On Good Orderly Direction and Catholicism


Jesus said,

“If you bring forth that which is within you, it will save you.  If you do not bring forth that which is within you, it will destroy you.”

Writing about my struggles, spiritual and secular, helps me to process my emotions and think more sensibly.  Sometimes I am venting rage or frustration, which I do utterly without any intention of insulting others. I want to make it clear that I respect other people’s spirituality and religious faith and do not mean to condemn anyone who regards the universe differently from me, but rather that masculinist and patriarchal concepts anger me because they have imposed and still perpetuate oppression.  There are many things that I admire in current and long-passed Catholic women and men.  Alice laquinta, a woman priest leading a Catholic congregation in Wisconsin, commented on the all-masculine conclave presently engaged in the selection of the next pope by reminding us that,

“Before there were popes, before there were cardinals, before there were bishops, priests, deacons, there was a young girl who said, ‘Yes’ when God called her to be the mother of the incarnation of God, and there were no men there to make a determination if she was for or worthy, that was a call between her and God.

There is also Frances Kissling, who led the progressive Catholics for Choice organization before Jon O’Brien, the current President.  Catholic heros in my hall of honor include my son’s grandparents, Hildegard of Bingen, Theresa of Avila, and Julian of Norwich, the first woman to write a book in English, Revelations of Divine Love. It’s funny.  I love spiritual literature, including Catholic literature, Puritan literature, Anglican literature, and Buddhist writings, and draw much strength and inspiration from these and many other religious and mystical texts, including musical texts.  So why is it so difficult for me to join a group that draws upon Christianity in order to create a web of strength between people who are suffering?  It’s hard for me to decide whether I’m more irritated by the god-stuff or by the fact that many groups hold onto patriarchal terms for god “as we understood HIM.”  The language itself and the concepts it expresses have become fetishized, frozen, immobilized, dead.  I’d be happier with “g.o.d., as we understood IT,” but would’t want that phrase to become fetishized, either.

These two previous posts of my mine have given rise to some wonderful, healing conversations with fellow travelers.  Many of them have also wrestled with what I have called the god-stuff.  One very insightful person suggested that “good orderly direction” is a useful, secular mantra to keep in mind while others are talking about god.

I also want to report that I have encountered some genuinely generous people in the program, who have reached out to me and give me hope in this short time.  I have been meditating on my relationship with my son, which is obviously not entirely healthy.

That is, it is not so much my son who must change, but rather I who must change. I need to let go, to allow him room to be himself, if only so that his accomplishments can be his accomplishments.  Like everyone else in the world, he deserves the dignity of finding his own good, orderly direction.

As I was writing this post, a friend sent me a link to an interesting article entitled, “My Sober Conversion to Atheism” published on the Fix.  John Gordon and many of his commenters make for helpful reading.  What a community.

Catholic Bishops Actively Oppose Equality of Women, Again


The bishops are all hot and bothered about women in the church again, and, as usual, it is a nun who has driven them to distraction.

People who believe in divine revelation universally agree that revelation is received through language.  Language expresses and is shaped by the culture in which it is spoken.  Language reflects the cultural biases of the people who speak.   Language is continually changing  in response to cultural shifts (witness the recent addition of “lol” to official dictionaries of the English language), but language also shapes culture, influences the way that human beings understand their relationships to one another and the world at large.  Language–a cultural legacy inherited from our human ancestors–probably shapes us more than we shape it.

The Catholic Bishops currently harassing and censoring Sister Elizabeth Johnson, an internationally respected theologian, largely agree with this explanation of language as a culturally conditioned, living mode of communication.  They also agree that divine revelation comes through language.  Yet they perversely and incoherently insist that masculine imagery of the divine in the Bible has nothing to do with human culture, and is simply the direct expression of the deity.  God is male, they insist, and anyone who suggests that we use a gender-neutral language to refer to the deity should be punished.  Never mind that academics, scholars of religion and theologians alike, have been addressing the question of gender, and the choice of pronouns for the divine, with little controversy for 50 years.

A committee of backward-thinking American bishops have accused Elizabeth Johnson, who teaches theology at Fordham University, a Catholic institution, of violating church doctrine because she carries on this half-century of scholarship.  The Bishops oppose all scholars who ask whether or not God is male.

Sister Johnson irritates the bishops because she supports granting women greater authority in the church and because she speaks to organizations that promote same-sex marriage.  She irritates the bishops because she underscores the sexism in the rule that says only persons with a penis can administer the Word and blessings of god.   She irritates the bishops because she points out that men have always controlled the Catholic church and used it as a means to perpetuate patriarchal privilege.   “All-male images of God are hierarchical images rooted in the unequal relations between women and men, and they function to maintain this relationship,” she writes in her most recent book, Quest for the Living God.   This kind of statement really pisses them off, and that is why the bishops want to ban it.

I, for one, am going straight out to get and read her book.  I’m an atheist, of course, for the very reason that the bishops deny: because I think that religion has functioned as a tool of masculine domination.  But I only come to this conclusion because I remain so interested in religious questions and quests.   Silly bishops.

But even sillier, and more irritating, are women such as Helen Hull Hitchcock, founder of an anti-feminist organization called Women for Faith and Family, who actively work to suppress and defame feminist scholars such as Sister Johnson.  These women demonstrate how deeply entrenched misogyny is in the patriarchal institution.  Women who actively work against their own liberation and for their oppression are found in every camp, of course.  They’re free to believe and behave as they like.  What I object to is their arrogant and self-righteous attempt to make everyone else conform to their darkened ideology.

Tawakul Karman: Brave Muslim Feminist Arrested in Yemen


Tawakul Karman at an anti-government rally outside Sanaa University. Photograph: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

What is happening in Yemen and why should we care?  Tawakul Karman, a feminist activist was arrested today for her role in student demonstrations against the government last week.  She and her husband, Mohamed Ismail al-Nehmi, were making their way home yesterday evening when the police came for her.  He has no idea where she is.  “Maybe at the central prison, maybe somewhere else, I don’t know.”

Tawakul Karman is the president of Yemen’s Women Journalists without Chains and a member of the Islamist opposition party, Islah.  She has frequently criticized the brutal, militarized government of Ali Abdullah Salah, who has dominated Yemini politics since 1978.

With two civil wars, an Al-Qaeda presence and 40 percent unemployment, what else is President Saleh waiting for? He should leave office,

she is reported as saying in Yemen Post.

Karman has led sit-ins every Tuesday to protest the government’s repression of civil rights, particularly women’s rights.  She has called for “allocating 30% of the posts of governors, cabinet members and ambassadors to women and establishing a binding law ensuring a fair and equitable share in legislative assemblies for a real participation of women,”[Source: Hiwar] and has attacked the Minister of Information for persecuting the media in general and for attempting to prevent her organization, Women Journalists without Chains (WJC), from publishing a newspaper and sponsoring a radio, in particular.   She has also advocated taking off the veil.  In a recent interview by WJC, she said:

I discovered that wearing the veil is not suitable for a woman who wants to work in activism and the public domain. People need to see you, to associate and relate to you. It is not stated in my religion [Islam] to wear the veil, it is a traditional practice so I took it off.

Until today, her outspokenness has brought the usual intimidation.  In that same interview, she stated,

I was threatened to be imprisoned and even killed. So far, the threats have not been fulfilled although I consider that taking away my right to expression is worse than any form of physical violence.

Will we hear from Tawakul again?  Probably not, unless the international community speaks out.  The government of  Ali Abdullah Saleh is not friendly to women  dissidents.

On January 13, 2011, just ten days ago, government security forces fired live bullets and molotov cocktails into a peaceful demonstration of women in Hadramawt and Lahij provinces. Security forces killed Nouria Saleh Maktoof, by running her down.  They severely injured Zainab Shakir Bin Thabi with bullets in Hadramawt province, and maimed Nathra Salih with bullets in Lahij province.  [Source: Women Journalists without Chains]. WJC condemned these acts:

The organization announces its full condemnation of the oppression and assault perpetrated on the peaceful demonstrators by the security forces, and considers it state violence directed against women, and a grave violation of the fundamental right of citizens to assembly and freedom of expression, which are basic human rights. It considers this state terrorism and official state violence clashing with all local and international agreements and charters guaranteeing these rights and Yemen’s pledges to respect and protect these rights

These are very strong words, words that clearly make the government of President Saleh deeply uncomfortable.  But will they be heard?  What change can women activists like Tawakul Karman and her sisters in the WCJ really bring about?

What is going on in Yemen is not that different from what has been happening across the Arab world for the past 40 or 50 years.  A long-entrenched government of quasi-secular dictators whose power depends on the military, propped up by western powers, now faces a passionate outburst by its long-oppressed populations.  Unfortunately, the voice of these justly angry people is not the voice of Tawakul Karman, which is currently in danger of being snuffed out in some dark prison, but rather the voice of Islamic fundamentalism.

I’m not quite sure why Karman has allied herself with Islah, which is also known as the “Reform” Party in Yemen.  The official name of this political party is  “Yemeni Congregation for Reform” (al-Tajammu‘ al-Yemeni lil-Islah), which was established shortly after the 1990 unification of North and South Yemen,  “to be a lively continuation of the modern Yemeni Reform movement and a framework for all who seek to reform and change the current situation to a better one guided by Islamic faith and Shari’a.” [Source: “Political Action Program of the Yemeni Islah Party”, cited by Anahi Alviso Marino].

Any government that is founded on a religious platform, even a Buddhist platform (look at what the Buddhists have done to the Tamils in Sri Lanka), is going to end up persecuting someone, particularly women.  Consider the transformation of Iraqi society since our catastrophic invasion.  Women who used to work and move through society in secular clothing have been banned from their jobs and forced to cover themselves with the hijab and burqa.  A similar, tragic  transformation took place in Iran.

To point out that a turn from a secular-tribal patriarchal state, such as existed under Saddam Hussein or Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, to a religious patriarchal state, is a tragedy is not to say that military dictatorships or autocratic states are good for women.  Clearly, they are not.  My argument is that the people will never be free as long as the women are oppressed, and women are always oppressed under religious leadership.

For the last 10,000 years most of the religions that have grown up on this planet have centered on masculine deities and been dominated by male priests, who helped to entrench patriarchal forms of government.  There have, of course, also been many dissident women who have resisted their disenfranchisement, but most of these women have been silenced or controlled and prevented from making any serious challenge to the universal ideology of patriarchy, which states that men are superior to women.

I understand that women feminists and democrats who have been raised within a religion find it difficult to leave it.  And in many countries, including our own, it is simply not possible to make any headway as a politician without espousing the dominant religion.  And yes, I can see the wisdom of a moderate approach, which works to reform a society from within its major institutions, whether they be Islamic or Christian or Hindu, as a means to appeal to the majority of the people.   I can admire reformers who take this path, but I can’t consider this a very clean path.

It’s simply not intellectually honest to sign up for a religion, any religion, that in word and practice continually reiterates the falsehood that masculinity is superior to femininity.

So, we should care what’s happening in Yemen because, like many modern Arab states, it is politically halfway between autocracy and democracy and civil unrest could tip it into theocracy.  The recent calls for greater democracy and freedom for all the people, which are heard all across the Arab world these days, are likely to usher in a “Reform” movement and a religious government, or a theocratic “republic” in which the mullahs and the ministers will suppress women like Tawakul Karman.  Such an outcome would be a terrible irony, of course, since Karman will have helped to bring about the revolution.   We should not support such a revolution, but rather should call for greater democracy and civil rights for women within a secular government.  We should not make the same mistakes in Yemen than we have made in Iran and Iraq.

Sell it


Christopher Beam asks in a recent Slate magazine column, “Can the Pope be fired?”  The predictable answer is no, not even for protecting child molesters.

Go figure.  The Church denies communion–connection with God and the body of the faithful–to people for getting divorced, but lets a guy who abuses children celebrate the Mass again and again and again.

You know, Sarah Silverman, who allegedly said, “Sell the Vatican, Feed the World,” has a point.

“And BTW, any involvement in the Holocaust…bygones.”