Catholic Leadership on the Global Political Stage

March 16, 2018 at 9:57 am | Posted in Catholicism, religion, secularism, Vatican, war and violence | 3 Comments
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Forgiveness, with Margaret Farley

April 18, 2014 at 11:46 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Last weekend I went down to Cranaleith, the Sisters of Mercy retreat center north of Philadelphia, for a program on Holy Week and forgiveness with Margaret Farley. You perhaps have heard of Farley; she’s the Catholic sister whose book, Just Love, was condemned by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2012. She was also one of the signers of the controversial 1984 New York Times ad which stated that there had been various positions on abortion throughout the history of the Catholic Church. Non-lay signers were forced to recant or be expelled from their orders. Farley was also one of the speakers at the first conference on Catholic women’s ordination in Detroit in 1975, to which the Vatican also did not respond positively (!).

Farley’s two presentations offered a different–or perhaps deeper–perspective on the suffering and death of Jesus than many of us have been hearing this week. (Obviously, what I am saying here is my interpretation of Farley’s words, not her words.) Farley argues that the passion is not primarily about suffering and death, but about relationships, and particularly about forgiving those who do harm. And harm here includes not only interpersonal offenses, but also, but especially, the “exponential explosion” of oppression around the world in our era–destitution, war, genocide, trafficking. Farley describes these acts as attempts at obliteration, like the violence done against Jesus.

But Jesus said, “Father forgive them,” and we too are called to the radical decentering that is forgiveness, even against the worst of crimes. Such radical decentering is quite different from the interpretation of forgiveness that the Church has sometimes marketed–that Jesus authorized the disciples to forgive some sins but not others. The only judgments Jesus made, Farley reminds us, were directed at the righteous and the arrogant; otherwise, he “desired mercy, not sacrifice.” Forgiveness, according to Farley, is also not passivity in the face of abuse, the masochism that some identify with the crucifixion; when those who harm do not stop, sometimes the readiness to forgive is all that’s possible. And resistance to violence and injustice are essential. But God’s forgiveness of humanity for the violent obliteration of Jesus is paradigmatic. Crimes against humanity may even bring about unprecedented cries for forgiveness, unprecedented calls for the healing of relationships.

Farley explored several Holy Week themes that help us better to discern what is asked of us regarding forgiveness.  One is Jesus’ question to James and John, after they rather obliviously ask if he will do whatever they want: “Are you able to drink from the cup that I drink…?” What Jesus asks, Farley suggests, is whether they–and we–are able to enter into the forsakenness of the crucifixion which is also the physical and spiritual forsakenness of all people, not only ourselves. The cup figures all forms of suffering, while the cross on which Jesus was crucified conveys that relationship–God’s with us, and ours with our sisters and brothers–holds even in the face of incalculable violence. Later in her talk, Farley also explored Jesus’ words to the women of Jerusalem on his way to Calvary, “Weep not for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” At the heart of their exchange, Farley suggests, is the oneness of Jesus’ suffering with the suffering of past and future generations; Jesus identifies with creation across time and space. His words call us as well to solidarity with sufferers and to action on their behalf. This is what gives us hope, what enables us to believe that relationships will hold, even in the face of evil. Jesus forgives and so can we.

When I mentioned to some of my friends that I had gone to hear Margaret Farley, and how deeply moved I was by her words, many of them asked the same question: What did she say about the Vatican’s attack on her book? In point of fact, she never referred to it. I guess she had forgiven them.






The Evils of Religion

September 19, 2010 at 5:15 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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As you’ve no doubt noticed, the battles between progressives and religionists are virtually endless. There’s the scientists vs. the creationists, the atheists vs. the evangelicals, the fundamentalists vs. the humanists, and my own special favorite, the spiritual vs. the religious.

I try, I must admit, to keep my mind focused on more productive conversations, but this is not always easy to do. Consider, for example, Deborah Solomon’s recent interview with Deepak Chopra, the spiritual guru, in the New York Times Magazine. Solomon sets up the polarity by asking Chopra, “How would you define spirituality as opposed to religion?”  But Chopra does not exactly resist her formulation. Spirituality, he tells us, is “self-awareness and awareness of other people’s needs,” while religion is the name the devil gives God’s gift of truth after having organized it.  And they continue: 

Solomon: At least religion is free to worshipers. Isn’t it costly to attend a meditation retreat at the Chopra Center?
Chopra: I hardly break even. It’s very labor-intensive, and insurance does not cover it, although there is some progress. Religions take donations and don’t pay taxes. Look at the wealth of the Vatican!

Let’s ignore here Chopra’s reference to “hardly breaking even,” he of the 887 hardback, paperback, audio, video, Kindle, and translated-into-foreign-language books and other items on and focus instead on the matter of the Vatican not paying taxes.  While I freely admit that the Vatican has serious problems, criticizing it for not paying taxes makes as much sense as criticizing the US government for not paying taxes. The Vatican is a sovereign state. If anything, it should be collecting taxes, though with 800 residents, maybe not…

What Chopra is suggesting, I believe, is that Catholic churches in the United States have great wealth and therefore should pay taxes. So I want to take a few moments to tell you about my extremely wealthy parish here in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, Our Lady of Refuge, at Ocean and Foster.

“Refuge,” as we like to call it, is comprised of three different language communities, Haitian-American, Latino/a-America, and Caribbean-American, as well as several handfuls of white-ethnic and Asian-American Catholics. Three thousand or so of us attend the five Masses on any given weekend.

And what else does our wealthy parish spend its time doing? Well, we have religious education classes for children and adults. This week we commissioned twenty new religious education teachers who will spend their spare time on most Sundays for the rest of  the year telling our black and brown kids that God loves them and that they should make all they can out of their opportunities. For adults there are things like the religion and film course taught last summer by a visiting priest from India, and the free yoga classes he led. On Wednesdays, members of the parish run a food pantry for three or four hundred people. Now that the Bloomberg administration has restored funding for homeless shelters in city churches, we are reinstating that service for local homeless women. To help reduce high levels of obesity and high blood pressure, the parish has also recruited members for a city-sponsored walking club. Next Saturday the Drug Enforcement Administration will set up shop in the rectory so members of the local community– religious, spiritual, and oblivious–can hand in expired prescription medications instead of taking them by accident and poisoning themselves or flushing them down the toilet and poisoning the water supply. Later that same day the parish and a local synagogue are co-sponsoring a square dance for families from both communities.  Several Sundays ago, the pastor of the parish, Father Michael Perry, invited a young man,  Jonathan, to get up and talk about finally joining Narcotics Anonymous and being three months clean. I was deeply moved, as were, presumably, the rest of the young people in the congregation. And when the pastor is not saying Mass or encouraging  former drug-addicts, he’s working with the American Civil Liberties Union and other New York religious leaders on a video defending the rights of all Americans, including Muslims in Manhattan, to religious liberty.

I’m not sure which of theses activities Mr. Chopra wants to tax, or how he imagines they are accumulating “great wealth” for the Catholic church. Refuge parishioners, myself included, do walk proudly up the center aisle to present our offering each week, but I know that this  money goes to support the ministries I’ve just described as well as others improving the lives of Flatbush residents. It may be, as Mr. Chopra argues, that the devil is out organizing things, but he doesn’t seem to be making a lot of headway at Our Lady of Refuge, and religion and spirituality fit together pretty well for us, thank you very much.

Let’s Look South?

November 5, 2009 at 1:47 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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As I reported earlier, I am struggling to get my mind off the Vatican and the hierarchy. I thought about writing a blog about the collusion of the bishops of Maine in the defeat of same-sex marriage in that state earlier this week. But decided I would be attributing something to them that they probably did not earn. After all, same-sex marriage has been defeated every time it has come up for a vote anywhere in the US, even in states where there are many fewer Catholics than in Maine. In any case, writing about it all would have only reinforced my mania. 

So I’ve decided to make a sort of horizontal move–looking south and east, to what would seem to be the more inspiring leadership of the church in Africa. At the end of October, the Tablet, the “International Catholic Newspaper,” as it describes itself, reported that Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, the archbishop of Cape Coast, in Ghana, had been appointed the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace,    something that sounds like a  positive development.

The article, by Peter Mickens, describes Turkson as “gracious and accommodating,” with a popular touch. He also tells of his  having attempted to duck his appointment as archbishop of Cape Coast in 1992 because he wanted to finish his Ph.D. from the Biblicum in Rome. After all, as we  should realize, once appointed, he couldn’t defend his dissertation  because it would not be canonically possible for a bishop to be questioned by ecclesiastical subordinates(!)  Even without having completed the degree, Turkson is now more highly educated than any currently serving cardinal by virtue of having completed his course work.

Though rumored to be a rising star, the Ghanaian cardinal is said to have a refreshing lack of ecclesiastical ambition, as his (unsuccessful) attempt to duck the episcopacy shows. A previous Tablet article, about Turkson’s  lecture  at Cambridge University in 2007, “”What African Can Give the West,” shows him to be acutely aware of the need for greater solidarity between the church in Europe and in Africa. The article also addresses Turkson’s “papability” directly:

“If, in the fullness of time, the world sees its first African Pope since Gelasius I (492-496), and if that man were to be Cardinal Peter Turkson, we could expect a number of new trends: a renewal of missionary vigour, a drive for social justice, and a renewed openness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.”

But a concluding aside in the more recent Tablet article on Turkson’s  appointment as President of the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace makes a person wonder:

“But will Cardinal Turkson and his views find a welcome in the Roman Curia? And, more importantly, will the cardinal be given full authority to shape policy in his own office? A sign that he may have trouble doing so was the announcement of the Justice and Peace office’s new secretary, or second in command, two days before his own appointment. This other new man, Bishop-elect Mario Toso SDB, is a former rector of the Pontifical Salesian University and considered a highly qualified scholar of the Church’s social teaching. But it is doubtful that, given the chronology of events, the cardinal was consulted about selecting this Italian confrère of Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone SDB. One wonders who will really be in charge. ”

And what will be the cost of getting the guys in Rome to listen to him? Some of the most striking parts of Rembert Weakland’s recent memoir are  his reflections on the ways in which Pope Paul VI,  a basically good man in Weakland’s estimation, watered down the teachings of Vatican II so as to protect the Curia from feeling criticized. 

It’s really hard to stop obsessing about the Vatican.

Letter to the Nuncio about Catholic Sisters

November 2, 2009 at 3:35 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Lots of actions are being undertaken to support American Catholic sisters in face of the current Vatican investigations. If you wish, you can sign on to a National Catholic Reporter ad in support of the sisters, sponsored by Catholics Speak Out at the ever valiant Quixote Center in Washington (only $15!). Or you can add a letter to the ThankYouSister webpage. I’ve done both of these things and urge you to join me.

But I’ve also read that the single most effective thing we can do is write directly to the Vatican representative (“the Apostolic Nuncio”) in Washington. Personal letters count the most.  I am posting my letter to the current nuncio, Archbishop Sambi, for your information and perhaps as a model for your own letter:

Archbishop Pietro Sambi
Apostolic Nunciature
3339 Massachusetts Avenue NW,
Washington, DC 20008

Dear Archbishop Sambi:

I am writing concerning the current Vatican visitation of congregations of American Catholic sisters and investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

I am a life-long Roman Catholic. My grandparents were Irish immigrants, utterly loyal to the church. I attended  Catholic schools and a Catholic college here in the US for fourteen years. I am an active member of Our Lady of Ransom Parish here in the Diocese of Brooklyn, to which I contribute $1200 a year, a fair amount in this part of the world. In addition, I earned a Ph.D. in Religion with a specialization in American Catholicism and am currently Research Professor of Catholic Studies at a seminary here in New York City.

I can say without hesitation that Catholic sisters were and still are the single greatest influence on my lifetime membership in the Catholic Church and on my decision to spend my life researching and teaching about the Church. In my experience, whatever concerns the Vatican may have about the “lifestyle” or “doctrinal irregularities” of American Catholic sisters pale in comparison to the witness to the Gospel that these women live out in their daily lives. I simply cannot imagine my life as a Catholic without their presence and example.

 I would also like to point out that after Vatican II these sisters who are now under investigation were precisely the ones who remained faithful to their vows by continuing as Catholic sisters. Of course, there’s nothing that the Vatican can do to the thousands and thousands of American Catholic women who left religious life. But you need to understand that it comes across as distinctly mean-spirited to go after the ones who remained faithful.

 Finally, I’d like to point out that Catholic sisters, unlike diocesan priests in this country, worked for decades without remuneration. A sister (now dead) who taught me in high school and with whom I remained in contact over the years told me that when she was the superior at my high school, in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the check from the Archdiocese for the sisters’ work was frequently late, and she was hard pressed to find the resources to feed the sisters until it arrived. This was in the early 1970s, long after middle-class American Catholics had stopped knowing what it was to be hungry. It’s hard to believe that in addition to this kind of treatment, American Catholic sisters are now being investigated.

 In summary, I would urge–indeed, beg–you, Archbishop, to do all that you can to see that the Catholic sisters who belong to American congregations currently being visited, and who are governed by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious now being investigated, are treated with gratitude and largesse, not with vindictiveness or mean-spiritedness.  Anything less will make the institutional Church look distinctly ungrateful for the lifetimes of service and devotion American Catholic sisters have given to Christ and the Church.

Vatican Condemns Hallowe’en

October 31, 2009 at 10:10 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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You know, dear readers, that lately I have been backsliding on my long-term commitment not to pay attention to the Vatican. It’s the road to distruction, thinking about what these guys are up to. There’s no end to it. If you think much about it, you’ll go berserk.

But I just have to tell you about this one more thing. Then I’ll get back on the wagon (spoken like a true addict!). A blog linked to the Baltimore Sun, “In Good Faith,” reports that the guys  in Rome have now condemned Hallowe’en as evil. So help me. They say  it’s a” pagan celebration of ‘terror, fear and death,’ and warn parents against “allowing children to dress up as ghosts and ghouls.”

Myself, I am terrifically concerned about the war in Afghanistan. About global warming obliterating entire island and coastline cultures. About Obama selling out to the prinicipaties and powers. But the kids coming looking for candy in a few hours? Not much.  



October 21, 2009 at 10:57 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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As you may have noticed, I am somewhat preoccupied with the cross (see book cover on right!). So a recent post on the Commonweal webpage grabbed my attention. It’s called “Cross Examination,”  and addresses the recent “visitation” of American Catholic sisters by the Vatican, and the accompanying investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for possible doctrinal irregularities. It’s written by “Sister X.”

Truth in advertising requires me to begin by saying that I have boundless respect for American Catholic sisters. These women built the American church with virtually no compensation.  One of my great heroes is a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur,  Mary Daniel Turner, who was, in fact, the executive director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious during the renewal of religious life after Vatican II. The LCWR has been a model of collegiality and commitment to the Gospel for decades. I find the idea of their being examined for doctrinal irregularities scandalous.

Sister X’s article is a deeply thoughtful “examination” of these developments. She begins by stating her desire to believe in the good will of the institutional church. Nonetheless, she “feel(s) that American women religious are being bullied.” This is the case in particular because the visitation is funded by anonymous donors and the report at the end of the investigation will be kept secret.

Sister X’s situation of the visitation and investigation in wider church contexts is particularly insightful.  One of the ostensible doctrinal lapses of the LCWR is its support of women’s ordination. Indeed, Catholic sisters were a driving force behind the first US women’s ordination conference in 1975. But Sister X extends this trajectory: the Vatican dismissal of the possibility of women’s ordination in 1976 “shut down any formal discussion of women’s equality in the church. For many women religious, the emphasis shifted then to justice concerns.”

She also hypothesizes that the American bishops who initially called for the visitation are trying to reclaim the moral authority lost in the sex abuse scandals by exercising power over women religious.  And she  wonders whether visitation questions about the “quality of life” of American sisters (whether they live in community, pray together enough, wear habits) are not best understood as part of the larger battle in the church over the meaning of Vatican II–the church as “fortress” vs the church as the pilgrim people of God in service to others.

For me, the last part of the article is most memorable, however. When news of the investigations first came out, I commented to a friend that the Vatican was wasting its money because in twenty years, the vast majority of American Catholic sisters will be dead. Sister X’s treatment of this side of the investigations is both lyric and mournful. If the Vatican wants to know about sisters’ “quality of life,” she riffs, “let me tell you about a common form of liturgical life in our community”–the burial of a sister, in a service without a priest because priests are in such short supply. (If the Vatican is really concerned about sisters’ quality of life, she adds, they should ponder the relationship between their own decision not to ordain women and what the resultant lack of priests does to the sacramental quality of sister’s lives.)

The woman whose burial Sister X describes had been a “hospital nun. “At the motherhouse you could always tell which sisters had been hospital nuns,” Sister X tells us, because “they were the fastest eaters at any table–a speed developed over years of eating in hospital dining rooms. You didn’t linger when you had other nurses to supervise and patients to tend.”

As she stands at the grave, Sister X thinks about the rows of nuns’ tombstones in that cemetery and across the United States,  “the many thousands of nuns who faithfully served the church for a lifetime, building up its schools and hospitals. They kept their vows. They didn’t cost the church $2 billion in legal settlements. Their gravestones don’t memorialize ecclesiastical appointments, ministerial accomplishments, educational degrees, or elected congregational positions. For religious women the headstone notes date of birth,  date of profession of vows, and date of death The facts of lifelong fidelity are simple and few.”

Ultimately, the burial gives Sister X another idea about the reason for the investigations. What Rome is really asking, she ventures, is ‘”Why don’t you have more  nuns to bury? What aren’t there more of you?”

She then answers their question: “Do they really wonder why our numbers shrink and shrink? They might ponder their own actions.”


(This post is dedicated to Sister Teresa McElwee, SNDdeN, on the occasion of her eightieth birthday.)

Apology and Praise

September 1, 2009 at 9:32 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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My friend from college, Celia Deutsch, came over for dinner Friday night. Celia is a Sister of Sion who teaches at Barnard and is active in Jewish-Catholic dialogue and scholarship internationally, nationally, and here in the diocese of Brooklyn. During our conversation Celia assured me that our bishop, Bishop DiMarzio, did not say what I quote him as saying in my previous post–that you can’t be a faithful Catholic and support Obama. Several other  acquaintances said something to this effect in my presence, but Celia is the Rock of Gibraltar, so I offer my apologies to the bishop. If only she could assure us that no other American bishops have said such a thing.

One who is certainly not doing so is Michael J. Sheehan, the archbishop of Sante Fe, New Mexico.  Sheehan, in an interview with the National Catholic Reporter on August 12, “decried” the combative tactics of the minority of U.S. bishops who spoke out against the honorary degree awarded by the University of Notre Dame to President Obama last June. These bishops’ opposition, according to the article, was based on the president’s refusal to advocate the criminalization of abortion.

“I believe in collaboration,” the article quotes the archbishop as saying. “I worked under Cardinal Bernardin and he taught me how to collaborate, how to consult. So I am very committed to the concept called shared responsibility. I think involving people in the process all the way along – my priests, my lay people, I am open to talking to them, working with them. Consultation, collaboration, building bridges not burning them. And you can get so much done when you have collaboration and you build the bridge with other people, whether it’s priests or laypeople, deacons, whoever.”

Such a collaborative approach, Sheehan noted, brought New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson around to opposing the deathy penalty, something he had long supported. The single-issue approach is counter-productive, Sheehan argued, comparing it–in a statement not calculated to advance Amish-Catholic dialogue!–to the apporach of the Amish: “We’d be like the Amish, you know, kind of isolated from society, if we kept pulling back because of a single issue.” Both the Vatican and the majority of American bishops oppose such a single-issue approach, he added, as well as the use of sanctions like the refusal of communion to enforce it.

The article concludes with this final quote: ““I seek to teach, to teach, and not to use sanctions. To teach, to talk to people. Like I say, we got more done this year with the state legislature by connecting with people and by saying our piece in a hopefully reasonable, and not an emotional and hysterical, way. Hysterical activity doesn’t bear fruit, and there’s been some hysteria in these areas.”

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