07/16/2012 01:25 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2012

Rabbi Challenges the Catholic Church

Rarely do heads of religious institutions engage in heated arguments these days in America. We have come to expect a certain level of neutrality, some objectivity and a careful amount of diplomacy in all situations. We look to our faith leaders to demonstrate the highest level of respect for one another, and model the behavior we are all taught to show for one another in our country, which is such a unique example of a religiously free democracy.

Usually that happens. Not always.

In a rare display of public concern for the religious freedom of American Roman Catholic women and possibly all Roman Catholic women, an American Jewish rabbi called for change within the Catholic Church. In response to the harsh treatment of our American Roman Catholic nuns, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Ph.D., founder of the earth-loving, justice- seeking, peace-promoting Shalom Center in Philadelphia, wrote a Shalom Center Report Letter initially intended for his community, criticizing the Roman Catholic leadership for its harsh treatment of our nuns , whom he holds up as champions of social justice.

It was a good letter. It got my attention. I even commented on it when the letter was picked up and published in The Huffington Post. His community newsletter had become national news, and people like me noticed. That was the day Eliza Wood started reading up on Rabbi Arthur Waskow.

Holy cow! What kind of a rabbi is bold enough to state opposition to Roman Catholic leadership in a publication? How do the nuns feel about their new supporter? And, moreover, what the heck happens when a rabbi challenges a bishop or Roman Catholic leader about his entrenched religious beliefs?

Those answers are not yet fully known and hopefully much good will come of Rabbi Waskow's efforts, but the rabbi's suggestions were not well received by the Catholics; and the reply was fast and fierce by Bill Donohue, President of the Catholic League. Not well at all. In fact, Donohue replied to Rabbi Waskow's well-constructed suggestions using anti-Jewish threats, and even apparently misquoted former Mayor Ed Koch in his reply, a point quickly corrected by Mayor Koch himself.

It appears round one went to the rabbi, but the whole thing is worth reading.

Now, people like me do not let this kind of religious showdown go unreported, and so I requested the opportunity to speak with Rabbi Waskow on June 28 to get a better sense of his objectives and overarching goals in this Catholic matter, as well as his mission at the Shalom Center.

Based on years of thought, study and interfaith collaboration, Rabbi Waskow has come to fear that all of humanity is in an earthquake of sorts that is both environmental and societal.

Humans are quaking.

That is his general sense of what is happening in the world, and he sees this acutely happening in the Roman Catholic Church as they try to resist progress.

Rabbi Waskow says there are predictable ways people tend to behave during a quake:
  • They can ignore and deny the facts, which cause them to get repeatedly hit, hurt and killed by falling objects.
  • They can freeze, grab hold of some object and hope for the best. (Waskow points out that in a social earthquake, it may mean gripping a memory and insisting on trying to live that way while trying to coerce others into doing so as well.)
  • They can "dance." Dancing through an earthquake is the hardest response to do, but the move is "life giving," in his opinion.
Living in California provides a person many opportunities to experience real earthquakes, and the largest one I have ever felt was a 7.9 on the Richter scale. Standing in my kitchen, watching the windows shake so hard I thought they would all shatter, it was sheer terror for me. When I stood up it felt like I was standing on large snakes that were moving. When it stopped, I ran outside and spoke to a runner passing by my home, who had felt absolutely nothing at all. Based on that personal knowledge, I give the "dance" option a lot of credibility.

I often talk about the need for flexibility. Recently I wrote several more mild responses to the fierce Catholic bishops' objections to Obamacare and the 43 lawsuits that had been filed. In one of my articles, I wrote:

"Inflexibility is probably the biggest indicator of imminent death in any situation. If people are biologically flexible, they can respond to whatever free radicals attack the immune system; if a business is flexible, it can adapt to meet the changing needs of customers. If politicians are flexible, they can represent the concerns of their constituents for decades. Anything that survives requires flexibility."

Dancing through an earthquake is another way of saying the same thing.

Peeling the layers of Rabbi Waskow's concerns back a bit -- starting with his fears for the earth, then humanity, then the Catholic women -- I found in him a layer of sympathy and true concern for what the Catholic leadership is going through. Didn't see that coming.

The rabbi explained that he is very sympathetic to the leadership of Catholicism and their fear of change. He understands their fears of loss of control of their people and their cherished values. He can empathize with that as a leader in a faith that has had to change or dwindle.

The Roman Catholic leadership fears their church is at risk. The male Catholic leaders feel the responsibility as keepers of their culture to plug the holes in the boat before it sinks. So, he infers, they continue to ignore and deny changes happening within the church and, when that doesn't work, they grab even more tightly to their faith's tenets -- as outdated and impractical as they may appear to the rest of us.

What they cannot seem to do is relax, hear the music and dance. Understandable.

But according to Rabbi Waskow, this dance is the only logical response that can work. This is a rabbi who cares for the whole human family, and he assured me that he is not alone among rabbis, which was news to me. I've known and studied under a handful of rabbis who never focused outside the needs of their own community, with the constant exception of focusing on the needs of Israel.

It suddenly occurred to me that I might have seen this episode years ago on Star Trek. Heightened responses were met with heightened responses, and in the end the only way through the crisis was to lower the guard of the starship Enterprise. At the height of the crisis, it needed to become vulnerable to survive.

The rabbi senses that the nuns, and Catholic women in general, are being a bit bullied by the disconnected male Catholic leadership in Rome. He offered the point that Rome tries to continue to deny that women have a "religious conscience." However, some 96-97 percent of Catholic women do in fact use contraception, so they have therefore overruled the Roman Catholic Church. But Rome hasn't figured that out yet.

Fair enough. No one likes a bully.

Yet, I have learned not to rush to liberate women who don't want to be liberated. Oprah Winfrey made that loud and clear to the Western world when she invited a panel of Muslim women to speak about wearing a veil. Many love it and consider themselves more modest and respectful of God with a veil. Some, if not most, modern Muslim women have choice in the matter of how much or how little to cover of themselves.

Having recently been a resident of the Gulf region for three years, I can confirm that the women I knew would not be comfortable without their veils. While there may have been other changes they hoped for, that wasn't one. Certainly the Muslim world is large and complex and there are many abuses of women in some places that need our concern.

Not only did Oprah's guests say a loud and clear "don't pity us," but they made the point that in some ways they are ahead of Western women, stating that Mohammed gave them the right to own property some five hundred years before American women would have the same rights.


So, while responses from many, including feminist Gloria Steinem, are powerful and call attention to the fair treatment of Catholic women, it might be nice to hear more responses from the nuns themselves as well as a variety of mainstream Catholic women at the center of all this, just to confirm that they want the help we assume they do. If so, many more will certainly jump in to help them.

But at the core of this, is there a more general American pushing back against any display of a repressive faith in our free land? A whole new generation of Americans just got their first glimpse at how repressive Roman Catholicism can be when these stories hit the news. The issue of religious freedom that the Roman Catholics have held high as their cause in all the recent rallies is at now the crux of their problem: many mainstream American people believe that women need freedom from that kind of religion, not the kind of religious freedom that forces omen to conceive and have children against their wills and without benefit of healthcare. That sounds more like asking women to fight to be more repressed, right?

At present, considers the debate both a celebration of religious freedom in which our leaders can debate their views -- hopefully constructively and without any fear of retribution -- and a shame that better paths are not open for dialogue.

In America, our faiths are not always open to insights from outsiders. Rabbi Waskow's more recent blog continued his point that "no religion is an island," meaning that when members of one faith appear to be unfairly treated they must expect a response from other faiths.

Suggestions to a religious leader or group from an outside faith leader may sound like attacks. They may seem like poor religious etiquette, but, God bless us, we get to do that!

That is America. That is religious freedom.

Good for us. We often forget how many tens of thousands have died for that.

That is progress!