Episcopal Diocese of NY nominates five for bishop, including married lesbian priest

Here’s hoping you haven’t had too much damage from Irene.

Like every reporter, I’ve been driving around the past few days checking out the floods and downed trees and talking to exasperated people who don’t know when they’ll get power back.

But it appears that things could have been worse.

Otherwise…an interesting development from the Episcopal Diocese of New York.

You may know that Bishop Mark Sisk will retire over the next few years. The diocese has started a process to choose his successor. This morning, a committee announced the names of five nominees, one of which will be chosen by delegates to a diocesan convention on Oct. 29.

One of the nominees is the Rev. Tracey Lind of Cleveland, who is dean of Trinity Cathedral there. She is also a lesbian who got married in New Hampshire last year.

For obvious reasons, Lind’s election would be big news.

Although the Episcopal Church is very gay-friendly — and this is especially true of the Diocese of NY — many are still uncomfortable with gay marriage. In fact, Bishop Sisk supported the passage of civil gay marriage and has been an outspoken advocate for gays in the church, but does not believe that his priests should perform marriages for gay couples. Instead, he supports “clergy who wish to bless a couple who are members of the Church and who have entered into a same-sex civil marriage.”

If Lind was chosen bishop, would the Catholic Church send anyone to her installation?

Maybe we’ll find out. Maybe we won’t. Lind was also a candidate to become bishop of Chicago in 2007, but was not chosen.

You can read about the other nominees here.

Back to storm coverage…

What I read during my summer vacation

Back from the beach.

Got in a lot of family time, mini-golf, running and eating. I also made my way through four books, which I chose for a variety of reasons. Three of the four dealt with World War II, although I didn’t plan it that way.

I started with a classic that I had never read — James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Not exactly beach reading, I know. I had just finished “The Brothers Karamazov” — brilliant but taxing — and I should probably have given myself a break before encountering Joyce. But so it goes.

“A Portrait,” of course, is soaked in religious themes and settings. It’s a coming-of-age story (Joyce’s story, I guess) in which Catholicism is a central character. The protagonist, Stephen, wrestles with his Catholic faith throughout.

The novel includes the most vivid and terrifying description of hell that I’ve encountered, as described by a priest who is speaking to a class of students. While I was reading it, I couldn’t help wondering about the effects that such warnings must have had on Catholic students when the threat of hell was a common theme.

Joyce also has Stephen wracked with guilt over certain moral transgressions involving the world’s oldest profession. Stephen’s visit to a confessional, where he is barely able to come clean to a priest, makes for one of the most dramatic scenes in the book.

Reading “A Portrait,” I quickly understood why it has held its place in the canon. Joyce puts you in Ireland during the early 1900s. His language is radiant in parts, although I’ll confess that there were sections I read twice and could barely follow.

Next up, I read “Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink” by David Margolick. I’m a big boxing fan and have developed the odd tradition of reading a boxing book during my annual summer break. I chose this one because I’d never read a biography of Joe Louis.

It was a terrific book that surpassed my expectations in certain ways. I knew, of course, that the book would focus on the political context in which the two fights between Louis, the American heavyweight sensation, and Schmeling, a German, were fought. Margolick handled it beautifully, teasing out the tenuous but troubling relationship between Schmling and the Nazis.

I hadn’t been aware of the degree to which Schmeling allowed himself to be used as a propaganda tool by the Nazis. Clearly, Schmeling was not a believer in the Nazi cause. He had many Jewish friends in the U.S. and pre-Nazi Germany. But when the Nazis came to power, Schmeling was quite willing to cozy up, meeting regularly with Hitler and Goebbels. When Jews were thrown out of Germany’s boxing program, he denied it to the American press. Schmeling’s answer to every question: He wasn’t interested in politics.

The part of the book that surprised me — and it shouldn’t have — was the extreme, virulent, horrifying racism that was directed at Louis during the 1930s. American journalists referred to him in the most degrading terms imaginable and many whites, particularly in the South, refused to root for him, even against a German.

I had a sense of what racism was like at that point in time, but I assumed that Louis was treated differently because of who he was and what he represented. Boy, was I wrong. In fact, Margolick has the Nazis insisting that the U.S. secretly agreed with their racial policies. Just look at how Americans treated their own blacks, the Nazis said.

What a disgrace.

Next, it was between another classic, “Heart of Darkness,” and a more recent literary offering, Martin Amis’ “House of Meetings,” which was recommended to me. I chose Amis. Once I started reading it, I discovered that the story makes several references to Joseph Conrad and “Heart of Darkness.” Spooky.

Amis’ 2007 novel is narrated by a Russian WWII veteran who winds up in the Gulag after the war, accused of mysterious political crimes. Much of the story describes his miserable day-to-day existence and what his war and Gulag experiences do to him. He is, at times, an intelligent, gravely injured and sympathetic figure and, at times, a violent monster.

The themes play out in a strange love triangle involving the narrator, his brother and his brother’s wife. It works because Amis is a pretty darn gifted writer.

I planned to get to “Heart of Darkness” next, but I instead substituted a book that my wife had just finished. She was mesmerized by it, so I decided to dive in.

The book is called “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption.” It was written by Laura Hillenbrand, the author of “Seabiscuit” (which I have not read).

“Unbroken,” I have since learned, is beloved by just about everyone who has read it. Count me among them.

It tells the almost-impossible-to-believe story of Louie Zamperini, a track star who joined the the Army Air Corps, becoming a bombardier, after Pearl Harbor. What Zamperini goes through — being lost at sea with two men after their bomber goes down and then being taken as a POW by the Japanese — is among the most amazing, mind-blowing stories you will ever read.

Hillenbrand tells the tale simply, but with incredible detail after seven years of reporting. When you’re done, you’ll feel like you know Zamperini — as well as several of the Japanese soldiers who brutalized him.

I understand that Universal has optioned the film rights to the story. Zamperini is a dream role for an actor. But I would think that “Unbroken” will be a difficult movie to make without making the WWII-era Japanese look like monsters. I can only imagine the media coverage that the movie will get in Japan.

For most of his life, Zamperini was not a religious man. But as he is trying to put his life back together in the post-war years, he is deeply influenced by a preacher holding revivals in California. His name was Billy Graham.

Who’s optimistic about America’s future? American Muslims

I’m off for the next two weeks but will return around Aug. 22 with my annual report on religious elements in my beach reading.

I think I’m starting with “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” which I’ve been trying to get to for years.

Come fall, I’ll try to post a bit more often than I’ve done of late. It’s tough, being that I’m mostly covering education these days, we have a lot of 9/11 anniversary stuff in the works, and there are plenty of other demands on our small, but committed-as-ever staff.

One interesting note: A new study from the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center, a partnership with Gallup polling machine, finds that American Muslims are more satisfied with their American lives that members of other faith groups.

They say they face discrimination, but that they are thriving in general.

According to the Washington Post:

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…almost two in three Muslims said their standard of living is improving, up 18 percentage points from 2008 and higher than any other faith group surveyed. This is the same period that Muslim leaders say has been the most oppressive for Muslims in this country, with rhetoric against their faith group appearing to rise.

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An LA Times write-up includes this:

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The polling also indicates significant common ground between Muslims in America and their Jewish counterparts. The two groups largely share similar views on resolving the decades-long conflict in the Middle East. Eighty-one percent of Muslim Americans and 78% of Jewish Americans support the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. A majority of Jewish Americans, 70%, also said they didn’t believe American Muslims sympathized with Al Qaeda. The only respondents more likely to agree were Muslim Americans themselves.

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The Forward also notes the similarities between Muslim and Jewish thinking:

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What may be surprising is the Gallup poll’s finding that in many respects, Muslim Americans most resemble… Jews. Sixty percent of Muslims say they are thriving here; ditto, American Jews. Almost all (93%) of the Muslims in Gallup’s survey believe that other Muslims are loyal to America; Jews (80%) are the religious group most likely to agree with that statement. Jews are also among the least likely religious groups to think that Muslim Americans sympathize with al Qaeda, and both groups consider the war with Iraq a big mistake.

There’s more. Muslim Americans are the most likely of any major religious group (80%) to approve of President Obama’s job performance. And who is next on that list? Yep, the Jews.

Remember the King’s College?

This and that:

1. Those who have been around for a while might remember when the King’s College — an evangelical school — was located in Briarcliff Manor. The college shut down in 1994 because of financial problems, leading to a long stalemate over how the campus should be used (it’s now a luxury senior housing development).

The King’s College reopened a few years later in the Empire State Building of all places.

New York magazine recently caught up with the school and its new president, the conservative political and social commentator Dinesh D’Souza. The article covers the college’s mission to engage its secular opponents and to train Christians for careers in politics, finance, the media, etc.

It focuses, though, on D’Souza and whether his “pointed” views may be too much even for the King’s College.

The writer, Andrew Marantz, describes how D’Souza tells a group of students and others about the “unique villainy of Barack Obama.” D’Souza offers this: “For Obama, the radical Muslims are on the right side of history—that’s why he is so unnaturally solicitous toward them.”

One can only wonder which radical Muslims the college president is referring to. Must not be those who have been the targets of all those drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

2. The NYTimes writes today about plans slowly moving ahead for that Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero.

Remember the Islamic center? I think it was a pretty big story just about a year ago.

Anyway, the main developer is moving much slower to build networks of support and decide what to do with the place. This is how the planning should have been done to start with.

If you remember, opponents of the “Ground Zero mosque” were attacking the place last year before there was any staff, money or plans. The few people involved were caught totally off-guard and essentially froze instead of explaining themselves and their intentions.

3. The Times also writes today about an Islamist insurgent group blocking aid to starving people in Somalia.

When I was reading the article, it struck me that this would be a good time for American Muslim groups to condemn what these people are doing, supposedly in the name of Islam.

When Americans call on Muslims to denounce terrorism, this is what they mean.

Washington’s famous letter on religious liberty under lock-and-key

I’ve read SO many times over the years about George Washington’s famously eloquent letter to the “Hebrew Congregation” in Newport, Rhode Island.

The 1790 letter is famous for spelling out what religious liberty in the U.S. would mean: “For, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

In 1781, Washington had visited Newport and a meeting was held at the synagogue.

The Forward today put out a fascinating article about the letter’s whereabouts.

It turns out that the letter is held under lock-and-key, removed from public view, at an industrial park in Maryland.

Apparently, a fellow named Morris Morgenstern who grew up on the Lower East Side and became a successful financier and philanthropist, purchased the letter around 1949. A foundation in his name loaned the letter to the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, which lets few people see it.

Very strange.

Paul Berger from the Forward got to see it. But it wasn’t easy.

The letter is now said to be worth between $5 and $10 million.

The Newport congregation, called Touro Synagogue, was founded in 1658 by the first Jewish arrivals to North America. Touro is still going strong today and will host an annual reading of Washington’s letter on Aug. 21 at 1 p.m. (reservations required).

You can read the whole letter here.

A new Catholic archbishop for Philly; Episcopal bishops divided in New York

Two things:

1. Should the Yankees play the Phillies in the World Series this fall — a possibility, at this point — we could see a high-stakes bet between two of the highest-profile and fastest-talking Catholic churchmen in the country.

New York pizza or a Philly Cheesesteak?

That’s because squaring off with Archbishop Dolan would be Archbishop Charles Chaput, who is leaving Denver to lead the deeply troubled Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Chaput is a provocative and straight-talking bishop who promotes orthodox Catholicism — as he would put it — without compromise. Like Dolan, he’s a guy who says what he believes and isn’t afraid to use the media to get the word out. In fact, Chaput is one of the few bishop who regularly returns reporters’ calls.

He’ll get some calls in Philly, where a second Grand Jury report this  year blasted the archdiocese’s handling of sex abuse. In March, Cardinal Justin Rigali suspended 21 priests who had previously survived allegations of abuse.

Chaput tells the Catholic News Agency: “The Church in Philadelphia is at an important point in her life. It’s not a time to be embarrassed about what we believe. In fact, it becomes even more crucial to preach the Gospel – both within the Church and outside the Church.”

Chaput is well known for demanding fidelity of Catholics, including Catholic politicians. He says: “If we don’t live as faithful Catholics, we betray the Gospel. We forfeit the opportunity God gives us to make a significant difference for the evangelization of culture.”

If there is a Fall Classic bet between Dolan and Chaput, you know Dolan will be seriously craving that cheesesteak. I’m not sure how much Chaput likes to eat.

2. On a COMPLETELY unrelated note…

The NYTimes writes today about the Episcopal bishops overseeing the six dioceses of New York state being split over how to deal with the coming of civil gay marriage.

The Episcopal Church has long been quite gay-friendly, particularly in New York. But the national church has not staked a clear position on gay marriage, giving local bishops a lot of local leeway. But when comes to the Big M, New York’s bishops don’t see eye-to-eye.

As the Times’ Shaila Dewan writes: “In the state, with six Episcopal dioceses, the bishops are split: two have given the green light for priests to officiate at same-sex marriages, one has said absolutely not, two are undecided and one has staked out a middle ground, allowing priests to bless, but not officiate at, weddings of gay men and lesbians.”

Here in the Diocese of New York, Bishop Mark Sisk has been a vocal advocate of gay acceptance within the church. He also supported the legalization of civil gay marriage.

But he’s not ready to see his diocese conduct same-sex marriages until church law says it’s okay. “The church is still in the process of creating liturgies for these rites and incorporating them into church law,” he said.

Sisk told the Times that churches could host civil marriages led by secular officials — with an Episcopal priest offering a blessing.

Now that is a serious search for middle ground.

Can the papacy somehow promote Christian unity?

A couple of pope-related notes…

Generally, I think it’s safe to say, the place and role of the pope in the Roman Catholic Church has been an obstacle to ecumenism — or non-Catholic Christian churches getting closer to, or somehow aligning with, Rome.

If other Christian traditions saw the Petrine Ministry as essential, after all, they might well go Catholic.

So I was interested to see that Father James Puglisi, minister general of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement at Graymoor, has received a Catholic Press Award for editing a 2010 book, “How Can the Petrine Ministry Be a Service to the Unity of the Universal Church?”

Yes, it is a title that does not sing.

I, for one, would be curious to know how the papacy might contribute to Christian unity. I don’t have the book, but have been trying to skim it on Amazon.

I stumbled on a chapter by Father Joseph Komonchak, a West Nyack native and a well-known and veteran theologian at Catholic University in Washington. It includes this great passage:

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It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the Roman Catholic Church is regarded as a vast multinational religious corporation with central headquarters in Rome, branch offices in large cities, and retail shops, called parishes, dispensing spiritual goods. On this view, the pope is seen as the CEO of the firm. This view, I say, is rather widespread, and it can be found, almost taken for granted, among both progressives and liberals, among the laity, and among the clergy, including among some bishops.”

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This “administrative view” of the church won’t fly with many Christians, he writes. He goes on to cover some difficult ground, including on the relationship between the universal church and individual churches. I won’t attempt to summarize it (nor could I), but Komonchak doesn’t seem to like the way Rome chooses bishops without diocesan input and drops them down from the outside.

He writes: “A theory and a practice that cannot acknowledge the local churches as full subjects in their own right cannot be correct.”

So here is an argument in favor of the pope’s administrative role being reduced — or the local church’s role being increased. Some non-Catholic Christians would certainly agree.

On a completely unrelated note, I was reading Bill Keller’s review in the NYT Book Review of “Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy” by John Julius Norwich.

Keller starts his review with this:

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John Julius Norwich makes a point of saying in the introduction to his history of the popes that he is “no scholar” and that he is “an agnostic Protestant.” The first point means that while he will be scrupulous with his copious research, he feels no obligation to unearth new revelations or concoct revisionist theories. The second means that he has “no ax to grind.” In short, his only agenda is to tell us the story.

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Now, Norwich may be scrupulous with his research and he may have no ax to grind. In fact, his book may be fantastic in every way.

But, unless I’m missing something, Norwich’s lack of scholarly standing does not mean that he will be scrupulous with his research. His status as an agnostic Protestant does not mean that he has no ax to grind.

He could well be an agnostic Protestant and popular historian who does lousy research and has a huge ax to grind.

I’m not saying he is. But he could be, right?

Would transplants from pigs to people break religious dietary laws?

From the department of Applying Ancient Religious Beliefs to Modern Technologies…

We have an article from Ari Stillman at ReligionDispatches.org about the possibility of growing human organs in pigs for transplantation into humans. Apparently, pigs have already generated “human blood” after being injected with human blood cells.

According to the Telegraph of London, these techniques could provide a solution to the current shortage of available organs.

Professor Hiromitsu Nakauchi, director of the centre for stem cell biology and regenerative medicine at the University of Tokyo in Japan, tells the Telegraph: “Our ultimate goal is to generate human organs from induced pluripotent stem cells…”The technique, called blastocyst complementation, provides us with a novel approach for organ supply. We have successfully tried it between mice and rats. We are now rather confident in generating functional human organs using this approach.”

Stillman raises the very interesting question of whether traditional Judaism and Islam — which prohibit the eating of pork — would allow for “xenotransplantation” using pigs.

Scholars from both traditions say that saving a life generally takes precedence over other rules.

And the pig would not actually be eaten, but would only, well, produce organs that would become part of human bodies. Hmmm.

Stillman writes: “Of course, the question is bound to surface at some point as to whether they have to use a pig? Why not another animal so as to save the trouble of these religious debates? Unfortunately (or quite fortunately, depending on your orientation), pigs are anatomically and physiologically similar to man. Coupled with their low maintenance, it makes them ideal surrogates for the growth of human organs. If you believe in intelligent design and techno-determinism, then maybe this is just indicative of God’s progressive sense of irony.”

(AP Photo/David Duprey)

What could Archbishop Dolan have done to fight gay marriage?

I came back from a few days away to see that Archbishop Dolan lit the first “virtual candle” on the St. Patrick’s Cathedral website.

It’s been a busy few weeks for Dolan.

He heard from several priests who don’t want to see their Catholic schools closed.

And he emerged as the face of the anti-gay marriage lobby in NYS. The losing face.

I blogged a couple of weeks ago about the growing social acceptance of — or lack of interest in — homosexuality and gay marriage. There was little public debate that I picked up on in the months leading up to the big vote in Albany.

And, honestly, I didn’t get a sense that the opposition — mostly the Catholic Church and a few evangelical lobbyists — were all that worked up about it. They were, and remain, clearly opposed to gay marriage. But maybe they thought there was little they could do.

I’ve come across a few anti-gay marriage commentators who feel the church could have done more to rally, or at least awaken, the troops.

Academic John Zmirak, writing for the conservative Catholic magazine Crisis, compared the church’s combativeness to France’s capitulation to the Nazis.

He writes: “Instead of pulling out all the stops and calling in all its chips, the Church shrugged off the effort to defend the natural law as a good thing for all New Yorkers — and went scrambling for exemptions to guard its institutional interests. Republicans who were wary of gay marriage spent their political capital not fighting against the bill, but carving out little enclaves of protection for such oddball cults as might not want to solemnize same-sex rites.”

The conservative religion commentator Rod Dreher, a former Catholic-turned-Orthodox Christian, writes that Dolan fought with a stunning half-heartedness.

He writes: “The archbishop was undoubtedly correct to describe the pro-gay forces as “very strong” and “well-financed” — but what is the Archdiocese of New York, chopped liver? Though greatly diminished in power from the glory days of Cardinal Spellman, there is no bully pulpit like the one Dolan has. Given the razor-thin margin of victory for the pro-gay side, it’s entirely possible, even likely, that a fully engaged Archbishop Dolan could have won this round for his side.”

Dreher also takes the Orthodox leadership in the U.S. to task.

He writes: “It’s not just the Catholic leadership. Bishops of the Eastern Orthodox churches, whose teaching on same-sex relations is equally ancient, and equally strong, are possibly even more tongue-tied than their Catholic counterparts. Metropolitan Jonah, the primate of my own church, the Orthodox Church in America, finds his authority effectively shattered by the Synod of Bishops, in part because they resented his signing the Manhattan Declaration in support of traditional marriage.

“True, Michael Dahulich, the OCA bishop of New York and New Jersey, issued an archpastoral letter condemning the New York legislature’s action. But one wonders how active the bishop and Empire State Orthodox clergy were in the fight when their voices might have made a difference?”

And Tom Deignan, a columnist for IrishCentral.com, somehow compares Dolan to Whitey Bulger, the old Boston mobster who got picked up recently. His headline: “How the mighty have fallen.”

Yeesh. He writes that both are Irish-American institutions who were “taken down.”

Deignan writes: “Not too long ago, there would have been an undeniable sense of war in the air, with Catholic leaders vowing to drive out the Catholic vote at election time, if lawmakers chose to stand against church teaching.

“Can you imagine what would have happened if a gay marriage bill was being debated during John Cardinal O’Connor’s reign as New York’s Catholic leader?”

But Deignan concedes that times have changed, even since O’Connor’s time, and there may have been little Dolan could do: “The problem, of course, is that vast numbers of Irish Catholics across New York — and America — are not exactly passionate in their opposition to gay marriage. Sure, some are not enthusiastic supporters.  But what we do know is that they do not simply follow the church’s clear opposition to it.”

And that, it seems to this observer, is the real issue.

(AP Photo/Richard Drew)