Prophetic Obedience

April 25, 2017 at 10:29 am | Posted in Catholicism, constructive theology, ecclesiology, Vatican | Leave a comment
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This reviews appears in the April 21 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

PROPHETIC OBEDIENCE: ECCLESIOLOGY FOR A DIALOGICAL CHURCH
By Bradford E. Hinze
Published by Orbis Books, 288 pages, $42

I have to confess, I’m pretty wary of the word obedience. So wary, in fact, that I almost declined to review Bradford Hinze’s new theology of the church.

I’m glad I didn’t. Prophetic Obedience is precisely the kind of constructive theology that enables post-Vatican II Catholics like me to overcome the binaries that have hindered us since the election of Pope John Paul II: freedom vs. obedience, the horizontal vs. the vertical, the magisterium vs. the sensus fidelium.

Hinze traces these binaries back to Second Vatican Council itself. He explores many of the ways in which the Vatican II vision of the church as the people of God, of all the baptized on the road together, impacted a wide range of ecclesial bodies as well as community organizations after the council. And he shows how a conservative faction of the bishops and the Vatican attempted to replace that vision with a “communion ecclesiology” stressing centralized authority and the magisterium.

The struggle between the people of God and communion ecclesiologies goes back to Pope Paul VI’s insertion of an “explanatory note” into the Vatican II Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. The note forbade the college of bishops from ever acting without the approval of the pope. Another devastating blow was the 1983 promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law stipulating that bishops’ synods, episcopal conferences, diocesan synods, and parish councils had nothing more than advisory (“consultative”) authority.

Yet Hinze does not react to the damage done to the ecclesiology of the people of God with an attack on communion theology. He acknowledges, in fact, that communion ecclesiology, with its stress on the unity of the church, is also an important part of Vatican II teaching. Instead, he traces the problem to one form of communion ecclesiology, a form fixated on unity and authority to the exclusion of the voices of God’s people. The ascendancy of this form of communion ecclesiology, Hinze argues, “eclipsed” but did not extinguish “the new dawn of the People of God as it was emerging during the two decades after the council.”

To remedy this eclipse, the author offers a new ecclesiological vision: prophetic obedience. Prophetic obedience is the fundamental marker of a dialogical church, a church that deepens in its commitment to normative expressions of the apostolic faith — Scriptures, creeds, liturgies and official teachings — as it welcomes the wisdom of all the faithful.

In constructing this new ecclesiology, Hinze expands considerably on previous understandings of both prophecy and obedience. Prophecy is no longer only a word or message received that leads to a corresponding proclamation or witness; it is also the result of heeding, receiving and responding to the voice of the Spirit as expressed by all of God’s people and the whole of God’s creation.

Fundamental to this understanding of prophecy is the practice of lamentation. Drawing on the book of Psalms, Hinze explains laments as people calling out to God to listen and respond to their pain and suffering. The two driving forces within lamentations, we learn, are the desire to know why particular suffering is occurring and how long it will continue. Jesus came to understand his mission by listening to the laments of the people. And the laments of God’s people today form a crucible from which compassion and discernment are forged. Without heeding the voice of the Spirit in the laments of all of God’s creation, the church cannot fulfill its prophetic calling.

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Dayanna Renderos Ruiz, 9, receives Communion during a Mass at St. John of God Church in Central Islip, New York, April 11, 2015. (CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

The author also expands the idea of obedience well beyond the notion of blind capitulation to authority that gave me pause when I first read the title of his book. To do so, he revisits the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity, and in particular, the obedience they practice. A standard framework for understanding obedience is Jesus obeying God the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prays, “Not my will but thine be done” (Mark 14:36). Many theologians have configured the entire Trinity around this structure: The Father speaks, the Son responds in pure obedience, and the Spirit is the passive recipient of the interaction.

Hinze, however, expands this understanding of obedience by offering an alternative vision of the Trinity in which all three persons practice obedience, though in distinctive ways. For example, the Spirit, as seen in Genesis, is the active agency of God present in a chaotic world. The Father is obedient to this Spirit when he hears and responds to the groaning of creation. He is likewise obedient to the Son when he hears and responds to Jesus’ suffering by raising him from the dead. Drawing on the “polyphony of scripture,” Hinze illustrates the obedience of all three persons to one another and draws on this model to present a compelling ecclesiology of prophetic listening and response as the calling of all the people of God. The church can move beyond a paternalistic and hierarchical exercise of authority only by living out this vocation.

Multiple aspects of Prophetic Obedience deserve acknowledgement. One is the way the author weaves repeatedly and effectively throughout his book the theme of the prophetic identity of the people of God and their calling to obey the Spirit in the laments of all creation. Another is Hinze’s integration of the post-Vatican II experiences of women, women’s religious congregations, and people in ecumenical and interfaith grassroots organizations into his ecclesiology. He does not just theoretically advocate prophetic obedience to the voices of God’s people, he enacts it.

Finally, Hinze makes use of a considerable range of extra-theological scholarship, for example, the works of Judith Butler, Michel Foucault and Charles Taylor. Using such material nuances his argument but also risks making the book less accessible to those who would benefit most from it: Catholics in parishes. Given the compelling case Hinze makes for the pivotal role of prophetic obedience in the renewal of the church, we can only hope that somebody creates a parish version of his book very soon.

[Marian Ronan is research professor of Catholic Studies at New York Theological Seminary. In May, the Apocryphile Press will issue her new book, Women of Vision: Sixteen Founders of the International Grail Movement (co-authored with Mary O’Brien). All book reviews can be found at NCRonline.org/books.]

This story appeared in the April 21-May 4, 2017 print issue under the headline: Listen, respond to voices .
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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.

 

 

 

Ross Douthat and the Theologians

November 3, 2015 at 1:30 pm | Posted in Catholicism, Vatican | 3 Comments
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Well, on Hallowe’en New York Times columnist Ross Douthat fired off another rocket in the Catholic culture wars with his “Letter to the Catholic Academy.” Douthat had, in recent months, published a series of Times columns and blogs about the Catholic Church under Pope Francis, culminating in his October 18th “The Plot to Change Catholicism.” On October 26, a number of Catholic theologians, led by Massimo FaggioiIi and the highly regarded Vatican II historian John O’Malley, S.J.,wrote a letter to the Times calling Douthat’s statements “unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is.” A number of conservative columnists and a few theologians rebutted the theologians’ letter, accusing them of trying to silence Douthat, especially since their letter states that Douthat does not have the credentials to make such assertions. Douthat’s October 31column is also a response to the letter.

Quite a lot has been written about this kerfuffle, and you may not have time to read all of it, so let me tell you what I think. Words like “heresy” and schism,” as well as “plot,” are very strong words, and have precipitated lots of nasty events throughout the history of the Catholic and other Christian churches. Consider, for example, the execution of Michael Servetus, founder of the Unitarian Church, at the order of John Calvin in 1553.  It’s also worth noting that even the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’, in their harsh condemnation of Elizabeth A. Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God, do not use the word “heresy” even once.

More to the point, as Michael Bayer of The University of Iowa Catholic Center argued persuasively even before Douthat’s latest broadside, the main issue in this debate is not the theologians’ supposedly despicable attempt to silence poor Ross (though Bayer admits the wording of the theologians’ letter could have been more careful in this regard). The main issue is that an article in the New York Times–the world’s most influential English language publication–has the potential to do enormous harm, much as the media’s “ubiquitous insistence that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, and that we needed to invade Iraq in order to eliminate this existential threat” did after 9/11.

Indeed, as Bayer argues, a number of conservative Catholic bishops no doubt read Douthat’s column, and may well adopt his erroneous identification of heresy with dissent. In my reading, Douthat is actually doing everything he can to bring about a schism, a schism of the very kind that his conservative forebears Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X initiated after Vatican II. (And the Vatican did use the word “schismatic” in condemning their actions).

This is so because Pope Francis’s teaching of mercy, and his argument, in Laudato Si’ and elsewherethat the destruction of God’s creation and the oppression of the poor are sins as grievous as abortion, contradict the absolute, sexual-morality-based Catholicism that led Douthat and others to the Catholic Church in the first place. God willing, Francis will continue to communicate that the Church is more that the Nicene Creed and the condemnation of abortion, as an unhappy respondent to the Commonweal blogpage once claimed. Maybe, before long, even what Jesus has to say about the poor, and the Catholic social teaching  rooted in his words, will be once again acknowledged to be the heart of Catholic doctrine as much as the defense of human life is.

Catholic Misogyny Matters

January 3, 2015 at 3:57 pm | Posted in Vatican, women | 6 Comments
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Well, the enthusiasm for Pope Francis continues unabated. On December 30, an article in the National Catholic Reporter  said it all: “Pope Francis Continues to Take the World by Storm.” After which an article in a secular publication (don’t ask me which one)  called him “the most powerful religious leader in the world.” And in a piece on Francis and the environment in the NY Times, (!!!) Andrew C. Revkin describes his participation in a four-day Vatican workshop on the environment organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Academy of Social Sciences last May as one of the “highlights of my year, perhaps my career.”  Then there was the Pope’s success at getting diplomatic relations restored between the U.S. and Cuba. And his denunciation of human trafficking.

It’s impossible not to be grateful for these and other significant steps. Especially hope-inspiring is Francis’s anticipated encyclical on the environment. I have never in my life heard a Catholic priest mention climate change from the pulpit; maybe now I will. And once again, the head of the Catholic Church is  emphasizing the poor and denouncing capitalism, therefore, to some extent, reversing John Paul II’s repression of liberation theology. Just having a smiling pope on the news is a breath of fresh air.

Unlike a lot of folks, however, I am not willing to give Papa Francesco and the institution he represents a pass on women. I realized that we were in trouble on this score more than a year ago when the article that accompanied Time’s naming Francis “person of the year” mentioned that “he is aware of the liberal clamor in the affluent West for the ordination of women.” But women, the authors went on to explain, have vastly more serious problems than mere exclusion from Catholic ordination, for example, female genital mutilation, which the Catholic Church is working against. Other journalists have characterized calls for Catholic women’s sacramental equality as just another aspect of the culture wars that Francis is challenging us to get over.

What possible connection could there be between the largest religious organization on earth banning women from major leadership roles and other forms of oppression against women? Let me, first of all, clarify what I’m saying here: there are more Muslims in the world than there are Roman Catholics. But the Muslims are sort of like the Protestants: as I say to my American Baptist minister husband from time to time, the Catholics won the Reformation, not by having superior theology, but by managing to keep themselves more or less united, and by continuing to wear their really colorful outfits right into the era of Instagram and Facebook. All over New York  there are churches called something like “Salem Baptist Church,” and then down the street, “Greater Salem Baptist Church.” And just try to follow the Sunni/Shia/Iranian/Syrian/ISIS/ISIL distinctions on the evening news. The Pope is now the symbol of Christianity and in some senses the symbol of  religion itself because there is one and only one of him, and the RCC is the biggest religious organization on the planet.

So what does it matter for the well-being of women around the world that this icon of Christianity says that the ordination of women cannot be discussed and that women are intrinsically possessed of the feminine genius? For that matter, what does it matter for the very survival of the planet that Papa Francesco is soon to issue an encyclical about?

Let me be very clear here: the “feminine genius” that the Pope references, which is directly linked to the exclusion of women from Catholic sacramental leadership, means that women are inherently passive and responsive, while men are agents, initiators of the actions and communications to which women respond. This is not unlike the ideological framework that underpins the removal, in some cultures, of female genitalia so women can’t enjoy sex. And it is also the ideology driving the destruction of the environment, something that has happened since “Christian” Euro-America colonized the rest of the planet. Built into the claim that the earth, (and the church as well) is “our mother” is the suggestion that she is lying there waiting for something to get shoved into her –horizontal drills, for example, or infallible doctrines–and for the active, masculine genius to dig things out of her. Until we stop thinking of God as male and above us, and begin to recognize that God is also within, around, and underneath us, and is likewise a major component of the cosmic genius by which everything is interconnected, papal encyclicals on the environment are going to get us only so far.

 

 

“Secrets of the Vatican”

February 27, 2014 at 6:00 pm | Posted in Vatican | 8 Comments
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As you may have discerned, I am not a wild fan of the Vatican. I have been working for forty years to get women ordained in the Catholic Church, and such endless banging of the head against Vatican walls has not warmed me toward the boys over there. I also think that the church’s teaching on homosexuality, if not changed significantly, will seriously reduce our numbers sooner or later, even in Africa. That’s certainly what’s happening in the U.S.

But I also spent the 1990s getting a Ph.D. in religion, with a specialization in Catholicism. During that time I learned a good deal about anti-Catholicism. I learned, for example, that in the mid-19th century, a bestseller, The  Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed, virtually identified Catholicism with pornographic sexuality. The book was later almost completely discredited, but it has been reprinted many times. And lest you think U.S. anti-Catholicism is a purely pre-Civil War phenomenon, consider that during the 1960 presidential campaign, leading U.S. Protestant ministers, including Norman Vincent Peale, portrayed John Fitzgerald Kennedy as a Vatican stooge, more or less. And as historian Philip Jenkins argues in The New Anti-Catholicism, since the onset of the sex abuse scandals, Americans say things about the Catholic church that had been socially unacceptable since JFK’s election.

So I wasn’t too hopeful about the February PBS Frontline “documentary,” “The Secrets of the Vatican.” The title itself sounds like something Maria Monk dreamed up. In fact, the film is about problems during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But a title like that wouldn’t attract leering millions, would it? And the PBS channel here in New York showed the documentary in the 9 PM slot, instead of the usual Frontline slot of 10 PM. I wonder why?

It’s hard, too, not to call to mind Maria Monk during the first fifty minutes of the eight-four minute film, devoted as they are almost exclusively to clergy sex abuse and lewd homosexual practices ostensibly by very many priests and hierarchs in Rome. This is not to say that I am in favor of child sex abuse (!), or clerical hypocrisy either. But things have come to a point where it’s almost impossible to say anything positive about the Catholic church without someone bringing up clergy sex abuse–and this applies to many liberal Catholics, not just Protestants and seculars. In point of fact, the Catholic church is the single largest provider of health care in the world. Some Vatican congregation supervised all of that under the last two popes. Should they maybe get a mention, along with the congregations that covered up clergy pedophilia and adult sodomy?

The film’s characterization of various aspects of the Vatican State, too, is problematic, overstated, sensationalized. Take, for example, the ominous references to the Vatican’s being a free-standing state, with no accompanying mention that before 1861, the Papal States constituted a significant portion of Italy, from one coast to the other. In 1870, it was deprived of all its territory except Vatican City and became the smallest state in Europe.  Some challenge the Vatican’s right to be a state at all, but it has as much historical legitimacy as the British monarchy, or more.

Similarly, Thomas Doyle’s description of the church as an absolute monarchy is seriously over the top. I have said myself on numerous occasions that the governance structure of the institutional church is that of an absolute monarchy. Please note the qualification there: of the institutional church. Doyle, a canon lawyer who has fought heroically for the rights of sex abuse victims, says the church is an absolute monarchy down to each individual member. If that were true, I’d be in jail. And I am theoretically self-excommunicated for continuing after 1994 to speak out in favor of the ordination of women. But that matters only if one of my pastors since then cared to pursue the issue. None of them have, or would. Lots of them are similarly theoretically self-excommunicated.

Some may dispute my argument that “The Secrets of the Vatican” is anti-Catholic because of the enthusiasm shown for Pope Francis in the last quarter of the film. And indeed, this section of the film is more nuanced than the rest, with some of those interviewed offering cautions about how much (or little) Pope Francis will be able to do in the few years that may be available to him; he was 77 years old when elected, after all. But the “pope-mania” expressed in the last quarter of the film also strongly reinforces, by contrast, the film’s portrayal of the previous two popes as demons.

Dealing with representations of the Vatican is a tricky business. There’s a lot in the Vatican that really does demand reform. But I refuse to err in the opposite direction, becoming a participant, even inadvertently, in the virulent anti-Catholicism that has poisoned this Protestant country for much of the last few centuries. In point of fact, last October, Boz Chividijian, Billy Graham’s grandson, and the head an organization fighting clergy sex abuse in Protestant settings, wrote in the Huffington Post that he believes, with regard to sex abuse, that Evangelicals are worse than Catholics. I wonder what the odds are that a future Frontline documentary will be titled “Secrets of the Evangelical Underground”?

 

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