Note to the New Pope: Half of the World’s Poor Are Women

March 14, 2013 at 5:33 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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(Or as Ronald Reagan would have put it: “Pope Francis, tear down this wall!”)

Well, we have a pope. After two weeks of speculation, prediction, even handicapping, the first non-European pope in over a thousand years, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, stepped out on the Vatican loggia at 8:22 Central European Time yesterday to be introduced to the world.

In some respects, the election of Cardinal Bergoglio is a very promising sign. As an archbishop from the most populous Catholic continent on earth, Latin America, the new Pope Francis I symbolizes a shift that has been a very long time coming, from Eurocentrism to the church of the Global South. And his reputation as an advocate for the poor, emphasizing the Christian Gospel of love, washing the feet of AIDS victims, and more, can’t help being a good thing.

The new pope’s ethnic heritage will stand him in good stead as well, since his parents were Italians, and he speaks Italian fluently—not a bad thing for a pope—even as he has never served in the Vatican curia, the focus of much criticism and concern in recent months. He is also the first Jesuit pope in history. Being a member of the largest religious order in the Catholic world certainly can’t hurt.

For a church that isn’t exactly known for headlong change, this may well  be the best we Catholics could have hoped for. But let’s be clear: Pope Francis is a conservative, as anyone elected by this conclave would have been. From the beginning of his career, he has opposed liberation theology, the Latin American-rooted progressive theology that has inspired many liberal Catholics, myself included, since the 1960s. And he is opposed to homosexuality.

Most people have already heard more than they need to about the problems the new pope will face: the sex abuse scandal, corruption at the Vatican Bank and throughout the Vatican administration, secularism in the West, reaching out to the burgeoning church in the Global South. Good luck to him on all counts, I say.

For me, though, the kicker, the “line in the sand,” as Archbishop Timothy Dolan would put it, is the church’s benighted attitude toward and treatment of women. This could be perceived as the opinion of a privileged North American woman who cares more about gender than about the poor to whom this new pope is dedicated. But let’s be clear: half of the world’s poor are women, and the church’s efforts to deprive the Catholic women among them of contraceptives, of the use of condoms that could protect them from HIV-AIDS, and of the ministry of women priests who would baptize, absolve, and bury them, is no service to them.

Even as President Ronald Reagan challenged Michael Gorbachev to tear down the wall between East and West, the much-loved Pope John Paul II put every effort into freeing the Catholics of Eastern Europe from religious and political oppression. The new supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis I, has the opportunity to end another form of oppression, the second-class status of women in the Catholic Church. Pope Francis, bring down this wall!

(This is a faintly revised version of an article that appeared on Religion Dispatches on Wednesday, March 13, 2013.)

Women in Combat and the Priesthood: A Response to Mary Hunt

February 5, 2013 at 10:51 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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On January 24, colleague and feminist theologian Mary Hunt published an article on Religion Dispatches, “Combat Soldiers and Clergywomen: A Problematic Equation.” In my response, which appeared on Religion Dispatches yesterday, I argue that to change social institutions, whether the church or the military, we need a more complex strategy than Hunt’s article suggests.

Read “Women in Combat and the Priesthood: A Response to Mary Hunt” here.

What the Catholic Church Condemns

February 14, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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You have heard a great deal lately about the Catholic Church’s adamant opposition to the mandated provision of free contraceptives by Catholic universities, hospitals, and even business owners under the federal Affordable Care Act. As I am writing, Brian Lehrer is discussing on WNYC the similarities and differences between New York state’s mandated contraceptive coverage and the Obama administration’s mandate. It’s been hard lately to turn on the radio and not encounter a discussion of this issue.

While all this is happening, I go on reading. Just now I’m a third of the way through James M. O’Toole’s The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America (Harvard 2008). O’Toole is discussing the ways in which the popes, in the first half of the 19th century, became “increasingly more enthusiastic in their denunciations of the ‘rejected innovations’ of modern life.” Among these, Pope Gregory XVI condemned railroads, calling them not “roads of iron,” but “roads to hell.” He also condemned freedom of conscience and of the press. (89)

Some will point out that none of this was infallible teaching; neither, as I have explained, is Catholic sexual teaching. The United Nations has stated that the global population will reach 10 billion by 2100. Since we lack the will to feed our current population of nearly 7 billion, assuming that we’re going to feed 3 billion more seems, to use a popular Catholic term, imprudent. Let me be clear here: I also believe that we in the US must radically change our life styles, consume less, reduce our CO2 emissions, live simply so that others may simply live.

At the same time, eventually, my church’s opposition to contraceptives is going to seem as inconceivable (no pun intended) as Gregory XVI’s condemnation of railroads. If only the Vatican and the hierarchy would grasp this before its stance causes more harm than it already has.

The Rupture of Inculturation?

March 9, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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In my last post, I held forth about a talk by Cardinal Rode, head of the Vatican office behind the current  investigations of American Catholic sisters.  I was struck by his use of the word “rupture” to describe the “wrong” interpretation of Vatican II. Never in my life have I heard anyone but Cardinal Rode (et al) describe Vatican II as a rupture. Event, yes. Paradigm shift, yes. Rupture? Never.

I am also struck by the conclusion of the cardinal’s talk, where, to explain what gives him hope for the future of religious life, he recounts the thunder of applause that greeted a talk he gave just after the election of John Paul II in 1978 in which he criticized the communist regime in Slovenia.  What gave Rode and his listeners courage to confront falsehood, we learn, was fidelity to the new pope. Just so, if we are to reform religious life, we must adhere to what John Paul II taught yesterday and what Benedict is teaching today. (p. 21).

Never mind the curiosity of using an event that occurred a third of a century ago under a regime that collapsed twenty years ago in a country most Americans couldn’t  find on the map if their lives depended on it to conclude a talk in Boston Massachusetts in 2008. Consider instead the spectacle of using such a Eurocentric story to illustrate fidelity to John Paul II.

I am not a big JPII fan. But one thing I do give John Paul credit for is his understanding of the critical place of the Global South in the future of the church. So if we’re confronting a rupture here, it’s one between this profound insight by John Paul II and  Benedict’s fixation on Europe, its secularization, its schisms, its ideal past.

One story about a talk in Slovenia in 1978 may seem like thin evidence on which to argue that the current papacy is oblivious to the future of the church. But to get the whole picture, shift your attention now to Vatican efforts to reform the liturgy. In an article in NCRonline, John L. Allen reports on comments by the papal liturgist, Msgr. Guido Marini. Msgr. Morini has said that the pope will be patient in reforming the liturgy; nothing will be forced on the church, at least not yet. At a conference in Rome, though, the pope’s liturgist did seem to call into question some Vatican II liturgical reforms,–among them, active participation by the laity in the liturgy (!!) and “greater ‘inculturation,’ meaning adjusting the church’s rites to reflect local cultures.”

Now you may have noticed that the word “inculturation” doesn’t figure massively in discussions of liturgy in the US. It is used frequently, however, in discussions of the church in the Global South. And when Catholics in Africa and Asia and Latin America use the term, they aren’t just referring to drumming and dancing at Mass. They’re talking about the reconfiguration of Catholicism by their cultures. For an especially compelling example of this,  see From Crisis to Kairos: The Mission of the Church in the Time of HIV/AIDS, Refugees, and Poverty by Nigerian Jesuit theologian A. E. Orobator (Paulines Publications Africa 2005).

The people Father Orobator writes about don’t seem awfully focused on   fidelity to the pope. For them, their faith in Jesus and the Gospel is what enables them to survive and keep their brothers and sisters alive in the face of war, destitution and epidemics. Let’s pray that the profound role the church plays in their survival doesn’t get ruptured anytime soon.


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