No Religion is an Island: Challenging Injustice in a Community not "Our Own"

Two weeks ago, I wrote a Shalom Report letter criticizing the Catholic hierarchy for attacking the religious freedom of Catholic nuns and American women, while falsely proclaiming their own religious freedom was being attacked.

That letter (perhaps because it focused on religious freedom instead of focusing only on women's health) sparked a lot of excitement and debate. National news media carried the story. At the end of this letter, I’ll list the three items on our Website that embody the whole history.

 Now let me turn to the deeper questions raised by this ruckus.

WHY did one person strongly committed to the top-down structures of his own Catholic community react to my criticism of some actions of that hierarchy with such rage, even descending to anti-Jewish threats?

As I have written before, the world is living through a multidimensional planetary earthquake. Every “stable” life-dimension has turned unstable: our relationship with the earth, the global economy, the family, sexuality, even violence and war. (Terrorism rampant and the haunting H-Bomb: not your Granddad's war.)

 In an earthquake, there are three ways to behave:

§  Ignore and deny. Get repeatedly hit, hurt, killed by falling objects.

§  Freeze. Grab hold of some object that we hope is immovable, and hold tight-gripped on to it.  In a social earthquake, that may mean gripping a  memory (often distorted) of a stable, frozen, "immovable," past, insisting on trying to live that way, and (since we can't do it alone) trying to coerce others into doing so. 

§  Dance. Learn to dance in an earthquake. Be fluid with reality. all the old assumptions and behaviors, and Transform them. It's hard to do, since the “dance floor” itself is shaking; but it’s the most life-giving response.

 "Restoring" the past requires a lot more coercion than the past itself required. For in our remembered past, it required little force to keep all the genies in our bottle. But once some genie has gotten out of the bottle, it takes great force to put the genie back in.

Seventy years ago, most orders of nuns were passive, obedient to Rome and their bishops. No longer!

The "women" genie is out of all the old bottles.

The Jewish genie is out of Christian bottles and also out of Arab bottles.

The Palestinian genie is out of the Israeli bottle.

And so on. In an earthquake, all the bottles fall off their shelves and smash, and all the genies swirl into our world.

Whom do I have in mind when I mention the "frozen" response to the world-wide earthquake we are all living in?

I have in mind, among others --

the present Catholic hierarchy; 

the individual Catholic militant who threatened me and other Jewish critics of the hierarchy, saying we better not poke  our noses into "Catholic" business;

"ultra-Orthodox" rabbis who have insisted that cases of child abuse and rape in the Orthodox community must not be submitted to "outsiders" -- that is,  American legal process.

All these are so shaken by the world-wide earthquake that they resort to grasping hard on a distorted memory they hope won't move  -- and trying to coerce everyone in sight into grasping as they do.

I feel compassion for those people.  But compassion for their quandary must not lead to acquiescence in their coercion.

And commitment to oppose their coercion does not mean hating them.

(Several letters have accused me of “hating” Catholicism or Catholics. This is simply false. There are many versions of Catholicism, just as there are many versions of Judaism. In both and all other religious communities, there are some world-views I see as akin to my own, and some not. I admire and encourage much of the theology and practice of Pope John XXIII, the Second Vatican Council, Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Network, and the magazine Conscience. I disagree with much of the theology and practice of the present Pope and the present majority of the US National Conference of Catholic Bishops, especially in their theology and practice toward women and sexual minorities.)

This approach invites all communities to dance, unfrozen, in God's earthquake  -- like John XXIII, Vatican II, and their successors in creative Catholicism.

One of the old assumptions that is shaking and quaking is the notion that each religion (or at least the big, powerful ones) were laws unto themselves. "Outsiders" must stay outside.

But almost fifty years ago, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was vigorously insisting, “No religion is an island!” 

Is Catholicism a self-contained “island” that has no effect on the world as a whole?  Is Orthodox Judaism? Some specifics of how one community's actions affect the broader world:

  It is clear that the Catholic hierarchy’s desire to prohibit contraception, gay marriage, and abortion slops over into attempts to coerce women of all religious beliefs.

 It is clear that some men who have been handed the trappings of spiritual authority –-  some priests, some bishops, some rabbis, some gurus, some ministers, use that aura to rape and molest children, students, congregants, followers, and to hide the truth even when the truth is about a crime. 

  It is clear that the Vatican’s attack on American nuns has a major effect on the lives of the poor, because Catholic nuns are among the most committed allies of the poor –- and  not just the Catholic poor.

It is clear that some Orthodox rabbis -- in order to stay inside their own community -- actually went outside their own community, using their numbers and political power to keep a  District Attorney from prosecuting rapists.

To protect their own practices and their own power, these Catholics and these Jews wanted "outsiders" to stay out of their business. They wanted to be an "island."  But to do this in our society, they themselves had to use political power to affect others. When push came to shove, they themselves did not want to stay on their own "island."

Let's face the question squarely: Should people who are not members of the community in which some “teachers” are abusive keep their noses out of the abuse? Catholics must not condemn abusive rabbis, Jews must not condemn abusive bishops?

For me, God is ONE. For me, that means that all life on Earth is interwoven by and into the Breath of Life --  YHWH –-  and that I am obligated to act when any person or institution (of any religion) is perpetrating injustice on any being (of any religion or none).

Of course that frightens and angers the powerful of any institution –-- corporation, religion, government. Sometimes their fear and anger turn into threats and attacks. When that happens, we all have the task of speaking truth to the powerful.

In that spirit, I ask you to write Timothy Cardinal  Dolan, Archbishop of New York through Joseph Zwilling, Director of Communications for the Archbishop, by emailing him at

I ask you to urge him to insist that since no reliion is an island, all who claim to support the church must use no rhetoric whatsoever threatening Jews or others who criticize actions of the Catholic hierarchy, and to urge that he himself reflect on the dangers of recent actions trying to restrict the religious freedom of women or of American nuns in their work for social justice.

Of course there are so many oppressive actions in our world that no one human being can take on all of them. We all have to choose. For me, the crux of my choice is not which community is harboring abuse -- but which abuse is making most injustice. And I believe that pressure from the powerful Catholic hierarchy against some important groups of women -- nuns who serve the poor and women who work for Catholic-sponsored institutions -- endangers not only those specific women but women in general and the broader poor and middle class in America. For me, a big issue.

As an ancient Rabbi said, living under the tyrannical Roman Empire: “You are not obligated to complete the work – but neither can you walk away from it.”

With blessings of pax, shalom, salaam --  Arthur


Three items on our Website, listed here in chronological order, embody the history of this discussion:







Jewish and Interfaith Topics: