Prophetic Obedience

April 25, 2017 at 10:29 am | Posted in Catholicism, constructive theology, ecclesiology, Vatican | Leave a comment
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This reviews appears in the April 21 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

By Bradford E. Hinze
Published by Orbis Books, 288 pages, $42

I have to confess, I’m pretty wary of the word obedience. So wary, in fact, that I almost declined to review Bradford Hinze’s new theology of the church.

I’m glad I didn’t. Prophetic Obedience is precisely the kind of constructive theology that enables post-Vatican II Catholics like me to overcome the binaries that have hindered us since the election of Pope John Paul II: freedom vs. obedience, the horizontal vs. the vertical, the magisterium vs. the sensus fidelium.

Hinze traces these binaries back to Second Vatican Council itself. He explores many of the ways in which the Vatican II vision of the church as the people of God, of all the baptized on the road together, impacted a wide range of ecclesial bodies as well as community organizations after the council. And he shows how a conservative faction of the bishops and the Vatican attempted to replace that vision with a “communion ecclesiology” stressing centralized authority and the magisterium.

The struggle between the people of God and communion ecclesiologies goes back to Pope Paul VI’s insertion of an “explanatory note” into the Vatican II Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. The note forbade the college of bishops from ever acting without the approval of the pope. Another devastating blow was the 1983 promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law stipulating that bishops’ synods, episcopal conferences, diocesan synods, and parish councils had nothing more than advisory (“consultative”) authority.

Yet Hinze does not react to the damage done to the ecclesiology of the people of God with an attack on communion theology. He acknowledges, in fact, that communion ecclesiology, with its stress on the unity of the church, is also an important part of Vatican II teaching. Instead, he traces the problem to one form of communion ecclesiology, a form fixated on unity and authority to the exclusion of the voices of God’s people. The ascendancy of this form of communion ecclesiology, Hinze argues, “eclipsed” but did not extinguish “the new dawn of the People of God as it was emerging during the two decades after the council.”

To remedy this eclipse, the author offers a new ecclesiological vision: prophetic obedience. Prophetic obedience is the fundamental marker of a dialogical church, a church that deepens in its commitment to normative expressions of the apostolic faith — Scriptures, creeds, liturgies and official teachings — as it welcomes the wisdom of all the faithful.

In constructing this new ecclesiology, Hinze expands considerably on previous understandings of both prophecy and obedience. Prophecy is no longer only a word or message received that leads to a corresponding proclamation or witness; it is also the result of heeding, receiving and responding to the voice of the Spirit as expressed by all of God’s people and the whole of God’s creation.

Fundamental to this understanding of prophecy is the practice of lamentation. Drawing on the book of Psalms, Hinze explains laments as people calling out to God to listen and respond to their pain and suffering. The two driving forces within lamentations, we learn, are the desire to know why particular suffering is occurring and how long it will continue. Jesus came to understand his mission by listening to the laments of the people. And the laments of God’s people today form a crucible from which compassion and discernment are forged. Without heeding the voice of the Spirit in the laments of all of God’s creation, the church cannot fulfill its prophetic calling.

Dayanna Renderos Ruiz, 9, receives Communion during a Mass at St. John of God Church in Central Islip, New York, April 11, 2015. (CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

The author also expands the idea of obedience well beyond the notion of blind capitulation to authority that gave me pause when I first read the title of his book. To do so, he revisits the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity, and in particular, the obedience they practice. A standard framework for understanding obedience is Jesus obeying God the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prays, “Not my will but thine be done” (Mark 14:36). Many theologians have configured the entire Trinity around this structure: The Father speaks, the Son responds in pure obedience, and the Spirit is the passive recipient of the interaction.

Hinze, however, expands this understanding of obedience by offering an alternative vision of the Trinity in which all three persons practice obedience, though in distinctive ways. For example, the Spirit, as seen in Genesis, is the active agency of God present in a chaotic world. The Father is obedient to this Spirit when he hears and responds to the groaning of creation. He is likewise obedient to the Son when he hears and responds to Jesus’ suffering by raising him from the dead. Drawing on the “polyphony of scripture,” Hinze illustrates the obedience of all three persons to one another and draws on this model to present a compelling ecclesiology of prophetic listening and response as the calling of all the people of God. The church can move beyond a paternalistic and hierarchical exercise of authority only by living out this vocation.

Multiple aspects of Prophetic Obedience deserve acknowledgement. One is the way the author weaves repeatedly and effectively throughout his book the theme of the prophetic identity of the people of God and their calling to obey the Spirit in the laments of all creation. Another is Hinze’s integration of the post-Vatican II experiences of women, women’s religious congregations, and people in ecumenical and interfaith grassroots organizations into his ecclesiology. He does not just theoretically advocate prophetic obedience to the voices of God’s people, he enacts it.

Finally, Hinze makes use of a considerable range of extra-theological scholarship, for example, the works of Judith Butler, Michel Foucault and Charles Taylor. Using such material nuances his argument but also risks making the book less accessible to those who would benefit most from it: Catholics in parishes. Given the compelling case Hinze makes for the pivotal role of prophetic obedience in the renewal of the church, we can only hope that somebody creates a parish version of his book very soon.

[Marian Ronan is research professor of Catholic Studies at New York Theological Seminary. In May, the Apocryphile Press will issue her new book, Women of Vision: Sixteen Founders of the International Grail Movement (co-authored with Mary O’Brien). All book reviews can be found at]

This story appeared in the April 21-May 4, 2017 print issue under the headline: Listen, respond to voices .

The Ecofeminist Theology of Elizabeth Johnson: A Review

April 22, 2016 at 4:41 pm | Posted in Catholic sisters, Catholicism, Climate Change, Environment, Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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In the half- century since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, debates about its true meaning have proliferated. Did the Council continue the Catholic tradition or rupture it? Did it renew the church or eviscerate it?

In his 2013 book, A Council that Will Never End, theologian Paul Lakeland introduces a more helpful, less polarizing category: the “unfinished business” of Vatican II, that is, the issues that were raised but not moved very far forward at Vatican II. Primary among these, for Lakeland, is the relationship between the horizontal and the vertical: between the laity and the ordained, but also between the bishops and the pope.

Let me suggest another category to accompany Lakeland’s, that of the “unstarted business” of Vatican II. Two issues virtually unaddressed at the Council are the role of women and the implications of the doctrine of creation for church and society. Indeed, there are only fourteen direct references to women in all of the Council’s sixteen documents. And because the church at the Council had finally come to terms with the modern emphasis on the dignity of the human person, the further significance of God’s unity with creation may have been more than the Council fathers could handle.

In recent decades, of course, women, and creation—particularly the environmental crisis—have become increasingly pressing issues. Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ certainly comprises a welcome update to the Catholic understanding of creation and its growing destruction—though it is less than groundbreaking on the question of women. Latin American liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff have also powerfully addressed the link between the destruction of the earth and the oppression of the poor, with Brazilian ecofeminist theologian Ivone Gebara pushing their analyses even further. We can only speculate about how much more influential such work might have been had the Vatican under John Paul II not seriously repressed it.

No work has done more to move the church forward on the issues of women and the environment, however, than the ecofeminist theology of Elizabeth A. Johnson. Johnson is of course best known for her 1992 book She Who Is. But already at the end of her first book, Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology (1990) Johnson addresses Jesus Christ as the savior of the whole natural world and all of its creatures. In fact, in that book she paraphrases one of the signature expressions of Vatican II, “reading the signs of the times,” by writing that “Jesus could read the signs of the sky.” (140)

Then, in She Who Is, Johnson addresses the presence of God in the whole cosmos, not only in human beings; especially in her chapter on Spirit-Sophia, she argues that the presence of Spirit-Sophia is mediated through the natural world as well as human history. She also addresses the suffering of God, which is central to the question of the horizontal and the vertical, because a God who suffers is one with the horizontal in a way that an impassible deity can never be.

Then, a year after the publication of She Who Is, at the annual Madeleva Lecture at St. Mary’s College in Indiana, Johnson connects the “ecocide crisis”—desertification, ocean harm, species extinction, and so forth—with the “two-tiered universe” in which women and the earth are both exploited. Here she explicitly links three of the most pressing unfinished/unstarted Vatican II issues: women, creation, and the dominance of the horizontal by the vertical.

Johnson’s next two books, the first about the Communion of Saints, and the second, Truly Our Sister, about Mary of Nazareth, might seem focused on human beings rather than on the wider natural world. But Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints actually gives the communion of saints an ecological dimension in which the whole world will share in life after death, and identifies Mary with the Creator Spirit who vivifies the evolutionary development of the entire community of life.

Then, in Quest for the Living God, Johnson’s most famous (or infamous) book, one chapter focuses on the Spirit as the “Vivifier” of the Natural World and another, “The Crucified God of Compassion,” discerns a cruciform pattern in all of creation, because the Spirit dwells throughout a suffering creation. This emphasis on the God who suffers was a primary reason for the USCCB’s 2011 condemnation of Quest, since according to the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, that suffering is caused by sin, so God cannot suffer.

Johnson rebuts this assertion in her 2014 book, Ask the Beasts, a study of the relationship between Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the Nicene Creed. Since all species suffer, and non-humans cannot sin, then sin, Johnson argues, is not the cause of suffering. Instead, Johnson acknowledges that while God is fullness of life beyond suffering, it is also “right to say that God suffered and died on the cross because the human nature of Jesus who suffered is precisely the Word of God.”

Furthermore, according to Johnson, the logic of incarnation extends divine solidarity from the cross into the groan of suffering of all creation. The cross illuminates that the God of love whose love continuously sustains and empowers the origin of species is a suffering God who is in solidarity with all creatures dying through endless millennia of evolution from the extinction of species to every sparrow that falls to the ground.

Johnson’s compelling argument that God suffers is fundamental to moving the unfinished business of Vatican II forward, especially the problem of the relationship between the horizontal and the vertical, since the argument that God cannot suffer is invoked in the service of the hierarchical binary between the transcendent God (and the Church authorities who identify with that God) and the female-identified non-transcendent/material /earth/creation. Women and creation, the earth, are in fact the horizontal, traditionally bifurcated from and subordinated to the ostensibly omnipotent male God and those believed to image him: priests, bishops, and popes.

The survival of the church, and of God’s creation itself, depend on our understanding better the intimate connections between these three issues and acting on them. There are a number of ways to do this. One is by deepening our knowledge of Elizabeth Johnson’s work. Her book-length theologies are highly accessible. But fortunately, in 2015, Orbis Books published a collection of her articles, including a section on the “Great God of Heaven and Earth,” which can serve as an excellent introduction to Johnson’s ecofeminist theology.

But since, as Johnson makes clear, the issues of women, creation and hierarchy are so intimately connected, even work that focuses on only one of them will point ultimately to the other two. If you can’t get your parish discussion group to begin by reading Johnson, then perhaps they will begin by reading Laudato Si’. Questions regarding women and the hierarchical structure of the church are almost certain to follow.

This post appeared as a book review on page 1a in the April 22-May 5 issue of The National Catholic Reporter under the title “Theologian’s work connects God, women and creation.”



Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology, Crossroad Publishing 1990, 1992, $19.95

She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, Crossroad Publishing, 1992, 2002, 2014, $32.95

Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit (Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality), Paulist Press 1993, $7.95

Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints Continuum 1998, $42.95

Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, Bloomsbury Academic 2006, $39.95

Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, Continuum 2007, $24.95

 Abounding in Kindness: Writing for the People of God, Orbis 2015, $24.00

Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love,, Bloomsbury Continuum 2015, $32.95


Tectonic Shifts

June 11, 2013 at 5:34 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Paul Baumann’s review essay in the June 3rd essay of The Nation is noteworthy on several counts. An article by the editor of the liberal Catholic journal, Commonweal, about a new book, Evangelical Catholicism, by George Weigel, “the neo-conservative leader of American Catholicism’s war on Vatican II,” as Baumann describes him, would be noteworthy in itself. That it is an incisive analysis of the crisis facing the American church makes it doubly so.

But to grasp the full significance of this review you need also to understand that it appears in a magazine that published some of the most anti-Catholic articles in the post-World War II period. Written by Paul Blanshard, one of The Nation’s editors, they were eventually collected in a book, American Freedom and Catholic Power. In The New Anti-Catholicism, scholar of American religion Philip Jenkins says that Blanshard’s plan of resistance against Catholicism in that book echoed the anti-Catholic proposals of the Ku Klux Klan. Yet now we have a nationally recognized Catholic journalist publishing about Catholicism in that magazine and even offering pointed criticisms of the institutional church there.

Baumann begins by situating Evangelical Catholicism within the context of the American bishops’ fevered opposition to Barack Obama’s first-term agenda, including their attack on the University of Notre Dame for inviting Obama to give their commencement address in 2009. The bishops’ opposition culminated in the “Fortnight of Freedom” attack on the contraceptives mandate of the Affordable Care Act during the 2012 campaign, followed by their rejection of two successive compromises the administration proposed on same. This uproar reveals how “deeply divided and directionless the once formidable and coherent” American church has become, tutored as the bishops are by neo-conservative intellectuals. And, Baumann assures us, if Evangelical Catholicism is any indicator, the divisions are only going to get worse.

For those mercifully unfamiliar with Weigel’s legacy prior to this latest book, Baumann provides a helpful overview, noting, for example, Weigel’s rebuttals of the US bishops’ fine 1980s pastoral letters, “The Challenge of Peace”and “Economic Justice for All.” The much more conservative successors of those “Vatican II” bishops seem to have completely swallowed Weigel’s neo-con arguments, however, almost passing a pastoral letter in the summer of 2012 that described the economic downturn as a result of the nation’s moral failings–divorce, same-sex marriage and of course, abortion. Regulations of financial institutions or how to allocate public funds to the needy are questions of individual conscience, however. This, Baumann tells us, bears a “striking resemblance” to Weigel’s recommendations in Evangelical Catholicism.

Weigel’s “evangelical Catholicism,” we learn, is the successor to the “tribal Catholicism” of previous centuries, where bishops stressed building churches and hospitals and supporting the poor. Instead, the Catholics of the future will “speak of their faith in an evangelical idiom once considered Protestant…(in which) ‘friendship with the Lord Jesus’ will be as integral as Mass on Sunday.”

Moreover, according to Weigel, this new Catholicism is essential to the survival of human rights and democracy. Conversion to Catholic natural law morality is the only way forward.
Baumann, not exactly a Nation secularist, agrees that the Aristotelian/Thomistic tradition has resources to offer American democracy. But, he assures us, that’s not all we need as we deal with our increasing multiculturalism. Weigel is the avatar of rigid and reactionary approaches to such diversity, Baumann tells us, and Evangelical Catholicism/em>is a repetitious diatribe. The cause of our current crisis is not, Baumann argues, the “permissive morality of liberal elites, but our economic system.” The Vatican II fathers taught that the only way forward for the church is to let modernity in even as we engage it critically. But Evangelical Catholicism advocates closing as many doors as possible.

The first “tectonic shift” in all of this is, of course, the publication of an article by a Catholic journalist in a once virulently anti-Catholic magazine. The second is the call by an extremely conservative American Catholic for an “evangelical Catholicism” that is seriously far removed from the sacramental Catholicism of previous millenia. And the third? That the US bishops are falling for such neo-conservative propaganda. As Baumann observes, almost parenthetically, Cardinal Dolan, the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, recently hired as his spokesperson one of the political consultants from Sarah Palin’s presidential campaign. (Palin, you may recall, is a former Catholic who converted to evangelical Protestantism and seems less than committed to Catholic social justice teaching.)

Jesus. Mary, and Joseph.

So What Does This Make Me?

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

May 1, 2010 at 8:39 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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At some point in the recent outpouring of commentary on the Catholic clergy sex abuse crisis, John Allen noted that the Vatican document ordering all Catholic bishops to report instances of sex abuse by clergy to the civil authorities had come at what was, for the Catholic Church, “warp speed.”

I gained some insight into the speed with which the institutional church does (or perhaps I should say does not) do things during a visit to Siena a few years back. Keith and I were visiting one of the  basilicas in Siena when we came upon a statue of Blessed Joachim Piccolomini, a Servite tertiary who lived from 1258-1305, and was known for his love of the poor.

There was a sign under the statue informing visitors that members of the Servite Order greatly desired that Blessed Joachim, who had been beatified by Pope Paul V on 21 March 1609, be canonized. Therefore, if anyone praying before this statue had received a special favor or miracle through the intercession of Blessed Joachim, would they please notify the Servite superior. At that point, four hundred years more or less had passed since Blessed Joachim’s beatification and seven hundred years since his death.

Perhaps if the collegial church introduced at Vatican II, a mere half-century ago, ever comes to pass, that will be the miracle needed to get Blessed Piccolomini canonized at last.  

Blessed Joachim Piccolomini, pray for us!

Tiger Woods and the Pope

March 31, 2010 at 8:50 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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So what do Tiger Woods and Pope Benedict XVI have in common? They’re both celebrities. And of course, recently they have both gotten some very bad publicity about sexual misbehavior, either for engaging in it, or, apparently, for covering up somebody else’s.

For a long time–from the liberal European revolutions of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries till the second half of the twentieth century, more or less–that the pope would be a celebrity was inconceivable. The “prisoner of the Vatican” was no star. Rather, he was pinched, hidden, and adamantly opposed to the world many of us lived in–the modern one.

I suppose the change started with Pope John XXIII announcing Vatican II and pointing the Church in the direction of the “modern world.” But the real credit for making the pope a celebrity goes to Pope John Paul II. John Paul, now called by some Catholics “John Paul the Great,” studied drama as a young person, and his acute stage presence, whether in his popemobile, the papal helicopter, his journeys around the world, his addresses to sports stadiums full of cheering followers, even, I’m tempted to say, his managing to survive an assassination–made him a global celebrity. Perhaps the global religious celebrity.

Besides JPII’s  gift for acting, another thing that has made the popes  celebrities is the amazing get-ups that they wear. I am reminded here of Mark Noll’s question, the title of one of his books, “Is the Reformation Over?” In thinking about the pope, I’m inclined to say: yes, and the Catholics won. For a long time this seemed not to be the case, of course. The Protestant ethic underpinned the emergence of capitalism. And the shift to the Word from the Image at the beginning of the modern era seemed a no-brainer, with the printing presses running, and only illiterate peasants peering at stained glass and statues anymore.

But since the invention of television, and even more, the internet, I’m not so sure. Think of my poor husband, the ordained American Baptist. He occasionally wears an academic gown, but mostly, he makes his way through the world in a suit and tie. Whereas the pope looks like a character in Avatar.  He’s the symbol of world Christianity,  just by virtue of his vestments, even if half the Evangelicals in the world still don’t believe  Catholics are Christians.

Now I have to admit that the current pope, Benedict XVI, doesn’t have anything like the stage presence of the previous pope (though he does have those red shoes!) But the veneer of celebrity achieved by JPII does not wear off all that easily. 

Which brings us to the similarities between B-16 and Tiger Woods. In each case, nothing sells more newspapers, draws more viewers, gets googled more often than celebrities and sex. And so we have Benedict XVI in the news about as often as we had Tiger a few months ago.

Never mind that there are certain dissimilarities between them as well. That there was actual evidence against Tiger, who confessed his infidelities, and apologized to the world. Benedict XVI, on the other hand, has offered no such confession for failing to turn in priest sex abusers. Of course, it may be that he actually was not aware of these abusers, no matter how many times reporters announce that the scandal is “getting closer to the Vatican every day.” No text messages have been discovered in Benedict’s case. There were four hundred parishes in the archdiocese of Munich when Benedict was the archbishop there. Hard to tell what he knew and if he knew it.

In point of fact, in last Sunday’s New York Times, NCR’s John L. Allen, without minimizing the current crisis, argued that Benedict has done better than any pope in history at responding to clergy sex abuse. Better, it would seem, than John Paul II, about whom a documentary will run on PBS this weekend that proclaims him a saint. 

But the current pope is another matter. He’s not a saint; he’s a celebrity. And the beat goes on.

Response to Brendan Foley

March 21, 2010 at 5:54 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Since I don’t get too many comments about my blog posts, I thought I would express my appreciation to Brendan Foley for his response to my March 9 entry, “The Rupture of Inculturation?” by writing back. 

Brendan suggests that I don’t seem to know very much about Vatican II, and mentions that he himself took a course on Vatican II with Joseph Komonchak. Komonchak, as I mentioned in an even earlier blog, co-edited the great five-volume history of Vatican II, along with Giuseppe Alberigo.  Since I certainly did not take such a course, it seems likely that Brendan knows more, perhaps even a good deal more, about Vatican II than I do.

Brendan, as I read him,  doesn’t understand my criticism of a talk given at the 2008 Stonehill Conference on Religious Life in which Franc Cardinal Rode,  the prefect of the Vatican congregation on religious life, argues that there is a right and wrong interpretation of Vatican II.  Why, Brendan wonders, do I think that Rode’s condemnation of the “wrong” hermeneutic  is aimed at Komonchak’s reading of Vatican II as an event. Komonchak himself would say that some readings of Vatican II are wrong–those of the Lefebrvists, for example. I must admit, I hadn’t thought of the Lefebrvists. Brendan has a point here. I should have said I’d never heard any of the progressive Catholics I hang out with use the word “rupture” to characterize the Council.

All that notwithstanding, I want to assure Brendan that it isn’t the Lefebrvists that Cardinal Rode is addressing in his Stonehill talk. It’s the “Bologna school” historians who advanced the interpretation of Vatican II as an event (and US women religious).  John W. O’Malley SJ introduces his chapter in Vatican II: Did Anything Happen?  (Continuum 2008) with the details of a presentation by another Vatican official, Camillo Cardinal Ruino. In this presentation Ruino welcomed a new book on the Council as a counterpoint to–“indeed, the polar opposite”–of the interpretation that had previously monopolized conciliar historiography. As such, the new book would move the church on to a “correct” interpretation of the Council. In this presentation the Cardinal singled out the Bologna school as the principal and most influential creator of this incorrect understanding (52-53). O’Malley continues:  

“…the Bologna school and especially Alberigo are being singled out as the great propagators of a history of the council that badly distorts it and that must be opposed. Other scholars are being criticized for a similar approach, but Alberigo and his colleagues are the ones most often mentioned by name…

O’Malley then elaborates on these attacks:

“I do not see that Alberigo and others who have used ‘event’ as an instrument to interpret the council have given it the radical meaning that their critics attribute to them…Nowhere in the Alberigo volumes is there the slightest suggestion that “new beginning” meant in any way a rupture in the faith of the Church or a diminution of any dogma” (54-55).

And while O’Malley does not mention Komonchak by name at this point, the volume begins with Komonchak’s Henri de Lubac lecture given at St. Louis University in 1997, “Vatican II as an Event.” Komonchak knows that since he is Alberigo’s co-editor, the “wrong” interpretation of Vatican II–Vatican II as rupture– is being projected onto his work.

Lastly, let me respond to Brendan’s observation that if I were to learn more about Greek philosophy, I would realize that some things really are either right or wrong. Perhaps, Brendan; perhaps. On the other hand, pre-Enlightenment philosophy may not provide the most effective tools for understanding as massive and complex an event as the Second Vatican Council. Almost twenty years ago the historical sociologist Gene Burns published a penetrating study of Vatican II, The Frontiers of Catholicism (Princeton 1992). In it he argues compellingly that the legacy of Vatican II is  ambiguous. And indeed, here we are, still fighting about what it means, almost half a century after it ended. Perhaps while I’m boning up on the Greeks you should take a look at Frontiers.

Nothing Changed at Vatican II Dontcha Know!!

March 2, 2010 at 1:21 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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Lately, there’s really a lot of talk about Vatican II. You know: the Council of the Catholic Church that took place between 1962 and 1965. Last week I went to hear Father Joseph Komonchak, the great historian of the Council, speak up at Corpus Christi Church in Manhattan. He gave a splendid talk about the Council as event, that is, something that happened that changed the direction of history. This is the argument that underpins the five-volume history of the Council that he edited with Giuseppe Alberigo. Komonchak is a tall, handsome, impressive man. He gave his talk as part of the vespers service at Corpus Christi for the first Sunday of Lent. He and the pastor, Father Raymond Rafferty, were fully vested, and there was a lot of singing and praying and incense. It was a great honor to hear him present an overview of his life’s work.

Now, today, there’s an article in the National Catholic Reporter on-line about the relationship between the Council and the future of the Roman liturgy. Here we learn that the great dispute is between those who say that the Council effected a rupture within Catholic tradition and those who say that it continued it. I note that the word “event” appears nowhere. When I went back to school twenty-five years ago I learned that “either-or” is a thought structure characteristic of the Enlightenment and that serious thinkers had moved on to “both-and” (at the very least). So it’s a little troubling that we are having this either-or fight in 2010.

But what’s really got me going is a talk given by Franc Cardinal Rode, the Vatican Prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) at a conference on religious life at Stonehill College in September of 2008. CICLSAL is the body that’s conducting the current visitation of US congregations of Catholic Sisters. I am reading Rode’s talk for a paper I”m writing about the visitations. It doesn’t overstate the case to describe it as an opening shot across the Sisters’  bow. And guess what? A lot of it is about the meaning of Vatican II.

I knew we were in trouble as soon as I read the title of the talk: “Reforming Religious Life with the Right Hermeneutic.” As the NCR article referenced above observes, “hermeneutic” is a scholarly term meaning “frame of interpretation.” It seems that the big fight over Vatican II is focused on which hermeneutic should be used to interpret it.

The thing is, it’s pretty rare in academic settings to hear discussions about the “right” hermeneutic and the “wrong” hermeneutic. (See my comment above about “either-or” / “both-and”.) “Hermeneutics” signals a shift in humanities scholarship from a quasi-scientific, quantitative, right-wrong emphasis to more complex and nuanced readings of whatever is in question. Documents. Events. Cultures. 

So a talk about the “Right” (not even the preferred or the more adequate or the more authoritative) hermeneutic is cause for concern just out of the gate. But then Rode goes on to lay out the very either/or interpretation of Vatican II that the NCR alerts us to. The cardinal claims, quoting Benedict XVI, that some people interpret the Council in terms of discontinuity, or rupture– a complete “Yes to the modern era” (p. 7).  Such a hermeneutics of rupture has dominated the renewal of religious life in recent years (hence the visitations). But the right hermeneutic for interpreting the Council is “continuity and reform,” especially in religious life. Continuity continuity continuity. 

Let’s note a few things about Rode’s argument here. First of all, he never once mentions who these people are who advance this hermeneutics of rupture. Nor, again, does Komonchak’s word, “event,” appear even once, though Komonchak, and the American Jesuit historian John O’Malley, are surely the primary targets of the Cardinal’s attack. Finally, Rode never even hints at the possibility that an event as massive and overdetermined as the Second Vatican Council might involve elements of continuity and elements of change. As when Pope John XXIII, in his opening address, used the famous phrase  a “New Pentecost” to describe the Council. Pentecost: continuity. New: change.

I have  a lot more to say about Cardinal Rode’s talk, but I must stop; I’m way over any reasonable word limit for a blog. Stay tuned.

Happy 50th Anniversary

November 16, 2009 at 11:04 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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2009 seems to be a big year for anniversaries. In January it was a half-century (a half century!!) since the calling of the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII. I used to be embarrassed that when I was a teenager I considered the council the most important thing that ever had happened. How parochial of me, I thought.  But some author I read recently described contemporary Roman Catholicism, with its 1.2 billion members, as the largest religious body in the history of the world. So maybe my enthusiasm wasn’t all that parochial. Thank you, good Pope John. Please pray that your successors don’t manage to eradicate every trace of your legacy.

And then today on the radio comes the equally earth-shattering announcement (!!) that it’s the fiftieth anniversary of the first Broadway performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. If I was embarrassed at being wild about Vatican II, what is there to say  about my girlhood enthusiasm for what was surely the most sappy and sentimental of all R&H’s productions? Indeed, Hammerstein himself died less than a year later. But I still get chills when someone intones “The hilllllls are alive…”

The NPR commentator tried to give the S of M some gravitas by observing that it was one of the first productions to address the Holocaust, and I suppose that’s true. So did the film production of the Dairy of Anne Frank,  whose fiftieth anniversary is also this year. But they could hardly have made The Diary of Anne Frank into a musical, or at least, we can be grateful they didn’t. So The Sound of Music  continued to fill my heart with joy for quite a while. In truth, I am seriously tempted to order the 50th anniversary cd right now…

In what I think of as the culmination of my years in grade school , in 1960 or 61, my mother took me to see The Sound of Music on Broadway, while Mary Martin was still playing Maria. I was ecstatic. I stood at the stage door afterward and got Martin’s autograph; she wrote on her picture, “To Marian, with every best wish. Mary Martin.” I still have it, in my pink teenage memory box.

On the way to Penn Station to get the train back to Philly I said to my mother, “I wonder what parish Mary Martin belongs to?” To which my  mother replied, “Marian, Mary Martin is Jewish, so I don’t think she belongs to a parish.

Sometimes I wonder who that girl was who thought you had to be a Catholic to play a Catholic on Broadway. Happy anniversary to her, too.

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