually a real schism.” If the pope seems to be choosing this dangerous path–“reassigning his potential critics in the hierarchy, stacking the next synod’s ranks with supporters of a sweeping change…”– conservative Catholics should  consider that this pope “may be preserved from error only if the church itself resists him.”

Douthout is a successful writer, and he certainly has a right to his opinions.  But some of what he writes in this particular manifesto is problematic, to say the least. With regard to the “specific words” of Jesus on remarriage after divorce as adultery, I don’t have a copy of the Jesus Seminar volume that highlights in red the actual words of Jesus in the Gospels, but a lot of Jesus’ words were added by the books’ authors to address problems that arose well after his departure.  Even more to the point, as Baptist ethicist David Gushee notes in a new book in which he changes his position on LGBTI people,  Christians have been quoting the Bible to support their entrenched positions–on slavery, segregation, antisemitism, misogyny–for a very long time.  The church owes apologies to many, many people, including gays, lesbians, and divorced and remarried Catholics.

Another questionable assertion in Douthout’s article has to do with the terrible effect that a reversal of Catholic sexual teachings will have on the church’s small minority of orthodox adherents who have “done the most to keep the church vital in an age of institutional decline.” If Douthout had read Young Catholic America, a new sociological study about the  practice and beliefs of young American Catholics, he would be forced to acknowledge that the orthodox, here in the U.S. at least, are not keeping the church particularly vital: only 7 percent of Catholics between the ages of 18 and 23 are what we might call “practicing” Catholics–going to Mass each week, saying religion is very important, praying. Twenty-seven per cent at the other end of the spectrum are totally disengaged.  Why? according to the Commonweal reviewer, “the most obvious factor identified in both the interviews and the survey data in Young Catholic America seems to be disaffection from Catholic sexual teaching, dramatically so with respect to both premarital sex and birth control.” A full 61 percent of “practicing” young Catholics report that they have had pre-marital sex. And young Catholics  across the spectrum acknowledged in their interviews that they have “major problems with the church’s ‘unrealistic’ teachings” on such matters.  How’s that for a precipice: huge numbers of young American Catholics ignoring teachings that people like Douthout make out to be the source and summit of the faith. (See my earlier post about sexual teaching as the top of the Catholic ideology hierarchy.)

But my chief complaint about the synod on the family is not aimed only at conservative Catholics like Douthout. It’s also aimed at the rest of us– Pope Francis, the bishops, and progressive Catholics like me who are preoccupied, not to say obsessed, with the church’s sex/gender teachings  and behavior. (I myself have published five books and several hundred articles and reviews addressing aspects of sexuality and gender in Catholicism and Christianity.)

So why am I enormously frustrated with all of us, myself included? Because we ARE on a precipice– in fact, we’re actually on our way over this precipice, but it’s not the one Douthout is  worrying about. It’s the one that’s already causing massive droughts in the American West, from which a major portion of our food comes, and will cause very many coastal communities (including New York City) to be under water by 2050 (to give just a few examples.) It’s the climate precipice, and the fact that the synod focused on divorce and gay marriage instead of on our destruction of God’s creation is scandalous.  But of course, at a synod on that topic there might be some discussion about the ways in which the doctrine of  a transcendent God and the intrinsic nature of the missionary position contribute to the destruction of the world. And that would cause even more demonic confusion than the synod on the family did.


The Birth of the Pill (and More than Four Crusaders)

October 16, 2014 at 3:51 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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As you can see, I’ve been doing a lot of book reviewing lately. This week, the National Catholic Reporter published my review of Jonathan Eig’s The Birth of the Pill, so here it is. (Apologies to those who already read it there.)


By Jonathan Eig
Published by W.W. Norton & Company, $27.95

At first glance, The Birth of the Pill may seem an odd choice for review in a Catholic publication. Of the four “crusaders” in the subtitle, only one, obstetrician/gynecologist John Rock — was a practicing Catholic.

Of the other three, the brilliant research biologist Gregory “Goody” Pincus was the son of Jewish immigrants. Fired by Harvard for the Brave New World overtones of his in vitro fertilization discoveries, Pincus went on…(Continue here.)

Jesus Was a Migrant

October 10, 2014 at 4:35 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The following is a slightly  revised version of a review that appeared in the current issue of Gumbo, the monthly publication of the Grail in the U.S.A.


Jesus Was a Migrant. By Deirdre Cornell Orbis Books, 2014. 144 pp. $20.  Available at migrant.html

 Grail member Deirdre Cornell’s new book, Jesus was a Migrant, could hardly be more timely. Even as nearly seventy thousand unaccompanied minors have poured across the southern borders of this ostensibly Christian nation in the past year, too many of our fellow-citizens still oppose providing them with shelter. And in the face of this crisis, our president has allowed a mere four thousand refugee visas to be designated for these young people while failing to increase the total number of refugee visas at all.

In her very first chapter, Cornell articulates the argument that all of these Christians need to hear “Surely a God who migrated from heaven to be born to a refugee family—to be born to a people painfully and intimately versed in Exodus and exile journeys—surely this God would ask us to look for his presence among migrants. Jesus was a migrant. How can migrants not matter?”

Cornell expands this message in fifteen subsequent narratives, each of which brings the experiences of migrants into detailed and memorable focus. In Part I, we walk with the migrants of Israel, from Genesis to Exodus to Babylon and back, and then meet Cornell’s own immigrant ancestors fleeing to the U.S. during the Great Irish Hunger of the 1840s. In Part II, we celebrate with Rosa, a Central American migrant who had made her way to the U.S. at great cost only to be forced to return home a month after her quinceañera; then we bury with Deirdre the stillborn twins of Susana and Pedro even as other Christians are celebrating the birth of Jesus. In further chapters we mourn with the Latino community as they raise the money to ship the body of a young migrant back to Mexico and share the visit of Deirdre and her family to their compadres and godchildren in a trailer park in Florida. Jesus and other migrants become ever more real to us as we proceed.

In some respects, Jesus was a Migrant is a continuation of Cornell’s two previous books. She continues writing in the first person, for example, weaving her own (now twenty) years of migrant ministry into the stories of the men and women she and her husband Kenney serve. Jesus was a Migrant also continues the references to and elaboration on the Psalms and the Hebrew prophets that enriched her first book, Priceless View. Indeed, the integration of absorbing and accessible study of the Psalms, the Prophets, and the Gospels in Cornell’s’s stories of migrant experience is one of the outstanding features of this new collection. And migration itself was already a subtext in American Madonna, Cornell’s second book, about the Virgin Mary crossing Mexican and U.S. borders.

But Jesus was a Migrant differs from these previous books in some respects. First of all, it’s a collection of shorter pieces, revisions of articles written for The Catholic Worker and other publications or given as talks. And presumably because they were created for different audiences, the articles exhibit less of the scholarly nuance that I, for one, valued in the two previous books.

Indeed, during my first reading of Jesus was a Migrant, I found it almost pious. For example, Cornell uses Marina Warner’s feminist critique of the cult of the Virgin Mary to leaven her study of Latino/a Marian devotion in American Madonna. But in Jesus was a Migrant, she draws (briefly) on the work of Ann Catherine Emmerich, a German mystic whose writing inspired Mel Gibson’s violent, antisemitic film, “The Passion of the Christ.” And while Patricia Miller begins Good Catholics, her study of the Catholic struggle over abortion rights, with a denunciation of the misogyny embedded in the doors of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Cornell begins a chapter on the lives of Catholic saints who were migrants with a reflection on the body of Pierre Toussaint in the crypt beneath those doors. Indeed, in this chapter, Cornell includes the life of one of the figures on the doors Miller find so sexist, St. Francis Xavier Cabrini.

As I reread American Madonna however, I had to admit that Deirdre Cornell had warned readers of this shift well before the publication of Jesus was a Migrant. Speaking of her years working with Catholics in Mexico as a Maryknoll lay missioner that led her to a new devotion to the Mother of God, Cornell wrote, “Immersed in a community that I loved and that loved her, I began to speak less and to listen more…I learned to tread on holy ground where I had to take the proverbial sandals off my feet.”

The articles in Jesus was a Migrant are testimonies to this transformation. We all move toward holy ground in different ways. Some of us do so by critiquing the sexism sculptured on cathedral doors. Others cry out to the Mother of God to aid us when our children are deported or our partner gets cancer from pesticides. Jesus was a Migrant helps us hear that second set of voices.


My Buddhist Bracelet

October 4, 2014 at 5:39 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments
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A year or so ago I was walking across Bryant Park, just behind the New York Public Library, when a man I took to be a Buddhist monk walked up to me. He held out a bracelet made of dark brown round wooden beads; one bead, which was larger than the others, had two figures on it, apparently from some Asian language. The “monk” asked if I would like one. I took out a five dollar bill and offered it to him. He replied that the bracelet cost twenty dollars. I said I was sorry but I couldn’t pay twenty dollars and started to put the money back. He scowled at me, in a not very Buddhist way, but then took the five dollars and gave me the bracelet. I put it on.

I suppose I took the bracelet because I am somewhat attracted to Buddhism. I took a required course on Japanese Buddhism in graduate school and read some Dōgen, whose thinking I rather enjoyed. More recently though, since my husband and his mother were both so sick this summer,  I have been practicing Zen meditation. I decided I really needed to calm down. I even joined the Brooklyn Zen Center, in search of a community of support.

In sharing this with you, I do not mean to mean to suggest that I am some kind of spiritual adept. Except that it would demonstrate a distinctly unBuddhist kind of grandiosity to make such a claim, I’d be inclined to say that I am the worst meditator in the world. Often I seem capable of suspending the anxious planning my next activity (sometimes my next blog post) for no more than a few seconds at a time. And most days I can barely stay sitting for the fifteen minutes that I plugged into the  Zazen Lite app on my iPad.

Let me also be clear: I am not planning to transfer from Catholicism to Buddhism any time soon. As my American-Baptist-clergyman husband is given to saying, my Catholicism is genetic. Then too, some very distinguished Catholics have found Buddhism deeply meaningful. A copy of Thomas Merton’s Zen and the Birds of Appetite is on the book shelf next to my computer.

Despite its pitifulness, my meditation practice does seem to be helping me. As a result, I suspect, of saying “thinking” and bringing my attention back to the present the six or seven thousand times I do so in any given meditation session, I now sometimes find myself being able top stop my mind from racing on to the next task when I am not meditating. Maybe this grey haired lady will learn to be in the present before she is no longer in it at all.

A few months into my meditation practice, I heard on the radio that Asian men posing as Buddhist monks were conning people in New York by selling fake Buddhist bracelets to them. I suppose this news could have annoyed me. I was certainly glad I hadn’t given the guy the twenty dollars (though the odds on this child of Depression-survivor working class parents doing so were slim to none even if the “monk” had been authentic.)

I’ve decided, though, that something about the fraudulent Buddhist bracelet fits in perfectly with my attempts at meditation. I’m not awfully good at it, but I find it a comfort. My quasi-monk wasn’t very honest, but it’s rather a nice bracelet. I think I’ll put it on and go meditate.



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