Pope Francis and Catholic Gender Ideology

February 27, 2016 at 5:17 pm | Posted in Catholicism, feminism, women | 4 Comments
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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 EqualwRitesthe newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.

 

Ross Douthat and the Theologians

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

Rebutting Critiques of the Encyclical

June 25, 2015 at 12:36 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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The other day I was reading some materials on how to discuss Laudato Si’ with the media. They basically said if the interviewer, reporter, whoever, asks a critical question about the encyclical,  the person being interviewed should disagree as briefly as possible and then get back on message. So:

Interviewer: But doesn’t the Catholic Church’s position on population doom the planet?

Interviewee: No. What the Pope is saying is…

The only problem with this approach is, if I didn’t engage criticisms (and make them!), that is to say, if I stayed exclusively on some positive message, I would have very little to say. As my father, Joe Ronan, used to put it, I have quite a mouth on me.

So I’d like to discuss some of the things the critics of “On the Care of Our Common Home” are saying. That is to say, I’d like to rebut them. But so as not to fail the “positive messaging” exam altogether, let me summarize  what Papa Francesco said to the world a week ago.

  1. The earth, our common home, is in increasingly terrible shape (“a pile of filth”) thanks primarily to human activity.
  2. The Catholic faith, based in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the lives of the saints, and the writing of previous popes, is basically a “Gospel of Creation,” which calls us to protect and defend that creation.
  3. The people most harmed by environmental destruction and climate change are the poor.
  4. The “technological paradigm,” that is, the worship of unbridled growth, the free market, profits as an end in themselves, and convenience, is the primary cause of the destruction of our “common home.”
  5. The solution to this crisis is “integral ecology,” that is, embodying the profound interconnection between God, all human beings, and the rest of God’s creation.
  6. Spirituality and religious education must be based in this “integral ecology.”

Now, on to those criticisms!

The part of the encyclical that has gotten the most negative feedback, at least from my admittedly limited perspective on the margins of New York City, is the statement that cap-and-trade is not the solution to the environmental crisis. First Ross Douthat denounced this position in the New York Times the day after the publication of the encyclical; and then on Sunday, David Brooks chimed in in agreement, also in the Times.

It’s perhaps helpful to observe that Pope Francis addresses the issue of cap-and-trade in only one paragraph of the entire 246 paragraph document. Admittedly, he is unambiguous in his rejection of this approach. But it needs first of all to be said that the rejection of cap-and-trade as a solution is utterly consistent with the argument throughout the encyclical that market solutions have had lots of time to solve the problem and have failed. The current over-consumptive economy simply is not working, and the destruction of the earth is the result.

It is also worth noting that a wide range of experts and organizations outside the Vatican argue convincingly that cap-and-trade just doesn’t work. It’s a system that is rife with fraud, corruption and dishonest calculations. At bottom, it allows groups with more money, the fossil fuel industry, to buy exemptions (offsets) from regional, national, and international emissions limits (should there ever really be any of the latter) without in any way changing their  CO2 output. That is to say, the 1% get to buy exemptions from the emissions limits that the rest of us will be forced to observe.

Finally, it’s worth noting that one of the noteworthy points Papa Francesco makes throughout the encyclical is the high value of local cultures and voices. In particular, he highlights that the deaths of indigenous cultures will be as great a loss as the extinction of various non-human species. This is quite something coming from the head of a church that led the way in Europeanizing indigenous tribes during the colonial period.

But another significant aspect of the pope’s defense of indigenous cultures is that indigenous peoples are some of those most harmed by cap-and-trade, and by the Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Destruction (REDD) policies that are a big part of cap-and-trade. What is happening, as the galvanizing video “A Darker Shade of Green: REDD Alert and the Future of Forests” shows, is that some governments in the Global South–Mexico and Brazil in particular–sell “offsets” to carbon emitting companies in the North. The governments get money and the  companies get to continue their emissions because rainforests and other woodlands in the Global South are”offsetting” those emissions. Then the governments of those countries run the indigenous peoples out of those rainforests and woodlands, cut down the trees, and replant them with palm oil or pine forests so they can continue to sell offsets and make a profit from the market. These are the same indigenous peoples whose extinctions the Pope is lamenting. Is it any wonder he is opposed to cap and trade?

Another criticism of the encyclical comes from the other end of the political spectrum, and  involves the Pope’s claim that population is not the cause of the climate crisis.  One humanist webpage last week had twenty-five or so people arguing about whether what the Pope says about population (and abortion, and implicitly contraceptives) makes the encyclical worthless, or something to that effect.

First of all, it’s worth pointing out that in many respects, the Pope is correct. The countries whose populations have leveled off or are declining, the countries in the North and West, give off vastly more greenhouse gases per capita than countries in the Global South that have growing populations, and have done so for decades.s. Per capita, U.S. residents give off four times as much greenhouse gas as the Chinese do, even if collectively, the Chinese give off more. The historic climate destruction debt is ours. It’s not population that’s the primary problem: it’s consumption, sloth, and greed.

Let me also say that I have been working really hard for the equality of women in the Catholic Church for over forty years. I have written five books and many, many articles concerning gender and sexuality in Catholicism and Christianity. I was also at one point the president of the board of the U.S. Women’s Ordination Conference. I even published a blog post criticizing what Pope Francis says about women in the previous document he wrote, “Evangelii Gaudium.” I get it that the Catholic church has serious women problems.

But it is also the case that one out of every six people on the planet is a Roman Catholic. In addition to that, the Pope is the single most well-known religious figure on earth. As Mary Evelyn Tucker at the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology says, this encyclical “changes everything” because the most high-profile religious leader in the world has announced that climate change is a MORAL issue, not just a political or economic one.

If the changes in belief and action that the Pope calls for in Laudato Si’ were to happen, the situation of women would inevitably improve. After all, the anthropocentrism he rejects identifies women (and people of color) with the earth, even as it identifies males with the transcendent, implicitly male, God. And women and their children are at least seventy percent of the poor the Pope tells us are most harmed by environmental destruction. Pope Francis may not be going to ordain women, but he’s doing more for us in this encyclical than even he may realize.

Is Commonweal Moving to the Right?

August 28, 2013 at 5:14 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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I began reading the liberal Catholic magazine, Commonweal, when I was a teenager. I remember gobbling up the latest issue in 1965 during the coffee break from my file clerk job the summer before I started college. A few years later, my best friend from college, the future theologian Margaret O’Gara, began taking me home for conversations with her father, Commonweal’s editor,  James O’Gara. I felt amazingly honored to be a “Commonweal Catholic,” committed “to a church that’s open and pluralistic,…a visible manifestation of Jesus’ presence in the world,” as O’Gara put it in his final Commonweal column in 1999.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deliver Us From Douthat

April 10, 2012 at 10:29 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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In an Easter Sunday column in the New York Times, Ross Douthat argues that “the disappearance of a Christian center and the decline of institutional religion more generally” has led to “division, demonization and polarization without end” in American politics. The piece is so shot full of inaccuracies, generalizations and ideological hoo-hah that I very nearly laid my face down on my  breakfast pancakes. There was so much to disagree with, the thought of commenting on the article totally exhausted me. Even more horrifying, the article is taken from Douthat’s presumably just as bad new book, the title of which I refuse to mention for fear of contributing to sales.

Thank God, religion and journalism scholar Mark Silk has more energy than I; he eviscerates Douthat point by point in an Easter Monday article, “Bad Douthat,” on the Religion News Service webpage.  No, Ross, JFK was not the first non-mainstream-Protestant US president. No, the 1950s saw nothing like the acknowledgement of common theological ground between Catholics and Protestants. No, Obama is not an “unchurched Christian,” and stop making offensive remarks about him. No, Romney’s LDS church is not growing quickly. No, not all institutional churches in the past “proved their worth as both sources of moral authority and hubs of activism”–consider the opposition to civil rights by white churches in the South. No, Ross,  “the problem in our time is not that religious causes have polarized the polity, but that they have been mapped onto partisan politics. By consciously building a base of supporters on religious lines, the Republican Party has taken the normal cut-and-thrust of religion in America and institutionalized it politically. It’s not bad religion that brought this about. It’s bad politics.”

Silk’s article is well worth reading in toto. It offers an insight into the nonsense that passes for journalism these days. Why, I wonder, does the New York Times, the “paper of record,” as some say, publish this stuff?

(Many thanks to my friend, Religion in America scholar David Watt, for posting a link to Silk’s article on his Facebook page.)

Sex Abuse Bibliography

April 24, 2010 at 12:40 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Those of you follow my blog know that I am occasionally subject to an obsession with the Vatican that I consider a serious personal failing. A falling off the wagon, as it were. Of course, the (as virtually ever journalist in the world describes it) “mounting” Catholic sex abuse scandal certainly helps to explain my current mania. You can  barely turn on the radio without hearing a reference to the Vatican and sex abuse. Still…

In an attempt to “achieve some closure” on this latest episode of Vatican mania, I have decided, in classic professorial style, to construct  a list of articles about Catholic clergy sex abuse that in my opinion add at least some nuance to the “conversation.” Your paper on same is due May 1.

I have already mentioned the Ross Douthout April 11 NYTimes op-ed piece about Benedict XVI being “The Better Pope” with regard to sex abuse. I mention it again because it doesn’t seem to have gotten much play. Hard to fathom how somebody who was in charge of the Catholic Church for almost three decades within the period during which a massive cover-up of sex abuse ostensibly took place could continue to get a pass. But JPII was a brilliant tactician; perhaps he continues to be so even after death.

Another article on sex abuse and the church, “On Scandal and Scandals,” by priest-psychologist Brendan Callaghan, appeared last week on Thinking Faith,  the on-line journal of the British Jesuits. The striking thing about this article is that, although it’s written by a Catholic priest, it exhibits neither the inept defensiveness of the Vatican nor the vituperative tone of too much  journalism on the scandal. Callaghan’s concluding thoughts on sin and reconciliation in the light of the Resurrection of Jesus instilled more hope in me about this great mess than anything I’ve read in a long time. (Thinking Faith, by the bye,  is free, and well worth subscribing to.)

On another front, one well to the south of the countries where the scandal is getting the greatest play, the Catholic Information Service of Africa (CISA) has published a talk on clergy sex abuse by the Archbishop of Johannesburg, Buti Tlhagale. Archbishop Thlagale is unambiguous in his condemnation of sex abuse by Catholic clergy. And he speaks of the clergy in first person plural–“we,” not “you,”–detailing the enormous harm that has been done to the Church by priests. But he doesn’t stop there, ending, instead, with words of hope, those spoken by Jesus to Francis of Assisi at the time of his conversion: “Francis, go rebuild my house, which, as you see, is all being destroyed.” Would that Archbishop Tlhagale’s emphatic condemnation had been quoted alongside those of the Vatican nitwit who, during Holy Week, compared the treatment of the Church to the oppression of the Jews. (CISA’s email coverage of the Church in Africa is also free and worthwhile. Subscription info here.) 

Finally, I bring to your attention yesterday’s article in the New York Times  (April 23) about an $18.5 million sex abuse judgment  against the Boy Scouts of America. Apparently the Scouts for decades kept a secret file of sex abusers that ostensibly “detailed many instances across the country in which troop leaders or volunteers were allowed to continue working with children even after the Scouts had received complaints that they had committed sexual abuse.” The Scouts’ lawyer argued that “the files proved that the Scouts were ahead of their time in tracking child sexual abuse, even if the system was ‘not foolproof.’” One commentator, at least, suggested that the setting up of the file actually was well intentioned, initially at least.

Ross Douthat: Benedict XVI is Better

April 12, 2010 at 4:38 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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This is more a transmission than a blogpiece, but I was struck, just now, by an op-ed in today’s New York Times  in which Ross Douthat argues that Benedict XVI is a better pope than John Paul II was. I know a lot of people who will disagree with that, and a number more who will say “Who cares?” But I find the article an interesting one in the midst of all the venom and condemnation swirling around lately.

By the way, does anybody know how to pronounce “Douthat”? Is it “Doubt-hat?” “Do that?” Something else altogether?

Vatican Welcomes Traditional Anglicans

October 27, 2009 at 2:16 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments
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Well, Pope Benedict XVI’s recent announcement that traditionalist Anglicans–including married priests, bishops (sort of), parishes and dioceses–will soon be welcomed into the Roman Catholic communion is certainly getting a lot of press.  For Ross Douthat, in the October 25  New York Times, “Benedict’s Gambit,” as he calls it, may be geared to a deeper conflict than the presenting intra-Christian one ( sex)–“Christianity’s global encounter with a resurgent Islam.”

For the British novelist A.N. Wilson, in the Op-Ed section of that same issue of the Times, the Pope’s gambit may be a good thing, despite its conservative motivation. By weakening Anglicanism in Britian, the overture may bring about the demise of the Established Church there,  a “move toward the complete secularization of Britain, and an acceptance of its new multicultural identity.”   

And in response to Bob Abernathy’s question on Religion and Ethics Newsweekly about whether the Vatican is “fishing” for converts here,  John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter  replied that “the Vatican’s line is that even though we didn’t solicit them, when people knock on our door we have a responsibility to open it up.”  If Allen’s personal interpretation of these developments deviates at all from this Vatican “line,” he certainly doesn’t share it in this interview.

I don’t want to waste my time reiterating what these and many other commentators have said about the pope’s “gambit,” but I do want to make two ponts of my own:

The first is that I am deeply ashamed of the actions of the leaders of my church. To my many Episcopal friends and former students, I apologize. Commentators can talk till hell freezes about how none of this was the Vatican’s idea, but it’s hard to deny that the Roman Catholic Church is interfering here in the affairs of another Christian communion at a time when that sister-church is confronting great internal conflict. This I believe is a violation of the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. To suggest that it is somehow the culmination of years of ecumenical dialogue seems to me a travesty.  With this in mind, I look forward to reading soon some analyses of the Vatican’s actions in light of the Vatican II document on ecumenism.

Secondly, that the particular Christians ostensibly to be welcomed into the Roman Catholic Church are Anglicans is of some significance to me.  I am a second generation Irish Catholic; my father’s parents emigrated to the US sometime before the 1916 Easter uprising in part at least to escape English (and Anglican) oppression. (Also poverty, for sure.)

One of the reasons I have remained a Catholic over these many less than easy years is because of my loyalty to Irish Catholicism (and to the working class culture to which that Catholicism was linked for more than a century). As a Catholic women’s ordination activist I am often asked why I don’t just become an Episcopalian; because, I respond, my grandparents would turn over in their graves.

Now, however, it would seem that not just Anglicans, but extremely traditional (misogynist, homophobic) Anglicans are going to be welcomed into the Church to which I and many other Irish American Catholics have remained loyal for a century and a half. So here’s my question: are these guys going to become pastors of Catholic parishes, the ones my ancestors built with their 25-cent-a-week contributions over entire lifetimes , the ones Protestant mobs in Philadelphia tried and is some cases succeeded in burning down in the 1840s because we didn’t want to read the (Anglican) King James Bible in the public schools?

In an article in the National Catholic Reporter,  the optimistic John Allen suggests that this will not be the case.  Instead,  “bishops’ conferences around the world can create personal ordinariates, a special structure that’s tantamount to a non-territorial diocese, to accept Anglicans under the leadership of a former Anglican minister who would be designated a bishop.” Such “personal ordinariates” are “similar to the structures created throughout the world to provide pastoral care for members of the military and their families. The structures are in effect separate dioceses, presided over by a bishop and with their own priests, seminarians, and faithful. They are also similar to “the canonical status of a ‘personal prelature,’ currently held by only one Catholic group: Opus Dei.”

I note, however, that the current bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn, Nicholas DiMarzio–the one who kept wondering in public, before the 2008 election, how good Catholics could possibly vote for Obama–is a member of Opus Dei. So “personal prelatures” aren’t all that separate. And since some commentators have hypothesized that this move by the Vatican is at least in part an attempt to solve the priest shortage, I guess it all remains to be seen, doesn’t it?

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