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.
Tags: "Men Explain Things to Me", female genital mutilation, Kenyan Catholic bishops, Mary Hunt, Pontifical Council for Culture Meeting on Women, Pope Francis, Questions from a Ewe, Rebecca Solnit, tetanus vaccination, Time Magazine Person of the Year
By now, you have probably heard about the meeting of the Pontifical Council for Culture at the Vatican, ending today, comprised entirely of male hierarchs, discussing “Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference.” The indefatigable Mary Hunt, on Religion Dispatches, argues that such a gathering would be “funny were it not so insulting.” The anonymous blogger who writes “Questions from a Ewe” also chimes in on the “irony” of such an undertaking. The Ewe comments on the obscene misogynist sculpture that the hierarchs chose for the cover of the meeting’s working document, and their choice to have an Italian movie star invite women around the world to submit one-minute videos about their experience as input for the meeting. (I guess they thought we could spare only one minute from the kids, etc.)
I don’t doubt that such a meeting is ironic, insulting, even in some respects laughable. But the book I’ve been reading, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, suggests that the implications of a group comprised exclusively of men discussing “women’s culture,” and then issuing a report, are a good deal more than insulting.
Solnit’s ‘s book is a collection of essays about the oppression of women around the world. It begins with the essay from which the book title is taken; it appeared originally on Tom Dispatch, and it’s pretty funny. Solnit and a woman friend are leaving a party when an arrogant guy engages them in conversation. When Solnit says she has written a number of books, the most recent one about Edweard Muybridge and the industrialization of the American West, the man asks if she knows about the very important Muybridge book that came out that year, and begins to tell Solnit about it. As he proceeds, Solnit’s friend has to tell him four times that it’s Solnit’s book he’s talking about before he grasps what she’s saying. He was “stunned speechless.”
I bought a copy of Men Explain Things to Me because men have explained things to me this way on many occasions, most recently at a local Zen center where I attempted, without success, to become a practitioner. Older guys, a considerable minority of the membership, were in the habit of holding forth at some length. But of course, the place where I’ve heard men explain things to me most frequently is in church. Sometimes, when I suggest on the way out that a priest might want to rethink a particular error he’s been preaching, he is almost invariably astounded.
What makes Solnit’s essay illuminating, however, is that she quickly goes beyond the amusing story about the arrogant guy at the party to lay out the dire implications of the widespread practice of men explaining things to women. Solnit calls conversations in which men explain things to women “the narrow end of the wedge that opens up space for men and closes it off for women, space to speak, to be heard, to have rights, to participate, to be respected, to be a full and free human being.” Such closed off space includes Colleen Rowley, the FBI woman whose early warnings about al Qaeda were ignored before 9/11; the great difficulty that U.S. women have getting restraining orders, and the three women a day who are murdered by spouses and ex-spouses, one of the main causes of death for pregnant women in this country. At the heart the struggle to give “rape, date rape, domestic violence and workplace violence legal standing as crimes,” Solnit assures us,” has been the necessity of making women credible and audible.”
Which brings us back to the men in Rome who will soon be explaining women’s culture to the church, the vast majority of whose members are women. Someplace on this blog I am sure I already mentioned the article accompanying Time Magazine’s declaration of Pope Francis as Person of the Year back in 2013. The article said that although Pope Francis is against women’s ordination, women have much more important problems than being excluded from ordination, for example, female genital mutilation. In recent months, however, hospitals in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa have been offering female genital mutilation services. While one Catholic priest is on record as opposing this, the Kenya Catholic bishops are busy with another issue, protesting to the Kenyan government the vaccination of women against tetanus by the World Health Organization. Tetanus, it seems, is a major cause of death among women of childbearing years. The bishops argue, however, that the vaccine must be stopped because it makes women sterile or causes them to miscarry, a position that is widely discredited. Does anybody doubt that if half of the Catholic bishops of Kenya were women, there wouldn’t be more protest against African hospitals offering female genital mutilation services, and fewer claims that a vaccine saving lives all around the world causes sterilization?
Tags: Africa, cancer-causing insecticides, Catholic Mass, hunger in Africa, Jesus, malaria, mosquito nets, Simon Peter and Andrew
At Mass on Sunday, I was struck by the reference to fishing nets in the reading from the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel:
“As (Jesus) passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; …Jesus said to them, ‘Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Then they abandoned their nets and followed him.”
The reference struck me because I had just finished reading an article in the Sunday Times by the East Africa bureau chief. Jeffrey Gettleman, about a development all over Africa: people using the millions of nets provided them to prevent malaria as fishing nets. Not only does this increase the incidence of malaria; it also causes a range of other problems. Because the malaria nets have such a fine mesh, those fishing with them catch tinier and tinier fish, thus threatening the survival of the fish stocks on which many depend for food. In addition, the nets, which are dragged through the same lakes and rivers that people drink from, are sprayed with a carcinogenic insecticide. Even if the small amounts discharged into the drinking water don’t make the people themselves sick, they are much more likely to kill fish populations, since fish are smaller than people. And in smaller bodies of water–ponds–the carcinogenic danger to humans is more serious. Big fights have broken out between professional fishermen and ordinary people over the damage done by their use of mosquito nets for fishing. Some countries have outlawed the practice, but it continues to be widespread. In villages around Lake Tanganyika, according to one study, 87.2 % of households use mosquito nets for fishing. Even families that have lost members to malaria do so because malaria is not as bad as starvation.
Now the Gospels aren’t entirely consistent on the subject of fishing nets. Even as Peter and Andrew throw away their nets to follow Jesus at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells Simon (Peter) to put out into the deep and put down his net for a catch.
It is also the case that during Sunday Mass in the parish I attend, I have heard prayers for the religious freedom of Christians being persecuted in the Middle East, and for the right to life of unborn babies. But I have never heard a mention of the Africans who die from malaria –more than half a million children in 2102 alone–or of the starvation that causes many Africans to risk catching it because they are so hungry. Maybe the disciples of Jesus need to be casting their nets in a different direction, or at least, in a much wider circle.
Tags: Catholic sexual teaching, contraception, divorced and remarried Catholics, gay marriage, ideological colonization, Intersex infants, Pope Francis, transgender men
Well, according to the Boston Globe’s John Allen, Pope Francis, during his visit to and trip home from the Philippines, “rebooted the debate on sex” in the Catholic Church. This is so because on Friday night, February 16th, in Manila, the pope spoke out, in a talk to 20,000 Filipino families, against the “ideological colonization” of the family. “Ideological colonization” is, apparently, a term that conservative Catholics, especially RC bishops in Africa, use to describe the West forcing contraception and homosexuality on their cultures as a requirement for economic assistance. And a few days later Francis defended Pope Paul VI’s heroic condemnation of artificial birth control. These statements by the politically astute Pope Francis, we learn, are aimed at reducing opposition among conservatives before the October Synod on the Family by distinguishing between these implicitly central issues of Catholic sexual morality and the question of divorced and remarried Catholics receiving communion.
I am intrigued by this distinction between divorce, gay marriage, and contraception. To begin with, there’s the fact that Jesus actually does say some fairly negative things about divorce in the Gospels, whereas he has nothing whatever to say about gay marriage or contraception. And biblical scholars are not all that sure that even the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is about the evils of gay sex. The RCC has never felt compelled to base its teaching in scripture, of course, but it’s worth mentioning that scripture does not seem to be on their (our) side on this one.
Then there’s the matter of divorced and remarried Catholics being excluded from communion but Catholics who use artificial contraception not being excluded. Well, you may say, of course they’re excluded too; using contraception is a mortal sin, so everyone who uses it is excluded. The trouble is, during the uproar over the contraceptives mandate in the Affordable Care Act, 97% of U.S. Catholic women (who were or had been sexually active, one assumes) reported using contraceptives. Within the margin of error, that could actually be all U.S. Catholic women–and the men in their lives too, I guess! (Oddly enough, a third of those reporting contraceptive use opposed the contraceptives mandate–I guess either they’re rich or they repented after menopause.) The upshot of all this is that a whole lot more U.S. Catholics break this ostensibly much more serious tenet of Catholic sexual morality than get divorced. And given the number of U.S. Catholics who go to confession these days, I’d say that a whole lot of these folks are taking communion despite the disciplinary ban on same.
Now truth be told, Catholic parishes don’t really want to know about any of this stuff. I’m reminded here of the daughter of an old friend who was doing the marriage prep program at the Yale Catholic Center and said to the priest, “So Father, is it a problem for you that my fiancé and I have been living together?” To which the priest replied, “Not as long as you’re not so stupid as to ask me.” I myself have registered at a number of Catholic parishes in the twenty five years that Keith and I have been together, and nobody ever asked about my marital status, much less whether I use contraceptives. The Catholics were doing “Don’t ask, don’t tell” long before Bill Clinton.
Let me be clear here: I am totally in favor of divorced and remarried Catholics taking communion. Contraceptive users as well. And gay Catholics of all sorts. Even Protestants and nones when they come to Mass. Everyone who thirsts, let them come to the waters.
But the notion that Pope Francis is distinguishing divorce from gay marriage and contraception so as to placate the conservatives is laughable. Truth be told, the church has or will soon have vastly more complex problems related to sexuality to deal with than these three. For example, does the Pope agree with the Ayatollah of Iran that transgender surgery is a good thing because it cures homosexuality? Can transgender men be admitted to the priesthood? Are seminaries testing to guarantee that men about to be ordained aren’t genetically female? And will Pope Francis mention in his upcoming encyclical on the environment that chemicals seeping into our groundwater are resulting in the births of increasing numbers of intersex infants?
Hold onto your hats.
Tags: "Accidental Theologians", Catherine of Siena, Doctors of the C, Elizabeth Dreyer, feminist theology, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, the environment, Therese of Lisieux
The following is a revised version of a review I had published in the National Catholic Reporter within the last month or so. The full NCR doesn’t appear on-line, so I can’t actually find the review, but I’ve heard it appeared there recently. (Since the NCR has been running my reviews, I finally broke down and subscribed so, God willing, I’ll be able to be a bit more accurate when future pieces appear).
ACCIDENTAL THEOLOGIANS: FOUR WOMEN WHO SHAPED CHRISTIANITY: HILDEGARD OF BINGEN, CATHERINE OF SIENA, TERESA OF AVILA, THÉRÈSE OF LISIEUEX.
By Elizabeth A. Dreyer
Franciscan Media, 2014. $15.99.
Initially, I was wary of Elizabeth Dryer’s book, Accidental Theologians. I worried that the title trivialized the contributions of these four significant Catholic women, as if they hadn’t really intended what they’d achieved, or something.
I needn’t have worried. Dreyer’s book is a valuable introduction to the theologies of the four women named in her subtitle: Saints Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and Thérèse of Lisieux. In four remarkably accessible chapters, Dreyer examines each theology and its contemporary implications in light of the women’s life, work, and historical contexts.
Dreyer begins her exploration with the medieval Benedictine abbess and mystic, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). Hildegard gave the church a fiery, empowering theology of the Holy Spirit, with music and nature at the center of her vision of cosmic connectedness. And it was this same dynamic vision that inspired Hildegard to speak out courageously against the greed and corruption of the twelfth-century church.
During the lifetime of Catherine of Siena, the second woman Doctor of the Church (1347-1380), the Black Death killed a third of the population of urban Europe. Catherine, however, transformed the era’s fixation on the plague as God’s punishment into a deeply incarnational theology. A mendicant tertiary, she used strong bodily metaphors to express the human need at the heart of creation. Catherine’s incarnational theology undergirded her political action as well, as when she successfully urged the popes to return to Rome from Avignon.
The two remaining Doctors, Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), and Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), were each cloistered nuns who shared a deep desire to serve humanity. This desire inspired Teresa to lead the reform of her own Carmelite congregation, even as she offered Renaissance Europe a profoundly original theology of the human person. Thérèse’s theology of suffering, with its focus on the face of the crucified Christ, can seem far removed from Teresa’s humanistic and communitarian theology. But Dreyer shows that Thérèse’s theology of suffering, centered on the incredible joy of a face-to-face encounter with Jesus, is also deeply human. Likewise, Thérèse’s “Little Way” may seem to fit badly into Dreyer’s discussion of the four women Doctors as role models in the struggle against women’s oppression, until we see Thérèse, on her visit to Rome, courageously speaking to the pope, and later envisioning herself as martyr, missionary and priest.
Dreyer does a fine job in two concluding chapters of highlighting positive and negative aspects of the lives and theologies of the four doctors. One of the dangers she discusses is the overemphasis on suffering by three of the women, though she also shows the ways in which all four theologies help Christians to find meaning in their own suffering. The dualism that occasionally emerges from these otherwise deeply embodied theologies also elicits Dreyer’s concern.
Dreyer also identifies a number of contributions made by the four Doctors that are extremely relevant today—their broadening of theology to include experience and passion, their portrayals of a “God who loves madly,” their invitation to women without formal training to become theologians, and more. I especially appreciate Dreyer’s focus on the importance of nature in the respective theologies—“greening” as a pillar of Hildegard’s work, for example–and her raising up of environmental destruction as a crucial contemporary issue.
It’s pretty clear that Accidental Theologians, with its engaging discussion questions at the end of each chapter and its accessible applications of the theologies of the four female Doctors, is targeted at adult religious education groups. Indeed, Dreyer’s explains that her purpose in writing the book is to urge the laity to answer their baptismal call to become “grassroots” theologians. With Accidental Theologians, she makes a noteworthy contribution toward that goal.
I did find certain omissions in Accidental Theologians puzzling. For example, Dreyer virtually elides from her discussion the significant numbers of women who today actually are Catholic theologians (40 percent of the theology department at Fordham University, for example). Dreyer aims to inspire “grassroots” theologians, but the line between “grassroots” and “academic” is blurring as theologians today draw frequently on “grassroots” experience in their work.
Given Dreyer’s emphasis on the importance of women’s experience in the work of the four female Doctors, her failure to mention women’s experience as a critical component of feminist theologies since the 1960s is likewise puzzling. Of course, incorporating too much of the sophisticated theological scholarship on women’s experience runs counter to Dreyer’s purposes. But her decision barely to mention women’s experience and feminism more broadly as significant components of the past half-century of Christian theology is hard to understand.
All in all, though, Accidental Theologians will be a source of much-needed knowledge and hope for many Catholics, especially the emerging women theologians among us.
Tags: 2013 Person of the Year, Andrew Revkin, Baptists, encyclical on the environment, female genital mutilation, infallible doctrines, Muslims, Pope Francis, the feminine genius
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.
Tags: 9/11, Christmas, cruccifxion, Ground Zero, myrrh, The Three Kings, Thomas Berry, World Trade Center
As I was going through stacks of articles and reviews that I’ve published in years past, I came across this one, written soon after 9/11 and published in EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference. I lived in Berkeley, California at the time. I consider it one of the best things I ever wrote, and unfortunately, much of it can be applied to this Christmas as well, with different men from the East–and the West–bearing new but no less grief-laden gifts.
One problem with writing for periodicals is lag time. The next issue of one publication I write for is coming out in December, so the editor wishes I would write something about Christmas. Ho-ho-ho. But today is October 11, 2001, and everywhere I turn I find bombed skyscrapers and fear of anthrax.
In this conundrum, it helps to remember that the incompatibility between Christmas and death is a secular construct. Fundamental to the Christian tradition is the understanding that Christmas and Easter are different manifestations of the same mystery. Jesus himself may have escaped Herod, but all those other Jewish babies did not. The liturgical calendar keeps them out of sight for a while, but ultimately, there’s no separating life and death.
Even the kings themselves, those wise men from the East, are implicated in this part-ho-ho, part-horror story. In Matthew’s rendering of it we learn not only that these men brought gifts with them but what those gifts were: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. Gold and frankincense fit nicely with the spirit of the season, thank you very much, but myrrh is another matter. John the Evangelist makes the connection clear when he writes of Jesus’ burial: “So (Joseph of Arimathea) came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who had at first come to him by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight” (19:38-39).
A week or so after the September 11 attacks, the writer Karen Armstrong had a conversation about Islam with NPR’s Terry Gross. At the end of the interview Gross asked Armstrong if she had any last thoughts to leave with the audience. Armstrong replied that although people might not appreciate her approach immediately, eventually she hoped they would come to think of the bombings as a revelation. If we consider the suicide bombers to be our own version of men from the East bearing gifts, what the nature of that revelation might be becomes clearer. We are more interested in the gold and the incense, but the myrrh is under the tree too.
“American Catholic” is a complex term, amalgamated from the optimism of America’s Enlightenment origins and the suffering of immigrant Catholicism. Years ago Thomas Berry, the cosmological prophet, remarked in a lecture at Grailville, in Loveland, Ohio, that Christianity had become preoccupied with the crucifixion in the 14th century, when the Black Plague killed one European out of every three. I took him to mean that this preoccupation was some sort of distortion; only years later did I realize that the need of many of us 70s liberal Catholics to distance ourselves from the morbidity of the cross was another form of distortion, or rather, another moment in the centuries-long Christian oscillation between resisting the cross and embracing it.
In recent years Catholic feminists have joined their Protestant sisters in struggling with the meaning of the cross for Christianity, and particularly for women. In Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker argue that the cross can be of no further use for women because it leads them to identify with victimization and self-sacrifice.
In Embracing Travail:Retrieving the Cross Today, the Canadian feminist theologian Cynthia Crysdale rejects, as do Brown and Parker, the Anselmian argument that God, like an offended medieval warlord, required the death of Jesus as retribution for sin. But she argues that this is not the only possible interpretation of the cross. For Crysdale, “embracing travail” means struggling, along with Jesus, against the evil that is part of human existence, not from a desire to sacrifice our selves, but to heal and free those very selves. In my own research, I find that some American Catholics, at least, know very well that there is no escaping loss, even if our financial resources exceed those of our immigrant forebears. Embracing the death of Jesus is one way to work through those losses to new hope and understanding.
In many respects, I am a New Yorker. My parents began taking me from Philadelphia to Manhattan as a small child, sharing with me their modernist passion for the bright lights and the big city. As an adult, I loved every minute of the decade I lived in New York, identifying with its energy—at last I was someplace where being in a hurry isn’t a failing! —and relishing the sense that everything I could want was a subway ride away. When I try to explain my perpetual homesickness to my California colleagues, they who are forever on their way to the redwoods or the Pacific, I invariably speak of my longing for skyscrapers, the ones in Philadelphia, but even more, those in Manhattan.
The World Trade Center was like a Christmas tree, a tall, glittering fantasy of promise and possibility. I spent one of the happiest afternoons of my life there, at The Windows on the World, the famous restaurant at the top of World Trade Tower #1, celebrating my graduation from seminary with my family, my future husband, and some of my closest friends. But like a lot of other Americans, I didn’t pay enough attention to the first bombing of those towers in 1993. When I called the Windows on the World the following year, to see about reserving space for my wedding dinner, I got a tape announcing that due to the recent terrorist attack, the restaurant was closed.
Today when I look at photographs of what remains of the World Trade Center, it doesn’t look much like a Christmas tree at all. The shards of building that are left standing look to me a lot more like a severe, modernist crucifix with jagged ribs piercing the sky. I imagine they won’t look that way for long, though. Given the wealth and arrogance of this country, skyscrapers will probably rise again on that bombed Golgotha-like landscape. And who knows? I may even come to love them. But I will never love them as optimistically as I did their predecessors. .
Even this year, a few miles north of Ground Zero, it is likely that a huge Christmas tree is glowing in Rockefeller Plaza, and people like me are looking up at it, singing carols. Together these men and women will recreate an image of peace and harmony, of new birth, and the promise of salvation. But if they get as far as Balthazar’s verse of “We Three Kings,” they will remember something else, something our recent history has taught us all too well:
Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in a stone cold tomb.
Perhaps this year we will be better able than we have been in the past to hold the two parts of the Christmas mystery together in our hearts.
Tags: Cardinal Franc Rode, Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious, Congregation of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Mother Mary Clare Millea, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis, U.S. Catholic sisters, Vatican report on U.S. nuns
For days now, friends and colleagues have been awaiting with excitement the report on U.S. Catholic sisters that the Vatican Congregation of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) issued this morning. Based on an Apostolic Visitation of active (non-cloistered) congregations of sisters that began in 2008, this report has been anticipated since at least 2012. Hopes were high that it would be positive and appreciative (unlike the separate doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious of 2012) because it was issued under the current pope, not Benedict XVI, who authorized the Visitation.
Most would agree that the outcome is much better than was initially feared. A headline in Crux, in the Boston Globe, reads “Vatican probe ends with an olive branch for American nuns.” The National Catholic Reporter’s Global Sisters Report acknowledges the report’s “roundly positive, even laudatory, tone towards (the sisters’) life and work,” while also mentioning several “couched but barbed criticisms” of them. (But the British Guardian calls the report a “mild rebuke.”) A sister of Notre Dame de Namur whom I admire enormously for her decades of relentless social justice advocacy said she would be grateful for a positive report so that sisters could stop worrying and get back to the work they were called to do.
I, too, am grateful that the report is as positive as it is. I am especially moved by the section on finances, reminding readers of the difficult financial situation of many women’s congregations and that many sisters worked for nothing. God willing, at the end of the report, readers will express their gratitude by getting out their checkbooks. I also appreciate the report’s acknowledgment that the decline in the number of Catholic sisters in recent years was not the result of their secular life-styles, but in part at least, because the huge increase in the number of sisters in the middle of the twentieth century was an historical anomaly.
Nonetheless, I feel the need to make a few points.
First of all, the report describes the visitations as “sister to sister” undertakings. And it is true that a nun, Mother Mary Clare Millea, supervised the entire (massive) effort, and a “core team” of other sisters did the actual work of visiting and interviewing other sisters in their four hundred-some groups across the U.S. It is worth remembering, however, that Mother Mary Clare reported to the entirely male CICLSAL leadership, and that she herself was part of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), the more conservative organization of U.S. sisters that split off from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)in 1992. It would be interesting to know the percentage of “core team” sister/interviewers who also came from congregations in the CMSWR.
I also have real problems with the final paragraphs of the report, beginning with the expression of hope that the “feminine genius” of more women, including competent women religious, will be “actively involved in ecclesial dialogue regarding the ‘possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life.'” I will spare you my thoughts about the “feminine genius” and note only that the phrase “actively involved in…dialogue…about the possible role…” is scandalously indirect and ambivalent. Possible roles?
This paragraph is followed by the statement that the Apostolic Visitation modeled its approach on the Gospel encounter between Mary and Elizabeth, “one a virgin and the other married but barren,” who overcame fear and uncertainty to embrace their roles in God’s plan. Myself, I would have preferred a description of these extremely significant women in light of something besides, or at least along with, their reproductive status. I would have also been grateful if the final paragraph described women, especially women religious, as actually doing something, instead of (or along with) the church celebrating “the great things that God does for them” and Mary herself “constantly contemplating the work of God.”
Some U.S. sisters may object to my focusing on these details; the book about the process, Power of Sisterhood, and the report itself stress the unity that resulted from the Apostolic Visitation; some sisters also express hope for better relations between the LCWR and the CMSWR.
But it’s crucial to recognize that the report actually does nothing to change the governance structure of the Roman Catholic Church. The church is an absolute monarchy, and unlike other monarchies, only men get crowned. If a pope dies, there’s no telling what his successor will do, as some of us learned to our dismay after the deaths of Pope John XXII, and, to some extent, Pope Paul VI. (This is particularly amusing in a religious organization given to saying “As the church has always taught.”) Pope Francis is a big improvement over his two predecessors, particularly because of his stress on the poor, though the possibility that the church’s teaching on women might actually contribute to their poverty seems to elude him.
All this notwithstanding, Pope Francis is an old man. And if he dies, God knows what position his successor will hold, on women and a lot of other things. The current heads of the Congregation of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life are much more appreciative of U.S. Catholic sisters than Cardinal Franc Rodé was. Will their successors be? Until the Catholic church ordains women priests and bishops, appoints them cardinals, and elects them pope, its treatment of Catholic women, including and especially nuns, is at the least unpredictable. As things are, the only role allotted to women by the institutional church is to pray that the pope lives a long time and that the bishops and cardinals he names will be more enlightened on questions of gender and sexuality than he is.