Social Justice

Nun Better

I wrote the following piece for the blog BLT Is Not Just a Sandwich, and I’ve already gotten myself into trouble over it. I’ll reprint the article, and then the dialogue that followed.

Yesterday, the Vatican reprimanded the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)—with over 1,500 members, they’re the largest and probably the most influential group of Catholic nuns in the country—because they have challenged the church’s teaching on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood, and promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

The sisters were also reprimanded for making public statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.” (This last was mainly over their support of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010—that is, the big health care overhaul that everyone has been arguing about for years—because they supported it and a bunch of bishops opposed it for political and religious reasons.)

The group was formed in 1956 at the Vatican’s request, but of course this was during the period of significant church reform that led to the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965).

Another group of Catholic nuns—Network, a social justice lobby—was also reprimanded by the Vatican for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage. I know a number of these nuns, and worked with them on several issues in the past; I would agree with the Vatican’s assessment that they are indeed passionate about poverty and economic injustice, though while they may not have made public statements about abortion and gay marriage, in private many of them are less than happy about the Vatican’s heavy-handed suppression of social justice issues.

Certainly health care reform was one of those issues, since they feel that poor people will always receive the dregs when it comes to health care. Sister Simone Campbell, Network’s executive director, said, “I would imagine that it was our health care letter that made them mad. We haven’t violated any teaching; we have just been raising questions and interpreting politics.”

So the Vatican appointed an archbishop and two other bishops to “reform” LCWR: they have five years to revise LCWR’s statutes, approve every speaker at the group’s public programs, and replace a handbook the group used to facilitate dialogue on matters that the Vatican said should be settled doctrine. The trio of bishops will also review LCWR’s links with Network and another organization, the Resource Center for Religious Institutes—a particularly dangerous nonprofit because it gives its members financial and legal resources.

You may recall that Pope Benedict XVI was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Roman Inquisition) back when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, but long after he was a member of the Hitler Youth and the Luftwaffenhelfer. (I’m sorry if that sounds like an ad hominem attack on the pope. If anyone would like to discuss his doctrinal positions instead of his personal history, I’d be happy to do that, too.)

In 2009, when the Vatican’s investigation of the LCWR was being conducted, the New York Times ran a story that suggested it was indeed a doctrinal inquisition:

Some sisters surmise that the Vatican and even some American bishops are trying to shift them back into living in convents, wearing habits or at least identifiable religious garb, ordering their schedules around daily prayers and working primarily in Roman Catholic institutions, like schools and hospitals.

“They think of us as an ecclesiastical work force,” said Sister Sandra M. Schneiders, professor emerita of New Testament and spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, in California. “Whereas we are religious, we’re living the life of total dedication to Christ, and out of that flows a profound concern for the good of all humanity. So our vision of our lives, and their vision of us as a work force, are just not on the same planet.”

One last tidbit: while the Vatican was investigating the LCWR, it was also conducting a separate, widespread investigation of all women’s religious orders and communities in the United States. That inquiry, known as a “visitation,” was concluded last December, but the results of that process have not been made public. I’m thinking the nuns’ observations from 2009 will prove prophetic.

Timothy, who writes the Catholic Bibles blog, commented:

I am not sure where to begin in assessing your post. You seem to infer that the bishops have no right to speak as representatives of the Catholic Church in this country. On the issue of health care reform, I am sure you are aware that the Catholic Church has been for comprehensive health care coverage since the early 20th century. A short glimse of these document, all only within the last 20 years makes this very evident: This is of course a social justice issue, but one the Catholic Church believes should respect the dignity of all human beings from conception to natural death. Of course the Church is also opposed to the death penalty and the protection of illegal immigrants, both which are social justice issues, and ones more often promoted by the ‘left.’

The Church has done visitations over the past few years to religious sisters. But also religious brothers, seminaries, and dioceses. I work at a Catholic high school, and representatives from the dioces visit us every year. So, this is nothing odd or extraordinary.

Finally, your comment about Pope Benedict is unnecessary and an unjust attack on the man. All German boys of his age were enrolled in the Hitler Youth at that time, there was no getting around it. The Ratzinger’s were known to be anti-Nazi . His father was a police officer in a small Bavarian town, who opposed Nazi rallies. So, I find you comments on this issue to be unfortunate.

My reply:

You say that healthcare reform is an issue which “the Catholic Church believes should respect the dignity of all human beings from conception to natural death.” This implies that organizations affiliated with the Catholic Church should be allowed to make life-and-death decisions on behalf of their employees, who may not even be Catholics themselves, much less Catholics who adhere to official Catholic doctrine. If an employee (perhaps a gentile employee) of an Orthodox Jewish organization had to go on food stamps, would it be right for their shul to block their access to non-kosher foods?

As for the pope’s past: Ratzinger joined the Hitler-Jugend in 1941, three years after the terrible Kristallnacht brought the horrors of Nazism to general public awareness. While you are correct that it was compulsory for young people to join, both Joseph Ratzinger and his brother Georg have said that “resistance was impossible” at the time and that it’s not surprising or morally culpable that they also “went along.” This is insulting to the many who risked their lives to resist the Nazi regime, both in organized cells and on an individual basis. In fact, there are many examples of those who refused service in the Hitler Youth for a variety of reasons. Many of Ratzinger’s age joined young people’s resistance groups like the Edelweiss Pirates, or the Swing Kids, or the Helmut Hubener group, or the White Rose (though this group didn’t officially form until 1942). Yes, the Ratzinger family did object to the Nazis and as a consequence were forced to move four times—they did not passively and quietly accept what was going on, as many other families did—but whatever the family did, it doesn’t appear to have been enough to warrant being detained and questioned by the Gestapo.

But as I said above, I am happy to discuss the pope’s current doctrines and statements, and leave aside all further references to his past.

You write, “You seem to infer that the bishops have no right to speak as representatives of the Catholic Church in this country.” I realize that today’s Catholic Church hierarchy values adherence to current teachings above all else, and that the bishops are the ones to crack the whip. Never mind the fact that the Second Vatican Council promised an open and dialogical church, willing to engage with the secular world! Since the 1980s, Rome has retreated from those reforms. More to the point, the bishops are clearly at odds with most practicing Catholics today. Liberal Catholics the world over hope for a church that is open to married and women priests, a rethink on the issue of contraception as exhorted by Humanae Vitae, and a reversal of the harsh insensitivity of the teaching on homosexuality.

Nuns are placed in a particularly difficult position. On the one hand, they are expected to obey the rules of their order, which in turn likely includes obedience to the Holy See. On the other hand, they are the ones in the trenches, on the streets, in direct service to the poor and disenfranchised, working with Catholics and non-Catholics alike. They must obey their own consciences and the urgings of the Holy Spirit. And frankly, the Holy Spirit trumps the pope.

I daresay a goodly number of this “ecclesiastical work force” will continue to stand against oppression, even at the threat of excommunication.

Categories: Christianity, Judaism, Politics, Social Justice, Theology | 5 Comments

On the Feast of Stephen

The story of Christmas is the story of assimilation. Sorry to put it so nakedly, but it’s true. Wrapped up in this holiday, this holy day, is a whole history of cultural appropriation, identity theft, and synchretism. And there are no easy answers. It’s all so very messy.

December 25 was the date of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere according to the old Julian calendar. In the Gregorian calendar currently in use, the solstice falls on the 21st or 22nd. Most ancient cultures held their biggest annual festivals at this time of year; if you take into account all winter festivals worldwide, the list of holidays is staggering.

The Church was pretty open about appropriating the winter solstice (or, more specifically, the Roman celebration of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the festival of Sol, the invincible sun god) as Jesus’ birthday. Jesus was almost certainly born in late March or early April, but if you want an instant celebration of a new concept, you simply glom onto an existing festival and add a new face to it.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Jesus is not “the reason for the season.” The reason for the season, as a friend recently pointed out, is the tilt in the earth’s axis, and humankind’s need to celebrate light and life on the darkest day of the year. Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, Classic civilizations, Earth-based Religions, Holidays, Judaism, Social Justice | 7 Comments


The diminutive suffix “-ish” to denote approximation is just plain lovely. Its attachment to time, as in “How about if we meet 4:00ish?”, was in use as early as 1916.

Apparently it started in Middle English to describe people’s ethnic origins: Spanish, Irish, Jewish. It moved from there to mean “like” or “characteristic of,” as in devilish or boyish, boorish or foolish or shrewish. As early as the 14th century it was used to soften the precision of color names, when the color in question was hard to describe: It was a greenish blueor “It had a reddish hue.” From there it came to mean “tending to be” or “verging on being,” as in a knavish look. Hence its broader use as an approximation.

I love the practice of using “-ish” as a standalone word. “How was the opera?” “Good. Ish.”

“Are you hungry?” “Ish.”

“Would you say she’s thirtyish?” “I’d say, heavy on the ish.” Continue reading

Categories: Language, Social Justice, Words | 4 Comments

Is My (American) Pride Showing?

Categories: Politics, Social Justice | 2 Comments

Voting Stories

I’m publishing this while the votes are still coming in, before we know what’s happened. I’ve found a number of people online are sharing their stories from the polls. Here are a few that touched me, unedited:

I voted in Denver on Friday afternoon. My coworker and I left at 4:30 and headed to the nearest early voting polling place.

We ran into another friend and all shared who/what we were voting for – and it was Obama and democratic values all the way.

On the way in I ran into, literally, a wall of muscle that happened to be an African American man. He was wearing an “I just voted” sticker so I apologized for running into him and asked for directions to the polling place.

That’s when he told me that he’d voted in a small town outside Denver, but that “Here in the city, they be arresting black folk who don’t got no I.D cards – got pre-written warrants and shit.”

I told him that I hadn’t heard that but if it is happening it is bullshit and everyone deserves a chance to vote. He looked at me like he was trying to sum me up and I said, “Well, not to make any assumptions about who you voted for, but the three of us are headed in to vote for Obama.”

That’s when he literally picked me up in a bear hug and said “thank you SO much . . . my brother.” He was crying and told me he never thought he’d see a day like this. Continue reading

Categories: Politics, Social Justice | 1 Comment

Down to the Wire

I know, I know. You’re as tired of politics as I am. I tend to watch television with my DVR remote in hand, and I always speed through the political ads, even for candidates I like or admire. But I’ll beg your indulgence for two or three tidbits I ran across today that I found interesting.

First, there’s Real Clear Politics (RCP), a a Chicago-based political news aggregator, polling data aggregator, and blog founded in 2000. I’m not a big political blog reader, so I tend to skip RCP’s commentary (which tends to be more conservative) and focus on their polling data. They compile hundreds of polls on many issues, and do an admiral job of breaking it down for easy analysis. The pre-election polling averages they come up with have, in previous elections, compared favorably with post-election results.

So it’s especially heartening to see their electoral college projections. Continue reading

Categories: Politics, Social Justice | 2 Comments

Hate’s Last Stand

Since I seem to be devoid of new ideas, or too pressed with work and life to spend much time writing and working on the long-promised Big Trip entry, or still being in the shadow period of a particularly tumultuous Mercury Retrograde, or all three, I haven’t been able to post much that’s new and personal recently. And while I’m weary of political ads and analysis (a bad side effect of having voted early, I guess), I couldn’t help reposting this on-point piece from one of my favorite columnists.

It’s racism and homophobia, neck and neck, down to the wire. Can they hang on?

By Mark Morford, SF Gate Columnist | Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Let’s not get carried away.

Let’s not go so far as to suggest we’re about to enter into some sort of fluffy utopian tofu puppy happyland where nipples fly free and consciousness expands and the fetid rivers of racism and homophobia that course through the American heartland like acidic sewage somehow magically vanish, somehow become dramatically curtailed, should the twin forces of progress known as President Obama and a vanquished California Proposition 8 [or Florida Amendment 2] somehow come to pass.

Let’s not be naive. Just because it looks like the Western world is about to get its first black intellectual president, just because the nation’s most influential and populous state could very possibly decide, finally and forevermore, that two adults of the same gender can get married without the cruel hammer of religious ignorance crashing down upon their heads, well, this can’t possibly be a sign that racism and homophobia, two of our three most revered national pastimes (don’t forget the sexism!) are going away anytime soon.

Unless it can. Unless some of our darkest cultural demons could finally be up for a major exorcism. Could it be true? Could this vote, at the very least, be one hell of a giant step forward in the fight against two toxic beliefs that have poisoned the American mindset for ages? Let me suggest: You’re damn right it could. Continue reading

Categories: Politics, Social Justice | 4 Comments

I Voted Today

Floriduh is doing one thing right: They’re helping more people vote by offering absentee voting to everyone, not just those who are actually going to be out of town on election day. Which is a good thing, because I waited over four hours to vote four years ago, and came thisclose to saying Screw It. Since then, they’ve added an additional polling place in our neighborhood, but I still didn’t relish the crowds, and of course Mom can’t get to the polls anyway. So we signed up for absentee ballots, and they arrived in plenty of time. Over the weekend Mom and I cast our votes, and today I mailed our ballots. I feel so patriotic.

I would appreciate it very much if you would vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden (you might be interested to read what The New Yorker said about him). If you’re in Florida, please vote NO on Amendment 2. And if you’re in Brevard, Indian River, or Osceola Counties, please vote for Stephen Blythe for Congress.

But even if you vote some other way, thus consigning your immortal soul to Hell, you can still get some free ice cream on election day. Yes, Ben & Jerry’s wants to thank you for voting by giving you a free scoop of ice cream! Go to a participating Ben & Jerry’s scoop shop on November 4 between 5 and 8 p.m., show them your “I Voted” sticker, or a photo of you in front of your polling station, or do the “I Voted dance,” or just tell them you voted. Seriously.

Categories: Politics, Social Justice | 8 Comments

Oglala Sioux Could Regain Badlands National Parkland

The National Park Service is considering giving back the southern half, which was confiscated from the Indian tribe during World War II.

By Nicholas Riccardi, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
June 8, 2008

BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK, S.D. — The southern half of this swath of grasslands and chiseled pink spires looks untouched from a distance. Closer up, the scars of history are easy to see.

Unexploded bombs lie in ravines, a reminder of when the military confiscated the land from the Oglala Sioux tribe during World War II and turned it into an artillery range. Poachers who have stolen thousands of fossils over the years have left gouges in the landscape. On a plateau, a solitary makeshift hut sits ringed by empty Coke cans and shaving cream canisters. It is the only remnant of a three-year occupation by militant tribal activists who had demanded that the land be returned.

Now the National Park Service is contemplating doing just that: giving the 133,000-acre southern half of Badlands National Park back to the tribe. The northern half, which has a paved road and a visitor center, would remain with the park system.

The park service has dissolved 23 parks and historic sites since 1930, but none has been returned to tribes. “It’s really exciting for us to think about walking down this road,” said Sandra J. Washington, head of planning for the service’s Omaha office, which oversees Badlands. “The intention is to be as honorable as possible.” Continue reading

Categories: First Nations, Social Justice | 2 Comments

Berlin Unveils Gay Holocaust Monument

Following years of controversy, German dignitaries this week dedicated a memorial to the tens of thousands of gays and lesbians who were persecuted and killed in Nazi Germany.

[The photo to the right shows a man looking at a video screen inside the memorial.]

This month marks the 75th anniversary of the series of raids and public book burnings in May 1933 with which the regime of Adolf Hitler began its crusade against homosexuality.

Photos of Nazi stormtroopers hurling books onto bonfires stem largely from the book-burning rally which occurred outside the offices of gay-rights pioneer Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science, which was ransacked in May 1933.

But authorities in Germany are going to great lengths to ensure that Tuesday’s monument dedication ceremonies remain low-key so as to avert neo-Nazi violence. Continue reading

Categories: Politics, Sex and Sexuality, Social Justice | 2 Comments

Private Politics

My activist days are pretty much behind me. I am no less passionate about my politics, but I am much less apt to do much about them except vote. For a decade I worked at a non-profit that lobbied Congress on world hunger issues, and even though I was just the office manager (and sometime receptionist), I proudly counted that toward my liberal bonafides.

The 1993 March on Washington was life changing. I marched with my church, and somehow, in a crowd of a million or more, I ran into every single person who had been important in my life as a gay man.

Truth is, I was never much of an activist. I’m not big on demonstrations (I’ve been to three in all, and the last one gave me heatstroke). I think the best politics are local and personal, anyway.

I remember one morning I had breakfast at my favorite diner in the little Vermont town of Poultney. It was during the height of the controversy over civil unions. Signs telling citizens to “Take Back Vermont” from the liberals were everywhere, and gay rights were a frequent topic of conversation.

As I waited at the cash register to pay my bill, next to a native Vermonter (or so I assume from the John Deere cap and the Vermont accent) who was seated at the counter, we struck up a conversation with one another. He was reading the Rutland Herald, and he pointed to a headline about the impending civil unions vote. “Somethin’, ain’ it?” he said. Continue reading

Categories: Politics, Sex and Sexuality, Social Justice | 5 Comments

Court Approves Evil Gay Agenda

Satan’s plan to make uptight straight people “really uncomfortable” working out “fabulously,” say Bay Area gays

by Mark Morford, SF Gate Columnist | Friday, May 16, 2008

We are all going to die. Very, very soon. Did you know? Apparently, the signs are all in place and the plague is clearly nigh and Armageddon is fast upon us because, oh my angry heterosexual god, the announcement has now been handed down: Couples who deeply love one another may now get married in California. It’s true.

Wait, there’s more. The couple in question might both have penises. Or they both might not. This is the crazy, terrifying new thing: It is totally up to them. Can you imagine?

Put another way: If you are a loving couple in this fine and baffled state, your particular combination of genitalia has officially been deemed irrelevant as far as whether or not you may hold a lovely little ceremony and enjoy a year or three of wedded bliss and buy a tiny condo you can’t really afford, and then fight about money and who gets to name the dog as you lose that once-omnipotent romantic spark and rarely have sex anymore and eat your meals in silence as half of you get divorced in about 5.3 years and end up back on the dating scene, wondering whatever happened to your dreams. You know: just like everyone else! Continue reading

Categories: Sex and Sexuality, Social Justice | 3 Comments

Lakota Group Secedes from U.S.

By Bill Harlan, Rapid City Journal
Friday, December 21, 2007

Political activist Russell Means, a founder of the American Indian Movement, says he and other members of Lakota tribes have renounced treaties and are withdrawing from the United States.

“We are now a free country and independent of the United States of America,” Means said in a telephone interview. “This is all completely legal.”

Means said a Lakota delegation on Monday delivered a statement of “unilateral withdrawal” from the United States to the U.S. State Department in Washington.

The State Department did not respond. “That’ll take some time,” Means said. Continue reading

Categories: First Nations, Politics, Social Justice | 15 Comments

The Inclusive Bible

I am pleased to announce that The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation, my single-volume biblenon-sexist translation of the Bible with a new scholarly commentary, has been published by Sheed & Ward and is now available from

It is a completely new translation of the Bible from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and koiné Greek into richly poetic, non-sexist, and non-classist modern English.

If you’re interested in reading a few pages of the translation and commentary, here is a PDF (320 KB) of The Twelve, the “minor prophets” or Trei Asar.

To say I am proud of this accomplishment is an extraordinary understatement. I hope you enjoy it.

Categories: Christianity, Judaism, Psychology, Social Justice, Spirituality | 16 Comments

Buddhist Monks Stage Weeklong Demonstration in Burma

For the last week, thousands of Burmese monks have marched against the repressive Burmese military regime in cities across that nation. This is the largest public demonstration against the junta in nearly 20 years. As the Alliance of All Burmese Buddhist Monks march, chant, and overturn their almsbowls (patam nikkujjana kamma), refusing to accept donations from members of the military regime, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship offers our full support and solidarity.

Burma has lived under direct social and political repression for nearly 20 years, since the democracy uprisings of 1988. The army’s answer to the people’s yearning for freedom in 1988 was the killing of thousands of demonstrators. This repression has in no way abated over the years, bringing with it ethnic cleansing of minority groups, corruption, forced labor, and widespread poverty. Continue reading

Categories: Buddhism, Social Justice | Leave a comment

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