In Some Ways We Are All Equal

August 20, 2019 at 11:01 am | Posted in Catholicism, Climate Change, Environment, nuclear war, racism,, Vatican, women | 3 Comments
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The following is a talk I gave on a panel following the Women Church Convergence meeting outside Philadelphia in April 2019. Panel members were asked to respond to the question “How can equality flourish in the Catholic Church?” The talk was published in July-November 2019 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference and was discussed at the Grail’s International Council meeting in Tanzania in July 2019.

 

I begin my reflections on achieving equality in the Church this afternoon with a story. In 2005, my husband and I were in Siena, Italy, where we saw, in the lobby of the Servite Basilica there a statue of Blessed Joachim Piccolomini. Next to the statue was a sign that read “The head of Servite order wants very much to see Blessed Joachim, who was beatified in 1605, canonized—so if you have received a miracle through the intercession of Blessed Joachim, please contact the head of the order.”  My husband, an American Baptist minister, said. “Marian, that man was beatified 400 years ago.”

I replied, “Now you understand the speed with which the Roman Catholic Church changes.”

Given such a rate of change, it may be that things are actually speeding up. In 1963, my Grail sister, Eva Fleischner, a journalist, was denied the right, as a woman, to receive communion at a Mass during the second session of Vatican II. Even the Protestant and Orthodox observers at the Council were exclusively male until the 3rdsession.

So the fact that thirteen women, constituting 7 percent of the participants, took part in the Vatican sex abuse summit in February, a mere half-century later, while still inadequate, was downright remarkable, considering the pace of change in the Catholic Church. As was the fact that three of the nine keynote speakers—33% of them—were women, two married and one African. And the African speaker, a Catholic sister, holds a doctorate in theology; in point of fact, Christian women are the most educated women in sub-Saharan Africa. Along these same lines, it is worth noting that Pope Francis, himself the first Pope from the Global South, has done a remarkable job of increasing the number and influence of bishops from that half of the world. Though whether having more African Catholics of either gender achieve more power may or may not contribute to greater equality for LGBTQ Catholics, as our United Methodist colleagues well understand.

II

In considering how these significant if inadequate changes have been achieved, I found myself returning to the 1998 book Faithful and Fearless: Moving Feminist Protest Inside the Church and Military by political scientist Mary Fainsod Katzenstein. Fainsod Katzenstein argues that in order to understand progress regarding race, gender and sexual inequality between the 1960s and the 1990s, we need to grasp that in many cases, such protest is no longer so much achieved via demonstrations and protests on the outside of institutions but as a result of protest inside institutions.

But while much that Fainsod Katzenstein writes is highly informative, the important part for our purposes is the distinction she makes between feminist protest in the church and the military:  While the feminists in the military were able to turn to the courts and to Congress to make their claims for equality, Catholic women had no such legislative or judicial access; their protests were for the most part limited to discursive actions—writing and organizing workshops and conferences.

Yet interestingly enough, Fainsod Katzenstein concludes that Catholic feminist protest was more radical precisely because it did not have the intra-institutional access that feminists in the US military have. It’s not that she believes the changes in the military are insignificant, but that the more closely nested within an institution activism is, the more likely it is that it will take a moderate, interest group form and not adopt a radical political stance. Only by having voices protesting on the outside is more radical change possible.

This raises some interesting questions for those of us working for sex/gender equality in the Catholic Church.  Whether racial justice is being advanced by having a Latin American pope and increasing numbers of men of color as bishops and cardinals is another question, since these men are already inside the institution.

But for those of us working for Catholic gender equality, and especially for the ordination of women, the question has to be asked: would the incorporation of women into the Church as priests risk modifying the radicalness of our demands? Might ordained women fail, for example, to protest the Church’s anti-LGBT teachings so as to maintain their status as priests? For that matter, might even the structure of a group like Roman Catholic Women Priests reinforce the inequality between laypeople and the ordained in the Church? I say this as someone whose keynote talk at the 30thAnniversary WOC conference in 2005 was not afterwards posted on the WOC webpage when the other keynote, by an RCWP bishop, was posted (though WOC quickly fixed that when I complained).

In mentioning this, I do not mean to suggest that I am opposed to the ordination of women, but only to note that everything is complicated. And potentially hazardous.

The one area in which we have, of course, been able to use legal means to change the patriarchal Catholic Church is bringing criminal charges and other suits concerning clergy sex abuse. Now let me mention that I am not in favor of sex abuse by members of clergy or any other group. But I will suggest, in a few minutes, that even this issue, or at least the preoccupation of liberal Catholics with this issue, may be serving to repress equality in unexpected ways.

 

III

This leads me to the two arenas in which we, as Catholics, whether female, LGBTQ, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Indigenous, and/or poor are already equal.

The first of these is the arena of nuclear war. In 2017, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the nuclear Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight, the closest it has been since 1953, at the height of the Cold War. And they have kept it there since then. Actually, it surprises me that they have not moved it even closer, since, over those two years the United States abandoned the Iran nuclear deal, announced withdrawal from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), and made no progress toward resolving the urgent North Korean crisis. Meanwhile, nuclear nations continue “nuclear modernization” programs while Russia and the United States have moved closer to the use of nuclear weapons.

The second arena in which we are all equal is that in October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the IPCC—announced that we have only twelve years until we will no longer be able to limit many of the catastrophic impacts of climate change. Now in a certain sense, it’s inaccurate for me to say that we are all equal in the face of catastrophic climate effects, because the people of the Global South, the vast majority of them people of color, are already those worst affected by climate change.

Yet climate change is going to devastate us all, not only because of the potentially one billion climate refugees who will be fleeing their native lands by 2050, but also because major US cities will be underwater and droughts and extreme weather events will be even more frequent than they already are.

IV

So what does all this have to do with equality in the Catholic Church, the topic of our panel? To clarify that, let me tell you that during the week after the IPCC report, I received ten notifications from liberal Catholic groups about clergy sex abuse. And an issue of the National Catholic Reporter some weeks later had five articles about sex abuse and nothing about climate change in the entire issue.

It seems that some—perhaps many?—of us consider clergy sex abuse a far more significant and immediate problem than climate catastrophe, or for that matter, nuclear war. A Pax Christi member said to me recently that she would rather starve to death from the famine caused by a nuclear winter than suffer her entire life from the damage that accompanies sex abuse. Seriously.

Now there are some liberal Catholics, like Nancy Lorence, a leader of Call to Action NY, who are fighting on both fronts. But I suspect such two-pronged efforts are rare.

Even for those more preoccupied with gender equality in the church than with sex abuse, I wonder if some of our actions take sufficiently into account the looming threat of climate catastrophe. Take for example the recent demand by Catholics for Human Rights that the Vatican’s status as a permanent observer at the United Nations be revoked.

Now I have spent most of my adult life fighting for women’s equality in the Catholic Church and opposing the Church’s monarchical governance structure. But in March, 2018, I heard the internationally recognized Bengali-secular writer Amitav Ghosh —who is definitely not a conservative Catholic– conclude a talk at Union Theological Seminary about his galvanizing book on climate change, The Great Derangement, by asserting that Laudato Si’ is a far more radical document than the Paris Climate Accord. So the Vatican is actually to the left of the fundamentally capitalist United Nations on climate change. Maybe the Vatican presence there isn’t all bad!

Let me put this another way: if we get women ordained in the Catholic Church, and/or, if we root out clergy sex abuse, it isn’t going to matter at all if the planet is swallowed up in nuclear war or civilization comes to an end because of climate change.

In conclusion, I want to be very clear. I am not saying that we should stop working for racial and women’s equality in the Catholic Church or fighting against clergy sex abuse and cover-ups.

What I am saying is that if that is all we do, we are as guilty of grievous sin as the institutional church is for gender and racial inequalities and sex abuse.

To grasp the challenge facing us, we need to draw on the logical concept “Necessary but not sufficient.” It is necessary that we work for equality in the Catholic Church, but such work is by no means sufficient.

To be ethical, to be good Christians in 2019, we must also organize and fight against climate change and nuclear war. And this means organizing and entering into coalitions with other groups, religious and non-religious, who are fighting these two great threats. Exclusive preoccupation with the reform of the Catholic Church is simply unacceptable in these times. We must commit ourselves to saving God’s creation as well as saving the Catholic Church.

 

Carrot Soup

August 29, 2015 at 12:38 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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It could seem, I suppose, that I spend my every waking minute analyzing papal encyclicals or reviewing books about gender and the Catholic church.  But that’s not true.

Take last Sunday.  At the end of the 11:30 AM Mass at Our Lady of Refuge, my parish at the western end of Flatbush here in Brooklyn, a lay leader got up and made an announcement. He said there were a lot of carrots left over from this week’s food pantry and they would be distributed on the way out of church. I didn’t think too much about it.

When I  got outside, however, another gentleman walked up to me and offered me a good-sized bag of such carrots. My husband and I are by no means in the U.S. economic 1 percent, but Refuge is about 2 percent white, so I may well be in the 1 percent there.

“Surely somebody needs these more than I do?” I responded.

“Please, just take them,” the gentleman responded. So I did.

The distance from Refuge to our apartment is about .9 of a mile, so I had occasion to think about how many carrots were in the plastic bag as I walked home. When I weighed them, there were approximately 5.5 pounds of carrots, each two or three inches long and maybe three-quarters of an inch in diameter.

My esteemed companion said “You could always just compost them.”

But  I couldn’t.

The carrots reminded me, somehow, of my five years on the Grail’s farm in southwest Ohio in the 1970s, and particularly of my dear friend Elise Gorges who ran the kitchen there for thirty years or so. Elise died a year and a half ago. I myself never harvested carrots from the Grailville garden, but I just couldn’t imagine Elise throwing all those carrots out.

I’ve got this app on my iPad for recipes from the New York Times, so I plugged in “carrots” and found a very simple recipe for carrot soup. It took me half an hour to cut both ends off the hundred and fifty or so little carrots and give them a scrub in the dish pan. The recipe called for six cups of chicken broth but I didn’t have any on hand and would have to walk over to the food co-op to buy some.

“What would Elise do?” I wondered.

I remembered I did have a bunch of vegetable bullion cubes over on the spice shelf, so I boiled some water, mixed the bullion cubes in , and then cooked the carrots in the liquid for thirty minutes. While they were cooking I sautéed some dried thyme and a bunch of onions (not quite as many as the recipe called for, but seriously, I was not going out to get more!);  when they were done I salted and peppered them. When the carrot and the onions had cooled off a bit, I put it through my forty-year-old Cuisinart food processor.

For supper my husband and I each had a bowl of the carrot soup, along with a grilled cheese sandwich (he’d gotten good at making grilled cheese sandwiches when his sons were little). All told, I made fourteen cups of carrot soup, so we have enough for three more meals in the freezer.

I think Elise would have been pleased.

What if We Prayed–or Preached–Differently?

March 12, 2014 at 11:44 am | Posted in Environment | 9 Comments
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Lately, I’ve been reading Thomas Berry. Berry was a “geologian”–an ecological theologian–who began decades ago talking about the environment, and the universe, and the cosmos, and how we’d better start taking them all more seriously. At Grailville, the Grail’s organic farm in southwest Ohio, we were reading Berry’s articles on this sort of thing in mimeographed form, before they were published, in the mid-1970s.

Just now I’m reading Berry’s The Great Work (1999). Throughout its two-hundred pages, Berry argues that we must leave behind the current era of planetary destruction  and move into a period when we humans become present to the Earth in a manner that is mutually enhancing. What we need, he tells us, is a new story of the universe, a “numinous revelatory story that could evoke the vision but also the energies needed for bringing ourselves and the entire planet into a new order of survival.” (71). Fifteen years after the book’s publication, with glaciers melting and extreme weather events multiplying, we need such a story even more.

But where do we get it? Reading Berry has me asking this question as I’ve attended various Catholic services during and just prior to this holy season of Lent.

First there was the Gospel for the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, Matt. 6:24 to 34. It’s a well-known reading, in which Jesus urges his followers not to be anxious about their lives. God knows we need to hear that.  But I was struck by the passage about the birds. “Consider the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap…Yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” 

Now two thousand years ago, this was a perfectly reasonable thing to say; religions like Judaism were working to get people to recognize their dignity and not behave like animals. But today, we are destroying approximately three hundred species a day, and we know, as Jesus did not, that these species are an essential part of planetary survival, providing, for example, bacteria to be used in the drugs of the future, not to mention in food production, cleaning the air, etc. Maybe it’s time we stopped telling ourselves that we are of more value than other species. When I mentioned this to the priest on the way out after Mass, he looked at me as if I’d said that Jesus had actually been a hedgehog.

Then there was Ash Wednesday, with the famous verse spoken by the minister as she/he applies ashes to foreheads: “Remember you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” As with Jesus’ statement about the birds, there was good reason for the authors to use the word “dust,” (or “sand,” as it was in the Latin)  when the original story was written in Genesis. There’s a lot more sand in the Middle East than there is in North America, so lots of people probably did end up getting buried in it. And even today, most people no doubt get the basic idea–the burnt palm from which the ashes come is a metaphor for death. And more people get cremated all the time. But imagine if the verse were “Remember you are earth, and unto earth you shall return,” and the minister rubbed dirt on our foreheads each Ash Wednesday. Or that he (would that it were she!) preached that we really do come from the earth and will return there. Maybe then we Christians would start demanding that the government no longer allow the destruction of our topsoil at the current terrifying rate.

Finally, there was the liturgy for the first Sunday of Lent, at a progressive parish in Manhattan. I made it through all three readings without being reminded directly of the contributions the Christian tradition has made to human alienation from the cosmos. But then there was this verse in the Offertory hymn which was aimed at inspiring hope in the worshippers: “Look to God when cynics say our planet’s doom is sealed. Look to God by whose great pow’r the dead were raised and the lepers were healed.”

Of course, if you take the words literally, they’re fine. Earth’s doom isn’t sealed. But half the people in this country believe that climate change is a fraud. And a good number more believe that it really is coming, but that that’s fine too, because it’s just a sign of the end times and the return of Jesus. Maybe hymn writers need to be a bit more careful about encouraging such attitudes.

And some of us who are less confident about the end times as a solution note that in its 2013 report, the UN’s 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that we have approximately fifteen years to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions before certain aspects of climate change become irreversible. Maybe those of us who fear doom is over the horizon aren’t so much cynics as realists. And maybe genuine hope involves demanding that our clergy start preaching about planetary survival and that our government stop allowing the fossil fuel industry to trade that survival for big bucks.

The Earth and Those Who Dwell Therein

March 21, 2011 at 10:02 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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(1) In the March 21 New Yorker there’s a stimulating article by Ian Frazier about the return of seals to New York. Frazier is a fine writer and I enjoyed learning all about the seals that are swimming around New York, sunning themselves in our harbors, etc.

However, the opening of the article got my attention more than the seals did. In it, Frazier describes driving over to Staten Island from New Jersey in his search for seals. He writes:

“Potholes, which rule the roads these days, opened before me suddenly in a wicked row on the ramp for the Outerbridge Crossing, popping my left front tire….I changed the tire in a lot in Perth Amboy and got to Staten Island just after sunrise…Hylan Boulevard, the only surface road that goes from one end of the island to the other, is a pothole  festival now. I slalomed among some real beauts to the boulevard’s end, parked, and slid on the snow crust down to the beach along the Arthur Kill…” (p. 34).

The remarkable thing about this side commentary is that Frazier never complains about the Staten Island pothole festival. It’s just the way things are. No use being upset.

This reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with Anne Hope, a South African Grail member, during one of her visits to the US. Anne allowed as how she was always amazed by the number of signs along the roads in this country. In Africa, they could never have so many signs, she said. The roads were full of potholes and you had to keep your eyes on them all the time or you’d be in real trouble. I have begun to think of Staten Island as a borough in very far West Africa.

(2) Many people have said many things about the recent catastrophes in Japan. I will not add to these often deeply moving commentaries. I was struck, however, by the number of times newspeople spoke with apparent relief of the radiation “blowing out to sea” and not towards Tokyo. God know, if the radiation had blown toward Tokyo, it would have been truly disastrous. But is it not disastrous that the radiation is blowing out over the Pacific? Is the ocean a place of dead matter such that its radiation is irrelevant? I have not researched what radiation does to the seas as yet–stay tuned–but surely the creatures in the sea matter too? The only indirect comment I have heard about this as yet was one from a Japanese woman on NPR this morning who said she has decided to stop eating fish. Indeed.

(3) NPR this morning also reported that Tom Corbett, the governor of Pennsylvania, as part of his effort to solve the state’s funding crisis, has proposed to cut the budget of the state system of higher education by more than half, or $625 million. This grabbed my attention because I am a double graduate (BA and Ph.D.) of one of those institutions, Temple University. One of the reasons I was able to afford to get a Ph.D. is that the tuition at Temple was reasonable. I knew very well that it would be insanity to borrow money to get a Ph.D., in the humanities–in Religion, in my case–because teaching in the humanities pays badly. So I got an assistantship, paid in-state tuition, and depended on the generosity of my husband, the Baptist minister.

I have always been amazed that someone like me, whose father dropped out of high school during the Great Depression, would have the privilege of becoming a professor and publishing books. My generation of Americans may turn out to have been the most privileged generation of human beings in the history of the world. Now that I hear about Corbett’s effort to destroy the state universities in Pennsylvania I think it even more. I wonder if any of Corbett’s kids are enrolled at Temple, or at Cheney University, the majority African-American state-related institution south of Philadelphia?

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