Pope Francis after Five Years: His Greatest Contribution

April 17, 2018 at 11:56 am | Posted in Catholicism, Climate Change, Vatican | 4 Comments
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Last night I was honored to participate in a panel in Manhattan sponsored by Dignity New York and the Women’s Ordination Conference called “Francis after Five: A Feminist Response.” I enjoyed very much the conversation with Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director  of BishopAccountability.org, Jamie Manson, NCR columnist and book review editor, Teresa Cariño, pastoral associate for young adults at St. Ignatius Loyola in Manhattan, and our moderator, the journalist and author, Eileen Markey. Unfortunately, the program was not videoed, but here, at least, is my presentation:

 

Let’s get right down to business. I am here to argue that the single most important thing Pope Francis did in his first five years in office was to publish his second encyclical, Laudato Si”: On Care for Our Common Home in June of 2015.

Why do I say this? Because the environmental catastrophe that we are experiencing is one of the two biggest threats facing humanity today––the other being nuclear war.

In making this claim, I am not thinking only of the extreme forest fires in California this past year, or the massive storms that devastated major parts of Houston and Puerto Rico, or the increasing droughts and famines around the world, though these are terrifying enough. I am also recalling that last fall scientists at MIT, Stanford, and the National Autonomous University of Mexico, in independent studies, warned that if we continue to release carbon into the environment at the current rate, by the year 2100, there will be a “biological annihilation”—a sixth mass extinction––which may well wipe out not only a huge number of other animal and plant species but the human species as well.

Part of what is so important about Laudato Si’ is precisely what Pope Francis says there. He states unambiguously that climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity in our day and calls out the consumerist, profit-driven globalized technocracy as its primary cause. He also accepts the scientific consensus that changes in the climate are largely caused by human activity and calls for replacing fossil fuels without delay.

But it’s not just what Pope Francis says about climate change that makes Laudato Si’ the pivotal action of his papacy; it’s what the document achieved, and on many levels. Consider, for example, that one day after the encyclical’s contents had been leaked to the media, the Dalai Lama stated that : “Since climate change and the global economy now affect us all, we have to develop a sense of the oneness of humanity “ And then the head of the Anglican Communion issued a “green declaration” (also signed by the Methodist Conference); and the Lausanne Movementof global evangelical Christians said it was anticipating the encyclical and was grateful for it. The encyclical was also welcomed by the World Council of Churches and by secular world leaders Ban Ki-moon, Kofi Annan, and the head of the World Bank.

The resources that Pope Francis drew on were also path-breaking. Of course, he quotes at some length his papal predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But also, underpinning his stress on the poor and people in the Global South as those most harmed by climate change, he quotes African, Asian and Latin American bishops conferences as his predecessors never did, and refers multiple times to the wisdom of indigenous people. All of this clearly embodies the integral ecology that is at the heart of the Pope’s argument in Laudato Si’. (Unfortunately, he does not quote many women at all).

But we are not here to talk about the contents of Laudato Si’; we are here to offer a feminist assessment of Pope Francis’s first five years in office. And a lot of feminist, LGBT and transgender Catholics were quite critical of the pope’s environmental encyclical.

Let me begin this part of my talk by saying that I have been a Catholic feminist since the early 1970s, when my women’s community, the Grail, offered path-breaking programs in feminist theology and spirituality at our organic farm and conference center outside Cincinnati. I also attended the first Women’s Ordination Conference in Detroit in 1975 and served as president of the Women’s Ordination Conference Board 2000-2002. I am also author or co-author of seven books, most of them about women and the church, and of hundreds of articles and reviews. I basically oppose the church’s position on women’s ordination, and reproductive and LGBTQ rights.

As I have said before, however, even if the pope had thoughts about these questions that deviate from traditional teaching—which I doubt he has––­­­­he would have been ill-advised to express them in Laudato Si’ This is so because to have done so would have started a civil war and distracted from the issue that concerns him most: the environmental catastrophe. Consider the blow-back from right-wing commentators like Ross Douthat over the suggestion about divorced and remarried Catholics being readmitted to communion in Amoris Laetitia, a much less contentious issue than reproductive or LGBTQ rights.

Yet I want also to point out that one thing Francis says in Laudato Si’ makes a really significant change in Catholic teaching on sexuality and gender, when he states very clearly that the destruction of the environment and the oppression of the poor are sins as grievous as abortion. Here, for the first time, a pope is undercutting what historical sociologist Gene Burns calls the post-Vatican II Catholic ideological hierarchy, in which sexual teaching is primary and obligatory for all, doctrine is secondary and obligatory for Catholics only, and social justice issues like climate change and war are tertiary and optional. The media paid considerably more attention when Francis reiterated this change in his recent apostolic exhortation, Gaudete and Exultate, but he had, in fact, already asserted it in Laudato Si’.

I also want to suggest that feminist and LGBTQ Catholics here in the Global North need to be careful in our critique of Laudato Si’ precisely because of what Pope Francis in that document calls the environmental debt owed to the communities of the Global South who are suffering the most because of our massive over-consumption. The daily per capita emission of green-house gases by the average US resident is seventy times that of the average Kenyan.  Along these lines, a number of feminists were critical of the encyclical because they believed it did not put enough emphasis on population control as a way of remedying the climate crisis. But scientists tell us that if the poorest three billion people on earth were to disappear, greenhouse gas emissions would not go down at all because it’s the people in the Global North who are causing the problem. I fully support women’s reproductive rights, but the church’s opposition to those rights is not causing the climate crisis. We are.  And let’s be clear here: women and their children in the Global South are those who are suffering the most from the effects of climate change.

So I conclude as I began, by reminding us that the catastrophe afflicting our common home is one of the two greatest problems of our time, and that Francis’s greatest contribution as pope is to have challenged the whole world, women and men, cis and transgender, gay as well as straight, to the radical conversion needed to save God’s creation.

 

 

 

 

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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.)

Beyond Identity Politics

November 11, 2009 at 1:57 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Lift and Separate,” a review essay in this week’s New Yorker, revisits the question of why feminism is unpopular (at least here in the US). Levy’s article examines Gail Collins’s When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present  and Leslie Sanchez’s You’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe: Sarah, Michelle, Hilary, and the Shaping of the New American Woman. Collins, we learn, writes of Lindsay van Gelder’s apprehension that  she be remembered only for the invention of bra-burning–although feminist bra burning was in fact mythical. “It’s as if feminism were plagued by a kind of false memory syndrome, ” Levy observes. While feminists were actually dealing with issues like child care and equality in employment, we were portrayed as anarchist incendiaries. As a result, feminism is (ostensibly) over, replaced by a sort of universalized women’s identity politics.

Sanchez’s book, according to Levy, is an articulation of such an identity politics, with Sarah Palin as its standard-bearer:

“‘Most of us are Sarah Palins to one degree or another,’ Sanchez asserts. Palin ‘so very clearly reflected the lifestyle choices, the hard work ethic, and traditional values that so many women admire.'”

Never mind the utter laughability of describing the governor of a state as “traditional,” Levy adds. Younger women of the contentless  identity politics persuasion are happy to benefit from the hard-won equality of women, but they don’t want be associated with the movement that struggled to achieve it.

I wondered if this acceptance of the benefits of feminism while rejecting feminism itself might have spread to younger women scholars of religion as well. A friend, at last weekend’s annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion–the biggest gathering of religion scholars in the world–was worrying about decreasing numbers attending presentations by the Feminist Theory and Religious Reflection section, one of the AAR ‘s leading sponsors of feminist religious studies scholarship. 

My experience of the meeting, however, was quite the contrary. At practically every session I attended, smart young female scholars of religion used feminist scholarship and theory (as well as postcolonial, queer, critical race, and a wide range of other theories) in their insightful and highly ethical presentations.

I was especially happy to attend fine presentations by a number of  impressive younger Catholic women scholars across a range of subjects and disciplines. Particularly impressive, for me, was a presentation by a Catholic feminist theologian from India, Susan Abraham, now at Harvard Divinity School.

Abraham’s paper was part of a panel on “Rethinking Identity Politics,” a topic that overlaps Ariel Levy’s article quite nicely. Drawing on Alberto Moravia’s The Politics of Difference and Ananda Abeysekara’s The Politics of Postsecular Religion: Mourning Secular Futures,  Abraham addressed the disturbing tendency of “difference” to become commodified, that is, to be swallowed up into more universal and comfortable categories, even by the black and yellow and brown subjects of difference themselves. 

The way to think outside this commodified identity-difference frame, Abraham argues, is to mourn the dead bodies that are disappeared within it. And by this she means not a theoretical, discursive mourning, but an actual, performed mourning.   The voices of the dead are messianic and counter-hegemonic, Abraham tells us. Mourning the dead is the way beyond spurious multiculturalism.

This brings us back to the achievements of the feminist movement–suffrage, equality in employment,and so forth. Ariel admits, at the end of her article, that one of the failures of the women’s movement is that it never secured decent care for the pre-school children of US women. And of course, if such child-care were available, it would have made things better for millions of us.

But there was never any consideration of care for the children of the undocumented women harvesting the food we were eating then (and now) just as there will be no health care for undocumented women and their families forthcoming from the current Democratic administration (with its equally-employed female cabinet secretaries and consultants). The urgent task, young Catholic feminist theologian Susan Abraham tells us, is identifying and mourning the bodies.

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