Monday, May 28, 2012

Vatican Reprimands U.S. Nuns' Social Justice Work: How Might Revolutionaries Orient Themselves to Such Things?

We all know the saying that politics makes for strange bedfellows—or at least seemingly strange ones. It’s trite, but it is something that we’re going to have to get used to and get sophisticated about, if genuinely mass upsurges are again on the global agenda. The motleyness of the Occupy movement has put questions about this at the forefront of my mind. Mass movements are sometimes-bewildering assemblages of people, ever shifting in relation to one another and to common enemies.

What does it mean to do communist work in the midst of a mass movement? What is communist leadership? How do we orient ourselves to diverse forces and, more grandly, what does it mean to form a historic bloc of forces which can carry through radical revolution that will transform people's lives and lead to real liberation?

One important but under-theorized dimension of this is the question of how revolutionaries should relate to progressive and even radical religious people. And, on the obverse of that: What is the best way to isolate hardcore reactionaries of a religious bent?

Vatican cracks down on U.S. nuns, inciting activist response


Today happens to be the Christian Feast of Pentacost; and this morning, my partner, who is also a founding member of the Louisiana Kasama collective, joined me at a “vigil” (actually a picket) outside historic St. Louis Cathedral in the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter. It was organized by the NOLA branch of Call to Action, which is a Catholic anti-racist social justice organization.

We had heard about the event online, because such events are happening across the country and have a degree of coordination. (See here.) Progressive Catholics are protesting the Vatican’s April 19 reprimand of U.S. nuns who form the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which includes 83% of women religious in the country. According to a flyer I was handed at the vigil, the LCWR “evolved from a 1956 request by the Vatican that members of religious congregations based in the United States form a national conference.”

The flyer goes on to say that “their mission was ‘to further the vision of Christ in today’s world’” which, concretely, has meant “working with the poor and vulnerable and for a more just and peaceful world.” Ironically, this mission cuts to the core of the Vatican’s recent crackdown. On the 19th, Rome released a document entitled Doctrinal Assessment of theLeadership Conference of Women Religious, calling for the Conference  to reform and dissociate themselves from certain issues, including those related to LGBT rights, women’s ordination and social justice. They even accuse them of incorporating "radical feminist themes" in some presentations and programs, noting that "some commentaries on 'patriarchy' distort the way in which Jesus has structured sacramental life in the Church; others even undermine the revealed doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the Divinity of Christ, and the inspiration of Sacred Scripture." That's a pretty strong condemnation of feminism, and they clearly understand why it is, indeed, a threat to the existing power structure of the Catholic Church and society.

The obvious flip-side—which the Vatican spelled out explicitly—is that these women religious are not prioritizing the reactionary agenda concerning gender and sexuality. They are not fighting against the right to abortion and contraception and LGBT rights. “Moreover,” they said, “occasional public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the Bishops, who are the Church's authentic teachers of faith and morals, are not compatible with its purpose." [emphasis added]

These are not just comradely suggestions from the Vatican. Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle has been appointed to bring reforms to the conference. He will help revise its statutes, which the Vatican will have to approve, and review the group's plans and programs to ensure its "mission is fulfilled in accord with Church teachings and discipline." This is a serious attempt to discipline the sisters, bringing them more fully under Vatican control.

One divides into two


In Maoist jargon this is an example of one dividing into two, which, Maoists have maintained, is a general phenomenon of the highest political import. In my understanding, it refers to the splits which emerge in something which at another phase appeared monolithic (or in which the internal contradictions had not developed to a high level). Back in the 60s this referred to the emergence of partisans of a capitalist road within the international communist movement, who were struggling against those fighting for a genuinely communist path...It's complicated, of course. I don't think that there was simply some sinister, capitalist conspiracy within the communist movement, and I don't think that Mao thought that either. There were complex decisions that were made at different points in the context of complex circumstances. Each decision opened up different possible directions. Different lines led to different places. But for the purpose of this essay, the important thing is that Maoists maintained that the bureaucratic-authoritarian “capitalist roaders” were already in power in the Soviet Union, and were steadily consolidating power in China, and they wanted to lead a camp opposing that. There were two distinct main tendencies within the international movement, and one was not leading towards liberation.

 In the present scenario we have the emergence of open antagonism between highly-reactionary and more progressive elements within the Catholic Church. We should welcome such a rupture and the polarization that ensues. It is breaks and polarizations that form the nodal points of a changing terrain of struggle. 

I would just like to make some preliminary points about how I think revolutionaries and radical people should orient towards this particular situation, and to religious people (and institutions) more generally.

First of all, there is no way around the fact that here in the United States, we still live in a majority Christian society; and people in other countries live in majority Muslim societies, majority Hindu societies or whatever. In the U.S., this means that we do need a Christian left, the development of which is a key component in isolating the Christian right. We need to “win over” significant numbers of religious people to more progressive, radical and even revolutionary positions. Or more accurately, we need to form a historic bloc capable of transforming society in a communist way which undoubtedly will include religious people. And forming a real bloc with such capabilities—as opposed to purer conceptions which sometimes appear in theory—involves mutual transformation, or a process of co-creation comprising all participating forces. That's messy and unpredictable. 

In short we need solidarity as a fundamental component as with other forces, but I want to put forward the even more specific position that that necessitates standing with progressive religious people in their struggles to transform their own institutions. In part because that struggle is just. In part because that’s needed to form real coalitions.

For example, the majority of people that I saw at the vigil today identified as Catholic, and a majority were women (men were certainly represented, though); many of them were wearing buttons which read “Ordain women.” Now, we don’t have to be Catholics, Christians or even theists to enter into this conversation and stand with Catholics who have such views.

The ordination of women as priests, bishops or even popes is directly related to what is condensed in this current battle between the nuns, the Vatican, and the bishops and priests supporting one side or another. Several of the demonstrators I talked with today expressed that an essential aspect of the controversy is the question of women’s role in the Church, which reflects the Church’s teachings about women in society as such. One woman said that the Seattle Archbishop being appointed to oversee the reform of the U.S. nun organization was “precisely paternalistic” and “patronizing." I agree.

We should have something to say about that. Without compromising any of our own positions about the existence of God or any other related issues, we should be able to stand with progressive Catholics and proclaim that the values embedded in all this are thoroughly rotten! It is right to side with them and oppose that, and I think that we will gain more credibility amongst progressive religious people if we are there in the trenches instead of staying on the sidelines - or worse, looking on disdainfully.

And here’s another component of it. Religious institutions, especially on the magnitude of the Catholic Church, are highly influential in a direct way. And debates surrounding religions have an even more general effect. This controversy puts issues of women’s liberation, economic inequality etc. on the public’s radar. This struggle puts in a very pointed way the question of basic values which is coming to a head in the United States and elsewhere, with one tentative pole represented by the Occupy movement and related phenomena, and, on the other side, the conservative fight back against women’s reproductive rights and LGBT equality. As the Italian communist theorist Antonio Gramsci has argued, there are big moments of historical break in which "a whole series of questions which piled up individually [can] precisely [form] 'a mound,' modifying the general structure of the previous process." He was referring to the effects of the First World War. But it seems that the global insurrectionary moment of the current capitalist crisis has formed its own mound.

Basically, people are beginning to ask on a higher level than they have in a long time, What are the real threats facing humanity at this point in history? Is it changing gender and sexual norms, or is it the environment, rising inequality and so on? This is why it’s key for revolutionaries to be in and speak to any milieu in which these questions are being posed, whether it’s in the fight-back over student debt or in the various wings of the Catholic Church.

Ecumenical but not liberal

In sum, I am arguing for a non-liberal but ecumenical approach to working with religious people who fall on the left, or could be drawn to the left as events unfold. And it is important for a left to be there, precisely because those people could be drawn to the right; and we know the effects that the religious right has had on shaping the political possibilities in this country for decades, and we know also that that phenomenon is a symptom of the absence of a real revolutionary project.

Without saying that he is offering a model, I think that the popular Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek’s, engagement with religion at the intellectual level is interesting and ought to be analyzed by revolutionary people. I agree with Zizek that a kind of shrill, militant atheism typified by Richard Dawkins has been counterproductive in some ways, which is not to say that that camp hasn’t done anything of value. But Zizek does present an alternative type of engagement which is both not liberal and ecumenical. He has explicitly developed his ideas from an atheistic perspective, just as I think that anybody who is atheist or agnostic ought to do (don’t put that out of sight for the sake of shallow unity), but all his work in the area of religion does attempt to engage with it in a non-dismissive way. I.e., he takes seriously the notion that in the case of a 2,000 year old religion, for example, something of value might have been said at some point! One would assume this is so. And he works to find common ground which actually enables a conversation to occur between religious partisans and a more atheistic left, in part by discovering radical inspiration in the Bible itself. The slogan of “unity, struggle, unity” applies here as with elsewhere in the building of movements.

And I think that an ecumenical approach towards religion goes hand-in-hand with rethinking the communist movement’s approach to meaning, the symbolic, ritual and related things which have all too often been dismissed by a one-sidedly rational communist movement (though I would also say that the communist movement, in some respects, hasn't been rational enough, and has reproduced many of the worst, most dogmatic faults of religion). This has recently been discussed on Kasama.

Moving forward, the new communist movement will have to take into account that people do not understand their reality and lives only through reason, and symbol and ritual play a big role. And without - if we don’t wish - saying, “We believe in your god,” we can recognize that religion isn’t simply stupid, and that through the whole period that humans have populated the Earth, people have had profound experiences of the unity of reality in diverse forms. We must understand that the metaphysical question that religion answers for many people is different from the one that science answers when it asks, “What is reality?” Because, for example, to understand intellectually that all things are interdependent, we are witnessing but one reality unfolding etc. is on the banal level of fact. The transformative, traditionally religious-mystical experience of this fact through prayer, group ceremony, altered states of consciousness or any other methods is on a wholly different order of experience from intellectual apprehension. As communists, we ought to be sympathetic to that, and understand the human need for such things. Since we want to transform all areas of life, we neglect these mistier regions of the human experience at our own peril. 

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