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Cardinal Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict, launched a campaign in defense of murderous dictatorships in Latin America and to purge the Church of liberation theology and priests like Matthew Fox – on Reality Asserts Itself with Paul Jay. This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced June 13, 2019.
PAUL JAY: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. And we’re continuing our discussion with Matthew Fox, who was a Catholic priest; was first stopped from teaching liberation theology and creation spirituality by Cardinal Ratzinger; and then expelled in 1993 from the Dominican Order, for which he had belonged for 34 years. He currently serves as an Episcopal priest, and lives in California. And one of his many books is The Original Blessing, which gotten him into a lot of trouble.
Why? So what was in your teachings that they thought was so threatening? For example, in an interview you gave, I think on Democracy Now, you said, number one, you called yourself a feminist theologian, which was a heresy. Number two, you said you called God ‘Mother,’ which is a heresy, and so on. These things don’t sound so–even if they don’t like it–enough reason to drum you out. Is this that you are seen as a real figure defending liberation theology, and how political that was, and they needed to make you a, you know, a lesson, shut you up, which they literally do? Tell that story. I mean, what leads up to them telling you to shut up?
MATTHEW FOX: Well, first of all, yeah. You were reading off the list. There was a list of seven objections to my theology, and those were the first ones. And the other ones included that I worked too closely with Native Americans. It was really kind of odd. But it’s true that I learned a lot from working with Native Americans. I love their ritual, and their way of seeing the world. They see the world in terms of creation, of the universe, and of nature first. And we fit–are here to fit in. It’s not us first, it’s nature first.
So anyway, I see that list as kind of a rush, actually, test of the Vatican at the time. They also complained that I called God ‘Child.’ Well, I don’t know what Christmas is about, if not that. But anyway, I think that tells us how old and tired and cynical that they are when they come up with that stuff. But yeah, I guess I challenged them, because my field is spirituality, and that’s not the same thing as religion. Religion is more sociological, is more of about structure, I guess, in its current current expression. But spirituality, for me, is it gets more to the essence or religion. What’s it really about? It’s about gratitude. That’s how Aquinas put it in the 13th century. And they canonized him a saint, after they condemned him three times. But he said that religion is part of the virtue of thankfulness.
PAUL JAY: OK. But if I’m Ratzinger, do I really care if some American priest is talking about this kind of stuff? This is the counterculture. Everyone’s running around talking about this sort of business. Something more is going on–more political, I’m speculating–that he calls an inquisition. He essentially investigates you. And then tells you you’re not allowed to speak publicly anymore.
MATTHEW FOX: Right. Well, people were buying my books. And I was the most visible theologian in the American Catholic Church at that time. But they were going after Leonardo Boff, who was the most visible Catholic theologian in Brazil, in South America, at the time. And they went after Eugene Drewermann, who was the most visible Catholic; he’s a priest and theologian, psychologist, in Europe. A German. They silenced all three of us the same year. So there is–you know, there is obviously a strategy in that. And the idea was shoot down these guys. They’re so visible. And then the others will get in line.
PAUL JAY: How outspoken were you about U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and other kinds of issues?
MATTHEW FOX: Well, I certainly was–I was writing about justice from the start. And, of course, justice toward women. I was talking about that. That’s what they called me a feminist. And justice for gay people. And toward the earth. And–so you know, back then they were, they were not very advanced in any of those particular fields. But that’s the point. That’s what a theologian should be doing, is thinking ahead and trying to relate the best of ancient truths to today’s issues. Their job is something different, to kind of keep some order or something in their little world. So it’s kind of to be expected, I guess.
PAUL JAY: But as you said earlier, there’s this meeting Reagan has, where they–it’s a very real plan. One, bring–you know, bring solidarity to power in Poland, and split the church, and weaken liberation theology in Latin America. And you’re on the other side of the barricade from Ratzinger’s point of view.
MATTHEW FOX: Definitely. And when they silenced me for a year, what I did is I went to Latin America, and I sat down with Leonardo Boff, who’d been silenced also, and with Bishop [inaudible], a very wonderful and holy man whose diocese was the Amazon, who was working with the Indigenous people there to save the rainforest. And his his priests had been tortured and murdered and killed, and everything, and a lot of his lay leaders, too. In fact, they had a mass there one night of bout 250 people. It was a retreat for a week of church workers in the Amazon. And in the mass they said, now come up and light a candle, and name three people you know personally who were tortured and murdered. Everyone went up there and did that. And one guy came up after and said the hard part was limiting it to three, I know at least ten off the top of my head.
These are ordinary people in jeans and T-shirts, you know, who are living in this courageous life of knowing that their lives are in danger whenever they step out of the door. And one of my students, Sister Dorothy Stang, a wonderful woman, she worked there for years, and she was assassinated by these very forces of multinational corporations and big landowners who didn’t want her work with the peasants and supporting the Indigenous people and the rainforest to to continue.
PAUL JAY: This is in the Brazilian Amazon.
MATTHEW FOX: In the Brazilian Amazon, yes.
PAUL JAY: Where there was a lot of outright slavery.
MATTHEW FOX: That, too. And tens of thousands of people had been murdered there in my lifetime. They’re martyrs to the earth. To the health of the earth. And this does not get the attention it deserves.
PAUL JAY: So Ratzinger and the Pope tell you to be quiet. Why do you stay quiet? Why don’t you leave?
MATTHEW FOX: Well, I went along with them for a year. First of all, I’d never had a sabbatical in my life, and I’ve never had one since. So that was like a sabbatical. They gave me no money for it. But fortunately I found someone who did get me through the year. But again, I went to Latin America to learn. I’d never been there before, and I wanted to learn. And I went–it was during the Nicaragua revolution. It was the tenth anniversary. I went there and I met some important people. I had the privilege of meeting and spending some time with Nestor Cardinale, the great poet there who was on the–he was head of the Cultural Ministry for the Nicaraguan government. And he was reading–he showed me his library–he was reading Brian Swimme, who a physicist on my faculty, and other North American scientists, because he was doing this great poem, which is a book this thick, on the history of the universe called Cosmic Song. So that was very moving. And so I learned a lot. I took the year to learn, and learned from so-called third world people who are really in the front lines in this fight, in this battle. And to hear their stories and their courage was was amazing.
PAUL JAY: So the year is up. And what happens? The Vatican says you can talk now?
MATTHEW FOX: Well, they were supposed to, but they never did. And so I asked my provincial, who’s my boss locally, and I said they haven’t said. Oh well, he said, just start talking. So I started to talk. And my opening line I spoke at a large group of progressive Catholics called Call to Action about 2000 in Chicago. And my opening line was “As I was saying 14 months ago when I was so rudely interrupted,” and it did bring down the house. I got two big laughs. The first phrase, as I was saying 14 months ago, and then when I was rudely interrupted. I got a big laugh for both. And that’s that’s all everyone remembers about my talk. Because even to this day I’ll meet people that say I was there, I remember the–did you really say that? It came to me in a dream to say that. Humor is not something that inquisitors are well endowed with. And so to open with some humor is–well, it’s the Irish in me. But it didn’t go over well. The Vatican kept after me after that. In a few more years they eliminated me from their circle.
PAUL JAY: So tell that story.
MATTHEW FOX: Well, I was writing a book called The Reinvention of Work. It was a Monday morning, and the doorbell rang, and it was a pink slip–it was FedEx. And it said you’re out of here. You’re out of the Dominican Order. And I was kind of surprised because I was also working on a book on Thomas Aquinas. And I thought, you know, I’m sure they’re going to like a book on Thomas Aquinas. And I remember sitting on my step with this letter in my hand, and I was kind of surprised. And I said to myself, well, I guess I’m a post-denominational priest. I didn’t know what that meant. I’d never heard the phrase before. But that’s what–that language came to me.
PAUL JAY: What was the thing that triggered it?
MATTHEW FOX: Well, all these things. They had been after me for twelve years. They’d been after me for twelve years. They tried to shut down my program at at Holy Names College in creation spirituality. They tried everything. And the president there, who was a Catholic nun, a strong Scottish Celtic woman, she stood with us and we did fine. But then she retired after ten years. And two years later, I was out of there, because they got weaker people running things, and I was an embarrassment or something, because the Pope didn’t like me. So I left, and then I started my own university in downtown Oakland on creation spirituality.
PAUL JAY: Now, you are–you’re out of the Dominican Order, but you’re still an ordained Catholic priest.
MATTHEW FOX: Yes.
PAUL JAY: And you decide to quit.
MATTHEW FOX: No, they don’t let you do anything. And I actually did some looking around to see what options were there, and I realized I was radioactive. No bishop would take me, for example. Because I asked, suddenly. And so I said, OK. But then I met these young people from England, Anglicans, who were taking rave into liturgy. And I just finished this book, Reinventing Work. The last chapter was Reinventing Ritual. And one of the main points of bringing the body, and so forth. And so I went to visit, see what they were doing in England. It was amazing. And these are blue collar kids who–this was during the the collapse of the steel mills in England, and Sheffield is like Youngstown, Ohio. I mean, so there is 40 percent unemployment, and lots of abuse at home. So these kids were leaving being kicked out of their house by their drunken fathers, and all. And they gathered in a rave community to survive. But then they create these wonderful rituals. And then they took it to the Church, and all this.
So this is marvellous. And I said, how can I help you? And they said, well, we’re already using a cosmic Christ theology, they said. But if you became a priest think priest, you could run interference. You’re one of the few people who gets what we’re doing, why we’re doing it. So I thought about it, meditated on it. I said, well, the Pope’s fired me. He doesn’t need me. He’s told me he doesn’t need me. So I went to the bishop, the Episcopal bishop in San Francisco, and I said, here’s the deal. I think I want to become an Episcopal priest, but already for one reason: to work with young people to reinvent forms of worship.
And he gave me a green light. Bishop Swing, a good man. I remember at the end of our conversation, I said–one question, I said. Will you protect me from your right wing? I said, I’ve been through 15 years of right-wing stuff due to bad religion. I won’t do it again for religion’s sake. He said–I’ll tell you a story, he said. I began my priesthood during the civil rights movement in West Virginia, where I’m from. He said, I took on the mining companies around civil rights. I am a street fighter. He said,I may not read any of your books, but I’ll protect you from my right wing. And I said, Bishop, we can do business together. And we shook hands. And he was true to his word.
PAUL JAY: And is there some formal moment where you have to quit the Catholic Church? You have to quit being a priest?
MATTHEW FOX: No. I never left the Catholic Church, technically. I never signed and said I’m out of here, or anything.
PAUL JAY: So you still are, then.
MATTHEW FOX: Well, I look at it that way. There’s a wonderful sociologist here at UC Berkeley who says in this postmodern time we all belong to so many communities at the same time we should write ‘etc.’ After our names. So that’s kind of how I feel, right? And that’s why I am a post-denominational priest. I’m part–you can never get Catholicism out of your blood. It’s like Judaism. You know, you can quit going to the synagogue, but you know, you still carry that that energy and those archetypes in your soul. And I feel the same way about being a Catholic. And I–you know, my favorite saints, if you will, or movements, thinkers, Hildegard of Bingen, Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, Thomas Merton. You know, these great Catholics over the centuries–Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Berry–who’ve brought, you know, some intelligent thinking into the world. So no, I just see myself as kind of growing more communities rather than leaving either or.
PAUL JAY: OK. In the next segment we’re going to talk about Matthew’s response, take, to the pedophilia crisis in the Church and Pope Francis’s response to it. Please join us on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.