Monday, August 31, 2009

Outpouring Continues: Update on Responses to Posting about Health Care Mobs, Bishops, and Kennedy's Funeral

This is a brief update of my post earlier today which takes note of the spate of comments that have erupted on my posting about the health care debates, some bishops, and hate for Ted Kennedy, following the response of Mr. Madrid of Belmont Abbey College's Envoy Institute to that posting.

As I said in my posting earlier today, it strikes me that American Catholicism--at least, some sectors of it (and their influence keeps growing)--has ended up in a state of moral imbecility around the issue of abortion. And it's not really about abortion at all.

It's about control and slogan shouting and the ravenous desire to make some folks insiders and others outsiders. It's about hating and bashing and not in the least about loving.

And nothing I'm hearing in the responses to my posting about the health care debate, some of the bishops, and Senator Kennedy's funeral is changing my mind about that moral imbecility and its extremely deleterious effects on the American Catholic church.

Good education would do a lot to correct the imbecility--the kind of education that challenges students to look at problems from perspectives other than their own, to grapple seriously with serious texts, to deal with pluralism and diversity and a complex postmodern society, to listen intently before they open their mouths and shout slogans that require about as much thought as swatting a gnat entails.

That kind of education--the kind that broadens mind and heart and makes them more catholic--may well be taking place at many Catholic institutions of higher learning in the U.S. It's evidently not taking place, however, in some of those Catholic colleges and universities that tout themselves as the standard-bearers of orthodoxy, but which have become, in reality, little more than propaganda machines for the political far right, as well as havens for a Catholicism that has more in common with cults than with bona fide Catholicity.

Some of those colleges, I read, even have strong ties to the Legionaries of Christ. And even as the Legionaries come under increasing scrutiny because of the behavior of their founder, these Legionary-affiliated institutions continue to shout about their exceptional Catholicity and how that Catholicity exceeds the Catholicity of other American Catholic colleges and universities.

If the students being produced by these places are any indicator of the moral and intellectual quality of exceptional Catholicity, I think I'll stick with the lax garden-variety of Catholicity represented by the likes of Ted Kennedy. At least one can talk to those of the lax who have heads on their shoulders. With the moral (and intellectual) imbecility of the uninformed righteous, there is no arguing.

Knights of Columbus on Church's Embrace of Neighbor, Following $1 Million Donation to Remove Right of Marriage from Gays

And speaking of Catholics who drive others away from the church, while claiming to serve a truth grounded in love (and welcome and mercy and inclusion and all those other glowing words), check out what the Supreme Knight of Columbus Carl A. Anderson had to say Friday at a meeting in Rimini, Italy.


Anderson said,

Nowhere is the face of our Church more attractive than in our open embrace of our neighbor. Each encounter with those in need is actually an opportunity to create a civilization of love, one person, one act at a time.

Really? Because I’m having trouble seeing the face of the church as attractive when Anderson’s Knights have just given $50,000 to remove the right of marriage from gay citizens of Maine, and when they poured over a million dollars into the battle to roll back the right of marriage for same-sex couples in California.

Somehow not feeling that “embrace” that Anderson says is the touchstone of authentic Christianity, in what the Knights have been doing to their gay brothers and sisters recently.

Or perhaps that “civilization of love” and the church Anderson serves are exclusively for straight people?

Kennedy Buried and the Furor Continues: Where's the Charity in This "Truth"?

The fallout from the choice of the Catholic church to give Senator Kennedy a Catholic burial continues. It’s interesting to note the fervor of some Catholics who remain convinced that the church cannot choose to bury a man of the ilk of Ted Kennedy—even in the face of the fact that the church did choose to give the senator a Catholic burial.

For a sample of that kind of thinking, have a look at the thread of responses gathering at my posting about health care mobs, the bishops, and hating on Kennedy. I suspect these are being prompted by a response to that posting written by one Patrick Madrid of the Envoy Institute at Belmont Abbey College, whom I mentioned in that posting.

Meanwhile, for a more measured (but nonetheless heated) discussion, check out the posting of Rev. Robert P. Imbelli at Commonweal about the legacy of Senator Kennedy.

I’m taken by Bill Mazzella’s observation that the discussion of Richard John Neuhaus’s death on Commonweal’s blog was much more charitable than the kind of stuff now pouring out re: Ted Kennedy. That seems right on the mark to me. The considerable room the church offers to the Neuhauses, Erik Princes, Gingriches, and Novaks of the world, when there’s hardly any room in the inn for Roy Bourgeois, Roger Haight, or Jeannine Gramick, scandalizes me.

It does so in the precise, etymological sense of that word. It’s a stumbling block to faith.

I’m also struck (in general: this comment has to do with the broader Catholic discussion of Kennedy’s legacy, not just the one on Commonweal, though I’d apply it to the latter, too) by the moral imbecility the magisterium has succeeded in developing among many Catholics around the issue of abortion.

Many of us have become incapable of talking about anything else, morally speaking. And the “talking” many of us do is so far from rational, coherent moral discourse that it has precisely the opposite effect its advocates intend. Rather than convince us of the righteousness of the cause, it makes us run away. It makes many of us want to distance ourselves in any way possible from a religious group that can spawn such imbecility.

And such conspicuous mean-spiritedness, in the name of God.

Media Matters Critiques Washington Post on NOM


Hurricane Katrina, Triage, and the Memorial Hospital Story: Ethical Implications for American Health Care

I have a number of reflections after reading Sheri Fink’s account in the New York Times yesterday of what happened at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans during hurricane Katrina. Fink revives questions about whether a medical team there led by Dr. Mary Pou actively euthanized terminally ill patients as the evacuation process was put off interminably, and as the medical staff in the hospital sought desperately to provide care for patients when the electricity shut down and temperatures inside the hospital reached well over 100 degrees.

Readers will remember that there were reports from all over New Orleans during the hurricane period that care facilities were running out of food, water, and medical supplies, and that those providing care in these facilities were trying to work around the clock while dehydrated and pushed beyond the limits of endurance. Fink’s account of what happened at Memorial Hospital suggests that there is increasing evidence that a team of doctors and nurses injected terminally ill patients with morphine and other sedatives, hastening their death during these gruesome days.

Here are some random thoughts that struck me as I read the story:

▪ Fink defines triage as a sorting procedure “used in accidents and disasters when the number of injured exceeds available resources.” She thinks that “there is no consensus on how best to do this.” She suggests that criteria such as trying to effect the greatest good for the greatest number of people often underlie the sorting process, but that there is no consensus about what the “greatest good” means.

I’m struck by the narrowness of Fink’s definition of triage, and her lack of attention to how triage is used on an everyday, ongoing basis in the American health care system. Our entire health care system is based on constant, implicit triage. A minority of citizens have access to the best health care possible in our nation on a continuous basis—for any and all medical (or cosmetic) needs (or wishes) they might have.

A sizable proportion of citizens have access to at least basic health care on a continuous basis for most of their medical needs, though not always for elective procedures. And in the case of most of these citizens, the health insurance industry constantly sorts who will be permitted even necessary treatment and who will be blocked.

A significant group of citizens have access to health care only in cases of dire need or emergency. They are very likely to experience triage in the emergency rooms to which they have to resort, as their level of need is assessed and decisions are made about whom to treat, when to treat, and whether to do follow-up.

The central norm in this system of ongoing, continuous triage is money. We dispense health care in the United States—and we practice continuous triage as we do so—based on people’s ability to pay.

To talk about triage in the narrow sense of sorting patients in an emergency situation without paying attention to the broader sense in which we are always doing triage in our medical system is to lose sight of the conditions that produce the excruciating decisions that have to be made during events like hurricane Katrina. And it’s also to lose sight of why there is difficulty deciding how to sort patients according to the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Making a moral judgment of that sort is very difficult in our system due to the sheer weight of financial considerations as we dispense medical treatment to our population. In an emergency, just as in everyday life, we do not make those decisions in a vacuum. We always make them against the backdrop of financial factors that weigh far less in any other industrialized nation in the world than they do in the American health care system.

▪ Fink’s article does not make crystal clear another point that readers need to keep in mind as they think about what happened at Memorial Hospital during Katrina. This is that the kind of end-of-life decision making the article describes takes place on a daily basis in all of our hospitals and care facilities. Decisions about withholding treatment, permitting patients to die, and, yes, about using palliatives that hasten death even as they relieve suffering, are made daily throughout this country.

What the team at Memorial Hospital did is not unique. And it’s not extraordinary. It goes on all the time. It has to go on all the time, because difficult end-of-life medical decisions happen all the time, not merely at times of emergency.

For years, I taught medical ethics as a component of introductory courses in ethics. In my classes, I frequently had students who were medical professionals—including Catholic religious. These students almost always told the class that they routinely made decisions in collaboration with medical ethical teams and family members, about withholding treatment and nutrition at the end of life when a patient was actively dying. They also told the class that they routinely made decisions about the use of palliatives such as morphine that, they well knew, would hasten the death of patients in extremis.

These stories did not shock most of the classes I taught, because the students in those classes were familiar with important norms that used to be routine in Catholic ethical thinking about end-of-life issues, but which are now under assault by the political and religious right. Those norms include 1) the distinction between active and passive killing, and 2) the principle of double effect.

The Catholic ethical tradition has always been clear about the fact that taking an innocent human life directly and intentionally is morally wrong. But the tradition has also recognized that there is a difference between allowing someone to die—in the case of the terminally ill, allowing the dying process to occur naturally without use of extraordinary means to prolong it—and actively killing someone.

That distinction has been muddied in recent years, as the religious and political right do everything possible to depict as active killing the withholding of medical treatment (and nutrition) in cases in which there is no hope of recovery. And the deliberate muddying of that distinction is unfortunate, indeed, at a time in which our ability to keep people “alive” even when their brains have died continues to develop.

We now have extraordinary ability to prolong life in situations in which our ancestors would have died naturally. What we now end up doing in many cases is prolonging the dying process (and the suffering) of those who are dying.

The principle of double effect maintains that, in pursuit of a good end, we can sometimes make ethically justifiable decisions that will have effects we do not will as the primary end of our decision, but which we recognize as necessary if unintended effects of our pursuit of our primary goal. Giving palliatives to a dying patient to ease his or her pain has the unintended effect of shutting down the vital organs and hastening death. The principle of double effect enables us to administer such palliatives with the primary end of relieving the pain of a person in extremis, even when we know that the treatment we are using will also speed the dying process.

▪ Finally, as we assess what happened at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans, it strikes me as important to keep in mind that people are forced to make hard, well-nigh impossible ethical decisions in times of emergency, which they might not make in quite the same way when they have the leisure to reflect about those decisions. And perhaps those of us who have not lived through the situation of extreme stress should not be quick to make judgments about the intent of those who make decisions in such circumstances, and about the decisions they make.

A fundamental principle of the moral life is that we should live each day in such a way that, faced with situations of soul-bending challenge, we tend to move naturally” towards the right and away from the wrong. As we think about the parameters of the moral decisions medical personnel made during Katrina, I think we ought to keep that principle in mind.

Which means, we need to construct the kind of society in which it becomes easier in both routine and extraordinary circumstances to make good decisions about end-of-life care and harder to make bad decisions. As our system is now constructed, it is often difficult everyday—and not just in times of emergency—to make the best decisions possible about medical care for indigent and dying patients.

It was even more difficult during the days of Katrina in New Orleans because of the conspicuous failure of religious and political leaders who like to talk louder than anyone else about respect for life to assist people dealing with gruesome decisions about sustaining life and caring for the dying under horrific conditions. Those who want to shift the blame for moral failure in our system of health care delivery to a handful of medical professionals working around the clock while making decisions unimaginable to most of us are missing an important point.

The point is that the blame for the moral failings of our health care system lies at our own feet—at the feet of an American public content to continue permitting medical treatment to depend on one’s ability to pay. And the blame lies at the feet of leaders who do nothing to challenge this immoral way of approaching medical care.

And it lies at the feet of those in the political and religious right who scream slogans about the sanctity of life even as they resist attempts to create a health care system that would, we hope, make it easier for us to recognize the value of every human life. And would help prevent the kind of impossible choices those working to care for terminally ill people in Katrina were forced to make under the direst possible circumstances.

For a close-up view of the graphic at the head of this posting, click the picture.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Father Orsi of Ave Maria University: No Christian Burial for Ted Kennedy

And I blogged Friday about some Catholic voices that are—to use Earl Ofari Hutchinson’s fine phrase—hating on Ted Kennedy as this public servant with a distinguished career is eulogized and buried. Some American Catholic commentators were outraged that Senator Kennedy was given a Catholic burial.

These include Father Michael P. Orsi, who, as I noted in a previous posting, is a Research Fellow in Religion and Law at Tom Monaghan's Ave Maria University. Father Orsi argues that a Christian burial is a privilege reserved “for those who have lived a Christian life.” And he believes that Senator Kennedy did not deserve such a burial.

As the previous posting to which I link above notes, Father Orsi appears to be something of an expert in distinguishing rights from privileges. At the end of July, he published an editorial attacking the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for maintaining that health care is a human right and not a privilege.

Interesting, isn't it, how the Catholic tradition of human rights comes down to the right and privilege of big business to do anything it wants anywhere in the world? That is, it comes down to that singular right and privilege in the interpretation of neocon Catholic thinkers like Father Orsi.

The right of free enterprise. The right of unfettered capitalism.

But not the right to health care. Nor the right to a decent Christian burial.

I somehow don't hear the preoccupations of Jesus and the gospels in the rhetoric of those who would deny Christian burial to a public servant with whose politics they disagree, or the right of health care to an indigent family—while they bend over backwards to defend the right of the rich to rob the poor.

The graphic for this posting is an illustration of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19-31, from the 11th-century Codex Aureus of Echternach. In the gospel story, the rich man refuses to give crumbs from his table to Lazarus, a beggar who lies wounded outside the rich man's door. When the rich man dies, he is tormented in hell, while Lazarus lies in Abraham's bosom. The rich man then pleads with Lazarus for a drop of water to slake his thirst . . . .

NOM Scrutinized: Maine and Iowa Pursue Ethics Complaints against National Organization for Marriage

I blogged several days ago about Californians Against Hate’s recent filing of an ethics complaint in Maine against the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). Californians Against Hate claims that, along with the Catholic diocese of Portland, NOM is circumventing laws that require full public disclosure of its funding sources in its battle to remove the right of marriage from gay citizens of Maine.

My posting notes that Californians Against Hate believes that NOM is a front group for the LDS church, and that it is laundering money to hide the extent of financial support coming directly from the Mormon church as NOM steps up the battle to remove the right of marriage from gay citizens of both Maine and Iowa. I also noted that NOM has not released its latest IRS 900 statements, though federal regulations require non-profits to do so, and several groups have made repeated requests to NOM for copies of those statements.

Since I last posted about these issues, Joe Sudbay at Americablog and Pam Spaulding at Pam’s House Blend are reporting (here and here) that both Maine’s Secretary of State and Iowa’s Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board are pursuing ethics complaints against NOM.

These postings link to a statement by Gerand Weinand at the Dirigo Blue blog about the Maine Ethics Commission’s response to the complaint filed by Californians Against Hate. Both also provide a link to a statement about the response of the Iowa ethics commission to complaints that NOM may be circumventing Iowa election laws through its activities in the campaign to remove the right of marriage from gay citizens there.

Both Joe Sudbay and Pam Spaulding also note the fluff piece by Monica Hesse that the Washington Post just published about NOM’s executive director Brian “Just a Regular Guy” Brown. Sad to say, this shoddy bit of special pleading by WaPo on behalf of a viciously homophobic organization doesn’t surprise me, considering how the paper chose to handle the recent ELCA assembly and its decision to open Lutheran ministry to gays in monogamous relationships.

We in the gay community and those who stand in solidarity with us seriously delude ourselves if we believe the mainstream media are on our side and intend to report fairly on injustices done to LGBT citizens. And we’re seriously deluded if we think that situation is going to change without intense pressure from us and our friends to call the mainstream media to accountability for their continued playing to the right in coverage of gay issues.

Getting Democracy Back: Sara Robinson on Education in a Fascist-Proof Society

As an educator, I’ve written extensively (most recently here) on this blog about my intent concern that American higher education is now failing the nation, as it adopts leadership models drawn from the corporate world. And as it substitutes the values of the corporate business world for the values of higher education—values that higher education has a serious obligation to communicate to students, if we want to keep democracy alive.

I’ve noted that American colleges and universities have a strong obligation to teach students to respect diversity, to collaborate with others across racial, ideological, religious, and national boundaries, to use critical thinking skills to understand the socio-economic and political world, and to draw marginalized communities into social structures. I’ve also noted that American institutions of higher learning—including church-owned ones—benefit largely from public tax dollars precisely because our culture has always understood that, in receiving such public support, universities and colleges covenant themselves to inculcate values necessary to sustain democracy, and to produce leaders for the future.

In my view, the shift to a corporate model of doing business in American higher education is seriously undermining its ability to fulfill this social contract. So I’m very interested to note that Sara Robinson’s recent list of steps concerned citizens need to take to make our society “fascist proof” includes rebuilding our educational system.

Robinson states,

We need to get serious about investing in education. It's well understood now that our broken health care system is right on the bottom of the barrel among industrialized countries; but most of us don't realize that our schools are in the same comparatively wretched shape.
Thomas Jefferson understood that liberal democracy is impossible without a literate, well-informed populace; and the endless parade of teabagger loonitude is precisely the kind of know-nothing nightmare he most feared. . . . .
Don't know much about history -- so the Christian right is busily rewriting it to argue that there's no such thing as a wall between church and state. Don't know much biology -- so fewer than half of all Americans think the theory of evolution explains our origins. Don't know much about the science book -- so we're ready to believe whatever junk science the corporate PR folks can conjure up. Don't know much about the French I took -- which has left the country insular, parochial and unable to work and play well with others in a world it purports to lead.
But the worst failure is that we went through a decades-long patch where we didn't teach civics -- and still don't much, especially in states where it's not part of the standardized tests. Which means that there are tens of millions among us who have absolutely no idea what's in the Bill of Rights, or how a law gets made, or where the limits of state power lie.
It's quite possible that if the conservatives hadn't undermined universal civics education, the right-wing talking heads would have never found an audience. Instead, what we have is a country where most people are getting their basic political education from Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.
If we want our democracy back, that has to change.

And:

We need to focus on restoring our basic liberal institutions. In 2005, Chris Bowers noted that progressive ideology has always been disseminated through four major cultural drivers: the universities (and related intellectual infrastructure); unions; the media; and liberal religious organizations. Knowing this, conservatives set out back in the 1970s to undermine all four of these institutions -- and over time, they've largely succeeded in blunting their historic capacity to disseminate and perpetuate the progressive worldview.

As I’ve noted before, if American higher education expects to have a viable future, if it wants to retain its traditional academic identity and not simply become a propaganda machine for the corporate business community, it needs to take another look at some of the founding figures of modern American higher education, including John Dewey, who made the democracy-education link explicit.

Or at Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of Bethune-Cookman University, who made that link explicit, and then deepened the analysis by applying the link specifically to one historically marginalized community, her African-American community. Bethune’s passion for education was driven by her vision of democracy as a network of social participation in which every voice was needed, and should be welcome. If you want a treat on this late-summer weekend in which it seems we’ve been bombarded for far too long with voices of hate and destruction rather than reason and hope, listen to Bethune’s contribution to NBC’s 23 November 1939 town meeting of the air on the question, What does democracy mean to me?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Pastor Steven Anderson: The Impossible Road from Jesus to Hate

Jim Burroway at Box Turtle is asking readers of his blog what we would ask Pastor Steven Anderson if we had a chance to talk to him.

Steven Anderson is pastor of Faithful Word Baptist church in Phoenix. He has made statements that gays should be killed, and accuses all gays of being sexual predators and rapists. For someone who claims to take the bible literally (in its King James version, at that), he has an astonishing facility for twisting scriptural texts to turn them into anti-gay texts, when not even his most ardent right-wing allies have divined the homophobic significance of said texts.

For instance, he reads Noah’s condemnation of his son Shem when Shem uncovered his father’s nakedness (Genesis 9:18-10:32) as a passage about Shem raping his father. It is interesting that Anderson fixates on that particular passage to prove that gays are rapists, given that it has a sordid history in Christianity in quite another direction. It has long been used to suggest that all people of color (who are said, in this fantasy-spinning reading of the text, to descend from Shem) are doomed by Shem’s sin to eternal servitude to lighter-skinned people.

Anderson’s hatred doesn’t focus exclusively on gays. He’s one of those “Christians” now caught up in reviving the tradition of imprecatory prayer in the psalms—despite Jesus’s injunction to his followers to forgive our enemies, and his refusal to condemn the criminals crucified with him—in the hope that President Obama will die and go to hell. And the man who showed up recently at a Phoenix town hall meeting carrying an automatic assault weapon is a member of Pastor Anderson’s church.

I’ve been asking myself precisely the question Jim Burroway encourages his readers to ask: given the chance, what would I ask Steven Anderson? Pastor Anderson has already been on my radar screen, actually. I blogged about him back in February 2008 when he preached on a text—I am not making this up—which, in his view, mandates that real men should urinate standing up.

Pastor Anderson has a bee in his bonnet, and the bee buzzes around questions of male supremacy and male inadequacy, which seem to elicit a great deal of confusion and rage in his psyche. That in itself fascinates me, as a psychological-religious process that happens among so many Christians intent on using the bible to bolster male power and privilege—even (or perhaps especially) when that power and privilege is used to demean, trample on, and even kill the despised other.

And so I’m going to take a stab at asking Pastor Anderson what I’d like to ask him, following Jim Burroway’s lead (and I will post a link at Box Turtle, since it’s Jim’s invitation that leads me to post about this on Bilgrimage).

Pastor Anderson: hatred? It fascinates me that people are energized by hatred. But it fascinates me even more when those who are so obviously energized by hatred also happen to be men of the cloth.

I’m especially fascinated when those intent on hating profess a religion founded by someone who preached that God is love, that we die by the sword when we brandish it, that we need to turn the other cheek and let our enemies smite us on it, to go the extra mile, to forgive seventy times seventy. Jesus taught that we should pray constantly to be forgiven as we ourselves forgive and that we must forgive our enemies—always, everywhere, in every circumstance. No matter what.

How does someone who follows Jesus get onto the road of hatred?

I will admit that I can understand very well how people hate. Being human involves us in dealing with hate—not just the hate of others, but our own hate. Hate is always there inside all of us, like a rank weed ready to spring up at a moment’s notice under the right circumstances.

It’s, frankly, easy to hate. It’s easier to hate than to love. One comes naturally; the other requires, in many circumstances, energy. It’s always easier to tear down in one day a house that was built months on end by many hands and much work.

So I understand hate. I am susceptible to it. Like any human being, I have to learn to deal with it—not only when it confronts me from outside, but when I see the rank weed threatening to sprout yet again inside the dark recesses of my own soul.

But I will admit, what I find a little harder to understand—and please help me here; I am sincerely trying to understand—is hate that we justify. I find it hard to understand hate in which we revel, hate we proudly display rather than admit, shamefacedly, we are struggling to overcome.

How does one come to hate and take pride in hating? Even worse, how does one come to hate and believe that God blesses one’s hatred, that God smiles on one’s hatred and urges it on?

I do not know or understand such a God. If I thought such a God existed, I would turn my back on that God as a force to be resisted and despised, not to be worshiped and loved.

Because in my experience the wonderful things that happen in the world happen when people have the courage to resist hate and to love instead. They happen when a parent nurtures a child. They happen when someone is lying beside the road and a bystander picks him up and takes him to have his wounds treated.

The wonderful things that happen in the world happen when a callow young person takes time to stop and listen to a querulous, wise old person who would otherwise be altogether too easy to overlook and to ignore. And they happen when an elderly person embittered at growing old and being ignored takes a youngster under her wing, and sees that his needs are met.

They happen when we meet our enemy and see that, like us, our enemy has grown older, tireder, slower—that like us, our enemy is simply another human being, and deserves the same compassion we would like for ourselves. The wonderful things that happen in life happen when someone dares to love, by reaching across social barriers that seem impossible to bridge, and discovers that those despised, hated others across the line are human just as we are human.

How have you learned to hate, Pastor Anderson? And to hate with such facility? And to be so absolutely certain that God blesses and energizes your hatred? And to be so sure that who you are—a white, heterosexual American male—is the pinnacle of creation, and everyone else is a lesser being?

And that God has designed things in such a way that you just happen to be the pinnacle of creation?

I really would like to know, if you care to respond.

Health Care Mobs, Bishops, and Hating on Ted Kennedy: The American Catholic Soul Laid Bare, Summer of 2009

Here’s how I’m coming to see it. When Congress went into recess with legislation for health care reform incomplete—let’s be honest: with no substantive details at all to reassure us the process is underway—they left a window open.

And through that window have now crawled some of the worst ghouls and goblins of American culture. Ghouls and goblins we’ve always known were there; they’re part of the dim recesses of our national psyche, hovering always somewhere in the background. But ghouls and goblins now prancing around in the light of day, occupying center stage.

And about to claim the center. About to take over.

Many of us had hoped that the election of Mr. Obama might mean at least a temporary respite from the freak show. We had hoped that these forces might be placed in check, at least for a period of time, while the damage they and their kind did to the nation during the last presidency got cleaned up and the nation put back onto the right track.

That did not happen. For whatever reasons, the new administration failed to recognize that placing these forces in decisive check was imperative, if it were to move forward on any front. The administration failed to listen to its most ardent supporters, the progressive wing of the Democratic party.

And it failed to listen to the large majority of those who voted Democratic in the last election, who desperately wanted to see the nation made whole again, and some of our key problems addressed forthrightly. The vacuum of leadership at the top of the nation—ethical leadership which recognizes that to call something a moral imperative is to act on that imperative as expeditiously as possible—opened the door for the many spineless, ethically compromised Democrats who consistently place the interests of corporations and economic elites ahead of their fellow citizens. It opened a door for them to collude with those to whom they have sold their souls, to block the health care reform process for as long as possible.

They began the process of blocking health care reform because they could do so. The administration’s lack of leadership invited them to do so.

The Republicans, we knew all along, were intent on blocking health care reform because it is their best and brightest hope to destroy the new administration. Only a fool would not have known that leaving the window open during this long, hot summer recess was a prelude to seeing the Republican party at its tawdry, seamy worst—at the underbelly worst it has now become in its minority status—streaming through the window.

Armed and ready to do damage. And what damage these folks, this army of malicious fools, have now done to our nation in one short summer.

We are now back further than we were when the president took office. Those in leadership positions in this nation have given the radical, destructive right a chance to regain strength, and we will all be paying a price for that mistake for a long time to come. It is very likely, in fact, that the Republican party—the party intent not on building a better society, but on blocking any and all possible attempts to build such a society—will regain control of Congress in 2010 elections.

And there’s little that those of us who gave the mandate for a new direction to this administration—which is to say a clear majority of Americans—can do about that.

And here is what else happened when the window was left open and the ghouls and goblins were invited back in. As I predicted (and I am not happy to see this prediction come true), some U.S. Catholic bishops are using this time of ugly social discontent and engineered rage and confusion to go on the attack. Some U.S. bishops are right there with the ghouls and goblins, shouting and threatening and jubilating at the thought of destruction of good people and good plans.

Their goal is not to build a better nation. It is not to see core Catholic moral values regarding health care and concern for the poor served. It is solely—and exceptionally mean-spiritedly—to attack while they believe the knife can most easily be inserted and twisted. The New York Times
reports today that Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, Iowa, and—predictablyArchbishop Charles Chaput of Denver have all issued statements seeking to block health care reform.

I should say, all three of these men of the cloth have issued statements supporting the Republican crusade to block health care reform, because this is partisan politics pure and simple. These bishops are willing to put partisan political objectives—their partisan political objectives—ahead of what has long been regarded as a clear, compelling objective of Catholic social teaching, health care coverage for all citizens.

They are willing to play the abortion card and to hold the nation hostage on the specious grounds that a plan for health care reform may cover abortion, in order to destroy the new administration. Make no mistake about it: this is their goal. It is their hope. For partisan reasons. Having scented blood this summer, they are circling around now, ready to make the kill. These men of the cloth.

The hatred that underlies this ostensibly religious crusade is on shocking display—if anyone happens to have missed the shocking displays of the town hall meetings this summer—in the reaction of the fringe right, its Republican party enablers, and, yes, many in the churches, to the death of Ted Kennedy. As Earl Ofari Hutchinson notes in his HuffPo article about this yesterday entitled “Hatin’ on Ted Kennedy,” it is impossible to disentangle the crude, crowing statements of delight at Ted Kennedy’s death that are pouring out of the mouths of people in all the aforementioned groups from those groups’ intent to block health care reform.

They smell blood. And they are going for the kill. Hutchinson notes,

The Kennedy counter assault comes against the backdrop of a well-defined, well-heeled, and well orchestrated right counterinsurgency against health care reform, any other proposal from Obama and Congressional Democrats on the economy, immigration, expanded civil liberties and civil rights protections. This is more than an insurgency with the GOP's hidden hand behind the curtain pulling the strings. The hate crowd actually believes what they say about Obama and Kennedy, and couldn't care less how many times or how many people scream crack pot and lunatic at them.

And right in the middle of this festival of hate that is all about tearing down rather than building up, I have to repeat, are some loud, key Catholic voices. Catholic voices. Voices of people whose fundamental religious convictions should be about loving, including, building a better world. Screaming, shouting, condemning, tearing down with an alacrity that most people of goodwill anywhere in the world would find impossible to associate with bona fide religious or moral values.

Michael Sean Winters has published a number of fine statements about this at the America blog, and I commend him for his courage. For daring to commemorate Ted Kennedy in a positive way, and to expose the maleficence of the fringe right in American Catholicism which is celebrating the senator’s guise, he is being slammed and slammed hard. As that fringe group is wont to do, when they organize and pressure for “Catholic” positions to be upheld.

One of the people Michael Sean Winters has dared to call out for hating on the deceased senator is one Patrick Madrid of the Envoy Institute at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina. Madrid chose to eulogize Ted Kennedy as follows:

Whatever his positive qualities may have been, and no doubt he had some, the tragic reality is that Senator Kennedy's long political career was squandered by his vociferous, relentless promotion of abortion. And that, sadly, will be his enduring legacy. I agree with you that tears are appropriate upon hearing the news of this man's death, but not for the reasons you are crying them.

I’m sorry to say I happen to know a thing or two about Patrick Madrid and Belmont Abbey College, though I’ve hesitated to mention that on this blog. I have hesitated because places like Belmont Abbey College have a penchant for using negative publicity generated by progressive bloggers to their advantage. The school is a showplace of the American Catholic right, and it has friends in very high places.

Criticize it, and those friends will find a way to use the publicity to the advantage of Belmont Abbey, to bring yet more ardently right-wing students to the school. And, as the reaction to Michael Sean Winters’s blog posting about Patrick Madrid illustrates, criticize it, and you are up against a powerful, well-funded, and well-organized group of right-wing activists intent on bringing you down by any means possible. One respondent to the America postings I cite above is now calling for Michael Sean Winters’s resignation from America, because he dared to criticize Patrick Madrid.

As I say, I happen to know a bit about Belmont Abbey, because I spent two hapless years teaching there, and it was there that my ability to connect to the Catholic church in an institutional way was definitively broken. It was there, in fact, that my faith itself was almost broken, until I realized that the behavior of some people who call themselves Catholic is not synonymous with the church itself, no matter how powerful they happen to be.

And, interestingly enough, my memories of those years of struggle simply to survive in a sea of toxic reactionary Catholicism I had never encountered before and did not even know existed include one sharp memory centering on Ted Kennedy.

This happened in the faculty lounge at Belmont Abbey, a place that, in the early 1990s, belonged to an old boys’ network who were quick to let you know who belonged and who didn’t. They were not above removing something you posted on the bulletin board of the lounge, and putting in its place something else which implied that 1) you were anti-Catholic and 2) that meant you were pro-abortion. Never mind that you had never said a word about abortion in any class you taught or any piece you had published.

If you didn’t belong to their club, you had to be for abortion. That was the crude logic by which the club controlled, and then destroyed, anyone it perceived as an enemy.

The occasion I recall involving Ted Kennedy was this. Among the old boys who gathered in the faculty lounge to smoke and grouse between classes were always a number of the Benedictine monks who own the college and determine everything that goes on in it—including who is or is not president at any given time.

On this occasion, the question vexing the old boys was what to do about Anita Hill and her challenge to Clarence Thomas during Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. I have never seen such gloom as I saw in the old boys’ lounge at Belmont Abbey during the days when it seemed Anita Hill might prevail in the hearings. And I have never seen such unabashed, evil delight as I witnessed among the same old boys when Thomas was confirmed.

Somehow, during all this phallic preening about Hill-Thomas, Ted Kennedy’s name came up. When it did so, one of the monks was sitting in one of the large windows that overlooked the campus from the lounge. He liked to fold himself into the windows, as he sat on the windowsill and smoked, pontificating from that vantage spot in the direction of the other old boys sitting on the sofas in the middle of the lounge.

When Kennedy’s name came up, the monk poured out a stream of invective the likes of which I had never heard: goddamned hypocrite; Chappaquiddick; worst of any of the liberals; wish him and his kind had never been born.

I had never heard anything like it—certainly not from a man who prayed several times a day in a choir stall in church. Not from a man wearing a religious habit. Not from a fellow Catholic.

To my discomfiture, I learned from that experience—and from my whole experience at Belmont Abbey—a valuable lesson about what Catholicism is capable of. It was not a pretty lesson. But it was a necessary lesson.

That lesson has made me very tentative about claiming Catholic identity in a church in which such voices prevail. And what the American Catholic bishops are doing today—what the partisan loudmouths intent on bringing Obama down are doing as they join the shout-fest, what the silent majority who let their brother bishops behave this way with impunity are doing—makes me even more convinced to keep my distance.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Media Concerns Again: Gene Lyons on Media's Slippery Connection to Truth

And, finally today, as a gloss on my reflections about the shoddy role the mainstream media played in covering the recent ELCA assembly, I’d like to take note of an here article by Gene Lyons at Salon today.

It’s called “The Media Can’t Handle the Truth.”

I’m struck in particular by Gene Lyons’ final statements in this piece:


Long under siege for "liberal bias," media careerists now find themselves confronted with people they see as passionate amateurs. True, fearless scrappers like my friend Joe Conason have always been around, and somebody like Paul Krugman -- a world-class economist who doesn't care what, say, MSNBC's Chris Matthews thinks of him -- can be very annoying.
But what's really driving these jokers up the wall is economic and intellectual competition from the Internet: people with first-class minds and a passion for truth that some of them can barely remember.

And so I renew the appeal I made to readers of this blog in the Bilgrimage posting to which I link above, to help me hold the feet of the mainstream media to the fire, particularly re: the media’s continued misleading reporting on the churches and the gay community. After reading Christina Capecchi’s here erroneous statement that the ELCA lowered its bar for the vote on ministry by gays in monogamous relationships, I notified the New York Times that Capecchi’s report was incorrect.

I have yet to hear from the New York Times in response to my notice. And I remain very disturbed by the articles that Patrick Condon published for the Associated Press during the conference. The links above will remind readers of what I find problematic in his articles.

The media can and should do better. And if it takes constant stings from citizen bloggers to hold them accountable, then so be it: let the stings keep coming. We have everything to gain as a society when we force the media to report accurately and in depth, and everything to lose when we don’t hold the media accountable.

Edward M. Kennedy: The Best Old Boy Who Ever in This World Did Live

As I think about the loss of Ted Kennedy and about an appropriate way to eulogize someone who contributed so much to the United States, from a Catholic social justice perspective that often seems to be in its death throes these days, I think back to a childhood scene involving my maternal grandmother.

As readers who have followed Bilgrimage for some time might guess, my mother’s mother played a significant role in my childhood. My grandmother shaped my outlook on life, and her lessons in values—ones she took dead seriously, and which her grandchildren had no choice except to regard as significant—formed my character in ways I feel sure I will never totally fathom. It was this grandmother who taught me to pray on evenings when I would spend the night with her as a child, and we would talk into the night as I slept beside her.

As I’ve grown up and look back on her subtle techniques of character formation, I realize that my grandmother deliberately staged the constant visits we made to her as occasions to teach her grandchildren about values. Many of our visits included a drive to the cemetery in which her parents and grandparents are buried, along with countless other relatives on that side of my family. My grandmother herself is now buried in that cemetery.

On these occasions, as we’d walk slowly through the cemetery from grave to grave, she would tell us stories of each person buried in the plots to which she guided us. These were stories designed to make us aware that who we were was an extension of who our forebears had been and what they had done: we had a heritage to carry on, and we also needed to remember with gratitude the sacrifices made for us by those who came before us.

Needless to say, each story included a little moral lesson.

One grave puzzled me, though. It did so because my grandmother never failed to visit it and point it out to us. But she had no story to go with the burial site.

What she did instead when we reached this grave was pat the tombstone and say, “Here lies the best old boy who ever in this world did live.” That was it. That was her eulogy, and it has stuck in my mind as an exceptionally fine one.

Years later, I discovered the reason for my grandmother’s reticence to talk about this fine “old boy.”

The man she was eulogizing—and encouraging us to remember—was her cousin, her first cousin. He was the son of an aunt about whom she was always reticent—a half-aunt, as she was quick to point out, born to her grandfather's second wife.

The reason for the reticence, I have learned as an adult, is that this aunt had a child some years following her husband’s death, a child born to a neighboring farmer up the road from her. In rural Arkansas, such events caused quite a stir—at least in the area in which my family lived. They brought shame on an entire family, down to third and fourth cousins descended from half-brothers and sisters far back in the family tree.

Despite this shame, which obviously mattered to my grandmother many years after her poor old widowed aunt had stepped across the conventional line with a neighbor (as old letters delicately explain), my grandmother obviously cherished the cousin whose tombstone she wanted us to remember, the best old boy who ever in this world did live.

And I can think of few better ways to eulogize Senator Kennedy. My grandmother was wild about the Kennedys. They could, in her eyes, do no wrong. When she saw the photograph of a Ryan relative of theirs in County Wexford, she was absolutely convinced—nothing would persuade her otherwise—that this Kennedy cousin had to be a cousin of hers, given that her own mother had been a Ryan born in County Kilkenny close to the Wexford border, and that the president’s cousin looked like the very spit and image of her mother.

If my grandmother were alive today, she would say of Ted Kennedy—I know it in my bones—and of his death, “We've just lost the best old boy who ever in this world did live.” And as her grandson, I can think of no finer way to eulogize a man I admired deeply, and for whose good work on behalf of all of us I will forever be grateful.

An Archbishop Speaks Out: Archbishop Sheehan on Catholic Isolationism Due to Single-Issue Politics

I wrote yesterday that the monomaniacal focus of key American Catholic leaders on the single issue of abortion is marginalizing the American Catholic church when it comes to important ethical and political discussions. I noted that this monomaniacal focus has issued in tactics of bullying, shouting, and sloganizing that bring the Catholic church into disrepute in the public arena.

And I was happy to read later in the day that at least one U.S. Catholic bishop has recently made statements that seem to parallel my analysis of where American Catholicism has been heading for some time now. This is Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe.

On 12 August, Archbishop Sheehan gave an interview to National Catholic Reporter editor Tom Roberts. In the interview, the archbishop talks about what he told his brother bishops at the last USCCB meeting, at which the invitation of President Obama to Notre Dame was discussed. Readers will recall that this invitation precipitated a firestorm, with a number of U.S. Catholic bishops denouncing Notre Dame for issuing the invitation.

Roberts reports:

In the Aug. 12 interview, Sheehan said the Catholic community risks isolating itself from the rest of the country and that refusing to talk to a politician or refusing communion because of a difference on a single issue was counterproductive. He described such actions as a “hysterical” reaction.

And Archbishop Sheehan went on to say,

“We’d be like the Amish, you know, kind of isolated from society, if we kept pulling back because of a single issue.”
He acknowledged the loudest voices were creating what appeared to be the Catholic position for the general public.
“Of course. I mean that’s always been the case,” he said. “That’s news, you know.”

Archbishop Sheehan is right, in my view. Meanwhile, if you want evidence of where American Catholicism has headed in some influential sectors—the shouting, sloganizing, and bullying around the single issue of abortion—check out these HuffPo and Joe.My.God videos of Catholic anti-abortion activist Terry Randall at Representative Jim Moran’s recent town-hall meeting about health care reform in Reston, Virginia (and see here).

If that’s the public face of American Catholicism nowadays (and it is, to a large extent), and if that’s what we have to offer to serious public discussions of an important moral issue like health care reform (and it is, to a great extent), then we’re in a heap of trouble.

And we’re in this state because the silent majority of U.S. Catholic bishops about whom Archbishop Sheehan speaks in this article have been unwilling to speak out loudly and clearly against the handful of bishops (Archbishop Chaput of Denver comes immediately to mind) who energize this screaming, belligerent minority. The bishops themselves have let these folks claim the center.

They did so during the campaign when these same activists shouted for blood at Sarah Palin’s rallies. And the bishops remained silent.

They did so when Randall Terry pushed around buggies full of dolls covered in fake blood for weeks before the president came to Notre Dame. And as a body, the bishops kept their silence—except for the loud, war-mongering minority who slammed Notre Dame for issuing an invitation to the president.

And they continue to keep silence, as a body, when Randall Terry and his cohorts disrupt town-hall meetings with screams about baby killers and black-face skits showing Mr. Obama whipping the elderly. This silence is shameful.

And the bishops will one day have to answer for it at the judgment bar of history, as well as of God.

Catholics, Mormons, and Money: Churches and Pastoral Priorities

In my posting yesterday about Californians Against Hate’s charge that the Catholic diocese of Portland, Maine, is engaging in money-laundering in its battle to roll back the right of same-sex marriage in Maine, I noted that the California group also names the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) as one of the groups laundering money in the Maine battle.

I also noted that Californians Against Hate has accused NOM of being a front-group for the Mormon Church, through which LDS church funds are funneled into the battle against gay marriage. What I didn’t mention in yesterday’s posting—and this deserves attention—is that NOM is doing everything in its power to keep its financial records from public scrutiny. Even to the extent of flaunting IRS regulations for non-profits about public disclosure of 990 records.

As Right Wing Watch reported several days ago, the Washington Blade has requested copies of NOM’s latest 990 filings, and has apparently not received those copies. Californians Against Hate has also sent staff to the NOM office in Princeton, NJ, to request NOM’s 990 forms. Those staff were sent away empty-handed.

The group then sent two certified letters to NOM on 18 March asking again for copies of NOM’s latest 990 returns. NOM has not provided copies. Californians Against Hate believes that NOM operates two non-profits, a 501(c)4 called the National Organization for Marriage and a 501(c)3 called the National Organization for Marriage Educational Fund.

On 15 May, NOM asked for a three-month extension to the IRS filing deadline this year, and it is believed that NOM filed its current 990 report on 14 August—and so, as a non-profit, NOM was legally required to provide copies when the Washington Blade asked for them after that date. NOM can be fined by IRS for skirting federal regulations governing disclosure of donor information to non-profits.

As Right Wing Watch concludes, “NOM's finances are a complete mystery, and the group seems intent on keeping it that way for as long as possible.”

The refusal to disclose funding streams supporting this national organization combating gay rights is interesting, to say the least—particularly as NOM mounts high-profile (and highly-funded) media campaigns in both Maine and Iowa this summer. On the reasons that Californians Against Hate believes the Mormons are a major NOM funding group whose identity NOM wishes to keep secret for as long as possible, see the posting from that group to which I link above.

And re: the story of the Maine Catholic diocese’s choice to help fund the battle to remove the right of marriage from gay citizens of that state, check out this posting at Pam’s House Blend. As Pam notes, the cartoon by Mike Ritter of Southern Voice about the strange pastoral responsibilities of the Maine diocese is brilliant.

And there’s more news in the unfolding story of another Catholic diocese of the Northeast in which gay persons have been targeted as money flows around behind the scenes to pay off cases of clerical sexual abuse of minors. This is the Bridgeport, Connecticut, diocese, about which I have posted a number of times in the past (see here and click the Connecticut label for previous postings).

As the posting to which I’ve just linked notes, on 19 July the Bridgeport diocese appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court as it continues to try to keep its files on clergy sex abuse cases sealed. On Tuesday, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg denied (h/t Clerical Whispers) the diocese’s request.

The diocese wants to keep sealed more than 12,600 pages of depositions, exhibits, and legal arguments from 23 lawsuits against priests from the Bridgeport diocese. Most of these suits were filed in the mid-1990s, and were settled by the diocese in 2001 for undisclosed amounts of money.

The diocese’s preference is to keep these documents sealed forever, but several media outlets have filed suit to have the files opened. The Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled that twice that the documents should be unsealed.

And so back to Mike Ritter's cartoon, which shows two bishops deliberating over a diocesan budget. As the cartoon notes, in hard economic times, we need to prioritize.

And so it shows us the bishops' list: keep churches open; feed the poor; attend to the needs of those sexually abused by clerics. All of those items are crossed out.

The priority item is to fund gay-bashing campaigns. And if that's Jesus's priority, and if churches that make this a priority while people go hungry (my aunt's church's food pantry is handing out record baskets of food these days) and without medical treatment, I'll eat my hat--or any miter a bishop wants to send me to chew on.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Women, the Bible, and Fundamentalist Gay Bashing: Feminist Lessons in Interpretation

As I continue to follow the predictable fall-out from the recent ELCA decision to abolish barriers to ministry by gays in monogamous relationships, I’m fascinated by the persistence of a strand of fundamentalism in American Christianity so unthinking and so easily disputed that one wonders why anyone bothers advancing its arguments any longer.

(I’m also fascinated that the Eric Reitan article at Religion Dispatches to which I linked yesterday has attracted the attention of a homophobic activist who is a former Republican politician in Florida, and who has appeared in police records and the media with charges varying from having beaten his pregnant wife with a wooden coat hanger to threatening to beat the s—t out of a woman during Mass after he had accused her of supporting gays. Christian “orthodoxy” seems to be upheld today by some less than noble characters. But that’s another story.)

One of the comments following an excellent posting by Michael Bayly on his Wild Reed blog a day or so ago illustrates my point about unthinking fundamentalism. In response to Michael’s persuasive argument that how the Lutherans debated and made their momentous decision illustrates what a living and growing faith is all about, a blogger named jasonbradyut in Colorado writes in,

When God created “man” he created Adam and Eve, NOT Adam and STEVE!!! Hello people. This is a direct form of disobedience to God. And this is happening in a Church, a denomination that professes to know the Word of God???? Please, God will have to deal with you guys…and it won’t be pretty.

And that reply has me thinking. It may just be that I never really had a chance, when it came to recognizing that every jot and tittle of scripture carries the same absolute weight in dictating how one is to proceed in living the Christian life.

My chances to be a card-carrying fundamentalist may have been spoiled early in life by some mighty disobedient women who scorned the jot and tittle school of bible-reading and the men who tried to impose it on them.. As I noted some time back in a posting about how the word “obedience” seems fatally attractive to Catholic defenders of patriarchy these days, much of the rhetoric about obedience/disobedience is aimed specifically at women.

It’s women who are out of control, and the gays—whom the religious right imagines always as Adam and Steve and never as Madam and Eve—are just handy tools for keeping women tamped down and in their places. Gay-bashing is women-bashing under another name. The homophobic agenda is about a whole lot more than the gays. It’s about controlling the feminine, whose unbridled energy patriarchal Christianity fears above all else.

I grew up in a matriarchal family headed by a powerful grandmother who lost her husband when she was forty, and then managed to raise five daughters, a son, and a step-son in the lean years of the Depression. She managed to see two of those daughters sent through college and on into graduate school, and the other three to two-year business colleges.

My grandmother and her daughters were women who knew their own minds, including—and perhaps especially—when it came to the bible and religion. Like other Southern women of their day, they grew up bombarded by scripture. It was all around them everyday. You didn’t take a step from mending clothes of a Sunday to choosing a foundation garment without knowing that some scripture verse somewhere told you how to negotiate that step—usually with dire warnings about the consequences if you didn’t obey.

Everything, from how women dressed to how they comported themselves to whether they cut their hair and donned pants, had to do with the bible. And it was all generally prohibited. Particularly if it gave women any ounce of pleasure in lives full of child-rearing and husband-pleasing and money-worrying.

How do I know this? Because I could not avoid hearing my mother and her sisters sitting with their mother, as I grew up, and talking about what it meant to be women in a small Arkansas town in the first part of the twentieth century. And about the role the churches and the scriptures played in dictating the actions and attidues of women. Or trying to dictate their actions and attitudes, to be precise.

As I have mentioned before on this blog, I grew up in a “mixed” family whose roots were half Methodist and half Baptist. My grandfathers were both raised Methodist, both in families with long histories of Methodist ministers going back to the end of the 18th century. My grandmothers were brought up in Baptist families, and their church preference prevailed in both families—but not to the exclusion of other church influences when those were warranted.

To an extent perhaps impossible for people to understand today, church was a social occasion for people—and, in particular, for women—in small Southern communities well into the twentieth century. It was one of the few shows in town. It was a chance to get away from household drudgery for a few blessed hours every week, to sing, to wear such finery as one could muster, to interact with other members of the community and swap the gossip that oils the machinery of life in any human community.

My aunts, several of them, went to both Methodist and Baptist church services every Sunday because those were the two shows available to them, and because they felt equally at home in both churches. We have letters from a cousin of their mother who grew up in the same town, recounting what had taken place in the annual revival meetings of both churches around the turn of the century one summer.

The Methodists had their campground, the Baptists their protracted meeting. Cousin Jane Byrd had gone to both revivals, and had thoroughly enjoyed both of them. Her letters about the meetings brim with gossip and stories of the rural relatives she had seen at the meetings, who had driven their buggies and wagons in from the countryside to attend the revivals. The glorious feasts of fried chicken and cakes and pies. The recipes for delicacies swapped at these gatherings when extended families talked together, sang, prayed, laughed, and ate together.

In such a culture, it was impossible not to be bombarded with scripture. From all directions. From any and every religious tradition around.

And so one learned quickly how to read the bible, how to interpret it, and, perhaps more importantly, what to do with it—particularly if one was a woman subject to constant instruction by the men who carried the bibles around and stood in the pulpits of a Sunday. What my aunts did with the scripture verses urged on them by both Methodist and Baptist pastors was interesting, indeed, and has—I now recognize—given me a lifelong perspective on how to read and use scripture.

They listened attentively. They wrote down what they were told. And then they came home and put the notes into the family bible and did not look at them again.

I know this, because all the notes were still there when I was a child, along with locks of hair from each child when his or her hair was first cut, tied up with ribbons, as well as obituaries of relatives clipped from newspapers and flowers from their coffins, carefully dried next to the obituaries.

Faded slips of paper in each aunt’s handwriting, with titles like “Against Painting the Face,” followed by careful lists of scripture verses that they had been instructed to heed and memorize, to guide them in the tricky business of being Christian ladies in a world going to hell in a handbasket because of its refusal to adhere to what the bible dictates. Because of its disobedience.

What struck me as I unfolded those carefully annotated slips of paper against face-painting and hair-bobbing and smoking and wearing men’s clothes was how little—how absolutely not at all—any of this careful male religious instruction had made any impact on a single one of the women in my family. Inform my mother and her sisters (and my grandmother as well) that painting their faces was a “direct form of disobedience” expressly forbidden by the Word of God, and they’d have looked at you as though a hole had just opened up in your head.

They would have been horrified at the thought of going to the grocery store without checking their lipstick, patting on a little powder to freshen up the coat they had applied early in the day, and perhaps checking their mascara. Painting your face? What does the bible have to do with that aspect of being a lady, pray?

And the other carefully proven prohibitions (it was always “against,” in the teaching of the churches they attended; it seemed, never “for”) with long lists of scripture verses to back them up? They obviously didn’t work, either, since my mother and three of her sisters smoked, and all wore slacks when the occasion demanded with ne’er a thought of biblical norms.

They'd have found it ludicrous if you told them that the bible dictates that men are to be men and women are to be women, and that means that women ought not to wear “men’s”clothes or to take over “men’s” role of ruling the roost. And it would never have occurred to them to consult a pastor or a bible before having their hair styled. They had learned from their mother, who was forbidden by their father to cut her hair as long as he was alive, that women did what women wanted and needed to do, even when men dictated otherwise and used the bible to back up their dictates.

My grandfather’s hair-bobbing prohibition was less about religious strictures than his old-fashioned (he was born in 1869) belief that women were more comely when they had long hair arranged artfully on the top of their heads. Unfortunately, my grandmother’s beautiful auburn hair was also thick and heavy, and having it piled on top of her head and held back with pins caused her severe headaches, which went away immediately after my grandfather died in 1930 and she had her hair cut.

Women did what women had to do, regardless of male prohibitions, religious or otherwise. No matter how many bible verses were quoted against them. At least, they did so in my family. They took careful notes. They wrote down the list of verses that attacked their womanly wiles.

And they took those lists of verses and put them into the family bible and never looked at them again. Because they had the important business to engage in, of actually putting what the bible really said and really meant into action. Like raising children, taking care of husbands, tending to sick family members and friends, helping needy members of the community, grieving with the bereaved.

It’s a pity that the jasonbradyut types of the world, who are legion and so vociferous as they remind the rest of us of the price we’ll all pay for being disobedient and ignoring the prolific prohibitions of their bibles, never had the chance to meet the women of my family. Or the many women then and now very much like them.

Had they done so, they might see the world very differently. And that altered perspective might do them a world of good, when they crack those bibles open.

Curioser and Curioser: Diocese of Maine Accused of Money Laundering in Battle Against Same-Sex Marriage

Well. That story from Maine’s Catholic diocese gets curioser and curioser.

Joe Sudbay has just announced on Americablog that Californians Against Hate has filed a formal complaint with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices and the Maine Attorney General’s office, accusing four groups of money-laundering to hide the identity of donors funding the drive to overturn same-sex marriage in Maine.

Among the groups accused of money-laundering? The diocese of Portland, Maine.

Californians Against Hate was formed last year to track the flow of funds into California in the battle to remove the right of same-sex marriage for gay citizens of that state. The group has identified the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) as a front-group for the Mormon Church, through which LDS church funds are funneled into the battle against gay marriage. Californians Against Hate has filed complaints in California alleging that the Mormon financial contributions to the prop 8 campaign have been vastly under-reported by the LDS church. Investigation of these allegations is now underway.

As the complaint just filed in Maine maintains,

The four organizational donors that gave to Stand for Marriage Maine, with the possible exception of Focus on the Family, circumvented Maine’s campaign reporting law to avoid disclosure of the true contributors.

The four groups named in the complaint are the National Organization for Marriage, the diocese of Portland, Maine, the Knights of Columbus, and Focus on the Family. The Californians Against Hate complaint notes that, though the diocese of Portland gave $100,000 to Stand for Marriage Maine on 6 June, the diocesan’s 2008 financial report states that the diocesan savings account has only $10,812, and that the diocese lost $7.5 million in 2008 from the market’s downturn.

The diocese is closing churches and schools while claiming financial exigency, and its financial reports and media reports indicate that it has paid out millions of dollars in the past several years to settle claims of abuse of minors by priests. In July, Marc Mutty, a member of Stand for Marriage Maine’s executive committee and an employee of the Portland diocese on leave, reassured parishioners around the state who were concerned that the money the diocese donated to Stand for Marriage had come from church collection baskets.

Mutty stated that the money the diocese contributed to roll back the right of same-sex marriage in Maine is “dedicated revenues” that came from “a donor for causes such as these.” Unfortunately, Mutty said he had only “limited details regarding the origins of the donation.”

Californians Against Hate’s complaint includes excerpts from letters and emails the National Organization for Marriage has used in soliciting funds for the campaign to roll back the right of same-sex marriage in Maine. These state,

“And unlike in California, every dollar you give to NOM’s Northeast Action Plan today is private, with no risk of harassment from gay marriage protestors.”

“Donations to NOM are not tax-deductible and they are NOT public information, either.”

“Your gift is confidential: no public disclosure!"

Californians Against Hate’s complaint notes that, curiously, the mid-July financial filing of Stand for Marriage Maine shows only four individual donors to the organization and the battle to remove the right of marriage from gay persons in Maine. Only $400 of $343,689.50 in donations listed by Stand for Marriage as of 15 July came from individual donors.

As Wikipedia’s article about money-laundering says,

Money laundering is the practice of disguising illegally obtained funds so that they seem legal. It is a crime in many jurisdictions with varying definitions. . . . In US law it is the practice of engaging in financial transactions to conceal the identity, source, or destination of illegally gained money. . . . In the past, the term "money laundering" was applied only to financial transactions related to organized crime.

I’m puzzled. If removing the right of marriage from same-sex couples is such a noble ethical objective, why on earth would anyone want to hide his or her identity in giving money to support that noble cause? And why the need to skirt laws governing transparency about the use of money—particularly by churches—to pursue political goals? Why the need to engage in behavior that strikes some folks as flirting with sordid criminality?

When churches begin to appear to the public as something close to crime syndicates, they make it exceedingly hard for people to listen respectfully to their ethical teachings. Especially when those teachings encourage us to be upright and honest in all of our dealings, to live our lives in the light of day, and to do to others what we would have done to ourselves.

The Church Turns East . . . And Back: Bishop Slattery of Tulsa Reorients Christendom

Lately, several Catholic blog sites have been discussing an issue of burning concern to American Catholics. And it’s not the health care debate or new revelations about torture under the previous administration or leaks about the forthcoming report of heinous sexual abuse of minors by Irish clergy in the Dublin diocese.

It’s which way to turn when we worship. America and Commonweal recently had lively blog discussions of a decision of the bishop of Tulsa, Edward Slattery, to face east as he celebrates Mass at his cathedral. This means turning his back on the congregation, who are also expected to face east along with the celebrant.

I’m fascinated by the theological reasons Slattery advances to justify this decision. But I’m even more intrigued by the intense fascination of many American Catholics with this topic of praying ad orientem. If these two blog discussions are any indicator, nothing quite excites the American Catholic imagination these days like a decision to face east when we pray.

In a nutshell, Slattery’s argument is that it has always been done this way, and it has been done this way everywhere. And the decision following Vatican II to have the priest facing the congregation during liturgy was a mistake, because that decision contravenes always-everywhere norms.

Slattery adds to this fundamental principle an argument about how the Eucharist is a sacrifice that the priest offers on behalf of the people of God, so that it makes sense for priest and people to be facing God all together as the priest offers up the sacrifice. And so Slattery chooses to move against the Vatican II practice of emphasizing that the Eucharist is a shared meal in which the priest and people of God commune around a common table, with the priest facing the people from that table.

Slattery’s theological arguments are problematic from a number of angles. First—and conspicuously—the argument that an ad orientem style of worship has prevailed everywhere in the church from the beginnings of Christianity completely overlooks the evidence of the New Testament communities. On which the theology of Eucharist is based and has to be based, if it’s to be connected to that formative moment of revelation from which the church itself springs. And which are all about connecting the memorial meals commemorating Jesus to his life and to the meal he celebrated with his followers before his death.

Second, there are conspicuous examples that completely contravene Slattery’s always-everywhere insistence. The most glaring of these is St. Peter’s in Rome. There, in order to face east, the priest has to face the congregation—unless, that is, the congregation turns its back on the priest in order to face east along with him, in line with Slattery’s all-together-now rubric for worship.

Third, there’s the almost total obliteration of the Eucharist-as-meal aspect of liturgy, in favor of a Eucharist-as-sacrifice understanding of divine worship. That theological move wipes away several centuries of theological agreement between the Catholic church and other church traditions that rightly want to hold those understandings in tension, and/or to emphasize the centrality of the meal aspect of the Eucharist, in line with the dominant witness of New Testament texts.

I understand, of course, why Slattery is making the move he is making—and why many Catholics also want to make this move. It’s all about priesthood. It’s about maintaining the clear, unambiguous notion of the priest as mediator between God and the people of God, which has become fuzzy and has even been challenged in post-Vatican II Catholicism.

To the extent that Catholicism hinges its future on that notion of priesthood, and on maintaining a system of governance and distribution of power centered on clerical privilege, it has to reassert this understanding of priesthood against all and sundry, in every way possible. As Rome did recently when it denied the decision of the Maryknoll community to have a brother rather than a priest lead that religious community . . . .

As I say, though, what fascinates me even more than the not very persuasive theological foundation on which Bishop Slattery bases his turn to the east (and backwards) is the way in which this decision is being welcomed—even celebrated—by large numbers of American Catholics. That is, it’s being welcomed and celebrated by American Catholics if the America and Commonweal blogs about this issue are any indicator.

Before I comment on this popular consensus, I should issue a disclaimer. As I’ve noted previously on this blog, I’m a Catholic who is alienated from the church, primarily because my life partner and I have found ourselves pushed away from the church, from communion and worship. When a college owned by a community of monks (which has, interestingly enough, now become closely connected to the controversial Legionaries of Christ) peremptorily ended our employment as theologians while offering prevaricating reasons for this in Steve’s case and no reason at all in mine, we found ourselves on the outside looking in.

On the outside looking in at the worshiping church: when the monks who shoved us away from the table of daily bread and of health coverage stood at the table of the Lord and preached about respect for human rights and the need for bread and health coverage for all, the discrepancy between what they were proclaiming and what they had done to us became too great to bear. Our very belief in the Eucharist as the bread of life was threatened by that discrepancy. It is hard to believe that those proclaiming that the Eucharist is the bread of life can seriously mean what they say, when they remove daily bread from the mouths of their brothers and sisters in Christ.

The monks who had taken away our daily bread and health care coverage did not have to live with the worry of finding new jobs or of receiving medical treatment if they were ill. All of that was assured to them, even as they took these necessities from us. It became impossible for us to hear the Eucharistic words proclaimed, to hear words welcoming us to the table of the Lord with any belief in their sincerity, when those mouthing the words seemed to belie everything that this table stands for in everyday life.

So I approach this discussion knowing very little, at a practical level, about what has been happening in Catholic parishes and Catholic worship for almost two decades now. We do not go to liturgy any longer, because we cannot do so. We can no longer bear the huge gap between what the church proclaims and what it actually does. Since no official representative of the church has sought to reach across that gap and to offer healing or even an apology for the injustice done to us, we remain where we've been placed, outside looking in.

Here is what strikes me, as an alienated Catholic eavesdropping on discussions of my co-religionists now regarding revision of the liturgy: first, it’s astonishing how quickly those leading the church in the post-Vatican II period have succeeded in shutting down important theological conversations that, when they began, promised significantly to enrich the church’s life in manifold ways.

These conversations included conversations about exegesis, about the New Testament church, and about christology, which might as well simply never have taken place for many of those talking about liturgical reform today. In the blog discussions to which I link above, some posters try to make the point that the New Testament evidence in support of Slattery’s ad orientem thesis is ambiguous at best.

But for the majority of those posting to the two blog discussions, that point falls on deaf ears. There appears to be no awareness at all of the considerable, powerful biblical scholarship both within the Catholic tradition and in other Christian traditions throughout the 20th century, which shows that the Eucharist grew out of a communal meal celebrated by the early Christian communities to remember Jesus and to keep his memory alive in a communal context.

It’s as if biblical scholarship and theological development since the Council of Trent have suddenly vanished. We are now back at questions about whether Jesus lifted his eyes to heaven at the last supper, and whether the Eucharistic sacrifice can be meaningful when it is offered around a common table by a priest facing his (yes, always “his” in these stifling Catholic intra-ghetto discussions) brothers and sisters sharing the meal with him.

We are back at a sacrificial notion of the Eucharist that could well have just been proclaimed by the Council of Trent, as if Vatican II never happened. The pastoral leaders of the church who have worked very hard to return us to this situation—to obliterate Vatican II in order to preserve clericalism at all cost—have succeeded, to a great extent.

They have succeeded to an astonishing degree in dumbing down our theological conversations, our understanding of church, our theology of worship, our strategies for relating the Catholic tradition both to the public square and to other religious traditions. They have failed lamentably in one of their most important pastoral charges: catechizing the people of God. And this failure has been deliberate, and that makes it all the more heinous.

And the predictable upshot of this failure is that we find ourselves more and more irrelevant, as other churches and the public arena discuss political and ethical issues of great importance in the postmodern period. We have nothing to offer, except for a handful of slogans that are in no meaningful sense a reasoned, persuasive contribution to important political and ethical discussions, but the antithesis of reasoned and persuasive moral discourse.

As I listen to many Catholic contributions to the health care debate (and this is relevant; it is clearly related to the liturgical issue, since it’s in the worship context that people’s theological imaginations are largely informed), I become more and more convinced that all many Catholics have to offer anymore to any debate is the slogan, But what about abortion!?

Mrs. X: Isn’t the weather nice today? Mr. Y: Yes, but what about abortion?
Mr. A: Aren’t these revelations about torture dreadful? Mrs. B: But what about abortion?
Ms. L: Catholic teaching insists that everyone needs access to health care. Mr. M: And what about abortion!?

Or, as Steve's mother said several years ago after we took her and Steve's father to a play about the Holocaust, followed by a first-hand testimony about life in a German concentration camp by a Holocaust survivor, “Yes, it was terrible, wasn't it? But what about abortion? We're butchering babies off like chickens nowadays.” Because both of his parents had grandmothers born in the Sudetenland areas that so ardently supported Hitler, and because Steve's mother's family maintained ties with some of these relatives who were Nazi soldiers, Steve had hoped for a probing ethical discussion about the Holocaust.

That discussion became, But what about abortion!?

That’s where we’ve gone. That’s it, in a nutshell. That’s what we have to offer now: But what about abortion!? Nothing more, nothing less. That’s our moral analysis, our moral argument, our overweening moral stance.

It’s totally unconvincing, and it’s not designed to be convincing. Because we don’t want or intend to talk. We intend to draw lines and face, all in one direction, all in a unified body, against anything and everything that we can conceivably connect to abortion, if that anything and everything gives the slightest impression of being in favor of baby-killing. We intend to shout and overcome. Not to convince.

And certainly not to witness. And that’s my third observation about recent liturgical discussions among American Catholics. Perhaps the most lamentable result of the suppression of theological discourse, the deliberate refusal to catechize, and the molding of the Catholic community into a slogan-shouting political machine in recent years is the way in which our theology—and our liturgy—have taken leave of what always has to be foundational for any Christian church, if it is convincingly to claim a vital connection to Jesus and his memory.

This is the story of Jesus, the heart of the gospel message—the story we remember and proclaim (and share as bread) over and over in our liturgical gatherings. The Jesus we re-ghettoized Catholics have come to see to the exclusion of all other representations is the Jesus who is a high priest, the Jesus offering himself as sacrifice for the sins of the world.

There may well be a place in theological traditions for that image of Jesus, and it certainly has New Testament validity. But no christological tradition and no image of Jesus can ever be adequately Christian unless it also finds ways to link, fruitfully and with practical implications, to the story of Jesus’s life in the gospels.

Book after book after book has been written on this topic within the Catholic tradition in recent years—by Schillebeeckx, Crossan, Kasper, Haight, Segundo, Metz, GutiĆ©rrez—and by powerful writers in other Christian traditions, including Marcus Borg. But for those intent on turning the church back to its true and final orientation—to the east—it seems as if none of those books has ever been written.

The attempt to relate what Christians do when they worship and when they witness to the New Testament documents, and above all to the gospels, is simply gone from much of the discussion of liturgy I’ve been hearing as I follow the ad orientem discussion. The attempt to relate what Christians do to how Jesus lived, insofar as we can glimpse the path he walked from the gospels, is entirely absent from these discussions.

And so the necessary theological step of grounding the Eucharist first and foremost in the gospel witness regarding the last supper, and in the New Testament documents which suggest how the first Christian communities incorporated that memory into their developing Eucharistic worship, is nowhere to be found in the discussions of those enthused at the thought of facing east all together now—if the discussions I’ve been following are a good indicator of the tenor of thought of those promoting this move.

It’s all about sacrifice, an intermediary priest, facing the east, standing together before a God whom we need to appease. And shouting together in every way possible at every moment possible, And what about abortion!?

How on earth did we get so quickly into this sad, constricting little ghetto after the springtime of promise Vatican II seemed to represent?