The Cruelest of All Mothers

March 5, 2016 at 11:50 am | Posted in Catholic sisters, feminism, women | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , ,

The Cruelest of All Mothers: Marie de l’Incarnation, Motherhood, and Christian Tradition by Mary Dunn. Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2016. Hardback, $45; e-book, $44.99. 150 pp. plus back matter.

For Christian feminists, a book about the life of Marie Guyart de l’Incarnation, the little known French-Canadian Ursuline nun canonized in 2014, can’t help but be welcome. As the title of Mary Dunn’s remarkable new study suggests, however, The Cruelest of All Mothers is a good deal more than a saint’s life.

Raised in Tours, France, Marie Guyart began having mystical encounters with Christ at the age of seven and longed to become a nun, but her parents forced her to marry. She did so in 1617, age eighteen. In 1619, she gave birth to a son, Claude, and six months later, her husband died.

Guyart spent most of the next eleven years raising her son, supporting them both by working in her brother-in-law’s business, while continuing to long for the religious life. In 1631 she entered the Ursulines at Tours—all convents were cloistered in those days—over the strenuous objections of her son, who was left without visible means of support. Two years later, in a vision, the Virgin Mary told Marie she had plans for her in Canada. In 1639, Marie and three other Ursulines sailed to Quebec, where she spent the rest of her life.

Marie de l’Incarnation’s ministry was impressive in many respects. She founded the Ursulines in Canada and served as their superior for eighteen years. She also learned multiple indigenous languages and translated the catechism into Iroquois. But the issue at the center of Dunn’s analysis is Guyart’s abandonment of her eleven-year-old son and the meaning(s) of that act in light of Christian perspectives on motherhood and contemporary scholarship.

In chapter 1 Dunn “explicates” Marie’s abandonment of Claude in the context of the times, that is, in the way that Marie herself was likely to have understood it: as a sacrifice performed in conformity with God’s will, modeled after the crucifixion. Marie’s deep desire to stay with her son would have been irrelevant. But in chapter 2, Dunn suggests that the abandonment may instead have been quite the opposite: a refusal on Marie’s part to conform to the norms of seventeenth-century French family life, in which parents’ greatest obligation was to protect the “patrimony” of their children.

But, Dunn reminds us, human actions rarely fall into neat, either/or categories, in this case, those of submission or resistance. Dunn therefore draws on the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to explore the abandonment as what was likely within the boundaries of Guyart’s own time that “left little (positive) room for actual maternal bodies and real maternal practice.” Fundamental to this world-view were centuries of Christian teaching in which motherhood itself was portrayed as fleshly and the renunciation of children as heroic. The seventeenth-century Christian privileging of self-sacrifice as the ultimate in spiritual practice reinforced these longstanding teachings. In her own time, then, Marie had little choice but to abandon Claude if she believed God had called her to the mystical life.

Dunn goes on to suggest, however, that in another time and place, Marie might have been able to understand motherhood itself, and not only its renunciation, as a sacrifice modeled on that of Christ. Now let me acknowledge at this point that feminist discussions of sacrifice in recent decades have been something of a minefield, with theologians like Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker denouncing Christian notions of sacrifice as inherently misogynistic, even sadistic. In her final chapter, however, Dunn uses the work of the French feminist psychoanalytic theorist Julia Kristeva to undercut such dismissals of sacrifice, embedded as they are in binary, Cartesian, either/or thinking. For Kristeva maternal subjectivity—itself the model of all human subjectivity—is a mother’s willingness to “give herself up” in order to make room for the other within. (But) a mother’s willingness to give herself up does not end in the annihilation of the mother in the service of others, but in the enrichment of the mother through the inclusion of the other (13).

In fact, as Dunn explains, Kristeva’s understanding of motherhood folds into each other the pivotal categories that have been held in opposition throughout Western/Christian history: agape and eros, the Word and the flesh, syntax and rhythm, male and female. Furthermore, this Kristevan model of motherhood as sacrifice and fulfillment finds its closest analogue in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross because that sacrifice ended in life, not death, that is, in the Resurrection and the formation of the Christian community. Similarly, motherhood culminates in new life and profound connection. In fact, as the book continues, Dunn demonstrates that motherhood was infolded into Guyart’s spirituality throughout her life despite—or because of—the abandonment of her son

Dunn’s reading of motherhood in the life of Marie Guyart’s life and in Christian history is itself a significant achievement. But Dunn introduces a third, galvanizing layer to her narrative: her own experience of motherhood, and especially, of mothering a child with a rare genetic disorder. Already half way through the introduction, Dunn writes about being the mother of two older children, Bobby and Frankie, three years and one year old respectively, at a time when attitudes toward motherhood are very different from those of the sixteenth-century. Throughout the book. Dunn returns to this experience of mothering these two and then two more children, the last one, Aggie, born with the genetic disorder.

At first glance, there would seem to be few similarities between Dunn and Guyart. Dunn stays at home, devoting much time and attention to her children, and especially to Aggie. Yet a careful reading of Dunn’s intermittent shifts from Guyart’s motherhood to her own brings a certain similarity to the surface: Dunn also experiences ambivalence, or at least anxiety, about the daughter the doctors assure her will be quite unlike her other children. Aggie is Dunn’s dear child but also the abject, the other that ancient Christian teaching identified with the flesh and with motherhood itself, and which seventeenth-century Christian spirituality urged Guyart to reject. It’s to Dunn’s considerable credit as a scholar and a writer that she doesn’t resolve this tension, this binary, any more than she resolves the tensions within Guyart’s own experience of motherhood. As we continue the feminist effort to tranform the hierarchical binaries with which the church and Western civilization have burdened us, neither may we opt for easy resolutions.

 

This review appears in the March-June 2016 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference and in the March 2016 issue of Gumbo,  the newsletter of the Grail in the USA.

 

 

 

Aren’t Nuns Wonderful?

August 10, 2015 at 10:37 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
Tags: , , , ,

Some of the people I love and admire most in the whole world are Catholic sisters. But almost none of them fit into the Singing Nun, Whoopi Goldberg, or even Maria von Trapp caricature that too many people think they do. I can forgive the purveyors of popular culture for exploiting the image of these hard-working, in large part justice-oriented women this way, but I have no time for ostensible scholars who do so. The following is my review of a book by one such writer, published by a highly regarded academic press, whose “aren’t nuns wonderful” caricature is really problematic. My review appears in the current issue of the journal Church History.

Dedicated To God: An Oral History Of Cloistered Nuns. By Abbie Reese. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Xvii+ 247pp. $34.95 cloth. Church History, 84, pp 485-487.

Dedicated to God is a portrait of the Corpus Christi Colettine Poor Clare Monastery in Rockford, Illinois, by photographer and independent scholar, Abbie Reese. Based on interviews Reese did with the monastery’s twenty nuns over a six-year period, Dedicated to God is an appealing exploration of cloistered religious life in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

In addition to a first-person preface and epilogue, Reese’s volume comprises nine chapters on themes of cloistered religious life. These alternate with eight edited oral histories drawn from Reese’s interviews with individual nuns. The thematic chapters, written in the third person, also draw extensively on Reese’s interviews.

The nuns in Reese’s oral history come from varied backgrounds; some were older when they entered, some younger; their educational levels vary; some transferred from other orders; one is a convert and one a Filipino. They have occasional disagreements, of course, but most of these occur because, as one sister says, “a woman by nature likes to arrange things and have her kitchen the way she wants…” (34). At one point, Reese mentions that she once repeated to the Abbess something a nun said in an interview, and the Abbess disagreed. But nuns would not otherwise have occasion to know they hold divergent views, Reese assures us, because they “would not find occasion or opportunity to discuss philosophical differences of a cloistered calling” (230).

In almost all other respects, however, the nuns are in astonishing agreement about almost everything: the austerity of their way of life, the purity of having given their lives wholly to God; the unity of all the sisters, based in their vow of obedience; the enormous joy they feel.

In her 2008 study of the early history of the Poor Clares, The Privilege of Poverty: Clare of Assisi, Agnes of Prague, and the Struggle for a Franciscan Rule for Women, Joan Mueller, herself a member of an active Poor Clare congregation, observes that in many histories of the Franciscans, Franciscan women’s experiences “have been basically ignored.”(University Park PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006: 2). And in an otherwise enthusiastic review of Carole Garibaldi Rogers’s Habits of Change, a previous volume on Catholic sisters in the Oxford Oral History Series, historian Margaret Susan Thompson notes “a scarcity of women who represent more traditional approaches to religious life.”(Journal of Women’s History, 26:4, 182–190 [Dec. 2014]: 184.) An oral history of cloistered Poor Clare sisters helps to fill these lacunae. And the volume’s thirty-six black and white photographs are of high quality.

Unfortunately, a number of problems outweigh these contributions. One of these is a certain lack of accuracy. Reese acknowledges that she is not a Catholic, but an editor should have caught her missteps, for example, referring to Rome as the “birthplace of the Catholic Church”(67); claiming that the vows of “poverty, chastity, and obedience” are “universally” taken by “all” in religious life (the Benedictines do not do so, as Margaret Susan Thompson observed in an email to me) [2]; referring to novices as “novitiates” (163); and other errors.

More troubling is Reese’s use of oral history. Oral historians have documented a shift in the understanding of the role of an interviewer from one of observation to that of participating in a “shared experience.” Reese, in her preface, claims the latter approach, one of “co-authorship” and “shared authority,” invoking the work of Alessandro Portelli (xiv, xiii).

This methodology has its critics, however. Some argue that there is no “shared authority” if a historian’s scholarly knowledge isn’t included in their product—as it too often is not in Dedicated to God. And Reese herself admits Portelli calls attention to the fact that “memory, including collective memory, is faulty” (xiii). But nowhere in Dedicated to God is there the least hint that the memories of the Rockford nuns may be faulty. Instead, their stories reveal “transcendent truths”(xiv).

One instance of potentially faulty memory in Dedicated to God is that no nun ever refers to the Second Vatican Council (1961-1965), or to “Perfectae Caritatis,” the Council document that, over the signature of Pope Paul VI, called for the renewal of religious life and a return to the charism of congregational founders. It is virtually inconceivable that any Catholic religious order would not have held a general chapter to discuss their way of life after Vatican II. But in their interviews none of the Rockford Poor Clares seem ever to have mentioned such a meeting. Perhaps they are all happy to forget any attempt to renew “the cultural time capsule that is the monastery,” as Reese puts it (92).

But there were 45,000 fewer U.S. sisters in 1975 than in 1965 when the Council ended. Some of those no longer present in 1975 had died, of course, but the majority “left the convent.” Too bad Reese’s “shared authority” methodology didn’t include interviews with the former Rockford Poor Clares almost certainly included in that number.

And returning to the charism of their founder, St. Clare of Assisi, would have presented the Rockford Poor Clares with other problems. For example, what would it mean for their adulation of total obedience and agreement concerning their way of life that Clare struggled fiercely with popes and cardinals to maintain her sisters’ right to the absolute poverty mandated by Francis of Assisi?

From Maria Monk to Maria von Trapp, from Whoopi Goldberg to Mother Teresa, Americans are spellbound by nuns. Reese’s idealized portrait of the Rockford Colettine Poor Clares is likely to be quite popular. In March, the otherwise competent critic, Casey N. Cepp, published a glowing review of it in the New Yorker (March 5, 2014). Indeed, given its fine photographs, Dedicated to God would make an attractive coffee table book. But why would a distinguished academic press publish it?

Interview about Catholic Sisters, the Church, and Women

January 13, 2014 at 10:24 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , ,

Last weekend I was down in Ft. Myers, Florida, talking with the SW Florida branch of the Catholic reform group Call to Action about my recent book, Sister Trouble and the 2012 Vatican crackdown on U.S. Catholic sisters. I hope to share with you what I said there in a future post.

In connection with the book talk, however, I was interviewed on the local NPR station, WGCU. In lieu of a blogpost, here’s the link to the interview. I suspect you will have no trouble recognizing my sweet, receptive feminine voice.  ( :

http://news.wgcu.org/term/marian-ronan

My New Book Is Out!

September 30, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments
Tags: , , , , , ,

Well, my new book, Sister Trouble: The Vatican, the Bishops, and the Nuns, came out on Saturday. It’s available for sale on Amazon.com;  an eBook version will also be available there in a week or so.

And just to whet your appetite, here’s the description. Y’all come!

In April of 2012 the Vatican issued a harsh “doctrinal assessment” of the largest organization of Catholic sisters in the U.S., the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The “assessment” was the culmination of a three-year investigation. Simultaneously, the Vatican had been conducting a visitation of 340 active (non-cloistered) congregations of U.S sisters. What do these developments mean?

This is the question Catholic scholar and activist Marian Ronan sets out to answer in Sister Trouble: The Vatican, the Bishops, and the Nuns, her galvanizing collection of articles about the investigations, the doctrinal assessment, and the issues that connect them.

In the first section of Sister Trouble, Ronan chronicles the conflict from the 2009 launch of the investigations to the 2012 actions of bishops appointed to oversee the Leadership Conference. She also examines the condemnation of Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s book, the link between the sisters’ support for the Affordable Care Act and the Vatican crackdown, and the dispute over the ultimate meaning of the Second Vatican Council that underlies the conflict. The articles sizzle with Ronan’s distinctive and sometimes acerbic humor.

Readers curious about the Vatican crackdown will learn a good deal from this first section of Sister Trouble. But the talk that comprises the second section provides much-needed context for understanding the conflict. Here the author examines in particular the treatment of dedicated celibate women throughout church history and the threat they have always posed to the supposedly absolute gender boundaries with which male leaders justify their domination of the church.

Finally, in the concluding section, Ronan makes clear her reasons for undertaking Sister Trouble—because she cares so deeply about Catholic sisters. In the first article, she uses a statue of Joan of Arc to trace a genealogy from one U.S. Catholic sister to another and finally to herself. Then she draws on Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain to explore how the sisters shaped the lives and characters of generations of Catholic women. And in the final essay, Ronan steps beyond the current conflict to bid farewell to three recently deceased sisters whose lives of commitment profoundly influenced her own.

As theologian Tania Oldenhage has written, Sister Trouble is an “urgent, clear-sighted and deeply moving account” of the conflict between the Vatican and the nuns. It’s also a testimony to the legacy of Catholic sisters throughout the ages.

So What Does This Make Me?

May 16, 2013 at 4:46 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I have, from time to time, mentioned my working-class Irish-Catholic upbringing in a county immediately south of Philadelphia. I was actually born in Chester, a ship-building city on the Delaware River, south of Philly on the way to Wilmington. We moved to Collingdale, a few miles north of Chester, when I was two-and-a-half.

Some would call Collingdale a suburb, but I never do, at least not since people started thinking that suburbs are full of 12,000 square foot houses with hot tubs in the back. Collingdale was a whole like the Northeast section of Philadelphia, row houses and “twins” built after World War II and occupied by the families led by shift workers like my father–people who were excited out of their minds that they owned anything. The bedroom I shared with my brother till he was seven and I was fourteen was so tiny, you could hardly get between his bed and mine. The dresser (which I still own) was out in the hallway.

There are a number of things I could tell you about my neighborhood, and the street we lived on, Juliana Terrace. The people were decent, and we felt safe enough to play out on the street. (We were all white, of course; it was the 1950s.)

My shift-worker father, Joe Ronan, was a hard-working guy who had had a difficult childhood and youth–orphaned at the age of nine, put out on the street during the Depression by the unmarried aunts who could no longer feed him, a stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps before joining the Navy in 1939 (because it paid better than the CCC) . Privilege was something he did not have to pass onto us.

What I did get from my father were certain ideological convictions. You see, I grew up thinking that being a Democrat and being pro-union were the most important things in the world, and that they were somehow inextricably linked with being an Irish Catholic. My father would sit at the dinner table and announce, with absolute certainty, that if we ever voted Republican or crossed a picket line, we would go to hell. This was the beginning of my theological education. I was in college before it dawned on me that it was possible to be a Catholic and a Republican.

Things have changed a lot since those days, of course. First there were the Reagan Democrats. After my father died, despite my terror about what she might say, I asked my mother if my father had voted for Reagan. I was greatly relieved when she assured me he had not.

But the big change came when the Catholic Church, or at least the U.S. Catholic Bishops, shifted all their eggs into the sexual morality basket. Time was when American bishops hired people like the great social justice advocate, Monsignor John A. Ryan, or wrote letters on economic justice and peace. In recent years, however, their battles have been primarily, if not exclusively, against contraception, abortion, and gay marriage.

Although I have written at length about the institutional church’s fixation on sexuality and gender since Vatican II, I guess I was still unconsciously operating out of my pro-union/Democratic/Irish/Catholic identity before the last election. I could not grasp why the bishops would launch their “Fortnight of Freedom” attack on a Democratic –and Black!–candidate in a presidential election year. I said this to one of my Catholic friends who was less out-to-lunch than I was; she replied: “Because they’re Republicans, Marian.” I was stupefied. I couldn’t take in what she had said.

Subsequently, a priest I know here in Brooklyn shared with me that the local Catholic bishop, who’s a member of Opus Dei, had told him he had a moral obligation to vote for Mick Romney in the presidential election. My friend bravely replied that as an American, he would follow his conscience about who to vote for.

Since then I have been having something of an identity crisis. I mean, the boys began attempting to roll back Vatican II in 1968, and since I am, at heart, a Vatican II Catholic, I guess my identity has been under assault for decades, at a certain level. And then last year the Vatican went after the Catholic sisters, who were like the grandparents I never had on my father’s side (even if some of them were only ten years older than I was). But now I come to find out that a majority of the U.S. bishops are Republicans, for Christ’s sake.

What does this make me? Or perhaps I should ask, what does it make them?

Catholic Church is Lucky it’s Just Same-Sex Marriage

June 12, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

This week the representatives of the US Catholic Sisters’ organization, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, are in Rome defending themselves against accusations of “radical feminism.” But what the Vatican means by “radical feminism” is hardly anything at all when you compare it to the increasing complexity of sexuality and gender in our time.

You can find my reflections about all this here on Religion Dispatches.

Is Football a Pro-Life Sport?

May 26, 2012 at 10:21 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

While the US Catholic bishops are investigating the Girl Scouts, former football players are suffering premature death and dementia in large numbers.  Why don’t the bishops investigate Catholic football for the lives it destroys?

Read my Religion Dispatches discussion here.

$upport Our $ister$

May 18, 2012 at 9:00 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , ,

Last night I attended an event at a Catholic parish in Manhattan to support US Catholic sisters in response to the Vatican’s recent statement about them. First we viewed a new documentary about the sisters, Women and Spirit which tells the amazing story of Catholic sisters’ work in the U.S. since the first of them arrived here in 1727. It’s produced and marketed by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the primary target of Vatican criticism. Then we discussed the current situation facing the sisters and US Catholic women more broadly. A number of us had read in advance the assessment of the LCWR by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

I am often struck by how basically benign US Catholics are (except about clergy sex abuse)—especially those who still belong to parishes, as most of the attendees last night did. A few of them were angry, but for the most part they seemed more disappointed, or sardonic…

Continued on Religion Dispatches

Rome vs. the Sisters III: The Line in the Sand

May 12, 2012 at 9:02 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Back in April, I outlined four points demanding attention as a result of the Vatican “doctrinal assessment” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the central organization of Catholic sisters in the US. Ten days ago I addressed the first three of them in an article on Religion Dispatches. Now, in a Religion Dispatches blog, I consider the fourth point, that the Vatican attack may well be the last straw for a significant number of US Catholics:

“When, in January, the Obama administration mandated free contraceptive coverage as part of the Affordable Care Act, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) responded ferociously. In his rejection of the administration’s mandate, the president of the USCCB, now-Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, declared, “The Obama Administration has now drawn an unprecedented line in the sand.”

“I’ve been thinking lately about a Catholic line in the sand, but it’s not the one announced by Cardinal Dolan. For me, and, I suspect, for a lot of educated Catholics like me, the line in the sand is the “doctrinal assessment” issued in April by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith against the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the umbrella organization for 80% of US Catholic sisters. The assessment accuses the LCWR of grave doctrinal problems, radical feminism, and spending too much time on justice and peace. As a result, for the next five years, a conservative archbishop will control whatever the group does.  Continue

The Grace of a Happy Death: Mary Louise Birmingham, 1921-2011

June 30, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

In my childhood parochial school, the Sisters taught us to pray for “the grace of a happy death,” by which they meant that we should die in the state of grace. No sins on our souls.

Like many other things, the notion of  “happy death” seems to have gotten more complicated as I get older. But I’m pretty sure I have just been part of one, so I want to tell you about it.

Last Friday (June 24th) my dear friend Mary Louise Birmingham died. In August, Mary Louise would have celebrated her 90th birthday, and she and I had been friends for 40 years, more or less. She lived in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan, with her husband Bill, and had five grown children and eight grandchildren, whom she adored. We were both members of the Grail, an international women’s movement, and had met one another at the Grail’s national center outside Cincinnati where we were participating in some program or other in the late 1960s or early 197os.

Now you may think that there’s nothing very remarkable about an almost ninety-year-old woman dying, but that would be to overlook the fact that Mary Louise had been in good health, and was amazingly engaged in life, until two months ago. When I fell and broke my wrists in mid-April, she came out here to Flatbush on the subway bringing me practical things like applesauce and moist-wipes, and cheering me no end with her presence. Mary Louise had in fact visited me when I was sick any number of times over the years. We were going to attend an introduction to birdwatching workshop together on May 21 in Prospect Park but she cancelled because she was “tired.”

I should have known something was up. Increasing exhaustion and some other symptoms led her to the doctor, and on June 6 Mary Louise was diagnosed with acute leukemia. The standard treatment is chemotherapy, but the majority of people over 80 who have that treatment die from it. Mary Louise had herself worked as a hospice nurse for twenty years and so knew better; she wisely chose to spend the time remaining at home with family and friends. The doctors said she might have seven or eight weeks to live, but she died much sooner than that, less than three weeks after her diagnosis.

So why do I consider this a “happy death”? I was blessed to be able to visit Mary Louise three times after her diagnosis, and her utter peace and even joy in the face of her impending death was an enormous gift to me. I might add that my own parents died over several years, never referring in my presence to the fact that their lives were ending, and making absolutely no preparations for such an eventuality. So to see someone of their generation dying without regret or denial, and without burdening her family and friends with such regrets, was an amazing gift.

I also thought that the timing of my friend’s death was almost perfect. Some people of course drop dead or die in their sleep without any warning. And others die over months or even years, as my parents did. Who’s to say if they have any say in choosing such an approach? But my friend lived long enough for her family and friends to smile at her, to kiss her, to say good-bye. When I visited her apartment in her final weeks, Mary Louise’s husband and whichever kids and grandkids were there at the time welcomed me warmly into their loving network of support.  It almost felt like a holiday, albeit one tinged with sadness. We should all be so fortunate.

This afternoon, I am off to Mary Louise’s memorial service, at Tibet House, in Manhattan. Perhaps you will join with me and her family and other friends as we hold her in the light.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.