An Article Not By but About Me

April 14, 2019 at 2:11 pm | Posted in Catholicism, marian ronan, Regina Bannan, | 7 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.

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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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The Collusion of Almost Everybody

February 11, 2018 at 3:31 pm | Posted in Capitalism, Catholicism, Climate Change | 7 Comments
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We’ve heard the word “collusion” a lot in recent months. Did the Trump campaign collude with Russia? Did members of the FBI collude with the Clinton campaign? Etc., etc.

In his 2016 book, The Environmentalism of the Rich,* Peter Dauvergne details the ways in which mainstream environmental organizations have colluded, so to speak, with environment-destroying corporations. Here’s my review of that book, which appeared in the Grail’s monthly publication, Gumbo, in January:

 

At first glance, the title of Peter Dauvergne’s book could be off-putting. “Environmentalism” can sound pretty broad, or abstract, while “of the rich” surely doesn’t have much to do with people like us, right?

Actually, the title notwithstanding, Dauvergne’s book has a whole lot to do with people like us: concerned about the degradation of the natural world—God’s creation—but also necessarily up to our necks in the consumer society that is the 21st century United States—driving cars, flying in airplanes, eating processed food, buying cell phones, etc., etc., etc.

The “environmentalism of the rich,” as Dauvergne understands it, is a way of thinking and acting that has come to dominate the mainstream environmental movement in recent years. It focuses on “eco-consumerism”—favoring corporate products that are “green”—and making small life-style changes like composting, recycling, and taking shorter showers, even as overall consumption skyrockets around the world. And thanks to crack-downs since 9/11, state security agencies have suppressed many of the world’s direct action environmental movements that previously succeeded at confronting corporate and government harm and galvanizing the attention of the public.

Especially stunning in Dauvergne’s delineation of this shift from radical environmentalism to the environmentalism of the rich is his documentation of the rise of partnerships between retail corporations and mainstream environmental groups. Consider, for example, the World Wildlife Federation (WWF). Already in the 1960s WWF was lobbying for stronger environmental laws, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to save endangered animals and highlighting the threats that economic development posed to wildlife. It went on to sponsor conservation projects around the world.

But in the 1990s the WWF began advocating “eco-labelling”—working with corporations like Cargill, McDonald’s and Walmart to certify various products and activities as “green.” In 2006, it began partnering with Coca-Cola to promote freshwater conservation in exchange for a $20 million donation. In 2011 Coke and the WWF launched a campaign to raise funds to conserve polar bear habitats; consumers could donate to WWF using “Coke Reward Points”; these projects are now in 50 countries. Coke revenues in 2014 were $46 billion. And it takes 150-300 liters of water to produce a half-liter of a sweetened beverage, in a world where billions of people live without adequate fresh water and obesity is sky-rocketing.

And it’s not only the WWF: The Nature Conservancy partners with Dow Chemical and Cargill; Conservation International works with Bank of America, Coca-Cola, Disney, Exxon-Mobil, McDonald’s, and Nestlé, to name only a few; while the Environmental Defense Fund also partners with McDonald’s. All of these partnerships help to fund the huge numbers of staff people needed to run environmental organizations around the world. Even Greenpeace, a group that has engaged in radical environmental protests over the years, now also engages in eco-consumer campaigns, thus helping to legitimize “the very political and corporate processes that are causing the overall rate of unsustainable consumption to escalate.”

Please do not get the impression that Dauvergne dismisses the contributions of mainstream environmental groups. Some of the best parts of the book are his stories of the achievements of those groups—protecting wilderness and animals, alerting the public to environmental dangers, and so forth. Yet ultimately, he is forced to admit, as are we, that despite these contributions, the situation of the planet is getting worse and worse and worse. And it’s going to take a lot more than the environmentalism of the rich to change it.

But that’s not all. Just after the review came out, I heard a discussion on the radio about another book–God forbid I could find the scrap of paper on which I wrote the title–about the relationships between food banks across the country and food chains like Walmart. Such mega-markets donate to the food banks and then claim they support the hungry. But something like 17% of Walmart employees are on food stamps because they’re paid to so little. Collusion ?

Then I was watching a Big East basketball game with my esteemed companion (I learned to love basketball in the Catholic schools in Philly when I was growing up.) It was a game between two Catholic universities–Marquette and maybe Xavier. During a time-out, an ad for Marquette described it as a university rooted in the Catholic faith. Quite inspiring. Then it was followed by a Jeep ad. And the game was airing on Fox, a network whose news coverage is widely recognized for its profound commitment to Catholic social teaching.

And then there’s my husband and me, with our money in Chase bank.  I mean, a Catholic university can’t be expected to pass on commercials that support its sports team that in turn supports its bottom line just because cars are a major source of the green-house gasses that are destroying the planet, can they? And should the Big East (all Catholic schools, I believe) stop using Fox, when it gives them the best deal, just because Fox commentators are racist nationalists? For that matter, should Keith and I be using some credit union when the Chase branch is walking distance and, conveniently, has more ATMs that any other bank out here in Brooklyn?

Let me conclude with a paraphrase from Paul’s letter to the Romans: “All have colluded and fallen short of the glory of God.” The question is, how are we going to stop?

*Peter Dauvergne , Environmentalism of the Rich (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2018).152 pp.  Paper. $16.95.

 

 

 

 

 

The Life and Death of Sister Maura Clarke

December 3, 2017 at 5:25 pm | Posted in Catholic sisters, Catholicism, war and violence, women | 1 Comment
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The following is a review of Eileen Markey’s splendid biography of Maryknoll Sister Maura Clarke, who was one of four churchwomen killed by military in El Salvador in 1980. The review appears in the current issue of New Women, New Church,  the bi-annual publication of the US Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC). I have chosen to leave in the references to WOC  and Christian feminists because I think the overlaps with and the differences from Maura Clarke’s liberationist activism are significant.

Eileen Markey, A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura (New York, NY: Nation Books, 2016) 336 pp. Hardcover. $26.99

A driving force behind the meeting in Detroit in 1975 that evolved into the Women’s Ordination Conference was the desire for the liberation of women in the Catholic Church. But during that same period, passion for another kind of liberation, the liberation of those under military dictatorships in Latin America, was driving some other Catholic women and men. In Eileen Markey’s splendid biography, A Radical Faith, readers become acquainted with (and will likely be deeply inspired by) one of them, Sister Maura Clarke.

Maura (née Mary Elizabeth) Clarke was like many American Catholic girls of her generation. Born in 1931 to Irish immigrant parents, she grew up in the traditional Catholicism of her working-class neighborhood in Queens, New York: attending Benediction, praying to the Blessed Virgin, listening to Bishop Sheen on the radio. And the religious congregation she entered in 1950, the Maryknoll sisters, was in many respects traditional as well. In the early years of her work as a missioner in Nicaragua, where she arrived in 1959, Maura and the other Maryknoll sisters were singing the Te Deum with members of the dictatorial Samoza family.

Several things changed all that: Vatican II, which mandated the renewal of religious life; Maura’s growing involvement with Nicaraguans who suffered enormously under the Samoza dictatorship; and her encounter with liberation theology, especially in the activism and writings of Ernesto Cardenal and his brother, Fernando.

Gradually the piety of Maura’s early years converged with the radical sense of justice that would shape the rest of her life. By the late 1960s, Maura and others were meeting and marching with Nicaraguans to protest the brutality of the Samoza regime. Maura interacted frequently with the Sandinistas, the revolutionary group that brought down the Samoza regime in 1979. When Maura moved to El Salvador in 1980, this history led the Salvadoran military to brand Maura and the three church women with she was working as subversives; on December 2, 1980, they beat, raped and murdered her and her companions.

Markey’s retelling of the political radicalization and activism that led to Maura Clarke’s death is galvanizing, but A Radical Faith is by no means only a narrative of the “assassination of Sister Maura.” Rather, it is a deeply moving study of the many dimensions of Maura Clarke’s life that shaped her heroic work for justice for the people of Central America. The extent of Markey’s research is stunning: details from interviews and letters from school friends, Maura’s interactions with her spiritual director, visits with her family in New York and Ireland, how she dealt with falling in love with a priest in Nicaragua. The engrossing portrait that emerges goes well beyond Clarke’s political convictions and actions.

At least two trajectories help to bring Markey’s extensive research together. One is the Irish history and identity of Maura’s family of origin. Maura’s father, John, had emigrated to the U.S. in 1914, but his brothers in County Sligo were active in the Irish Republican Army; he returned to Ireland in 1921 and fought in the Irish revolution. Maura’s mother, Mary McCloskey Clarke, grew up Catholic in what is now Northern Ireland, and knew well what being part of an oppressed minority felt like. From the beginning of the book, Markey uses the Clarkes’ experience of struggle against political oppression to clarify Maura’s commitments and her heroism. Already in the first chapter, Markey explains that during Maura’s childhood, she often accompanied her father, John, on his after-dinner strolls on the boardwalk beside the ocean where he

…told stories of the Irish revolution and instilled his thoughtful daughter with an understanding of the world from the perspective of the person on the bottom: the native, not the colonist, the peasant, not the landlord…of brave, principled rebels, of people who stand against the prevailing power and for the underdog. …Maura ingested the message. (27-28)

The other motif that brings Markey’s remarkable research together is Maura’s Christian faith, and, in fact, the centrality of the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross to that faith. Repeatedly Markey highlights the influence of Christ’s suffering on Maura’s life and work:

…After the earthquake in Managua in 1972) Maura went with Fr. Mercerreyes as he walked through the remains of the parish…(hugging) people…crying with them and (sharing) the Eucharist. It was Christ’s broken body for a ravaged people. (141″

…(Even after death threats,) Maura had asked…”If we abandon them when they are suffering the cross, how can we speak credibly about the resurrection?” (241)

Since the 1970s, a number of feminist theologians have argued that the Christian focus on the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross is a major cause of women’s oppression. In 1975, the same year that many of us met in Detroit for the first Catholic conference on women’s ordination, the great German liberation and then feminist theologian, Dorothee Soelle, strongly criticized what she perceived as the sadism of Jurgen Moltmann’s theology of the cross, as expressed in his classic work, The Crucified God. And In the 2000s, U.S. feminist theologians Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock denounced the cross as a symbol of violence and abuse in two different books, Proverbs of Ashes (2000) and Saving Paradise (2008). After Vatican II some Catholic churches replaced the crucifix with a figure of the risen Christ behind the altar.

There can be no doubt that the cross has sometimes been used to encourage women to repress suffering and abuse rather than speak out about it. But as Maura Clarke’s life and death show, the suffering and death of Jesus have also inspired women to live and die in the hope of a resurrection of justice and peace for all. May reading A Radical Faith inspire Christian feminists, including Catholic women’s ordination activists, to reconsider and expand our understanding of the cross and other dimensions of our own faith in the months and years to come.

(Marian Ronan is Research Professor of Catholic Studies at New York Theological Seminary, NY, NY, and co-author of Women of Vision: Sixteen Founders of the International Grail Movement (Apocryphile Press, 2017). She was the 2000-2002 president of the WOC board.

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