The Folly of the Cross

October 3, 2016 at 1:54 pm | Posted in Catholicism, Climate Change | 6 Comments
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Here’s a review of a book about the history and influence on Dorothy Day of a spirituality called “Lacouturism.” It was published on the Pax Christi Metro New York webpage a few months ago.

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 ascetic 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 Lacouturist 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 sociopolitical 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, is required so that we will be able to face up to these inconceivable challenges?

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6 Comments »

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  1. Is that an extra ‘e’ on Lacoutourism in the title of the book? Good food for thought! Thank you! take care, Margaret

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    • Yes, Downey uses the French (Canadien) spelling, while I have Anglicized it, so to speak. Thanks for reading my blog, Margaret.

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  2. Marian, I just got access to my Temple emails, or maybe I was just too ornery to read this on my phone. On my laptop it’s very clear — as always — and very interesting. I am always surprised at the range of your reading, and glad to know someone investigating American Catholic history is at LaSalle and publishing. Regina

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  3. Thanks, Marian — very interesting! I know too little about the less mentioned developments in Catholic thought in all its twists and turns. Thanks for opening up the “unknown”…

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  4. I certainly agree with your last paragraph Marian.

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  5. Dear Marian,

    Thanks very much for the book Sister Trouble, which arrived a couple of days ago. I look forward to reading it when life has calmed down a bit. My next big project is planting about 100 tulip bulbs, then putting the garden to bed. And I really hope this winter that I’ll get around to putting things in order : old photos, letters, papers, books, etc. etc.

    Love and thanks again, F.

    >

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