Fast Violence and the Western Imagination

November 2, 2017 at 9:56 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Before I begin writing, let me state clearly: I do not dismiss the deaths of the eight people hit by a truck Tuesday in lower Manhattan, or the injuries sustained by thirteen others. I am truly sorry for all of those people.

But whenever a violent event like this one occurs, I think about the title of a 2011 book that had a significant impact on me, Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. There are a lot of reasons why you would do well to read Nixon’s book, but the beginning of the title itself sticks in my head: slow violence. I mean, you would think, wouldn’t you,  that violence is violence? But by adding an adjective to that particular noun, Nixon calls such an assumption into question. If there is slow violence, then there is fast violence, too, and that, I would argue, is  precisely what happened along the bicycle path along the Hudson yesterday as school was letting out.

The real issue, however, is not that there are different kinds of violence, but that we in the West are fixated on one particular kind: the fast kind. Consider, if you will, the amount of attention focused on the fast violence that occurred in lower Manhattan two days ago. Twenty-one casualties, and hours and hours and hours of media coverage.

But now consider this: the day before the Manhattan attack, the highly respected British medical journal, The Lancet, published a report that

reveals just how bad climate change is for public health. The diagnosis reveals that hundreds of millions of people are already suffering the health impacts of climate change. Its insidious creep is being felt in multiple ways: rising temperatures are hastening the spread of infectious diseases; crop yields are becoming uneven and unpredictable, worsening the hunger and malnourishment for some of the most vulnerable people on the planet; allergy seasons are getting longer; and at times it is simply too hot for farmers to work in the fields…. local air pollution around the world – much of it coming straight out of exhaust pipes – kills about 6.5 million people annually…

You heard all about that on your radio, or over the internet, didn’t you? I mean, there is a significant–in fact–horrific difference between eight deaths and 6.5 million deaths, right?

The difference is that fast violence is a whole lot more fascinating. Who cares about insignificant millions dying slowly  from air pollution, or from water-borne diseases (a child dies of a water-borne disease every fifteen seconds)?

I think about this sort of thing, in part because my only uncle, Jimmy Dodds, died of diphtheria  in 1921 when he was six years old.  They just came and took the body away. No funeral was permitted, because of the contagious nature of the disease. My mother, who was four at the time, said her parents never recovered from the death of their only son. My grandmother wore a gold locket with Jimmy’s picture in it, and a lock of his hair, her whole life. I wear it now. I can still hear her sighing as she walked me to the library when I was in grade school.

But the eight people who got killed on Tuesday are a lot more interesting. A truck hit them, going really really fast, and driven by a terrorist. First things first, or maybe only.

 

 

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A Different Take on Mary

December 15, 2016 at 3:04 pm | Posted in feminism, Uncategorized, women | 1 Comment
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This review appears in the December 16th issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

12162016p19phb.jpgTHE VALIANT WOMAN: THE VIRGIN MARY IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICAN CULTURE
By Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez
Published by the University of North Carolina Press, 256 pages, $27.50

Let me begin by confessing that I was never much of a Virgin Mary girl. There was something about Mary’s sweetness and humility that didn’t do much for me. For years, I would have said that the name of my confirmation saint, Joan of Arc, tells you more about me than my baptismal name ever could.

Imagine my astonishment, then, when a remarkable new book made me wonder if I had written off the Virgin Mary a bit too quickly. That book is The Valiant Woman, Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez’s exploration of the Virgin in 19th-century American popular culture. In it, readers come to see that well before the contemporary women’s movement, images of Mary had a more complex and sometimes liberating impact than many of us might ever have imagined.

Hayes Alvarez begins her study with the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, an event many U.S. Protestants took as further proof of Catholic ignorance and idolatry. Yet even then, in part because of the growing changes in gender roles that accompanied industrialization, Protestants were also drawn to images of the Virgin, images the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception brought into greater public awareness.

Figures of the Virgin attracted Protestant attention in part because they reinforced traditional female domestic roles. But other images of Mary, and sometimes the same images, also served to introduce new female roles. One such image was that of Mary as the queen of heaven, which, despite its origins in Catholic teaching and devotionalism, spilled over into popular images of women as the queen of the household. Queenship, even domestic queenship, can imply more female power than is initially apparent.

In The Valiant Woman, Hayes Alvarez draws on a wide range of historical contexts, literary sources, art criticism and theology. For example, part of the Virgin’s attraction for American Protestants was the pivotal role she played in European artwork, the knowledge of which demonstrated upward mobility. Some attempted to distinguish legitimate artistic portrayals of Mary from mere (Catholic) devotional art. But Hayes Alvarez uses the writing of the popular Protestant art historian Anna Jameson to show that the interconnections between the two were hard to avoid. Particularly in her extremely successful book Legends of the Madonna, Jameson used Catholic culture and thought as the necessary context of great Western religious art, even as she made knowledge of that art an indicator of rising-class status and Protestant morality.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Jameson’s interpretations of Marian art also connect seemingly incompatible gender roles for women. For example, according to Jameson’s standards, maternity is an essential characteristic of paintings of the Virgin, yet she rejects any association of that maternity with female subordination. As Hayes Alvarez observes, during this period, Jameson and other writers, Protestant as well as Catholic, “drew on Marian models of womanhood to endorse female domesticity,” and resist shifts in gender norms. But they also used Mary — her suprahumanity, her queenship, her motherhood of God — to “expand female power within and beyond the domestic sphere.”

In her epilogue, Hayes Alvarez fast-forwards The Valiant Woman to the semicentennial of the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1904. Even then, some U.S. Protestants condemned the Roman Catholic church as “the church of the Virgin Mary,” the worship of whom overshadowed the worship of Christ. And some Protestants still used the Virgin Mary as a symbol of sentimentalized womanhood. But by and large, there was much less Protestant interest in the Virgin Mary than there had been during the previous 50 years.

This was the case, in part, because Catholics were not as much of a threat as they had they had been, so Catholic symbols were less a focus of attention. But it was also the case that the “entrenchment of the market economy” made separate spheres for women and men less necessary, and because of the successes of the women’s movement, feminists no longer needed to couch arguments for or against women’s freedom in traditional religious symbols.

The close readings of 19th-century American fiction, journalism, and art criticism on which Hayes Alvarez draws may be challenging for some readers. But the required attention pays off. Just the opening chapter, exploring the conflicts and conversations related to the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 and 1855, is worth the price of admission. And if you’re anything like me, the remaining chapters will radically transform whatever childhood notions you retain about that sweet, humble, obedient Virgin.

[Marian Ronan is research professor of Catholic studies at New York Theological Seminary. The Apocryphile Press will publish her co-authored book Women of Vision: Sixteen Founders of the International Grail Movement in 2017.]

 

Trump, White U.S. Catholicism, and the Fate of God’s Creation

November 27, 2016 at 6:49 pm | Posted in Climate Change, The Hierarchy, U.S. Politics, Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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In a blog posted soon after the presidential election, I argued that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops colluded in the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency. But that’s not all there is to Catholic collusion in the Trump phenomenon, not by a long shot.

In a preliminary analysis published on November 9, the Pew Research Center reported that 52% of U.S. Catholics voted for Trump.  But 60% of white Catholics voted for Trump. And while only 26% of Latinx Catholics voted for him—67% went for Clinton—the percentage of Latinx voters going for Clinton was an 8% decline over the percentage that went for Obama in 2012. This was another component of the Trump victory

And when we examine the individuals central to Trump’s campaign, the picture is no less disheartening.   Though I could find nothing about her current religious affiliation, if she has any,  Trump’s campaign manager and current top advisor, KellyAnne Conway (née Fitzgerald) graduated from a Catholic high school and from Trinity College, once a leading Catholic women’s college.

Then there’s Steve Bannon, the former head of the Breitbart News, an unambiguously  anti-semitic, white nationalist news site, and soon to be Trump’s chief counsel in the White House. Bannon is a Catholic. In a talk he delivered at the Vatican on June 27, 2014, sponsored by the Institute for Human Dignity, he spoke of “a crisis both of our Church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism.” The U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, who has also recently assured us of Donald Trump’s Christian values, arranged to have Bannon speak at the Vatican conference.

Then there is Paul Ryan. An article I read recently argues that we should be more worried about Reince Priebus, Trump’s soon-to-be chief of staff,  than Steve Bannon. Why? Because Priebus will ultimately be more influential than Bannon—having major impact of administration hires, for example. And he is totally on board with Paul Ryan’s campaign to eviscerate the social safety net. And what’s Ryan’s religious affiliation? Roman Catholic, of course. At least the U.S Catholic Bishops did call him out for the cuts to social programs he proposed during the 2012 election, something they hardly did at all with regard to Trump’s threats during the 2016 campaign.

Now this is by no means the first time in U.S. history that white Catholics, and their bishops, have come down on the wrong side of pivotal ethical issues. In his recent book American Jesuits and the World, the distinguished scholar of U.S. Catholicism, John McGreevy, documents how the American church, and the Jesuits, were strongly pro-slavery for a stunningly long time. I believe the church called slavery “just servitude.”

And in the 1950s, the Catholic press, and the highly influential archbishop of New York,  Francis Cardinal Spellman, strongly backed anti-Communist and anti-gay “witch-hunts” by the Catholic senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy was eventually censured by the U.S. Senate, and died, probably of alcoholism, in 1957.

But the support of slavery and of Senator McCarthy by American Catholics and the U.S. bishops pales in significance beside their support of Donald Trump. This is so because Trump is a complete climate change denier, pledged to roll back President Obama’s already inadequate climate change initiatives, and restore the fossil fuel industry. And he has already appointed a “notorious climate change denier” and “head of a coal industry funded think tank,” Myron Ebell, to lead the transition at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Some may think this is no more significant than the threat Trump poses to Muslims and undocumented immigrants. But as an editorial in this week’s issue of The Nation argues compellingly, climate change is the “worst crisis that human beings have ever faced.” And as the U.S. Catholics who voted for Trump, and those who work for him, and the bishops well know, this is an increasingly irreversible crisis that the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has called out emphatically in an encyclical, the primary teaching instrument of the Catholic Church.

But who cares about that? What really matters to the majority of white U.S. Catholics,  a minority of Latinx Catholics, and the vast majority of the U.S. Catholic bishops, is the “right to life.” And everybody understands that the earth, God’s creation, has nothing to do with life.

 

 

 

What Is Required of Us?

July 27, 2016 at 11:30 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The following is a book review that was published today on the web page of Pax Christi Metro New York, the New York branch of the Catholic peace movement.

The Bread of the Strong: Lacouturisme and the Folly of the Cross, by Jack Lee Downey. (Fordham 2015).

It’s almost a truism among progressive Catholics, myself included, that the changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council were good ones. But it also seems that the world is not in much better shape—is perhaps in worse shape—than it was in 1965. In The Bread of the Strong, Jack Lee Downey, assistant professor of religion at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, offers some hints as to why this may be the case.

The Bread of the Strong is a study of the distinctly pre-Vatican II spirituality of a French-Canadian Jesuit, Onésime Lacouture, and his followers, and of the massive impact of that spirituality on Dorothy Day. The book traces the trajectory from Lacouture’s maximalist spirituality to Day’s radical politics.

The first three chapters of The Bread of the Strong explore Lacouture’s life and the development of his spirituality. Once intending to become an academic, Lacouture underwent a series of powerful mystical experiences during his formation at a Jesuit mission in Alaska. He emerged from these experiences with a radically changed vision of the faith in which academic theology, and even much of the Catholic Christianity of the time, were vile, inadequate pursuits.  Fundamental to Lacouture’s transformed world-view was an absolute dichotomy between nature and grace, Christianity and paganism, self-mortification and pleasure. Lacouture preached this ascetical theology passionately in clergy retreats over the next several decades. So absolute and unambiguous was his position that the Jesuits eventually silenced him.

One participant in the Lacourturist retreats, Pittsburgh diocesan priest John Hugo, was so profoundly influenced by their ascetic spirituality that he began giving his version of the retreats to Catholic laypeople in the United States. And let me be clear: these were retreats aimed at “spiritual withdrawal and moral perfectionism,” albeit with a social-justice dimension that Lacouture himself did not include.

Dorothy Day was one of the laypeople who participated in these Hugo-led retreats. Day, after her conversion, had struggled to integrate her radical socio-political activism with her newfound Catholic faith. Peter Maurin’s spiritual iconoclasm helped Day to integrate these seemingly contradictory dimensions of her identity. But Downey shows that it was the Lacouture retreats, with their emphasis on  “a redemptive spirituality of suffering” and ego-transcendence that solidified Day’s spiritual/political identity. This identity in turn undergirded Day’s heroic leadership of the Catholic Worker from the early 1930s to her death in 1980.

I myself am not much inclined toward asceticism or self-mortification. And as a feminist theologian, I have argued vociferously against the nature/grace, spiritual/material, male/female binaries that characterized the Church for millennia.

Yet I am also aware that the challenges facing the human race, and perhaps especially those of us who consider ourselves non-violent, or justice seeking, are nearly incomprehensible. Take, for example, the climate crisis that Pope Francis addresses in Laudato Si’.  The vast majority of us do not begin to comprehend the changes in our consumerist, convenience-oriented way of life that saving God’s creation demands. What kind of spirituality, what return to self-sacrifice and self-mortification, may be required so that we will be able to face up to these inconceivable challenges?

On Francis, Hillary and Hope

June 13, 2016 at 10:41 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Lately I have been thinking about a pattern that threads through a number of recent debates.

My reflections were launched last summer when conservative Catholics like Richard Viguerie reacted with dismay, or even outrage, to Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’.  I perceived such conservatives as wanting to have it both ways: if a pope condemns contraception in an encyclical, that’s obligatory teaching; if a papal encyclical declares climate change a moral issue, it’s optional. Admittedly, I also criticized some of my feminist colleagues for their naiveté in claiming that the Pope could have easily reversed Catholic teaching on contraception in Laudato Si’ in light of the dire effects of population on the climate. But I was a good deal more incensed by Republican Catholic climate change deniers arguing that the pope should stick to subjects he knows something about (i.e. doctrine and morals).

Then, in April, the Washington Post reported that the Vatican might restore to canonical status the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) , the group that separated from the Catholic Church over certain teachings of the Second Vatican Council. In particular, the article suggested, the group might be readmitted without accepting two of the documents that progressive Catholics like me consider fundamental to Council teaching: Dignitatis humanae the document on religious liberty, and Nostra aetate, the declaration on the church’s relation with non-Christian religions, particularly the Jews. I was outraged by the very idea of Pope Francis and his administration allowing a community of Catholic priests to reject such fundamental Vatican II teachings as the right to religious freedom, especially for the Jews. I agreed strongly with Jamie Manson who asked, in the National Catholic Reporter, how the Vatican could possibly engage in such discussions with SSPX and yet refuse to reach out to ordained Catholic women who have been excommunicated?!! I had not yet noted the similarities between my outrage in this case and the conservatives’ outrage at Laudato Si’ .

Which brings us to the presidential election. I announced on my Facebook page the other day that my husband and I have switched our support from Bernie Sanders to Hillary Clinton because of the dire threat that Donald Trump poses to the democratic governance system of the United States and even to planetary survival. A lot of my Friends registered their agreement  with me. Some, however, stated that they could never go there. One linked  her comment to an article detailing the neoliberal conservatives who are supporting Clinton and how Clinton is a militarist. A number of socialist friends here in Brooklyn have said that they will never support Clinton under any circumstance; they plan to vote for Jill Stein or write in Bernie Sanders.

Of, course, these folks have a perfect right to vote for whomever they want, and to critique Secretary Clinton for various positions and actions she has taken. Indeed, the battle will only just be starting if and when Clinton defeats Donald Trump; we will have to ride her hard during whatever time she is in office, to prevent the kind of horrific triangulation her husband engaged in

It does seem to me, though, that there are certain similarities between the fierce and unambiguous rejection of Clinton in one case and the outrage by Catholics across the political spectrum in response to various actions by Pope Francis.  Negotiation, adaptation in face of the hard realities of the present seems to have become less and less unacceptable.

It was in a letter announcing his 2016 “Jubilee Year of Mercy” that Pope Francis first reached out to the SSPX, proclaiming  that during the year, confessions heard by SSPX priests would once again be valid. This is, in a certain sense, highly ironic, because when Pope Francis officially launched that same Jubilee Year of Mercy several months later, he explicitly linked it to the Second Vatican Council, the Council that the SSPX in large part rejects. In particular, Francis emphasized  Vatican II’s merciful avoidance of the anathemas fired like rockets by a number of previous councils.

A presidential election is not the same as the Jubilee Year of Mercy, or even the Vatican’s negotiations to reunite with one of the most traditionalist groups of priests in the world. Yet I can’t help wondering if something of the Pope’s tone might not help us as we move through this historic, possibly life-threatening, election. Perhaps we ought to consider the possibility of being merciful, having hope, imagining that even neoliberal militarists can change their ways (not without  strong encouragement from us, of course).

And before you conclude that such movement between adamantly opposed positions is inconceivable, let me end with a story. At the beginning of June, an official of the Vatican Secretariat of State, one of the Vatican’s highest-level departments, met two women from the group Roman Catholic WomanPriest s(RCWP) group, one of them a bishop. The women presented the official, whom they called a “wonderful priest,” with a letter to Pope Francis that included a petition to lift RCWP excommunications and end all punishments against their supporters as well as to begin a dialogue with women priests.

Who knows who Hillary Clinton may be meeting with in 2017?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Good-Enough Death

April 27, 2016 at 11:44 am | Posted in Aging, Catholicism, Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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The following is a review-essay on Ann Neumann’s book, The Good Death, published  by the Marginalia Review of Books last Monday, April 25. It’s much longer than a standard blog post, so I won’t post anything else for a while to give you time to read it. Also, I haven’t got a clue how to get rid of the box around the first page. Luddites of the world, unite!

Ann Neumann, The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America, Beacon Press, 2016, 212pp., $26.95

 

At first glance, a reader might take Ann Neumann’s The Good Death for a standard critical study — an analysis of the “complicated legal, religious and ethical labyrinths that surround dying in America,” as a blurb on the back cover suggests.

And indeed, The Good Death does a fine job, in slightly more than two hundred pages, of delineating the contours of those labyrinths. Already in the first chapter Neumann begins exploring the many reasons why death is such a fraught topic (and experience) today: we no longer see death up close, as we did when plagues, infections and childhood diseases were common. Eighty percent of us die in institutions.

Then, too, in the 1970s, for the first time in history, the very definition of death changed. What was once clearly indicated by the simultaneous ending of “heartbeat, breathing and brain function” became more and more complicated. This was especially the case because innovations — respirators, defibrillators and feeding tubes, among others — made it possible to keep the heart and lungs functioning indefinitely. Scientists attempted to define death as living without brain function, but disputes about even what constitutes total loss of brain function persist.

Neumann continues to detail the obstacles to a “good death” throughout the rest of
the book. One is the long-standing Christian belief that pain is the result of sin and
that the endurance of it makes human beings better. Even today, the U.S. Catholic
bishops, in their Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care, state that “patients experiencing suffering that cannot be alleviated should be helped to appreciate the Christian understanding of redemptive suffering.”

In the past this principle was applied to childbirth and even dental care, but it continues to influence end-of-life practices in our time. Doctors often prescribe (and families agree to) painful treatments for patients near the end of life because they believe that extending life is what matters, no matter the cost. Linked to the sacralization of suffering is the widespread notion that to refuse to continue treatment of a family member, even if it causes them great suffering, is to betray them.

Another obstacle to the good death is the disastrous state of the U.S. health care system. In 2010 we spent over a sixth of the U.S. economy — 2.7 trillion dollars — on health care, double what was spent in 2000. And although we overspend all other developed nations by $3000 per patient per year, a 2014 study ranked the U.S. last among those nations in the quality of its health care.

Part of the reason for this dismal outcome is that half of that $2.7 trillion was spent on 5 percent of the population, those in the last year of life. And a stunning percentage of that money was invested in what biomedical ethicists call “futile treatments,” therapies, drug courses and trials that prolong but do not actually lessen illnesses. Such calculations risk sounding venal, implying that the dying simply are not worth more than a certain amount of money. But Neumann explains convincingly how much genuinely effective and often inaccessible medical care the money spent on futile end-of-life treatment would provide. She also makes clear the extent to which state laws and

the prison system collude in blocking the right to die with dignity.

Even the hospice movement, from which Neumann admits having learned a great deal as a volunteer, sometimes contributes to the difficulties of achieving a good death. The founder of the modern hospice movement, Dr. Cicely Saunders, was a staunch opponent of assisted dying, believing that pain and suffering could always be addressed. Those involved in the hospice movement today often believe that the end of life, even when it involves great suffering, presents patients with an opportunity for personal growth that aid in dying ostensibly short-circuits.

As Neumann explores the specifics of these labyrinths, she expresses fairly clearly her support for aid in dying, that is, for the right of terminally ill, mentally competent individuals, after meeting the legal requirements for such a decision, to take life-ending medication. The passage of laws allowing such aid in dying in Oregon, Washington, and Montana, interestingly enough, resulted in state residents becoming more knowledgeable about hospice and palliative care, and doctors’ increasing their referrals for hospice care significantly. Some of the most informative conversations Neumann recalls were with end-of-life activists and the staff of aid in dying organizations like Compassion & Choices.

But all of this notwithstanding, Neumann never portrays death as simple or uncomplicated.

 

I had a number of reasons for wanting to read The Good Death. Unlike Neumann, who began thinking about death only after the loss of her grandmother and father when she was in her thirties, I had been aware of it since the age of five. One day, out of the blue, my beloved grandfather suffered a heart attack and just disappeared: poof. And then in my teens, a doctor told my aunt, who in turn told me, that the dose of morphine he was giving to her husband to lessen the pain in his diabetically-infected and soon–to-be-amputated leg would probably kill him. It did.

But what really got me thinking about U.S. medical practices in the face of potentially fatal illness were two cancer surgeries I underwent in the early 1990s. With the first, I woke up in terrible pain after a hysterectomy, only to be told by the recovery room nurse that if I took painkillers too soon, I would become a drug addict. An RN friend disabused her of that notion, but not for several hours.

Then, two years later, after the removal of a malignant tumor from my colon, the surgeon sent me for a chemotherapy consult. The oncologist told me that I had a 20 percent likelihood of recurrence with the chemo and a 20 percent likelihood without it. When pushed, he said he himself would certainly not choose the chemo; it would nauseate me for a year. But when the surgeon learned of my decision, he went nuts, virtually accusing me of endangering my own life. I was thrilled when I finally escaped from his “care.”

After these experiences, nothing that Neumann writes about the national obsession with futile treatments or the need for aid in dying surprises me or seems overstated. The very possibility of death is so outrageous to some medical practitioners and some patient’s families that they cannot stop themselves from doing everything, no matter how hurtful, to avoid it.

 

One worry that I carried with me until the last few chapters of Neumann’s book concerned her treatment of Roman Catholicism. Of course, given the pivotal role the Catholic Church plays in end-of-life controversies in the United States, there is no way Neumann could avoid including the church and its teachings in her analysis. And I myself am deeply disturbed by the efforts of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to use “religious freedom” to deny women affordable reproductive health coverage.

But as a specialist in American Catholicism, I am also aware of the anti-Catholic discourse that snakes its way through U.S. history and culture. As I read The Good Death, I worried that Neumann might be using her considerable writing talent to extend that discourse. Indeed, soon after the book’s publication, a review in the Jesuit magazine America characterized Neumann’s treatment of Catholic teaching on death as “dismissive or condescending.”

 

Already in the third chapter Neumann addresses the role of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the 1990 Supreme Court decision affirming the right of the family of Nancy Cruzan, who had been in a persistent vegetative state for years, to have her feeding tube removed. The USCCB’s two amicus briefs against the ruling argued that feeding tubes constitute “comfort care” and are therefore compulsory; removing them is euthanasia.

Neumann does not, interestingly enough, mention that in an earlier end-of-life case, the parents of Karen Ann Quinlan used statements by Pope Pius XII to argue for the right to have their daughter’s respirator removed. The pope had said in a 1957 address that refusing to insert an artificial respirator in a patient, even if it would result in death, did not constitute euthanasia and was therefore permitted.

That teaching notwithstanding, the bishops did oppose the right of Nancy Cruzan’s family to remove her feeding tube in 1990. But it was the Terry Schiavo case (2001-2005), according to Neumann, that really set them off. This was so, we learn, because the Schiavo decision comprised a sort of one-two punch, coming as it did after the passage of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act in 1997. The justice system, the bishops finally realized, was directly challenging their authority.

Thus, after the court-permitted removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube and her subsequent death in 2005, a “small but significant minority” of Evangelicals and Catholics, with the unflagging support of the bishops, came together to fight the twin crimes of euthanasia and abortion. Neumann finds it hard to understand how some medical advancements, like the ventilator or contraceptives, can be any less “natural” than those the church approves, like metal feeding tubes inserted into a patient’s stomach. So do I.

In some respects, Neumann finds the broader influence of the Catholic Church on U.S. health care regarding end- of-life issues even more damning than its attempts to influence particular right-to-die cases. We learn that there are, according to the website of the USCCB, 629 Catholic hospitals in the U.S., serving, “one out of every six patients: that’s nineteen million, emergency room visits and more than one hundred million outpatient visits a year.”

And while those Catholic hospitals generally follow standard medical procedure, they are forbidden to do so when such procedures fall outside the “Ethical and Religious Directives for Health Care Services,” a list of seventy-two guidelines issued by the USCCB. Many of these guidelines involve reproductive services, but Guideline 58 addresses the use of feeding tubes for those in persistent vegetative states. Catholics are instructed that even the belief that a patient is never likely to regain consciousness is not sufficient reason to withdraw medically assisted nutrition and rehydration. This is so even if the patient’s advance directives authorize so doing.

Furthermore, Neumann explains, employees of Catholic health care institutions are forbidden to give patients information about other institutions where their advance directives would be honored; some employees have been fired for so doing. “The hard power of the church, which retains its ability to decide the types of care millions of patients receive daily — even to decide what options people can be informed of — has combined with the soft power of public opinion and coercion” to limit end-of-life choices, Neumann argues.

Despite all of this, I decided, after finishing The Good Death, that Neumann’s critique of the Catholic Church does not constitute anti-Catholicism — or if it does, I forgive her for it. I did so despite the fact that Neumann is more critical of the Catholic Church than of any other single locus of power in the end-of-life arena of the culture wars. I did not even make the decision because Neumann herself, as it turns out, is a Catholic. Since the clergy sex-abuse scandal took center-stage in 2002, liberal Catholics, as Philip Jenkins argues persuasively, are more likely than others to engage in anti-Catholic discourse.

Rather, I decided The Good Death is not anti-Catholic because Neumann’s treatment of the subject of death is extraordinarily humane and nuanced. This is the case in large part because of the stories of her relationships with individuals, some dying, others not, that are woven throughout the book. But Neumann is not using stories to introduce or connect arguments about death in our time; her encounters with these people are, in effect, her argument. She begins with her own father’s death and how horrified she was by it. Then she goes on to visit, and revisit, the lives of other men and women — many of them people she encountered as a result of her decision after her father’s death to become a hospice volunteer.

 

And in the book’s last chapter, Neumann draws on the experiences and attitudes of fully nine of the people she’s written about previously to weave together her final reflections on the good death. Neumann’s engagement with the complexity of their positions on the end of life, shaped by her considerable affection for many of them, is far removed from the vitriolic tones of anti-Catholicism, racism, and other hateful discourses.

Consider, for example, Neumann’s relationship with the paraplegic, Bill Peace, and through him, with the wider disability rights movement. Neumann first encounters Peace when, as the blogger “Bad Cripple,” he attacks Neumann’s position on assisted dying, calling it the first step on a slippery slope toward the total devaluation of the disabled. Eventually, the two meet for lunch and a powerful if sometimes-contentious friendship ensues.

It is not that Neumann is not critical of Bill and many other disability rights advocates. She finds their claims to know better than anyone else about the best way to die, even better than the dying themselves, to be arrogant. But Neumann is also forced, because of her relationship with Bill and his fellow activists, to consider whether her ignorance or avoidance of disabled persons contributes to the institutionalization of inequality.

She is even forced, to some extent, to understand the ferocity of their opposition to her position on assisted dying. Peace’s refusal to “go gentle into that good night” shapes Neumann’s nuanced reading of the end of life as much as the successful fight of a dying truck driver to get the state of Montana to allow assisted dying does, or the decision of a retired psychiatrist and close friend, Evelyn Livingstone, to go on living as long as she can.

Neumann uses these and six other stories to trace the complexity of the very idea of hope in the face of death. Sometimes lives are marked by a “deep hope” that does not delude the one who hopes but can be based on “incremental emotional needs” like going for a walk or enjoying the day. For Neumann, this characterizes the “good enough death” that her friend Dr. Evelyn Livingstone is slowly undergoing.

But hope can also be a blind faith, a hope against hope, that results in death being much, much worse for some people, or even drives others to try to make legally obligatory the practices fundamental to hope at all costs in the face of death.

Ultimately, Neumann argues that that there is no good death, just a “good enough death,” one made possible only by looking death straight in the eye and acknowledging its inevitability. Such a good enough death is strikingly different from the kind of death undergirded by denial, the profit motive, and the glorification of suffering.

As a result, Neumann is also forced to acknowledge that there are no quick solutions or easy answers to the questions she has raised. In the end, what we do is engage in the work of grief, and that itself is sometimes a form of vanity. We talk about the dead as if they are ours, clinging to “fragmentary stones,” remembrances by which they become part of us.

And we go on. After her friend Evelyn Livingstone dies, Neumann assures us, she will visit Marvin, Evelyn’s widower, who is statistically unlikely to outlive his wife by very long. And when Marvin dies, Neumann will mourn him too.

 

The Ecofeminist Theology of Elizabeth Johnson: A Review

April 22, 2016 at 4:41 pm | Posted in Catholic sisters, Catholicism, Climate Change, Environment, Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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In the half- century since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, debates about its true meaning have proliferated. Did the Council continue the Catholic tradition or rupture it? Did it renew the church or eviscerate it?

In his 2013 book, A Council that Will Never End, theologian Paul Lakeland introduces a more helpful, less polarizing category: the “unfinished business” of Vatican II, that is, the issues that were raised but not moved very far forward at Vatican II. Primary among these, for Lakeland, is the relationship between the horizontal and the vertical: between the laity and the ordained, but also between the bishops and the pope.

Let me suggest another category to accompany Lakeland’s, that of the “unstarted business” of Vatican II. Two issues virtually unaddressed at the Council are the role of women and the implications of the doctrine of creation for church and society. Indeed, there are only fourteen direct references to women in all of the Council’s sixteen documents. And because the church at the Council had finally come to terms with the modern emphasis on the dignity of the human person, the further significance of God’s unity with creation may have been more than the Council fathers could handle.

In recent decades, of course, women, and creation—particularly the environmental crisis—have become increasingly pressing issues. Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ certainly comprises a welcome update to the Catholic understanding of creation and its growing destruction—though it is less than groundbreaking on the question of women. Latin American liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff have also powerfully addressed the link between the destruction of the earth and the oppression of the poor, with Brazilian ecofeminist theologian Ivone Gebara pushing their analyses even further. We can only speculate about how much more influential such work might have been had the Vatican under John Paul II not seriously repressed it.

No work has done more to move the church forward on the issues of women and the environment, however, than the ecofeminist theology of Elizabeth A. Johnson. Johnson is of course best known for her 1992 book She Who Is. But already at the end of her first book, Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology (1990) Johnson addresses Jesus Christ as the savior of the whole natural world and all of its creatures. In fact, in that book she paraphrases one of the signature expressions of Vatican II, “reading the signs of the times,” by writing that “Jesus could read the signs of the sky.” (140)

Then, in She Who Is, Johnson addresses the presence of God in the whole cosmos, not only in human beings; especially in her chapter on Spirit-Sophia, she argues that the presence of Spirit-Sophia is mediated through the natural world as well as human history. She also addresses the suffering of God, which is central to the question of the horizontal and the vertical, because a God who suffers is one with the horizontal in a way that an impassible deity can never be.

Then, a year after the publication of She Who Is, at the annual Madeleva Lecture at St. Mary’s College in Indiana, Johnson connects the “ecocide crisis”—desertification, ocean harm, species extinction, and so forth—with the “two-tiered universe” in which women and the earth are both exploited. Here she explicitly links three of the most pressing unfinished/unstarted Vatican II issues: women, creation, and the dominance of the horizontal by the vertical.

Johnson’s next two books, the first about the Communion of Saints, and the second, Truly Our Sister, about Mary of Nazareth, might seem focused on human beings rather than on the wider natural world. But Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints actually gives the communion of saints an ecological dimension in which the whole world will share in life after death, and identifies Mary with the Creator Spirit who vivifies the evolutionary development of the entire community of life.

Then, in Quest for the Living God, Johnson’s most famous (or infamous) book, one chapter focuses on the Spirit as the “Vivifier” of the Natural World and another, “The Crucified God of Compassion,” discerns a cruciform pattern in all of creation, because the Spirit dwells throughout a suffering creation. This emphasis on the God who suffers was a primary reason for the USCCB’s 2011 condemnation of Quest, since according to the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, that suffering is caused by sin, so God cannot suffer.

Johnson rebuts this assertion in her 2014 book, Ask the Beasts, a study of the relationship between Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the Nicene Creed. Since all species suffer, and non-humans cannot sin, then sin, Johnson argues, is not the cause of suffering. Instead, Johnson acknowledges that while God is fullness of life beyond suffering, it is also “right to say that God suffered and died on the cross because the human nature of Jesus who suffered is precisely the Word of God.”

Furthermore, according to Johnson, the logic of incarnation extends divine solidarity from the cross into the groan of suffering of all creation. The cross illuminates that the God of love whose love continuously sustains and empowers the origin of species is a suffering God who is in solidarity with all creatures dying through endless millennia of evolution from the extinction of species to every sparrow that falls to the ground.

Johnson’s compelling argument that God suffers is fundamental to moving the unfinished business of Vatican II forward, especially the problem of the relationship between the horizontal and the vertical, since the argument that God cannot suffer is invoked in the service of the hierarchical binary between the transcendent God (and the Church authorities who identify with that God) and the female-identified non-transcendent/material /earth/creation. Women and creation, the earth, are in fact the horizontal, traditionally bifurcated from and subordinated to the ostensibly omnipotent male God and those believed to image him: priests, bishops, and popes.

The survival of the church, and of God’s creation itself, depend on our understanding better the intimate connections between these three issues and acting on them. There are a number of ways to do this. One is by deepening our knowledge of Elizabeth Johnson’s work. Her book-length theologies are highly accessible. But fortunately, in 2015, Orbis Books published a collection of her articles, including a section on the “Great God of Heaven and Earth,” which can serve as an excellent introduction to Johnson’s ecofeminist theology.

But since, as Johnson makes clear, the issues of women, creation and hierarchy are so intimately connected, even work that focuses on only one of them will point ultimately to the other two. If you can’t get your parish discussion group to begin by reading Johnson, then perhaps they will begin by reading Laudato Si’. Questions regarding women and the hierarchical structure of the church are almost certain to follow.

This post appeared as a book review on page 1a in the April 22-May 5 issue of The National Catholic Reporter under the title “Theologian’s work connects God, women and creation.”

 

Bibliography 

Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology, Crossroad Publishing 1990, 1992, $19.95

She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, Crossroad Publishing, 1992, 2002, 2014, $32.95

Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit (Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality), Paulist Press 1993, $7.95

Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints Continuum 1998, $42.95

Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, Bloomsbury Academic 2006, $39.95

Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, Continuum 2007, $24.95

 Abounding in Kindness: Writing for the People of God, Orbis 2015, $24.00

Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love,, Bloomsbury Continuum 2015, $32.95

 

Sophia: And Still She Rises

March 12, 2016 at 12:11 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Despite the grandeur of that title, I’m going to start with a story.

Back in the early 1980s, two friends and I, Hal Taussig and Susan Cady (now Cole) conducted a number of programs on Sophia, the figure of Wisdom in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Several of the programs were at Grailville, the Grail’s farm and conference center outside Cincinnati. One was for the annual meeting of Church Women United, I believe. Hal and Susan were (and still are) United Methodist ministers and had introduced Sophia spirituality and ritual in a church they were co-pastoring in West Philadelphia, and Hal, a biblical studies scholar, had been doing research on her.

Anyhow, according to the chapter on Hal and Susan’s Sophia work in Elizabeth Ursic’s 2014 book  Women, Ritual and Power, in 1984 I was the respondent to a workshop on Sophia that Susan and Hal gave at Arch Street United Methodist Church in Center City Philadelphia. Afterwards, I suggested that Susan and Hal consider writing a book on Sophia.

In the end, the three of us wrote it together. In 1986, Harper and Row published Sophia: The Future of Feminist Spirituality. In 1989, a second edition appeared, including Sophia the Future… and 143 additional pages of bible study , ritual and worship materials, sermons, hymns and songs, under the new title, Wisdom’s Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration.  Eight years later, Sheed and Ward reissued that second edition, with a new preface.

And now, I am somewhat stupefied to announce, Apocryphile Press, in Berkeley, California, has issued what I have taken to calling the thirtieth anniversary edition of Wisdom’s Feast. (The new edition was literally published in 2015, and the book that was published in 1986 was actually Sophia: The Future of Feminist Spirituality, but “thirtieth anniversary edition” has a nicer ring to it than “twenty-ninth anniversary edition of the book that comprises the first section of Wisdom’s Feast,” don’t you think?)

Several things make Wisdom’s Feast  and particularly Sophia: The Future…noteworthy.   Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza had already written about Sophia with considerable enthusiasm in 1983. But Sophia: The Future of Feminist Spirituality and Wisdom’s Feast were both published well before She Who Is,  Elizabeth Johnson’s systematic theological treatment of God as Spirit-Sophia, Jesus-Sophia, and Mother Sophia (1992). Since then, Sophia has played a significant  role in Christian theology, spirituality and politics; even evangelical women are increasingly taken with her. As we wrote in the preface to the 1996 edition of Wisdom’s Feast, “Although we obviously thought at (the time of the publication of the first edition of this book) that Sophia was important, as we reflect on all that has happened, we can only conclude that we were on to something.”

What also happened, in addition to the growth of Sophia spirituality and ritual in churches and women’s groups across the US and Europe, was a significant political conflict over the legitimacy of Sophia in the Christian tradition. This included nasty attempts to have Hal and especially Susan censored for their work, something we discuss at length in the preface to the 1996 edition of Wisdom’s Feast (that preface is included in this new edition as well). Indeed, as we argue in the preface to this 2016 edition, it seems likely that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ condemnation of Elizabeth Johnson’s 2007 book Quest for the Living God can be traced back, impart at least, to the Sophia arguments Johnson made in She Who Is.

If anyone had told me, back in 1986, when I was in my first year of seminary and supporting myself as a free-lance grant writer, that a thirtieth anniversary edition of this book would be coming out in 2016, I suspect I would have laughed out loud. Today I’m just smiling.

If you’d like to take a look, or even get a copy, Wisdom’s Feast is available on Amazon, here.

And if you’d like to join us at our book celebration on Saturday, April 9, at 2 PM, at the Arch Street United Methodist Church in Center City Philadelphia we’d love to have you. (An appropriate location, since that’s the church where Susan and Hal and I did the program back in 1984 that got this book launched!)

And still She rises.

712izDPGHwL

 

BlackBrainsMatter

January 18, 2016 at 11:13 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

On Monday, my esteemed partner, Keith Russell and I, began teaching a course on the church and environmental justice at New York Theological Seminary in Manhattan. (Frequently, when I say I teach at NYTS, people respond, “Oh, Union. That’s a great place.” Just so you know, Union is an Ivy League, ferociously expensive, liberal Protestant seminary. NYTS is the Black/Latinx/Asian night school a few blocks away).

One of the things I love about NYTS (where I myself did an M.Div. in the 1980s) is that the students are almost all real people, coming in to their 6 PM classes from jobs as teachers, MTA workers, or pastors of storefront churches. And they are often really excited about and grateful for the things they learn.

Monday and Tuesday night I taught about environmental racism and the history of the environmental justice movement, as well as the ways in which people of color and the poor comprise the “ground zero” of climate change. During the rest of the course Keith will be working with the students on how to preach and teach about environmental justice in the congregations in which they now minister or will soon.

The students were amazed by what they learned in the first two sessions, explaining at the end of Tuesday’s class that they had always thought that racial justice and civil rights were one thing, and that environmentalism was something else entirely. Among the statistics that they were unaware of is that Black children in the United States are twice as likely as white children to have asthma, and that the single greatest threat to the health of all American children is lead poisoning.

Which brings us to the recent scandal in Flint Michigan. I suppose you know the details. In spring of 2014, the city, in order to save money, switched from the supply of Lake Huron water it had long purchased from Detroit and started drawing water from the Flint River, treating it locally. Residents immediately began complaining about the smell, taste, and appearance of the water; by the summer, three water boil advisories had been declared. City officials repeatedly claimed that the water was fine.

In February of 2015 a water advisory commission was formed to address concerns.  In September, a group of doctors at a Flint hospital called for a return to the Detroit water source after finding high levels of lead in the blood of Flint children. The state then stepped in, and in October the legislature approved $6 million dollars to help switch the water supply back to its earlier source and deal with the damaged pipes. Yesterday, President Obama declared the water contamination in Flint a Federal emergency.

The main problem, according to the New York Times, is that the water from the Flint River was corrosive, due to inadequate treatment by the city, and caused lead to leach from old pipes in homes and schools. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems, while the mental and psychical development of children under six is especially at risk.

What many news sources fail to mention in their coverage of this story (though Hillary Clinton did mention it in last night’s debate), is that Flint is a majority Black city. Fifty-seven percent of the population is Black, with another three percent plus Latinx. What we all should remember, especially on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, is that there is a very big overlap between racial injustice and the environmental crisis.

My Addiction

December 30, 2015 at 5:53 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Lately, mixed in with all the holiday chatter, I’ve been hearing a lot about addiction. A friend in Ohio had a knee replacement, but in order to offset the morphine epidemic there, she can only get a renewal of her pain meds by having someone carry a written prescription from the doctor’s office to the drugstore and then deliver it back to her. She’s seventy years old and has a Ph.D. so her potential for heroin addiction,  is, um, modest. Then there was the NCR discussion of whether the New Hampshire heroin epidemic was caused by overuse of pain killers or trading up from teenage drug use at parties.

Me, my addiction is of a different sort. I’m a bookaholic. We live in a nine hundred square foot apartment, and all the book shelves are full, but I keep on acquiring more books. One source of my addiction is Greenlight Books over on Fulton Street; my membership in the Brooklyn Academy of Music includes a twenty percent discount at Greenlight, and it just seems silly not to buy new books there when I am saving so much money with that big a discount.

Then there are all the books that people put out on the stoop over in Windsor Park and Park Slope. I’m a big time walker, and there the books are. Who could resist? And of course there are the one penny second-hand books on Amazon. I just sent a away for a classic 1978 volume on Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. I mean, how could a person live without that?

My esteemed companion sat me down one day and suggested that maybe every time I get two books, I could get rid of one. I told him in no uncertain terms that there was nothing in the prenup about books.

You may conclude from all this that I read a great deal. I do do a certain amount of reading. But that’s not really the point. As my dear Grail mentor Eleanor Walker once said, back in the 1970s, “I don’t read my books; I feel warmly toward them.” Very warmly.

It occurred to me at one point that maybe what I should do is start a Bookaholics Anonymous group (BA). Those who share my need for more and more books could meet with me and we could discuss our problem. Then it came to me that we could also bring some of our books and have a book exchange. Not sure what the Higher Power would think about that part.

I guess before I make supper I’ll go start reading the slightly water-logged copy of Dennis Lehane’s A Drink Before the War that I picked up on Prospect Park West this afternoon.

And may your new year be filled with many, many books.

 

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