Tags: "the right to life", Cardinal Raymond Burke, Cardinal Spellman, Climate Change, Donald Trump, God's creation, KellyAnne Conway, Myron Ebell, Paul Ryan, Pope Francis, Senator Joseph McCarthy, Steve Bannon
In a blog posted soon after the presidential election, I argued that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops colluded in the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency. But that’s not all there is to Catholic collusion in the Trump phenomenon, not by a long shot.
In a preliminary analysis published on November 9, the Pew Research Center reported that 52% of U.S. Catholics voted for Trump. But 60% of white Catholics voted for Trump. And while only 26% of Latinx Catholics voted for him—67% went for Clinton—the percentage of Latinx voters going for Clinton was an 8% decline over the percentage that went for Obama in 2012. This was another component of the Trump victory
And when we examine the individuals central to Trump’s campaign, the picture is no less disheartening. Though I could find nothing about her current religious affiliation, if she has any, Trump’s campaign manager and current top advisor, KellyAnne Conway (née Fitzgerald) graduated from a Catholic high school and from Trinity College, once a leading Catholic women’s college.
Then there’s Steve Bannon, the former head of the Breitbart News, an unambiguously anti-semitic, white nationalist news site, and soon to be Trump’s chief counsel in the White House. Bannon is a Catholic. In a talk he delivered at the Vatican on June 27, 2014, sponsored by the Institute for Human Dignity, he spoke of “a crisis both of our Church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism.” The U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, who has also recently assured us of Donald Trump’s Christian values, arranged to have Bannon speak at the Vatican conference.
Then there is Paul Ryan. An article I read recently argues that we should be more worried about Reince Priebus, Trump’s soon-to-be chief of staff, than Steve Bannon. Why? Because Priebus will ultimately be more influential than Bannon—having major impact of administration hires, for example. And he is totally on board with Paul Ryan’s campaign to eviscerate the social safety net. And what’s Ryan’s religious affiliation? Roman Catholic, of course. At least the U.S Catholic Bishops did call him out for the cuts to social programs he proposed during the 2012 election, something they hardly did at all with regard to Trump’s threats during the 2016 campaign.
Now this is by no means the first time in U.S. history that white Catholics, and their bishops, have come down on the wrong side of pivotal ethical issues. In his recent book American Jesuits and the World, the distinguished scholar of U.S. Catholicism, John McGreevy, documents how the American church, and the Jesuits, were strongly pro-slavery for a stunningly long time. I believe the church called slavery “just servitude.”
And in the 1950s, the Catholic press, and the highly influential archbishop of New York, Francis Cardinal Spellman, strongly backed anti-Communist and anti-gay “witch-hunts” by the Catholic senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy was eventually censured by the U.S. Senate, and died, probably of alcoholism, in 1957.
But the support of slavery and of Senator McCarthy by American Catholics and the U.S. bishops pales in significance beside their support of Donald Trump. This is so because Trump is a complete climate change denier, pledged to roll back President Obama’s already inadequate climate change initiatives, and restore the fossil fuel industry. And he has already appointed a “notorious climate change denier” and “head of a coal industry funded think tank,” Myron Ebell, to lead the transition at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Some may think this is no more significant than the threat Trump poses to Muslims and undocumented immigrants. But as an editorial in this week’s issue of The Nation argues compellingly, climate change is the “worst crisis that human beings have ever faced.” And as the U.S. Catholics who voted for Trump, and those who work for him, and the bishops well know, this is an increasingly irreversible crisis that the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has called out emphatically in an encyclical, the primary teaching instrument of the Catholic Church.
But who cares about that? What really matters to the majority of white U.S. Catholics, a minority of Latinx Catholics, and the vast majority of the U.S. Catholic bishops, is the “right to life.” And everybody understands that the earth, God’s creation, has nothing to do with life.
Tags: Dorothy Day, John Hugo, Lacouturism, non-violence, Pope Francis
Here’s a review of a book about the history and influence on Dorothy Day of a spirituality called “Lacouturism.” It was published on the Pax Christi Metro New York webpage a few months ago.
The Bread of the Strong: Lacouturisme and the Folly of the Cross by Jack Lee Downey. (Fordham 2015).
It’s almost a truism among progressive Catholics, myself included, that the changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council were good ones. But it also seems that the world is not in much better shape—is perhaps in worse shape—than it was in 1965. In The Bread of the Strong, Jack Lee Downey, assistant professor of religion at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, offers some hints as to why this may be the case.
The Bread of the Strong is a study of the distinctly pre-Vatican II spirituality of a French-Canadian Jesuit, Onésime Lacouture, and his followers, and of the massive impact of that spirituality on Dorothy Day. The book traces the trajectory from Lacouture’s maximalist spirituality to Day’s radical politics.
The first three chapters of The Bread of the Strong explore Lacouture’s life and the development of his spirituality. Once intending to become an academic, Lacouture underwent a series of powerful mystical experiences during his formation at a Jesuit mission in Alaska. He emerged from these experiences with a radically changed vision of the faith in which academic theology, and even much of the Catholic Christianity of the time, were vile, inadequate pursuits. Fundamental to Lacouture’s transformed world-view was an absolute dichotomy between nature and grace, Christianity and paganism, self-mortification and pleasure. Lacouture preached this ascetic theology passionately in clergy retreats over the next several decades. So absolute and unambiguous was his position that the Jesuits eventually silenced him.
One participant in the Lacouturist retreats, Pittsburgh diocesan priest John Hugo, was so profoundly influenced by their ascetic spirituality that he began giving his version of the retreats to Catholic laypeople in the United States. And let me be clear: these were retreats aimed at “spiritual withdrawal and moral perfectionism,” albeit with a social-justice dimension that Lacouture himself did not include.
Dorothy Day was one of the laypeople who participated in these Hugo-led retreats. Day, after her conversion, had struggled to integrate her radical sociopolitical activism with her newfound Catholic faith. Peter Maurin’s spiritual iconoclasm helped Day to integrate these seemingly contradictory dimensions of her identity. But Downey shows that it was the Lacouture retreats, with their emphasis on “a redemptive spirituality of suffering” and ego-transcendence that solidified Day’s spiritual/political identity. This identity in turn undergirded Day’s heroic leadership of the Catholic Worker from the early 1930s to her death in 1980.
I myself am not much inclined toward asceticism or self-mortification. And as a feminist theologian, I have argued vociferously against the nature/grace, spiritual/material, male/female binaries that characterized the Church for millennia.
Yet I am also aware that the challenges facing the human race, and perhaps especially those of us who consider ourselves non-violent, or justice seeking, are nearly incomprehensible. Take, for example, the climate crisis that Pope Francis addresses in Laudato Si’. The vast majority of us do not begin to comprehend the changes in our consumerist, convenience-oriented way of life that saving God’s creation demands. What kind of spirituality, what return to self-sacrifice and self-mortification, is required so that we will be able to face up to these inconceivable challenges?
Tags: Caitlyn Jenner, Catholic sexual teaching, Intersex infants, Pope Francis, transgender identity
Conservative Catholics–especially conservation hierarchs–must have been pleased to hear that yesterday, Pope Francis criticized the idea that children are being taught that they can “choose” their gender. I guess the rumors that he might be a “feminist”pope can be put to rest.
Apparently, according to the reports, Francis’s denunciation is linked to his previous condemnations of “gender theory,” something that certain countries and groups are ostensibly forcing on people in the Global South. I guess this is a broader version of something a conservative Canadian Catholic said to me years ago, that the West was forcing homosexuality on Africans. I replied that the West must have begun forcing homosexuality on Africans fairly early, since a Ugandan king had had a bunch of male Christian converts executed for refusing to have sex with him in 1885 and 1886.
It’s a pity Francis, who has gone out of his way to promote scientific views about climate change and other significant issue, didn’t bother to learn a bit about transgenderism before make such a claim. I am by no means a scientist, but I began to think about some of this stuff in 1992, when I took a seminar in feminist theory–perhaps what the pope now calls “gender theory”–as part of my Ph.D. studies in American religion. In particular, I read an assigned article about intersex infants, something about which I had been totally ignorant previously. Too bad I can’t remember the author’s name, but there’s plenty of info about intersex infants online.
Apparently, a certain percentage of infants are born with ambiguous genitalia–unusually small penises, large clitorises, a penis and a clitoris, and a considerable number of other possible internal and external variations on what’s considered normal. I was struck particularly to learn that it was fairly common (in those days, at least) for doctors, if they possibly could, that is, if the infant had any kind of male genitalia, to use surgery to make the infant a boy. (I bet you’re shocked to hear that!)
Furthermore, the DNA of a significant number of people deviates from the standard male or female genetic make-up. At an Olympics, in the 1980s I believe, all the women athletes were tested to make sure they were really female, and a number of them were found to be male genetically and were sent home. They hadn’t had a clue that that was the case. More recently I also read that traces of pesticides in drinking water are increasing the number of intersex infants.
Now not everyone who chooses to transition to another gender was born intersex. But being assigned the wrong gender at birth because of intersex characteristics is certainly one reason people transition. There may well also be psychological causes.
And let me say also that I, as a long-time feminist, have on occasion been concerned about some transgender discourse, especially in the media–the Caitlyn Jenner kind of thing–that seems to reinforce the gender polarization that I have been working for decades to undermine. Wanting to be a woman surely needs to be distinguished from wanting to a highly over-sexed caricature of one.
All that aside, it’s pretty clear to me that what’s happening isn’t really that kids are being taught they can be any gender they want, as if gender is a commodity to be purchased. Rather, it seems to me that some adults have begun to have mercy on kids who are profoundly uncomfortable with, even distraught about, the gender identity they were assigned, through ill-advised surgery or in some other fashion. As the Year of Mercy comes to an end, I am praying that Pope Francis also learns to make these distinctions and doesn’t add, even unintentionally, to the suffering of those children.
Tags: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Jamie Manson, Pope Francis, Roman Catholic WomenPriests, The Society of St. Pius X
Lately I have been thinking about a pattern that threads through a number of recent debates.
My reflections were launched last summer when conservative Catholics like Richard Viguerie reacted with dismay, or even outrage, to Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’. I perceived such conservatives as wanting to have it both ways: if a pope condemns contraception in an encyclical, that’s obligatory teaching; if a papal encyclical declares climate change a moral issue, it’s optional. Admittedly, I also criticized some of my feminist colleagues for their naiveté in claiming that the Pope could have easily reversed Catholic teaching on contraception in Laudato Si’ in light of the dire effects of population on the climate. But I was a good deal more incensed by Republican Catholic climate change deniers arguing that the pope should stick to subjects he knows something about (i.e. doctrine and morals).
Then, in April, the Washington Post reported that the Vatican might restore to canonical status the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) , the group that separated from the Catholic Church over certain teachings of the Second Vatican Council. In particular, the article suggested, the group might be readmitted without accepting two of the documents that progressive Catholics like me consider fundamental to Council teaching: Dignitatis humanae, the document on religious liberty, and Nostra aetate, the declaration on the church’s relation with non-Christian religions, particularly the Jews. I was outraged by the very idea of Pope Francis and his administration allowing a community of Catholic priests to reject such fundamental Vatican II teachings as the right to religious freedom, especially for the Jews. I agreed strongly with Jamie Manson who asked, in the National Catholic Reporter, how the Vatican could possibly engage in such discussions with SSPX and yet refuse to reach out to ordained Catholic women who have been excommunicated?!! I had not yet noted the similarities between my outrage in this case and the conservatives’ outrage at Laudato Si’ .
Which brings us to the presidential election. I announced on my Facebook page the other day that my husband and I have switched our support from Bernie Sanders to Hillary Clinton because of the dire threat that Donald Trump poses to the democratic governance system of the United States and even to planetary survival. A lot of my Friends registered their agreement with me. Some, however, stated that they could never go there. One linked her comment to an article detailing the neoliberal conservatives who are supporting Clinton and how Clinton is a militarist. A number of socialist friends here in Brooklyn have said that they will never support Clinton under any circumstance; they plan to vote for Jill Stein or write in Bernie Sanders.
Of, course, these folks have a perfect right to vote for whomever they want, and to critique Secretary Clinton for various positions and actions she has taken. Indeed, the battle will only just be starting if and when Clinton defeats Donald Trump; we will have to ride her hard during whatever time she is in office, to prevent the kind of horrific triangulation her husband engaged in
It does seem to me, though, that there are certain similarities between the fierce and unambiguous rejection of Clinton in one case and the outrage by Catholics across the political spectrum in response to various actions by Pope Francis. Negotiation, adaptation in face of the hard realities of the present seems to have become less and less unacceptable.
It was in a letter announcing his 2016 “Jubilee Year of Mercy” that Pope Francis first reached out to the SSPX, proclaiming that during the year, confessions heard by SSPX priests would once again be valid. This is, in a certain sense, highly ironic, because when Pope Francis officially launched that same Jubilee Year of Mercy several months later, he explicitly linked it to the Second Vatican Council, the Council that the SSPX in large part rejects. In particular, Francis emphasized Vatican II’s merciful avoidance of the anathemas fired like rockets by a number of previous councils.
A presidential election is not the same as the Jubilee Year of Mercy, or even the Vatican’s negotiations to reunite with one of the most traditionalist groups of priests in the world. Yet I can’t help wondering if something of the Pope’s tone might not help us as we move through this historic, possibly life-threatening, election. Perhaps we ought to consider the possibility of being merciful, having hope, imagining that even neoliberal militarists can change their ways (not without strong encouragement from us, of course).
And before you conclude that such movement between adamantly opposed positions is inconceivable, let me end with a story. At the beginning of June, an official of the Vatican Secretariat of State, one of the Vatican’s highest-level departments, met two women from the group Roman Catholic WomanPriest s(RCWP) group, one of them a bishop. The women presented the official, whom they called a “wonderful priest,” with a letter to Pope Francis that included a petition to lift RCWP excommunications and end all punishments against their supporters as well as to begin a dialogue with women priests.
Who knows who Hillary Clinton may be meeting with in 2017?
Tags: Catholic sexual teaching, Jamie Manson, Laudato Si, Naomi Klein, Pope Francis, Ross Douthat
As Pope Francis’s various trips and the Synod on the Family recede into memory, disagreements continue concerning his positions on certain issues. Did the pope’s comments on religious freedom in the United States signify support of the USCCB religious freedom campaign? Will the pope, in his forthcoming apostolic exhortation on the family, permit divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion? Do his comments about the use of contraceptives in relation to the zika virus signal a change in Catholic teaching? Does “mercy” extend LGBTI Catholics?
The public statements and actions of popes are significant, of course. But they can also be confusing and inconsistent, especially when the pope in question is more pastoral than ideological. So it can be helpful to move beyond the ambiguity of public comments to examine papal writings. Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s June encyclical, sheds light not only on his position on the environment, but on gender and sexuality as well.
At one level, the pope’s encyclical on the intrinsically connected issues of environmental degradation and poverty may seem to reinforce the institutional church’s fierce condemnation of contraception. A week after the encyclical was issued, for example, Jamie Manson, writing on the National Catholic Reporter blog, singled out overpopulation as an issue that is “woefully underdeveloped in the encyclical.”
Manson finds problematic, in particular, Pope Francis’s suggestion that rising population is “fully compatible with an integral and shared development,” as well as his claim that blaming “population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some is one way of refusing to face the issues.”
Manson by no means disputes the Pope’s assertion that a radical change in consumerist mentality is fundamental to feeding the massively expanding populations in the Global South. But she explains that these are long term goals, whereas increasing access to reproductive education and contraceptives will have a much more immediate impact on those who suffer some of our world’s worst deprivations.
The statistics and reports Manson cites in her article are compelling. I join her in wishing that the Catholic Church would lift its ban on contraceptives and thus greatly improve, and sometimes save, the lives of poor women globally.
But Manson’s assertion that Pope Francis wouldn’t be breaking radically new ground by changing the church’s teaching on birth control is problematic, even naive. It’s likely that Pope Francis shares the teachings of his predecessors on contraception, abortion, gay marriage, and other sex/gender issues, but whether he does or not, changing such teaching would risk starting a civil war in the church. Indeed, Ross Douthat speculated in the New York Times in September that Francis intends to start a civil war in the church over divorce and remarriage.
To understand why explicit changes in Catholic teaching on contraception, divorce, and gay marriage, never mind abortion, are currently off the table, it’s helpful to recall that at Vatican II the church made some historic concessions to “the modern world.” These include acknowledging the right to religious freedom and abandoning its claim that it is necessary to be a Catholic in order to be saved.
But no institution willingly gives up power. So instead of abandoning its claims to absolute truth, the church shifted its claim to such truth from the area of doctrine to that of “faith and morals.” “Morals,” within this new economy, are obligatory for all because they inhere in what the church calls the natural law. Thus the post-Vatican II church placed increasing emphasis on sexuality and gender.
Here in the United States, the increasing focus on sexual teaching came about gradually, with the bishops appointed during and soon after Vatican II also speaking passionately on justice, peace, the environment and the poor. Yet in the years that followed, the emphasis of the institutional church in the U.S. and elsewhere shifted steadily toward sex/gender teaching.
In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis does not change Catholic sexual teaching in light of the environmental crisis. Doing so risks, among other things, massively shifting attention away from that crisis to pelvic issues, the last thing the pope has in mind. And indeed, Pope Francis does refer occasionally in the encyclical to the harms of abortion and lack of respect for life.
What’s remarkable about Laudato Si’ is that in it Pope Francis connects abortion, population control, and lack of respect for life with a range of other sins against creation. That is to say, he stresses the integral connection between “the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the poor… buying the organs of the poor for resale, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted. This same use and throw away logic,” Pope Francis tells us, “generates so much waste because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary.” (123)
Progressive Catholics are not the only ones critical of Laudato Si’, of course, and critical even of the implications of Pope Francis’s words for the absolute truth of Catholic sexual teaching. In an article in the New Yorker about her participation in a two-day Vatican conference about the encyclical, environmentalist Naomi Klein reports on a fear among conservatives in Rome that the encyclical’s discussion of “planetary overburden will lead to a weakening of the Church’s position on birth control and abortion.” She also quotes the editor of a popular Italian Catholic web site: “The road the church is heading down is precisely this: To quietly approve population control while talking about something else.”
Other conservatives are subtler in their critique of Pope Francis’s handling of Catholic sex and gender ideology. In a column ostensibly praising Laudato Si’ that appeared in the July 22 issue of the Brooklyn Catholic newspaper, the Tablet, the Bishop of Brooklyn, Nicholas DiMarzio, writes that “the environment that is most dangerous to human beings and the one which causes the most direct threat is the misunderstanding of contraception and population control.” A reader might be excused for concluding, in the context of an article praising the encyclical, that this is something Pope Francis says, or at least suggests.
But Pope Francis most certainly does not say this in Laudato Si’. Rather, he says that there is an integral connection between the dangers of abortion, contraception, climate change, other environmental destruction, and the oppression of the poor. That is, he dismantles the ideological hierarchy of recent decades, in which popes and bishops declared sex and gender offenses more grievous than any others and made social and environmental justice optional.
This is surely not the full change that Jamie Manson and I and many other progressive Catholics would like to see happen. But it’s a change of some considerable significance nonetheless.
This post is the revision of an article that appears in the February 2016 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.
Tags: " Religion Dispatches, heresy, John O'Malley SJ, Marcel Lefebvre, Massimo Faggioli, Pope Francis, Ross Douthat, schism, Society of St. Pius X
Well, on Hallowe’en New York Times columnist Ross Douthat fired off another rocket in the Catholic culture wars with his “Letter to the Catholic Academy.” Douthat had, in recent months, published a series of Times columns and blogs about the Catholic Church under Pope Francis, culminating in his October 18th “The Plot to Change Catholicism.” On October 26, a number of Catholic theologians, led by Massimo FaggioiIi and the highly regarded Vatican II historian John O’Malley, S.J.,wrote a letter to the Times calling Douthat’s statements “unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is.” A number of conservative columnists and a few theologians rebutted the theologians’ letter, accusing them of trying to silence Douthat, especially since their letter states that Douthat does not have the credentials to make such assertions. Douthat’s October 31column is also a response to the letter.
Quite a lot has been written about this kerfuffle, and you may not have time to read all of it, so let me tell you what I think. Words like “heresy” and schism,” as well as “plot,” are very strong words, and have precipitated lots of nasty events throughout the history of the Catholic and other Christian churches. Consider, for example, the execution of Michael Servetus, founder of the Unitarian Church, at the order of John Calvin in 1553. It’s also worth noting that even the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’, in their harsh condemnation of Elizabeth A. Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God, do not use the word “heresy” even once.
More to the point, as Michael Bayer of The University of Iowa Catholic Center argued persuasively even before Douthat’s latest broadside, the main issue in this debate is not the theologians’ supposedly despicable attempt to silence poor Ross (though Bayer admits the wording of the theologians’ letter could have been more careful in this regard). The main issue is that an article in the New York Times–the world’s most influential English language publication–has the potential to do enormous harm, much as the media’s “ubiquitous insistence that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, and that we needed to invade Iraq in order to eliminate this existential threat” did after 9/11.
Indeed, as Bayer argues, a number of conservative Catholic bishops no doubt read Douthat’s column, and may well adopt his erroneous identification of heresy with dissent. In my reading, Douthat is actually doing everything he can to bring about a schism, a schism of the very kind that his conservative forebears Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X initiated after Vatican II. (And the Vatican did use the word “schismatic” in condemning their actions).
This is so because Pope Francis’s teaching of mercy, and his argument, in Laudato Si’ and elsewhere, that the destruction of God’s creation and the oppression of the poor are sins as grievous as abortion, contradict the absolute, sexual-morality-based Catholicism that led Douthat and others to the Catholic Church in the first place. God willing, Francis will continue to communicate that the Church is more that the Nicene Creed and the condemnation of abortion, as an unhappy respondent to the Commonweal blogpage once claimed. Maybe, before long, even what Jesus has to say about the poor, and the Catholic social teaching rooted in his words, will be once again acknowledged to be the heart of Catholic doctrine as much as the defense of human life is.
Tags: Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, Fortnight for Freedom, Pope Francis, The Brooklyn Tablet, World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation
Two posts ago, before the crabapple tree and the carrot soup, I shared with you my letter to the Catholic newspaper of the Diocese of Brooklyn, The Tablet, about Bishop Di Marzio’s column on Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’. I said that since the letter hadn’t been published, I would share it with you.
Well, I was wrong. The Tablet actually published the letter on September 2, under the heading “Ecology’s Connectivity.” A friend from Pax Christi had emailed me after she read my post to say that she once sent a letter to The Tablet and concluded after a length of time that they weren’t going to publish it. But some time later, they did. The Tablet is slow to publish letters, at least by today’s high-speed standards. I should have listened to her.
But the publication of my letter suggests something else about The Tablet‘s editors: they don’t have a clue about the significance of Pope Francis’s claim that the environment and consumerism are as morally grave as abortion and contraceptives. Bishop DiMarzio does, though, at least at the unconscious level; that’s why in his column he makes abortion the greatest environmental threat. And I’ll bet the bishop put a lot more energy into the Fortnight for Freedom in June than into the Pope’s World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation last Tuesday, too.
Tags: abortion, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, Laudato Si, Pope Francis
As you perhaps know, earlier this week the Associated Press reported that in the month after it was published, fewer than half of the Catholics in the United States had heard of Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’. And only 23% of U.S. Catholics had heard about it at Mass.
Because of this, I was pleased to see that on July 22 the Bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn, Nicholas Di Marzio, chose to use his regular column in the diocesan newspaper, The Tablet, to tell the people of the diocese about Laudato Si’, and to urge them to study it using resources provided on the web page.
That is to say, I was pleased until I got to the following paragraph in the article:
“If we are to look at our environment in our world today, the most dangerous place for human beings seems to be a woman’s womb. In our own country, almost one million abortions are performed each year, not to count the worldwide number of abortions. Truly, the environment that is most dangerous to human beings and the one which causes the most direct threat is the misunderstanding of contraception and population control. Abortion can never be an answer to our ecological and psychological problems as human beings. Pope Francis says, ‘To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.’ He goes on to say, ‘A just society recognizes the primacy of the right to life from conception to natural death.'”
I was somewhat shocked by the bishop’s suggestion that abortion and contraception are the greatest threats to the environment in today’s world. Pope Francis does speak out several times against abortion and against lack of respect for life more broadly. But the remarkable thing about the encyclical is that in it Pope Francis explains that these sins are integrally connected with other grievous sins against the poor and creation. Without saying so explicitly, he undercuts the ideological hierarchy of his predecessors in which sexual sins are vastly more serious than social ones.
I decided to write a letter to the Tablet explaining that what DiMarzio says is not what the encyclical says. I figured the odds on the letter getting published were .00000000000001. A month later, I realize that those odds were too optimistic. So instead of sharing my thoughts in the Tablet, I’m sharing them here with you:
My deepest thanks to Bishop DiMarzio for his recent “Put Out into the Deep” column on Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care For Our Common Home (July 22). I was especially moved by the Bishop’s memories of how his own grandfather “Francesco,” embodied one of the points Pope “Francesco” stresses in his encyclical, never wasting what God has given us, never colluding in today’s “throwaway” culture.
I am also grateful that Bishop DiMarzio’s calls us to study Laudato Si’ and provides a link to the Tablet’s on-line study guide. With Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and other religious people around the world, not to mention atheists, Marxists, and “nones,” reading and responding to the encyclical, it certainly seems fitting that we Catholics should do so as well!
My one concern about the Bishop’s column is that he seems to suggest that the environment that causes “the most direct threat” to human beings is “the misunderstanding of contraception and population control.” Of course, Pope Francis does clearly state on several occasions in Laudato Si’ that abortion and lack of respect for life are part of the throwaway culture that threatens God’s creation.
But it would be a mistake to say that Laudato Si’ places abortion and contraception at the top of a hierarchy of sins against God’s creation. It is no coincidence that in his chapter on “integral ecology,” that is, on the inherent connection between all things, Pope Francis stresses the integral connection between environmental destruction and “the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the poor… buying the organs of the poor for resale, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted. This same use and throw away logic generates so much waste because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary.” (123)
Pope Francis affirms the Church’s teaching on the preciousness of unborn life. He also challenges us to realize that this precious life extends to all of God’s creation–the earth we live on, the water we drink, the plants we eat and the air we breathe, and that we must revere all of it.
Marian Ronan, Ph.D.
Research Professor of Catholic Studies
New York Theological Seminary
475 Riverside Drive
NY, NY 10115.
Tags: "Ask the Beasts", Catholic women, Climate Change, Elizabeth A. Johnson, feminist theology, Laudato Si, Pope Francis
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.)
Tags: Anti-Catholicism, fossil fuel divestment, Laudato Si, Paul Blanshard, Pope Francis, The Nation magazine
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.