What Is Required of Us?

July 27, 2016 at 11:30 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The following is a book review that was published today on the web page of Pax Christi Metro New York, the New York branch of the Catholic peace movement.

The Bread of the Strong: Lacouturisme and the Folly of the Cross, by Jack Lee Downey. (Fordham 2015).

It’s almost a truism among progressive Catholics, myself included, that the changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council were good ones. But it also seems that the world is not in much better shape—is perhaps in worse shape—than it was in 1965. In The Bread of the Strong, Jack Lee Downey, assistant professor of religion at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, offers some hints as to why this may be the case.

The Bread of the Strong is a study of the distinctly pre-Vatican II spirituality of a French-Canadian Jesuit, Onésime Lacouture, and his followers, and of the massive impact of that spirituality on Dorothy Day. The book traces the trajectory from Lacouture’s maximalist spirituality to Day’s radical politics.

The first three chapters of The Bread of the Strong explore Lacouture’s life and the development of his spirituality. Once intending to become an academic, Lacouture underwent a series of powerful mystical experiences during his formation at a Jesuit mission in Alaska. He emerged from these experiences with a radically changed vision of the faith in which academic theology, and even much of the Catholic Christianity of the time, were vile, inadequate pursuits.  Fundamental to Lacouture’s transformed world-view was an absolute dichotomy between nature and grace, Christianity and paganism, self-mortification and pleasure. Lacouture preached this ascetical theology passionately in clergy retreats over the next several decades. So absolute and unambiguous was his position that the Jesuits eventually silenced him.

One participant in the Lacourturist retreats, Pittsburgh diocesan priest John Hugo, was so profoundly influenced by their ascetic spirituality that he began giving his version of the retreats to Catholic laypeople in the United States. And let me be clear: these were retreats aimed at “spiritual withdrawal and moral perfectionism,” albeit with a social-justice dimension that Lacouture himself did not include.

Dorothy Day was one of the laypeople who participated in these Hugo-led retreats. Day, after her conversion, had struggled to integrate her radical socio-political activism with her newfound Catholic faith. Peter Maurin’s spiritual iconoclasm helped Day to integrate these seemingly contradictory dimensions of her identity. But Downey shows that it was the Lacouture retreats, with their emphasis on  “a redemptive spirituality of suffering” and ego-transcendence that solidified Day’s spiritual/political identity. This identity in turn undergirded Day’s heroic leadership of the Catholic Worker from the early 1930s to her death in 1980.

I myself am not much inclined toward asceticism or self-mortification. And as a feminist theologian, I have argued vociferously against the nature/grace, spiritual/material, male/female binaries that characterized the Church for millennia.

Yet I am also aware that the challenges facing the human race, and perhaps especially those of us who consider ourselves non-violent, or justice seeking, are nearly incomprehensible. Take, for example, the climate crisis that Pope Francis addresses in Laudato Si’.  The vast majority of us do not begin to comprehend the changes in our consumerist, convenience-oriented way of life that saving God’s creation demands. What kind of spirituality, what return to self-sacrifice and self-mortification, may be required so that we will be able to face up to these inconceivable challenges?

On Francis, Hillary and Hope

June 13, 2016 at 10:41 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Lately I have been thinking about a pattern that threads through a number of recent debates.

My reflections were launched last summer when conservative Catholics like Richard Viguerie reacted with dismay, or even outrage, to Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’.  I perceived such conservatives as wanting to have it both ways: if a pope condemns contraception in an encyclical, that’s obligatory teaching; if a papal encyclical declares climate change a moral issue, it’s optional. Admittedly, I also criticized some of my feminist colleagues for their naiveté in claiming that the Pope could have easily reversed Catholic teaching on contraception in Laudato Si’ in light of the dire effects of population on the climate. But I was a good deal more incensed by Republican Catholic climate change deniers arguing that the pope should stick to subjects he knows something about (i.e. doctrine and morals).

Then, in April, the Washington Post reported that the Vatican might restore to canonical status the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) , the group that separated from the Catholic Church over certain teachings of the Second Vatican Council. In particular, the article suggested, the group might be readmitted without accepting two of the documents that progressive Catholics like me consider fundamental to Council teaching: Dignitatis humanae the document on religious liberty, and Nostra aetate, the declaration on the church’s relation with non-Christian religions, particularly the Jews. I was outraged by the very idea of Pope Francis and his administration allowing a community of Catholic priests to reject such fundamental Vatican II teachings as the right to religious freedom, especially for the Jews. I agreed strongly with Jamie Manson who asked, in the National Catholic Reporter, how the Vatican could possibly engage in such discussions with SSPX and yet refuse to reach out to ordained Catholic women who have been excommunicated?!! I had not yet noted the similarities between my outrage in this case and the conservatives’ outrage at Laudato Si’ .

Which brings us to the presidential election. I announced on my Facebook page the other day that my husband and I have switched our support from Bernie Sanders to Hillary Clinton because of the dire threat that Donald Trump poses to the democratic governance system of the United States and even to planetary survival. A lot of my Friends registered their agreement  with me. Some, however, stated that they could never go there. One linked  her comment to an article detailing the neoliberal conservatives who are supporting Clinton and how Clinton is a militarist. A number of socialist friends here in Brooklyn have said that they will never support Clinton under any circumstance; they plan to vote for Jill Stein or write in Bernie Sanders.

Of, course, these folks have a perfect right to vote for whomever they want, and to critique Secretary Clinton for various positions and actions she has taken. Indeed, the battle will only just be starting if and when Clinton defeats Donald Trump; we will have to ride her hard during whatever time she is in office, to prevent the kind of horrific triangulation her husband engaged in

It does seem to me, though, that there are certain similarities between the fierce and unambiguous rejection of Clinton in one case and the outrage by Catholics across the political spectrum in response to various actions by Pope Francis.  Negotiation, adaptation in face of the hard realities of the present seems to have become less and less unacceptable.

It was in a letter announcing his 2016 “Jubilee Year of Mercy” that Pope Francis first reached out to the SSPX, proclaiming  that during the year, confessions heard by SSPX priests would once again be valid. This is, in a certain sense, highly ironic, because when Pope Francis officially launched that same Jubilee Year of Mercy several months later, he explicitly linked it to the Second Vatican Council, the Council that the SSPX in large part rejects. In particular, Francis emphasized  Vatican II’s merciful avoidance of the anathemas fired like rockets by a number of previous councils.

A presidential election is not the same as the Jubilee Year of Mercy, or even the Vatican’s negotiations to reunite with one of the most traditionalist groups of priests in the world. Yet I can’t help wondering if something of the Pope’s tone might not help us as we move through this historic, possibly life-threatening, election. Perhaps we ought to consider the possibility of being merciful, having hope, imagining that even neoliberal militarists can change their ways (not without  strong encouragement from us, of course).

And before you conclude that such movement between adamantly opposed positions is inconceivable, let me end with a story. At the beginning of June, an official of the Vatican Secretariat of State, one of the Vatican’s highest-level departments, met two women from the group Roman Catholic WomanPriest s(RCWP) group, one of them a bishop. The women presented the official, whom they called a “wonderful priest,” with a letter to Pope Francis that included a petition to lift RCWP excommunications and end all punishments against their supporters as well as to begin a dialogue with women priests.

Who knows who Hillary Clinton may be meeting with in 2017?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Letter in The Nation

May 2, 2016 at 2:11 pm | Posted in Anti-Catholicism | 3 Comments
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I know I promised not to post anything else for a while, but this letter, which appears in the May 9-16 2016 issue of The Nation magazine, is quite short and may amuse you.

 

Not-So-Ancient History

In light of the virulent anti-immigrant sentiment widespread in the United States these days, the reminder in the March 28/April 4 issue of Thomas Nast’s 19th-century anti-Catholic cartoons is more than welcome [“Papist Invasion”]. As a scholar of American Catholicism, I have on more than one occasion reminded others of the similarities between current anti-immigrant discourse and Nast’s portrayal of Catholic bishops as salivating crocodiles coming ashore to consume American youth.

But I can’t help also being amused by the appearance of this sidebar in The Nation, since, in the late 1940s, The Nation itself published a series of ferociously anti-Catholic articles by an associate editor, Paul Blanshard. The articles were later published in book form as the best-selling American Freedom and Catholic Power. As Philip Jenkins, by no means a Catholic advocate, observes in his 2003 book The New Anti-Catholicism, “While Blanshard does not conjure up crocodilian Catholic bishops, the image is certainly implied.”

It sometimes surprises me that I, an Irish-American Catholic, am such a dedicated reader of The Nation. And I imagine your Nast sidebar has Paul Blanshard turning over in his grave.

Marian Ronan
New York City

 

 

The Good-Enough Death

April 27, 2016 at 11:44 am | Posted in Aging, Catholicism, Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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The following is a review-essay on Ann Neumann’s book, The Good Death, published  by the Marginalia Review of Books last Monday, April 25. It’s much longer than a standard blog post, so I won’t post anything else for a while to give you time to read it. Also, I haven’t got a clue how to get rid of the box around the first page. Luddites of the world, unite!

Ann Neumann, The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America, Beacon Press, 2016, 212pp., $26.95

 

At first glance, a reader might take Ann Neumann’s The Good Death for a standard critical study — an analysis of the “complicated legal, religious and ethical labyrinths that surround dying in America,” as a blurb on the back cover suggests.

And indeed, The Good Death does a fine job, in slightly more than two hundred pages, of delineating the contours of those labyrinths. Already in the first chapter Neumann begins exploring the many reasons why death is such a fraught topic (and experience) today: we no longer see death up close, as we did when plagues, infections and childhood diseases were common. Eighty percent of us die in institutions.

Then, too, in the 1970s, for the first time in history, the very definition of death changed. What was once clearly indicated by the simultaneous ending of “heartbeat, breathing and brain function” became more and more complicated. This was especially the case because innovations — respirators, defibrillators and feeding tubes, among others — made it possible to keep the heart and lungs functioning indefinitely. Scientists attempted to define death as living without brain function, but disputes about even what constitutes total loss of brain function persist.

Neumann continues to detail the obstacles to a “good death” throughout the rest of
the book. One is the long-standing Christian belief that pain is the result of sin and
that the endurance of it makes human beings better. Even today, the U.S. Catholic
bishops, in their Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care, state that “patients experiencing suffering that cannot be alleviated should be helped to appreciate the Christian understanding of redemptive suffering.”

In the past this principle was applied to childbirth and even dental care, but it continues to influence end-of-life practices in our time. Doctors often prescribe (and families agree to) painful treatments for patients near the end of life because they believe that extending life is what matters, no matter the cost. Linked to the sacralization of suffering is the widespread notion that to refuse to continue treatment of a family member, even if it causes them great suffering, is to betray them.

Another obstacle to the good death is the disastrous state of the U.S. health care system. In 2010 we spent over a sixth of the U.S. economy — 2.7 trillion dollars — on health care, double what was spent in 2000. And although we overspend all other developed nations by $3000 per patient per year, a 2014 study ranked the U.S. last among those nations in the quality of its health care.

Part of the reason for this dismal outcome is that half of that $2.7 trillion was spent on 5 percent of the population, those in the last year of life. And a stunning percentage of that money was invested in what biomedical ethicists call “futile treatments,” therapies, drug courses and trials that prolong but do not actually lessen illnesses. Such calculations risk sounding venal, implying that the dying simply are not worth more than a certain amount of money. But Neumann explains convincingly how much genuinely effective and often inaccessible medical care the money spent on futile end-of-life treatment would provide. She also makes clear the extent to which state laws and

the prison system collude in blocking the right to die with dignity.

Even the hospice movement, from which Neumann admits having learned a great deal as a volunteer, sometimes contributes to the difficulties of achieving a good death. The founder of the modern hospice movement, Dr. Cicely Saunders, was a staunch opponent of assisted dying, believing that pain and suffering could always be addressed. Those involved in the hospice movement today often believe that the end of life, even when it involves great suffering, presents patients with an opportunity for personal growth that aid in dying ostensibly short-circuits.

As Neumann explores the specifics of these labyrinths, she expresses fairly clearly her support for aid in dying, that is, for the right of terminally ill, mentally competent individuals, after meeting the legal requirements for such a decision, to take life-ending medication. The passage of laws allowing such aid in dying in Oregon, Washington, and Montana, interestingly enough, resulted in state residents becoming more knowledgeable about hospice and palliative care, and doctors’ increasing their referrals for hospice care significantly. Some of the most informative conversations Neumann recalls were with end-of-life activists and the staff of aid in dying organizations like Compassion & Choices.

But all of this notwithstanding, Neumann never portrays death as simple or uncomplicated.

 

I had a number of reasons for wanting to read The Good Death. Unlike Neumann, who began thinking about death only after the loss of her grandmother and father when she was in her thirties, I had been aware of it since the age of five. One day, out of the blue, my beloved grandfather suffered a heart attack and just disappeared: poof. And then in my teens, a doctor told my aunt, who in turn told me, that the dose of morphine he was giving to her husband to lessen the pain in his diabetically-infected and soon–to-be-amputated leg would probably kill him. It did.

But what really got me thinking about U.S. medical practices in the face of potentially fatal illness were two cancer surgeries I underwent in the early 1990s. With the first, I woke up in terrible pain after a hysterectomy, only to be told by the recovery room nurse that if I took painkillers too soon, I would become a drug addict. An RN friend disabused her of that notion, but not for several hours.

Then, two years later, after the removal of a malignant tumor from my colon, the surgeon sent me for a chemotherapy consult. The oncologist told me that I had a 20 percent likelihood of recurrence with the chemo and a 20 percent likelihood without it. When pushed, he said he himself would certainly not choose the chemo; it would nauseate me for a year. But when the surgeon learned of my decision, he went nuts, virtually accusing me of endangering my own life. I was thrilled when I finally escaped from his “care.”

After these experiences, nothing that Neumann writes about the national obsession with futile treatments or the need for aid in dying surprises me or seems overstated. The very possibility of death is so outrageous to some medical practitioners and some patient’s families that they cannot stop themselves from doing everything, no matter how hurtful, to avoid it.

 

One worry that I carried with me until the last few chapters of Neumann’s book concerned her treatment of Roman Catholicism. Of course, given the pivotal role the Catholic Church plays in end-of-life controversies in the United States, there is no way Neumann could avoid including the church and its teachings in her analysis. And I myself am deeply disturbed by the efforts of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to use “religious freedom” to deny women affordable reproductive health coverage.

But as a specialist in American Catholicism, I am also aware of the anti-Catholic discourse that snakes its way through U.S. history and culture. As I read The Good Death, I worried that Neumann might be using her considerable writing talent to extend that discourse. Indeed, soon after the book’s publication, a review in the Jesuit magazine America characterized Neumann’s treatment of Catholic teaching on death as “dismissive or condescending.”

 

Already in the third chapter Neumann addresses the role of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the 1990 Supreme Court decision affirming the right of the family of Nancy Cruzan, who had been in a persistent vegetative state for years, to have her feeding tube removed. The USCCB’s two amicus briefs against the ruling argued that feeding tubes constitute “comfort care” and are therefore compulsory; removing them is euthanasia.

Neumann does not, interestingly enough, mention that in an earlier end-of-life case, the parents of Karen Ann Quinlan used statements by Pope Pius XII to argue for the right to have their daughter’s respirator removed. The pope had said in a 1957 address that refusing to insert an artificial respirator in a patient, even if it would result in death, did not constitute euthanasia and was therefore permitted.

That teaching notwithstanding, the bishops did oppose the right of Nancy Cruzan’s family to remove her feeding tube in 1990. But it was the Terry Schiavo case (2001-2005), according to Neumann, that really set them off. This was so, we learn, because the Schiavo decision comprised a sort of one-two punch, coming as it did after the passage of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act in 1997. The justice system, the bishops finally realized, was directly challenging their authority.

Thus, after the court-permitted removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube and her subsequent death in 2005, a “small but significant minority” of Evangelicals and Catholics, with the unflagging support of the bishops, came together to fight the twin crimes of euthanasia and abortion. Neumann finds it hard to understand how some medical advancements, like the ventilator or contraceptives, can be any less “natural” than those the church approves, like metal feeding tubes inserted into a patient’s stomach. So do I.

In some respects, Neumann finds the broader influence of the Catholic Church on U.S. health care regarding end- of-life issues even more damning than its attempts to influence particular right-to-die cases. We learn that there are, according to the website of the USCCB, 629 Catholic hospitals in the U.S., serving, “one out of every six patients: that’s nineteen million, emergency room visits and more than one hundred million outpatient visits a year.”

And while those Catholic hospitals generally follow standard medical procedure, they are forbidden to do so when such procedures fall outside the “Ethical and Religious Directives for Health Care Services,” a list of seventy-two guidelines issued by the USCCB. Many of these guidelines involve reproductive services, but Guideline 58 addresses the use of feeding tubes for those in persistent vegetative states. Catholics are instructed that even the belief that a patient is never likely to regain consciousness is not sufficient reason to withdraw medically assisted nutrition and rehydration. This is so even if the patient’s advance directives authorize so doing.

Furthermore, Neumann explains, employees of Catholic health care institutions are forbidden to give patients information about other institutions where their advance directives would be honored; some employees have been fired for so doing. “The hard power of the church, which retains its ability to decide the types of care millions of patients receive daily — even to decide what options people can be informed of — has combined with the soft power of public opinion and coercion” to limit end-of-life choices, Neumann argues.

Despite all of this, I decided, after finishing The Good Death, that Neumann’s critique of the Catholic Church does not constitute anti-Catholicism — or if it does, I forgive her for it. I did so despite the fact that Neumann is more critical of the Catholic Church than of any other single locus of power in the end-of-life arena of the culture wars. I did not even make the decision because Neumann herself, as it turns out, is a Catholic. Since the clergy sex-abuse scandal took center-stage in 2002, liberal Catholics, as Philip Jenkins argues persuasively, are more likely than others to engage in anti-Catholic discourse.

Rather, I decided The Good Death is not anti-Catholic because Neumann’s treatment of the subject of death is extraordinarily humane and nuanced. This is the case in large part because of the stories of her relationships with individuals, some dying, others not, that are woven throughout the book. But Neumann is not using stories to introduce or connect arguments about death in our time; her encounters with these people are, in effect, her argument. She begins with her own father’s death and how horrified she was by it. Then she goes on to visit, and revisit, the lives of other men and women — many of them people she encountered as a result of her decision after her father’s death to become a hospice volunteer.

 

And in the book’s last chapter, Neumann draws on the experiences and attitudes of fully nine of the people she’s written about previously to weave together her final reflections on the good death. Neumann’s engagement with the complexity of their positions on the end of life, shaped by her considerable affection for many of them, is far removed from the vitriolic tones of anti-Catholicism, racism, and other hateful discourses.

Consider, for example, Neumann’s relationship with the paraplegic, Bill Peace, and through him, with the wider disability rights movement. Neumann first encounters Peace when, as the blogger “Bad Cripple,” he attacks Neumann’s position on assisted dying, calling it the first step on a slippery slope toward the total devaluation of the disabled. Eventually, the two meet for lunch and a powerful if sometimes-contentious friendship ensues.

It is not that Neumann is not critical of Bill and many other disability rights advocates. She finds their claims to know better than anyone else about the best way to die, even better than the dying themselves, to be arrogant. But Neumann is also forced, because of her relationship with Bill and his fellow activists, to consider whether her ignorance or avoidance of disabled persons contributes to the institutionalization of inequality.

She is even forced, to some extent, to understand the ferocity of their opposition to her position on assisted dying. Peace’s refusal to “go gentle into that good night” shapes Neumann’s nuanced reading of the end of life as much as the successful fight of a dying truck driver to get the state of Montana to allow assisted dying does, or the decision of a retired psychiatrist and close friend, Evelyn Livingstone, to go on living as long as she can.

Neumann uses these and six other stories to trace the complexity of the very idea of hope in the face of death. Sometimes lives are marked by a “deep hope” that does not delude the one who hopes but can be based on “incremental emotional needs” like going for a walk or enjoying the day. For Neumann, this characterizes the “good enough death” that her friend Dr. Evelyn Livingstone is slowly undergoing.

But hope can also be a blind faith, a hope against hope, that results in death being much, much worse for some people, or even drives others to try to make legally obligatory the practices fundamental to hope at all costs in the face of death.

Ultimately, Neumann argues that that there is no good death, just a “good enough death,” one made possible only by looking death straight in the eye and acknowledging its inevitability. Such a good enough death is strikingly different from the kind of death undergirded by denial, the profit motive, and the glorification of suffering.

As a result, Neumann is also forced to acknowledge that there are no quick solutions or easy answers to the questions she has raised. In the end, what we do is engage in the work of grief, and that itself is sometimes a form of vanity. We talk about the dead as if they are ours, clinging to “fragmentary stones,” remembrances by which they become part of us.

And we go on. After her friend Evelyn Livingstone dies, Neumann assures us, she will visit Marvin, Evelyn’s widower, who is statistically unlikely to outlive his wife by very long. And when Marvin dies, Neumann will mourn him too.

 

The Ecofeminist Theology of Elizabeth Johnson: A Review

April 22, 2016 at 4:41 pm | Posted in Catholic sisters, Catholicism, Climate Change, Environment, Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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In the half- century since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, debates about its true meaning have proliferated. Did the Council continue the Catholic tradition or rupture it? Did it renew the church or eviscerate it?

In his 2013 book, A Council that Will Never End, theologian Paul Lakeland introduces a more helpful, less polarizing category: the “unfinished business” of Vatican II, that is, the issues that were raised but not moved very far forward at Vatican II. Primary among these, for Lakeland, is the relationship between the horizontal and the vertical: between the laity and the ordained, but also between the bishops and the pope.

Let me suggest another category to accompany Lakeland’s, that of the “unstarted business” of Vatican II. Two issues virtually unaddressed at the Council are the role of women and the implications of the doctrine of creation for church and society. Indeed, there are only fourteen direct references to women in all of the Council’s sixteen documents. And because the church at the Council had finally come to terms with the modern emphasis on the dignity of the human person, the further significance of God’s unity with creation may have been more than the Council fathers could handle.

In recent decades, of course, women, and creation—particularly the environmental crisis—have become increasingly pressing issues. Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ certainly comprises a welcome update to the Catholic understanding of creation and its growing destruction—though it is less than groundbreaking on the question of women. Latin American liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff have also powerfully addressed the link between the destruction of the earth and the oppression of the poor, with Brazilian ecofeminist theologian Ivone Gebara pushing their analyses even further. We can only speculate about how much more influential such work might have been had the Vatican under John Paul II not seriously repressed it.

No work has done more to move the church forward on the issues of women and the environment, however, than the ecofeminist theology of Elizabeth A. Johnson. Johnson is of course best known for her 1992 book She Who Is. But already at the end of her first book, Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology (1990) Johnson addresses Jesus Christ as the savior of the whole natural world and all of its creatures. In fact, in that book she paraphrases one of the signature expressions of Vatican II, “reading the signs of the times,” by writing that “Jesus could read the signs of the sky.” (140)

Then, in She Who Is, Johnson addresses the presence of God in the whole cosmos, not only in human beings; especially in her chapter on Spirit-Sophia, she argues that the presence of Spirit-Sophia is mediated through the natural world as well as human history. She also addresses the suffering of God, which is central to the question of the horizontal and the vertical, because a God who suffers is one with the horizontal in a way that an impassible deity can never be.

Then, a year after the publication of She Who Is, at the annual Madeleva Lecture at St. Mary’s College in Indiana, Johnson connects the “ecocide crisis”—desertification, ocean harm, species extinction, and so forth—with the “two-tiered universe” in which women and the earth are both exploited. Here she explicitly links three of the most pressing unfinished/unstarted Vatican II issues: women, creation, and the dominance of the horizontal by the vertical.

Johnson’s next two books, the first about the Communion of Saints, and the second, Truly Our Sister, about Mary of Nazareth, might seem focused on human beings rather than on the wider natural world. But Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints actually gives the communion of saints an ecological dimension in which the whole world will share in life after death, and identifies Mary with the Creator Spirit who vivifies the evolutionary development of the entire community of life.

Then, in Quest for the Living God, Johnson’s most famous (or infamous) book, one chapter focuses on the Spirit as the “Vivifier” of the Natural World and another, “The Crucified God of Compassion,” discerns a cruciform pattern in all of creation, because the Spirit dwells throughout a suffering creation. This emphasis on the God who suffers was a primary reason for the USCCB’s 2011 condemnation of Quest, since according to the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, that suffering is caused by sin, so God cannot suffer.

Johnson rebuts this assertion in her 2014 book, Ask the Beasts, a study of the relationship between Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the Nicene Creed. Since all species suffer, and non-humans cannot sin, then sin, Johnson argues, is not the cause of suffering. Instead, Johnson acknowledges that while God is fullness of life beyond suffering, it is also “right to say that God suffered and died on the cross because the human nature of Jesus who suffered is precisely the Word of God.”

Furthermore, according to Johnson, the logic of incarnation extends divine solidarity from the cross into the groan of suffering of all creation. The cross illuminates that the God of love whose love continuously sustains and empowers the origin of species is a suffering God who is in solidarity with all creatures dying through endless millennia of evolution from the extinction of species to every sparrow that falls to the ground.

Johnson’s compelling argument that God suffers is fundamental to moving the unfinished business of Vatican II forward, especially the problem of the relationship between the horizontal and the vertical, since the argument that God cannot suffer is invoked in the service of the hierarchical binary between the transcendent God (and the Church authorities who identify with that God) and the female-identified non-transcendent/material /earth/creation. Women and creation, the earth, are in fact the horizontal, traditionally bifurcated from and subordinated to the ostensibly omnipotent male God and those believed to image him: priests, bishops, and popes.

The survival of the church, and of God’s creation itself, depend on our understanding better the intimate connections between these three issues and acting on them. There are a number of ways to do this. One is by deepening our knowledge of Elizabeth Johnson’s work. Her book-length theologies are highly accessible. But fortunately, in 2015, Orbis Books published a collection of her articles, including a section on the “Great God of Heaven and Earth,” which can serve as an excellent introduction to Johnson’s ecofeminist theology.

But since, as Johnson makes clear, the issues of women, creation and hierarchy are so intimately connected, even work that focuses on only one of them will point ultimately to the other two. If you can’t get your parish discussion group to begin by reading Johnson, then perhaps they will begin by reading Laudato Si’. Questions regarding women and the hierarchical structure of the church are almost certain to follow.

This post appeared as a book review on page 1a in the April 22-May 5 issue of The National Catholic Reporter under the title “Theologian’s work connects God, women and creation.”

 

Bibliography 

Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology, Crossroad Publishing 1990, 1992, $19.95

She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, Crossroad Publishing, 1992, 2002, 2014, $32.95

Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit (Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality), Paulist Press 1993, $7.95

Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints Continuum 1998, $42.95

Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, Bloomsbury Academic 2006, $39.95

Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, Continuum 2007, $24.95

 Abounding in Kindness: Writing for the People of God, Orbis 2015, $24.00

Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love,, Bloomsbury Continuum 2015, $32.95

 

The Sophia Wars

April 12, 2016 at 3:21 pm | Posted in feminism | Leave a comment
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On Saturday (April 9) my colleagues  Hal Taussig and Susan Cole and I joined with a group of friends to celebrate the publication of the thirtieth anniversary edition of our book, Wisdom’s Feast. In the midst of an April snow and sleet storm (!)  it was a rather modest event, more like a family reunion that a commercial book promotion.

One of the subjects we discussed at some length at the gathering was the hostile responses to the book especially by some United Methodist clergy and congregation members back in the 1990s. The discussion reminded me of an article I wrote back in 2000.  I am pasting it below to let you in on some of what we talked about at the book celebration.

Interestingly enough, the preface to the new edition picks up certain parts of the argument we made in 1996, that one of the causes for the attacks on Sophia, and on Susan and Hal for writing about her, was because of the ordination and mandatory placement of women clergy in UMC congregations. The Catholic bishops didn’t attack me for the book, we speculated, and didn’t attack Elizabeth Johnson for her 1992 work on Sophia, because the Catholic Church didn’t have women priests.  But beginning in 2002, an international movement, Roman Catholic WomenPriests did begin ordaining Catholic women, even if it couldn’t place them in parishes, and Johnson’s theology was fiercely criticized by the US Catholic bishops in 2011. We just didn’t wait long enough!

 

Sophia in Struggle and Celebration

SIXTEEN years ago, two colleagues and I set out on something of an adventure. Susan Cole and Hal Taussig, United Methodist pastors in Philadelphia, had been using liturgy, devotions, Bible study, and Christen education activities to introduce Sophia, the female figure of Wisdom in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, to their congregation. Now they wanted to enlarge Sophia’s circle by writing a book about her.

Since I had recently co-authored a volume on a related topic, Christian feminist worship, Hal and Sue invited me to join their effort. I was happy enough to come on board, but, to tell the truth, I didn’t grasp what the big deal was at the time. As a Roman Catholic, [ was familiar with Wisdom as a figure of the divine about whom we sang each year in the “O Antiphons” leading up to Christmas: “O Wisdom, you came forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from the beginning to the end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly. Come forth and teach us the way of prudence.” Perhaps even more, for all that I was by then theologically sophisticated enough not to admit it, I had grown up in a tradition in which the Virgin Mary came very close to God in power and importance. Divine and near-divine female figures didn’t strike me as remarkable.

Our first book, Sophia, the Future of Feminist Spirituality, (1986), is an accessible introduction to Sophia in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, in the post-biblical era, and in her social-historical context. In this material we display the extensive intertextuaI relations between Sophia/Wisdom in the Hebrew Bible and Jesus in the Christian scriptures. The title “Sophia-Jesus,” later to be used to such effect by Elizabeth A. Johnson and others, comes into focus here. Wisdom’s Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration, a paperback edition adding many group activities, Bible studies, meditations, liturgies, and sermons to the original discursive introduction, followed in 1989. At the same time, in twos and threes, Hal, Susan, and I led Sophia courses, retreats, liturgies, and workshops in various locations through-out the country.

 

In all of these contexts we stressed Sophia as a pivotal figure in the feminist, liberation, and ecological spiritualities then emerging. Sophia, we argued, is indispensable for those attempting to experience, express, and effect the radical connectedness of all creation and the radical equality of all human beings. This designation of Sophia as a connective figure of enormous promise within emerging U.S. Christian spiritualities was one of the most significant insights our work made available.

In the months and years that followed, however, it became apparent that though many did welcome Sophia, others by no means experienced her as a facilitator of connectedness. In a second edition o f Wisdom’s Feast that appeared in 1996, we note with some satisfaction the advances in Sophia scholarship and spirituality in the decade since our initial publication. But we also address the bitter Sophia-related strife that emerged within several Christian denominations during that period.

The event that received the widest notice in this regard was the 1993 Re-imagining Conference, the international theological colloquium organized in Minneapolis in response to the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Decade: Churches in Solidarity with Women. During this colloquium, participants invoked Sophia repeatedly as they “re-imagined” their Christian faith. Subsequently, conservative groups in the United Methodist and United Presbyterian churches spearheaded retaliatory moves, some of them successful, against women on the national staffs of both denominations because of their involvement with a conference in which heretical goddess worship had allegedly taken place.

Even before the Minneapolis gathering, my United Methodist friends, Hal and Susan, but Susan most intensely, had come under attack for their theological and pastoral work on Sophia. In 1989, the lay leader of the United Methodist congregation of which Susan was pastor accused her and our books of heresy, ultimately bringing charges against her to the United Methodist conference of which they were both members, and later against the bishop who had dismissed these charges against Susan. It seems likely that this Pennsylvania conflict helped to fuel the outcry against the Minneapolis conference. Within the United Methodist Church, the conflict continued until 1995 when the U. M. Council of Bishops issued a report affirming the importance of Wisdom theology but disapproving the worship of Sophia as a goddess.

In assessing these developments, Hal, Susan, and I found several distinctions significant. First, although my colleagues, both United Methodists, came under serious attack for their work on Sophia, I, a Roman Catholic, suffered no retaliation of any kind. Second, though accusations were leveled at both Hal and Susan, the attacks on Susan were far more virulent than those on Hal. The strong Catholic tradition of honoring the Virgin alluded to earlier may account for some of the “neglect” I suffered.

We concluded, however, that the conflict over Sophia was primarily a reaction to the increasing influence of ordained women within United Methodism. Not only had Susan been appointed pastor of a prominent U. M. congregation during the “heresy” process, the first woman bishop in the history of the diocese had been appointed not long before. And while United Presbyterians as well as United Methodists had reacted to the Sophia movement, we believe that United Methodist polity contributed to the intensity of the United Methodist reaction.

While many Protestant denominations now ordain women, the congregational polity that a number of them practice  means that individual congregations still control whether or not they hire women pastors. United Methodists ordain women, and their bishops decide which clergy will be placed in which congregations. This means that United Methodist clergywomen actually receive appointments, a situation over which United Methodist lay people have little control, even if they are opposed to it. The attacks functioned, then, as a protest – with Sophia being the symbol o f the unwelcome power of women.

It seems to me now that if my colleagues and I made a mistake in this process, it was in underestimating how difficult it is to bring about the “connectedness” that we so joyfully discerned in the figure of Sophia. The baby- boomer generation, of which all three o f us are members, has been criticized more than once for having been unrealistic about what it takes to bring about change. Hal, Susan, and I assumed that because Sophia is an unambiguous part of the biblical tradition, she would be welcomed as a bridge between more traditional ecclesial practices and the feminist, liberation, and ecological spiritualities o f the late 20th century. This proved not always to be the case.

Yet the need for bridge figures is, if anything, even greater than it was 15 years ago. In response to such unambiguous need, Sophia-Jesus continues to cry out, as she has since ancient times, “Come and eat my bread, drink the wine I have prepared…for the one who finds me finds life” (Prov 9:5; 8:35).

 

(This article appeared originally in The Living Pulpit 9:3 (July-September 2000).

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The End of Anti-Catholicism (Maybe)

April 3, 2016 at 5:54 pm | Posted in Anti-Catholicism, Catholicism | 3 Comments

I was, in a certain sense, pleased when the historic liberal American magazine,  The Nation,  included a sidebar in its March 20-April 4 issue reminding readers that before Muslims or Latinos had been targeted by US anti-immigrant sentiment, Irish Catholics were.The title of the sidebar  was”The Papist Invasion.”To illustrate their point, the Nation editors reference  a drawing by the virulently anti-Catholic cartoonist Thomas Nast that appeared in Harper’s in 1875. In it, Nast portrays Catholic bishops as crocodiles coming up out of a body of water to eat public school children, one of whom is clutching a Bible.

As I said, I was in a certain sense pleased that The Nation would remind members of the public who are themselves in some cases Catholics (or even Irish Catholics) that their Catholic forebears had been treated much the way politicians today propose to treat immigrants.  But I was also amused because The Nation itself had published a series of virulently anti-Catholic articles in the late 1940s written by one of its associate editors, Paul Blanshard. Several years later those articles became the bestselling book American Freedom and Catholic Power.  And in  The New Anti-Catholicism my colleague Philip Jenkins  cheerfully disabuses us   of any notion that a connection between Blanshard and Nast is far-fetched: “While Blanshard does not conjure up crocodilian Catholic bishops,” Jenkins writes,  “the image is certainly implied.”

Now let me be clear here: I am myself sometimes quite critical of the way the institutional Roman Catholic Church uses its power. For example, I adamantly oppose the US bishops’ manipulation of “religious freedom” to deprive American women of the right to access contraceptives, especially since contraceptives are one of the most effective ways to reduce the number of abortions.

But attacking a particular religious group is complicated–pas si simple, as the French say. For example, one of the things that  Blanshard attacked the Catholic Church for was its opposition to eugenics, and to the sterilization of the “unfit.” Myself, I’m kind of proud of the bishops on that one. And I imagine a lot of its current readers don’t immediately associate The Nation with the eugenics movement. Interestingly, none of Blanshard’s articles appear in the collection of the best articles from each decade that The Nation issued last year to celebrate its 150th anniversary.

Then, even as I was thinking all this through, I came upon something that I found truly amazing. In the same issue of The Nation where the Nast sidebar appears, three pages after it, in fact, an article  about gentrification in Los Angeles begins with a non-pejorative paragraph about Francis of Assisi, followed by one about how Franciscan friars (as well as Spanish conquistadors) founded LA, the city of Our Lady of the Angels. And to my even greater astonishment, the article ends with a quotation from Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, and a wish that Los Angeles will someday “earn its name as a place where ruins are repaired and sins are redeemed.”

Maybe The Nation really has renounced its anti-Catholicism, I thought. Paul Blanshard must be turning over in his grave.

But maybe he doesn’t need to. In the latest issue of The Nation, in an article about Obama and foreign policy, Eric Alterman argues that the foreign policy establishment intones the word credibility to justify the endless deployment of military force “the way some Catholics recite the rosary.”

I don’t know why, but I find it hard to imagine Alterman writing, “the way the Muslims are constantly saying ‘Salaam Alaykum‘” or even “the way Buddhist monks are repeatedly praying with their prayer beads.”

But maybe I should just count my blessings and be grateful Alterman limited his comparison to “some” Catholics.

 

 

I Thirst

March 25, 2016 at 5:11 pm | Posted in world water crisis | 4 Comments
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The following is a sermon I preached ten years or so ago as part of a “Seven Last Words of Christ” service at Allen Temple Baptist Church, the largest Black church in Oakland, California. It suggests that the death of Christ calls us to much more than repentance for personal sin–that it calls us to repent for the thirst we are allowing to afflict people, especially women and children, all around the world.

 

After this, knowing that all was now finished, Jesus said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put the sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. (John 19:28-29

Jesus is coming ever closer to the end of his journey. He has forgiven his persecutors. He has asked his dear friend and his mother to care for one another. He has cried out with incomprehension at being forsaken by his father. And now he speaks of an experience shared by human beings all over the world: He says that he is thirsty.

Someone who suffers what Jesus suffered has every reason to be thirsty. Blows, scourging, multiple falls, nails hammered through his wrists and feet, and the terrible struggle to breathe that comes with being hoisted up on a cross—Jesus endured them all. Scientists tell us that his dehydrated tissues would have sent a flood of stimuli to his brain, eliciting the very words we hear: “I thirst.”

But there’s something puzzling about the verses that we just read from John’s gospel—and let’s be clear, John’s is the only one of the four passion stories that includes the words “I am thirsty.” However much we may be concerned with Jesus’ thirst, the text tells us that Jesus says what he says “in order to fulfill the scripture.” What does this mean?

Recall that the community for whom the evangelist wrote this fourth gospel was not the kind of Christian community that we are accustomed to today. Rather, it was a community of Jewish Christians, still trying to convince their Jewish brothers and sisters that Jesus was the messiah. And so they paid great attention to the parts of Jesus’ life that seemed to fulfill passages in the Torah, the Jewish scripture. With this in mind, some biblical scholars claim that John inserts the words “I thirst”—and the verse that follows, about the Roman soldiers giving Jesus sour wine to drink—to highlight the way Jesus fulfills two passages in the book of psalms. In one of these a forsaken individual cries out that his mouth is dried up like a piece of broken pottery; in another, persecutors give their victim vinegar to drink.

But the passage that we read today doesn’t actually say which scripture Jesus’ words fulfill; it only asserts that they do so. Let’s consider, then, that Jesus’ words—“I am thirsty”—also refer back to and complete an earlier passage in the gospel of John itself, the story of the woman at the well.

I begin by noting the similarities between these two stories. Here, too, Jesus is thirsty. He is sitting by a well near the Samaritan city of Sychar, worn out by his journey, a weariness that foreshadows the far greater weariness of his journey to Calvary. A woman comes to the well to draw water, and Jesus says to her “Give me a drink.” Then they talk to one another.

What Christians generally remember about this story is that in this conversation, the woman tells Jesus that she has no husband, and Jesus responds that she is right, she has had five husbands, and the man she currently lives with is not her husband. From this exchange many conclude that the woman at the well is sexually loose, an adulteress, and that Jesus’ only reason for speaking to her is that their conversation gives him an opportunity to display his great knowledge.

But there is nothing in John 4 to indicate that this woman is sexually immoral; there are a number of stories in the Bible about women obligated by the Law to marry the brothers of their deceased husband in order to raise up children in his memory. Mark 4, where the Sadducees ask Jesus about a series of brothers who marry a widow is just such a story, and there is no suggestion there that the woman is immoral. What is far more likely is in the story of the woman at the well is that the woman herself is very poor, living with a man who is not her husband, because she has no other way to survive. We all know poor women in such situations; in the time of Jesus, it was even harder for poor unmarried women to support themselves than it is today. Another indication that this woman is poor is that she is hauling water, a task so hard and unending that it damaged the postures of the women required to do it.

But despite this woman’s poverty and her bad living situation, Jesus enters into conversation with her. He doesn’t just talk to her; she takes the initiative with him, asking questions and moving the conversation in new directions. She makes such an impact on Jesus that he sends her off, the first Gentile disciple, to evangelize the people of Sychar. In fact, this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is so powerful that the woman’s entire life is changed. We know this because, as the scripture says, when she went into the city to proclaim the Messiah, she left behind the essential tool of her former way of life, her water jar.

But what does this woman’s water jar have to do with Jesus’ words from the cross? To clarify this, recall that early in their conversation, the woman wondered aloud how it could be that Jesus, a Jew, would ask for water from a Samaritan. Jesus tells her that if she had known whom she was speaking to, she would have asked him, and he would have given her “living water.” Those who drink this living water, Jesus says, will never be thirsty again.

Now many interpreters think that the main purpose of the story of the woman at the well is precisely this teaching about “living water”—perhaps they would call it “spiritual water.” For them, spiritual water is far more significant than the actual water this poor Samaritan woman hauls back and forth. They highlight the connection between these verses and the seventh chapter of John’s gospel when Jesus cries out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me… (for) out of the believer’s womb shall flow rivers of living water.” Indeed, when this passage says that this living water is the Spirit whom believers will not receive until Jesus is glorified, it seems to refer directly to the crucifixion. This emphasis on the superiority of living, that is to say, spiritual water, makes the woman at the well look even worse than she did before; first, she was a sexual sinner; now she’s so stupid that she confuses Jesus’ living water with real water. Even after Jesus proclaims that his water is the water of eternal life, this poor woman says, “”Sir, give it to me, so that I may not have to keep coming here to draw it.”

But I have a feeling that these people who are so taken up with the superiority of “living water” don’t understand what it is to be really thirsty. Perhaps they are like the great majority of us Americans, who simply turn on our taps, and out comes as much water as we want, at a very low price. It seems unlikely that they are the billion people around the world who lack access to clean drinking water, or the three billion people who have no sanitation. Neither are they the millions of contemporary women who, like the Samaritan woman, spend their days hauling water over long distances. And they are surely not the 40,000 children who die each day from diseases caused by contaminated water.

Finally, those who argue that the spiritual replaces or transcends the material in John’s gospel are not really the followers of Jesus. For when Jesus on the cross prepares to give up his spirit, he does not say: “I am thirsty for living water.” He says “I am thirsty.” We know that this is not just a question of symbolic water divorced from the body because we feel in our own bodies how Jesus must have felt when he got nothing but sour wine to quench his last thirst. And we know that the first gift he bestowed on his newly created church was the water that flowed out from his pierced side along with his most precious blood.

All over the world, men and women are crying out with Jesus on the cross, “I am thirsty.” They are thirsty for the word of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ. And they are thirsty to become sources of living water for their sisters and brothers, as the Samaritan woman was to the citizens of Sychar. But they cannot do this if they are literally dying of thirst, as is the case with so many in Africa, and India, and Latin America. How can women study and preach the gospel if they are doomed never to leave their water jars behind? How can girls go to school to learn to read the gospel if they are never free, as so many of them are not, from the endless task of hauling water? How can babies and small children grow up to be the disciples of Jesus if they die from cholera or dysentery before they are five years old? And last of all, how can we ever reach the kingdom of heaven if we allow such things to happen?

Jesus is hanging from the cross, preparing to send the Spirit onto the church to carry his word to the ends of the earth. When he cries out “I am thirsty,” let us not give him sour wine but the fresh and living water he so desires.

 

Sophia: And Still She Rises

March 12, 2016 at 12:11 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Despite the grandeur of that title, I’m going to start with a story.

Back in the early 1980s, two friends and I, Hal Taussig and Susan Cady (now Cole) conducted a number of programs on Sophia, the figure of Wisdom in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Several of the programs were at Grailville, the Grail’s farm and conference center outside Cincinnati. One was for the annual meeting of Church Women United, I believe. Hal and Susan were (and still are) United Methodist ministers and had introduced Sophia spirituality and ritual in a church they were co-pastoring in West Philadelphia, and Hal, a biblical studies scholar, had been doing research on her.

Anyhow, according to the chapter on Hal and Susan’s Sophia work in Elizabeth Ursic’s 2014 book  Women, Ritual and Power, in 1984 I was the respondent to a workshop on Sophia that Susan and Hal gave at Arch Street United Methodist Church in Center City Philadelphia. Afterwards, I suggested that Susan and Hal consider writing a book on Sophia.

In the end, the three of us wrote it together. In 1986, Harper and Row published Sophia: The Future of Feminist Spirituality. In 1989, a second edition appeared, including Sophia the Future… and 143 additional pages of bible study , ritual and worship materials, sermons, hymns and songs, under the new title, Wisdom’s Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration.  Eight years later, Sheed and Ward reissued that second edition, with a new preface.

And now, I am somewhat stupefied to announce, Apocryphile Press, in Berkeley, California, has issued what I have taken to calling the thirtieth anniversary edition of Wisdom’s Feast. (The new edition was literally published in 2015, and the book that was published in 1986 was actually Sophia: The Future of Feminist Spirituality, but “thirtieth anniversary edition” has a nicer ring to it than “twenty-ninth anniversary edition of the book that comprises the first section of Wisdom’s Feast,” don’t you think?)

Several things make Wisdom’s Feast  and particularly Sophia: The Future…noteworthy.   Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza had already written about Sophia with considerable enthusiasm in 1983. But Sophia: The Future of Feminist Spirituality and Wisdom’s Feast were both published well before She Who Is,  Elizabeth Johnson’s systematic theological treatment of God as Spirit-Sophia, Jesus-Sophia, and Mother Sophia (1992). Since then, Sophia has played a significant  role in Christian theology, spirituality and politics; even evangelical women are increasingly taken with her. As we wrote in the preface to the 1996 edition of Wisdom’s Feast, “Although we obviously thought at (the time of the publication of the first edition of this book) that Sophia was important, as we reflect on all that has happened, we can only conclude that we were on to something.”

What also happened, in addition to the growth of Sophia spirituality and ritual in churches and women’s groups across the US and Europe, was a significant political conflict over the legitimacy of Sophia in the Christian tradition. This included nasty attempts to have Hal and especially Susan censored for their work, something we discuss at length in the preface to the 1996 edition of Wisdom’s Feast (that preface is included in this new edition as well). Indeed, as we argue in the preface to this 2016 edition, it seems likely that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ condemnation of Elizabeth Johnson’s 2007 book Quest for the Living God can be traced back, impart at least, to the Sophia arguments Johnson made in She Who Is.

If anyone had told me, back in 1986, when I was in my first year of seminary and supporting myself as a free-lance grant writer, that a thirtieth anniversary edition of this book would be coming out in 2016, I suspect I would have laughed out loud. Today I’m just smiling.

If you’d like to take a look, or even get a copy, Wisdom’s Feast is available on Amazon, here.

And if you’d like to join us at our book celebration on Saturday, April 9, at 2 PM, at the Arch Street United Methodist Church in Center City Philadelphia we’d love to have you. (An appropriate location, since that’s the church where Susan and Hal and I did the program back in 1984 that got this book launched!)

And still She rises.

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The Cruelest of All Mothers

March 5, 2016 at 11:50 am | Posted in Catholic sisters, feminism, women | 1 Comment
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The Cruelest of All Mothers: Marie de l’Incarnation, Motherhood, and Christian Tradition by Mary Dunn. Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2016. Hardback, $45; e-book, $44.99. 150 pp. plus back matter.

For Christian feminists, a book about the life of Marie Guyart de l’Incarnation, the little known French-Canadian Ursuline nun canonized in 2014, can’t help but be welcome. As the title of Mary Dunn’s remarkable new study suggests, however, The Cruelest of All Mothers is a good deal more than a saint’s life.

Raised in Tours, France, Marie Guyart began having mystical encounters with Christ at the age of seven and longed to become a nun, but her parents forced her to marry. She did so in 1617, age eighteen. In 1619, she gave birth to a son, Claude, and six months later, her husband died.

Guyart spent most of the next eleven years raising her son, supporting them both by working in her brother-in-law’s business, while continuing to long for the religious life. In 1631 she entered the Ursulines at Tours—all convents were cloistered in those days—over the strenuous objections of her son, who was left without visible means of support. Two years later, in a vision, the Virgin Mary told Marie she had plans for her in Canada. In 1639, Marie and three other Ursulines sailed to Quebec, where she spent the rest of her life.

Marie de l’Incarnation’s ministry was impressive in many respects. She founded the Ursulines in Canada and served as their superior for eighteen years. She also learned multiple indigenous languages and translated the catechism into Iroquois. But the issue at the center of Dunn’s analysis is Guyart’s abandonment of her eleven-year-old son and the meaning(s) of that act in light of Christian perspectives on motherhood and contemporary scholarship.

In chapter 1 Dunn “explicates” Marie’s abandonment of Claude in the context of the times, that is, in the way that Marie herself was likely to have understood it: as a sacrifice performed in conformity with God’s will, modeled after the crucifixion. Marie’s deep desire to stay with her son would have been irrelevant. But in chapter 2, Dunn suggests that the abandonment may instead have been quite the opposite: a refusal on Marie’s part to conform to the norms of seventeenth-century French family life, in which parents’ greatest obligation was to protect the “patrimony” of their children.

But, Dunn reminds us, human actions rarely fall into neat, either/or categories, in this case, those of submission or resistance. Dunn therefore draws on the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to explore the abandonment as what was likely within the boundaries of Guyart’s own time that “left little (positive) room for actual maternal bodies and real maternal practice.” Fundamental to this world-view were centuries of Christian teaching in which motherhood itself was portrayed as fleshly and the renunciation of children as heroic. The seventeenth-century Christian privileging of self-sacrifice as the ultimate in spiritual practice reinforced these longstanding teachings. In her own time, then, Marie had little choice but to abandon Claude if she believed God had called her to the mystical life.

Dunn goes on to suggest, however, that in another time and place, Marie might have been able to understand motherhood itself, and not only its renunciation, as a sacrifice modeled on that of Christ. Now let me acknowledge at this point that feminist discussions of sacrifice in recent decades have been something of a minefield, with theologians like Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker denouncing Christian notions of sacrifice as inherently misogynistic, even sadistic. In her final chapter, however, Dunn uses the work of the French feminist psychoanalytic theorist Julia Kristeva to undercut such dismissals of sacrifice, embedded as they are in binary, Cartesian, either/or thinking. For Kristeva maternal subjectivity—itself the model of all human subjectivity—is a mother’s willingness to “give herself up” in order to make room for the other within. (But) a mother’s willingness to give herself up does not end in the annihilation of the mother in the service of others, but in the enrichment of the mother through the inclusion of the other (13).

In fact, as Dunn explains, Kristeva’s understanding of motherhood folds into each other the pivotal categories that have been held in opposition throughout Western/Christian history: agape and eros, the Word and the flesh, syntax and rhythm, male and female. Furthermore, this Kristevan model of motherhood as sacrifice and fulfillment finds its closest analogue in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross because that sacrifice ended in life, not death, that is, in the Resurrection and the formation of the Christian community. Similarly, motherhood culminates in new life and profound connection. In fact, as the book continues, Dunn demonstrates that motherhood was infolded into Guyart’s spirituality throughout her life despite—or because of—the abandonment of her son

Dunn’s reading of motherhood in the life of Marie Guyart’s life and in Christian history is itself a significant achievement. But Dunn introduces a third, galvanizing layer to her narrative: her own experience of motherhood, and especially, of mothering a child with a rare genetic disorder. Already half way through the introduction, Dunn writes about being the mother of two older children, Bobby and Frankie, three years and one year old respectively, at a time when attitudes toward motherhood are very different from those of the sixteenth-century. Throughout the book. Dunn returns to this experience of mothering these two and then two more children, the last one, Aggie, born with the genetic disorder.

At first glance, there would seem to be few similarities between Dunn and Guyart. Dunn stays at home, devoting much time and attention to her children, and especially to Aggie. Yet a careful reading of Dunn’s intermittent shifts from Guyart’s motherhood to her own brings a certain similarity to the surface: Dunn also experiences ambivalence, or at least anxiety, about the daughter the doctors assure her will be quite unlike her other children. Aggie is Dunn’s dear child but also the abject, the other that ancient Christian teaching identified with the flesh and with motherhood itself, and which seventeenth-century Christian spirituality urged Guyart to reject. It’s to Dunn’s considerable credit as a scholar and a writer that she doesn’t resolve this tension, this binary, any more than she resolves the tensions within Guyart’s own experience of motherhood. As we continue the feminist effort to tranform the hierarchical binaries with which the church and Western civilization have burdened us, neither may we opt for easy resolutions.

 

This review appears in the March-June 2016 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference and in the March 2016 issue of Gumbo,  the newsletter of the Grail in the USA.

 

 

 

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