Thoughts About Elizabeth Johnson’s “Ask the Beasts” after Pope Francis’s Creation-Care Encyclical

July 17, 2015 at 2:23 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Anything written about Catholicism and the environment demands reconsideration after the publication of Pope Francis’s attention-grabbing creation care encyclical on June 18, 2015. This includes my earlier review of Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts.

A major question involves the place of women, and of feminist theology and activism, in Catholic teaching on climate change and environmental destruction. As I argued previously, despite the occasional action to the contrary (such as washing women’s feet on Holy Thursday), Pope Francis adheres to the traditional Vatican position on women and sexuality. That is to say, he continues the teaching on complementarity enforced by his papal predecessors. In this teaching women are intrinsically passive and receptive and men active, just as Christ is the male Spouse and the Church is the receptive, obedient “wife.” It seems likely that the Pope himself actually holds these positions, but even if he didn’t, given the institutional church’s focus on sexual teaching since Vatican II, his moving in any other direction would risk a civil war. What Pope Francis says about population and abortion in Laudato Si’ certainly suggests that his position on women and sexuality are consistent with the teachings of Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI.

In my review, I situate Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts within the history of feminist theology. Doing so at the time made sense, given Johnson’s historic role in Catholic feminist theology and particularly given the ferocious criticism of her previous book, Quest for the Living God, by the U.S. Catholic Bishops (This condemnation was subsequently reiterated by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). In my review, I argue that Johnson showed considerable courage in publishing Ask the Beasts since she includes in it some of the theological positions singled out by the U.S. bishops.

What I do not say is that in various places in the book, Johnson also is careful to emphasize the basically orthodox Catholic positions she holds on the transcendence of God along with God’s profound love and connection with creation. In these passages she is rebutting the bishops’ suggestions that she is, in effect, a pantheist, someone who denies any separation between God and the material world.

Furthermore, at a lunch we shared after I had published my review of Ask the Beasts, Johnson told me that some feminists had criticized the book because it says very little about women. I myself had overlooked this fact because I was at the time unable to think of Johnson’s work outside the context of her massive contributions to feminist theology– even her book on Darwin and the Nicene Creed, neither of which are exactly feminist texts (!). But as I reviewed Ask the Beasts after our luncheon conversation, I had to admit that Johnson says very little about women or feminism there. (Though I would argue that her reconfiguration of God’s relation to creation in light of evolution is implicitly feminist because it undercuts the classic Christian polarization between women/earth and the “male” God in heaven).

Later in our luncheon I asked Johnson a question. Now I put that same question to you.

The issues that Pope Francis addresses in Laudato Si’ are matters of life and death. Might it then not be wise for at least some of us to stop talking about the feminist issues that have been the cause of so much conflict between the Vatican, the hierarchy, and Catholic women, and to focus instead on spreading the Pope’s call for “integral ecology”?

Some conservative Catholic bishops, priests, politicians, and churchgoers have tried to dismiss the Pope’s words as going beyond the scope of his knowledge and authority. Should Catholic women activists and theologians criticize the encyclical from the left, objecting, for example, to his dismissal of population as an environmental issue because it can be seen to be so closely tied to issues of reproductive freedom? Or should we put our own deeply held concerns about women’s equality in the Church aside and support Pope Francis? After all, isn’t he downright heroic to have put out such a stinging critique of the neo-liberal capitalism, overconsumption, and market economy that are doing so much harm not only to the air we breathe, but to the lives of our sisters (and brothers) in sub-Saharan Africa, in the Pacific, and the fields of  California?

To illustrate where I come down on this question, let me tell you a story. Since the publication of the encyclical, I have a been working with an ad hoc group of Catholic laywomen and sisters here in New York City to draft and send out a series of inserts about Laudato Si’ to be published in parish bulletins. I myself wrote the first series of inserts which other members of the committee then edited and sent out to parishes. At a certain point the chair of the committee said she hoped I didn’t mind that she hadn’t included my name as the author of the inserts. She didn’t want anybody to Google my name and find my blog or all the books and articles I’ve written on Catholic feminist issues and then dismiss the inserts as too radical.

I said I didn’t mind at all.

(This post is the revision of an addendum to my review of Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts that was recently circulated for discussion among members in seventeen countries by the International Grail Movement.)

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2 Comments »

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  1. I am guessing you mean ‘radical’ in the final paragraph, where it says ‘radial’ – this sounds like an excellent tactic. Let’s save the earth first, then we can show the equality of women when we survive the greed and economic injustice. Thank you, as always!

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  2. […] Thoughts About Elizabeth Johnson’s “Ask the Beasts” after Pope Francis’s Cre… […]

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