In Some Ways We Are All Equal

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

 

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

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

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

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

II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

III

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

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

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

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

IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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After Pittsburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Teenage Innocence

October 4, 2018 at 2:01 pm | Posted in racism,, Uncategorized, women | 5 Comments
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I have been trying to stay out of the discussion over Brett Kavanaugh; surely enough has been said without the addition of my two cents.

But one element of the conversation, not to say brawl, that caught my attention was the assertion by some that the actions of a person during his (I use the word advisedly) teenage years shouldn’t be held against him. I sat up straight when I heard that because trying teenagers as adults has been a major component  of the US criminal (so-called) justice system, especially since the year 2000. Admittedly, there have been legislative moves recently to roll some of this back, but there are still many thousands of juveniles who have been tried as adults in this country; a good number of them are in prison right now. And I’m sure you will be shocked! shocked! to hear that a disproportionate number of these juveniles are black or brown.

The day after I had been thinking about all this I was down on the living room floor doing the exercises for my deteriorating back disc while listening to “Democracy Now” with Amy Goodman, and presto! Goodman  began talking about the same thing: the claims that the accusations against Kavanaugh were over-the-top because he had been a mere teenager when whatever happened happened. She then interviewed three activists involved in the educational justice movement, which, among other things, fights the “school to prison pipeline.”  But what blew me away about that particular news segment was that the activists Goodman interviewed explained that the “school-to-prison pipeline” did not begin with teenagers being tried as adults but with pre-school students–three and four-year olds–being suspended for misbehavior. And kids who have been suspended earlier in school, we learned, are much more likely to end up in prison later in life. And guess who the vast majority of pre-K kids thus suspended are? Black and brown boys.

Now let me clarify a few things here. I have a lot of sympathy for teachers trying to keep control in the classroom. I taught school for three years, between 1970 and 1975, and it was the hardest work I have ever done. And I was teaching the fourth grade–nine and ten-year olds. I simply cannot imagine trying to work with pre-schoolers.

I should also admit that the hardest of my three years as a teacher was in a Black parent-run community school in Harlem, though part of the reason for that was that there were 40 kids in the class, while the other two classes I taught had 20 and 12 students respectively, and most of them were white. I was also fairly clueless about inner city culture.

But the real reason for my difficulty, in Harlem and the other two schools, was that I just wasn’t very good at teaching kids. And as I am given to saying, one day the Lord Jesus appeared to me and said,”Marian, you are terrible at this!! Stop it!” So I did.

This leads us back to the very idea of three and four-year olds getting suspended, or even eight or nine-year olds for that matter. And they are not getting suspended for bringing guns to school, or even fighting; they’re getting suspended for “insubordination” and “defying authority,” an interpretation of behavior common to children that age that is applied to kids–boys–of color much more often than to white boys.  What does it do to a kid’s attitudes and expectations if he gets suspended at the age of four?

This brings us back to the national conversation about Brett Kavanaugh. Americans may, and do, hold different positions regarding the accusations against him. But surely we can all grasp the hypocrisy involved in suggesting that such actions shouldn’t be held against a privileged white teenager when three and four-year old children are getting suspended for talking back to a quite possibly incompetent teacher?

 

 

 

 

Crucified by Racism

August 25, 2018 at 10:39 am | Posted in Christian theology,, colonization,, racism,, religion | 3 Comments

 

The following is my review of a new book on the relationship between Christian theology and racism by Fordham theologian Jeannine Hill Fletcher. It appears in the August 24-September 6 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

THE SIN OF WHITE SUPREMACY: CHRISTIANITY, RACISM, & RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY IN AMERICA
By Jeannine Hill Fletcher
194 pages; Orbis Books, 2017. $28.00.

Never for a moment did I buy the notion that with the election of Barack Obama as president, the United States had become a “post-racial” society. But even for a skeptic like me, the statistics from the 2016 presidential election were difficult to absorb: Eighty-one percent of white evangelical Christians and 60 percent of white Catholics voted for Donald Trump. How could Christians vote for such an unabashedly racist candidate?

As we attempt to answer that question, it’s hard to imagine anything timelier than Jeannine Hill Fletcher’s new book. In The Sin of White Supremacy: Christianity, Racism, & Religious Diversity in America, Hill Fletcher draws on her expertise in interreligious theology as well as extensive research into the history of Euro-American Christianity to lay out the devastating connections between Christian theology and the ideologies of racial supremacy that underpin our current political crisis.

Then, thank God, she presents a theological paradigm to help us move toward racial and religious transformation.

(Continue reading on the NCR webpage).

 

 

 

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