Thursday, July 31, 2014

A nun in a pink habit: The first sign of a Catholic Spring?

Sister Mary Lucy,DEF
The Catholic Church, the New York Times assures us, is a faltering institution. Its only a matter of time before we all become secular postmodernists, and the Catholic Church will be discarded in the dustbin of history, exposed as nothing more than a den of elderly white sexists and homophobes. President Obama has already written us off, and he's the smartest guy in the room--any room.

But what if President Obama is wrong? What if--in fact--the Catholic Church is on the verge of a great revival--something similar to the Counter Reformation, that wonderful revival of Catholicism that brought us St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross?

And this brings me to Sister Mary Lucy Astuto, the mother superior of a young religious order called the Daughters of the Eternal Father. I met Sister Mary Lucy at a Catholic Trade Conference in Chicago today and was drawn to her by her pink religious habit.
Although she heads a young religious order--only ten years old--Sister Mary Lucy is not herself young; she is 74. But her spirit is young and full of energy, and she conveys this spirit in a religious habit that she personally designed.

The Daughters of the Eternal Father wear traditional white habits enhanced by a pink veil, a pink cape, and a pink scapular. And such a pink--a bright, cheerful, childlike pink--the color of my granddaughter's Barbie bike.

Pink, Sister Mary Lucy told me, is the color of hope and joy. And after all, she pointed out, "joy is all around us; hope is all around us."

Wow! A young religious order has sprung up in the United States--the world-weary postmodern United States--an order that wears traditional religious habits enhanced with a bright pink flare.
Before Sister Mary Lucy founded her order, she encountered a Catholic woman--a mystic it seems--who told her that she had been visited by St. Ann, the grandmother of Christ. In this vision, St. Ann conveyed her assurance that Sister Mary Lucy would found a new religious order that would grow quickly.  And the mystic added this intriguing fact about St. Ann--her favorite color is pink.

So far, St. Ann's prediction has not come true; ten years on, the Daughters of the Eternal Father only has two sisters. But--as Sister Mary Lucy pointed out--God's time is not our time. Christ promised to return soon, and that was 2000 years ago. And in the Old Testament, God promised to heal our wounds quickly, and all our wounds have not yet been healed.

But the Holy Spirit constantly moves among us, and people who respond have changed the world. Edith Stein, a great Jewish intellectual, stumbled upon the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, read it, and declared, "This is the truth."  And Edith went on to become St.  Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, who triumphed over the horrors of Auschwitz. And Francis of Assisi, a hedonist who was born into a wealthy family, stripped himself naked, disavowed all worldly goods, and founded a religious movement that has thrived for eight centuries.

So, isn't it plausible that God has called an elderly woman to found a new religious order--an order of nuns that wear pink habits--to bring new life into the American Catholic Church just as God blessed St. Elizabeth, an older woman and past the childbearing age, who bore a son who became John the Baptist?

And isn't also plausible that St. Ann would bless this new order? St. Ann, let us recall, is the patroness of grandparents; and how many of us know people whose lives were transformed and revived by the birth of their first grandchild?

So may St. Ann continue to bless the Daughters of the Eternal Father as a grandmother would bless her first grandchild.  And may this new order, clothed in the raiments of joy and hope, flourish among us. Perhaps these nuns, dressed in pink, are the first sign of a Catholic spring.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Would we be better Catholics if the bishops wore high heels? St. Margaret Clitherow would probably have said no

St. Margaret Clitherow
In an essay entitled, "Give Us a Bishop in High Heels," published recently in the New York Times, Jane  Gardam rejoiced in the Anglican Church's decision to allow women to become bishops.  The Anglicans have allowed women to become priests since 1992--and both male and female Anglican priests can marry. But allowing women to become bishops is another step forward toward modernizing the Anglican Church.  Indeed, the Anglicans' American cousin, the Episcopal Church, took that step some years  ago. America's chief Episcopal bishop is a woman.

I have no quarrel with the Anglicans on this issue.  I feel about it very much like Dorothy Day is said to have felt.  According to Rosalie Riegle, Dorothy was on record as being opposed to the ordination of women. Nevertheless, Dorothy thought the day would come when the  Catholic Church would ordain women. "We will have women priests," she is said to have predicted, "but I think the culture of the Catholic Church in the United State right now is not ready for it."

Dorothy predicted that the first step toward permitting Catholic women to become priests would be to allow male priests to marry. "And then when women are closer to the altar by being associated with priests, married to them, then the culture will be ready for women priests."  Riegle wrote that Dorothy seemed "very peaceful and calm" about this prospect.

And so am I. Nevertheless, I would like to respond to Jane Gardam's celebratory piece in the New York Times by making two brief observations. First, the Anglicans' recent decision toward modernization--permitting women to  become bishops--is just another step to make the Anglican Church more compatible with contemporary culture--married priests, women priests, and now female bishops.  And I believe I read somewhere that homosexual priests are permitted to live openly with their partners so long as they remain celibate. (I wonder how that's working for them.)

But where has all of this gotten the Anglicans? Have more Brits joined the Anglican faith? Have disaffected British Anglicans returned to the fold? I don't think so.

In America, where the Episcopal Church has made all the reforms that the Anglicans have made and more, the Episcopalians are in free fall--with their membership shrunk now to less than 2 million.  In fact, there are more Catholics in the Los Angeles Archdiocese than all the Episcopalians in the entire United States.

And the Episcopal communion in the U.S. is now hopelessly fractured, with some congregations affiliating with the Church of Uganda and some whole congregations reuniting with the Catholic Church.  In Texas, for example, six large Episcopal congregations have become Anglican Rite Catholic Churches. Like lost sheep, these Anglican Rite churches have returned to the Roman Catholic fold--an incredible testimony to the power and durability of the Ancient Faith.

G.K. Chesterton perceived the drift toward modernization among the Anglicans almost a century ago. "These people merely take the modern mood," Chesterton observed, "with much in it that is amiable and much that is anarchical and much that is merely dull and obvious, and require any creed to be cut down to fit that mood. But the mood would exist, even without the creed."

In other words, many modern Protestants have reshaped the contours of their religious creeds to conform to their personal desires and preferences:
They say they want a religion to be social,when they would be social without any religion. They say they want a religion to practical, when they would be practical without any religion. They say they want a religion that is acceptable to science, when they would accept the science even if they did not accept  the religion. They say they want a religion like this because they are like this already. They say they want it, when they mean that they could do without it. 
So I ask Ms. Gardam, will allowing women to be Anglican priests strengthen the Anglican Church? Will it make Anglicans better Christians? Will it reverse the downward spiral in the number of English people who  call themselves Anglicans?

Second, I think Gardam's references to women saints does not support the premise of her argument.  Gardam invokes St. Hilda, one of England's great Catholic saints. If she had been made a bishop, Gardam asks, would she be willing to be martyred for her faith as St. Thomas of Canterbury was? "Would she have gone swearing and cursing to her death in the cathedral, as it is said that he did?"

Well, here's my answer to that question. Of course, St. Hilda would have gladly suffered martyrdom as St. Thomas of Canterbury did. but she would have made that sacrifice whether or not she had been named a bishop.

Ms. Gardam needs to read the biography of St. Margaret Clithrow, who was crushed to death by the Anglican authorities in 1586 because she refused to renounce her Catholic faith.  St. Margaret was not a bishop; she was not a priest or a woman religious. She was simply a housewife who had converted to Catholicism and who refused to cease partaking of the Catholic Mass.

What do you think Margaret was thinking as the blood was literally being squeezed out of her naked body?  Was she thinking, "Boy, this would be so much better if I were only a bishop!"

I'm telling you, Ms. Gardam, all my favorite Catholic saints are women: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), who died in an Auschwitz gas chamber; St. Elizabeth Seton, who was denounced and disinherited by her upper-crust Episcopalian family after she converted to Catholicism; St. Teresa of Avila, who wrote with a golden pen and who reformed the Carmelites during the Counter Reformation; St. Catherine of Siena, who was almost illiterate and yet the prose of her letters was inflamed with the passion of her faith.

And of course there was Dorothy Day--Servant of God--who lived a saintly life of poverty and sacrifice and had no desire to be a bishop.   In fact, she had no desire to be a saint--although she will certainly be canonized one day.

You know what, Jane Gardam? None of the women saints of the Catholic Church--and there are hundreds of them--were bishops. In fact (and I mention this because fashion seems important to you), I don't believe any of them wore high heels.  So--do you think the Anglicans will have more women saints now that it allows women to be bishops?

And I end on a minor note. Please, Ms. Gardam,  don't refer to clerical collars as dog collars. To do so suggests a frivolous attitude toward the priesthood.   And you weren't being frivolous, were you, Jane, when you argued that bishops should wear high heels?


Jane Gardam. Give Us a Bishop in High Heels. New York Times, July 21, 2014.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Don't insult me by calling yourself a "recovering Catholic"

Nothing insults me more than hearing someone describe himself (or herself) as a "recovering Catholic."  To say such a thing is to assert that Catholicism is some kind of  an affliction or a disease, like alcoholism, drug addiction, or a personality disorder. 

Of course I respect the right of people to leave the Catholic faith.  Someone who grew up in an abusive Catholic family might leave the faith, for example; and it would be very difficult for me to argue that an abuse victim should try to differentiate between Catholicism and the personal abuse a  child experienced in a Catholic home.

I myself grew up in an abusive Methodist family,  and part of my larger reasons for becoming Catholic no doubt had something to do with making a complete break from the physical and psychological abuse of my childhood.  But my parents just happened to be Methodists. They would have been abusive regardless of their religious affiliation.

People who were abused by priests constitute a special case, in my opinion.  Without question, Satan captured the souls of these depraved priests; and the harm they did to children--mostly young boys--is simply bottomless.  How could I be so presumptuous as to tell someone who was sexually abused by a Catholic priest that he should remain Catholic?

I simply could not do it.  We've got to leave these innocents to the boundless mercy of God, trusting that God will have mercy on all Catholics who allowed this evil to occur. I wasn't even a Catholic when most of this abuse occurred, but this sin burdens me personally.  God will charge it against my spiritual account, I am certain. And woe be unto me if I try to convince Him I have an alibi.

And of course some people leave the Catholic Church to become Protestants, a decision that Catholics must respect.  Personally, I find it unfathomable why anyone would leave the richness of Catholicism and the solaces of the Eucharist to become a Methodist or an Episcopalian.  Why not just chuck the whole religious enterprise?

Besides, like Chesterton, I don't think many people leave Catholicism for theological reasons.  People don't leave the Catholic Church to become Episcopalians because they became convinced by Episcopal theology.  As far as I can discern,  the Episcopalians don't have much of a theology. They abandoned their theological groundings more than a century ago. 

No, as Chesterton pointed out, most people leave Catholicism "to have a high old time." And, as Chesterton conceded, "considering what a muddle we've made of modern morality, they can hardly be blamed."

But people who abandon their childhood faith should not refer to themselves as "recovering Catholics."  It's unseemly--sort of like gossiping about an ex-spouse.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

In a New York Times essay, Timothy Egan blames all the world's current problems on religion: Wow, it's so obvious!

Maureen Dowd and Frank Bruni are resting , apparently, so the Times dispatched Timothy Egan to publish another intellectually lazy attack on religion. In an essay title "Faith-based Fanatics," Egan argues that much of this year's violence and sorrows have their roots in religious discord. 

"God is on a rampage in 2014," Egan writes, "a lot like the Old Testament scourge who gave direct instructions to people to kill one another." If it weren't for the contemporary references, I would have concluded that Egan was just recycling one of his old theme papers from his student days at the University of Washington.  The argument that religion is the source of all the world's problems is one of those fatuous conclusions that college sophomores come up with.

Much in the style of the Times' Maureen Dowd (I think it's called drive-by journalism), Egan engages in gratuitous insults to bulk up his vapid essay. He takes a swipe at Pope Benedict (kick 'em while he's down),  Texas Governor Rick Perry (what's he got to do with anything?), and the male Roman Catholic members of the Supreme Court. And why not? If you get an opportunity to write an op ed essay for the Times, you've got to be snarky, or the editors won't ask you back.

Of course, Egan undercut his whole sloppy essay by admitting that the world's biggest slaughters were not driven by religion.  Without a doubt, the 20th century was the most violent century in the history of mankind, but it was unleashed by Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Zedong.  If you want to get a sharper perspective on the source of all this mayhem, read Robert Royal's excellent history on the history of Catholic persecution in the 20th century. Millions of religious people were killed, most of them by non-religious people.

It is true of course, that much of the turmoil engulfing the Middle East is steeped in religious ideology and that the roots of the current conflicts can be traced to religious disputes that go back a thousand years.  But the Muslim extremists who are on the loose are essentially nihilists.  To say the violence in the Middle East can be blamed on religion is like arguing that American Express is responsible for Pol Pot's murders because Pol Pot had an American Express card. I don't actually know where Pol Pot banked, but you get my rhetorical point.

I could argue of course that religious faith (and more particularly my own Catholic faith) compels us to respect every person's human dignity and to alleviate the suffering of others.  I think there's something about that in the New Testament, maybe in the Book of Matthew.  But that would be about as useful as a high-school debate team competition. 

I will simply say this.  Our world is facing very serious problems. Ukraine, we've learned in the last 48 hours, is virtually in a shooting war with Russia, and the nation's most powerful nations cannot even retrieve the remains of  their citizens who were killed when a civilian airliner was shot down. We need very sharp analysis of an escalating cycle of violence by people who have some moral center and ethical core. Mr. Egan and the New York Times do not contribute to finding solutions to the world's pressing challenges by dredging up empty arguments about how religion is the source of the world's conflicts.

And I will say one more thing. I myself look for direction as to how I should live in a world soaked in blood and greed and brutal exploitation.  I'm telling you, Mr. Egan, I'm not looking for answers in the New York Times.  President Obama is going to get a chance to earn his Nobel Peace Prize, and God help us--I hope he's not drawing his inspiration from the New York Times op ed pages.

As for me and my house, I will turn to my Catholic faith. I will draw solace and courage from our Catholic saints and martyrs--the very people Mr. Egan disparaged in his witless op ed essay.  Instead of doing so much empty writing, Mr. Egan, I suggest you do some reading. Start by reading the works of  Dorothy Day, not yet a saint.  If we follow her example and try to live as she lived, God will lead us home--regardless of what happens in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, and Gaza.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Miracles don't happen in our postmodern age--or do they? Dorothy Day and my friend Sarah

In The Keys of the Kingdom, A.J. Cronin's delightful novel about the spiritual journey of Father Francis Chisholm, a Scottish priest, Cronin sketches a story about Father Gerald Fitzgerald, who is hoodwinked by Charlotte Neily, a young woman who claims to have experienced a beatific vision of the Virgin Mary and to have discovered a miraculous spring of healing water. After reporting this amazing event, Charlotte takes to her bed,where she displays the stigmata and survives for nine days without any food or drink.

Father Fitzgerald is completely taken in and soon envisions the construction of a shrine like the one at Lourdes and an influx of pilgrims and tourists.  Unfortunately, Father Fitzgerald's junior curate, Father Francis, unmasks the miracle as a hoax when he comes to visit Charlotte and discovers her propped up in her sickbed, eating chicken and drinking beer.

Meanwhile, another Catholic family, the Warrens, are anticipating the death of their young son Owen, who is dying from an ulcerated leg. Without telling anyone, Warren's mother bathes Owen's leg in the spring that Charlotte discovered, and his leg is healed.

When Father Francis is invited to the Warren house to witness Owen's recovery, he thinks he is being summoned to administer last rites and even fears he may be too late.  But when he arrives, Father Francis finds a healthy young Owen along with Owen's physician, Dr. Willie Tulloch, a kind man but fiercely atheist.

Dr. Tulloch is happy to see his patient recover but he is somewhat angry as well. "There's bound to be a scientific explanation beyond the scope of our present knowledge," he tells Father Francis. "An intense desire for recovery--psychological regeneration of the cells."

Then Doctor Tulloch stops short and grabs Father Francis's arm. Almost desperately, he cries out: "Oh, God!--if there is a God!--let's all keep our bloody mouths shut about it!"

Even today, almost all of us know someone who was at death's door who mysteriously recovered. But, like skeptical Dr. Tulloch, most of us refuse to believe in miracles. There must be some scientific explanation, we tell ourselves. After all, we live in a postmodern age--an age of reason, rationality, and secularism. If there is a God, we damned sure don't want to know about it.

But in truth miracles happen every day. I have a good friend, Sarah Maple, who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Her doctors told her she could expect to live about two years.

But in 2010, Sarah's brain tumor began to shrink and eventually disappeared. In early 2014, her doctors discovered a second brain tumor, but in July that tumor too began to shrink.

It is true that Sarah has received excellent medical treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Nevertheless, almost everyone who began treatment with Sarah at Mayo and who had the same diagnosis has died. Surely the fact that Sarah has survived so long is miraculous.

During this harrowing experience, Sarah experienced a second miracle. Although she had been raised in a severe Protestant denomination that is well known for its hostility to Catholicism, Sarah had abandoned that tradition before she became ill. And during her illness--at the age of 63--Sarah entered the Catholic Church.

Many people have prayed for Sarah. I myself invoked the aid of Servant of God Dorothy Day and I am absolutely sure that Dorothy heard my prayer and was sympathetic. My friends Mark and Louise Zwick, who run the Catholic Worker Hospitality House in Houston, also sought Dorothy's aid. Friends of mine from Tanzania--two Catholic priests--prayed for Sarah and asked the Ugandan Martyrs to intercede on her behalf, and I am satisfied that their prayers have great power.

And whatever one may think of the miraculous powers of the Catholic saints, almost everyone I have told about Sarah's story--Catholic or non-Catholic-- has said that Sarah's conversion to Catholicism is miraculous.

So let us look for miracles in our daily lives--let us expect them. Even though we live in a deeply cynical postmodern world, God's healing power is surely present now as in ages past. His spirit constantly moves among us as we give ourselves over to a childlike faith that we are not alone in a soulless universe. We are all sustained in the palm of God's loving hand.

And God sent Christ to dwell among us. Mysteriously, he is present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. And though we are not worthy that he should come under our roofs, let us have confidence that if he but says the word, our souls shall be healed.

Dorothy Day


A.J. Cronin. The Keys of the Kingdom. Chicago: Loyola Classics, 1941.

Like the Crocodile, American Higher Education is Eating Its Young: Reflections While In Africa

I just returned from Uganda, where I visited several Ugandan universities and toured a game preserve on the upper Nile River. As I viewed the wildlife of Africa--the elephants, the baboons, the giraffes--I was deeply impressed by how fiercely most African species protect their young.
Cape buffalo: Don't mess with my family
I was particularly struck by the cape buffaloes, which are quite effective in protecting their calves from predators.  When they sense trouble, the adults instinctively form a circle around their young ones; and acting together, they can even fend off lions. According to my guide, lions do not even try to attack a herd of cape buffalo unless they are in a large group because they know the buffaloes will rough them up.

At least one African species, however,  does not protect its young--the crocodile.  A guide told me crocodiles will protect their eggs, but after baby crocs are hatched, their mothers show no interest in them.  In fact, crocodiles are cannibals; the bigger crocodiles will sometimes eat the small ones. 

As I pondered this information, I could not help but draw a comparison between crocodiles and American higher education.  At one time, we Americans believed our colleges would nurture the young, transmit and preserve our cultural heritage, and prepare young people for adult life and the world of work.  In other words, American colleges were once something like cape buffaloes, which would do all they could to make sure their young grew up to be healthy adults.

I'm not sure Americans believe that anymore. In fact, American higher education today is much more like a crocodile than a cape buffalo. Every year, the cost of higher education goes up a bit more, requiring students to borrow more and more money in order to attend college. Our college presidents and administrators have become overpaid, arrogant bureaucrats more intent on wooing wealthy donors and constructing impressive buildings than on serving their students.

Crocodile: Come a little closer and I promise you'll have a good experience
In particular, the for-profit college industry has exploited low-income and minority students by using high-pressure recruiting tactics to enroll them in expensive programs that frequently do not lead to well-paying jobs.  Students who attend for-profit institutions have the highest default rates on student loans, loans which they cannot discharge in bankruptcy.

In short, with each passing year, American higher education--and the for-profit college industry, in particular--becomes more and more like the crocodiles, which eat their young, than the cape buffaloes, which nurture and protect them.

And everyone knows this.  Indeed, not long ago, President Obama acknowledged that for-profit colleges were "making out like a bandit," and his administration has made half-hearted attempts to bring them under tighter regulatory control.

But you can't regulate crocodiles; you have to stay away from them.  As long as we permit the for-profit college industry to profit from federal student aid money, we will have corruption and exploitation.  The sooner we face this cold fact, the sooner we will realize that this industry must be shut down.

Of course, the public universities and the non-profit colleges have serious problems as well; but compared to the for-profit colleges, the publics and non-profits are more like alligators than crocodiles.   And according to the Ugandans, in comparison to a crocodile, an alligator is merely a Presbyterian.