The Birth of the Pill (and More than Four Crusaders)

October 16, 2014 at 3:51 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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As you can see, I’ve been doing a lot of book reviewing lately. This week, the National Catholic Reporter published my review of Jonathan Eig’s The Birth of the Pill, so here it is. (Apologies to those who already read it there.)


By Jonathan Eig
Published by W.W. Norton & Company, $27.95

At first glance, The Birth of the Pill may seem an odd choice for review in a Catholic publication. Of the four “crusaders” in the subtitle, only one, obstetrician/gynecologist John Rock — was a practicing Catholic.

Of the other three, the brilliant research biologist Gregory “Goody” Pincus was the son of Jewish immigrants. Fired by Harvard for the Brave New World overtones of his in vitro fertilization discoveries, Pincus went on…(Continue here.)

The Pope! The Pope! The Pope!

October 11, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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Well, you have admit, Pope Francis is getting some serious media coverage.  As John Allen quips in the National Catholic Reporter today, “If a Las Vegas casino had opened a betting line eight months ago on the likelihood that within a year the most popular figure on the planet would be the pope, one has to imagine the odds would have been awfully long.” But here’s Francis, making headlines everywhere. In the latest  summary of articles on Christianity that I receive weekly from the New York Time, three of the pieces are about the new pope.  And there were two articles about him in the last issue of The Nation, that former hotbed of  anti-Catholicism.

This outpouring of interest in and enthusiasm for the pope inspires several thoughts in me. First of all, it suggests that the Catholics won the Reformation. Roman Catholicism is the biggest organized religion on earth, with 1.2 billion members. One journalist–don’t ask me which one– suggested recently that the pope is now  the global symbol not only of Christianity, but of religion. I can imagine a few Muslims taking issue with this. But as for Christianity, it’s hard to dispute. Part of the problem is the clothes—who wants to photograph the head of the World Council of Churches in a suit and tie when you can get these guys in archaic dresses and hats? The universal fixation on the pope also suggests that the Catholic emphasis on, not to say brutal enforcement of, unity does have its upside. Why talk to the 476 and counting heads of various Protestant denominations when you can just call Rome? Nearly a half a millennium after the posting of his ninety-five theses, Luther must be turning over in his grave.

But as Allen also mentions in his NCR article, despite the new pope’s enormous popularity, there are still a few sticking points. Allen calls them Francis’s “Older Son Problem,” referring to the elder sibling who got seriously pissed over his father’s ecstatic welcome of the returned prodigal brother. These include, according to Allen, some faithful Vatican personnel who were not pleased by the pope’s references to the “leprosy” of the Vatican court; some pro-life Catholics who feel less than appreciated by the pope’s suggestions that their efforts have been “over the top”; and some evangelical Catholics who have toiled heroically to defend and clarify orthodox Catholic identity and who suspect the pope is pulling the rug out from under them.

As for me, however, I’m with Nation columnist Katha Pollitt and University of Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting: it’s Francis’s support of church teaching on sexuality that renders problematic this great outpouring of enthusiasm.  As Pollitt wonders, is warm Pope Francis’s  acceptance of church teaching on contraception, abortion, and the exclusion of women from ordination  “Sexism with a Human Face”?  In his New York Times blogGutting answers the question unambiguously: “Unless the pope is prepared to reject the hierarchy’s absolute condemnation of these actions (any abortion, any homosexual act, any use of artificial contraceptives) and revise the official teaching, his comments reflect merely changes of style and tone.” Gutting finds a few glimmers of hope—references by Francis to the infallibility of the faithful in matters of belief and to the “uncertainty” that always accompanies spiritual discernment.  But Gutting does not expect Francis to change Catholic sexual teaching.

Pollitt’s and Gutting’s concerns call to mind the explanation of the ideology of the post Vatican II church in Gene Burns’s illuminating 1994 study, The Frontiers of Catholicism: The Politics of Ideology in a Liberal WorldBurns, a sociologist, argues convincingly that after Vatican II the hierarchy—the ranking—of the various Roman Catholic ideological positions underwent rearrangement. Before the Council, Catholic theological doctrine was the single most important part of Catholic thinking, with social and sexual teaching equally important but secondary. In the nineteenth century, for example, abortion and belief in the separation of church and state were equally gravely sinful, but heresy was worse.

With Vatican II, however, the church’s (belated) acceptance of the modern world undercut the primacy of Catholic doctrine per se. By admitting, for example, that a human being does not have to be Catholic—to believe in Jesus Christ and the Roman Catholic Church—in order to be saved, the church undercut the absolute status of its theological doctrines.

But as Burns explains, no institution gives up its claim to absolute truth and power willingly. After the Council, then, the RCC replaced its claim to absolute doctrinal truth with a claim to the absolute truth of its sexual teaching, based not in the Catholic tradition, but in Natural Law. According to Natural Law, all human beings are forbidden to have abortions, to engage in homosexual acts, to divorce their spouses. The Catholic church became the keeper of this universally mandatory law. Thus in the ideological hierarchy, as defended and enforced by the Catholic Church,  universal (Catholic) sexual teaching is on the top, and mandatory for all; Catholic doctrine comes second, and is mandatory only for Catholics;  and Catholic social teaching comes third, and is optional, that is,  subject to individual “prudential judgments” (as the American bishops sometimes put it.)

It sometimes seems as if Pope Francis isn’t privy to this ideological hierarchy–or at least he doesn’t grasp that social justice is entirely optional. Who knows–under his leadership, the Catholic ideological hierarchy may be rearranged again; maybe all three kinds of teaching will get put on an equal level.  If the Catholic ideological hierarchy changed after Vatican II, it could, conceivably, change again.

But let’s not kid ourselves: such ideological reconfigurations don’t happen easily, or quickly, as the repression of liberation theology by John Paul II in the 1980s suggests. In the short-term, and for a good while thereafter, Pope Francis will be keeping sexual teaching on the top (and, to switch metaphors, women and gays on the bottom) no matter how warm and loving the style in which he does so.

Sucker Punched by the New Pope?

September 26, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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The following is a somewhat revised version of my article that appeared on Religion Dispatches last night. There’s a reason I’m an academic and not a journalist: attending to the twenty-four hour news cycle makes me a nervous wreck. Minutes after I mailed my article to RD,  in which I suggested that Pope Francis’s Latin American upbringing might have contributed to his attitude toward women, an email appeared announcing that Francis had denounced machismo in his interview published in fifteen Jesuit publications last week. Once this post is up, I’m going back to my research.

Sucker Punched by the New Pope?

 Soon, many optimistic, not to say naïve, Catholics—and Protestants—will be shocked to learn that the kindly new Pope Francis has excommunicated an Australian priest for supporting women’s ordination. Perhaps it’s all right to be obsessed with some pelvic issues after all.

According to the National Catholic Reporter, Rev. Gregory Reynolds, of Melbourne, was notified on September 18 that he had “incurred latae sententiae excommunication for throwing away the consecrated host or retaining it ‘for a sacrilegious purpose’” (Somebody in Reynolds’s small Eucharistic community had apparently given the host to a dog) as well as for “speaking publicly against church teaching.” A letter to the priests of the archdiocese clarified that Reynolds’s support of women’s ordination was a primary reason for his excommunication.

I am not among those shocked by this development. As enthusiastic commentary about the new pope flowed out from the media in recent weeks, I was reminded of a comment my husband used to make about the police in Philadelphia back when we lived there. Some poor kid shoplifted something and BAM, there’d be three police cars surrounding him. “These boys don’t play,” my hubby would say. Neither do popes and cardinals, no matter how benign they seem.

Other Catholic feminists—Mary Hunt, for example—expressed wariness of the new pope even before Reynolds’s excommunication. It was not lost on us that even in the first interview, on the plane from Brazil, Pope Francis drew the line at women’s ordination. Indeed, the clear hierarchical distinction between genders underpinned by the refusal to ordain women has been the line in the sand since just after the Roman persecution of the church. But since John Paul II’s 1994 statement declaring women’s ordination absolutely off-limits, it’s been a twofer: something the church “has always taught,” and an example of “papal infallibility.” Never mind that papal infallibility applies only to church doctrine; no pope is going to undercut his own authority.

Of course, the boys’ declaring women’s ordination the line in the sand is something just this side of a death wish for the church. Despite attempts to obscure the fact, the men now in seminaries can’t begin to replace the priests retiring and dying, or to reverse the parish closings that necessarily follow. I have been arguing for forty years that women’s ordination is a fundamentally conservative issue; I cannot tell you how many Catholic women I know who would have been perfectly happy living their lives as grunt parish priests, baptizing and marrying and burying people. Instead, they’re picketing cathedrals, or writing articles for Religion Dispatches.

Of course, Pope Francis’s position on women’s ordination doesn’t mean he won’t initiate other more moderate reforms in the Catholic church. Indeed, his position on this issue may well be an olive branch to the conservative wing of the church so as to be able to introduce other changes. Pope Bergoglio is a strategic centrist; in Argentina he proposed civil unions as a compromise between the right-wing bishops on one side and the Kirchner government’s efforts to legalize gay marriage on the other

Then again, describing Pope Francis as a “strategic centrist” may credit him and the rest of the institutional church with more coherence than is warranted. I concluded a previous version of this article with speculation that Pope Francis’s origins in a machismo culture played some role in his excommunication of Rev. Reynolds. Just after I mailed it to Religion Dispatches,, an NCR blog by Phyllis Zagano appeared in my inbox. Francis had apparently spoken negatively about machismo in the original Italian version of his famous interview published last week by fifteen Jesuit journals. But somehow, the English version published in the Jesuits’ America magazine omitted the statement. Since then, America has apologized.

Maybe the pope sucker punched us by excommunicating Father Reynolds. Maybe he knew nothing about it. Maybe we’ll get a kiss tomorrow. Stay tuned.

So What Does This Make Me?

May 16, 2013 at 4:46 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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I have, from time to time, mentioned my working-class Irish-Catholic upbringing in a county immediately south of Philadelphia. I was actually born in Chester, a ship-building city on the Delaware River, south of Philly on the way to Wilmington. We moved to Collingdale, a few miles north of Chester, when I was two-and-a-half.

Some would call Collingdale a suburb, but I never do, at least not since people started thinking that suburbs are full of 12,000 square foot houses with hot tubs in the back. Collingdale was a whole like the Northeast section of Philadelphia, row houses and “twins” built after World War II and occupied by the families led by shift workers like my father–people who were excited out of their minds that they owned anything. The bedroom I shared with my brother till he was seven and I was fourteen was so tiny, you could hardly get between his bed and mine. The dresser (which I still own) was out in the hallway.

There are a number of things I could tell you about my neighborhood, and the street we lived on, Juliana Terrace. The people were decent, and we felt safe enough to play out on the street. (We were all white, of course; it was the 1950s.)

My shift-worker father, Joe Ronan, was a hard-working guy who had had a difficult childhood and youth–orphaned at the age of nine, put out on the street during the Depression by the unmarried aunts who could no longer feed him, a stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps before joining the Navy in 1939 (because it paid better than the CCC) . Privilege was something he did not have to pass onto us.

What I did get from my father were certain ideological convictions. You see, I grew up thinking that being a Democrat and being pro-union were the most important things in the world, and that they were somehow inextricably linked with being an Irish Catholic. My father would sit at the dinner table and announce, with absolute certainty, that if we ever voted Republican or crossed a picket line, we would go to hell. This was the beginning of my theological education. I was in college before it dawned on me that it was possible to be a Catholic and a Republican.

Things have changed a lot since those days, of course. First there were the Reagan Democrats. After my father died, despite my terror about what she might say, I asked my mother if my father had voted for Reagan. I was greatly relieved when she assured me he had not.

But the big change came when the Catholic Church, or at least the U.S. Catholic Bishops, shifted all their eggs into the sexual morality basket. Time was when American bishops hired people like the great social justice advocate, Monsignor John A. Ryan, or wrote letters on economic justice and peace. In recent years, however, their battles have been primarily, if not exclusively, against contraception, abortion, and gay marriage.

Although I have written at length about the institutional church’s fixation on sexuality and gender since Vatican II, I guess I was still unconsciously operating out of my pro-union/Democratic/Irish/Catholic identity before the last election. I could not grasp why the bishops would launch their “Fortnight of Freedom” attack on a Democratic –and Black!–candidate in a presidential election year. I said this to one of my Catholic friends who was less out-to-lunch than I was; she replied: “Because they’re Republicans, Marian.” I was stupefied. I couldn’t take in what she had said.

Subsequently, a priest I know here in Brooklyn shared with me that the local Catholic bishop, who’s a member of Opus Dei, had told him he had a moral obligation to vote for Mick Romney in the presidential election. My friend bravely replied that as an American, he would follow his conscience about who to vote for.

Since then I have been having something of an identity crisis. I mean, the boys began attempting to roll back Vatican II in 1968, and since I am, at heart, a Vatican II Catholic, I guess my identity has been under assault for decades, at a certain level. And then last year the Vatican went after the Catholic sisters, who were like the grandparents I never had on my father’s side (even if some of them were only ten years older than I was). But now I come to find out that a majority of the U.S. bishops are Republicans, for Christ’s sake.

What does this make me? Or perhaps I should ask, what does it make them?

No Closure

November 8, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The following is a review of No Closure: Catholic Practice and Boston’s Parish Shutdowns by John C. Seitz. Harvard University Press, 2011.  Hardback, $39.95; e-book, $30.44.  248 pp. 

Much has been written about the relationship of the Roman Catholic Church to the “modern world.” One stream of conversation has it that the church “entered the modern world” at Vatican II. But the church helped to create the modern world as well. The Spanish monarchs who sent Columbus off, for example, were Franciscan tertiaries, while Michel Foucault argues that the Catholic practice of private confession was fundamental to the construction of the individual, that lynchpin of modernity. It’s closer to the truth to say that the church decided to exit the modern world when the liberal revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made evident the high cost of participating in that world. But exiting an era in which you’ve played a major role for five hundred years is tricky. Even the reintroduction of the “perennial philosophy” of St. Thomas Aquinas was as much a mimicking of the clarity of the Scientific Revolution as it was a return to Aquinas’s work which had been both ground-breaking and controversial in its time.

Reviewers will tend, I suspect, to portray John C. Seitz’s book, No Closure: Catholic Practice and Boston’s Parish Shutdowns, as a study of the laypeople who resisted the closure of a number of churches by the Archdiocese of Boston beginning in 2004. Indeed, the ethnographic interviews Seitz conducted with a range of former parishioners serves as the foundation of the study. Yet even the ethnographic nature of the book, as Seitz acknowledges, is complicated, since he not only interviewed the occupiers, (or vigilers, or resisters, as they are also called) but participated in the occupations—sometimes sleeping all night in the churches and taking part in tasks like cleaning the churches and fixing broken objects..

Like the nature of Seitz’s ethnographic role, No Closure’s argument itself is not a simple one, though it is well worth the effort required to comprehend it.  By situating the Boston church occupations within the very changes and continuities of post-war Catholicism, Seitz offers one of the most valuable readings yet published of the complex nature of the relationship between the church and “the modern world.” As he writes in his introductory chapter, his project “intends to understand resisters as they carried…the imprint of wider struggles related to changes in the church and society across the twentieth century” (17).

Seitz accomplishes this by “braiding” together what readers might expect to be highly divergent actions, motivations and beliefs on the part of occupiers and representatives of the archdiocese as well. While some might assume the refusal to give up two different Italian parishes, in North and East Boston, to be motivated by traditional or conservative beliefs in saints, statues, and relics, for example, Seitz shows that the occupiers were equally motivated by a Vatican II sense of themselves as “the people of God.”

On the other hand, it may seem that the archdiocese’s demand that people leave their parishes behind is a classic instance of episcopal authoritarianism based in traditional, pre-Vatican II theology.  Drawing on a nuanced comparison of pre- and post-Vatican II texts for the ritual dedication of a church, however, Seitz shows that the authorities intent on shutting down the churches had shifted from centuries-old Catholic language about the sacredness of places and objects to a distinctly modern, post-Vatican II emphasis on the primarily symbolic nature of those places and things. The authorities then used this “modern” framework to justify their call for what may be construed as highly traditional obedience and sacrifice.  One of the most revealing parts of No Closure involves the discovery, by the occupiers of one of the churches, of altar relics consecrated at the dedication of the church but discarded in a sacristy drawer as the church was being “closed.”  The recent return to traditional reverence ostensibly expressed by kneeling during the canon of the Mass is not terribly evident in this apparent dismissal of the communion of saints.

Seitz’s interpretation of the vigilers’ practice of bringing consecrated hosts supplied by anonymous priests into the occupied churches for legitimate lay-led communion services also embodies the complexity of the resisters’ Catholicism.  In a review in the National Catholic Reporter, Kathleen L. Sullivan quotes Seitz in such a way as to suggest that practices like this were really tactics by the occupiers to appear “more Catholic” than archdiocesan authorities.  But in the context of the book’s larger argument, this importation of the Body and Blood of Christ was also a genuine expression of devout Catholicism, over against the archbishop’s cavalier closing of what the occupiers had longed believed to be the center of their faith, the parish. Seitz’s reading here suggests that Catholic reform groups who base their claims to legitimacy on apostolic succession, or who allow only officially ordained but married priests to celebrate the Eucharist, are also, in some respects, adhering to traditional Catholic beliefs.

It’s not possible in a review of this length to do justice to Seitz’s nuanced reading of the interrelationships between continuity and change, between tradition and modernity, in the beliefs and practices of the Catholics who occupied Boston Catholic churches, and for that matter, in the beliefs and practices of the archdiocesan authorities who ordered those closings and the parishioners who accepted them. Considering the ways in which the title of the book itself embodies such Catholic “braiding” may be a good way to bring these brief reflections to a conclusion, however.

At the simplest level, of course, No Closure communicates the fact that some Boston Catholics did not allow their parish churches to be closed. Yet Seitz knows well and acknowledges that while a few of the churches survived, sometimes with diminished status, others did close, or would eventually; indeed, one of them, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in East Boston, saw its occupation ended in April, 2012, seven years after it began.

But No Closure means more than this. It even means more than that some of the occupiers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel have continued vigiling outside their recently closed church.  As Seitz details in his moving epilogue, there is also “no closure” for those who moved, either promptly or eventually, from their closed parishes to new parishes, to Protestant churches, or to no churches at all.  Their complex, braided, modern-premodern-postmodern Catholic experiences are never again going to fold neatly into some clear, essentialized Catholic identity, if in fact they ever did.

This leads to a final meaning of No Closure, the one that is, for me, most moving. From time to time we encounter in the media suggestions that indictment or execution of or even apology from those responsible will bring “closure” to families who have lost loved ones.  Such references too often make mourning sound quick and easy, which, of course, it’s not. Neither will some quick and easy closure bring an end to the mourning of American Catholics, whose losses since Vatican II have been profound, as John Seitz’s fine book makes abundantly evident.

(This review appeared originally in the October 2012 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.)

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