National Catholic Reporter
Subscribers only section
March 18, 2005

Letters Good homilies

I was pleased to see and read the Lenten reflection by Fr. James Smith (NCR, Feb. 25). He was pastor of my parents’ parish, Immaculate Conception, when they resided in Columbus, Ohio. The content of Fr. Smith’s homilies is the best I have encountered in my 63 years. He would print copies of his homilies for the taking, a good idea as he speaks fast and softly. I also appreciated the printed homilies as Mother would mail them to me in Chicago.

I was told that Fr. Smith puts significant time, thought and reflection into preparing his homilies and it shows. You were fortunate to have him as the author of one of your Lenten reflections, and St. Matthias in Columbus is fortunate to have him as pastor.


Losing the network

I enjoyed the section on religious life (NCR, Feb. 25), especially the feature article by the young Benedictine nun Antonia Ryan.

But, writing from the “dark side of the moon,” as it were, the vantage point of being an ex-nun for over 30 years, I believe that there is another side of the religious life experience that screams to be told. For those of us who left, for whatever the reasons (and there were many), there was a profound loss of identity, fellowship, spiritual and fiscal security, a sense of being an integral part of the church, and that indefinable je ne sais quoi identified by Ginny Cunningham as the “nun network.” It is true that some communities do not isolate their former members and they are to be commended for not participating in that all-too-common shunning many of us have experienced. Speaking for myself, I have been blessed with a fulfilling life and career that more than make up for what I lost ... but the losses are there, nevertheless. I think I can be excused if I tear up a little, even after all this time, for those losses.

Whiting, N.J.

Panentheism error

A major typo in your Feb. 25 issue regards your note in the “list” of theological disputes concerning Matthew Fox. As I recall, it was not his term “pantheism” that caused Vatican alarm, but his term “panentheism.” A vast difference! Your seasoned readers know this because you are probably the only Catholic publication that understood Fox’s advocating panentheism (possibly America). For newer readers, it means “all things in God and God in all things.” See his Coming of the Cosmic Christ, Page 57.

Pantheism is worship of all gods of all creeds indifferently. Fox never held this. He and you have made me an adult Catholic over the past 15 years, and every week I eagerly await you.

Santa Rosa, Calif.

Censure of Haight

Was anyone surprised to read about the Vatican denunciation of Fr. Roger Haight’s book Jesus Symbol of God (NCR, Feb. 25)?

Fr. Haight is probably correct when he says, “My fear is that educated Catholics will walk out if there isn’t space for an open attitude to other religions.”

I like to think another option is possible before they walk. Maybe the church’s traditions can be brought up to date with educated Catholics who opt to stay in the church to effect change.

Clinton, N.J.

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You say that Haight’s book will never be on most Catholics’ nightstands, but it will be on mine, as soon as Amazon gets it to me. I ordered it last week. The best way to get a book into my home is to tell me that I can’t or shouldn’t read it, that it will confuse or mislead me or that the Vatican is willing to pull out the spiritual fingernails of the author who wrote it. I’m buying it with eyes wide open, for you have said in more than one article that it is stiff reading; I may never really understand it. But I’ve learned a thing or two by trying to get through Hans Küng, Edward Schillebeeckx, Bernard Haring and more. Even if the entire thing is too much, there are lines and paragraphs that just glow with truth if one happens to chance upon them at an opportune time. Most books of importance require many years and much browsing at opportune moments to really “get” what they are about, at least for me. But even if this book never makes sense for my life, I’d buy it just to tweak the people in the Vatican who think I shouldn’t!

Spring Valley, Calif.

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I read Haight’s book Jesus Symbol of God five years ago just after my ordination to the priesthood. Haight’s survey of Christologies through the ages provided a valuable review of my seminary learning. Haight also, in my opinion, highlighted the very issues that must be grappled with in shaping a Christology for today, such as ecumenism, women’s dignity and environmental degradation. Even though I, too, was dissatisfied with his final synthesis, I found the book to be a stimulating, worthwhile contribution to the conversation about who Jesus is for contemporary believers. I am glad to have read it.

San Juan, Texas

Bede Griffiths

John Allen’s article on the Vatican’s “notification” regarding the dangers posed by Fr. Roger Haight’s book Jesus Symbol of God, and Arthur Jones’ insight into the continuing legacy of Fr. Bede Griffiths, in “The Dangerous Ascetic” (NCR, Feb. 18), remind me once again why, though I am on a fixed income, NCR is critical to my continuing association with the Catholic church. Thank you for providing this cradle Catholic recourse to ideas broader than what emanates from Rome.

As a seeker in the early 1980s at Osage Monastery Forest of Peace in Sand Springs, Okla., which was inspired by Bede Griffiths and dedicated to interreligious dialogue, I read Griffith’s Return to the Center and The Marriage of East and West. Fr. Bede’s written words and living example helped me appreciate the Other of all faiths and led me to a more profound understanding of the men and women throughout our history and Catholic tradition who dared to write of their experiences of the Divine. Thank you, NCR, for providing such soulful reading.

Tulsa, Okla.

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Thank you for the wonderful cover essay on Bede Griffiths by Arthur Jones. This type of essay is the reason I subscribe to NCR. Yes, his honesty does make him dangerous, and thank God his simplicity means his writings will last and confront us all. I have given his book The Other Half of My Soul to many friends of various religious denominations in order that we might understand our Hindu brother and sisters.

Monroe, Ga.

Merton maligned?

I was appalled to read the disrespectful and mistaken description of Thomas Merton in Colman McCarthy’s article on Joan Baez (NCR, Jan. 28). McCarthy’s description of Merton as “an emotionally confused and self-absorbed man, giddily in love with a nurse half his age and whining about his abbot” is contradicted by the quotation from Merton that immediately follows this insult.

In Dom Basil Pennington’s biography of Merton, he writes that most young men whom he interviewed as monastic candidates in the late ’40s and throughout the ’50s came because of the influence of Merton’s writings. Furthermore, while it is true that Merton did love the woman who nursed him when he was in hospital, to call him “giddily in love” is untrue; the fact is that Merton told her that they could love spiritually only.

This man whom McCarthy called “self-absorbed” communicated with and was respected by the following people (among others): Pope John XXIII; Martin Luther King Jr.; Jacques Maritain; Dorothy Day; the Berrigans; the Dalai Lama; Jim Forest and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Merton was also one of the most positive “voices in the wilderness” condemning the war then going on and all war and teaching the nonviolence of Jesus.

Dix Hills, N.Y.

Funding for mission churches is unconstitutional

I was surprised and dismayed to read the recent NCR viewpoint by Alan Sears of the Alliance Defense Fund, “The mission against California’s missions” (NCR, Feb. 25).

In Sears’ bio, he calls his group “America’s largest legal alliance defending religious liberty.” That’s very misleading. In fact, the ADF was founded in 1994 by James Dobson and a phalanx of other right-wing religious broadcasters. Its purpose is to roll back Supreme Court decisions protecting religious minorities, women, gays and others who fail to conform to fundamentalist Christian beliefs.

In his essay, Sears blasts Americans United for attacking the “foundations” of America by challenging a $10-million federal appropriation to pay for restoration of 21 California mission churches. In fact, we filed this case for one simple reason: Congressional earmarking of public funds to maintain a particular group of houses of worship is a quintessential violation of the First Amendment.

The founders clearly intended to bar this kind of selective governmental aid to religion. In 1811, for example, James Madison vetoed a congressional bill that granted a small portion of land to a Baptist congregation in Mississippi. Madison, widely considered the Father of the Constitution, said the subsidy “comprises a principle and precedent for the appropriation of funds of the United States for the use and support of religious societies” in violation of the First Amendment. Who do you trust to interpret the Constitution? Madison or Alan Sears?

Americans United recognizes the importance of the Catholic mission churches to California history. But 19 of the 21 churches are active houses of worship, not just tourist sites. They can be preserved without jeopardizing critically important constitutional principles. In 2002, Cardinal Roger Mahoney dedicated a $189 million cathedral in Los Angeles, completely paid for with private donations. If church leaders can raise that kind of money to build new buildings (and pay other large costs associated with church activities), there is every reason to believe that they can do so to preserve the ones they already have.

The principle of church-state separation ensures religious liberty and has given America one of the most diverse and vibrant religious communities in the world. Yet this vital principle is under sustained assault today from well-heeled pressure groups such as the ADF. They seek a “Christian nation” where their religious perspective is written into law and religious minorities, women and gays live as second-class citizens.

I have been reading NCR for 24 years, and I can’t ever remember being so disappointed by one of your articles. There are plenty of publications out there that spread religious right propaganda. NCR shouldn’t be one of them.


Joe Conn is a member of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

McCarthy and Wallis

Colman McCarthy’s statement that Jim Wallis is “in intellectual lockstep with George W. Bush” gave rise to expectations of an informative review (NCR, Jan. 28). But …

Not only was the review not informative, it was misleading because of what McCarthy left out. No mention of Wallis’ comments on poverty or his call for spiritual values and social change. Perhaps McCarthy was just too “tired” to give specifics. Just a glance at the chapter titles gives an idea of Wallis’ range: “Dangerous Religion,” “The Poor You Will Always Have With You?” “Poor People are Trapped -- in the Debate About Poverty,” “The Tipping Point: Faith and Global Poverty,” “The Critical Choice: Hope Versus Cynicism,” etc.

McCarthy does a disservice to his readers in ignoring Wallis’ call to spiritual values and economic justice as a way to address our violent world.

McCarthy said, “Wallis labels Bush’s foreign policy as ‘bordering on the idolatrous and blasphemous.’ True enough, except that’s been true of every president.” I’d like Mr. McCarthy to expand on this. Wallis is daring to be prophetic and offering hope through faith in God, not in government as McCarthy said.

As he is a director for the Center for Teaching Peace, I’m wondering if this is a touch of cynicism creeping out of “tired” Colman McCarthy. I hope not, because peacemaking needs that intestinal fortitude that faith in God sustains.

Swannanoa, N.C.

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First the Dalai Lama and now Jim Wallis. We shouldn’t indulge our tendency to idolize our icons, but Colman McCarthy’s picking on people who are sources of good in this world really grates.

Oak Park, Ill.

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I have my reasons for declining to serve jury duty, but I am curious why Colman McCarthy indicates in his article that this is a way to “oppose, resist and defy the militaristic U.S. government.”

Roxbury, Vt.

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In regard to Colman McCarthy’s recent column on Jim Wallis’ new book, I quite agree with his critique.

While I have yet to read the book, I saw Wallis interviewed on C-SPAN and was more intrigued than impressed. He sounded to me like someone trying to fix the Democratic Party by using the religion “tool.”

Even on a “political” (whatever, as McCarthy asks, that means) level, it seems like everybody is out to “energize the base” rather than to create a constituency. It’s much like the Catholic Church Inc.’s approach to abortion et al. Instead of putting the brunt of the effort into convincing (converting? convicting? in the evangelical sense) “the people” (even their own) of the rightness (truth?) of the proposition, just try to get enough support so as to get your hands on the reins of power so you can coerce the “infidels.” I must have missed that part of the Gospel where Jesus said, “Go ye first and get control of the Sanhedrin and then figure out how to get one of you on the Imperial Throne.” Of course the latter was accomplished, so I guess it set a precedent.

Albany, N.Y.

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I suppose it is somewhat admirable that NCR continues to give Colman McCarthy space to voice his “I have seen the light about the futility of organized religion, especially Catholicism” views; even lost souls deserve a hearing.

But I found his column criticizing Jim Wallis to be a bit much. “It’s futile to mix politics and religion” -- this from someone who has been much celebrated (by some) as a guru in peace education circles! Perhaps he is able to discuss peace work without referring to people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi (to mention only the most notable practitioners of “mixing religion and politics”) and to pooh-pooh the importance of combining prophetic denunciation of immoral government policies with constructive proposals for policies that affect people’s lives -- but I pity his students.

In teaching peace studies over the years, I have always required my students to read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in order to understand exactly how religion and politics do mix. I would suggest that McCarthy get a copy and read it; it might help him understand how off-base he is in this important area. While he’s at it, he might also acquaint himself with a number of documents from Catholic social teaching that go to great pains in explaining the crucial relationship between religion and politics, faith and “action on behalf of justice.” If he is going to write for a Catholic newspaper, he should at least be conversant with our tradition.


Michael Hovey is the director of the Office for Catholic Social Teaching in the Detroit archdiocese.

Letters to the editor should be limited to 250 words and preferably typed. If a letter refers to a previous issue of NCR, please give us that issue’s date. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Letters, National Catholic Reporter, P.O. Box 419281, Kansas City, MO 64141. Fax: (816) 968-2280. E-mail: Please be sure to include your street address, city, state, zip and daytime telephone number.

National Catholic Reporter, March 18, 2005