“Good Catholics” and Reproductive Choice

March 6, 2015 at 12:17 pm | Posted in Catholicism, The Hierarchy, Uncategorized, women | 2 Comments
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The following is a slightly revised version of a review that appeared in the fall 2014 edition of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.

Good Catholics: The Battle Over Abortion in the Catholic Church. By Patricia Miller. University of California Press, 2014. 344 pp. Hardback: $24.47. Kindle $19.22.

As I began writing this review of Patricia Miller’s Good Catholics: The Battle Over Abortion in the Catholic Church, historian Timothy Kelly’s review of Miller’s book appeared in the National Catholic Reporter.

I agree with much that Kelly says. In Good Catholics, Miller argues convincingly that the organization Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) —now Catholics for Choice (CFC)— “served as an effective counterbalance to the (United States Catholic) bishops in the public arena.” Her analysis focuses primarily on public debates about abortion, though she also explores theology and ethics, popular responses to the abortion controversy, and the history of CFFC/CFC.

In the first part of Good Catholics, Miller uses the activities of four early Catholic feminist theologians—Rosemary Radford Reuther, Jane Furlong Cahill, Mary Daly, and Elizabeth Farians— as a platform for the rest of the book. All four challenged women’s subordination in the church as the secular women’s movement was challenging it in the rest of society. They were also founders of the movement for women’s reproductive rights. In 1964, for example, Ruether, identifying herself as a “Catholic mother,” published an article in the Saturday Evening Post expressing her belief in birth control. In 1971, Cahill, a Philadelphian, defended the morality of abortion at a state hearing in Harrisburg, after which Archbishop Krol called her “the abortion woman.” Farians and Daly were equally feisty on reproductive issues. All four of them were involved in the founding and early activities of CFFC/CFC. (Three also helped start the St. Joan’s International Alliance, the women’s organization that preceded the U.S. Women’s Ordination Conference and Women’s Ordination Worldwide).

The passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973 marked a new era in the fight over U.S. reproductive rights, and public challenges to the bishops’ position on reproductive rights by CFFC drew some thousands of U.S. Catholics to the organization. Then, in 1982, Frances Kissling became president of CFFC. But in Miller’s telling, it was the 1984 NY Times “Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion” that really set off the battle between the American bishops and the pro-choice movement.

The second half of Good Catholics documents the history of that struggle, up to and including the bishops’ recent attacks on the contraceptives mandate of the Affordable Care Act. I found especially sobering Miller’s discussion of the alliance between the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the Religious Right, undercutting as it does the church’s emphasis on social justice and the common good since before the New Deal. CFFC/CFC has played a crucial role in opposing this alliance, making politicians and the country aware that the USCCB’s stance is not the only Catholic position.

Miller would seem to draw at least two conclusions from her narrative of “the battle over abortion in the Catholic Church.” The first I agree with as far as it goes: from Cahill and Ruether to the contraceptives mandate, “the debate had really been about women and sex.” I would add that the Catholic institutional fixation on controlling sexuality is also about the church’s loss of secular power since at least the liberal revolutions of the mid-19th century, but that’s another story.

 I find Miller’s other conclusion, about the impact of the Catholic reproductive rights movement (and therefore CFFC/CFC) more problematic. In the last chapter she writes:

“It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this alternative theology (of reproductive rights) to modern Catholics and their ability to grapple with issues of sexuality within the context of their religion—especially because they have been abandoned by the hierarchy on the issue…. (as Louis Utley of Merger Watch said) … having a progressive voice representing 98% of Catholic women is extremely helpful.”(266).

Let me be clear here: like Miller, I am grateful to CFFC/CFC for providing an alternative Catholic voice on reproductive rights in the public arena. As the hierarchy has moved steadily to the right, trying to identify contraceptives with abortifacients, for example, I regret not having supported the group financially over the years.

But on the ground, beneath the public conversation, where “modern (U.S.) Catholics” “grapple” with sexuality, the situation is much more ambiguous than Miller acknowledges. Even if 98 percent of Catholic women report having used contraceptives at some time, it doesn’t follow that they consider themselves “represented” by the reproductive rights movement. Indeed, among U.S. Catholics, even liberal/ progressive ones, CFFC and reproductive rights, or at least, abortion rights, have been marginalized for a long time.

Kelly acknowledges this in his NCR review, suggesting at the end that Miller’s book “will likely give off sparks.” I am reminded here of an experience I had on the national Women’s Ordination Conference board about a decade ago. There had been some kind of crisis—a fire, maybe—in the WOC office, where the board usually met. Francis Kissling, who had been a friend of the leaders of WOC in its early days, offered to let us meet in the CFFC offices nearby. But at least one, and possibly two, board members adamantly refused to use the offices of CFFC for a meeting. Let me be clear here: CFFC had not asked WOC to endorse their position; Kissling had simply offered the space when it was needed. But some members of the Board refused to set foot there. And the rest of the board gave in. A friend who’s involved in the national leadership of Dignity also assures me that abortion and contraception are never mentioned at Dignity meetings. (A member of the  current Women’s Ordination Conference staff wrote to tell me, after this article was published in EqualwRites, that this is no longer the attitude of the WOC board).

Some of the reaction of WOC board members may have been strategic, not wanting to get a single-issue organization off track. Myself, I suspect that it’s more than that. Catholics may well use contraceptives and have abortions at the same rate as the rest of the country, as some polls suggest. And a considerable majority indicate in such polls that they support reproductive rights.

But it’s not just Catholic “attitudes” or what we write in a private poll that’s significant. It’s also what we’re willing to stand up for and speak out about in public. Patricia Miller may argue that we cannot overestimate the impact CFFC has had on “modern Catholics…and their attitudes about sexuality.” But who wants to risk being shamed by the local archbishop, or even by other members of whatever liberal Catholic group we’re active in?

Further Thoughts on the Church and the “Obamacare” Contraceptives Mandate

November 26, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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A number of things about the behavior of the US Catholic Bishops during the recent presidential campaign scandalized me, to use an old-fashioned word. But nothing equalled my horror at the bishops’ decision to stage their “Fortnight of Freedom” campaign in protest against the Affordable Care Act’s mandate of free contraceptive coverage four months before the presidential election. The following is a slight revision of an article I published last spring in EqualwRites, the Philadelphia Catholic feminist newsletter for which I’ve been writing for nearly twenty years. I think some of what I discuss there is worth reviewing as we move toward implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in a second Obama administration.


The re-election of Barack Obama would seem to have settled the question of the Affordable Care Act, which the Republican candidate promised to eviscerate on his first day in office. But the conflict between the US Catholic bishops and the Obama administration over the act’s mandated provision of contraceptives is unlikely to end any time soon, alas. The bishops, as you will recall, rejected the administration’s proposed compromise that insurance companies, not employers, cover the costs of contraceptives under the ACA. The bishops even claimed that individual employers be exempted from providing such coverage if it violated their “freedom of religion.” I imagine Cardinal Dolan and Co. are planning new forms of protest even as I write.

As we anticipate the next stage in the bishops’ war to control women’s reproductive functions,  there are, I believe, two aspects of the previous round of controversy that deserve attention.  The first is the failure of a wide range of journalists and commentators, including white male liberal Catholic commentators, to so much as hint that the question of contraceptive coverage has anything to do with women.

Before I examine what these commentators said, let’s clarify a few points. Not only do 98% of US Catholic women report having used contraceptives at some time, a significant majority of Catholic women—62%—supported the Affordable Care mandate that Catholic and other religious hospitals and universities provide free contraception coverage as part of their insurance coverage. Indeed, a majority of US Catholics across the board support that mandate.

But the commentators, even Catholic commentators, rarely addressed this reality in the months leading up to the election. Early on there was Michael Sean Winters’s article, “J’accuse,” in the National Catholic Reporter.  Let’s set aside Winters’s outrageous comparison of the contraceptives mandate with the first in a series of anti-semitic events, the Dreyfus affair, that culminated in the Holocaust. (“J’Accuse” is the title of a famous newspaper article by the French writer Emile Zola accusing the French government of antisemitism for convicting Captain Dreyfus of  treason.) Only once in the entire article does Winters use the word “woman,” and that in reference to Sister Carol Keehan, the head of the Catholic Health Association, presumably one of the 2% of Catholic women who has never used, or needed, contraception (and who at that point agreed with him). Instead he states, in typically Catholic binary language, that “It is a mistake of analysis to see this as a decision about contraception. The issue here is conscience.” No reference is made to the National Institutes of Medicine ruling that contraception coverage is an essential part of preventive health care for women, never mind to the millions of actual US Catholic women whose health, and sometimes lives, depend on such care.

And Winters isn’t the only one. The NCR, in its February 9th editorial, echoes Winters’s claim that “conscience, not contraception, is the essential issue,” while not using the word “women” once. And on the PBS News Hour, Mark Shields and David Brooks likewise managed to reject the HHS mandate two weeks in a row without uttering the word “women.” On Weekend Edition, NPR’s Scott Simon, apparently oblivious to the statistics on US Catholic women’s support of the mandate, opined that just because Catholic women use contraceptives doesn’t mean that they support the denial of religious freedom to their church. And in their February 24 editorial, the more moderate Commonweal also rejected the mandate on the basis of religious freedom, though it does at least nod in women’s direction in the last paragraph.

A few Catholic women—Gail Collins in the New York Times, and moral theologian Lisa Fullam on the Commonweal blog page—did indeed speak out. By and large, however, the most recent phase of the contraceptives controversy was a phallic struggle between white Catholic men, bishops and lay journalists, on one side, and the Obama administration. The majority of US Catholics and even larger majorities of Catholic women, people of color, and Millenials, support the mandate. This struggle may be about conscience, but it’s even more about anyone daring to tell old white guys what to do.

The other dismaying aspect of the current  “(some) Catholics against the HHS mandate” brouhaha is that it feeds into a growing Right Wing effort to undermine access to contraceptives in the US and around the world. As Mark Oppenheimer explains in a January 20th New York Times op-ed piece, after decades of supporting the use of contraceptives, increasing numbers of US Evangelicals are now joining Catholic conservatives in their opposition to them. One aspect of this is the “Quiverfull” movement, which advocates large families, as exemplified by the Duggar family, the enthusiastic Rick Santorum supporters featured on the reality show, “19 Kids and Counting.”

All these kids jumping around can seem rather jolly, but there’s scary stuff underneath these developments. One is the increasing support for the argument—also advanced by the institutional Church—that most contraceptives are abortifacients. This is argued because oral contraceptives and others that contain hormones make the endometrium less receptive to embryonic implantation. But the embryo, opponents of contraception argue, is a person from the moment of conception. Or, as the American Association of Pro-Life ObGyns puts it, “There is an unarguable logic connecting the contraceptive act and the abortive act.

But as Jamie Manson argues convincingly on her NCR blogpage,* even Catholic Health Association ethicists have acknowledged that neither the IUD nor Plan B work by preventing implantation; instead, they prevent fertilization. At first, the argument against Ella seems more compelling, since its “chemical structure is similar to that of RU-486,” an acknowledged abortifacient not covered under ACA. But Ella comprises a much smaller dose of the chemical similar to the one in RU-486 and functions to delay or prevent ovulation. As an article from the British medical journal the Lancet indicates, only if Ella is given in a dose far beyond that provided under the ACA can implantation be impaired.”

Scientific evidence does not deter those determined to deprive women of reproductive health care, however. Thus far, attempts to enforce this belief by getting the “personhood” amendment added to state constitutions have failed, but the “personhood” movement continues its efforts. Meanwhile, Republican members of the House Foreign Affairs committee voted eleven times in October of 2011 to block funding for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which provides reproductive services to women, men, and young people in 150 countries around the world.

Surely Michael Sean Winters, Mark Shields, the NCR, and the rest, in their opposition to the ACA-mandated contraceptives coverage by Catholic universities and hospitals, do not intend to support the drive to make contraceptives illegal. I fear that by eliding women, and especially Catholic women, from the conversation, they have done so despite their good intentions

Climate Change, Fellas?

October 30, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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I trust you will excuse me for using this blog as a way of communicating with my friends and relations that although Keith and I live in Brooklyn, NY,, Hurricane Sandy did us no harm. Western Flatbush may not be the section of New York most lusted after by new residents, but it does have the advantage of being outside all the flood zones. And the electrical wires are buried underground in much of Brooklyn, something the rest of you may want to think about as these extreme weather events become more common.

Which leads me to my next topic. As Hurricane Sandy was bearing down upon us, the presidential campaign slowed but certainly did not stop. When it tools up again, it will be interesting to see if, in the light of this storm, either of the candidates utters the words “climate change.” They certainly haven’t done so up till now.

I am by no means the only person to have noted this. 350.org tried to have a demonstration in Manhattan on Sunday, to point out the connection between climate change and Hurricane Sandy, but they had to cancel it because of the storm. And in a recent article on TomDispatch.com titled “Climate and Clarity,” Rebecca Solnit reflects incisively on the connections between climate change, Sandy, and massive greed. I urge you to read what she has to say.

But I don’t think it hurts to repeat what Solnit and others are saying: extreme weather events, like this storm, and the massive drought in the US midwest last summer, and the tsunami in Hawaii the other day that turned out to be not so bad, are directly linked to climate change. As  a blogger on 350.org observed just before Hurricane Sandy hit, ” This is a storm unlike any we’ve seen before because the earth is doing things it has never done before. The water along the Atlantic coast is 5 degrees hotter than usual, super-charging Sandy’s rainfall, and drawing the strength of the storm further north…”

Now don’t get me wrong here. By pointing out that neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney have said anything in their campaigns about climate change, I am not suggesting that there are no other differences between them. The election of Mitt Romney portends a catastrophe for this country, even for a significant number of the people who will vote for him.

But as a compelling article in The Nation last week documents, Obama–and the Democrats in general–aren’t doing at all well on energy. This is probably because of the huge amounts of money the energy industry pours into lobbying and campaign contributions. The 2010 campaign of Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, was the single biggest recipient of campaign contributions from the natural gas industry during the period 2005 to 2011. Is it any surprise that he then undertook to permit natural gas fracking in the state, until literally thousands upon thousands of citizens protested such a possibility?

I might add that the “fellas” in the title of this blog post does not refer only to politicians. The US Catholic bishops have not exactly made climate change a big issue in this election either. Climate change is optional, you know, since it’s not directly connected to abortion or contraception. Of course, the bishops did establish a Catholic Coalition on Climate Change a few years back. And that group has been speaking out boldly during this election, as I’m sure you know. And at the bishops’ urging, Catholic priests speak out from the pulpit about climate change all the time. Believe that and I’ll tell you about my recent trip to Mars.

As the flooded-out residents of New York City now grasp, the extreme weather that comes with climate change is no joke. If Mitt Romney is elected, they had better move to higher ground. But even if God has mercy on us and Barack Obama is re-elected, the day after the election, we have got to start banging our fists on him, because climate change has arrived, and the window of opportunity for doing anything about it is shrinking as you read this.

An Ayn Rand Catholic?

August 14, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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As you surely know by now, Mitt Romney has chosen Paul Ryan as his running mate on the Republican presidential ticket. Paul Ryan, of course, is the author of a budget passed by the US House of Representatives in March that would have cut Medicaid and other health programs by $770 billion and other programs, including welfare, food stamps, agriculture subsidies and transportation by nearly $2 trillion. You also may have heard that Ryan is a Roman Catholic.

What you may not know is that the great inspiration of Ryan’s career in politics is Ayn Rand, the 20th century Russian emigre novelist, and political ideologue. Ryan announced this himself at a meeting of the Ayn Rand Society in 2009, that is to say, three years ago. Rand was adamantly opposed to any connection between the government and the economy. She had her reasons: she’d grown up under Soviet communism and believed that Stalinist repression of free enterprise was the greatest evil known to humankind. Her philosophy is the absolute reversal of all things communist: laissez-faire economics, radical individualism, every tub on its own bottom. She despised the New Deal, and hated Eisenhower for not eviscerating it. (To learn more about all this you can listen to an interview of the Stanford University Ayn Rand scholar, Jennifer Burns, on today’s Brian Lehrer Show  on WNYC).  This radical economic individualism is what Ryan’s budget embodies and what Romney has endorsed by choosing Ryan as his running mate.

The other thing worth knowing about Rand, however, is that she was an absolute atheist. This, according to Dr. Burns, was why, despite her opposition to communism, she was not popular in the 1950s and 1960s, during the “Cold War.” Communism was identified with atheism, so an atheist anti-communist was a contradiction in terms. She was also adamantly opposed to libertarianism, believing it was hypocritical, and hated Ronald Reagan because of his adulation of the Religi0us Right. In some respects, she was an individualist’s individualist, belonging to no party except her own. This is the great inspiration of Paul Ryan’s career in “public service,” as he describes it.

In her interview Dr. Burns argues that as Paul Ryan has become a figure on the national stage, he has tried to put some distance between himself and Ayn Rand’s atheism, but that his economic position is still Randian through and through. And if you’ve studied much philosophy you realize that it’s not so easy to to divide something like the religious/metaphysical dimension of a world-view from its economic/political perspective: atheism fits pretty well with massive individualism and letting the market take care of everybody. Alternatively, it’s kind of hard to believe in the Christian God and leave your neighbor to shift for him or herself. (See, for example, Luke 10:25–29.)

So as a Randian, can Paul Ryan be a Catholic? Well, as another Paul said, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), so I guess Ryan is as much a Catholic as the rest of us sinners. It’s worth noting, however, that the US Catholic bishops criticized Ryan’s budget fairly strongly, arguing that it fails to meet the moral criteria of “promoting the common good of all.” With the choice of Ryan as Romney’s running mate, the bishops’ criticism is getting a certain amount of play, in an editorial in the New York Times, for example.

Trouble is, hardly any ordinary Catholics are aware of the bishops’ criticism of the Ryan budget. (I’ve been taking a survey.) What they’re aware of is that the bishops sponsored a two-week protest against the Obama administration’s denial of Catholic institutional and individual entrepreneurial religious freedom. I’d be willing to bet my vast fortune that not fifty priests in the entire country addressed the bishops’ criticism of the Ryan budget from the pulpit. How many do you supposed spoke of the “Fortnight of Freedom”? Meanwhile, I note that Paul Ryan’s ideological mentor, Ayn Rand, was adamantly pro-abortion. Wonder what Paul-baby will make of that one?

Let A Billion Vatican II Blossoms Bloom

July 30, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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The following article appeared in current issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference. It was originally titled “The Death of Vatican II,” but given the title of the piece I posted last week, I thought something more upbeat might be in order.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Is Football a Pro-Life Sport?

May 26, 2012 at 10:21 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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While the US Catholic bishops are investigating the Girl Scouts, former football players are suffering premature death and dementia in large numbers.  Why don’t the bishops investigate Catholic football for the lives it destroys?

Read my Religion Dispatches discussion here.

Fraudulent Catholics?

May 12, 2011 at 11:25 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Two of our grandkids (and their parents) live out in western Massachusetts, in a village called Warren, near Springfield. One weekend when we were there I went to Mass at a church the next village over.

It was a pretty amazing experience. Almost everything about the liturgy, except that it was in English, could have taken place in my childhood parish in the 1950s: they even said the prayers at the end of Mass that we used to say before Vatican II, in which, among other things, we prayed to St. Michael the Archangel.

The most stunning part of my one and only visit to that church, however, was a poster in the lobby titled “Fraudulent Catholics,” with the names and photos of sixteen politicians, all Democrats, who had voted for some kind of legislation related to reproductive choice. The ones I remember are John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi–Pelosi whom some consider the most successful Speaker of the House in fifty years for getting the first real expansion of health care passed since the Johnson administration.

Let me be clear: I  can understand disagreeing over political questions. Even claiming that certain actions are against the teachings of the church. The term “fraudulent Catholics” strikes me as a little over the top, though. Besides which, if theses men and women aren’t real Catholics, why should they care what the St.-Michael-lovers out near Sturbridge think?

This brings me to two other Catholics, Speaker of the House John Boehner and Congressman Paul Ryan, who are working like maniacs to do away with the social safety net that US Catholics, including our bishops and politicians, did a lot to get put into place. After all, Catholic immigrants throughout US history have comprised a good percentage of the poor; in some ways, the New Deal was the expansion of the kind of aid  Catholic parishes, Sisters, and machine politicians gave immigrant Catholics before World War II.

As you perhaps know, a group of Catholic professors and leaders have sent a public letter to John Boehner on the occasion of his addressing the graduates at the Catholic University of America, pointing out to him that the budget cuts he advocates in Medicare and Medicaid and other social programs are contrary to Catholic social teaching. I’m delighted that they did this, and proud of them for not descending into the kind of vilification that that poster out in western Massachusetts does.

I wonder, though, whether the current batch of Catholic bishops will show the kind of directness regarding the evisceration of the social safety net that they have shown on the subject of abortion. If Ryan’s proposal to block-grant Medicaid really does pass, thus cutting back massively, for example,on funds that extend nursing home care  for incapacitated elderly Americans whose savings are exhausted, will Ryan’s bishop deny him communion? Or is sex the only thing that merits unambiguous episcopal action?

Fossil Fuel, the Savior of the World

August 4, 2010 at 5:42 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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As I mentioned a few days ago, I’ve been reading Gwynne Dyer’s new book Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats.  I imagine Dyer will get some criticism for being unnecessarily incendiary, or something like that; as Ian Goodwillie writes in his  on-line review, if you woke up this morning looking for a book that will scare the living crap out of you, Climate Wars is it.

But even if you’re sceptical about how far Dyer’s scenarios go, there’s still something about them, and about the accompanying commentrary, that sticks with you, or at least they do with me.

One of the comments permanently  lodged in my brain comes in an early chapter where Dyer is discussing the relationship between climate change and massive looming food shortages. Dyer observes that over the past sixty years, as the population grew from 2 billion to 6.7 billion, we managed to triple the amount of food grown on virtually the same acreage we’d been using all along. Some attribute this to the “green revolution” but, Dyer tells us, it “owes more to brute force: in the postwar decades, we threw fossil fuels at the problem in a big way.” For example, the quantity of fertilizer (made mostly from natural gas) used on farmlands has increased tenfold; furthermore, the pumping of water from deeper and deeper aquifers, the other leg on which our post-war agricultural boom stands, also depends on fossil fuels. “Indeed, in a sense we are now eating fossil fuels,” Dyer observes (p. 51).

I must confess that I was aware of the connection between fossil fuels and fertilizers, and I also realized that the trucks and ships that move our agricultural products around the world depend on gas; I even grasped that much of the packaging of that food is made from or manufactured with the support of fossil fuels. But somehow, the notion that we are eating fossil fuels grabbed my imagination in a totally new way. WE ARE EATING FOSSIL FUELS, I repeated multiple times. 

It happens that I read the chapter in which Dyer makes this observation on a Saturday afternoon. So at five o’clock I walked over to the vigil Mass at my parish, Our Lady of Refuge here in Brooklyn. I’d like to tell you that I am a deeply spiritual person who is completely taken up in the experience  of the Eucharist. Truth is, sometimes my unruly mind wanders around a bit. On this particular afternoon, it kept wandering back to the “We eat fossil fuels” refrain right up till the second half of the liturgy, when the priest offers to God and then transforms bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.  And as the priest was doing so I thought: Sweet Jesus, what if the bread that I am about to eat is also made from fossil fuels?  Was it grown on a farm that uses fertilizers and pump irrigation? Was it shipped to us in a truck from somewhere outside Brooklyn? 

Now the many Catholic bishops who read my blog may be shocked by such questions. I distinctly remember when they refused to allow gluten-free communion hosts to be distributed at communion, though doing so excluded the Catholics who suffer from celiac disease; the rules say wheat, and wheat it was going to be. Indeed, the official teaching about the Eucharist is, I believe, that after the consecration, it’s not bread and wine at all; it’s Jesus’s body and blood, plain and simple. So it can’t be fossil fuel. Right?

But it is something to consider that the host I’m swallowing and the wine I”m sipping at communion may be, in fact. fossil fuel (as well as the body and blood of Christ). Kind of fractures the Catholic sacramental vision of creation, or, perhaps, reminds us that sin messed up that same creation in the first place, and seems to be doing so again. I once read that some Orthodox Christians understand  the Eucharist to be the exorcism of the universe. Maybe by realizing that even while eating the body and blood of Christ we Christians are also eating the distinctly limited quantity of fossil fuels that is part of that creation, and  overheating the planet to boot, we’ll set in motion an exorcism of our own.

But Some Catholic Bishops Are Brave…

March 15, 2010 at 11:27 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Sometimes I want to resign from the various listservs I’m on. I get up, I’m feeling pretty good, and here comes an email reporting that the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver has expelled (well, not permitted to re-enroll) a little girl from a Catholic school because her parents are gay. And the school is called “Sacred Heart of Jesus.” Picture that particular Jesus appearing and saying, “My heart is a heart of love, except for little girls whose parents’ sexuality is intrinsically disordered.” Sweet Jesus.

Since I have clearly fallen off the wagon regarding my resolution to stop raving about the Vatican and the hierarchy, I now report, in an effort to move on to more productive things, that two other Catholic bishops (not from the US) have done something I am not ashamed of. To wit: the Catholic bishops of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have called on the United States and the rest of the world to take steps to abolish nuclear weapons.

In a press release issued in advance of a nuclear security conference to take place in Washington DC in April, Nagasaki Archbishop Joseph Mitsuaki Takami and Hiroshima Bishop Joseph Atsumi Misue say: 

“We, as the bishops of the Catholic Church of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, which is the only country in the world to have suffered nuclear attacks, demand that the president of the United States, the Japanese government and the leaders of other countries make utmost efforts to abolish nuclear weapons.”

They also say that responsibility for the bombings  “should be borne not only by the United States” but “also the other countries, including Japan, which have kept on waging wars throughout their history.” They call on the US  to “limit the purpose of retaining nuclear weapons to deterring others from using such weapons only” so as to move “toward the elimination of nuclear weapons.”

Now begins the wait to see if the US bishops can withdraw their attention from the demonization of little girls who have the wrong parents long enough to amplify this brave call by their brother bishops from Japan.

Bishops Fight for Immigrants’ Health Care?

November 24, 2009 at 10:57 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Yesterday in Politico  Jeanne Cummings discussed the US Catholic bishops involvement in the current health care debate as I did a few days ago. Catholic pressure in the debate is significant, Cummings maintains, because Catholics comprise the single largest religious group in Congress–30%–and extend across party lines.

In the health care debate, Cummings goes on to say, the bishops have consistently identified three priorities: abortion, freedom of conscience clauses, and the rights of immigrants.  But it seems unlikely the bishops will put anything like the kind of effort into immigrant rights that they have put into the abortion question:

“’I don’t think the Catholics in the pews will get quite as focused on a message of immigrants as they have been on the question of abortion,’ said Stephen Schneck, a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America. ‘And I’m not convinced the church leaders are willing to expend the political capital with those Catholics in order to promote the cause.’

“Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), a Catholic who participated in the intense negotiations over the final abortion language, said the pressure from the church to ease restrictions on immigrants was ‘not even close’ to the abortion language tug of war.”

According to Cummings, there may be good reasons for these differences in emphasis; the bishops worked with the Democratic party and the Hispanic Caucus in the House to bring about incremental improvements in the situation of immigrants vis-a-vis health care, especially that they should have the right to buy insurance with their own money on the new exchanges. 

But Cummings also says that on abortion, the stakes  are much higher for the bishops than they are on immigration. She concludes:

“So one unanswered question is whether the church will criticize — by name — those Republican and Democratic lawmakers who don’t stand with it on the issue of immigrants, much as some bishops…have been willing to criticize by name those lawmakers who opposed the abortion coverage amendment.”

Stay tuned.

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