Essays on Religion, Faith and Sprituality by Michele Madigan Somerville

Friday, January 16, 2015

On Pope Francis

I've been following Pope Francis I since the announcement of his elevation. Read my posts here or via excerpts/reposts on Huffington Post.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Raving Sanctity of the Body Rumaker’s Incendiary Muse and the ACT UP 80’s

This essay first appeared as the introduction to (the 2014 ed.)
of Michael Rumaker's novel To Kill a Cardinal 

“The people who know God well—mystics, hermits,
prayerful people, those who risk everything to find
God—always meet a lover, not a dictator.”
 Fr. Richard Rohr

Reading Michael Rumaker’s barely-veiled description
of the 5,000 strong ACT UP protest that took place
in New York City’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in 1989 sent
me hurrying to reread the four canonical accounts of
the “cleansing of the temple,” each featuring Jesus in
tantrum mode.

...Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out
the people buying and selling animals for sacrifices. He
knocked over the tables of the money changers and the
chairs of those selling doves...
 ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for all
nations,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves.
(Mark 11:15-17)

In Mark 11, Jesus rages against a vendor selling
doves. Besides being suggestive (obviously) of peace
in both secular and religious senses, the dove was, to a
Jew living 2000 years ago, a poor man’s sacrifice. A man
without the means to afford to sacrifice a calf or lamb
bore a bird to the altar.

The fury of delicate, frantic airborne creatures loosed
and fluttering in a dim sanctuary seems an apt image
for what happened at the noon mass on December 10,
1989 in the cathedral. The caged beasts flew out of their
cages, and up, causing a commotion.

HIV/AIDS was a death sentence in 1989. How
did the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy respond to
its own marginalized and infirm? With bigotry, selfloathing,
spin, and staged compassion. Those who most
required protection from the spread of AIDS (those
church leadership dubbed “the disordered”) were, in a
sense martyred. The bishops responded to a call for love
with bitterness.

Poet Michael Rumaker, author of To Kill a Cardinal
remembers, and his indignant, impassioned, fanciful,
reportorial Roman à clef on the subject of the 1989 ACT
UP demonstration, offers us a lyrical, satirical and edgy
account of what happened when its targets responded
to the lethal campaign bankrolled by New York’s Roman
Catholic Archdiocese and mounted in Christ’s name.
My paychecks came from the Archdiocese of New
York in the early 1980’s. I was a Catholic school teacher
in 1985 when men I knew were beginning to succumb
to the illness. I knew many priests during that time,
and I knew many were gay and sexually active. By
conservative estimates, half the Roman Catholic priests
in New York were gay during the 1980’s—more likely
the percentage was much higher. Today, many New York
priests are living with AIDS/HIV, and many have died of
the disease. It’s a secret the church hierarchy has worked
hard to keep. The archdiocese came down hard on the
“disordered.” It was a pre-emptive strike; the goal was to
silence and condemn.

In To Kill a Cardinal, a Jewish closeted mayor served
as the pompadour cardinal’s queer-bashing wingman.
This character, based on New York’s Mayor Ed Koch,
whom many suspected was gay, stepped aside as the
Archdiocese of New York mounted a mighty advertising
campaign to dissuade AIDS activists from distributing
clean needles and condoms to those most in need of
them. New York’s John Cardinal O’Connor may or
may not have emptied the bedpans of people suffering
through the final ravages of AIDS—Rumaker appears to
think not.

Conservative Catholics have been whining for 25
years about that terrible day when the “disordered”
threw condoms and a consecrated host on the cathedral
floor. Their indignation is such that one almost imagines
they view the tossing of a consecrated wafer to the
floor as a greater evil than AIDS itself. But ever since
reading about that demonstration in the local papers
on December 10, 1989, I have always seen “Christ the
Victor,” in that putative “desecration.”
If we learn anything from the Christ who overturns
tables and snaps a whip of cords in response to the
desecration of his temple, we learn that to desecrate a
desecration may be a form of sanctification.

The commotion of doves supplants the slaughter.
In Roman Catholic iconography, the Holy Spirit is
represented by both the dove and by the fire. Rumaker,
no longer a young man, has had these pictures in his
head—of fire and the dove—since he was ten years
old. Fire and the dove recall the Upper Room of the
Pentecost, and the birth of the Christian church. The
church came into being in a simple, borrowed room as
the first priests, fearing persecution, shuddered. Gay
Roman Catholic men had found an upper room in which
to worship in New York’s West Village some 17 years
earlier, Dignity. Through Dignity gay Catholics could
practice their faith without being degraded by church
leadership. Community centers too where gay men and
lesbians could assemble, also served as “upper rooms”
for the “disordered.” As the AIDS crisis took hold, the
real-life cardinal, John O’Connor, on whom Rumaker’s
fictional “pompadour” cardinal is based, ramped up the

Rumaker comes to the writing of To Kill a Cardinal
with intimate knowledge of behind the scenes Roman
Catholicism. In the novel, his would-be assassin has
inside help. Rumaker has been inside, and captures
perfectly the cardinal’s jittery mood on the day of the
protest. For all its biting humor, To Kill a Cardinal is a
novel written by a man who once expected something
of the church that broke the hearts of so many.
I remember John Cardinal O’Connor’s tenure all
too well. A soundbite slinger extraordinaire, he availed
himself of the best Madison Avenue spin money can
buy. He had his own television show, upgraded the
cathedral’s broadcast capability, and bought costly
subway advertising which enabled him to extend his
homophobic message beyond his flock to all New
Yorkers. He popularized the use of the term “disordered”
while systematically impeding efforts (clean needle
and condom distribution) to reduce the spread of the

Perhaps the pompadour cardinal believed as his
Puerto Rican colleague in the College of Cardinals did:
 “It is better to die of AIDS than that they use condoms.”
New York’s cardinal directed personnel in Catholic
hospitals, schools and social agencies to refrain from
distributing clean needles and condoms. He targeted
the group Dignity, whose great crime was wanting to
celebrate mass without being reviled. In short, O’Connor
declared war on LGBT New Yorkers while creating
a sympathetic image. If such orchestrated enmity in
Christ’s name is not desecration of the temple, I don’t
know what is.

Rumaker’s protagonist hatches a plan for fighting

His murder plot is twisted, maniacal, funny and
holy. Ironically, Rumaker’s poet/would-be assassin
conspires within a well-established Roman Catholic
tradition. Catholic crusaders have a long, dark history
of torching and murdering infidels. The specter of T.S.
Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral hangs over the whole
novel, as we read. Throwing rubbers on the church floor
may be rude, but Roman Catholicism has a rich history
of putting those who betray the Christ to death, and
Rumaker’s gunman seeks to end the life of a bad prelate
who turned Rumaker’s church into a den of thieves.
What did the thieves steal?

“The cardinal is the murderer in the cathedral!”
One of the great lessons of the “cleansing of the
temple” narrative relates to replacement of the physical
temple with a more metaphysical (yet still physical)
one. John’s version of the “cleansing of the temple” has
Jesus threatening to destroy the temple and to restore it
in three days.  But he was speaking about the temple of his body.
(John 2:21) 

The true temple is incorruptible because under the
new covenant the mystical body of Christ IS the new
temple. The cathedral is a bricks and mortar semblance
of the veneration of Catholics for Christ. The Roman
Catholic Church is not a building. Jesus, the god made
of flesh and imbued with spirit—is the temple. When
New York’s top bishop, with all possible zeal, led the
mob in reviling the “disordered” as they carried the
cross that was AIDS, the church became just a building.

Strewing condoms on the floor of the cathedral
did not profane the cathedral because its cardinal had
already converted the cathedral into a spiritual abattoir.
Scorning the marginalized and infirm in Christ’s name
was the real defacement.

When the 1989 ACT UP activists in To Kill a Cardinal
threw condoms on the floor—they were not desecrating
the cathedral, but inverting the desecration. They were
sanctifying it, even when they tossed a consecrated
wafer, the body of Christ, and it lay broken on the cold
stone floor.

I once dropped a consecrated host. I panicked, then
remembered what I’d learned about such accidents in
my “Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion”
training. I retrieved the body of Christ off the floor and
consumed it. My children, who were young at the time,
found this public demonstration of “the two-minute
rule” nasty. I explained that Catholic teaching makes
much of revering the body—both the body of Christ
direct and the incarnated Christ that resides within the
person of the baptized. The carnality of Catholicism
began with a sense that the body with all its operations
was a fine and holy vessel in which the Risen Christ
might properly dwell.

Most Roman Catholics, born and baptized before
1960, have that Fabian Jesus with blonde highlights and
his cardiac-meat all out imprinted in his or her religious
consciousness. Catholic artists may cling all the more
tenaciously to the beauty part of Catholicism—the love
part. Kicking the power part is easy; dispensing with the
glory part is more difficult.

To Kill a Cardinal exposes the heart of this conflict.
Rumaker’s strained connection to Catholic life adds a
richness. He’s been baptized. He has eaten Jesus and
has consumed His blood. That doesn’t mean nothing to
Rumaker. The word “baptized” means intoxicated. Our
hearts are on fire. The Knights of Columbus set runs
from it, but there’s no escaping that there really is no
Roman Catholicism without the raving sanctity of the
body and a taste for body and blood.

The current cardinal of the Archdiocese of New
York is fond of alluding to that 1989 protest as if there
were no greater affront to God and humankind. I see
that consecrated host’s two halves, Jesus the broken and
the sacrificed Holy Spirit, and the one left for dead on
the floor of “Cathedral of No Christ.”

I think of a pair of white wings. I remember that
pompadour cardinal as an infidel. I think the author of
To Kill a Cardinal does too. I see the 5,000 strong lying
in the center aisle as “Christ the Victor” representing
the martyred. I think Rumaker does too.
I have noticed that refulgent bird on fire, like some
metaphysical pilot light—that flaming dove of the Holy
Spirit—is often the last thing to go when a Roman
Catholic bolts from formal worship in disgust. That
mascot of the Pentecostal Upper Room often raves when
the church stumbles and errs. Often enough, the Holy
Spirit on the move does not appear, on the face, like

A ballsy, luminous, vivid, enjoyable chronicle of
a rough-hewn battle in a long, holy crusade. To Kill a
Cardinal operates as a crime story, an epic, and a parable
belted out by Michael Rumaker’s incendiary muse, the
Holy Spirit.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Pope Francis I and the Nun-Busters and Why Catholics Should Buy "Quest for the Living God"

Last week Prefect of the Confederation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) Gerhard Mueller, condemned the Leadership Conference Women Religious (LCWR) for honoring Catholic theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson and her book Quest of the Living God. The CDF argues that the book fails to be in accord with Roman Catholic doctrine. This magisterial spanking aims to dictate to a group of highly intelligent, well-educated women which books are suitable for their honors; promises to uber-boost sales of an academic work; and, I believe, puts the pope in a tricky spot. (See my 2012 piece, "Just Buy 'Just Love' for more on how such condescending condemnation works.) The pope is the pope. He can speak when he likes. But I think this pope, thistime around, unlike the last time around, will have to say something.

Today's pope is, after all, everyone's favorite pope. At present, Francis I is re-examining the way the church hierarchy looks at LGBT Catholics, divorced and remarried Catholics, and so-called "artifical" contraception. This kinder and gentler pope has exhorted Catholics to respond more vigorously to the marginalized among us, and to look more closely at our (I'm Roman Catholic.) obligations to be conscientious stewards of the environment. This more Catholic-in-the-pew-friendly pontiff even appears to be more dramatically rethinking celibacy for priests. (That he's doing so as a means of staving off the clear call to examine more openly the case for ordaining women, though disconcerting to Catholic feminists, detracts only somewhat from the dramatic nature of this examination.)
We have seen a great shift in this Vatican's tone. But what have we not seen?
We have not seen the shift fully extend to the women of the church.
And we will not see Pope Francis I come down on this Mueller, despite that he ought.
Let Catholics recognize, at the very least, that this cuddly pontiff supports these Inquisitions, which had the Vatican monitoring women in convents. Let Catholics in the pews not pushy away the truth that the Vatican is still trolling its women religious--and that this campaign is conducted with the imprimatur of Pope Francis. Let Catholics be aware, as well, that it is women's ordination activists the inquisitors seek, who dwell, more often than not, in convents.
Our very cuddly pope may be taking a bold lead in some areas wherein reform and a change in tone are needed, but he has no interest at all in even opening the door to discussion of ordaining women, and every interest in cracking down on those bishops who would ordain them.
Perhaps because I follow Vatican news closely, I have found it difficult to share the enthusiasm many non-Catholics and Catholics alike have had for this new pope. I knew (and predicted) that the first order of business in 2013 when Joseph Ratzinger stepped down (in disgrace, I believe) would be to install an "anti-Ratzinger" who could forestall an official schism and arrest the exodus of Catholics leaving the church. Thus it went down.
The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith was not long ago called The Holy Office of the Inquisition its prefect has long been the pope's enforcer. Pope, Francis I, inherited the prefect who served under Ratzinger, the author of these words written with regard to LCWR honoree,
author, theologian and (Sisters of Saint Joseph) Sister Elizabeth Johnson:
...It saddens me to learn that you have decided to give the Outstanding Leadership Award during this year's Assembly to a theologian criticized by the Bishops of the United States because of the gravity of the doctrinal errors in that theologian's writings. This is a decision that will be seen as a rather open provocation against the Holy See and the Doctrinal Assessment. Not only that, but it further alienates the LCWR from the Bishops as well...However, following the August Assembly, it will be the expectation of the Holy See that Archbishop Sartain have an active role in the discussion about invited speakers and honorees.
Not only does Gerhard Mueller condemn the choice to honor Sr. Johnson. He implies that the failure to comply in the matter of future selections of honorees might result in punishment.
Those who have taken note of the Roman Catholic hierarchy's expensive campaign to prevent Catholics and non-Catholics alike from enjoying Equal Marriage Rights know that Peter J. Sartain, Archbishop of Seattle--who lobbied against Equal marriage rights legislation on his diocese's dime, and who really, REALLY wants to be promoted to cardinal--continues to take an active role in the nun-busting sister-crackdown.
Catholics should listen closely to Pope Francis's response and take note if the pontiff chooses silence.
Sr. Simone Campbell and the Nuns on the Bus introduced the world at large to intellectual tradition of Roman Catholic nuns. (See "Gunning for the Nuns" for more on this.) But in so many ways the "new" rebel nun is not new at all. While working as a New York City archdiocesan teacher in the 1980's, I came to know many progressive nuns. They were as expansive as they were faithful, departing from doctrine only when they had to. It was from such reverent, reserved, well-educated, quietly activist sisters that I first learned how deep misogyny promulgated by the Roman Catholic hierarchy, in Christ's name, ran. And still runs.
In many ways, Roman Catholicism was radically early to recognize the worth of woman. So so substantial was Jesus's departure from his original religious practice (which had men and women worshipping separately) that the vestige of female divinity it persists--even in the canonical Gospels--and through our Marian traditions despite the Vatican's great efforts through the past 2,000 years, to eradicate and minimize it.
The synoptic gospels have women following Jesus, praying with men, standing at the foot of the cross when the men (among them the man the church considers the first pope) ran. Catherine of Sienna, Hildegarde, Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux are doctors of the church. The most exalted fully human being in the Communion of Saints--Mary, mother of Jesus--is a woman.
The Gnostic Gospels provide us with a glimpse of the extraordinary lengths to which Catholic teaching, through the ages, went, as it sought to scrub the power of women from Catholic history and consciousness.
This new pope who has won the hearts of so many remains a steadfast enemy to any discussion at all of women's ordination while claiming to wish to see women gain a greater role in leading the church. I think Pope Francis I has some Christ-splaining to do, and it will be interesting to see whether he voices even the slightest challenge to the CDF's most recent storming of the LCWR.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Is the Pope Christian? Fr. Roy Bourgeois Writes to the the Pope

Today, excommunicated and defrocked Roman Catholic Maryknoll priest and peace activist Roy Bourgeois, published an open letter to Pope Francis I. In this letter, Father Bourgeois asks the pontiff him to look more closely into listen more fully to the hearts of LGBT Catholics and Roman Catholic women called to ordination. Bourgeois writes: 
Any movement rooted in love, justice, and equality is of the Divine and cannot be dtopped
I worship in a conventional Roman Catholic parish mostly, and in a community led by a female Roman Catholic priest when I am able, as well. So I have found it difficult to hear friends--non-Catholics and atheists alike--lavish praise upon a pope (Francis I) while so strenuously affirms, and reaffirms that the "door is closed to discussion of women's ordination."
I have held out hope that the pontiff everyone loves to love might prove that he truly is cut from some other cloth than that from which his two predecessors were cut by adopting a more Christlike point of view on the ordination of women. So far Pope Francis has yet to do this.
I have followed Father Roy Bourgeois's journey closely over the past few years, and having done so, have found it hard to push away the knowledge that Francis has done nothing at all to remove the excommunication of Bourgeois, whose offense was supporting the ordination of women. To add context, I note that hundreds of priests accused of raping children or serving as accessories in these crimes kept their frocks as Father Bourgeois--a Vietnam veteran and Nobel Peace Prize nominee--was being stripped of his.
In his letter to Pope Francis, Bourgeois cites the pain he has experienced as a consequence of being "kicked out of the church." This estrangement, he suggests, has deepened his feeling for fellow Roman Catholics who have been scorned and marginalized within their own church.
My pain at having been kicked out of the priesthood has allowed me to glimpse the exclusion and discrimination that people of color, women, and gay people in our Church have experienced for centuries.
Judaism, from which the first church of Christ came, began as a tribe of fervent, loving, fearful, brave, orthodoxy-challenging believers who yearned for and found a sacred locus for their worship. The Roman Catholic Church began as a cult, in small rooms, as fervent, loving, fearful, brave, orthodoxy-challenging believers yearned for and found a sacred locus for their worship. The ordination of Roman Catholic women, which is currently under way and is too big to fail, began thus in small rooms wherein the voices of women called to the priesthood were heard.
The ordination of Roman Catholic women, which is currently under way and is too big to fail, began when Roman Catholic (male) bishops stepped forward from their spots in the Apostolic Succession in Christ's name to ordain women in secrecy in order that God's will, as they understood it, might be done. Thanks to them, the Roman Catholic Women's Ordination genie is out of the bottle.
Conservative Catholics (including women who view their subjugated status as a somehow blessed condition) find the Roman Catholic ordination of women so distasteful they call Catholics who support and take part in masses celebrated by women nasty names: "apostates," "heretics," "devils," and (Cover sensitive ears.) "Protestants!" I puzzle over and find ironic that any Christian should, under any circumstances, think "Protestant" an insult, but these anti-woman's ordination crusaders are skittish and desperate and that may account for the puerile tone of their rhetoric. I notice they fixate, in particular, on the 'dress-up' aspects of Roman Catholic women priests--as if the daring to "vest" itself--to don the big dress, brocade and bling--were the most diabolical feature of the so-called apostasy!
I am neither a Canon lawyer nor a theologian, but I am a smart and wise student of Roman Catholicsm who has been studying doctrine and dogma informally and following Catholic news for a decade now. The more I read, the more I come to know that there is no authentic theological basis whatsoever for denying women ordination.
If the dogma and doctrine had been dictated to scribes by Jesus himself, those who hold both up as as clear evidence of God's desire that only people with male genitals are qualified to serve as priests might have a case. But Jesus did not write the Canon Code and they have no case. Men with political stakes in keeping women subjugated enshrined this prohibition; men driven by financial interests, men who were products of their time. Not Jesus. Not God.
There is no substantive theological barrier to the ordination of women. There is only white smoke and mirrors.
If this wiser, kinder gentler, more Christian Catholic pope is for real, he will respond to Father Bourgeois's letter. I pray the pontiff will be guided by Bourgeois's tender prose, and that Francis will be moved to lift the penalty of excommunication and to reinstate Bourgeois to the priesthood. If this wiser, kinder gentler, more Christian Catholic pope is for real, he will reach, with Christ in mind and heart, for the knob on that door he has called "closed."
If Pope Francis does reaching for the knob, the gesture will be symbolic in the extreme--because that door (to Woman's Ordination) has never really been closed.

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