Put Out Your Nets

January 29, 2015 at 3:43 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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At Mass on Sunday, I was struck by the reference to fishing nets in the reading from the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel:

“As (Jesus) passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; …Jesus said to them, ‘Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Then they abandoned their nets and followed him.”

The reference struck me because I had just finished reading an article in the Sunday Times by the East Africa bureau chief. Jeffrey Gettleman, about a development all over Africa: people using the millions of nets provided them to prevent malaria as fishing nets. Not only does this increase the incidence of malaria; it also causes a range of other problems. Because the malaria nets have such a fine mesh, those fishing with them catch tinier and tinier fish, thus threatening the survival of the fish stocks on which many depend for food. In addition, the nets, which are dragged through the same lakes and rivers that people drink from, are sprayed with a carcinogenic insecticide. Even if the small amounts discharged into the drinking water don’t make the people themselves sick, they are much more likely to kill fish populations, since fish are smaller than people. And in smaller bodies of water–ponds–the carcinogenic danger to humans is more serious. Big fights have broken out between professional fishermen and ordinary people over the damage done by their use of mosquito nets for fishing. Some countries have outlawed the practice, but  it continues to be widespread. In villages around Lake Tanganyika, according to one study, 87.2 % of households use mosquito nets for fishing. Even families that have lost members to malaria do so because malaria is not as bad as starvation.

Now the Gospels aren’t entirely consistent on the subject of fishing nets. Even as Peter and Andrew throw away their nets to follow Jesus at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells Simon (Peter) to put out into the deep and put down his net for a catch.

It is also the case that during Sunday Mass in the parish I attend, I have heard prayers for the religious freedom of Christians being persecuted in the Middle East, and for the right to life of unborn babies. But I have never heard a mention of the Africans who die from malaria –more than half a million children in 2102 alone–or of the starvation that causes many Africans to risk catching it  because they are so hungry.  Maybe the disciples of Jesus need to be casting their nets in a different direction, or at least, in a much wider circle.



Catholic Sexual Incoherence

January 20, 2015 at 12:34 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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Well, according to the Boston Globe’s John Allen, Pope Francis, during his visit to and trip home from the Philippines, “rebooted the debate on sex” in the Catholic Church. This is so because on Friday night, February 16th, in Manila, the pope spoke out, in a talk to 20,000 Filipino families, against the “ideological colonization” of the family.  “Ideological colonization” is, apparently, a term that conservative Catholics, especially RC bishops in Africa, use to describe the West forcing contraception  and homosexuality on their  cultures as a requirement for economic assistance.  And a few days later Francis defended Pope Paul VI’s heroic condemnation of artificial birth control. These statements by the politically astute Pope Francis, we learn, are aimed at reducing opposition among conservatives before the October Synod on the Family by distinguishing between these implicitly central issues of Catholic sexual morality and the question of divorced and remarried Catholics receiving communion.

I am intrigued by this distinction between divorce, gay marriage, and contraception. To begin with, there’s the fact that Jesus actually does say some fairly negative things about divorce in the Gospels, whereas he has nothing whatever to say about gay marriage or contraception. And biblical scholars are not all that sure that even the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is about the evils of gay sex. The RCC has never felt compelled to base its teaching in scripture, of course, but it’s worth mentioning that scripture does not seem to be on their (our) side on this one.

Then there’s the matter of divorced and remarried Catholics being excluded from communion but Catholics who use artificial contraception not being excluded. Well, you may say, of course they’re excluded too; using contraception is a mortal sin, so everyone who uses it is excluded.  The trouble is, during the uproar over the contraceptives mandate in the Affordable Care Act, 97% of U.S. Catholic women (who were or had been sexually active, one assumes) reported using contraceptives. Within the margin of error, that could actually be all U.S. Catholic women–and the men in their lives too, I guess! (Oddly enough, a third of those reporting contraceptive use opposed the contraceptives mandate–I guess either they’re rich or they repented after menopause.) The upshot of all this is that a whole lot more U.S. Catholics break this ostensibly much more serious tenet of Catholic sexual morality than get divorced. And given the number of U.S. Catholics who go to confession these days, I’d say that a whole lot of these folks are taking communion despite the disciplinary ban on same.

Now truth be told, Catholic parishes don’t really want to know about any of this stuff. I’m reminded here of the daughter of an old friend who was doing the marriage prep program at the Yale Catholic Center and said to the priest, “So Father, is it a problem for you that my fiancé and I have been living together?” To which the priest replied, “Not as long as you’re not so stupid as to ask me.” I myself have registered at a number of Catholic parishes in the twenty five years that Keith and I have been together, and nobody ever asked about my marital status, much less whether I use contraceptives. The Catholics were doing “Don’t ask, don’t tell” long before Bill Clinton.

Let me be clear here: I am totally in favor of divorced and remarried Catholics taking communion. Contraceptive users as well. And gay Catholics of all sorts. Even Protestants and nones when they come to Mass. Everyone who thirsts, let them come to the waters.

But the notion that Pope Francis is distinguishing divorce from gay marriage and contraception so as to placate the conservatives is laughable. Truth be told, the church has or will soon have vastly more complex problems related to sexuality to deal with than these three. For example, does the Pope agree with the Ayatollah of Iran that transgender surgery is a good thing because it cures homosexuality? Can transgender men be admitted to the priesthood? Are seminaries testing to guarantee that men about to be ordained aren’t genetically female? And will Pope Francis mention in his upcoming encyclical on the environment that chemicals  seeping into our groundwater are resulting in the births of increasing numbers of intersex infants?

Hold onto your hats.

Hildegard, Catherine, Teresa and Therese

January 13, 2015 at 5:55 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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The following is a  revised version of a review I had published in the National Catholic Reporter within the last month or so. The full NCR doesn’t appear on-line, so I can’t actually find the review, but I’ve heard it appeared there recently. (Since the NCR has been running my reviews, I finally broke down and subscribed so, God willing, I’ll be able to be a bit more accurate when future pieces appear).


By Elizabeth A. Dreyer

Franciscan Media, 2014. $15.99.

Initially, I was wary of Elizabeth Dryer’s book, Accidental Theologians. I worried that the title trivialized the contributions of these four significant Catholic women, as if they hadn’t really intended what they’d achieved, or something.

I needn’t have worried. Dreyer’s book is a valuable introduction to the theologies of the four women named in her subtitle: Saints Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and Thérèse of Lisieux. In four remarkably accessible chapters, Dreyer examines each theology and its contemporary implications in light of the women’s life, work, and historical contexts.

Dreyer begins her exploration with the medieval Benedictine abbess and mystic, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). Hildegard gave the church a fiery, empowering theology of the Holy Spirit, with music and nature at the center of her vision of cosmic connectedness. And it was this same dynamic vision that inspired Hildegard to speak out courageously against the greed and corruption of the twelfth-century church.

During the lifetime of Catherine of Siena, the second woman Doctor of the Church (1347-1380), the Black Death killed a third of the population of urban Europe. Catherine, however, transformed the era’s fixation on the plague as God’s punishment into a deeply incarnational theology. A mendicant tertiary, she used strong bodily metaphors to express the human need at the heart of creation. Catherine’s incarnational theology undergirded her political action as well, as when she successfully urged the popes to return to Rome from Avignon.

The two remaining Doctors, Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), and Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), were each cloistered nuns who shared a deep desire to serve humanity. This desire inspired Teresa to lead the reform of her own Carmelite congregation, even as she offered Renaissance Europe a profoundly original theology of the human person. Thérèse’s theology of suffering, with its focus on the face of the crucified Christ, can seem far removed from Teresa’s humanistic and communitarian theology. But Dreyer shows that Thérèse’s theology of suffering, centered on the incredible joy of a face-to-face encounter with Jesus, is also deeply human. Likewise, Thérèse’s “Little Way” may seem to fit badly into Dreyer’s discussion of the four women Doctors as role models in the struggle against women’s oppression, until we see Thérèse, on her visit to Rome, courageously speaking to the pope, and later envisioning herself as martyr, missionary and priest.

Dreyer does a fine job in two concluding chapters of highlighting positive and negative aspects of the lives and theologies of the four doctors. One of the dangers she discusses is the overemphasis on suffering by three of the women, though she also shows the ways in which all four theologies help Christians to find meaning in their own suffering. The dualism that occasionally emerges from these otherwise deeply embodied theologies also elicits Dreyer’s concern.

Dreyer also identifies a number of contributions made by the four Doctors that are extremely relevant today—their broadening of theology to include experience and passion, their portrayals of a “God who loves madly,” their invitation to women without formal training to become theologians, and more. I especially appreciate Dreyer’s focus on the importance of nature in the respective theologies—“greening” as a pillar of Hildegard’s work, for example–and her raising up of environmental destruction as a crucial contemporary issue.

It’s pretty clear that Accidental Theologians, with its engaging discussion questions at the end of each chapter and its accessible applications of the theologies of the four female Doctors, is targeted at adult religious education groups. Indeed, Dreyer’s explains that her purpose in writing the book is to urge the laity to answer their baptismal call to become “grassroots” theologians. With Accidental Theologians, she makes a noteworthy contribution toward  that goal.

I did find certain omissions in Accidental Theologians puzzling. For example, Dreyer virtually elides from her discussion the significant numbers of women who today actually are Catholic theologians (40 percent of the theology department at Fordham University, for example). Dreyer aims to inspire “grassroots” theologians, but the line between “grassroots” and “academic” is blurring as theologians today draw frequently on “grassroots” experience in their work.

Given Dreyer’s emphasis on the importance of women’s experience in the work of the four female Doctors, her failure to mention women’s experience as a critical component of feminist theologies since the 1960s is likewise puzzling. Of course, incorporating too much of the sophisticated theological scholarship on women’s experience runs counter to Dreyer’s purposes. But her decision barely to mention women’s experience and feminism more broadly as significant components of the past half-century of Christian theology is hard to understand.

All in all, though, Accidental Theologians will be a source of much-needed knowledge and hope for many Catholics, especially the emerging women theologians among us.

Catholic Misogyny Matters

January 3, 2015 at 3:57 pm | Posted in Vatican, women | 6 Comments
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Well, the enthusiasm for Pope Francis continues unabated. On December 30, an article in the National Catholic Reporter  said it all: “Pope Francis Continues to Take the World by Storm.” After which an article in a secular publication (don’t ask me which one)  called him “the most powerful religious leader in the world.” And in a piece on Francis and the environment in the NY Times, (!!!) Andrew C. Revkin describes his participation in a four-day Vatican workshop on the environment organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Academy of Social Sciences last May as one of the “highlights of my year, perhaps my career.”  Then there was the Pope’s success at getting diplomatic relations restored between the U.S. and Cuba. And his denunciation of human trafficking.

It’s impossible not to be grateful for these and other significant steps. Especially hope-inspiring is Francis’s anticipated encyclical on the environment. I have never in my life heard a Catholic priest mention climate change from the pulpit; maybe now I will. And once again, the head of the Catholic Church is  emphasizing the poor and denouncing capitalism, therefore, to some extent, reversing John Paul II’s repression of liberation theology. Just having a smiling pope on the news is a breath of fresh air.

Unlike a lot of folks, however, I am not willing to give Papa Francesco and the institution he represents a pass on women. I realized that we were in trouble on this score more than a year ago when the article that accompanied Time’s naming Francis “person of the year” mentioned that “he is aware of the liberal clamor in the affluent West for the ordination of women.” But women, the authors went on to explain, have vastly more serious problems than mere exclusion from Catholic ordination, for example, female genital mutilation, which the Catholic Church is working against. Other journalists have characterized calls for Catholic women’s sacramental equality as just another aspect of the culture wars that Francis is challenging us to get over.

What possible connection could there be between the largest religious organization on earth banning women from major leadership roles and other forms of oppression against women? Let me, first of all, clarify what I’m saying here: there are more Muslims in the world than there are Roman Catholics. But the Muslims are sort of like the Protestants: as I say to my American Baptist minister husband from time to time, the Catholics won the Reformation, not by having superior theology, but by managing to keep themselves more or less united, and by continuing to wear their really colorful outfits right into the era of Instagram and Facebook. All over New York  there are churches called something like “Salem Baptist Church,” and then down the street, “Greater Salem Baptist Church.” And just try to follow the Sunni/Shia/Iranian/Syrian/ISIS/ISIL distinctions on the evening news. The Pope is now the symbol of Christianity and in some senses the symbol of  religion itself because there is one and only one of him, and the RCC is the biggest religious organization on the planet.

So what does it matter for the well-being of women around the world that this icon of Christianity says that the ordination of women cannot be discussed and that women are intrinsically possessed of the feminine genius? For that matter, what does it matter for the very survival of the planet that Papa Francesco is soon to issue an encyclical about?

Let me be very clear here: the “feminine genius” that the Pope references, which is directly linked to the exclusion of women from Catholic sacramental leadership, means that women are inherently passive and responsive, while men are agents, initiators of the actions and communications to which women respond. This is not unlike the ideological framework that underpins the removal, in some cultures, of female genitalia so women can’t enjoy sex. And it is also the ideology driving the destruction of the environment, something that has happened since “Christian” Euro-America colonized the rest of the planet. Built into the claim that the earth, (and the church as well) is “our mother” is the suggestion that she is lying there waiting for something to get shoved into her –horizontal drills, for example, or infallible doctrines–and for the active, masculine genius to dig things out of her. Until we stop thinking of God as male and above us, and begin to recognize that God is also within, around, and underneath us, and is likewise a major component of the cosmic genius by which everything is interconnected, papal encyclicals on the environment are going to get us only so far.



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