Carrot Soup

August 29, 2015 at 12:38 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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It could seem, I suppose, that I spend my every waking minute analyzing papal encyclicals or reviewing books about gender and the Catholic church.  But that’s not true.

Take last Sunday.  At the end of the 11:30 AM Mass at Our Lady of Refuge, my parish at the western end of Flatbush here in Brooklyn, a lay leader got up and made an announcement. He said there were a lot of carrots left over from this week’s food pantry and they would be distributed on the way out of church. I didn’t think too much about it.

When I  got outside, however, another gentleman walked up to me and offered me a good-sized bag of such carrots. My husband and I are by no means in the U.S. economic 1 percent, but Refuge is about 2 percent white, so I may well be in the 1 percent there.

“Surely somebody needs these more than I do?” I responded.

“Please, just take them,” the gentleman responded. So I did.

The distance from Refuge to our apartment is about .9 of a mile, so I had occasion to think about how many carrots were in the plastic bag as I walked home. When I weighed them, there were approximately 5.5 pounds of carrots, each two or three inches long and maybe three-quarters of an inch in diameter.

My esteemed companion said “You could always just compost them.”

But  I couldn’t.

The carrots reminded me, somehow, of my five years on the Grail’s farm in southwest Ohio in the 1970s, and particularly of my dear friend Elise Gorges who ran the kitchen there for thirty years or so. Elise died a year and a half ago. I myself never harvested carrots from the Grailville garden, but I just couldn’t imagine Elise throwing all those carrots out.

I’ve got this app on my iPad for recipes from the New York Times, so I plugged in “carrots” and found a very simple recipe for carrot soup. It took me half an hour to cut both ends off the hundred and fifty or so little carrots and give them a scrub in the dish pan. The recipe called for six cups of chicken broth but I didn’t have any on hand and would have to walk over to the food co-op to buy some.

“What would Elise do?” I wondered.

I remembered I did have a bunch of vegetable bullion cubes over on the spice shelf, so I boiled some water, mixed the bullion cubes in , and then cooked the carrots in the liquid for thirty minutes. While they were cooking I sautéed some dried thyme and a bunch of onions (not quite as many as the recipe called for, but seriously, I was not going out to get more!);  when they were done I salted and peppered them. When the carrot and the onions had cooled off a bit, I put it through my forty-year-old Cuisinart food processor.

For supper my husband and I each had a bowl of the carrot soup, along with a grilled cheese sandwich (he’d gotten good at making grilled cheese sandwiches when his sons were little). All told, I made fourteen cups of carrot soup, so we have enough for three more meals in the freezer.

I think Elise would have been pleased.


The Greatest Environmental Threat?

August 23, 2015 at 4:42 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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As you perhaps know, earlier this week the Associated Press reported that in the month after it was published, fewer than half of the Catholics in the United States had heard of Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’. And only 23% of U.S. Catholics had heard about it at Mass.

Because of this, I was pleased to see that on July 22 the Bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn, Nicholas Di Marzio, chose to use his regular column in the diocesan newspaper, The Tablet to tell the people of the diocese about Laudato Si’, and to urge them to study it using resources provided on the web page.

That is to say, I was pleased until I got to the following paragraph in the article:

“If we are to look at our environment in our world today, the most dangerous place for human beings seems to be a woman’s womb. In our own country, almost one million abortions are performed each year, not to count the worldwide number of abortions. Truly, the environment that is most dangerous to human beings and the one which causes the most direct threat is the misunderstanding of contraception and population control. Abortion can never be an answer to our ecological and psychological problems as human beings. Pope Francis says, ‘To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.’ He goes on to say, ‘A just society recognizes the primacy of the right to life from conception to natural death.'”

I was somewhat shocked by the bishop’s suggestion that abortion and contraception are the greatest threats to the  environment in today’s world. Pope Francis does speak out several times against abortion and against lack of respect for life more broadly. But the remarkable thing about the encyclical is that in it Pope Francis explains that these sins are integrally connected with other grievous sins against the poor and creation. Without saying so explicitly, he undercuts the ideological hierarchy of his predecessors in which sexual sins are vastly more serious than social ones.

I decided to write a letter to the Tablet explaining that what DiMarzio says is not what the encyclical says. I figured the odds on the letter getting published were .00000000000001. A month later, I realize that those odds were too optimistic.  So instead of sharing my thoughts in the Tablet, I’m sharing them here with you:

Dear Editor,

My deepest thanks to Bishop DiMarzio for his recent “Put Out into the Deep” column on Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care For Our Common Home (July 22). I was especially moved by the Bishop’s memories of how his own grandfather “Francesco,” embodied one of the points Pope “Francesco” stresses in his encyclical, never wasting what God has given us, never colluding in today’s “throwaway” culture.

I am also grateful that Bishop DiMarzio’s calls us to study Laudato Si’ and provides a link to the Tablet’s on-line study guide. With Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and other religious people around the world, not to mention atheists, Marxists, and “nones,” reading and responding to the encyclical, it certainly seems fitting that we Catholics should do so as well!

My one concern about the Bishop’s column is that he seems to suggest that the environment that causes “the most direct threat” to human beings is “the misunderstanding of contraception and population control.” Of course, Pope Francis does clearly state on several occasions in Laudato Si’ that abortion and lack of respect for life are part of the throwaway culture that threatens God’s creation.

But it would be a mistake to say that Laudato Si’ places abortion and contraception at the top of a hierarchy of sins against God’s creation. It is no coincidence that in his chapter on “integral ecology,” that is, on the inherent connection between all things, Pope Francis stresses the integral connection between environmental destruction and “the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the poor… buying the organs of the poor for resale, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted. This same use and throw away logic generates so much waste because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary.” (123)

Pope Francis affirms the Church’s teaching on the preciousness of unborn life. He also challenges us to realize that this precious life extends to all of God’s creation–the earth we live on, the water we drink, the plants we eat and the air we breathe, and that we must revere all of it.


Marian Ronan, Ph.D.

Research Professor of Catholic Studies

New York Theological Seminary

475 Riverside Drive

NY, NY 10115.

Aren’t Nuns Wonderful?

August 10, 2015 at 10:37 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Some of the people I love and admire most in the whole world are Catholic sisters. But almost none of them fit into the Singing Nun, Whoopi Goldberg, or even Maria von Trapp caricature that too many people think they do. I can forgive the purveyors of popular culture for exploiting the image of these hard-working, in large part justice-oriented women this way, but I have no time for ostensible scholars who do so. The following is my review of a book by one such writer, published by a highly regarded academic press, whose “aren’t nuns wonderful” caricature is really problematic. My review appears in the current issue of the journal Church History.

Dedicated To God: An Oral History Of Cloistered Nuns. By Abbie Reese. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Xvii+ 247pp. $34.95 cloth. Church History, 84, pp 485-487.

Dedicated to God is a portrait of the Corpus Christi Colettine Poor Clare Monastery in Rockford, Illinois, by photographer and independent scholar, Abbie Reese. Based on interviews Reese did with the monastery’s twenty nuns over a six-year period, Dedicated to God is an appealing exploration of cloistered religious life in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

In addition to a first-person preface and epilogue, Reese’s volume comprises nine chapters on themes of cloistered religious life. These alternate with eight edited oral histories drawn from Reese’s interviews with individual nuns. The thematic chapters, written in the third person, also draw extensively on Reese’s interviews.

The nuns in Reese’s oral history come from varied backgrounds; some were older when they entered, some younger; their educational levels vary; some transferred from other orders; one is a convert and one a Filipino. They have occasional disagreements, of course, but most of these occur because, as one sister says, “a woman by nature likes to arrange things and have her kitchen the way she wants…” (34). At one point, Reese mentions that she once repeated to the Abbess something a nun said in an interview, and the Abbess disagreed. But nuns would not otherwise have occasion to know they hold divergent views, Reese assures us, because they “would not find occasion or opportunity to discuss philosophical differences of a cloistered calling” (230).

In almost all other respects, however, the nuns are in astonishing agreement about almost everything: the austerity of their way of life, the purity of having given their lives wholly to God; the unity of all the sisters, based in their vow of obedience; the enormous joy they feel.

In her 2008 study of the early history of the Poor Clares, The Privilege of Poverty: Clare of Assisi, Agnes of Prague, and the Struggle for a Franciscan Rule for Women, Joan Mueller, herself a member of an active Poor Clare congregation, observes that in many histories of the Franciscans, Franciscan women’s experiences “have been basically ignored.”(University Park PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006: 2). And in an otherwise enthusiastic review of Carole Garibaldi Rogers’s Habits of Change, a previous volume on Catholic sisters in the Oxford Oral History Series, historian Margaret Susan Thompson notes “a scarcity of women who represent more traditional approaches to religious life.”(Journal of Women’s History, 26:4, 182–190 [Dec. 2014]: 184.) An oral history of cloistered Poor Clare sisters helps to fill these lacunae. And the volume’s thirty-six black and white photographs are of high quality.

Unfortunately, a number of problems outweigh these contributions. One of these is a certain lack of accuracy. Reese acknowledges that she is not a Catholic, but an editor should have caught her missteps, for example, referring to Rome as the “birthplace of the Catholic Church”(67); claiming that the vows of “poverty, chastity, and obedience” are “universally” taken by “all” in religious life (the Benedictines do not do so, as Margaret Susan Thompson observed in an email to me) [2]; referring to novices as “novitiates” (163); and other errors.

More troubling is Reese’s use of oral history. Oral historians have documented a shift in the understanding of the role of an interviewer from one of observation to that of participating in a “shared experience.” Reese, in her preface, claims the latter approach, one of “co-authorship” and “shared authority,” invoking the work of Alessandro Portelli (xiv, xiii).

This methodology has its critics, however. Some argue that there is no “shared authority” if a historian’s scholarly knowledge isn’t included in their product—as it too often is not in Dedicated to God. And Reese herself admits Portelli calls attention to the fact that “memory, including collective memory, is faulty” (xiii). But nowhere in Dedicated to God is there the least hint that the memories of the Rockford nuns may be faulty. Instead, their stories reveal “transcendent truths”(xiv).

One instance of potentially faulty memory in Dedicated to God is that no nun ever refers to the Second Vatican Council (1961-1965), or to “Perfectae Caritatis,” the Council document that, over the signature of Pope Paul VI, called for the renewal of religious life and a return to the charism of congregational founders. It is virtually inconceivable that any Catholic religious order would not have held a general chapter to discuss their way of life after Vatican II. But in their interviews none of the Rockford Poor Clares seem ever to have mentioned such a meeting. Perhaps they are all happy to forget any attempt to renew “the cultural time capsule that is the monastery,” as Reese puts it (92).

But there were 45,000 fewer U.S. sisters in 1975 than in 1965 when the Council ended. Some of those no longer present in 1975 had died, of course, but the majority “left the convent.” Too bad Reese’s “shared authority” methodology didn’t include interviews with the former Rockford Poor Clares almost certainly included in that number.

And returning to the charism of their founder, St. Clare of Assisi, would have presented the Rockford Poor Clares with other problems. For example, what would it mean for their adulation of total obedience and agreement concerning their way of life that Clare struggled fiercely with popes and cardinals to maintain her sisters’ right to the absolute poverty mandated by Francis of Assisi?

From Maria Monk to Maria von Trapp, from Whoopi Goldberg to Mother Teresa, Americans are spellbound by nuns. Reese’s idealized portrait of the Rockford Colettine Poor Clares is likely to be quite popular. In March, the otherwise competent critic, Casey N. Cepp, published a glowing review of it in the New Yorker (March 5, 2014). Indeed, given its fine photographs, Dedicated to God would make an attractive coffee table book. But why would a distinguished academic press publish it?

Parish Matters

August 3, 2015 at 9:51 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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The Spirit’s Tether: Family, Work, and Religion among American Catholics, by Mary Ellen Konieczny. NY, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013. Paperback, $29.95. 249 pp.

The Shared Parish: Latinos, Anglos, And The Future Of U.S. Catholicism, by Brett C. Hoover. NY, NY: New York University Press, 2014. Hardcover. $49.00. 237 pp.

These days, the parish is not exactly the focus of attention for many progressive Catholics. Some of us may belong to a parish, but more of our energy goes into reform groups like Call to Action, SEPA WOC, Dignity, etc. And small faith communities are often—though not always—at the center of our spiritual life.

Nonetheless, parishes influence the identities of many of the sixty-seven million Catholics in the United States. In 2014, in fact, there were 17,483 U.S. parishes. And as two recent books suggest, we can learn a good deal about the American church from studying them.

In The Spirit’s Tether, University of Notre Dame sociologist Mary Ellen Konieczny examines the impact of participating in one or the other of two Catholic parishes in a an unidentified Midwestern city. She does so to cast light on ways in which parish beliefs and practices underpin the polarization that she and other scholars believe characterizes contemporary U.S. Catholicism. Drawing on interviews she did at both parishes over nearly two years concerning the subjects of marriage, family, and work, Koneiczny argues that while secular political attitudes and elite discourse contribute to the culture wars in the U.S., “polarization is also constituted among Catholics through local level social processes.” (8)

Konieczny identifies a number of divergent beliefs and in the two parishes that she studies as expressed in metaphors for church, worship practices, and convictions about marriage and family. At “Our Lady of the Assumption” the first of the two parishes studied, the primary metaphor for church is “family,” with God the Father and the priests of the parish at the head of the church and husbands the head of a family. (My use of quotation marks indicates the likelihood that the author is not using real parish names). At “Assumption” clergy and members place major emphasis on natural family planning, opposition to abortion, and having large families; mothers, whenever they are financially able, stay home to raise the children and leave their secular careers behind. Worship is formal, and priests at “Assumption” hear confessions seventeen hours a week, including throughout Mass.

At “St. Brigitta,” on the other hand, the primary metaphor for church is community, and clergy and members place great emphasis on equality and social justice. Though there are several different forms of worship at “St. Brigitta,” Konieczny describes the Sunday Mass celebrated in the parish gymnasium, with lay readers (including former priests), a dialogue homily, popular music, and kids playing games at the edges of the gathering. She also interviews those who attend the “gym Mass”: members hold a range of opinions regarding abortion and birth control, and even when mothers stay at home for a period of time to raise kids, they still identify with their careers or professions, and families where parents both work struggle to attain the proper work-family balance. Konieczny concludes from her analysis of these two selected parishes that attitudes and practices in parishes make a significant contribution to polarization among contemporary U.S. Catholics.

In the second parish study, The Shared Parish, Brett Hoover, an assistant professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University, explores the complex relationship between two groups within one Catholic community, Latino and Anglo Catholics in the Midwestern parish of “All Saints” in the “Diocese of Port Jefferson” (Both of these names are pseudonyms, in the interest of privacy). Hoover documents and analyzes the specific ways in which these two groups do and do not interact and why this matters.

In the first three chapters, Hoover recounts the history of “All Saints,” from a tiny Catholic parish in a Protestant town beginning in 1860 to the contemporary ethically mixed parish he studied, and the various methods Anglo and Latino/a Catholics there use in their interactions with one another. He then explores different approaches to the idea of “unity” in each group. His account of the impact on the Latino community of the Anglo pastor’s washing his Chicano concelebrant’s feet during the Holy Thursday liturgy is deeply moving.

In the final chapters, Hoover explains that various more “Protestant” approaches to analyzing interculturalism in Catholic parishes don’t really work because Catholics don’t just “choose” their parishes; they “share” them. They do so because they are Catholic, something that motivates each group to negotiate and interact with one another. Finally, The Shared Parish explores visions and practices that move communities beyond what sociologists call “cultural encapsulation,” or perhaps, “polarization.” These include the U.S. bishops’ use of the term “multiculturalism” in place of the once-preferred language of “assimilation” or “the melting pot.” Even more effective, Hoover suggests, is for leaders to draw on the theology of communion, in which parish members can understand that they are celebrating the same Eucharist despite doing so in different languages. Such a transformation involves not just a change in thinking, but the modeling by leaders of different feelings, rights, and obligations.

It’s tempting to compare these two studies and to come down in favor of Hoover’s. This is so because of the “ideal types” methodology that Koneiczny uses to consider “Assumption” and “St. Brigitta.” “Ideal types,” invented by sociologist Max Weber in the early part of the twentieth century, focuses upon and simplifies two extreme examples of a social group so as to highlight the differences between them. Critics say this contributes to polarized conclusions. So Konieczny, in effect, uses a polarizing method to explain polarization in American Catholicism, a circular process.

Yet it would be a pity to dismiss The Spirit’s Tether on these grounds, because the author does, in fact, use a multi—or at least bi—disciplinary approach, integrating ethnography into her sociological analysis. And the interviews on which she bases her argument about parishes and polarization are, in themselves, quite interesting. A conversation on a particular subject between Konieczny and one or more members of “Assumption” and then “St. Brigitta” begins each chapter. Konieczny also uses parts of interviews to illustrate her arguments throughout the chapters. Although marriage, the family and work are not my favorite topics, I was quite intrigued, for example, by the experiences she describes of various couples negotiating work, family life and belief in the twenty-first century.

It’s a pity, though, that the author uses such rich material to illustrate what seems to me an unhelpfully binarized conclusion. Surveys indicate that only two percent of U.S. Catholic women use natural family planning, so at least some differences between Parish A and Parish B are perhaps better described as those between a tiny minority and a much, much larger group within the American church rather than between opposite poles.

Hoover’s methodology, using ethnography, sociology, Latino/Latina studies and theology, is far better suited to contemporary complexity and results in a richer and more helpful study than Konieczny’s. And, paradoxically, by introducing communion as a tool with which to approach differences between ethnic groups, Hoover suggests a solution to the problem with which Konieczny is primarily concerned but which her method seems to reinforce.

Lest I seem totally unbalanced in my preference for The Shared Parish, let me say that I consider it a limitation of both studies that they consider only parishes in the Midwest. I wonder what each author would make of my parish here in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn where the population is a third Caribbean, a third Haitian, a third Latino, and two percent white, and where Pentecostal Catholics and Our Lady of Guadalupe devotés march with feminist theology professors and other professionals in a massive People’s Climate March?

(This review appears in the July-October 2015 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference. My analysis of The Shared Parish also comprises part of a review of that book that appeared in the May 8-21 2015 issue of the National Catholic Reporter).

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