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.



The Cruelest of All Mothers

March 5, 2016 at 11:50 am | Posted in Catholic sisters, feminism, women | 1 Comment
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The Cruelest of All Mothers: Marie de l’Incarnation, Motherhood, and Christian Tradition by Mary Dunn. Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2016. Hardback, $45; e-book, $44.99. 150 pp. plus back matter.

For Christian feminists, a book about the life of Marie Guyart de l’Incarnation, the little known French-Canadian Ursuline nun canonized in 2014, can’t help but be welcome. As the title of Mary Dunn’s remarkable new study suggests, however, The Cruelest of All Mothers is a good deal more than a saint’s life.

Raised in Tours, France, Marie Guyart began having mystical encounters with Christ at the age of seven and longed to become a nun, but her parents forced her to marry. She did so in 1617, age eighteen. In 1619, she gave birth to a son, Claude, and six months later, her husband died.

Guyart spent most of the next eleven years raising her son, supporting them both by working in her brother-in-law’s business, while continuing to long for the religious life. In 1631 she entered the Ursulines at Tours—all convents were cloistered in those days—over the strenuous objections of her son, who was left without visible means of support. Two years later, in a vision, the Virgin Mary told Marie she had plans for her in Canada. In 1639, Marie and three other Ursulines sailed to Quebec, where she spent the rest of her life.

Marie de l’Incarnation’s ministry was impressive in many respects. She founded the Ursulines in Canada and served as their superior for eighteen years. She also learned multiple indigenous languages and translated the catechism into Iroquois. But the issue at the center of Dunn’s analysis is Guyart’s abandonment of her eleven-year-old son and the meaning(s) of that act in light of Christian perspectives on motherhood and contemporary scholarship.

In chapter 1 Dunn “explicates” Marie’s abandonment of Claude in the context of the times, that is, in the way that Marie herself was likely to have understood it: as a sacrifice performed in conformity with God’s will, modeled after the crucifixion. Marie’s deep desire to stay with her son would have been irrelevant. But in chapter 2, Dunn suggests that the abandonment may instead have been quite the opposite: a refusal on Marie’s part to conform to the norms of seventeenth-century French family life, in which parents’ greatest obligation was to protect the “patrimony” of their children.

But, Dunn reminds us, human actions rarely fall into neat, either/or categories, in this case, those of submission or resistance. Dunn therefore draws on the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to explore the abandonment as what was likely within the boundaries of Guyart’s own time that “left little (positive) room for actual maternal bodies and real maternal practice.” Fundamental to this world-view were centuries of Christian teaching in which motherhood itself was portrayed as fleshly and the renunciation of children as heroic. The seventeenth-century Christian privileging of self-sacrifice as the ultimate in spiritual practice reinforced these longstanding teachings. In her own time, then, Marie had little choice but to abandon Claude if she believed God had called her to the mystical life.

Dunn goes on to suggest, however, that in another time and place, Marie might have been able to understand motherhood itself, and not only its renunciation, as a sacrifice modeled on that of Christ. Now let me acknowledge at this point that feminist discussions of sacrifice in recent decades have been something of a minefield, with theologians like Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker denouncing Christian notions of sacrifice as inherently misogynistic, even sadistic. In her final chapter, however, Dunn uses the work of the French feminist psychoanalytic theorist Julia Kristeva to undercut such dismissals of sacrifice, embedded as they are in binary, Cartesian, either/or thinking. For Kristeva maternal subjectivity—itself the model of all human subjectivity—is a mother’s willingness to “give herself up” in order to make room for the other within. (But) a mother’s willingness to give herself up does not end in the annihilation of the mother in the service of others, but in the enrichment of the mother through the inclusion of the other (13).

In fact, as Dunn explains, Kristeva’s understanding of motherhood folds into each other the pivotal categories that have been held in opposition throughout Western/Christian history: agape and eros, the Word and the flesh, syntax and rhythm, male and female. Furthermore, this Kristevan model of motherhood as sacrifice and fulfillment finds its closest analogue in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross because that sacrifice ended in life, not death, that is, in the Resurrection and the formation of the Christian community. Similarly, motherhood culminates in new life and profound connection. In fact, as the book continues, Dunn demonstrates that motherhood was infolded into Guyart’s spirituality throughout her life despite—or because of—the abandonment of her son

Dunn’s reading of motherhood in the life of Marie Guyart’s life and in Christian history is itself a significant achievement. But Dunn introduces a third, galvanizing layer to her narrative: her own experience of motherhood, and especially, of mothering a child with a rare genetic disorder. Already half way through the introduction, Dunn writes about being the mother of two older children, Bobby and Frankie, three years and one year old respectively, at a time when attitudes toward motherhood are very different from those of the sixteenth-century. Throughout the book. Dunn returns to this experience of mothering these two and then two more children, the last one, Aggie, born with the genetic disorder.

At first glance, there would seem to be few similarities between Dunn and Guyart. Dunn stays at home, devoting much time and attention to her children, and especially to Aggie. Yet a careful reading of Dunn’s intermittent shifts from Guyart’s motherhood to her own brings a certain similarity to the surface: Dunn also experiences ambivalence, or at least anxiety, about the daughter the doctors assure her will be quite unlike her other children. Aggie is Dunn’s dear child but also the abject, the other that ancient Christian teaching identified with the flesh and with motherhood itself, and which seventeenth-century Christian spirituality urged Guyart to reject. It’s to Dunn’s considerable credit as a scholar and a writer that she doesn’t resolve this tension, this binary, any more than she resolves the tensions within Guyart’s own experience of motherhood. As we continue the feminist effort to tranform the hierarchical binaries with which the church and Western civilization have burdened us, neither may we opt for easy resolutions.


This review appears in the March-June 2016 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference and in the March 2016 issue of Gumbo,  the newsletter of the Grail in the USA.




Pope Francis and Catholic Gender Ideology

February 27, 2016 at 5:17 pm | Posted in Catholicism, feminism, women | 4 Comments
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As Pope Francis’s various trips and the Synod on the Family recede into memory, disagreements continue concerning his positions on certain issues. Did the pope’s comments on religious freedom in the United States signify support of the USCCB religious freedom campaign? Will the pope, in his forthcoming apostolic exhortation on the family, permit divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion? Do his comments about the use of contraceptives in relation to the zika virus signal a change in Catholic teaching? Does “mercy” extend LGBTI Catholics?

The public statements and actions of popes are significant, of course. But they can also be confusing and inconsistent, especially when the pope in question is more pastoral than ideological. So it can be helpful to move beyond the ambiguity of public comments to examine papal writings. Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s June encyclical, sheds light not only on his position on the environment, but on gender and sexuality as well.

At one level, the pope’s encyclical on the intrinsically connected issues of environmental degradation and poverty may seem to reinforce the institutional church’s fierce condemnation of contraception. A week after the encyclical was issued, for example, Jamie Manson, writing on the National Catholic Reporter blog, singled out overpopulation as an issue that is “woefully underdeveloped in the encyclical.”

Manson finds problematic, in particular, Pope Francis’s suggestion that rising population is “fully compatible with an integral and shared development,” as well as his claim that blaming “population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some is one way of refusing to face the issues.”

Manson by no means disputes the Pope’s assertion that a radical change in consumerist mentality is fundamental to feeding the massively expanding populations in the Global South. But she explains that these are long term goals, whereas increasing access to reproductive education and contraceptives will have a much more immediate impact on those who suffer some of our world’s worst deprivations.

The statistics and reports Manson cites in her article are compelling. I join her in wishing that the Catholic Church would lift its ban on contraceptives and thus greatly improve, and sometimes save, the lives of poor women globally.

But Manson’s assertion that Pope Francis wouldn’t be breaking radically new ground by changing the church’s teaching on birth control is problematic, even naive. It’s likely that Pope Francis shares the teachings of his predecessors on contraception, abortion, gay marriage, and other sex/gender issues, but whether he does or not, changing such teaching would risk starting a civil war in the church. Indeed, Ross Douthat speculated in the New York Times in September that Francis intends to start a civil war in the church over divorce and remarriage.

To understand why explicit changes in Catholic teaching on contraception, divorce, and gay marriage, never mind abortion, are currently off the table, it’s helpful to recall that at Vatican II the church made some historic concessions to “the modern world.” These include acknowledging the right to religious freedom and abandoning its claim that it is necessary to be a Catholic in order to be saved.

But no institution willingly gives up power. So instead of abandoning its claims to absolute truth, the church shifted its claim to such truth from the area of doctrine to that of “faith and morals.” “Morals,” within this new economy, are obligatory for all because they inhere in what the church calls the natural law. Thus the post-Vatican II church placed increasing emphasis on sexuality and gender.

Here in the United States, the increasing focus on sexual teaching came about gradually, with the bishops appointed during and soon after Vatican II also speaking passionately on justice, peace, the environment and the poor. Yet in the years that followed, the emphasis of the institutional church in the U.S. and elsewhere shifted steadily toward sex/gender teaching.

In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis does not change Catholic sexual teaching in light of the environmental crisis. Doing so risks, among other things, massively shifting attention away from that crisis to pelvic issues, the last thing the pope has in mind. And indeed, Pope Francis does refer occasionally in the encyclical to the harms of abortion and lack of respect for life.

What’s remarkable about Laudato Si’ is that in it Pope Francis connects abortion, population control, and lack of respect for life with a range of other sins against creation. That is to say, he stresses the integral connection between “the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the poor… buying the organs of the poor for resale, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted. This same use and throw away logic,” Pope Francis tells us, “generates so much waste because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary.” (123)

Progressive Catholics are not the only ones critical of Laudato Si’, of course, and critical even of the implications of Pope Francis’s words for the absolute truth of Catholic sexual teaching. In an article in the New Yorker about her participation in a two-day Vatican conference about the encyclical, environmentalist Naomi Klein reports on a fear among conservatives in Rome that the encyclical’s discussion of “planetary overburden will lead to a weakening of the Church’s position on birth control and abortion.” She also quotes the editor of a popular Italian Catholic web site: “The road the church is heading down is precisely this: To quietly approve population control while talking about something else.”

Other conservatives are subtler in their critique of Pope Francis’s handling of Catholic sex and gender ideology. In a column ostensibly praising Laudato Si’ that appeared in the July 22 issue of the Brooklyn Catholic newspaper, the Tablet, the Bishop of Brooklyn, Nicholas DiMarzio, writes that “the environment that is most dangerous to human beings and the one which causes the most direct threat is the misunderstanding of contraception and population control.” A reader might be excused for concluding, in the context of an article praising the encyclical, that this is something Pope Francis says, or at least suggests.

But Pope Francis most certainly does not say this in Laudato Si’. Rather, he says that there is an integral connection between the dangers of abortion, contraception, climate change, other environmental destruction, and the oppression of the poor. That is, he dismantles the ideological hierarchy of recent decades, in which popes and bishops declared sex and gender offenses more grievous than any others and made social and environmental justice optional.

This is surely not the full change that Jamie Manson and I and many other progressive Catholics would like to see happen. But it’s a change of some considerable significance nonetheless.

This post is the revision of an article that appears in the February 2016 issue of EqualwRitesthe newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.


Not a Real Feminist

February 17, 2016 at 12:29 pm | Posted in feminism, Hillary Clinton, New York Theological Seminary, Norman Gottwald, women | 6 Comments

By now, you’ve probably heard about young women not supporting Hillary Clinton in the presidential campaign. An article in the New York Times today explores the issue, explaining that in New Hampshire, Clinton won by 11 points among older women, but lost by 59 points among “millennial voters” (though it’s not clear if the author means millennial women voters). HC lost them by quite a lot, in any case. The article also reports on the attitudes toward Clinton of younger women at Penn State, one of whom says she couldn’t even “tell you what a feminist is.”

The young woman may be an idiot. Or she may be reflecting the fact that what feminism is has never been all that simple. I became involved in Christian feminism in the early 1970s at Grailville, the farm and program center of the Grail, an international Catholic lay women’s movement. Along with Church Women United,the Grail had co-sponsored one of the first programs in feminist theology, “Women Exploring Theology” in 1972. The pioneering feminist theologian, Elizabeth Schuessler Fiorenza, has written that it was at that week-long program that it first occurred to her that theology was not just something created by men.

I had begun spending summers working at Grailville while I was teaching the fourth grade in the early 1970s, and during the summer of 1974, Eleanor Walker, one of the leaders of the Grail, sent for me and asked me to put together an inclusive language prayer book for the Grailville community. I had been taking care of the chickens at the time, and Eleanor said something to the effect that I didn’t seem to be very good at it, that the prayer book might be a better use of my talents. The Grailville community used the prayer book, including my inclusive language paraphrase of the Psalms, for a number of years thereafter. As a result of the prayer book, I met several theologians with whom I later co-authored three professionally-published books on feminist theology, spirituality and worship.

The truth is, I wasn’t all that interested in feminism when I started working on the prayer book. I had joined the Grail because it seemed to me to be an astonishing embodiment of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, especially the renewal of the liturgy. Grail liturgy, music, and arts more broadly were more beautiful than anything I had experienced previously. I was hooked.

Furthermore, my own working-class background and tendency to analyze as well as sing complicated my feminism from the beginning. After I joined the Grailville staff in 1975, a Catholic nun, Sister of Loretto Ann Patrick Ware, was leading some kind of program at Grailville–I forget what, a program just for Grail members, I think. At a meal during the program when Ann Pat and I were sitting together, she responded to something I said with “You know, you’re not a real feminist.”

She was right, if, by real feminist she meant one accepting the clear, “women are this, men are that” binary that Mary Daly and a number of other second wave feminists seemed to advocate. (One of the most helpful things I ever read about the early Catholic feminist tendency to binarize was an article by Beverly Harrison about how Mary Daly’s feminism was basically a reversal of the the hierarchical neo-Thomism she had learned getting her first Ph.D. at St.Mary’s.) One of the events I remember most clearly during my years at Grailville was Katie G. Canon going nearly berserk over the black maid of one of the (white) workshop leaders of Seminary Quarter at Grailville when we were having a meeting at the workshop leader’s home. Eventually, Seminary Quarter moved to Atlanta, at least in part because Loveland, the town where Grailville was located, was too (that is to say, almost entirely) white.

Another experience that illustrates how I am not a real feminist (of a certain sort) occurred after I moved back to New York City from Ohio. I was attending the first meeting of a women’s liturgy group in an apartment in one of the high rises across Broadway just north of Union Theological Seminary. We were explaining why we had come. An extremely well-dressed woman in the group said she was there because “men write history and women don’t.” I said, “You clearly never met my working-class father. He hardly wrote sentences.”

The facilitator of the group replied “Don’t contradict her. She’s sharing her experience.” I pictured the previous speaker on the moon, looking down and counting (experiencing?) all the men and women who were writing history at the time. I was ecstatic when, in 1994, Mary McClintock Fulkerson published her brilliant feminist theological study “Changing the Subject,” in which she argues compellingly that “women’s experience” is the beginning of the conversation, not the end.

My reference to my father in that encounter up near Union Seminary in 1983 or ’84 was not coincidental; I grew up in a working class household, and my father was for some years the president of a union local. When I decided to get a seminary degree, I opted not to go to the Ivy League Union, in part because it was way too expensive, but also because the students in the courses I audited there seemed privileged beyond belief, although feminst theology was an important part of  Union history and curriculum. Instead I attended a Black/Latinx/Korean night school, New York Theological Seminary, where we all ate the bagged lunches we brought with us while the professors lectured. And my class consciousness was only intensified by the Hebrew Bible courses I took there with the great Marxist scholar, Norman Gottwald.

Subsequently, when I was the president of the board of the Women’s Ordination Conference in the early 2000s, I met with the leaders of several national Black Catholic women’s organizations about working with us, they told me in no uncertain terms (alas) that they had more important issues to contend with. And when RCWP Bishop Patricia Fresen said, in an address at a conference celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Women’s Ordination Conference in 2005, that the exclusion of Catholic women from ordination is just like apartheid, I nearly had a heart attack. Except for the hundreds of thousands of Black people killed and imprisoned in South Africa, I thought. Whatever feminism is, it’s “pas si simple,” as the French say. It’s complicated.

This brings me back to Hillary Clinton. If she gets the Democratic nomination, I plan to support her ferociously. All of the Republican candidates would be catastrophic if elected, especially the current front-runners. I am trying to decide when the right moment might be to shift my support to HC to prevent such a catastrophe. But up till now, I have been supporting Bernie, and I am deeply grateful to him for raising issues that a good number of second wave white feminists didn’t pay enough (or any) attention to. Can he get elected president? We’ll see. But at least one older U.S. feminst hasn’t transferred to the HC camp yet.



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.


Getting Older

December 9, 2015 at 5:45 pm | Posted in Aging, Uncategorized | 8 Comments
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A while ago—twenty years or so, I’d say—a number of liberal Protestant church leaders from the New York area, their spouses and families, owned summer homes in a town up in Maine. Dibbie and Bill Webber, Dodie and George Younger were two such couples. At a certain point, they began a discussion group called “We Are All Growing Older.”

Having such group struck me as wise. And I certainly didn’t disagree with the thesis. Of course, we’re all getting older.

On the other hand, my admiration and agreement were, I now realize, a bit theoretical. We’re all getting  older, but not yet, God willing.

Beginning in April of 2014 I began rethinking this. As I described it some months later, that was when Keith, my husband, began a year of serious illnesses, punctuated by the death of his mother. After pneumonia, surgery for two unrelated forms of cancer, plantar fasciitis in both his feet, burying his mother, and a stress fracture in his ankle, things calmed down a bit, but not enough to allow me to slide back into my prior sense of immortality.

Just lately we seem to be having round two, though on a much smaller scale. More than a year ago I began experiencing tingling—what we called “pins and needle” back in the day—in my hands and feet. The somewhat worthless internist I consulted was in a hurry and pooh-poohed it. A year later, when it hadn’t gone away, I consulted a new doctor, who sent me to a neurologist, who did a whole long string of tests–poking, sticking, mild electrocution. Then he said, “Well, the tingling in your hands is a sign of essential tremor and carpal tunnel syndrome; the tingling in your feet is caused, I believe, by a lower back problem.” He ordered an MRI to explore the latter.

It all seemed a little much—three diagnoses in one day. Then, the following week, one of my molars got an infection and our splendid dentist announced that I had to have it and the guy next to it out and replace them with implants. Yesterday the extractions occurred and I got three slots drilled into the bone underneath the former teeth in preparation for the implants. At the same time I have been doing carpal tunnel exercises everyday, wearing carpal tunnel splints to bed at night, and going to physical therapy for my back.

I will spare you the whining and lamenting. A lot of the people out here in the middle of Brooklyn couldn’t begin to afford the implants I’m getting. And when I’m at the physical therapy office, a number of patients come in all twisted up with arthritis, or needing a walker to walk, or otherwise in pain. And we discovered the carpal tunnel early, so I’m not likely to need surgery. Here, as at other times, being the oldest child of an Irish working-class family is a big help: just shut up and do the assignment, as the grown-ups used to say.

But I do think I’m going to postpone finishing Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Memory for a few days. Instead, maybe I’ll just binge-watch Orange is the New Black”!








A Different Immigrant Narrative

November 17, 2015 at 12:05 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

These days many of us are thinking about the security risks that accompany admitting Syrian immigrants to the U.S., and, sadly, to France. Sometimes it helps to step back and remember that earlier conflicts over immigration, even some that were fairly violent, had a happy ending.

The current movie “Brooklyn,” for example, is the story of two members of once-hostile groups, the Irish and the more recently arrived Italians, literally falling in love. It’s also a fictional version of the story that Paul Moses tells in his new book, An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians ( New York University Press, 2015. 368 pp. Hardback: $35; eBook: $14.04.)  Here’s a slightly revised version of my review of that book that appeared recently in Gumbo, the monthly publication of the Grail in the U.S.


Initially, readers—in Oregon, for example, or Louisiana—may wonder why they should read the story of a struggle between two white ethic groups in New York City between 1850 and 2001. But a glance at today’s headlines provides a ready answer: the hostility over immigration, and between previous immigrant groups and those just arriving, is as fierce as ever.

The author of An Unlikely Union, Paul Moses, is an award-winning journalist and professor of journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also a superb storyteller. And part of the story is his own—from pretend rumbles between Italian and Irish kids at his 1960s parochial school here in Brooklyn, to how he (half-Italian, half Jewish) came to marry an Irish-American girl, Maureen. The primary narrative, however, addresses the evolution of the two wider ethic groups from outright enmity in the nineteenth century to collaboration and even merger by the end of the twentieth.

The story, in some senses, is economic, with poor Irish Catholic immigrants whose families fled to the U.S. during and after the Potato Famine of the 1840s fighting equally poor Italian immigrants who arrived several decades later. Some of this played out on the New York waterfront, where Italians served as strike breakers till some of them realized that starting unions, not fighting them, would pay better in the long run.

Another dimension of the struggle unfolded in the Catholic Church, where the Irish immigrants who had identified for centuries with the papacy over against the English monarchy deeply distrusted Italian immigrants who supported the overthrow of the monarchical Papal States in 1870. An even darker chapter in the competition involved gunfights between Irish and Italian gangs struggling to control the streets of New York. And then there was politics, with Big Tim Sullivan’s Tammany Democrats eventually being defeated by Italian Republicans like the half-Jewish half-Episcopalian Fiorella LaGuardia, and eventually, Rudy Giuliani.

Moses attributes much of the gradual resolution of the hostility of the two groups to their shared religion. Indeed, his stories of Irish-American bishops and priests coming to terms with Italian priests and nuns over how to minister to the arriving immigrants are some of the most eye opening. My own personal favorite is Mother (later St.) Francis Xavier Cabrini, who had come with some of her sisters to work in the Italian community, refusing outright to return to Italy when New York Archbishop Michael Corrigan ordered her to do so. Moses also attributes much of the eventual cessation of hostilities between the two groups to Catholic sisters, in this case, primarily Irish ones, who helped Italian immigrants assimilate into U.S. culture during their time in parochial schools.

My other favorite chapters address the roles of music and food in bringing about peace between the two groups. The Irish came to realize that pizza tastes a lot better than potatoes and cabbage. And reading about the singing contests between Bing Crosby and Franck Sinatra almost brought tears to my eyes; my own mother, whose grandmother was an Irish servant, simply adored Frank.

Moses acknowledges that economic factors were as significant in the laying down of arms by the Irish and the Italians as they were in starting the hostilities. These include how families from ethnically segregated urban areas became neighbors in the New York suburbs after World War II, and how rising income levels during the post-war economic boom healed a lot of wounds. He also acknowledges the role that race played—how the Italians “becoming white,” as the Irish had before them, gradually eliminated at least one cause of hostility between them—though it certainly didn’t improve the situation of African Americans.

There’s always a danger that a book like An Unlikely Union will serve as a “happy narrative” –-making readers feel optimistic without facing up to the difficulties and complexities of the story. Indeed, one of the most discouraging aspects of the current immigration conflict, in this country at least, is that it’s led by the descendants of immigrants, people like Paul Ryan and Bobby Jindal, who seem to think that they rose up the economic ladder through their own hard work. But a book like this one can also help us to understand that things such as rising wages and racial reconciliation really can reduce anti-immigrant prejudice. God willing, this realization in turn will inspire us to get out there and fight to bring such changes about.


My Exercise Bike

November 9, 2015 at 1:37 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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In the summer of 1992, Keith and I moved to Philadelphia for me to start the Ph.D. program in Religion at Temple University. Keith commuted back and forth to run the Doctor of Ministry program at New York Theological Seminary.

We rented a loft apartment down on 3rd street, just west of the Delaware River. It was by New York standards huge and very nearly free. Since we had some space, I went out and bought a Tunturi exercise bike. As I recall, we paid $220 for it.  I rode it three times a week or so for the five years we were in Philly.

In 1997 we moved out to Berkeley, California, to begin our eleven years at the American Baptist Seminary of the West. We sent the bike out with the rest of our stuff. I continued riding it for forty-five minutes several times a week.  In 2008, when we moved back to Brooklyn, we shipped the bike back, too. We put it in the bedroom of our nine-hundred square foot apartment in Ditmas Park, and I went right on riding it.

In the past few years, though, the wheels of the bike began making screeching noises, and various parts broke off. My esteemed companion took to saying that he was afraid the bike was going to break up while I was riding it and that I’d fall off and fracture my skull.

Last weekend I rode up to Dartmouth for the Orr symposium (more on that in another post) and then went to visit my brother across the river in Vermont. I was lamenting the demise of my bike after only twenty-three years, and he said,”Oh, I have an exercise bike in the garage that you should take. I bought a new one a year ago, but they delivered two by mistake. I called and told them to come and get it but they never did.” He had paid $400 for his.

Keith had driven up to join me after the symposium, so we got the bike out of its box and put it into the Prius. It was the first time we realized that the car’s back seats went down! When we got home, Keith put it together for me. It’s actually a much better bike than the Tunturi, probably because my brother and his wife are bicycle racers and so have higher standards than I do.  I am winded after half an hour on mine. (I am not telling you the bike’s brand so the manufacturers don’t come and confiscate it.) Keith had a hard time getting the little computer on the handlebars to work, but after only seven or eight tries, he got it going; my boy is nothing if not determined.

I was in the habit of telling people that the Tunturi cost me nine dollars a year. This one is costing zero dollars a year. If I ride it for twenty-three years, as I did the last one, I’ll be ninety-two when it wears out.

Ross Douthat and the Theologians

November 3, 2015 at 1:30 pm | Posted in Catholicism, Vatican | 3 Comments
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Well, on Hallowe’en New York Times columnist Ross Douthat fired off another rocket in the Catholic culture wars with his “Letter to the Catholic Academy.” Douthat had, in recent months, published a series of Times columns and blogs about the Catholic Church under Pope Francis, culminating in his October 18th “The Plot to Change Catholicism.” On October 26, a number of Catholic theologians, led by Massimo FaggioiIi and the highly regarded Vatican II historian John O’Malley, S.J.,wrote a letter to the Times calling Douthat’s statements “unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is.” A number of conservative columnists and a few theologians rebutted the theologians’ letter, accusing them of trying to silence Douthat, especially since their letter states that Douthat does not have the credentials to make such assertions. Douthat’s October 31column is also a response to the letter.

Quite a lot has been written about this kerfuffle, and you may not have time to read all of it, so let me tell you what I think. Words like “heresy” and schism,” as well as “plot,” are very strong words, and have precipitated lots of nasty events throughout the history of the Catholic and other Christian churches. Consider, for example, the execution of Michael Servetus, founder of the Unitarian Church, at the order of John Calvin in 1553.  It’s also worth noting that even the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’, in their harsh condemnation of Elizabeth A. Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God, do not use the word “heresy” even once.

More to the point, as Michael Bayer of The University of Iowa Catholic Center argued persuasively even before Douthat’s latest broadside, the main issue in this debate is not the theologians’ supposedly despicable attempt to silence poor Ross (though Bayer admits the wording of the theologians’ letter could have been more careful in this regard). The main issue is that an article in the New York Times–the world’s most influential English language publication–has the potential to do enormous harm, much as the media’s “ubiquitous insistence that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, and that we needed to invade Iraq in order to eliminate this existential threat” did after 9/11.

Indeed, as Bayer argues, a number of conservative Catholic bishops no doubt read Douthat’s column, and may well adopt his erroneous identification of heresy with dissent. In my reading, Douthat is actually doing everything he can to bring about a schism, a schism of the very kind that his conservative forebears Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X initiated after Vatican II. (And the Vatican did use the word “schismatic” in condemning their actions).

This is so because Pope Francis’s teaching of mercy, and his argument, in Laudato Si’ and elsewherethat the destruction of God’s creation and the oppression of the poor are sins as grievous as abortion, contradict the absolute, sexual-morality-based Catholicism that led Douthat and others to the Catholic Church in the first place. God willing, Francis will continue to communicate that the Church is more that the Nicene Creed and the condemnation of abortion, as an unhappy respondent to the Commonweal blogpage once claimed. Maybe, before long, even what Jesus has to say about the poor, and the Catholic social teaching  rooted in his words, will be once again acknowledged to be the heart of Catholic doctrine as much as the defense of human life is.

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