Sunday, January 31, 2010

John Paul II’s Penitential Practices: The Opus Dei Connection

As a supplement to what I posted here recently about Pope John Paul II’s penitential practices, I’d like to offer readers a brief overview of some resources for further study.  These resources focus on a particular topic—namely, the use of self-flagellation and other penitential practices such as wearing chains with sharp points that dig into the skin (cilices) by a contemporary Catholic movement, Opus Dei.

Since not all readers may be aware that there is at least one group in the contemporary Catholic church which encourages its members to whip themselves, to wear cilices, and to sleep on the floor or on boards, I’d like to draw attention to the important body of literature that has developed to study and critique Opus Dei’s penitential practices in recent years.  It’s also significant that John Paul II was closely connected to Opus Dei and actively promoted and protected this controversial religious group—about which more below.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Archbishop Chaput on the Devil's Growing Influence

With the return of talk about self-whipping and wearing barbed chains (cilices) that jab into the skin, the Catholic church seems to be going positively medieval these days.

So perhaps it’s fitting that one of the princes of American Catholicism, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, has just delivered a lecture to the symposium on priests and laity in Rome in which he calls for a revival of discourse about the prince of this world and of darkness, the father of lies: Satan.  As the headline about this lecture in Archbishop Chaput’s Catholic News Agency site says, the Denver archbishop is urging us to fight Satan.

John Paul II’s Penitential Practices and Competing Narratives about Sanctity in the Postmodern Church

There was a time, before the Second Vatican Council prompted religious congregations to return to the charisms of their founders, when practices of self-abnegation including self-flagellation were de rigueur in some communities.  Some orders, in fact, practiced self-flagellation in a communitarian setting.  A Redemptorist priest I once knew described to me how his community would gather on designated evenings in a dark hallway, where they’d recite the penitential psalms while whipping their bare backs.  They also wore cilices, little devices for self-torture with sharp points, which are tied tightly around one’s thigh to induce pain when one moves.

These practices—in particular, the enforced, institutionalized, all-together-now mortification of the flesh in a communitarian setting—tended to go by the wayside in religious life with Vatican II.  They did so for a good reason: they ultimately had little to do with what being a nun, priest, or brother was really all about.  They had little to do with the charisms and missions of religious communities, with the calling of a community to tend to the sick, live among the poor, teach, provide shelter for the homeless, assist immigrants, etc.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Still Here . . . .

Dear Friends and Fellow Pilgrims,

Just a quick note as a long day ends to tell you I'm still here.

I've just uploaded a posting to the new collaborative Open Tabernacle blog, a link to which is in the upper right-hand corner of this page.  As you'll see if you visit that site, the post is lengthy--and that explains why I haven't found a moment to post here in the past day.

Because the new blog is a collaborative venture, and since a number of us are occupied with our own tasks right now, I wanted to offer this post to readers at that site first, to help it in a period when new postings aren't coming to the site routinely.

And there's an outstanding piece by Frank Cocozzelli there today, too, about his call for lay Catholics to practice remonstrance with pastors who betray Catholic values and teaching.  I highly recommend it to you, as with everything Frank writes.

More from me here tomorrow, when my cramped fingers and frazzled mind recover a bit from a day's writing about John Paul II and his practice of self-flagellation.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The State of the Union and the President's Attempt to Re-Brand Himself: Who Is Mr. Obama?

On the eve of the State of the Union address, things are not looking sanguine for Mr. Obama—to say the least.  The fury of the hard right (which is to say, the entire GOP as it now exists) was to be expected.  What I don’t think many of us anticipated at this point in what seemed an extremely promising new presidency was the sharp sense of betrayal and outrage among the Democratic party’s progressive base—as well as among many of the independent swing voters who helped elect Barack Obama with high hopes that he represented a departure from business as usual in the American political context.

Cooking to Save the Planet: Pumpkin Pasta

Back last October, I told you all that I often buy pumpkins in the fall of the year, particularly when they go on sale after Thanksgiving, and bake their flesh to use in soups and pastas during the winter.  I freeze the baked pumpkin in meal-sized containers.

From Roman Polanski to Benedict: Bernard-Henri Lévy vs. the Howling of the Pack

When I read Bernard-Henri Lévy’s defense of Pope Benedict XVI at Huffington Post several days ago, I wondered how soon it would be before various Catholic media sites would pick this article up, and use it to suggest that Benedict has been unfairly treated by the media.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Mitchell Bard on Alito, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas: No Greater Threat to Principles of Democracy

In my weekend news roundup two days ago, I wrote about how the recent Supreme Court decision in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission strikes at the roots of democracy--as did the recent decision to prevent filming of the prop 8 trial after the federal judge presiding in that trial had approved filming.  I noted in this posting--as I've done in previous postings--that the gentlemen justices striking at democracy on SCOTUS are all Catholic justices.  As a fellow Catholic, one who believes that Catholic values move against the rule of economic and political elites that these justices are defending, I intend to keep noting the right-wing activism of the five Catholic men on the Supreme Court.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Loyalty Oaths and Pretensions to Power: Vatican Expects American Nuns to Take Oath of Fidelity

Shortly after my last position in an academic institution was terminated, the president who first invited me to take that position and then informed me she wanted me gone from her campus presented all of those who had reported to me with a loyalty oath.  With an oath of loyalty to her personally and to her administration of the university.  Her entire leadership team was presented with the same oath.

As well as I ever understood the logic of this bizarre action, it went something like this: I had been run off because I was plotting against her.  And forcing those who had reported to me or worked on the leadership team with me to sign an oath of loyalty to her would bolster her power over an institution where I had somehow gained unwarranted power. 

Saturday, January 23, 2010

End of Week News Roundup: Prop 8, Supremes, and the Pro-Life Movement

A news roundup as the week ends:

Rick Jacobs of Courage Campaign reports at Huffington Post this week about the massive internet coverage of the prop 8 trial.  As he notes, though the Supreme Court blocked televised coverage (on YouTube and at select federal courthouses) after presiding Judge Vaughn Walker gave the green light for it, there’s intense online coverage of the trial.

As I’ve noted previously here, Courage Campaign itself is doing daily live-blogging to make up for the lack of televised coverage.  And Los Angeles film producers John Ainsworth and John Ireland have had the very clever idea of filming re-enactments of key moments of the trial.  Their re-enactments are now up and running at YouTube.

Holy Stories and Marginalized Communities: Shift to New Readings of Scripture in the Churches Today

In its liturgical calendar for December, the Catholic church celebrates each year a devotion to the Virgin Mary that has deep roots in and strong resonance for Latin American Catholicism.  For those living in places in which there are not large concentrations of people from that part of the world, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe often comes and goes without notice.

I’ve long had a particular interest in the Guadalupe story, however—for personal reasons.  My father died late on the night of the Guadalupe feast.  And I later made a life-altering pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, at a period in which I was searching for my vocational path and needed to pray with others desperate to find meaning in their lives.  In what follows, I’d like to reflect on the significance I’ve come to see in the Guadalupe story as I’ve struggled with it over the years—and, in particular, for what this story of the appearance of an Aztec holy maiden to an Aztec peasant implies about the ownership and interpretation of holy stories, including the biblical narratives.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Haiti, the Push for Theological Answers, and Liberation Theology's Correction of Christian Necrophilia

Paula Cooey has published  a thought-provoking article at Religion Dispatches about the push for theological questions following the Haitian earthquakes.  As she notes, in the wake of massive tragedies like what has happened in Haiti, people begin to ask theological questions—theodicy questions.  Questions about where God is as millions of people suffer.

And people of faith sometimes respond to those questions with answers—with answers that are altogether too glib.  Answers that implicitly make God responsible for the massive suffering that causes us to question where God is, as people suffer . . . .  Job’s-comforter answers, which explain it all to us, when silence and solidarity with those who are suffering would be a far more adequate theological response than cheap, falsely explanatory answers.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Michael Signorile on Gays as the Canaries in the Coal Mine of Obama Administration

Michael Signorile at Salon, noting how the erosion of Mr. Obama's base, which has resulted in the loss of Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts Senate seat, began with his cold shoulder to his LGBT supporters--from the outset of his administration:

Obama's coldness toward gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people upon taking office could have predicted that he wouldn't get tough on the banks or show any passion for a public option. Gays were the canaries in the coal mine back on Day One of this administration. That was the day when Rick Warren gave the invocation at the inauguration. It signaled how easily this president would insult and sideline a loyal constituency in return for the false promise of bringing in people who will never support him.

And in my view, not merely coldness, but calculating coldness, coldness designed to demonstrate to Republicans who never intended to do anything but oppose the new president that he was willing to bend over backwards to listen to and include them in policy-making decisions.

You can tell a great deal about a person's character by observing how he or she treats his/her friends. 

William Greider on Obama's Wake-Up Call: Monumental Miscalculations Led to Massachusetts Debacle

More good commentary about what the Massachusetts senatorial defeat portends for the Obama administration. I’m particularly impressed today with William Greider’s “Obama’s Big Wake-Up Call” at Alternet.

In Greider’s view, the Massachusetts special election reveals “monumental miscalculations by which Obama has governed, both in priorities and political-legislative strategies.” And I agree.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Democratic Stronghold Goes Republican, After Huge Mandate for Change: A Personal Response

The Massachusetts special election has, as expected, given the Senate seat held for almost half a century by longtime health-care reform advocate Ted Kennedy to a Republican. In the Democratic stronghold of Massachusetts, which gave President Obama 62% of its vote in 2008. The special election gave this longstanding Democratic seat in a strongly Democratic state to a Republican whose primary claim to fame is that he owns a truck. And once posed for Cosmopolitan.

And I wish I could say I’m surprised. But as anyone reading this blog on a regular basis knows, from early in the new administration, I became convinced that the refusal to act decisively to fulfill its progressive promises and to adhere to the moral core of those promises was going radically to undermine the new administration. Click on the tag “Barack Obama” at the bottom of this posting, follow the thread back, and you’ll find posting after posting on this blog making those predictions.

I began predicting the turn to the right that we’re now seeing (turn to the right: Brown was endorsed by the savagely anti-gay National Organization for Marriage) from early in the new administration when I saw its cynical, calculating willingness to play games with the hopes and lives of gay citizens who had worked hard to elect the new president believing that he was sincere when he told us he would end DADT and work to abolish DOMA. When I saw the willingness of the new administration to waffle immediately on its moral commitment in that area, I saw the handwriting on the wall.

And I wrote on this blog that, though I had strongly supported Mr. Obama and had written over and over to praise him during the election, my energy in support of the new administration was rapidly vanishing. As I’ve stated here, I have never been so disappointed about any vote I’ve cast in any federal election during my adult life.

The pundits will pick through these election results now, and parse them every way possible. Already, centrist commentators are encouraging Mr. Obama to take the same lesson Mr. Clinton is said to have taken from the turn to the right that followed his initial period in office, and to become even more bipartisan and even more centrist than he’s already been. As if that’s even possible . . . .

There will be—there already are—claims that the progressive wing of the Democratic party in Massachusetts voted heavily for Ms. Coakley, while blue-collar Democrats turned against the new administration, due to its movement away from the center.

And these are, of course, precisely the wrong lessons to take from what has just happened in Massachusetts. As Peter Daou notes today in a HuffPo article entitled “Liberal Bloggers to Obama and Dems: We Told You So,”

I've written a number of posts arguing that it's all a matter of values and ethics. In essence: when you fail to govern based on a morally sound, well-articulated, solidly-grounded set of ideals, you look weak. All the legislative wins in the world won't change that. People gravitate to people who exude moral authority. The vast majority of voters lack the detailed policy knowledge that would enable them to make an accurate assessment of policy differences, but they do have a visceral sense of when a candidate or an elected official believes in something and fights for it. It's why campaigns are laden with moral arguments; politicians ask to be elected because they'll "do the right thing."

“Morally sound, well-articulated, solidly-grounded set of ideals”
; “moral authority” as the foundation of compelling leadership: as Daou also suggests, when, on the inauguration day itself, this administration invited Rev. Rick Warren to take center stage and give the inaugural invocation while Bishop Gene Robinson’s prayer off in the wings of the stage was not even broadcast to the public, anyone watching for the moral foundations of the new administration had a strong clue as to what was about to happen to every aspect of the progressive agenda of the new administration. To every aspect demanding moral fortitude . . . .

In one year’s time, we have seen the new administration—and a Democratic-controlled Senate and House—squander the mandate provided to it by a strong majority of the American public in the last election, as the right-wing noise machine has been given every opportunity possible to crank itself up again while Democrats waste valuable time and energy catering to banks, Wall Street, and the health and pharmaceutical industries.

While Democrats diddle, the right-wing noise machine has free rein to re-animate deep racial bias, fears of necessary progressive change, sound and fury about nothing. And now we see a man with a truck and a Cosmopolitan past walking into the highest legislative body in the land as a result of the new administration’s refusal to put core values front and center as it governs.

Daou’s conclusion:

Progressive bloggers have been jumping up and down, yelling at their Democratic leaders that the path of compromise and pragmatism only goes so far. The limit is when you start compromising away your core values.

Will the new administration hear that lesson now? I very much doubt it. In my view—and I’ve stated this here repeatedly as the morally vacuous course the new administration intended to take became glaringly apparent—we are now in for a period of right-wing dominance in American politics the likes of which we haven’t seen since the McCarthy period. Nasty, gay-bashing, free-wheeling free-market dominance that will make what took place in the Bush era look like a church picnic by contrast.

Meanwhile, we who continue living in this nation have to find some way to make do—I have to find some way to make do, as one of millions of Americans without a job, with no health insurance, with monthly mortgage payments I cannot meet without dipping into my rapidly vanishing savings. As I enter my 60th year.

As I’ve shared on this blog (and I bring this up for two reasons: it’s politically pertinent, and it illustrates some of the serious day-to-day struggles that lack of equality continues to create for gay citizens of this nation), I find myself the owner of a second house in Florida that I can’t sell, and which I bought on the basis of promises made to me by a former employer who has created tremendous hardship for my partner Steve and me by breaking those promises. I’ve noted our inability to refinance the loan for this house, even after banks were given funds by the new administration precisely to enable citizens in financial distress with mortgage payments to do just that.

Recently, we’ve gone through yet another round of negotiations with our bank, Bank of America, which is the lender for this mortgage, in the hope that some way could be found to refinance the loan and reduce our prohibitive monthly payment on the note. Once again, we’ve been told at the end of that time-consuming process that the house’s precipitous drop in value from our purchase date in March 2006—it is now appraised at some $88,000 less than the purchase price—prevents the bank from assisting us.

We’ve gone through tortured negotiations with the bank that revolve around the fact that, though we’re a couple who have lived together and pooled our resources for nearly 40 years now, we’re not a legally recognized couple. We have no legal existence at all under the law of our state, or under federal law, for that matter.

This lack of any legal recognition of our shared life and shared resources results in ludicrous problems such as the following: because I have no full-time employment, and because my income in the past year has been minuscule, I automatically don’t qualify, on the face of it, for a renegotiated loan. Steve, on the other hand, has a full-time job and a decent salary.

But the house is in my name. In Florida. In a state that, like our home state, has no laws at all recognizing our existence as a couple. And so, when we bought the house, we put the house in my name, rather than attempting to deal with the legal nightmare of trying to negotiate a loan as a non-existent couple—as a couple that doesn’t exist in the state of Florida, in the eyes of the law. We put the house in my name, as well, to protect Steve’s assets in our house in Arkansas, which is in his name—for precisely the same reason: we are not legally recognized as a couple in Arkansas.

And so, the upshot is, I can't claim Steve’s salary and income as my income when I apply for a new loan. Because I have no legal connection to Steve, in the eyes of the bank. Though I live, largely, from his income. Because we are a couple.

This situation—the situation of existing in fact as a married couple, but not being legally recognized as such—does work to our advantage now, ironically. It does so in this respect: if I walk away from the mortgage in Florida, as we have told the bank we may well decide to do now that it has once again refused to renegotiate the mortgage loan, only my credit is affected.

As I stated here when I wrote about our mortgage nightmare back in December, everything in me revolts against the thought of walking away from a financial commitment. I was raised to pay my debts—all my debts. Because I have consistently done so throughout my life, I have a stellar credit rating. It galls me deeply to have been placed in this situation of unemployment and financial helplessness by the president of a United Methodist university who claims to support the rights of gay citizens, but who, after inducing Steve and me to take jobs at the institution she leads, revoked her promises to us because of her homophobia, when the United Methodist bishop who sits on her university’s governing board told us we ought not to have been hired, as a gay couple.

But we’re very seriously considering walking now. As we’ve come to see it, the banks were given money to assist people in our circumstances, and they’ve refused to do so. They’ve benefited themselves—largely so—from the government’s beneficence while refusing to do with the money they’ve received what the government instructed them to do.

And since the government’s not holding the banks’ feet to the fire, many of us caught in impossible mortgage situations with upside-down mortgages are walking. And more of us are going to walk.

And to pull our money out of the huge banks that have treated us like non-persons when we approached them to do what the government told them to do.

And to withdraw our energies from a “progressive” administration that has done nothing at all to assist us in this crisis, except to throw money at the banks who have created and are benefiting from the crisis.

Are people angry that the new administration has done virtually nothing to create new jobs, to help Americans in financial crisis, to hold Wall Street and the banks accountable for their role in creating this crisis? I think so. And a lot of that anger is coming from those who, during the campaign, were the new president’s strongest supporters.

More as this saga unfolds . . . .

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Soul Struggle: Tending One's Own Garden or Speaking Truth to Power?

I’m struggling lately with a spiritual-journey question that seems to recycle itself through my experiences again and again in a karmic way. The best way I know how to formulate this question is as follows: in a world sodden with the effects of sin, is it sometimes better to withdraw, live one’s life with integrity according to one’s best lights? Or is it better to engage?

A huge chunk of my soul has always wanted the first option. But circumstances seem to keep poking me to take the second path—even as I kick against that choice.

The immediate occasion for the renewal of this struggle in my soul is that I recently had the opportunity—or obligation—to write a report about a university at which I worked a few years ago, which is now undergoing reaccreditation. The academic oversight body that accredits the school invites third-party comments prior to its accrediting visits.

I had pretty much decided, some time ago, to wash my hands of the place, after some experiences of brutal injustice with the school. The school’s leader is adroit about using issues of gender and race to triangulate the institution she leads, as well as the public. The triangulation, and her penchant for surrounding herself with corrupt assistants, assures that she remains on top, no matter what comes along to expose her malfeasance.

As she does this, she has the active assistance of some powerful and wealthy white men whose interests she serves as a token African-American female leader. Though she depicts herself as a person of conspicuous integrity and strong faith, she uses behind-the-scenes finagling and high-powered lawyers ruthlessly to destroy her perceived enemies. And she gets away with this, over and over, because of her backers and their access to the media, to legislative and judicial bodies, and to the white male leaders of the church that also keeps this ruthless, ethically compromised academic dictator in power.

As I say, I had decided some time ago to wash my hands of this institution and its leader, and to let God deal with her in God’s time and way. But then, as the window for submitting a third-party comment to the school’s accrediting body began to close, and as a number of people whose discernment I respect encouraged me to write a statement, I did so. I produced an extensive, carefully documented report about the school’s lapses of integrity, violations of academic freedom, and leadership challenges.

And I doubt that this report will make any difference at all to the outcome of the accrediting body’s deliberations. In fact, it may well backfire and cause the accreditors to give the school and its leader higher marks than they would have assigned in the absence of my feedback.

And the report will almost certainly cause me grief, when the school’s dictatorial president threatens me yet again (she has done this repeatedly following my time there) with legal action, if I blow the whistle on her. Hence that tug of my soul to the way of silent peace and integrity, tending my own garden . . . . One can only fight so long without seeing much positive effect from the fighting, before one begins to look longingly at a cloister of some kind.

Interestingly enough, though, as I’ve been mulling these questions over and as I wrote my report, word reached me about the outcome of a report I left at the school at which I worked prior to the one about which I’ve just written the third-party comment. This report took five years to see the light of day. And now that it has come to light, it has confirmed my judgment about a horrible situation at that institution which I asked its president to resolve, and which he refused to resolve, despite my pleas and the documentation I produced for him to demonstrate that he needed to act immediately.

Here’s what happened: in 2004, when the then president of the school left it to take another job, she assigned an employee to me to supervise. Why she did that, I don’t know. I suspect a bit of malice in the choice to give this employee to me to supervise. I wonder how much the outgoing president knew about the employee’s financial records, and about why the outgoing president seems to have turned a blind eye to this employee’s blatant misuse of federal funds. This is an employee who should always have been under my supervision, but who was not placed under me until a change of regimes in the school.

When I began to supervise the employee, I was shocked at what I found in her records. She was the overseer of a well-funded (a federally funded) program to assist first-generation African-American college students, to help them make it in college. Her financial records and reports were a tangle, a mess.

As I began to sift through them as the supervisor of this employee, I began to see some shocking patterns of fiscal impropriety: duplicate receipts for the same expenditure; huge receipts for expenditures that were clearly personal and had nothing to do with the program in question; payments to family members who were somehow connected to the program in a large nepotistic network, and so forth.

I documented all of this carefully, and then began to report first to the school’s interim president and then to its new president. I asked them both to act, to call the employee to accountability. I warned them that because this was a federally funded program, the fiscal impropriety of the employee would probably raise questions at the federal level, one day down the road.

And the two presidents completely ignored my reports. The interim president, in fact, permitted the employee to submit the federal grant proposal for a new cycle of funding without my even seeing the proposal. I knew that the reason for the evasion was to prevent my seeing the employee’s salary, which I had every reason to believe was astronomical, certainly far higher than mine as the school’s chief academic officer.

The next president accepted the judgment of the interim president about the employee, and blocked my attempt to move forward with any disciplinary action. The employee, who was an African-American woman, was permitted to ignore my supervision and to claim that I was harassing her as a white male.

And then I left this school to take another job, leaving behind a final, detailed report documenting the fiscal impropriety and insubordination of the employee in question. I produced this final report to protect myself, when the shit inevitably hit the fan, and the employee’s misuse of federal funds became public knowledge. I wanted it to be clear that I was not guilty of malfeasance as a supervisor, or any complicity in this employee’s misuse of federal funds.

And now I hear that, more than five years down the road, the president has finally realized that everything I reported to him about this employee was the gospel truth. She has been fired. The president has just now discovered that her salary on the books was second only to his in the entire institution—and that is the salary that is on the books. In all likelihood, what she was taking home in under-the-counter payments to herself was much larger.

I don’t know if the outcome of this process of whistle-blowing is encouraging or depressing. The employee got away with another five years of graft and nepotistic pay-offs to family members. Because I sought to do the job assigned to me, I was treated as a bigoted white man pursuing a black woman for racist and sexist reasons. The employee and her family members spread the word far and wide that I had documented her fiscal impropriety because my real motive was to take over their grant program and, as one of her family members put it, take their honey pot and make it my own!

Still, what I reported turned out to be true, when those with the authority to make a difference finally chose to listen. And I suspect something very similar will happen to the report I have just now written about the school at which I worked previously. The accrediting body will ignore my report and will re-accredit the school, which will pass its accreditation with flying colors.

Meanwhile, I’ll hold onto my report until the day comes when it will be needed to document precisely the problems I’m reporting right now, which will one day come to light and cause the school grief and embarrassment. And meanwhile, I may also leak the report to a few well-selected media sources, watchdog groups, and government agencies, so they can begin breathing down the neck of an accrediting body that hardly ever takes decisive action in the case of malfeasance of the sort I’m reporting to it. And nothing prevents my publishing the report in a condensed form on this blog, either.

And, as the brilliant African-American educator Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of Bethune-Cookman University, noted frequently in her writings, even gardens, as idyllic and restful as they appear, take courage and work—especially when they're the kind of which Bethune dreamed, places in which rich and poor folks, black and white ones, Europeans and Africans and Americans, can sit and talk about building a more humane world. The kind of garden about which Dr. Bethune dreamed is certainly not an escape.

The graphic is South African artist Gerard Sokoto's "Man Tending a Garden," Durban Art Gallery.

Friday, January 15, 2010

People of Faith as Signs and Counter-Signs to the Gospel: Schillebeeckx, Pat Robertson, Benedict, Mary Daly

A number of valuable articles have come online in the past day or so, which connect to recent postings on this blog. In what follows, I’d like to share these resources with readers.

First, America has just published an editorial statement commemorating Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, who died in December. As do my reflections at Open Tabernacle (and here) (cross-posted to Bilgrimage), the America editorial emphasizes the notion of sacramentality running through all of Schillebeeckx’s thought, his influence at Vatican II, and the way in which his sacramental view of the church calls the church to be a sign of God’s salvific love in the world, and not a counter sign to this love:

This sacramental view of the world, and of the church’s role within the world, remained at the heart of Father Schillebeeckx’s writing, preaching and teaching for over seven decades. It was also central to the vision of the Second Vatican Council, which he helped to shape as an advisor to Cardinal Bernard Alfrink and the Dutch bishops.

In the decades following the council, Father Schillebeeckx was acutely aware of how difficult it had become for many to believe that God holds open a future full of hope amid a world of radical suffering, especially when the church’s own witness had been compromised. In the face of those real stumbling blocks, Father Schillebeeckx reminded his readers that “God is new each moment” and that in situations of injustice (whether in the world or in the church) the Spirit of God is actively at work, prompting resistance, hope, courage and change.

I posted yesterday about Rev. Pat Robertson’s abominable attempt to blame the people of Haiti for the disaster that has just befallen them. For a smorgasbord of valuable reflections on Robertson’s statement, please see
Religion Dispatch’s round-up of responses to Robertson today. As Arianna Huffington noted yesterday in a discussion with former right-wing evangelical leader Frank Schaeffer, Robertson gives religion a bad name.

Several days ago, I noted that a persistent theme running through Catholic thought about gay people and gay relationships is that gay folks and our relationships are self-centered, narcissistic. My posting demonstrates that this contention has long been part and parcel of the current pope’s approach to gay people and relationships.

And Benedict continues the meme: yesterday, the pope met with young people from the Lazio region of Italy. His address to them focuses on “authentic” sex education, which, in Benedict’s view, recognizes that the church needs to say no to particular behaviors and “lifestyles” (code words for “gay”), because these behaviors and “lifestyles” are all about the narcissism of couples who do not procreate and therefore do not contribute in a generative way to society.

If readers believe I’m reading too much into these comments by Benedict, please do a google news search of the terms “pope” and “Lazio” and read the 385 news articles already linked to google’s search engine for Benedict’s remarks yesterday. If you do so, you’ll see that a persistent subtext running through these articles is the generous rightness of heterosexual relationships and the selfish wrongness of homosexual ones.

Finally, I’ve been touched by the powerful memorial pieces appearing online following the death of theologian Mary Daly. I’ve been collecting a number of these, and may do a synopsis of them down the road.

Meanwhile, I’m particularly taken with Francis X. Clooney’s eulogy for Mary Daly at America yesterday. I’m struck in particular by the following observation:

Mary Daly was by all accounts a radical thinker. I am not a scholar of her work, and cannot summarize it with any precision, but my sense that when she assessed the condition of women in the modern world, in religions, and in the Catholic Church, all taken in light of her own experience trying to make her way as a pioneering woman theologian – with multiple doctorates — in a 1960s Church not quite ready for women theologians, she came to the stark conclusion that there was no simple remedy to the bias, as if small changes would right the wrongs and make women equal to men. Rather, the biases and distortions so harmful to women permeated the entirety of human experience, and traditional religions were infected with pervasive bias, in ideas, language, practices, and social structures. Accordingly, women had to be radical in their critiques, taking apart of the whole structures and not just adjusting details. For this, women were better off outside the religions, Catholicism included, and for a time at least, better off nurturing their own conversations and ways of living, without the presence, help or hindrance of men, even well-meaning men. So Mary Daly was a Catholic intellectual who decided for theological reasons, and by personal imperative, that she could no longer be a Christian.

Nota bene: precisely because the church is called to be a sacramental sign of God’s salvific, all-inclusive love in the world, it also has the potential to be a counter-sign to God’s love, when its own institutional life and behavior obscure everything that it exists to signify.

And Mary Daly’s experience of the church as counter-sign explains why she famously would not allow men in her classes to ask questions. As Clooney notes, he actually witnessed this teaching technique of Mary Daly’s at one of her lectures at Boston College—and when he did so, he cam to see and appreciation her point: “[U]nless we ourselves experience marginalization, the brute force of power imposed on us, we really won’t be able to get what it is like to be a perennially demeaned and oppressed person.”


Thursday, January 14, 2010

When God's Face is Hidden: Reflections on Religion and Public Life in the Wake of the Haitian Calamity

Maybe it’s because we’re in the dark of the moon, when spirits are often depressed. I don’t know.

What I do know is that I find myself mourning today, and at times like that, I hesitate to write much on this blog. I don’t want my low spirits to pull down the spirits of others.

Certainly there’s much to mourn about, as we look at the grim pictures and read the grim stories from Haiti. For a people already so impoverished, so susceptible to hardship caused by both natural and human factors, to undergo this cataclysmic event: it’s hard to understand. And to stomach.

Constantly, in the past two days, the faces of the Haitian students I’ve known and Haitian co-workers with whom I’ve worked scroll across my mind. I wonder about their families—and about them, since I haven’t been in touch with any of these wonderful folks in several years.

My mourning is also pointed, today, in another specifically religious direction (I say “another,” because the appalling, unmerited suffering of millions of desperately poor people raises profound questions about where God is in the world as people suffer). This is one of those periods when the statements and actions of some people of faith have so disgusted me that I find myself wanting distance from faith communities altogether.

I am outraged at Rev. Pat Robertson’s statement that the Haitian people brought this disaster on themselves by making a pact with the devil. What can one say in the face of such ugly misuse of religious and moral norms? And how can this man, with his history of constant ugly misuse of religious belief to attack one vulnerable group after another, continue to have a platform in our society?

What does it say about us, that people promoting such “religious” viewpoints not only have free rein to do so, but have significant influence on our political system—and a richly funded pulpit from which to spew their venom?

I’ve had it, frankly, with the hate. And with the lies. Lies that the decision of five Catholic members of the Supreme Court yesterday to squelch broadcasts of the prop 8 trial is designed to cover over, when it comes to gay people and gay lives.

What does it say about the role of the Catholic church in promoting discrimination and violence against gay people around the world, when these highly placed Catholics, whose judicial decisions affect the lives of millions of citizens, take such a stand against transparency in a significant public debate? And in our courtrooms?

And against free, open exchange of ideas and information in this national public debate? The stand taken by Scalia, Alito, Roberts, Kennedy, and Thomas is yet another indicator of the intent of powerful right-wing interest groups in the American Catholic church (and well-represented in its hierarchy)to circumvent the democratic process and impose the religious and moral viewpoints of a single religious group on the whole nation.

If our moral positions are so reasonable, so obviously compelling, why do we not permit free, unfettered, well-informed debate about them? Why do we persistently do everything possible to work behind the scenes to assure that our positions are imposed on others in a process that does not permit public dialogue?

The New York Times gets it exactly right today, when its editorial on the SCOTUS decision says,

The trial that started on Monday in San Francisco over the constitutionality of California’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage could have been a moment for the entire nation to witness a calm, deliberative debate on a vitally important issue in the era of instant communications. Instead, the United States Supreme Court made it a sad example of the quashing of public discourse by blocking the televising of the nonjury trial.

In this Supreme Court decision, we see the worst face of Catholicism in the U.S., the theocratic, wheeling-and-dealing, ethically compromised and sold-out-to-power face of American Catholicism. The face of a church from which people are fleeing in droves, because it does not show the face of Christ to the world, or to its own members.

More religious bigotry and stupidity are on display, too, in a video clip of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show now making the rounds of the internet. I’m particularly outdone by the statements of the last New Jersey resident interviewed in this clip, who argues without a tad of irony that, as an African-American woman, she values her rights . . . and so she has the right to deny rights to gay citizens of New Jersey! Because she believes those citizens ought not to have rights. And what she believes ought to dictate what the political process does. Because she believes it.

This is the same person whose deliriously happy response to the decision of the New Jersey legislature to turn down same-sex marriage was captured in this video clip, which shows her shouting hallelujah at the top of her lungs after the vote results were announced.

We have a lot of work to do in the U.S. to educate people about religion and politics, and the healthy intersection of the two. There are days, I freely admit, when I wonder if it’s possible to overcome the invincible ignorance that postures as religious belief everywhere in this nation with the soul of a church.

Meanwhile, I take crumbs of hope where I can find them. For me this week, one of those crumbs has come from reading about the courage of Miep Gies, the Dutch woman who died Monday, who took great risks to help hide Anne Frank and her family during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.

As I wrote on this blog repeatedly throughout December, it seems important to me that we keep looking for clear, unambiguous examples of heroic virtue to inspire us, as we work to build a more humane society. At its best, before the canonization process was politicized beyond recognition (and before the saint-making process depended on the ability of those promoting the cause of a saint to pay huge sums of money), this is what the Catholic notion of the communion of the saints was all about.

It was about finding a rich array of models of holiness in a richly diverse religious tradition, to provide role models for the many kinds of people bound together in the communion of the church. In my own life, I’ve long ago decided that my personal canon of the saints can and should include non-Catholics, non-Christians, non-believers.

For a number of years, I created an eccentric personal iconostasis with pictures of the saints to whom I looked for guidance and solace. The iconostasis had pictures of official Catholic holy figures like Our Lady of Guadalupe and Edith Stein.

But it also had pictures of other people who are unlikely ever to be canonized, but whose heroic virtue and compassion have touched my life in a redemptive way: several nuns I’ve had the privilege of knowing, whose lives were poured out in service to those to whom they ministered; a brilliant gay priest who fought to make his religious community more tolerant of its gay members, and who died far too young; my alcoholic brother, who died at the age of 39, and who gave his last dollar, a dollar he was saving to buy more liquor, to a woman begging door to door the night before he died.

Harvey Milk’s picture was on my iconostasis, as was Gandhi’s. So was my great-uncle’s picture, a saintly, humble, sweet old man who lived with his mother up to her death, never married, and earned the undying love of a passel of great-nieces and great-nephews by playing with us as if he were a child himself, on his annual visits from family to family.

I no longer have that iconostasis, but a version of it is still in my heart. Miep Gies’s picture will now adorn it. Pat Robertson’s won’t.

But I’ll pray for him, and if he ever happens to read this blog, I hope he’ll pray for me, too.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

SCOTUS Blocks Broadcast Coverage of Prop 8 Trial

The Haitian Earthquake: Links to Groups Offering Aid

As I know all of you are, I am deeply concerned as I read the news about Haiti.

At the Open Tabernacle site today, there's a news link to a World Council of Churches initiative to offer assistance.

At America blog, Fr. James Martin has posted links to Catholic Relief Services' initiative to assist Haitians, and to the Jesuit Refugee Service program.

Please consider helping in the practical way that works best for you.

My heart is heavy as I see the pictures from this country with so many people who already live near the edge. In my years of teaching in HBCUs, I taught a number of Haitian students who were among the finest human beings I have ever known. At the last HBCU at which I worked, a Haitian security worker exemplified the Christian values of that faith-based campus far more transparently than did any of its administrators. He was one the most compassionate and humane persons I met on the entire campus. All of these people, their families, and the nation of Haiti are in my thoughts and prayers today.

If readers know of other groups offering assistance to the people of Haiti, please post information in the comments section.

Update: Here's a link to a Huffington Post article with extraordinarily helpful information on groups offering aid to Haiti, which will appreciate our support. HuffPo notes it will be constantly updating this page.

Edward Schillebeeckx (1914-2009): An Appreciation, Part 2

In the first part of my appreciation of theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, I noted that Schillebeeckx’s work in the areas of christology and ecclesiology has profoundly influenced the Catholic Church through his role at Vatican II. Schillebeeckx was one of the primary theological advisors of the Dutch bishops at Vatican II, and his work in the area of ecclesiology in particular has now become canonical for the entire church, as it were, through the documents of Vatican II.

In key respects, Schillebeeckx belongs to a movement strong in French, Belgian, and Dutch Catholicism of the early 20th century. This movement was known as a ressourcement movement, a movement seeking to return to the sources—specifically, to the biblical and patristic foundations—of Christian theology.

The ressourcement movement was, in significant ways, a reaction to what happened to the Catholic church in its period of reaction first to the Reformation and then to the rise of modernity. During the period of the Council of Trent, the church’s official response to the Reformation, and at Vatican I, which in many ways charted the church’s strong counter-push to modernity, the Catholic church opted for an ecclesiology that was not so much strongly grounded in either biblical or patristic sources as it was innovative. It was a contextual theology that had everything to do with the church’s reaction to movements it considered threatening, movements demanding a vehement and immediate push-back from the church.

In the Tridentine period, the period of the counter-Reformation, the ecclesiology that prevailed was what is called the “perfect society” model of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine. This ecclesiology laid great stress on the need of the church to function as an institution complete in and of itself, parallel (and superior) to the state, whose structures the church mirrors but which does not have the perfection of the church.

This notion of church stressed the need for top-down, hierarchical, monarchical government in the church, akin to (but more perfect than) that of the state. Indeed, the perfect society model made being church synonymous with monarchy, with absolute control (perfect conrol) of the whole church exercised from the top down through a hierarchical chain of command. The model of church that Trent set into motion placed the church and its structures over against secular models, while at the same time incorporating their key features.

This ecclesiology was then, as I note above, contextual. It was an adaptive ecclesiology, one that reflected the circumstances in which the perfect society ecclesiology was developed. It was a reaction to the Reformation, which seemed to be fragmenting the perfect society of the church, and to the rise of the nation-state, which went hand in hand with the Reformation, and seemed to be competing with the church for power and control.

Bellarmine’s perfect society model prevailed from the Tridentine period of the church through the first Vatican Council and up to Vatican II. Vatican I endorsed the model, adding to it the new twist of papal infallibility. During this period of its history, the Catholic church appeared to be locked into a bitter battle against secular society—against the world. Only in the church, which was a fortress of truth and light in the midst of a surrounding culture of error and darkness, could one find salvation. Only in the Catholic church could one find the perfect society that guarantees salvation.

I’ve labored over this quick theological sketch of the ecclesiological backdrop to Vatican II because it is essential to understand what Vatican II thought it was correcting, when it moved back to the sources, back beyond the 16th-century ecclesiology of Trent and the 19th-century ecclesiology of Vatican I. Many of those who now combat Vatican II argue that this ecumenical council was a radical departure from the tradition, that it rejected the tradition and flung the doors of the church open to a contemporary secularism that represents a wholesale departure from longstanding tradition.

In fact, the opposite is the case. The ecclesiology of Vatican II returns to more ancient, more venerable understandings of the church found in the texts of the New Testament and in patristic theology. It corrects what was in itself an innovation on the tradition—the ecclesiology of Trent-Vatican I—by reminding the church that the perfect society model and the fortress church model that developed in the Counter-Reformation and modern periods are themselves innovative ecclesiologies—new developments in the tradition not conspicuously rooted in scripture and patristic theology.

And so enter Schillebeeckx: as the bishops assembled at Vatican II began to recognize the need to re-emphasize images and theologies of the church that would correct the historically conditioned fortress church ecclesiology of Trent-Vatican I, they turned to the exhaustive theological work done by theologians of the ressourcement movement like Yves Congar (a mentor of Schillebeeckx’s) and Schillebeeckx, which delved into the biblical and patristic roots of Catholic ecclesiology.

Schillebeeckx was particularly brilliant in his ability to re-focus contemporary Catholic theology on the most fundamental meaning of sacramentality, which runs beneath the sacramental system of the church and provides meaning to that system, and which had been obscured by the theology of Trent-Vatican I. During the period of reaction of these two councils, the sacraments came to be viewed almost as “things,” as holy objects owned and dispensed by the rulers of the perfect society to their loyal subjects, insofar as those subjects were faithful and performed proper obeisance.

What this view of the sacramental life significantly overlooks is the way in which the sacraments are manifestations of the primary sacrament—the sacrament of Christ himself. The sacraments signify and effect grace because Christ himself signifies and effects grace in the world, as the primary, central sign of God’s salvific self-offering to the world. The church is sacramental—it is itself a sign of Christ’s sacramental presence in the world—because it is united with Christ. It mirrors Christ’s salvific presence in the world.

Schillebeeck’s pre-Vatican II work on Christ as the sacrament of the encounter with God (particularly in Christ, the Sacrament of the Encounter with God) and on the church as the sacramental sign of Christ helped those gathered at Vatican II to refocus Catholic ecclesiology and sacramental life on biblical and patristic roots that connect the church’s life, its role as a salvific presence in the world, to the primary sacrament from which the church’s sacramental life and salvific work flow—to Christ. At one level, this ecclesiology reorients the church to something that should never be lost sight of in Christian theology and Christian spirituality: to Jesus as the model, the center, of theological reflection and of the spiritual journey.

This is a strand of the theology of Vatican II that Schillebeeckx would deepen significantly in his two post-Vatican II works Jesus: An Experiment in Christology and Christ: The Christian Experience in the Modern World. These provide a rich treasure trove of biblical scholarship that sets Catholic theology back on a strong, vibrant biblical foundation—a project that reflects the particular concerns of Catholic theologians in countries like the Netherlands, where Catholics and Protestants coexist and seek to recognize the important theological contributions made by the traditions of each other. Schillebeeckx’s theology is especially strong in the area of biblical scholarship. In contrast to many Catholic theologians of the latter half of the 20th century (including Benedict XVI, whose biblical scholarship has often been criticized by theological colleagues as notably deficient), Schillebeeckx grounds his theology in painstaking, well-researched exegesis.

Note what this return to the sources—above all, to the central, perduring focus of Christian theology and spirituality on Jesus as the primary sacrament, and on the church’s role as a sacramental presence in the world through its fidelity to Jesus—does, as we begin to look at how the church lives in the world and interacts with the world. In the perfect society and fortress church models, the church’s primary obligation vis-a-vis the world is to combat the world, to correct the world. The church has it all. The world is deficient. The church offers to the world what the world lacks—in particular, dogmatic truth, perfect hierarchical rule, and the sacraments. And the world, if it is wise, will respond humbly and receptively to the offer.

The sacramental notion of the church—the idea that the church mirrors Jesus as the sacramental sign of God’s presence in the world—dislodges the certainties of the perfect society and fortress church models. It does so in two ways. First, if the church is a sacramental sign of God’s salvific presence in the world, it can hardly claim to have exclusive ownership of that salvific presence. To do so would limit God. It would imply that God’s salvific intent and “reach” in the world are limited, that they do not intend and encompass the entire world.

When ecclesiology grants that God wishes and intends the salvation of the entire cosmos through Christ, then the church pursues its sacramental task in the world in part by watching for signs of the Spirit’s presence anywhere those signs are to be found in the world—inside the church, certainly, but also outside its boundaries, since God is there, too, working salvation. The sacramental church of Vatican II (and of scripture and the patristic period) is a more chastened church than that of Trent and Vatican I, which purported to have it all, almost to own God and God’s salvific work in the world, through the sacraments. The church that seeks to be a faithful sign of salvation in the world both offers salvation to the world, and receives that salvation from areas outside the boundaries of the church, as the Spirit moves through the world fanning the flames of divine love everywhere.

The sacramental notion of the church developed so brilliantly by Schillebeeckx also dislodges the certainties of Tridentine and Vatican I ecclesiology in another key way. This notion of the church, focused as it is on Jesus as the initial, the Ur-sacrament, constantly calls the church back to reflection on how, precisely, it signifies the salvific presence of Christ in the world. If the church is a sign, and, specifically, a sign of Christ and of Christ’s salvation, in the world, then everything the church does, how it behaves, how it structures itself, how it regards the rights of its own members as it exercises governance, how its pastors engage in pastoral leadership—all becomes part and parcel of the sacramental sign of salvation of Christ in the world.

Or perhaps the church’s behavior, how its pastors exercise pastoral leadership, how the church deals with the human rights of its own members as it exercises governance, how it treats the least among us, becomes a counter-sign to Christ’s salfivic presence in the world. If the church can reveal Christ’s face to the world, it can also obscure that face. It can fail to be a patent sacramental sign of salvific love in the world.

As a Dominican theologian, a member of a religious community whose charism is all about engaging and dialoguing with those living in urban centers with strong intellectual movements (Dominic began his ministry as cities began to develop in the Middle Ages, many of them with large universities), Schillebeeckx had a strong concern to see the church respond dialogically, creatively, and above all, redemptively, to the cultures in which it found itself. As with Dominicans in general, Schillebeeckx was a preacher, someone concerned to proclaim the good news of Christ in ever-changing cultural contexts.

Schillebeeckx’s vision of Christian faith was inspired by a deep, profound, and broad grasp of who Jesus was in his humanity. In his work, he was able to articulate this vision across the whole spectrum of Catholic theology from Christology and ecclesiology to ecumenism and social justice concerns. Anyone who tries to understand the Catholic tradition following Vatican II cannot do so adequately without paying attention to the monumental contributions of Edward Schillebeeckx to that tradition.

(Crossposted from The Open Tabernacle, 10 Jan. 2010)

Edward Schillebeeckx (1914-2009): An Appreciation, Part 1

Shortly before Christmas, the Catholic church lost one its most eminent 20th-century theologians. Belgian-born Edward Schillebeeckx, OP, a leading theologian of the Second Vatican Council, died on 23 December. Schillebeeckx’s long and distinguished career as a theologian resulted in the publication of numerous studies in the fields of christology and ecclesiology that have already become classics. These include Christ, the Sacrament of the Encounter with God (1959; English translation, 1963); Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (1974; English translation, 1979); Christ: The Christian Experience in the Modern World (1977; English translation, 1980); The Church with a Human Face (1985); and Church: The Human Story of God (1989; English translation, 1990).

As I’ve been thinking of Schillebeeckx’s influence on me—and I do want to write this brief memoir as a personal appreciation of his work—I keep returning to the latter part of the 1960s, when I made a life-altering decision to leave my childhood Southern Baptist church and become Catholic. I’ve shared aspects of that journey on my Bilgrimage blog.

As I’ve noted there, two primary factors motivated my decision (two discernible historical factors, that is, in addition to the grace running hidden underneath the experience). The first was the struggle of my family’s church to come to terms with the Civil Rights movement and the integration process of the 1960s.

We were not merely slow to come to terms with integration. As a white church whose roots ran back to the slave period, when we had separated from Northern Baptists over the question of the morality of slavery, we actively resisted integration.

So when my church finally integrated reluctantly and after a bitter, divisive debate about this step, and when my pastor defended that reluctance to me by saying that churches have to be slow to respond to such movements of dramatic social change, I looked around for churches that provided an alternative (and prophetic) witness re: racial issues. In my small Deep South town, that happened to be the Catholic church, which had long since integrated its black and white parishes without any fanfare.

My decision to become Catholic was also influenced by my reading of John Henry Newman’s Apologia. I’m sure that at the tender (and callow) age of 16, I understood little of Newman. What I did glimpse in his work, however, and what compelled me towards the Catholic church, was an argument about the deep historical roots of the Christian movement and the institutions it spawned. In Newman, I found an alluring narrative about an “idea” of Christianity that necessarily adapts itself to ever-shifting cultural contexts, but which nonetheless remains rooted in an originating event and originating narratives that norm and correct this necessary process of development.

And so my choice to become Catholic and my initial encounter with Schillebeeckx—or, I should say more precisely, with some key themes he was developing in Dutch theology, which were, just at the moment of my conversion, taking center stage in global Catholicism through Vatican II.

I have long since forgotten the title of the catechism my local parish priest used to instruct me in the Catholic faith. It wasn’t a particularly catchy title—perhaps something as pedantic as Our Catholic Faith. I suspect that the book was an updated version of the Baltimore catechism, with pictures galore, many of them in lurid, eye-catching colors designed to appeal to a child’s eye.

I loved the catechism. I memorized it avidly, religiously. At the drop of a hat, I could recite lists of saints, of corporal and spiritual works of mercy, of capital sins. And prayers aplenty: to guardian angels, the Mother of God, prayers in Latin, prayers in English, prayers for morning, midday, and night.

And then along came a curious book my pastor didn’t recommend, but which I ordered through the mail, because it was being featured in publications I had begun to admire, like America and Commonweal. It was an alternative catechism, popularly called the Dutch catechism. It came out in the year in which I was taking instruction in Catholicism.

I hated it. And I didn't understand it. It was the antithesis of the detailed, fetchingly illustrated answer book—answers for everything!—that I had been memorizing. It purported not to deliver the Truth, in easily digested doses, but to introduce its readers to something much more difficult: it claimed to lead those being catechized into a lifelong process of dialogic pursuit of a truth that can never be perfectly formulated (those lists! those prayers in Latin and English!), but which is sought after by believers united in their communal journey towards an eschatological truth transcending any one of us. And transcending (and norming and critiquing) the church itself.

I preferred the Truth. I preferred my lists. I preferred memorizing to thinking. Memorizing was, after all, easier, as was the kind of thinking—narrow, deductive logic towards predetermined “truths”—encouraged by my picture-laden catechism.

The Dutch catechism required thinking. It required hard thought, the kind that engages mind, soul, and even body (since religious ideas have to issue in real-life commitments, if they are true). It required the humility to admit I didn’t and would never own the Truth. It required the humility to link my faith journey to that of others who were on a similar journey. It talked about reading the signs of the times, relating an ancient faith to a contemporary cultural context, using conscience and making discernment. Using conscience and discerning in union with others in the Body of Christ, it goes without saying. But also all on my own, since conscience is the deepest core of oneself, a shrine in which God speaks uniquely to one’s depths.

I didn’t want this. I wanted authority figures to tell me the Truth. I wanted right and wrong, black and white, clear-cut answers. I had, after all, just left a church whose inability to confront a profound cultural crisis with clear-cut answers perturbed me.

It would take many years of study of theology, and life experience, to show me why the church had taken the necessary turn of Vatican II during the period in which I became Catholic, and why Schillebeeckx—whose ideas were everywhere in the Dutch catechism that I hated—was well worth reading. In fact, necessary to read, if I wanted to understand what was happening in the church in the latter decades of the 20th century.

(Crossposted from The Open Tabernacle, 8 Jan. 2010).

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Reader Poll: The Catholic Church and Suffering of Those in Gay Relationships

I’m wondering about something. And I’d like to get reader feedback about this topic.

I recently read Claude J. Summers’ article on Roman Catholicism in GLBTQ’s Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Queer Culture. As its homepage notes, GLBTQ is offering a spotlight right now on articles that compare the response of various Christian churches to gay people and gay issues.

Summers’ article on Catholicism argues that “[h]istorically, the Roman Catholic Church may be the institution most responsible for the suffering of individuals involved in same-sex sexual relationships.”

And I’m wondering if readers agree with that proposition. To gather feedback, I’ve just uploaded a poll about this topic to Bilgrimage. You’ll find it at the top right corner of the homepage.

I invite you to respond to the poll. And to read Summers’ well-researched article and others now spotlighted at the GLBTQ website, to get a feel for the varying ways in which different Christian groups have addressed gay issues histo

Further Pontifications from the Pope about Gays as Threat to World Ecology

I had a teacher in college, a brilliant, multi-lingual Jesuit, who once told my class about a stunning poem he had written. He had awakened in the night with the poem complete in his head, Athena springing full-clad from Zeus’s brow. He wrote the poem down and went back to sleep satisfied that he’d captured a dazzling insight that would surely change the course of history.

Then he got up in the morning. He read what he’d written in the night and found it was total gibberish—a mix of six or seven different languages that didn’t make a whit of sense in any or all of them. The lesson our teacher told us he drew from this experience: be careful about those stunning inspirations that promise to cap every argument, explain everything for everybody, or provide the singular key that unlocks all mystery.

And I’m thinking of this story today as I read that yet again, Pope Benedict has linked same-sex marriage to destruction (and here) of the environment. He did so this morning in an address he gave about the global ecological crisis to world diplomats.

It appears that those of us born gay, who want to want to live in stable, legally recognized public relationships, pose a very serious threat to the world and its ecological structures: we “strike at biological difference”—and the world falls apart, without that difference.

In his address to diplomats, the pope notes,

Creatures differ from one another and can be protected, or endangered, in different ways, as we know from daily experience. One such attack comes from laws or proposals which, in the name of fighting discrimination, strike at the biological basis of the difference between the sexes.

Everything hinges on biology, you see. Though reasonable people have long since given up the argument that women are made biologically weaker than men, and that everything hinges on recognizing this biological fact and on the subordination of the weaker sex to the stronger, when it comes to same-sex marriage, everything still hinges on biology.

The world will fall apart—literally, ecologically—if men marry men or women tie the knot with women.

We’ve long since rejected the spurious biologistic argument that people of color are less advanced on the evolutionary scale than white people are, and so they need the helping hand (aka colonial captivity and enslavement) of the white races to “advance.” But when it comes to sexual morality, the Catholic church is intent on holding a line that its leaders alone see clearly, even when vast numbers of the faithful have long since crossed that line: every sexual act is gravely disordered and intrinsically evil if it is not open to the possibility of procreation.

I thought, maybe, that when Benedict first offered the world this stunning pearl of wisdom—gays are a singular hazard to the environment—at Christmas time 2008, he’d learn something useful from the negative response his wisdom elicited. I thought, sadly, that he might choose his words with more care in the future, be less quick to make a correlation that appears to reasonable observers downright silly, and to many of us, downright noxious.

But I thought wrong. A year later, and we hear the same nonsense all over again. I have to suspect that (with his advisers) His Holiness believes he’s latched onto a brilliant argument here, one that stops all other arguments about homosexuality.

Who can argue with biological imperatives, after all? And who can argue with biological imperatives on which the whole of creation rests? That’s the “logic” this argument wishes to push, and if a whole segment of humanity happens to get in the way as it’s pushed, then too bad: biology must rule, after all.

I suspect those advising Benedict to push this argument are bishops listening to folks like Robert P. George, the grave guru of American Catholic neocons, who believes he has the gays-and-reason argument all wrapped up, with his insistence that the sustenance of the cosmos hinges on recognizing that men are men and women are women. Just as those trying to stop the movement of women’s rights once argued that the world revolves around women’s subordination to men, or as those seeking to halt the progress of civil rights maintained that everything depends on the domination of people of color by white people.

As Geoff Farrow notes in an incisive posting about George today, George’s “reason” selectively focuses on hot-button issues like same-sex marriage, while ignoring the much more pressing moral issues of exploitation of the poor by the rich or the lack of health coverage for million of citizens of the U.S. It is, in fact, a quasi-rational cover for neoconservative economic and political tenets that are exceptionally difficult to rationalize in the Catholic worldview. The obsessive focus on gay lives and gay relationships diverts attention from the strongly critical focus that Catholic social teaching brings to bear on unfettered free-market capitalism which ignores the effects of laissez-faire capitalism on the poor.

What Benedict wishes to keep saying about gay lives and gay relationships puts him in very strange company, indeed—if he’s really as concerned about the environment as he claims to be. If he’s really interested in addressing the ecological challenge, he’d surely be well-advised to turn his obsessive focus away from gay people as a threat, and to those economic forces and interest groups that Robert P. George and his rhetoric about “reason” and “nature” are designed to protect.

Those are the real threats to the world’s ecological balance. Not gay men and lesbian women in loving, generative relationships. This pope’s strange, seemingly personal and fanatical, focus on “objectively disordered” gay people and gay relationships as threats to the environment is as nonsensical as the multilingual gibberish my wise Jesuit professor wrote down one dream-haunted night when he convinced himself he had captured an insight that would alter the course of human history and save humanity from itself.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Prop 8 Trial Begins in California: Resources for News Coverage

I noted last week that those defending California’s prop 8 (which removed the right of marriage from same-sex couples in that state) in the Perry v. Schwarzenegger trial that began today have sought to keep the trial from being televised, though California law permits televised trials. Judge Walker, the federal judge hearing the case, has ruled that it can be live-broadcast through feed at several federal courthouses, and that clips of the trial may be uploaded to YouTube several days after each session.

Today, the Supreme Court granted those defending prop 8 a temporary stay to stop the YouTube uploads. Since the defendants of prop 8 seem intent on limiting coverage of the trial—and public access to their arguments against same-sex marriage—it’s important that those of us who want as much information as possible about the court deliberations have access to up-to-date coverage of the trial.

To that end, I’d like to recommend a number of valuable resources that have come online today. Courage Campaign is doing a live blog of the trial, with constant updates. This is an extremely valuable resource in the absence of the YouTube coverage.

Pam’s House Blend will have exclusive coverage and commentary on an ongoing basis by Shannon Minter, Legal Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. And Lisa Keen’s Keen News Service is covering the deliberations carefully, with important commentary about how various news sources are dealing with this case.

As the reports from day one found on the Courage Campaign site are already indicating, those defending prop 8 are seeking to depict opposition to same-sex marriage as something mandated by the bible and by Christian belief. For people of faith who read the bible differently, this trial will be an important case to follow. It will be interesting to see if the biblical argument, which prevailed over and over in American courts prior before Loving v. Virginia struck down bans against interracial marriage that purported to be based on the bible, will carry the day in Perry v. Schwarzenegger.

More on the Legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr and American Politics

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Cooking to Save the Planet: Enchiladas, Y'all?

Enchiladas, y’all? Because Arkansas is perched on the eastern side of the impossible-to-ignore nation of Texas and shares its south border with the state of Louisiana, it’s not uncommon to encounter interesting Anglo-South fusion versions of both Tex-Mex and Cajun or Creole dishes in my little state. The one I want to share with readers today comes from a period of my mother’s life I think of as the bridge-party phase.

My mother was not by any means what used to be called a club woman. She was too independent-minded and, frankly, too cantankerous to put up with the nonsense people have to put up with when they expect to move unhindered in the circles of society. And my family didn’t have the social cachet, in our little town, to move in those circles.

Even so, she played bridge (a club woman’s sport, in our town) with alacrity, and was, I’m told, a wickedly good bridge player. She had the kind of calculating, mathematical mind to count cards and anticipate other players’ moves with unerring accuracy. And she was a superb bluffer. She routinely won tournaments with that skill set.

The bridge gatherings were about more than card-playing, though. They were about juicy gossip and plenty of it, heavily lacquered bouffant hairdos (the bridge-party phase was in the 1960s), wood-paneled dens wreathed in cigarette smoke. And food. Noshes galore, ranging from those godawful congealed salads of the sixties to casseroles full of unmentionable bits laced with cream of mushroom and cream of tomato soup.

And the bridge parties were about recipes—what to cook tonight recipes, how to please your man recipes. What Mrs. Steinberg does to pastrami, how Mrs. Matoesian stuffs grape leaves, why Mrs. Breaux makes chicken étouffée that has potatoes in it, and then serves it over rice. With bread.

I’m pretty sure that the following recipe for “enchiladas” comes from the bridge-party phase of my mother’s life. Wherever it came from, it has now become a fixture in my family, and is a winter comfort dish, one fairly easy to put together, with hearty flavors and carbs sufficient to tide one through the cold days—not “tied one over” the winter, as I was surprised to see the distinguished New York Times printing in a travel article recently.

Before I launch into the ingredients, a warning: if you’re expecting real Mexican, or even real Tex-Mex, food here, you’ll be sadly disappointed. Possibly even appalled, if you know anything about Mexican or Tex-Mex food. We pronounced this dish “ahnchiladas,” just as we said “prayleens” for pralines. That ought to tell you something.

Here’s how my mother made enchiladas: she started with a pot of chili, full of beef and beans (we don’t share the nation of Texas’s high-falutin’ aversion to beans in chili). When it was simmering, she put together a batch of hot-water cornbread.

Hot-water cornbread, you say? Please don’t tell me you haven’t heard of that indispensable ingredient of almost any Mexican or Tex-Mex dish one can imagine. To make it, you mix a bit of salt with some cornmeal (white—always—for us), pour in boiling water to form a sticky mass of dough, and then pat the cornbread into what we call pones—flat, round circles of dough. Which are then dropped into hot fat and fried until crisp and brown on the outside.

Hot-water cornbread is, of course, distinctly not Mexican, though it’s not unlike the masa dough used to make sopes or gorditas—and the ahnchilada dish I’m describing here is actually not far from sopes, though it’s miles away from enchiladas. The big difference between the masa of sopes and hot-water cornbread is that the masa incorporates lard. Hot-water cornbread is just cornmeal, salt, and boiling water. And never sugar: nevernevernever, if you want authentic Southern cornbread of any sort.

We Anglo Southerners and African-American Southerners eat hot-water cornbread with almost anything—with the abundant dishes of fresh vegetables that grace the summer table, with beans and greens, etc. It’s an easily made cornbread that doesn’t require heating up the oven, and for that reason, is particularly favored for summer dinners.

I say “is favored,” though I suspect that hot-water cornbread is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. In Little Rock today, I find it almost exclusively in some of the venerable local cafeterias that are practically the only restaurants serving local dishes made in local ways anymore—at least in my region.

I also suspect that hot-water cornbread is a trans-Mississippi adaptation of the johnnycakes and hoecakes of colonial Anglo America. I find it much more frequently in Southern cookbooks and on Southern tables west of the Mississippi than to the east. And I suspect there’s an historical reason for this: it has to do with the difference in cornmeal produced by stone-grinding of corn (at one time much more common in the old Southeast) as opposed to grinding corn with metal rollers, the primary method available when the old Southwest was settled. But that’s a subject for another posting.

So. You have your chili. You have your hot-water cornbread fried. What next? Take a head of lettuce and shred a good bit of it into a bowl. Take another bowl and fill it with finely chopped sweet white onion. In another bowl, put a good bit of grated cheese. Any cheese would do, in my mother’s mind. The most common one on our table was what she called rat cheese—a mild cheddar that, she told me, her father had sold in his small-town store in wedges cut from a huge wheel always to be found on a counter of the store. Fill another bowl with salsa.

You now have ahnchiladas. It’s the responsibility of each diner to build his or her enchilada according to his or her taste. If you want the full enchilada, spoon chili onto the hot-water cornbread, top that with some of the grated cheese, pour on some salsa, and top the whole thing with chopped onion and shredded lettuce. And then enjoy.

And so what makes this a recipe to help save the planet? Well, first of all, I have long since adapted it. I almost never use chili as a topping, and when I do, it’s chili made with beans alone and no meat.

Usually—and this is how Steve and I ate these enchiladas last night—I simply cook a pot of pinto beans as the first topping ingredient. I may, if I wish, sometimes season them as they cook with some chopped onion and jalapeño pepper, perhaps some garlic and chili powder and chopped cilantro. I often have a bowl of sliced limes for the seasonings and garnishes, and I also like to have on hand a bowl of cilantro.

In place of the shredded lettuce, I usually make a simple, quick cole slaw of shredded cabbage and carrots, seasoned with salt, pepper, a bit of vinegar, sugar, and olive oil. I like to use a Mexican cheese—especially queso fresco—when I have it, for the topping. And then when everything’s ready, I line the bowls up on the sideboard in the order in which most folks will eat, and invite people to make their enchiladas.

I am under no illusion that I’m serving people real enchiladas when I serve this dish. I know full well that this is an Anglo-South fusion version of a Tex-Mex dish. These are enchiladas, y’all, and nothing like an enchilada either a Texan or a Mexican might recognize.

Still, there’s something to be said for the way in which different parts of the United States have so freely adopted (and adapted) the foodways of other parts of the nation—and of other countries altogether. If nothing else, it illustrates the amazing adaptability of people intent on eating well, on cooking interesting new dishes, on using local foods to their best advantage, on learning about new flavors and ingredients to enhance their own traditional foods. At its best, that innovative, adaptive streak running through many American subcultures has helped us withstand the strong corporate pressures to flatten our diets so that we become ever more malleable to the spurious ingredients and fast-food abominations corporations want to foist off on us as real food.

And because I’d rather have real food than fake any day, I intend to keep on eating my fusion-cuisine enchiladas in lieu of ‘burgers and fries. Even when I do call them ahnchiladas.