Tags: Catholic laywomen, The International Grail Movement
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
Tags: American culture, Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez, the Virgin Mary
THE 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.]
Tags: Caitlyn Jenner, Catholic sexual teaching, Intersex infants, Pope Francis, transgender identity
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.
Tags: Hal Taussig, Sophia, Susan Cole, Wisdom's Feast
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).
Tags: Catholic sexual teaching, Catholic Sisters, Marie Guyart de l'Incarnation, Mary Dunn, motherhood
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.
Tags: Catholic sexual teaching, Jamie Manson, Laudato Si, Naomi Klein, Pope Francis, Ross Douthat
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 EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.
By now, you’ve probably heard about young women not supporting Hillary Clinton in the presidential campaign. An article in the New York Times today explores the issue, explaining that in New Hampshire, Clinton won by 11 points among older women, but lost by 59 points among “millennial voters” (though it’s not clear if the author means millennial women voters). HC lost them by quite a lot, in any case. The article also reports on the attitudes toward Clinton of younger women at Penn State, one of whom says she couldn’t even “tell you what a feminist is.”
The young woman may be an idiot. Or she may be reflecting the fact that what feminism is has never been all that simple. I became involved in Christian feminism in the early 1970s at Grailville, the farm and program center of the Grail, an international Catholic lay women’s movement. Along with Church Women United,the Grail had co-sponsored one of the first programs in feminist theology, “Women Exploring Theology” in 1972. The pioneering feminist theologian, Elizabeth Schuessler Fiorenza, has written that it was at that week-long program that it first occurred to her that theology was not just something created by men.
I had begun spending summers working at Grailville while I was teaching the fourth grade in the early 1970s, and during the summer of 1974, Eleanor Walker, one of the leaders of the Grail, sent for me and asked me to put together an inclusive language prayer book for the Grailville community. I had been taking care of the chickens at the time, and Eleanor said something to the effect that I didn’t seem to be very good at it, that the prayer book might be a better use of my talents. The Grailville community used the prayer book, including my inclusive language paraphrase of the Psalms, for a number of years thereafter. As a result of the prayer book, I met several theologians with whom I later co-authored three professionally-published books on feminist theology, spirituality and worship.
The truth is, I wasn’t all that interested in feminism when I started working on the prayer book. I had joined the Grail because it seemed to me to be an astonishing embodiment of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, especially the renewal of the liturgy. Grail liturgy, music, and arts more broadly were more beautiful than anything I had experienced previously. I was hooked.
Furthermore, my own working-class background and tendency to analyze as well as sing complicated my feminism from the beginning. After I joined the Grailville staff in 1975, a Catholic nun, Sister of Loretto Ann Patrick Ware, was leading some kind of program at Grailville–I forget what, a program just for Grail members, I think. At a meal during the program when Ann Pat and I were sitting together, she responded to something I said with “You know, you’re not a real feminist.”
She was right, if, by real feminist she meant one accepting the clear, “women are this, men are that” binary that Mary Daly and a number of other second wave feminists seemed to advocate. (One of the most helpful things I ever read about the early Catholic feminist tendency to binarize was an article by Beverly Harrison about how Mary Daly’s feminism was basically a reversal of the the hierarchical neo-Thomism she had learned getting her first Ph.D. at St.Mary’s.) One of the events I remember most clearly during my years at Grailville was Katie G. Canon going nearly berserk over the black maid of one of the (white) workshop leaders of Seminary Quarter at Grailville when we were having a meeting at the workshop leader’s home. Eventually, Seminary Quarter moved to Atlanta, at least in part because Loveland, the town where Grailville was located, was too (that is to say, almost entirely) white.
Another experience that illustrates how I am not a real feminist (of a certain sort) occurred after I moved back to New York City from Ohio. I was attending the first meeting of a women’s liturgy group in an apartment in one of the high rises across Broadway just north of Union Theological Seminary. We were explaining why we had come. An extremely well-dressed woman in the group said she was there because “men write history and women don’t.” I said, “You clearly never met my working-class father. He hardly wrote sentences.”
The facilitator of the group replied “Don’t contradict her. She’s sharing her experience.” I pictured the previous speaker on the moon, looking down and counting (experiencing?) all the men and women who were writing history at the time. I was ecstatic when, in 1994, Mary McClintock Fulkerson published her brilliant feminist theological study “Changing the Subject,” in which she argues compellingly that “women’s experience” is the beginning of the conversation, not the end.
My reference to my father in that encounter up near Union Seminary in 1983 or ’84 was not coincidental; I grew up in a working class household, and my father was for some years the president of a union local. When I decided to get a seminary degree, I opted not to go to the Ivy League Union, in part because it was way too expensive, but also because the students in the courses I audited there seemed privileged beyond belief, although feminst theology was an important part of Union history and curriculum. Instead I attended a Black/Latinx/Korean night school, New York Theological Seminary, where we all ate the bagged lunches we brought with us while the professors lectured. And my class consciousness was only intensified by the Hebrew Bible courses I took there with the great Marxist scholar, Norman Gottwald.
Subsequently, when I was the president of the board of the Women’s Ordination Conference in the early 2000s, I met with the leaders of several national Black Catholic women’s organizations about working with us, they told me in no uncertain terms (alas) that they had more important issues to contend with. And when RCWP Bishop Patricia Fresen said, in an address at a conference celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Women’s Ordination Conference in 2005, that the exclusion of Catholic women from ordination is just like apartheid, I nearly had a heart attack. Except for the hundreds of thousands of Black people killed and imprisoned in South Africa, I thought. Whatever feminism is, it’s “pas si simple,” as the French say. It’s complicated.
This brings me back to Hillary Clinton. If she gets the Democratic nomination, I plan to support her ferociously. All of the Republican candidates would be catastrophic if elected, especially the current front-runners. I am trying to decide when the right moment might be to shift my support to HC to prevent such a catastrophe. But up till now, I have been supporting Bernie, and I am deeply grateful to him for raising issues that a good number of second wave white feminists didn’t pay enough (or any) attention to. Can he get elected president? We’ll see. But at least one older U.S. feminst hasn’t transferred to the HC camp yet.