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An Interview with Elizabeth McAlister (1971)

In 1971, Commonweal published an interview with Sr. Elizabeth McAlister, co-founder of Jonah House in Baltimore and member of the "Harrisburg Seven" group of anti-war activists and clergy. She was a sister-in-law of the recently deceased Fr. Daniel Berrigan. This interview may now be of interest to those curious about how Berrigan and his companions understood their actions at the time.

Harry J. Cargas: Who are you, who do you see yourself as being, particularly in reference to the Catholic Church?

Sister Elizabeth McAlister: Our effort, and specifically in answer to your question on my effort, has been really to deemphasize personalities. I would only be interested in answering that question from the basis of how the Gospels have formed my life or how I'm trying to allow them to form it or how we must respond to men in the way that Christ wanted us, really commanded us to respond to men.

HC: Which is consistent with your notion of viewing the war in human terms?

EM: That's right, in terms of men. But this is something all of us are obliged to do. At the same time we must seek to live in such a way that life itself be­comes attractive to others, which I think is what the Gospels ask us to do, too. The Christian communities grew because people were amazed that Christians loved one another that they could manifest things like joy and hope at a time when joy and hope seemed to be totally unjustified. And that's our obligation now, too. They could live with a lot of simplicity and put value on the things that arc most valuable which I would say are human relationships, community, friendship which of course can only be preserved in the Lord.

HC: And yet, judging from something else I heard you say, you’re saying the way we live the Gospels is through crisis.

EM: This is something I'm still trying to work out . . . it’s been my experience that a friend in risk draws me into a situation of deeper risk and by my own risk others are drawn into it. But as I said, I didn't understand why that must be until someone pointed out to me the principle behind it. When you begin living this way, you begin to constitute a threat. It's really very strange, but you do. The early Christians constituted a threat to the powers, although they had nothing in terms of guns, position or the things that the world calls power. But there was something about the way they lived and the values that they tried to make live that threatened the existing structure, because the existing structure was based on the use of human beings rather than respect for human beings.

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Imre Kertesz, RIP

The Hungarian writer and Nobel Prize winner, Imre Kertesz has died (Thursday, March 31). His first novel, Fateless, is a strange and moving story of a boy (the boy Kertesz was) sent to a concentration camp in 1944. The boy's survival and Kertesz's were chronicled in two subsequent novels that departed from the usual account of holocaust survivors.

My review of Dossier K, a memoir, as stirring and elusive as his novels, tried to capture the interlarded account of the actual life and imagined life of a writer who expressed the perfect irony of survivng Nazism only to be suppressed by Communism. In a supreme irony, he spent many years in Berlin, where a younger generation of Germans welcomed the accounts of his life and the suppressed lives of the Nazi generation. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize by the Germans while Hungarians long refused to publish his works.

From the Archives: A Review of Raymond Arroyo's Mother Angelica Biography

The death on Easter Sunday of Mother Angelica, founder of Eternal Word Television Network, has received coverage both in the United States and abroad, with obituaries both brief and lengthy, along with remembrances, accounts of her last days, and articles on everything from her legacy as a “female broadcasting titan” to her impact on tourism in Alabama, where EWTN is headquartered.

In 2005, Michael O. Garvey reviewed Raymond Arroyo's biography of Mother Angelica for Commonweal. Some excerpts follow.

The most conspicuous concern of Arroyo’s narrative is what he describes as Mother Angelica’s “public and private war for the future of the Catholic Church.” [His] reconnaissance of the battlefield is as predictable and prepackaged as anything else on big network news: on one side are Our Lord, Mother Angelica, and EWTN. On the other are “recreant bishops and theologians” and the “liberal church in America,” an amorphous conspiracy promoting eucharistic irreverence, gender-inclusive liturgical language, and altar girls. ... What readers make of the story will likely depend on which side they choose to take in this war, or whether they believe such a war is going on to begin with. ...

[Mother Angelica’s] relations with other sisters were, as her relations with so many of her coreligionists are now, tumultuous and overly susceptible to what she describes as “my Italian temper.” … [T]his shrewd woman with a sense of divine mission [had] an eye for the main chance. She had a quick wit, a gregarious manner, and an evangelical bent. Calling herself “a conservative liberal who happens to be charismatic,” she had become a popular speaker on prayer and the spiritual life. ...

The rags-to-riches growth of EWTN composes the background of the rest of the story, while the foreground concerns Mother Angelica’s ongoing battle against the encroachments of (American) ecclesial bureaucrats, her enlistment of more highly ranked (Vatican) bureaucrats, and her jeremiads against the dreaded “liberal church in America.” Nobody in these pages comes off very well. If Mother Angelica occasionally seems little more than a foul-tempered old harridan who confuses the promptings of her ego with the imperatives of the Holy Spirit, her opponents just as often seem little more than disingenuous defenders of their own institutional prestige.

You can read Garvey’s full review here. On Friday, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput will preside over the funeral Mass for Mother Angelica; it will be broadcast live from the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama, on EWTN.

Washing Women's Feet as a Matter of Conscience

There is a bit of a stir online this week over comments made by Cardinal Robert Sarah, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, last month (I know, but the Vatican news cycle is weird that way). He clarified that no pastor is obligated to include women in the foot-washing rite on Holy Thursday, and “that every bishop or priest ‘has to decide in accord with his own conscience, and according to the purpose for which the Lord instituted this feast.’”

Per the revised text, that is clearly correct. There is no requirement that the group include both sexes. I said as much in a blog post when the reform was first announced.

I also wrote, “One big difference I would note between this and the announcement that females are permitted to be altar servers is that this time there is (so far as I know) no hand-wringing letter from the CDW about how confusing it could be to the faithful, about how they will need it to be carefully explained to them if their bishop or pastor should choose to include women.” Even now, in his clarification, Cardinal Sarah is not going out of his way to make any argument in favor of the men-only practice. I would have liked him to also point out that, per the revised text, no pastor is obliged to include any males in his foot-washing rite, but we can’t have everything.

What we’re seeing now—the pushback, or “concerns,” Sarah is responding to—is what always happens when women are granted some new ability to participate fully in the liturgy, on the same footing (so to speak) as men: maneuvering to protect the privileged space that was formerly reserved to men. It’s a broader social phenomenon not restricted to the church: a minority or disadvantaged group is allowed greater representation or participation, and reactionary forces in the majority group move to oppose or limit that extension of privilege. For example:

In 1970, as part of the liturgical reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council, laypeople were given the right to read from the Scriptures (but not the Gospel) at Mass. The document announcing those changes, Liturgicae instaurationes, says, “The conferences of bishops are to give specific directions on the place best suited for women to read the word of God in the liturgical assembly.” Translated, this means: Yes, you can still keep women out of the sanctuary if you like.

When the Congregation for Divine Worship finally affirmed that women and girls could be altar servers, it took care to point out that this did not restrict the prerogative of any priest to refuse to allow them and reserve the role to boys and men alone, at his discretion.

So, when the pope approved a revision to the rites for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper spelling out that the group chosen for washing "may include men and women," I knew the loophole of “may, not must” would be seized on by liturgical conservatives. Yes, the decree explicitly says that now “pastors may choose a group of faithful representing the variety and unity of every part of the People of God.” So the intent is pretty clear. And it would have been strange to mandate the presence of women in the process of undoing an irrelevant gender restriction. And, let’s posit that there may be some communities where an all-male group is representative: a seminary, a monastery, etc. But, by that same token, there are also communities where an all- or largely female group would be representative. Now such a community will not have to scramble for gentlemen to press into service, as was the case at a nursing home where I used to work, where the population was mostly female, the home was run by nuns, and the foot-washing ritual, in conformity with the letter of the law, was sadly sparse.

Let’s also remember that it could well be the case in certain communities known to Cardinal Sarah that a man, even a priest acting in persona Christi, touching a woman in this way would be considered improper. That’s structural sexism, obviously, but like all sexism it has to be undone gradually. In such a culture, if such a culture exists, a mandated change in practice that would overshadow the meaning of the rite itself is perhaps best avoided for now.

But we do not live in such a culture, which is why in this country the “viri selecti” of the Missal has been interpreted as referring to men and women for many years now. Still, if the CDW won’t speak up for the male-privilege dead-enders, there are those who will! Diane Montagna quotes Joseph Fessio, SJ, reminding her that “this is a permission, not a requirement.” And he’s not above sowing doubt as to the legitimacy of this so-called permission. “As canon law now stands,” he says, “duodecim viri (not duodecim homines) is specified.” This is the same Fr. Fessio who said, in 2008, “I have it on authority of a Roman canonist who has been involved that even to this day, technically, female altar servers are not permitted by the Code of Canon Law.” Now, as then, I would be interested to know why the decision of the CDW is not authoritative enough for him.

So: by the letter of the law, a pastor may still restrict his or her foot-washing group to men alone. The question now must be: why would he? In a parish context, where the people he serves are male and female, young and old, etc., why would he ignore the instruction that directs him to wash the feet of a group that represents the community in its diversity? To preserve male privilege is the only answer I can think of. It’s the only answer Fr. Fessio can think of, too, though he doesn’t put it in quite those words. To insist on a now officially marginalized interpretation of the rite as having to do primarily with ordination, or to insist on the sex of the apostles as binding in this one situation, amounts to the same thing. It’s the same reason one might consider erecting a second-class ambo from which the Scriptures will be proclaimed when women's voices are doing the proclaiming, or worry about protecting a priest's right to keep girls away from the altar while calling boys forward.

Fessio and others have pointed out that the foot-washing rite itself is optional. If a priest really can’t stomach the idea of allowing women to participate, and is just self-aware enough to know that excluding them will be difficult for him to defend, he can skip the rite entirely. It would impoverish the liturgies of Holy Week, yes, but would it be more detrimental than a public demonstration of his desire to go on excluding women? For such a priest, as Cardinal Sarah suggests, this Holy Week may well be an opportunity for an examination of conscience.

Mother Church & Her Battered Daughters

Archbishop Baurillo Rodríguez of Toledo, Spain, drew deserved social media scorn from around the world for remarks in his Feast of the Sacred Family homily on December 27, 2015. Addressing the rise in divorce and perceived causes for family division, Rodríguez demonstrated his—and by extension, the church’s—view of the relationship between women and men as a fundamentally hierarchical one. “Most women who are murdered by their husbands,” the archbishop said, “do not accept them, or have not accepted their demands. Frequently, the macho reaction has its origin in a time when the woman asked for a separation.”

Put aside, if you can, the archbishop’s blaming of the victim and exoneration of the murderer. There’s also a big problem with his logic. Domestic violence can’t be adequately solved by “just talking it out” because abuse isn’t just about disagreement between male and female; it’s about power and control. Emphasizing the differences in gender in this context serves to legitimatize male dominance.

The United States Catholic bishops say as much in a relatively unknown document on pastoral responses to domestic violence, "When I Call for Help": “Domestic violence is learned behavior. Men who batter learn to abuse through observation, experience, and reinforcement. They believe that they have a right to use violence; they are also rewarded, that is, their behavior gives them power and control over their partner.” In complete contradiction to Baurillo Rodríguez, the bishops write: “Ultimately, abused women must make their own decisions about staying or leaving,” and “violence and abuse, not divorce, break up a marriage.”

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Washing Feet: Now All the People of God Are Invited

I woke up this morning to the very welcome news that Pope Francis has revised the Holy Thursday rite to include women as well as men in the ritual of the washing of the feet. Or, as the Vatican Radio headline so wonderfully puts it: "Pope changes Holy Thursday decree to include all people of God."

Until now the rubrics for the Mandatum -- the foot-washing ritual, which takes place after the Gospel and homily at Mass on Holy Thursday -- specified that the people whose feet were washed were "men." And that's not the English "men" that sometimes (in a totally not sexist way, as many a mansplainer will tell you) is supposed to mean "men and women"; it's the Latin "men" that means "males." Many bishops, priests, and parishes had been including women anyway, not least, as you are probably well aware, Pope Francis himself. But those who preferred an all-male lineup had the letter of the law on their side. No more: the revised text approved by Francis refers not to the "men" whose feet are washed, but to “those chosen from among the People of God.”

I've seen three basic reactions to this news in my travels online. The first is my own: Hooray! It's about time! The second: Wait, you mean washing women's feet was against the rules before? And the third, well:

Some people are displeased.

I've long argued that if you really believe that the church's refusal to consider ordaining women to the priesthood is a matter of being bound by Tradition, and definitely not just long-entrenched sexism, then you should welcome any opportunity to involve women in the life of the church. An announcement like this, like the inclusion of both females and males as altar servers, should be good news to everyone. But it doesn't always seem to work that way, in part because those most committed to preserving and defending the all-male priesthood are often those least likely to celebrate any elevation of the "people of God." If you see altar servers mainly as priests-in-training and foot-washing mainly as part of Jesus's Last Supper ordination ceremony, then those things should be limited to men, too, to protect the privileges of the priesthood. But the Mandatum isn't only or chiefly about ordination; it's about Jesus's commandment to his disciples -- and thus to all of us -- to love one another as He loved us, and to express that love in humble service. It makes no more sense to exclude women from that rite than it does to exclude them from the Communion line (when Jesus commanded, "Do this in memory of me," did he mean only men?). Pope Francis's letter explains that he changed the rite “so that it might express more fully the meaning of Jesus’ gesture in the Last Supper, His giving of Himself unto the end for the salvation of the world, His limitless charity” ("la sua carità senza confini").

So, yes, it's overdue. And yes, it is a big deal, at least if you're a practicing Catholic who thinks how we celebrate the Eucharist is important.

"But it's still just a suggestion, right?" is another reaction I've seen in a few places. "The priest doesn't HAVE to include women."

One big difference I would note between this and the announcement that females are permitted to be altar servers is that this time there is (so far as I know) no hand-wringing letter from the CDW about how confusing it could be to the faithful, about how they will need it to be carefully explained to them if their bishop or pastor should choose to include women. (Instead, there is this from the pope: " I also recommend that an adequate explanation of the rite itself be provided to those who are chosen." An opportunity for catechesis!) And there is no language carefully preserving the priest's right to go on excluding women if he so chooses. Sure, it's technically still possible, as far as I can tell, for a priest to decide that in the case of his community a group of men alone is most appropriate. He could also now opt for only women, at least as I read the rubrics. But let's remember that the liturgy is the work of the people of God -- to use a phrase Pope Francis is bringing back into vogue -- and not a performance put on by the priest for an audience of laypeople. Your parish priest could decide to ignore Francis's desire that the Holy Thursday Mass more fully express the limitless love of Christ. But why would he? And why, now that the stickler-for-the-rules excuse has been removed, would the people of God put up with it?

Dorothy Day & the Gravediggers vs. Cardinal Spellman

Over at the New York Times's Taking Notes blog, Teresa Tritch has retold a fascinating episode in American Catholic history involving one of the four Americans Pope Francis upheld as examples to follow in his speech to Congress, Dorothy Day.

In the winter of 1949 some 250 gravediggers who were employed by the Archdiocese at Calvary Cemetery went on strike, demanding a forty-hour work week (they'd been working forty-eight hours) and an increase in hourly wages. Cardinal Francis Spellman repeatedly denied their requests and work stopped for months as "strikers picketed at the cemetery gates" and "unburied coffins were placed in temporary graves under tarpaulins."

The archdiocese initially responded by disparaging the union leaders and threatening to fire striking workers. Several weeks into the strike — with nearly 1,200 coffins unburied — it resorted to strike-breaking by bringing in seminarians to bury the dead. The New York Times reported that the cardinal said that the union was communist-dominated and that the strikes were “unjustified and immoral” and an affront to the “innocent dead and their bereaved families.” He said he was “proud” to be a strikebreaker because the duty to bury the dead outweighed laws against strikebreaking.

Enter Dorothy Day, who not only advocated for a raise in the gravediggers' wages but questioned the cardinal's moral judgment.

In a letter on March 4, 1949, [Day] said the strike was about the workers’ “dignity as men, their dignity as workers, and the right to have a union of their own, and a right to talk over their grievances.” She endorsed a wage high enough to help the gravediggers raise their families and meet “high prices and exorbitant rents.” She asked the cardinal to go to the union leaders, “meet their demands, be their servant as Christ was the servant of his disciples, washing their feet.”

Only after the stikers dropped their affiliation with the "communist" union (United Cemetery Workers of the Congress of Industrial Organizations) and joined the American Federation of Labor was the strike settled, with the archdiocese increasing a 3 percent raise in wages to 8 percent, and the gravediggers continuing to work forty-eight hours a week. As Tritch concludes:

An editorial in the Catholic Worker in April 1949 said that from the start, the paper had said “the strike was justified” and, despite the outcome, “we say it still.” It also noted that the strike could have been avoided if the workers had been treated “as human beings and brothers.”

The same could be said of strikers today, including the employees of federal contractors and fast food workers in the Fight for $15, who want decent pay from powerful employers and bargaining power in their dealings with them.

It is right and just for Pope Francis to urge Americans to recognize the greatness of Dorothy Day. By elevating her, he elevates her cause: dignity for working men and working women.

The whole thing is worth a read.

Alice McDermott on Rules that ‘Subvert Compassion and Common Sense’

The New Yorker is currently featuring a new short story from Alice McDermott, “These Short, Dark Days.” The protagonist of the piece, set in Brooklyn in the early 1900s, is a nun named Sister St. Savior who endeavors to effect the burial in a Catholic cemetery of a young husband who has asphyxiated himself. In those days, recall, it was just as one character puts it: If word of suicide gets out, “there’s not a Catholic cemetery that will have him.”

The story exhibits a bit more in the way of traditional narrative drive than I’ve come to expect from McDermott’s short fiction, and it hits on familiar themes in the usual compelling fashion: certainty vs. uncertainty in belief (“There were moments when his faith fell out from under him like a trapdoor,” one character thinks); awareness of sin; the reality of human suffering; the limits of compassion. And, importantly, the limits placed on compassion. It’s this last that McDermott confronts in a fairly explicit way, by noting how the burdens of compassion have typically fallen to women (of the church and not), even as men (of the church and not) seem to have been bent on making its expression more difficult:

In her forty-seven years of living in this city, Sister had collected any number of acquaintances who could help surmount the many rules and regulations—Church rules and city rules and what Sister Miriam called the rules of polite society—that complicated the lives of women: Catholic women in particular, and poor women in general.

But this all takes place more than a century ago, doesn’t it? Yes, but that doesn’t make it history. Lest anyone doubt McDermott’s intent, she makes it clear in an interview that accompanies the story.

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New issue, now live

Our full August 14 issue is now up on the website.

Among the highlights, Cathy Kaveny explains how secular law can teach the church something about mercy for divorced and remarried Catholics that it already knows:

No legal provision is self-interpreting; each law must be understood and applied with reference to the good of the community it purports to serve, and Jesus regularly reminds us that the commands and prohibitions of the Torah must be situated in a broader context.... Catholicism viewed marriage as a symbol of the unbreakable union of Christ with the church—like the union of a bishop with his diocese. But from the beginning of church history, the symbolic value of both sorts of unions had always been balanced against other values.

Read all of 'Mercy for the Remarried' here.

Jo McGowan questions why the debate over same-sex marriage can cause rage:

Religious teaching reinforces that disgust with frequent reminders that gay sexuality is sinful and inherently disordered, subtly making it acceptable to discriminate against LGBT persons and adding to a climate in which outright persecution is also acceptable. There is no such hysteria about other “sins.” Greed, for example, robs the poor of a just wage, legitimizes mindless consumption, and destroys the natural environment. But while we may disapprove of it, we don’t isolate or target all those greedy people.

Read all of 'The More You Know' here.

Also in this issue: Fr. Nonomen's advises on how to do a funeral (step one: keep your glasses off the coffin...); Bethe Dufresne reflects on her experience standing between two confederate flags; Anthony Domestico reviews new, important books from Claudia Rankine and Jeffery Renard Allen about living with racism in the United States; and Jean Hughes Raber reviews Laura Swan's new history of a forgotten women's medieval movement .

See the full table of contents for August 14 here:

Sr. Mary Scullion Writes on the Firing of Margie Winters

dotCommonweal reader Jack Marth and members of the Waldron Mercy Academy parent community have highlighted a column in support of the school’s former religious instruction director Margie Winters, whose dismissal I wrote about last week. One of the co-authors of the piece is Mary Scullion—a member of the Religious Sisters of Mercy and co-founder and executive director of Project H.O.M.E., an organization devoted to ending homelessness in Philadelphia. Scullion is well known both inside and outside the city, having received Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal in 2011 and being named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2009. Joan McCannon—co-founder of Project H.O.M.E., fellow recipient of a Laetare Medal, and parent of a Waldron graduate—also lent her byline, as did philanthropist James J. Maguire, president of the Maguire Foundation. Scullion’s input on the firing comes as a welcome development to the parents I’ve been in touch with, many of whom had been hoping for her to comment.

From the column, which appeared yesterday on Philly.com:

The recent controversy at Waldron Mercy Academy brings to light that we are at a critical moment for the Catholic Church, and for all persons of faith and conscience in this country. It is a moment rife with pain and struggle, but also hope. ...

[W]e believe that the Church’s truest integrity is at risk when it emphasizes orthodoxy and doctrine without meaningful engagement with human and historic realities. We love the Church: We draw deeply from its rich traditions of spirituality, compassion, service, and justice. But we also recognize (and need to take responsibility for) our many historic blind spots—persecution of heretics, oppression of indigenous peoples in the name of “mission,” and second-class status for women.

While it is painful for us to have to publicly dissent, we are convinced that this is a moment when insistence on doctrinal adherence is clashing with what we believe the Spirit is unfolding in our history—just as it has in the past, with issues like slavery, the rights of women, and the environment. Many Christian denominations have listened to the movement of the Spirit and moved toward both full inclusion and full embrace of the gifts of our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers.

The Church is at its best when it listens to the Spirit speaking in our times and through human experiences. As we listen, we hear the Spirit speaking through the testimony of hundreds of parents and former students, who affirm that Margie has been a marvelous teacher and influence. She has been a gift to the Church, nurturing the faith and morals of countless young people, fostering a spirit of mercy, compassion, and justice.We believe the controversy surrounding Margie Winters is the Spirit inviting us to reflect on Church doctrine that upholds the dignity of every person. ...

As we work through the pain and conflict, as we listen to each other, as we struggle to make sense of the power of tradition and the challenge of newness, we believe this can be a moment of hope and grace.

Fighting a Firing in Philadelphia

The first tuition payment for the 2015-2016 school year at Waldron Mercy Academy in Philadelphia is due Wednesday. How many families will choose to meet this deadline, however, is unclear. A number in this tight-knit community of parents plan to withhold payment to protest the recent firing of long-time religious education director Margie Winters.

Winters’s dismissal shares some similarities with the firings of staff and teachers from Catholic schools around the country in recent years: personal details (in this case, a same-sex marriage) come to light; a disapproving parent lodges a complaint; a beloved figure is relieved of duties; students and parents rally in support. While such movements may lose steam in the face of long odds against reinstatement, the parent community of Waldron thinks it can keep the pressure up through the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia so that it will still be an issue when Pope Francis visits in September. And an open letter to Francis from Winters’s wife, Andrea Vettori, that is now being shared across social media and news outlets is providing further energy. “Waldron is a community that acts when there is a crisis,” said Diana Moro, who is in charge of the Facebook page StandWithMargie, which has garnered more than 10,000 likes in just over a week.

How realistic are their hopes?

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Carbon Fasting

In my last post, I remarked that the archdiocese of Bombay had started the practice of carbon fasting for its Lenten practice of 2014 and repeated it in 2015.  I received in a variety of ways many positive responses to the blog.  While I know we are a long way from Lent, still in the wake of Laudato Si,’ we are being asked to change our ways immediately and carbon fasting seems like an exercise that can get us started.

In 2014, the Bombay archdiocese posted on their website a booklet, entitled “40 earth-saving ways to fast this lent.”  It is a simple set of reminders to reduce one’s carbon foot-print each year.   The archdiocese also made an app available that would text daily very specific practices to follow. 

Carbon fasting brings us into the world of an asceticism that’s mindful of our place in our environment.  This mindfulness helps to develop, I think, a new humility.  Prompted by the Magnificat, I have long defined humility as knowing one’s place in God’s world.  Carbon fasting helps us then to develop a 21st century humility, making us more mindful of our place in God’s creation.

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The CDF vs. the LCWR: postgame analysis

Now that hostilities have ceased between the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, it is hard to resist the temptation to declare a winner. Certainly, the conclusion of the whole unfortunate episode, with this week’s release of a brief and anodyne “joint final report” and follow-up meeting between LCWR leadership and the pope, has been as positive an ending, from the sisters’ perspective, as anyone could have hoped for. Some credibility was salvaged for the CDF, as (and, I would argue, because) the sisters held their ground on their commitment to collaborative leadership and mutually respectful dialogue. But nobody really won—no one could have won a conflict that never should have happened this way to begin with, one that exposed real fault lines in the church relating to sex and power and the relationship between the two and ended without directly addressing, much less repairing them.

The first thing that strikes me about the “final report” released last week is that it is a “Joint Final Report.” The whole thing started with the CDF attempting to bring the allegedly out-of-line nuns to heel with an exercise of authority whose origins were muddled and unexplained. It was hard to imagine back when Cardinal Levada was charging the LCWR – a stand-in, it seemed, for various individuals and communities among its member organizations, who went mostly unnamed in the CDF’s complaints – with being soft on doctrine and derelict in supporting bishops’ initiatives and priorities that the whole episode would end with anything other than another authoritative “assessment” from the Vatican. One could only hope the CDF’s conclusion would be a little more informed about what the LCWR actually is and does and a little less hostile to the work sisters do and the faith that informs the choices they make. But enter Pope Francis – and Cardinal Gerhard Müller as the new head of the CDF, and Archbishop Peter Sartain to take charge of the CDF’s reform mandate – and, praise the Lord, we find ourselves ending with a collaborative statement signed by both bishops and nuns, as though they had been pleasantly investigating each other all along.

The statement, it seems clear to me, is designed to allow both sides to save face. It describes various measures being undertaken by the LCWR, but few radical changes – the revision of the LCWR’s statues was already underway before the investigation began, and the promises that speakers and publications will be responsibly vetted seem to address the CDF’s broad concerns while not necessarily requiring any departure from the LCWR’s current procedures. The most embarrassing parts of the CDF’s assessment, meanwhile, are ignored. There is no response to the expression of concern that “feminism” might be taking root among women religious. There is no reference to the accusation that the sisters have been “silent on the right to life” or have not spent enough time and effort on supporting their bishops’ priorities. And the whole thing concludes with a kind of mission statement that reads more like a commendation than an admission of fault or a concession of defeat:

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Vatican ends LCWR oversight: No ‘oops’ in Latin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s one of the responses to the unexpected news today that the Vatican has ended its three-year oversight of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Quoted in an AP story, Christopher Bellitto, a church historian at Kean University in New Jersey, “called the announcement a complete vindication of the sisters' group and American nuns in general. ‘Anything coming out of the Vatican this morning is nothing other than a fig leaf because they can't say “oops” in Latin.’

David Gibson at RNS calls the end of the “controversial investigation of American nuns” a “face-saving compromise that allows Pope Francis to close the book on one of the more troubled episodes that he inherited from his predecessor, Benedict XVI.”

Josh McElwee at NCR characterized the announcement as a “curt and unexpected end” and quoted from LCWR president Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sharon Holland’s statement “that the oversight process brought the sisters and the Vatican to ‘deeper understandings of one another's experiences, roles, responsibilities, and hopes for the Church and the people it serves. … We learned that what we hold in common is much greater than any of our differences.’” And from Cardinal Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Vatican doctrinal congregation: “[H]is congregation is ‘confident that LCWR has made clear its mission to support its member Institutes by fostering a vision of religious life that is centered on the Person of Jesus Christ and is rooted in the Tradition of the Church.’” 

Fr. James Martin in a Facebook post: “The LCWR agreed to implement some changes, mainly regarding speakers and liturgies at its annual conventions. But overall, the operations of the LCWR remains intact ….  In the end there is one thing to say to the Catholic women who have worked so hard in the Lord's vineyard: Thank you, sisters.”

Twitter roundup:

 

Cardinal Burke's vision of a manly church, and what it leaves out

When it comes to policing grammar and usage, as any editor must, there are shifts in what is considered acceptable that it is fruitless to fight against. Ending a sentence with a preposition, splitting infinitives, using "decimate" to mean "destroy almost completely"—there's no compelling reason to resist any of those things, aside from pedantry for its own sake. But I will always hold the line on the misuse of "beg the question" to mean "raise the question." I don't care if it gets past the copy-editors at the New Yorker; it must not win the day. And the reason I resist is that "begging the question" is an important concept, and when we want to talk about it, we ought to have a phrase that clearly points it out. I was glad to be able to call on it in the final paragraph of my most recent Commonweal column, where I wrote this: "Who knows: maybe my kids will grow up to be the ones who can explain the all-male priesthood to me in a way that makes sense—who can offer a theological justification that doesn’t sound like begging the question."

Now, in his recent eyebrow-raising interview with (yes) the New Emangelization, Cardinal Raymond Burke has given us all a perfect and dismayingly high-profile example of what I'm talking about. He says:

I think that [the introduction of female altar servers] has contributed to a loss of priestly vocations. It requires a certain manly discipline to serve as an altar boy in service at the side of [a] priest, and most priests have their first deep experiences of the liturgy as altar boys. If we are not training young men as altar boys, giving them an experience of serving God in the liturgy, we should not be surprised that vocations have fallen dramatically.

What is it about serving as an altar boy that is "manly"? Well, the fact that it is similar to what a priest does, and what a priest does is manly by virtue of the fact that only a man can be a priest. "It requires a certain manly discipline," Burke says, but then later he concedes that "girls were also very good at altar service" once they were allowed to try it. So maybe it doesn't require any distinctly manly aptitude after all. As we have seen, this is a familiar part of traditionalists' argument for restricting the role of altar server to boys: the notion that they won't be interested in doing it if it's not something only boys can do. Thus my impression that most common defenses of the all-male priesthood, and the choices we make to maintain it, are begging the question: Unless you take for granted that the priesthood is properly and necessarily reserved to men, a role only a man can fulfill, none of this stuff meant to support that idea—e.g., claims about altar servers needing to be "manly"—makes any sense.

It should be clear from my column that my cultural assumptions are basically the opposite of Burke's: he thinks young boys need to be raised with a strong sense that the roles open to them are open only to them because of their incipient manliness; I think it is bad to impose arbitrary gender-role boundaries on children before they've had any chance to develop a sense of self based on their individual gifts and inclinations. Burke, or his fellow traditionalists, would reply that the boundaries they value are not arbitrary. But if so, why do they require such effortful reinforcement? Burke points to the pernicious influence of "radical feminism," but he seems to mean just "feminism." I don't deny that there's any significance to gender or sex in personal development. But I have faith that the non-arbitrary boundaries that will guide my sons into their future lives as men will assert themselves without much help from me. It's the assumptions they will make about where women fit into the picture that I'm worried about.

In short, I don't want them to look at the world the way Cardinal Burke seems to, as though women were not worthy of much consideration at all. Oh, when he mentions women he knows enough to say positive things. "Women are wonderful, of course," he says, and later: "It is easier to engage women because our sisters tend to be very generous and talented." But he doesn't mention us much. And what he says about men—who are, after all, the subject of this interview—is most notable, to my mind, for the way it leaves women out of the picture altogether.

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Choosing sides

Ercan Baysal 'Freedom for Jouranlists'

Earlier this month I participated in an all-day symposium on the Catholic press at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York, otherwise known as Dunwoodie. Our topic was “In Service of the Word: The Catholic Media in the New Evangelization.” I was one of the featured panelists, along with the editors of America, First Things, the National Catholic Register, and U.S. Catholic. Matt Malone, America’s editor, organized the event in collaboration with the seminary. Happily, he also brought James Martin, SJ, along to moderate an afternoon discussion among the panelists.

Dunwoodie is not the easiest place to get to, so the audience was sparse, but Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari, the rector of the seminary, was an exceedingly gracious host. In the morning session, all the panelists were asked to explain how they understand the mission of their magazine, and what their estimation was of the challenges and opportunities facing the Catholic press today. For example, America sees itself explicitly as a ministry, while Commonweal does not. R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, was unapologetic about his magazine’s “combative” approach to issues and “conservative” philosophy. Meinrad Scherer-Emunds emphasized that U.S. Catholic, a ministry of the Claretians, is written for “ordinary” Catholics, not academics. Five-dollar words are ruthlessly expunged from its pages. National Catholic Register editor Jeanette Demelo spoke of the tension she has to navigate between the bishops’ views on immigration and the reactions of her very conservative readers. Not surprisingly, all the editors agreed that it is a good thing that a wide a spectrum of views is available in the Catholic press.

As we were sitting down for lunch, a woman from the audience came up to me to offer some friendly advice. As best I can remember, she said something along the following lines: “At some point, you know, you really have to pick a side. Otherwise it just gets boring.” I took this as a critique of Commonweal’s tendency to present a variety of views in our pages and where possible to seek compromise solutions to problems. Sometimes we criticize the church and defend certain aspects of the secular culture; other times we criticize the secular culture while defending the church. In my opening remarks, I quoted from a statement written by Commonweal’s editors in the early 1950s. In it the editors explained why the magazine tried to avoid overt preaching or any pretension to “priestly” authority. “We have been asked from time to time to spell out Commonweal’s political philosophy,” they wrote. “It is not an easy thing to do, because the magazine does not commit itself to any ism, party-line, or partisan loyalty…. If it can be said that Commonweal operates according to any political dogma, it is the right to take a fresh look at things periodically, to make all judgments tentative, and to consider the total political situation.”

So, I’m sure it didn’t surprise the woman when I replied to her remark by saying, “But what if you can’t decide which side you’re on?”

The conversation ended rather abruptly there.

I suspect my interlocutor took my reply as an example of precisely what she was complaining about. I understand her impatience, but on any number of contested issues I honestly don’t know what the right answer is. On whether the United States should torture prisoners, I know. On whether same-sex marriage will further undermine the marriage culture and the important connection between sex, procreation, and family life, I’m just not sure. On whether divorced and remarried Catholics should be readmitted to the sacraments in certain circumstances, I think I know the answer, but I want to hear more arguments for why that might be a mistake. I feel the same way about the possible consequences ordaining women might have for church unity as well as on the gender symbolism that pervades Catholicism. (I'm only speaking for myself here. The magazine's positions on such questions are arrived at collaboratively.) On a host of questions, I believe Catholics have a lot more thinking and questioning to do. I don’t want these debates to be shut down prematurely from either side, and I suspect the answers we finally arrive at in a decade or two or three from now will be a little different from the alternatives now on offer. Yes, eventually one must pick a side, but deciding a question too early can be as much of an error as deciding it wrongly. I think Cardinal Newman said something like that somewhere, didn’t he?

Not everyone was happy with the Vatican's thank-you note to U.S. sisters

The final report (.pdf here) on the "apostolic visitation" of U.S. sisters, after effusively praising them for their work and witness over the course of seven pages, concludes on a high note, fit for the Advent season:

Our times need the credible and attractive witness of consecrated religious who demonstrate the redemptive and transformative power of the Gospel. Convinced of the sublime dignity and beauty of consecrated life, may we all pray for and support our women religious and actively promote vocations to the religious life.

Indeed, the entire Church sings the Magnificat to celebrate the great things that God does for women religious and for his people through them.

Hear hear. But not everyone is joining the chorus. The mood at the National Catholic Register, for example, is rather somber. Ann Carey, who has dedicated herself for years to exposing the distasteful excesses of American nuns, is clearly disappointed that the visitation process did not result in the public scolding she feels is warranted. Still, the report is not just a "love letter," she points out in her "news analysis" for the Register: "A careful reading of the report reveals that, while some issues were ignored, there was an effort to point out that certain areas of religious life among U.S. sisters do need improvement."

The allusions in the report to areas that might need improvement are not that hard to suss out; determining that "some issues were ignored" on the basis of what's in that report requires more of an effort. Carey has her own ideas about what issues should have been addressed more forcefully:

For example, in discussing the lack of religious vocations, the report noted that vocation personnel find that candidates often prefer to live in community and wear religious garb. The report notes this is a “challenge” to orders that do not have that lifestyle, but it gives no counsel to orders to stop blurring the lines between religious life and secular life, something many orders of women religious freely admit they are doing.

They admit they're not wearing habits! We've got them dead to rights! Come on, CICLSAL, this was a gimme.

The report advises that private, individual reports will be sent to all the orders that were visited and those where problems were found. If directives are given by the congregation for religious for specific reforms in an order, that likely will not be known unless the order releases that information.

I did not mention that in my own response to the visitation report, and I probably should have, because it is important. This is from the report's introduction:

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The Vatican's Thank-You Note to U.S. Sisters

To read the "Final Report on the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States of America," which was released this morning by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (or CICLSAL), you would think the aim of the whole project was to produce the world's wordiest (and most expensive) thank-you note.

CICLSAL is "sincerely grateful for the presence of women religious in the United States," and for the work that they have done "courageously" and "selflessly" for so many generations. That's on page 1 (click here and scroll down for links to the PDF of the report, and of the remarks at this morning's press conference). "The Dicastery expresses its gratitude to women religious" -- page 5. On p. 7, "this Congregation expresses its gratitude to the sisters who minister within their own communities for the precious service rendered to their institute and to the Church." And "once again," on p. 8, CICLSAL "wishes to express the profound gratitude of the Apostolic See and the Church in the United States for the dedicated and selfless service of women religious in all the essential areas of the life of the church and society."

Way back in 2008, when the visitation was first announced, it did not seem likely to end in a lengthy note of grateful recognition. That was partly because the news came alongside that of the CDF's doctrinal investigation of the LCWR, and partly because of the visitation's opaque origins and stated aims: "to look into the quality of life of religious women in the United States," in light of then-CICLSAL head Cardinal Franc Rodé's concerns about "a certain secularist mentality that has spread among these religious families, perhaps even a certain 'feminist' spirit."

It didn't take a cynical mind to feel pessimistic about a project aimed at exposing feminism among women's religious congregations. The whole point of that "Thank You, Sisters" campaign you may recall -- an outpouring of affection and support, in various media, from Catholic laypeople and priests -- was to counteract what looked like an uncalled-for attack on the lives of faithful U.S. sisters.

But that was years ago. CICLSAL has new leadership. We have a new pope, one who has troubled himself to say unambiguously positive things about women's contributions to the church (and the inadequacy of current provisions for same). The Year of Consecrated Life, the Vatican's tribute to vowed religious, has just begun. And the visitation itself -- which took three years and God knows how much money to complete -- was generally left to sisters themselves to conduct. The result, as Jim Martin has pointed out at America, is "a positive, sometimes adulatory" document that says nothing at all about feminism or any other supposed heresies, and communicates the challenges facing women's apostolic congregations in terms that the sisters themselves would recognize and affirm. That's a relief. It will go a long way toward repairing the strained relationship between the church's male hierarchy and its women religious -- though the ongoing LCWR investigation is obviously still a problem. As Sister X put it in Commonweal in 2009, "Any pastoral invitation to dialogue in the current visitation has largely been compromised by Cardinal Levada’s simultaneous investigation of the LCWR’s doctrinal orthodoxy."

But if the report is a relief and an affirmation, it also represents a huge waste of time, and of money.

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Four churchwomen and their killers, nearly thirty-five years later

Today the New York Times is featuring on its homepage a video “retro report” on the murder of American churchwomen Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan in El Salvador in December 1980. The report is titled “A Search for Justice,” and the tagline reads: “Nearly 35 years later, the case continues to take surprising turns.”

The video is just over thirteen minutes long and is variously disturbing, heartbreaking, and enraging, with footage of the discovery of the women’s bodies; of family, colleagues, and officials speaking of the women and of efforts to identify the murderers; and of Ronald Reagan’s U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick (“the nuns were not just nuns but activists”) and Secretary of State Alexander Haig (“perhaps they ran a roadblock”) suggesting that the women were culpable in their own rapes and executions. The report also reminds us of the involvement of two U.S. administrations in supporting the right-wing military government at whose hands the women were killed; of the reluctance of the Reagan administration to pursue an investigation; and of the fact that the two generals ultimately identified as having issued the orders had since “retired” and were living legally in Florida (one having received the Legion of Merit award from Reagan). There’s also a clip, in the early part of the video, of Maura Clarke’s 1980 interview in the U.S., just prior to her return to El Salvador, and for all of the report’s painful reminders and revelations, it’s her simple statement that also should be noted: “In my work, it has been very much trying to help people realize their own dignity, to realize the great beauty that they have.” You can watch the video here.

Biggest literary influence on The Boss? Flannery O'Connor.

When we talk about the American "Catholic Imagination" in literature and the arts, the work of Flannery O'Connor is a sine qua non. Teaching on this subject, I often surprise people by juxtaposing her fiction writing not with Graham Greene or another great Catholic novelist, but rather with the songwriting of Bruce Springsteen.

Considering The Boss's oeuvre in this light is neither flight of fancy nor mere excuse to play music in class. The topic has been covered in the pages of Commonweal, the man effusively praised on the blog, and his stature confirmed back in 1998 by none less than Andrew Greeley, the scholar perhaps most associated with the analysis of the Catholic imagination.

Now it's true that Springsteen has cited Flannery O'Connor before, but I have not seen a quote as exquisite and evocative as this, from an interview in this weekend's New York Times. The reporter asks:

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?

And then Springsteen, who had earlier in the interview already cited O'Connor as the first author to influence his career as a songwriter, offers this assessment of his top literary influence:

One would be difficult, but the short stories of Flannery O’Connor landed hard on me. You could feel within them the unknowability of God, the intangible mysteries of life that confounded her characters, and which I find by my side every day. They contained the dark Gothicness of my childhood and yet made me feel fortunate to sit at the center of this swirling black puzzle, stars reeling overhead, the earth barely beneath us.

Perhaps he has the final scenes of the short story "Revelation" in mind, but really the quote encapsulates so much of what haunts O'Connor's world -- and thereby the American Catholic imagination writ large.

It is the mystery that does not confuse but halts through wonder; the experience of all life as both suffering and glory; the stubborn refusal to separate nature and grace.