Ecological Theology Engages Suffering

July 4, 2020 at 2:22 pm | Posted in Creation., ecological theology, Environment | 2 Comments
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Frontier No More

February 8, 2020 at 2:01 pm | Posted in US History,, war and violence | 6 Comments

The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. By Greg Grandin. 384 pp. Metropolitan Books. 2019.  $18.00.

Back in January, some members of my women’s community, the Grail, watched two episodes of PBS’s Frontline. Titled “America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump,” the investigation traces how the collapse of Obama’s promise of unity led to the Trump campaign and administration unleashing rage and polarization in the country. Like many Frontline productions, the documentary is well-made and informative.

Throughout the four-hour program, however, I kept thinking about how the focus on Obama and Trump left out a great deal of the history that led up to the current “great divide.” I was thinking about this because I was at the same time reading Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America.

Grandin is an historian at NYU here in New York, and the author of several prize-winning books. In The End of Myth, he explores how the myth of the frontier—of an endless, expanding American territory, and then, endless economic riches, underpins the whole of US history.

Even before the Revolution, according to Grandin, the prospect of moving ever westward, and then globally, to expand an individual’s fortune, functioned as a safety valve for the class struggles of an increasingly industrialized world. A primary cause of the Revolution was King George III’s order that the British colonies extend no farther than the Appalachian range. The king had given the land west of the Appalachians to the indigenous tribes that had fought with the British in the French and Indian War ((1754 to 1763). George Washington sent men to appropriate this land, long before the British tea tax.

But the strongly racist dimensions of the American belief in unlimited borders became clearer during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, who drove Indigenous people west on the Trail of Tears and used language that makes Trump sound moderate. At one point, he bragged about collecting Indian skulls as trophies.

The Mexican-American War (1846-48) was fought during the same period that the working classes in Europe were rising up against the ruling classes in the liberal revolutions. But for the United States, any such class dissatisfaction was projected out onto the Mexicans, who were vilified in language that would sound very familiar today. We eventually stole more than half the territory of Mexico and extended the endless frontier to the Pacific coast. In the early 1890s, the Harvard historian Frederic Jackson Turner wrote about the wonderful “myth of the American frontier” without any mention of the racist undercurrents of that myth.

But it was the Spanish American War of 1898 that established the template for the new economic frontier of the 20th century. The ten-week war, won by US naval strength, gave the US permanent control over Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, and shorter-term control over Cuba. This was the next phase of American imperial expansion.

Equally to the point, the Spanish-American War provided a safety valve for the hostilities between North and South generated by the Civil War. Former Union and Confederate soldiers fought side by side and former Confederate generals led some of the attacks. Subsequently, the Confederate flag began to be carried in parades in the US, a sign of American unity. For Grandin, this appropriation of land in the Caribbean and the Pacific led to the globalization of the American frontier, leading to US domination of global markets after World War II..

By the end of the century, this class-and-race-charged US penetration of the global economic frontier had also come to an end, leading to the 2008-2009 recession and the rise of Donald Trump. And this is perhaps the heart of Grandin’s analysis: Trump’s invocation of the border, and renewed demonization of the same brown-skinned people exploited by Washington and Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt is symbolized by the border, and the wall there that Trump demands. This border, Grandin explains, is the reversal of the endless frontier that served as a safety valve for American conflicts throughout history.

So the divisions generated by attacks on and resistance to the Obama presidency, followed by the rise of DJT, are an important chapter in the history of American division, but they are by no means the only, or the first chapter. To understand the entire story, try reading Grandin’s splendid documentation of the evolution of the myth of the frontier into the metaphorical shrine that is the current US border wall.


This review appeared in the February 2020 issue of Gumbo, the monthly publication of the Grail in the US.

Review: Thomas Berry Bio

January 17, 2020 at 11:44 am | Posted in Climate Change, Cosmology,, Environment, Spirituality,, World Religions | 1 Comment
Here’s my January 1 National Catholic Reporter review of the new biography of Thomas Berry, whose New Story of creation transformed religious environmentalism.

New biography of Thomas Berry reasserts importance of his work

‘Geologian’ fashioned an utterly compassionate vision of the universe
National Catholic Reporter, January 1, 2020.

Thomas Berry: A Biography
By Mary Evelyn Tucker, John Grim and Andrew Angyal
360 pages; Columbia University Press; 2019

Back in the 1970s, when I was in my 20s, I was part of a community living at the Grail’s national center on an organic farm in rural southwest Ohio. A tall, thin priest used to come visit us from time to time. He seemed quite old and wobbly to me, and I worried that he might fall off the steps on his way up to the altar to celebrate the liturgy.

The priest’s name was Thomas Berry, and in recent years, I have been forced to admit that my concerns about his age and wobbliness — he was in his mid-60s at the time — were a bit off-point. And that his portrayal of the new story of the universe, shared with us in mimeographed form before he began publishing about it, was a great deal more significant.


The new biography of Berry [1] by Yale’s Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, with Andrew Angyal, confirms big-time my revised estimation of that tall, thin priest. Berry, who in later years described himself as a “geologian” rather than as an eco-theologian, presented a vision of the universe, of all of creation, and of the Great Work we are called to within it. Such a vision was revolutionary for his time and is even more relevant to the current planetary crisis than it once was.

As detailed by the authors, Berry was born in North Carolina, to a prosperous family, and fell in love with nature at an early age. His early experiences of a numinous creation shaped his life’s work. After attending a boarding school run by the Passionist Order and a year of college, he entered the Passionists, drawn in particular to their commitment to the suffering of the world. He eventually added a fourth vow to the three made by all Passionists: dedication to the passion of the Earth.

Berry was in large part a scholar, and the scope of his knowledge is mind-boggling. After seminary, he earned a Ph.D. in European cultural history, writing a dissertation on Giambattista Vico’s universal philosophy of history. He went on to study Asian religions and cultures, learning Sanskrit and publishing books on Buddhism and the religions of India. He directed the graduate program in the history of religions at Fordham University. He also founded the Riverdale Center for Religious Research [2], one of the bedrocks of religious environmentalism.

Furthermore, by the early 1970s, Berry was researching the cosmologies of native traditions, highlighting their “symbolic ways of knowing the interrelationships between bioregions … and the larger universe.” The authors argue that the impact of indigenous worldviews on Berry was so profound that he became a shaman as well as a scholar. Also enormously important for Berry’s thinking was the work of Jesuit Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the paleontologist and theologian of the cosmos.

Out of this extraordinary breadth of knowledge, Berry fashioned a cosmic, utterly compassionate vision of the universe. Fundamental to that vision was his conviction that a new narrative of the universe was essential to change. Only human understanding of the history of the ever-expanding universe would lead us out of our era of planetary destruction and mass extinction into a more compassionate, sustainable era. So enormous would the effort be that was required to move humanity into this new era in politics, economics, culture and religion that Berry called that effort the Great Work. Deeply hopeful, he continued throughout his life to trust that humanity would indeed take on this Great Work and move beyond planetary suicide to embrace its vital role as part of an interdependent “communion of subjects.”


Passionist Fr. Thomas Berry, 2008 (CNS/Caroline Webb)

The authors also show that along with his massive contributions to our comprehension of this cosmic intercommunion, Berry impacted the wider society in other significant ways. At a time when the concept of a new geologic era, marked by human impact on and damage to the planet, the Anthropocene, has taken center stage, Berry’s earlier concept of an Ecozoic Era, an evolutionary phase of mutually-enhancing relationships between the planet’s ecosystems, provided a prescient alternative.

Berry also introduced the idea of legal rights and representation for the planet itself in response to widespread violations of those rights. This notion subsequently developed into the legal field of “earth jurisprudence,” now taught in law schools and studied widely. And Berry’s characterization of the domination and exploitation of the Earth through technological mastery as the “Technozoic” alternative to the Ecozoic Era, may well have laid the foundation for Pope Francis’ critique of the “technocratic paradigm” in “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.” Finally, Emmy-award winning 2011 film, “The Journey of the Universe [4]” created by Brian Swimme with Tucker and Grim was dedicated to Berry and introduced many thousands of people to his profound ecological cosmology.

As well written and informative as the Grim, Tucker, Angyal biography of Berry is, I find one aspect of it puzzling: There is not a criticism of Berry or his work in the entire book. No mention, for example, of his economic privilege — attending a Catholic secondary boarding school in the 1930s when most U.S. Catholics were on the breadlines or in the Civilian Conservation Corps — and the connection between that privilege and his ability to spend his life studying the admittedly crucial subjects he did. And no mention either of the irony that the father of someone who dedicated much of his life to fighting planetary destruction was the owner of an oil company.

Perhaps the fact that two of the authors, Tucker and Grim, were Berry’s students and deeply influenced by him over many years explains this absence of critique. Parts of the book read almost like a memoir of their collaboration with him.

At another level, though, the gratitude and admiration the authors express for Berry’s life may well be a reflection of the cosmic, compassionate, unifying vision that underpins his entire body of work. Berry saw that everything in the cosmos is one, articulating the communion between groups, species and material entities that today are all too often seen as hostile opposites. Out of this cosmic worldview the authors constructed an interpretation of Berry’s life that is positive, hopeful and badly needed.

[Marian Ronan is research professor of Catholic Studies at New York Theological Seminary in New York City. Her most recent book, with Mary O’Brien, is Women of Vision: Sixteen Founders of the International Grail Movement (Apocryphile Press, 2017).]



Anointed with Oil

December 10, 2019 at 6:05 pm | Posted in American Protestantism,, Climate Change, oil. | 3 Comments

An Heroic Woman

November 18, 2019 at 5:43 pm | Posted in feminism, Global justice,, women | Leave a comment
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This is a review of the biography of Anne Hope, a South African leader of the International Grail whom I was blessed to know. The review appears in recent issues of Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the United States, and EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.


Anne Hope: The Struggle for Freedom: the life of the visionary co-founder of Training for Transformation. By Stephanie Kilroe. Darton, Longman and Todd. 139 pp.  $17,99

Feminist scholars have been documenting for some time now that women are consistently left out of historical narratives. One of the books that brought that home to me was Katherine Harmon’s There Were Also Many Women There, which explains in detail how my ecumenical women’s community, the Grail, had been excluded from the history of the liturgical movement.

Some of us—my co-author, Mary O’Brien and I, for example, in our 2017 volume on sixteen founders of the International Grail–have been trying to undo this injustice. Now South African writer Stephanie Kilroe has joined the effort with her splendid new life of South African anti-apartheid activist and Grail member Anne Hope: Anne Hope: The Struggle for Freedom.

The story begins with Anne’s birth, the middle of three children, in 1930 Johannesburg, South Africa, and traces her lineage back through her distinguished forebears. I personally was astounded to learn that someone who had spent much of her life working and fighting for the poor was descended from so many members of the British peerage and widely respected South African professionals. Anne continued these traditions, raised as she was with flawless manners and morality, and educated at a distinguished boarding school and eventually Oxford University.

Yet the suffering and loss that marked Anne’s life also began early with her father’s death in battle at the very end of World War II, when she was fifteen. And her horror at the poverty of a black South African township even before her father’s death went on to shape her lifelong to commitment to justice, as did her early election to the steering committee of Pax Romana, the International Catholic Student Movement.

It was, in fact, at a Pax Romana meeting in Montreal in 1952, that Anne met a group of young US Grail women, and then, back in Africa, the founder of the US Grail, Lydwine Van Kersbergen. Van Kersbergen arranged a scholarship for Anne to come to Grailville, the US Grail’s farm and national center near Cincinnati. Anne’s years there changed her life, or at least brought together many of the desires and commitments within her. After four years at Grailville, Anne spent four more years in Uganda at a Grail women’s secondary school. Her further work there starting women’s clubs in Ugandan villages was one of the foundations of her later work with Training for Transformation, an international education program for community organizers

Then, at the age of 32, Anne was named president of the Grail in South Africa where she spent seven years leading significant efforts with the Grail and other groups organizing against the apartheid government’s crack-down on the African National Congress and other liberation efforts. It was through some of these groups that Anne met Steve Biko; her collaboration with him later forced Anne to flee South Africa, not long before his murder by the South African government.

One of the most engaging plot threads in Kilroe’s carefully woven narrative of Anne Hope’s life and emotional/spiritual development is the story of her relationship with Sally Timmel. Initially, the celibacy requirement of the Grail leadership group, the nucleus, held little appeal for Anne; she had expected to marry and have children. But her engagement at Oxford ended over the Catholic/Protestant divide between her and her fiancé. And when a young South African man she had known wrote to propose to Anne during her time at Grailville, Lydwine Van Kersbergen, the head of the US Grail, blocked her from receiving the letter, because she believed Anne was called to nucleus leadership. And Anne did, eventually, join the nucleus.

But soon after leaving the South African Grail presidency, in a scholarship-funded master’s program in adult education at Boston University in 1969, Anne met and fell in love with Sally. Their work together developing adult training programs, including DELTA (Development Education and Leadership Teams in Action) and Training for Transformation, based in the pedagogy of Paulo Freire, transformed the lives of countless people in diverse African countries and elsewhere. The story of their years of collaboration, and the strains on their relationship as they were sometimes stranded on different continents, as well as their struggle over Anne’s nucleus commitment in her other family, the Grail, comprises a galvanizing trajectory through the second half of the book.

Some, however, will find the final chapters of Anne Hope equally absorbing. Here Kilroe describes with considerable nuance Anne’s retirement, during which, through prayer, psychotherapy, and deep encounters with the earth itself, she come to terms with her own deepest identity. I was especially moved by the details of Anne’s death at the age of 85 at Pilgrim Place in California where she and Sally had retired, and the burial of her ashes back in South Africa.

Of course, writing a book, especially a non-fiction book, is hard work. A few errors always slip though, as when Kilroe states that Anne’s dear friend, Eva Fleischner, was a convert from Judaism when it was her father who converted. Or when she refers to the theologian of the cosmos, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose work influenced Anne enormously, as “de Chardin,” when the proper shortened version of his name is “Teilhard.”

Of perhaps more concern is the genre, so to speak of Kilroe’s work. As she explains in her afterword, the initial primary source for her research was Anne’s self-published 2013 autobiography, A Life of Hope: The Story of My Life. But Kilroe found the autobiography too objective, even stilted in parts. When Sally shared with her Anne’s “morning papers,” the journals Anne had kept over the years, as well as many of Sally’s own memories, Kilroe was able to focus on the “transforming struggle of Anne’s inner life…” As valuable as the results of such a focus may be, this means that Anne Hope is more a spiritual narrative, or even a mediated memoir, than a biography.

We see some of the implications of this focus in Kilroe’s discussion of the “trouble” Anne and Sally experienced at the end of a 1979 six-week advanced training course for forty experienced Kenyan trainers they had worked with successfully for years. Suddenly we learn, “the group reacted against colonialism, against white leadership in the church, and against Anne and Sally…accusing them of domination (and) of imposing Western values.” These accusations devastated Anne in particular.

Kilroe introduces this conflict with a paragraph comparing it to a child who while becoming an independent young adult experiences hostility toward their otherwise good parents. She quotes one of Anne and Sally’s African “colleagues” to justify her use of the comparison, assuring us that she does not mean it to be condescending.

I leave it to you to decide whether a white writer comparing Africans to children when they protest white dominance is condescending, but it is also the case that a competent biographer would have interviewed some of the Kenyan trainers involved in the conflict before evaluating it.

These limitations, however, ought not to deter us from reading Anne Hope with enthusiasm and gratitude. It is a well-written and absorbing book. Rarely are we gifted with such a poignant and inspiring portrayal of the inner life and accomplishments of an heroic woman—a portrayal that strikes one more blow against the exclusion of women from history.


The Wall!

October 9, 2019 at 2:10 pm | Posted in Climate Change, violence, | 3 Comments
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Here’s a review that appeared in the October issue of Gumbo, the monthly publication of the Grail in the US. Given the Climate Emergency, and the Narcissist-in-Chief’s obsession with walls, Lanchester’s book is all too pertinent.

The Wall. By John Lanchester. W.W. Norton and Co. 2019. 254 pp.

In his splendid book on the cultural causes of the climate emergency, The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh begins by highlighting modern fiction’s fixation on “individual moral adventure”—the story of the hero—and the expulsion of the collective from the literary imagination.

In recent years, however, a new genre of fiction has emerged that leaves this fixation behind. Called “cli-fi”—a variation on “sci-fi” —this new genre highlights the effects of climate catastrophes on precisely those collectives Ghosh sees as previously neglected. One outstanding instance of “cli-fi” is Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2014 novel New York 2140, which explores the dire implications of the flooding of Manhattan (though the date he uses is a bit optimistic!)

Now the widely-read British writer, John Lanchester, has published his own first dive into the cli-fi genre, The Wall. In this novel, Lanchester moves beyond Robinson’s engagement with the immediate effects of sea-level rise to the long-term effects of what he calls The Change—a massive catastrophe that has transformed society. The story unfolds on an island—presumably Britain, but never identified as such. The island has been spared the worst effects of the Change and has constructed a wall around itself to keep out rising waters and migrants —the Others—who are trying to escape the dreadful situations in their own countries.

The story focuses on the experience of “Joseph Kavanaugh,” who is, like all citizens of the island, required to serve for two years as a Defender of the Wall against the threat of armed invasion. Kavanaugh resembles some of our own young people, blaming older people for the situation he and others his age find themselves in. “The world hasn’t always been like this and…the people responsible for it ending up like this were our parents…them and their generation,” he states.

Kavanaugh eventually partners up with a female Defender to become Breeders—people willing to have children when the population is in serious decline due to the reluctance on the part of many to reproduce because of the Change. Ostensibly, they were to be discharged from the Defenders for doing so. Before this happens, however, a personal catastrophe befalls them that pitches them onto the other side of the Wall and makes them consider Others in a different way.

Gruesome as the narrative may sound, the book is a terrific read, especially the last hundred pages. I could hardly put it down. It was nominated for the 2019 Mann Booker Prize in 2019 though didn’t make it to the final round. As the young people around the world are taking to the streets to protest capitalist greed in the face of climate catastrophe, Lanchester’s The Wall is just what the apathetic older generation needs to read.

Political Theology of the Earth

September 11, 2019 at 10:58 am | Posted in Christian theology,, Climate Change, Environment | 1 Comment
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The following is my review of Catherine Keller’s Political Theology of the Earth,, which appears in the September 6-19 issue of The National Catholic Reporter.

By Catherine Keller
248 pages; Columbia University Press

You don’t need me to tell you that we are currently facing an overwhelming array of crises around the world. Political strongmen — dictators — coming to power. Millions of refugees fleeing war and climate catastrophe. A vast array of species facing extinction. And seemingly endless religious conflicts — not to mention the plummeting of membership in institutional religion, at least in the West.

These crises seem so dire that many use the word “apocalypse” to characterize them.

Yet as constructive theologian Catherine Keller explains in her galvanizing new book, Political Theology of the Earth, apocalypse doesn’t mean what many think it means: the coming of the end times. This is not to say that Keller dismisses the crises that face us. She agrees that we are right to be apprehensive.

But drawing on studies of the Pauline epistles, Keller shows that the passage in 1 Corinthians (7:29) believed to mean “the end times” is more accurately translated “the time that remains,” or “the time is contracted.” This, then, is not chronos, regimented linear time, but kairos, “the time in which something can be done.” And for Keller, this something is “messianic contraction.”

Drawing on this understanding of the time that remains as a kairotic unfolding, Keller weaves together the three arenas of seeming apocalypse — the political, the Earth and religion — into a new schema of possible transformation.

She begins by linking the current political crisis to the modern theory of the state, rooted in the notion of the sovereign leader, whose power is justified by the state of emergency or exception. Except that the state of exception is becoming increasingly permanent. And as Nazi Catholic political scientist Carl Schmitt explained decades ago, this modern concept of the sovereign state is, at bottom, secularized theology. The omnipotent God becomes the omnipotent lawgiver. And this exceptional leader unites us against the exceptional enemy — Jews, blacks, Muslims, immigrants, gays, etc.

In place of the antagonism of enmity embedded in the sovereign political framework, Keller discerns a loving agonism, or struggle, at the heart of the messianic contraction that is our cosmic political reality. This means not war but painful, loving struggle across differences to bring forth a more common, democratic good.

Regarding the crises of the Earth, Keller traces links between the secular theological notion of the omnipotent sovereign and the dominion theology of creation used to justify the exploitation of the planet.

Keller’s political theology moves instead toward a recognition of the deep intersectionalism between all the human and nonhuman elements of creation. Failure to acknowledge and enact this deep interdependence places Earth and all its species on a planetary suicide trajectory. The incorporation of the science of matter itself renders Keller’s political reconfiguration of the Earth all the more compelling.

Keller replaces the disaster of divine sovereign omnipotence with a theology that acknowledges the divine unknowing at the heart of the cosmos. Such a theology is forced to acknowledge its own failures, its propagation of a hierarchical cosmos, even as it embraces the messianic emergence of possibility from the heart of struggle and despair.

Drawing on Pauline descriptions of God as the “all in all,” Keller portrays a God who is persuasive, not domineering, immanent in the world even as the world is immanent in her/him/it. Sin, then, is our failure to embrace this enfoldment of all in all, to love our neighbor as ourselves.


Catherine Keller, author of "Political Theology of the Earth" (

Catherine Keller, author of “Political Theology of the Earth” (
Yet even as we fail in this enfoldment, the messianic contraction, the Christ who died for us, offers new possibilities for hope. Central to this theological vision is not only contemplative encounter with the silence of God at the heart of this cosmos, but our joining together in art and political action to transform it.


Keller’s political theology of the Earth is a development — an unfolding, we might say — of process theology. Traditional theologians tend to declare such theology heretical; I believe the doctrinal committee of the U.S. bishops’ conference condemned St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s theology in 2011 because her argument that God suffered sounded to them like process theology — never mind the Christian teaching that the human being who suffered on the cross is, in fact, God.

Yet before such theologians are too quick to declare heresy, it is important to remember that Keller enfolds the Christian mystical tradition into her version of process theology. Such an inclusion of apophatic, or negative, theology into Keller’s contemporary political theology may well be more an instance of the development of doctrine than a heresy. And given the dire effects of the Christian teaching of an omnipotent, transcendent God who accords dominion to some of his creatures over all the rest, isn’t it past time to enfold the presence of a persuasive, compassionate God into the time we have remaining?

Keller’s political theology of the Earth is breathtaking in the scope of the resources it draws upon and the depths of its analysis. Some may find this a disadvantage. I myself read the book slowly, several times, so as to absorb all its originality and nuance.

Another approach is to consider Political Theology of the Earth a work of what Keller herself calls “theopoetics,” a becoming of something new — a dive into the profound linguistic-material entanglements that are our apocalyptic reality. A bit like the first time you read the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, or James Joyce’s Ulysses. Just read it, and when you fail, enfold yourself into the cosmic process and read it again. That’s certainly what I’m going to do.



In Some Ways We Are All Equal

August 20, 2019 at 11:01 am | Posted in Catholicism, Climate Change, Environment, nuclear war, racism,, Vatican, women | 3 Comments
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The following is a talk I gave on a panel following the Women Church Convergence meeting outside Philadelphia in April 2019. Panel members were asked to respond to the question “How can equality flourish in the Catholic Church?” The talk was published in July-November 2019 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference and was discussed at the Grail’s International Council meeting in Tanzania in July 2019.


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Unthinkable

June 6, 2019 at 9:37 am | Posted in Climate Change | 1 Comment
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Here’s my review of Bengali novelist Amitav Ghosh’s splendid book on climate change, The Great Derangement. The review appeared in a recent of issue of the monthly newsletter of the Grail in the US.


The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, by Amitav Ghosh. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. Paper .164 pp.. $15.00.

Back in 2016, I went up to Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan to hear the internationally recognized writer, Amitav Ghosh, speak about his new book. I was so impressed by his talk, I bought a copy. Now I’m going to tell you about it.

Ghosh is a Bengali-born writer, best known for his fiction, and holds a Ph.D. from Oxford. But as we learn in the opening pages of The Great Derangement, his father’s family was driven from Bangladesh to India by a massive flood, and he himself barely avoided serious harm when the first cyclone in recorded meteorological history hit Delhi in 1978. Since then, of course, many other climate-related disasters have followed. Yet these threatening events have been for the most part concealed from public awareness. This concealment is what Ghosh calls “the great derangement,” and his book explores the causes of that dangerous condition.

Ghosh divides The Great Derangementinto three parts.  In the first, “Stories,” he argues that modern fiction has been incapable of addressing climate change even as greenhouse gas emissions and climate transformations have grown steadily worse. At the heart of fiction’s failure to enable us to recognize the crisis facing us is its fixation on “individual moral adventure”—the story of the hero—and the expulsion of the collective from the literary imagination. Unlike ancient epics such as the story of Noah in Genesis, or Gilgamesh, modern writing that highlights the agency of nonhumans –whether storms or ghosts or zombies—has been dismissed as inferior. The partitioning of the earth into distinct divisions, whether nation-states or measurable commodities like gallons of gas, likewise underpins the ostensible divisions between the human and the non-human that blind us to the planetary feedback loop. But dire human impact on the Earth itself—the Anthropocene*—is a new, non-human critical voice forcing us to reconsider those partitions.

In the “History” section of The Great Derangement Ghosh argues that it wasn’t primarily the Western invention of fossil fuel technologies like the coal-powered steam engine or oil-powered vehicles that drove the Anthropocene. Asian peoples had already discovered coal and oil and had begun using them long before the invention of the steam engine. What drove the Anthropocene was imperial, military power, by which, in particular, the British empire was able to force Asian nations like India to switch from the development of fossil fuel industries to the production of food and raw materials essential to the industrialization of the West. Ironically, this imperial blockage of fossil fuel development in the East may actually have slowed down the Anthropocene.

Finally, in “Politics,” Ghosh asks what kind of human relations and governance are needed for us to move beyond “the great derangement.” As in the previous two sections, he is quite critical of modernity, arguing, for example, that the ideas of “history” as human agency, abstracted from the non-human world, and freedom as transcending material restraint, is fundamental to the crisis of Anthropocene. Based on this critique of the individualism of the modern era, Ghosh argues that individual actions will not solve the great derangement. Nor, he suggests, will newly forming climate change activist groups, since it takes too long for such groups to organize across boundaries and build up the necessary power.

Instead, Ghosh believes that the involvement of religious groups is one of the most promising developments in the crucial effort to incorporate the reality of the Anthropocene into the governance of the human/nonhuman world. This is so because religious groups are already organized and many of them possess a language of collective solidarity lacking in modern culture. To illustrate this argument, Ghosh compares Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’with the UN Paris Climate Accord, issued that same year. While the Paris Accord is shot through with corporate (capitalist) terminology, veiled militarism, and dense incomprehensible prose, the encyclical is lucidly written and direct in style, critiquing the modern “technocratic paradigm” and even the Christian teaching of “Man’s Dominion over Nature.” Ultimately, Laudato Si’ links together social and environmental justice in an integral ecology that the partitioning language of the Climate Accord makes virtually unimaginable.

In reading The Great Derangement, I was struck by the significant overlaps between Ghosh’s vision and the “web of life” argument made by the distinguished Marxist eco-theorist, Jason W. Moore. (Carol Barton spoke at the last US Grail General Assembly about Moore’s book A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things).  Each sees the binary between nature and society, the human and the non-human, as fundamental to the current planetary crisis. Moore would object to Ghosh’s emphasis on imperial power rather than capitalism as the cause of the Anthropocene; Moore would instead argue that they are enfolded into one another. But the efforts of each writer to create a language to heal the modern fissure is striking.

The important distinction between the two books, however, is that because Ghosh is primarily a writer—a novelist—he formulates his remedy for the great derangement in a language that transcends the linguistic partitioning that characterizes the work of theorists like Moore.  Thus, when Ghosh tells us that “to think like a forest…is to think in images,” and that the Anthropocene itself is “thinking through us,” he is envisioning something that can really make a difference.


*The Anthropocene is a proposed epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, human-caused climate change.

Storming the Wall

May 11, 2019 at 10:47 am | Posted in Capitalism, Climate Change, Environment, guns, US History, | 1 Comment

You may be beginning to think that all I do is review books, and you would be close to right. Here’s my review of Todd Miller’s book Storming the Wall, which appeared in April in the US Grail‘s monthly publication, Gumbo.

Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security, by Todd Miller. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2017. Paperback. 240 pp. $11.86. (First chapter available on-line.)

Given the US government shutdown several months ago over money for a wall along the US Mexican border, and Donald Trump’s increased demand for such a wall in his next budget, we might be tempted to conclude that building one such wall is a very big deal.

The truth is, as Todd Miller explains in Storming the Wall, the US government, and governments around the world, have been building many walls, and spending stupendous amounts of money for border enforcement and protection, for some time now. When he came into office, Trump had at his disposal 60,000 Customs and Border Patrol (CPB) agents, making it the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country at the time, and the 2017 border and immigration enforcement budget was $20 billion. And this doesn’t take into account the collaborative arrangements between local law enforcement agencies with ICE and CPB that deputize local police officers as immigration agents all over the country. In addition, since 2003, the US has added over 650 miles of walls and barriers along the US Mexico divide and has poured billions into advanced technology to enforce the border. And the US is by no means the only wall builder and border enforcer: there are now at least 70 border walls around the globe.

At the heart of this intensification of border militarization and refugee exclusion is the climate crisis. Some experts go so far as to predict that there will be a billion climate refugees by the year 2050.  And even now, many of the refugees pouring across borders are at bottom climate refugees, since the violence in the countries they are fleeing is often provoked by environmental crisis—the 2006 to 2010 drought in Syria, for example, is a major cause of the conflict  there, though it is rarely mentioned as such, while the rise of Boko Haram is directly linked to water scarcity in Nigeria. Yet the international community is so ill prepared for this growing crisis that climate refugees have absolutely no human rights status in international law, as, for example, war refugees do.

In Storming the Wall, Miller does an excellent job of laying out the parameters of the growing militarization of borders around the world in light of the climate crisis. But his argument is by no means limited to facts and figures. Rather, he empowers his argument with stories of families torn apart by border militarism. One of the most galvanizing is that of the assassination of an environmental protestor in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. But, Miller warns us, we as citizens of powerful northern nations ought not to assume that we are immune from such climate refugee exclusion: authorities set up checkpoints along the California border to keep out US citizens fleeing the US Dustbowl crisis in the 1930s because they were assumed to be lazy vagrants, unable to support themselves. Remind you of anything?

Ultimately, Miller forces readers to face up to the fact that governments—particularly the US government under Trump as well as his predecessors—have chosen to “adapt” to the impacts of climate change through militarized counter-terrorism actions rather than by taking steps to reverse climate change. Trump’s removal of the US from the Paris climate accord even as he demands more border security is only one example of this form of “adaptation.”

Storming the Wall is a not entirely without hope, however. Miller concludes it with a chapter documenting the ways in which grassroots groups around the world are coming together and demanding change— “storming the walls” that governments are putting up instead of taking the strong measures needed to reverse the climate catastrophe. From that point of view, we can say that the young people on strike with Greta Thunberg around the world and in the Sunrise Movement are “storming the wall.” We need to get out there and join them.


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