Essays on Religion, Faith and Sprituality by Michele Madigan Somerville

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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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Pope Francis, Man of the Year? Not Yet




Within the past week or two we have seen the pope make the covers of TimeThe New Yorker and The AdvocateTime and The Advocate have designated Pope Francis as their publications' "person of the year." As a progressive Roman Catholic who is active in ministry, I find it pleasant to have a pope who does not come off as the kind of spiritual batterer Benedict XVI was. It's nice not having to constantly defend my choice to be a practicing Catholic. Atheist progressive friends who have never quite understood my peculiar willingness to worship in what one or two have called "a hate group" now make laudatory remarks about Pope Francis. My fellow Roman Catholic LGBT ministry members are delighted with our new pontiff. I imagine I might speak for many when I say that being a Roman Catholic is a tad easier now that our public relations has been so well-improved by Francis I. But man of the year? As Saint Augustine might say, "not yet."
Pope Francis may well be what he seems but it can not be denied that this pope is made-to-order. It is only by cutting through the "spin" that we can know how genuine Francis and the change with which he being credited actually are. A look at what was wrong with Ratzinger from a public relations standpoint reveals much. As a Catholic who has been watching the exodus of Roman Catholics from the church for years while chronicling developments in the church, I find taking this new pontifical upgrade at face value difficult. And facile!
Progressive Roman Catholics did not much like Joseph Ratzinger, but then again, neither did the traditionalist Roman Catholic fringe. Progressives objected to Ratzinger's anti-gay, anti-woman disposition, while ultra-conservative Catholics held against Ratzinger both his prominent role in Vatican II and his (later) failure to go far enough once he did become more conservative. Ratzinger resigned from a church that was lousy with financial and sexual scandals (I am one of those who believe we have yet to see the full impact of the Vatican sexual abuse scandal/crisis in the developing world.) and possibly on the verge of an all-out schism. The situation called for a man like Francis who could keep Catholics in the pews without amending teaching, a pontiff who could avert a schism and arrest the exodus of Catholics leaving the church in disgust. It's no accident that an Italian-Latino replaced the German; a warmer-blooded pope was called for, a pope with a glint in his eye, a pontiff more charming and less conspicuously royal than Josef Ratzinger. The church hierarchs knew that if they wanted LGBT Catholics and women sickened by the Magisterium's misogyny to remain in the church, they would have to elevate a cardinal capable of stepping away from dogma and doctrine both--but without challenging either outright. Pope Francis has been expert in finessing this.
In a December 2, 2013 piece that appeared (in translation) in National Catholic Reporter, Roman Catholic priest Hans Kung, a renowned theologian and former friend of Josef Ratzinger, included this observation in his discussion of Francis's pontificate: 
And worried observers are already asking whether Pope Emeritus Ratzinger is in fact operating as a kind of "shadow Pope" behind the scenes through Müller and Georg Gänswein, [Benedict's] secretary and Prefect of the Papal Household, whom he also promoted to archbishop.

Kung reminded of us the possibility that Joseph Ratzinger who continues to reside in the Vatican, may still, to some extent. run things. This is not a preposterous notion. Ratzinger's was one of the strong voices of the Second Vatican Council. He has been in the College of Cardinals since 1977 and is one of the world's most accomplished Roman Catholic theologians. The Emeritus Pope, who has wielded immense influence in the Vatican for half-a-century, could still be calling a few of its shots. 

While it is true Ratzinger wore more bling and fancier shoes than does the current Holy Father, Ratzinger steadfastly characterized greed and warfare as sinful. Under Ratzinger, cardinals in dioceses that desired it were invited to minister to LGBT Catholics in their parishes. Under John Paul II and Ratzinger, at the parish level, movement in the direction of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments was made. Under John Paul II and Ratzinger, we saw more and more women in pastoral ministry and working on altars, and the College of Cardinals was discussing an exemption to the prohibition of artificial contraception to arrest the spread of HIV/AIDS. Ratzinger made many horrendous remarks about "homosexuality" but when he did so he cited the very same doctrine (Roman Catholic Catechism) Pope Francis has yet to challenge, revise or update explicitly. (Francis has aimed to reframe some teaching in an implicit way.) Ratzinger did classify being homosexual as a "disorder," but--not nearly so often or strenuously as he ought to have--he also condemned homophobic abuse.

My aim here is not to suggest that Benedict XVI was a fine pope and that Francis I is not, but to notice, as a member of the church, that if any part of the elevation of Jorge Bergoglio were part of a Machiavellian strategy to improve Vatican public relations, it certainly is working.
What has really changed under Pope Francis beyond tone? Not much. Has Pope Francis formally challenged the Roman Catholic Catechism's characterization of homosexuality as "disordered"? He could. He has not.
Perhaps nothing so much suggests a disinclination to make real change in teaching as the pope's remarks on the matter of the ordaining women? On the well-publicized July 2013 interview on the airplane, Francis said the following about the possibility of conventionally ordained Roman Catholic women priests: 
The church says no. That door is closed.

Pope Francis extolls the importance of dialogue ("words which set hearts on fire") throughout In his recent (November 2013) encyclical Evangelii Gaudium<, yet reinforces his hierarchy's misogynistic ordination policy thus: 

...The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion...

The implication therein is that Catholics should discuss everything but ordaining women. I find this disgraceful.

Evangelii Gaudium is warm and lyrical. The author of Evangelii Gaudium firmly declares his disdain for greed, his ardent regard for the poor and the document boasts a conspicuous absence of homophobic rhetoric; all of that is good. Its focus, however, is evangelization--in 'Catholicspeak,' "evangelization" means "growth." Ratzinger was often accused of wanting a smaller, purer church. His successor appears to love his messier church, a church he describes (in Evangelii Gaudium) as 
bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined...


By elevating Jorge Bergoglio to the throne of Peter, the cardinals may have prevented an all out schism. The novel pope-love at hand, the likes of which the church has not seen since John XXIII, foreclosed on a schism and now seems substantive and powerful enough to keep the pews and Vatican coffers full. Who but an ultra-charismatic leader determined to preach on the divine character of humility could have pulled this off?

What kind of pope might have any chance at all of keeping the next generation of women in the pews without changing misogynist anti-woman's ordination doctrine? One who has won the hearts of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The big losers in this are Catholic women and their daughters. 

I like the pope too, and I remain hopeful about his ability to steer the worlds' Catholics toward greater peace and increased justice. I understand that Rome was not built in a day and that the Roman Catholicism Church will not be healed in a day, but the truth is that while the tone of Pope Francis's message regarding LGBT Roman Catholics and women is gentler, the message has not essentially changed. The bigotry remains. Strip away the tone shift and the message under Francis, as conservative Catholic observers have been saying, is the same message that Ratzinger, Timothy Dolan et al have been promulgating all along. The bigotry persists.
The Magisterium continues to prohibit divorced and remarried Catholics and all Catholics who are sexually active (regardless of their sexual orientation) from receiving the Eucharist; that has not changed. Pope Francis has made clear his disinterest in even discussing the ordination of women; that has not changed. Dogma and doctrine on contraception has not changed, and while Francis has been bold on the avarice front, he has been relatively reticent in his response to those who have been sexually abused, as children, by Catholic priests. The looking the other way on this count has not changed enough.
Given the incredible damage done by the Vatican sex scandal and banking scandals; the continued support the Vatican offers to organizations that use collection dollars to make the world a bit less safe for women, LGBT people, and those who have been victimized by priests; given the sitting pope's disinterest in challenging his hierarchy's flimsy, self-serving and fallacious arguments against ordination of women; I believe it is way too early to take Pope Francis as an unadulterated, full-on breath of fresh air.
I will pray for Pope Francis, but this Catholic woman is not drinking from the papal Kool-Aid chalice. Not yet.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Grant Me Pope Francis Kool-Aid But Not Yet: Is The New Pope For Real?


Like many Catholics I am encouraged by Pope Francis's language on the matter of sin, war, greed, and the poor, especially encouraged by the the pontiff's willingness to admit that conservative Catholics fetishize (my word, not his) the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage to the possible exclusion of other Christian concerns. I am grateful to see the pope promote the idea that a person who does not believe in God can have a conscience. I am grateful for Pope Francis's choice to extend a modicum of warmth to my LGBT members of our Church.
Grant me the Francis Alleluia Kool-Aid, but not yet.
Vatican doctrine still holds that same-sex and marriage and love are sinful. The pontiff has yet to fling "open the door" (to employ the terminology Ratzinger et al used) to the discussion of Women's Ordination. The pontiff's 'atheists should follow their consciences' message still had a subtle, persisting undertones of a "hate the sin, love the sinner" condescension--the idea that atheists have consciences is not exactly a metaphysical news flash. (Atheists, we should not forget, do good for good's sake, not for the divine report card kept by our triune God. If that is not conscience, I don't know what is.)
There's still the pope's money-hiding, pedophile-abetting cardinal in New York (Timothy Dolan) offering this interpretation of his fellow prelate's message in an interview with The Wall Street Journal
"Like Jesus, he's saying, hate the sin, love the sinner," Cardinal Dolan said, referring to Pope Francis's recent comments.
Being gay is not a sin. Loving one's same-sex partner is not a sin.
Yesterday, the LGBT ministry in the Catholic parish in which I am active, inspired by the pope's recent admission that being gay is okay had a plan to 'represent'--after masses, via that time-tested church tradition of serving coffee and cake. I am active in the LGBT ministry in my parish--I helped to start it--but I decided not to take part in this, because this week, something about the reaction to the pope's ( I fear too) well-received message leaves me the slightest bit uncomfortable.
Yes, there is a new breath of fresh air emanating from Peter's seat yet still, when I attend mass in my parish church, there's a man celebrating mass and and a half dozen-women Rome deems undeserving of priesthood scurrying about the church, on the altar and otherwise, making the the sacrifice of the mass come off without a hitch. This I find sinful. There's still the matter of a Nobel Prize-nominated Maryknoll Viet Nam veteran peace activist, Roy Bourgeois, whom the new pope ought to think about re-frocking. He lost his frock as a punishment for taking part in the ordinations of women.
Not one of the many Roman Catholic priests with whom I speak regularly really believes, as the hierarchal gynophobes argue, that "the Church lacks the authority to ordain women." Not one believes this dogma should be immutable. Not one finds this cherry-picked law, which gets used as a cudgel to keep women in their proper place, sound from a theological standpoint.
The law prohibiting the ordination of women is rooted in fear of the power of women and in economics--not Christ's teaching.
The Vatican will ordain women. The Canon Code may change to allow it. The Women's Ordination may grow so fast that women priests become a kind of unofficial norm or (most likely) a crisis in the Church will make it economically necessary to rethink the idea that a priest must have male sex parts.
The world's Catholic heart went aflutter recently--and I was with us, in this, to a limited extent--when the possibility that Rome might consider ordaining married (male) priests found its way into the news. Many people do not know that there currently are married Roman Catholic priests. Ratzinger cut a deal with ultra conservative Anglicans who wanted to bolt from their church to a more orthodox church that would promise to be less hospitable to feminists, LGBT people and progressives. A small number of Anglican converts were ordained into the Roman Catholic Apostolic Succession without having to give up their wives.
We can expect the discussion of married priests to get louder now. Now that Francis has established himself as the love pope, there will be more talk about the sanctity of love between spouses, and with an eye on addressing the shortage of priests, the hierarchs, under Francis, will begin to adopt a more open view of non-celibate priests.
I want my priests to have love lives, however, I am reluctant to join the campaign for married priests because I think there's something disingenuous in it. In many parts of the world heterosexual priests have wives and children on the down low, and Rome knows that. In the United States--and elsewhere, it is safe to assume--a significant percentage of priests are gay and probably most are, at some point in the course of their priesthood, sexually active.
There's a priest shortage. It should therefore come as no surprise that the Vatican Public Relations team responsible for this new, kinder, gentler, more Holy See would now send out the married priests test balloon.
I have been discussing the ordination of women with Roman Catholic priests for years. Not one I have ever spoken with believes that the ordination of women is notinevitable. It's not a matter of whether, they tell me, but when. The idea of women priests is the great fear of any prelate worrying about the Vatican coffers, however, because epically spawning women build the church. I believe the scrambling to offer quasi-acceptance to LGBT Catholics, the fresh re-emergence of discussion of the possibility of ordaining (non-Anglican baptized) married men the new shine this pontificate currently aims to put on the the well-worn argument that women have a special place in the church just as Mary, the mother of God, born without sin, had a special place in the life of Jesus.
The all-male priesthood is a vestige of the Judaism of antiquity which (God bless them for it.) even Orthodox Jews have managed to challenge and shake. Economic necessity caused men to write exclusion of women into Canon Law and economic necessity will reverse this exclusion. Eventuially.
When it becomes economically necessary, the Magisterium will arrive at a new interpretation of the Canon Code that makes way for the ordination of women. Until then the Vatican will try anything else--Anglican clerics, married or not; thanks to an unofficial "Don't Ask Don't Tell," policy--gay priests; and offering women to do the bulk of work at parish levels save that which priests alone are authorized to do.
I think Ratzinger's early departure was a well thought-out strategy for preventing an all-out schism and arresting the mass exodus of disaffected Catholics. What better man to stop the bleed than a anti-Ratzinger, a lovable, humble, warm-blooded guy who's all about peace and love?
It's not a push to imagine that Pope Francis, who has already given the Vatican a brighter smile, might (even unknowingly) be a pawn in a less than divinely inspired campaign to keep Catholics from the leaving the Church and recall lapsed Catholics back into the tithing fold. It's not a reach to imagine that a College of Cardinals made jittery by Ratzinger's arrogance and relative indifference to the suffering of victims of the Vatican Sex Crisis might have carefully s/elected the prelate most likely to serve as living breathing damage control, a real Habemus Papam pope.
I hope the man Timothy Dolan described, yesterday, as "hardly a shrinking violet" will yet exhibit and reflect the audacity of the Jesus who broke with the orthodoxy and took women as discliples. Let Pope Francis open the door to discussion of the ordination of women, so that we women can come to know whether he is the real thing.

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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Theism, Deism, Atheism, Poetry & Divine Comedy: Not Black and White


I just read a story in The Guardian about a group of atheists who have decided to meet on Sundays, in the way church groups meet, in order to--I might hazard to say at the peril of over-simplifying--enjoy fellowship, and community, and to discuss, perhaps, ethics and morality. A week or two earlier, a friend turned me on to the work of the smart comedianW. Kamau Bell, who's lampooned atheists in the manner his philosopher colleagues in comedy favor when taking shots at religious "believers." (Good comedians are philosophers of a sort; hence, the fascination with metaphysics.) A case in which the plaintiffs ought to have prevailed, a suit to get "In God We Trust" removed from U.S. currency, got tossed this week, and the so-called "Judeo-Christian" (a godawful term) jingoists who read the Bible selectively are jawboning louder than usual about God being on their side, as if the Creator of the world were sitting at the end of the bar in His local gin-mill wagering on his favorite gridiron team. (Check out the "Book of Jonah," dudes; If an omnipotent, omniscient God does exist, that God is probably on God's side.) The truth is that many devoutly religious people spend a good deal of time being atheists.
It's quite impossible to read Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross (more anon, on him and where poetry fits in) and not see the stretches of, if not atheism, then high-pitched doubt; and hard to imagine that John the poet, priest and Catholic saint was not floating the possibility that faith tested is the strongest faith.
When dogma and doctrine are not challenged vigorously, faith becomes chauvinism.

One of the reasons I enjoy being Roman Catholic is that we question. I pray in another faith as well,  sometimes--I've tried to raise my children as (Reform) Jews--and the tradition in Jewish thought whereby one questions, as always appealed to me. Rabbis often remind me of Jesuits: smart, wise, all over the place and busily refulgent.
Among the "faithful" (so to speak) are found traditional Roman Catholics--scripture chimps who act as if Our Lord and Savior himself inscribed the Canon Code on a couple of tablets, and fundamentalist Islamists, Jews and Christians, but most sentient, learned, educated people of religious faith experience long periods of questioning and doubt. For them doubt is part and parcel of belief. The strongest faith is that which can make both hash and sense out of doubt through faith and reason.
Maybe Pope Francis is one of those. Maybe he was speaking to atheists from some "Doubting Thomas" sweet spot, the part of his psyche (as in the Greek word) wherein doubt calls, and wants an answer when he recently reached out to atheists, and certainly any papal admission that atheists are not consigned to an eternity spent packed in Dante's Judas ice--but I found the presumption that atheists might relish the pope's religious messages disrespectful.
Where does the pontiff get off advising atheists on conscience? Why would atheists, who have only conscience itself and not a sin-tallying Creator in the heavens to keep them in line care in the least, about advice from the rich and powerful Oz in a mitre?
Like many of my fellow Roman Catholics, I like some of what this new pope, Francis, has to say, but I'm guarded, because I am waiting and worrying; waiting to know who Pope Francis really is; waiting to know whether this new pope is fronting for his still-living predecessor, and worrying that Francis may be wolf in Christ's lamb clothing: a "good cop" strategically appointed to counterbalance Ratzinger's "bad cop." Pope Francis often strikes me as something out of Central Casting--Central Casting, say, for Nanni Moretti's 2010 Habemus Papam a film about a humble, devout pope who takes the city bus through Rome.
One hears much in all religious circles about the "godlessness" of atheists, But there's something godawful about the pope's presumption in addressing atheists. As a Catholic, I find this idea deeply offensive. Sure, some atheists need moral guidance, just as some religious people do. It seems to me, however, that it's the Catholic bishops who are more in need of moral instruction from the pope than the world's atheists, the notion that people who practice religions have some kind of monopoly on morality and ethics is entirely erroneous. It's hard not to wonder how the pope might presume to preach to atheists when his own operation is in such atrocious condition?
One possibility is that the pope may not really talking to atheists. Maybe he is preaching to his own choir. Maybe he's addressing the so-called "believers" who equate "piety" with morality. To see a pope fully acknowledge that atheists have consciences is good news--(The Catholic redacting began immediately.) This does constitute progress.
When it comes to religion, however, there are always questions inside the questions.
W. Kamau Bell, whose work I have just discovered, is a young, hip, politically stoked comedian who not only cops to believing in God, but who takes it a step further by lampooning atheists: 
For some white people atheism is like a black belt in privilege...I don't need anybody.

I'm not politically correct. I find this and him funny. Bell, who mocks MOrmons and Catholics in the same bit, goes on to swipe at a (one presumes) theoretical white guy who claims that "atheists are part of an oppressed group."
I must throw down with Bell in this. Somewhat.
Before I do, a disclaimer: Some of my best friends are atheists. Actually nearly all of my best friends are atheists. I happen to believe in God, but I live and have raised my children in a sociologically and ethnically diverse part of New York City which is fast becoming one of America's "Whitelandias" where I can now catch a lot of white, pseudo-intellectual, atheist preaching and whinging.
My kids are atheists. I'm fine with that, in part because I was a teacher for 15 years and know that most kids are atheists, in part because I recognize that believing in God is a push.
I know atheists have a better argument than I have.
But often atheists often are as hateful and arrogant in their preaching as the toothless bring-your-gun-to-church fundamentalist Christians are when they train their little minds on LBGT people. Some of my activist atheist friends report that there's a surprising quotient of sexism in academic atheist circles.
Atheists have a right to be really angry about having to say, "No, I don't want to swear on the damned fictional before I testify in court!" I don't want a creche or a Chanuka menora outside my courthouse. I don't want my kids to pray in school. I think "Intelligent Design" is for the unintelligent.
Nonetheless, I believe atheists should derive some--I want to say-- "grace" from knowing that they, not we who worship in church and shul, have the better argument.
Atheists argue from a place of power because the facts--and Science itself--are on their side.
This is why I believe some struggling old person living on the street, whose only hope is Jesus, does not always need to hear from some amateur philosopher hipster that God is a unicorn.
Are atheists oppressed? No.
Are they discriminated against in a government? Yes. In schools? Yes. In a political system that presumes religious faith? Absolutely. Is this minor? No.
Are atheists, as W. Kamau Bell says somewhere between people with peanut allergies and really tall good- looking guys on the discrimination spectrum?
No. It's a joke. And it's not black and white. In religion, things are never black and white. Scratch that. With religion things in the United States are, actually, often, black and white.
My kids are not Christian but through the years, even while trying quite hard to create Jewish identity, I sometimes brought them to church. Why? Because I wanted to teach them that sometimes loving sons and daughters go to church with Mom. And I wanted them to know old people, and people who speak Spanish, and poor people. I wanted them to sing in choirs and work in AIDS ministry and food pantries and hear psalms and scripture from the Torah and Hebrew Books and Gregorian chant and my girlfriend Ann Beirne's perfect Ave Maria. But I digress--
A few years ago, on a holiday, I whispered to them:"Guys, the song we are singing--it's a famous Negro spiritual."
"Negro?!" they said, looking me in horror. "Negro!?"
Unfolding some backstory for the benefit of their tender political and metaphysical sensibilities, I gave them a two-sentence Spark Notes version of how and why "negro" in that context was not a bad word. For something so powerful in American music, thought, and secular politics, I explained, nothing but its primordial appellation suffices. The American African American Church thing is huge, because its power had such secular reach and catalyzed so much ennobling change.
When someone like W. Kamau Bell talks about religion in the United States I think it is important to notice that he is a black American discussing religion--not because the religion stupid meter shifts from race to race but because the African American church in the U.S. is holy in some singular verifiable ways, whether God's there or not. The Black Church It radiates its own divine and mighty light.
I recently watched some of the footage of James Baldwin's funeral in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. The massive chills in the aftermath of viewing this ceremony dogged me for the duration of my day like holy aftershocks. I read Go Tell It On the Mountain during my junior year in high school. My paper on it got the attention of the snooty elitist English teacher who had otherwise thought me, the daughter of a cop and the prep school's secretary, not so smart. I traced the Baldwin's use of such words as "black," "white," "shadow" and "light" in the novel came up with some audacious kid ruminations and theories on the topic.
Go Tell It On The Mountain was for me a book in which religion and art met in shadow to overlap. I started to write every day after I read that book. Going up the mountain with a plan for telling--it became (in my 16 year-old mind and soul at least) what poets and prophets do.
One of the things that made me give religion a second look a dozen years ago was looking at art and being physically jolted by a particular sensation that only some art evokes in me. I can't explain it well except to describe it as some kind of soulgasm that shudders both mind and matter simultaneously in such a way as to remind you that in ancient Greek, "psyche" orginally meant soul with the idea of mind built therein.
As a very young woman traveling alone in Florence I first experienced in the Uffizi when I looked at Michelangelo's bodies still half-stuck, finished, unfinished both moving and stuck in the rock. Soulgasm. I felt it when I first saw a Torah up close at my friend Josh's Bar Mitzvah. I felt it when I stood I the back, a kid, watching Tosca at the Met. I felt it the first time I entered a mosque. I feel it every Good Friday, at the start of the liturgy, when the priest walks down the center aisle in total silence and he lies face down before the altar on the dirty cold tile for a disturbingly protracted moment. I felt it last week in the last ten minutes of the Yom Kippur liturgy. It happens when poet Mike Sweeney recites excerpts from his epic poem The Octagon. Giving birth, of course, and holding my trinity of spawn during their first days on the material world, more than anything, laid it at my feet. 
My son I were studying together recently when I asked him to write a short response to a question I posed. "Give me a page," I demanded. "A response to this question: 'How was the world born?'
It's no wonder the lad rolled his eyes, harrumphed and went for the easy answer.
"God?
"No!" I shouted.
He was surprised that his religion nerd mother should find fault with the Creator God myth explanation.
Genesis was the easy answer--for the heart, perhaps, I explained, but not for the mind. For the mind, we have the Big Bang Theory. We have singularities and the event horizon. We have curved space and black holes that inverted matter and projectile vomited out a universe replete with fiery galaxies in Elvis velvet painting blackness. For the mind there is evolution and the Origin of the Species.
For the heart, God? Maybe. But if I am Catholic, if I have taken so fervently up the responsibility to raise him with a Jewish identity and sensibility, why do I prefer the answer Science offers?
Because Science matters. Because the God I believe in wants me to think. Science offers the most sound arguments. Because although God may exist and be true--and I believe God is. True--the truth of God's existence can not be proven.
My son and I talked about energy, that morning. One does not see energy, we discovered, but rather one identifies it through observing its work. I likened God to energy. To wind, also. We don't see wind, but we see what wind raises, carries, and destroys.
I talked with one of my adolescent daughters recently about love. We were talking about some classmate of hers, a high school girl. "Are they in love?" I asked.
"She's 16! You can't be in love at 16. 16 is too young to be in love."
"No, it isn't," I said. "I was in love at 16."
"Puppy love."
"No. It was love."
"How'd you know?"
"I knew."
We know love when it drives us. We know the cold void it leaves in its wake. Facts are not the same as truths. Superstition is not the same as faith. I know God, in part, because God does go against the grain of my logical mind.
I agonized over voting in my (NYC) primary this September, because I found myself positioned to vote on the side of Wall Street in the race for Comptroller. I was pretty sure I would vote against my whore-mongering ex-governor, Client 9, but I was not 100% sure until about two weeks before election day when reports that Spitzer had elected to ooze uptown to Harlem like a slug on its own slime in search of absolution, which that caused me to say to myself (and others) "Oh, no you don't... How dare that filthy rich white brat present himself at the Church of Black Jesus?"
I write about religion a lot, and I am a practicing Catholic. When lunatic fringe traditional Catholics used my comment fields to inform me I'm hell-bound and not really Catholic, they don't offend me; they amuse me.

Religious fundamentalists who hate women and love guns--they offend me.
Atheists who find fault with my logic do not offend me.
Atheists who hammer the genuinely pious offend me while they are engaged in militating against those who are changing the world for the better offend me.
God may not be verifiable but the fact that most of the works mercy done in the city where I live are done by people of formal religious faith is verifiable. Those driven by faith to engage in Social Justice tend to see all too well that people who suffer, people who lack hope often turn to God, and edifying a despairing believer, by hammering into his head that God is a fiction, strikes me as sadistic.
No one can prove God, and the inability to disprove God does not count, because proof doesn't work that way.
I concede that I have perhaps manufactured, fabricated, conjured and inferred my arguments from the commotion of larks among berries, the sun rising over the ocean disseminating its broken pink-lavender light, the sound of newborns' wails. But that is not proof.
I have been reading and writing poetry daily for about 40 years now, and this ongoing habit leaves me open to mystery. This is not to suggest that all poets believe in God; it is more likely that most do not, but when it comes to metaphysics, poetry has a way of rearranging the room and changing the conversation.
I used to meet Paul Violi a suburb poet and friend who passed away a few years ago, in the West Village (NYC) a few times a year, for coffee and poetry conversation. I always seemed to be reading some Catholic thing--John of the Cross, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ernesto Cardenal, Dante, Pasolini, C.K.Chesterton--when I plopped whatever text I'd been reading on the train down on the table outside Shimkin Hall at NYU where we used to meet. Violi would thumb through whatever book it was, smirking. More than once he called me "papist," and more than twice he warned me with a grumble on the topic: "Just don't give them your money." (I don't.)
We had been out of touch for almost a year when Violi died, but I'm quite sure this cradle Catholic did not make like Wallace Stevens and call for the priest on his death bed. There were times though, Paul would thumb through the Dante and ask me questions, and the ornery atheist Italian-American did surprise once by exhibiting a soft spot in his anti-organized religion thinking; he was one of those believed that Christianity, for all its grave flaws and butchery, had a civilizing effect on the world.
I'm not sure that's. Maybe Violi was just being Italian.
I read Franz Wright's God's Silence a few years ago, and for a while it was my favorite book of poems. I gave the book to a couple of Catholic priests for Christmas that year. Somewhere around that time, I learned that Wright was very sick. My Jesuit-trained Indian priest loved the book and used some of its lines in a homily shortly after Christmas.
I didn't know whether Wright would be open to fan mail but I waste strangely moved to drop him a line. I did know he was open to religion and prayer. In the note I mentioned how much I loved his book and informed him the Indian priest was both cannibalizing him in homilies and praying for his recovery.
Wright wrote back, and the note, written with a shaky hand reads like a sermon. I I have it hanging on my board because I like to remember to pray for Wright. Because I was privy to his Facebook rants, I know Wright can be a colossal jerk, but his impassioned prose notes about visiting Greek Orthodox churches with his mother suggested strong Christian faith and, for better or worse, I find strength in the religious faith of the intellectually mighty.
My beloved friend and fellow blue-collar white ethnic gal poet Sharon Mesmer and I used to worship together when she was my neighbor (She's since gone Buddhist) and If I could choose a book to swear on in court, it would not be a Bible; it might be poet Mary Karr'sSinners Welcome. One of my favorite discussions of Christianity is found in a simple book by a Protestant cleric and theologian: Why Be A Christian (If No One Goes To Hell) The Reverend Doctor Daniel Meeter parses the dang Greek, for Christ's sake, and debunks Hell in the process!
The faith of the highly intelligent...
In an interview, practicing Catholic poet Fanny Howe once described herself as an "atheist Catholic." I don't think that is as unusal as it sounds. I think most religious thinkers alternate between belief and non-belief.
I don't believe in a little God with a tally sheet in the clouds who hoovers up earthlings' praise and presides over compliance. I believe the limits of God are beyond human comprehension, and that it's possible dogs hear more of God's voice than we.
I don't believe that atheists believe in nothing.
I believe the strongest faith is faith that is challenged, regularly, by disbelief.
I reject "believer" as a name for one who believes in God.
A "believer" is one who believes.
the sun we call our son the sol our sol our light
that heats and grants mettle to the soul we all
seem to agree in (we all) some ultraviolet ultramarine aquamarine sense exists, invests the atom's
radiant heart with love as it wheels.

These are the last few lines of a sestina I wrote a few years back. It's called "God" and it is dedicated to a Roman Catholic priest whose whose homily sent me through the church doors into a leafy day riddled with adoration of the divine character of Science.
I mentioned voting earlier. I had a hard time voting last week. An Irish Catholic lesbian I thought of as someone who could be my sister, cousin or girlfriend--someone I admire--was running against the guy for whom I'd decided to vote. I wasn't sure which lever I would pull until I parted the plastic curtain. I came away feeling that I had done the right thing. I voted for the guy who'd be best for the schools, a white guy with a black family, a guy whose kids went to school with my kids--but he ended his acceptance speech with a "God bless you all." and I though, "Awww. Really? Was that necessary? Unfortunately it still is, and that very much saddens me.
But it's just not black and white.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Popacabana: New Tone, Old Message



Pope Francis gave an impromptu interview on the plane as he returned from from his celebrated Brasil tour, a trip so lively and successful it earned the name "Popacabana." Popacabana was well-covered by news agency and from the standpoint of the pontiff's handlers, very well spun.
Each time I read about this pope I marvel at how much I like the guy and fear his "body people"/publicity team. I often think the playbook for packaging this pope emerged from the sweet 2011 film Habemus Papam . In Nanni Moretti's film, a pious and unassuming cardinal is elevated reluctantly to the papal throne, the chief irony being that the very aspects of his nature which make him such a fine and gentle servant of Christ, render him less a than than ideal papabile.
So Pope Francis has said "yes" today, to inclusion of LGBT people in Roman Catholic worship, and "no" to the ordination of women.
Rome stoops to divide and conquer.
Some of this reporting misleads. Pope Francis does not as much depart from Ratzinger on the matter of LGBT Catholics as it would seem. Yes, debunking the Ratzinger's belief that all gay people are intrinsically disordered constitutes a dramatic shift, but according to doctrine, all Catholics are asked to abstain from sex outside of marriage and from the sacraments if such abstaining proves impossible. That has changed. The rules for same-sex couples have not changed. Pope Francis merely stresses that gay people should not be scorned when they show up at mass. Far be it from me to throw a compliment Ratzinger's way, but that was actually his position as well. Ratzinger and Francis appear on the face to part on the matter of gay priests. My team of experts leads me to believe that by conservative estimates half the Roman Catholic priests in the world may be gay.
I believe Ratzinger, were he still pope, would have come around on the matter of gay priests as a means of ensuring that a paucity of priests would not create a more urgent need for female priests. Ratzinger wanted to impose a don't ask don't tell policy in the seminaries; Francis has no problems with gay priests as long as they remain celibate--which, let us not forget, does not mean "chaste," but unmarried. I, like so many others, find Pope Francis refreshing, but the conservative church would collapse without gay clerics and it's probable that a significant proportion of cardinals are gay. The pope is certainly taking a more congenial approach--but the Vatican is sticking with "hate the sin; love the sinner" on the matter of gay Catholics.
Ironically enough, the mainstream, conservative Roman Catholic Church would collapse without the work of women. Pope Francis offered some attractive rhetoric on the matter of women. The logic he espouses is familiar to anyone who practices any religion whose orthodoxy prohibits women from being clerics. The argument goes like this; women enjoy not a second class status, but its opposite, a more essentially exalted status; women are hearth-keepers and mothers. According to a July 29 NPR report, the pope expressed the following thoughts on women in the Church.
"It is not enough to have altar girls, women readers or women as the president of Caritas," he said, according to the Catholic Herald. "Women in the church are more important than bishops and priests," he said, in the same way that "Mary is more important than the apostles."

Thus the pope basically argues that 1) women should get more to do and 2) that Mary is more important that the apostles.

I once heard a theologian priest told this joke from the pulpit: An elderly lady stayed after mass and prayed the rosary in the pews. With each "Hail Mary" her voice got louder and louder and somehow more urgent. The priest, hearing this, quietly interjected. "Jesus hears your prayer," he said. The woman prayed louder and in a more desperate tone. Again the priest spoke. "He hears you. Don't give up." One more time the woman increased her volume and the priest intervened. "Christ hears you."
"Will you keep it down, Father? I'm not looking for Jesus. I'm looking for his mother."
Women like my very devout Irish grandmother never exactly called it that, but they felt the divinity of Mary with an intensity that rivaled that of their feelings for God. Pope Francis knows--especially as a Latin American--that for much of the Roman Catholic world Mary is already way more powerful than the apostles. She was, after all, conceived without sin. She is the apostle who didn't run away from the foot of the cross. For relatively uneducated, but devout Roman Catholics, Mary is a virtual divinity. That an inclination to see her as such is high blasphemy hardly matters to those who do not know better. To say that Mary is more important than the apostles is something not at all radical dressed up to appear somewhat radically feminist. Francis recognizes the need to appease women.
When it comes to the position of each on LGBT Catholics and the role of women in the church, the only substantive difference, thus far, between Pope Francis and his predecessor is tone.
Another aspect of these reports that warrants parsing is the use of the term "the Church"--as in "'the Church' will not ordain female priests, saying that the stance was 'definitive.'" The Church does not really ordain anyone. The Vatican ordains. It is erroneous to use the terms "the Church" and "the Vatican" as if they were synonyms. The part of "the Church" that is the Vatican does not ordain women, but a small part of "the Church" which is comprised of men and women ordained in the apostolic succession, refuse to accept the prohibition against ordaining women and are for reasons of conscience, ordaining women.
And the Women's Ordination Movement is burgeoning at present. But there are Roman Catholic women priests. These are women who engage in divinity training and prepare for the priesthood, usually under the tutelage of conventionally ordained male Roman Catholic priests. I was talking with a Roman Catholic friend the other day who just has just begun to go to church. He has an adolescent step-daughter and the couple wants to raise her in a church. I casually mentioned to this man, an Italian-American with a Ph.d. raised Catholic in New York City, that there was a whole underground Roman Catholic priesthood. He was surprised. And interested.
Of course conservative Roman Catholics do not like this phenomenon much. Female Catholic priests endure much name-calling: They're called "fake priests," "pretend priests," and of course "apostates," "heretics" and "blasphemers" by people who seem almost to believe St. Peter lived in a Gothic cathedral and wore satin and bling. How easily they forget that what they see as conventional Roman Catholic priesthood began as a weird, rag-tag orthodoxy-flouting, rapidly expanding "cult."
The women priests I know are at least as well-trained in divinity, theology and church history as the male priests I know; they benefit from having strong spiritual mentors (conventionally ordained male priests usually), and act as shepherds in small communities supported in great measure by people like me who have decided they could no longer contribute financially to a parish that funnels money to the Vatican. I am active in the parish in which I live, but contribute financially to other Roman Catholic communities, because I can not in good conscience kick back to a Vatican that does not ordain women.
If you think that because you have an open-minded priest and a progressive parish and that none of the money you place in that basket goes to the Vatican, you are mistaken. Parishes kick back to their dioceses and dioceses to Rome, and your fine priest loses his parish if he fails to comply. If you put money in the basket in the Archdiocese of New York, for example, some of your money may already have paid legal fees for priests accused of violating children. If you put money in the basket in Milwaukee ten years ago, you might have paid for a detective to dig up dirt to discredit a plaintiff in a case against a predator priest. Your priest may have voted for Obama, but he still has to kick back to your diocese. My diocese is led by a bishop who was 'thisclose' with Vito ("Feel my tumor") Lopez "Gropez." My bishop took to the radio airwaves to compare same-sex marriage to marriage between human beings and their domestic animals. If I put money in my basket next Sunday, this bishop gets a cut. And bishops kick back to Rome.
If you think you can sit in church and not kick back to Rome, consider this; your church is a tax exempt organization. Even our beloved atheists help to defray the costs of sending Roman Catholic missionaries to sub-Saharan Africa to remind people in regions ravaged by heterosexually transmitted HIV/AIDS that using a condom is a sin.
I have written elsewhere about the institutional patriarchy and misogyny of the Vatican. My own response thus far has been to limit my contributions to my parish to non-financial ones. I give a great deal of time and talent to my church/conventional parish, but I don't give my parish money! I wish I could--but it seems...well... somehow sinful.
The awareness that so much of the work done in Roman Catholic churches is done by women has given me great pause today as I read Pope Francis's words on women's ordination. We all learned much about nuns when news of the Apostolic Visitations (Inquisitions) broke in 2009 and even more, later, via "the Nuns on the Bus." At the masses I attend, even at the most conservative parishes, most of the people distributing Holy Communion, proclaiming scripture and presiding over catechesis of children are women. This disappointing sound-bite today causes me to question my choice to work in my parish. 
Perhaps all women who work for the Roman Catholic Church should examine whether they wish to enable a church that accepts our labor but uses a tired, transparent, specious and well-refuted (by its own theologians) argument against the ordination of women to keep us out of the conventional priesthood. It is interesting to imagine what might happen if between now and Christmas, women and men who view the Vatican's case for barring women from conventional ordination as inconsistent with Jesus's teaching--were to refuse to work in and contribute financially to Roman Catholic churches.
In the developing world, such a "faith action" (I might call it) would never work. The Vatican has long pinned its hopes for growth on the poor of India, sub-Saharan Africa and South America where obedience among Roman Catholics is the norm. But what if Western European and North American Roman Catholic women were to say "no mas?" ("No mass.") Just a thought.