As the Catholic Church awaits the election of our next pope, the Church has once again become the subject of considerable media attention. As churches continue to close, as the priest shortage increases, and as we acknowledge the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, more and more people are saying that the Church needs to change. One of these is Joanna Manning, a former nun who, after years of struggling to change the Church from within, eventually gave up and converted to the Anglican Church. You can read her story here:

http://www.thestar.com/news/insight/2013/03/03/former_catholics_say_rigid_church_forced_them_to_leave.html

I can certain empathize with Manning and others who have left Catholicism for Anglicanism. I can also empathize with the Roman Catholic Womenpriests who have been ordained within the Church (the first women priests were ordained illegally by male bishops sympathetic to the women’s ordination movement) and have suffered excommunication for their conviction. However, many questions follow from this discussion. The first question I would offer the author of this article would be to what extent the Church’s treatment of women really is the cause of Catholicism’s declining numbers (especially among the young). One comment on the article suggests that the decline Church membership is not particularly due to the hierarchy’s stance on social issues such as gay marriage, women’s ordination and contraception; rather, it is due to a general secularization taking place in the culture. In terms of qualitative, anecdotal evidence, I would argue that young people are leaving the pew behind for both of these reasons. I am wondering…to what extent are  issues related?

My next question is…for those Catholics who want to reform the Church, what would the best strategy be? Joanna Manning and many others like her have their strategy – they vote with their feet. The Roman Catholic Womenpriests have their strategy, but unfortunately, their radical defiance of the Church’s rules threatens to alienate them not only from traditionalists, but also moderate Catholics who might be sympathetic to the cause but hesitate to defy the church authority so boldly. Some moderate Catholics have suggested, for example, that fighting for women’s access to participation in the deaconate might be a good first step (before fighting for full-blown ordination). This point also deserves further discussion and will be addressed in an upcoming post. Meanwhile, your comments are welcome!

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 “‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him. ‘For all who live by the sword will die by the sword.'”

– Matthew 26:52

I cannot believe the news today. According to the BBC, the US CIA has been operating a drone base in Saudi Arabia for two years: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-21350437

To this, all I can say is, “Who do we (Americans) think we are?” Do we truly fancy ourselves God? Do we really think it’s acceptable to send these killing machines to places where war has not even been declared?

It’s hard to believe that drone usage has increased exponentially under the administration of our Nobel Peace laureate president Obama. It’s likewise hard (for me) to understand all those voices that have come out defending drone warfare. While they may reduce American casualties in the short term, these drones – which can and do make mistakes – continue to kill innocent civilians abroad. As for us, I firmly believe that the age of American exceptionalism is over. He who lives by the drone will die by the drone. It’s only a matter of time before these machines which we so casually use will be used against us.

Every so often we meet someone whose every word seems to be filled with the divine inspiration. During my recent trip to Nicaragua, I was blessed to meet such a someone. Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann: Catholic Maryknoll priest, former Nicaraguan Foreign Minister, former President of UN General Assembly, art collector, revolutionary, sage.  Although he believes strongly in nonviolence, he also believes that the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979, which toppled the forty-year Somoza dictatorship, was a just war against imperialism. As the group I was with (a delegation of US and British citizens working for the closure of the School of the Americas) and I listened to Father Miguel talk, we were all struck by his insight and wisdom. I would like to share with you several quotations from his address to us, interspersed with images from his home (which he is gradually converting into a museum of Nicaraguan art).

Father Miguel D’Escoto, M.M.

“To follow Jesus means to live a life of risk. We cannot be Christians and reject risk. Otherwise, we run the risk of losing contact with Jesus.”

“I believe that the gospel of Jesus, my Lord, is radically nonviolent. There is no greater violence than imperialism.”

“The Church has never been in favour of a revolution to benefit the poor. This is because the Church is an old institution that for much of its history, has worked in cahoots with the empires and has accrued many privileges. The privileged classes hate, fear and despise revolution. This has been a lamentable fact.”

“When I was six years old, I asked my father why the Mass was so important. He said it was important because it pleases God. This answer was enough to carry me for a few years. But then, one time while attending morning Mass with my mother, I saw some people looking for food in the garbage. I asked her, ‘Mother, why are they hungry?’ She responded, ‘Because it is not true that we are Christians.’”

“Lord, help me to understand the mystery of your Cross, to love your Cross, to embrace my own cross in whatever form it comes.”

“The Cross was a death penalty reserved for anti-imperialists. The thieves that were crucified on either side of Christ were called bandits. That was the term used to describe people who opposed imperial power. When Christ was crucified, all Palestine was a beehive of anti-imperialism. Christ’s message could not be more subversive; he preached the kingdom of God as a counter-force to the kingdom of empire. The difference between him and those crucified with him was that while they were armed, he was not. His gospel was of nonviolence.”

“The worst crimes in the world have been committed in the name of obedience. Obedience must be to God and to the primacy of conscience, not to man.”

“What the world needs most is spirituality. The church has silenced its own prophets. By ‘prophets’ I don’t mean people who foretell the future, but people who see that humanity has derailed, who call us back to brotherly relationships.”

“Christianity has to do with moving from the logic of I and mine to the logic of we and ours.”

“Spirituality means being constantly ready to give our lives like our heroes and martyrs did.”

“There is no revolution without spirituality, and no spirituality without revolution.”

“Don’t fall into the temptation of not loving your country, or not loving our harlot mother Church. Thank God that we are all sinners, so that we might have compassion for other sinners.”

“If we receive applause, beware – we are betraying Christ. We must be foolish in the eyes of the world. The wisdom of God is foolishness for the worldly.”

“Our encouragement must be in Jesus. Forget everything else; cling to Jesus.”

“The world is in bad shape; we are in need of people inflamed with love. I pray that you all may receive a shot of divine insanity, the insanity of the Cross. It is this insanity that makes us yearn to risk our lives for those people on the other side of the tracks.”

When I think back on my high school years, I remember a community filled with  spirituality. I received an education that encouraged me to think critically about the realities of the world while cultivating an idealism grounded in faith. At the beginning of every school year, our campus minister would ask an artistically inclined student to create a banner conveying a theme for that year. When I began my senior year in the fall of 2000, my classmate Jill made a beautiful banner with an image of two hands holding up the world. The phrase that accompanied it was “Embrace The World With Hope.”

For me, the turn of the millennium was a moment of excitement and joy. So much in the world seemed to be changing for the better. The Berlin Wall had come down; the Cold War had ended; technology was bridging cultural and linguistic divides. Alas, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the two ensuing US-led wars threatened my rosy view of the world, as did my growing awareness of social injustice, violence , mass consumption of precious natural resources, and humanity’s destruction of biodiversity. Suddenly, Jill’s banner took on new meaning for me, and to this day I haven’t forgotten it. What the world needs now, more than anything else perhaps, is hope.

While studying Latin American literature in college I was forced to look at my country from a perspective I’d rarely encountered in my high school history classes. I learned about the many wrongs that my country’s foreign policies had wrought on people across the world, particularly those of the Western Hemisphere.  I learned of the US-funded Contra War in Nicaragua in the ’80’s and the US-backed coup in Chile in 1973; I learned of cash crop producers who’d suffered at the hands of US-dominated multinationals. I learned of Archbishop Oscar Romero, Salvadoran advocate for the poor, assassinated while saying Mass in 1980. Later, I learned that his killers had been trained at a US military institution: the School of the Americas.

Founded in 1946, the School of the Americas has trained Latin American military personnel in a variety of areas, including torture techniques. When the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador was exposed as having been completed by SOA graduates, Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeois decided to take action. Since 1990, his organization SOA Watch has fought for the closure of the SOA, holding a vigil each November outside the gates of its facility at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Although the name of the institution was changed in 2001 – it is now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), its faculty and central purposes remain unchanged.

Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of SOA Watch

About five years ago, Bourgeois was joined by former Maryknoll Lay Missionary and human rights activist Lisa Sullivan. Together, they decided on a new strategy toward closing the school: removing its students. Travelling throughout Latin America and meeting with multiple political leaders, Bourgeois and Sullivan have found this strategy to be somewhat successful. Beginning with Venezuela, they eventually got Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay to withdraw their troops. Two months ago, a meeting with President Rafael Correa ensured Ecuador’s withdrawal. Just this past week, on September 4, 2012, Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega announced that his military would also be withdrawing its own remaining troops. (At the beginning of Ortega’s presidency in 2007 there were 78 Nicaraguan soldiers studying at the SOA annually; by 2011 there were five, and now there are none). How fortunate I was to be sitting just a few feet away from him when he made this announcement, to share in this moment filled with hope.

The Nicaraguan countryside near Esteli

On August 28, 2012, a delegation of concerned US and UK citizens travelled to Nicaragua under the auspices of SOA Watch as well as the Nicaragua Network. Our objective was twofold: to learn about the country’s current political, social and economic realities and to convince President Ortega to withdraw Nicaraguan troops from the SOA/WHINSEC. My fellow delegates and I saw a lot during our ten days in Nicaragua. We met a cooperative of women who have started businesses due to the current Sandinista government’s Zero Usury Programme. We met a woman who had been given a new start (along with a pregnant cow) as part of the same government’s Zero Hunger Programme. We met a passionate Irish-born activist, editor of news source Tortilla Con Sal, who has lived in Nicaragua for years and led inspiring social projects, including a the formation of a women’s cooperative in the city of Esteli. We visited Managua’s city dump – in recent times nothing short of hell on earth for the poorest of Nicaragua’s poor. Now, a new recycling centre is being built there, and the impoverished people who live there will be given new jobs.

Recycling centre being built in Managua

This is not to say that all is rosy in Nicaragua. We also met with former banana plantation workers who, subjected to the chemical Nemagon by the multinational companies that employed them, are now left with physical illness and moral disillusionment. We met with the Movimiento Renavador Sandinista, which fervently critiques Daniel Ortega’s government as continuing with the neoliberal policies of the 90’s. Meetings with government officials, who spoke of ecologically questionable development projects like the building of a canal along and lauded foreign investment in the country by ethically dubious giants like Cargill, led me to see the shades of truth in the opposition movement’s critiques. “We have to balance things out,” I kept hearing in talk after talk. “It’s complicated.” Indeed, the Sandinistas of 2012 are not the revolutionaries of the 1980’s. Nevertheless, as we drove through Managua’s nameless streets, I saw a different vision of the country than that which I’d experienced ten or even five years ago. It’s hard to put my finger on just what it was, but there was a spark in the air. A newfound optimism. New hope.

One of many murals in Esteli

For me, one of the greatest highlights of the delegation was our visit to two Christian Base Communities. As an eighth grader in my Catholic primary school I’d learned about these small, grassroots Catholic communities that during the 70’s and 80’s were hotbeds of liberation theology – the application of gospel principles to the condition of the oppressed. These communities were once known as the backbone of the Latin American church. But, as the hierarchical, institutional church grew more conservative and liberation theology lost its influence, these communities also declined in some countries.

The Nicarao Christian Base Community’s Liturgy of the Word celebration

But, this is not at all the case in Nicaragua, where they are vibrant and filled with fervour. As we walked into the Liturgy of the Word celebration, which was led by a woman and accompanied by joyful  guitar music, I immediately felt at home. Later, when we sat down in a circle and told them of our mission, we encountered their profound political awareness and insight. All of the members knew about the School of the Americas, and all urged us on in our determination to close it.

The Casa Hogar Christian Base Community

This excitement was compounded by our meeting with Father Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, a Maryknoll priest and old friend of Father Roy Bougeois. Refusing to choose between religious commitment and activity in the predominantly secular world of politics, d’Escoto served as Nicaragua’s foreign minister in the 1980’s and President of the UN General Assembly in 2008. “There is no revolution without spirituality, and no spirituality without revolution,” he told us, seated in the back garden of his lovely house which is is gradually converting into a museum of Nicaraguan art. “The world is in bad shape; we are in need of people inflamed with love. I pray that you all may receive a shot of divine insanity, the insanity of the Cross. It is this insanity that makes us yearn to risk our lives for those people on the other side of the tracks.”

Father Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, former president of UN General Assembly

As for our objective of meeting with President Ortega? Thanks to the efforts of Paul Baker Hernandez, a British-born singer and activist who has been living in Nicaragua for over twenty years and who organized our entire itinerary, we were promised a meeting with him at some point during our stay. But, as the days went by, the expected call still did not come. On our last and perhaps busiest day, which included meetings with the Movimiento Renavador Sandinista, human rights commissioner Omar Cabezas, a Sandinista youth environment brigade, and with a women’s commission, we anxiously waited for the phone to ring. It didn’t. As the hours went by, our hope began to wane.

“After all, it’s certainly arrogant of us to go to a country and expect to meet with its president,” one delegate remarked. As night fell, we headed off to our farewell dinner at a lovely restaurant called Mirador de Tiscapa. I was halfway through my second margarita when the call came: we were to be back at Father Miguel d’Escoto’s house by 8 p.m.; there, the president would see us.

The next moments occurred as if within a dream. We quickly finished our dinners, paid our bill, and scrambled back into the vans. Our drivers hurried raced us back to Father Miguel’s house, where we were once again seated in his garden. We talked excitedly among ourselves until it was announced: the President was in the house. We all stood, and then he emerged. “I saw you in today’s paper,” he told us. When we thanked him for agreeing to meet with us, he smiled. “You were very persistent,” he said.

Father Roy minced no words in conveying our mission to President Ortega. “Please join with your friends in Venezuela and Ecuador in saying that the School of the Americas should not exist,” he admonished the president.

As I sat listening, I was not sure of what to expect. My Nicaraguan friends expressed doubt that Ortega would withdraw Nicaragua’s troops from the SOA, and when the president began to speak, those doubts were confirmed. “The economy of Nicaragua is fragile and dependent,” he told us. “Our original economic condition was one of dependence. We had this until 1979 and then again during the 90’s under neliberalism. From the US perspective, we were a ‘banana republic.’ No South American country, nor Mexico, was ever called this.”

Father Roy urges President Daniel Ortega to withdraw Nicaragua’s remaining troops from the School of the Americas

He went on to discuss his government’s plans for ending this dependence – particularly, Nicaragua’s decision to join the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) and development plans that aim to allow freedom from the IMF. However, he then began to discuss the challenges of US-Nicaraguan relations. “It would not be possible for us to nationalize our resources,” Ortega said. “We would not be able to handle the US sactions.” He then mentioned the increased US military presence in Latin America, which the American government has justified by citing concerns over narcotics trafficking.

All of these, I expected Ortega to say, are reasons why we cannot withdraw our troops from the School of the Americas.

Instead, the discussion took a completely unexpected turn. Ortega stated that Nicaragua, along with Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela, was in the process of withdrawing from the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance. He then stated, “As for the School of the Americas, it has an ethical weight, especially for countries like ours that were its victims. It is a symbol of death and terror. And this year, we are not sending any more troops there, nor will we be doing so in the years to come.”

In that moment, Nicaragua became the sixth country – and the first Central American country – to withdraw its troops from the SOA/WHINSEC.

“Embrace the world with hope.” Even amid war, dictatorship, economic and environmental collapse, rampant consumerism and our cruel destruction of our Mother Earth, there is still hope. I can hardly express how fortunate I was to be there to see it. And now, as SOA Watch takes its campaign to other countries, I feel certain that this little flicker is only the beginning.

History is being made. Again and again we are told this.  Every time a war starts or ends, every time a stock market crashes, every time a tower falls. But is history really made in sudden, monumental, movie-montage events? Or does it move more slowly, in the time of dinner table conversations and daily commutes, in the twenty years it takes to raise a child?

I’m afraid I barely noticed when President Obama made his first public statement on same-sex marriage. I was lazily browsing BBC News, and to be perfectly honest, stories about the increase of plastic waste particles in the ocean (a 100% increase in the past forty years) and Google’s plans to develop driverless cars caught my attention much more strongly than this. Maybe it’s due to my social privilege as a person who has not been the object of sexuality-based discrimination. More likely, though, I think it’s due to the fact that Obama’s stance really wasn’t any news to me.  I’d known all along that he is a supporter of LGBTQ rights, even if in official discourse he previously hedged the issue. However, as scholar Sarah Wildman has stated in a recent BBC news article,

“Among many progressives, a feeble stance on gay marriage has become almost a political liability. Witness the quick hurrah! response from Nancy Pelosi and Mike Bloomberg to the president’s statement.

But it is far easier to make a statement as a governor, a congresswoman, a mayor. The country needed the president to take a stand here. The country needed this statement to come from on high: a clear-headed recognition that these are people’s lives, that rights can’t be traded or put off for later. The pomp and circumstance of the White House is no gimmick. A major new direction has been announced for the country.

“Historic,” in this moment is not a cliche.

However, Wildman also takes the long view, noting that this moment is part of a long, gradual process that is unfolding. While there may exist a realm of eternal truth and good, we who dwell in Plato’s cave know only shadows…and the shapes and sizes of those shadows change over time. We are in the midst of a value shift that has been developing gradually over much time, and Obama’s annoucement is just one of many movements in that shift. I rejoice with Wildman in the implications of this change for human rights and freedoms.

“Malia and Sasha Obama might, rightly, be shocked by all the fuss this is causing. Certainly, by the time they are of an age when their peers begin to marry, 15 or 20 years from now, this day will glow with that Instamatic glow through which we view many of the civil rights successes of the past.

You mean women had to ask their husband’s permission to work? You mean interracial marriage was… illegal? You mean gay marriage was once… banned?”

Like many others of my generation, I find it impossible not to be a supporter of same-sex marriage. I am enough of a traditionalist to believe that marriage and family (and the lifelong commitment implied in each) are highly important moral institutions that should be preserved for the health of both the individual and society. Meanwhile, my postmodern education has suggested to me that traditions might be amended without forfeiting their integrity, that marriages and families can take on many forms, and that gender is a socially constructed as well as a biological category. However, when I try to discuss my perspective with my parents – who firmly see marriage as a union between a man and a woman with the goal of raising children – we reach a communicative impasse. On this particular issue, a gulf has formed between our values, and we stand on opposite sides.

But, for me the gulf is perhaps not so wide as it is for many of my fellow millennials. To an extent I can empathize with conservative journalist Rod Dreher, whose opposing BBC opinion piece concurs with Wildman in acknowledging that a value shift is occurring. But while Wildman rejoices in the change, Dreher laments it:

“As is commonly known, polling data show a stark generational divide among Americans on same-sex marriage. The younger the voter, the greater the support. The demographic tidal wave on this issue is undeniable…As long as the traditionalist position on same-sex marriage, almost universally held only 25 years ago, is treated as irrational hatred and nothing but by the media, business, and social elites, there will be powerful social and psychological pressure to shun it.”

Dreher discusses the many correlations made between the gay rights movement and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s (and tries to endorse the latter while distancing himself from the former). Ultimately, he argues that just as political and social pressure from elite opinion makers gradually forced small-town white Southerners to accept integrated schools, so this same pressure will ultimately force same-sex marriage opponents to accept the phenomenon as it spreads.

I believe that Dreher is most likely correct in his predictions, and while I don’t join him in decrying this change, I am intrigued by the conclusion of his article, in which he attributes the increasing support for same-sex marriage in America to a decline in religious practice:

Leaving aside the role of elites in forming mass opinion, it is not sufficiently appreciated why so many younger Americans support same-sex marriage.

It fits easily with what they already believe about the nature of marriage, of sex, of liberty, and of human nature. The high level of religiosity shown in US polls is deceiving.

More recent, comprehensive research by political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, and sociologist Christian Smith, indicates that young Americans are not only abandoning formal religious observance in large numbers (while still claiming to be “spiritual”), but they see religion primarily in therapeutic terms.

That is, they believe that God wants us to be nice, happy and self-fulfilled – and that’s about it.

As the late sociologist Philip Rieff observed in his great 60s work of cultural analysis, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Western culture had by then abandoned the Christian moral matrix, especially on sexual matters.

Given the haplessness of the churches as a counter-cultural force to the hedonism and individualism celebrated by popular culture, it should surprise no-one that arguments, Christian and otherwise, for traditional marriage are hard for young people to conceptualise.

Traditionalists keep winning battles, but we have lost the war at the level of ideas... Like it or not, this is what it means to live after the passing of the Christian era.”

It is on this point – the “passing of the Christian era” – that I can empathize with Dreher. Although I do not lament the increasing support for LGBTQ rights, I admittedly bemoan what I also see as the decline in religiosity in American society and the increase in what he calls the “therapeutic” mentality (so seductive, but so shallow in the end). I also think that there are many traditional values – particularly loyalty, commitment, and devotion to ideals higher than the self and individual well-being – that are worth preserving.

But, while I relate to Dreher’s concern about religion, I can’t help but notice the glaringly obvious flaw in his reasoning. What is the relationship between this decline in religious practice and support for same-sex marriage? There may be a correlation, but can we really say that one is the cause of the other? Most important, why does religious practice have to be coded as socially conservative? What about progressive Christians and LGBTQ churches and openly gay priests? Dreher speaks of the Civil Rights Movement – let us not forget that many of its great leaders, as well as its detractors, were professed Christians. The LGBTQ rights movement is different, but still, Dreher is incorrect in his categorical linking of religiosity with social conservatism.

We human beings are constantly making history, both collectively and individually, and we have a choice about which morals we want to preserve and which we want to change. It is true, as Dreher shows, that societal pressures will often compel us to choose one value over another…but ultimately, the decision is ours. And, these values do not have to come in a neat pre-packaged set. Being pro-same-sex marriage does not have to mean being secularist or nonreligious. Being a liberal does not have to mean rejecting certain traditions that one deems worth preserving. As always, values are messy. What matters most is to understand our own motivations for having them, their influence on our actions and their impact on other people.

 

It has now been about four months since I last wrote a proper post for this blog. A few things have happened. I studied for – and passed – my doctoral field examination, which means that I’m now what is commonly known as an “ABD” – “all but dissertation.” (In other words, I’ve completed my entire PhD except for the most important part).

What else has happened? I mourned the death – and celebrated the life – of my dear uncle, Robert Cummings, who passed away last November. I enjoyed a wonderful Christmas with my family. I travelled to southern Arizona -one of the sunniest places on earth – where I explored a cave, climbed a canyon, and reconnected with a dear old friend whom I hadn’t seen in eight years. I assisted with the organization of one academic conference and presented a paper at another. I spent some time pretending to write a novel (I’m currently at about 48,000 words; I hope to reach  60,000 in a month or two). And, as always, there are my 179 bright-eyed undergraduate student to attend to!

So now, as I approach this blog again, I can’t ignore a slight feeling of trepidation. It’s not unlike walking barefoot on a beach at the beginning of summer. There’s always a sting in that first splash of cold water over my feet! So, once again, I must try not to flinch at that chill and then step further into the sea, trusting that as soon as I can get waist-deep, it will feel as warm as bathwater.

Needless to say, readership of this blog has declined dramatically since I stopped writing on a regular basis (not that it was ever that high to begin with)! Nevertheless, I am grateful to those of you who have continued reading, as well as to those who have stumbled on my blog by chance. In mid-January someone was even so kind as to post one of my articles on Twitter, which definitely gave me a thrill. Like many aspiring writers I dream of reaching wide audiences, but at the end of the day that is not what this endeavor is about. If I can learn something by writing this blog – whether from the comments I receive or from the process of writing itself – then my time is not being wasted. And if there’s any chance that you can learn something, then my efforts are not in vain.

So, in attempting to dip my toes in the water, I’d like to start by sharing a few items that have been on my mind during the past four months – items that I would have written full posts on if I’d only found the time:

 – The US Health and Services Mandate for Contraception/Sterilization Coverage

The United States department of Health and Human Services has mandated that all institutions that provide healthcare to employees must now include coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortifacients in the healthcare plans they offer. In others words, the US Federal Government is obligating religious organizations who oppose these forms of healthcare to place their moral convictions aside and comply with the moral stance of the federal government. The Catholic Church and other religious organizations have reacted with indignation; in the words of  New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, “In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences.” Meanwhile, the entire conflict has sparked a national debate on the somewhat unclear boundary between the secular law on which our country is founded and the diverse religious and ethical stances which that law is meant to protect.

Where do I stand on this issue? If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you will know that I firmly oppose the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception. Nevertheless, I cannot back the HHS Mandate. I believe that workers should have access to the healthcare they require, but I also believe that religious institutions have their own right to operate according to their conscience. I am not so sure that this is an issue of “freedom of religion” as some religious leaders are saying, but it is definitely too deep of an intrusion of the federal government into Civil Society. Therefore, I have signed the petition against the mandate, and I hope and pray for a peaceful solution to this dispute.

– The 2012 Presidential Election

Unfortunately there’s not too much I can say on this one. My vote doesn’t really count anyway, as my home state is true blue, but naturally I’m concerned about the outcome. This seems like another case of a “lesser of two evils” decision. Another four years of Obama seems unlikely to bring us anything good, but would giving the reins back to the other team really put us in any better shape.

I have a sneaking suspicion that I’ve just said nothing. I’ll give this issue some more thought and get back to you in a month or two.

Poland’s 2011 Parliamentary Elections, which took place last October

“Huh? Poland?” you might ask, scratching your head in confusion. Yes, Poland. Given that this is supposed to be a Catholic blog, doesn’t it make sense that I would take an interest in what is arguably the most Catholic country in the world? Perhaps my interest goes the other way – my love for Poland is the very thing that has preserved my long-standing love for Catholicism. No matter. I bet some of you didn’t even know that Poland was a predominantly Catholic country, did you? Unlike in so many other European nations, where twentieth century Catholicism became a symbol for fascism and the old regime, in Poland it was emblem of freedom, of national identity, and of a well-loved culture that people refused to let forty-four years of totalitarianism wipe away. For the Polish people, Pope John Paul II was more than just a religious leader. His  invocation to “Be not afraid” became something of a rallying cry, and the Solidarity movement which  resisted (and ultimately defeated) communism during the 1980’s  transformed Christian symbols into national ones:

However, the Poland of 2012 is not the Poland of the 1980’s; as in many places, secularization – at least of the public sphere – continues to occur. In last October’s Parliamentary elections, Palikot’s Movement – a new political party led by the unapologetically anticlerical Janusz Palikot – garnered forty seats, or ten percent of the vote. Not bad for a political party that isn’t even two years old. Palikot’s popularity with Polish youth reveals that Poland (and the place of religion within it) is changing, and I for one will be watching these changes with interest over the coming years.

The New Translation of the Roman Catholic Missal

The first Sunday of Advent 2011 found Catholics throughout the English-speaking world bending over prayer cards and fumbling through once-familiar songs and responses. The wording of long-ago memorized prayers had been altered – sometimes quite significantly. Translation  – particularly literary translation – is a very strong personal interest of mine, so I am naturally interested in the Third Translation of the Roman Missal since the Second Vatican Council’s decision to replace the Latin Mass with the vernacular. This new version, which was initiated in 2002 by  Pope John Paul II, aims toward greater faithfulness of the original Latin, a more elevated use of language, and more lucid Scriptural references (even most Catholics are not aware of the extent to which the liturgy is based on quotations from the Bible).

In an essay entitled “The Task of the Translator,” philosopher Walter Benjamin has stated that the process of literary translation causes the target language to become foreign to itself. I have found this to be the case when translating Spanish literary texts into English – usually, when I look back at my first draft, I find that my English sounds strange, perhaps like Spanish, but not quite. I must admit that I experienced this same kind of dissonance as I struggled over the prayers last Advent and even into this year – the old prayers were always there on the tip of my tongue, empty and clanging. Indeed, the experience of learning the new translation has definitely been a cause for reflection, for greater attentiveness to the words that we are actually saying, to the many layers of meaning embedded in the strange prayer we call the Mass. The adoption of the Third Translation is a process that has not yet been completed, and I will certainly have more to say about it in upcoming posts.

– Movies

Yes, you heard me right. Movies. After years of rarely even setting foot inside a cinema, I found myself seeing many interesting films which I would have loved to have written reviews of for you. By now they are long out of theatres, but I’m sure that they are viewable by other means. Some of the films I have seen and enjoyed include the following:

La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In) by Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. Once again, this fantastic director compels his audience to recognize the complexity of humn nature and  to acknowledge the violence latent in each one of us and, at the same time, the utter vulnerability and humanity of those who commit acts of violence. To make a long story short, this film calls upon us to feel compassion for a rapist…and due to Almodovar’s brilliance, we do.

The Way by the American Emilio Estevez. This is a Catholic film if I ever saw one. A middle-aged man, having recently learned of his estranged son’s death, goes to France to retrieve the remains and decides to walk the Santiago Pilgrimage Route through Spain. It’s a beautiful story of a spiritual journey, friendship, and self-acceptance. The going matters more than the getting there…in fact, there’s no such thing as “getting there,” for we are always there already.

Surviving Progress, a Canadian documentary by Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks. The message is simple: we are destroying ourselves. All our technology, our urban development, our “progress” is ultimately leading us toward global catastrophe. However, this is not just another doomsday documentary; the makers of this film suggest that there is still hope to be found, though it will require a radical effort on the part of all of us. Specifically, the film offers interesting snapshots of modern China (where economic development is rapidly creating a new middle class of people eager for more consumer goods) and Brazil, where a government that purports to seek protection for the Amazon often has conflicting interests of its own. Overall, the film is sobering, but necessary – by far the most important I’ve seen in a long time.

Pink Ribbons ,Inc. which takes a critical look at corporate involvement in breast cancer philantropy, exposing the startling contradictions of corporations who purport to support breast cancer research while often using carcinogens in their own products. Another problem highlighted by the film is the undefined nature of the “research” that the funds are going toward – only a tiny amount of which is directed toward cancer prevention. The moral of the story? “Think before you pink.” In choosing your products, don’t be swayed by “pinkwashed” cause marketing. And should you choose to donate money to charity, try to find out about where that money is actually going.

There’s a lot more on my mind at the moment, but I think that this post is already far too eclectic. As you can see, each one of these topics could have been its own post, and I plan to say more about them in the coming months. Unfortunately, I suspect that my posts will continue to be somewhat sporadic, but I will aim for two per month at least. And, please be aware that my original goal for this blog was to open it up to other voices. I welcome your comments. I welcome entire posts on religion, spirituality, secularism, politics and culture.

I was raised by an ardently pro-life mother, and her influence on me was significant. As a teenager I accompanied her to Respect Life meetings and prayer vigils at our church, held a sign stating “Abortion Kills Children” at the annual Life Chain (a street protest commemorating the passing of the 1973 US Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in the United States), and learned as much as I could about the issue. For a freshman bioethics project I researched all the grisly details of various abortion procedures, particularly intact dilation and extraction, and wrote an essay outlining all of the ethical problems I found there: primarily, that abortion involves inflicting excruciating pain on a defenseless human being.

One day, when I walked into the high school cafeteria, my pro-life button pinned to my collar, one of my more feisty classmates immediately rolled her eyes at me. “You’re pro-life? Really? Come on, Jeannine. What do you think you would do if you got pregnant?”

I stared at her, indignant. How could this little bitch even think – much less say – something like this about me? In all my fourteen years I’d barely talked to any boys, much less done anything else. I was a paragon of virtue. An example of perfect innocence. Needless to say, I was very, very sheltered for my fourteen years.

At that age I had no real awareness that not all fourteen-year-olds had the same kind of privilege. That in the world – in my country, perhaps even my own city – there were fourteen-year-olds forced into prostitution in order to survive. That a fourteen-year-old could get raped – by a stranger, by a relative, by a friend – and end up pregnant as a result. That the world was filled with all sorts of terror and trauma of which abortion was only one example.

Nowadays, I still believe the basic moral principles that guide the pro-life movement. The question of when human life begins – whether at conception, birth or perhaps some other stage in one’s personal development from childhood to maturity – is complex, and I don’t think that there is a simple answer. However, one fact that cannot be denied is that a fetus is a living being which after the first month of pregnancy has a beating heart and can feel pain, and as I understand it, inflicting the kind of pain that abortion induces on such a being is not morally justifiable.  Nevertheless, the arguments of the other side also resonate with a certain truth. My friend’s question comes back to me. If I were to find myself unexpectedly pregnant, even now, what would I do? I’d like to think that I would carry the baby to term and deliver him or her into life (even if I opted to give the child up for adoption afterwards). But still, I can’t say for certain what I would do until the situation happens. Who am I to judge someone else, especially if that someone has become pregnant in traumatic circumstances?  For people on the pro-choice side, the issue is not the morality of abortion itself. It is more about who gets to make moral decisions. The choice is left to the individual. If a woman chooses to have an abortion, that is her right and responsibility, and the consequences that come with it are hers to deal with. Members of the pro-life movement often refer to people of the pro-choice movement as “pro-abortion.” I doubt that anyone on the pro-choice side would state that abortion in itself is a good thing. And now we come to the main point of this post.

The debate over abortion – which continues to rage in the United States as well as many other countries – is one fuelled with harsh rhetoric, polarization, and exclusion; it’s a culture war in which each side seeks to strengthen its position by casting the opposition out as an absolute enemy. While pro-lifers frame pro-choicers as “pro-abortion,” pro-choicers frame pro-lifers as misogynistic and “anti-choice,” disrespecting an individual woman’s right to make a moral decision for herself. A closer look reveals that the two sides are essentially arguing about different issues: while one looks at the morality of the act itself, the other focuses on the question of who should have the authority to make this moral decision: the individual or the community? The issues are separate, but the abortion debate combines them into one. And this, to my understanding, is the main reason why this remains such a polarized issue. The two sides continue to argue and argue without admitting just what it is that they are arguing about.

A recent article on the Slacktiverse blog  explains this confusion in more depth by focusing on the differences between proclamation and policy – two different philosophical conceptions about the role of law. According to the author of this piece,

 The “proclamation” perspective holds that the purpose of the law is to announce or express the moral views of society, while the “policy” perspective holds that law should be used to change the material conditions of society, including through indirect means. The unacknowledged difference between these two perspectives leads to proposed laws being justified in terms that their opponents find literally incomprehensible, causing confused political discourse. Likewise, the under-examination of this distinction leads to thoughtless, unjustified radicalism on this question. Even a cursory exploration of these two sides of the law can help clarify numerous legislative debates, past and contemporary, while allowing citizens to more clearly understand their own views and values.

The author of the article suggests that both proclamation and policy are valid ways of thinking about the law and have their rightful place. He continues,

The “proclamation” model holds that the law represents an expression of moral values. Among the most lauded examples of the “proclamation” model of law was the USA’s Emancipation Proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation marked an official declaration of the Union’s position on slavery: unequivocally against. It was able to fulfill this goal without, in fact, freeing many slaves. Though it ultimately took several more years of military action and a Constitutional Amendment to end slavery in the USA as an institution, the Emancipation Proclamation is still understood as the key moment in the process of emancipation, because it articulated the Union’s moral stance against slavery so incontestably… Conversely, the “policy” model holds that the aim of the law is to change conditions as they actually apply; to address problems and improve the state. It is hard to find an independent, ideal example of legislative work of this form—as policy cannot be considered in isolation, and it does not tend to attract much notice. Thus, we can consider the example of a field rather than a particular law. Traffic law is a useful example for an initial approach. It involves a great number of small decisions which must be made, by the legislature or regulatory bodies. Few, if any, such decisions can be resolved by appeal to prior moral principle.

The author argues that each approach to law has its rightful place and that in some cases, such as in laws against perjury. However, he states that they come into conflict in some cases and cites abortion as an example:

 I personally encountered one such question when talking with a pro-life friend. (I myself am pro-choice.) I made the argument that legal abortion keeps the procedure safe while not actually increasing its frequency, and that, on the other hand, the pro-life movement fails to endorse policies that would actually decrease the incidence of abortion. He granted this claim, more or less, but held that it was still important to outlaw abortion as a statement of what is right and wrong. Policy-relevant information will not affect the legislative preferences of someone thinking in proclamation terms.

In general, this argument leads me to wonder if it might be possible to make some sort of compromise on the abortion issue – or at least achieve a greater level of understanding – by looking at the issue in terms of the proclamation/policy distinction. For people on the pro-choice side, I have to ask – would it really weaken their argument to admit that abortion is a painful procedure for both mother and child, that it is traumatic, and that it is  – for some people at least – morally questionable? I remember when the war in Iraq was about to begin in 2003. When Democrats began to state their opposition to the war on moral grounds, the standard Republican response was, “We’re not pro-war. No one wants there to be a war. We just see it as the only viable option in this case.”  Leavng the Iraq War and its moral implications aside for the moment, I will state that, in general, war and abortion are similar issues. Both involve loss of life, both are deemed inherently immoral by some, and both can’t be prevented by legislation (ever hear of the Kellogg-Briand Pact passed to outlaw war after World War I?)  By acknowledging the morally questionable nature of abortion and stating directly that they seek not to promote or actively encourage people to seek abortions, by making a statement about ethos as well as policy, people on the pro-choice side could potentially engage with a much less heated discussion with pro-lifers than what usually occurs.  

Meanwhile, people on the pro-life side might benefit from looking at the issue from a policy perspective. If we really want to bring about an end to abortion, is seeking to change the law necessarily the best approach? Won’t abortions continue to occur illegally (and dangerously)? Perhaps the better approach is to focus on policies that will lower the amount of unwanted pregnancies that occur as well as promoting the primary alternative to abortion: adoption. We can also seek to educate women about the options available to them and let them know that abortion isn’t the only option for someone who, for whatever reason, cannot or does not want to become a mother.  We can respect the individual’s right to make moral decisions while working – through various  peaceful, respectful means – to encourage them to make a good decision.

 Finally, for those of us who are religious – as many in the pro-life movement are – we can pray. Pray for healing for those women who have endured abortion, as well as for those who have endured rape, abuse and all sorts of traumas. Pray for healing in a world where the culture of death manifests in so many forms – capital punishment, war, poverty, discrimination against the elderly, disabled and all who are vulnerable in our society. In the world in which we live, it can be hard to believe that prayer still matters; it’s something I all too often forget. But it is through prayer that we can learn to become truly compassionate toward the people who need us most.

http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Norway-Killer-Is-a-Christian-but-So-Am-I-Jonathan-Fitzgerald-08-08-2011.html

A thoughtful piece by John Fitzgerald on the phenomenon of Christian terrorism.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

 – Emily Dickinson, “632″

 In your metaphysics you have denied personality to the Deity, yet when the devout motions of the soul come, yield to them heart and life, though they should clothe God with shape and color. Leave your theory, as Joseph did his coat in the hand of the harlot, and flee.

 – Ralph Waldo Emerson, in “Self Reliance”

Christianity began from a  revolution. Like most ideological products of revolutions, it eventually morphed into dogma and hegemony. And so the eternal questions: how can one maintain a spirit of dymanism, curiosity and questioning without losing one’s faith? (Or, conversely, how can one maintain one’s faith without slipping into dogmatism?) Why does religious faith still matter in an increasingly secular world? What can each of us do to ensure that the old religious traditions remain relevant? But then…why should we? I don’t claim to answer these questions, but to ask them. I’m hoping to get some answers from you.

If you are a practicing Catholic who sits sullenly in the corner during church coffee hours, afraid that sooner or later someone is going to find out that you’re pro-choice, or pro-gay-marriage, or that you receive Holy Communion but haven’t visited a confession booth in years, and you’re scared that one day your fellow parishioners are going to find you out and tell you that you don’t really belong in their faith community…This blog is meant for you.

If you are a person of any creed (or none) who believes that the truth is one, but the paths toward it many, this blog is meant for you.

If you are a religious believer who feels increasingly obsolete in the secular world, if you’re clinging desperately to a faith that might be blown away at any moment, this blog is meant for you.

If you are an atheist, agnostic or other nonbeliever who yearns to understand and communicate with your religious friends/family members/coworkers but can’t figure out how to do so…This blog is meant for you.

If you are seeking to live harmoniously in a state of contradiction…This blog is meant for you.

Nota bene: I’m not here to argue with anyone. If you want a site where you can argue, I’ll happily direct you toward several. That said, I don’t mean that I expect my readers to ooh and ahhh and shower me with encomia (though let’s be honest, in our deepest selves, don’t we all want that)?  Quite the contrary. I hope that you will disagree with me and offer your own perspective on these issues. I welcome your comments; I welcome your posts (just email me, and I’ll be happy to add your post to the blog). I just ask that we might all maintain a respectful attitude and refrain from rudeness/trolling. What I’m looking for here is collaborative dialogue for its own sake. A meeting of hearts and minds. And who knows…Maybe just a little bit of fun.