Thursday, December 31, 2009

2010: The Continued Challenge of Making Catholicism catholic

A decade ends, and I’m fascinated by the number of articles and blog entries this week reflecting on the role played by religion in the decade. In what follows, I want to offer a somewhat disconnected selection of links to these discussions, knowing as I do so that many readers will be occupied with new year’s eve plans today, and may not be able to read anything substantive. And so this selection will be a new year’s offering to those who want to tackle these articles and blog postings when the new year is underway.

First, I recommend Louis A. Ruprecht’s essay today at Religion Dispatches, which notes the continuing dominance of religious themes and religious influence in cultures globally, as 2010 arrives. Ruprecht notes that this influence is often embedded in non-traditional venues where we might overlook its presence, if we don’t look carefully:

One decade into the twenty-first century, then, religion is quite literally everywhere. It is not all Christian, it is not all monotheistic, and it is not even necessarily theistic at all. As scholars of religion have ventured, if we turn the kaleidoscope on our perceptions of “religion,” and replace the [religious?] with the rhetoric of sacrality, then we will notice a great deal of rather clearly religious activity that is not located in traditionally “religious” venues at all—venues housing cultural matters like sport, and music, and film.

Wars in the Mideast; bomb threats on airplanes to the U.S.; turmoil in Uganda; huge “pro-family” rallies in Spain; battles about same-sex marriage in Latin America; the health care debate and the question of abortion; the Manhattan Declaration and the attempt of neocon political groups to keep the culture wars alive*: whether we like it or not, whether we ourselves have any personal investment in religion or not, it’s impossible to understand the world in which we live and to make informed choices about it without seeking to cope with the presence of religious ideas and religious influences everywhere in our world.

At the same time, as the recent National Catholic Reporter editorial on Uganda to which I linked yesterday notes (and Ruprecht’s statement above notes this, too), there’s a discernible shift underway in the social locus of conversations about religion—a discernible shift in who gets to talk about religious issues and whose voice gets to make a difference. There’s a shift in our understanding of how theology is done and whose voice counts when theology is done—though some of our venerable institutions, notably churches and the academy, are slow to acknowledge this shift. NCR states,

In both church and state, it seems, the old centers of U.S. power and influence are giving way to new places relatively unencumbered by the protocols of previous eras.

American Catholic theologian Tom Beaudoin makes a similar point in a posting at the America blog yesterday. Beaudoin notes the continuing disconnect between academic theology and the place in which real people do their real-life living, moving, and being. His analysis of this disconnect focuses on a song by rock group Wilco, “Theologians.”

Beaudoin notes,

I cannot help but hear this song as a rebuke to the great mass of academic and churchy theologizing that fails not only to reach contemporary Christians and those curious about Christianities, but that fails to risk inhabiting the lifeworlds of such people, ostensibly a crucial source for theologians (insofar as faith is practiced by humans) and audience for theologians (insofar as theology is meant to be taken in by humans).

I’m taken by Beaudoin’s recognition that the disconnect between academic theology and the “lifeworlds” of real people not only thwarts the ability of theology to “reach” people where they live and move and have their being, but impoverishes theology. As he notes, the “lifeworlds” of real people are ostensibly a crucial source for theological reflection. How do we continue doing theology in isolation from all that is going on around us—in isolation from the experiences and first-hand testimony of real human beings all around us?

As this year ends, I continue to be appalled—a theme I’ve often repeated on this blog—by the deafening, supercilious, seemingly crafted and conspiratorial silence of the intellectual elite of American Catholicism about 1) the first-hand testimony of survivors of childhood sexual abuse by priests, and what that testimony portends for our ability to continue talking about God, church, salvation, communion, etc.; and 2) the first-hand testimony of gay and lesbian Catholics and gay and lesbian human beings in general, and what that portends for our ability to continue talking about God, church, salvation, communion, etc.

I lurk (for the most part) on the major liberal Catholic blogs of the U.S.—the places where many academic theologians and influential Catholic journalists go to talk about theology in a public setting—and I’m baffled by the insularity of the conversation. By its lack of any reference to the experience of real people who don’t inhabit the elite academic (and political and economic) circles in which those doing theology move.

I’m baffled, in particular, by the ability of my liberal Catholic brothers and sisters to walk through the last several months on these blogs and never mention—not once, on some of the blogs—what is taking place in Uganda. And Benedict’s silence about what is taking place in Uganda.

It’s as if I’m in Germany during the period in which the Nazis rise to power, and listening to my fellow theologians talking about everything in the world except the one thing that most acutely demands attention. Or in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s and listening to theological conversations about the meaning of love in which no one ever once talks about racial issues—or opens the conversation to the voices of those struggling for racial justice in the U.S.

Tom Beaudoin’s posting at America connects to a a synopsis of a journal article on the same topic, on which he is working now. As this article notes, we absolutely have to shift how we do theology, if we expect theology to matter any longer. To be specific, we have to open the conversation to many new voices that we who are academic theologians have ignored—voices that are the church, and that theologize powerfully in accents we continue to disdain:

To my mind, a lot of the Catholic theology being done today in the United States overestimates or almost willfully misreads what Catholics are willing to care about, consent to, find useful, helpful or interesting. It is not enough to claim that the academic theological vocation is a “prophetic” one — the usual backstop erected just in time — as an excuse for this disconnection from the lived Catholicisms before us. I see that part of what needs to happen, is happening and will happen among Catholic theologians in the United States is a profound rethinking of what it means to be a theologian in relation to an institutional church that is collapsing quickly. More people are walking out than walking in, and without recent immigrants, the decline would be even more evident. At best, the near-inevitable can only temporarily be forestalled. This is a genuinely “new situation” here in the States, one hardly admitted — much less negotiated or integrated — in polite theological circles.

My colleague Colleen Kochivar-Baker captures these insights brilliantly in the latest posting at her Enlightened Catholicism blog, which discusses John Allen’s recent ruminations on the import for American Catholicism of the Murphy Report in Ireland. As Colleen notes, the important—the powerful—theologizing that emerged when John Allen published his ruminations is not in Allen’s article itself, but in the thread of comments that followed when he posted his ruminations.

Theology done by real people, by people whom important American Catholic journalists and theologians persist in ignoring, because they are only “little people” whose voices don’t count. As one contributor, Greg Bullough, tells Mr. Allen on Christmas eve in the thread following Allen’s article, it would be wonderful if John Allen listened to and took seriously the comments about his article. In Greg Bullough’s estimation, these comments are “remarkably thoughtful, articulate, and incisive.”

I think I wouldn’t be stretching things if I assumed that Greg Bullough is echoing here a previous conversation he had with John Allen at NCR’s blogsite, about the role of bloggers in Catholic theological conversations today. In his 30 October blog posting about the next generation of Catholic leaders, John Allen says,

By the way, hitting the road is really the only way to gauge that [i.e., what real people are thinking], as opposed to trawling through the blogosphere. At least in my experience, blogs call to mind what Homer Simpson once said about who watches cable access TV at three in the morning: "Alcoholics, the unemployed, angry loners …" The vox populi, in other words, it ain't.

To which Greg Bullough replies (I’ve removed paragraph formatting in the reply),

Allen's cheap shot at some very sincere, thoughtful, individuals puts the spotlight on his own journalistic credibility, and how it may in fact be compromised. . . . True, these folks don't have the luxury of hobnobbing with the ruling elite of the Church. But for the richly expense-accounted Mr. Allen to cast aspersions on his fellow journalists is elitist at best and unprofessional at worst. At least the bloggers' objectivity can't be thought to be compromised by the need to cultivate ongoing relationships with bishops and cardinals--the latter won't give these unvarnished truth-tellers the time of day.

In a later response, Mr. Allen explains that his comment was intended as a joke. And yet the point seems to me to remain—the critical point raised by Greg Bullough’s insightful comment. Many of those professing to speak “objectively” and on behalf of all of us, as high-profile American Catholic journalists and theologians, prescind from the experiences and voices of those on whose behalf they claim to be speaking. And when they’re reminded that we’re out here, thinking on our own, talking among ourselves, though the conversations at the centers of power pretend we’re not here, they often compound the problem by telling us that we are, indeed, little people who deserve to be ignored!

As John Allen has recently stated, vis-à-vis criticisms of his journalism that had emerged at the Commonweal blog site, “I respect those folks [i.e., on the Commonweal blog], and take their criticism seriously.” Whereas his response to Greg Bullough’s (and my) criticisms of his suggestion that many bloggers are disreputable characters spinning angry, delusional narratives out of nothing refers to these critics as “that crowd.”

I am belaboring this in-house discussion on Catholic blogs in the final months of 2009 because I think it is more significant than might appear at first glance. It says something about a struggle going on in the heart of American Catholicism today, about whose voice counts—about who gets to represent himself as “the” voice of American Catholicism. About who is to be ignored, ridiculed, treated as a little person with an ax to grind (unlike the well-connected authority figure whose viewpoints are always judicious, well-informed, and without any prejudice at all).

It’s clear to me that a significant and unfinished task of American Catholicism at this point in its history is the renegotiation of the conversation spaces at the center, to open those spaces to all Catholic (and catholic) voices. The conversation space in which “the” voice of American Catholicism is defined is altogether too constricting, and entirely unrepresentative of the vibrant diversity of American Catholicism. It is not catholic in any meaningful sense.

If the painful, necessary emergence of the voices of survivors of clerical sexual abuse within American Catholicism at this point in its history, coupled with the painful, necessary emergence of the voices of those defined by the magisterium as “objectively disordered,” cannot make a significant difference to discussions of what it means to be Catholic in these United States in the second decade of the 21st century, then I do not foresee a bright future for American Catholicism. As I do not to the extent that the voices of women continued to be excluded from halls of power in the church.

*For a thought-provoking analysis of the Manhattan Declaration and the role that the new Catholic neocon guru Robert P. George played in drafting it, see Frank Cocozzelli’s outstanding discussion at Talk to Action today. I like, in particular, how Frank shows that George’s skewed and highly selective appropriation of natural-law theory misrepresents the central thrust of natural-law philosophy in the Catholic tradition. I also like Frank Cocozzelli’s emphasis on the way in which Catholic neocon ideologues like George deliberately seek to orient the conversation about Catholic ethics in the public sphere to issues like same-sex marriage, abortion, and stem-cell research in order to undercut Catholic teaching about economic issues.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Peter Laarman on a Sobriety Test for Religious Progressives: Stop the Cheerleading for the Center

Peter Laarman at Religion Dispatches on a sobriety test for religious progressives:

It may be in the nature of the work these days for politicians to pin a bright shiny ribbon on something pretty awful and say it reflects “moral courage.” But when progressive religious leaders engage in the same kind of misdirection we have a serious problem. Such leaders are welcome to make the case—as many have—that the overall public interest will be served by enacting what Democrats are still pleased to call health care “reform” despite every last craven sacrifice of principle and despite every last dripping slice of pork handed out to this senator and that representative, to this lobbyist and that campaign contributor.

I don’t mind if their honest position is that the legislation should pass. I myself think it should pass. But I do mind very much if they describe such a smelly and corruption-laden legislative product as unalloyed glad tidings for the uninsured and underinsured—or as some kind of historic vindication of popular sovereignty in America. Again, spinning it that way is what politicians do—and we all saw the President doing just that before Christmas, even going out of his way to chastise “the Left” for whining about what the Senate bill leaves out—but it is revolting to see religious leaders doing it.

Responsible religious leaders need to stay sober and stop cheerleading for the Democrats and for the Obama White House team just because they’re not total Visigoths.

And that’s my point in what I posted two days ago about the film “Up in the Air”: when progressive religious leaders engage in the same kind of misdirection we have a serious problem. When even religious leaders who claim to be committed to gospel values—e.g., to defend the least among us, to analyze social structures from the viewpoint of the least among us first, to effect social programs that finally include the least among us—when even religious leaders begin to bless and cheer for the soulless corporatism that now rules our nation politically and culturally, we’re lost.

We’ve lost our soul. When even our “progressive” religious leaders spend a disproportionate amount of their time nattering on about abortion as the key and sole moral challenge facing us today, while bankers and corporate executives reach deeper and deeper into the pockets of anyone they can fleece with impunity, we have a serious moral problem.

We’ve lost our soul. And it’s been crystal clear for some time now that the neoconservative and religious right aberrations of faith aren’t able to point the way to its retrieval. They’re in large part responsible for our present loss of soul.

But it’s also becoming increasingly clear—to me, at least—that the corporatist center of the Democratic party is no more capable than is neocon ideology of pointing us in the direction in which salvation lies. Whatever answer may still be out there for us—unless the only possible option left to us is to capitulate to government by corporations—will have to come from some place other than the center.

It will have to come from the many little people of the world who have simply grown weary of expecting morally vacuous, soulless political leaders on both sides of the political house to provide the leadership we need. It will have to come from ourselves and not our elected representatives and president.

NCR on Uganda: The Scandal of Catholic Silence

News analysis of the ongoing deliberations about the fate of gay citizens in Uganda has died down in the holiday season, though Box Turtle Bulletin continues to do outstanding work in monitoring the situation. Because there has been a lull in reporting on the Ugandan story, I was particularly happy to see National Catholic Reporter devoting its 23 December editorial to the Ugandan story.

NCR offers an interesting take on what’s occurring in Uganda. The editorial contrasts the Ugandan legislature’s consideration of a bill that would make homosexuality a capital crime with Houston’s recent election of an openly lesbian mayor. In one case, we see “a growing civility toward and acceptance of” those who are gay or lesbian.

In the other case—in parts of Africa today—we see “the extremes to which some can take the homophobic theology of major religions.” NCR notes that though some analysts “contend that anti-homosexuality in Africa is a cultural matter and that Ugandans resist the outside world’s horror at the proposed laws because they see it as one more act of oppressive imperialists,” Western societies and churches have had not hesitated to name some long-accepted (and church-endorsed) cultural practices as abhorrent and contrary to gospel values.

We once burned witches and enslaved those with dark skin. We no longer do so, because we have come to the consensus that these practices are aberrations, rather than authentic expressions, of religious values and the civic values necessary to build a humane society.

I read NCR’s statements here as a response to the thesis advanced by their own writer, John Allen, that the rise in homophobia in some parts of Africa today is an “equal-and-opposite reaction” to imperialistic pressure from Western societies to repudiate homophobia. I appreciate NCR’s insistence that some cultural norms—e.g., recognition of the full personhood of women and of LGBT folks, rejection of slavery and of execution of “witches”—should transcend particular cultural settings, because they are sine qua non for any humane society, anywhere in the world.

I also find the NCR editorial’s frank recognition that what is happening in Uganda today is a direct result of the involvement of some American right-wing religious groups refreshing. As I’ve noted in previous postings, John Allen’s reporting on the African church never alludes to this significant and incontrovertible fact about the Ugandan situation.

And, finally, I take heart from NCR’s unambiguous conclusion that “[i]t is a scandal that the Catholic church has not spoken out more forcefully against the proposed legislation.” Pope Benedict’s homily at his Christmas midnight Mass called for resolution of conflict and social healing in a number of nations in the world. Conspicuously missing from the list was Uganda. Benedict chooses to remain silent.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Archbishop of Uganda, Cyprian Lwanga, did address the legislation before his nation’s legislature in his own Christmas homily. However, as Jim Burroway has noted at Box Turtle Bulletin, Archbishop Lwanga framed his denunciation of violence against LGBT persons with doublespeak that has become typical of official Catholic statements about the human rights of gay persons.

While denouncing outright physical violence against gays, Archbishop Lwanga did not denounce the manifold forms of social and legislative violence against gay persons that occur in both African societies and elsewhere in the world. His omission of any statement condemning the criminalization of homosexuality—indeed, his homily appears to support laws that already criminalize homosexuality in Uganda—undercuts his condemnation of violence against those who are gay.

And this is the rock and hard place between which official Catholic teaching now finds itself, as a result of its adamant refusal to reconsider its biologistic natural-law teachings about human sexuality. Because Rome has chosen to hinge its claim to teach universally binding, unchanging truth on its refusal to reconsider what it says about issues like artificial contraception and homosexuality, the church finds itself caught between its obligation to defend human rights consistently, and its determination to deny human rights to those who are gay.

The tragic silence of the pope, as a nation that is over 40% Catholic now considers the death penalty for those who are gay, is the end result of this determination. This silence completely undermines anything the church wishes to say about human rights anywhere in the world. It is impossible to defend the human rights of all oppressed minorities while denying the rights of a particular oppressed minority.

The approach that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has taken to the Ugandan situation stands in sharp contrast to the approach taken by Benedict. In my view, one approach points to models of what Christian pastoral behavior should be about. The other models the antithesis of Christian pastoral behavior.

As Jim Burroway has noted, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s press secretary has stated that Rowan Williams is “very clear that the private Member’s Bill being discussed in Uganda as drafted is entirely unacceptable from a pastoral, moral and legal point of view.” Entirely unacceptable from a pastoral, moral, and legal point of view: though it would be impressive if the Archbishop of Canterbury made such a statement publicly and not through his press secretary, and if he went on to urge resistance to the impending legislation on the part of Anglican clergy in Uganda, even so, he has at least spoken unambiguously here. And with pastoral clarity.

And that is, unfortunately, more than one can say for the leader of the world’s Catholic community, who has not spoken at all. NCR is correct to call this silence scandalous. The silence of Christian pastoral leaders in the face of deliberations to execute a stigmatized minority is a skandalon, a stumbling block, to anyone who seeks to encounter God through the ministry and teaching of the church.

Monday, December 28, 2009

"Up in the Air": Contemporary American Culture and the First Circles of Hell

My niece and nephews took Steve and me to see the movie “Up in the Air” on Christmas day, and I’m still mulling it over. (We didn’t get to make our trip to Houston to visit my uncle and cousin there, due to the horrible weather that arrived in our area on Christmas eve.)

I’ll try to talk about “Up in the Air” without including too many spoilers for those who haven’t yet seen the movie. I highly recommend it, if you haven’t.

As you watch, it’s easy, of course, to focus your antipathy on the soulless protagonists of the plot, the rootless corporate ghouls whose days and nights consist of flying hither and yon to help companies “right-size”: to fire people, to end their careers and cut off their livelihood and health care coverage. For anyone who has experienced one of those lie-fests called vocational counseling that companies love to offer as they “right-size” (and destroy lives), it’s impossible to sit comfortably through the movie’s depiction of one termination after another without feeling something akin to hatred in one’s soul.

The emptiness. The lies. The waste of human lives, and of words used to depict the unthinkable as thinkable. And the contrasting power and privilege of the corporate ghouls who revel in globe-trotting and life-destroying, while they violate every connection that makes life human and worthwhile as they serve their corporate masters.

It’s easy, as I say, to focus your antipathy and even your “something akin to hatred” on those doing the corporate world’s dirty work, as you watch this movie. The use of real people, people who have been “right-sized” out of a job, for the firing sessions is very effective. The sympathy that most folks feel for these people, coupled with the distaste one feels for their tormentors, is, I daresay, electric. It’s instant and powerful.

Even so, I think you’d miss the point if you concluded that “Up in the Air” is about a few bad apples in a system that is wobbling around and can be set back on its moral foundations with a bit of spiffing up and a bit of work. For me, the message of the movie is that we’re all complicit in building the morally rotten, spiritually vacuous economic system with which we now live, and whose decay has eaten away the soul of our nation, our own souls.

The landscape inhabited by both the corporate ghouls and those whose jobs they end is spiritually bleak, in this movie. It’s soulless. It’s an indicator of what has gone frightfully wrong with our own souls at this point in history. The fly-over country the ghouls traverse as they go from firing destination to firing destination is the same country over and over. It’s a version of hell.

Landscape features may vary. The scenery may be different in each city. But once they’re on the ground, no longer up in the air and looking down, it’s the same city, over and over. The same burnished glass palaces of greed. The same plastic food in the same pretend restaurants, whether the restaurant is in Des Moines, Miami, or Milwaukee. The same preposterous slide-show presentations in the same phony-luxurious airport hotels, no matter the name of the city.

It’s all the same. It’s our land, the land we’ve made out of our mindless pursuit of easy dollars, and our abdication of moral and spiritual insight. Those whose sole purpose in life is to end the employment of others in this movie certainly occupy the lower circles of hell.

But those lower circles connect to upper circles in which all the rest of us live. It’s we who’ve made the world in which these creatures now lord it over us, with their perks and privileges, their gold cards and go-to-the-head-of-the-line symbols of superiority. They shine, they are permitted to live up in the air, because we permit them to do so. We’ve created a cultural world in which the right of corporate ghouls to claim a human status superseding our own human status goes unchallenged, because the corruption at the heart of this cultural world—its rotten moral soul—goes unexposed, unanalyzed. We don’t want to analyze it.

Life’s all about getting and having, after all. Who blames anyone for making another buck? Why not cut a few ethical corners if it means getting to the top a little more quickly? What’s wrong with a lie here or there when we’re serving the greater good? When we’re building our career? Or helping our corporation?

Morality? What does any of this have to do with morality? This is just how things are, in the real world. Morality is about cheating on one’s spouse. It’s about making sure that the sacred right to marriage is reserved to one man and one woman for life. It’s not about deal-making and deal-breaking. It’s not about firing people who have to be fired to make a company lean and mean.

In my view, “Up in the Air” is about a very particular kind of hell that Western societies—and notably the United States, where there is not a social-safety network for the walking wounded of our economic system, as there is in most other developed nations—began to build in the latter decades of the 20th century. This movie is about why we are where we are now, and how impossible it will be to move beyond where we are culturally, politically, and economically without facing the system we’ve built as we prescind from moral questions while we pursue wealth.

Or without recognizing that those who have brought us to this point, who have led us into the first circles of hell while claiming to be servants of morality, of “pro-life” values and traditional family values, are not about morality or the healing of souls at all. They are, precisely and in fact, gatekeepers of the passages to hell. Even when some of them sport episcopal miters.

For a thought-provoking analysis of this movie on another blog, I recommend Fran Rossi Szpylczyn’s review at There Will Be Bread.

Cooking to Save the Planet: Good-Luck Greens and Gumbo Z'Herbes

The Christmas feast is over—unless you happen to celebrate Old Christmas, or Epiphany. In which case, you have another Christmas celebration to look forward to. Old Christmas used to be celebrated in the mountain parts of the South as the “real” Christmas, and in the lowland, plantation parts of the South, it was often the culmination of a season of balls and parties that began on Christmas day and ran to Epiphany, in which families and friends gathered at first one house or another to sing, dance, court, and eat, in order to assure that Christmas was well and properly celebrated.

It was those parties and the fact that Christmas is never mentioned as a holy obligation in the scriptures that led the Puritans of the New England states to ban Christmas. Which made their cousins in Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas all the more intent to celebrate, given the animosity between the northern and southern parts of Anglo America from the beginnings of the colonies. And isn’t it one of the strange ironic twists of history that the South, founded by relatively louche Anglicans more interested in making money than building God’s city on a hill, have become the bible beaters, while their Puritan cousins in New England are the most enlightened and least theocratic people in the U.S. now?

If you’re a south Louisianan, the feast of Epiphany has yet another religious-cum-party meaning: it launches the Carnival season, which ends with Mardi Gras, fat Tuesday, on the day before Ash Wednesday. In New Orleans, Creoles used to begin Carnival by baking kings’ cakes for Epiphany parties, in which an object (often a bean) was hidden. These have now become a feature of the entire Carnival season, and the object has evolved into a tiny doll. Getting the piece with the “baby” in it indicates that you’re obliged to throw the next Mardi Gras party—which assures that an endless round of parties takes place during the Carnival season, since someone at every party is always certain to get the baby . . . .

All of this is leading up to another cooking-to-save-the-planet posting. In this period following the rich Christmas table, my palate (and stomach) turn to thoughts of the acerbic. Of the meager. Of the healthy alternative to ham and sweet potatoes slathered with butter, of chicken and dressing and cakes, pies, and cookies.

To be specific, I’m thinking of greens right now—slightly bitter, smoky-tasting turnip greens, meaty collards, sharp mustard greens. In many cuisines, greens have long played a role of complementing (and correcting) dishes that are overly rich. There’s a belief—and I think it may well have a sound medical basis—that eating greens helps to tone and purge the system, when it’s become taxed by consumption of too many rich foods.

This may have something to do with the custom in most parts of the South to cook and eat greens on New Year’s day, for luck and health in the coming year. In my area, though greens always appear on the New Year’s table, the focus is actually on what goes along with the greens: it’s on black-eyed peas cooked with a slice of hog’s jowl. That’s the magic good-luck dish for us, and it’s obligatory to eat a tiny bit of the greasy, repulsive white seasoning fat along with the peas, to be certain that luck will come your way in the new year.

Still, greens are always on the table with the black-eyed peas, hog’s jowl, and cornbread (and any number of other items leftover from Christmas, and piquant relishes like chow-chow to help you swallow that odious hog’s jowl.) I’m told that in some parts of the South—and I can attest that this is true for New Orleans, based on the years I lived there—the greens are the good-luck dish. They may be served with black-eyed peas and rice (hoppin’ John) in places like the South Carolina lowcountry. But it’s the greens that have to be eaten for luck, and not the peas.

In New Orleans, cabbage is common for New Year’s day, and the custom is to eat as many leaves of it as one can, to bring financial luck in the new year. Green leaves, green dollars . . . .

And it’s at this point that my idea for a dish to make use of healthy local ingredients at this time of year enters the picture. I almost always cook beets for Christmas. I like them baked slowly, until they are almost the essence of beet, then cooled, peeled, and sliced over a green salad dressed with a mustardy, garlicky vinaigrette for Christmas dinner.

Some members of my family object, claiming to be horrified at the color and texture of beets. I tell them they can always pick the beets out of the salad if they wish—makes me no difference. And I secretly doubt that it’s possible really to dislike a vegetable so earthy, so gloriously hued and delicious. If they’d only try the beets, these younger family members, who also turn up their noses at my wonderful borscht . . . .

Beets come with greens. As I’ve mentioned in a previous posting about beets, I can’t bring myself to throw away something so nutritious in its own right, even when I buy beets primarily for the beet roots. This year, I chopped the washed beet greens and then simmered them slowly with a bit of garlic and some turkey broth I’d frozen weeks before, and we ate them as a delicious pre-Christmas meal along with beans and cornbread.

For those who want to try a different dish, one that would fit well with the new year’s custom of eating greens (and with the need for post-Christmas dishes that tone the system up after too much rich food), I recommend a traditional New Orleans dish called gumbo z’herbes. This is a Creole rendition of the more proper French “gumbo aux herbes.” If you can still find anyone in New Orleans who knows and cooks the dish regularly—and you’re more likely to do so among families with traditional Creole roots, both black and white—you’ll probably hear it called something that sounds like gumbo zaab.

Gumbo z’herbes is a meatless gumbo made entirely of greens. It used to be customary during Lent, when meat was banned, particularly on Good Friday, when some folks had the belief that it was important to eat a dish of gumbo z’herbes made with at least seven different greens for luck.

Most people who still cook gumbo z’herbes (and I’ve known some, in my years living in New Orleans) emphasize the need to include as many greens as possible, for flavor, texture, and overall health. When I make gumbo z’herbes, I invariably include the trinity most easily available in my area—turnip greens, collards, and mustard. If I have beet greens, I add them to the pot. In New Orleans, the green blades of green onion (called shallots in south Louisiana) count as greens. Cabbage is an obvious green to include, and I believe parsley also counts as a green in its own right when it’s included in gumbo z’herbes. I could also see adding rapini/broccoli rabe and dandelion greens, both of which are increasingly available in our area much of the year. I’ve known cooks who sought out bunches of watercress to add, too. Spinach would work, too, as well as swiss chard.

Gumbos always begin with a roux. In south Louisiana, almost all sauces start with a roux, with flour browned in cooking oil until it is rich brown, the color of a paper sack, to which hot liquid is then added to form a sauce. A traditional Creole-Cajun roux requires careful, constant stirring of the flour as it cooks in the fat over medium heat, until it begins to reach a brown color. It’s very easy to burn a roux, and one of the tricks of making a good roux is to remove it from the heat before it’s fully cooked, since it will continue cooking after the heat is turned off.

But a pallid roux is frowned on, so you have to stir and watch and hope that you’re going to end up with the much-desired paper-sack color and not a burnt mess. It helps to have some of your hot stock on hand to stop the cooking immediately after you’ve gotten the roux to the right color—splash some of it in, stir carefully to start the sauce and get lumps out of the liquid, and begin your gumbo.

I’m giving these very precise instructions for a Creole-Cajun roux knowing full well that when I make my own gumbo z’herbes, I intend to ignore them. I don’t like south Louisiana roux, frankly. I prefer the classical French blond roux, which is made by adding flour to melted butter. In fact, I often make a beurre manié for a sauce, by cutting or rubbing butter into flour and then stirring this into the sauce as it cooks.

Instead of making a roux as I begin my gumbo z’herbes, I usually heat some olive oil with a bit of butter in it in the bottom of a heavy soup pot (you need a large one for the many greens you include, though they’ll cook down), and then I sauté chopped bell pepper, onion, celery, and garlic in the fat before adding the greens. The greens should all be very carefully washed (I cover them with water in the sink, and then wash each leaf under running water as I remove them from the sink full of water).

They should also be “looked” for spots that need to be removed (and possibly even insects, depending on whether you've gotten your greens fresh from a farm), and then shredded finely. For greens that have a pronounced rib in the leaf—e.g., collards—it’s also important to remove the rib and discard it.

Once I add my greens to the sautéed seasonings, I let them cook a bit in the same fat in which the seasonings have cooked, turning them carefully so that all the greens begin to wilt in the fat. I then add stock—whatever I have—or water sufficient to cover the greens, and any other seasonings I want to include. Salt and pepper, of course; thyme and bay leaf and perhaps a pinch of allspice are traditional in New Orleans. As the greens begin to meld with the stock and simmer over low heat for a while, I then add the butter cut into flour and let it thicken the gumbo.

In New Orleans, gumbo z’herbes is traditionally eaten over rice. For my Anglo-Creole fusion table, cornbread is the accompaniment of choice. There has to be sufficient liquid in the sauce to soak into the cornbread, but not so much that the gumbo is watery and thin. And it’s usually necessary to taste and correct the final product before you serve it, to be sure the seasonings are right. A bit more chopped garlic and parsley are almost always recommended at the end, perhaps a sprinkle of cayenne if you like some heat to a dish, maybe more thyme, another grind or two of pepper. The final product should be rich-tasting and so savory that you don’t even know you are eating a meatless dish.

Enjoy—and may each green bring you days of luck in the new year, if you decide to cook gumbo z’herbes as a new year’s dish.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Cooking to Save the Planet: Making Use of Christmas Leftovers

Readers keep encouraging me to share more ideas about using local foodstuffs to make healthy, good meals that don't stretch budgets and don't require materials whose production stresses the environment. I doubt that turkey fits into the latter category, since turkeys are now mass-produced, for the most part, on factory farms that require huge outlays of petroleum (both to grow the corn to feed the turkeys, and to keep the turkey-plants going).

But since many of us continue eating turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas, I thought I'd provide two recipes I've developed over the years to make good use of the leftovers from a turkey dinner. Before I do that, I'll also share a memory of the one time in my life that I ever participated in the butchering of a turkey for the table. When I think of what's involved in bringing a farm-raised bird to the table--when I buy a non-frozen, locally produced turkey raised in free-range conditions with a minimum of chemicals--I invariably think of this story.

All four of my grandparents grew up, as most Southern folks of their generations did, on farms. In several cases, their fathers combined farming with other occupations that brought additional income to the family, and a venue for the talents of the pater familias. My great-grandfather Lindsey was, for instance, both a farmer and a country doctor, with a concern to see medical care provided for the poor of his Louisiana parish. And my great-grandfather Snead followed in his father's footsteps by combining farming with mercantile activities. Family stories indicate that my great-grandfather Simpson both farmed and assisted his Pryor cousins in running their community's government in one way and another in Mississippi.

But even with these add-on activities for the farm life of the families in which my grandparents were raised, the focus of their lives was still rural, still farm-oriented. During their generation, a significant shift began in the South, however, in which people began to leave farms and move into towns and cities. That shift was consolidated by World War I, which opened opportunities for women that had been previously unheard of. I suspect that many women's desire for a life transcending the drudgery of farm work and child-rearing, house-cleaning, gardening, keeping the dairy, and so forth, played a large role in moving many farm families to towns and cities in the WWI period.

By the time I was growing up, then, few of my great-aunts and great-uncles lived on farms, though my parents and grandparents retained strong ties to the rural ways of their forebears, with an appreciation for the fresh, locally-raised foods of their childhood--with an appreciation, that is, for the very best ingredients that could be found for their daily meals. To the extent that they could, they continued producing much of their own food even in town: though my mother's father was a merchant and the family lived in town, they had forty acres behind their house, on which they pastured a cow.

The cow provided milk, butter, and buttermilk. There was, as well, always a hog or two fattening in a pen behind the house, which was slaughtered at hog-killing time as the weather became frosty, its meat to be made into sausage, ham, and souse. Much of it was smoked in the smokehouse to preserve it for long use and to season the vegetable dishes that played such a central role in the family's diet.

My mother's family also kept chickens for eggs and for occasional chicken dinners, a Sunday thing, since killing a laying hen meant that you had one less hen to provide eggs. And they had a huge garden in which they raised every kind of vegetable imaginable for the table. They required little from the store except sugar, salt, coffee, flour and meal, to supplement what they produced themselves.

Only two of my great-uncles still farmed as I was growing up--a brother of my grandfather Lindsey, who raised watermelons on his land in Louisiana, and a brother of my grandmother Simpson, who had a small truck farm south of Little Rock. We made many visits to Uncle Pat's and Aunt Nellie's little farm as I grew up, to pick peaches and apples in the orchard, to get baskets of peppers, eggplants, squash, okra, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, collards, mustard, purple hull peas--anything in season--during the summer and fall.

And on one occasion, we happened to visit as a turkey met its fate. I must have been four or five years old, at an age at which such a memory imprints itself on one's mind forever. I can still see what happened as if I am back in the small farmyard, surrounded by chickens pecking and cackling, a grape vine running on the little fence separating the orchard and garden, dill for Uncle Pat's wonderful dill pickles growing up around the fence on both sides.

My great-uncle Pat caught the turkey, grabbed its head, gave it a quick twist as he swung the huge bird in an arc, and the head separated from the body. Which commenced to run and flap around the farmyard, blood spurting from its neck, its wings flapping wildly, as we children screamed and ran, while our elders doubled over in laughter.

That event taught me a lesson that children really do need to learn as they grow up: food doesn't appear on the table by magic. It is produced by someone, somewhere, and it behooves us to understand its production, if we want to eat wisely and well. The meat that we see packaged neatly on supermarket shelves was once a living, breathing animal, and someone had to slaughter it before it found itself in those packages.

The conditions in which it was raised make a tremendous difference in its quality, in how it tastes and nourishes us--in whether it harms or helps us as we cook and eat it. If we're going to persist in eating meat, we need to understand how it is produced, what happens as it makes its way to the table, and by whom and where it was raised for consumption.

And now for my two turkey recipes, neither of which I'll be making this Christmas, since we are not having turkey. We'll be having our family meal tomorrow, and it will feature chicken and dressing and a ham--a good, locally-raised ham whose quality we know we can depend on.

When we do have turkey for a celebration, these are two dishes that I frequently make as we eat the leftovers in the days after the feast. The first is a simple, old-fashioned pot pie.

To make it, I mix up a batch of pie dough for a double-crust pie, using butter instead of shortening. I sometimes add an egg to the dough, reducing the liquid called for in the recipe a bit as I do so. Pastry made with butter will not be flaky, unless you take the time to make puff pastry. But it is delicious with a pot pie, we find. And I don't trust the ingredients in vegetable shortening, and I find most store-bought lard rancid and inferior to lard rendered at home from good-quality pork.

For the pot pie filling, I fry in butter a stalk or two of finely chopped celery, an onion, and a carrot or two diced, until they have begun to be tender. To these I add some peas--what we call English peas, to distinguish them from the many field peas we also eat in the South, including the black-eyed peas that will soon be featured on New Year's tables for luck. I also mix in a few tablespoons of flour, stirring it well so that there are no lumps, and then add a cup or so of gravy from the turkey dinner, with a handful of chopped parsley.

About the gravy: I roast turkeys, rather than steam them. That is, I put them in a roasting pan with no liquid, slather them with a mix of soft butter and olive oil to which I've added chopped garlic, and then sprinkle on salt, pepper, and dried thyme. I turn the oven high (500 degrees or so), and let the turkey begin to brown for around 20 minutes, basting it constantly with its own drippings and more olive oil if necessary. I then gradually turn the temperature down by 15 degrees or so every 15 minutes, until the temperature is 350, at which point I let the bird complete its roasting. Constant basting is important, and if the turkey becomes too brown in some areas (especially the legs) before it's finished, it's important to cover those areas with foil. If the whole turkey begins to be too brown and to dry out before it's finished, you may also cover the roasting pan towards the end, though that defeats the purpose of roasting. It turns roasting into steaming. (For anyone reading overseas, I apologize for the American temperature scales--but they're the only ones available to me as I cook at home.)

The point of that digression is to note that the gravy I serve with the turkey is the rich, brown juice produced by the roasting process. I don't dilute the juice with flour. To make gravy, I simply skim off the bulk of the fat, and add to the turkey juices in the pan some fresh chopped garlic, salt, pepper, chopped parsley, and thyme to taste, letting the gravy reduce as I scrape the pan and bring it to a boil.

If I need more liquid, I add some of the stock I make with the giblets as the turkey roasts. I simmer the giblets with water, salt, pepper, garlic, a bay leaf, thyme, and a chopped, scraped carrot, a quartered onion, a stalk of celery cut into pieces, and a handful of parsley. I strain this when it's done, and if needed, add some to the gravy as I finish it.

It's this gravy that goes into the pot pie along with the ingredients I mention above and a bit of flour to thicken it. Then I add a cup or two of diced turkey and put the whole mix into a pie pan lined with half of the crust. The other half goes on top. I use a deep, old-fashioned pie pan for pot pies of this sort, since the filling tends to be be abundant. I also take care to seal the top crust well, using a bit of the gravy to moisten the edges of the bottom crust as I pinch the top crust onto it.

This makes a delicious and filling meal of some of the leftovers of a roasted turkey, an adaptable one, since you can use other vegetables, according to your fancy. My grandmother would, I'm sure, have put in a cubed potato or two, since she routinely did that when she made a chicken pot pie. And perhaps a chopped boiled egg.

My second post-holiday turkey recipe is a version of the lowcountry Georgia dish, country captain. To make it, I chop a bell pepper, onion, and bit of garlic and saute them slowly in some olive oil. When they are becoming tender, I add a cup or two of chopped tomatoes (canned, this time of year), an apple, peeled and cubed, a bay leaf, and two or three cups of cooked, cubed turkey. I then stir in a tablespoon or two of curry powder (I say "a tablespoon or two," because the quality and strength of prepared curry powders can vary wildly) and some chopped parsley.

I then cover the dish and simmer for half an hour or so over very low heat. A few minutes before I take the pot off the stove, I add a handful of raisins. If the sauce seems to need more moisture, I add some turkey gravy to it. I serve this quickly prepared curry dish over rice with roasted almond slivers sprinkled on top.

If you like a bit of heat with a curry, add a chopped hot pepper or two as you cook the sauce. I also often augment the prepared curry powder with some ground cumin and a bit of cinnamon and allspice. Chopped cilantro is a good addition sprinkled over the curry as you serve it, though it doesn't play a role in traditional recipes for country captain (which is also made with chicken rather than turkey).

Again, you can vary the ingredients depending on your tastes and what you have available. Some cubed potato is good in this dish, if you want to stretch it. I could also imagine adding some cooked lentils or chickpeas and perhaps even some sliced okra, though those ingredients would take it far afield from country captain.

The beauty of these recipes is, of course, that they help us to face yet another meal of turkey when we've grown tired of facing it for another day. These recipes take a meat that can be dry and bland, especially when it's served cold, and add moisture, texture, seasonings, and vegetables to stretch and enhance it, at a time of year in which our tastes turn to richer and more highly seasoned foods. And it goes without saying that the turkey carcass and any other scraps from the turkey eventually end up in a stock pot with onion, celery, carrot, bay leaf, and other seasonings, to be simmered slowly into stock for use in soups and other dishes in the weeks following Christmas or Thanksgivings.

And I should also add that I offer meat-based recipes with a divided conscience, since I'm inclined to a meatless diet, both because I prefer vegetables and because I have qualms of conscience about meat consumption. I'm a pallid and shamefully wishy-washy vegetarian, though, one who often fails to live up to his convictions, and who lives with a German-American farm boy for whom meat is, as some of his cousins say, the best vegetable of all. . . .

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Arrives: Mary and Joseph Still Search

This picture was taken at a clinic offering free health care in Inglewood, California, on 14 August 2009.

Christmas has arrived. But Mary and Joseph continue searching for a place.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Visions of Sugarplums, and Obligations to Give Thanks: Christmas Eve Reflections

Christmas eve, and before visions of sugarplums begin to dance through my head and distract me from blogging, I want to remember to post a formal note of thanks to a reader who has shown humbling support for this blog in the past year.

I mentioned this reader (and friend) in a posting some time ago. I noted that he had sent me a check, a very generous one, which I was determined not to accept. The check came with a note thanking me for the work my friend believes I do on the blog.

This is a persistent friend, and despite my determination to return his check, I eventually found myself depositing it, especially when I received a warning that I could return or tear it up as often as I wished—it would still bounce back to me.

I’m humbled by this gift. I don’t think I deserve it. And as Christmas nears, I’m remembering it and want to post a note of thanks to a friend who has been kind to Steve and me beyond all ken—one of those exemplary Christians whose life really does shine with virtue.

Though he wouldn’t set foot in most churches now, given what they do to LGBT human beings . . . .

I’m also grateful to readers who have emailed me in the past several days to thank me for this blog and to encourage me with it. I’ll be responding to each of those emails very soon. Meanwhile, I don’t want Christmas to arrive without making a statement of sincere gratitude to all of you (and several readers who have posted similar comments). Your support means much to me.

And as I close this Christmas eve posting, I also want to note that Andrew Sullivan posted a piece yesterday on the “new” natural law in Catholic theology, which parallels what I said in my own posting about male-female complementarity and natural law arguments in the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict. As my posting does, Andrew Sullivan notes the novelty of the arguments now being promoted by defenders of the magisterium to put gay folks in our places—hence his title, the “new” natural law.

He also notes, as I did, how the “new” natural law arguments prescind from the facts, even as they claim to be empirically-based readings of nature. They ignore a great deal that nature tells us about conception and sexuality, in order to arrive at an ideological interpretation of nature that imposes on the data what those promoting the “new” natural law wish to see in the data.

I like in particular Andrew Sullivan’s insistence that the “new” natural law argument depends on an exceptionalism that applies to gay people norms and standards not applied to those who are heterosexual. As he notes, this exceptionalism exposes the “core prejudice” that lies at the heart of much of the “new” natural law reasoning and is its raison d’etre.

Andrew Sullivan focuses his article on one of the primary American proponents of the innovative natural law arguments floating around in Catholic circles now, Robert P. George, one of the driving forces behind the Manhattan Declaration, who was featured in the New York Times magazine last Sunday. George certainly deserves critical attention, and Andrew Sullivan’s analysis of his thinking is brilliant. Though he was definitely in my mind as I wrote my own posting about these issues yesterday, I chose not to focus that posting on any particular proponent of the “new” natural law theories.

Because I Say So: Rome Defends Choice to Make Pius XII a Saint

Christmas eve, and I’m thinking about the statement yesterday of Rev. Federico Lombardi, head of the Vatican’s press office, that the decision to move Pius XII’s cause of sainthood forward has to do with Pius’s “Christian life” and not with “the historical impact of all his operative decisions.”

I wonder if anyone else finds that a strange statement—an unconvincing exercise in sophistry. Here’s the thing: unless I’m very much mistaken, the point of canonization in the Catholic tradition has always been to recognize the sterling character of someone’s Christian life as exemplified in his or her actions and “operative decisions.” Rev. Lombardi’s statement maintains that the church can choose to recognize Pius’s “heroic virtues” while keeping open options for “discussion concerning the concrete choices made by Pius XII in the situation in which he lived.”

How are we to know that someone led an exemplary Christian life full of heroic virtue if we ignore the “operative decisions” and “concrete choices” that person made? Hasn’t the church always taught that the quality and nature of a person’s acts point back to the quality and nature of the person himself or herself?

Come to think of it, isn’t this precisely the argument used by the Catholic church to determine that every gay or lesbian person in the world is “objectively disordered”—because he or she either commits or is inclined to commit “disordered” acts?

Essentially, what I hear the Vatican saying about Pius and his life is that we’re to trust that the virtue was there, shining through Pius’s life, in the absence of evidence that he lived a life of heroic virtue! I’m not making a value judgment on the quality of Pius’s life here. What I’m saying is that I don’t see or hear a convincing narrative about why Pius lived an exemplary Christian life, as the push is made to canonize him. I hear Rome asking me simply to believe, to trust, that his Christian life was exemplary without providing me with compelling reasons to come to such a judgment myself.

The problem, of course, is that there are many people both within and outside the Catholic church who have concluded that Pius’s “operative decisions” and “concrete choices” were not only less than admirable decisions and choices, but were, in fact, counter-signs to the gospel—impediments rather than signposts to faith. We’re talking, after all, about “operative decisions” and “concrete choices” that involve something more than poor prudential judgments like, say, giving the bishop’s hat to Monsignor X when Monsignor Y turns out to have deserved it far more and X turns out to be a crook.

We’re talking about—or so many people believe, and I don’t hear the Vatican advancing evidence sufficient to counter this belief—Pius’s “operative decision” and “concrete choice” to remain silent as millions of people were murdered in the Nazi period. By a nation largely Christian. With a significant proportion of Catholics. And with the apparent complicity of many Catholics in nations occupied by the Nazis.

Concerns about Pius’s silence during the Holocaust remain so widespread that a decision by Rome to canonize him surely demands a strong, compelling narrative on the part of Rome—it demands proof—that Pius was silent for a good reason, that he engaged in heroic acts to counter mass murder while he remained silent, and so forth. Concerns about who Pius was and what he did are so strong that the decision to move his canonization forward surely warrants opening the Vatican archives, so that the world can see why Rome is convinced Pius was holy, despite widespread concern.

And yet Rome has refused to open its archival materials re: Pius, and seems unwilling to present us with the kind of compelling narrative of sanctity that would lay to rest concerns about Pius’s silence. And that leaves me wondering whether the motives underlying the stubborn determination to move Pius to sainthood subito are less than admirable.

I wonder if the move to push Pius towards canonization has much to do with an in-your-face determination to exalt clerics and the clerical system at a point in history at which many Catholics have become disenchanted with clericalism. I also have to wonder if there’s some need to be in your face vis-à-vis the Jewish community, some need (applauded by anti-semitic groups in the church like the SSPX, which Benedict has chosen to rehabilitate) to tell our Jewish brothers and sisters that we’ll do what we want when we want, and the children of Abraham can just lump it if they don’t like it.

I’m underwhelmed by what the Vatican seems to be doing in the case of Pius, just as I’m underwhelmed by the defense of this move on the part of the Vatican’s press secretary. I don’t see millions of Catholics clamoring for Pius’s canonization. If there are widespread cults promoting Pius’s sainthood—groups praying to Pius, many shrines devoted to remembering him—I’m unaware of it. The push to canonize Pius seems to be coming almost exclusively from inside Benedict’s Vatican.

Father Lombardi’s argument—we’re recognizing Pius’s Christian life, not affirming the “operative decisions” and “concrete choices” he made—seems to overlook the inextricable connection between the lived example given by leaders of a sacramental church, and the message proclaimed by that church. In a church driven by the sacramental principle, what we do and how we do it are every bit as much a part of the message we proclaim as the words we speak. In fact, what we do and how we do it are even more the message that we actually proclaim than are the words we speak.

Preach the gospel always. If necessary, use words. The sexual abuse crisis in the priesthood has caused untold millions of Catholics to lose confidence in the church as a sacramental sign of God’s love and salvific care for the world. For many of us, the leaders of the church have become not sacramental signs of the gospel, but counter-signs.

The stubborn determination of Benedict’s papacy to move Pius’s canonization process forward seems to be a statement to everyone in the church outside its inner elite that what we perceive in our leaders—who they are and what they do—simply doesn’t matter. If Rome decides to call them holy, Rome will do so, and if we don’t like it, then thats our misfortune.

The argument Lombardi is advancing re: Pius’s canonization could easily be used, a generation down the road, to canonize any of the unctuous, heartless, slippery career ecclesiastics we’ve found, to our woe, to have protected and promoted priests raping children. Yes, they made bad concrete choices. Their operative decisions weren’t so admirable.

But they led good Christian lives, the Bernie Laws and Anthony O’Connells. Trust me. Because I say so. It was all about heroic virtue in the end.

St. Bernie Law, pray for us.

Advent: Mary and Joseph Search for Shelter (4)

This picture was taken at a clinic offering free health care in Little Rock, Arkansas, on 21 Nov. 2009.

Mary and Joseph continue searching for a place.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Catholic Teaching on Gay Persons as Disordered: The Male-Female Complementarity Argument

Another theological reflection to supplement what I posted yesterday about Catholic teaching that those who are gay or lesbian are disordered: for those seeking to understand the current Catholic teaching about LGBT persons, it’s also important to engage another innovation on the Catholic tradition dating (like the teaching that gay and lesbian persons are objectively disordered) from the papacy of John Paul II. This is what is called the theology of the body.

The theology of the body revolves around the claim that sexual behavior is normed by a male-female complementarity built into nature by its Creator, and consistently upheld by biblical revelation. As Rev. David Burrell notes in an article entitled “Catholic Teaching on Homosexuality,” which summarizes the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s teaching about those who are gay or lesbian:

Sexual relations between unmarried men and women offend against the dignity of the individuals involved, yet respect their basic “complementarity as masculine and feminine [whereby] man and woman were ‘made for each other’”([Catechism,] #372). It is this masculine/feminine complementarity which is normative for the Catholic tradition, and explains why homosexual acts imitative of the marriage act are said to be “gravely disordered.” It also explains why the phrase “objectively disordered” appears in the next article [of the Catechism], where the wording is slightly yet significantly different.

Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains unexplained (#2357). The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided ([Catechism,] #2358).

This orientation of one's sexual attraction is judged “objectively disordered” because it inclines people in ways contrary to the masculine/feminine complementarity which the Catholic tradition takes to be normative, and which society normally presumes, so the Catechism suggests that it “constitutes for most of them a trial.”

Note two primary points of this summary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1. Even when the sexual acts of heterosexual people (e.g., premarital sex) depart from what is considered normative in the Catholic tradition, those acts nonetheless respect the complementarity of male and female that the tradition wishes to uphold as normative, and heterosexual people are therefore not designated as “objectively disordered” because of their departure from the norm;

2. But gay and lesbian people are disordered because their sexual acts are objectively disordered, and those acts point as well to an inclination that moves against the norm of male-female complementarity.

(What this analysis completely overlooks, of course, is a point I made yesterday: many—if not most—of the sexual acts of heterosexuals conspicuously fail to fulfill the Catholic tradition’s analysis of what constitutes an “ordered” sexual act because they do not intend to be procreative. Procreation is not first and foremost the intent of most couples engaging in intercourse. In fact, for many couples, both married and unmarried, procreation is the last thing hoped for when a couple engages in intercourse.

Furthermore, many of the sexual acts of heterosexual couples are actively “disordered,” per the Catholic tradition, because they deliberately violate the “order” of sexuality by preventing procreation. And yet Catholic teaching does not conclude on this basis that heterosexuals are objectively disordered, even when such “disordered” sexual behavior is even more widespread than the “disordered” sexual behavior of homosexuals, because straight people are far and away in the majority. But it does wish to conclude on the basis of the very same argument—disordered acts point to disordered people—that all gay and lesbian persons are objectively disordered.

And this is not even to mention the prevalence of masturbation among both heterosexual and homosexual persons, male and female, another “objectively disordered” act, whose commission would point to the “disorder” of everyone committing the act—and again, a preponderance of those engaging in this “disordered” act are heterosexual, because heterosexuals are far more numerous than homosexualsif we applied the magisterium’s logic about homosexuality to all “disordered” sexual acts and those who commit such acts . . . .)

So, built into the argument that Catholic teaching has sought to use in the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict to define gay and lesbian persons as disordered is a supplemental argument that the “order” of sexuality is not only about procreation. It is also about male-female complementarity. Gay folks are disordered not merely because they engage in “disordered” sexual acts. They are disordered as well because they violate—by their very inclinations and in their very nature—a male-female complementarity that is built into nature and reinforced by revelation.

What to make of this argument, which adds an innovative late-20th century twist to the biologistic natural-law Catholic tradition re: sexual ethics? In the first place, note that it purports to be based on an objective reading of nature: it wants us to believe that it is simply reading nature, and on the basis of what it reads, is discovering norms applicable to all of us. Norms built into nature and accessible to anyone who uses his or her reason. Natural norms reinforced by revelation. The biologistic natural-law tradition, with its innovative claim that male-female complementarity is built into nature in a normative way that points to the “disorder” of all gay persons and the “order” of all straight ones, is simply telling us what is in nature, and because of what nature shows us, natural law is simply telling what we have to do if we want to fulfill the dictates of nature—to be “ordered” persons.

Unfortunately, dispassionate observation of how nature behaves does not yield the kind of unambiguous ethical norm—sexual activity is naturally ordered to procreation; sexual activity is naturally about the union of male and female—that those using the male-female complementarity argument to illegitimate all gay and lesbian persons want to find in nature. “Natural” sexual behavior is anything but ordered in the sense that the biologistic reading of natural law wants us to think. Animals of most species are wildly (and seemingly happily so) diverse in their sexual behavior. They engage in same-sex sexual behavior, in sexual behavior with multiple partners, in polymorphous sexual behavior, in masturbation and copulation, with apparent abandon.

As Andre Gide noted as long ago as 1911 in Corydon, dispassionate and objective observation of how animals behave naturally shows abundant evidence of same-sex sexual activity—as natural activity. In fact, Gide noted, outside the female’s estrus cycle, in many species, same-sex activity is more prevalent than opposite-sex activity. In many species, in the large part of a year in which females are not in estrus, both females and males copulate with members of their own sex more frequently than with those of the opposite sex. Dispassionate observation of what sex appears to mean to most animals (humans included) does not yield the conclusion that sex is “naturally” all about procreation. Rather the opposite . . . .

We find male-female complementarity as a “natural” and obvious norm for sexual behavior, and we find procreation as the goal of all sexual activity in nature, only when we bring to our observation of nature what we already believe should be the case. The biologistic understanding of natural law reads into nature norms that it wishes to impose on a wild diversity that points in every direction except what biologistic understandings of natural law tell us all reasonable people ought to see in nature.

This is not to deny that many people sincerely believe that dispassionate observation of nature reinforces their presupposition that sexuality is all about male-female complementarity and procreation. This is actually Gide’s point in Corydon: most people believe that they’re seeing only male-female copulation when they look at the natural world, because they strongly assume that this is what they ought to see.

And this is to say that the biologistic natural law tradition, as well as the recent innovation of male-female complementarity in Catholic thinking, reinforces strong societal presuppositions—the word “prejudices” would not be misplaced here—about what people think they see in nature, when they talk about natural or unnatural sexuality. About ordered and disordered understandings of sexuality.

The power of the argument about male-female complementarity is that it echoes what most people think they see in nature, and then stamps with the force of natural observation (reinforced by religious prohibitions: reason propped by revelation) what people already believe, have chosen to believe, wish to believe.

What never comes to the surface when these biologistic natural law arguments and the claim about male-female complementarity are advanced is that this is not a new strategy of conservative groups that wish to halt necessary social change. Over the course of Western history, again and again groups purporting to read what nature tells us about how things are, and therefore how they should be, have used arguments about the self-evident clarity of nature to keep necessary social change at bay.

Working-class people, people of the “lower” orders, have been told over and over in many Western nations that God has designed both the natural and the social worlds in conformity to strict notions of order. As Arthur Lovejoy’s classic work The Great Chain of Being (1936) notes, according to this argument, which has cropped up again and again in Western history, to break the chain of order, to overturn the hierarchical arrangement of society into upper and lower orders, is to violate nature and what God intends for the world, with dire consequences.

And it’s not just the “lower” orders who have been kept in their “natural” places by such arguments. Similar arguments were advanced when women began to claim the right to autonomy, to self-direction, in many Western cultures. In response to the aspirations of women for full personhood, reactionary groups have argued (and still argue) that women’s subjugation to men is “natural,” because women are physically weaker than men, are “naturally” expected to remain at home and bear and nurture children, are home-makers rather than world-builders. Break but the chain and see what chaos follows . . . .

And this argument about nature has long been used to keep people of color in their place. People of color, we’re told by reactionary groups, are “naturally” inferior to Caucasians. They are less evolved, less intelligent, more prone to emotion and less prone to rationality. Nature has designed things such that those with darker skins ought to serve those with lighter skins. And God has given the divine stamp of approval to this natural arrangement. Challenge the arrangement and you challenge not just nature, but God.

Obviously those now promoting the male-female complementarity argument and the theology of the body that has developed around this argument do not wish to discuss this persistent use of notions of nature stamped with divine approval by conservative groups resisting the emergence to full personhood of people subjugated by socially dominant groups. Those promoting the male-female complementarity argument and the theology of the body want us to think that affirmation of homosexuality represents an entirely new, exceptional, unprecedented case, an unprecedented attempt by a subjugated group to overturn the norms of nature, which will have dire consequences if we permit this departure from nature.

Just as the grandparents of those making these arguments once said with precisely the same apocalpytic predictions about workers’ rights and women’s rights and the rights of people of color . . . .

The theology of the body (which was developed for the Catholic tradition in documents authored by Pope John Paul II) seeks to place questions about gender and gender roles and sexual ethics into a sacred, mystical preserve that forbids critical questions about these matters. These critical questions include why the Catholic natural law tradition insists on telling us what we should see when we look at sexual behavior in nature, rather than allowing us to see what unbiased observation of nature actually shows us.

They also include critical questions about how the notion of nature stamped with religious authority has been persistently used in Western history to oppose the liberation of one subjugated minority group after another. And they include critical questions about why the Catholic tradition allows us to intervene in nature and contravene nature’s dictates in every area except sexuality—in medicine, in the building of social institutions, etc.

In other words, why is biology destiny only when it comes to sexuality for the Catholic tradition? We no longer oppose inoculation of people to prevent infection on the ground that inoculation interferes with natural law and Gods plan for creation. And on the whole, we’ve long since given up on the argument that nature (and God) want society arranged into upper and lower orders, and that everything turns upside down when the lower rail gets on top. Why is human sexuality the sacred, mystical preserve that John Paul II’s theology of the body wants to insist it is?

Why is biology destiny only when we start talking about gender roles and human sexuality? What appears to many of us to be driving the quasi-mystical theology of the body now surging through the reactionary wings of the Catholic church (and through evangelical groups eager to appropriate this defense of patriarchy, even when they do not share the Catholic natural law theology of sexuality) is the need of straight men to remain in control of a world that appears to be getting out of their control. There is a strong and unholy need—a specifically male needto control at the heart of the argument that gay and lesbian people are objectively disordered, and that nature and revelation point to male-female complementarity as the goal of sexual life. There is a strong and unholy need on the part of straight men to control women and gay men, in particular, at the heart of these arguments.

But the gospel is supposed to be good news. It is supposed to be about liberation rather than subjugation. When Paul speaks of the need of slaves to obey their masters, we conclude that he is uncritically reflecting the presuppositions of his culture and illicitly reading those cultural presuppositions into the scriptures as normative for all of Christian history.

But when he announces that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, because all are one in Christ (Galatians 3:28), we conclude that we’re hearing the proclamation of the gospel—which is about liberation from enslavement, liberation from subjugation to cultural norms that divide us into Jew and Greek, slave and free, and male and female, in a way that subordinates one group to another. We conclude that Paul is proclaiming the gospel here because the gospel is good news: it is about liberation. It is not about subordination to biology as if biology is destiny—as if being male or female entraps us in gender roles in which everything is premised on the superiority of one gender to the other, on the domination of one sex by the other.

The misuse of the energies of communities of faith at this point in history to effect such subordination (of women and LGBT people to straight men, in particular) is tragic. It is blindly misguided. This misuse of energy siphons off energy much needed by these communities to proclaim the gospel in a really effective, really transformative, way at this point in history—in a way that creatively engages and does not merely reinforce the status quo.

The contemporary attempt of some religious groups to read the scriptures as all about male-female complementarity (and the subordination of females [and gay people] to males) takes a selfish preoccupation of one group of people at this point in history—of heterosexual males determined to resist critiques of patriarchy and to give up the unjustified power and privilege that patriarchy accords to heterosexual men—and apotheosizes that preoccupation in a way that contradicts the most fundamental proclamation of the gospel.

For those interested in what I've written previously on the subject of male-female complementarity, please click on the label "male-female complementarity."

Further Reflections on the Neoconservative Narrative about the African Churches

A gloss on my two previous statements (here and here) about John Allens take on Catholic silence re: legislation in Uganda that may make being gay a capital crime: I want to clarify what I mean when I conclude that Allen’s reporting on the African church reinforces and replicates the neocon narrative of groups like IRD about African Christianity.

Out of fairness to John Allen, it’s important that I note that his reporting on the African church consistently argues that the model emerging in African Catholicism cuts against some presuppositions of both Western progressives and conservatives. As my summary of Allen’s articles about the 2009 African synod indicate, while Allen maintains that the African model challenges Western progressives in its determination to defend “traditional family values,” he also notes that the African church critiques the unbridled capitalism promoted by Western conservatives, discriminatory treatment of immigrants, unjust trade conditions, the arms trade, environmental destruction, and abuse of women.

Allen argues that the African church represents a new way of being Catholic because it corrects some of the ideological presuppositions of both left and right in the West. As he puts the point in the conclusion of his recent article about the silence of Catholics re: the Ugandan situation,

Africa’s Catholic leaders have an opportunity to carve out a distinctive approach to what the West knows as the “culture wars,” one that blends traditional positions on sexual ethics with a holistic embrace of the church’s broader social justice concerns. That may indeed require bucking conventional wisdom in the West – but it may also require challenging some social conventions at home, too.

Why do I conclude, then, that John Allen’s take on the African church replicates the neoconservative narrative of groups like IRD, whose avowed mission is to “reform” (i.e., block) the social witness of mainline churches of the West? I do so for two reasons.

First, what Allen writes about the “traditional family values” of the church in Africa is almost an exact replica of what groups like the IRD wish to say about the African church. Both narratives have the same ideological effect: to undercut movements to critique the patriarchal assumptions and behavior of churches, and to keep women and gay folks in their places.

Both narratives are actively promoted by the mainstream media in the U.S., which is also heavily invested in the strategy of groups like IRD to block the social witness of Christian churches vis-à-vis unbridled capitalism. When Allen writes about the African church, purportedly “describing” what he sees happening in this church (but, astonishingly, without ever a single reference to the pernicious activities of Western religious right and neoconservative movements in that church), the mainstream media listen.

They pick up the narrative with alacrity, just as they have always done when groups like IRD, with its thick ties to influential Bush-era Catholic neoconservatives like Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel, “describe” the African church. John Allen’s “descriptive” reporting on the conservative aspects of the African church is set within a set of powerful neoconservative interests and commitments, and those interests and commitments are attached to the “description” of the African church when this narrative enters the mainstream media--when it enters media that are anything but interested in promoting the social witness of the churches and their critique of unbridled capitalism.

In other words, it is impossible to detach the “description” of African Christianity as a bolster for “traditional family values” in the West from the neoconservative strategy of IRD and other groups whose primary goal is to undermine the social critique of the churches, and to plant their narrative about African Christianity in the mainstream media in order to promote their primary objective, which is blocking the socio-economic critique of the churches. And this is my second reason for maintaining that John Allen’s presentation of African Catholicism is essentially neoconservative.

What I want to note by arguing that Allen’s presentation of African Christianity is essentially neoconservative is that the neoconservative political commitments that lie inside the Western reinforcement of “traditional family values” in African churches rob critiques of unbridled capitalism and its effects in developing nations of power. They put the lie to these critiques, when the groups promoting the narrative of traditional family values are precisely those groups trying to block the social witness of the churches of the West.

In my view, this is why little attention has been paid and will be paid to Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in veritate. It’s why I myself haven’t yet fulfilled my promise to readers to write more about the encyclical, though I welcome the encyclical’s critique of heartless capitalism and its attempt to retrieve the socio-economic witness of Catholicism.

When (along with influential members of the American hierarchy) Benedict is, in his opposition to gay rights (and the women’s movement), so closely allied to powerful interest groups seeking to undercut the social witness of the churches in the West, it is almost impossible to take seriously his critique of the kind of unbridled capitalism promoted by those same interest groups. What the church does, particularly to women and LGBT persons, speaks far louder than what it says, when it claims to defend human rights and oppose the economic domination of the poor by the rich.

It’s impossible to separate the neoconservative political aims of those Western groups with which Benedict has cast his lot in promoting “traditional family values” from the underlying neocon strategy of blocking the social witness of the churches. No matter what the African bishops say about capitalism, the environment, the arms trade, etc. . . .

As I’ve noted repeatedly on this blog, the ethic of life promoted by the American bishops in our current political context is entirely unconvincing, because it’s not consistent. As Eugene McCarraher has argued, the ethic of life promoted by some American Christians, which is entirely focused on fetal life as it blindly excludes almost any other concerns about the value of life, is fetishized and sentimentalized.*

The exclusive focus on the fetus turns the fetus into a fetish in a way that completely ignores the glaring assault on the value of life by unbridled capitalism. The rhetoric about abortion, about how the right to life is the most fundamental right of all that overrides all other concerns about life, is altogether too easy. It is lazy. It leads to a moral absolutism that allows those promoting the rhetoric, while they refuse to think about moral ambiguity or about other challenges to life, an unearned self-righteousness that is, at its heart, imperialistic. Those promoting this rhetoric are intent on coercing others to do what they assume is right in a way that undercuts their claim to respect life or to be credible moral agents.

And so it is no accident that a large proportion of American Christians who fiercely oppose abortion are also morally blind to the anti-life effects of heartless capitalism. To see and to make those connections would require giving up the easy, lazy sentimental fetishism of the fetus. As McCarraher notes,

Many of the same people who oppose abortion are champions of laissez-faire capitalism, and they either don’t see or don’t care to see the linguistic and cultural affinities between themselves and the pro-choice advocates they fight.

The easy sentimentality, the fetishism, of the exclusive focus on the fetus (or on women as the enemy, or gay people as social infection) permits those who claim to be all about building a culture of life to ignore the most destructive and all-pervasive threats to the value of life in the culture they’re critiquing. If the leaders of the church expect to be taken seriously when they talk about human rights and social justice, they will have to consider how their alliance with neoconservative movements promoting “traditional family values” and opposition to abortion in the latter half of the 20th century and first part of the 21st century radically undercuts all that they want to say about these topics and about a culture of life.

* H/t to David Nickol for posting a link to McCarraher’s discussion of these issues at Cathleen Caveney’s recent Commonweal thread about the movement of John Paul II and Pius XII towards sainthood.