Catholic Women, Liturgy, and the Transformation of the World

May 1, 2017 at 2:39 pm | Posted in Catholicism, feminism, women | 3 Comments
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Those of you who read my blog with any regularity may have come across my references to the Grail, an international women’s movement that I have been active in since my senior year in high school (fifty-two years, in case you’re counting). The Grail is not very well-known these days, at least in the U.S., but it played a significant role in securing a place for lay women in the Catholic Church in the 20th century. The following is a revised version of my review of a book that explores the place of the Grail in one aspect of Catholic modernization in the twentieth century, the Liturgical Movement.

There Were Also Many Women There: Lay Women in the Liturgical Movement in the United States, 1926-1959 by Katherine E. Harmon (Liturgical Press, 2012). 412 pp. Paperback: $39.95 (but on sale right now for $25.97 at https://www.litpress.org/Products/6271/There-Were-Also-Many-Women-There); eBook, $31.99.

Despite the positive impact of the women’s movement over the past half century, many kinds of sexism continue.  One is the omission–exclusion–of women from histories of various developments and movements.

One history from which women have been significantly excluded is that of the liturgical movement in the Roman Catholic Church. In There Were Also Many Women There, historian Katharine Harmon examines the influential and largely undocumented role that women, that is to say, laywomen played in the Roman Catholic liturgical movement in the United States. (All Catholic women are considered laywomen, even nuns, because women cannot be priests). To do so, Harmon first explores the European origins of the liturgical movement, and then focuses on the liturgical movement in the U.S. The Grail movement, the women’s community in which I have spent my entire adult life, figures significantly in both sections of the book.

So what is the liturgical movement, and why is it important? Begun in the 1830s, the liturgical movement was an effort to reform the worship practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Some consider it an attempt to return to the romanticism of the Middle Ages, but Harmon demonstrates that the movement was, from the outset, a profoundly social development. It was social because it moved Catholic worship beyond the isolation of the Latin Mass, where individuals had engaged in private devotions like the rosary and encouraged instead responding to and singing together during the Mass. In effect, the goal of the movement was to make the liturgy a socially unifying experience, so as to bring the liturgical participant “into union with the Christian community and, thus inspired, to expand this spirit outward for the renewal of society.”(11)

Launched in Benedictine monasteries in France, the liturgical movement took on new energy after the catastrophic effects of World War I. Active, intelligent liturgical participation in the oneness of Christ’s body would enable God’s grace to permeate and redeem the world. Not coincidentally, the Society of the Women of Nazareth, the group which became the Grail movement, was itself founded in 1921, to convert the world from the callous and demoralizing values evidenced by the war.

Harmon acknowledges that the Women of Nazareth and the Grail Youth Movement they launched in 1928 were not explicitly part of the European liturgical movement. But she argues that the massive colorful religious performances that the Grail staged with thousands of Dutch girls in stadiums beginning in 1932 was “one of the most courageous and public realizations of Catholic Action (the lay Catholic turn to social justice) in the years between the world wars.”  She also quotes an early article about the Grail in a publication of the US liturgical movement stating that the Grail movement was paradigmatic of the essential relationship between liturgy and lived Christianity: The Grail seemed “to be enlivened with a living appreciation of liturgical life and an active understanding of the real meaning of the lay apostolate.” (45).

After the Grail’s arrival in the U.S. in 1940, the liturgical dimension of the movement became even more explicit. U.S. co-founders Lydwine van Kersbergen and Joan Overboss attended and spoke out at national liturgical meetings, and nationally recognized leaders of the liturgical movement led courses and celebrated the Eucharist at Grail centers. And in the U.S., as much or more than was the case in Europe, the Grail celebration of the liturgy, including the singing of Gregorian chant, the creation of other chant-based liturgical music, and liturgical dance, was inextricably connected to the Grail’s commitment to Catholic Action—social justice—and the fostering of an integrated life on the land.

Lydwine van Kersbergen stressed that “the first principle in the training of lay apostles is the understanding that the experience of the sacred liturgy is the integrating center of life” (224).  The great Catholic social justice activist Dorothy Day made retreats with the Grail outside Chicago and at Grailville and commented enthusiastically on the unity between prayer, singing and action in the Grail. For Day, this same integrated vision was at the center of the Catholic Worker movement. And as Harmon demonstrates, thousands of other U.S. women also took their Grail liturgical training back with them to parishes and lay groups across the country.

So why does this matter? Because the liturgy, and especially liturgical singing, were fundamental to the formation of the generations of Grail women who helped the change the Catholic Church and the wider society in which that church played an influential role. And many of these women went on from that formation to engage in amazingly hard, brave, and even heroic work to establish what they understood to be God’s kingdom on earth. I am thinking here of the Dutch Grail women who continued to hold underground meetings during the Nazi occupation of Holland, although they knew they would be sent to concentration camps if they were caught. And others who stayed at their mission stations in Africa and Latin America in the face of horrifying violence—in one case, remaining in central Africa even after a Grail member was murdered in her bed in the next room during a tribal civil war. And then there were the women who worked their entire lives for subsistence at the Grail’s farm and national center in southwest Ohio and other Grail centers.

The Grail is currently active in eighteen countries around the world. Over its near century of existence, it has supported, enlivened and educated thousands of women and girls, running schools and hospitals, leading pioneering programs in progressive education, feminist theology, social transformation, and agriculture. And for many years the Roman Catholic liturgy was at the heart of such action for social change. What will provide the foundation for desperately needed action in 2017, in the face of the rise of nationalist populism and religious wars around the world?

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Catholics and Contraception: A Page Turner

June 28, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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A while back, I mistakenly thought a Catholic Studies scholars’ group I belong to was going to read Leslie Woodcock Tentler’s Catholics and Contraception: An American History (Cornell 2004) so I sent off for a copy from Amazon.  (Someday I am going to analyze my addiction to Amazon Prime, but not today.) The brand new hardback copy of Catholics and Contraception (C&C) that I received cost $2; lucky Tentler and I aren’t in this business for the money.

Truth in advertising requires me to admit that I spent most of the 60s and 70s in Catholic women’s schools and then living in residential communities of the Grail, an international women’s movement; we had  more arguments about lesbianism than about contraception, and I was more upset by the Vatican rejection of women’s ordination in 1976 than by Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical condemning artificial contraception  When I finally got married, at the age of 47, I had already undergone a complete hysterectomy. Of course, I had school friends with seven or ten or twelve siblings, and I got to know the mothers of such families in the Grail. But generally speaking, contraception was not my issue.

C&C examines contraception in U.S. Catholicism from 1873 to 1970, with an epilogue addressing the following three decades. My initial inclination, after finishing the book, was to go on a rant about how these men–popes, bishops, and priests for the most part, along with the occasional male lay leader– could have dared to tell married couples, and women in particular, what they must do with their sexuality. But this would have been a projection of the current situation onto the past. The striking point I took away from C&C  is how very much has changed in an astonishingly short period of time. As Tentler notes, according to a study done in 1970, fully 78 percent of U.S. Catholic women aged twenty to twenty-four were limiting their families by a means other than abstinence or rhythm; during the controversy over the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptives mandate, I in turn read that 97 percent of Catholic women surveyed reported having used artificial contraceptives at some point in their lives. But before the 1960s, this was much less the case.

A good deal of this change Tentler attributes to the “non-reception” of Humanae Vitae by the vast majority of American Catholics, (as well as the Vatican II emphasis on freedom of conscience, and the sexual revolution). Not all aspects of these changes were positive, in Tentler’s estimation, leading as they did to sexual promiscuity, high rates of divorce, and out-of-wedlock births. Ultimately, we learn, the Vatican decision to condemn contraception based on little more than the pope’s “no” undercut massively the church’s own authority. More’s the pity, Tentler suggests, since many of the positive aspects of Catholic teaching about sexuality and marriage went down the tubes along with the ill-advised encyclical.

Yet it’s not only what Tentler says about the effects of Humanae Vitae that I found fascinating. I also learned much that I had not known about Catholics and contraception in the century before that encyclical. I had no idea, for example, that a number of moral theologians had initially condemned rhythm–the only contraceptive method (besides sexual abstinence) that the church eventually allowed to couples attempting to limit the size of their families. These earlier moral theologians believed that even the rhythm method would create a “contraceptive mentality” in users. And Tentler would seem to agree; after the failure of rhythm, Catholic couples often did move to the pill.

I was also initially annoyed by Tentler’s extensive attention to the experience of priests and bishops regarding contraception. The first five chapters draw to a considerable extent on interviews Tentler did with these men, as well as on archival material by and about them. “A book about contraception according to Catholic priests. Thanks a lot,” was my first response. Yet Tentler’s research on the clergy demonstrates what a mess the question of contraception was for almost the entire American church, not married couples only. Many priests were reluctant at best to question laypeople in confession about their use of contraceptives, even when bishops demanded that they do so. And Humanae Vitae only exacerbated the crisis of priestly morale and identity that occurred after Vatican II, especially among younger men; fully 50 percent of American priests disagreed with the substance of the encyclical. This surely contributed to the departure of a large number of American men from the priesthood in the decades that followed.

But Catholics and Contraception does more than fill readers in with details about the past. It also provides an essential context for the current, seemingly endless disputes over the contraceptives mandate of the Affordable Care Act. Indeed, the Supreme Court is expected to issue their decision on the Hobby Lobby case any day now. But the context Tentler provides is particularly important in relation to the claims of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other conservative Catholic groups that the contraceptives mandate is a violation of Roman Catholic religious freedom.  But it’s not only non-Catholics working in Catholic institutions who will be deprived of free contraceptives under the ACA if the mandate is gutted; most sexually active U.S Catholics working in those institutions will be as well. The Roman Catholic religious freedom under consideration in these cases is that of the 447 Roman Catholic bishops in the U.S. and the relatively small number of priests, nuns and laypeople who agree with them on this issue. The institutional church has never afforded the vast majority of Catholics “religious freedom” regarding the use of contraceptives. Most days I doubt it ever will.

“Pink Smoke Over the Vatican”

April 16, 2011 at 9:02 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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Lately people I know have been going to a film about the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, “Pink Smoke Over the Vatican.” This week a member of the international women’s movement to which I also belong, the Grail, posted a request for the rest of us to donate money to make it possible for this film to be shown more widely. Here’s my response to her request.

Dear friends:

I would like to say a few words about this film, “Pink Smoke Over the Vatican.”

As some of you may know, I have been active in the movement for Catholic women’s ordination for almost forty years. Along with Grail members Eleanor Walker and Janet Kalven I attended the first meeting of the Women’s Ordination Conference, in Detroit, in 1975. I served on the national board of the Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC) , the primary US organization working for RC women’s ordination, for five years, and as president of that board for two years. I have collected signatures outside churches for women’s ordination and addressed national assemblies of the wider women’s ordination movement.
The Roman Catholic WomenPriests (RCWP) movement, of which the women in this film are, I believe, members, is one phase of the movement for Catholic women’s ordination.  RCWP began with ordinations on a boat in the Danube some years ago, and members of the group are ordained regularly as priests and deacons here in the US and around the world. Their members have also been ordained bishops.
But nothing is simple. We never just wanted women priests. We wanted what Elizabeth Schuessler Fiorenza calls a “discipleship of equals,” in which laywomen and ordained women would not be assimilated into the same clerical hierarchy that has characterized the Catholic Church for centuries. And of course, there were ordained Catholic women long before Roman Catholic WomenPriests became, ostensibly, the Catholic women priests. My good friend Judy Heffernan was ordained by the Community of the Christian Spirit (CCS) in Philadelphia in the early 1980s and has been celebrating the liturgy with that group since then. But CCS did not ordain any bishops.
I am wary of the arrival of official women priests and  bishops in the women’s ordination movement. When I gave the keynote address for the 30th anniversary of the Women’s Ordination Conference in 2005, one of the RCWP bishops, Patricia Fresen, was the other keynoter. Afterwards WOC, the organization whose board I had served on, and for whom I had raised money, published Patricia’s talk  but not mine. Maybe it was an oversight. Or maybe talks by bishops are just more worthy of publication than talks by laywomen.
Because “Pink Smoke Over the Vatican” focuses on women priests and bishops, it risks re-inscribing the clerical hierarchy that some of us have been fighting to change for decades. If you see the film, I trust you will keep this in mind. Also,  another way to support women’s ordination is to make a donation to the Women’s Ordination Conference at http://www.womensordination.org/component/option,com_frontpage/Itemid,4/

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In 2007 I also wrote an article for The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion on ethical questions related to the Catholic women’s ordination movement (and RCWP in particular). It expands on some of the points I make above and also raises questions about the whiteness of the women’s ordination movement overall. If you’d like to have a copy you can drop me a note at New York Theological Seminary, 475 Riverside Drive, Suite 500,  New York, NY 10115 with your email address and I’ll send it to you. Or if you have my email address, feel free to write to me.

P.S. I have no idea why this post appears in different sized fonts on my actual blog page. When some younger people come for my birthday party tomorrow maybe one of them can fix it for me! Sorry.

 

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