Tags: Benedictine monk Anthony Ruff, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, Cardinal Sean O'Malley, Jason Berry, Laurie Goodstein, Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Pope Francis, The Nun Justice Project
Well, the word is out. The Vatican has ended mandatory supervision of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the umbrella group representing eighty percent of the 59,000 Catholic sisters in the U.S. Such supervision by three U.S.bishops resulted from a long “doctrinal assessment” of the group, begun in 2009, and a hostile report, or mandate, at the end of that investigation in 2012. The report accused the LCWR of entertaining “radical feminist themes” and mandated episcopal supervision of the group until 2017.
Commentators are ecstatic. Jason Berry, the journalist who previously beat the bishops black and blue over clergy sex abuse, declares on the Global Post, “The Nuns Won!” Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times links the end of the doctrinal process to Pope Francis’s call for “broader opportunities” for women in the church; she also quotes a Vatican expert to the effect that the pope’s meeting with four LCWR leaders on April 17 was “about as close to an apology…as the Catholic Church is officially going to render.” And The Boston Globe’s John Allen, a centrist, welcomes the development but claims that it was in the cards almost from the outset.
Some of the activist groups supporting the LCWR are a bit more balanced in their responses. The Nun Justice Project, a coalition of progressive groups that organized to stand up for the nuns after the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published its hostile mandate in 2012, issued a statement in response to yesterday’s joint communication from the LCWR and the Vatican. Like many others, Nun Justice welcomes the resolution but attributes much of it to “the dogged determination of LCWR sister-leaders to persevere in dialogue with those who unjustly maligned them.” They also restate their conviction that the Vatican owes the sisters an apology.
A number of commentators consider this unexpectedly benign conclusion to the lengthy investigation, hostile report, and mandatory supervision to be a function of “the Francis effect.” Yet it’s worth noticing that Francis by no means stopped Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect of the Vatican office that inaugurated the crack-down, from chastising the LCWR a year ago for giving a leadership award to Sister Elizabeth Johnson. Johnson is the feminist theologian whose book Quest for the Living God had been previously denounced by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Cynic that I am, I suspect this conclusion to the LCWR investigation, described by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston as a public relations”disaster,” is as much an attempt to cut off at the pass crowds of demonstrators carrying “Support Our Sisters” signs during Papa Francesco’s upcoming visit as it is an act of mercy.
I admit, it’s hard not to welcome this end to hostilities, no matter what underpins it. But I would urge those celebrating in the streets to bear something in mind. As Benedictine monk Anthony Ruff said with some astonishment after the Vatican trashed his years of work on musical settings when it rejected the International Commission on English in the Liturgy’s translation of the Roman Missal in 2008, “The Catholic Church is an absolute monarchy.” Nobody at any level is accountable to anyone below him (and I use the male pronoun intentionally).
So if the early suspension of the offensive mandatory supervision of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is a result of Francis’s focus on mercy, or because he was once the superior of a province of a religious congregation and thus understands what a tough job leadership is, or if he’s listening to the bishops who support the sisters as his predecessors didn’t–whatever the reason–he’s still seventy-eight years old. The vast majority of Catholics have absolutely nothing to say about who will succeed him, or what the attitude of said successor toward nuns (or women, or LGBT people, or mercy) will be. All we can do is pray that Papa Francesco lives a long time and appoints a whole lot of merciful bishops and cardinals while he’s still with us.
Tags: Easter, Jesus, the earth, wheat
Back in the 1970s, I lived for a number of years at Grailville, the Grail’s national center and organic farm in southwest Ohio. There was much that I loved about being there, but what I loved most was the singing. We sang for everything, feasts, holidays, people’s birthdays. We sang Gregorian chant. We sang in three parts, under the leadership of fine choir directors–Lynn Malley, Fran Martin, and many others. But what we really sang for was Holy Week.
The Easter carol I learned to love more than other while I was at Grailville is an English one, “Love is Come Again.”At first, I loved it for the music. It uses a melody from a French medieval Christmas carol–I’m nuts about medieval music–and the harmony makes it even more gorgeous. Take a couple of minutes and listen to the YouTube recording, sung by a choir of gorgeous young people.
But as the years have passed, I’ve also come to love it because of the words:
Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain,
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.
In the grave they laid him, love whom hate had slain,
Thinking that never he would wake again,
Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.
When our hearts are wintry, grieving or in pain,
Thy touch can call us back to life again;
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.
I love these words because they highlight the connection between Christ , and therefore, between Christians–between human beings–and the earth itself. And as the situation of the earth becomes more and more perilous, isn’t this exactly what we need to hear? Orthodox types would probably argue that it only says that Jesus is like wheat that springs from the earth. But more and more, theologians are realizing that God’s connection with the earth, through the creation, and the incarnation, is much more intimate than that. God is one with the earth, as well as beyond it.
So when we sing this hymn we are reminded of that intimate connection–that integral ecology, as Pope Francis will soon argue in his encyclical–between God and us and the earth, one we must not violate or abuse if we want to have life. Imagine what it might have meant if, over the years, Christians–Catholic Christians in particular–had been singing about Christ the Wheat instead of Christ the King? How might our world be more whole?
Tags: "I thirst", Good Friday, lack of clean water, lack of sanitation, Luise Schottroff, the crucifixion of Jesus, the woman at the well, water
This post is an edited version of a sermon I preached as part of a Seven Last Words service at Allen Temple Baptist Church, the biggest African American church in Oakland, California, on a Good Friday sometime in the middle of the last decade. It’s dedicated to the memory of my dear friend Luise Schottroff, the gifted German feminist New Testament scholar, whose work I draw on here. Luise died in February .
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 John 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. 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 (John 4:4-26).
Let’s note the similarities between these two stories. In John 4, Jesus is also 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’s generally remembered about this story is that 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 knowledge about her.
But there’s nothing in John 4 to indicate that this woman is sexually immoral; there are a number of stories in the Bible about a widow obligated by the Law to marry the brothers of their deceased husband. 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 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 of 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 (and still damages) the postures of the women required to do it.
But despite this woman’s poverty and her bad living situation, Jesus talks with her. And he doesn’t do all the talking; 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.
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 water, 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.”
Perhaps people who are taken up with the superiority of “living water” don’t understand what it is to be really thirsty. Perhaps they are like many of us Americans (though, increasingly, not Californians!) 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 three-quarters of a billion people around the world who lack access to clean drinking water, or the 2.5 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 500,000 children who die every year 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 resonate with Jesus when he gets nothing but sour wine to quench his last thirst. And we know that the first gift he bestows on his newly created church is the water that flows 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.
Tags: "Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love", "The Origin of Species", Charles Darwin, Eco-feminist theology, Elizabeth A. Johnson
The following is a review of Elizabeth A. Johnson’s splendid new book, Ask the Beasts. It also appears in the spring issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s ordination Conference.
Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love. By Elizabeth A. Johnson. London: Bloomsbury/Continuum, 2014. 323pp. Hardback: $32.95; eBook: $9.43.
The post-war U.S. women’s movement and the environmental movement were, in significant ways, parallel phenomena. In 1963, the year after Rachel Carson brought environmental concerns before the U.S. public with Silent Spring, Betty Friedan launched the second wave of American feminism with The Feminine Mystique. Five years later Mary Daly drew Catholics into women’s liberation with The Church and the Second Sex. And in 1975, the ever-prescient Rosemary Radford Ruether merged the conversations in New Women, New Earth.
In the forty years since then, many Christian feminist theologians and activists have engaged environmental issues, as have some churches and church-related agencies. Yet as the distinguished eco-feminist theologian Catherine Keller observed recently, “Christianity on the whole continues to function as an anti-ecological public force…”
Critics focus particularly on the belief that human dominion over the earth is central to the doctrine of creation. Feminist theologians have worked to reconstruct this understanding of creation and its corollary, the belief that men should dominate women because women are intrinsically connected to the earth.
Yet given the way our “Christian” nation and the rest of the “First World” continue their brutal practice of extractivism, it can be argued that these feminist and eco-feminist efforts have failed. One reason for this may be that many feminist theologians shifted to theo-ethical concerns (sexism, racism, colonialism, etc.) and paid less—and sometimes no—attention to classical systematic Christian theology. But if Christian practice regarding creation is going to change as radically as it must in this era of climate catastrophe, then the theology that underpins it must be transformed as well. Elizabeth Johnson’s new book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, makes a significant contribution to such a transformation.
In Ask the Beasts, Johnson, a professor of theology at Fordham University and a Sister of St. Joseph of Brentwood, NY, fashions an intellectually sophisticated yet lyric dialogue between the theory of evolution, especially Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, and the Nicene Creed. Her purpose in so doing is to demonstrate that “love of the natural world is an intrinsic part of faith in God,” and to create a theology that will generate passionate ethical action toward plants, animals and ecosystems—as passionate as that which drives faith in God.
The first three chapters of Ask the Beast comprise a close reading of Darwin’s Origin of Species. If, like me, you have gone your whole adult life “believing” in evolution without having read Darwin, or even particularly understanding the theory of natural selection, these chapters alone make Ask the Beasts invaluable. As one reviewer remarks, “A more careful and sensitive reading of (The Origin of Species) would be hard to find anywhere, and not just among theologians.” In the fourth chapter, Johnson explores how aspects of Darwin’s theory have “evolved” since Darwin’s own time, even as contemporary scientists affirm that the theory of evolution is “accurate beyond reasonable doubt.” (102)
Throughout the rest of the book, Johnson constructs a dialogue between Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the Nicene Creed, a dialogue that will enable Christians to shift their faith from an “abstract and distant deity” to a “living God intensely engaged with the world.” Chapter 5 braids Darwinism with biblical images, the theology of Thomas Aquinas, and contemporary theology to represent the entire natural world, and not merely human history, as the dwelling place of God. The Holy Spirit, an afterthought in most anthropocentric theology, is the primary actor in this profound theological deepening. (This was also the case in Johnson’s 1992 theological reconstruction, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse). By dint of its ongoing evolution, the natural world “continuously participates in the livingness of the One who is sheer, exuberant aliveness” (148).
The next three chapters fill out this vision, exploring the freedom of creation, the suffering and death of all things, and creation ex nihilo/eschatology, in dialogue with Darwinian thought. Finally, in chapter 9, Johnson’s argument culminates in a new, deeply moving paradigm, that of the “community of creation” in place of the earlier top/down human-dominion paradigm of creation.
It’s hard to convey adequately the scope and artistry of Johnson’s writing. I was especially moved by the last six chapters, in which Johnson weaves together images and concepts from The Origin of Species and other scientific sources with theological texts from across the centuries, powerful biblical material, selections from English literature (“The world is charged with the grandeur of God…”) and the thinking of other eco-theologians. The concluding chapter alone would make a splendid prayer book.
Elizabeth Johnson has shown considerable courage in writing Ask the Beasts. As you may remember, in 2011 the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a stinging critique of Johnson’s previous book, Quest for the Living God, claiming that it completely “undermines the Gospel.” A number of the theological issues that the bishops targeted in that book are also pivotal in Ask the Beasts. As Georgetown theologian John F. Haught explains, the bishops’ critique of Johnson focused particularly on Johnson’s position that God suffers along with creation. Their position is predicated on the argument that God cannot suffer because suffering is always the result of sin. Such a theology serves to keep God separate from—uncontaminated by—a sinful humanity.
But such a dualist theology is utterly incompatible with the evolution of species. Johnson’s expansive reading of natural selection in Ask the Beasts includes the essential function of the suffering and death of some non-human species in the eventual emergence of higher species (including us). But the suffering of non-human species is not, by definition, a result of sin, so all suffering cannot be the result of sin, and it is not theologically inconceivable that God should suffer. For Johnson, God’s oneness with all of creation is so fundamental that God suffers along with creation, even as She is also greater than that suffering.
It may be that the bishops will attack Johnson’s theology in Ask the Beasts as they did the theology in her previous work, though with Pope Francis’s upcoming encyclical on the environment and his emphasis on mercy, perhaps not. All that notwithstanding, the news about the effects of human-induced climate change on God’s creation grows increasingly dire. Christians (including the U.S. Catholic bishops) must acknowledge that the obligation to save that creation is at the heart of Christian teaching if such teaching is not soon to become irrelevant. There’s no better way to begin this life-and-death conversion than by engaging deeply with Ask the Beasts.
Tags: Catholics for Choice, Good Catholics: The Battle Over Abortion in the Catholic Church, Patricia Miller, The Women's Ordination Conference, US Catholic Bishops
The following is a slightly revised version of a review that appeared in the fall 2014 edition of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.
Good Catholics: The Battle Over Abortion in the Catholic Church. By Patricia Miller. University of California Press, 2014. 344 pp. Hardback: $24.47. Kindle $19.22.
As I began writing this review of Patricia Miller’s Good Catholics: The Battle Over Abortion in the Catholic Church, historian Timothy Kelly’s review of Miller’s book appeared in the National Catholic Reporter.
I agree with much that Kelly says. In Good Catholics, Miller argues convincingly that the organization Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) —now Catholics for Choice (CFC)— “served as an effective counterbalance to the (United States Catholic) bishops in the public arena.” Her analysis focuses primarily on public debates about abortion, though she also explores theology and ethics, popular responses to the abortion controversy, and the history of CFFC/CFC.
In the first part of Good Catholics, Miller uses the activities of four early Catholic feminist theologians—Rosemary Radford Reuther, Jane Furlong Cahill, Mary Daly, and Elizabeth Farians— as a platform for the rest of the book. All four challenged women’s subordination in the church as the secular women’s movement was challenging it in the rest of society. They were also founders of the movement for women’s reproductive rights. In 1964, for example, Ruether, identifying herself as a “Catholic mother,” published an article in the Saturday Evening Post expressing her belief in birth control. In 1971, Cahill, a Philadelphian, defended the morality of abortion at a state hearing in Harrisburg, after which Archbishop Krol called her “the abortion woman.” Farians and Daly were equally feisty on reproductive issues. All four of them were involved in the founding and early activities of CFFC/CFC. (Three also helped start the St. Joan’s International Alliance, the women’s organization that preceded the U.S. Women’s Ordination Conference and Women’s Ordination Worldwide).
The passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973 marked a new era in the fight over U.S. reproductive rights, and public challenges to the bishops’ position on reproductive rights by CFFC drew some thousands of U.S. Catholics to the organization. Then, in 1982, Frances Kissling became president of CFFC. But in Miller’s telling, it was the 1984 NY Times “Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion” that really set off the battle between the American bishops and the pro-choice movement.
The second half of Good Catholics documents the history of that struggle, up to and including the bishops’ recent attacks on the contraceptives mandate of the Affordable Care Act. I found especially sobering Miller’s discussion of the alliance between the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the Religious Right, undercutting as it does the church’s emphasis on social justice and the common good since before the New Deal. CFFC/CFC has played a crucial role in opposing this alliance, making politicians and the country aware that the USCCB’s stance is not the only Catholic position.
Miller would seem to draw at least two conclusions from her narrative of “the battle over abortion in the Catholic Church.” The first I agree with as far as it goes: from Cahill and Ruether to the contraceptives mandate, “the debate had really been about women and sex.” I would add that the Catholic institutional fixation on controlling sexuality is also about the church’s loss of secular power since at least the liberal revolutions of the mid-19th century, but that’s another story.
I find Miller’s other conclusion, about the impact of the Catholic reproductive rights movement (and therefore CFFC/CFC) more problematic. In the last chapter she writes:
“It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this alternative theology (of reproductive rights) to modern Catholics and their ability to grapple with issues of sexuality within the context of their religion—especially because they have been abandoned by the hierarchy on the issue…. (as Louis Utley of Merger Watch said) … having a progressive voice representing 98% of Catholic women is extremely helpful.”(266).
Let me be clear here: like Miller, I am grateful to CFFC/CFC for providing an alternative Catholic voice on reproductive rights in the public arena. As the hierarchy has moved steadily to the right, trying to identify contraceptives with abortifacients, for example, I regret not having supported the group financially over the years.
But on the ground, beneath the public conversation, where “modern (U.S.) Catholics” “grapple” with sexuality, the situation is much more ambiguous than Miller acknowledges. Even if 98 percent of Catholic women report having used contraceptives at some time, it doesn’t follow that they consider themselves “represented” by the reproductive rights movement. Indeed, among U.S. Catholics, even liberal/ progressive ones, CFFC and reproductive rights, or at least, abortion rights, have been marginalized for a long time.
Kelly acknowledges this in his NCR review, suggesting at the end that Miller’s book “will likely give off sparks.” I am reminded here of an experience I had on the national Women’s Ordination Conference board about a decade ago. There had been some kind of crisis—a fire, maybe—in the WOC office, where the board usually met. Francis Kissling, who had been a friend of the leaders of WOC in its early days, offered to let us meet in the CFFC offices nearby. But at least one, and possibly two, board members adamantly refused to use the offices of CFFC for a meeting. Let me be clear here: CFFC had not asked WOC to endorse their position; Kissling had simply offered the space when it was needed. But some members of the Board refused to set foot there. And the rest of the board gave in. A friend who’s involved in the national leadership of Dignity also assures me that abortion and contraception are never mentioned at Dignity meetings. (A member of the current Women’s Ordination Conference staff wrote to tell me, after this article was published in EqualwRites, that this is no longer the attitude of the WOC board).
Some of the reaction of WOC board members may have been strategic, not wanting to get a single-issue organization off track. Myself, I suspect that it’s more than that. Catholics may well use contraceptives and have abortions at the same rate as the rest of the country, as some polls suggest. And a considerable majority indicate in such polls that they support reproductive rights.
But it’s not just Catholic “attitudes” or what we write in a private poll that’s significant. It’s also what we’re willing to stand up for and speak out about in public. Patricia Miller may argue that we cannot overestimate the impact CFFC has had on “modern Catholics…and their attitudes about sexuality.” But who wants to risk being shamed by the local archbishop, or even by other members of whatever liberal Catholic group we’re active in?
Tags: Carolyn Gratton, Grailville, The International Grail Movement, The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur
If you are an (early) baby-boomer like me, or older than I am (almost 68), what I’m going to say here won’t be anything new to you. If you’re a lot younger, maybe. But in any case, perhaps we can share reflections and begin to come to terms with some of this hard stuff.
My mother, God bless her, did her best. But she was not noted for her warmth or supportiveness–at least not to my brother and me. Some of the cousins fared better; Mom sometimes rose to occasions. But as for me, I spent my younger years looking for a mother, or mothers, to make up for certain significant lacks.
One of the groups who rose to the occasion big time were the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, who staffed the Catholic girls high school I attended in the early 1960s, Notre Dame, Moylan, south of Philadelphia. The nuns at that high school were the first genuinely educated people I had ever met, and the love and support they showed me is hard to describe adequately. A number of them still send me birthday cards, and pray for my husband when he’s sick, and love the things I write.
Toward the end of my senior year at Moylan, one of the Sisters of Notre Dame there, Sister Marcella Marie, invited a member of the Grail, the international Catholic laywomen’s movement, to come and speak about the Grail. After Veronica Barbato’s talk, I began going up to the Grail’s center on Chester Avenue in Philadelphia for programs and liturgical events. The Grail seemed to me to be the perfect embodiment of the Second Vatican Council, which had just ended.
Eventually one of the Grail women drove me out to the group’s national headquarters, Grailville, in rural southwestern Ohio. I began spending summers there while I was in college and teaching the fourth grade–don’t even ask!!–after which I joined the Grailville staff for four years (1975 to 1979). While I was at Grailville I co-authored my first book, led programs, met nationally-known feminist theologians, became concerned about the environment (Grailville is an organic farm) and more or less started being the person I am today. It was an extraordinary experience.
In my encounter with the Sisters of Notre Dame, and again with the Grail women, I was most deeply influenced by those a generation ahead of me, women who were in their twenties and thirties for the most part. This means that I have been in conversation with–and loved–a number of them for fifty years.
And now they are dying. I said to someone recently that being in the Grail for me now is like having fifty mothers all in their eighties. And it’s true with the SNDs as well.
Let me illustrate this with two stories. A few years ago, at the funeral of a Moylan classmate, I ran into a woman named Eileen Holahan. She had been an SND for many years, and the director of the glee club at Notre Dame, an activity that had given me great joy. Eileen had left the convent somewhat later in life than a lot of women did, and worked as a professional for several decades. At the time of my friend’s funeral, Eileen was in her early eighties, but in good health, and we had a few wonderful visits when I was in Baltimore, where she lived. Then last winter, one day, her sister called to say Eileen had fallen on the ice outside her apartment building, damaged her brain, and died. I still can’t believe it. I keep expecting her to telephone me.
Then this past Christmas Eve I called Carolyn Gratton, an internationally known Grail member whom another Grail member, Anne Burke, used to take me to visit when Carolyn was a graduate student in psychology at Duquesne in Pittsburgh in the late 1960s. Carolyn finished her Ph.D. and went on to be a recognized expert and author in the areas of spirituality and spiritual direction. I didn’t always agree with her–she was so much more benign a person than I am–but we had been talking throughout my entire adult life. When I called her on Christmas eve, I told her I’d be up to Toronto to see her in the spring. Next morning there was an email from the Grail saying that Carolyn had died in her sleep.
Then there’s Ruthie Chisholm, another Grail member who had spent decades nursing with the Grail team at Rubaga Hospital in Uganda. I lived with Ruth for a while at the Grail Center up in Cornwall, New York, after she returned from Uganda. Ruth had a terrible stroke a few years ago, so her death was not unexpected; in many respects,actually, it was a blessing, because she had been totally disabled by the stroke, she, a woman who had always been active. But it’s hard to imagine the world without her.
As I said at the outset, none of this should be all that surprising. Indeed, it’s the new normal; people get old and then they die. So will I, I’m told. But it’s unbelievably hard to imagine a world without these and the other radiant women who impacted my life so significantly.
Perhaps I’ll just stop writing now and go have a visit with them.
Tags: "Men Explain Things to Me", female genital mutilation, Kenyan Catholic bishops, Mary Hunt, Pontifical Council for Culture Meeting on Women, Pope Francis, Questions from a Ewe, Rebecca Solnit, tetanus vaccination, Time Magazine Person of the Year
By now, you have probably heard about the meeting of the Pontifical Council for Culture at the Vatican, ending today, comprised entirely of male hierarchs, discussing “Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference.” The indefatigable Mary Hunt, on Religion Dispatches, argues that such a gathering would be “funny were it not so insulting.” The anonymous blogger who writes “Questions from a Ewe” also chimes in on the “irony” of such an undertaking. The Ewe comments on the obscene misogynist sculpture that the hierarchs chose for the cover of the meeting’s working document, and their choice to have an Italian movie star invite women around the world to submit one-minute videos about their experience as input for the meeting. (I guess they thought we could spare only one minute from the kids, etc.)
I don’t doubt that such a meeting is ironic, insulting, even in some respects laughable. But the book I’ve been reading, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, suggests that the implications of a group comprised exclusively of men discussing “women’s culture,” and then issuing a report, are a good deal more than insulting.
Solnit’s ‘s book is a collection of essays about the oppression of women around the world. It begins with the essay from which the book title is taken; it appeared originally on Tom Dispatch, and it’s pretty funny. Solnit and a woman friend are leaving a party when an arrogant guy engages them in conversation. When Solnit says she has written a number of books, the most recent one about Edweard Muybridge and the industrialization of the American West, the man asks if she knows about the very important Muybridge book that came out that year, and begins to tell Solnit about it. As he proceeds, Solnit’s friend has to tell him four times that it’s Solnit’s book he’s talking about before he grasps what she’s saying. He was “stunned speechless.”
I bought a copy of Men Explain Things to Me because men have explained things to me this way on many occasions, most recently at a local Zen center where I attempted, without success, to become a practitioner. Older guys, a considerable minority of the membership, were in the habit of holding forth at some length. But of course, the place where I’ve heard men explain things to me most frequently is in church. Sometimes, when I suggest on the way out that a priest might want to rethink a particular error he’s been preaching, he is almost invariably astounded.
What makes Solnit’s essay illuminating, however, is that she quickly goes beyond the amusing story about the arrogant guy at the party to lay out the dire implications of the widespread practice of men explaining things to women. Solnit calls conversations in which men explain things to women “the narrow end of the wedge that opens up space for men and closes it off for women, space to speak, to be heard, to have rights, to participate, to be respected, to be a full and free human being.” Such closed off space includes Colleen Rowley, the FBI woman whose early warnings about al Qaeda were ignored before 9/11; the great difficulty that U.S. women have getting restraining orders, and the three women a day who are murdered by spouses and ex-spouses, one of the main causes of death for pregnant women in this country. At the heart the struggle to give “rape, date rape, domestic violence and workplace violence legal standing as crimes,” Solnit assures us,” has been the necessity of making women credible and audible.”
Which brings us back to the men in Rome who will soon be explaining women’s culture to the church, the vast majority of whose members are women. Someplace on this blog I am sure I already mentioned the article accompanying Time Magazine’s declaration of Pope Francis as Person of the Year back in 2013. The article said that although Pope Francis is against women’s ordination, women have much more important problems than being excluded from ordination, for example, female genital mutilation. In recent months, however, hospitals in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa have been offering female genital mutilation services. While one Catholic priest is on record as opposing this, the Kenya Catholic bishops are busy with another issue, protesting to the Kenyan government the vaccination of women against tetanus by the World Health Organization. Tetanus, it seems, is a major cause of death among women of childbearing years. The bishops argue, however, that the vaccine must be stopped because it makes women sterile or causes them to miscarry, a position that is widely discredited. Does anybody doubt that if half of the Catholic bishops of Kenya were women, there wouldn’t be more protest against African hospitals offering female genital mutilation services, and fewer claims that a vaccine saving lives all around the world causes sterilization?
Tags: Africa, cancer-causing insecticides, Catholic Mass, hunger in Africa, Jesus, malaria, mosquito nets, Simon Peter and Andrew
At Mass on Sunday, I was struck by the reference to fishing nets in the reading from the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel:
“As (Jesus) passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; …Jesus said to them, ‘Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Then they abandoned their nets and followed him.”
The reference struck me because I had just finished reading an article in the Sunday Times by the East Africa bureau chief. Jeffrey Gettleman, about a development all over Africa: people using the millions of nets provided them to prevent malaria as fishing nets. Not only does this increase the incidence of malaria; it also causes a range of other problems. Because the malaria nets have such a fine mesh, those fishing with them catch tinier and tinier fish, thus threatening the survival of the fish stocks on which many depend for food. In addition, the nets, which are dragged through the same lakes and rivers that people drink from, are sprayed with a carcinogenic insecticide. Even if the small amounts discharged into the drinking water don’t make the people themselves sick, they are much more likely to kill fish populations, since fish are smaller than people. And in smaller bodies of water–ponds–the carcinogenic danger to humans is more serious. Big fights have broken out between professional fishermen and ordinary people over the damage done by their use of mosquito nets for fishing. Some countries have outlawed the practice, but it continues to be widespread. In villages around Lake Tanganyika, according to one study, 87.2 % of households use mosquito nets for fishing. Even families that have lost members to malaria do so because malaria is not as bad as starvation.
Now the Gospels aren’t entirely consistent on the subject of fishing nets. Even as Peter and Andrew throw away their nets to follow Jesus at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells Simon (Peter) to put out into the deep and put down his net for a catch.
It is also the case that during Sunday Mass in the parish I attend, I have heard prayers for the religious freedom of Christians being persecuted in the Middle East, and for the right to life of unborn babies. But I have never heard a mention of the Africans who die from malaria –more than half a million children in 2102 alone–or of the starvation that causes many Africans to risk catching it because they are so hungry. Maybe the disciples of Jesus need to be casting their nets in a different direction, or at least, in a much wider circle.
Tags: Catholic sexual teaching, contraception, divorced and remarried Catholics, gay marriage, ideological colonization, Intersex infants, Pope Francis, transgender men
Well, according to the Boston Globe’s John Allen, Pope Francis, during his visit to and trip home from the Philippines, “rebooted the debate on sex” in the Catholic Church. This is so because on Friday night, February 16th, in Manila, the pope spoke out, in a talk to 20,000 Filipino families, against the “ideological colonization” of the family. “Ideological colonization” is, apparently, a term that conservative Catholics, especially RC bishops in Africa, use to describe the West forcing contraception and homosexuality on their cultures as a requirement for economic assistance. And a few days later Francis defended Pope Paul VI’s heroic condemnation of artificial birth control. These statements by the politically astute Pope Francis, we learn, are aimed at reducing opposition among conservatives before the October Synod on the Family by distinguishing between these implicitly central issues of Catholic sexual morality and the question of divorced and remarried Catholics receiving communion.
I am intrigued by this distinction between divorce, gay marriage, and contraception. To begin with, there’s the fact that Jesus actually does say some fairly negative things about divorce in the Gospels, whereas he has nothing whatever to say about gay marriage or contraception. And biblical scholars are not all that sure that even the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is about the evils of gay sex. The RCC has never felt compelled to base its teaching in scripture, of course, but it’s worth mentioning that scripture does not seem to be on their (our) side on this one.
Then there’s the matter of divorced and remarried Catholics being excluded from communion but Catholics who use artificial contraception not being excluded. Well, you may say, of course they’re excluded too; using contraception is a mortal sin, so everyone who uses it is excluded. The trouble is, during the uproar over the contraceptives mandate in the Affordable Care Act, 97% of U.S. Catholic women (who were or had been sexually active, one assumes) reported using contraceptives. Within the margin of error, that could actually be all U.S. Catholic women–and the men in their lives too, I guess! (Oddly enough, a third of those reporting contraceptive use opposed the contraceptives mandate–I guess either they’re rich or they repented after menopause.) The upshot of all this is that a whole lot more U.S. Catholics break this ostensibly much more serious tenet of Catholic sexual morality than get divorced. And given the number of U.S. Catholics who go to confession these days, I’d say that a whole lot of these folks are taking communion despite the disciplinary ban on same.
Now truth be told, Catholic parishes don’t really want to know about any of this stuff. I’m reminded here of the daughter of an old friend who was doing the marriage prep program at the Yale Catholic Center and said to the priest, “So Father, is it a problem for you that my fiancé and I have been living together?” To which the priest replied, “Not as long as you’re not so stupid as to ask me.” I myself have registered at a number of Catholic parishes in the twenty five years that Keith and I have been together, and nobody ever asked about my marital status, much less whether I use contraceptives. The Catholics were doing “Don’t ask, don’t tell” long before Bill Clinton.
Let me be clear here: I am totally in favor of divorced and remarried Catholics taking communion. Contraceptive users as well. And gay Catholics of all sorts. Even Protestants and nones when they come to Mass. Everyone who thirsts, let them come to the waters.
But the notion that Pope Francis is distinguishing divorce from gay marriage and contraception so as to placate the conservatives is laughable. Truth be told, the church has or will soon have vastly more complex problems related to sexuality to deal with than these three. For example, does the Pope agree with the Ayatollah of Iran that transgender surgery is a good thing because it cures homosexuality? Can transgender men be admitted to the priesthood? Are seminaries testing to guarantee that men about to be ordained aren’t genetically female? And will Pope Francis mention in his upcoming encyclical on the environment that chemicals seeping into our groundwater are resulting in the births of increasing numbers of intersex infants?
Hold onto your hats.
Tags: "Accidental Theologians", Catherine of Siena, Doctors of the C, Elizabeth Dreyer, feminist theology, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, the environment, Therese of Lisieux
The following is a revised version of a review I had published in the National Catholic Reporter within the last month or so. The full NCR doesn’t appear on-line, so I can’t actually find the review, but I’ve heard it appeared there recently. (Since the NCR has been running my reviews, I finally broke down and subscribed so, God willing, I’ll be able to be a bit more accurate when future pieces appear).
ACCIDENTAL THEOLOGIANS: FOUR WOMEN WHO SHAPED CHRISTIANITY: HILDEGARD OF BINGEN, CATHERINE OF SIENA, TERESA OF AVILA, THÉRÈSE OF LISIEUEX.
By Elizabeth A. Dreyer
Franciscan Media, 2014. $15.99.
Initially, I was wary of Elizabeth Dryer’s book, Accidental Theologians. I worried that the title trivialized the contributions of these four significant Catholic women, as if they hadn’t really intended what they’d achieved, or something.
I needn’t have worried. Dreyer’s book is a valuable introduction to the theologies of the four women named in her subtitle: Saints Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and Thérèse of Lisieux. In four remarkably accessible chapters, Dreyer examines each theology and its contemporary implications in light of the women’s life, work, and historical contexts.
Dreyer begins her exploration with the medieval Benedictine abbess and mystic, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). Hildegard gave the church a fiery, empowering theology of the Holy Spirit, with music and nature at the center of her vision of cosmic connectedness. And it was this same dynamic vision that inspired Hildegard to speak out courageously against the greed and corruption of the twelfth-century church.
During the lifetime of Catherine of Siena, the second woman Doctor of the Church (1347-1380), the Black Death killed a third of the population of urban Europe. Catherine, however, transformed the era’s fixation on the plague as God’s punishment into a deeply incarnational theology. A mendicant tertiary, she used strong bodily metaphors to express the human need at the heart of creation. Catherine’s incarnational theology undergirded her political action as well, as when she successfully urged the popes to return to Rome from Avignon.
The two remaining Doctors, Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), and Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), were each cloistered nuns who shared a deep desire to serve humanity. This desire inspired Teresa to lead the reform of her own Carmelite congregation, even as she offered Renaissance Europe a profoundly original theology of the human person. Thérèse’s theology of suffering, with its focus on the face of the crucified Christ, can seem far removed from Teresa’s humanistic and communitarian theology. But Dreyer shows that Thérèse’s theology of suffering, centered on the incredible joy of a face-to-face encounter with Jesus, is also deeply human. Likewise, Thérèse’s “Little Way” may seem to fit badly into Dreyer’s discussion of the four women Doctors as role models in the struggle against women’s oppression, until we see Thérèse, on her visit to Rome, courageously speaking to the pope, and later envisioning herself as martyr, missionary and priest.
Dreyer does a fine job in two concluding chapters of highlighting positive and negative aspects of the lives and theologies of the four doctors. One of the dangers she discusses is the overemphasis on suffering by three of the women, though she also shows the ways in which all four theologies help Christians to find meaning in their own suffering. The dualism that occasionally emerges from these otherwise deeply embodied theologies also elicits Dreyer’s concern.
Dreyer also identifies a number of contributions made by the four Doctors that are extremely relevant today—their broadening of theology to include experience and passion, their portrayals of a “God who loves madly,” their invitation to women without formal training to become theologians, and more. I especially appreciate Dreyer’s focus on the importance of nature in the respective theologies—“greening” as a pillar of Hildegard’s work, for example–and her raising up of environmental destruction as a crucial contemporary issue.
It’s pretty clear that Accidental Theologians, with its engaging discussion questions at the end of each chapter and its accessible applications of the theologies of the four female Doctors, is targeted at adult religious education groups. Indeed, Dreyer’s explains that her purpose in writing the book is to urge the laity to answer their baptismal call to become “grassroots” theologians. With Accidental Theologians, she makes a noteworthy contribution toward that goal.
I did find certain omissions in Accidental Theologians puzzling. For example, Dreyer virtually elides from her discussion the significant numbers of women who today actually are Catholic theologians (40 percent of the theology department at Fordham University, for example). Dreyer aims to inspire “grassroots” theologians, but the line between “grassroots” and “academic” is blurring as theologians today draw frequently on “grassroots” experience in their work.
Given Dreyer’s emphasis on the importance of women’s experience in the work of the four female Doctors, her failure to mention women’s experience as a critical component of feminist theologies since the 1960s is likewise puzzling. Of course, incorporating too much of the sophisticated theological scholarship on women’s experience runs counter to Dreyer’s purposes. But her decision barely to mention women’s experience and feminism more broadly as significant components of the past half-century of Christian theology is hard to understand.
All in all, though, Accidental Theologians will be a source of much-needed knowledge and hope for many Catholics, especially the emerging women theologians among us.