The Vatican and the Nuns: Episode 973

May 7, 2014 at 2:04 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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A few weeks back, in my article on Pope Francis and women’s ordination, I told a story about meeting Sister Helen Prejean at an event celebrating the publication of the twentieth anniversary edition of Dead Man Walking. I gave Sister Helen a copy of my book, Sister Trouble: The Vatican, the Bishops, and the NunsShe replied that with the new pope, all of the trouble between the Vatican and American sisters was going to go away.

I had my doubts. As I explain in the central article in Sister Trouble, popes, bishops, and theologians have been attempting to get celibate Christian women under control since just after the Roman persecutions. The history of sisters (women religious) is studded with stories of famous mother foundresses running from one diocese to another to escape the local bishop’s crack-down on their congregations. Some of these women were subsequently excommunicated. Some of them were then, ever more subsequently, canonized.

So when the address by the head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, accusing the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) of disobedience, was posted on the Vatican website on Monday, I was sorry, but I was not surprised. Good Pope Francis never retracted the hostile doctrinal assessment against the LCWR issued by Müller’s predecessor, Cardinal William Levada, in 2012. And Pope Benedict XVI had appointed Levada and Müller both. After which Pope Francis made Müller a cardinal.

The two emphases in Müller’s address are that the LCWR had decided to give an award to the nun-theologian Elizabeth Johnson CSJ, whose book, Quest for the Living God was condemned by the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2011, and that they have persisted in publishing material about “Conscious Evolution,” the discourse spearheaded by Barbara Marx Hubbard. In his address, Müller compares Conscious Evolution to Gnosticism.

I plan to write at further length regarding this latest episode of the Vatican and the bishops trying to bring the nuns to heel. At the moment, however, I will put aside the sheer idiocy of Müller resurrecting the pitiful business of the USCCB condemning a book by as orthodox and middle-of-the-road a theologian as Elizabeth Johnson (though it is worth noting that the head of the Committee on Doctrine at the time of the condemnation of Johnson’s book, Rev. Thomas Weinandy, has a reputation for being one nasty, hostile human being). And as for U.S. Catholic sisters integrating “Conscious Evolution” into their ministry and spirituality, has anybody read Teilhard de Chardin or Thomas Berry lately? Teilhard’s works were, in fact, censored by the Vatican, but in 2009 a Vatican statement made all of that seem ridiculous (sort of like canonizing previously excommunicated Mother Foundresses).  As for Berry, by applying his “New Story of Creation” to the Christian faith, he took far greater risks, it seems to me, than Hubbard’s freestanding discourse does.

The real issue between the nuns and the Vatican is gender, plain and simple. However benign Pope Francis may be, he shares, as I have argued, the embarrassingly medieval theology of gender that his predecessors promoted. Indeed, the institutional church has been using control of women and sexuality as a weapon against the modern world since at least the liberal revolutions of 1848. Women–and sexuality–are the only things the popes were able at least to try to keep under control as the separation of church and state, the loss of the Vatican territories, etc., took away their ancient “secular” powers.  Hence the Vatican condemnation of contraception after Vatican II, when the bishops had finally accepted “the modern world.”

Today, in 2014, the Vatican and the bishops can’t even keep the vast majority of Catholic women under control. During the (unfortunately ongoing) uproar over religious freedom and the ACA contraceptives mandate, 97 percent of U.S. Catholic women surveyed reported having used contraceptives at some point. And it’s not just in the U.S.: several years ago, in an on-line chat, an African (Kenyan) Catholic (lay) woman studying for an MA in international relations in Nairobi said to me,”Who are these Catholic bishops, that they think they can tell us women what to do with our sexuality?”

This leaves nobody but the nuns for the bishops and the Vatican to control. According to Pope Francis’s theology of gender, women–but today, really, only nuns–are supposed to exhibit the “feminine genius”—to be warm, sensitive, intuitive, and complementary. Kneel down and kiss the bishops’ feet, that is. But as I argue in a variety of ways in Sister Trouble, the boys made a big mistake. After World War II, they used the sisters’ commitment to obedience to force them to get educated; they did this to avoid making the church look bad if secular counterparts were better qualified than than the sisters were. And the sisters obeyed.

What the men in authority got for their trouble was women like Sister Elizabeth Johnson. But they never give up. Johnson’s book, in my opinion, was condemned, impart at least, because Johnson dared to publish it without an imprimatur, an official statement of permission. And now the idiots in Rome are resurrecting the whole episode, and criticizing some of the smartest women in the history of the church, the LCWR, for not asking permission before publishing material regarding a line of thought that seems fruitful to them.  And they wonder why American Catholic women aren’t rushing into religious life?

“Christ the Spouse”: Pope Francis and Women’s Ordination

March 31, 2014 at 4:48 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments
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(The following is longer than my usual blog-post–1500 words instead of my usual 750 or so–so you may want to put your feet up.)

Well, what John Allen of the Boston Globe calls “pope- mania” continues unabated. On NPR’s “Weekend Edition” a while back, Sylvia Poggioli quoted U.S. and European journalists to the effect that Pope Francis is bringing about the “biggest change in the Catholic Church in a thousand years.” And when I gave a copy of my book, Sister Trouble, to Sister Helen Prejean at a celebration of the twentieth anni- versary edition of Dead Man Walking  in November, she told me that with the new pope, all the trouble between the nuns and the Vatican is going away.

I hope these women are right. I really do. A well-informed nun-friend assures me that the current heads of the Sacred Congregation for Religious are much better than the former head, the one who initiated the “visitation” of U.S. women’s religious communities in 2009. On the other hand, Pope Francis recently made Gerhard Mueller, the conservative prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), a cardinal. The CDF investigated and then subsequently issued a harsh doctrinal assessment of the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). And the pope has not ordered the retraction of that assessment.

What really concerns me, however, is not the theopolitics of various Vatican prefects but the words of the pope himself. In particular, I am concerned about the sections on women (103 and 104) of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (EG)  (The Joy of the Gospel). Francis has, of course, received praise, even adulation, for this document, which, like many of his public statements and interviews, places a long-needed (re)emphasis on justice and love of the poor.

But a number of Francis’ statements about women in EG are troubling. These include what he writes about women’s “sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets,” as well as their “feminine genius”. These are surely references to John Paul II’s 1988 Mulieres Dignitatem, and his ideology of “complementarity,” no matter what the citation in EG suggests. But what concerns me most is the first half of a sen- tence in section 104: “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion…”

At first, I hoped the word “Spouse” was an intentionally more gender-neutral term than the distinctly gendered “Christ the Bridegroom” that has been used to dismiss the possibility of women’s ordination for decades. Alas, when I examined the versions of EG in Italian and Spanish (one or the other of which is surely the language in which the document was written), I discovered that “Christ the Spouse” is simply an-other example of bad Vatican translations into English: In Italian and French (and in German), the words mean “Christ the Bridegroom” or “Christ the Husband.”

Now the metaphor of Christ, or God, as the Bridegroom, appears throughout the Jewish and Christian scriptures and in many other Christian writings. It is one of a wide range of metaphors for the relationship between God and God’s people. What some of us will recall, however, is that “Christ the Bridegroom” played a pivotal role in Inter Insigniores, the 1976 CDF declaration, approved by Paul VI, that dis missed the possibility of women’s ordination. John Paul II does not use “Christ the Bridegroom” in his 1994 apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which declares women’s or-dination as contrary to the faith, and which some conservative Catholics believe to be an infallible statement. Francis’s use of the phrase “is not a question open to discussion,” how-ever, is surely a reference to the last paragraph of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which states that the Church has “no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” And in his 1988 apostolic letter on the dignity and vocation of women, Mulieres Dignitatem, John Paul uses “Christ the Bridegroom” twenty-eight times. For him, “Christ the Bridegroom” sets absolutely the limits of woman’s vocation.

In 1993, before the publication of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Sister Elizabeth J. Picken, CJ, published a rebuttal of a previous article by the conservative Catholic theologian, Sara Butler, MSBT, “The Priest as the Sacrament of Christ the Bridegroom”; both appeared in Worship magazine.. Picken argues compellingly that Butler, following Inter Insignores and Mulieres Dignitatem, uses “Christ the Bridegroom” as the singular framework for ordination in a way that makes the relationship between God and God’s people essentially gendered. (Butler, Sara, “The Priest as Sacrament of Christ the Bridegroom.” Worship, 66:6 Nov. 1992, 498-517. Picken, Elizabeth J. “If Christ is Bridegroom, Must the Priest Be Male?” Worship, 67:3. May 1993, 269-278.)

There are, we learn, multiple problems with this approach. First of all “Christ the Bridegroom” is a metaphor, but Butler makes it a “primordial symbol” that cancels out, or tries to subsume within it, other equally or more important, metaphors. In point of fact, Picken argues, the primary analogy of the Christian tradition is the relationship between Christ and the Church, the covenant between them, not between husband and wife. The core meaning of this bond is fidelity, not nuptials. In the He-brew Bible, the covenant of fidelity is sometimes represented between God and single leaders of the whole people: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, etc.; also between womb and infant; between lord and slave; between shepherd and flock; be-tween gardener and vineyard. In addition, sexuality is used in ways that extend beyond marriage to represent the covenant; sometimes the prophets describe the people of Israel as prostituting themselves to foreign gods—breaking the covenant. Similarly, the author of Ephesians says that marriage partners are to model themselves on the pattern of Christ to the church. But Butler, and the papal documents she defends, have got it all turned upside down. Christ’s fidelity to the church is the model for marriage partners; marriage partners are not the model to which Christ and the church should conform.

Picken also details other ways in which the theology of Christ the Bridegroom is reductive, profoundly narrowing of the tradition. Butler, and the documents from Paul VI and John Paul II, limit the whole question of ordination to the framework of Christology. They fail to take into account the Christian anthropology (theology of the human being) and pneumatology (theology of the Spirit) that are also essential parts of the meaning of ordination. For example, using Christ the Bridegroom to argue that the priest must be male draws on one view of Christian anthropology, complementarity, that presumes opposite roles for men and women. But there are also Christian anthropologies of differentiation that understand sex roles to be interchangeable. Butler, and those in her camp, believe that if a pope draws on the theology of complementarity, that settles the question. But complementarity is not an infallible doctrine; quite the contrary.

Similarly, pneumatology, and ecclesiology in relation to the Eucharist and the church, are almost ignored in these documents, making them a primarily medieval interpretation of ordination. (I am using the word “medieval” literally here.) Picken draws on the great twentieth-century theologian Yves Congar to make her point here: “Christ, ‘by his Holy Spirit, builds up the Church and raises up and institutes its ministries.’ If it is Christ by the Spirit that builds up the Church,” Picken asks, “is it required that the ordained minister be of the same gender as Christ?” Or to put it more baldly, is the Holy Spirit also a bridegroom?

Lest we be too disheartened by Pope Francis’ use of the theologically and scripturally reductive symbol favored by his predecessors to limit women’s roles in the church, I refer you to a critique of Evangelii Gaudium that appeared on the America magazine blog page last December. It was written by another Jesuit, Francis X. Clooney, the brilliant professor of comparative theology at Harvard Divinity School. Clooney expresses disappointment with two sections of Evangelii Gaudium: 254, on “non-Christians,” Clooney’s own area of expertise, and 103 and 104, on women. With regard to the latter, Clooney stresses that “the language of Christ as ‘Spouse’ ‘giving himself in the Eucharist,’ while a beautiful image, is out of place in this Exhortation, an echo of another view of Church.”

Clooney’s post is well worth reading. What particularly strikes me, however, is its title: “Pope Francis: Still Finding His Own Voice?” Clooney argues that the whole section on non-Christians “is not sufficiently integrated with Francis’ more exciting vision, in the rest of the exhortation,” of “an outward looking Church that is in the streets, with the people, soiled and wounded in the work of justice, combatting the real enemies of economic and political degradation and the deprivation of human dignity.” He argues as well that the sections on women seem to be “in someone else’s voice.” What’s needed, Clooney tells us, is for Francis to speak about these questions in his own voice and not just as the successor to John Paul II and Benedict.

From Father Francis’ lips to Pope Francis’ ear.

 

(This article is a slight revision of an article by the same name that appeared in the March-June 2014 edition of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference. EqualwRites is published three times a year, and you can subscribe by sending a donation of any amount to SEPA WOC PO Box 27195, Philadelphia, PA 19118. Make your check payable to SEPA WOC.)

 

Book Tour–Ya’ll Come!

March 20, 2014 at 11:56 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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As you perhaps remember, last October I published Sister Trouble, a collection of my articles about the crackdown on U.S. Catholic sisters by the Vatican and the U.S. Catholic bishops that began in 2009 and culminated in a harsh “doctrinal assessment” of the largest group of Catholic sisters in the country, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, in 2012. The volume also includes several pieces on why Catholic sisters are so important, and a longer essay on the history of male efforts to control celibate women throughout the history of the church. The link to Sister Trouble on Amazon.com is to the right of this post.

Thing is, nothing stays the same for very long. About the time I was completing the Sister Trouble manuscript, Pope Francis got elected. When I gave a copy of Sister Trouble to Sister Helen Prejean at a celebration of the 20th anniversary edition of Dead Man Walking last November, she said “Oh, with the new pope, all that stuff with the Vatican is just going to go away.”

Part of making a publication successful is promoting it, so I am going around giving book talks here in the Northeast this spring. The talks are listed below. But what with the arrival of Pope Francis and the changes he is making in the Catholic church, I’ve expanded the subject of my talk from the recent experiences of U.S. Catholic sisters per se to the larger question of gender and sexuality in Catholicism under Pope Francis. I’ve been doing a lot of reading, and am having great fun putting my thoughts together. And I’m sure the discussion afterward will be lively!! If you’re near Philadelphia, New York City, or North Jersey, I’d love to see you. And if you come, you can get a copy of Sister Trouble without having to pay postage and handling.  ( :

Gender Trouble: Catholic Sisters, Women Priests and LGBTI Catholics in Pope Francis’s “New” Church

Drawing on her new book, Sister Trouble: the Vatican, the Bishops, and the Nuns (Amazon 2103), Marian Ronan, American Catholic studies scholar, writer, and former president of the Women’s Ordination Conference, will discuss the ways in which Catholic teaching on sexuality and gender will, and won’t, change under good Pope Francis. Copies of her book will be available for sale.

Sunday, March 30.  4 -6 PM, St Luke and the Epiphany
 Church, 330 S 13th Street, Philadelphia, PA 

Sunday, April 6. 3-5 PM, 20 Washington Square North, Manhattan, New York City (The sponsors of this event, however, have given it a less incendiary title: “Gender Issues Facing Pope Francis: Catholic Sisters, Women Priests, and LGBT Catholics.”)

Sunday, May 4, 2- 4 PM, St. Mark Lutheran Church, 100 Harter Rd., Morristown, NJ.

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