Hiroshima at 75

August 6, 2020 at 9:29 am | Posted in nuclear war | 3 Comments

Back in the day, Eleanor Walker, my mentor in the Grail movement, was given to saying that she didn’t read her books; she “felt warmly toward them.”

One of my books that I have felt warmly toward over the years but never read is John Hersey’s Hiroshima.  With the 75th anniversary of that bombing today, on August 6, I decided that it was time to read it.

When I began to read, I realized that I also hadn’t actually read the subtitle:  The Story of Six Human Beings who Survived the Explosion of the Atom Bomb over Hiroshima.  For the book is, indeed, a masterful interweaving of the stories of six individuals who lived through the bombing—what they experienced before, during, and soon after the blast. At first I feared that the book might be too much of a happy story, since it focused on survivors, but I soon gave up on that: the book details what the survivors suffered as well as what those around them suffered and in many cases died from. But the only way Hersey could collect their stories was if they had, indeed, survived.

Another thing I totally overlooked was that the book was published in 1946—a year after the bombing—and had previously been published in The New Yorker. How on earth did Hersey ever gather the detail he weaves into these stories in such a short period of time? It did not surprise me to learn, however, that he had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction two years before Hiroshima, so extraordinarily well-told are those stories.

The six “individuals” whose stories Hersey interweaves are Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk at the East Asia Tin Works; Dr. Masakazu Fujii, the head of his own private hospital; Mrs. Hatsoyu Nakamura, a widow with two children; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German Jesuit: Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the large, modern Red Cross Hospital, and the Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church.  All six were in different locations somewhat removed the center of city when the bomb exploded at 8:15 in the morning, which is part of the reason that they survived.

A year after the bombing, Hersey tells us, Miss Sasaki was a cripple, having suffered extreme damage to her legs when the Tin Works collapsed; Dr. Fujii’s hospital, which had taken him decades to build, had collapsed into a river and he had nothing to rebuild it with; the widow Nakamura and her children were destitute; Rev. Tanimoto’s church had been destroyed and “had no prospects of rebuilding”; Father Kleinsorge, who had labored ferociously to help others after the bombing, was back in the hospital with radiation sickness; Dr. Sasaki was not capable of doing the work he once could do. “The lives of these six people, who were among the luckiest in Hiroshima, would never be the same” (114).

A number of details have stayed with me from reading Hiroshima. One is of a survivor passing by a victim whose face had fallen off and another seeing someone with fluid from their melted eyes running down their cheeks; that the radiation sickness caused three stages of suffering and sometimes death for victims, but that the bombing also caused a wide range of weeds and plants to spring up. I guess radiation isn’t all bad!

It also struck me, though it did not particularly surprise me, that the details of the bomb’s heinous effects were repressed by the US, who had occupied Japan immediately after the bombing of Nagasaki three days later, but that Japanese scientists circulated the information widely. Also striking was that the Methodist minister, Rev. Tanimoto, who worked like a crazy person reaching out to suffering survivors despite his own radiation sickness, had access to many fewer resources than the German Jesuits in Hiroshima, who had been able to rebuild their chapel and provide food to survivors fairly soon after the bombing.

Finally almost inconceivable to me was Hersey’s reporting that many survivors of the bombing did not complain about their suffering; they believed they experienced it out of loyalty to their country and the emperor. Similarly, I could hardly believe that a good number of them remained indifferent throughout their lives about the ethics of the bombing. It was just the kind of thing countries did in order to win, they believed. Others, however, hated the US ever after, as well they might have.

It can be tempting to read Hiroshima as a well-written story of something that happened three-quarters of a century ago to people on the other side of the world. But to do so would be a serious error, since various experts like William Perry are warning us that a new nuclear arms race is now underway, with the psychotic in the White House legally empowered to push the nuclear button without consulting anyone. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists now puts the hand of the Doomsday Clock at a hundred seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been. If we don’t want to pass people on the street whose faces have fallen off or enable the melting of other people’s eyes—or our own—we have to remember Hiroshima, protest nuclear funding, and most important of all, vote in November.

This article may appear in the August 2020 issue of Gumbo, the monthly publication of the Grail in the US.




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.


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.



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.


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.


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