Tags: "Catholics and Contraception: An American History", contraception, ct, Leslie Woodcock Tentler, the Affordable Care Act, the contraceptives mandate of the Affordable Care Act, The Grail Movement, the Hobby Lobby case, the rhythm method, U.S. Catholics
A while back, I mistakenly thought a Catholic Studies scholars’ group I belong to was going to read Leslie Woodcock Tentler’s Catholics and Contraception: An American History (Cornell 2004) so I sent off for a copy from Amazon. (Someday I am going to analyze my addiction to Amazon Prime, but not today.) The brand new hardback copy of Catholics and Contraception (C&C) that I received cost $2; lucky Tentler and I aren’t in this business for the money.
Truth in advertising requires me to admit that I spent most of the 60s and 70s in Catholic women’s schools and then living in residential communities of the Grail, an international women’s movement; we had more arguments about lesbianism than about contraception, and I was more upset by the Vatican rejection of women’s ordination in 1976 than by Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical condemning artificial contraception. When I finally got married, at the age of 47, I had already undergone a complete hysterectomy. Of course, I had school friends with seven or ten or twelve siblings, and I got to know the mothers of such families in the Grail. But generally speaking, contraception was not my issue.
C&C examines contraception in U.S. Catholicism from 1873 to 1970, with an epilogue addressing the following three decades. My initial inclination, after finishing the book, was to go on a rant about how these men–popes, bishops, and priests for the most part, along with the occasional male lay leader– could have dared to tell married couples, and women in particular, what they must do with their sexuality. But this would have been a projection of the current situation onto the past. The striking point I took away from C&C is how very much has changed in an astonishingly short period of time. As Tentler notes, according to a study done in 1970, fully 78 percent of U.S. Catholic women aged twenty to twenty-four were limiting their families by a means other than abstinence or rhythm; during the controversy over the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptives mandate, I in turn read that 97 percent of Catholic women surveyed reported having used artificial contraceptives at some point in their lives. But before the 1960s, this was much less the case.
A good deal of this change Tentler attributes to the “non-reception” of Humanae Vitae by the vast majority of American Catholics, (as well as the Vatican II emphasis on freedom of conscience, and the sexual revolution). Not all aspects of these changes were positive, in Tentler’s estimation, leading as they did to sexual promiscuity, high rates of divorce, and out-of-wedlock births. Ultimately, we learn, the Vatican decision to condemn contraception based on little more than the pope’s “no” undercut massively the church’s own authority. More’s the pity, Tentler suggests, since many of the positive aspects of Catholic teaching about sexuality and marriage went down the tubes along with the ill-advised encyclical.
Yet it’s not only what Tentler says about the effects of Humanae Vitae that I found fascinating. I also learned much that I had not known about Catholics and contraception in the century before that encyclical. I had no idea, for example, that a number of moral theologians had initially condemned rhythm–the only contraceptive method (besides sexual abstinence) that the church eventually allowed to couples attempting to limit the size of their families. These earlier moral theologians believed that even the rhythm method would create a “contraceptive mentality” in users. And Tentler would seem to agree; after the failure of rhythm, Catholic couples often did move to the pill.
I was also initially annoyed by Tentler’s extensive attention to the experience of priests and bishops regarding contraception. The first five chapters draw to a considerable extent on interviews Tentler did with these men, as well as on archival material by and about them. “A book about contraception according to Catholic priests. Thanks a lot,” was my first response. Yet Tentler’s research on the clergy demonstrates what a mess the question of contraception was for almost the entire American church, not married couples only. Many priests were reluctant at best to question laypeople in confession about their use of contraceptives, even when bishops demanded that they do so. And Humanae Vitae only exacerbated the crisis of priestly morale and identity that occurred after Vatican II, especially among younger men; fully 50 percent of American priests disagreed with the substance of the encyclical. This surely contributed to the departure of a large number of American men from the priesthood in the decades that followed.
But Catholics and Contraception does more than fill readers in with details about the past. It also provides an essential context for the current, seemingly endless disputes over the contraceptives mandate of the Affordable Care Act. Indeed, the Supreme Court is expected to issue their decision on the Hobby Lobby case any day now. But the context Tentler provides is particularly important in relation to the claims of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other conservative Catholic groups that the contraceptives mandate is a violation of Roman Catholic religious freedom. But it’s not only non-Catholics working in Catholic institutions who will be deprived of free contraceptives under the ACA if the mandate is gutted; most sexually active U.S Catholics working in those institutions will be as well. The Roman Catholic religious freedom under consideration in these cases is that of the 447 Roman Catholic bishops in the U.S. and the relatively small number of priests, nuns and laypeople who agree with them on this issue. The institutional church has never afforded the vast majority of Catholics “religious freedom” regarding the use of contraceptives. Most days I doubt it ever will.
Tags: aneurysm, cradle Catholic, Eileen Holohan, impermanence, interdependent origination, kidney mass, NY Presbyterian Hospital, pneumonia, Sister of Notre Dame de Namur
As you probably know, I am far from being a Buddhist. I am, in fact, a “cradle Catholic”–baptized a few weeks after birth and then processed up through the massive parochial church and school system in post-war Philadelphia. When I fall, I mutter “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” on my way down.
Lately, through, I have been thinking about the Buddhist concept of impermanence. Impermanence (anicca), as Paul Knitter explains in Without the Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, means that everything that exists is in constant movement–constant flux. It’s closely linked to another Buddhist concept, interdependent origination (pratityasamutpada), which means that everything changes because everything is interrelated.
I began thinking about this toward the end of April. At the beginning of April, Keith, my husband, developed a cold, which got a lot worse after he preached six times during Holy Week (!) and then drove up to see the grandkids in Massachusetts the weekend after Easter. When I finally got him to a walk-in clinic over on Atlantic Avenue, the osteopath took several X-rays and announced that Keith had an aneurysm in his aorta and that we should go directly to the emergency room at nearby Methodist Hospital. We did, and sat there for five hours, during which time the doctors took more X-rays and announced that it could be an aneurysm but could be a number of other things and that Keith should go to his GP for a cat-scan. The next day we did that, and the following day the GP called to say that what Keith had was pneumonia; he prescribed some antibiotics.
But the doctor also told us that there was a “shadow” on Keith’s kidney, and that after he got over the pneumonia, he needed to get that checked. So ten days later Keith had an MRI up at New York Presbyterian, and the next day the doctor called to say that Keith had a “mass” in his kidney that would have to be removed. We scheduled an appointment with a renal surgeon immediately.
That same night, the hard drive on my computer crashed. I have had a personal computer since 1984, and never before had anything crashed. The next day, the phone rang and a voice that sounded familiar but subdued informed me that a dear friend, Eileen Holahan, with whom I had spoken two weeks before, had fallen in the parking lot of her apartment building, hit her head, lost consciousness, and died a week later, never having regained consciousness. The voice sounded familiar because it belonged to Eileen’s sister, who had come across my phone number in Eileen’s address book. Eileen had been a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur at my high school in the early 1960s; singing in the glee club that she directed is one of the happiest memories of my adolescence. Eileen was 85 years old, but she was in good health. I really couldn’t take in that she was dead. And her funeral was the same day that Keith had his appointment with the surgeon, so I couldn’t go, something I still regret.
Keith had his surgery last Friday, and it went really well. The growth was such that the surgeon had to take out only ten percent of his kidney. And although it’s highly likely to be malignant, they got the growth quite early–thanks to the nitwit aneurysm diagnosis and the case of pneumonia that required the cat-scan. No chemo or radiation will be necessary. How often do you get to be grateful for having caught pneumonia? Keith is home now, feeling stronger by the day, walking around the block morning and afternoon. And even before his surgery, Keith drove me over the Apple Store on 14th Street where I got my hard drive replaced.
But as I said to a friend, I feel as if I’ve seen a ghost. The ghost of impermanence, and its twin, interdependent origination. Everything out there is in motion, bumping together, and making the future a lot less certain than it seemed. I am trying to be grateful.
Tags: Deacon Greg Kendra, Dorothy Day, Francis Cardinal Spellman, Janice Sevre-Duszynsk, Julie Byrne, Roman Catholic WomenPriests, The Catholic Worker Movement, The Deacon's Bench, the neo-Thomist Revival
When I started blogging, back in 2009, the young publicist at Columbia University Press who got me started told me that blogging means having a conversation with other bloggers. From his point of view, what you’re reading may not be a blog at all, just a writer’s webpage, since I rarely respond to another blogpost.
But that may be changing. A while back I subscribed to a blog on the massive religion website Patheos, The Deacon’s Bench, by journalist and Roman Catholic permanent deacon Greg Kendra. Often the deacon’s posts are primarily quotations from and links to other posts about Catholic happenings. But Kendra usually makes pretty clear his opinions about said happenings, sometimes in just a few words.
Deacon Greg, as he calls himself, is clearly a good man, and a competent journalist. But I am considerably to his left on most issues, so it’s not unusual for me to find myself talking back to him as I read his posts, or do the dishes, or walk around Brooklyn. On May 29, for example, Deacon Greg posted an article “Catholic Worker Hosts ‘Women Priest.’ What Would Dorothy Day Think?”, including a long quote from the Columbia Missourian about Roman Catholic WomanPriest (RCWP) Janice Sevre-Duszynska celebrating the Eucharist at St. Francis Catholic Worker House in Columbia, Missouri.
Now Deacon Greg makes it pretty clear what he thinks about Catholic women’s ordination, posting, for example, links to various bishop’s announcements of the excommunication of recently ordained RCWPs, or about an RCWP deacon repenting and renouncing her ordination. I wasn’t surprised, then, that he followed the news about the RCWP Catholic Worker liturgy with a long 1966 quote from Dorothy Day about her unflinching obedience to the Catholic Church. Yet Deacon Greg knows very well that when Cardinal Spellman, in 1951, ordered Day to take the word “Catholic” out of the title of the newspaper she had founded and in which she had criticized the cardinal for breaking the cemetery workers’ strike, Day respectfully declined.
There were, of course, no ordinations of women during Day’s lifetime, so we don’t really know how Day would have reacted to them. She was certainly an orthodox, even rigid, Catholic on sexual matters. Yet she also had little time for clericalism; a friend who worked on the The Catholic Worker while Day was alive tells of Day once getting really angry because there were three articles by priests in the previous issue. Not for nothing was Day one of the most influential Catholics in the history of the American church.
It’s also the case that Day’s legacy is vastly more complex than her journalistic statement of obedience suggests. The Catholic Worker is not only Catholic, but anarchist. Dorothy Day may have pledged obedience to the Catholic Church, but Catholic Workers didn’t always obey her, or each other. On more than one occasion the level of conflict at a Catholic Worker farm was so extreme that Day was forced to sell it and start another farm a few years later. Some years ago, the daughter of a dear Catholic friend of mine, now deceased, left the church and married a Jewish Buddhist. One of her daughters recently spent several meaningful years at a Catholic Worker house in Chicago. And for more than a decade, my friend Karen Lenz edited EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference, even as she “led” the Philadelphia Catholic Worker (if anybody can really be said to lead a Worker house).
What Deacon Kendra and a lot of other institutional Catholics don’t get is that the orderly Catholic/non-Catholic, form/matter world of the neo-Thomist revival no longer exists (if it ever did). As the postmodernists taught us, there isn’t just an inside and an outside anymore ; there are multiple complex phenomena that hover at or beyond the margins of supposed discrete spaces, making contemporary conversation enormously complicated. Because of this, my colleague Julie Byrne will soon publish an ethnography of an independent Catholic church, to be titled “The Other Catholics,” and Roman Catholic WomenPriest liturgies are often more pious and orthodox than the Masses at my parish church here in the Diocese of Brooklyn. This is also why, from time to time, I intend to write back to Deacon Greg, to complicate the supposedly neat Catholic categories he takes for granted.
Tags: "Dead Man Walking", Barbara Marx Hubbard, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, Cardinal William Levada, Conscious Evolution, LCWR, Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis, Sister Helen Prejean, U.S. Catholic sisters
A few weeks back, in my article on Pope Francis and women’s ordination, I told a story about meeting Sister Helen Prejean at an event celebrating the publication of the twentieth anniversary edition of Dead Man Walking. I gave Sister Helen a copy of my book, Sister Trouble: The Vatican, the Bishops, and the Nuns. She replied that with the new pope, all of the trouble between the Vatican and American sisters was going to go away.
I had my doubts. As I explain in the central article in Sister Trouble, popes, bishops, and theologians have been attempting to get celibate Christian women under control since just after the Roman persecutions. The history of sisters (women religious) is studded with stories of famous mother foundresses running from one diocese to another to escape the local bishop’s crack-down on their congregations. Some of these women were subsequently excommunicated. Some of them were then, ever more subsequently, canonized.
So when the address by the head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, accusing the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) of disobedience, was posted on the Vatican website on Monday, I was sorry, but I was not surprised. Good Pope Francis never retracted the hostile doctrinal assessment against the LCWR issued by Müller’s predecessor, Cardinal William Levada, in 2012. And Pope Benedict XVI had appointed Levada and Müller both. After which Pope Francis made Müller a cardinal.
The two emphases in Müller’s address are that the LCWR had decided to give an award to the nun-theologian Elizabeth Johnson CSJ, whose book, Quest for the Living God was condemned by the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2011, and that they have persisted in publishing material about “Conscious Evolution,” the discourse spearheaded by Barbara Marx Hubbard. In his address, Müller compares Conscious Evolution to Gnosticism.
I plan to write at further length regarding this latest episode of the Vatican and the bishops trying to bring the nuns to heel. At the moment, however, I will put aside the sheer idiocy of Müller resurrecting the pitiful business of the USCCB condemning a book by as orthodox and middle-of-the-road a theologian as Elizabeth Johnson (though it is worth noting that the head of the Committee on Doctrine at the time of the condemnation of Johnson’s book, Rev. Thomas Weinandy, has a reputation for being one nasty, hostile human being). And as for U.S. Catholic sisters integrating “Conscious Evolution” into their ministry and spirituality, has anybody read Teilhard de Chardin or Thomas Berry lately? Teilhard’s works were, in fact, censored by the Vatican, but in 2009 a Vatican statement made all of that seem ridiculous (sort of like canonizing previously excommunicated Mother Foundresses). As for Berry, by applying his “New Story of Creation” to the Christian faith, he took far greater risks, it seems to me, than Hubbard’s freestanding discourse does.
The real issue between the nuns and the Vatican is gender, plain and simple. However benign Pope Francis may be, he shares, as I have argued, the embarrassingly medieval theology of gender that his predecessors promoted. Indeed, the institutional church has been using control of women and sexuality as a weapon against the modern world since at least the liberal revolutions of 1848. Women–and sexuality–are the only things the popes were able at least to try to keep under control as the separation of church and state, the loss of the Vatican territories, etc., took away their ancient “secular” powers. Hence the Vatican condemnation of contraception after Vatican II, when the bishops had finally accepted “the modern world.”
Today, in 2014, the Vatican and the bishops can’t even keep the vast majority of Catholic women under control. During the (unfortunately ongoing) uproar over religious freedom and the ACA contraceptives mandate, 97 percent of U.S. Catholic women surveyed reported having used contraceptives at some point. And it’s not just in the U.S.: several years ago, in an on-line chat, an African (Kenyan) Catholic (lay) woman studying for an MA in international relations in Nairobi said to me,”Who are these Catholic bishops, that they think they can tell us women what to do with our sexuality?”
This leaves nobody but the nuns for the bishops and the Vatican to control. According to Pope Francis’s theology of gender, women–but today, really, only nuns–are supposed to exhibit the “feminine genius”—to be warm, sensitive, intuitive, and complementary. Kneel down and kiss the bishops’ feet, that is. But as I argue in a variety of ways in Sister Trouble, the boys made a big mistake. After World War II, they used the sisters’ commitment to obedience to force them to get educated; they did this to avoid making the church look bad if secular counterparts were better qualified than than the sisters were. And the sisters obeyed.
What the men in authority got for their trouble was women like Sister Elizabeth Johnson. But they never give up. Johnson’s book, in my opinion, was condemned, impart at least, because Johnson dared to publish it without an imprimatur, an official statement of permission. And now the idiots in Rome are resurrecting the whole episode, and criticizing some of the smartest women in the history of the church, the LCWR, for not asking permission before publishing material regarding a line of thought that seems fruitful to them. And they wonder why American Catholic women aren’t rushing into religious life?
Tags: "Just Love", Cranaleith, forgiveness, Margaret Farley, the crucifixion, the Vatican
Last weekend I went down to Cranaleith, the Sisters of Mercy retreat center north of Philadelphia, for a program on Holy Week and forgiveness with Margaret Farley. You perhaps have heard of Farley; she’s the Catholic sister whose book, Just Love, was condemned by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2012. She was also one of the signers of the controversial 1984 New York Times ad which stated that there had been various positions on abortion throughout the history of the Catholic Church. Non-lay signers were forced to recant or be expelled from their orders. Farley was also one of the speakers at the first conference on Catholic women’s ordination in Detroit in 1975, to which the Vatican also did not respond positively (!).
Farley’s two presentations offered a different–or perhaps deeper–perspective on the suffering and death of Jesus than many of us have been hearing this week. (Obviously, what I am saying here is my interpretation of Farley’s words, not her words.) Farley argues that the passion is not primarily about suffering and death, but about relationships, and particularly about forgiving those who do harm. And harm here includes not only interpersonal offenses, but also, but especially, the “exponential explosion” of oppression around the world in our era–destitution, war, genocide, trafficking. Farley describes these acts as attempts at obliteration, like the violence done against Jesus.
But Jesus said, “Father forgive them,” and we too are called to the radical decentering that is forgiveness, even against the worst of crimes. Such radical decentering is quite different from the interpretation of forgiveness that the Church has sometimes marketed–that Jesus authorized the disciples to forgive some sins but not others. The only judgments Jesus made, Farley reminds us, were directed at the righteous and the arrogant; otherwise, he “desired mercy, not sacrifice.” Forgiveness, according to Farley, is also not passivity in the face of abuse, the masochism that some identify with the crucifixion; when those who harm do not stop, sometimes the readiness to forgive is all that’s possible. And resistance to violence and injustice are essential. But God’s forgiveness of humanity for the violent obliteration of Jesus is paradigmatic. Crimes against humanity may even bring about unprecedented cries for forgiveness, unprecedented calls for the healing of relationships.
Farley explored several Holy Week themes that help us better to discern what is asked of us regarding forgiveness. One is Jesus’ question to James and John, after they rather obliviously ask if he will do whatever they want: “Are you able to drink from the cup that I drink…?” What Jesus asks, Farley suggests, is whether they–and we–are able to enter into the forsakenness of the crucifixion which is also the physical and spiritual forsakenness of all people, not only ourselves. The cup figures all forms of suffering, while the cross on which Jesus was crucified conveys that relationship–God’s with us, and ours with our sisters and brothers–holds even in the face of incalculable violence. Later in her talk, Farley also explored Jesus’ words to the women of Jerusalem on his way to Calvary, “Weep not for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” At the heart of their exchange, Farley suggests, is the oneness of Jesus’ suffering with the suffering of past and future generations; Jesus identifies with creation across time and space. His words call us as well to solidarity with sufferers and to action on their behalf. This is what gives us hope, what enables us to believe that relationships will hold, even in the face of evil. Jesus forgives and so can we.
When I mentioned to some of my friends that I had gone to hear Margaret Farley, and how deeply moved I was by her words, many of them asked the same question: What did she say about the Vatican’s attack on her book? In point of fact, she never referred to it. I guess she had forgiven them.
Tags: "Dead Man Walking", "Evangelii Gaudium", "Inter Insigniores", "Mulieres Dignitatem", "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis", Christ the Bridegroom, Christ the Spouse, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Elizabeth Picken CJ, Francis X. Clooney S.J., Pope Francis, Sara Butler MSBT, Sister Helen Prejean, Sylvia Poggioli, women's ordination
(The following is longer than my usual blog-post–1500 words instead of my usual 750 or so–so you may want to put your feet up.)
Well, what John Allen of the Boston Globe calls “pope- mania” continues unabated. On NPR’s “Weekend Edition” a while back, Sylvia Poggioli quoted U.S. and European journalists to the effect that Pope Francis is bringing about the “biggest change in the Catholic Church in a thousand years.” And when I gave a copy of my book, Sister Trouble, to Sister Helen Prejean at a celebration of the twentieth anni- versary edition of Dead Man Walking in November, she told me that with the new pope, all the trouble between the nuns and the Vatican is going away.
I hope these women are right. I really do. A well-informed nun-friend assures me that the current heads of the Sacred Congregation for Religious are much better than the former head, the one who initiated the “visitation” of U.S. women’s religious communities in 2009. On the other hand, Pope Francis recently made Gerhard Mueller, the conservative prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), a cardinal. The CDF investigated and then subsequently issued a harsh doctrinal assessment of the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). And the pope has not ordered the retraction of that assessment.
What really concerns me, however, is not the theopolitics of various Vatican prefects but the words of the pope himself. In particular, I am concerned about the sections on women (103 and 104) of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (EG) (The Joy of the Gospel). Francis has, of course, received praise, even adulation, for this document, which, like many of his public statements and interviews, places a long-needed (re)emphasis on justice and love of the poor.
But a number of Francis’ statements about women in EG are troubling. These include what he writes about women’s “sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets,” as well as their “feminine genius”. These are surely references to John Paul II’s 1988 Mulieres Dignitatem, and his ideology of “complementarity,” no matter what the citation in EG suggests. But what concerns me most is the first half of a sen- tence in section 104: “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion…”
At first, I hoped the word “Spouse” was an intentionally more gender-neutral term than the distinctly gendered “Christ the Bridegroom” that has been used to dismiss the possibility of women’s ordination for decades. Alas, when I examined the versions of EG in Italian and Spanish (one or the other of which is surely the language in which the document was written), I discovered that “Christ the Spouse” is simply an-other example of bad Vatican translations into English: In Italian and French (and in German), the words mean “Christ the Bridegroom” or “Christ the Husband.”
Now the metaphor of Christ, or God, as the Bridegroom, appears throughout the Jewish and Christian scriptures and in many other Christian writings. It is one of a wide range of metaphors for the relationship between God and God’s people. What some of us will recall, however, is that “Christ the Bridegroom” played a pivotal role in Inter Insigniores, the 1976 CDF declaration, approved by Paul VI, that dis missed the possibility of women’s ordination. John Paul II does not use “Christ the Bridegroom” in his 1994 apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which declares women’s or-dination as contrary to the faith, and which some conservative Catholics believe to be an infallible statement. Francis’s use of the phrase “is not a question open to discussion,” how-ever, is surely a reference to the last paragraph of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which states that the Church has “no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” And in his 1988 apostolic letter on the dignity and vocation of women, Mulieres Dignitatem, John Paul uses “Christ the Bridegroom” twenty-eight times. For him, “Christ the Bridegroom” sets absolutely the limits of woman’s vocation.
In 1993, before the publication of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Sister Elizabeth J. Picken, CJ, published a rebuttal of a previous article by the conservative Catholic theologian, Sara Butler, MSBT, “The Priest as the Sacrament of Christ the Bridegroom”; both appeared in Worship magazine.. Picken argues compellingly that Butler, following Inter Insignores and Mulieres Dignitatem, uses “Christ the Bridegroom” as the singular framework for ordination in a way that makes the relationship between God and God’s people essentially gendered. (Butler, Sara, “The Priest as Sacrament of Christ the Bridegroom.” Worship, 66:6 Nov. 1992, 498-517. Picken, Elizabeth J. “If Christ is Bridegroom, Must the Priest Be Male?” Worship, 67:3. May 1993, 269-278.)
There are, we learn, multiple problems with this approach. First of all “Christ the Bridegroom” is a metaphor, but Butler makes it a “primordial symbol” that cancels out, or tries to subsume within it, other equally or more important, metaphors. In point of fact, Picken argues, the primary analogy of the Christian tradition is the relationship between Christ and the Church, the covenant between them, not between husband and wife. The core meaning of this bond is fidelity, not nuptials. In the He-brew Bible, the covenant of fidelity is sometimes represented between God and single leaders of the whole people: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, etc.; also between womb and infant; between lord and slave; between shepherd and flock; be-tween gardener and vineyard. In addition, sexuality is used in ways that extend beyond marriage to represent the covenant; sometimes the prophets describe the people of Israel as prostituting themselves to foreign gods—breaking the covenant. Similarly, the author of Ephesians says that marriage partners are to model themselves on the pattern of Christ to the church. But Butler, and the papal documents she defends, have got it all turned upside down. Christ’s fidelity to the church is the model for marriage partners; marriage partners are not the model to which Christ and the church should conform.
Picken also details other ways in which the theology of Christ the Bridegroom is reductive, profoundly narrowing of the tradition. Butler, and the documents from Paul VI and John Paul II, limit the whole question of ordination to the framework of Christology. They fail to take into account the Christian anthropology (theology of the human being) and pneumatology (theology of the Spirit) that are also essential parts of the meaning of ordination. For example, using Christ the Bridegroom to argue that the priest must be male draws on one view of Christian anthropology, complementarity, that presumes opposite roles for men and women. But there are also Christian anthropologies of differentiation that understand sex roles to be interchangeable. Butler, and those in her camp, believe that if a pope draws on the theology of complementarity, that settles the question. But complementarity is not an infallible doctrine; quite the contrary.
Similarly, pneumatology, and ecclesiology in relation to the Eucharist and the church, are almost ignored in these documents, making them a primarily medieval interpretation of ordination. (I am using the word “medieval” literally here.) Picken draws on the great twentieth-century theologian Yves Congar to make her point here: “Christ, ‘by his Holy Spirit, builds up the Church and raises up and institutes its ministries.’ If it is Christ by the Spirit that builds up the Church,” Picken asks, “is it required that the ordained minister be of the same gender as Christ?” Or to put it more baldly, is the Holy Spirit also a bridegroom?
Lest we be too disheartened by Pope Francis’ use of the theologically and scripturally reductive symbol favored by his predecessors to limit women’s roles in the church, I refer you to a critique of Evangelii Gaudium that appeared on the America magazine blog page last December. It was written by another Jesuit, Francis X. Clooney, the brilliant professor of comparative theology at Harvard Divinity School. Clooney expresses disappointment with two sections of Evangelii Gaudium: 254, on “non-Christians,” Clooney’s own area of expertise, and 103 and 104, on women. With regard to the latter, Clooney stresses that “the language of Christ as ‘Spouse’ ‘giving himself in the Eucharist,’ while a beautiful image, is out of place in this Exhortation, an echo of another view of Church.”
Clooney’s post is well worth reading. What particularly strikes me, however, is its title: “Pope Francis: Still Finding His Own Voice?” Clooney argues that the whole section on non-Christians “is not sufficiently integrated with Francis’ more exciting vision, in the rest of the exhortation,” of “an outward looking Church that is in the streets, with the people, soiled and wounded in the work of justice, combatting the real enemies of economic and political degradation and the deprivation of human dignity.” He argues as well that the sections on women seem to be “in someone else’s voice.” What’s needed, Clooney tells us, is for Francis to speak about these questions in his own voice and not just as the successor to John Paul II and Benedict.
From Father Francis’ lips to Pope Francis’ ear.
(This article is a slight revision of an article by the same name that appeared in the March-June 2014 edition of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference. EqualwRites is published three times a year, and you can subscribe by sending a donation of any amount to SEPA WOC PO Box 27195, Philadelphia, PA 19118. Make your check payable to SEPA WOC.)