Professor, author, spiritual guide, radiant friend. Born on March 5, 1930, in Toronto; died on Dec. 24, 2014, in Toronto, following several strokes, aged 84.
Carolyn Gratton, the only child of Eleanor and James Gratton, grew up in Toronto and earned a bachelor of arts in English and a master’s degree in library science from the University of Toronto. A gorgeous young woman and committed Catholic, she might well have spent her life as a devoted wife and mother, or a librarian, or as a member of a vowed community of religious sisters.
But when she was 23 she visited Grailville, a farm and conference centre near Cincinnati, Ohio, and the North American headquarters of the Grail, an international Catholic laywomen’s movement. Carolyn attended a summer program on women’s role in society and was so fascinated by the ideas she encountered that she returned in the fall for the Grail’s year-long formation program, which prepared her for deeper participation in Catholic lay leadership. Within three years, she was a member of the Grail’s staff in North America and by the 1960s was leading Grail projects and programs across the United States and Canada. Wherever she went, people fell in love with her: her radiant smile and cracker-jack sense of humour, but especially her profound spiritual wisdom, surprising in a relatively young woman.
These were years of lively intellectual ferment within Catholicism and in Western societies. To deepen her own thinking on the burning questions of the time, she earned a master’s degree in theoretical anthropology in 1967. The life of academic inquiry suited her well, and Carolyn went on for a doctorate in phenomenological psychology from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, which she completed in 1975. She then taught at Duquesne’s Institute of Formative Spirituality until the early 1990s.
During her teaching years Carolyn also had a strong impact on spiritual searchers throughout the world, leading ecumenical contemplative retreats and spiritual formation programs in Canada, the United States, Thailand, the Netherlands, Australia, East Africa, and other places. She also published two books and numerous articles aimed at spiritual directors and spiritual seekers. During these years she also served as a mentor to many individuals, myself included. As a result of our conversations with her about spirituality, life choices and faith, we were never the same again.
In the early 1990s, after retiring from teaching, Carolyn moved back to Toronto. She continued to travel abroad, leading spiritual programs for the increasingly ecumenical Grail movement, and other groups. But her main focus was on building Centering Prayer groups throughout Ontario. Centering Prayer is a branch of Contemplative Outreach, a movement founded by Cistercian monk Thomas Keating to spread the practice of contemplative prayer beyond monastery walls. Thanks to her passionate leadership, there are now 45 such groups in Ontario.
Carolyn was extraordinarily gifted in relating to people of all cultures and classes. During a 2005 Grail visit to Oaxaca, Mexico, she was paired at a village meeting with a woman named Efigenia, a barely literate member of the indigenous community. Efigenia came back from their conversation glowing with pride, explaining that the two women had much in common: They were both catechists (something like a Sunday school teacher), she explained.
Carolyn had not mentioned that she held a doctorate, or was a noted professor and author. Instead, she focused on what she and Efigenia had in common – the work of spiritual outreach. This was the remarkable woman whose death elicited messages and memories from people across North America and around the world. We will never forget her.
The author, Grail member Marian Ronan, is Carolyn’s friend of 50 years.
(This article appeared in the “Lives Lived” series in the Toronto Globe and Mail on Tuesday, May 12, 2015. It sounds almost as much like the editor as it does like the author!)
Well, no photo on that “Crabapple” blog. . Maybe one of the young people will come by some day and show me what I am doing wrong
Tags: Hahn Pham SJ
Well, a couple of weeks ago it was my birthday. Sixty-eight years old. A little hard to take in.
When I was a teen-ager, what I loved best about my birthday was that the crabapple in the backyard came into blossom then. We had moved to the house with the crabapple tree the summer before I started high school For twelve years previously we had lived in a much smaller stucco post-war “twin” house several miles south of the Philadelphia city line. Four of us–my parents, my grandmother (“Dommie”) and I–shared three tiny bedrooms and one bathroom. Then, when I was seven, my brother was born and he and I shared the smallest of the three rooms until seven years later we moved a few miles south to a four bedroom house, with an extra half bathroom. But what I loved best was the crabapple tree in the backyard, and how it invariably burst into pink blossoms by the time of my birthday on April 18.
After thirty years or so in that house, long after my grandmother had died and my brother Joseph and I were out in the wide, wide world, my parents sold the house and moved to a retirement community a few miles southwest, in Media. The couple who bought the house seemed nice enough, with two little boys. When I was doing my Ph.D. at Temple in the 1990s, I used to drive by the house, on Crum Lynne Rd., on my way to visit my parents (and soon, just my mother) out at Riddle Village.
That was how I discovered that the nice young couple had cut down the crabapple tree and the rose garden next to the house. They had cemented the two areas and put in an above the ground swimming pool and a basketball court. I almost cried..
I do not think of those people with hostility. I’m sure they considered it a good thing to enable their kids to get some exercise, become athletes, whatever. I do think of them as symbols of what human beings–especially human beings with some money to invest–are doing to the crabapple trees, and the Amazon rainforest, the wetlands, and on and on. With the best will in the world, we are destroying not only our own lungs but also the lungs of the planet.
There’s a happy ending to this story, though, or at least a hopeful one. When I was a seminary professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley from 1999 to 2009, I worked with a lot of wonderful students. One of them was a Jesuit seminarian, now Father Hanh Pham, SJ. Hanh made some insightful contributions to my Religion and American Film class. He was also a terrific photographer.
At one point there was an exhibit of Hahn’s photos at JSTB (The Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, now at Santa Clara University). There I found a wonderful photograph of some crabapple buds. The buds were surrounded by snow, so it wasn’t my birthday yet. But they were beautiful nonetheless. A framed copy of the photograph hangs in our apartment, so I see it quite often. And if am not too much of a Luddite,I have shared a copy of that photo with you next to this blog post, courtesy of Father Hanh who’s now in campus ministry out at Regis University in Denver. In looking at it, please hope with me that human beings like that young couple down near Philly, and like us, will see the error of our ways and begin planting crabapple trees instead of cutting them down.
Tags: Benedictine monk Anthony Ruff, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, Cardinal Sean O'Malley, Jason Berry, Laurie Goodstein, Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Pope Francis, The Nun Justice Project
Well, the word is out. The Vatican has ended mandatory supervision of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the umbrella group representing eighty percent of the 59,000 Catholic sisters in the U.S. Such supervision by three U.S.bishops resulted from a long “doctrinal assessment” of the group, begun in 2009, and a hostile report, or mandate, at the end of that investigation in 2012. The report accused the LCWR of entertaining “radical feminist themes” and mandated episcopal supervision of the group until 2017.
Commentators are ecstatic. Jason Berry, the journalist who previously beat the bishops black and blue over clergy sex abuse, declares on the Global Post, “The Nuns Won!” Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times links the end of the doctrinal process to Pope Francis’s call for “broader opportunities” for women in the church; she also quotes a Vatican expert to the effect that the pope’s meeting with four LCWR leaders on April 17 was “about as close to an apology…as the Catholic Church is officially going to render.” And The Boston Globe’s John Allen, a centrist, welcomes the development but claims that it was in the cards almost from the outset.
Some of the activist groups supporting the LCWR are a bit more balanced in their responses. The Nun Justice Project, a coalition of progressive groups that organized to stand up for the nuns after the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published its hostile mandate in 2012, issued a statement in response to yesterday’s joint communication from the LCWR and the Vatican. Like many others, Nun Justice welcomes the resolution but attributes much of it to “the dogged determination of LCWR sister-leaders to persevere in dialogue with those who unjustly maligned them.” They also restate their conviction that the Vatican owes the sisters an apology.
A number of commentators consider this unexpectedly benign conclusion to the lengthy investigation, hostile report, and mandatory supervision to be a function of “the Francis effect.” Yet it’s worth noticing that Francis by no means stopped Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect of the Vatican office that inaugurated the crack-down, from chastising the LCWR a year ago for giving a leadership award to Sister Elizabeth Johnson. Johnson is the feminist theologian whose book Quest for the Living God had been previously denounced by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Cynic that I am, I suspect this conclusion to the LCWR investigation, described by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston as a public relations”disaster,” is as much an attempt to cut off at the pass crowds of demonstrators carrying “Support Our Sisters” signs during Papa Francesco’s upcoming visit as it is an act of mercy.
I admit, it’s hard not to welcome this end to hostilities, no matter what underpins it. But I would urge those celebrating in the streets to bear something in mind. As Benedictine monk Anthony Ruff said with some astonishment after the Vatican trashed his years of work on musical settings when it rejected the International Commission on English in the Liturgy’s translation of the Roman Missal in 2008, “The Catholic Church is an absolute monarchy.” Nobody at any level is accountable to anyone below him (and I use the male pronoun intentionally).
So if the early suspension of the offensive mandatory supervision of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is a result of Francis’s focus on mercy, or because he was once the superior of a province of a religious congregation and thus understands what a tough job leadership is, or if he’s listening to the bishops who support the sisters as his predecessors didn’t–whatever the reason–he’s still seventy-eight years old. The vast majority of Catholics have absolutely nothing to say about who will succeed him, or what the attitude of said successor toward nuns (or women, or LGBT people, or mercy) will be. All we can do is pray that Papa Francesco lives a long time and appoints a whole lot of merciful bishops and cardinals while he’s still with us.
Tags: Easter, Jesus, the earth, wheat
Back in the 1970s, I lived for a number of years at Grailville, the Grail’s national center and organic farm in southwest Ohio. There was much that I loved about being there, but what I loved most was the singing. We sang for everything, feasts, holidays, people’s birthdays. We sang Gregorian chant. We sang in three parts, under the leadership of fine choir directors–Lynn Malley, Fran Martin, and many others. But what we really sang for was Holy Week.
The Easter carol I learned to love more than other while I was at Grailville is an English one, “Love is Come Again.”At first, I loved it for the music. It uses a melody from a French medieval Christmas carol–I’m nuts about medieval music–and the harmony makes it even more gorgeous. Take a couple of minutes and listen to the YouTube recording, sung by a choir of gorgeous young people.
But as the years have passed, I’ve also come to love it because of the words:
Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain,
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.
In the grave they laid him, love whom hate had slain,
Thinking that never he would wake again,
Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.
When our hearts are wintry, grieving or in pain,
Thy touch can call us back to life again;
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.
I love these words because they highlight the connection between Christ , and therefore, between Christians–between human beings–and the earth itself. And as the situation of the earth becomes more and more perilous, isn’t this exactly what we need to hear? Orthodox types would probably argue that it only says that Jesus is like wheat that springs from the earth. But more and more, theologians are realizing that God’s connection with the earth, through the creation, and the incarnation, is much more intimate than that. God is one with the earth, as well as beyond it.
So when we sing this hymn we are reminded of that intimate connection–that integral ecology, as Pope Francis will soon argue in his encyclical–between God and us and the earth, one we must not violate or abuse if we want to have life. Imagine what it might have meant if, over the years, Christians–Catholic Christians in particular–had been singing about Christ the Wheat instead of Christ the King? How might our world be more whole?
Tags: "I thirst", Good Friday, lack of clean water, lack of sanitation, Luise Schottroff, the crucifixion of Jesus, the woman at the well, water
This post is an edited version of a sermon I preached as part of a Seven Last Words service at Allen Temple Baptist Church, the biggest African American church in Oakland, California, on a Good Friday sometime in the middle of the last decade. It’s dedicated to the memory of my dear friend Luise Schottroff, the gifted German feminist New Testament scholar, whose work I draw on here. Luise died in February .
After this, knowing that all was now finished, Jesus said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put the sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. John 19:28-29
Jesus is coming ever closer to the end of his journey. He has forgiven his persecutors. He has asked his dear friend John and his mother to care for one another. He has cried out with incomprehension at being forsaken by his Father. And now he speaks of an experience shared by human beings all over the world: He says that he is thirsty.
Someone who suffers what Jesus suffered has every reason to be thirsty. Blows, scourging, multiple falls, nails hammered through his wrists and feet, and the terrible struggle to breathe that comes with being hoisted up on a cross—Jesus endured them all. His dehydrated tissues would have sent a flood of stimuli to his brain, eliciting the very words we hear: “I thirst.”
But there’s something puzzling about the verses that we just read from John’s Gospel—and let’s be clear, John’s is the only one of the four passion stories that includes the words “I am thirsty.” However much we may be concerned with Jesus’ thirst, the text tells us that Jesus says what he says “in order to fulfill the scripture.” What does this mean?
Recall that the community for whom the evangelist wrote this fourth gospel was not the kind of Christian community that we are accustomed to today. Rather, it was a community of Jewish Christians, still trying to convince their Jewish brothers and sisters that Jesus was the messiah. And so they paid great attention to the parts of Jesus’ life that seemed to fulfill passages in the Torah, the Jewish scripture. With this in mind, some biblical scholars claim that John inserts the words “I thirst”—and the verse that follows, about the Roman soldiers giving Jesus sour wine to drink—to highlight the way Jesus fulfills two passages in the book of Psalms. In one of these a forsaken individual cries out that his mouth is dried up like a piece of broken pottery; in another, persecutors give their victim vinegar to drink.
But the passage that we read today doesn’t actually say which scripture Jesus’ words fulfill; it only asserts that they do so. Let’s consider, then, that Jesus’ words—“I am thirsty”—also refer back to and complete an earlier passage in the Gospel of John itself, the story of the woman at the well (John 4:4-26).
Let’s note the similarities between these two stories. In John 4, Jesus is also thirsty. He is sitting by a well near the Samaritan city of Sychar, worn out by his journey, a weariness that foreshadows the far greater weariness of his journey to Calvary. A woman comes to the well to draw water, and Jesus says to her “Give me a drink.” Then they talk to one another.
What’s generally remembered about this story is that the woman tells Jesus that she has no husband, and Jesus responds that she is right, she has had five husbands, and the man she currently lives with is not her husband. From this exchange many conclude that the woman at the well is sexually loose, an adulteress, and that Jesus’ only reason for speaking to her is that their conversation gives him an opportunity to display his knowledge about her.
But there’s nothing in John 4 to indicate that this woman is sexually immoral; there are a number of stories in the Bible about a widow obligated by the Law to marry the brothers of their deceased husband. Mark 4, where the Sadducees ask Jesus about a series of brothers who marry a widow is just such a story, and there is no suggestion there that the woman is immoral. What is far more likely in the story of the woman at the well is that the woman herself is very poor, living with a man who is not her husband, because she has no other way to survive. We all know of poor women in such situations; in the time of Jesus, it was even harder for poor unmarried women to support themselves than it is today. Another indication that this woman is poor is that she is hauling water, a task so hard and unending that it damaged (and still damages) the postures of the women required to do it.
But despite this woman’s poverty and her bad living situation, Jesus talks with her. And he doesn’t do all the talking; she takes the initiative with him, asking questions and moving the conversation in new directions. She makes such an impact on Jesus that he sends her off, the first Gentile disciple, to evangelize the people of Sychar. In fact, this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is so powerful that the woman’s entire life is changed. We know this because, as the scripture says, when she went into the city to proclaim the Messiah, she left behind the essential tool of her former way of life, her water jar.
What does this woman’s water jar have to do with Jesus’ words from the cross? To clarify this, recall that early in their conversation, the woman wondered aloud how it could be that Jesus, a Jew, would ask for water from a Samaritan. Jesus tells her that if she had known whom she was speaking to, she would have asked him, and he would have given her “living water.” Those who drink this living water, Jesus says, will never be thirsty again.
Now many interpreters think that the main purpose of the story of the woman at the well is precisely this teaching about “living water”—perhaps they would call it “spiritual water.” For them, spiritual water is far more significant than the actual water this poor Samaritan woman hauls back and forth. They highlight the connection between these verses and the seventh chapter of John’s Gospel when Jesus cries out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me… (for) out of the believer’s womb shall flow rivers of living water.” Indeed, when this passage says that this living water is the Spirit whom believers will not receive until Jesus is glorified, it seems to refer directly to the crucifixion. This emphasis on the superiority of living water, that is to say, spiritual water, makes the woman at the well look even worse than she did before; first, she was a sexual sinner; now she’s so stupid that she confuses Jesus’ living water with real water. Even after Jesus proclaims that his water is the water of eternal life, this poor woman says, “”Sir, give it to me, so that I may not have to keep coming here to draw it.”
Perhaps people who are taken up with the superiority of “living water” don’t understand what it is to be really thirsty. Perhaps they are like many of us Americans (though, increasingly, not Californians!) who simply turn on our taps, and out comes as much water as we want, at a very low price. It seems unlikely that they are the three-quarters of a billion people around the world who lack access to clean drinking water, or the 2.5 billion people who have no sanitation. Neither are they the millions of contemporary women who, like the Samaritan woman, spend their days hauling water over long distances. And they are surely not the 500,000 children who die every year from diseases caused by contaminated water.
Finally, those who argue that the spiritual replaces or transcends the material in John’s Gospel are not really the followers of Jesus. For when Jesus on the cross prepares to give up his spirit, he does not say: “I am thirsty for living water.” He says “I am thirsty.” We know that this is not just a question of symbolic water divorced from the body because we resonate with Jesus when he gets nothing but sour wine to quench his last thirst. And we know that the first gift he bestows on his newly created church is the water that flows out from his pierced side along with his most precious blood.
All over the world, men and women are crying out with Jesus on the cross, “I am thirsty.” They are thirsty for the word of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And they are thirsty to become sources of living water for their sisters and brothers, as the Samaritan woman was to the citizens of Sychar. But they cannot do this if they are literally dying of thirst, as is the case with so many in Africa, and India, and Latin America. How can women study and preach the gospel if they are doomed never to leave their water jars behind? How can girls go to school to learn to read the gospel if they are never free, as so many of them are not, from the endless task of hauling water? How can babies and small children grow up to be the disciples of Jesus if they die from cholera or dysentery before they are five years old? And last of all, how can we ever reach the kingdom of heaven if we allow such things to happen?
Jesus is hanging from the cross, preparing to send the Spirit onto the church to carry his word to the ends of the earth. When he cries out “I am thirsty,” let us not give him sour wine, but the fresh and living water he so desires.
Tags: "Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love", "The Origin of Species", Charles Darwin, Eco-feminist theology, Elizabeth A. Johnson
The following is a review of Elizabeth A. Johnson’s splendid new book, Ask the Beasts. It also appears in the spring issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s ordination Conference.
Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love. By Elizabeth A. Johnson. London: Bloomsbury/Continuum, 2014. 323pp. Hardback: $32.95; eBook: $9.43.
The post-war U.S. women’s movement and the environmental movement were, in significant ways, parallel phenomena. In 1963, the year after Rachel Carson brought environmental concerns before the U.S. public with Silent Spring, Betty Friedan launched the second wave of American feminism with The Feminine Mystique. Five years later Mary Daly drew Catholics into women’s liberation with The Church and the Second Sex. And in 1975, the ever-prescient Rosemary Radford Ruether merged the conversations in New Women, New Earth.
In the forty years since then, many Christian feminist theologians and activists have engaged environmental issues, as have some churches and church-related agencies. Yet as the distinguished eco-feminist theologian Catherine Keller observed recently, “Christianity on the whole continues to function as an anti-ecological public force…”
Critics focus particularly on the belief that human dominion over the earth is central to the doctrine of creation. Feminist theologians have worked to reconstruct this understanding of creation and its corollary, the belief that men should dominate women because women are intrinsically connected to the earth.
Yet given the way our “Christian” nation and the rest of the “First World” continue their brutal practice of extractivism, it can be argued that these feminist and eco-feminist efforts have failed. One reason for this may be that many feminist theologians shifted to theo-ethical concerns (sexism, racism, colonialism, etc.) and paid less—and sometimes no—attention to classical systematic Christian theology. But if Christian practice regarding creation is going to change as radically as it must in this era of climate catastrophe, then the theology that underpins it must be transformed as well. Elizabeth Johnson’s new book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, makes a significant contribution to such a transformation.
In Ask the Beasts, Johnson, a professor of theology at Fordham University and a Sister of St. Joseph of Brentwood, NY, fashions an intellectually sophisticated yet lyric dialogue between the theory of evolution, especially Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, and the Nicene Creed. Her purpose in so doing is to demonstrate that “love of the natural world is an intrinsic part of faith in God,” and to create a theology that will generate passionate ethical action toward plants, animals and ecosystems—as passionate as that which drives faith in God.
The first three chapters of Ask the Beast comprise a close reading of Darwin’s Origin of Species. If, like me, you have gone your whole adult life “believing” in evolution without having read Darwin, or even particularly understanding the theory of natural selection, these chapters alone make Ask the Beasts invaluable. As one reviewer remarks, “A more careful and sensitive reading of (The Origin of Species) would be hard to find anywhere, and not just among theologians.” In the fourth chapter, Johnson explores how aspects of Darwin’s theory have “evolved” since Darwin’s own time, even as contemporary scientists affirm that the theory of evolution is “accurate beyond reasonable doubt.” (102)
Throughout the rest of the book, Johnson constructs a dialogue between Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the Nicene Creed, a dialogue that will enable Christians to shift their faith from an “abstract and distant deity” to a “living God intensely engaged with the world.” Chapter 5 braids Darwinism with biblical images, the theology of Thomas Aquinas, and contemporary theology to represent the entire natural world, and not merely human history, as the dwelling place of God. The Holy Spirit, an afterthought in most anthropocentric theology, is the primary actor in this profound theological deepening. (This was also the case in Johnson’s 1992 theological reconstruction, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse). By dint of its ongoing evolution, the natural world “continuously participates in the livingness of the One who is sheer, exuberant aliveness” (148).
The next three chapters fill out this vision, exploring the freedom of creation, the suffering and death of all things, and creation ex nihilo/eschatology, in dialogue with Darwinian thought. Finally, in chapter 9, Johnson’s argument culminates in a new, deeply moving paradigm, that of the “community of creation” in place of the earlier top/down human-dominion paradigm of creation.
It’s hard to convey adequately the scope and artistry of Johnson’s writing. I was especially moved by the last six chapters, in which Johnson weaves together images and concepts from The Origin of Species and other scientific sources with theological texts from across the centuries, powerful biblical material, selections from English literature (“The world is charged with the grandeur of God…”) and the thinking of other eco-theologians. The concluding chapter alone would make a splendid prayer book.
Elizabeth Johnson has shown considerable courage in writing Ask the Beasts. As you may remember, in 2011 the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a stinging critique of Johnson’s previous book, Quest for the Living God, claiming that it completely “undermines the Gospel.” A number of the theological issues that the bishops targeted in that book are also pivotal in Ask the Beasts. As Georgetown theologian John F. Haught explains, the bishops’ critique of Johnson focused particularly on Johnson’s position that God suffers along with creation. Their position is predicated on the argument that God cannot suffer because suffering is always the result of sin. Such a theology serves to keep God separate from—uncontaminated by—a sinful humanity.
But such a dualist theology is utterly incompatible with the evolution of species. Johnson’s expansive reading of natural selection in Ask the Beasts includes the essential function of the suffering and death of some non-human species in the eventual emergence of higher species (including us). But the suffering of non-human species is not, by definition, a result of sin, so all suffering cannot be the result of sin, and it is not theologically inconceivable that God should suffer. For Johnson, God’s oneness with all of creation is so fundamental that God suffers along with creation, even as She is also greater than that suffering.
It may be that the bishops will attack Johnson’s theology in Ask the Beasts as they did the theology in her previous work, though with Pope Francis’s upcoming encyclical on the environment and his emphasis on mercy, perhaps not. All that notwithstanding, the news about the effects of human-induced climate change on God’s creation grows increasingly dire. Christians (including the U.S. Catholic bishops) must acknowledge that the obligation to save that creation is at the heart of Christian teaching if such teaching is not soon to become irrelevant. There’s no better way to begin this life-and-death conversion than by engaging deeply with Ask the Beasts.
Tags: Catholics for Choice, Good Catholics: The Battle Over Abortion in the Catholic Church, Patricia Miller, The Women's Ordination Conference, US Catholic Bishops
The following is a slightly revised version of a review that appeared in the fall 2014 edition of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.
Good Catholics: The Battle Over Abortion in the Catholic Church. By Patricia Miller. University of California Press, 2014. 344 pp. Hardback: $24.47. Kindle $19.22.
As I began writing this review of Patricia Miller’s Good Catholics: The Battle Over Abortion in the Catholic Church, historian Timothy Kelly’s review of Miller’s book appeared in the National Catholic Reporter.
I agree with much that Kelly says. In Good Catholics, Miller argues convincingly that the organization Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) —now Catholics for Choice (CFC)— “served as an effective counterbalance to the (United States Catholic) bishops in the public arena.” Her analysis focuses primarily on public debates about abortion, though she also explores theology and ethics, popular responses to the abortion controversy, and the history of CFFC/CFC.
In the first part of Good Catholics, Miller uses the activities of four early Catholic feminist theologians—Rosemary Radford Reuther, Jane Furlong Cahill, Mary Daly, and Elizabeth Farians— as a platform for the rest of the book. All four challenged women’s subordination in the church as the secular women’s movement was challenging it in the rest of society. They were also founders of the movement for women’s reproductive rights. In 1964, for example, Ruether, identifying herself as a “Catholic mother,” published an article in the Saturday Evening Post expressing her belief in birth control. In 1971, Cahill, a Philadelphian, defended the morality of abortion at a state hearing in Harrisburg, after which Archbishop Krol called her “the abortion woman.” Farians and Daly were equally feisty on reproductive issues. All four of them were involved in the founding and early activities of CFFC/CFC. (Three also helped start the St. Joan’s International Alliance, the women’s organization that preceded the U.S. Women’s Ordination Conference and Women’s Ordination Worldwide).
The passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973 marked a new era in the fight over U.S. reproductive rights, and public challenges to the bishops’ position on reproductive rights by CFFC drew some thousands of U.S. Catholics to the organization. Then, in 1982, Frances Kissling became president of CFFC. But in Miller’s telling, it was the 1984 NY Times “Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion” that really set off the battle between the American bishops and the pro-choice movement.
The second half of Good Catholics documents the history of that struggle, up to and including the bishops’ recent attacks on the contraceptives mandate of the Affordable Care Act. I found especially sobering Miller’s discussion of the alliance between the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the Religious Right, undercutting as it does the church’s emphasis on social justice and the common good since before the New Deal. CFFC/CFC has played a crucial role in opposing this alliance, making politicians and the country aware that the USCCB’s stance is not the only Catholic position.
Miller would seem to draw at least two conclusions from her narrative of “the battle over abortion in the Catholic Church.” The first I agree with as far as it goes: from Cahill and Ruether to the contraceptives mandate, “the debate had really been about women and sex.” I would add that the Catholic institutional fixation on controlling sexuality is also about the church’s loss of secular power since at least the liberal revolutions of the mid-19th century, but that’s another story.
I find Miller’s other conclusion, about the impact of the Catholic reproductive rights movement (and therefore CFFC/CFC) more problematic. In the last chapter she writes:
“It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this alternative theology (of reproductive rights) to modern Catholics and their ability to grapple with issues of sexuality within the context of their religion—especially because they have been abandoned by the hierarchy on the issue…. (as Louis Utley of Merger Watch said) … having a progressive voice representing 98% of Catholic women is extremely helpful.”(266).
Let me be clear here: like Miller, I am grateful to CFFC/CFC for providing an alternative Catholic voice on reproductive rights in the public arena. As the hierarchy has moved steadily to the right, trying to identify contraceptives with abortifacients, for example, I regret not having supported the group financially over the years.
But on the ground, beneath the public conversation, where “modern (U.S.) Catholics” “grapple” with sexuality, the situation is much more ambiguous than Miller acknowledges. Even if 98 percent of Catholic women report having used contraceptives at some time, it doesn’t follow that they consider themselves “represented” by the reproductive rights movement. Indeed, among U.S. Catholics, even liberal/ progressive ones, CFFC and reproductive rights, or at least, abortion rights, have been marginalized for a long time.
Kelly acknowledges this in his NCR review, suggesting at the end that Miller’s book “will likely give off sparks.” I am reminded here of an experience I had on the national Women’s Ordination Conference board about a decade ago. There had been some kind of crisis—a fire, maybe—in the WOC office, where the board usually met. Francis Kissling, who had been a friend of the leaders of WOC in its early days, offered to let us meet in the CFFC offices nearby. But at least one, and possibly two, board members adamantly refused to use the offices of CFFC for a meeting. Let me be clear here: CFFC had not asked WOC to endorse their position; Kissling had simply offered the space when it was needed. But some members of the Board refused to set foot there. And the rest of the board gave in. A friend who’s involved in the national leadership of Dignity also assures me that abortion and contraception are never mentioned at Dignity meetings. (A member of the current Women’s Ordination Conference staff wrote to tell me, after this article was published in EqualwRites, that this is no longer the attitude of the WOC board).
Some of the reaction of WOC board members may have been strategic, not wanting to get a single-issue organization off track. Myself, I suspect that it’s more than that. Catholics may well use contraceptives and have abortions at the same rate as the rest of the country, as some polls suggest. And a considerable majority indicate in such polls that they support reproductive rights.
But it’s not just Catholic “attitudes” or what we write in a private poll that’s significant. It’s also what we’re willing to stand up for and speak out about in public. Patricia Miller may argue that we cannot overestimate the impact CFFC has had on “modern Catholics…and their attitudes about sexuality.” But who wants to risk being shamed by the local archbishop, or even by other members of whatever liberal Catholic group we’re active in?
Tags: Carolyn Gratton, Grailville, The International Grail Movement, The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur
If you are an (early) baby-boomer like me, or older than I am (almost 68), what I’m going to say here won’t be anything new to you. If you’re a lot younger, maybe. But in any case, perhaps we can share reflections and begin to come to terms with some of this hard stuff.
My mother, God bless her, did her best. But she was not noted for her warmth or supportiveness–at least not to my brother and me. Some of the cousins fared better; Mom sometimes rose to occasions. But as for me, I spent my younger years looking for a mother, or mothers, to make up for certain significant lacks.
One of the groups who rose to the occasion big time were the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, who staffed the Catholic girls high school I attended in the early 1960s, Notre Dame, Moylan, south of Philadelphia. The nuns at that high school were the first genuinely educated people I had ever met, and the love and support they showed me is hard to describe adequately. A number of them still send me birthday cards, and pray for my husband when he’s sick, and love the things I write.
Toward the end of my senior year at Moylan, one of the Sisters of Notre Dame there, Sister Marcella Marie, invited a member of the Grail, the international Catholic laywomen’s movement, to come and speak about the Grail. After Veronica Barbato’s talk, I began going up to the Grail’s center on Chester Avenue in Philadelphia for programs and liturgical events. The Grail seemed to me to be the perfect embodiment of the Second Vatican Council, which had just ended.
Eventually one of the Grail women drove me out to the group’s national headquarters, Grailville, in rural southwestern Ohio. I began spending summers there while I was in college and teaching the fourth grade–don’t even ask!!–after which I joined the Grailville staff for four years (1975 to 1979). While I was at Grailville I co-authored my first book, led programs, met nationally-known feminist theologians, became concerned about the environment (Grailville is an organic farm) and more or less started being the person I am today. It was an extraordinary experience.
In my encounter with the Sisters of Notre Dame, and again with the Grail women, I was most deeply influenced by those a generation ahead of me, women who were in their twenties and thirties for the most part. This means that I have been in conversation with–and loved–a number of them for fifty years.
And now they are dying. I said to someone recently that being in the Grail for me now is like having fifty mothers all in their eighties. And it’s true with the SNDs as well.
Let me illustrate this with two stories. A few years ago, at the funeral of a Moylan classmate, I ran into a woman named Eileen Holahan. She had been an SND for many years, and the director of the glee club at Notre Dame, an activity that had given me great joy. Eileen had left the convent somewhat later in life than a lot of women did, and worked as a professional for several decades. At the time of my friend’s funeral, Eileen was in her early eighties, but in good health, and we had a few wonderful visits when I was in Baltimore, where she lived. Then last winter, one day, her sister called to say Eileen had fallen on the ice outside her apartment building, damaged her brain, and died. I still can’t believe it. I keep expecting her to telephone me.
Then this past Christmas Eve I called Carolyn Gratton, an internationally known Grail member whom another Grail member, Anne Burke, used to take me to visit when Carolyn was a graduate student in psychology at Duquesne in Pittsburgh in the late 1960s. Carolyn finished her Ph.D. and went on to be a recognized expert and author in the areas of spirituality and spiritual direction. I didn’t always agree with her–she was so much more benign a person than I am–but we had been talking throughout my entire adult life. When I called her on Christmas eve, I told her I’d be up to Toronto to see her in the spring. Next morning there was an email from the Grail saying that Carolyn had died in her sleep.
Then there’s Ruthie Chisholm, another Grail member who had spent decades nursing with the Grail team at Rubaga Hospital in Uganda. I lived with Ruth for a while at the Grail Center up in Cornwall, New York, after she returned from Uganda. Ruth had a terrible stroke a few years ago, so her death was not unexpected; in many respects,actually, it was a blessing, because she had been totally disabled by the stroke, she, a woman who had always been active. But it’s hard to imagine the world without her.
As I said at the outset, none of this should be all that surprising. Indeed, it’s the new normal; people get old and then they die. So will I, I’m told. But it’s unbelievably hard to imagine a world without these and the other radiant women who impacted my life so significantly.
Perhaps I’ll just stop writing now and go have a visit with them.