Why Include Women?

April 10, 2018 at 11:43 am | Posted in Commonweal magazine, feminism, The Hierarchy, Uncategorized, women | 3 Comments
Tags: , ,


I don’t spend a lot of time talking about women’s issues per se these days. I began teaching and writing about women, especially in the church, in the early 1970s, but since 2002, I’ve gotten more concerned about the impending environmental catastrophe—though the two are by no means disconnected.

But just now I am seriously pissed off about the exclusion of women from two recent presentations in the media, and if you will forgive me, I’m just going to rave about them a bit. Then I’ll get back to work reviewing a book about climate and capitalism.

Let me begin with a one-hour documentary on Pope Francis that I watched last week, the first in an MSNBC series called HEADLINERS. The series highlights “public figures at the forefront of our national dialogue and at the center of today’s news.” I am going to share in a later post my reflections on what it means that a secular US network chose the pope as the first such “headliner.” For now, I would note that the Headliners episode on Francis was not bad, though I did not learn agreat deal from it that was new.

What I did note with some outrage is that of the ten or so commentators included in the program, only one of them was a woman. Each of the other nine was a man, and in almost all cases, a white man. Maybe one was a Latino, or Asian, but no Black men of any kind. Maybe the producers thought they were covered because the sole woman commentator was also Argentinian? A two-fer? And why on earth would anyone want to hear what more than one woman has to say about the head of the Roman Catholic Church, the largest organization on earth, the vast majority of whose members are female?

The second cause of my pissed-off-ness is an article in the April 4 issue of Commonweal, “Showboating is a Sin,” on the culture of Catholic basketball teams in light of the recent NCAA championships won by both men’s and women’s teams from Catholic schools. It is perhaps worth mentioning that Commonweal was once one of the leading liberal American Catholic publications. I recall my excitement at reading Commonweal waiting for the bus on the way to my file clerk job the summer between high school and college down in Philadelphia.

In the half-century that has passed since then, however, Commonweal has not exactly kept up, at least on gender issues. The article in the April 4th issue is, unfortunately, a good example. In part of what was not my first letter to the editors on the subject of the exclusion of women from Commonweal pages, I acknowledge resonating with Moses’s description of the communal culture of Catholic basketball, but add:

“Unfortunately, another part of Moses’s article is also all too familiar: its gender bias. After a nod in the first paragraph toward women’s as well as men’s teams winning the Division I championships, Moses makes not one reference to women’s basketball throughout the rest of the article. And of course, the photo at the top is of male players… In addition to the ‘Scripture-based principles of Catholic social teaching’ fundamental to Catholic college basketball: ‘community, the common good, and solidarity’ that Moses invokes in his article, it would seem we have to acknowledge another one: male hegemony.”

(We’ll see if they publish the letter.)

The thing that drives me nuts about the gender discrimination in each of these instances is that it isn’t really very hard to avoid. When I was the director of communications at an African-American seminary in the 1980s, I never approved anything for publication until I checked to make sure there weren’t too many white faces in It. (“White faces rise to the top” was the axiom that kept me attentive.) What would it take for the guys (I use the term advisedly) at MSNBC and Commonweal to do the same kind of thing?



Is Commonweal Moving to the Right?

August 28, 2013 at 5:14 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

I began reading the liberal Catholic magazine, Commonweal, when I was a teenager. I remember gobbling up the latest issue in 1965 during the coffee break from my file clerk job the summer before I started college. A few years later, my best friend from college, the future theologian Margaret O’Gara, began taking me home for conversations with her father, Commonweal’s editor,  James O’Gara. I felt amazingly honored to be a “Commonweal Catholic,” committed “to a church that’s open and pluralistic,…a visible manifestation of Jesus’ presence in the world,” as O’Gara put it in his final Commonweal column in 1999.

I’ve continued reading Commonweal and sometimes subscribing to it throughout the nearly fifty years since then, finding it more analytic than The National Catholic Reporter and vastly more progressive than most other Catholic journalism.  I was even a “Commonweal Associate,” for a few years after we moved back to New York, making an annual donation and attending  Associates’ receptions. But I gave that up. Now I’m wondering whether I should let my subscription go too.

A major gripe I have with Commonweal–and have had for some time–is the pitifully low percentage of articles and reviews by women that they publish. In the August 15 issue, for example, women wrote three of the seventeen pieces, but that’s only half the story. One of the three was a one page review of a television mystery series, one was a one page “Final Word” column, and one was a half-page poem about a recipe book.  And the gender make-up of this particular issue is not, I’m sorry to say, atypical.

Now the truth is that few contemporary publications do all that well with gender equality. As Sarah Sentilles notes in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, in 2011, “The Atlantic published 184 articles and pieces of fiction by men and 64 by women; 18 of their book reviewers were men and 8 were women; and 24 of the authors reviewed were men, compared to 12 women. Harper’s Magazine published 65 articles by men and 13 articles by women; 23 of their book reviewers were men and 10 were women; 53 of the authors reviewed were men, 19 were women. The New York Review of Books published 133 articles by men and 19 by women; 201 of their book reviewers were male and 53 were female; and they reviewed 75 male authors and only 17 female authors.”

But Commonweal is an ostensibly progressive publication in a undeniably misogynist religious tradition, Roman Catholicism. Catholic women are already stuck with an all-male priesthood, a non-inclusive language lectionary (this past Sunday’s reading from Hebrews about God disciplining sons!) and condemnation for controlling our own reproductive functions. To which Commonweal adds poems about recipe books. (And yes, I know, the magazine had a women editor, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, for fifteen years, and currently has one female associate editor. It’s not enough!!)

I also wonder what Jim O’Gara, who started out in the Catholic Worker, would think of some of the political/economic articles in Commonweal these days. I’m thinking, for example, of  Charles R. Morris’s piece in the September 4, 2012, issue predicting with enthusiasm a U.S. economic boom based in the hydraulic fracturing of natural gas.  Lots of ostensibly liberal journalism outlets do this sort of thing, of course–consider for example the PBS “ad” about how small farmers who lease their land to the natural gas industry are flourishing. But Commonweal?

Finally let me share with you my most recent perplexity about where Commonweal falls on the political spectrum, its treatment of same-sex marriage. In truth, I thought Commonweal did better on the contraceptives mandate compromise than a lot of other white male Catholic publications: “this will do,” they editorialized. And in their most recent issue, the Commonweal editors do take the U.S. bishops to task for their “overwrought predictions of moral decline and social calamity” in response to the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision–even as they wonder whether “severing the connection marriage has forged between sex, procreation, and family formation will undermine the expectations our culture places on the institution.”  Then, in the same issue,  three male, apparently white,  authors hold forth on the decision’s other problems. God forbid that an assessment by a member of a group with its own history of marriage discrimination be included in the conversation.

But what really stokes my concern about a Commonweal move to the right is a fourth piece about same-sex marriage, this one by the conservative Catholic journalist, Joseph Bottum, that appeared on the Commonweal blog page on August 23rd. In it, Bottum, once an adamant opponent of same-sex marriage, now offers a “Catholic case” for accepting it, based in pragmatism–the battle is lost, and continued opposition is alienating the young–and the fact that the traditional sacredness of marriage has been lost in any case.

There’s quite a lot that’s interesting about Bottum’s essay, as the appearance of not one, but two, commentaries on it in the New York Times suggests. What I wish to point out, however, is that Bottum, the author, is a former editor of First Things,  the neoconservative journal founded by Richard John Neuhaus, and writes regularly for the National Review and The Weekly Standard, both also conservative publications. Furthermore, one of the two Times follow-up pieces is by the conservative Catholic columnist, Ross Douthat.

The question of where someone or something falls on the political spectrum is a tricky one,  affected by many factors. It might have seemed a liberal triumph when a number of  moderates joined the American Baptist Churches after their own Southern Baptist Convention was taken over by conservatives in the 1990s.  But the change also moved the American Baptists to the right. And some conservatives clearly think Joseph Bottum has moved to the left by accepting same-sex marriage and publishing about it in Commonweal.  Me, I’m not so sure.

Tectonic Shifts

June 11, 2013 at 5:34 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Paul Baumann’s review essay in the June 3rd essay of The Nation is noteworthy on several counts. An article by the editor of the liberal Catholic journal, Commonweal, about a new book, Evangelical Catholicism, by George Weigel, “the neo-conservative leader of American Catholicism’s war on Vatican II,” as Baumann describes him, would be noteworthy in itself. That it is an incisive analysis of the crisis facing the American church makes it doubly so.

But to grasp the full significance of this review you need also to understand that it appears in a magazine that published some of the most anti-Catholic articles in the post-World War II period. Written by Paul Blanshard, one of The Nation’s editors, they were eventually collected in a book, American Freedom and Catholic Power. In The New Anti-Catholicism, scholar of American religion Philip Jenkins says that Blanshard’s plan of resistance against Catholicism in that book echoed the anti-Catholic proposals of the Ku Klux Klan. Yet now we have a nationally recognized Catholic journalist publishing about Catholicism in that magazine and even offering pointed criticisms of the institutional church there.

Baumann begins by situating Evangelical Catholicism within the context of the American bishops’ fevered opposition to Barack Obama’s first-term agenda, including their attack on the University of Notre Dame for inviting Obama to give their commencement address in 2009. The bishops’ opposition culminated in the “Fortnight of Freedom” attack on the contraceptives mandate of the Affordable Care Act during the 2012 campaign, followed by their rejection of two successive compromises the administration proposed on same. This uproar reveals how “deeply divided and directionless the once formidable and coherent” American church has become, tutored as the bishops are by neo-conservative intellectuals. And, Baumann assures us, if Evangelical Catholicism is any indicator, the divisions are only going to get worse.

For those mercifully unfamiliar with Weigel’s legacy prior to this latest book, Baumann provides a helpful overview, noting, for example, Weigel’s rebuttals of the US bishops’ fine 1980s pastoral letters, “The Challenge of Peace”and “Economic Justice for All.” The much more conservative successors of those “Vatican II” bishops seem to have completely swallowed Weigel’s neo-con arguments, however, almost passing a pastoral letter in the summer of 2012 that described the economic downturn as a result of the nation’s moral failings–divorce, same-sex marriage and of course, abortion. Regulations of financial institutions or how to allocate public funds to the needy are questions of individual conscience, however. This, Baumann tells us, bears a “striking resemblance” to Weigel’s recommendations in Evangelical Catholicism.

Weigel’s “evangelical Catholicism,” we learn, is the successor to the “tribal Catholicism” of previous centuries, where bishops stressed building churches and hospitals and supporting the poor. Instead, the Catholics of the future will “speak of their faith in an evangelical idiom once considered Protestant…(in which) ‘friendship with the Lord Jesus’ will be as integral as Mass on Sunday.”

Moreover, according to Weigel, this new Catholicism is essential to the survival of human rights and democracy. Conversion to Catholic natural law morality is the only way forward.
Baumann, not exactly a Nation secularist, agrees that the Aristotelian/Thomistic tradition has resources to offer American democracy. But, he assures us, that’s not all we need as we deal with our increasing multiculturalism. Weigel is the avatar of rigid and reactionary approaches to such diversity, Baumann tells us, and Evangelical Catholicism/em>is a repetitious diatribe. The cause of our current crisis is not, Baumann argues, the “permissive morality of liberal elites, but our economic system.” The Vatican II fathers taught that the only way forward for the church is to let modernity in even as we engage it critically. But Evangelical Catholicism advocates closing as many doors as possible.

The first “tectonic shift” in all of this is, of course, the publication of an article by a Catholic journalist in a once virulently anti-Catholic magazine. The second is the call by an extremely conservative American Catholic for an “evangelical Catholicism” that is seriously far removed from the sacramental Catholicism of previous millenia. And the third? That the US bishops are falling for such neo-conservative propaganda. As Baumann observes, almost parenthetically, Cardinal Dolan, the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, recently hired as his spokesperson one of the political consultants from Sarah Palin’s presidential campaign. (Palin, you may recall, is a former Catholic who converted to evangelical Protestantism and seems less than committed to Catholic social justice teaching.)

Jesus. Mary, and Joseph.

Blog at WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.