Let A Billion Vatican II Blossoms Bloom

July 30, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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The following article appeared in current issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference. It was originally titled “The Death of Vatican II,” but given the title of the piece I posted last week, I thought something more upbeat might be in order.

There’s nothing original about arguing that many of the hopes generated by the Second Vatican Council have been dashed. Leonard Swidler speaks of the “devastating disappointment” of the Council. Rembert Weakland observes in his 2009 memoir that the decision not to ordain women meant “the loss of the future.” Indeed, papers recently released by the Catholic moral philosopher Germaine Grisez reveal that even before the end of the Council, Paul VI indicated that he would do what he would do regardless of what the bishops had decided.

All this notwithstanding, recent developments suggest that the Vatican and the US bishops are now intent upon bringing the Vatican II era definitively to a close. These efforts began, I would argue, with the 2002 command that the faithful return to the (literally) medieval practice of kneeling during the canon of the Mass. Even as I regret the sexism of Mark Massa’s The American Catholic Revolution, I agree with his observation that for most US Catholics, Vatican II began with the renewal of the liturgy. I can still see the nun who taught religion at my Catholic girlsʼ high school during Vatican II, Sister of Notre Dame de Namur Marcella Marie Missar, explaining joyously that “we stand during the canon out of respect for the dignity of the human person.” I wish I could believe that we have been ordered to fall to our knees once again to increase our respect for God rather than for the male leaders of the church.

If kneeling during the canon was one step in the Vaticanʼs campaign to bring the Vatican II era to a close, the “new” translation of the Roman Missal is clearly another. That the translation is ugly, wordy, cumbersome and inaccurate is only part of the story.As the once-conservative Benedictine liturgist, Anthony Ruff, argues, another purpose of the Vatican veto of the translation the bishops had already approved was to show the entire community of English-speaking liturgists that their work didnʼt matter. Nor, apparently, do the beliefs of the English-speaking Catholic laity, who took from Vatican II the bizarre notion that they share some kind of equality with the clergy. “And with your spirit” reminds us, however, that the ordained possess a sacred quality the rest of us do not.

Another discouraging effect of the “new” translation is that before it was promulgated, a number of main-line Protestant denominations shared with the English- speaking Catholic Church certain responses and other fixed parts of the liturgy, for example, “And also with you.” Many of us considered these shared liturgical passages a foretaste of the eventual reunion of Christians–a foretaste now eradicated.

Recent doctrinal statements issued by the Vatican and the USCCB manifest another break with Vatican II. Unlike the previous twenty councils of the church, Vatican II defined no doctrines and issued no anathemas. It was a truly pastoral event. Documents like the recent Vatican assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the USCCB condemnation of Elizabeth Johnsonʼs Quest for the Living God show that the men in power are accelerating the new era of anathema begun in 1968. “The joys and hopes, the griefs and sorrows” of the men and women of this age recede precipitously as doctrinal truth becomes, once again, the center of the Catholic faith.

In the face of these attempts to move the church back to the First Vatican Council, and especially the vile CDF attack on the Catholic sisters who embody the faith for many of us, itʼs tempting to give up on the whole sorry business. To decamp to the Unitarian Universalists, or the United Church of Christ, or the Episcopalians, whose stances on women and gays and peace and justice are vastly more inspiring than those of our own church seem to be.

As I argue in a post on Religion Dispatches, however itʼs likely that this is exactly what the Vatican and the USCCB have in mind—to drive out the “Vatican II Catholics” and cut back to what Pope Benedict XVI has called “the church of the little flock,” the smaller, purer Catholic Church that tolerates no dissent, no theological development, no renewal.

In the face of this attempt to eradicate the most powerful manifestation of Vatican II—the people of God—I urge us all, myself included, not to take the bait and give up. Instead, let us continue to identify ourselves as Catholics in whatever ways our consciences allow—as members of parishes where the leadership clearly does not support Vatican repression; as members of small faith communities who ordain their own celebrants or celebrate the eucharist communally; as ordained or lay participants in an RCWP congregation; as members of Independent Catholic churches; as leaders and activists in a wide range of Catholic reform groups like SEPA-WOC and Call to Action and Dignity and Voice of the Faithful. And let us invite younger Catholics, gay and straight and Black and white and Latino and in between to join with us in these efforts.

Letʼs collaborate and speak out and publish and resist the death of Vatican II to which Rome and the bishops seem committed. Let a billion Vatican II blossoms bloom.



Which American Catholic Revolution Was That??

February 10, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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The following is a review of The American Catholic Revolution: How the ‘60s Changed the Church Forever, by Mark  Massa, S.J.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).  Hardback, $27.95. eBook, $12.07. 191 pp.

Mark Massa SJ is dean of the School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College and the author of several previous books on American Catholicism. He has also been teaching for many years, and The American Catholic Revolution suggests that he’s good at it. His book is clear and engaging. As we approach the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, Massa reminds us of some significant aspects of the Catholic 1960s and clarifies some others.

The basic argument of The American Catholic Revolution is that the really important thing that happened during the Catholic ‘60s—extending, according to Massa, from 1964 to 1974—is that American Catholics acquired “historical consciousness.” That is, we moved from a static world-view to the realization that “everything changes, and that historical events and figures need to be contextualized within their specific times and cultures in order to be understood” (xv).

Massa begins not with the opening of Vatican II but with the 1964 implementation in US parishes of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Before this, most Catholics, we learn, assumed that what they did in church was timeless, but the changes in the liturgy made them consider the relevance of Catholic symbols. The subsequent liturgy wars were less about worship than about “change itself.”  The pre-Vatican II liturgical writings of Rev. Frederick McManus, especially in the magazine Worship, illustrate this thesis. McManus’s “deft historical contextualization of the new liturgy within the evolving tradition of the Western Church allowed American Catholics to see in the Council and its reforms their place in a long history of reform” (25).

Two chapters on Humanae Vitae also illustrate Massa’s point. Though the encyclical may seem to have been about sex, or contraception, what it really did, simply by suggesting that the church’s position on contraception might change, was to further incorporate historical consciousness into US Catholicism. The expulsion of the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Los Angeles from canonical status by Cardinal McIntyre in 1970—the largest group of nuns to be “exclaustrated” in the history of the American church (82)—provides another instance of this shift to historical consciousness. The Vatican II mandate that religious congregations return to their historical charisms led to unintended consequences far beyond the institution’s ability to envision—or control. The witness of the Catonsville Nine—“Dan Berrigan and his faithful cohort” (117)—against the Vietnam War similarly undercut the rigid, culturally assimilated American Catholic vision of the world with “the dangerous (implicitly historical) memory of Jesus” (123).

This argument culminates in a chapter on the work of Jesuit theologian and cardinal,  Avery Dulles, “arguably the most visible and unarguably the most honored American Catholic theologian by the end of the twentieth century” (130). Massa focuses his attention especially on Dulles’s book Models of the Church,  which was published in 1974. For Massa, Dulles’s brilliant presentation of multiple models of the church is the fullest embodiment of the shift to historical consciousness and its law of unintended consequences, one that far transcends the limited perspective of “conservatives” and “liberals.” As a result of all these developments, and especially Dulles’s theology, Massa concludes, the consciousness that everything  changes, even the church, can never be explained away again. After 1974, it will be increasingly difficult to defend church teaching by appealing to timeless, static categories (158-159).

As I said, Massa’s book is clear and well written. It’s easy to imagine it being widely used in undergraduate courses on American Catholicism.  This would be a pity, though, because The American Catholic Revolution is an example of what I have taken to calling the “feminism is so over” genre of Catholic books. What do I mean by this?

To begin with, Massa just plain doesn’t say very much about women. There are thirteen women’s names and groups in the index to sixty-nine men’s.  Massa would perhaps respond that this period—from 1964 to 1974—was well before the feminist movement catapulted women into positions of leadership, and so fewer women than men made noteworthy contributions to the “Revolution.” And of course, he does devote one chapter to women—the exclaustration of the Los Angeles IHMs—and says some very nice things about their contributions to that revolution.

But beyond the IHMs, the women Massa’s chooses to include are at best odd, if not downright insulting. One is Janet Smith, who edited an historically sophisticated volume on why Humanae Vitae was right; another is Anne-Marie Kirmse, a Dominican Sister who served as Avery Dulles’s research assistant for twenty years.

Now wanna hear the names of some of the Catholic women Massa doesn’t mention? Sister Mary Luke Tobin, for one, though surely her presence at Vatican II gave US Catholic historical consciousness at least a tiny shot in the arm. Then there’s Rosemary Radford Ruether, whose 1974 Faith and Fratricide applies historical consciousness to a particularly sticky aspect of the Catholic tradition. But most astonishing of all is that Massa never once in The American Catholic Revolution mentions Mary Daly, whose 1968 book, The Church and the Second Sex, marked the beginning of US Catholic feminism. But maybe these women are all just  “liberals” transcended by Avery Dulles’s brilliant pluralism.

It’s not fair to criticize somebody based exclusively on what they didn’t write, though. So let’s look at what Massa does say about women. Take for example, the subtitle of Chapter 1: “A Brief History of Catholic Time: Miss Havisham’s House.” Miss Havisham, you may recall, is a character in Dickens’s Great Expectations, a rich jilted maiden lady who spends the rest of her life getting even, a frozen malevolence expressed by all the clocks in her mansion having stopped. Massa is drawing here on a quote from Garry Wills’s Bare Ruined Choirs, in which Wills not only compares the “lying eternity and arranged air of timelessness” of pre-Vatican II Catholicism to an embittered spinster, but also to “Mae West’s vestmented and massive pose. “ Wills compares a male-dominated monarchic institution to two extraordinarily repellent women and Massa chooses to start his book by quoting Wills in full.

Then there’s Massa’s treatment of Elizabeth Johnson.  Toward the end of his paean to Avery Dulles, Massa holds forth on how the theology of Thomas Aquinas is more in sync with historical consciousness than rigid pre-Vatican II neo-Thomist theologians realized. An example of this is the way in which some unidentified Catholic feminists started translating Thomas’s phrase “Qui est” as “She who is,” a translation that is, we are reassured to learn, “both grammatically correct and in line with Thomas’s argument…”(144). Then, in a footnote, Massa writes, “See, for example, Elizabeth Johnson’s brilliant and prize-winning work, She Who Is…” (185).

This, I submit, is Massa’s acknowledgment of Catholic feminist theology. The phrase “She who is” is an example of Aquinas, and a book by a colleague with whom Massa served for many years in the theology department at Fordham, is an example of this example. (Don’t be taken in by his calling Johnson’s book“ brilliant”; he says it in a footnote). This from a guy who quotes Garry Wills repeatedly and writes more about Cardinal McIntyre in the chapter on the IHMs than about the nuns themselves.

I would offer Massa’s chapter on the IHMs, in fact, as the third stunning example of the sexism of The American Catholic Revolution.  It’s all well and good to be grateful that Massa includes a chapter on women in his book. But let’s be clear: the story of the Los Angeles IHMs is a story of domestic abuse transposed to the ecclesiastical level.  Yet a member of the male celibate clergy uses it as the one and only treatment of Catholic women in his entire volume.

It’s not as if there weren’t other Catholic women who embodied historical consciousness during the period Massa examines. How about the Catholic Sisters who marched at Selma in 1965? How about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious whose Sisters’ Survey of 1965-1967 documented change among 139,691 US Catholic Sisters? How about Massa extending the “long decade of the ’60s” a year farther ahead and including the first meeting of the Women’s Ordination Conference in Detroit in 1975? But ending in 1975 would undercut the culminating significance Massa accords the work of his Fordham colleague and fellow Jesuit, Avery Dulles. For myself, hearing those speakers in Detroit call for the full equality of women in the church did more for my historical consciousness, as a twenty-eight year old American Catholic, than ten readings of Dulles’s Models of the Church ever could.

Some may argue that my documentation of sexism in Mark Massa’s The American Catholic Revolution takes nothing away from the validity of Massa’s thesis: the decade after Vatican II changed the American Catholic church forever, making it impossible for the church ever again to deny that things change. And here’s what I say to that: the abuse, exclusion, and vilification of women in the Catholic church is a prime example of the paralyzed pre-historic Catholic view of the world that Massa and others like to think ended with Vatican II. And as The American Catholic Revolution demonstrates.

This review first appeared in the October 2011-January 2012 issue of EqualwRites,  the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference. Those interested in women’s issues in the Catholic Church can subscribe to EqualwRites by sending your mailing address to sepawoc@sepawoc.org.

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