Did Obama miss an opportunity at ND?

Westchester’s own Ken Woodward has a fine column on Newsweek.com about the “lessons” of Obama at Notre Dame.

Woodward is the former longtime religion editor at the newsweekly and now serves as a contributing editor.

A graduate of Notre Dame and a self-described “pro-life Catholic,” Woodward approves of Obama’s invitation. He writes that both Obama and ND President Father John Jenkins showed “courage” for following through with the program.

But he takes Obama to task for not using the opportunity to reach out to Catholics:


For example, he could have signaled his support for the Pregnant Women Support Act, a common-ground initiative that Democrats for Life have introduced in the House and Senate, which has the endorsement of the Catholic bishops Pro-Life Committee.

He might have reassured the Catholic community, beyond a passing phrase, that new regulations governing health-care providers will contain strong clauses protecting the consciences of doctors and nurses who find abortion evil. American Catholics, after all, operate the largest private-hospital system in the world.

As a political gesture, he might have announced a White House liaison to American Catholics. A hundred days into his presidency, there is no one in that post.

Above all, he could have clarified his stand on the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), a bill that would remove all state and local restrictions on abortion. As a candidate, Obama declared his support for FOCA; since then he has said that it is no longer high on his list of legislative priorities.


In the end, Woodward writes, Catholic universities actually enhance their religious identity by “respectfully engaging” those who disagree. He writes: “The message of Notre Dame is that thoughtful Catholics wish this president well. They will work with him if he will work with them.”

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

More on the icky subject of Madoff’s Jewishness

Back in January, I wrote about a program in NYC about the meaning of Bernie Madoff’s Jewishness.

At the time, Mort Zuckerman, the real estate/media honcho who lost a ton with Madoff, said that Madoff “damaged the image and self-respect of American Jews” more than anyone since Julius Rosenberg.

Now, New Voices — a national Jewish student magazine — has published a special issue on “Why it matters that Madoff is Jewish.” The magazine looks bluntly at some real sensitive stuff, including the impact of wealth on the Jewish community.

An interview with the prominent Jewish journalist J.J. Goldberg, editorial director of the Forward, includes this exchange:


Q: So if that’s what capitalism had to do with Madoff, what was it about Jewish culture that created Madoff?

A: I’ve done a little bit of thinking about it. Certainly the fact that Jewish culture is so exhibitionist. Conspicuous consumption has something to do with it. That’s at the heart. Now, where does that come from? In the 1930s, the ADL had what they called a Bureau of Jewish Deportment. They put out booklets advising people how to behave in Miami, which was mainly gentile then. You don’t wear furs in the summer on Collins Avenue. They wouldn’t have said it if it wasn’t being done. Why would somebody wear furs on Collins Avenue in the summer? What are they trying to show? They want to show that they’re successful, they want to show that they’re not their grandfather the tailor in Russia. Jews went into finance in the Middle Ages, Jews invented international trade. So it’s in the tradition-it’s in the culture. Maybe because it’s a portable culture, it’s an urban culture, it’s a culture that was not rooted in physical labor. It was entirely survival by wits. And if it’s entirely survival by wits, and if everybody’s against you, then a whole lot of things become imaginable.


An editorial asks the question: “What would happen if Jews weren’t rich?”

It includes this:


American Jews, after all, are quite comfortable with the notion of Jewish poverty. When we talk about our past, we love to dwell on the filthy tenements of the Lower East Side, the hardscrabble kibbutzim of the Yishuv, the simple life in the prelapsarian shtetl. We get a big kick out of our humble roots. Contemporary Jewish kitsch is epitomized by the figure of the immigrant bubbe compensating for a traumatically deprived childhood by compulsively overfeeding her family. Meanwhile, suburban Jews speak of the New York kosher deli as the peak of culinary achievement, and even though we can afford a nice tuna steak, we still buy gefilte fish.


The editorial goes on:


At the January 15th YIVO panel, Princeton professor and Dissent editor Michael Walzer half-jokingly suggested that Jews should reinstate the sumptuary laws of the medieval European ghettos, the often self-imposed rules that regulated ostentation within the community. That’s one option.

The alternative is less amusing, but perhaps more levelheaded. We got this way by ceding leadership to the community’s major philanthropists. If we take it back, we can diminish the influence of the most affluent on our values and our priorities. The means to such a coup are unclear. It will require passionate involvement in Jewish communal politics on the part of a generation of young people who, understandably, find the community deeply boring and hopelessly lame. Our challenge is to convince our disillusioned friends that the way to fight the materialism and ostentation that they find so distasteful is to care enough to fearlessly challenge the Jewish status quo.

Businessmen, bankers, and big-shot lawyers will always be an important part of American Jewry, and rightly so. But to allow the wealthiest to define our community is a dangerous mistake. Let’s hope we can muster the willpower to correct it.


It’s funny: I was just writing some categories for this blog post — those little tags designed to attract readers — and I was going to include: “Jewish wealth” or something like that. But I don’t want to bring in white supremacist types so I’m leaving it out.

Next Tuesday: The one and only Martin Marty in Briarcliff Manor

One week from today, on May 26, an American Institution will visit the County of Westchester.

Martin E. Marty.

No, he doesn’t pop up on Page Six or in People mag.

But he is one of the most prominent and influential scholars of American religion in the history of American religion.

Marty will speak at 7:30 p.m. at St. Theresa’s Church in Briarcliff Manor. Free and open to the public.

Marty has long been in great demand. Bringing him to Briarcliff is a big score for Ken Woodward, the longtime Newsweek editor who puts together the great, great speaker series at St. Theresa’s.

What has Martin Marty done?

Just written more than 50 books and 5,000 articles. Been awarded 75 honorary doctorates. Has written a column for “The Christian Century” since 1956.

He taught at the University of Chicago for 35 years, retiring in 1998. The Divinity School’s research center was then named the Martin Marty Center.

He was ordained a Lutheran minister in 1952.

He is now 81.

I’ve read many of Marty’s articles and essays over the years. He has a way of synthesizing religious trends in the culture with clarity, punch and a sense of humor.

Marty’s own website lists many of his own papers, books, projects, etc.

It also has an amusing page of his “regrets” — that he doesn’t evaluate manuscripts, critique dissertations, open doors to foundations, serve on boards, speak to individual congregations (St. Theresa’s being an exception, I guess), etc.

And there is a very funny page about how to “host Marty” when he does speak.

His lodging? “Gregarious though he is, Marty needs privacy, as he takes his “portable office” along. When he stays overnight prior to an event the next day, he prefers quiet hotel or campus guest house accommodations for laptop and other work.”

Does he nap? “After lunch and before an afternoon appearance or just before dinner, Marty typically takes a 7- to 10-minute refresher nap.”

Sounds good to me.

Does he share meals? “Marty prefers to breakfast alone; he is an early riser and likes to work without interruption until the first public event of the day. He enjoys sharing lunch and/or dinner with his host; he loves to mix and to learn from faculty, students, and others.”

How long will he talk? “Unless otherwise specified, Marty speaks for exactly 50 minutes; the following question-and-answer period is usually about 20 minutes.”

I’ll be timing him.

Does he get a big fee? “When asked what his speaking fee is, Marty always responds, ‘Do for me what you do for others like me.’ “

Come out to see him, Westchester. Directions and info HERE.

Oh, yeah. His subject? From St. Theresa’s: “Marty, the nation’s most honored historian of American religion, will discuss how our broken, divided and economically traumatized nation can begin to build “cultures of trust,” and what our various religious communities can contribute to that effort.”

Another ‘mistake’ for Fordham?

Obama wasn’t the only pro-choice pol to be honored by a Catholic university this past weekend.

Fordham gave an honorary degree to Mayor Bloomberg.

And Sen. Schumer apparently spoke, unannounced, at Fordham Law’s graduation.

The NYPost reports that Archbishop Dolan didn’t know about Bloomberg’s honor. He probably couldn’t have known about Schumer, who tends to show up at graduations around NYS and nab a few moments at the podium.

Last fall, Cardinal Egan slammed Fordham Law for giving an award to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, saying that the decision was a “mistake.”

A statement from the archdiocese at the time said that Egan addressed the matter with Fordham and that “As a result of these discussions, the Cardinal is confident that a mistake of this sort will not happen again.”

The week that I missed

I’m back. Hope you had a good week.

I’m about half way through my 1,500 new emails. The worst part is that my email storage is full and I can’t send any emails until I empty it out.

So if you’re waiting for a response from me — as so many people are — please keep waiting.

Here are some odds and ends as I try to catch up with the news:

1. While I was on furlough, I read a stack of magazines from the past few months. In the Jan. 5 New Yorker, there was a quirky story about two rabbis who fly around China checking out factories that produce kosher food. Over $1 1/4 billion worth of kosher-certified foods are exported from China every year. Who knew?

Anyway, the article noted that one of the rabbis was drinking a Coke, and that the Orthodox Union has certified Coca-Cola as kosher since 1993. The article raised a very interesting question: How can you certify a product when its formula is a closely guarded secret? The answer: “Grunberg explained that the Coca-Cola Company presents the O.U. with a long list of ingredients to be approved, including some that are red herrings, just to foil any industrial spies who might be masquerading as rabbis.”

Fascinating, no?

2. I was in Macys buying socks and noticed a T-shirt that said: “FREE speech thought religion expression”

It had a very interesting design for some reason I checked the tag: “Made in Pakistan”

I couldn’t help wondering where in Pakistan it was made? Whose factory? Do the people there believe in all those freedoms — or even know what they are? What would the Taliban think?

3. I wrestled with whether or not I have to see “Angels & Demons.” I don’t think I do. Although it’s the number one movie this week, I haven’t heard any serious talk about the plot or any connections between the story and the real world.

I read “The Da Vinci Code,” saw the movie and wrote about it several times because I heard people wondering whether the plot was true — or based in truth or somehow connected to truth. Many people read it as historical fiction.

Not so with A&D, I think. We’ll see how things develop — and whether I need to see Tom Hanks running around like a mad man. I hope he got a different haircut this time out.

4. I read some of the coverage of B16’s trip to the Holy Land. Somehow, neither what he said nor the reactions to what he said surprised me. Some Israelis were not satisifed with his comments about the Holocaust. Well, B16’s not a great communicator. When it comes to highly symbolic moments, people still expect JPII. But B16 is a different guy.

He favors a Palestinian state and finds the Wall to be a sad sight? Who could be surprised by that?

Benedict is 82 and gave 28 speeches during the trip. He had no major gaffes that I’m aware of. Give the guy some credit.

5. The NYS Assembly’s passage of a bill to legalize gay marriage sets the stage for a fascinating debate in the Senate.

The NYS Catholic Conference calls the Assembly’s move “terribly misguided:” “Marriage is not simply a mechanism with which to provide people with benefits. By creating same-sex ‘marriages,’ the state is endorsing the notion that procreation is completely disconnected from marriage and that a nontraditional family structure serves a child as well as a traditional one.”

The Orthodox Union is “gravely disappointed:” “Legal scholars on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate agree that codifying same-sex marriage without providing robust religious accommodations and exemptions will create widespread and unnecessary legal conflict that will “reverberate across the legal and religious landscape.” We have already seen religious congregations, social welfare agencies and youth groups which object to same-sex unions penalized by authorities in states where such unions have been legalized.”

6. I wish I was around last week to write something about Obama’s Big Day at Notre Dame, which crystallizes the Catholic Church’s struggles over abortion like nothing else (Yes, I know that many Catholics would say that there is no struggle and that Catholics who disagree are dead wrong).

I haven’t had a chance yet to really digest Obama’s remarks. Maybe after I clean out my emails…

7. Finally, I am a finalist for the Religion Writer of the Year Award given out by the Religion Newswriters Assocation. A nice thing.

Now back on furlough…

I just got back from the Doubletree Hotel in Tarrytown, where I received a Washington Irving Book Award from the Westchester Library Association for my book, “Can God Intervene: How Religion Explains Natural Disasters.”

The award goes to Westchester-based authors — 10 for fiction and 9 for non-fiction this time around.

It’s a nice honor, which I do appreciate.

In a couple of hours, I begin another week on furlough — that special week of unpaid vacation that has become so popular in the newspaper industry and other lines of work.

I won’t be blogging next week. But I will be running errands.

I aim to be back on Monday, May 18.

Enjoy the sunshine. Finally.

Talkin’ interreligious understanding, tolerance, pluralism, respect, whatever

“There is something essentially risky for anyone who participates in an interreligious panel or discussion,” Rabbi Lee Paskind of First Hebrew Congregation in Peekskill said.

The risk is that you will be challenged on your most closely held beliefs.

But Paskind and other panelists took up the challenge last night at Graymoor, where the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement sponsored a program on the state of interreligious understanding in the Lower Hudson Valley. The program was timed to mark the start of Pope Benedict XVI’s trip today to the Holy Land — when interreligious relations can be affected by anything the pope says or does.

I moderated the panel and we got a good turnout. The panelists were consistently insightful on a subject that can, at times, draw a lot of cliches.

I asked the panelists what interrreligious understanding looks or sounds like. How do you know when you’ve succeeded?

“We all start out with fear, which leads to hatred and suspicion,” said the Rev. Anthony Falsarella of the Greek Orthodox St. Basil Academy in Garrison. “We choose to be in fear. Tolerance means we’re coming to recognize the other. Respect is an outgrowth of learning about them.”

Dr. Mahjabeen Hassan of the American Muslim Women’s Association, a plastic surgeon at Phelps Memorial Hospital Center, said what she has learned from meeting patients from all faiths: “When you talk to them, calm them down, you realize we are human, all worried, all with our fears, financial-wise, you name it.”

Father Jim Gardiner of Graymoor, who called the program together, said that “tolerance” of others is not enough. “We have to get past that and look for a closeness with one another that allows us to ask questions that we otherwise wouldn’t ask,” he said.

Gardiner continued: “The fences and borders are real. They’re theological. They’re historical. They may sometimes seem to be insurmountable. But they’re ours. We made them. We have to see what God is doing on the other side of the fence.”

Everyone agreed that contact is real important. When people get to know one another, things change fast.

“We have to model that behavior,” Paskind said.

“We need to manufacture excuses to get together,” Gardiner said.

“People have to go out and talk,” Hassan said. “We spend too much time inside our own houses of worship.”

Paskind suggested that one way to further the dialogue would be to talk about one another’s religious texts.

“We all have texts that are problematic for other faith groups,” he said. “We can say ‘What texts of mine hurt you?’ ”

It occured to me when I was driving home that the panel did not address one sensitive matter that happens to be of particular concern to Benedict XVI: How do we promote interreligious understanding and pluralism without allowing it to morph into religious relativism — the idea that all religions are equally valid.

Now, many people do believe that there are numerous paths to God and that their own is not the only way.

But the pope and other traditional religious leaders bristle at this suggestion. So, how can communities further interreligious understanding without giving pause to those who worry about relativism?

A question for another night.

Update on cow slaughter (not something I write every day)

My colleague Jane Lerner has the story, which goes like this:

RAMAPO – The operators of a yeshiva (pictured) where a cow was slaughtered in the backyard earlier this week have written a letter apologizing to neighbors for the incident.

Neighbors said this morning that the letter was hand delivered last night to people who live near the school at 609 Route 306, bordering the villages of Pomona and Wesley Hills.

“The unfortunate incident that took place on Monday evening on our school property was totally not within parameters of our school charter or mission purpose,” states the letter signed by Rabbi Gershon Bornfreund, administrator of the Bobover Yeshiva of Monsey. “Ritual animal slaughter is beyond the scope of elementary school education.”

The yeshiva, in a Colonial-style house that town officials maintain is being illegally used as a school, will go before the town’s Zoning Board next week to seek variances to allow the construction of a building on the property to serve 250 students. The 2-acre site also has a nursery school.

Ramapo officials have said the yeshiva began using the existing building as a school illegally.

Rodney Wechsler, who lives next door to the school, said this morning that letter was brought to his home last night by a rabbi from the yeshiva.

The apology, coming days after his wife and 3-year-old son looked out of their kitchen window and saw men with knives slaughtering then decapitating the brown and white spotted cow, was overdue, he said.

“It’s better than nothing,” he said of the letter. “It was obviously written by a lawyer to cover them.”

Oprah’s priest, ‘Father Cutie,’ in trouble

Have you heard of Father Alberto Cutié, the extremely popular, personable and handsome Miami priest who is a favorite of Oprah?

I’ve seen the guy on TV a few times and have heard a few comments over the years about women swooning over “Father Cutie.”

Well, now, Father Cutie has apparently been photographed smooching with a woman on the beach. He’s been removed from his Miami Beach parish. More than 60 supporters rallied today in his defense.

The Miami Herald has the whole story HERE.

Cutié released a statement saying: “Before God — full of love and mercy — I ask for the forgiveness of those who may be hurt or saddened by my actions.”

Also: “The commitment that I made to serve God will remain intact.”

A Legion priest drops the Legion

A prominent member of the Legionaries of Christ, the embattled Catholic order, has decided to leave the Legion to become a priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

Father Thomas Berg runs the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, a bioethics think-tank based here in Thornwood.

In a statement, Berg explains that the Institute will continue its work under a new board and disconnected from the Legion. He writes: “By this means and through a very active ministry in the Archdiocese of New York, under our new Archbishop Timothy Dolan, I look forward to continuing to live my total consecration to Christ in his priesthood.”

The Legion, a long controversial, solidly conservative order, has been shaken to its core by revelations that its late, beloved founder, Father Marcial Maciel, had fathered a child and apparently lived a “double life.” The Legion had previously fought allegations that Maciel sexually abused seminarians several decades ago.

The Vatican is soon sending representatives to study the Legion’s situation and help decide its future. Many observers believe that the Legion is done.

In his statement, Berg writes:


After nearly 23 years of life as a Legionary of Christ, I have discerned that it is time for me to continue following Christ in the diocesan priesthood.  Although the recent revelations about the Legion’s founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel, were profoundly disturbing, my decision has actually been in the making for nearly three years.

Like so many, I have personally experienced again and again the vast amount of good which God has accomplished through Legionary priests and the congregation’s works of apostolate over the past six decades of its existence.  I leave with a heart grateful to Christ who I know accepted and blessed the oblation of my years of religious consecration in the Legion.

In my opinion, the serious issues within the congregation will require its thorough reformation if not a complete re-foundation. I am hopeful that the upcoming Apostolic Visitation of the Legion will be a first step toward a new beginning for the Legionaries and members of Regnum Christi. I trust that God in his providence will lead them to holiness and enable them to do great things for Christ and his Church.   For my part, I remain their friend and brother in the Lord.


Berg is a thoughtful and forceful proponent of looking at today’s bioethical quandaries from the Catholic view of the human person.

His new essay on President Obama’s first 100 days includes this:


Dialogue. Accommodation. Common ground. Reasonableness. Obama believes he is about all that and wants us to believe it too.

But none of us should.

Obama has mastered the art of concealing a strident pursuit of his aggressive anti-life agenda under the guise of debonair disdain for conflict and feigned confusion over all the fuss emerging from Catholic quarters.

What most strikes me about the first 100 days of the Obama phenomenon is how he has come to incarnate in the popular American psyche the fulfillment of the longed-for secular messiah. It’s the Age of Aquarius redux. Obama stands in that liberal American psyche as the great emancipator of foregone conservative foibles and moral scruples, poised to institutionalize all the dogmas of the new secular orthodoxy.  Consequently, he has unceremoniously imparted what he and his adorers believe will be a final coup de grace for many a conservative folly: reversal of the Mexico City Policy, his executive order suspending the Bush administration policy on the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, his move to rescind the “conscience clause” regulations put in place by President Bush, and the list goes on.

And given the apparent shallowness of his own religious experience, he is the icon of all religious indifferentists, of those “spiritual but not religious” souls, of the devotees of nice McNihilism.