An Heroic Woman

November 18, 2019 at 5:43 pm | Posted in feminism, Global justice,, women | Leave a comment
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This is a review of the biography of Anne Hope, a South African leader of the International Grail whom I was blessed to know. The review appears in recent issues of Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the United States, and EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.

 

Anne Hope: The Struggle for Freedom: the life of the visionary co-founder of Training for Transformation. By Stephanie Kilroe. Darton, Longman and Todd. 139 pp.  $17,99

Feminist scholars have been documenting for some time now that women are consistently left out of historical narratives. One of the books that brought that home to me was Katherine Harmon’s There Were Also Many Women There, which explains in detail how my ecumenical women’s community, the Grail, had been excluded from the history of the liturgical movement.

Some of us—my co-author, Mary O’Brien and I, for example, in our 2017 volume on sixteen founders of the International Grail–have been trying to undo this injustice. Now South African writer Stephanie Kilroe has joined the effort with her splendid new life of South African anti-apartheid activist and Grail member Anne Hope: Anne Hope: The Struggle for Freedom.

The story begins with Anne’s birth, the middle of three children, in 1930 Johannesburg, South Africa, and traces her lineage back through her distinguished forebears. I personally was astounded to learn that someone who had spent much of her life working and fighting for the poor was descended from so many members of the British peerage and widely respected South African professionals. Anne continued these traditions, raised as she was with flawless manners and morality, and educated at a distinguished boarding school and eventually Oxford University.

Yet the suffering and loss that marked Anne’s life also began early with her father’s death in battle at the very end of World War II, when she was fifteen. And her horror at the poverty of a black South African township even before her father’s death went on to shape her lifelong to commitment to justice, as did her early election to the steering committee of Pax Romana, the International Catholic Student Movement.

It was, in fact, at a Pax Romana meeting in Montreal in 1952, that Anne met a group of young US Grail women, and then, back in Africa, the founder of the US Grail, Lydwine Van Kersbergen. Van Kersbergen arranged a scholarship for Anne to come to Grailville, the US Grail’s farm and national center near Cincinnati. Anne’s years there changed her life, or at least brought together many of the desires and commitments within her. After four years at Grailville, Anne spent four more years in Uganda at a Grail women’s secondary school. Her further work there starting women’s clubs in Ugandan villages was one of the foundations of her later work with Training for Transformation, an international education program for community organizers

Then, at the age of 32, Anne was named president of the Grail in South Africa where she spent seven years leading significant efforts with the Grail and other groups organizing against the apartheid government’s crack-down on the African National Congress and other liberation efforts. It was through some of these groups that Anne met Steve Biko; her collaboration with him later forced Anne to flee South Africa, not long before his murder by the South African government.

One of the most engaging plot threads in Kilroe’s carefully woven narrative of Anne Hope’s life and emotional/spiritual development is the story of her relationship with Sally Timmel. Initially, the celibacy requirement of the Grail leadership group, the nucleus, held little appeal for Anne; she had expected to marry and have children. But her engagement at Oxford ended over the Catholic/Protestant divide between her and her fiancé. And when a young South African man she had known wrote to propose to Anne during her time at Grailville, Lydwine Van Kersbergen, the head of the US Grail, blocked her from receiving the letter, because she believed Anne was called to nucleus leadership. And Anne did, eventually, join the nucleus.

But soon after leaving the South African Grail presidency, in a scholarship-funded master’s program in adult education at Boston University in 1969, Anne met and fell in love with Sally. Their work together developing adult training programs, including DELTA (Development Education and Leadership Teams in Action) and Training for Transformation, based in the pedagogy of Paulo Freire, transformed the lives of countless people in diverse African countries and elsewhere. The story of their years of collaboration, and the strains on their relationship as they were sometimes stranded on different continents, as well as their struggle over Anne’s nucleus commitment in her other family, the Grail, comprises a galvanizing trajectory through the second half of the book.

Some, however, will find the final chapters of Anne Hope equally absorbing. Here Kilroe describes with considerable nuance Anne’s retirement, during which, through prayer, psychotherapy, and deep encounters with the earth itself, she come to terms with her own deepest identity. I was especially moved by the details of Anne’s death at the age of 85 at Pilgrim Place in California where she and Sally had retired, and the burial of her ashes back in South Africa.

Of course, writing a book, especially a non-fiction book, is hard work. A few errors always slip though, as when Kilroe states that Anne’s dear friend, Eva Fleischner, was a convert from Judaism when it was her father who converted. Or when she refers to the theologian of the cosmos, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose work influenced Anne enormously, as “de Chardin,” when the proper shortened version of his name is “Teilhard.”

Of perhaps more concern is the genre, so to speak of Kilroe’s work. As she explains in her afterword, the initial primary source for her research was Anne’s self-published 2013 autobiography, A Life of Hope: The Story of My Life. But Kilroe found the autobiography too objective, even stilted in parts. When Sally shared with her Anne’s “morning papers,” the journals Anne had kept over the years, as well as many of Sally’s own memories, Kilroe was able to focus on the “transforming struggle of Anne’s inner life…” As valuable as the results of such a focus may be, this means that Anne Hope is more a spiritual narrative, or even a mediated memoir, than a biography.

We see some of the implications of this focus in Kilroe’s discussion of the “trouble” Anne and Sally experienced at the end of a 1979 six-week advanced training course for forty experienced Kenyan trainers they had worked with successfully for years. Suddenly we learn, “the group reacted against colonialism, against white leadership in the church, and against Anne and Sally…accusing them of domination (and) of imposing Western values.” These accusations devastated Anne in particular.

Kilroe introduces this conflict with a paragraph comparing it to a child who while becoming an independent young adult experiences hostility toward their otherwise good parents. She quotes one of Anne and Sally’s African “colleagues” to justify her use of the comparison, assuring us that she does not mean it to be condescending.

I leave it to you to decide whether a white writer comparing Africans to children when they protest white dominance is condescending, but it is also the case that a competent biographer would have interviewed some of the Kenyan trainers involved in the conflict before evaluating it.

These limitations, however, ought not to deter us from reading Anne Hope with enthusiasm and gratitude. It is a well-written and absorbing book. Rarely are we gifted with such a poignant and inspiring portrayal of the inner life and accomplishments of an heroic woman—a portrayal that strikes one more blow against the exclusion of women from history.

 

Revisiting Dorothy Day

July 9, 2018 at 2:31 pm | Posted in Catholicism, feminism, war and violence | 4 Comments
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Because of my half-century of participation in the Grail movement, I have always felt related to Dorothy Day. The first recorded contact between the Grail and American Catholics was a 1936 letter to her from the co-founder of the US Grail, Lydwine van Kersbergen. In 1943, with the Grail planted in the Midwest, Day, on sabbatical from the Catholic Worker, participated in a three-week Grail program on rural living, liturgy, and the women’s apostolate. Later she made a silent retreat at Super Flumina, the Grail’s farm in Foster, Ohio.

My personal contacts with Day were limited. She spoke at a meeting of the Catholic Art Association—or maybe it was the Catholic Art Guild, since the Art Association shut down in 1970––during one of the summers that I spent at Grailville, the Grail’s farm and conference center near Cincinnati, when I was still a fourth-grade teacher. Her talk followed the showing of a short art film, “Two Men and a Wardrobe.”* My recollection is that Day was quite dismissive of the film, something that led me to categorize her as a crabby, old-fashioned Church type; I was in my mid-twenties at the time and not very forgiving.

I also wrote to Day in 1975, after I had become a full-time member of the Grailville staff, asking if she would send me a copy of the Muslim “Ninety-Nine Names of God” that another Grail member, recently home from Egypt, had given her. She responded,

Sorry. Those 99 Names have disappeared from my treasure box, though the beads remain. My bedroom is always used in my peregrinations, so things disappear, are ripped off, liberated, to use the language of the young. My love to all there. –– In Christ––Dorothy.

The message came on a postcard bearing the kind of dramatic woodcut, this one by Antonio Frasconi, that appeared frequently in the Catholic Worker. Eventually I had the postcard framed archivally, to preserve it. When I show it to visitors I tell them that if Dorothy is canonized, it will become a second-class relic, a comment that baffles most of them.

All the rest of my “encounters” with Dorothy have taken place since her death in 1980. One was reading the letter from Cardinal John O’Connor to the Vatican nominating Day for canonization. It highlights, as a reason for her canonization, Day’s repentance for the abortion she underwent she became a Catholic. Later, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, at an event in Day’s honor at St. Joseph’s in Greenwich Village, the church where Day was baptized, described her as an “obedient daughter of the Church.” I was well past my mid-twenties by then, but my responses to these statements were still not very forgiving. With regard to Day’s obedience to the Church, for example, I thought: except for the cemetery workers’ strike, where Day and her Catholic Worker colleagues picketed against the strike breakers brought in by the Archdiocese.

Most recently, my encounters with Day include reading Jim Forest’s biography, All is Grace (Orbis 2011). I have had it in my head for years to write a book about Joan of Arc, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Day, because of the strong but seemingly unlikely connections between them––Thérèse the ascetic having written a play about Joan the warrior, and Day, the pacifist, devoted to Joan as well, then writing a book about Thérèse. Forest’s book is part of the material I’ve been accumulating for the project.

Forest is a terrific writer, and I learned a great deal from his biography that I had not known about Day. For one thing, I learned that she really was in many respects a traditional, if also utterly committed, Catholic. She was also a fairly judgmental individual, a sin she confessed again and again. So my evaluation of her in the 1970s was not entirely mistaken.

I also learned that Day really was an obedient daughter of the Church, frequently following the directions she received from bishops and priests—though she was by no means naïve about the sins of the institution.

I even learned that Day really did seriously regret—repent of—her abortion, though whether she would want to be remembered for that before anything else is another question. Indeed, she objected strongly to any suggestion that she was a saint, believing it undercut the Catholic Worker’s fundamental commitment to egalitarianism and denial of self.

Perhaps the most important insight I took away from reading Forest’s biography, however, is that precisely because of her high level of Christian commitment and the strength of her positions, Dorothy Day may well be exactly the kind of role model needed in this difficult time. In the midst of the environmental crisis that engulfs us, for example, I look around our apartment and wonder why in hell I ever bought all these clothes, these books, those items of kitchen ware, and I find myself deeply inspired by Day’s poverty and self-abnegation.

As I observe the chaos that paralyzes many of the groups I belong to, underpinned by the individualism and expectations of gratification by so many in my generation, I find myself profoundly challenged by Day’s concern with and obedience to authority, however communal her understanding of it was.

And when I am too lazy to turn out for public demonstrations, or too afraid of being arrested, I remember Day’s endless commitment to social action, and her many stays in jail.

Could it be, I find myself wondering, that the woman I once dismissed as too traditional a Catholic and too judgmental a person is exactly the model––the saint––we need as we face the crises that confront us?

 

Versions of this post appeared in EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference and Gumbo the monthly publication of the Grail in the US.)

 

Why Include Women?

April 10, 2018 at 11:43 am | Posted in Commonweal magazine, feminism, The Hierarchy, Uncategorized, women | 3 Comments
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I don’t spend a lot of time talking about women’s issues per se these days. I began teaching and writing about women, especially in the church, in the early 1970s, but since 2002, I’ve gotten more concerned about the impending environmental catastrophe—though the two are by no means disconnected.

But just now I am seriously pissed off about the exclusion of women from two recent presentations in the media, and if you will forgive me, I’m just going to rave about them a bit. Then I’ll get back to work reviewing a book about climate and capitalism.

Let me begin with a one-hour documentary on Pope Francis that I watched last week, the first in an MSNBC series called HEADLINERS. The series highlights “public figures at the forefront of our national dialogue and at the center of today’s news.” I am going to share in a later post my reflections on what it means that a secular US network chose the pope as the first such “headliner.” For now, I would note that the Headliners episode on Francis was not bad, though I did not learn agreat deal from it that was new.

What I did note with some outrage is that of the ten or so commentators included in the program, only one of them was a woman. Each of the other nine was a man, and in almost all cases, a white man. Maybe one was a Latino, or Asian, but no Black men of any kind. Maybe the producers thought they were covered because the sole woman commentator was also Argentinian? A two-fer? And why on earth would anyone want to hear what more than one woman has to say about the head of the Roman Catholic Church, the largest organization on earth, the vast majority of whose members are female?

The second cause of my pissed-off-ness is an article in the April 4 issue of Commonweal, “Showboating is a Sin,” on the culture of Catholic basketball teams in light of the recent NCAA championships won by both men’s and women’s teams from Catholic schools. It is perhaps worth mentioning that Commonweal was once one of the leading liberal American Catholic publications. I recall my excitement at reading Commonweal waiting for the bus on the way to my file clerk job the summer between high school and college down in Philadelphia.

In the half-century that has passed since then, however, Commonweal has not exactly kept up, at least on gender issues. The article in the April 4th issue is, unfortunately, a good example. In part of what was not my first letter to the editors on the subject of the exclusion of women from Commonweal pages, I acknowledge resonating with Moses’s description of the communal culture of Catholic basketball, but add:

“Unfortunately, another part of Moses’s article is also all too familiar: its gender bias. After a nod in the first paragraph toward women’s as well as men’s teams winning the Division I championships, Moses makes not one reference to women’s basketball throughout the rest of the article. And of course, the photo at the top is of male players… In addition to the ‘Scripture-based principles of Catholic social teaching’ fundamental to Catholic college basketball: ‘community, the common good, and solidarity’ that Moses invokes in his article, it would seem we have to acknowledge another one: male hegemony.”

(We’ll see if they publish the letter.)

The thing that drives me nuts about the gender discrimination in each of these instances is that it isn’t really very hard to avoid. When I was the director of communications at an African-American seminary in the 1980s, I never approved anything for publication until I checked to make sure there weren’t too many white faces in It. (“White faces rise to the top” was the axiom that kept me attentive.) What would it take for the guys (I use the term advisedly) at MSNBC and Commonweal to do the same kind of thing?

 

Catholic Women, Liturgy, and the Transformation of the World

May 1, 2017 at 2:39 pm | Posted in Catholicism, feminism, women | 3 Comments
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Those of you who read my blog with any regularity may have come across my references to the Grail, an international women’s movement that I have been active in since my senior year in high school (fifty-two years, in case you’re counting). The Grail is not very well-known these days, at least in the U.S., but it played a significant role in securing a place for lay women in the Catholic Church in the 20th century. The following is a revised version of my review of a book that explores the place of the Grail in one aspect of Catholic modernization in the twentieth century, the Liturgical Movement.

There Were Also Many Women There: Lay Women in the Liturgical Movement in the United States, 1926-1959 by Katherine E. Harmon (Liturgical Press, 2012). 412 pp. Paperback: $39.95 (but on sale right now for $25.97 at https://www.litpress.org/Products/6271/There-Were-Also-Many-Women-There); eBook, $31.99.

Despite the positive impact of the women’s movement over the past half century, many kinds of sexism continue.  One is the omission–exclusion–of women from histories of various developments and movements.

One history from which women have been significantly excluded is that of the liturgical movement in the Roman Catholic Church. In There Were Also Many Women There, historian Katharine Harmon examines the influential and largely undocumented role that women, that is to say, laywomen played in the Roman Catholic liturgical movement in the United States. (All Catholic women are considered laywomen, even nuns, because women cannot be priests). To do so, Harmon first explores the European origins of the liturgical movement, and then focuses on the liturgical movement in the U.S. The Grail movement, the women’s community in which I have spent my entire adult life, figures significantly in both sections of the book.

So what is the liturgical movement, and why is it important? Begun in the 1830s, the liturgical movement was an effort to reform the worship practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Some consider it an attempt to return to the romanticism of the Middle Ages, but Harmon demonstrates that the movement was, from the outset, a profoundly social development. It was social because it moved Catholic worship beyond the isolation of the Latin Mass, where individuals had engaged in private devotions like the rosary and encouraged instead responding to and singing together during the Mass. In effect, the goal of the movement was to make the liturgy a socially unifying experience, so as to bring the liturgical participant “into union with the Christian community and, thus inspired, to expand this spirit outward for the renewal of society.”(11)

Launched in Benedictine monasteries in France, the liturgical movement took on new energy after the catastrophic effects of World War I. Active, intelligent liturgical participation in the oneness of Christ’s body would enable God’s grace to permeate and redeem the world. Not coincidentally, the Society of the Women of Nazareth, the group which became the Grail movement, was itself founded in 1921, to convert the world from the callous and demoralizing values evidenced by the war.

Harmon acknowledges that the Women of Nazareth and the Grail Youth Movement they launched in 1928 were not explicitly part of the European liturgical movement. But she argues that the massive colorful religious performances that the Grail staged with thousands of Dutch girls in stadiums beginning in 1932 was “one of the most courageous and public realizations of Catholic Action (the lay Catholic turn to social justice) in the years between the world wars.”  She also quotes an early article about the Grail in a publication of the US liturgical movement stating that the Grail movement was paradigmatic of the essential relationship between liturgy and lived Christianity: The Grail seemed “to be enlivened with a living appreciation of liturgical life and an active understanding of the real meaning of the lay apostolate.” (45).

After the Grail’s arrival in the U.S. in 1940, the liturgical dimension of the movement became even more explicit. U.S. co-founders Lydwine van Kersbergen and Joan Overboss attended and spoke out at national liturgical meetings, and nationally recognized leaders of the liturgical movement led courses and celebrated the Eucharist at Grail centers. And in the U.S., as much or more than was the case in Europe, the Grail celebration of the liturgy, including the singing of Gregorian chant, the creation of other chant-based liturgical music, and liturgical dance, was inextricably connected to the Grail’s commitment to Catholic Action—social justice—and the fostering of an integrated life on the land.

Lydwine van Kersbergen stressed that “the first principle in the training of lay apostles is the understanding that the experience of the sacred liturgy is the integrating center of life” (224).  The great Catholic social justice activist Dorothy Day made retreats with the Grail outside Chicago and at Grailville and commented enthusiastically on the unity between prayer, singing and action in the Grail. For Day, this same integrated vision was at the center of the Catholic Worker movement. And as Harmon demonstrates, thousands of other U.S. women also took their Grail liturgical training back with them to parishes and lay groups across the country.

So why does this matter? Because the liturgy, and especially liturgical singing, were fundamental to the formation of the generations of Grail women who helped the change the Catholic Church and the wider society in which that church played an influential role. And many of these women went on from that formation to engage in amazingly hard, brave, and even heroic work to establish what they understood to be God’s kingdom on earth. I am thinking here of the Dutch Grail women who continued to hold underground meetings during the Nazi occupation of Holland, although they knew they would be sent to concentration camps if they were caught. And others who stayed at their mission stations in Africa and Latin America in the face of horrifying violence—in one case, remaining in central Africa even after a Grail member was murdered in her bed in the next room during a tribal civil war. And then there were the women who worked their entire lives for subsistence at the Grail’s farm and national center in southwest Ohio and other Grail centers.

The Grail is currently active in eighteen countries around the world. Over its near century of existence, it has supported, enlivened and educated thousands of women and girls, running schools and hospitals, leading pioneering programs in progressive education, feminist theology, social transformation, and agriculture. And for many years the Roman Catholic liturgy was at the heart of such action for social change. What will provide the foundation for desperately needed action in 2017, in the face of the rise of nationalist populism and religious wars around the world?

Women of Vision

March 16, 2017 at 4:13 pm | Posted in Catholicism, feminism, women | 8 Comments
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Well, you haven’t been hearing from me much of late. But I have an excuse!

I’ve been finishing a book that I’ve been working on since the middle of 2015. It’s called Women of Vision: Sixteen Founders of the International Grail Movement, and it’s almost done. As I understand it, the book may well be out in April, published by the Apocryphile Press, Berkeley, CA.

Here’s the copy from the book’s back cover:

Women of Vision is a book that expands significantly public knowledge of the contributions of Catholic laywomen to church and society over the past century.

Despite historic advances in women’s recognition and equality in recent years, the significant roles played by Roman Catholic laywomen in church and society still go largely unacknowledged. With Women of Vision: Sixteen Founders of the International Grail Movement, Marian Ronan and Mary O’Brien contribute substantially to remedying this situation.

Founded in the Netherlands in 1921, just after World War I, the Grail movement was focused, from the outset, on using laywomen’s extraordinary gifts to resolve the crises in which the world found itself. By 1961, the movement had spread to twenty other countries, including Brazil, Australia, the Philippines and nine African countries.

Drawn from interviews done with Grail founders in many of these countries, Women of Vision highlights the relentless and often heroic work done by Grail women, founding and staffing hospitals and schools, supporting indigenous women and girls, preparing local women for church and Grail leadership, and in some cases, assuming governance roles in their own countries and at the United Nations.

If i weren’t such a technological nitwit, I would also include in this post the cover of Women of Vision. But I can’t figure out how to do that; maybe I’ll be putting that up next time.

In any case, you may be sure I’ll be providing you the link to the book on Amazon as soon as it’s available. Stay tuned

A Different Take on Mary

December 15, 2016 at 3:04 pm | Posted in feminism, Uncategorized, women | 1 Comment
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This review appears in the December 16th issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

12162016p19phb.jpgTHE VALIANT WOMAN: THE VIRGIN MARY IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICAN CULTURE
By Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez
Published by the University of North Carolina Press, 256 pages, $27.50

Let me begin by confessing that I was never much of a Virgin Mary girl. There was something about Mary’s sweetness and humility that didn’t do much for me. For years, I would have said that the name of my confirmation saint, Joan of Arc, tells you more about me than my baptismal name ever could.

Imagine my astonishment, then, when a remarkable new book made me wonder if I had written off the Virgin Mary a bit too quickly. That book is The Valiant Woman, Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez’s exploration of the Virgin in 19th-century American popular culture. In it, readers come to see that well before the contemporary women’s movement, images of Mary had a more complex and sometimes liberating impact than many of us might ever have imagined.

Hayes Alvarez begins her study with the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, an event many U.S. Protestants took as further proof of Catholic ignorance and idolatry. Yet even then, in part because of the growing changes in gender roles that accompanied industrialization, Protestants were also drawn to images of the Virgin, images the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception brought into greater public awareness.

Figures of the Virgin attracted Protestant attention in part because they reinforced traditional female domestic roles. But other images of Mary, and sometimes the same images, also served to introduce new female roles. One such image was that of Mary as the queen of heaven, which, despite its origins in Catholic teaching and devotionalism, spilled over into popular images of women as the queen of the household. Queenship, even domestic queenship, can imply more female power than is initially apparent.

In The Valiant Woman, Hayes Alvarez draws on a wide range of historical contexts, literary sources, art criticism and theology. For example, part of the Virgin’s attraction for American Protestants was the pivotal role she played in European artwork, the knowledge of which demonstrated upward mobility. Some attempted to distinguish legitimate artistic portrayals of Mary from mere (Catholic) devotional art. But Hayes Alvarez uses the writing of the popular Protestant art historian Anna Jameson to show that the interconnections between the two were hard to avoid. Particularly in her extremely successful book Legends of the Madonna, Jameson used Catholic culture and thought as the necessary context of great Western religious art, even as she made knowledge of that art an indicator of rising-class status and Protestant morality.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Jameson’s interpretations of Marian art also connect seemingly incompatible gender roles for women. For example, according to Jameson’s standards, maternity is an essential characteristic of paintings of the Virgin, yet she rejects any association of that maternity with female subordination. As Hayes Alvarez observes, during this period, Jameson and other writers, Protestant as well as Catholic, “drew on Marian models of womanhood to endorse female domesticity,” and resist shifts in gender norms. But they also used Mary — her suprahumanity, her queenship, her motherhood of God — to “expand female power within and beyond the domestic sphere.”

In her epilogue, Hayes Alvarez fast-forwards The Valiant Woman to the semicentennial of the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1904. Even then, some U.S. Protestants condemned the Roman Catholic church as “the church of the Virgin Mary,” the worship of whom overshadowed the worship of Christ. And some Protestants still used the Virgin Mary as a symbol of sentimentalized womanhood. But by and large, there was much less Protestant interest in the Virgin Mary than there had been during the previous 50 years.

This was the case, in part, because Catholics were not as much of a threat as they had they had been, so Catholic symbols were less a focus of attention. But it was also the case that the “entrenchment of the market economy” made separate spheres for women and men less necessary, and because of the successes of the women’s movement, feminists no longer needed to couch arguments for or against women’s freedom in traditional religious symbols.

The close readings of 19th-century American fiction, journalism, and art criticism on which Hayes Alvarez draws may be challenging for some readers. But the required attention pays off. Just the opening chapter, exploring the conflicts and conversations related to the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 and 1855, is worth the price of admission. And if you’re anything like me, the remaining chapters will radically transform whatever childhood notions you retain about that sweet, humble, obedient Virgin.

[Marian Ronan is research professor of Catholic studies at New York Theological Seminary. The Apocryphile Press will publish her co-authored book Women of Vision: Sixteen Founders of the International Grail Movement in 2017.]

 

Pope Francis Criticizes Gender “Choice”

August 4, 2016 at 4:52 pm | Posted in Catholicism, feminism, Vatican, women | 1 Comment
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Conservative Catholics–especially conservation hierarchs–must have been pleased to hear that yesterday, Pope Francis criticized the idea that children are being taught that they can “choose” their gender. I guess the rumors that he might be a “feminist”pope can be put to rest.

Apparently, according to the reports,  Francis’s denunciation is linked to his previous condemnations of “gender theory,” something that certain countries and groups are ostensibly forcing on people in the Global South. I guess this is a broader version of something a conservative Canadian Catholic said to me years ago, that the West was forcing homosexuality on Africans. I replied that the West must have begun forcing homosexuality on Africans fairly early, since a Ugandan king had had a bunch of male Christian converts executed for refusing to have sex with him in 1885 and 1886.

It’s a pity Francis, who has gone out of his way to promote scientific views about climate change and other significant issue, didn’t bother to learn a bit about transgenderism before make such a claim. I am by no means a scientist, but I began to think about some of this stuff in 1992, when I took a seminar in feminist theory–perhaps what the pope now calls “gender theory”–as part of my Ph.D. studies in American religion. In particular, I read an assigned article about intersex infants, something about which I had been totally ignorant previously. Too bad I can’t remember the author’s name, but there’s plenty of info about intersex infants online.

Apparently, a certain percentage of infants are born with ambiguous genitalia–unusually small penises, large clitorises, a penis and a clitoris, and a considerable number of other possible internal and external variations on what’s considered  normal. I was struck particularly to learn that it was fairly common (in those days, at least) for doctors, if they possibly could, that is, if the infant had any kind of male genitalia, to use surgery to make the infant a boy. (I bet you’re shocked to hear that!)

Furthermore, the DNA of a significant number of people deviates from the standard male or female genetic make-up. At an Olympics, in the 1980s I believe, all the women athletes were tested to make sure they were really female, and a number of them were found to be male genetically and were sent home. They hadn’t had a clue that that was the case. More recently I also read that traces of pesticides in drinking water are increasing the number of intersex infants.

Now not everyone who chooses to transition to another gender was born intersex. But being assigned the wrong gender at birth because of intersex characteristics is certainly one reason people transition. There may well also be psychological causes.

And let me say also that I, as a long-time feminist, have on occasion been concerned about some transgender discourse, especially in the media–the Caitlyn Jenner kind of thing–that seems to reinforce the gender polarization that I have been working for decades to undermine. Wanting to be a woman surely needs to be distinguished from wanting to a highly over-sexed caricature of one.

All that aside, it’s pretty clear to me that what’s happening isn’t really that kids are being taught they can be any gender they want, as if gender is a commodity to be purchased. Rather, it seems to me that some adults have begun to have mercy on kids who are profoundly uncomfortable with, even distraught about,  the gender identity they were assigned, through ill-advised surgery or in some other fashion. As the Year of Mercy comes to an end, I am praying that Pope Francis also learns to make these distinctions  and doesn’t add, even unintentionally, to the suffering of those children.

 

 

 

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 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.

 

 

 

Pope Francis and Catholic Gender Ideology

February 27, 2016 at 5:17 pm | Posted in Catholicism, feminism, women | 4 Comments
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As Pope Francis’s various trips and the Synod on the Family recede into memory, disagreements continue concerning his positions on certain issues. Did the pope’s comments on religious freedom in the United States signify support of the USCCB religious freedom campaign? Will the pope, in his forthcoming apostolic exhortation on the family, permit divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion? Do his comments about the use of contraceptives in relation to the zika virus signal a change in Catholic teaching? Does “mercy” extend LGBTI Catholics?

The public statements and actions of popes are significant, of course. But they can also be confusing and inconsistent, especially when the pope in question is more pastoral than ideological. So it can be helpful to move beyond the ambiguity of public comments to examine papal writings. Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s June encyclical, sheds light not only on his position on the environment, but on gender and sexuality as well.

At one level, the pope’s encyclical on the intrinsically connected issues of environmental degradation and poverty may seem to reinforce the institutional church’s fierce condemnation of contraception. A week after the encyclical was issued, for example, Jamie Manson, writing on the National Catholic Reporter blog, singled out overpopulation as an issue that is “woefully underdeveloped in the encyclical.”

Manson finds problematic, in particular, Pope Francis’s suggestion that rising population is “fully compatible with an integral and shared development,” as well as his claim that blaming “population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some is one way of refusing to face the issues.”

Manson by no means disputes the Pope’s assertion that a radical change in consumerist mentality is fundamental to feeding the massively expanding populations in the Global South. But she explains that these are long term goals, whereas increasing access to reproductive education and contraceptives will have a much more immediate impact on those who suffer some of our world’s worst deprivations.

The statistics and reports Manson cites in her article are compelling. I join her in wishing that the Catholic Church would lift its ban on contraceptives and thus greatly improve, and sometimes save, the lives of poor women globally.

But Manson’s assertion that Pope Francis wouldn’t be breaking radically new ground by changing the church’s teaching on birth control is problematic, even naive. It’s likely that Pope Francis shares the teachings of his predecessors on contraception, abortion, gay marriage, and other sex/gender issues, but whether he does or not, changing such teaching would risk starting a civil war in the church. Indeed, Ross Douthat speculated in the New York Times in September that Francis intends to start a civil war in the church over divorce and remarriage.

To understand why explicit changes in Catholic teaching on contraception, divorce, and gay marriage, never mind abortion, are currently off the table, it’s helpful to recall that at Vatican II the church made some historic concessions to “the modern world.” These include acknowledging the right to religious freedom and abandoning its claim that it is necessary to be a Catholic in order to be saved.

But no institution willingly gives up power. So instead of abandoning its claims to absolute truth, the church shifted its claim to such truth from the area of doctrine to that of “faith and morals.” “Morals,” within this new economy, are obligatory for all because they inhere in what the church calls the natural law. Thus the post-Vatican II church placed increasing emphasis on sexuality and gender.

Here in the United States, the increasing focus on sexual teaching came about gradually, with the bishops appointed during and soon after Vatican II also speaking passionately on justice, peace, the environment and the poor. Yet in the years that followed, the emphasis of the institutional church in the U.S. and elsewhere shifted steadily toward sex/gender teaching.

In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis does not change Catholic sexual teaching in light of the environmental crisis. Doing so risks, among other things, massively shifting attention away from that crisis to pelvic issues, the last thing the pope has in mind. And indeed, Pope Francis does refer occasionally in the encyclical to the harms of abortion and lack of respect for life.

What’s remarkable about Laudato Si’ is that in it Pope Francis connects abortion, population control, and lack of respect for life with a range of other sins against creation. That is to say, he stresses the integral connection between “the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the poor… buying the organs of the poor for resale, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted. This same use and throw away logic,” Pope Francis tells us, “generates so much waste because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary.” (123)

Progressive Catholics are not the only ones critical of Laudato Si’, of course, and critical even of the implications of Pope Francis’s words for the absolute truth of Catholic sexual teaching. In an article in the New Yorker about her participation in a two-day Vatican conference about the encyclical, environmentalist Naomi Klein reports on a fear among conservatives in Rome that the encyclical’s discussion of “planetary overburden will lead to a weakening of the Church’s position on birth control and abortion.” She also quotes the editor of a popular Italian Catholic web site: “The road the church is heading down is precisely this: To quietly approve population control while talking about something else.”

Other conservatives are subtler in their critique of Pope Francis’s handling of Catholic sex and gender ideology. In a column ostensibly praising Laudato Si’ that appeared in the July 22 issue of the Brooklyn Catholic newspaper, the Tablet, the Bishop of Brooklyn, Nicholas DiMarzio, writes that “the environment that is most dangerous to human beings and the one which causes the most direct threat is the misunderstanding of contraception and population control.” A reader might be excused for concluding, in the context of an article praising the encyclical, that this is something Pope Francis says, or at least suggests.

But Pope Francis most certainly does not say this in Laudato Si’. Rather, he says that there is an integral connection between the dangers of abortion, contraception, climate change, other environmental destruction, and the oppression of the poor. That is, he dismantles the ideological hierarchy of recent decades, in which popes and bishops declared sex and gender offenses more grievous than any others and made social and environmental justice optional.

This is surely not the full change that Jamie Manson and I and many other progressive Catholics would like to see happen. But it’s a change of some considerable significance nonetheless.

This post is the revision of an article that appears in the February 2016 issue of EqualwRitesthe newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.

 

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