Stumbling in Holiness

April 23, 2019 at 8:55 am | Posted in Catholicism, Christian theology,, ecclesiology | 3 Comments

Another of the lovely things about my (72nd!) birthday last Thursday is that my review of Brian Flanagan’s Stumbling in Holiness, appeared in the National Catholic Reporter (April 19th issue). It was quite a day for me. And here’s the review:

STUMBLING IN HOLINESS: SIN AND SANCTITY IN THE CHURCH.

By Brian P. Flanagan

Published by The Liturgical Press Academic

179 pages. $24.95

When I got up this morning, the first three links to each of the two internet religion summaries I review regularly were to articles about scandals in the Catholic Church. I don’t need to tell you what kind of scandals. At a time when such coverage of the church is not unusual, a Catholic ecclesiology of sin in the church is nothing if not timely.

But it’s timely not just because the church is sinful. It’s timely, as Brian Flanagan explains, because holiness is at the heart of the church’s identity, “one of the earliest creedal statements made about the church,” and one that we repeat regularly: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church…” And this is the paradox that Flanagan takes on in Stumbling in Holiness, that the church, sinful as it is, is at the same time the manifestation of God’s transcendent holiness.

Flanagan is a theologian, on the faculty of Marymount University in Virginia, and is quick to acknowledge that we cannot understand the mysterious paradox of the church’s deep flaws and profound holiness without analyzing it systematically. But one of the great strengths of Stumbling in Holinessis that this analysis is framed within the most fundamental experience of Catholic Christians, the celebration of the Eucharist.

For Flanagan, the Eucharist is a kind of ecclesial dance, in which the assembly moves toward God, then retreats again in repentance, then moves forward again, then asks forgiveness once more, from the Kyrie Eleison to the Gospel to the consecration to the Lord’s Prayer to the Lamb of God who takes away the world’s sin, to communion, and then out into the world for the “liturgy after the liturgy,” the mission of the church. And every step of this pilgrimage is a collective, not just an individual, ritual of approaching and retreating and moving forward again. This embodies not only the present reality of the holy/sinful church, but of the dialectic between the past, the present, and the eschatological future, the coming reign of God. Flanagan then weaves these liturgical and eschatological themes throughout the rest of the book.

Within this framework, Flanagan lays out the theology of the holy yet sinful church, detailing the ways in which such holiness is rooted in the mysterious otherness and compassionate closeness of God, deeply intensified by the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and lived out in the lives of the communion of saints and local Christian communities. Yet we learn that evil is also a mystery, a void, something lacking, with individual sin rooted in its senselessness and with continuing bad effects. The paradox is that without the reality of sin, neither would there be the reality of salvation.

In his analysis of this paradox, Flanagan by no means minimizes the holiness of the church. Yet the most demanding part of his analysis is his chapter on the sinfulness of the church.

The sins of the church, we learn, can be divided into two categories: those of individuals, members and leaders, and the sinfulness of the church itself. Included in this second category are sinful acts by leaders in the church’s name, for example, bishops’ conferences supporting military dictatorships, and the sinful social structures of the church itself that have ongoing harmful effects on the church and the world.

Flanagan’s third category of ecclesial sin includes historical mistakes, shortcomings and misunderstandings which don’t qualify as moral acts, but are characterized by group agency, a distinct mode of shared human action. The recognition of such shared intentionality, Flanagan believes, would enable a much-needed move beyond the church’s frequent portrayal as an idealized entity distinct from its members throughout history. A classic example of the bifurcation of the sinfulness of the members of the church and the sinfulness of the church itself, for Flanagan, are the words of Pope John Paul II at his Day of Pardon event in Rome in 2000. We need to recognize that the church is, in fact, a human community, through one mysteriously united with God.

Ultimately, for Flanagan, the paradox of the relationship between holiness and sin in the church reflects the utter mystery of the relationship between God and all of creation. Though we might wonder why God permits the ongoing struggle between sin and grace, it is precisely this paradoxical unity that manifests the reality of salvation, God’s overwhelming mercy and compassion. It is crucial, then, that the church admit and lament its sins so that the holiness of God may be manifest in the communion of saints throughout history.  “God’s holiness is stronger than sin.”

There is much to admire about Stumbling in Holiness, including its attention to historical theological understandings of ecclesial holiness and sin and its highlighting of the church’s eschatological reality—the “not yet” as well as the “already” of the church’s holiness toward which we stumble together.

But there are two problems. The first is that throughout the one-hundred-seventy-nine pages of Stumbling in Holiness Flanagan cites fifty-four male sources 148 times and eleven female sources seventeen times. I kept checking to see if the book had been published in 1968 and not 2018. Admittedly, most ecclesiologies are written by men. Perhaps it’s just a male field!  But when I was the communications director for an African-American seminary in the 1980s, I learned that if there were too many representations of white people in the upcoming newsletter, I needed to find others. Flanagan should have done similarly.

My other concern involves the examples of ecclesial sin omitted from Stumbling in Holiness. Flanagan cites classic instances of such sin—the Inquisition, collusion in the Holocaust, racism and, of course, clergy sex abuse.  But with the nuclear Doomsday Clock two minutes to midnight and twelve years remaining before the climate catastrophe becomes irreversible, surely the contemporary church’s near silence on both questions—Laudato Si’ notwithstanding—is an ecclesial sin demanding more attention than Flanagan gives it.

But then, as Flanagan himself admits, theologians, as well as popes, bishops, priests, laypeople, —even book reviewers—sin. May our profound repentance soon show forth the present and future glory of God in all its fullness.

 

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An Article Not By but About Me

April 14, 2019 at 2:11 pm | Posted in Catholicism, marian ronan, Regina Bannan, | 9 Comments
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Given my working-class Irish roots, I feel a bit ambivalent about sharing this article with you, written by my friend and sister women’s ordination activist, Regina Bannan, and published in the recent issue of the Irish Edition in Philadelphia. Regina wrote the article to share the news that I’m going to receive the annual Mary Magdalene Award from the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference in Philadelphia this coming Thursday. Regina is the president of the group.

But the odds that you subscribe to the Irish Edition aren’t high, and maybe if you read the article, you’ll join us outside the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul on the Parkway at 11 AM on Thursday. I would love to give you a hug there!! (Incidentally, it’s a token of how deeply involved I became with the Philly women’s ordination group that Regina reports that my husband and I arrived in Philadelphia in the 1980s but in fact we were there only from 1992 to 1997).

 

By Regina Bannan

Raised in Delaware County and educated by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur at Notre Dame High School in Moylan, Marian Ronan will return to speak in Swarthmore April 6. She will also be honored in Philadelphia on her birthday, coincidentally, April 18. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference (SEPA WOC) is recognizing her achievements by presenting her with the Mary Magdalene Award. Now living in Brooklyn, Marian has never lost touch with her beginnings and her Irish heritage.

The presentation of the Mary Magdalene award will be at the SEPA WOC Holy Thursday Witness, April 18, 2019, at 11am, across from the Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul, Philadelphia.  The Award is named after Mary Magdalene, who was the “apostle to the apostles,” the female follower of Jesus who has been misrepresented; her pivotal role in the early church was marginalized in the sixth century. Mary Magdalene has now been adopted as the champion of women, particularly those claiming their rightful places in the Roman Catholic Church, as a model of women’s leadership. Marian Ronan is a perfect exemplar.

Ronan attended the first Women’s Ordination Conference in Detroit in 1975 when she was a staff member at Grailville on O’Bannonville Road in Loveland, Ohio. She became a member of SEPA WOC when she moved to Philadelphia in the 1980s to pursue her doctorate in religion at Temple University, and was president of the national Women’s Ordination Conference at the turn of the 21stcentury. Despite relocating to two different states, she’s remained a member of the SEPA WOC leadership group and as a contributor to their publication, EqualwRites.

Now Ronan lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Keith Russell, an American Baptist preacher and academic leader. She characterizes her neighborhood: “My husband and I live in the amazing culturally and religiously diverse Flatbush section of Brooklyn where you can walk in ten minutes from mosques to Orthodox synagogues to Pentecostal store fronts to Haitian/Chicano/Caribbean Catholic churches.”  The last describes one of the places she goes to worship, which leads directly to the reason for her return to Delaware County.

Ronan will be one of the panelists at the SEPA WOC event at the Swarthmore Friends Meeting addressing the question “How Equality Can Flourish in a Multi-racial, Multi-cultural, Multi-national, Multi-generational Church:  What Does This Church Look Like Physically, Spiritually, Doctrinally?” She and three other speakers will consider the future of the Roman Catholic Church, of concern to anyone who reads the news, and especially to those who are part of that tradition. The other panelists will be Mariam Williams, a Philadelphia woman of color writer and artist; Kathleen Grimes, an Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics at Villanova University; and Sonja Spoo, a community organizer around women’s health issues and a Swarthmore College graduate. Mary Hunt, the co-founder of WATER, the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual, will moderate. The afternoon will include open discussion and a brief ritual, and is open to everyone, gathering at 1 pm and concluding by 4 pm, April 6, 2019.

Ronan reviews books for the National Catholic Reporter and writes for many other publications, often on women, church history, and the climate crisis. She became an ardent speaker about the world water crisis, then about Laudato Si, Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, and now about the disasters awaiting the world because of climate change. You may remember that she reviewed former Irish President Mary Robinson’s book, Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future, last year for the Irish Edition.

Her two most recent books as well as mot of her earlier works focus on women. Sister Trouble: The Vatican, The Bishops, and The Nuns collects her articles occasioned by the 2012 investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, but, typically, she goes on to consider the impact of sisters on the American church. For Women of Vision: Sixteen Founders of the International Grail Movement two years ago, Ronan edited and expanded work done previously by Mary O’Brien, and provided a scholarly introduction to this international women’s movement. Her first book, written with Linda Clark and Eleanor Walker, was Image-Breaking, Image-Building: A Creative Worship Handbook for Women of Christian Tradition. Her next, Sophia: The Future of Feminist Spirituality, written with Hal Taussig and Susan Cady, was the first published exploration of the power of the biblical figure of Sophia/Wisdom. This work has been frequently updated because it is such a rich resource for prayer and celebration.

Finally, Ronan’s most academic book, published in 2009, Tracing the Sign of the Cross: Sexuality, Mourning, and the Future of American Catholicism, takes us right back to her Irish heritage. Does any reader of the Irish Edition not know that thinking about these topics is deep in the Irish soul? Ronan takes these questions to new places, using poststructuralist analysis to look at the writings of four Baby Boomer Catholics: James Carroll, Mary Gordon, Donna Haraway, and Richard Rodriguez. While this is not the easy read that Ronan’s popular articles and speeches are, it speaks to a consistent searching for the consequences of the life of her ancestors. When I asked her if it would be OK to write about her in the Irish Edition she so characteristically replied: “Perhaps the article will mention that my great-grandmother, Hannah Kelly, was an Irish domestic.” This suggests her great interest in Irish history and the politics of class, the contradictions of our lives and our history, especially as revealed by the women in our families. She even started an Irish book club to explore these themes. The Mary Magdalene award is just another contradiction, moving another woman from a marginalized position to the center of the faith.

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