Archdiocese makes climate change an educational priority

It seems that, all of a sudden, everything is green.

(Almost) everyone’s an environmentalist. And global warming, which not long ago was still the subject of some controversy, is (almost) everyone’s priority.

Today, students from Catholic high schools throughout the Archdiocese of NY are coming to St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers for a conference about global climate change. It’s called On Global Climate Change and the Environment: “Called to Be Stewards of God’s Creation.”

The conference is being supported with a grant from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who are increasingly outspoken about global warming. As far back as 2001, the bishops “said”: this:

“At its core, global climate change is not about economic theory or political platforms, nor about partisan advantage or interest group pressures. It is about the future of God’s creation and the one human family. It is about protecting both “the human environment” and the natural environment. It is about our human stewardship of God’s creation and our responsibility to those who come after us. With these reflections, we seek to offer a word of caution and a plea for genuine dialogue as the United States and other nations face decisions about how best to respond to the challenges of global climate change.”

Today’s gathering in Yonkers will bring together students from numerous schools, including Monsignor Farrell, Mount St. Michael Academy, The Ursuline School, St. Francis Xavier, Moore Catholic, John F. Kennedy. Mother Cabrini, Iona Prep and Preston High School.

A statement from the archdiocese’s Education Department said this:

“Organizers of conference want to help young students realize that they are entering an era when the ecological balance of their planet—the taken-for-granted environment—can no longer be taken for granted and that community-wide and world-wide collaborative action is necessary to restore that balance.”

Obama to speak at UCC gathering

I don’t know how many reporters would have attended the United Church of Christ’s General Synod in Hartford this June, but now you have to figure that the press area will be full.

Barack Obama will “address the assembly”: on Saturday, June 23, at the Hartford Civic Center. He’s been part of the UCC — a pretty liberal, 1.2-million-member, mainline Protestant denomination — since 1988.

images.jpegAs has been well reported in recent months, Obama is a member of the 10,000-member Trinity UCC in Chicago. His pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, is regarded as one of the nation’s most charismatic African-American religious leaders, but some feel that his fiery rhetoric will turn off Obama’s potential moderate supporters.

Regardless, Obama will be given an interesting platform from which to talk about his faith and, I would imagine, the social justice ideals of the UCC.

This is a big year for the UCC, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The denomination was born in 1957, when the Congregational Christian Churches in America and the Evangelical and Reformed Church merged.

Also on tap for the General Synod are: journalist Bill Moyers, activist Marian Wright Edelman, Harvard preacher Peter Gomes, actress Lynn Redgrave, author Marilynne Robinson and others.

More than 4,000 people have registered for the assembly, which means that it will be the best attended in the denomination’s history.

The Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCC’s general minister and president, said that Obama will only add to the event:

“Sen. Obama is one of the most exciting figures on the political landscape today,” he told United Church News. “More than that, he is a public figure who takes seriously the relationship between faith and public life. We look forward to being challenged by one of our membership about how to make a difference in the world.”

I have to wonder if politics will overshadow faith, at least until Obama is done.

Cal Thomas to address Birthright

The northern Westchester/Putnam chapter of Birthright, an organization that supports pregnant women who might otherwise consider abortion, happens to be having a big fundraiser Thursday evening at the Doral Arrowwood in Rye Brook.

The guest speaker is none other than Cal Thomas, conservative columnist, conservative Christian, the conservative’s conservative.

You have to figure that there will be a celebratory feeling in the air after last week’s Supreme Court decision upholding the federal ban on late-term abortion. The timing, for Birthright, couldn’t be better.

This Birthright chapter says it helps over 1,500 women year at three locations in northern Westchester and Putnam. Its services include “friendship and counseling,” housing referrals, childcare assistances, and so forth. The group is run largely by volunteers and depends on donations.

Thomas may not be all that invigorated by the Supreme Court decision. He wrote in a recent column:

While pro-lifers welcomed the decision (it is the first to prohibit an abortion procedure since Roe vs. Wade in 1973), the language used by Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy in his majority opinion is inconsistent. In the past, Kennedy has voted to uphold Roe vs. Wade and has opposed other attempts to restrict abortion, but his opinion in the partial-birth case may open the door to further regulations on abortion Å  or not. What Kennedy wrote illustrates that the Court is not yet ready to overturn Roe: “Where it has a rational basis to act, and it does not impose an undue burden, the State may use its regulatory power to bar certain procedures and substitute others, all in furtherance of its legitimate interests in regulating the medical profession in order to promote respect for life, including the life of the unborn.”

But then he concluded with this:

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas remain consistent in their opinions that the Constitution contains no language allowing abortion, or prohibiting states from regulating it. They have been in the minority, but perhaps not for much longer. The 5-4 decision shows that a crack has developed in the abortion wall. That’s why the next election and the next justice appointed will be critical.

Proof that prayers stay with Alzheimer’s patients

I “wrote”: and blogged last week about a conference I went to in Mount Vernon where advocates for Alzheimer’s patients explained to clergy how they could help. The clergy were told that people with Alzheimer’s respond real well to religious rituals, music and Scripture.

I received a nice note from Sherry Spiezle of Ewing, N.J., whose husband, Arthur, has Alzheimer’s and lives at the Greenwood House for the Jewish Aged in Ewing. She said it would be okay if I put it on the blog, so here it is:

I read your article about religious rituals and Alzheimer’s patients
(accessed thru Fearless Caregivers newsletter). I’d like to share
with you my husband’s experience.
He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s 11 years ago. He had attended
religious services in our synagogue quite regularly. Although he
was able to function on a rather high level for the first 5 years, after
that began a slow but steady decline. One year ago he entered a
nursing home. I take him to Sabbath services at the nursing home on
Saturdays. Although he hasn’t been able to read (either English or
Hebrew) for years, and his speech is incoherent, he is able to recite
the Hebrew prayers!

I am truly amazed at how people who have lost just about every
capability retain the ability to utter the prayers which must exist
deep within them.
Thank you for letting me share.
Sherry Spiezle

My book

I don’t know much about hawking a book, but here we go…

I wrote a book. It’s called Can God Intervene: How Religion Explains Natural Disasters. The official release date is a week from today.

12026930.gifHere is the story behind it (briefly): The tsunami happened. A quarter of a million people were killed in a flash. For a few weeks afterward, newspapers, magazines and even TV raised a question that always comes up in times of suffering.

“Where was God?”

The sub-questions: Did God make it happen? Why did God let it happen? Could God have stopped it? If he could have, why didn’t he? And on and on.

Then the media lost interest (as we tend to do) and moved on to other things. But the opportunity came up for me to tackle these questions with a bit more depth. In a book.

I am not a theologian. So I did what I do best. I asked questions. Over a period of more than year, I interviewed more than 50 theologians and other religious thinkers about the big questions.

Many of these discussions started slowly, with my interviewee offering the standard answers. So I would push on with questions like this: “Well, reverend, that’s all well and good, but when the tsunami started rushing toward Indonesia, where innocent people were going about their business, unaware that they were about to be swept away and drowned, what exactly was God doing?”

In most cases, our conversations started picking up some momentum. Most people eventually let down their guard and really grappled with their answers. What do we know? What do we believe? What can’t we know? What is the role of faith?

Of course, the question of God’s role in the tsunami leads to the question of God’s role in all suffering, which leads to the question of God’s role in our lives. Big stuff.

The book is broken down by religious tradition: Judaism, Roman Catholicism, mainline Protestantism, evangelical Protestantism, African-American Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and nonbelief. I wish I could have included others, but I ran out of time.

I also have introductory chapters about the tsunami (what actually happened that day?) and the history of how religion has tried to explain natural disasters (starting with the legacy of the Great Flood).

It was an exhausting process. I learned that I am not good at working 7 days a week. But I wrote a book that I believe (I hope) will shed some light on how our major religions explain, approach, interpret and try to make peace with vast natural tragedies that kill the innocent.

At the very least, if you read the book, you will come away with a better understanding of how different faiths understand our world.

You can order Can God Intervene at “Amazon,”: “Barnes and Noble,”: “Greenwood Publishing Group,”: and other websites. You can also call your favorite bookstore and ask them to order a copy for you from Greenwood.

Limbo, R.I.P.

In a move that has been years in the making, the Vatican has signed off on a shutting down of limbo.

The Vatican’s International Theological Commission, in a document published today, said that the concept of limbo — a place of eternal rest, separate from God, for unbaptized babies who die — shows an “unduly restrictive view of salvation.”

“Catholic News Service”: reports:

“The church continues to teach that, because of original sin, baptism is the ordinary way of salvation for all people and urges parents to baptize infants, the document said.

But there is greater theological awareness today that God is merciful and ‘wants all human beings to be saved,’ it said. Grace has priority over sin, and the exclusion of innocent babies from heaven does not seem to reflect Christ’s special love for ‘the little ones,’ it said.”

Father Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown U, says there are three positive aspects to the decision:

“First, it is a sensitive and pastoral response to the question of what happens to unbaptized children who dies. Parents who are mourning the death of their child will no longer be burdened with the added guilt of not having gotten their child baptized quick enough.

Second, it shows that Benedict is not afraid to look at something that has been taught in the church for centuries and say it is not at the core of Catholic belief. It is not essential that Catholics believe in Limbo. Although it is not easy, it is possible to distinguish between what is central to our faith and what is peripheral.

Third, it has implications for how we deal with nonbaptized (non-Christians) in general. It shows how Benedict is trying to balance his view that Jesus as the savior of the world is central to Catholic teaching, but that does not mean that good non-Christians do not go to heaven. He has criticized Catholic involved in interreligious dialogue with Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists for downplaying the centrality of Jesus as savior, but that does not mean that he consigns all these people to hell as do the conservative evangelicals.”

Is Alec Baldwin as bad as Imus?

If you haven’t heard by now, there is an awful telephone message bouncing around the Web that actor Alec Baldwin left for his 11-year-old daughter. It was released by the celebrity news site “”: (thanks, I guess, to Baldwin’s ex-wife and bitter enemy Kim Basinger).

smallerimage2.jpgOf course, Baldwin is well known as a “Hollywood liberal” type. So some conservative Christians are using this opportunity to portray Baldwin as nothing short of Imus II.

The Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, and the Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council, released this joint statement today:

“Alec Baldwin should be held accountable by the public and the entertainment industry and mandated to undergo counseling by the courts. This is an inexcusable, frightening threat on a young child.

“Today as we remember the Virginia Tech students, we must be mindful that every violent threat against an innocent person demands a strong, clear response. We should never tolerate Mr. Baldwin calling a young woman a ‘thoughtless little pig’ and saying to her he’s going to ‘straighten your a** out’ anymore than we should tolerate talk show hosts calling young female athletes ‘nappy headed hos.’ We expect NBC to immediately suspend Mr. Baldwin from the Thirty Rock show until he apologizes and successfully completes treatment.”

Would they be as upset if an irate message was left by Stephen Baldwin, Alec’s less talented but born-again Christian brother?

Does Cardinal Levada sound fulfilled?

I blogged Wednesday about a report on “Whispers in the Loggia”: about a rumor that Cardinal William Levada, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is not settling in at the Vatican curia and could be heading to New York as archbishop.

It just so happens that the new issue of the Jesuit magazine “America”: has an interview with Levada, the former archbishop of San Francisco. He talks about his fascination with atheist biologist Richard Dawkins, the pope’s emphasis on faith and love in creating hope, the troubles facing a few Jesuit theologians, and his relationship with Benedict XVI.

pic_202.jpgLevada is asked whether the pope misses his work with the CDF. He answers:

“Not exactly misses it — he continues to have a very keen interest in our work, because our questions move very slowly through a long process of review by commissions and consultations with theologians. Ultimately they come up for review at the level of the congregations, or meeting of cardinals and bishops, after which they are presented to the pope. Through my weekly visits with him we have an opportunity to bring him up to date with what’s going on in the congregation and what the status of the more significant questions is. We do this not only because he is interested but because the pope is the one who has the ultimate responsibility for teaching the faith, guarding the faith, promoting the faith. These responsibilities we have as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in service to the pope, so it’s important that the pope knows what we are doing. Along the way, if he wants to give us an orientation or direction, he can.”

The two men meet every Friday at 6 p.m. in the pope’s library. They speak for 30 to 45 minutes. In Italian.

A rabbi who seeks Jewish strays to teach a ‘crash course’ in Mount Kisco

For 20 years, Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald has been the seeker of lost Jews.

In 1987, he started the “National Jewish Outreach Program”: to reach out to assimilated Jews and bring them back to observance and Jewish life. He has started some successful national programs that many synagogues participate in, such as Shabbat Across America and Read Hebrew America.

He also spends a lot of time on the road, teaching the basics about Judaism and the Torah.

Over the next three Wednesday evenings (April 25, May 2 and May 9), Buchwald will be at the “Mount Kisco Hebrew Congregation”: to teach a “crash course in basic Judaism.” He promises to help attendees “discover awe” through belief in God, “find serenity” through the Sabbath and so forth.

ezb2000mini.jpgBuchwald was ordained at Yeshiva U in NYC, where he studied with the famed Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik. He served for 15 years as director of education at Lincoln Square Synagogue in NYC before starting the NJOP.

He can be reached at

Buchwald is an Orthodox rabbi speaking at an Orthodox synagogue. But his lessons are not aimed at the Orthodox. The NJOP has sent hundreds of flyers to Jewish community groups of all kinds, hoping to connect with those who are barely connected with Jewish life (or not at all).

For information or to register, call Ashley at the Mount Kisco Hebrew Congregation, 914-242-7460.

PBS’ Crossroads shows how little things have changed

I don’t know how many people have been watching PBS’ monstrous “America at a Crossroads“: series this week. I haven’t heard much talk about it. But I’ve watched probably 60-70 percent of what’s aired so far.

If you’re not familiar with it, Crossroads is a series of 11 documentaries that started airing Sunday night. They all deal with the fall-out from 9/11, or as PBS puts it, “the challenges facing the world today.”

The shows are very broad, covering familiar ground for those who have read extensively about al Qaeda, Afghanistan, Iraq, Islam, Europe, etc. This is not to say that the documentaries are not effective. As a group, they offer a sweeping overview of where things stand.

Much of the project deals with Islam. What’s been striking to me is — if PBS is accurately portraying the state of things — how little things have changed in the last five years.

The basic gist you get from watching is this: The Muslim world feels aggrieved and oppressed and believes that the West has declared war on Islam; the non-Muslim world has no idea what the Muslim world is talking about and fears that Islam is falling under the spell of fundamentalism.

Sound familiar?