Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Occupy Minneapolis: Spring Remembrances


By Mary Lynn Murphy

Though it is still February in Minnesota, it seems that spring is in the air. Today I can't help thinking back four years, to the chaotic spring when home mortgage loans began to unravel and the American economy imploded.

It was and still is a painful time. My husband and I, and millions of people like us, reacted in horror as jobs disappeared, kids defaulted on college loans, homes went under water, unions were busted, fraudulent bankers got richer, and everyone else got poorer.

Anger was palpable. Cynicism began to turn people inward as the government failed and the media abdicated.

Then gradually, winds of international protest blew in with the Arab Spring. Conversations began to change, even in polite company, even in ordinary spaces. Enough was finally enough. America was ripe for the Occupy movement.

The Back Story

The Occupy back story is interesting, though it is often garbled or misrepresented. In the book This Changes Everything, Andy Kroll tells us that the actual seeds of Occupy in America were sown in a small apartment at 16 Beaver Street in New York City, months before the Zuccotti Park convergence.

A group of 30 artists, activists, writers, students and organizers crammed into a tiny space to talk about changing the world. There were New Yorkers, Egyptians, Spaniards, Japanese and Greeks, many of them veterans of upheaval in their own countries. Their immediate aim was to to address the "shattered economic landscape" in America and abroad.

A pivotal idea emerged. It involved a direct-democracy process that included the concept and the practice of a "people's general assembly," which had worked well in Europe. The essence of the model is a "horizontal" leader-less group of people discussing issues and making decisions by pure consensus. There is no hierarchy. Everyone stands on equal terrain. For weeks the group practiced and refined the model in an assortment of New York venues. It showed promise, which was surprising in a culture so entrenched in hierarchical forms of communication.

Meanwhile, the group connected with an anti-consumerist Vancouver-based magazine named Adbusters. The publication released a widely circulated internet poster depicting a ballerina pirouetting on the back of a charging Wall Street bull, while behind her, riot police emerged from the mist. The poster went global and captured imaginations. Then the planning group and Adbusters hit upon September 17th as a targeted date of action. Adbusters simply posted an announcement reading:

Occupy Wall Street
Sept. 17th. Bring Tent

That's all it took. The first morning, two dozen tech savvy young people materialized in Zuccotti Park, across from Wall Street in New York City. By evening, over 1000 people had gathered. And they stayed. It surprised everyone, including the organizers! As writer Sarah van Gelder reports, "It became a 24 hour a day experiment in egalitarian living."

During daytime hours, the new residents met in their general assemblies referred to "G..As,, deciding everything from food preparation to activist strategies. Sometimes they marched, sang, or "sat in." They were intentionally non-violent. At night, they slept in tents or on the pavement. A community formed, and became a force to be reckoned with. Open to all, the model spread from American cities to towns to colleges to neighborhoods - in conjunction with corresponding "Global Change" initiatives in 951 cities in countries worldwide.

Hitting Home

Occupy touched down in Minnesota on a hot, windy, October day. We were ready for it. The Internet lit up with directives about marches and rallies, times and locations. "Bring posters" they said. My husband Mike and I, his sister and her husband, packed our gear and headed for the 46th Street light rail station. "Let's see . . . I've got my sun glasses, vizor, cell phone, water, and a poster reading 'Wall Street Ate My Children's Lunch.'"

We gazed at the city landscape along the route downtown, wondering about the day ahead . . . where it would take us, and why we were going. Mike is a retired business man whose family company enjoyed good relations with its unions. So often I have heard him say, "I am sick of seeing the working man take it on the chin." His sign read, "End Corporate Greed."

Conveniently, the light rail stops directly in front of the Hennepin County Government Center Plaza, now known as "The People's Plaza," the new home of Occupy Minneapolis. (The original name was "Occupy Minnesota," before morphing into "Occupy Minneapolis").

The plaza looked beautiful in the morning sun, shadowed by historic architecture on one side, and glass encased sky scrapers on the other. We were grateful for the shade they cast. The plaza forms a perfect oval around an enormous and thankfully dry fountain. Had it been working on such a windy day, it would have soaked us all!

Tables and booths rimmed the plaza, providing information, (though typical of Occupies, "information" was intentionally sketchy), food and water, a makeshift medical center, overnight gear supplies, a small library, a frenetic media center, and porta potties galore (thank goodness!). I wondered why it takes most of us a year to pull off a conference when these young people could whip this together overnight!

The crowd numbered about 500 early in the day, ranging close to 1000 by evening. The cross section was surprising: Elderly people in sensible shoes, street kids with nose rings, unionists, peace activists, college students, smartly dressed people clutching purses and briefcases, (checking things out before returning to work), hippie girls in tie dye, dancing to bongos (oh, could they dance!), and some muscled up fellows in cut off t-shirts. Folks wore sweat pants and running shoes, work boots and hard hats, sandals and platforms, and a few had bare feet.

On the fringes, two End of Timers held enormous signs - admonishing us to repent for our sins. About half a dozen hyper kinetic young men in red Ron Paul t-shirts tried to engage us in dialogue. Other than that, no political posters or slogans. This crowd was fed up with politics as usual.

I overheard a priest whom I didn't know, conversing with young Occupiers about Catholic social teaching and economic justice. Yoga and Tai Chi could be seen here and there.

Plenty of dignitaries appeared. I saw Keith Ellison, Mayor R.T. Rybak, John Marty, and, wouldn't you know, Jesse Ventura, who wished to be appointed spokesperson for Occupy! (There are no spokespersons.) The place was awash with media, news helicopters, and a few bull horns. Loads of cell phones and laptops poised at the ready. Harmonic guitar chords strummed in the background. Spontaneous "teach ins" popped up intermittently, people educating people.

News folks attempted to interview various Occupiers who refused to be named, or gave names like "Zeitgeist" or "Anonymous." Rebels must be careful.

The plaza was crawling with police - on segues and horseback, in cars, on the streets, and even on rooftops!? It was predictable overkill of course, but we managed.

Loud speakers were prohibited, so the "People's Mic" system was in full effect. This means that a speaker shouts out a statement, and the crowd shouts it back - so all can hear. A tough way to do business (exhausting!) but powerful.

The most memorable moment was AIM (American Indian Movement) leader Clyde Bellecourt's evocative tribute to his people, followed by drumming rituals performed by his grandchildren. The air electrified when en masse (by people's mic) we chanted back to him his Native saga.

The march to the Federal Reserve Bank was more exuberant than angry, an unruly wave of humanity overflowing the sidewalks and filling the streets, cars honking around us. (One man jumped from an SUV, and donated a handful of $20 bills!)

We Occupied the grass in front of the bank, and flashed the peace sign to workers in upstairs windows - who flashed it right back. There were speeches and shouts of "This is what democracy looks like" and "We are the 99%." One clever placard said, "Lower the Maximum Wage." Another, carried by a young man, broke my heart. It read, "This Is My Only Occupation." (At that time, unemployed people were, on average, out of work 44 weeks.)

By night fall we were tired out, and took our leave. But the "Happening" kept happening ... all night, we were told. It marked the birth of a new community that, though gone temporarily from the plaza, is still holding strong in the Twin Cities and nationally. Not surprisingly, it has veered in all kinds of directions, some described in my previous essay.

As a "second line Occupier" (first line are those who slept in the plaza), I have continued to march, and to demonstrate . . . with another spring just over the rise. I am up to my eyeballs in Occupy committee meetings, and my 66-year-old hands are pretty full trying to change the world. In the words of Bob Dylan, "Something is happening here." But as he suggests, we still aren't exactly sure what it is. It is up to us to find out.

See also Mary Lynn's previous post:
Reflections on Occupy Minneapolis

Opening image: Doug Abbott.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Holy Wisdom Monastery Provides Church Services for Disaffected Local Catholics

By Doug Erickson

Editor's Note: This article was first published February 26, 2012, in the Wisconsin State Journal.

Alice Jenson’s faith took an irreversible turn six years ago.

It was Nov. 5, 2006, and she was contributing to Mass at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Madison as a lay person, reading Bible passages from the lectern.

The same day, Madison Bishop Robert Morlino required all priests to play a recorded message from him explaining his position on three issues state residents would vote on that week, including a ban on same-sex marriage, which he supported.

When the priest hit “play,” Jenson walked out.

“It was the first time I’d ever outwardly gone against what I was raised to follow,” said Jenson, 67.

She found a new religious home at Holy Wisdom Monastery, a former Roman Catholic monastery in the town of Westport, just outside Madison. Its Sunday service, offered by the sisters who live there, retains many elements of a traditional Catholic Mass but diverges in sometimes startling ways.

Women can lead the service and preach the sermon. Gay relationships are warmly embraced. All parishioners, not just Catholics, can consume the communion wine and bread because the service is ecumenical, meaning welcoming of all Christian traditions.

It’s an alternate universe of sorts — what some think a Catholic Mass might look like today if the liberal spirit of Vatican II in the 1960s had taken root and flowered.

“We’re doing what the hierarchical church was afraid to complete,” said Jim Green, a longtime Holy Wisdom parishioner who is gay and describes himself as “a Catholic in exile.”

The service, called Sunday Assembly, is attended by people from many denominational backgrounds but has become especially popular with Catholics displeased with Morlino or church doctrine in general. Membership doubled in five years to 335, and parishioners estimate a majority are Catholics who left their regular parishes.

Detractors say the parishioners strayed too far from Catholicism to warrant the label.

Approach evolves

Though many self-described Catholics attend Holy Wisdom, it’s no longer an official Catholic Mass.

A little history: In the 1950s, a group of Benedictine nuns opened a high school at the site for girls in the Madison Catholic Diocese. Benedictines belong to a monastic religious order regulated by the canon law of the Catholic Church. Masses at the site were led by Catholic priests, often provided by the diocese.

In 1966, the nuns closed the school and turned the buildings into a Christian retreat center. The sisters, spurred by the Benedictine tradition of hospitality, gradually made the service more inclusive to all Christians. Lay people, especially women, took on greater roles.

In 2000, the Benedictine sisters went a step further, welcoming a Protestant woman to live with them. “When we chose to open our community to Protestant women, it meant other doors closed,” said Sister Mary David Walgenbach, the monastery’s head.

The sisters sought independence from the Catholic Church, and the Vatican granted it in 2006. Consequently, they no longer are tied to the local diocese. They remain affiliated with a Benedictine federation, but they have a special status, not a full membership, because of their ecumenism.

Bishop’s request

When the sisters disassociated from Rome, Bishop Morlino asked them to no longer celebrate Mass at the site so as not to cause confusion, said Brent King, a diocesan spokesman.

“Many people had visited (the monastery) over the years, and the bishop felt it would take time for people to understand that it was no longer a Roman Catholic institution,” King said, adding the bishop “was in no way unfriendly toward their desire to start a non-Catholic ecumenical community.”

The sisters understood the bishop’s position and stopped calling the service a Catholic Mass in 2006, Walgenbach said. Priests ceased to lead the service.

Today, the sisters describe the Sunday Assembly as being “for the celebration of Eucharist,” a term most commonly used to refer to Catholic communion. However, Walgenbach said some Protestant churches also use it. To many people, the service still has the essence of a Catholic Mass.

“You wouldn’t know it wasn’t a Catholic church, except for the person officiating,” said parishioner Pat Hobbins-Kemps, 64. A lifelong Catholic, she said she left her regular parish partly out of a lack of opportunities for women to lead.

Finding a home

Trisha Day, 66, said she came to Holy Wisdom after growing tired of sermons that focused on politically charged issues such as abortion and homosexuality while saying little about social justice and the poor.

Jeanne Marquis, 68, found Holy Wisdom after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “I needed someone to talk about forgiveness instead of retaliation,” she said. “I needed a place where I was encouraged to ask questions.”

Ann Baltes, 44, a lifelong Catholic, said she sought a place where she and her husband, Bill Rosholt, a Lutheran, could participate in communion together.

Are these parishioners still Catholic? The answers vary.

Jenson says she’s not. “Too much divides us.”

Day calls herself “a transitional Catholic,” unsure where she’ll end up. Green said his Catholic identity can’t be taken from him. “The church is the people of God, not the institution,” he said.

Joanne Kollasch, one of the three Benedictine sisters who live at the monastery, said she “is a Catholic and will remain a Catholic,” adding, “I don’t like to be thought of as less Catholic because I’m ecumenical.”

Said Walgenbach: “The Catholic spirituality is bigger than the Roman Catholic Church.”

Both sisters said they respect the Catholic Church and Morlino and don’t seek controversy.


Syte Reitz, a member of Madison’s Cathedral Parish who blogs about Catholic issues, said disaffected Catholics are free to start their own churches, but they shouldn’t confuse people by suggesting they still are faithful Catholics.

“Does it matter whether they are errant Catholics or not Catholics?” asks Reitz. “No matter what we label them, the laws of right and wrong and of morality still stand, and they and others will suffer from the mistakes that they make.”

Reitz said because a male priest is not presiding over the Eucharist, the bread is not being turned into the body of Christ, thus depriving attendees of the Catholic Church’s central sacrament.

King, the diocesan spokesman, said for Catholics to fulfill their obligation to attend Mass on Sundays, they must attend a Catholic Mass validly offered by an ordained Catholic priest.

Does the Holy Wisdom service qualify?

“In charity, we must respond that it does not,” he said.

Image: Michael Bayly.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Your Fist – My Nose

By Alan McCornick

Note: This commentary was first published February 27, 2012, by Hepzibah.

George Niederauer is beating a dead horse in this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle.

He is attempting to draw a parallel between the Boston Tea Party and the latest attempt by his church to inhibit the practice of birth control. The media are alive with signs of amazement at how good the religious right is at shooting itself in the foot with this cause, and Niederauer, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco, keeps supplying the bullets.

It’s not something he has any control over, of course. As an archbishop, he has to ignore the actual church, which practices birth control without reservation, and speak for the official church, which is still pedaling backwards as fast as it can to keep the church from entering the 20th Century. That’s not a typo. The 20th Century.

The Boston Tea Party, Niederauer says, wasn’t about the tea. It was about liberty.

Well yes, of course it was about liberty. But as far as the East India Company was concerned, it was most assuredly about the tea, and they wanted, and got, the British Parliament to pass a bill to close Boston Harbor until the loss of the tea had been reimbursed. It’s not either/or. It’s both/and.

When you hear somebody say, “It’s not about X” you can almost always be sure it is about X. It may also be about Y, but it is still about X, as well. “It’s not about…” simply signals you’ve got a difference of opinion over how a conflict is being framed.

Same-sex marriage. Is it about “the right to marry and enjoy equal civil rights”? Or is it about “the wisdom of keeping the “traditional” definition of marriage”? (Never mind the wildly off-base misunderstanding of the tradition.) Integration. Was it about “giving black people full access to American citizenship”? Or about “preserving the God-given separation of the races?”

“It’s not about…” should send off an alarm bell. Warning. Background information needed.

We all understand that there are situations where there is more than meets the eye. That is attested to by phrases like, “cherchez la femme” – look for the woman (there’s bound to be a woman behind all this trouble). Or “follow the money.” The entire postmodern project of deconstruction is based on looking under the surface to find the real explanation. And for the real motivation, which is bound to be a desire for power. Or money. Which is the gateway to power.

You’ve got to hand it to the Archbishop. He does his job well. Absolutely untroubled by the notion that perhaps this furtherance of male control over women his church is notorious for is on the way out in modern times. The chutzpah! Telling women it’s not about birth control but about liberty.

A man who has no children and is committed to having none tells women he would force children on that he’s the voice of liberty. OK, not forcing, exactly. They could do without sex, if they prefer. Either one is a good Catholic choice, according to Niederauer.

For way way too long this retrograde institution has gotten away with chutzpah like this. It’s not about your right as a gay person to dignity. It’s about our right to declare that you aren’t worthy of it. Well, let me correct myself. We used to say you were not worthy of it, but now we have changed out minds and we say your are worthy of it but just not a dignity equal to ours. And you’ve got to allow us to say this and act out on this, because if you don’t you’re infringing on our liberty to discriminate against you. And our right to insist it’s not discrimination. It’s not about your right to have information on how to enjoy a rich and healthy sex life without risking pregnancy with each act of intercourse. It’s about our right to tell you we don’t want you to do that.

You see the problem. It’s all about who has the power to frame the argument.

Generally, when two people come at an issue with different vested interests, you hope for civility, stress common ground, and allow both sides to agree to disagree, if you must.

In this instance, however, there is no middle ground. The church dictates or it doesn’t. What Niederauer is missing in his insistence he has the right to discriminate because he’s following the dictates of his religion, is that he’s working out in the world, and not in the non-democratic tradition of his church. And in a democracy, one’s freedom ends where another’s begins.

Hiding behind religious authority is nothing new for the church. They tried it, world wide, in the priest abuse scandal. The secular world wanted the predator priests exposed and brought to justice. The hierarchical church wanted total control over how the matter was handled. For decades they had simply shuffled offender priests around from diocese to diocese, protecting the church from scandal. This control, they maintained, was their due as a religious institution. Gradually, the world has come to understand that since the church would not take care of its children, the state had to, and in one country after another, Germany, Ireland, the United States and elsewhere, this issue once framed as the Catholic Church’s right to care for the souls of its bishops was reframed as the right of the world at large to protect its children. Religious rights, it turned out, had its limits.

We are at that kind of divide once more. Where does the right of the Church to prolong its oppression and denigration of women (and LGBT people) on religious grounds end? And where does the right of women and gays not to be put down by the Church begin?

Niederauer and Company display an astonishing ignorance of the misery they inflict on others who out of fear of eternal damnation submit to their rules at the expense of their personal liberties, including the quality of their lives. The lenses the clerics wear permit them to discern their liberty to dictate. And filter out the liberty of the women susceptible to their influence to choose to have children on the basis of their ability to care for them.

We were taught in kindergarten that wonderful Oliver Wendell Holmes summation of rights in a democracy: the right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins.

Niederauer can frame this conflict over the contraceptive mandate as a question of religious liberty all he wants.

But he must not feign surprise to find most of thinking in terms of a broken nose.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

What Kind of Christianity is This?

By Gary G. Kohls

Editor's Note: This commentary was first published February 12, 2012 by

Though founded by a pacifist, Christianity has justified
some of the most brutal slaughters in human history,
from the wars of the late Roman Empire to the Crusades
to the Inquisition to world wars to genocides against
Muslims and Jews. Yet, Gary G. Kohls says
the essence
of Christianity can still be reclaimed.

From time to time, I read about condemnations of religion coming from non-religious groups, especially concerning the all-too-common violence perpetrated in the name of religious gods. Indeed there is plenty to condemn.

Altogether too many religious sects of both major and minor religions, despite verbally professing a desire for peace and justice in the world, are actually pro-war, pro-homicide and pro-violence in practice (or they may be silent on the subject, which is, according to moral theology, the same as being pro-violence).

Obvious examples include those portions of the three major war-justifying religions of the world: fundamentalist Islam, fundamentalist Judaism and fundamentalist Christianity.

I use the term fundamentalist in the sense that the religious person, who ascribes to a fundamentalist point of view, believes, among other dogmatic belief, that their scriptures are inerrant and thus they can find passages in their holy books that justify homicidal violence against their perceived or fingered enemies, while simultaneously ignoring the numerous contradictory passages that forbid violence and homicide and instead prescribe love, hospitality, mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Behind the scenes, of course, there are hidden elites - amoral, politically and financially motivated operatives who are embedded in these religious organizations - who, through the strength of their political power, can easily manipulate the followers into clamoring for war, not against their enemies, but rather against the enemies of the ruling elites: the politicians, the financiers and the other exploiters of natural resources.

And so nonviolent portions of the various religions - and they are there, albeit often hidden and censored - can be erroneously painted with the same brush that justifiably condemns the hypocrisy and the violence.

It is certainly true that the Catholic Church endorsed and/or orchestrated the genocide of the Crusades, the Inquisition and many wars of colonization and exploitation - with the origins of these atrocities in fundamentalist interpretations of "holy" scripture.

But I do have to take exception to the blanket condemnation of the entirety of the religion by pointing out one reality - that the original form of Christianity, the church of the first generation after Jesus and even most of the first three centuries was a religion of pacifists, oppressed women, orphans, those forced into prostitution, despised people of all stripes and others of those called "the least."

Though this history has long since been forgotten or ignored, the earliest followers of Jesus rejected violence, tried to return good for evil, fed the hungry, did acts of mercy and unconditional love and tried to make friends out of their enemies (by caring for them, feeding them, praying for them and certainly refusing to kill them or pay for somebody else to kill them).

Practicality of Nonviolence

It was a hugely successful ethical stance to take. It could be described as an act of divine genius. And it made tremendous practical sense. One bit of evidence of the practicality of gospel nonviolence is the fact that in the first couple of centuries, no early Christian male ever acquired combat-induced PTSD or the soul-destruction that always accompanies that reality.

And no early Christian ever felt depressed, ashamed, guilty or suicidal about killing, plundering or raping innocent unarmed women and children in wartime. The earliest Christians took seriously Jesus’s clear command to love and befriend their enemies, and - despite brutal Roman persecutions - the religion survived; indeed, it thrived.

In fact, by 300 CE, it had grown into one of the largest religions in the empire, at which point the emperor Constantine (who was a worshipper of the Sun god until his deathbed baptism into the "faith") co-opted the church by stopping the persecutions and granting it power, property and prestige, thus seducing it into becoming the obedient and increasingly dependent state church whose master was the brutal, often satanic Roman Empire and its army generals.

Eventually - and logically - church leaders who were now dependent on the largesse and protection of the empire felt obliged to support it and its troops, pay homage to the emperor and send its young Christian men to violently defend the empire’s borders against the fingered enemy. Or homicidally enlarge the empire if it was profitable for Rome or the Papal State to do so.

Just War Theory

St. Augustine wrote the first Christian Just War Theory (CJWT) in the late Fourth Century, making legitimate, in certain rare circumstances, killing by Christians in wartime, which had been long forbidden to the followers of Jesus.

Soon thereafter, Christianity became a religion of justified violence, contrary to the teachings and modeling of Jesus, and it remains that way until this very hour. However, it is generally agreed among Just War scholars that no war in the past 1,700 years has been conducted according to the principles of the Christian Just War Theory; that if the actual principles were applied to an impending war, they would lead Christians back to its original pacifist stance. And so the principles of the CJWT are not taught to the vast majority of Christians.

So, the blanket condemnation of homicidal religions, especially Christianity, is justified up to the point of acknowledging that the bulk of the Christian church, over the past 17 centuries, has ignored - or become apathetic to - the nonviolent teachings of Jesus (forgiveness 70 X 7, unending mercy, ministering to "the least of these" and the unconditional love of friend and enemy).

Among the realities that keep the churches silent, of course, are the fear of losing the largesse of state-granted tax-exempt status and the threat that their pro-war, dues-paying members might object or leave if church leaders were to speak out prophetically about the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount and the incompatibility of nationalistic militarism with the life and teachings of Jesus.

But the Christianity of the first few centuries, when Christians refused to take up the sword, should not be condemned. Rather, critics of Christianity should start challenging the churches to go back to their roots where evil was not allowed to run rampant, but rather was aggressively and courageously resisted using the nonviolent methods of Jesus and his inspired disciples like Tolstoy, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, A. J. Muste, Martin Luther King, the Berrigan brothers, John Dear, Kathy Kelly and a multitude of other courageous prophetic voices.

The major motivation for the legendary civil disobedience of those modern-day prophets was their commitment to Jesus and the way he lived his life as pacifist (not passive) active resistor to evil.

The followers of that very real Jesus should be courageously "going to the streets" and saying "NO" wherever and whenever fear and hatred raise their ugly heads and try to provoke violence - no matter if it is coming from the US Congress or the Parliament in London, the Oval Office or No. 10 Downing Street, in the Knesset or in the headquarters of Hamas, whether in Tehran or in Baghdad or in the Vatican or in Colorado Springs or in the bowels of the 700 Club - or from within the local parish.

Jesus, a Nonviolent Leftist

Jesus of the Gospels was an outspoken, nonviolent leftist who tried to reform his authoritarian conservative, dogmatic church but also refused to shut up with his call for justice for the down-trodden - even when his superiors threatened him with serious consequences if he didn’t.

The economic model of Jesus’s early church was socialist, where the resources of the group were shared with the widow and orphans and others who didn’t have enough. He would have stood, like the prophet he was, in solidarity with pacifists, socialists, antiwar activists and feminists and surely would have marched in nonviolent antiwar rallies.

Jesus was definitely NOT a punitive, pro-death penalty, pro-militarism conservative. His power came not from the sword but from the power of love.

Jesus would surely have condemned his church’s complicity in the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, the enslavement of black Africans and the segregationist, apartheid policies that were designed by various ruling elites to destroy ethnic or religious minorities.

And if the leadership of his church had been found guilty of or just complicit with such acts, especially genocide, Jesus would surely have insisted on the formation of an independent truth and reconciliation commission to respectfully hear the testimony of the victims, the survivors and the families of the survivors and allow those victims to face their victimizers. And then Jesus would have insisted upon his church repenting of the sins, whether committed by them or their forefathers.

The power that Jesus utilized was epitomized by the willingness to do the right thing in the crisis situations even if it involved risks to life or liberty. Fear had no power over him or the martyrs of the early church. His power came out of the holy spirit of love, goodness, mercy and forgiveness and his certainty that, by refusing to do acts of violence, he was doing the will of God.

The practicality of that radical stance resulted in the healing power that Jesus’ disciples and apostles exhibited when they started implementing what Jesus had taught and modeled for them.

War and violence emanates from an entirely different spirit than the spirit shown by the early church. That spirit is the spirit of the unholy, the spirit of the satanic, the spirit of Cain. The willingness to kill was the spirit that was strongly present in such historic figures as Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, Eichmann, Stalin, Mussolini (all baptized into pro-war, Constantinian Christian churches).

That evil spirit was also present in many saber-rattling militarists throughout history - the most ruthless presidents, Secretaries of Defense, generals, dictators, legislators, gun-running businessmen and trained assassins that have ever lived - from the ancient low-tech, PTSD-afflicted Achilles, who killed up close and personal, looking into the eyes of his victims, to the ultra-modern, high-tech Air Force, Navy, Army and Marines that orchestrate, usually from safe distances, such atrocities as were perpetrated by Christian soldiers against innocent unarmed civilians at Nagasaki, Dresden, My Lai, Baghdad and Fallujah, to name just a few.

A Challenge to the Church

It seems to me that the Christian church must start teaching what Jesus taught about violence - that it is forbidden for those who wish to follow him - or our so-called "Christian" nation won’t be able to stop the deadly suicidal/homicidal cycle of war that has been bankrupting America, both financially and morally, for decades.

Jesus was absolutely right about the satanic nature of killing. The Golden Rule and his warning about the consequences of living by the sword speaks profound truth. According to just those two teachings, we can say that theologically and spiritually, the high-profile pro-war "Christians" that dominate the news are dead wrong.

That brand of Christianity definitely deserves condemnation. What has been criticized by Christianity’s detractors as the norm for Christianity is not the Sermon-on-the-Mount Christianity of Jesus but rather the aberrant "Constantinian Christianity," a religion that espouses an anti-Christic, punitive theology that justifies killing fellow children of God in the name of the one who forbade it 2,000 years ago.

Church leaders need to repent of their support for (or their silence about) their nation’s state-sponsored terrorism and start acting ethically, as if the Sermon on the Mount mattered.

The Christian church in America MUST take the lead in this or it is doomed - as doomed as was Germany’s dominant Constantinian Christianity of the first half of the 20th century, whose pro-military, nationalist, racist, xenophobic, domination theology permitted torture, genocide and two brutal world wars that ultimately resulted in the suicide of German Christianity, not to mention the complete destruction of the nation by its provoked enemies.

One wonders what would have happened if every German and Russian and American church had been a real peace church, as the founder envisioned? The real question is, will we learn the lessons of history, or is it already too late?

Gary G. Kohls, MD, is a founding member of Every Church A Peace Church and is a member of a local non-denominational affiliate of ECAPC, the Community of the Third Way.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

An Invitation from Catholics for Marriage Equality MN


Lent is upon us – that time of the liturgical year when our tradition wisely calls us to repent, to turn around and away from all that holds us back from fully experiencing God’s abundant love in our lives.

This year we have a wonderful opportunity to be part of a special Lenten observance – a weekly prayer vigil, starting this Sunday, February 26, from 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m., in front of the chancery offices of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis (located opposite the Cathedral of St. Paul at 226 Summit Ave., St. Paul).

This prayer vigil has been born out of the concern and sorrow of countless Catholics over the Minnesota bishops’ spending of well over one million dollars since September 2010 on ensuring the passage of the so-called “marriage amendment,” an unnecessary constitutional ban on civil marriage rights for same-sex couples in Minnesota. Many of us believe that the time, energy and financial resources that the bishops are directing toward supporting the marriage amendment should be directed instead toward actions that reflect Jesus’ Gospel call to care for the poor and marginalized.

You are invited to join with members and friends of Catholics for Marriage Equality MN ( each Sunday during Lent at the chancery. We will carry the “Catholics for Marriage Equality MN” banner and you are welcome to bring your own signs that respectfully convey the vigil’s message. Together we will pray that Archbishop Nienstedt and all the bishops of Minnesota experience a change of heart on the marriage amendment; that they ‘turn around’ and be open to the love and beauty embodied in same-sex relationships and families. We’ll also be praying that the bishops may be open to the experiences and insights of the majority of U.S. Catholics who support civil marriage rights for same-sex couples.

I hope you can join us for this special Lenten observance. For more information, click here.


Michael Bayly
Executive Coordinator, Catholics for Marriage Equality MN

Birth Control, Bishops and Religious Authority

By Gary Gutting

Editor's Note: This commentary was first published February 15, 2012, by The New York Times.

The Obama administration’s ruling requiring certain Catholic institutions like hospitals and universities to offer health insurance covering birth control prompted a furious response from the Catholic bishops. The bishops argued that this was a violation of conscience since birth control is contrary to teachings of the Catholic Church, as expressed in Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae.

What interests me as a philosopher — and a Catholic — is that virtually all parties to this often acrimonious debate have assumed that the bishops are right about this, that birth control is contrary to “the teachings of the Catholic Church.” The only issue is how, if at all, the government should “respect” this teaching.

As critics repeatedly point out, 98 percent of sexually active American Catholic women practice birth control, and 78 percent of Catholics think a “good Catholic” can reject the bishops’ teaching on birth control. The response from the church, however, has been that, regardless of what the majority of Catholics do and think, the church’s teaching is that birth control is morally wrong. The church, in the inevitable phrase, “is not a democracy.” What the church teaches is what the bishops (and, ultimately, the pope, as head of the bishops) say it does.

But is this true? The answer requires some thought about the nature and basis of religious authority. Ultimately the claim is that this authority derives from God. But since we live in a human world in which God does not directly speak to us, we need to ask, Who decides that God has given, say, the Catholic bishops his authority?

It makes no sense to say that the bishops themselves can decide this, that we should accept their religious authority because they say God has given it to them. If this were so, anyone proclaiming himself a religious authority would have to be recognized as one. From where, then, in our democratic, secular society does such recognition properly come? It could, in principle, come from some other authority, like the secular government. But we have long given up the idea (“cujus regio, ejus religio”) that our government can legitimately designate the religious authority in its domain. But if the government cannot determine religious authority, surely no lesser secular power could. Theological experts could tell us what the bishops have taught over the centuries, but this does not tell us whether these teachings have divine authority.

In our democratic society the ultimate arbiter of religious authority is the conscience of the individual believer. It follows that there is no alternative to accepting the members of a religious group as themselves the only legitimate source of the decision to accept their leaders as authorized by God. They may be wrong, but their judgment is answerable to no one but God. In this sense, even the Catholic Church is a democracy.

But, even so, haven’t the members of the Catholic Church recognized their bishops as having full and sole authority to determine the teachings of the Church? By no means. There was, perhaps, a time when the vast majority of Catholics accepted the bishops as having an absolute right to define theological and ethical doctrines. Those days, if they ever existed, are long gone. Most Catholics — meaning, to be more precise, people who were raised Catholic or converted as adults and continue to take church teachings and practices seriously — now reserve the right to reject doctrines insisted on by their bishops and to interpret in their own way the doctrines that they do accept. This is above all true in matters of sexual morality, especially birth control, where the majority of Catholics have concluded that the teachings of the bishops do not apply to them. Such “reservations” are an essential constraint on the authority of the bishops.

The bishops and the minority of Catholics who support their full authority have tried to marginalize Catholics who do not accept the bishops as absolute arbiters of doctrine. They speak of “cafeteria Catholics” or merely “cultural Catholics,” and imply that the only “real Catholics” are those who accept their teachings entirely. But this marginalization begs the question I’m raising about the proper source of the judgment that the bishops have divine authority. Since, as I’ve argued, members of the church are themselves this source, it is not for the bishops but for the faithful to decide the nature and extent of episcopal authority. The bishops truly are, as they so often say, “servants of the servants of the Lord.”

It may be objected that, regardless of what individual Catholics think, the bishops in fact exercise effective control over the church. This is true in many respects, but only to the extent that members of the church accept their authority. Stalin’s alleged query about papal authority (“How many divisions does the Pope have?”) expresses more than just cynical realpolitik. The authority of the Catholic bishops is enforceable morally but not militarily or politically. It resides entirely in the fact that people freely accept it.

The mistake of the Obama administration — and of almost everyone debating its decision — was to accept the bishops’ claim that their position on birth control expresses an authoritative “teaching of the church.” (Of course, the administration may be right in thinking that the bishops need placating because they can cause them considerable political trouble.) The bishops’ claim to authority in this matter has been undermined because Catholics have decisively rejected it. The immorality of birth control is no longer a teaching of the Catholic Church. Pope Paul VI meant his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, to settle the issue in the manner of the famous tag, “Roma locuta est, causa finita est.” In fact the issue has been settled by the voice of the Catholic people.

See also the previous PCV posts:
Contraception Furor v. Catholic Realities
Has Obama Exposed the Powerlessness of the Bishops?
"Who Is the Church? And How Does the Church Discern Morality?"
Out of Step With the Flock: Bishops Far Behind on Birth Control Issues
We Are the 98 Percent
Overpopulation and the Catholic Church: Can't We Become Part of the Solution?

Recommended Off-site Link:
Bishops Don't Speak for Most Catholics on Contraception – Keith Soko (CNN, February 4, 2012).

Monday, February 20, 2012

Reflections on Occupy Minneapolis

By Mary Lynn Murphy

I am 66 years old, have been married 44 years, have two adult children, and a large extended family with deep roots in both Minneapolis and St. Paul. For the better part of my life, in both Catholic and secular contexts, I have participated in social movements on behalf of women, the LGBT community, peace, and the environment.

Like many, I have been deeply concerned about escalating economic inequity in our society, as well as the accompanying erosion of democracy, social justice, and the environment. My emotions about these topics have ranged from dismay, to outrage, to despondency, and now, with the advent of the Occupy movement, to hope.

One of the 99 percent

Since the international Occupy movement hit American soil on September 17th 2011, under the name of "Occupy Wall Street," it has taken root throughout the country in likely and unlikely places. In fact in our state alone, "Occupies" now flourish in Minneapolis, St Paul, Northfield, Duluth, Mankato, Macalester College, and North Minneapolis, with others undoubtedly popping up as I write this!

On October 8th, opening day of Occupy Minneapolis, I was one of the "99%" who headed for the Hennepin County Government Plaza as fast as I could get there. Like many others, I was deeply disturbed about the the mortgage loan crisis, and the corporate takeover of our country, resulting in the dismantling and near death of the middle class. I marched, I attended rallies, I joined committees, I met wonderful people. I'm in it for the long haul.

This thing called Occupy intrigues me, not just because of its ambitious mission, but because of its remarkable, and so far cooperating, cross section of humanity. We run the gamut of age, class, ethnicity, culture, gender presentation, educational level, and political perspective. No question, it gets tricky to keep holding on across such barriers, but for the main part, we are managing to do it. Folks must wonder just who we are when we walk en masse into a coffee shop for a meeting. This is truly one book you CANNOT judge by its cover!

Though each Occupy entity has a slightly different focus, its overarching goals are the same: to establish a functional democracy, an equitable economy, and a livable planet. It is about redesigning American systems for the common good, and not just for the 1% of Americans who benefit fully from the current inequitable economy.

Buzzing like a hive

Within each Minnesota Occupy, a diversity of issues is being addressed simultaneously. Yes, even now, though the Government Plaza has emptied for the winter, Minneapolis Occupy is buzzing like a hive, with over 40 committees and associated activity groups. Here are just a few of them:

Decision Making General Assemblies convene in the downtown skyways several nights a week, where organizational matters of budget and process are addressed (participants sit on the hard floor, sometimes to the edification of passers by, sometimes to their annoyance!). Decision making is by general consensus, with no identifiable leaders, as is the intentional case in Occupies across the country.

Every Wednesday evening, from 5pm to 9pm, Occupy Minneapolis holds an open meeting at the Walker Church at 31st Street and 16th Avenue. At these gatherings, anyone interested can hear music, share in a pot luck meal, listen to committee reports, observe or participate in committee meetings, and attend substantive "teach ins".

The Occupy Homes Initiative, one of numerous weekly direct actions, engages in regular confrontations with banks, and occupies individual homes (at the invitation of owners) to prevent foreclosures -- so far very successfully. Occupy Minneapolis has received national attention for this endeavor.

Speaking of direct action, some of our younger members have gained national notoriety by their fondness for "glittering" political figures who hold stances against the middle class and/or LGBT persons. There is ongoing discussion (especially among some, but not all, older Occupiers) about the viability or wisdom of this activity. Just one more item on the table.

The Wealthy Human Village is a project conceived and designed as a roving, earth focused model of living, where people can come together to learn about and practice earth friendly and body healthy forms of living a sustainable future. It is hoped that "Village" concepts will eventually spread from neighborhood to neighborhood. This is one project in which I have become involved. I am also conducting a series of interviews with Occupiers, which I hope to post on this website and others. I have noticed that supportive older people who can't get to rallies and marches seem very interested in the Occupiers. I figured the interviews are a way to introduce folks to one another, and might serve as a conduit for the exchange of ideas.

Another of my involvements has been a first ever Occupy Minneapolis conference, known as a "Re-Gathering," which took place on February 18th and 19th. It assembled all of the old and new individuals and organizations that have supported the local Occupy movement (peace and justice groups, faith groups, unions, student groups, etc.). Over two days, at the United Federation of Teachers building in Minneapolis, we examined what has worked for us, what has not, how to hold our coalition together, and where we go from here. The turn out and the response were terrific. I will write about it later in detail.

There are several especially fun inter-organizational committees in Occupy, like the Arts and Culture Committee, the Well-being Committee, the Activities Committee, the Media Committee, and the Food Committee. Any member of the public is welcome to join any committee. Meetings are enjoyable and informative! To learn about the full range of activities go to

There is much more to know about Occupy. I will try to keep you abreast of some of the emerging issues and dynamics as they happen. In doing so, I hope to build understanding about who and what Occupy is in our area, and to encourage your involvement in a movement that, if we are lucky and we don't give up, has the potential to change America for the better.

Image: Photographer unknown.

Has Obama Exposed the Powerlessness of the US Bishops?

By Adele M. Stan

Editor's Note: This article was first published February 15, 2012 by

With Catholic leaders and churchgoers turning their backs on the bishops, the men who rule the church are watching their political power wane.

In politics, it's said, the perception of power amounts to power itself. If that's the case, then the political power of the U.S. Catholic Bishops has long been based on little more than perception, that of an all-powerful church, an idea too often advanced by a corporate media romanced by the clerics' silken vestments and those great stone piles in which they preach. But among the people of the church, the bishops' pronouncements on matters of sex and politics don't amount to a hill of beans.

Politicians and media have long known this, but the perception remained that there was a "Catholic vote," one the bishops could deliver, even if those voters ignored the bishops' backward sexual edicts. But the events of the past week reveal that the bishops command no one, not even the leaders of Catholic institutions.

In offering the bishops an "accommodation" they refused to accept on a contraception provision of the new healthcare law, the Obama administration effectively exposed the powerlessness of the bishops when the rest of the church rose to accept the offer. Any perception of the bishops' power that remains in the halls of Congress or the annals of news stories exists solely because that perception serves the aims of its purveyors: right-wing politicians and news producers in need of spectacle. And, of course, the bishops themselves.

Current events bear this out. In fact, even more significant than the ground-breaking contraception "accommodation" announced last week by the Obama administration may be its effect on the bishops, who now stand marginalized in their own church, as major Catholic organizations, most of them led by clergy — the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, the Catholic Health Association (which represents Catholic hospitals), the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Sisters of Mercy — signed onto the administration's plan over the bishops' objections.

Adding insult to the bishops' injury are the polls, which show majorities of Catholics in favor of the healthcare plan's mandate for contraceptive coverage by employer-provided health insurance, even if the employer is an institution, like a hospital or university, that is affiliated with the church. A New York Times/CBS News poll released on Wednesday found that "57 percent of Catholic voters supported the requirement for religiously affiliated employers, like hospitals or universities, to cover the full cost of birth control for their employees, while 36 percent opposed it (7 percent said they did not know)." Further, reported Laurie Goodstein, "There was almost no difference between Catholic and other voters on the question."

And the disagreements don't end with contraception. On gay marriage, too, the laity is at odds with the clergy, the New York Times poll found. "More than two-thirds of Catholic voters supported some sort of legal recognition of gay couples' relationships: 44 percent favored marriage, and 25 percent preferred civil unions," the Times reported. (And when the question is asked with more specificity, making a distinction between civil marriage and religious marriage, Public Religion Research Institute found 71 percent of Catholics in favor of allowing same-sex couples to get married in a courthouse.)

Back in the first half of the 20th century, politicians had good reason to fear the bishops, whose influence on the ward captains and voters of the nation's cities could make or break a politician's career. Back then, Catholics comprised a largely urban population whose members were defined by the ethnic identities of the countries either they, their parents or grandparents had left behind. The bishops were their advocates in an often-unwelcoming land — paternalistic figures to be obeyed, political kingmakers who could deliver votes directly from their pews.

But you'd be hard-pressed today to find a vote delivered by a bishop — at least not because of a statement made from the pulpit for or against a given politician. Political polls have, for decades, shown that a monolithic Catholic vote no longer exists; the voting behavior of Catholics is virtually indistinguishable from that of the public at large. Catholics come in all races and classes, and their votes typically break along those lines — just like those of the rest of America.

So if the bishops can't deliver the votes of their flock or control the leaders of the church's institutions, do they have any power left? Well, yes, they do — for the time being. They have money — money from the collection plates of their parishes, which they've been diverting to campaigns against gay marriage, often in states far away from those in which the money was collected. Those dollars, according to a report by Dominic Holden in The Stranger, a Seattle area newsweekly, are contributed by parishioners who are largely unaware of their ultimate use. They think they are contributing to charity, Holden reports, when, actually, most Catholic charitable institutions receive the bulk of their budgets from the government, as contractors for safety-net services. He cites contributions from archdioceses around the country of more than $500,000 to an anti-gay marriage campaign in Maine, directed there by the bishops.

But once the bishops' misuse of collection-plate offerings receives further exposure, I'm betting they'll lose that power, too.

Many of the Catholics that Holden spoke to for his report expressed dismay that the church is spending its political capital and parishioners' money to fight for antiquated and discriminatory notions of sexual morality rather than to defeat the death penalty or advocate for immigrants. At a recent meeting of progressive and liberal religious types I attended in Washington, DC, I heard the same complaint from the Catholics in the room.

The bishops won't go down easy, of course. At Salon, Sarah Posner writes of a hearing scheduled for today, convened by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., at which the bishops, along with allies from other denominations, will answer this question: "Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?" (Gee, I wonder what the answer will be.) Issa, chairman of the House Government Oversight Committee, has made the hyperbolic dogging of the Obama administration something of a speciality.

It is fitting that the bishops, who once reveled in their unilateral power over their own flock, secure in the power of their own lobby, now seek allies among the most regressive factions of the church's rivals on the roster of the world's great religions, most notably among the Protestant evangelical right (which will be represented at tomorrow's hearing by Craig Mitchell of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary). Their people having left them, the fate of the bishops' political power may lie in the hands of Protestant preachers who once derided Catholics as non-Christians, who find in the bishops a symbol to display before their own evangelical acolytes of a once-powerful church undone by the purportedly anti-religious government of an African-American president. In this sense, the bishops' remaining political power is in a revisionist history of their own disempowerment.

Though we may never know whether the administration planned it this way or simply happened upon a game-changing maneuver, the contraception accommodation — which puts the onus on insurance companies, not employers, for the provision of no-co-pay contraception — effectively drove a wedge into a fault line in the power structure of the church. The bishops now stand on the edge of a chasm, wide and deep, shouting to their theologians, institutional leaders and their very flock on the other side, only to hear nothing but the sound of their own voices echoing back at them.

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington correspondent. Follow her on Twitter:

Friday, February 17, 2012

One Parish’s Response to the Archbishop’s World Marriage Day Request

Editor’s Note: The author of the following article wishes to remain anonymous so as to avoid possible negative consequences for her parish.

I had heard that in “honor” of World Marriage Day last Sunday, the chancery had asked parishes to speak out in support of the constitutional amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman.

My parish is open and accepting. Many of my closest friends are parishioners, and many of them are LGBT. In fact, our community prides itself on its diversity and support of all its parishioners. I wondered how we were going to manage this “request” by the archbishop.

What I experienced greatly saddened me but also made me very proud of my parish. As the mass began, I was waiting for the archbishop's World Marriage Day “message” to be delivered. I listened intently during the readings and as the priest began his homily, I braced myself for the “message.” It never came. In fact, the homily highlighted the courage the leper demonstrated by approaching Jesus and asking for healing, in total violation of the law. The priest also pointed out that Jesus was breaking the rules of his time by interacting with an “unclean” person. Not the message I expected to hear.

As the mass came to an end and the announcements began, I again thought I would hear the “message. ” Still, nothing. As the closing hymn ended I went back to pick up the bulletin . . . and that's when I found it. There was a full page insert in the bulletin, each side announcing at the top that the message was from the archbishop. I won’t dwell here on the message. Enough to say, that his message is wrong on all counts.

What struck me was not the message (his stance is not exactly a secret) but rather how hard my parish had worked to minimize the impact and distribution of the mandated message. I later heard that ushers were instructed not to distribute the bulletin. Clearly the staff of my parish, unlike the archbishop, understood the pain this message would inflict and was trying, as best they could, to minimize its damage.

I am deeply grateful for my parish and its compassionate staff. I am also sad that this man is our archbishop. I can’t say I know the man but he seems to have a singular focus which will brook no dissent. He does not reflect the love of Christ for me. I am thankful my parish does.

Recommended Off-site Link:
Mass Uprising – Dominic Holden (, February 14, 2012).

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Contraception's Con Men

By Garry Wills

Editor's Note: This commentary was first published February 15, 2012, by The New York Review of Books.

By a revolting combination of con men and fanatics, the current primary race has become a demonstration that the Republican party does not deserve serious consideration for public office. Take the controversy over contraceptives. American bishops at first opposed having hospitals and schools connected with them pay employee health costs for contraceptives. But when the President backed off from that requirement, saying insurance companies can pay the costs, the bishops doubled down and said no one should have to pay for anything so evil as contraception. Some Republicans are using the bishops’ stupidity to hurt the supposed “moderate” candidate Mitt Romney, giving a temporary leg up to the faux naïf Rick Santorum; others are attacking Barack Obama as an “enemy of religion.”

Pusillanimous Catholics—Mark Shields and even, to a degree, the admirable E. J. Dionne—are saying that Catholics understandably resent an attack on “their” doctrine (even though they do not personally believe in it). Omnidirectional bad-faith arguments have clustered around what is falsely presented as a defense of “faith.” The layers of ignorance are equaled only by the willingness of people “of all faiths” to use them for their own purposes. Consider just some of the layers:

The Phony Religious Freedom Argument

The bishops’ opposition to contraception is not an argument for a “conscience exemption.” It is a way of imposing Catholic requirements on non-Catholics. This is religious dictatorship, not religious freedom.

Contraception is not even a religious matter. Nowhere in Scripture or the Creed is it forbidden. Catholic authorities themselves say it is a matter of “natural law,” over which natural reason is the arbiter—and natural reason, even for Catholics, has long rejected the idea that contraception is evil. More of that later; what matters here is that contraception is legal, ordinary, and accepted even by most Catholics. To say that others must accept what Catholics themselves do not is bad enough. To say that President Obama is “trying to destroy the Catholic Church” if he does not accept it is much, much worse.

To disagree with Catholic bishops is called “disrespectful,” an offense against religious freedom. That is why there is a kind of taboo against bringing up Romney’s Mormonism. But if Romney sincerely believed in polygamy on religious grounds, as his grandfather did, he would not even be considered for the presidency—any more than a sincere Christian Scientist, who rejects the use of medicine, would be voted for to handle public health care. Yet a man who believes that contraception is evil is an aberrant from the American norm, like the polygamist or the faith healer.

The Phony Contraception Argument

The opposition to contraception has, as I said, no scriptural basis. Pope Pius XI once said that it did, citing in his encyclical Casti Connubii (1930) the condemnation of Onan for “spilling his seed” rather than impregnating a woman (Genesis 38.9). But later popes had to back off from this claim, since everyone agrees now that Onan’s sin was not carrying out his duty to give his brother an heir (Deuteronomy 25.5-6). Then the “natural law” was fallen back on, saying that the natural purpose of sex is procreation, and any use of it for other purposes is “unnatural.” But a primary natural purpose does not of necessity exclude ancillary advantages. The purpose of eating is to sustain life, but that does not make all eating that is not necessary to subsistence “unnatural.” One can eat, beyond the bare minimum to exist, to express fellowship, as one can have sex, beyond the begetting of a child with each act, to express love.

The Roman authorities would not have fallen for such a silly argument but for a deep historical disrelish for sex itself. Early Fathers and medieval theologians considered sex unworthy when not actually sinful. That is why virgin saints and celibate priests were prized above married couples. Thomas Aquinas said that priests must not be married, since “those in holy orders handle the sacred vessels and the sacrament itself, and therefore it is proper (decens) that they preserve, by abstinences, a body undefiled (munditia corporalis) (Summa Theologiae, Part 3 Supplement, Question 53, article 3, Response). Marriage, you see, makes for defilement (immunditia). The ban on contraception is a hangover from the period when the body itself was considered unclean, as Peter Brown overwhelmingly proved in The Body and Society (1988).

The Phony “Church Teaches” Argument

Catholics who do not accept the phony argument over contraception are said to be “going against the teachings of their church.” That is nonsense. They are their church. The Second Vatican Council defines the church as “the people of God.” Thinking that the pope is the church is a relic of the days when a monarch was said to be his realm. The king was “Denmark.” Catholics have long realized that their own grasp of certain things, especially sex, has a validity that is lost on the celibate male hierarchy. This is particularly true where celibacy is concerned.

There was broad disagreement with Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical on the matter. Pope Paul VI set up a study group of loyal and devout Catholics, lay and clerical, to make recommendations. The group overwhelmingly voted to change the teaching of Pius XI. But cardinals in the Roman Curia convinced Paul that any change would suggest that the church’s teachings are not eternal (though Casti Connubii had not been declared infallible, by the papacy’s own standards).

When Paul reaffirmed the ban on birth control in Humanae Vitae (1968) there was massive rejection of it. Some left the church. Some just ignored it. Paradoxically, the document formed to convey the idea that papal teaching is inerrant just convinced most people that it can be loony. The priest-sociologist Andrew Greeley said that Humanae Vitae did more damage to the papacy than any of the so-called “liberal” movements in Catholicism. When Pius IX condemned democracy and modern science in his Syllabus of Errors (1864), the Catholic historian Lord Acton said that Catholics were too sensible to go crazy every time a pope does. The reaction to Humanae Vitae proves that.

The Phony “Undying Principle” Argument

Rick Santorum is a nice smiley fanatic. He does not believe in evolution or global warming or women in the workplace. He equates gay sex with bestiality (Rick “Man on Dog” Santorum). He equates contraception with the guillotine. Only a brain-dead party could think him a worthy presidential candidate. Yet he is praised by television pundits, night and day, for being “sincere” and “standing by what he believes.” He is the principled alternative to the evil Moderation of Mitt Romney and the evil Evil of Newt Gingrich. He is presented as a model Catholic. Torquemada was, in that sense, a model Catholic. Messrs. Boehner and McConnell call him a martyr to religious freedom. A young priest I saw on television, modeling himself on his hero Santorum, said, “I would rather die than give up my church’s principles.” What we are seeing is not a defense of undying principle but a stampede toward a temporarily exploitable lunacy. Acton to the rescue!

Garry Wills is Professor of History Emeritus at Northwestern.

2/17/12 Update: House Democrats Walk Out of One-Sided Hearing on Contraception, Calling It An 'Autocratic Regime' — Laura Bassett and Amanda Terkel (The Huffington Post, February 16, 2012).

See also the previous PCV posts:
The Catholic Hierarchy Goes to War . . . Against Me, a Catholic Who Happens to Disagree With Them
We Are the 98 Percent
Something to Think About — February 11, 2012
Obama, Catholics, And Why I Walked Out of Mass on Sunday
Out of Step With the Flock: Bishops Far Behind on Birth Control Issues
Overpopulation and the Catholic Church: Can't We Become Part of the Solution?
"Who is the Church? And How Does the Church Discern Morality?"

Related Off-site Links:
Poll: Public Backs Obama in Birth Control Fight — Olivier Knox (The Ticket, February 15, 2012).
98% of Catholic Women Have Used Contraception the Bishops Oppose — Dino Grandoni (The Atlantic Wire, February 10, 2012).
Why I'm a Catholic for Contraception — Karalen L. Morthole (CNN, February 10, 2012).
U.S. Bishops Oppose Obama's Compromise Birth Control Plan — James Vicini (Reuters, February 11, 2012).
Men Dealing Badly with Women: The USCCB and Women's Reproductive Health — Colleen Kochivar-Baker (Enlightened Catholicism, February 12, 2012).
Liberals Enabled Bishops in Contraception Battle — Sarah Posner (Religion Dispatches, February 11, 2012).

Image: "Crusader Popes" by David Levine.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Catholic Hierarchy Goes to War . . . Against Me, a Catholic Who Happens to Disagree With Them

By Dick Bernard

Editor's Note: This commentary was first published February 12, 2012, on Dick Bernard's Thoughts Towards a Better World blog.

Today at Mass at the Basilica [of St. Mary in Minneapolis] came the expected Declaration of War (my interpretation) by the Catholic Hierarchy against the majority of us in the pews and not, who do not buy the promulgated line. If you are not Catholic, or one of the two-thirds of Catholics who do not normally go to church, the declaration on contraception and on the so-called marriage amendment to the Minnesota Constitution, is worth a read, probably worth printing out. A copy of it is here. I gladly provide this information at no cost to the Archdiocese or my Parish, simply because it is information.

I’m under no illusions: the Catholic Hierarchy is a powerful adversary. It controls the money, the real estate, the employees and the microphone when it comes to the “Catholic” position on things. It is not a democracy. The 400+ Bishops, Archbishops and Cardinals in the United States are appointed, not elected, and their positions are set by a foreign principality, the Vatican. The local Archbishop has no popular referendum to indicate his support here. No one local can vote him in or out of his office. In many temporal ways he rules.

Still, oddly, assorted public officials, including non-Catholics who welcome his apparent ‘power’ on their issues, will give him and his brother Bishops great and undeserved deference.

The constituency I “represent” is likely an easy majority of the people in the pews at Catholic Church on any given day, including the few who attend daily Mass. But we do not get the attention. It is the other Catholic Church, the Hierarchy, that gets the attention.

As for me, I happen to be a lifelong Catholic and I like going to Mass and ushering, and I’ve never seriously considered bolting. It’s not fear or lethargy or anything like that keeps me coming. Mass on Sunday is part of my weekly routine. I like the Church’s traditional (and now flagging) attention to social justice.

Some suggest that I’m foolish to hang on. I’ve answered that question for myself long ago. You don’t make change by disappearing from the battlefield. And this is a battlefield.

First, some data (which seldom is seen, and when seen is spun to death): Best as I can gather, 25% of Americans are said to be Catholic. This is probably a very liberal estimate (conservatives can make very liberal claims if in their interest, and the Bishops are no different.)

Roughly half of that 25% might be to the right of center, the other half to the left, in all variations of those misused terms. So, one-eighth of the U.S. population might seem to generally subscribe to one or another of the Bishops positions.

Of that 12% or so, a very small fraction are the spear-carriers for the Church. They are the ones who purport to speak for the faith, usually filmed inside a Church. They are the images on the evening news.

As for me, all I can do is set my own beliefs in front of the one, two, fifteen or twenty who might be inclined to listen and think about the implications of all of this.

My thoughts have not been hidden from view: Enter the word “abortion” in the search box at [my blog] and you’ll find eight posts in which the word is mentioned. The most important is October 12, 2009, which is here. Judging from years of conversations with and reading of works by Catholics, my views are very moderate, mainstream Catholic. It is the Bishops who are the extremists.

Enter the word “marriage” and you’ll find it in 25 posts. The most important and relevant one is October 6, 2010, which is here. I notice that at the end of this post I make reference to a future posting on a 1730 Quebec marriage contract. That future posting is here, June 25, 2011, and the link is towards the end of the post.

The civil contract (which preceded the Catholic Church marriage by two weeks) is well worth reading and discussing to get some grounding on the issues at stake in this state and others.

There is a great deal at stake. The institution that is my Catholic Church claims it is being discriminated against, even persecuted. I disagree in the strongest possible way. A fringe is seeking to take control under the guise of freedom of religion: their freedom.

The debate will be interesting.

But remember, those Bishops are not local people, and there are only 400 or so of them.

Monday, February 13, 2012

"Who is the Church? And How Does the Church Discern Morality?"

Theologians see need for broader discussion on conscience

By Joshua J. McElwee

Note: This article was first published February 10, 2012, by the National Catholic Reporter.

As the conversation surrounding the controversial birth control mandate continues, prominent theologians are saying President Barack Obama's decision on that subject just underlines the need for a much broader discussion among Catholics regarding the complex moral issues of our day.

On the birth control issue, Catholic bishops have made their position clear. In more than 160 letters to dioceses across the country, they have variably called the administration's decision an "affront to religious liberty" that would cause Catholics to "violate our consciences" regarding the morality of contraception.

Yet, in conversations with NCR and in their own postings online, several theologians are wondering if a more nuanced and lengthier discussion is in order. Each expressed regret that the bishops' recent outcry seems to narrow down the fullness of Catholic moral teaching to issues of sexuality.

"Conscience is such a hugely important topic," said Lisa Fullam, an associate professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif. "The fact that it tends to only be discussed in the light of sexuality is unfortunate."

At the heart of a broader discussion of moral issues, theologians say, would be how Catholics understand the notions of evil and conscience, and how this particular question raises many others about Catholic participation in a much wider range of morally questionable activities — from war to sweatshops, and even including the production of food.

As Julie Hanlon Rubio, an associate professor of Christian ethics at St. Louis University, put it, this decision may reflect that Catholics "need to think about the ways in which our partnerships with government, corporations and even culture may lead us to compromise our most deeply held values."

The focus of Catholic moral teaching in the past has been on "individual issues," not involvement in governmental structures or societal institutions, Rubio said. In fact, the practice of moral theology first came about to help confessors know how to identify individual sins in the confessional.

"More recently, we've come to think more in ways that individuals cooperate with social evils, or participate in social sin, or hold up sinful social structures," she said.

The theologians also said that the focus on sexual issues is due to our understanding of the notion of "intrinsic evil." Long a staple of Catholic discussions of morality, the notion is somewhat hard to define. The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not use the phrase, but it does say: "There are concrete acts that it is always wrong to choose because their choice entails a disorder of the will, i.e., a moral evil."

In other words, Fullam said, an intrinsic evil is one in which "there is never any justification" for an action that aims at an evil "as a sole intended end."

Thus, she said, any judgment of sin must include consideration of a person's intention. Most moralists, she said, would agree that in order to describe something as an intrinsic evil, you would first have to know something about the intention and circumstances of the person who has undertaken that act.

It's clarifications like that, Fullam said, that show there is a lot more nuance to moral issues than may seem apparent at first glance.

The birth control pill cannot be considered evil by itself, she said — after all it is "just a substance."

That's why hospitals can prescribe the pill to women who use it for some medical reason. The intention, she said, is preventing disease: "Contraception in that case is a side effect."

The importance of judging intention to understand the effect of any sin seems to underline the level of nuance necessary to judge complex moral questions.

Ultimately, Fullam said, each and every act requires discernment along the lines of some basic questions proposed by St. Thomas Aquinas: "What is the point of what you're doing and what are the circumstances?"

Societal considerations

If all the actions we undertake, both individually and as a society, require a careful discernment of our moral ends, the question remains: Why does it seem that the bishops — and even Catholics in general — more seriously engage questions of sexual morality, while leaving many questions of social sin unanswered?

Look at the lack of outcry over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, said David Cloutier, associate professor of theology at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Md. While Pope John Paul II clearly opposed that war, U.S. bishops did not instruct their faithful to refrain from paying their taxes, which might fund the military, or to express disagreement in other ways.

Examination of social issues like war is typically the subject of "lengthy inquiry," focused on "different circumstances," Cloutier said, in contrast to the seemingly straightforward nature of Catholic teaching on sexuality.

Rubio said she tried to explore the subject of cooperation with evil in a paper about the morality of buying clothes that may have been made in sweatshops.

But, she said, "it was really difficult to draw out the lines of connection" on that subject, considering the "limits of knowledge" and other ethical questions about whether it is better for people in impoverished countries to have low-paying jobs than no jobs at all.

"It gets really complicated," she said. "It seems much more complicated than 'Am I cooperating with the evil of contraception?' "

In the same vein, Rubio said one of her colleagues wanted to evaluate the morality of meat-eating in light of the conditions of those working in meat factories and had the same difficulty.

Despite that difficulty to discern clear-cut answers to morality in some areas, Rubio said the attempt to do so emphasizes that in the Catholic tradition "there is definitely an affirmation that there is such a thing as structural sin, and we participate as individuals and we can be guilty of that."

That's why, although the bishops' statements on moral issues — particularly sexual ones — can sometimes seem blunt, Rubio said she appreciated their attempt to "talk about cooperation with evil," particularly when they bring up the issue in regard to voting.

"Although it tends to be focused on just a few issues," she said, "the idea I think is very useful: What do I do when I vote? What am I cooperating with?"

Theologian Daniel Maguire of Marquette University in Milwaukee comes to the topic with more fundamental questions: Who is the church? And how does the church discern morality?

The bishops' positions on the health insurance mandate cannot be separated from U.S. Catholics' widespread negligence in following the church's teaching on contraception, Maguire said.

It's no secret that since the 1968 promulgation of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, in which Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the Catholic ban on contraception, many faithful haven't followed the teaching. In fact, a study by the Guttmacher Institute last April estimated that some 98 percent of Catholic women in the U.S. who have had sex use contraception.

When considering the position of the church on any issue, Maguire said, it's important to remember that the bishops are not "the entire picture."

A fuller picture of how Catholics have discerned moral truths in the past, he said, would include a "tripod" of views: those of the hierarchy, the "magisterium of the theologians," and the "grace-filled, experience-filled wisdom of the faithful."

History, Maguire said, shows the importance of all three viewpoints. When a pope in the early Middle Ages said torture was morally wrong, many theologians rebuked him. And while official church teaching outlawed usury for many years, many members of the laity continued to collect interest on loans.

Cloutier said the level of dissent on birth control might indicate why the bishops are taking such a vocal stand against the administration's decision on the subject. He said the bishops might see it as an issue of "symbolic power."

"The whole tradition has been arguing about contraception as a stand-in for a lot of other issues about authority and dissent for a long time," he said.

That dynamic becomes especially clear, Cloutier said, when you consider that the mandate may exclusively impact the structures — schools or universities, for example — over which bishops have traditionally been able to show their dedication to the teaching by banning coverage in health care plans.

For Fullam, the number of those who have decided to neglect the official church teaching might also say something about how Catholics have decided to give weight to their own consciences when evaluating a question of morality.

A recent survey of some 1,400 representative U.S. Catholics seems to give credibility to that opinion. When asked who should have the final say in determining right and wrong, some 50 percent responded that individuals, not church leaders, should be the final arbiters of morality on several issues, including those of divorce, abortion, homosexuality and contraception (NCR, Oct. 28-Nov. 10, 2011).

While "it is logically possible that the vast majority of Catholics stumble into mortal sin" by neglecting the teaching on birth control, Fullam said, it is also possible that many "gave the matter serious thought," used "all of the resources at our disposal for formation of conscience," and came to a decision that "this teaching is not binding on my conscience."

If that is the case, she said, then the church "needs to look hard at why, and what this means."

It also reflects the fact, she said, that there is a notion of the "reciprocity of consciences" in Catholic teaching.

"While the faithful learn from the magisterium, the faithful have consciences, too," Fullam said. "And maybe, in some circumstances, the magisterium can learn from the faithful.

"The sheer magnitude of practical sense on the matter of birth control means it's a question that maybe hasn't been settled as completely as some people think," she said.

Yet, no matter how the morality of birth control is considered, Maguire said the focus of Catholics on sexual ethics tends to neglect a whole range of other teachings that are just as important.

Recalling conversations he has had with politicians seeking advice on how to win over Catholic voters, Maguire said that abortion is the "only issue" the politicians are normally concerned about.

"And yet Catholicism has a rich social justice theory," he said. "And they don't know anything about it. That's a real shame."

Joshua J. McElwee is an NCR staff writer. His email address is

Recommended Off-site Links:
Daniel Maguire on the Progressive Core of Catholicism
The Wild Reed (October 18, 2010).
Daniel Maguire on Catholicism's "Long History of Demeaning Sexuality"
The Wild Reed (October 19, 2010).
98% of Catholic Women Have Used Contraception the Bishops Oppose — Dino Grandoni (
The Atlantic Wire, February 10, 2012).
Why I'm a Catholic for Contraception — Karalen L. Morthole (
CNN, February 10, 2012).
U.S. Bishops Oppose Obama's Compromise Birth Control Plan — James Vicini (
Reuters, February 11, 2012).
Men Dealing Badly with Women: The USCCB and Women's Reproductive Health — Colleen Kochivar-Baker (
Enlightened Catholicism, February 12, 2012).
Liberals Enabled Bishops in Contraception Battle — Sarah Posner (
Religion Dispatches, February 11, 2012).