Essays on Religion, Faith and Sprituality by Michele Madigan Somerville

Friday, October 21, 2016

Recent Essays on Politics and Religion

Recent Essays on Politics and Religion




"Presidential Campaign 2016: Clinton, Trump, "Catholic Spring," NYC's Al Smith Dinner & the Lady Macbeth Factor " 10/19/16

"Cardinal Dolan's Year of Mercy Plan to Address Clergy Sex Abuse Crimes in NY Archdiocese" 10/6/16


"How Great Thou Already Art: Campaigning Against Trump in Pennsylvania" 10/4/16


"Jesus Is A Loser: the Gospel Truth About Trump and the Catholic Vote" 9/25/16



All essays on Indie Theology are by Michele Madigan Somerville, except where noted. Somerville is a poet, fiction writer, essayist, teacher, practicing Roman Catholic and mother of three. She lives in NYC.

Follow her on twitter @nypoet and @indietheology



Thursday, October 20, 2016

Presidential Campaign 2016: Clinton, Trump, "Catholic Spring," NYC's Al Smith Dinner & the Lady Macbeth Factor


That the non-story focusing on the ‘Wikileaked’ email exchange conducted among Clinton campaign staffers fizzled a few days after it broke shouldn’t surprise anyone who pays attention to Catholic politics in this presidential campaign. Presidential race 2016 is the first in a few decades in which the Roman Catholic hierarchs can’t really favor either candidate. (They never endorse outright—that’s a violation of tax law—It’s always under the radar.) It may be the first campaign ever in which one of the candidates publicly insulted the pope. It is also the first campaign since Roe v. Wade in which no genuine “pro-life” candidate is running. Catholics who imagine Trump to be “pro-life” are deluded. Trump is paying lip service to anti-abortion Christians---that’s one of the reasons he chose ex-Catholic Mike Pence, a born again evolution denier, as his running mate.

As I pointed out in my essay  “Jesus Was a Loser: The Gospel Truth About Trump and the Catholic Vote,” Donald Trump is out of sync with the Roman Catholic hierarchy on sanctity of marriage, immigration, the treatment of the poor, and “pro-life” issues apart from abortion. Trump is pro-gun, pro-torture, pro-war and pro-death and he exhibits a hatred for the weak that is inconsistent with Catholic values. Catholics of all stripes recognize that Trump is a non-believer who has changed his position on abortion for one reason alone, political expedience. The U.S. bishops cannot explicitly support Trump because he is an alleged sexual assailant, an unapologetic adulterer and (again) a man who has had the temerity to publicly deride the Supreme Pontiff. They can’t support him outright but my hunch is that a few of the U.S. Bishops wish he’d win.

Like their counterparts in the laity, politically conservative bishops hate Clinton more than they dislike Trump. Indeed most Catholic fervor for Trump is likely due to hatred of Clinton. She is not the first presidential candidate to unequivocally support Planned Parenthood and Roe v. Wade, but she is the first woman doing it while poised to become President of the United States. Clinton is not just a candidate who supports a woman’s right to have a safe and legal abortion; she’s a woman supporting that right. I think of it as “Lady Macbeth factor.” Clinton is the first presidential candidate who could have torn a suckling child off of her breast and bashed its brains out. For ultra traditional Roman Catholic Hillary’s uppity aspiration to be the leader of the free world and “pro-choice” stance constitute a toxic witch’s brew.

While I am accustomed to being called a hell-bound apostate and such, some of the responses (from readers) to my “Jesus Was a Loser...”essay took me by surprise. Several were lurid descriptions of Clinton’s all-consuming drive to murder “babies.” Behold a sampling of the musings of the Catholic devout:
“So ... you will vote for Hillary Clinton ... who would eat the unborn for breakfast if Planned Parenthood was hosting the meal?”
  “This poor blind fellow (author) neglects to point out that the Left (Hillary & her evil minions) supports the Planned Parenthood killing factories and baby chop shops;”
  “In Hillary’s world, Jesus’s infant body would be biomedical waste and resold body parts.”  
“…while Trump is an anathema Clinton is a woman who sees no problem with plunging a knife into a baby’s skull and twisting it until the necessary puree is obtained…Trump views children with distaste, and that is disgraceful. Clinton views babies as human waste...”
Clinton is a doting, diaper-changing grandmother. She started her professional life advocating for children. She honored her marriage vows when the husband she loved would not and kept her family whole.  These are Christian values and Clinton is a Christian with a vital and enduring Methodist practice. Her opponent, on the other hand, is a thrice-married serial adulterer who has broken two families, has never held a job in government, allowed poor men to serve in the (draft) armed forces in his stead, has been credibly accused of numerous sexual assaults, was an absentee father, does little to support any charitable efforts and has no substantive religious affiliation.

It would seem that for ultra-traditional and politically conservative Roman Catholic conservatives protecting the unborn trumps protecting the born. If Sarah Palin were (Heaven forbid) about to be elected president, many of the same politically conservative and religiously traditional Catholics who despise Clinton would forgive her ambition. If Catholic Joe Biden were running for office, many of these same Catholics might overlook his pro-choice stance while noticing that Trump’s authentic views on abortion are not genuine. But given the choice between a soul-less, faux “pro-life” lecher with zero experience in government and an immensely experienced pro-choice Christian woman, many ultra-traditional and politically conservative Catholics will indeed vote for the man.

Because no man is Lady Macbeth.

The capacity of women to control their fertility is threat to the Vatican coffers. The Roman Catholic Church hierarchy has depended upon, and benefitted mightily from, a cultural norm that encourages Catholics to have large families and raise them in the church. Furthermore, the Vatican is engaged in a strenuous (ultimately losing, I believe) battle to preserve its all-male priesthood.

Then there is the complication of Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, an actual Catholic. I think of Kaine as the patron saint of the “Catholic Spring” traditional and politically conservative Catholics outraged by the Wikileaks emails fear Democratic party staffers had in mind when they wrote those personal notes. Catholics with penchants for policing fellow Catholics (in an effort to feel super-Catholic) have taken to social media to furiously characterize Kaine as “not Catholic,” “self-excommunicated,” and a “Cafeteria Catholic.”

It’s all sticks, stones and fringy zealous hysteria. There’s no theological there there.

Tim Kaine was baptized, is faithful to worship, has a life in the sacraments and works in ministry. He understands what “primacy of conscience” means, and thus he discerns. Catholic politicians, priests and super-Catholics---even those who claim expert knowledge of God’s will, have no standing when it comes to Tim Kaine’s degree of Roman Catholicity. They can whinge and but they can’t unbaptize him. The delightful irony in this is that Tim Kaine is most United States Catholics. Most Catholics support a compassionate immigration policy. Most Catholics frown upon Trump’s xenophobia. The pope himself has enlightened views on climate and has boldly spoken out against the sin of greed. Most Catholics use/support the use of “artificial” birth control (Natural birth control is canonically permissible.) and most Catholics will, come November 8th, cast votes for the candidate who has promised to protect and uphold Roe v. Wade.

The Catholic Wikileaks story came and fizzled---such that mention of it didn’t even find its way into the third debate. It was dud from the start for several reasons: The conversation the Catholic staffers were having is a conversation that Catholics have been having in public view for 50 years. Our church has been engaged in a “Catholic Spring” since the Second Vatican Council. Another reason is that the majority of Roman Catholics are already too disgusted with Trump to eschew voting for Clinton. The U.S. bishops are keeping quiet because they are wise enough to recognize know that Trump will never make good on his promise to appoint a “pro-life” justice to be Supreme Court.

I remember watching a tape of the 2008 Al Smith Dinner shortly before Election Day of that year, and being surprised to see Archbishop Edward Egan chuckling at jokes cracked by presidential hopeful Barack Obama. He views Obama as being a supporter of infanticide? I remember thinking, but chuckles over schtick?’ How can that be?


The answer is that many of these virulent anti-abortion folk do not really believe abortion is infanticide. They just say it. Especially those who make allowances for girls and women who conceived as a result of a rape or incest.” If they believed it, there would be more discussion of jail time, more concern for the right of a the child born of rape to be born and more ejecting of pro-choice pols from parishes and Communion lines. It’s rhetoric. That’s why the cardinal can laugh at a pro-choice candidate’s speech. A cardinal who believed abortion was murder could never. And that same refusing-to-guffaw cardinal would vigorously question the “pro-life” character of any candidate who would eliminate supports for refugees and the nation’s poor---most of whom happen to be children. In my opinion, it would be a mistake to disparage the prelate in charge---or the Catholic laity---for feasting with Clinton and Trump, this evening, at the Al Smith dinner. There’s Christian precedent to support the choice. God loves everyone, and Jesus dined with sinners. Nevertheless, we should look closely and wonder. John Cardinal O’Connor disinvited presidential candidates in 2004 in protest against Bill Clinton’s abortion position. Will Cardinal Dolan will laugh at Lady Macbeth’s jokes?

October 19, 2016

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Friday, October 7, 2016

Cardinal Dolan's Year of Mercy Plan to Address Clergy Sex Abuse Crimes in NY Archdiocese

New York's top bishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan announced the formation of IRCP, the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, which would offer survivors/victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic archdiocesan clergy a path to obtaining damages n the Archdiocese of New York, which he heads. According to a October 7th New York Daily News piece that bears Dolan's byline, 170 "victims" have, thus far, come forward to report abuse by 40 priests. Anyone who has followed this crisis knows that those numbers are very low. Still, the formation of the IRCP may be a first step in the right direction. But it must be a first step, not an endpoint. 
Dolan described this new program as one formed with the of Pope Francis I's "Year of Mercy" in mind (The Year of Mercy comes to a close on November 20th, at the end of liturgical calendar year.) Certainly Dolan's program has the potential to extend both mercy and relief to so many who have suffered at the hands of predator priests--New York's cardinal appears to be interested in increasing the empathy. His effort to develop a program for hearing and examining these claims, and plan to award just damages where appropriate, is not nothing. It's a start, but Dolan must do more.
Survivors need more, and Dolan himself needs more if he wants to demonstrate good faith in this effort.He has a poor track record when it comes to responding to the cries of those who suffered, as children, at the hands of predator priests. While archbishop of Milwaukee (2002-2009) Timothy Dolan was credibly accused of hiding diocese money to insulate it from seizure in clerical sex abuse cases. His Milwaukee diocese went bankrupt two years after he departed it. He has been accused of paying predator priests to disappear, has strenuously opposed New York's Child Victims Act in all of its iterations, and he has joined forces with the lunatic Catholic fringe to publicly degrade victims traumatized by sexual abuse by Catholic clerics. 
The 2015 film Spotlight---which had to have left the cardinal feeling jittery---has been out for a little over a year.Timothy Cardinal Dolan's announced the formation of IRCP, the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, which would offer survivors/victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic archdiocesan clergy a path to obtaining damages. According to a October 7th New York Daily News piece which bears Dolan's byline, 170 "victims" have, thus far, come forward to report abuse by 40 priests. Anyone who has followed this crisis knows that those numbers are very low. Still, the formation of the IRCP may be a first step in the right direction. But it must be a first step, not an endpoint. 
Dolan described this new program as one formed with the of Pope Francis I's "Year of Mercy" in mind (The Year of Mercy comes to a close on November 20th, at the end of liturgical calendar year.) Certainly Dolan's program has the potential to extend both mercy and relief to so many who have suffered at the hands of predator priests--New York's cardinal appears to be interested in increasing the empathy. His effort to develop a program for hearing and examining these claims, and awarding just damages where appropriate, is not nothing. Dolan must, however, do more. 
Survivors need more, and Dolan himself needs more if he wants to demonstrate good faith in this effort. He has a poor track record when it comes to responding to the cries of those who suffered, as children, at the hands of predator priests. While archbishop of Milwaukee (2002-2009) Timothy Dolan was credibly accused of hiding diocese money to insulate it from seizure in clerical sex abuse cases. His Milwaukee diocese went bankrupt two years after he departed it. He has been accused of paying predator priests to disappear, has strenuously opposed New York's Child Victims Act in all of its iterations, and he has joined forces with the lunatic Catholic fringe to publicly degrade victims traumatized by sexual abuse by Catholic clerics. 
The 2015 film Spotlight---which had to have left the cardinal feeling jittery---has been out for more than a year. Pope Francis's "Year of Mercy" comes to a close in a little over a month.The Child Victims Act in New York State received plenty of attention in New York City earlier this year, but was defeated. Despite the fact of a lapsed Catholic-friendly pope, the folks who left the pews in disgust following the Cloyne and John Jayreports are not returning. The lack of a presidential candidate the U.S. Bishops can unofficially can be seen as an outward sign of the hierarchy's losing a grip on the next generation of American Catholics. (Tax law prohibits tax-exempt houses of worship from electioneering but Catholic bishops have, until presidential campaign 2016, unofficially endorsed "pro-life" candidates. This election year? Not so much.) Powerful public relations maneuvers are needed by the Catholic hierarchs, and the formation of IRCP might be one such maneuver. 
On the other hand, Cardinal Dolan might be rising to the occasion of his vocation. If he can make this first step work and follow it up with a second step, he may dramatically reduce his erstwhile show of poor faith in the matter of the sex abuse crisis. But Dolan stops with a program that operates under his unofficial surveillance; if he declines to make records available to police and prosecutors in his diocese, his IRCP will reveal itself to be a Catholic publicity stunt. If Dolan continues to fight the passing of laws that would protect children from abuse in the future and hold perpetrators accountable, he will look like a weasel doing damage control. 
In the Daily News piece bearing his byline, Dolan claimed that the Archdiocese of New York will take out a loan in order to avoid dipping into collections and other (stewardship) funds. It sounds good, but not exactly true. How will those loans be repaid? The archdiocese of New York is wealthy and can be trusted to find the cash, but whatever the plan is---the cardinal should be forthright about it. He threatened to close down Catholic Charity once, in the course of a tantrum. Catholics who toss cash in the basket on Sundays should be interested in knowing from where exactly the money for this program will come. Many left the church or elected to stop tithing when the John Jay Report came out. They didn't want their collection money to be used for payouts and sex abuse case settlements. Dolan needs to be clear about how the IRCP will be funded.
The trio of "three prominent Catholics" assigned to investigate claims has the potential to be problematic. The long reluctance of Roman Catholic police in to charge priests, pastors and the bishops who protected pedophiles might suggest that putting a Roman Catholic former Marine, NYPD Commissioner, Interpol and FBI investigator on a three-person team in charge of verifying cases brought against the archdiocese is imprudent. The other two Roman Catholics in charge of assessing the veracity of complaints are Judge Loretta Preska and Dr. Jeanette Cueva. Cueva is a child psychiatrist. Two Catholic women and a Catholic super-cop. 
"Master of Disaster" Attorney Ken Feinberg of 9/11, Penn State (Sandusky) mediation and settlement fame has been retained to have the last word on cash awards. He's a top-of-the-line hire who appears not to be Catholic. According to Dolan, Feinberg will have the last word on cash settlements and will scrutinize only those cases that the Catholic trio deems legitimate. Feinberg explains how bringing cases will work: 
"'As with the 9/11 fund, there is a tradeoff...If you decide to participate, you are waiving your right to participate in court... Claimants would need to offer proof of their allegations, including contemporaneous conversations with parents, police officers, friends or teachers; the history of the priests' behavior, or psychiatric records.'" 
Feinberg is expert at evaluating nuances, and his experience with Penn State and the BP oil spill leave him well-prepared to slog through the mire of New York's Catholic clergy sex abuse cases, but ethical and moral questions abound. A church is not a university or a corporation. A priest is not a football coach. Where's the God? 


Depression and addiction are common among adults raped by priests in childhood. The statute of limitations will have run out in most of the cases Feinberg will consider, and many of the claimants in these cases have already been managing two or three decades of trauma. Those who elect to "participate" in the IRCP but do not prevail, give up any right to fight again if the Child Victims Act does pass, and the law changes to extend the statute of limitations in cases of sexual abuse of children. Those folk will have trusted the cleric in charge--once again, once more--only to lose out. 
Adults who were victimized in childhood by predator priests are often distrustful of clergy. However the church is still responsible for their suffering, and is never free of the obligation to help them to find relief. The church hierarchy, of which Dolan is part, bears the burden of its poor record of responding appropriately to victims of abuse by priests. Historically, pastors have often been punitive and cruel in their responses. Dolan himself has erred in this. He may be trying to make amends as the Year of Mercy winds down. 
If he is truly seeking to facilitate healing, Cardinal Dolan will recognize the need for alternatives to the IRCP. He will understand that the IRCP is not fully independent of his office. He will remember that a church hierarchy that presumed to police itself amidst its own sex crimes failed. Dolan can say the IRCP is "Independent," but he lacks credibility, because in some (not all) senses he is still one of the wolves guarding the hen house. The success, therefore, of the IRCP, depends on Dolan's willingness to take the next step. The IRCP is a good first step. Next, he must strenuously support a soundly written Child Victims Act in the State of New York, offer genuine support to advocacy groups made up of survivors and victims who cry out for justice, and he must provide police investigating sex crimes committed by archdiocesan priests with pertinent records. Thus, Cardinal Dolan can demonstrate that his program is not a stopgap measure disguised as a good Public Relations move.

10/6/16

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Wednesday, October 5, 2016

How Great Thou Already Art, America: Campaigning Against Trump in Reading, PA

Canvassing on the penultimate weekend before voter closes in swing state Pennsylvania was dispiriting, encouraging and edifying. As a New York educator, activist and church worker who has worked in some of New York City’s poorest areas, I did not expect to be freshly appalled by the way our nation allows innocent people to slip through the proverbial cracks. But I was. Nor did I think it possible to be newly afraid of Donald Trump. But I was.

Canvassing in and around its historic district of Reading with my spouse and a dog, I saw once-magnificent homes, vacated and sold, I deduced, by families fleeing to suburbs. One could see in some kind of stark relief, how easily the perfect storm of housing market collapse, weak school system, white flight, collapse of industry (Remember Reading Railroad from the game of Monopoly?) coalesced into a perfect storm adequate to convert a gem of a city into a town compromised by crime and poverty. 

As a person who grew up in a home where we often lived pay-check to pay-check, I know how easy it is for families to find themselves falling through the proverbial cracks. My brothers and parents and I always feared it. A broken leg, an operation, death, addiction or the sudden departure of a bread-winner parent. My three (college age, college attending) children love having breakfast for dinner. On the way back from Reading, my husband and I had Saturday night dinner at a Waffle House somewhere in Pennsylvania. A cheap date, I had a waffle. It was fun. My brothers and I remember having the other kind of breakfast for dinner. They eggs you have when the money has run out.

As I looked at the houses in Reading I felt as if I was seeing the anatomy of American poverty in microcosm. It's more camouflaged in the city (new York) in which I live. I could see more of the bones of it in Reading, I could imagine how easily those who owned, occupied, sold and bought those historic homes might have found themselves unable to keep up with the maintenance of them.  One of our presidential candidates doesn't read for pleasure. I'm an educator. What happens when schools got bad? It's when all he trouble begins, I believe. 

Foreclosures happen. Large homes get occupied by individual tenants in search of affordable rents. A pattern of transience emerges, sets in. Those left behind are disproportionately elderly and black. I talked with a couple of old people about the campaign and what's wrong with today. My husband and I spoke with one elderly woman who had moved from Philadelphia four times in recent years. She walked with a cane. She was politically aware, nay, all-out astute. She moved to Reading from Philadelphia because she could find a dwelling she could afford. She left her home, in old age, so she could live somewhere other than on the streets. 

Roses love to climb and grow in Reading. We spoke with poor people who kept impeccable gardens but were missing front teeth. Many of these had flew flags in their front yards and articulated patriotic love for our nation and deep fear of Trump. I made the mistake assuming the flag folk were white Trumpers. I was wrong in most cases.

We encountered too many people who believed voting didn’t matter.

Most seemed to hold voting dear. In some cases, we had to explain our reason for carpet-bagging from Brooklyn. "Our vote only matters a little. Your vote can change the whole outcome." 

I loved meeting the codgers and and the couple of young Latino men who were enthusiastic about voting “down the Democratic ballot” for three women (Katie McGinty is running for Senate there, and Christina Hartman for Congress.)  One Spanish-speaking guy exclaimed thus, when we asked him about his plans to cast a vote: “I’m voting for the girl!” (His English was not great. My  guess is  Secretary Clinton would be okay with being called "a girl" by him.)

More than once, we were asked “You’re not with Trump, are you?” as we stepped onto a front porch and approached the door. We're white. 

While the local Republic campaign office at the Abraham Lincoln Hotel in Reading seemed to be operational, with posters for candidates in local races in its storefront windows, the Trump/Pence headquarters a few feet away was as empty as a ship from which the rats have finished scampering.
  
The conversation with a man in his twenties whom we accosted as he got out of the car with groceries both inspired and frustrated. He wanted to register to vote. He was obviously intelligent, interested in the presidential race and cognizant of the issues, but worried that he did not read well enough to fill out the forms. One of our presidential candidates doesn't read for pleasure. I'm an educator. What happens when schools got bad? It's when all he trouble begins. Imagination takes a licking.

When a city, state, nation fails to teach its taxpayers how to read, we should think twice about a candidate for president who does not read. 

We found that conversations with people who were not listed on our Democratic ground game list were as important as making sure that people who had registered once, planned to get to the polls on November 8th.

We registered a few nieces, nephews, friends and new citizens of people already on the list. Called them "live ones."

We met people who couldn’t find jobs, who could barely get by, who had a given up entirely on medical and dental care, who had been separated from extended family by poverty, who had been educationally shafted but who still held on to a feeling that the United States could support them in working to have a better life.Very often we knocked and were told by neighbors, that the tenant was at work, works a lot, works on Saturday, works all the time. 

One of the first things I learned while working with poor folks in New York as that most poor (and an alarming proportion of homeless) folks have jobs. A lot of people who have enough don't know that.

People with jobs and no homes or no teeth or bad water don't need Donald Trump's great jobs so much as they need a leader who recognizes their humanity, struggles and achievements and a government that gives back when they pay taxes on their gasoline, milk, shoes...

We spoke in English and Spanish with many Spanish-speaking people in Reading. From what I have read about Reading, a lot of the people Trump would like to depart are revitalizing Reading. This is should come as no surprise. It's what immigrants in the United States have traditionally done.

One Spanish-speaking man we met spoke of nervously waiting for his application for citizenship to clear in time for the October 11th voter registration deadline. Ave Maria his way. 

Some of the people on our list had used the address of /resided at a mission when they last registered. A man with mesmerizing blue eyes answered the door when I knocked looking for them. As he directed me to the entrance around the corner he warned me that most of the people “in here can’t vote because. They're felons." We chatted.

He didn’t plan to vote. He insisted it didn't matter who won. I argued softly. Maybe he didn’t want to vote; maybe he had been stripped of his right to vote. Maybe he had done something illegal enough to leave him without a say.  

Many who voted for Obama in 2012 are disappointed by what they see as a lack of follow-through on the part of his administration; electioneers show up at election time. I take their point. Perhaps Clinton can do more.

Nonetheless, the white man who answered the mission door was the only person in Reading with whom I spoke at any length, that weekend who did not speak of fearing a Trump presidency. "Two lousy candidates," he said. I wasn't quite buying it.

As we rounded the corner to get to the mission's entrance, I wondered about that default to hopeless disinterest. It could be seen as a healthly response to being deprived of a voter's voice.

If voting changes nothing, then losing the right to vote does not matter. 

We turned the corner and my husband went into the mission. The white guy was right. Indeed many of the men gathered around the television set watching a ball game were ineligible to register to vote. I don’t know what their offenses were, but I could infer from Narcotics Anonymous sign outside the property that many were there for the kind of offenses that send middle class white men to rehab. We are a culture that, at least, pretends to recognize that addiction is an illness, but we are not democratic about it. 

I was proud when the husband emerged with a couple of what we had talen to calling “live ones”--- new voter registrations. I hope our hopefulness is justified.


The trip to Reading was precious.  We're going back. Reading is a beautiful city, but it is one of the poorest in the nation. I am told it has one of the highest crime rates in the nation. The only thing I was afraid of while covering the roughly eight miles my husband, little dog and I covered on foot last week was Donald Trump.

The first step toward making our country greater is recognizing how great and various and full of hope we are. 

10/4/16

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