In Some Ways We Are All Equal

August 20, 2019 at 11:01 am | Posted in Catholicism, Climate Change, Environment, nuclear war, racism,, Vatican, women | 2 Comments
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The following is a talk I gave on a panel following the Women Church Convergence meeting outside Philadelphia in April 2019. Panel members were asked to respond to the question “How can equality flourish in the Catholic Church?” The talk was published in July-November 2019 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference and was discussed at the Grail’s International Council meeting in Tanzania in July 2019.

 

I begin my reflections on achieving equality in the Church this afternoon with a story. In 2005, my husband and I were in Siena, Italy, where we saw, in the lobby of the Servite Basilica there a statue of Blessed Joachim Piccolomini. Next to the statue was a sign that read “The head of Servite order wants very much to see Blessed Joachim, who was beatified in 1605, canonized—so if you have received a miracle through the intercession of Blessed Joachim, please contact the head of the order.”  My husband, an American Baptist minister, said. “Marian, that man was beatified 400 years ago.”

I replied, “Now you understand the speed with which the Roman Catholic Church changes.”

Given such a rate of change, it may be that things are actually speeding up. In 1963, my Grail sister, Eva Fleischner, a journalist, was denied the right, as a woman, to receive communion at a Mass during the second session of Vatican II. Even the Protestant and Orthodox observers at the Council were exclusively male until the 3rdsession.

So the fact that thirteen women, constituting 7 percent of the participants, took part in the Vatican sex abuse summit in February, a mere half-century later, while still inadequate, was downright remarkable, considering the pace of change in the Catholic Church. As was the fact that three of the nine keynote speakers—33% of them—were women, two married and one African. And the African speaker, a Catholic sister, holds a doctorate in theology; in point of fact, Christian women are the most educated women in sub-Saharan Africa. Along these same lines, it is worth noting that Pope Francis, himself the first Pope from the Global South, has done a remarkable job of increasing the number and influence of bishops from that half of the world. Though whether having more African Catholics of either gender achieve more power may or may not contribute to greater equality for LGBTQ Catholics, as our United Methodist colleagues well understand.

II

In considering how these significant if inadequate changes have been achieved, I found myself returning to the 1998 book Faithful and Fearless: Moving Feminist Protest Inside the Church and Military by political scientist Mary Fainsod Katzenstein. Fainsod Katzenstein argues that in order to understand progress regarding race, gender and sexual inequality between the 1960s and the 1990s, we need to grasp that in many cases, such protest is no longer so much achieved via demonstrations and protests on the outside of institutions but as a result of protest inside institutions.

But while much that Fainsod Katzenstein writes is highly informative, the important part for our purposes is the distinction she makes between feminist protest in the church and the military:  While the feminists in the military were able to turn to the courts and to Congress to make their claims for equality, Catholic women had no such legislative or judicial access; their protests were for the most part limited to discursive actions—writing and organizing workshops and conferences.

Yet interestingly enough, Fainsod Katzenstein concludes that Catholic feminist protest was more radical precisely because it did not have the intra-institutional access that feminists in the US military have. It’s not that she believes the changes in the military are insignificant, but that the more closely nested within an institution activism is, the more likely it is that it will take a moderate, interest group form and not adopt a radical political stance. Only by having voices protesting on the outside is more radical change possible.

This raises some interesting questions for those of us working for sex/gender equality in the Catholic Church.  Whether racial justice is being advanced by having a Latin American pope and increasing numbers of men of color as bishops and cardinals is another question, since these men are already inside the institution.

But for those of us working for Catholic gender equality, and especially for the ordination of women, the question has to be asked: would the incorporation of women into the Church as priests risk modifying the radicalness of our demands? Might ordained women fail, for example, to protest the Church’s anti-LGBT teachings so as to maintain their status as priests? For that matter, might even the structure of a group like Roman Catholic Women Priests reinforce the inequality between laypeople and the ordained in the Church? I say this as someone whose keynote talk at the at the 30thAnniversary WOC conference in 2005 was not afterwards posted on the WOC webpage when the other keynoter, by an RCWP bishop, was posted (though WOC quickly fixed that when I complained).

In mentioning this, I do not mean to suggest that I am opposed to the ordination of women, but only to note that everything is complicated. And potentially hazardous.

The one area in which we have, of course, been able to use legal means to change the patriarchal Catholic Church is bringing criminal charges and other suits concerning clergy sex abuse. Now let me mention that I am not in favor of sex abuse by members of clergy or any other group. But I will suggest, in a few minutes, that even this issue, or at least the preoccupation of liberal Catholics with this issue, may be serving to repress equality in unexpected ways.

 

III

This leads me to the two arenas in which we, as Catholics, whether female, LGBTQ, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Indigenous, and/or poor are already equal.

The first of these is the arena of nuclear war. In 2017, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the nuclear Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight, the closest it has been since 1953, at the height of the Cold War. And they have kept it there since then. Actually, it surprises me that they have not moved it even closer, since, over those two years the United States abandoned the Iran nuclear deal, announced withdrawal from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), and made no progress toward resolving the urgent North Korean crisis. Meanwhile, nuclear nations continue “nuclear modernization” programs while Russia and the United States have moved closer to the use of nuclear weapons.

The second arena in which we are all equal is that in October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the IPCC—announced that we have only twelve years until we will no longer be able to limit many of the catastrophic impacts of climate change. Now in a certain sense, it’s inaccurate for me to say that we are all equal in the face of catastrophic climate effects, because the people of the Global South, the vast majority of them people of color, are already those worst affected by climate change.

Yet climate change is going to devastate us all, not only because of the potentially one billion climate refugees who will be fleeing their native lands by 2050, but also because major US cities will be underwater and droughts and extreme weather events will be even more frequent than they already are.

IV

So what does all have to do with equality in the Catholic Church, the topic of our panel? To clarify that, let me tell you that during the week after the IPCC report, I received ten notifications from liberal Catholic groups about clergy sex abuse. And an issue of the National Catholic Reporter some weeks later had five articles about sex abuse and nothing about climate change in the entire issue.

It seems that some—perhaps many?—of us consider clergy sex abuse a far more significant and immediate problem than climate catastrophe, or for that matter, nuclear war. A Pax Christi member said to me recently that she would rather starve to death from the famine caused by a nuclear winter than suffer her entire life from the damage that accompanies sex abuse. Seriously.

Now there are some liberal Catholics, like Nancy Lowrence, a leader of Call to Action NY, who are fighting on both fronts. But I suspect such two-pronged efforts are rare.

Even for those more preoccupied with gender equality in the church than with sex abuse, I wonder if some of our actions take sufficiently into account the looming threat of climate catastrophe. Take for example the recent demand by Catholics for Human Rights that the Vatican’s status as a permanent observer at the United Nations be revoked.

Now I have spent most of my adult life fighting for women’s equality in the Catholic Church and opposing the Church’s monarchical governance structure. But in March, 2018, I heard the internationally recognized Bengali-secular writer Amitav Ghosh —who is definitely not a conservative Catholic– conclude a talk at Union Theological Seminary about his galvanizing book on climate change, The Great Derangement, by asserting that Laudato Si’ is a far more radical document than the Paris Climate Accord. So the Vatican is actually to the left of the fundamentally capitalist United Nations on climate change. Maybe the Vatican presence there isn’t all bad!

Let me put this another way: if we get women ordained in the Catholic Church, and/or, if we root out clergy sex abuse, it isn’t going to matter at all if the planet is swallowed up in nuclear war or civilization comes to an end because of climate change.

In conclusion, I want to be very clear. I am not saying that we should stop working for racial and women’s equality in the Catholic Church or fighting against clergy sex abuse and cover-ups.

What I am saying is that if that is all we do, we are as guilty of grievous sin as the institutional church is for gender and racial inequalities and sex abuse.

To grasp the challenge facing us, we need to draw on the logical concept “Necessary but not sufficient.” It is necessary that we work for equality in the Catholic Church, but such work is by no means sufficient.

To be ethical, to be good Christians in 2019, we must also organize and fight against climate change and nuclear war. And this means organizing and entering into coalitions with other groups, religious and non-religious, who are fighting these two great threats. Exclusive preoccupation with the reform of the Catholic Church is simply unacceptable in these times. We must commit ourselves to saving God’s creation as well as saving the Catholic Church.

 

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Stumbling in Holiness

April 23, 2019 at 8:55 am | Posted in Catholicism, Christian theology,, ecclesiology | 3 Comments

Another of the lovely things about my (72nd!) birthday last Thursday is that my review of Brian Flanagan’s Stumbling in Holiness, appeared in the National Catholic Reporter (April 19th issue). It was quite a day for me. And here’s the review:

STUMBLING IN HOLINESS: SIN AND SANCTITY IN THE CHURCH.

By Brian P. Flanagan

Published by The Liturgical Press Academic

179 pages. $24.95

When I got up this morning, the first three links to each of the two internet religion summaries I review regularly were to articles about scandals in the Catholic Church. I don’t need to tell you what kind of scandals. At a time when such coverage of the church is not unusual, a Catholic ecclesiology of sin in the church is nothing if not timely.

But it’s timely not just because the church is sinful. It’s timely, as Brian Flanagan explains, because holiness is at the heart of the church’s identity, “one of the earliest creedal statements made about the church,” and one that we repeat regularly: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church…” And this is the paradox that Flanagan takes on in Stumbling in Holiness, that the church, sinful as it is, is at the same time the manifestation of God’s transcendent holiness.

Flanagan is a theologian, on the faculty of Marymount University in Virginia, and is quick to acknowledge that we cannot understand the mysterious paradox of the church’s deep flaws and profound holiness without analyzing it systematically. But one of the great strengths of Stumbling in Holinessis that this analysis is framed within the most fundamental experience of Catholic Christians, the celebration of the Eucharist.

For Flanagan, the Eucharist is a kind of ecclesial dance, in which the assembly moves toward God, then retreats again in repentance, then moves forward again, then asks forgiveness once more, from the Kyrie Eleison to the Gospel to the consecration to the Lord’s Prayer to the Lamb of God who takes away the world’s sin, to communion, and then out into the world for the “liturgy after the liturgy,” the mission of the church. And every step of this pilgrimage is a collective, not just an individual, ritual of approaching and retreating and moving forward again. This embodies not only the present reality of the holy/sinful church, but of the dialectic between the past, the present, and the eschatological future, the coming reign of God. Flanagan then weaves these liturgical and eschatological themes throughout the rest of the book.

Within this framework, Flanagan lays out the theology of the holy yet sinful church, detailing the ways in which such holiness is rooted in the mysterious otherness and compassionate closeness of God, deeply intensified by the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and lived out in the lives of the communion of saints and local Christian communities. Yet we learn that evil is also a mystery, a void, something lacking, with individual sin rooted in its senselessness and with continuing bad effects. The paradox is that without the reality of sin, neither would there be the reality of salvation.

In his analysis of this paradox, Flanagan by no means minimizes the holiness of the church. Yet the most demanding part of his analysis is his chapter on the sinfulness of the church.

The sins of the church, we learn, can be divided into two categories: those of individuals, members and leaders, and the sinfulness of the church itself. Included in this second category are sinful acts by leaders in the church’s name, for example, bishops’ conferences supporting military dictatorships, and the sinful social structures of the church itself that have ongoing harmful effects on the church and the world.

Flanagan’s third category of ecclesial sin includes historical mistakes, shortcomings and misunderstandings which don’t qualify as moral acts, but are characterized by group agency, a distinct mode of shared human action. The recognition of such shared intentionality, Flanagan believes, would enable a much-needed move beyond the church’s frequent portrayal as an idealized entity distinct from its members throughout history. A classic example of the bifurcation of the sinfulness of the members of the church and the sinfulness of the church itself, for Flanagan, are the words of Pope John Paul II at his Day of Pardon event in Rome in 2000. We need to recognize that the church is, in fact, a human community, through one mysteriously united with God.

Ultimately, for Flanagan, the paradox of the relationship between holiness and sin in the church reflects the utter mystery of the relationship between God and all of creation. Though we might wonder why God permits the ongoing struggle between sin and grace, it is precisely this paradoxical unity that manifests the reality of salvation, God’s overwhelming mercy and compassion. It is crucial, then, that the church admit and lament its sins so that the holiness of God may be manifest in the communion of saints throughout history.  “God’s holiness is stronger than sin.”

There is much to admire about Stumbling in Holiness, including its attention to historical theological understandings of ecclesial holiness and sin and its highlighting of the church’s eschatological reality—the “not yet” as well as the “already” of the church’s holiness toward which we stumble together.

But there are two problems. The first is that throughout the one-hundred-seventy-nine pages of Stumbling in Holiness Flanagan cites fifty-four male sources 148 times and eleven female sources seventeen times. I kept checking to see if the book had been published in 1968 and not 2018. Admittedly, most ecclesiologies are written by men. Perhaps it’s just a male field!  But when I was the communications director for an African-American seminary in the 1980s, I learned that if there were too many representations of white people in the upcoming newsletter, I needed to find others. Flanagan should have done similarly.

My other concern involves the examples of ecclesial sin omitted from Stumbling in Holiness. Flanagan cites classic instances of such sin—the Inquisition, collusion in the Holocaust, racism and, of course, clergy sex abuse.  But with the nuclear Doomsday Clock two minutes to midnight and twelve years remaining before the climate catastrophe becomes irreversible, surely the contemporary church’s near silence on both questions—Laudato Si’ notwithstanding—is an ecclesial sin demanding more attention than Flanagan gives it.

But then, as Flanagan himself admits, theologians, as well as popes, bishops, priests, laypeople, —even book reviewers—sin. May our profound repentance soon show forth the present and future glory of God in all its fullness.

 

An Article Not By but About Me

April 14, 2019 at 2:11 pm | Posted in Catholicism, marian ronan, Regina Bannan, | 9 Comments
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Given my working-class Irish roots, I feel a bit ambivalent about sharing this article with you, written by my friend and sister women’s ordination activist, Regina Bannan, and published in the recent issue of the Irish Edition in Philadelphia. Regina wrote the article to share the news that I’m going to receive the annual Mary Magdalene Award from the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference in Philadelphia this coming Thursday. Regina is the president of the group.

But the odds that you subscribe to the Irish Edition aren’t high, and maybe if you read the article, you’ll join us outside the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul on the Parkway at 11 AM on Thursday. I would love to give you a hug there!! (Incidentally, it’s a token of how deeply involved I became with the Philly women’s ordination group that Regina reports that my husband and I arrived in Philadelphia in the 1980s but in fact we were there only from 1992 to 1997).

 

By Regina Bannan

Raised in Delaware County and educated by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur at Notre Dame High School in Moylan, Marian Ronan will return to speak in Swarthmore April 6. She will also be honored in Philadelphia on her birthday, coincidentally, April 18. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference (SEPA WOC) is recognizing her achievements by presenting her with the Mary Magdalene Award. Now living in Brooklyn, Marian has never lost touch with her beginnings and her Irish heritage.

The presentation of the Mary Magdalene award will be at the SEPA WOC Holy Thursday Witness, April 18, 2019, at 11am, across from the Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul, Philadelphia.  The Award is named after Mary Magdalene, who was the “apostle to the apostles,” the female follower of Jesus who has been misrepresented; her pivotal role in the early church was marginalized in the sixth century. Mary Magdalene has now been adopted as the champion of women, particularly those claiming their rightful places in the Roman Catholic Church, as a model of women’s leadership. Marian Ronan is a perfect exemplar.

Ronan attended the first Women’s Ordination Conference in Detroit in 1975 when she was a staff member at Grailville on O’Bannonville Road in Loveland, Ohio. She became a member of SEPA WOC when she moved to Philadelphia in the 1980s to pursue her doctorate in religion at Temple University, and was president of the national Women’s Ordination Conference at the turn of the 21stcentury. Despite relocating to two different states, she’s remained a member of the SEPA WOC leadership group and as a contributor to their publication, EqualwRites.

Now Ronan lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Keith Russell, an American Baptist preacher and academic leader. She characterizes her neighborhood: “My husband and I live in the amazing culturally and religiously diverse Flatbush section of Brooklyn where you can walk in ten minutes from mosques to Orthodox synagogues to Pentecostal store fronts to Haitian/Chicano/Caribbean Catholic churches.”  The last describes one of the places she goes to worship, which leads directly to the reason for her return to Delaware County.

Ronan will be one of the panelists at the SEPA WOC event at the Swarthmore Friends Meeting addressing the question “How Equality Can Flourish in a Multi-racial, Multi-cultural, Multi-national, Multi-generational Church:  What Does This Church Look Like Physically, Spiritually, Doctrinally?” She and three other speakers will consider the future of the Roman Catholic Church, of concern to anyone who reads the news, and especially to those who are part of that tradition. The other panelists will be Mariam Williams, a Philadelphia woman of color writer and artist; Kathleen Grimes, an Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics at Villanova University; and Sonja Spoo, a community organizer around women’s health issues and a Swarthmore College graduate. Mary Hunt, the co-founder of WATER, the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual, will moderate. The afternoon will include open discussion and a brief ritual, and is open to everyone, gathering at 1 pm and concluding by 4 pm, April 6, 2019.

Ronan reviews books for the National Catholic Reporter and writes for many other publications, often on women, church history, and the climate crisis. She became an ardent speaker about the world water crisis, then about Laudato Si, Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, and now about the disasters awaiting the world because of climate change. You may remember that she reviewed former Irish President Mary Robinson’s book, Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future, last year for the Irish Edition.

Her two most recent books as well as mot of her earlier works focus on women. Sister Trouble: The Vatican, The Bishops, and The Nuns collects her articles occasioned by the 2012 investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, but, typically, she goes on to consider the impact of sisters on the American church. For Women of Vision: Sixteen Founders of the International Grail Movement two years ago, Ronan edited and expanded work done previously by Mary O’Brien, and provided a scholarly introduction to this international women’s movement. Her first book, written with Linda Clark and Eleanor Walker, was Image-Breaking, Image-Building: A Creative Worship Handbook for Women of Christian Tradition. Her next, Sophia: The Future of Feminist Spirituality, written with Hal Taussig and Susan Cady, was the first published exploration of the power of the biblical figure of Sophia/Wisdom. This work has been frequently updated because it is such a rich resource for prayer and celebration.

Finally, Ronan’s most academic book, published in 2009, Tracing the Sign of the Cross: Sexuality, Mourning, and the Future of American Catholicism, takes us right back to her Irish heritage. Does any reader of the Irish Edition not know that thinking about these topics is deep in the Irish soul? Ronan takes these questions to new places, using poststructuralist analysis to look at the writings of four Baby Boomer Catholics: James Carroll, Mary Gordon, Donna Haraway, and Richard Rodriguez. While this is not the easy read that Ronan’s popular articles and speeches are, it speaks to a consistent searching for the consequences of the life of her ancestors. When I asked her if it would be OK to write about her in the Irish Edition she so characteristically replied: “Perhaps the article will mention that my great-grandmother, Hannah Kelly, was an Irish domestic.” This suggests her great interest in Irish history and the politics of class, the contradictions of our lives and our history, especially as revealed by the women in our families. She even started an Irish book club to explore these themes. The Mary Magdalene award is just another contradiction, moving another woman from a marginalized position to the center of the faith.

Updating Catholic Worship

March 18, 2019 at 3:25 pm | Posted in Catholicism, Christian theology, | 2 Comments
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HONEST RITUALS, HONEST SACRAMENTS: LETTING GO OF DOCTRINES AND CELEBRATING WHAT’S REAL.

By Joseph Martos

Published by Resource Publications/Wipf and Stock Publishers. 156 pages. $20.00.

A woman is denied marriage in the church because she can’t secure the annulment of her previous marriage to a mentally ill husband who has disappeared. A Catholic grandmother believes her Buddhist granddaughter is going to hell because the seal of her earlier baptism is eternal.  The seriously ill and dying in a local hospital are denied the anointing of the sick because the Catholic chaplain is a woman and no priests are available.

As theologian of the sacraments, Joseph Martos, explains, these are common experiences in today’s Catholic church. But why do such sacramental barriers exist half a century after the church “entered the modern world” at Vatican II? In Honest Rituals, Honest Sacraments, Martos takes us back through the history of the church, from the first Christian communities through the Middle Ages to today to lay bare the roots of such problems and propose a contemporary solution.

For Martos, the rituals celebrated by the early Christians were grounded in the actual experiences of the members of the community—conversion, caring, and commitment to the ethical values of Jesus.  The writers of the Epistles and Gospels used metaphors to represent these experiences: baptism, the forgiveness of sins, the presence of Christ in the weekly meal. After the Christianization of the Roman Empire, however, differences between Christian groups threatened imperial unity, so Constantine ordered the bishops to call the Council of Nicea. The Nicene Creed, fashioned there to implement that unity, included almost no references to the ethical teachings of Jesus that underpinned early Christian rituals. Metaphors of lived experience became metaphysical realities in which to believe.  And in the Middle Ages, “schoolmen” in the monasteries drew upon this metaphysical theology to explain the sacraments. The sacraments, according to them, worked automatically.

And this, to all intents and purposes, is what the Catholic Church teaches about sacraments today.  The various sacraments imprint indelible marks—supernatural gifts—on the soul of the passive recipient; And in the Eucharist, the bread and wine actually become a new substance, the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Given that centuries have passed since the schoolmen fashioned this interpretation of the sacraments, it is time for the church, Martos argues, to reimagine and redesign the sacraments so that they once again express the genuine spiritual experiences of the Christian community. To give some examples: we should celebrate the sacrament of ordination not as the according of miraculous powers to an individual but as the communal recognition of those who have the skills needed for ministry—preaching, administration, counseling, governance—skills that are not limited by gender or sexual orientation. Marriage becomes the celebration of the spiritual reality at the heart of a mutually supportive, agapic relationship, not a purity-based commitment to procreation. Reconciliation should mean reaching out into the community to bring alienated groups and individuals together, not an individualist ritual of forgiveness for having broken some rules. The anointing of the sick, Martos believes, is already an “honest ritual” because the forms have expanded from a ritual exclusively for the dying to a variety of ceremonies, in hospitals and nursing homes, at healing Masses in parishes though the exclusion of women celebrants continues to be a problem). And the Eucharist should become the celebration and affirmation of what brings people together in a particular community around the vision and values of Jesus. Local church communities, under the leadership of local bishops, should implement these changes.

The scope and depth of the knowledge Martos draws upon to make his argument for a new, more honest sacramental theology is breathtaking. I found his examination of translations, and even of the use of capital letters, in the gradual divinizing of the Holy Spirit, for example, fascinating and convincing. His exploration of the work of the schoolmen in the Middle Ages is likewise quite absorbing. And his use of contemporary philosophy and ritual studies greatly enhanced my understanding of the sacraments. By the end of the book, it is difficult to dispute the basic argument Martos makes, that the current theology of the sacraments, at least the kind that Catholics encounter in parishes, needs serious updating, even reconstruction.

I find it ironic, however, that what seems to be the foundation of Matos’s critique of contemporary Catholic sacramental thinking is the clear, even absolute distinction between metaphysics and experience.  For isn’t the implementation of such a binary itself a form of metaphysical thinking? Consider, for example, the book’s subtitle: Letting Go of Doctrine and Celebrating What is Real. Doctrine is fake and experienced-based rituals are real, we are led to believe. But what about Catholic communities for whom reality is intimately connected with doctrine? What about Catholic communities in Africa for whom the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is an essential part of their experience, even as it also includes the practice of justice and caring that characterized the early church? Does calling such belief “magical thinking” qualify as caring? Martos does, in fact, acknowledge from time to time that some “dishonest rituals,” based in belief and not experience, are unintentional. But too often, his discourse is dismissive of religious views that are also a part of contemporary realty. In my experience, Christians, including theologians, need to find less disdainful ways of engaging these differences.

 

This review appeared in the National Catholic Reporter, Vol. 55, No. 11, March 8-21, 2019, p. 14.

March 3 Homily: The Fruit-Filled Tree of Resurrected Wisdom

March 2, 2019 at 11:12 am | Posted in Catholicism | 5 Comments
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I am in the habit of going up to Benincasa, the splendid lay Catholic community on West 70th Street in Manhattan, for a liturgy on the first Sunday of each month. I love the people who live there–Jimmy, Sean and Karen–and the many others who join them for various events. People take turns preaching the sermon as part of the first Sunday liturgy, and it happens that I am giving the homily tomorrow, the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent. I am sharing it with you here. (Participants in the liturgy engage in a discussion after the sermon, hence the question at the end.)

Reading 1: Sirach: 27: 4-7

Reading II: 1 Cor. 15:54-5

Gospel: Lk 6:39-45.

So for the past five weeks, since the 4thSunday in Ordinary Time, we have been reading about Jesus’s ministry in Galilee, and about his recruitment and preparation of disciples to share in that ministry. And for the past two weeks, Jesus’s instruction of the disciples and of the others who have been following him has been quite inspiring. First we had Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, telling us not just that the poor in spirit are blessed, but that the poor themselves are. Then last week, we heard Luke 6, in which the disciples—and we—are urged to love our enemies. The great New Testament scholar Fred Craddock argues that the exhortation in the middle of that passage: “…love your enemies and do good to them…Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” is the essence of the Christian Gospel.

Without some context, this week’s reading may seem a good bit less inspiring. Jesus is calling on the disciples, and us, not to think too highly of ourselves: don’t be a hypocrite, don’t criticize others when what you are doing is as bad or worse. If you lack discernment, the person you are leading is going to fall into a pit along with you.

Before becoming too discouraged by this, though, it’s helpful to bear in mind here that Jesus has his reasons for leaning harder on his disciples—and on us—than he has been doing. The end of his Galilean ministry is in sight and soon Jesus will be on his way to Jerusalem and the crucifixion. In the Gospel this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, he will continue to urge his disciples to avoid hypocrisy as he does here—pray and give alms in secret, not in order to receive praise. And next week, he will be leaning on himself to resist temptation as well, going into the desert for forty days to fast and pray.

But even now, it’s not all entirely discouraging, because at the end of this week’s Gospel Luke begins to talk about trees. Now admittedly his discussion of the trees is a bit more black and white than some of us may find entirely helpful: bad trees, bad fruit. And the crucifixion itself will take place on the wood of a tree in six weeks or so. But trees also produce good fruit, as Luke goes on to reminds us,

We actually already encountered this tree-based flash of hope in today’s first reading, taken from the Book of Sirach, —even before Jesus begins warning the disciples about hypocrisy in the Gospel reading. At first, this  earlier reading doesn’t seem a lot more encouraging, nothing more than a sort of prelude to the Gospel’s discourse about hypocrisy: just as  the refuse remains after a sieve is shaken, and what comes out of a person’s reasoning shows who she is, so the fruit of a tree —good or bad—discloses the kind of cultivation a tree has received.

But the Book of Sirach, sometimes called the Book of Ecclesiasticus, is, at least according to the Catholic Church, part of the Wisdom literature of the “Old Testament.” But the Jews don’t consider it part of their Scriptures, and most Protestant denominations don’t either. But Catholics do. And one real advantage to including Sirach in our Scriptures, and thus in the lectionary, is that it includes some theologically important, and beautiful, passages about Sophia, the female figure of Wisdom who vastly expands our vision of God. And one of the most powerful representations of Sophia/Wisdom in the Book of Sirach is Sophia as a tree.

So just after this passage in Sirach in which we encounter a fairly limited representation of a tree, one that only bears good fruit if it is cultivated properly, we hear of the glorious Sophia who has ”taken root in a privileged  people,…grown tall as a cedar on Lebanon, as tall as the rose bushes of Jericho…I have spread my branches like a terebinth…Approach me you who desire me and take your fill of my fruits.” (Sirach 24:1-14).The author of the Book of Sirach knows well that with Sophia much more is possible than sieves full of refuse or the bad fruit of bad trees or, for that matter, from hypocritical disciples.

Indeed, in a few weeks Luke’s Jesus himself will move on from his sermon to the disciples about good and bad fruit to a far less binarized parable, this one about the owner of an orchard who orders his gardener to cut down a fig tree because it has borne no fruit for three years. But the gardener convinces the owner to give the tree another year so he can cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it.

And then just before the Last Supper, Luke’s Jesus tells us an even more inspiring  parable, in which, just as we know that summer is near when  we see the fig tree and every tree in bud, so when the disciples see the things happening that Jesus has been telling them about—signs in the sun and moon and stars, the clamor of the ocean and its waves, –we will know that the kingdom of God is near.

So when Luke goes on later, in Acts, to speak multiple times of Jesus who was slain and hung on a tree, he knows very well that there is more to expect from trees than death and fruitlessness. And so should we, as our Savior, the fruit of the tree of the crucifixion rises up before us on Easter morning.

Let me conclude with a question. At this time, when the dead wood of the cross seems to be everywhere:  with  the Trump administration demonizing our Latinx sisters and brothers and tearing their infants from the  breasts of their mothers; when that same administration, by abandoning crucial treaties, has moved the nuclear doomsday clock closer to midnight than it has been since 1953; and when the United States has withdrawn from global climate change agreements, thus moving us even closer to environmental catastrophe than we already were, what are we to do? What, for you, is the route from the dead wood of this cross to the fruit-filled tree of resurrected Wisdom?

 

 

After Pittsburgh

November 5, 2018 at 12:59 pm | Posted in antisemitism, Catholicism, Judaism, racism,, Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Last Thursday, five days after a white nationalist killed eleven Jews and three others in a synagogue in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh, was All Saints Day, one of my favorite feasts. Priests from a new Jesuit ministry, the Jesuits of Brooklyn, have been celebrating some of the liturgies at my diocesan parish, Our Lady of Refuge, and one of them said the 9 AM Mass that I attended that day.

I was deeply grateful to the priest, who shall go unidentified, for immediately starting his sermon by addressing the massacre in Pittsburgh, which has been characterized as the worst anti-semitic hate crime in US history. After describing what happened, he went on to remind the congregation that some of the most important figures in the New Testament were Jews: Jesus, and Mary, and Joseph, and Mary’s parents, and her cousin Elizabeth, and St. Paul, among others. He then told a story about sitting near a young Orthodox Jewish man wearing a yarmulke and tallits (tassels) while riding on the subway soon after the murders and expressing his deep sympathy to him. He also asked the young man how he was doing, and the young man replied that his people were told to do one act for the good of the world every day. Our preacher was moved by this response. He then urged the congregation to reach out to Jews at this dreadful time, something that is much more possible to do in our religiously and racially diverse Brooklyn neighborhood than in other parts of the country.

As I said to the Jesuit afterwards, it was extremely meaningful to me that he directly addressed such a devastating event.  I had attended the Jesuit church of St. Francis Xavier in Manhattan for a while in 2017 but ceased to do so when the pastor there, an artist and musician, got up and gave a beautifully prepared sermon the morning after the Charlottesville riot without ever mentioning it. My hunch is that he had already written his beautiful sermon and didn’t want to mess it up with bad news.

But as I said to the preacher at Our Lady of Refuge, as grateful as I was that he had addressed the murders in Pittsburgh, there’s one small problem with what he said, or rather, what he didn’t say. The Christian tradition, and particularly the teaching of Jewish “deicide,” that with the crucifixion the Jews killed God in the person of Jesus Christ, is the historic root of antisemitism. In particular, the supposed act of deicide is inscribed in Matthew 27:24-25:

24 When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
25 All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!

Many Scripture scholars and historians now argue that this isn’t what happened; that only a very few Jewish leaders may have been involved in Jesus’s death, and that the author of Matthew’s Gospel fictionalized this part of the story. And at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Catholic Church renounced this teaching, as have a number of other Christian churches. It could also be argued that if Christianity had not happened, with the conversion of Constantine in the early fourth century,  to become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire,–if Christianity had remained a minor religious sect split off from Judaism–the horrific impact of antisemitism might never have occurred.

But Christianity did become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, and it went on teaching the “blood libel”–that Jesus’s blood is on the Jewish people–for a millennium and a half after Constantine. It’s hard to believe that Hitler, a baptized Catholic, didn’t pick up some of his antisemitism from this tradition. And the Catholic Church continues to read those verses  from St. Matthew’s passion during Holy Week, as well as other New Testament passages that echo its hostility, throughout the year.

So speaking in a kindly way on the subway to a young man in a yarmulke after an antisemitic bloodbath is a fine thing to do. But something more is required: preachers must address those passages after they are read at Mass, explaining the harm that they have done, and repenting of them on behalf of the Church. And if they don’t address the Christian antisemitic complicity inscribed in those texts, the people in the pews need to call them out for failing to do so

 

Revisiting Dorothy Day

July 9, 2018 at 2:31 pm | Posted in Catholicism, feminism, war and violence | 4 Comments
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Because of my half-century of participation in the Grail movement, I have always felt related to Dorothy Day. The first recorded contact between the Grail and American Catholics was a 1936 letter to her from the co-founder of the US Grail, Lydwine van Kersbergen. In 1943, with the Grail planted in the Midwest, Day, on sabbatical from the Catholic Worker, participated in a three-week Grail program on rural living, liturgy, and the women’s apostolate. Later she made a silent retreat at Super Flumina, the Grail’s farm in Foster, Ohio.

My personal contacts with Day were limited. She spoke at a meeting of the Catholic Art Association—or maybe it was the Catholic Art Guild, since the Art Association shut down in 1970––during one of the summers that I spent at Grailville, the Grail’s farm and conference center near Cincinnati, when I was still a fourth-grade teacher. Her talk followed the showing of a short art film, “Two Men and a Wardrobe.”* My recollection is that Day was quite dismissive of the film, something that led me to categorize her as a crabby, old-fashioned Church type; I was in my mid-twenties at the time and not very forgiving.

I also wrote to Day in 1975, after I had become a full-time member of the Grailville staff, asking if she would send me a copy of the Muslim “Ninety-Nine Names of God” that another Grail member, recently home from Egypt, had given her. She responded,

Sorry. Those 99 Names have disappeared from my treasure box, though the beads remain. My bedroom is always used in my peregrinations, so things disappear, are ripped off, liberated, to use the language of the young. My love to all there. –– In Christ––Dorothy.

The message came on a postcard bearing the kind of dramatic woodcut, this one by Antonio Frasconi, that appeared frequently in the Catholic Worker. Eventually I had the postcard framed archivally, to preserve it. When I show it to visitors I tell them that if Dorothy is canonized, it will become a second-class relic, a comment that baffles most of them.

All the rest of my “encounters” with Dorothy have taken place since her death in 1980. One was reading the letter from Cardinal John O’Connor to the Vatican nominating Day for canonization. It highlights, as a reason for her canonization, Day’s repentance for the abortion she underwent she became a Catholic. Later, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, at an event in Day’s honor at St. Joseph’s in Greenwich Village, the church where Day was baptized, described her as an “obedient daughter of the Church.” I was well past my mid-twenties by then, but my responses to these statements were still not very forgiving. With regard to Day’s obedience to the Church, for example, I thought: except for the cemetery workers’ strike, where Day and her Catholic Worker colleagues picketed against the strike breakers brought in by the Archdiocese.

Most recently, my encounters with Day include reading Jim Forest’s biography, All is Grace (Orbis 2011). I have had it in my head for years to write a book about Joan of Arc, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Day, because of the strong but seemingly unlikely connections between them––Thérèse the ascetic having written a play about Joan the warrior, and Day, the pacifist, devoted to Joan as well, then writing a book about Thérèse. Forest’s book is part of the material I’ve been accumulating for the project.

Forest is a terrific writer, and I learned a great deal from his biography that I had not known about Day. For one thing, I learned that she really was in many respects a traditional, if also utterly committed, Catholic. She was also a fairly judgmental individual, a sin she confessed again and again. So my evaluation of her in the 1970s was not entirely mistaken.

I also learned that Day really was an obedient daughter of the Church, frequently following the directions she received from bishops and priests—though she was by no means naïve about the sins of the institution.

I even learned that Day really did seriously regret—repent of—her abortion, though whether she would want to be remembered for that before anything else is another question. Indeed, she objected strongly to any suggestion that she was a saint, believing it undercut the Catholic Worker’s fundamental commitment to egalitarianism and denial of self.

Perhaps the most important insight I took away from reading Forest’s biography, however, is that precisely because of her high level of Christian commitment and the strength of her positions, Dorothy Day may well be exactly the kind of role model needed in this difficult time. In the midst of the environmental crisis that engulfs us, for example, I look around our apartment and wonder why in hell I ever bought all these clothes, these books, those items of kitchen ware, and I find myself deeply inspired by Day’s poverty and self-abnegation.

As I observe the chaos that paralyzes many of the groups I belong to, underpinned by the individualism and expectations of gratification by so many in my generation, I find myself profoundly challenged by Day’s concern with and obedience to authority, however communal her understanding of it was.

And when I am too lazy to turn out for public demonstrations, or too afraid of being arrested, I remember Day’s endless commitment to social action, and her many stays in jail.

Could it be, I find myself wondering, that the woman I once dismissed as too traditional a Catholic and too judgmental a person is exactly the model––the saint––we need as we face the crises that confront us?

 

Versions of this post appeared in EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference and Gumbo the monthly publication of the Grail in the US.)

 

Pope Francis after Five Years: His Greatest Contribution

April 17, 2018 at 11:56 am | Posted in Catholicism, Climate Change, Vatican | 6 Comments
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Last night I was honored to participate in a panel in Manhattan sponsored by Dignity New York and the Women’s Ordination Conference called “Francis after Five: A Feminist Response.” I enjoyed very much the conversation with Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director  of BishopAccountability.org, Jamie Manson, NCR columnist and book review editor, Teresa Cariño, pastoral associate for young adults at St. Ignatius Loyola in Manhattan, and our moderator, the journalist and author, Eileen Markey. Unfortunately, the program was not videoed, but here, at least, is my presentation:

 

Let’s get right down to business. I am here to argue that the single most important thing Pope Francis did in his first five years in office was to publish his second encyclical, Laudato Si”: On Care for Our Common Home in June of 2015.

Why do I say this? Because the environmental catastrophe that we are experiencing is one of the two biggest threats facing humanity today––the other being nuclear war.

In making this claim, I am not thinking only of the extreme forest fires in California this past year, or the massive storms that devastated major parts of Houston and Puerto Rico, or the increasing droughts and famines around the world, though these are terrifying enough. I am also recalling that last fall scientists at MIT, Stanford, and the National Autonomous University of Mexico, in independent studies, warned that if we continue to release carbon into the environment at the current rate, by the year 2100, there will be a “biological annihilation”—a sixth mass extinction––which may well wipe out not only a huge number of other animal and plant species but the human species as well.

Part of what is so important about Laudato Si’ is precisely what Pope Francis says there. He states unambiguously that climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity in our day and calls out the consumerist, profit-driven globalized technocracy as its primary cause. He also accepts the scientific consensus that changes in the climate are largely caused by human activity and calls for replacing fossil fuels without delay.

But it’s not just what Pope Francis says about climate change that makes Laudato Si’ the pivotal action of his papacy; it’s what the document achieved, and on many levels. Consider, for example, that one day after the encyclical’s contents had been leaked to the media, the Dalai Lama stated that : “Since climate change and the global economy now affect us all, we have to develop a sense of the oneness of humanity “ And then the head of the Anglican Communion issued a “green declaration” (also signed by the Methodist Conference); and the Lausanne Movementof global evangelical Christians said it was anticipating the encyclical and was grateful for it. The encyclical was also welcomed by the World Council of Churches and by secular world leaders Ban Ki-moon, Kofi Annan, and the head of the World Bank.

The resources that Pope Francis drew on were also path-breaking. Of course, he quotes at some length his papal predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But also, underpinning his stress on the poor and people in the Global South as those most harmed by climate change, he quotes African, Asian and Latin American bishops conferences as his predecessors never did, and refers multiple times to the wisdom of indigenous people. All of this clearly embodies the integral ecology that is at the heart of the Pope’s argument in Laudato Si’. (Unfortunately, he does not quote many women at all).

But we are not here to talk about the contents of Laudato Si’; we are here to offer a feminist assessment of Pope Francis’s first five years in office. And a lot of feminist, LGBT and transgender Catholics were quite critical of the pope’s environmental encyclical.

Let me begin this part of my talk by saying that I have been a Catholic feminist since the early 1970s, when my women’s community, the Grail, offered path-breaking programs in feminist theology and spirituality at our organic farm and conference center outside Cincinnati. I also attended the first Women’s Ordination Conference in Detroit in 1975 and served as president of the Women’s Ordination Conference Board 2000-2002. I am also author or co-author of seven books, most of them about women and the church, and of hundreds of articles and reviews. I basically oppose the church’s position on women’s ordination, and reproductive and LGBTQ rights.

As I have said before, however, even if the pope had thoughts about these questions that deviate from traditional teaching—which I doubt he has––­­­­he would have been ill-advised to express them in Laudato Si’ This is so because to have done so would have started a civil war and distracted from the issue that concerns him most: the environmental catastrophe. Consider the blow-back from right-wing commentators like Ross Douthat over the suggestion about divorced and remarried Catholics being readmitted to communion in Amoris Laetitia, a much less contentious issue than reproductive or LGBTQ rights.

Yet I want also to point out that one thing Francis says in Laudato Si’ makes a really significant change in Catholic teaching on sexuality and gender, when he states very clearly that the destruction of the environment and the oppression of the poor are sins as grievous as abortion. Here, for the first time, a pope is undercutting what historical sociologist Gene Burns calls the post-Vatican II Catholic ideological hierarchy, in which sexual teaching is primary and obligatory for all, doctrine is secondary and obligatory for Catholics only, and social justice issues like climate change and war are tertiary and optional. The media paid considerably more attention when Francis reiterated this change in his recent apostolic exhortation, Gaudete and Exultate, but he had, in fact, already asserted it in Laudato Si’.

I also want to suggest that feminist and LGBTQ Catholics here in the Global North need to be careful in our critique of Laudato Si’ precisely because of what Pope Francis in that document calls the environmental debt owed to the communities of the Global South who are suffering the most because of our massive over-consumption. The daily per capita emission of green-house gases by the average US resident is seventy times that of the average Kenyan.  Along these lines, a number of feminists were critical of the encyclical because they believed it did not put enough emphasis on population control as a way of remedying the climate crisis. But scientists tell us that if the poorest three billion people on earth were to disappear, greenhouse gas emissions would not go down at all because it’s the people in the Global North who are causing the problem. I fully support women’s reproductive rights, but the church’s opposition to those rights is not causing the climate crisis. We are.  And let’s be clear here: women and their children in the Global South are those who are suffering the most from the effects of climate change.

So I conclude as I began, by reminding us that the catastrophe afflicting our common home is one of the two greatest problems of our time, and that Francis’s greatest contribution as pope is to have challenged the whole world, women and men, cis and transgender, gay as well as straight, to the radical conversion needed to save God’s creation.

 

 

 

 

The Redemption of All Creation

March 28, 2018 at 2:20 pm | Posted in Catholicism, Climate Change, constructive theology, Environment | 3 Comments
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In her new book, ecofeminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson argues compellingly that Christ is the redeemer of all creation, not only of human beings. What could be more timely, as the commemoration of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection approaches?

Creation and the Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril. By Elizabeth A. Johnson. 256 pages. Published by Orbis Books. $28.

In January, Scientific American shared some disturbing news: researchers had determined that between 1990 and 2015, concern about the environment and climate change had declined among U.S. Christians. * Since the study didn’t distinguish between denominations, and since Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical was published in 2015, you may find yourself hoping, as I did, that U.S. Catholics don’t share this declining concern.

Unfortunately, certain powerful theological paradigms going back well before the Reformation make such a distinction unlikely. In her splendid new book, Creation and the Cross, theologian Elizabeth Johnson takes on one of them:  the notion that salvation is an exclusively human matter, having nothing to do with the rest of creation. “What would it mean,” she asks, “to rediscover the biblical sense of the natural world groaning, hoping, waiting for liberation?”

Johnson traces this dualism between redemption and creation back to the work of the eleventh-century theologian, Anselm of Canterbury, and, in particular, to his “satisfaction theory” of salvation, as formulated in his book Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Human). Anselm’s answer to the question, Johnson explains, is that Jesus had to become human and die on the cross to pay back what was due to God for human sin.  This theory, we learn, has played a pivotal role in Christian theology and practice ever since. But Anselm’s satisfaction theory is an interpretation of the cross, not its only possible meaning. And like all interpretations, it is shaped by the social context from which it emerged, in this case, feudalism, where local rulers required subjects to make satisfaction—to pay—for breaking the law.

In contrast, Johnson proposes an accompaniment theology of salvation, in which Jesus’ brutal death “enacts the solidarity of the gracious and merciful God” with all those who suffer, including the poor, species that undergo extinction, and all the rest of creation. She traces this redemption back to the Creator God of the Hebrew Bible, the Holy One of Israel who promises liberation to the Israelites in Egypt and later in Babylon. But this redemption is not some trade-off, as the satisfaction theory implies, but a redemption poured out by a God whose compassion for us is that of a mother for her child, a redemption that causes streams to flow in dry land and wilderness to bloom.

And it is this liberating and merciful God who sends Jesus, not to pay for our sins, but to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, to let the oppressed go free. But Jesus’ proclamation of God’s kingdom constituted a serious challenge to the Romans who ruled Israel during his lifetime. The cheering crowds who greeted him, especially during his entry into Jerusalem, as well as his confrontation with the money changers in the Temple, constituted such a threat to the unjust power of empire that the rulers crucified Jesus in order to silence him. Yet instead of death silencing him, the resurrection made Jesus present to the disciples in an entirely new way, enabling them to take the liberating message of the compassionate God to the ends of the earth and to all of creation. And through the early church’s recorded memories of the crucified and risen Christ, this understanding of the cross as an expression of the compassion and mercy of God spread throughout the world.

The culmination of this accompaniment theology is something Johnson calls “deep incarnation.”  The creator God Jesus Christ is, she explains, the God of all flesh, with flesh not signifying only sin, as the dualism between spirit and matter suggests, but the finitude and death suffered by all creation, including God’s own son. But with the resurrection, this “flesh was called to life again in transformed glory.” And, as St. Paul writes, the hope promised to all in this transformation “has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.”

Creation and the Cross concludes with a call to us all to a conversion, in our actions as well as our beliefs, to love of the Creator/Redeemer of the whole world and the entire cosmos. Within this conversion, mistreatment of the earth is as much a sin as mistreatment of other humans. In order to repent we must understand ourselves as members of the whole “community of creation,” whose suffering is our suffering. The cross, then, is the icon of God’s compassionate love for everyone and everything.

For all Johnson’s disagreement with Anselm’s satisfaction theory, she does show her appreciation for another aspect of Cur Deus Homo, and to such an extent that she actually imitates it: the question and answer format Anselm uses to make his theology accessible. Of course, no book is perfect, and in the case of Creation and the Cross, Johnson’s interlocutor, “Clara,” sounds, from time to time, suspiciously like a theology professor. That limitation notwithstanding, the Q&A format, combined with Johnson’s gift for clarity and strategic summarizing, makes this book an ideal tool for helping us all expand our understanding of redemption to include all of God’s beloved creation.

In a review of this length, it is not possible to do justice to the range of biblical and theological sources Johnson draws upon to lay out her deep incarnation theology. The depth and accessibility of such material throughout the book makes Creation and the Cross an ideal resource for RCIA participants seeking to achieve an understanding of the faith. But really, given the feeble concern so many US Christians feel for God’s creation even in the face of increasing numbers of massive fires, extreme weather events, droughts and flooded cities, Creation and the Cross is a book we all need to read, and we need to read it soon.

 

This review appeared in the March 22-April 5 2018 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

 

 

 

Catholic Leadership on the Global Political Stage

March 16, 2018 at 9:57 am | Posted in Catholicism, religion, secularism, Vatican, war and violence | 3 Comments
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