Aren’t Nuns Wonderful?

August 10, 2015 at 10:37 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Some of the people I love and admire most in the whole world are Catholic sisters. But almost none of them fit into the Singing Nun, Whoopi Goldberg, or even Maria von Trapp caricature that too many people think they do. I can forgive the purveyors of popular culture for exploiting the image of these hard-working, in large part justice-oriented women this way, but I have no time for ostensible scholars who do so. The following is my review of a book by one such writer, published by a highly regarded academic press, whose “aren’t nuns wonderful” caricature is really problematic. My review appears in the current issue of the journal Church History.

Dedicated To God: An Oral History Of Cloistered Nuns. By Abbie Reese. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Xvii+ 247pp. $34.95 cloth. Church History, 84, pp 485-487.

Dedicated to God is a portrait of the Corpus Christi Colettine Poor Clare Monastery in Rockford, Illinois, by photographer and independent scholar, Abbie Reese. Based on interviews Reese did with the monastery’s twenty nuns over a six-year period, Dedicated to God is an appealing exploration of cloistered religious life in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

In addition to a first-person preface and epilogue, Reese’s volume comprises nine chapters on themes of cloistered religious life. These alternate with eight edited oral histories drawn from Reese’s interviews with individual nuns. The thematic chapters, written in the third person, also draw extensively on Reese’s interviews.

The nuns in Reese’s oral history come from varied backgrounds; some were older when they entered, some younger; their educational levels vary; some transferred from other orders; one is a convert and one a Filipino. They have occasional disagreements, of course, but most of these occur because, as one sister says, “a woman by nature likes to arrange things and have her kitchen the way she wants…” (34). At one point, Reese mentions that she once repeated to the Abbess something a nun said in an interview, and the Abbess disagreed. But nuns would not otherwise have occasion to know they hold divergent views, Reese assures us, because they “would not find occasion or opportunity to discuss philosophical differences of a cloistered calling” (230).

In almost all other respects, however, the nuns are in astonishing agreement about almost everything: the austerity of their way of life, the purity of having given their lives wholly to God; the unity of all the sisters, based in their vow of obedience; the enormous joy they feel.

In her 2008 study of the early history of the Poor Clares, The Privilege of Poverty: Clare of Assisi, Agnes of Prague, and the Struggle for a Franciscan Rule for Women, Joan Mueller, herself a member of an active Poor Clare congregation, observes that in many histories of the Franciscans, Franciscan women’s experiences “have been basically ignored.”(University Park PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006: 2). And in an otherwise enthusiastic review of Carole Garibaldi Rogers’s Habits of Change, a previous volume on Catholic sisters in the Oxford Oral History Series, historian Margaret Susan Thompson notes “a scarcity of women who represent more traditional approaches to religious life.”(Journal of Women’s History, 26:4, 182–190 [Dec. 2014]: 184.) An oral history of cloistered Poor Clare sisters helps to fill these lacunae. And the volume’s thirty-six black and white photographs are of high quality.

Unfortunately, a number of problems outweigh these contributions. One of these is a certain lack of accuracy. Reese acknowledges that she is not a Catholic, but an editor should have caught her missteps, for example, referring to Rome as the “birthplace of the Catholic Church”(67); claiming that the vows of “poverty, chastity, and obedience” are “universally” taken by “all” in religious life (the Benedictines do not do so, as Margaret Susan Thompson observed in an email to me) [2]; referring to novices as “novitiates” (163); and other errors.

More troubling is Reese’s use of oral history. Oral historians have documented a shift in the understanding of the role of an interviewer from one of observation to that of participating in a “shared experience.” Reese, in her preface, claims the latter approach, one of “co-authorship” and “shared authority,” invoking the work of Alessandro Portelli (xiv, xiii).

This methodology has its critics, however. Some argue that there is no “shared authority” if a historian’s scholarly knowledge isn’t included in their product—as it too often is not in Dedicated to God. And Reese herself admits Portelli calls attention to the fact that “memory, including collective memory, is faulty” (xiii). But nowhere in Dedicated to God is there the least hint that the memories of the Rockford nuns may be faulty. Instead, their stories reveal “transcendent truths”(xiv).

One instance of potentially faulty memory in Dedicated to God is that no nun ever refers to the Second Vatican Council (1961-1965), or to “Perfectae Caritatis,” the Council document that, over the signature of Pope Paul VI, called for the renewal of religious life and a return to the charism of congregational founders. It is virtually inconceivable that any Catholic religious order would not have held a general chapter to discuss their way of life after Vatican II. But in their interviews none of the Rockford Poor Clares seem ever to have mentioned such a meeting. Perhaps they are all happy to forget any attempt to renew “the cultural time capsule that is the monastery,” as Reese puts it (92).

But there were 45,000 fewer U.S. sisters in 1975 than in 1965 when the Council ended. Some of those no longer present in 1975 had died, of course, but the majority “left the convent.” Too bad Reese’s “shared authority” methodology didn’t include interviews with the former Rockford Poor Clares almost certainly included in that number.

And returning to the charism of their founder, St. Clare of Assisi, would have presented the Rockford Poor Clares with other problems. For example, what would it mean for their adulation of total obedience and agreement concerning their way of life that Clare struggled fiercely with popes and cardinals to maintain her sisters’ right to the absolute poverty mandated by Francis of Assisi?

From Maria Monk to Maria von Trapp, from Whoopi Goldberg to Mother Teresa, Americans are spellbound by nuns. Reese’s idealized portrait of the Rockford Colettine Poor Clares is likely to be quite popular. In March, the otherwise competent critic, Casey N. Cepp, published a glowing review of it in the New Yorker (March 5, 2014). Indeed, given its fine photographs, Dedicated to God would make an attractive coffee table book. But why would a distinguished academic press publish it?

Parish Matters

August 3, 2015 at 9:51 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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The Spirit’s Tether: Family, Work, and Religion among American Catholics, by Mary Ellen Konieczny. NY, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013. Paperback, $29.95. 249 pp.

The Shared Parish: Latinos, Anglos, And The Future Of U.S. Catholicism, by Brett C. Hoover. NY, NY: New York University Press, 2014. Hardcover. $49.00. 237 pp.

These days, the parish is not exactly the focus of attention for many progressive Catholics. Some of us may belong to a parish, but more of our energy goes into reform groups like Call to Action, SEPA WOC, Dignity, etc. And small faith communities are often—though not always—at the center of our spiritual life.

Nonetheless, parishes influence the identities of many of the sixty-seven million Catholics in the United States. In 2014, in fact, there were 17,483 U.S. parishes. And as two recent books suggest, we can learn a good deal about the American church from studying them.

In The Spirit’s Tether, University of Notre Dame sociologist Mary Ellen Konieczny examines the impact of participating in one or the other of two Catholic parishes in a an unidentified Midwestern city. She does so to cast light on ways in which parish beliefs and practices underpin the polarization that she and other scholars believe characterizes contemporary U.S. Catholicism. Drawing on interviews she did at both parishes over nearly two years concerning the subjects of marriage, family, and work, Koneiczny argues that while secular political attitudes and elite discourse contribute to the culture wars in the U.S., “polarization is also constituted among Catholics through local level social processes.” (8)

Konieczny identifies a number of divergent beliefs and in the two parishes that she studies as expressed in metaphors for church, worship practices, and convictions about marriage and family. At “Our Lady of the Assumption” the first of the two parishes studied, the primary metaphor for church is “family,” with God the Father and the priests of the parish at the head of the church and husbands the head of a family. (My use of quotation marks indicates the likelihood that the author is not using real parish names). At “Assumption” clergy and members place major emphasis on natural family planning, opposition to abortion, and having large families; mothers, whenever they are financially able, stay home to raise the children and leave their secular careers behind. Worship is formal, and priests at “Assumption” hear confessions seventeen hours a week, including throughout Mass.

At “St. Brigitta,” on the other hand, the primary metaphor for church is community, and clergy and members place great emphasis on equality and social justice. Though there are several different forms of worship at “St. Brigitta,” Konieczny describes the Sunday Mass celebrated in the parish gymnasium, with lay readers (including former priests), a dialogue homily, popular music, and kids playing games at the edges of the gathering. She also interviews those who attend the “gym Mass”: members hold a range of opinions regarding abortion and birth control, and even when mothers stay at home for a period of time to raise kids, they still identify with their careers or professions, and families where parents both work struggle to attain the proper work-family balance. Konieczny concludes from her analysis of these two selected parishes that attitudes and practices in parishes make a significant contribution to polarization among contemporary U.S. Catholics.

In the second parish study, The Shared Parish, Brett Hoover, an assistant professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University, explores the complex relationship between two groups within one Catholic community, Latino and Anglo Catholics in the Midwestern parish of “All Saints” in the “Diocese of Port Jefferson” (Both of these names are pseudonyms, in the interest of privacy). Hoover documents and analyzes the specific ways in which these two groups do and do not interact and why this matters.

In the first three chapters, Hoover recounts the history of “All Saints,” from a tiny Catholic parish in a Protestant town beginning in 1860 to the contemporary ethically mixed parish he studied, and the various methods Anglo and Latino/a Catholics there use in their interactions with one another. He then explores different approaches to the idea of “unity” in each group. His account of the impact on the Latino community of the Anglo pastor’s washing his Chicano concelebrant’s feet during the Holy Thursday liturgy is deeply moving.

In the final chapters, Hoover explains that various more “Protestant” approaches to analyzing interculturalism in Catholic parishes don’t really work because Catholics don’t just “choose” their parishes; they “share” them. They do so because they are Catholic, something that motivates each group to negotiate and interact with one another. Finally, The Shared Parish explores visions and practices that move communities beyond what sociologists call “cultural encapsulation,” or perhaps, “polarization.” These include the U.S. bishops’ use of the term “multiculturalism” in place of the once-preferred language of “assimilation” or “the melting pot.” Even more effective, Hoover suggests, is for leaders to draw on the theology of communion, in which parish members can understand that they are celebrating the same Eucharist despite doing so in different languages. Such a transformation involves not just a change in thinking, but the modeling by leaders of different feelings, rights, and obligations.

It’s tempting to compare these two studies and to come down in favor of Hoover’s. This is so because of the “ideal types” methodology that Koneiczny uses to consider “Assumption” and “St. Brigitta.” “Ideal types,” invented by sociologist Max Weber in the early part of the twentieth century, focuses upon and simplifies two extreme examples of a social group so as to highlight the differences between them. Critics say this contributes to polarized conclusions. So Konieczny, in effect, uses a polarizing method to explain polarization in American Catholicism, a circular process.

Yet it would be a pity to dismiss The Spirit’s Tether on these grounds, because the author does, in fact, use a multi—or at least bi—disciplinary approach, integrating ethnography into her sociological analysis. And the interviews on which she bases her argument about parishes and polarization are, in themselves, quite interesting. A conversation on a particular subject between Konieczny and one or more members of “Assumption” and then “St. Brigitta” begins each chapter. Konieczny also uses parts of interviews to illustrate her arguments throughout the chapters. Although marriage, the family and work are not my favorite topics, I was quite intrigued, for example, by the experiences she describes of various couples negotiating work, family life and belief in the twenty-first century.

It’s a pity, though, that the author uses such rich material to illustrate what seems to me an unhelpfully binarized conclusion. Surveys indicate that only two percent of U.S. Catholic women use natural family planning, so at least some differences between Parish A and Parish B are perhaps better described as those between a tiny minority and a much, much larger group within the American church rather than between opposite poles.

Hoover’s methodology, using ethnography, sociology, Latino/Latina studies and theology, is far better suited to contemporary complexity and results in a richer and more helpful study than Konieczny’s. And, paradoxically, by introducing communion as a tool with which to approach differences between ethnic groups, Hoover suggests a solution to the problem with which Konieczny is primarily concerned but which her method seems to reinforce.

Lest I seem totally unbalanced in my preference for The Shared Parish, let me say that I consider it a limitation of both studies that they consider only parishes in the Midwest. I wonder what each author would make of my parish here in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn where the population is a third Caribbean, a third Haitian, a third Latino, and two percent white, and where Pentecostal Catholics and Our Lady of Guadalupe devotés march with feminist theology professors and other professionals in a massive People’s Climate March?

(This review appears in the July-October 2015 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference. My analysis of The Shared Parish also comprises part of a review of that book that appeared in the May 8-21 2015 issue of the National Catholic Reporter).

The Work Continues: Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the Struggle against Nuclear Weapons

July 29, 2015 at 9:25 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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By David Harrington Watt and Marian Ronan

(The following is an article that appears in the August 2015 issue of The Friends Journal. My co-author and friend David Watt is himself a member of the Society of Friends, as well as a professor of history at Temple University. The article is drawn from a talk he gave for the Hiroshima-Nagasaki Day Memorial of Pax Christi Metro New York in 2012).

Over seven decades, members of the Religious Society of Friends have worked to protest, commemorate, and educate about the U.S. nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some would say that this work began with Albert S. Bigelow, who, though he did not actually become a Quaker until 1955, resigned his captain’s appointment in the U.S. Navy soon after hearing of the bombings and a month before qualifying for his pension. Then, in 1958, Bigelow and three other Quakers set sail from San Pedro, California, in a 30-foot ketch named the Golden Rule for the Marshall Islands in an attempt to halt nuclear tests scheduled there.

Before the U.S. Coast Guard prevented them from completing their action, Bigelow and his shipmates encountered Earle L. Reynolds, an expert on the radiation effects of the Hiroshima bombing, and his wife, Barbara. The Reynoldses were so inspired by Bigelow et al that they became members of the Society of Friends. Soon after, they sailed their yacht, the Phoenix (now known as the Phoenix of Hiroshima) into the off-limits Marshall Islands testing ground, where Earle was arrested. Throughout the rest of his life, he and others sailed the Phoenix into various national waters to protest the testing of nuclear weapons.

In addition to those direct actions, in the late 1940s and early 1950s Seattle Quaker Floyd Schmoe started and led Houses for Hiroshima, a project that rebuilt houses for 100 Japanese families made homeless by the bombing. Funds for the project were raised by Pacific Yearly Meeting in California and Japan Yearly Meeting. And in the mid-1950s, some Friends housed a number of the Hiroshima Maidens, a group of 25 young Japanese women severely disfigured by the effects of the atomic bomb who were brought to the United States to undergo plastic surgery. Then, in 1975, Quaker-affiliated Wilmington College in Ohio established the Hiroshima Nagasaki Memorial Collection to house the 3,000 books and documents in both Japanese and English that Barbara Reynolds had gathered in the years following those in which she and her husband, Earle, were in Hiroshima for his radiation research. This is still the largest collection of materials outside of Japan related to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And in the decades since then, Friends groups in the United States and around the world have commemorated and mourned the horrific nuclear attacks of 1945; for example, young Quakers at the 2005 annual session for Britain Yearly Meeting launched hundreds of floating candles to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the nuclear attacks.

Yet despite the many protests, commemorations, and educational efforts about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Quakers and other peace advocates still have their work cut out for them. A majority of Americans still favor the bombings. A 2009 poll conducted by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute of registered voters across the country suggests that about 61 percent of the American people think that the United States did the right thing in August of 1945; 22 percent think the United States did the wrong thing; and about 16 percent are unsure or undecided.

We believe it crucial that these percentages be shifted massively and soon. For the United States to be a moral nation, its citizens must acknowledge the harm and injustice of what our government did. The history of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki informs (or fails to inform) contemporary life-and-death conversations about nuclear weapons. We believe that the first step toward helping Americans confront the reality of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is to communicate to them the real story of the first and only (so far) nuclear attacks in human history.

August 1945

On August 6, 1945, with no clear prior warning to Japanese civilians, the U.S. government dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. When the bombing was announced, the United States warned that unless the government of Japan surrendered and unless that surrender was completely unconditional, the United States would continue dropping atomic bombs on the cities of Japan. On August 9 another atomic bomb was dropped, this one on Nagasaki. Although it is impossible to determine precisely how many people were killed by the atomic bombs that were dropped in August of 1945, it does seem clear that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed about 60 times more people than were killed by the attacks of September 11, 2001. Most of the Japanese killed were, of course, children, women, and old men.

The Comforting Story

As we have mentioned, the vast majority of Americans approved of the bombings in 1945, and many continue to do so today. But why? A major reason is that they have heard again and again what we are going to call the “comforting story” about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The comforting story goes like this. In July and August of 1945, President Harry S. Truman was faced with a stark choice. He could either use the atomic bomb or he could order an invasion of Japan that would cost at least 500,000 American casualties. Truman and his advisers did not want to use the atomic bomb for they realized that using it was a terrible thing to do. But in the end they realized that they had no choice. Doing so enabled them to save the lives of hundreds of thousands—and perhaps millions— of American lives. Doing so also enabled them to treat the Japanese people with compassion. In order to save Japanese lives, Japanese people had to be killed. This story, which was invented in the fall of 1945 by people like Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, has been repeated over and over again for nearly seven decades. It is a good story. Americans have grown very attached to it. People who question it are often accused of being un-American. People who question it sometimes lose their jobs. Alas, the comforting story is simply not true.

Problems with the Comforting Story

There are many reasons why the comforting story cannot be true. To begin with, evidence suggests that there was actually very little debate over whether or not to use the atomic bomb. It seems clear that General Leslie Groves, who played a leading role in the discussions, never even considered the possibility of not using the weapon he had helped create. Furthermore, in August of 1945, no invasion was imminent. No invasion could have been mounted until the fall. In any case, in August of 1945 American leaders did not believe that an invasion would produce half a million American casualties. All of the estimates Truman had at his disposal were far lower than that. And by August of 1945, everyone knew that.

We believe that the first step toward helping Americans confront the reality of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is to communicate to them the real story of the first and only (so far) nuclear attacks in human history. The United States certainly did not have to drop a bomb on Nagasaki. Bombing Nagasaki seems to have served no real purpose whatsoever. Japan was already defeated. If the United States had pulled back from its demand that surrender be unconditional, then it is quite possible that Japan would have surrendered immediately.

Alternatively, the United States could have simply waited until the Soviets entered the war against Japan. (The Soviets had promised to do so on the ninth of August.) Soviet entry into the war would very likely have led to Japanese capitulation. Then, too, the United States did not have to drop a bomb on a city such as Hiroshima. It could have demonstrated the power of the new weapon by dropping the bomb on a true military target or even on a place in which very few people lived. And of course the United States certainly did not have to drop a bomb on Nagasaki. Bombing Nagasaki seems to have served no real purpose whatsoever.
In summary, there are many different reasons to  believe that the comforting story is untrue. Nearly all historians who have written about Hiroshima and Nagasaki agree on this.

So what were the real reasons the bombs were dropped?

This is not a question that historians can answer definitively. When they try to answer that question, they almost always rely on a combination of observations: the men who decided to use the bombs had run out of patience; they were determined to end the war as quickly as possible. Also, the decision makers had come to believe that killing large numbers of civilians was often completely justifiable. They wanted to be sure that not one more drop of American blood would be spilled than was absolutely necessary.

Historians also believe that some of the men who decided to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki suspected that God had given atomic weapons to the United States so that America could carry out His wishes. They longed to see a demonstration of the amazing things that atomic bombs can do. In addition, they wanted to intimidate the leaders of the Soviet Union and to create a sense of terror and hopelessness among the people of Japan. Some U.S. leaders felt that the Japanese people were not human beings in the fullest sense of that term. And finally, they longed to exact vengeance for Pearl Harbor.

Nearly all historians would say that there was no single reason that atomic bombs were used against the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There were many different reasons the bombs were exploded.

Lessons learned

In summarizing this material, we do not suggest that making more widely known what most historians say happened at Hiroshima and why these things happened will solve the problem of nuclear weapons. As with civil rights, climate change, and other life-threatening issues, action is required, action which Quakers and other peace activists must lead or participate in.

Nevertheless, we believe that certain lessons can be drawn from historians’ accounts of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One lesson is that stories that are comforting, widely accepted, and supported by the prestige of important governmental officials are sometimes completely untrue. Indeed, citizens have an obligation to view stories that are comforting, widely accepted, and supported by the prestige of important governmental officials with particular skepticism.

The second lesson we want to offer is this: Americans often say that the leaders of countries such as North Korea and Iran are not wise enough or virtuous enough to be trusted with nuclear weapons. We think that people are right to say that. We also believe, however, that the leaders of the U.S. government are not wise enough or virtuous enough to be trusted with nuclear weapons. When it comes to nuclear weapons, there are no grounds for U.S. self-righteousness. As we communicate this message widely and emphatically, we trust that many more Americans will be moved to action.

Thoughts About Elizabeth Johnson’s “Ask the Beasts” after Pope Francis’s Creation-Care Encyclical

July 17, 2015 at 2:23 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Anything written about Catholicism and the environment demands reconsideration after the publication of Pope Francis’s attention-grabbing creation care encyclical on June 18, 2015. This includes my earlier review of Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts.

A major question involves the place of women, and of feminist theology and activism, in Catholic teaching on climate change and environmental destruction. As I argued previously, despite the occasional action to the contrary (such as washing women’s feet on Holy Thursday), Pope Francis adheres to the traditional Vatican position on women and sexuality. That is to say, he continues the teaching on complementarity enforced by his papal predecessors. In this teaching women are intrinsically passive and receptive and men active, just as Christ is the male Spouse and the Church is the receptive, obedient “wife.” It seems likely that the Pope himself actually holds these positions, but even if he didn’t, given the institutional church’s focus on sexual teaching since Vatican II, his moving in any other direction would risk a civil war. What Pope Francis says about population and abortion in Laudato Si’ certainly suggests that his position on women and sexuality are consistent with the teachings of Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI.

In my review, I situate Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts within the history of feminist theology. Doing so at the time made sense, given Johnson’s historic role in Catholic feminist theology and particularly given the ferocious criticism of her previous book, Quest for the Living God, by the U.S. Catholic Bishops (This condemnation was subsequently reiterated by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). In my review, I argue that Johnson showed considerable courage in publishing Ask the Beasts since she includes in it some of the theological positions singled out by the U.S. bishops.

What I do not say is that in various places in the book, Johnson also is careful to emphasize the basically orthodox Catholic positions she holds on the transcendence of God along with God’s profound love and connection with creation. In these passages she is rebutting the bishops’ suggestions that she is, in effect, a pantheist, someone who denies any separation between God and the material world.

Furthermore, at a lunch we shared after I had published my review of Ask the Beasts, Johnson told me that some feminists had criticized the book because it says very little about women. I myself had overlooked this fact because I was at the time unable to think of Johnson’s work outside the context of her massive contributions to feminist theology– even her book on Darwin and the Nicene Creed, neither of which are exactly feminist texts (!). But as I reviewed Ask the Beasts after our luncheon conversation, I had to admit that Johnson says very little about women or feminism there. (Though I would argue that her reconfiguration of God’s relation to creation in light of evolution is implicitly feminist because it undercuts the classic Christian polarization between women/earth and the “male” God in heaven).

Later in our luncheon I asked Johnson a question. Now I put that same question to you.

The issues that Pope Francis addresses in Laudato Si’ are matters of life and death. Might it then not be wise for at least some of us to stop talking about the feminist issues that have been the cause of so much conflict between the Vatican, the hierarchy, and Catholic women, and to focus instead on spreading the Pope’s call for “integral ecology”?

Some conservative Catholic bishops, priests, politicians, and churchgoers have tried to dismiss the Pope’s words as going beyond the scope of his knowledge and authority. Should Catholic women activists and theologians criticize the encyclical from the left, objecting, for example, to his dismissal of population as an environmental issue because it can be seen to be so closely tied to issues of reproductive freedom? Or should we put our own deeply held concerns about women’s equality in the Church aside and support Pope Francis? After all, isn’t he downright heroic to have put out such a stinging critique of the neo-liberal capitalism, overconsumption, and market economy that are doing so much harm not only to the air we breathe, but to the lives of our sisters (and brothers) in sub-Saharan Africa, in the Pacific, and the fields of  California?

To illustrate where I come down on this question, let me tell you a story. Since the publication of the encyclical, I have a been working with an ad hoc group of Catholic laywomen and sisters here in New York City to draft and send out a series of inserts about Laudato Si’ to be published in parish bulletins. I myself wrote the first series of inserts which other members of the committee then edited and sent out to parishes. At a certain point the chair of the committee said she hoped I didn’t mind that she hadn’t included my name as the author of the inserts. She didn’t want anybody to Google my name and find my blog or all the books and articles I’ve written on Catholic feminist issues and then dismiss the inserts as too radical.

I said I didn’t mind at all.

(This post is the revision of an addendum to my review of Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts that was recently circulated for discussion among members in seventeen countries by the International Grail Movement.)

The End of Anti-Catholicism?

July 9, 2015 at 10:42 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Most people who took a course in U.S. history learned something about the American anti-Catholicism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Bigotry against white ethnic immigrant Catholics, attacks on Catholic churches and convents, the KKK burning crosses in front of Catholic institutions, “No Irish Need Apply” signs, and so on.

Not everybody grasps how long such anti-Catholicism continued, however. John F. Kennedy’s speech to the Houston Ministerial Association in 1960 aimed to rebut claims that a Catholic president would answer to the pope rather than the electorate. Journalist Paul Blanchard published some of the most widely read and influential of such claims in the ostensibly progressive magazine The Nation in the 1940s. In 1949 the Unitarian Beacon Press republished Blanchard’s articles in book form as the  American Freedom and Catholic Power. It became a best-seller. Blanshard wrote five more books with “Catholic Power” in the title over the next fifteen years, and a second edition of American Freedom and Catholic Power appeared in 1958. After JFK’s election, of course, it became harder to say the sort of virulently anti-Catholic things Blanchard built his career on, at least until the sex-abuse crisis really got going in 2002.

A few months back The Nation celebrated its 150th anniversary with an extended issue of selected articles from each of its fifteen decades. I noted with interest that no articles by Paul Blanchard were included in the selections from the 1940s and the 1950s. Perhaps, I speculated, anti-Catholicism, at least of a certain sort, really has come to an end.

A July 7 article on The Nation‘s webpage makes such speculation even more conceivable. In “Did the Catholic Church Endorse Fossil-Fuel Divestment?” Episcopal priest and author-activist Bob Massie explores in some detail the possibility that Pope Francis’s encyclical on the “Care of Our Common Home,” Laudato Si’, will result in dioceses and other Catholic institutions taking their investments out of fossil fuel corporations. Drawing on the words and work of relentless Catholic divestment activists like Franciscan Michael Crosby and Sister of Charity Barbara Aires, Massie makes such divestment sound possible and important.

The article does not engage in the kind of “pope-mania” that afflicts some media coverage of Pope Francis. Massie acknowledges, for example, the high degree of confidentiality that many institutions maintain regarding their actions and holdings, the skepticism that some bishops have expressed regarding calls for divestment. and the crack down on student divestment activists at Boston College. Yet overall, Massie is hopeful, even enthusiastic, about the boost Pope Francis’s encyclical is giving to the fossil fuel divestment campaign:

“For a long time, fossil fuel titans…seemed to hold the ultimate power to shape energy and environmental policy.  Now however, a new and transcendent authority has emerged as a powerful counterweight….With more than a billion followers and the attention of all humanity, Pope Francis may be offering us a new chance to save ourselves.”

For anyone who’s ever read Paul Blanshard, the idea of The Nation publishing an article whose author uses the phrase “transcendent authority” to describe a pope in as positive, almost ecstatic way as Massie does is virtually unimaginable.

Rebutting Critiques of the Encyclical

June 25, 2015 at 12:36 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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The other day I was reading some materials on how to discuss Laudato Si’ with the media. They basically said if the interviewer, reporter, whoever, asks a critical question about the encyclical,  the person being interviewed should disagree as briefly as possible and then get back on message. So:

Interviewer: But doesn’t the Catholic Church’s position on population doom the planet?

Interviewee: No. What the Pope is saying is…

The only problem with this approach is, if I didn’t engage criticisms (and make them!), that is to say, if I stayed exclusively on some positive message, I would have very little to say. As my father, Joe Ronan, used to put it, I have quite a mouth on me.

So I’d like to discuss some of the things the critics of “On the Care of Our Common Home” are saying. That is to say, I’d like to rebut them. But so as not to fail the “positive messaging” exam altogether, let me summarize  what Papa Francesco said to the world a week ago.

  1. The earth, our common home, is in increasingly terrible shape (“a pile of filth”) thanks primarily to human activity.
  2. The Catholic faith, based in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the lives of the saints, and the writing of previous popes, is basically a “Gospel of Creation,” which calls us to protect and defend that creation.
  3. The people most harmed by environmental destruction and climate change are the poor.
  4. The “technological paradigm,” that is, the worship of unbridled growth, the free market, profits as an end in themselves, and convenience, is the primary cause of the destruction of our “common home.”
  5. The solution to this crisis is “integral ecology,” that is, embodying the profound interconnection between God, all human beings, and the rest of God’s creation.
  6. Spirituality and religious education must be based in this “integral ecology.”

Now, on to those criticisms!

The part of the encyclical that has gotten the most negative feedback, at least from my admittedly limited perspective on the margins of New York City, is the statement that cap-and-trade is not the solution to the environmental crisis. First Ross Douthat denounced this position in the New York Times the day after the publication of the encyclical; and then on Sunday, David Brooks chimed in in agreement, also in the Times.

It’s perhaps helpful to observe that Pope Francis addresses the issue of cap-and-trade in only one paragraph of the entire 246 paragraph document. Admittedly, he is unambiguous in his rejection of this approach. But it needs first of all to be said that the rejection of cap-and-trade as a solution is utterly consistent with the argument throughout the encyclical that market solutions have had lots of time to solve the problem and have failed. The current over-consumptive economy simply is not working, and the destruction of the earth is the result.

It is also worth noting that a wide range of experts and organizations outside the Vatican argue convincingly that cap-and-trade just doesn’t work. It’s a system that is rife with fraud, corruption and dishonest calculations. At bottom, it allows groups with more money, the fossil fuel industry, to buy exemptions (offsets) from regional, national, and international emissions limits (should there ever really be any of the latter) without in any way changing their  CO2 output. That is to say, the 1% get to buy exemptions from the emissions limits that the rest of us will be forced to observe.

Finally, it’s worth noting that one of the noteworthy points Papa Francesco makes throughout the encyclical is the high value of local cultures and voices. In particular, he highlights that the deaths of indigenous cultures will be as great a loss as the extinction of various non-human species. This is quite something coming from the head of a church that led the way in Europeanizing indigenous tribes during the colonial period.

But another significant aspect of the pope’s defense of indigenous cultures is that indigenous peoples are some of those most harmed by cap-and-trade, and by the Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Destruction (REDD) policies that are a big part of cap-and-trade. What is happening, as the galvanizing video “A Darker Shade of Green: REDD Alert and the Future of Forests” shows, is that some governments in the Global South–Mexico and Brazil in particular–sell “offsets” to carbon emitting companies in the North. The governments get money and the  companies get to continue their emissions because rainforests and other woodlands in the Global South are”offsetting” those emissions. Then the governments of those countries run the indigenous peoples out of those rainforests and woodlands, cut down the trees, and replant them with palm oil or pine forests so they can continue to sell offsets and make a profit from the market. These are the same indigenous peoples whose extinctions the Pope is lamenting. Is it any wonder he is opposed to cap and trade?

Another criticism of the encyclical comes from the other end of the political spectrum, and  involves the Pope’s claim that population is not the cause of the climate crisis.  One humanist webpage last week had twenty-five or so people arguing about whether what the Pope says about population (and abortion, and implicitly contraceptives) makes the encyclical worthless, or something to that effect.

First of all, it’s worth pointing out that in many respects, the Pope is correct. The countries whose populations have leveled off or are declining, the countries in the North and West, give off vastly more greenhouse gases per capita than countries in the Global South that have growing populations, and have done so for decades.s. Per capita, U.S. residents give off four times as much greenhouse gas as the Chinese do, even if collectively, the Chinese give off more. The historic climate destruction debt is ours. It’s not population that’s the primary problem: it’s consumption, sloth, and greed.

Let me also say that I have been working really hard for the equality of women in the Catholic Church for over forty years. I have written five books and many, many articles concerning gender and sexuality in Catholicism and Christianity. I was also at one point the president of the board of the U.S. Women’s Ordination Conference. I even published a blog post criticizing what Pope Francis says about women in the previous document he wrote, “Evangelii Gaudium.” I get it that the Catholic church has serious women problems.

But it is also the case that one out of every six people on the planet is a Roman Catholic. In addition to that, the Pope is the single most well-known religious figure on earth. As Mary Evelyn Tucker at the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology says, this encyclical “changes everything” because the most high-profile religious leader in the world has announced that climate change is a MORAL issue, not just a political or economic one.

If the changes in belief and action that the Pope calls for in Laudato Si’ were to happen, the situation of women would inevitably improve. After all, the anthropocentrism he rejects identifies women (and people of color) with the earth, even as it identifies males with the transcendent, implicitly male, God. And women and their children are at least seventy percent of the poor the Pope tells us are most harmed by environmental destruction. Pope Francis may not be going to ordain women, but he’s doing more for us in this encyclical than even he may realize.

Race Murder and Ecological Destruction

June 23, 2015 at 10:20 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The pastor at my parish, Michael Perry, had his work cut out for him last Sunday.

Our Lady of Refuge is a tri-lingual, multiracial parish in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. (Some say it’s in Midwood, but that’s another discussion). There are a few odd lots of white folk there, me, for example, but basically, Refuge is a Caribbean-Latino-Haitian parish.

So the pastor pretty much had to begin by acknowledging the murder of nine African Americans at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston the previous Wednesday. This is not to suggest that he wouldn’t have wanted to in any case. But the murder of nine people of color in a church can’t help but mean a great great deal to a church full of people of color. As Father Perry said, the people of Our Lady of Refuge were grateful that the murders hadn’t happened there.

Then there was Father’s Day. Encouraging fathers–and mothers and families–is one of the things Catholic churches do well, and Refuge did so, acknowledging fathers at various points in the liturgy, and conducting a blessing ritual for all the fathers present before the last blessing.

And then there was  Francis’s encyclical, “On the Care of Our Common Home.” Apparently a lot of priests and bishops didn’t mention the encyclical, despite the fact that it was garnering massive attention around the world, in the media, from other faith leaders, even from secular environmentalists. But Michael Perry was not one of those priests or bishops. He spoke of the encyclical in his introduction to the liturgy; he talked about it in his sermon; and he spoke about it again in his comments before the end of Mass. The earth is our home, he reminded us, and the Pope reminds us that we have to care for her as we care for the poor. I especially loved what he had to say about the attacks on the encyclical on Fox News. You go, Father Perry!

All in all, this was a lot of stuff to fit into one liturgy and sermon (along with the usual readings, offertory, canon, consecration, communion routine.) And I can’t really imagine any way that the pastor could have dealt with Father’s Day except the way he did–directly.

One way that he might have consolidated his treatment of the Charleston racial murders and the Pope’s call for us to stop making our common home into a pile of filth is that in certain respects, they are the same violence. And I’m not being metaphorical here: the destruction of Black lives in Charleston (and elsewhere) and the destruction of our common home are underpinned by the same mistaken vision–that the earth, and people whose color resembles the earth, are equally worthy of mistreatment. The nineteenth century ideology of Social Darwinism was an inherent part of all this: black and brown people had evolved from the animals, who had in turn merged from the soil. At the top of the heap were white people, who had the right to abuse those beneath them by virtue of being on top.

Another dimension of the link between racism and environmental destruction is that so many (ostensibly white) people don’t understand the ways in which their own ancestors were once associated with the earth. One of the things that most astounds me about the noxious politics of Irish-Americans like Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy is that they are oblivious to the reality that the Irish immigrants in this country were considered much farther down the evolutionary pyramid than Irish-Americans think they are today. The phrase “black Irish” can be illustrated by  a cartoon from the nineteenth-century anti-Catholic caricaturist Thomas Nast portraying Catholic bishops as crocodiles crawling out of the water. And then there was the eighteenth century English travel writer who described the Irish as “primitive savages in the sea of Virginia.” Paul Ryan is genealogically a lot closer to those murdered folks at Mother Emanuel than he cares to admit.

A French historian whose name I’m blanking on (Mouthot, maybe) also clarifies the link between environmental destruction and Wednesday’s race murders when he argues that the end of slavery was less about abolitionist virtue than it was about the invention of the steam engine. Coal, and later oil, were cheaper and easier to maintain and house than actual human beings, so once the steam engine was invented, slaves came to be seen as less and less economical. This helps me understand why it was that the  British government who allowed a million Irish to die in the Potato Famine of the late 1840s were adamantly abolitionist. Each policy was more economical.

So to return to my pastor’s sermon: while  the shooting of nine members of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and Pope Francis’s encyclical on the care for our common home may seem to be two different topics, actually, destroying our brown (and green and yellow and white) mother earth and our brown and black brothers and sisters are pretty much one and the same activity. And as Papa Francesco says, until we understand that we are fundamentally connected with God, Creation, and one another, we are in for really big trouble.

Pope Francis’s Eco-Fireworks

June 14, 2015 at 11:52 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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It’s hard to imagine that there’s anyone by now who hasn’t heard of Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato si,  due out from the Vatican this coming Thursday. An article about it is on the top of the front page of the New York Times today. Predicted for months, and described in advance by Vatican big-shots like Cardinal Peter Turkson, the encyclical will connect the dots between Francis’s signature  commitment to the poor and the increasingly dire climate crisis  The pope is going to call on us all, including (especially) world leaders in Paris next December, to change our ways.

If you didn’t grasp the significance of this encyclical already, you will when you hear that on Friday, Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, the chairman of the Senate environment and public works committee, announced that “God is still up there,” and that the Pope should do his own (implicitly spiritual) business and let the politicians do theirs. This follows upon Rick Santorum, ten days ago, telling Pope Francis to “leave science to the scientists.”

Given the history of Catholicism in the United States, it’s downright unimaginable that a leading  non-Catholic politician like Inhofe would have enough respect for the head of the Roman Catholic Church to bother to tell him in public that he should mind his own business. Sixty-six years ago, journalist Paul Blanchard’s book American Freedom and Catholic Power denounced the Vatican for attempting to control American governance, and sold 240,000 copies in its first edition. A second edition appeared in 1958. Then, in September, 1960, a group of 150 Protestant ministers met in Washington and declared that John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the Democratic presidential candidate, could not remain independent of Church control unless he specifically repudiated its teachings. Days later, Kennedy clarified his position in his famous speech to the Houston Ministerial Association. Kennedy went on to win the election, but it was the closest presidential election in U.S. history, and many historians believe that anti-Catholicism played a significant role in Kennedy’s majority being razor-thin.

The Catholic (some would say Christian) Church was for many centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire the civil as well as religious power in the West, appointing and crowning kings and intimately connected with the aristocracy. Since this was so,  it became for many after the Reformation and especially after the liberal revolutions of “Long 19th Century” (1789-1914) the enemy of freedom and democracy.  Indeed, not until the Second Vatican Council, and in particular, after the promulgation of the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) in 1965 did the Church officially revise its teachings formulated in reaction to the French Revolution and the loss of the Vatican territories. (In that earlier teaching the Church had claimed that all states have an obligation to worship God according to the precepts of the one true religion–Catholicism).

A great deal has happened in the fifty years since the Catholic Church “entered the modern world” at the Second Vatican Council (1962 to 1965). In many respects, the Church entered the modern world just as the world itself was becoming postmodern. Catholics welcomed the Church’s acknowledgment of historical context, and the freedom of individual, but at the same time, individuals and their communities were beginning to fragment in multiple directions.  For example, the United States Congress has gone, over that half-century, from passing a Clean Water Act in 1972 (under a Republican President) to being able to decide on almost nothing in 2015, even with a Republican majority. And it would take a computer program to keep track of all the Muslim groups that are peeling off and attacking one another with every day that passes. At the same time, the sea-levels keep rising, the droughts intensify, and extreme weather events multiply, even as the leaders of world’s great nations bury their heads in the sand

In the face of all this, the post-post-modern world finds itself desperately in need of a unifying figure, someone who can call upon our deepest moral instincts and inspire us to repent and change our ways. Fifty years ago, who would have thought that the head of a monarchical, change-averse, woman-minimizing, two-thousand year old religious body would have anything to say to the world in 2015? Even in the 2000s, as the Catholic clergy-abuse crisis was roiling the U.S. and Europe, it was virtually inconceivable that a pope would have anything more to say to the secular world than “I’m sorry.”

Yet it is worth remembering that the Catholic Church is the biggest religious organization on earth. One out of six people on the planet is a Catholic. And those of us who have spent our lives lamenting the hierarchical, authoritarian nature of the church–and I am definitely one of them–might bear in mind that having one person as the symbol of an outfit does have certain media advantages. Even the amazing get-ups the popes and the bishops wear give them a certain edge over at least most U.S. Protestant clergy, out there trying to give interviews in a suit and tie.

Finally, if there’s anything that we can learn from the massive attention afforded the prospect of an eco-encyclical written by a seventy-eight year old celibate pope, it’s that God has a sense of humor. And we’re going to need one too in order to get out there and sustain the creation that God has given us in the months and years to come.

Remembering Our Dear Carolyn

May 12, 2015 at 4:07 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Professor, author, spiritual guide, radiant friend. Born on March 5, 1930, in Toronto; died on Dec. 24, 2014, in Toronto, following several strokes, aged 84.

Carolyn Gratton, the only child of Eleanor and James Gratton, grew up in Toronto and earned a bachelor of arts in English and a master’s degree in library science from the University of Toronto. A gorgeous young woman and committed Catholic, she might well have spent her life as a devoted wife and mother, or a librarian, or as a member of a vowed community of religious sisters.

But when she was 23 she visited Grailville, a farm and conference centre near Cincinnati, Ohio, and the North American headquarters of the Grail, an international Catholic laywomen’s movement. Carolyn attended a summer program on women’s role in society and was so fascinated by the ideas she encountered that she returned in the fall for the Grail’s year-long formation program, which prepared her for deeper participation in Catholic lay leadership. Within three years, she was a member of the Grail’s staff in North America and by the 1960s was leading Grail projects and programs across the United States and Canada. Wherever she went, people fell in love with her: her radiant smile and cracker-jack sense of humour, but especially her profound spiritual wisdom, surprising in a relatively young woman.

These were years of lively intellectual ferment within Catholicism and in Western societies. To deepen her own thinking on the burning questions of the time, she earned a master’s degree in theoretical anthropology in 1967. The life of academic inquiry suited her well, and Carolyn went on for a doctorate in phenomenological psychology from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, which she completed in 1975. She then taught at Duquesne’s Institute of Formative Spirituality until the early 1990s.

During her teaching years Carolyn also had a strong impact on spiritual searchers throughout the world, leading ecumenical contemplative retreats and spiritual formation programs in Canada, the United States, Thailand, the Netherlands, Australia, East Africa, and other places. She also published two books and numerous articles aimed at spiritual directors and spiritual seekers. During these years she also served as a mentor to many individuals, myself included. As a result of our conversations with her about spirituality, life choices and faith, we were never the same again.

In the early 1990s, after retiring from teaching, Carolyn moved back to Toronto. She continued to travel abroad, leading spiritual programs for the increasingly ecumenical Grail movement, and other groups. But her main focus was on building Centering Prayer groups throughout Ontario. Centering Prayer is a branch of Contemplative Outreach, a movement founded by Cistercian monk Thomas Keating to spread the practice of contemplative prayer beyond monastery walls. Thanks to her passionate leadership, there are now 45 such groups in Ontario.

Carolyn was extraordinarily gifted in relating to people of all cultures and classes. During a 2005 Grail visit to Oaxaca, Mexico, she was paired at a village meeting with a woman named Efigenia, a barely literate member of the indigenous community. Efigenia came back from their conversation glowing with pride, explaining that the two women had much in common: They were both catechists (something like a Sunday school teacher), she explained.

Carolyn had not mentioned that she held a doctorate, or was a noted professor and author. Instead, she focused on what she and Efigenia had in common – the work of spiritual outreach. This was the remarkable woman whose death elicited messages and memories from people across North America and around the world. We will never forget her.

The author, Grail member Marian Ronan, is Carolyn’s friend of 50 years.

(This article appeared in the “Lives Lived” series in the Toronto Globe and Mail on Tuesday, May 12, 2015. It sounds almost as much like the editor as it does like the author!)

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