Tags: Catholic laywomen, The International Grail Movement
Well, you haven’t been hearing from me much of late. But I have an excuse!
I’ve been finishing a book that I’ve been working on since the middle of 2015. It’s called Women of Vision: Sixteen Founders of the International Grail Movement, and it’s almost done. As I understand it, the book may well be out in April, published by the Apocryphile Press, Berkeley, CA.
Here’s the copy from the book’s back cover:
Women of Vision is a book that expands significantly public knowledge of the contributions of Catholic laywomen to church and society over the past century.
Despite historic advances in women’s recognition and equality in recent years, the significant roles played by Roman Catholic laywomen in church and society still go largely unacknowledged. With Women of Vision: Sixteen Founders of the International Grail Movement, Marian Ronan and Mary O’Brien contribute substantially to remedying this situation.
Founded in the Netherlands in 1921, just after World War I, the Grail movement was focused, from the outset, on using laywomen’s extraordinary gifts to resolve the crises in which the world found itself. By 1961, the movement had spread to twenty other countries, including Brazil, Australia, the Philippines and nine African countries.
Drawn from interviews done with Grail founders in many of these countries, Women of Vision highlights the relentless and often heroic work done by Grail women, founding and staffing hospitals and schools, supporting indigenous women and girls, preparing local women for church and Grail leadership, and in some cases, assuming governance roles in their own countries and at the United Nations.
If i weren’t such a technological nitwit, I would also include in this post the cover of Women of Vision. But I can’t figure out how to do that; maybe I’ll be putting that up next time.
In any case, you may be sure I’ll be providing you the link to the book on Amazon as soon as it’s available. Stay tuned
Tags: Independent Catholicism, Julie Byrne, The Church of Antioch
Here’s a review of a new book by my friend and colleague Julie Byrne. The review also appears in Gumbo, the monthly publication of the U.S. Grail, and EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.
The Other Catholics: Remaking America’s Largest Religion by Julie Byrne. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2016. Hard-back, $29.95; e-book, $28.99. 390 pp.
For many progressive U.S. Catholics, myself included, the years since the Second Vatican Council can seem remarkable, even groundbreaking. Eucharistic communities forming and welcoming all kinds of people—the divorced and remarried, LGBT Catholics, married priests. Not to mention increasing numbers of women priests and women bishops leading growing congregations.
In her new book, Julie Byrne, without dismissing the achievements of progressive Catholicism since Vatican II, brings to our attention Catholics who were making such changes well before Vatican II, and who continue to embody such changes today: the “independent” or “other” Catholics. Byrne is the author of the enormously engaging O God of Players: The Story of the Immaculata Mighty Macs (2003), made into a movie in 2009. And once again, in The Other Catholics, she brings an astonishing narrative drive to a wide range of little-known historical and contemporary ethnographic materials. There’s nothing like a good story.
Byrne introduces the “Other Catholics” by telling us that the term was first used in the 1890 U.S. Census, when six Catholic churches besides the Roman Catholic Church were presented as options: a church that would evolve into the Church of Antioch, the main focus of her research; a church formed to protest the doctrine of papal infallibility; the Polish National Catholic Church; and three others. The Census continued to count independent Catholic jurisdictions until 1936. But because the Roman Catholic Church is a “behemoth of size and influence”—with members comprising a fifth of the U.S. population—not very many people are aware that there’s any other kind.
Byrne shows, however, that independent Catholic churches have exerted significant influence whether many people know about them or not. By “participating in common Catholic patrimony, remixing it with other traditions, and giving sanctuary to alternative practices, independent Catholicism serves as a catalyst, cavern, and clarifier of Catholicism as a whole,” and even of American religion more broadly.
In support of her thesis, Byrne traces the “lineage of western independent Catholicism” from the galvanizing early eighteenth-century French missionary and bishop, Dominique Marie Varlet, who almost by accident started the independent Catholic Church of Utrecht; through the career of Joseph René Vilatte (1854-1929), the first independent Catholic bishop in America; to the lives of Patriarch and Matriarch Meri and Herman Spruit and their successor, Archbishop Richard Gundrey, who built the independent Catholic Church of Antioch in the United States. And along the way, Byrne includes many other amazing stories, about groups that split off from, merge with, and fertilize the Church of Antioch during its evolution. The reader comes away strongly aware that there have been big differences within Catholicism for a long time, and that practices like ordaining women, having married bishops, welcoming LGTB people, respecting personal experience and other seemingly contemporary advances have, in fact, long been practiced within Catholicism.
Byrne’s portrayal of independent Catholics is noteworthy in many respects, but several points stand out for me. One is how the Church of Antioch, and related independent groups, no matter how many differences emerge among them, remain faithful to certain Catholic characteristics: the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and ordination, and their stress on apostolic succession, which, it seems to me, replaces connection with Rome as a main source of authority. Another aspect of independent Catholicism of which I was totally unaware before reading The Other Catholics is the strong influence within it of mysticism and related traditions like theosophy, esotericism, and spiritual healing. There has been quite a bit beyond the Baltimore Catechism in some branches of Catholicism for many years.
Some groups that Byrne includes in the category of “independent” or “other” Catholics may or may not appreciate being thus categorized—Roman Catholic WomenPriests, for example, some of whom delivered a petition to the Vatican not long ago. And I myself wonder whether Byrne’s subtitle—“Remaking America’s Largest Religion”—is a bit too simple (though my experience is that publishers mandate titles with sales more in mind than accuracy). Perhaps “Helping to Remake America’s Largest Religion” would be better.
All this notwithstanding, it would be hard to overestimate the contribution that Julie Byrne’s book makes to the conversation about the present and the future of Catholicism.
Tags: abortion, Donald Trump, freedom of religion, Rev. Frank Pavone, The climate crisis, U.S. Catholic Bishops
When I began writing this article in my head, I envisioned accusing the U.S. Catholic bishops of colluding by their silence in the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.
But as I began researching the matter, I realized that the bishops actually colluded in Trump’s election, that is, by what they said about the election, as well as by their silence about it.
Now let me be clear: I am not suggesting that every Catholic bishop in the United States colluded personally in Trump’s election. A few may have raised questions about him or his policies and statements. What I aim to indict here is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and its leaders, who are elected by and represent the American bishops.
In truth, the USCCB did not say or publish a great deal about the election. But what they did publish is very telling. On October 13, four weeks before the presidential election, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, the president of the USCCB, issued a “news release” under the heading “The Gospel Serves the Common Good, Not Political Agendas.” Here are the first two sentences of the first paragraph of that ”news release.”
“At this important time in our nation’s history, I encourage all of us to take a moment to reflect on one of the founding principles of our republic – the freedom of religion. It ensures the right of faith communities to preserve the integrity of their beliefs and proper self-governance.”
The second paragraph elaborates on the fact that the truths of the faith are not formed by a consensus of contemporary norms. The third paragraph calls on public officials to respect the rights of people to live their faith without interference from the state. And a middle sentence of the last paragraph says, “Too much of our current political discourse has demeaned women and marginalized people of faith.”
A priest friend recently said that the bishops could not speak out against Trump because it would be a violation of the separation of church and state. But this “news release” clearly speaks out for Trump, or if not Trump per se, then for the Republican candidate for president who was, in fact, Trump. This is so because the words “freedom of religion” are code for the culture wars agenda that the bishops have pushed throughout the Obama administration. “Freedom of religion” of course, means the bishops’ freedom to deny gay people the right to marry and adopt children and to deny women the reproductive health covered under the Affordable Care Act. Certainly this statement, and the court cases the USCCB have backed in recent years, are nor referring to the “religious freedom” of American Catholic women, the vast majority of whom report using or having used artificial contraceptives while sexually active.
It is also worth noting that the word “immigrants” appears nowhere in Archbishop Kurtz’s statement, although Donald Trump’s statements about Mexican immigrants contradict Catholic social teaching and were rebutted by Pope Francis.
The next “news release” from Archbishop Kurtz on behalf of the USCCB appeared the day after the election. The first two paragraphs congratulate Donald Trump and other elected officials, call for unity and acknowledge that “millions of Americans who are struggling to find economic opportunity for their families voted to be heard.”
The longest and most substantive paragraph, however, begins with the following sentence: “The Bishops Conference looks forward to working with President-elect Trump to protect human life from its most vulnerable beginning to its natural end.” It includes in that category of human life “all people, of all faiths, in all walks of life…migrants and refugees…(and) Christians and people of all faiths suffering persecution around the world, especially in the Middle East.” Then the final and longest sentence in the paragraph says,
“And we will look for the new administration’s commitment to domestic religious liberty, ensuring people of faith remain free to proclaim and shape our lives around the truth about man and woman, and the unique bond of marriage that they can form.”
I would argue that this “news release,” like the October one, makes quite clear that the most important thing about the election of President Trump is his working with the bishops on “life” issues and “religious freedom,” that is, outlawing abortion, depriving women of basic reproductive health care and gay people of their rights. Trump’s commitment to turning back already inadequate climate change regulations and deporting perhaps millions of the members of the growing majority group in the U.S. church are secondary.
Two events provide context for these statements. First, on the Sunday before the election, a Catholic priest, Frank Pavone, head of the anti-abortion group Priests for Life, held an aborted fetus up over an altar, with a crucifix behind it, and spoke out in favor of Donald Trump and the Republican platform because of their position on abortion. By Monday evening, the night before the election, the released video of Pavone and the fetus had several hundred thousand views.
The diocese of which Pavone is a priest, Amarillo, Texas, issued a statement saying that they were opening an investigation into Pavone’s actions and that his actions and the presentation in the video that he released are inconsistent with the Catholic faith. The archdiocese of New York, where the Priests for Life organization is located, stated that it does not have a relationship with Pavone and has no comment on the video. There has been no news from the Amarillo Diocese since, nor any further comment from the archdiocese. The video seems to have been taken down.
Then two days after the election, Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former archbishop of St. Louis and of a major Vatican secretariat under Benedict XVI, in an interview published in the Italian conservative daily Il Giornale, said that President-elect Donald Trump will uphold Christian values, and that he doesn’t “think the new president will be inspired by hatred in his handling of the immigration issue.” Burke went on to state that Trump understands the fundamental vales that are of importance to Catholics and will do everything he can to fight abortion.
To be fair, one U.S. bishop, Mark Seitz of El Paso, spoke out after the election about his concern for “brother and sister refugees and migrants who have escaped …unimaginable violence and suffering in their home countries…about our bothers and sisters who are Muslim who may be singled out…” But even this was after first expressing his joy that those at the first stages of their lives prior to birth would be receiving more protection. At least when he segued into his concern for refugees and migrants, Bishop Seitz began the sentence with “but,” acknowledging that the election of Donald Trump brings with it certain tensions, not to say contradictions. I have been unable to find anything from any other bishop, and certainly not from the USCCB itself, that was nearly as strong as Seitz’s statement.
Let me conclude, then, by making a few obvious points. Donald Trump has been divorced twice—the only president in the history of the country for whom that is the case. He has claimed the right, on a widely viewed video, to assault women sexually, and has been accused of sexual harassment or assault by twelve or thirteen women. I myself strongly suspect that he has paid for abortions for more than one of the many women he has forced himself on sexually over the years. Why wouldn’t he have done so?
Trump has also called Mexicans criminals and rapists, and promised to deport millions of undocumented immigrants. And let’s be clear, many of these are the same people who are saving the U.S. Catholic Church from the plummeting memberships that afflict mainline Protestant denominations. Trump is also planning to revoke the nuclear arms deal the Obama administration forged with Iran–one of the most significant steps away from nuclear war in recent years. And he has declared the global climate catastrophe about which Pope Francis, the head of the universal Catholic Church, has spoken out in galvanizing and unambiguous terms, to be a hoax.
This is the man whom Cardinal Burke believes, and that almost all his brother U.S. bishops seem also to believe, is going to uphold Christian values? Seriously?
Tags: Dorothy Day, John Hugo, Lacouturism, non-violence, Pope Francis
Here’s a review of a book about the history and influence on Dorothy Day of a spirituality called “Lacouturism.” It was published on the Pax Christi Metro New York webpage a few months ago.
The Bread of the Strong: Lacouturisme and the Folly of the Cross by Jack Lee Downey. (Fordham 2015).
It’s almost a truism among progressive Catholics, myself included, that the changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council were good ones. But it also seems that the world is not in much better shape—is perhaps in worse shape—than it was in 1965. In The Bread of the Strong, Jack Lee Downey, assistant professor of religion at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, offers some hints as to why this may be the case.
The Bread of the Strong is a study of the distinctly pre-Vatican II spirituality of a French-Canadian Jesuit, Onésime Lacouture, and his followers, and of the massive impact of that spirituality on Dorothy Day. The book traces the trajectory from Lacouture’s maximalist spirituality to Day’s radical politics.
The first three chapters of The Bread of the Strong explore Lacouture’s life and the development of his spirituality. Once intending to become an academic, Lacouture underwent a series of powerful mystical experiences during his formation at a Jesuit mission in Alaska. He emerged from these experiences with a radically changed vision of the faith in which academic theology, and even much of the Catholic Christianity of the time, were vile, inadequate pursuits. Fundamental to Lacouture’s transformed world-view was an absolute dichotomy between nature and grace, Christianity and paganism, self-mortification and pleasure. Lacouture preached this ascetic theology passionately in clergy retreats over the next several decades. So absolute and unambiguous was his position that the Jesuits eventually silenced him.
One participant in the Lacouturist retreats, Pittsburgh diocesan priest John Hugo, was so profoundly influenced by their ascetic spirituality that he began giving his version of the retreats to Catholic laypeople in the United States. And let me be clear: these were retreats aimed at “spiritual withdrawal and moral perfectionism,” albeit with a social-justice dimension that Lacouture himself did not include.
Dorothy Day was one of the laypeople who participated in these Hugo-led retreats. Day, after her conversion, had struggled to integrate her radical sociopolitical activism with her newfound Catholic faith. Peter Maurin’s spiritual iconoclasm helped Day to integrate these seemingly contradictory dimensions of her identity. But Downey shows that it was the Lacouture retreats, with their emphasis on “a redemptive spirituality of suffering” and ego-transcendence that solidified Day’s spiritual/political identity. This identity in turn undergirded Day’s heroic leadership of the Catholic Worker from the early 1930s to her death in 1980.
I myself am not much inclined toward asceticism or self-mortification. And as a feminist theologian, I have argued vociferously against the nature/grace, spiritual/material, male/female binaries that characterized the Church for millennia.
Yet I am also aware that the challenges facing the human race, and perhaps especially those of us who consider ourselves non-violent, or justice seeking, are nearly incomprehensible. Take, for example, the climate crisis that Pope Francis addresses in Laudato Si’. The vast majority of us do not begin to comprehend the changes in our consumerist, convenience-oriented way of life that saving God’s creation demands. What kind of spirituality, what return to self-sacrifice and self-mortification, is required so that we will be able to face up to these inconceivable challenges?
Tags: Caitlyn Jenner, Catholic sexual teaching, Intersex infants, Pope Francis, transgender identity
Conservative Catholics–especially conservation hierarchs–must have been pleased to hear that yesterday, Pope Francis criticized the idea that children are being taught that they can “choose” their gender. I guess the rumors that he might be a “feminist”pope can be put to rest.
Apparently, according to the reports, Francis’s denunciation is linked to his previous condemnations of “gender theory,” something that certain countries and groups are ostensibly forcing on people in the Global South. I guess this is a broader version of something a conservative Canadian Catholic said to me years ago, that the West was forcing homosexuality on Africans. I replied that the West must have begun forcing homosexuality on Africans fairly early, since a Ugandan king had had a bunch of male Christian converts executed for refusing to have sex with him in 1885 and 1886.
It’s a pity Francis, who has gone out of his way to promote scientific views about climate change and other significant issue, didn’t bother to learn a bit about transgenderism before make such a claim. I am by no means a scientist, but I began to think about some of this stuff in 1992, when I took a seminar in feminist theory–perhaps what the pope now calls “gender theory”–as part of my Ph.D. studies in American religion. In particular, I read an assigned article about intersex infants, something about which I had been totally ignorant previously. Too bad I can’t remember the author’s name, but there’s plenty of info about intersex infants online.
Apparently, a certain percentage of infants are born with ambiguous genitalia–unusually small penises, large clitorises, a penis and a clitoris, and a considerable number of other possible internal and external variations on what’s considered normal. I was struck particularly to learn that it was fairly common (in those days, at least) for doctors, if they possibly could, that is, if the infant had any kind of male genitalia, to use surgery to make the infant a boy. (I bet you’re shocked to hear that!)
Furthermore, the DNA of a significant number of people deviates from the standard male or female genetic make-up. At an Olympics, in the 1980s I believe, all the women athletes were tested to make sure they were really female, and a number of them were found to be male genetically and were sent home. They hadn’t had a clue that that was the case. More recently I also read that traces of pesticides in drinking water are increasing the number of intersex infants.
Now not everyone who chooses to transition to another gender was born intersex. But being assigned the wrong gender at birth because of intersex characteristics is certainly one reason people transition. There may well also be psychological causes.
And let me say also that I, as a long-time feminist, have on occasion been concerned about some transgender discourse, especially in the media–the Caitlyn Jenner kind of thing–that seems to reinforce the gender polarization that I have been working for decades to undermine. Wanting to be a woman surely needs to be distinguished from wanting to a highly over-sexed caricature of one.
All that aside, it’s pretty clear to me that what’s happening isn’t really that kids are being taught they can be any gender they want, as if gender is a commodity to be purchased. Rather, it seems to me that some adults have begun to have mercy on kids who are profoundly uncomfortable with, even distraught about, the gender identity they were assigned, through ill-advised surgery or in some other fashion. As the Year of Mercy comes to an end, I am praying that Pope Francis also learns to make these distinctions and doesn’t add, even unintentionally, to the suffering of those children.
Tags: ecofeminist theology, Elizabeth A. Johnson, God's suffering, Vatican Council II
In the half- century since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, debates about its true meaning have proliferated. Did the Council continue the Catholic tradition or rupture it? Did it renew the church or eviscerate it?
In his 2013 book, A Council that Will Never End, theologian Paul Lakeland introduces a more helpful, less polarizing category: the “unfinished business” of Vatican II, that is, the issues that were raised but not moved very far forward at Vatican II. Primary among these, for Lakeland, is the relationship between the horizontal and the vertical: between the laity and the ordained, but also between the bishops and the pope.
Let me suggest another category to accompany Lakeland’s, that of the “unstarted business” of Vatican II. Two issues virtually unaddressed at the Council are the role of women and the implications of the doctrine of creation for church and society. Indeed, there are only fourteen direct references to women in all of the Council’s sixteen documents. And because the church at the Council had finally come to terms with the modern emphasis on the dignity of the human person, the further significance of God’s unity with creation may have been more than the Council fathers could handle.
In recent decades, of course, women, and creation—particularly the environmental crisis—have become increasingly pressing issues. Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ certainly comprises a welcome update to the Catholic understanding of creation and its growing destruction—though it is less than groundbreaking on the question of women. Latin American liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff have also powerfully addressed the link between the destruction of the earth and the oppression of the poor, with Brazilian ecofeminist theologian Ivone Gebara pushing their analyses even further. We can only speculate about how much more influential such work might have been had the Vatican under John Paul II not seriously repressed it.
No work has done more to move the church forward on the issues of women and the environment, however, than the ecofeminist theology of Elizabeth A. Johnson. Johnson is of course best known for her 1992 book She Who Is. But already at the end of her first book, Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology (1990) Johnson addresses Jesus Christ as the savior of the whole natural world and all of its creatures. In fact, in that book she paraphrases one of the signature expressions of Vatican II, “reading the signs of the times,” by writing that “Jesus could read the signs of the sky.” (140)
Then, in She Who Is, Johnson addresses the presence of God in the whole cosmos, not only in human beings; especially in her chapter on Spirit-Sophia, she argues that the presence of Spirit-Sophia is mediated through the natural world as well as human history. She also addresses the suffering of God, which is central to the question of the horizontal and the vertical, because a God who suffers is one with the horizontal in a way that an impassible deity can never be.
Then, a year after the publication of She Who Is, at the annual Madeleva Lecture at St. Mary’s College in Indiana, Johnson connects the “ecocide crisis”—desertification, ocean harm, species extinction, and so forth—with the “two-tiered universe” in which women and the earth are both exploited. Here she explicitly links three of the most pressing unfinished/unstarted Vatican II issues: women, creation, and the dominance of the horizontal by the vertical.
Johnson’s next two books, the first about the Communion of Saints, and the second, Truly Our Sister, about Mary of Nazareth, might seem focused on human beings rather than on the wider natural world. But Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints actually gives the communion of saints an ecological dimension in which the whole world will share in life after death, and identifies Mary with the Creator Spirit who vivifies the evolutionary development of the entire community of life.
Then, in Quest for the Living God, Johnson’s most famous (or infamous) book, one chapter focuses on the Spirit as the “Vivifier” of the Natural World and another, “The Crucified God of Compassion,” discerns a cruciform pattern in all of creation, because the Spirit dwells throughout a suffering creation. This emphasis on the God who suffers was a primary reason for the USCCB’s 2011 condemnation of Quest, since according to the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, that suffering is caused by sin, so God cannot suffer.
Johnson rebuts this assertion in her 2014 book, Ask the Beasts, a study of the relationship between Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the Nicene Creed. Since all species suffer, and non-humans cannot sin, then sin, Johnson argues, is not the cause of suffering. Instead, Johnson acknowledges that while God is fullness of life beyond suffering, it is also “right to say that God suffered and died on the cross because the human nature of Jesus who suffered is precisely the Word of God.”
Furthermore, according to Johnson, the logic of incarnation extends divine solidarity from the cross into the groan of suffering of all creation. The cross illuminates that the God of love whose love continuously sustains and empowers the origin of species is a suffering God who is in solidarity with all creatures dying through endless millennia of evolution from the extinction of species to every sparrow that falls to the ground.
Johnson’s compelling argument that God suffers is fundamental to moving the unfinished business of Vatican II forward, especially the problem of the relationship between the horizontal and the vertical, since the argument that God cannot suffer is invoked in the service of the hierarchical binary between the transcendent God (and the Church authorities who identify with that God) and the female-identified non-transcendent/material /earth/creation. Women and creation, the earth, are in fact the horizontal, traditionally bifurcated from and subordinated to the ostensibly omnipotent male God and those believed to image him: priests, bishops, and popes.
The survival of the church, and of God’s creation itself, depend on our understanding better the intimate connections between these three issues and acting on them. There are a number of ways to do this. One is by deepening our knowledge of Elizabeth Johnson’s work. Her book-length theologies are highly accessible. But fortunately, in 2015, Orbis Books published a collection of her articles, including a section on the “Great God of Heaven and Earth,” which can serve as an excellent introduction to Johnson’s ecofeminist theology.
But since, as Johnson makes clear, the issues of women, creation and hierarchy are so intimately connected, even work that focuses on only one of them will point ultimately to the other two. If you can’t get your parish discussion group to begin by reading Johnson, then perhaps they will begin by reading Laudato Si’. Questions regarding women and the hierarchical structure of the church are almost certain to follow.
This post appeared as a book review on page 1a in the April 22-May 5 issue of The National Catholic Reporter under the title “Theologian’s work connects God, women and creation.”
Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology, Crossroad Publishing 1990, 1992, $19.95
She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, Crossroad Publishing, 1992, 2002, 2014, $32.95
Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit (Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality), Paulist Press 1993, $7.95
Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints Continuum 1998, $42.95
Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, Bloomsbury Academic 2006, $39.95
Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, Continuum 2007, $24.95
Abounding in Kindness: Writing for the People of God, Orbis 2015, $24.00
Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love,, Bloomsbury Continuum 2015, $32.95
I was, in a certain sense, pleased when the historic liberal American magazine, The Nation, included a sidebar in its March 20-April 4 issue reminding readers that before Muslims or Latinos had been targeted by US anti-immigrant sentiment, Irish Catholics were.The title of the sidebar was”The Papist Invasion.”To illustrate their point, the Nation editors reference a drawing by the virulently anti-Catholic cartoonist Thomas Nast that appeared in Harper’s in 1875. In it, Nast portrays Catholic bishops as crocodiles coming up out of a body of water to eat public school children, one of whom is clutching a Bible.
As I said, I was in a certain sense pleased that The Nation would remind members of the public who are themselves in some cases Catholics (or even Irish Catholics) that their Catholic forebears had been treated much the way politicians today propose to treat immigrants. But I was also amused because The Nation itself had published a series of virulently anti-Catholic articles in the late 1940s written by one of its associate editors, Paul Blanshard. Several years later those articles became the bestselling book American Freedom and Catholic Power. And in The New Anti-Catholicism my colleague Philip Jenkins cheerfully disabuses us of any notion that a connection between Blanshard and Nast is far-fetched: “While Blanshard does not conjure up crocodilian Catholic bishops,” Jenkins writes, “the image is certainly implied.”
Now let me be clear here: I am myself sometimes quite critical of the way the institutional Roman Catholic Church uses its power. For example, I adamantly oppose the US bishops’ manipulation of “religious freedom” to deprive American women of the right to access contraceptives, especially since contraceptives are one of the most effective ways to reduce the number of abortions.
But attacking a particular religious group is complicated–pas si simple, as the French say. For example, one of the things that Blanshard attacked the Catholic Church for was its opposition to eugenics, and to the sterilization of the “unfit.” Myself, I’m kind of proud of the bishops on that one. And I imagine a lot of its current readers don’t immediately associate The Nation with the eugenics movement. Interestingly, none of Blanshard’s articles appear in the collection of the best articles from each decade that The Nation issued last year to celebrate its 150th anniversary.
Then, even as I was thinking all this through, I came upon something that I found truly amazing. In the same issue of The Nation where the Nast sidebar appears, three pages after it, in fact, an article about gentrification in Los Angeles begins with a non-pejorative paragraph about Francis of Assisi, followed by one about how Franciscan friars (as well as Spanish conquistadors) founded LA, the city of Our Lady of the Angels. And to my even greater astonishment, the article ends with a quotation from Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, and a wish that Los Angeles will someday “earn its name as a place where ruins are repaired and sins are redeemed.”
Maybe The Nation really has renounced its anti-Catholicism, I thought. Paul Blanshard must be turning over in his grave.
But maybe he doesn’t need to. In the latest issue of The Nation, in an article about Obama and foreign policy, Eric Alterman argues that the foreign policy establishment intones the word credibility to justify the endless deployment of military force “the way some Catholics recite the rosary.”
I don’t know why, but I find it hard to imagine Alterman writing, “the way the Muslims are constantly saying ‘Salaam Alaykum‘” or even “the way Buddhist monks are repeatedly praying with their prayer beads.”
But maybe I should just count my blessings and be grateful Alterman limited his comparison to “some” Catholics.
Tags: Catholic sexual teaching, Jamie Manson, Laudato Si, Naomi Klein, Pope Francis, Ross Douthat
As Pope Francis’s various trips and the Synod on the Family recede into memory, disagreements continue concerning his positions on certain issues. Did the pope’s comments on religious freedom in the United States signify support of the USCCB religious freedom campaign? Will the pope, in his forthcoming apostolic exhortation on the family, permit divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion? Do his comments about the use of contraceptives in relation to the zika virus signal a change in Catholic teaching? Does “mercy” extend LGBTI Catholics?
The public statements and actions of popes are significant, of course. But they can also be confusing and inconsistent, especially when the pope in question is more pastoral than ideological. So it can be helpful to move beyond the ambiguity of public comments to examine papal writings. Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s June encyclical, sheds light not only on his position on the environment, but on gender and sexuality as well.
At one level, the pope’s encyclical on the intrinsically connected issues of environmental degradation and poverty may seem to reinforce the institutional church’s fierce condemnation of contraception. A week after the encyclical was issued, for example, Jamie Manson, writing on the National Catholic Reporter blog, singled out overpopulation as an issue that is “woefully underdeveloped in the encyclical.”
Manson finds problematic, in particular, Pope Francis’s suggestion that rising population is “fully compatible with an integral and shared development,” as well as his claim that blaming “population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some is one way of refusing to face the issues.”
Manson by no means disputes the Pope’s assertion that a radical change in consumerist mentality is fundamental to feeding the massively expanding populations in the Global South. But she explains that these are long term goals, whereas increasing access to reproductive education and contraceptives will have a much more immediate impact on those who suffer some of our world’s worst deprivations.
The statistics and reports Manson cites in her article are compelling. I join her in wishing that the Catholic Church would lift its ban on contraceptives and thus greatly improve, and sometimes save, the lives of poor women globally.
But Manson’s assertion that Pope Francis wouldn’t be breaking radically new ground by changing the church’s teaching on birth control is problematic, even naive. It’s likely that Pope Francis shares the teachings of his predecessors on contraception, abortion, gay marriage, and other sex/gender issues, but whether he does or not, changing such teaching would risk starting a civil war in the church. Indeed, Ross Douthat speculated in the New York Times in September that Francis intends to start a civil war in the church over divorce and remarriage.
To understand why explicit changes in Catholic teaching on contraception, divorce, and gay marriage, never mind abortion, are currently off the table, it’s helpful to recall that at Vatican II the church made some historic concessions to “the modern world.” These include acknowledging the right to religious freedom and abandoning its claim that it is necessary to be a Catholic in order to be saved.
But no institution willingly gives up power. So instead of abandoning its claims to absolute truth, the church shifted its claim to such truth from the area of doctrine to that of “faith and morals.” “Morals,” within this new economy, are obligatory for all because they inhere in what the church calls the natural law. Thus the post-Vatican II church placed increasing emphasis on sexuality and gender.
Here in the United States, the increasing focus on sexual teaching came about gradually, with the bishops appointed during and soon after Vatican II also speaking passionately on justice, peace, the environment and the poor. Yet in the years that followed, the emphasis of the institutional church in the U.S. and elsewhere shifted steadily toward sex/gender teaching.
In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis does not change Catholic sexual teaching in light of the environmental crisis. Doing so risks, among other things, massively shifting attention away from that crisis to pelvic issues, the last thing the pope has in mind. And indeed, Pope Francis does refer occasionally in the encyclical to the harms of abortion and lack of respect for life.
What’s remarkable about Laudato Si’ is that in it Pope Francis connects abortion, population control, and lack of respect for life with a range of other sins against creation. That is to say, he stresses the integral connection between “the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the poor… buying the organs of the poor for resale, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted. This same use and throw away logic,” Pope Francis tells us, “generates so much waste because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary.” (123)
Progressive Catholics are not the only ones critical of Laudato Si’, of course, and critical even of the implications of Pope Francis’s words for the absolute truth of Catholic sexual teaching. In an article in the New Yorker about her participation in a two-day Vatican conference about the encyclical, environmentalist Naomi Klein reports on a fear among conservatives in Rome that the encyclical’s discussion of “planetary overburden will lead to a weakening of the Church’s position on birth control and abortion.” She also quotes the editor of a popular Italian Catholic web site: “The road the church is heading down is precisely this: To quietly approve population control while talking about something else.”
Other conservatives are subtler in their critique of Pope Francis’s handling of Catholic sex and gender ideology. In a column ostensibly praising Laudato Si’ that appeared in the July 22 issue of the Brooklyn Catholic newspaper, the Tablet, the Bishop of Brooklyn, Nicholas DiMarzio, writes that “the environment that is most dangerous to human beings and the one which causes the most direct threat is the misunderstanding of contraception and population control.” A reader might be excused for concluding, in the context of an article praising the encyclical, that this is something Pope Francis says, or at least suggests.
But Pope Francis most certainly does not say this in Laudato Si’. Rather, he says that there is an integral connection between the dangers of abortion, contraception, climate change, other environmental destruction, and the oppression of the poor. That is, he dismantles the ideological hierarchy of recent decades, in which popes and bishops declared sex and gender offenses more grievous than any others and made social and environmental justice optional.
This is surely not the full change that Jamie Manson and I and many other progressive Catholics would like to see happen. But it’s a change of some considerable significance nonetheless.
This post is the revision of an article that appears in the February 2016 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.
Tags: " Religion Dispatches, heresy, John O'Malley SJ, Marcel Lefebvre, Massimo Faggioli, Pope Francis, Ross Douthat, schism, Society of St. Pius X
Well, on Hallowe’en New York Times columnist Ross Douthat fired off another rocket in the Catholic culture wars with his “Letter to the Catholic Academy.” Douthat had, in recent months, published a series of Times columns and blogs about the Catholic Church under Pope Francis, culminating in his October 18th “The Plot to Change Catholicism.” On October 26, a number of Catholic theologians, led by Massimo FaggioiIi and the highly regarded Vatican II historian John O’Malley, S.J.,wrote a letter to the Times calling Douthat’s statements “unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is.” A number of conservative columnists and a few theologians rebutted the theologians’ letter, accusing them of trying to silence Douthat, especially since their letter states that Douthat does not have the credentials to make such assertions. Douthat’s October 31column is also a response to the letter.
Quite a lot has been written about this kerfuffle, and you may not have time to read all of it, so let me tell you what I think. Words like “heresy” and schism,” as well as “plot,” are very strong words, and have precipitated lots of nasty events throughout the history of the Catholic and other Christian churches. Consider, for example, the execution of Michael Servetus, founder of the Unitarian Church, at the order of John Calvin in 1553. It’s also worth noting that even the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’, in their harsh condemnation of Elizabeth A. Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God, do not use the word “heresy” even once.
More to the point, as Michael Bayer of The University of Iowa Catholic Center argued persuasively even before Douthat’s latest broadside, the main issue in this debate is not the theologians’ supposedly despicable attempt to silence poor Ross (though Bayer admits the wording of the theologians’ letter could have been more careful in this regard). The main issue is that an article in the New York Times–the world’s most influential English language publication–has the potential to do enormous harm, much as the media’s “ubiquitous insistence that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, and that we needed to invade Iraq in order to eliminate this existential threat” did after 9/11.
Indeed, as Bayer argues, a number of conservative Catholic bishops no doubt read Douthat’s column, and may well adopt his erroneous identification of heresy with dissent. In my reading, Douthat is actually doing everything he can to bring about a schism, a schism of the very kind that his conservative forebears Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X initiated after Vatican II. (And the Vatican did use the word “schismatic” in condemning their actions).
This is so because Pope Francis’s teaching of mercy, and his argument, in Laudato Si’ and elsewhere, that the destruction of God’s creation and the oppression of the poor are sins as grievous as abortion, contradict the absolute, sexual-morality-based Catholicism that led Douthat and others to the Catholic Church in the first place. God willing, Francis will continue to communicate that the Church is more that the Nicene Creed and the condemnation of abortion, as an unhappy respondent to the Commonweal blogpage once claimed. Maybe, before long, even what Jesus has to say about the poor, and the Catholic social teaching rooted in his words, will be once again acknowledged to be the heart of Catholic doctrine as much as the defense of human life is.