Ross Douthat and the Theologians

November 3, 2015 at 1:30 pm | Posted in Catholicism, Vatican | 3 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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 elsewherethat 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.

Race Murder and Ecological Destruction

June 23, 2015 at 10:20 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The pastor at my parish, Michael Perry, had his work cut out for him last Sunday.

Our Lady of Refuge is a tri-lingual, multiracial parish in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. (Some say it’s in Midwood, but that’s another discussion). There are a few odd lots of white folk there, me, for example, but basically, Refuge is a Caribbean-Latino-Haitian parish.

So the pastor pretty much had to begin by acknowledging the murder of nine African Americans at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston the previous Wednesday. This is not to suggest that he wouldn’t have wanted to in any case. But the murder of nine people of color in a church can’t help but mean a great great deal to a church full of people of color. As Father Perry said, the people of Our Lady of Refuge were grateful that the murders hadn’t happened there.

Then there was Father’s Day. Encouraging fathers–and mothers and families–is one of the things Catholic churches do well, and Refuge did so, acknowledging fathers at various points in the liturgy, and conducting a blessing ritual for all the fathers present before the last blessing.

And then there was  Francis’s encyclical, “On the Care of Our Common Home.” Apparently a lot of priests and bishops didn’t mention the encyclical, despite the fact that it was garnering massive attention around the world, in the media, from other faith leaders, even from secular environmentalists. But Michael Perry was not one of those priests or bishops. He spoke of the encyclical in his introduction to the liturgy; he talked about it in his sermon; and he spoke about it again in his comments before the end of Mass. The earth is our home, he reminded us, and the Pope reminds us that we have to care for her as we care for the poor. I especially loved what he had to say about the attacks on the encyclical on Fox News. You go, Father Perry!

All in all, this was a lot of stuff to fit into one liturgy and sermon (along with the usual readings, offertory, canon, consecration, communion routine.) And I can’t really imagine any way that the pastor could have dealt with Father’s Day except the way he did–directly.

One way that he might have consolidated his treatment of the Charleston racial murders and the Pope’s call for us to stop making our common home into a pile of filth is that in certain respects, they are the same violence. And I’m not being metaphorical here: the destruction of Black lives in Charleston (and elsewhere) and the destruction of our common home are underpinned by the same mistaken vision–that the earth, and people whose color resembles the earth, are equally worthy of mistreatment. The nineteenth century ideology of Social Darwinism was an inherent part of all this: black and brown people had evolved from the animals, who had in turn merged from the soil. At the top of the heap were white people, who had the right to abuse those beneath them by virtue of being on top.

Another dimension of the link between racism and environmental destruction is that so many (ostensibly white) people don’t understand the ways in which their own ancestors were once associated with the earth. One of the things that most astounds me about the noxious politics of Irish-Americans like Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy is that they are oblivious to the reality that the Irish immigrants in this country were considered much farther down the evolutionary pyramid than Irish-Americans think they are today. The phrase “black Irish” can be illustrated by  a cartoon from the nineteenth-century anti-Catholic caricaturist Thomas Nast portraying Catholic bishops as crocodiles crawling out of the water. And then there was the eighteenth century English travel writer who described the Irish as “primitive savages in the sea of Virginia.” Paul Ryan is genealogically a lot closer to those murdered folks at Mother Emanuel than he cares to admit.

A French historian whose name I’m blanking on (Mouthot, maybe) also clarifies the link between environmental destruction and Wednesday’s race murders when he argues that the end of slavery was less about abolitionist virtue than it was about the invention of the steam engine. Coal, and later oil, were cheaper and easier to maintain and house than actual human beings, so once the steam engine was invented, slaves came to be seen as less and less economical. This helps me understand why it was that the  British government who allowed a million Irish to die in the Potato Famine of the late 1840s were adamantly abolitionist. Each policy was more economical.

So to return to my pastor’s sermon: while  the shooting of nine members of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and Pope Francis’s encyclical on the care for our common home may seem to be two different topics, actually, destroying our brown (and green and yellow and white) mother earth and our brown and black brothers and sisters are pretty much one and the same activity. And as Papa Francesco says, until we understand that we are fundamentally connected with God, Creation, and one another, we are in for really big trouble.

Let A Billion Vatican II Blossoms Bloom

July 30, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The following article appeared in current issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference. It was originally titled “The Death of Vatican II,” but given the title of the piece I posted last week, I thought something more upbeat might be in order.

There’s nothing original about arguing that many of the hopes generated by the Second Vatican Council have been dashed. Leonard Swidler speaks of the “devastating disappointment” of the Council. Rembert Weakland observes in his 2009 memoir that the decision not to ordain women meant “the loss of the future.” Indeed, papers recently released by the Catholic moral philosopher Germaine Grisez reveal that even before the end of the Council, Paul VI indicated that he would do what he would do regardless of what the bishops had decided.

All this notwithstanding, recent developments suggest that the Vatican and the US bishops are now intent upon bringing the Vatican II era definitively to a close. These efforts began, I would argue, with the 2002 command that the faithful return to the (literally) medieval practice of kneeling during the canon of the Mass. Even as I regret the sexism of Mark Massa’s The American Catholic Revolution, I agree with his observation that for most US Catholics, Vatican II began with the renewal of the liturgy. I can still see the nun who taught religion at my Catholic girlsʼ high school during Vatican II, Sister of Notre Dame de Namur Marcella Marie Missar, explaining joyously that “we stand during the canon out of respect for the dignity of the human person.” I wish I could believe that we have been ordered to fall to our knees once again to increase our respect for God rather than for the male leaders of the church.

If kneeling during the canon was one step in the Vaticanʼs campaign to bring the Vatican II era to a close, the “new” translation of the Roman Missal is clearly another. That the translation is ugly, wordy, cumbersome and inaccurate is only part of the story.As the once-conservative Benedictine liturgist, Anthony Ruff, argues, another purpose of the Vatican veto of the translation the bishops had already approved was to show the entire community of English-speaking liturgists that their work didnʼt matter. Nor, apparently, do the beliefs of the English-speaking Catholic laity, who took from Vatican II the bizarre notion that they share some kind of equality with the clergy. “And with your spirit” reminds us, however, that the ordained possess a sacred quality the rest of us do not.

Another discouraging effect of the “new” translation is that before it was promulgated, a number of main-line Protestant denominations shared with the English- speaking Catholic Church certain responses and other fixed parts of the liturgy, for example, “And also with you.” Many of us considered these shared liturgical passages a foretaste of the eventual reunion of Christians–a foretaste now eradicated.

Recent doctrinal statements issued by the Vatican and the USCCB manifest another break with Vatican II. Unlike the previous twenty councils of the church, Vatican II defined no doctrines and issued no anathemas. It was a truly pastoral event. Documents like the recent Vatican assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the USCCB condemnation of Elizabeth Johnsonʼs Quest for the Living God show that the men in power are accelerating the new era of anathema begun in 1968. “The joys and hopes, the griefs and sorrows” of the men and women of this age recede precipitously as doctrinal truth becomes, once again, the center of the Catholic faith.

In the face of these attempts to move the church back to the First Vatican Council, and especially the vile CDF attack on the Catholic sisters who embody the faith for many of us, itʼs tempting to give up on the whole sorry business. To decamp to the Unitarian Universalists, or the United Church of Christ, or the Episcopalians, whose stances on women and gays and peace and justice are vastly more inspiring than those of our own church seem to be.

As I argue in a post on Religion Dispatches, however itʼs likely that this is exactly what the Vatican and the USCCB have in mind—to drive out the “Vatican II Catholics” and cut back to what Pope Benedict XVI has called “the church of the little flock,” the smaller, purer Catholic Church that tolerates no dissent, no theological development, no renewal.

In the face of this attempt to eradicate the most powerful manifestation of Vatican II—the people of God—I urge us all, myself included, not to take the bait and give up. Instead, let us continue to identify ourselves as Catholics in whatever ways our consciences allow—as members of parishes where the leadership clearly does not support Vatican repression; as members of small faith communities who ordain their own celebrants or celebrate the eucharist communally; as ordained or lay participants in an RCWP congregation; as members of Independent Catholic churches; as leaders and activists in a wide range of Catholic reform groups like SEPA-WOC and Call to Action and Dignity and Voice of the Faithful. And let us invite younger Catholics, gay and straight and Black and white and Latino and in between to join with us in these efforts.

Letʼs collaborate and speak out and publish and resist the death of Vatican II to which Rome and the bishops seem committed. Let a billion Vatican II blossoms bloom.

 

 

Kudos to Sister Carol and the NCR

January 3, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , ,

Last week, the National Catholic Reporter, the progressive US Catholic new source, named Sister Carol Keehan “person of the year” for 2010. Sister Carol, you may recall, is the head of the Catholic Health Association in the United States. By leading her organization to endorse the legislation, she and a number of other Catholic sisters involved with Network, the Catholic social justice lobby are widely credited with turning the tide in the battle for health care reform last year by calming fears that the proposed legislation would increase the number of abortions in the US. Many believe that Bart Stupak and other pro-life congresspeople changed their vote because of the sisters’ assurances.

I want to join the NCR in congratulating Sister Carol and the other Catholic sisters who took these brave actions. At any time, it’s risky for sisters in canonical congregations to take positions that seem to disagree with the bishops or the Vatican. In the middle of a Vatican investigation of US women’s congregations, as we in the US are just now, it could border on suicidal. But the sisters decided, as they have so many times in the past, that the needs of the poor–in this case, the millions in the US without health insurance–outweighed more pragmatic considerations. Throughout my entire life, women like Sister Carole have been my heroes.

The US bishops, of course, have not been enthusiastic about the sisters daring to speak for the church, if, in fact, that’s what they were doing. Throughout history bishops and popes have come down hard on women who dare to trespass on their authority. On Religion Dispatches today, Eugene McMullan weighs in on the current episode. Why don’t you check it out?

Another Take on “Dagger John”

December 17, 2010 at 4:58 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , ,

A while back the new president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, published an article in America, the Jesuit magazine, about Catholic schools. It was called “The Catholic Schools We Need.” I agreed with some of it. However, in his enthusiasm for his nineteenth-century predecessor, Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes, Archbishop Dolan left out a few details that seemed pertinent to me.  And the article appeared right around the time that PBS made “Dagger John” the Catholic hero of its series, God in America.

All this put me in kind of a bad mood, so I wrote a piece about these attempts to resurrect “Dagger John” which was published on Religion Dispatches a while back. It perhaps tells you more about me than you want to know that I didn’t realize until today that it had appeared. I need a secretary. (See previous post.)


Dorothy Day, Patroness of Crabs

November 29, 2010 at 2:03 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , ,

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Dorothy Day. As some of you know, I had a few things to say on Religion Dispatches about New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s take on her as he celebrated the anniversary of Dorothy’s birthday at a Pax Christi vespers in Greenwich Village a while back.

Judy Coode, it seems to me, is much more realistic about Dorothy, in the reflections she shares with readers in this year’s Pax Christi Advent reflection booklet. Coode invites us to rejoice  in Dorothy’s charity and focus and strict simplicity. but she also mentions that Dorothy was “by some accounts a difficult person with whom to live.” Indeed, the only time I met Dorothy Day, when she had come to Grailville, where I lived in the 70s, to speak at a Catholic Art Association meeting, her comments about a film we had just watched, “Three Men and a Wardrobe,” seemed to me downright crotchety. And when a friend, long before the invention of the computer, submitted a manuscript to The Catholic Worker,  Dorothy wrote all over it before rejecting it, forcing my friend to retype the thing from scratch before submitting it elsewhere. 

But, as Coode suggests, human flaws like these are less a source scandal than of comfort to those of us who struggle to “match (Dorothy’s) life of integrity.” Dorothy Day, Servant of God and patroness of the crotchety, pray for us.

US Catholic Bishops in the Culture Wars

November 19, 2010 at 10:25 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , ,

Well, this week the United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) elected the Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, to be their president, passing over the previous vice-president, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson. It’s virtually unheard of for the sitting vice-president not to move up to the presidency. I reflect on Archbishop Dolan and the meaning of this development in an article on Religion Dispatches, “US Catholic Bishops Elect a Culture Warrior.”

I am somewhat emabarrassed to add that WordPress, which hosts my blogpage, has recently changed the mechanism whereby one inserts a link to another webpage into a post. Until I locate someone under thirty to teach me how to work the new mechanism, I’m afraid I just have to paste the link to the Religion Dispatches  article below. Hoping things on my end will improve soon!

God in America; Water Wars Around the World

October 20, 2010 at 9:28 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , ,

Like a lot of people, I recently watched the PBS series “God in America.” And, you’ll be shocked to learn, I had some emphatic responses to it. You can read about them on the website Religion Dispatches.

Also, on Saturday, I was the keynote speaker for Pax Christi Metro New York’s annual assembly program, “Water of War, Waters of Peace,” an exploration of the increasing threat of armed conflicts caused by the world water crisis. Selections from my talk and from an interview with Rosemarie Pace, PCMNY executive director, were featured on “Currents,” the Catholic  Diocese of Brooklyn’s evening television news report. (The video includes the entire “Currents” episode,  but our segment comes first, so hang on through the lead-ins and you’ll get to the water wars segment pretty quickly.)

Blog at WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.