‘God in America’ coming to fall TV

Sure it’s a ways off, but…

I have to mention that PBS will premiere — on Oct. 11 — a 6-hour series about the role of religion in American history and culture.

It is to be called…drum roll please…God in America.

Exec Producer Michael Sullivan says: “The American story cannot be fully understood without understanding the country’s religious history. By examining that history, God in America will offer viewers a fresh, revealing, and challenging portrait of the country.”

Here is part of PBS’ description of the show, which will air over 3 nights:


God in America examines the potent and complex interaction between religion and democracy, the origins of the American concept of religious liberty, and the controversial evolution of that ideal in the nation’s courts and political arena. The series considers the role religious ideas and institutions have played in social reform movements from abolition to civil rights, examining the impact of religious faith on conflicts from the American Revolution to the Cold War, and how guarantees of religious freedom created a competitive American religious marketplace. It also explores the intersection of political struggle and spiritual experience in the lives of key American historical figures including Franciscan Friars and the Pueblo leader Po’pay, Puritan leader John Winthrop and dissident Anne Hutchinson, Catholic Bishop John Hughes, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, reform Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise, Scopes trial combatants William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, evangelist Billy Graham, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Moral Majority’s Jerry Falwell.

Friar/bioethicist named to presidential commission

It just came to my attention that another well-known religious figure from NY, Dr. (and Brother) Daniel Sulmasy, has been appointed to Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

Sulmasy is a Franciscan Friar, a religious brother, who was for a long time director of the Bioethics Institute of New York Medical College in Valhalla. He also held the Sisters of Charity Chair in Ethics at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan, the veritable Greenwich Village institution that is now closing most of its services.

tjndc5-5btpa448c41za9xtp1j_layoutSulmasy left New York last year for the Windy City, where he has a million titles at the University of Chicago.

He now holds the Kilbride-Clinton Chair in Medicine and Ethics in the Department of Medicine and Divinity School and is associate director of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics.

I interviewed Sulmasy several times. In 2006, I talked to him in his Valhalla office about getting an article published on spiritual care for the dying in the prestigious journal of the American Medical Association.

“I was surprised I got ‘God’ in the title,” he told me then.

Sulmasy was in favor of doctors acknowleding the spiritual or religious sides of their patients — when appropriate.

“I want to move away from a spirit of antagonism between medicine and spirituality to one of cooperation, but I don’t want a 21st-century shamanism,” he said. “MD doesn’t stand for medical deity.”

Another doctor said of Sulmasy: “He’s brought me a long way. It’s about recognizing that people are more than the sum of their parts.”

I haven’t talked to Sulmasy since he left town, but you have to wonder if his departure was due to the demise of Catholic health care in New York. New York Medical College, long a med school in the “Catholic tradition,” is being taken over by Touro College, an Orthodox Jewish institution. And old St. Vincent’s appears to be taking its final breaths.

Last year, Sulmasy wrote about the unraveling of Catholic health care in New York for America magazine. He wrote:


Personally, despite all the obstacles, I continue to be convinced that Catholic institutions (and, in particular, Catholic hospitals) are worth fighting to save. Catholic institutions help to nourish the faith of those who work in them and are served by them. Our Catholic hospitals also provide a vehicle for proving that our moral convictions are compatible with 21st-century technology, and they embody the ideal that service institutions ought to have service missions.


Archbishop Dolan wasn’t too happy about it either.

Sulmasy may well have his hands full in taking a seat on the presidential commission. The Obama administration has very different views on certain things than does the Catholic Church.

But Sulmasy knows the minefields of bioethics as well as anyone.

He says: “The rapid pace of technological progress assures us that these sorts of questions will continue to surface in clinical practice. Ethics, as the most practical branch of philosophy, must be prepared to keep pace with these challenges.”

That being said, he once told me: “Being a friar is what I am. Being a medical practitioner is what I do.”

He’s in charge of an ‘outspoken’ priest

You may have heard that a Massachusetts priest called Sunday for Pope Benedict to resign because of his unwillingness to face the “truth” about clerical sex abuse.

The sermon by the Rev. James J. Scahill  has turned a spotlight on his boss — Bishop Timothy McDonnell, a very well-known guy in these parts.

McDonnell is a former Chappaqua pastor and vicar general of the Archdiocese of New York.

bishopmcdonnellHe was named the bishop of Springfield, Mass. and its 120 parishes in 2004.

I can’t find a statement on the Diocese of Springfield’s website, but the Springfield Republican writes this:


In a response issued Monday afternoon, Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell faulted Scahill for bringing up the issue on a Sunday meant to foster reconciliation and forgiveness in the church.

“There is a sad irony in that Father Scahill’s remarks were delivered on Divine Mercy Sunday,” said McDonnell, adding the church has expressed “tremendous sorrow, sadness and shame” about clergy abuse cases.

“The church leadership knows how difficult it is for those who have suffered abuse at the hands of clergy who should have been signs of God’s love rather than inflictors of pain,” the bishop said.” Here in the Diocese of Springfield, as in trouble throughout the United States and beyond, we are vigilant in the efforts undertaken to ensure such tragedies can never happen again.”


McDonnell has faced pressures before.

In 1990, he was assigned to clean things up at Covenant House in New York City after the Rev. Bruce Ritter, who founded the ministry for homeless youth, was accused of sexual misconduct.

Then McDonnell had to run Catholic Charities during a difficult economic period.

He pastored St. John and St. Mary Church in Chappaqua from 1993 until he was named an auxiliary bishop of New York in 2001. He served as vicar general of the archdiocese until being sent to Springfield, which was mired in scandal at the time.

Former Bishop Thomas Dupre had just resigned after allegations surfaced that he abused young people in the 1970s.

Now what does a bishop do with a priest who has called on the pope to resign?

God made you do what?

Got a copy of a new book by New Rochelle resident Marc Hartzman called “God Made Me Do It.”

Some people will think it’s real funny.

Others might not.

n259329031859_7728Hartzman compiled over 200 examples of ridiculous things people have done because they said God told them to.

Each anecdote gets a page or two — complete with a short, snarky headline, a quotation from someone and a few paragraphs of explanation.

What did people do because of divine requests?

Become a stripper. Toilet paper a police station. Get bit by a poisonous snake. Walk on a high wire. Shoplift. Mutilate a brother. Lead police on a high-speed chase. Open a porn shop. Not bury the dead. Swim the English Channel.

And on and on.

Many of the people quoted seem to be…not quite right.

There are a lot of quotations like: “God came to me in a dream and gave me this sauce.”

And: “God told me to open a shoe repair shop in the bus.”

And: “The Lord specifically commanded me to rob the banks…”

And: “God spoke to me and said ‘Maybe a wedding chapel will be a good thing to put in that pawnshop.’ ”

Hartzman includes the tales of a bunch of famous people, such as (obvious target) Pat Robertson, told by God to run for president, Oral Roberts, told he would be “called home” by God if he didn’t raise enough money, and former boxing champ Evander Holyfield, told by God that he would win a fight in the third round (but didn’t).

Yeah, it’s all pretty irreverent.

Hartzman seems to dismiss the idea of God telling anyone anything.

In the book’s “Opening Sermon,” Hartzman writes that he witnessed a “healthy patch of shrubbery spontaneously burst into flames,” after which God told him to write the book.

He quotes God as saying: “Write the book, sell a million copies, and buy yourself something nice. Like I said, I command thee.”

My colleague Rich Liebson interviewed Hartzman not along ago. The story should be on LoHud any day now.

For ‘the good of the universal church’

The AP is now raising the stakes in tying the future Pope Benedict XVI to a sex-abuse scandal involving a former, monstrous Oakland priest.

The Diocese of Oakland recommended defrocking the priest in 1981, three years after he pleaded no contest to tying up and molesting two boys.

According to the AP, Ratzinger did not respond for four years. Then he refused to defrock the priest, writing of the “detriment that granting the dispensation can provoke within the community of Christ’s faithful.”

Is it a legitimate story that makes the future pope look really bad or another example of biased, anti-Catholic reporting?

Here it is:


AP EXCLUSIVE: Future pope stalled pedophile case

By GILLIAN FLACCUS (AP) – 1 hour ago

LOS ANGELES — The future Pope Benedict XVI resisted pleas to defrock a California priest with a record of sexually molesting children, citing concerns including “the good of the universal church,” according to a 1985 letter bearing his signature.

The correspondence, obtained by The Associated Press, is the strongest challenge yet to the Vatican’s insistence that Benedict played no role in blocking the removal of pedophile priests during his years as head of the Catholic Church’s doctrinal watchdog office.

The letter, signed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was typed in Latin and is part of years of correspondence between the Diocese of Oakland and the Vatican about the proposed defrocking of the Rev. Stephen Kiesle.

The Vatican refused to comment on the contents of the letter Friday, but a spokesman confirmed it bore Ratzinger’s signature.

“The press office doesn’t believe it is necessary to respond to every single document taken out of context regarding particular legal situations,” the Rev. Federico Lombardi said. “It is not strange that there are single documents which have Cardinal Ratzinger’s signature.”

The diocese recommended removing Kiesle (KEEZ’-lee) from the priesthood in 1981, the year Ratzinger was appointed to head the Vatican office which shared responsibility for disciplining abusive priests.

The case then languished for four years at the Vatican before Ratzinger finally wrote to Oakland Bishop John Cummins. It was two more years before Kiesle was removed.

In the November 1985 letter, Ratzinger says the arguments for removing Kiesle are of “grave significance” but added that such actions required very careful review and more time. He also urged the bishop to provide Kiesle with “as much paternal care as possible” while awaiting the decision, according to a translation for AP by Professor Thomas Habinek, chairman of the University of Southern California Classics Department.

But the future pope also noted that any decision to defrock Kiesle must take into account the “good of the universal church” and the “detriment that granting the dispensation can provoke within the community of Christ’s faithful, particularly considering the young age.” Kiesle was 38 at the time.

Kiesle had been sentenced in 1978 to three years’ probation after pleading no contest to misdemeanor charges of lewd conduct for tying up and molesting two young boys in a San Francisco Bay area church rectory. Continue reading

The Jonas Brothers (Ahhhh!) on Easter

Even if your kids are big fans of the Jonas Brothers — their music, their TV show, their fun-but-wholesome celebrityness — you may not know that the Bros are serious Christians.

When Rick Warren held an Easter service at Angel Stadium Sunday that drew 30,000 people, the Jonas Brothers were there unannounced. There must have been a lot of screaming little girls in pink dresses.

The service was held to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Warren’s Saddleback Church. The Jonases (is that plural for Jonas?) sang three songs, including one written by a Saddleback member called Gotta Find You.

It sounded like one of those songs that could be about a person, but is probably, considering the context, about God.

You’re the voice I heard inside my head, the reason that I’m singing…

You’re the missing piece I need, the song inside of me…

Here it is:

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According to the Orange County Register, Nick Jonas (honestly, I’m not sure which one he is) gave a personal testimony:


“About four and a half years ago I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes,” he said. “It happened quickly, but on my way to the hospital that night, I made a commitment to myself that I wouldn’t let it slow me down. And I asked myself the question, ‘Why me?’ But I do believe there was a turning point when I realized, “Why not me?

“Now I’ve been able to share my story and encourage other young people who are dealing with some of the same things. And I know we’re all going through some hard things in our lives but it’s how we persevere, how we get through those hard moments in our lives. I encourage you when those moments come to make that commitment I made and don’t let it slow you down.”

Making friends in the ‘kitchen’

Nothing brings people together like breaking bread, right?

Next Thursday (April 15), Jewish and Muslim women from Westchester will talk and eat at Chef Central in Hartsdale to share traditional recipes and “cooking customs.”

The Westchester Jewish Conference is setting things up and the American Muslim Women’s Association, a Westchester-based group, is taking part.

According to a release:


imagesThe demonstration chef at Chef Central will make a Biryani, a traditional Muslim dish of fish, rice, and vegetables with spices and infused oils, and Baba Ghanoush (pictured), a traditional eggplant side dish. The chef will also demonstrate a savory noodle kugel, or casserole, and Kasha varnishkes, buckwheat groats and noodles, representing traditional Jewish dishes from Eastern European. Challah bread, flatbreads, and tea will be served alongside these dishes.


I’m getting hungry. What’s for lunch?

No nukes

Back in the Cold War days, one of the most high-profile items on the Catholic agenda — on many agendas — was nuclear disarmament.

We haven’t heard as much about it since the wall came down.

646a42253eb221903e312bf2271bf522But with meetings at the U.N. next month to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Obama rewriting America’s “nuclear strategy”  and growing concerns about nukes getting into the hands of terrorists, disarmament is back in the headlines.

Want proof? Maryknoll is hosting a forum entitled “For Peace and Human Needs—Disarm Now!” on Sunday  (April 11) at 2:30 p.m. at the Maryknoll HQ in  Ossining.

According to a release: “Panel discussion topics will include: Arms Control and National Security, Nuclear Disarmament, and Seizing this Moment.  Presenters will be members of the United Nations NGO community.”

Coincidentally, I got a release from the Two Futures Project, an evangelical movement pushing for the abolition of nuclear weaspons.

“The use of even one nuclear weapon would cause indiscriminate death and destruction and threaten uncontrollable escalation, both of which are anathema in the just war tradition,” says the Rev. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson,  Director of the Two Futures Project. “The moral imperative is to do everything possible to ensure that no nuclear weapon is ever used, whether in war, terrorism, or by accident—which requires taking concrete, threat-reducing steps toward their multi-lateral, verifiable, and complete elimination.”

Obama yesterday officially said that nuclear terrorism is a greater threat than whatever nukes Russia has left.

“The greatest threat to U.S. and global security is no longer a nuclear exchange between nations, but nuclear terrorism by violent extremists and nuclear proliferation to an increasing number of states,” he said.

Just about anyone should be able to agree on this point, I guess. Not counting Iran.

An Easter miracle?

A few items:

1. What do you call it when an active member of a large Pentecostal church in New City collapses during an Easter service, loses his pulse and heartbeat and is revived at the emergency room of Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern?

As my colleague Jane Lerner reports, some are calling it an Easter miracle, a resurrection.

2. I wondered a couple of weeks ago whether new talk of immigration reform in Washington would inspire religious leaders in New York and elsewhere to join the debate. There have been stirrings (not to mention that big march in D.C.).

An interfaith group called the The Faith and Public Policy Roundtable is holding a forum on immigration on Wednesday, April 21, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. in Ceremonial Hall at the Society for Ethical Culture in Manhattan.

tjndc5-5k7d0c6swlz10mutxarb_layoutThe panelists will be: Rabbi Michael Paley, Scholar in Residence and Director of the Jewish Resource Center at UJA-Federation of New York; Bishop Robert Rimbo of the Metropolitan New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (that’s him); and Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York.

3. When Cardinals O’Connor and Egan were nearing the end of their tenures, there was much talk about whether New York could see an Hispanic archbishop. But we keep getting Irishmen.

LA, though, is a different matter. The nation’s largest archdiocese may already be mostly Hispanic (New York is probably close, but no one really knows).

ab_gomez_100So it’s no surprise that B16 has chosen a Latino bishop, Jose Gomez, the archbishop of San Antonio, as next in line for LA. Cardinal Roger Mahony will reach retirement age, 75, next February.

I went to a gathering of religion writers a few years ago in San Antonio (yes, we toured the Alamo, which was surprisingly — at least to me — small). We had a brief meeting with Gomez, who was warm and funny, the kind of guy you like right away. He won the group over without much effort.

He’s also a member of Opus Dei, which is kind of interesting. And he’s only 58 (2 years younger than Tim Dolan), so he could be an important national figure for quite some time.

‘Catching up’ with the pope’s preacher

I couldn’t help notice that Father Raniero Cantalamessa has been in the news the past few days.

tjndc5-5f09fmxx0khlhhtfba3_layoutCantalamessa, a Capuchin friar, is the “preacher to papal household” or the guy who preaches to the pope.

On Good Friday, he sort of compared recent criticisms of the pope to anti-Semitism, a link that has drawn international attention and some criticism.

I interviewed Cantalamessa back in 2007 when he was passing through New York and found him to be a kindly and good-natured fellow, almost unnaturally modest for a guy who, you know, preaches to the pope.

When I asked him if he gets nervous or feels pressure to deliver four-star homilies, he said nah: “”No, no, not really. It is a grace. It is a blessing. I am not promoting a message of mine. It is the message of Jesus.”

On Friday, toward the end of a long homily dealing with several themes, especially violence, Cantalamessa mentioned a letter he received from a Jewish friend. He quoted from the letter:


“I am following with indignation the violent and concentric attacks against the Church, the Pope and all the faithful by the whole world. The use of stereotypes, the passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt remind me of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism. Therefore I desire to express to you personally, to the Pope and to the whole Church my solidarity as Jew of dialogue and of all those that in the Jewish world (and there are many) share these sentiments of brotherhood. Our Passover and yours are undoubtedly different, but we both live with Messianic hope that surely will reunite us in the love of our common Father. I wish you and all Catholics a Good Easter.”


On his blog, Robert Moynihan of Inside the Vatican described the moment like this: “As the word “antisemitismo” at the end of that sentence echoed out over the vast hall, over the silent throng, the battle over this Pope and this pontificate seemed to me to take on a new and deeper dimension.”

Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, U.S. director of interreligious relations for the American Jewish Committee — who recently met with Catholic and other Jewish leaders at the Vatican — told the AP: “It’s an unfortunate use of language to make this comparison, since the collective violence against the Jews resulted in the death of 6 million, while the collective violence spoken of here has not led to murder and destruction, but perhaps character assault.”

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said that the papal preacher’s parallel could “lead to misunderstandings and is not an official position of the Catholic church.”

Now Cantalamess is expressing regret if his remarks offended Jews, the victims of sexual abuse or anyone else: “If, against any intention of mine, I offended the sensibility of Jews and the victims of pedophilia, I sincerely regret it and ask forgiveness, reaffirming my solidarity with both.”

What does this episode mean? That emotions are easily stirred when it comes to criticism of the pope, even in the context of a sex-abuse crisis that has gone on for quite a while.

Critics of the church are quite angry. Defenders of the pope are increasingly angry. More angry words seem likely.

John Allen wrote the other day about how hard it is (impossible even?) to cover what’s been happening in such a way that will satisfy anyone. At a time when partisanship of all kinds seems particularly fierce, critics and defenders of the Catholic Church and/or Pope Benedict seem to be digging in for lasting conflict.

Allen writes:


What’s striking about much of the reaction I’ve received, however, is that it’s not focused on the content of what I’ve said but rather my alleged motives for saying it.

For one camp out there, my first point amounts to a “hatchet job” on the pope, making me complicit in a campaign led by The New York Times and other media outlets in trying to bring him down or to wound the church. For another crowd, point two is tantamount to a whitewash in favor of the pope. As one e-mailer put it to me succinctly, “Don’t you ever get tired of being an apologist for the Vatican?”

All of which makes me wonder: On an issue about which people feel so passionately, and one which so easily feeds all sorts of broader agenda about the church, the papacy, the media, and so on, is there actually a constituency for balance? Is there room for middle ground?