Pandemic Ramblings III

August 10, 2020 at 9:54 am | Posted in Climate Change, Covid-19,, Environment, Health | Leave a comment

A year and a half ago, back when people used to fly on airplanes, I went out to Claremont , California, to visit a bunch of Grail elders at a retirement community there, Pilgrim Place. During my daily walk around town, I noticed something that interested me: in front of a number of the beautiful and pricey homes were signs that read “Immigrants and Refugees Welcome Here.” And in front of those homes, or in their driveways, were multiple SUVS, vans and small trucks. I guess the residents didn’t entirely grasp why a good number of immigrants were coming north from Latin and Central America: droughts and famine caused in large part by green-house gas emissions.        And now, as I walk past the elegant Victorian-style mansions north and south of our apartment building here in west Flatbush, what do I see? “Black Lives Matter”  signs on their lawns and SUVs and trucks parked out front and in the driveways. I guess the residents don’t grasp that there are a number of reasons why people of color “can’t breathe,” not just cops with knees on their necks. Of course, lest you think anything is simple, the owners of some—a few—of these mansion and SUVs are themselves people of color. Their breathing must be pretty good.

And speaking of those mansions—I often wonder, as I walk past them, who is going to do all the landscaping and painting and repair and reconstruction of them if Trump and cronies manage to keep all immigrants out. I never hear a word of English from the current bunch of workers. Maybe all the recent college graduates who can’t find jobs would like to come out here to south-central Brooklynns to mow the lawns and repair the gutters?

And speaking of SUVs: when I was walking just north of the Parade Grounds where the soccer ball had smacked me, the day after Hurricane Isaias blew threw here, I passed a part of a huge tree that had broken off and fallen down. It didn’t hit the SUV, but it hit a big light pole, and that hit the rear-end of the SUV and smashed it. Nature’s revenge.

During my morning walk, I often think about my cataracts, especially after Hurricane Isaias, with all the branches down on the sidewalks. I can barely see them, so I have to be very careful. Occasionally I see someone walking toward me with what I think is an ice cream cone up near their face; turns out to be a cell phone! Or somebody walking with what I take to be a child, except it’s actually a dog. My cataract surgeries at the end of March and the beginning of April were cancelled at the last minute, with the end of elective surgeries. I try not to complain, with all so many people dying of covid-19. Now the surgeries are back on. I made my first of nine trips up to Weill Cornell Ophthalmology the other day, including covid-19 tests three days before each surgery. Fingers crossed. I really need to be able to see punctuation again!

Today on my walk, I passed a guy sitting on the step in front of an apartment building wearing a black tee shirt that read “No Lives Matter.” Wonder what that means? Maybe he’s a climate activist.

With that, I leave you. I have a book review to write.

 

Pandemic Ramblings

July 18, 2020 at 5:31 pm | Posted in Environment, Pandemic, | 7 Comments

I used to be driven crazy by all the single-use plastic bags strewn on the streets and sidewalks here in New York City. I would pick up and recycle as many of them as I could. And then the city banned single use plastic bags! Suddenly, huge numbers of New Yorkers were carrying reusable bags over their shoulders, on the subways, on the streets, everywhere. I was thrilled.         So now what have we got? Single use face masks strewn around, and latex gloves as well. Not as many of them as there were plastic bags, of course…Certain advantages to having to pay for the PPE, and their not being entirely available…

 

I was also thrilled when the soccer fields and playgrounds up on the Parade Ground, just south of Prospect Park, reopened. Beautiful young people in contrasting tee-shirts kicking soccer balls back and forth, and parents pushing kids on swings, at long last. But as I was walking across the parade ground one day last week, bam, a soccer ball came over the fifteen foot fence and smacked me in the right chest, just below my shoulder. Getting hit with a soccer ball isn’t nearly as bad getting hit with a baseball, of course, so it could have been a lot worse. And the ball didn’t hit me in the face and smash my glasses. I have to admit, though, that there are signs around the athletic fields that say, more or less, that because the fields are active, it is important to be careful. I never took the warnings seriously…until now! When I have walked across the parade ground since that day, I have definitely paid more attention to the soccer balls than to the huge splendid trees and the gorgeous children…

 

I keep reading that the coved-19 lockdown is being really good for the environment. Substantial reduction in the CO2 levels because of so much less flying and driving cars. Sounds e ncouraging, but I have my doubts. The city of New York suspended and now, I think, ended, the compost pickup around the city. Not enough money for it in the budget because of the economic slowdown. And restaurants and coffee places won’t allow me to use the reusable cup that I have carried with me for years; might spread the virus. And apparently there’s been a huge increase in car sales in the New York metropolitan area, because people think the subways are going to be unsafe long into the future. And then there’s the massive increase in merchandise being bought through the mail, with packaging going out in the trash. Thank heaven, the city is still picking up recycling, though where it’s all going, God knows.

 

But my Jesuit parish, St. Francis Xavier in Manhattan, continues to live-stream the 11:30 Mass Sunday mornings. And my (non-essential) cataract surgeries are back on the calendar for late August and mid-September. I may actually be able to see again one of these days. So I have few things to be grateful for!

 

Stay well, you all.

My Catholic-Christian Eco-feminism

July 6, 2020 at 3:17 pm | Posted in Catholicism, Christian theology,, ecological theology, Environment, feminism | 3 Comments
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The following is the English version of an article, published in German in January, 2020, in the Swiss feminist journal, FAMA. It subsequently appeared in the publication of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference, EqualwRites, and a longer version was distributed as a resource paper by the Global-Justice Overcoming Poverty Network of the International Grail.

 

I became involved in Christian environmentalism almost by accident when I joined the Grail, the international Catholic laywomen’s movement, in 1965, my senior year in high school. The Grail had come to the US in 1941 and began working almost immediately with the Catholic Rural Life Conference, a precursor to the Back to the Land movement. I began spending summers on the Grail’s 365-acre organic farm in southwest Ohio and eventually lived for four years as part of the community there. Older members were reading Teilhard de Chardin’s reflections on the Noosphere, and Thomas Berry, the geologian-author of the Universe Story, led discussions of his work with us. At one point I was even in charge of the chickens, though I found them hard to reason with.

I was always an urban type at heart, however, so I returned to New York in 1983 and undertook graduate studies in religion, focusing primarily on gender and literary theory. Then, in 2001, as a professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, I had occasion, again almost by chance, to participate in a week-long program on the world water crisis led by Maude Barlow, the Canadian water activist. Barlow said something to the effect that a billion people didn’t have access to clean water at that time, three billion wouldn’t by 2050, and with the way things were going, by the end of the century, there wouldn’t be any clean water at all

Barlow scared the daylights out of me. I began teaching courses on Christian ethics and the world water crisis to seminary students and organizing them to gather signatures on a petition to ban plastic water bottles. One Good Friday I preached a sermon on Jesus’ words “I thirst” in a Seven Last Words of Christ service at the biggest black Baptist church in Oakland, proclaiming that the world’s thirsty were expressing themselves in the words of Jesus.

By the time we returned home to New York City in 2008, and I accepted a research appointment at the multi-racial New York Theological Seminary, I had concluded that climate change and the world water crisis were virtually the same. I began working with the Grail’s national and international climate action groups and publishing articles and reviews about climate change and the wider environmental crisis.

Also, because of my appointment at a majority African American seminary, I became particularly concerned about environmental racism, the way that climate change and other environmental degradation does vastly more harm to people in the Global South, and to communities of color here in the US, than to white Europeans and Americans. With my husband, who is also a seminary professor, I have co-taught several courses on environmental racism and preaching, to prepare students to address the climate crisis in their churches. Many of these students were astounded to learn of the racial dimensions of the climate crisis because they had previously experienced the environmental movement as comprised of privileged white people who love polar bears and wilderness. The works of Robert Bullard, the founder of the U.S. environmental justice movement, and Peggy Shepherd, the head of We Act for Environmental Justice here in Harlem, have been extremely important in these efforts.

I have also been strongly influenced in recent years by research on the deep relationship between capitalism and climate change, as elaborated in Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital, for example, as well as in the works of Ian Angus, Jason Moore and Nancy Fraser.  But I am inclined to agree with the distinguished Bengali writer, Amitav Ghosh, who argues, at the end of The Great Derangement, his study of the cultural factors underpinning climate change, that the world religions have the greatest potential to change global attitudes and actions regarding the climate emergency. This is so, he suggests, because they are already organized, and in some cases, speak with a centralized voice.

The primary example, for Ghosh and for me, of religion’s global impact on the climate emergency is, of course, Pope Francis’s 2015 environmental encyclical, Laudato Si’. Now let me be clear here: as a Catholic feminist for forty-five years, I have spent much of my life criticizing the monarchical governance structure of the Catholic Church. Imagine my astonishment when I was invited to speak about a papal encyclical in several different socialist settings!!  I am beginning to think that a centralized religious organization with a globally recognized leader isn’t, in some circumstances, entirely bad.

My writing, teaching and activism have also been strongly influenced by the works of two eco-feminist theologians, the Catholic feminist, Elizabeth Johnson, and the Protestant process theologian, Catherine Keller. Johnson is perhaps best known for her 1992 work She Who is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. In that book, Johnson argues that God/Spirit-Sophia is mediated through the entire natural world, not only through human history. Then, in her 2007 book, Quest for the Living God, Johnson dares to assert that God suffers, because God’s Spirit dwells all throughout a suffering creation.

Johnson expands this vision of the God who suffers in her 2014 book, Ask the Beats: Darwin and the God of Love, inwhich she delineates the relationship between Darwin’s Origin of Species and the Nicene Creed. Since all species suffer in the process of evolution, the logic of incarnation extends divine solidarity from the cross to all creation.  This God 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.

The fissures that underpin the climate crisis are a primary concern for Catherine Keller, too. While Johnson connects God and creation through the cross, Keller draws on process philosophy/theology as well as Paul’s letters to delineate in place of a transcendent sovereign who wills human dominion and radical antagonism, a persuasive God, enfolded within all creation. But while earlier process theology stresses an overall oneness of God with the universe, Keller draws on the Christian mystical tradition to invoke an apophatic God, a silent cosmic creator, in whom we are all one. Since human beings are enfolded with the rest of creation in this divine mystery, we are called to a loving agonism—struggle—with one another toward the emergence of a new, messianic possibility.

Keller’s theology draws on a re-envisioning of evolution, and in particular, the work of the revolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, in which species evolve through collaboration rather than competitive “survival of the fittest.”  Such a science-based reconfiguration of hierarchical theology demands from us all a recognition of the deep intersectionalism between the human and extra-human elements of creation. In some respects, this shift to a new science moves Christian ecofeminism even beyond Elizabeth Johnson’s interweaving of Darwin and the suffering God of love and has profound implications for contemporary politics as well as the planet and the Christian tradition.  Keller’s latest book, Political Theology of the Earth, does a remarkable job of exploring these implications.

What has perhaps influenced my thinking more than anything else is Keller’s insertion of the silence of God into the heart of the cosmos.  A number of Catholic feminist and liberation theologians, including Ivone Gebara and Elizabeth Johnson. have drawn on the apophatic, mystical tradition to connect this God of unknowing to the relatedness at the heart of reality. Keller goes on to envision a messianic contraction, an utter transformation emerging from the heart of this divine silence in which the entire cosmos is enfolded. For me, this vision of God has replaced the transcendent God at the heart of the theology in which I was educated and which far too often underpins Christian attitudes toward the current planetary crisis.

Thanks to Johnson, Keller, and others, it is this vision of a compassionate and persuasive God in whose transformative silence all creation is enfolded that will, I trust, energize my eco-feminist writing, teaching and activism in the months and years to come.

 

Marian Ronan, “Theologian’s Work Connects God, Women and Creation.” The National Catholic Reporter, April 22-May 5 2016, 1a. https://marianronan.wordpress.com/2016/04/22/the-ecofeminist-theology-of-elizabeth-johnson-a-review/

Marian Ronan, review of Catherine Keller’s Political Theology of the Earth.  The National Catholic Reporter, September 6-19, 2019, 28.  https://www.ncronline.org/news/environment/theologian-catherine-keller-sees-path-apocalypse-transformation

 

Ecological Theology Engages Suffering

July 4, 2020 at 2:22 pm | Posted in Creation., ecological theology, Environment | 2 Comments
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Review: Thomas Berry Bio

January 17, 2020 at 11:44 am | Posted in Climate Change, Cosmology,, Environment, Spirituality,, World Religions | 1 Comment
Here’s my January 1 National Catholic Reporter review of the new biography of Thomas Berry, whose New Story of creation transformed religious environmentalism.

New biography of Thomas Berry reasserts importance of his work

‘Geologian’ fashioned an utterly compassionate vision of the universe
National Catholic Reporter, January 1, 2020.

Thomas Berry: A Biography
By Mary Evelyn Tucker, John Grim and Andrew Angyal
360 pages; Columbia University Press; 2019

Back in the 1970s, when I was in my 20s, I was part of a community living at the Grail’s national center on an organic farm in rural southwest Ohio. A tall, thin priest used to come visit us from time to time. He seemed quite old and wobbly to me, and I worried that he might fall off the steps on his way up to the altar to celebrate the liturgy.

The priest’s name was Thomas Berry, and in recent years, I have been forced to admit that my concerns about his age and wobbliness — he was in his mid-60s at the time — were a bit off-point. And that his portrayal of the new story of the universe, shared with us in mimeographed form before he began publishing about it, was a great deal more significant.

 

The new biography of Berry [1] by Yale’s Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, with Andrew Angyal, confirms big-time my revised estimation of that tall, thin priest. Berry, who in later years described himself as a “geologian” rather than as an eco-theologian, presented a vision of the universe, of all of creation, and of the Great Work we are called to within it. Such a vision was revolutionary for his time and is even more relevant to the current planetary crisis than it once was.

As detailed by the authors, Berry was born in North Carolina, to a prosperous family, and fell in love with nature at an early age. His early experiences of a numinous creation shaped his life’s work. After attending a boarding school run by the Passionist Order and a year of college, he entered the Passionists, drawn in particular to their commitment to the suffering of the world. He eventually added a fourth vow to the three made by all Passionists: dedication to the passion of the Earth.

Berry was in large part a scholar, and the scope of his knowledge is mind-boggling. After seminary, he earned a Ph.D. in European cultural history, writing a dissertation on Giambattista Vico’s universal philosophy of history. He went on to study Asian religions and cultures, learning Sanskrit and publishing books on Buddhism and the religions of India. He directed the graduate program in the history of religions at Fordham University. He also founded the Riverdale Center for Religious Research [2], one of the bedrocks of religious environmentalism.

Furthermore, by the early 1970s, Berry was researching the cosmologies of native traditions, highlighting their “symbolic ways of knowing the interrelationships between bioregions … and the larger universe.” The authors argue that the impact of indigenous worldviews on Berry was so profound that he became a shaman as well as a scholar. Also enormously important for Berry’s thinking was the work of Jesuit Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the paleontologist and theologian of the cosmos.

Out of this extraordinary breadth of knowledge, Berry fashioned a cosmic, utterly compassionate vision of the universe. Fundamental to that vision was his conviction that a new narrative of the universe was essential to change. Only human understanding of the history of the ever-expanding universe would lead us out of our era of planetary destruction and mass extinction into a more compassionate, sustainable era. So enormous would the effort be that was required to move humanity into this new era in politics, economics, culture and religion that Berry called that effort the Great Work. Deeply hopeful, he continued throughout his life to trust that humanity would indeed take on this Great Work and move beyond planetary suicide to embrace its vital role as part of an interdependent “communion of subjects.”

 

Passionist Fr. Thomas Berry, 2008 (CNS/Caroline Webb)

The authors also show that along with his massive contributions to our comprehension of this cosmic intercommunion, Berry impacted the wider society in other significant ways. At a time when the concept of a new geologic era, marked by human impact on and damage to the planet, the Anthropocene, has taken center stage, Berry’s earlier concept of an Ecozoic Era, an evolutionary phase of mutually-enhancing relationships between the planet’s ecosystems, provided a prescient alternative.

Berry also introduced the idea of legal rights and representation for the planet itself in response to widespread violations of those rights. This notion subsequently developed into the legal field of “earth jurisprudence,” now taught in law schools and studied widely. And Berry’s characterization of the domination and exploitation of the Earth through technological mastery as the “Technozoic” alternative to the Ecozoic Era, may well have laid the foundation for Pope Francis’ critique of the “technocratic paradigm” in “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.” Finally, Emmy-award winning 2011 film, “The Journey of the Universe [4]” created by Brian Swimme with Tucker and Grim was dedicated to Berry and introduced many thousands of people to his profound ecological cosmology.

As well written and informative as the Grim, Tucker, Angyal biography of Berry is, I find one aspect of it puzzling: There is not a criticism of Berry or his work in the entire book. No mention, for example, of his economic privilege — attending a Catholic secondary boarding school in the 1930s when most U.S. Catholics were on the breadlines or in the Civilian Conservation Corps — and the connection between that privilege and his ability to spend his life studying the admittedly crucial subjects he did. And no mention either of the irony that the father of someone who dedicated much of his life to fighting planetary destruction was the owner of an oil company.

Perhaps the fact that two of the authors, Tucker and Grim, were Berry’s students and deeply influenced by him over many years explains this absence of critique. Parts of the book read almost like a memoir of their collaboration with him.

At another level, though, the gratitude and admiration the authors express for Berry’s life may well be a reflection of the cosmic, compassionate, unifying vision that underpins his entire body of work. Berry saw that everything in the cosmos is one, articulating the communion between groups, species and material entities that today are all too often seen as hostile opposites. Out of this cosmic worldview the authors constructed an interpretation of Berry’s life that is positive, hopeful and badly needed.

[Marian Ronan is research professor of Catholic Studies at New York Theological Seminary in New York City. Her most recent book, with Mary O’Brien, is Women of Vision: Sixteen Founders of the International Grail Movement (Apocryphile Press, 2017).]

 

 

Political Theology of the Earth

September 11, 2019 at 10:58 am | Posted in Christian theology,, Climate Change, Environment | 1 Comment
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The following is my review of Catherine Keller’s Political Theology of the Earth,, which appears in the September 6-19 issue of The National Catholic Reporter.

POLITICAL THEOLOGY OF THE EARTH: OUR PLANETARY EMERGENCY AND THE STRUGGLE FOR A NEW PUBLIC
By Catherine Keller
248 pages; Columbia University Press
$27.00

You don’t need me to tell you that we are currently facing an overwhelming array of crises around the world. Political strongmen — dictators — coming to power. Millions of refugees fleeing war and climate catastrophe. A vast array of species facing extinction. And seemingly endless religious conflicts — not to mention the plummeting of membership in institutional religion, at least in the West.

These crises seem so dire that many use the word “apocalypse” to characterize them.

Yet as constructive theologian Catherine Keller explains in her galvanizing new book, Political Theology of the Earth, apocalypse doesn’t mean what many think it means: the coming of the end times. This is not to say that Keller dismisses the crises that face us. She agrees that we are right to be apprehensive.

But drawing on studies of the Pauline epistles, Keller shows that the passage in 1 Corinthians (7:29) believed to mean “the end times” is more accurately translated “the time that remains,” or “the time is contracted.” This, then, is not chronos, regimented linear time, but kairos, “the time in which something can be done.” And for Keller, this something is “messianic contraction.”

Drawing on this understanding of the time that remains as a kairotic unfolding, Keller weaves together the three arenas of seeming apocalypse — the political, the Earth and religion — into a new schema of possible transformation.

She begins by linking the current political crisis to the modern theory of the state, rooted in the notion of the sovereign leader, whose power is justified by the state of emergency or exception. Except that the state of exception is becoming increasingly permanent. And as Nazi Catholic political scientist Carl Schmitt explained decades ago, this modern concept of the sovereign state is, at bottom, secularized theology. The omnipotent God becomes the omnipotent lawgiver. And this exceptional leader unites us against the exceptional enemy — Jews, blacks, Muslims, immigrants, gays, etc.

In place of the antagonism of enmity embedded in the sovereign political framework, Keller discerns a loving agonism, or struggle, at the heart of the messianic contraction that is our cosmic political reality. This means not war but painful, loving struggle across differences to bring forth a more common, democratic good.

Regarding the crises of the Earth, Keller traces links between the secular theological notion of the omnipotent sovereign and the dominion theology of creation used to justify the exploitation of the planet.

Keller’s political theology moves instead toward a recognition of the deep intersectionalism between all the human and nonhuman elements of creation. Failure to acknowledge and enact this deep interdependence places Earth and all its species on a planetary suicide trajectory. The incorporation of the science of matter itself renders Keller’s political reconfiguration of the Earth all the more compelling.

Keller replaces the disaster of divine sovereign omnipotence with a theology that acknowledges the divine unknowing at the heart of the cosmos. Such a theology is forced to acknowledge its own failures, its propagation of a hierarchical cosmos, even as it embraces the messianic emergence of possibility from the heart of struggle and despair.

Drawing on Pauline descriptions of God as the “all in all,” Keller portrays a God who is persuasive, not domineering, immanent in the world even as the world is immanent in her/him/it. Sin, then, is our failure to embrace this enfoldment of all in all, to love our neighbor as ourselves.

 

Catherine Keller, author of "Political Theology of the Earth" (catherineekeller.com)

Catherine Keller, author of “Political Theology of the Earth” (catherineekeller.com)
Yet even as we fail in this enfoldment, the messianic contraction, the Christ who died for us, offers new possibilities for hope. Central to this theological vision is not only contemplative encounter with the silence of God at the heart of this cosmos, but our joining together in art and political action to transform it.

 

Keller’s political theology of the Earth is a development — an unfolding, we might say — of process theology. Traditional theologians tend to declare such theology heretical; I believe the doctrinal committee of the U.S. bishops’ conference condemned St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s theology in 2011 because her argument that God suffered sounded to them like process theology — never mind the Christian teaching that the human being who suffered on the cross is, in fact, God.

Yet before such theologians are too quick to declare heresy, it is important to remember that Keller enfolds the Christian mystical tradition into her version of process theology. Such an inclusion of apophatic, or negative, theology into Keller’s contemporary political theology may well be more an instance of the development of doctrine than a heresy. And given the dire effects of the Christian teaching of an omnipotent, transcendent God who accords dominion to some of his creatures over all the rest, isn’t it past time to enfold the presence of a persuasive, compassionate God into the time we have remaining?

Keller’s political theology of the Earth is breathtaking in the scope of the resources it draws upon and the depths of its analysis. Some may find this a disadvantage. I myself read the book slowly, several times, so as to absorb all its originality and nuance.

Another approach is to consider Political Theology of the Earth a work of what Keller herself calls “theopoetics,” a becoming of something new — a dive into the profound linguistic-material entanglements that are our apocalyptic reality. A bit like the first time you read the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, or James Joyce’s Ulysses. Just read it, and when you fail, enfold yourself into the cosmic process and read it again. That’s certainly what I’m going to do.

 

 

In Some Ways We Are All Equal

August 20, 2019 at 11:01 am | Posted in Catholicism, Climate Change, Environment, nuclear war, racism,, Vatican, women | 3 Comments
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The following is a talk I gave on a panel following the Women Church Convergence meeting outside Philadelphia in April 2019. Panel members were asked to respond to the question “How can equality flourish in the Catholic Church?” The talk was published in July-November 2019 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference and was discussed at the Grail’s International Council meeting in Tanzania in July 2019.

 

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

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

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

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

II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

III

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

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

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

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

IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Storming the Wall

May 11, 2019 at 10:47 am | Posted in Capitalism, Climate Change, Environment, guns, US History, | 1 Comment

You may be beginning to think that all I do is review books, and you would be close to right. Here’s my review of Todd Miller’s book Storming the Wall, which appeared in April in the US Grail‘s monthly publication, Gumbo.

Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security, by Todd Miller. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2017. Paperback. 240 pp. $11.86. (First chapter available on-line.)

Given the US government shutdown several months ago over money for a wall along the US Mexican border, and Donald Trump’s increased demand for such a wall in his next budget, we might be tempted to conclude that building one such wall is a very big deal.

The truth is, as Todd Miller explains in Storming the Wall, the US government, and governments around the world, have been building many walls, and spending stupendous amounts of money for border enforcement and protection, for some time now. When he came into office, Trump had at his disposal 60,000 Customs and Border Patrol (CPB) agents, making it the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country at the time, and the 2017 border and immigration enforcement budget was $20 billion. And this doesn’t take into account the collaborative arrangements between local law enforcement agencies with ICE and CPB that deputize local police officers as immigration agents all over the country. In addition, since 2003, the US has added over 650 miles of walls and barriers along the US Mexico divide and has poured billions into advanced technology to enforce the border. And the US is by no means the only wall builder and border enforcer: there are now at least 70 border walls around the globe.

At the heart of this intensification of border militarization and refugee exclusion is the climate crisis. Some experts go so far as to predict that there will be a billion climate refugees by the year 2050.  And even now, many of the refugees pouring across borders are at bottom climate refugees, since the violence in the countries they are fleeing is often provoked by environmental crisis—the 2006 to 2010 drought in Syria, for example, is a major cause of the conflict  there, though it is rarely mentioned as such, while the rise of Boko Haram is directly linked to water scarcity in Nigeria. Yet the international community is so ill prepared for this growing crisis that climate refugees have absolutely no human rights status in international law, as, for example, war refugees do.

In Storming the Wall, Miller does an excellent job of laying out the parameters of the growing militarization of borders around the world in light of the climate crisis. But his argument is by no means limited to facts and figures. Rather, he empowers his argument with stories of families torn apart by border militarism. One of the most galvanizing is that of the assassination of an environmental protestor in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. But, Miller warns us, we as citizens of powerful northern nations ought not to assume that we are immune from such climate refugee exclusion: authorities set up checkpoints along the California border to keep out US citizens fleeing the US Dustbowl crisis in the 1930s because they were assumed to be lazy vagrants, unable to support themselves. Remind you of anything?

Ultimately, Miller forces readers to face up to the fact that governments—particularly the US government under Trump as well as his predecessors—have chosen to “adapt” to the impacts of climate change through militarized counter-terrorism actions rather than by taking steps to reverse climate change. Trump’s removal of the US from the Paris climate accord even as he demands more border security is only one example of this form of “adaptation.”

Storming the Wall is a not entirely without hope, however. Miller concludes it with a chapter documenting the ways in which grassroots groups around the world are coming together and demanding change— “storming the walls” that governments are putting up instead of taking the strong measures needed to reverse the climate catastrophe. From that point of view, we can say that the young people on strike with Greta Thunberg around the world and in the Sunrise Movement are “storming the wall.” We need to get out there and join them.

 

Mary Robinson on Climate Hope

February 15, 2019 at 12:24 pm | Posted in Climate Change, Environment, women | 2 Comments
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The following is a revised version of a review that appeared in a recent issue of The Irish Edition, a publication based in Philadelphia, and in the newsletters of several groups I belong to. I seem to have forgotten to post it here.

Mary Robinson. Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future. (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018). 147 pp. $26 hardback; $16 eBook.

In his 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis clearly links the damage we are doing to the earth with harm to the poor, especially those in the Global South. In her new book, Climate Justice, Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and UN Special Envoy for Climate Change, takes Pope Francis’smessage a galvanizing step forward, telling the stories of some of those global poor and how they are fighting back. These stories draw in the reader in just the way our times demand. Indeed, for Robinson, story-telling is a climate-action strategy.

Robinson begins her book-long network of stories with the birth of her grandson, Rory, in 2003, and her deep concern about the hazards he would likely face by the time he turns fifty: nine billion people battling for food, water and living space.

She goes on to tell eleven other stories, bringing to life some of the world’s most devastating problems. First we meet Constance Okollett, a small-scale farmer from Uganda whose village had been devastated by drought, flash flooding, and extreme variations of the seasons, an embodiment of scientific warnings that Africa will suffer the worst consequences of global warming.

Another absorbing story is that of Sharon Hanshaw, an African American hair-dresser from Mississippi whose experience of Hurricane Katrina led her to organize Coastal Women for Change, a climate justice group to confront the racially-linked federal failures to respond adequately to the hurricane. Then there is Australian Natalie Isaacs who was forced by outbreaks of bush-fires near her home to rethink her leadership of a cosmetics company based in the use of plastic container and to found an on-line organization, 1 Million Women, that helps women around the world monitor and reduce their carbon emissions.

Stories of eight other grassroots leaders, from Alaska, to New Brunswick, Canada, to Vietnam to the Pacific island nation of Kitibati, are threaded throughout Climate Justice. And all but two of Robinson’s stories are about women grassroots climate change leaders, because “It is women who bear the brunt of climate change.” Another great strength of the book is its emphasis on the pivotal role played by indigenous communities in the struggle for climate justice.

Given the dire report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last October, that our planetary debt is going to come due far sooner than previously predicted unless we massively reduce our greenhouse emissions, it’s not easy to feel hopeful. And although her book was published before the IPCC report, Robinson doesn’t pull her punches about many aspects of the current situation, for example, that a billion acres of tropical forests have been razed since 1975 for timber, mining, and development, when such razing releases six times as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as fossil fuel emissions. Robinson also notes the enormous harm done to the environment by military violence, for example, the four thousand square miles of forests destroyed by defoliants used by the US military during the Vietnam War. Conflict between nations over the climate refugee crisis is another serious concern.

Yet for all the sobering information it coveys about the impacts of climate change, the primary effect of Creation Justice, as its subtitle suggests, is to inspire hope. And even for a cynic like me, who does not share Robinson’s optimism that markets will cushion the essential replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy, her absorbing narrative of grassroots, for the most part women, activists leading the climate liberation front around the world gives me great hope. I suspect it will do so for you as well.

 

 

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Plastic, Plastic Everywhere and…?

January 5, 2019 at 4:18 pm | Posted in Climate Change, Environment, world water crisis | 3 Comments
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The Last Straw: A Continuing Quest for Life without Disposable Plastic. By Bryant Holsenbeck. Durham, North Carolina: The Resource Center for Woman and Ministry in the South, 2018. Paper. 169 pp. $25 (includes tax and shipping). https://rcwms.org/product/the-last-straw-a-continuing-quest-for-life-without-disposable-plastic/

The Grail, the women’s movement I have been part of since 1965, had been involved in the back to the land movement since the 1940s, so I had long been aware of the importance of the land, and of sustainable agriculture. But I began reading, writing and teaching intensively about the planet’s dire environmental situation after attending a week-long program on the world water crisis with Maude Barlow, the Canadian water activist, at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York in 2001. Barlow basically scared the bejesus out of me.

Recently, however, I have also become aware that the strategy Barlow used, and that had such a  big impact on me—laying out the horrifying facts about the situation—for many, or even most people, simply doesn’t work. For example, there was my attempt to get the new pastor at my parish here in Brooklyn to place more emphasis on climate change in sermons and religious education. When I told him that scientists are predicting that if the temperatures continue to go up at the current rate, we face the end of civilization by 2100, he told me I was the kind of crazy person who believes the end times are coming.

Then there was my article in the September 2018 issue of the Grail’s national publication about how flying is unethical because of the huge amount of greenhouse gases emitted by airplanes. Two Grail members, whose different projects I cited as examples of how much we in the Grail fly, wrote to accuse me of being against their particular effort. Then two weeks later a very dear Grail friend, whose work for the Grail in Tanzania I admire enormously, sent out an invitation for US members to travel to East Africa to learn more about the Grail there. I was fairly certain she wasn’t proposing that they travel there by boat.

Basically, almost everyone with whom I share the increasingly dire information about climate change and environmental degradation tells me that my critique can’t apply to them because what they’re involved in is too important.

I have concluded that I need to find another approach, and that that approach needs to have two characteristics: it must involve storytelling, and the stories need to be beautiful or seriously creative in some other way.

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Given this evolution in my thinking, to say that I was thrilled by Bryant Holsenbeck’s new book, The Last Straw, is to vastly understate the case. Holsenbeck is an environmental artist who became curious about where all the plastic we throw away actually goes. She discovered that there is no “away”—it’s ending up in landfills and clogging our streams and oceans.

She decided, as a result, to give up single use plastics for a year, hard as doing that might be. Then she blogged about the experience. Now the Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South has published those blog posts in a splendid, beautiful volume, The Last Straw.

Bryant Holsenbeck is by no means the only, or even the first person to write a book about giving up single-use plastic. Already in 2012 Beth Terry, a Bay Area accountant, published Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too and blogs to keep people up to date. But Terry pretty much belongs to the strategy school that I have resigned from: telling readers everything there is to know about the plastics crisis and trusting that that info will motivate them—us—to follow her in giving up plastic.

Bryant Holsenbeck, however, is an artist, so her strategy is quite different. To begin with, the book is illustrated with pictures of the gorgeous art that Holsenbeck has been making out of discarded trash, and now especially discarded plastic, over the years.

Furthermore, instead of primarily confronting us with the statistics that activists like Beth Terry and I favor, Holsenbeck tells wonderful, engaging stories of her year of giving up plastic, and her visits to schools in North Carolina and neighboring states where she teaches students how to make the discarded plastic they have been gathering into works of art. In the course of telling these stories, she offers tidbits of encouragement—a recipe for how to make your own yogurt, for example, or a poem about a red wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams as she recalls her wonderful experiences of composting. And underpinning it all, again and again, is Holsenbeck’s philosophy that it’s the things we can do that are important, not achieving perfection. Such a philosophy is unbelievably encouraging. Even the fact that Holsenbeck undertakes living without disposable plastics for just a year will be encouraging for some of us—though in the end, she decides she can never go back.

Of course, some of us may be ready to plunge right in, in which case, Plastic Free, with its trove of information on the evils of plastic and alternatives to it may be what just what’s needed. But if you would prefer to wade gradually into warmer water and to view a gorgeous landscape on the way, The Last Straw is definitely the book for you.

 

This review is a slightly revised version of a review that appeared in the January 2019 issue of Gumbo, the monthly publication of the Grail in the US.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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