The New Yorker is currently featuring a new short story from Alice McDermott, “These Short, Dark Days.” The protagonist of the piece, set in Brooklyn in the early 1900s, is a nun named Sister St. Savior who endeavors to effect the burial in a Catholic cemetery of a young husband who has asphyxiated himself. In those days, recall, it was just as one character puts it: If word of suicide gets out, “there’s not a Catholic cemetery that will have him.”
The story exhibits a bit more in the way of traditional narrative drive than I’ve come to expect from McDermott’s short fiction, and it hits on familiar themes in the usual compelling fashion: certainty vs. uncertainty in belief (“There were moments when his faith fell out from under him like a trapdoor,” one character thinks); awareness of sin; the reality of human suffering; the limits of compassion. And, importantly, the limits placed on compassion. It’s this last that McDermott confronts in a fairly explicit way, by noting how the burdens of compassion have typically fallen to women (of the church and not), even as men (of the church and not) seem to have been bent on making its expression more difficult:
In her forty-seven years of living in this city, Sister had collected any number of acquaintances who could help surmount the many rules and regulations—Church rules and city rules and what Sister Miriam called the rules of polite society—that complicated the lives of women: Catholic women in particular, and poor women in general.
But this all takes place more than a century ago, doesn’t it? Yes, but that doesn’t make it history. Lest anyone doubt McDermott’s intent, she makes it clear in an interview that accompanies the story.Read more
Our full August 14 issue is now up on the website.
Among the highlights, Cathy Kaveny explains how secular law can teach the church something about mercy for divorced and remarried Catholics that it already knows:
No legal provision is self-interpreting; each law must be understood and applied with reference to the good of the community it purports to serve, and Jesus regularly reminds us that the commands and prohibitions of the Torah must be situated in a broader context.... Catholicism viewed marriage as a symbol of the unbreakable union of Christ with the church—like the union of a bishop with his diocese. But from the beginning of church history, the symbolic value of both sorts of unions had always been balanced against other values.
Read all of 'Mercy for the Remarried' here.
Jo McGowan questions why the debate over same-sex marriage can cause rage:
Religious teaching reinforces that disgust with frequent reminders that gay sexuality is sinful and inherently disordered, subtly making it acceptable to discriminate against LGBT persons and adding to a climate in which outright persecution is also acceptable. There is no such hysteria about other “sins.” Greed, for example, robs the poor of a just wage, legitimizes mindless consumption, and destroys the natural environment. But while we may disapprove of it, we don’t isolate or target all those greedy people.
Read all of 'The More You Know' here.
Also in this issue: Fr. Nonomen's advises on how to do a funeral (step one: keep your glasses off the coffin...); Bethe Dufresne reflects on her experience standing between two confederate flags; Anthony Domestico reviews new, important books from Claudia Rankine and Jeffery Renard Allen about living with racism in the United States; and Jean Hughes Raber reviews Laura Swan's new history of a forgotten women's medieval movement .
See the full table of contents for August 14 here:
dotCommonweal reader Jack Marth and members of the Waldron Mercy Academy parent community have highlighted a column in support of the school’s former religious instruction director Margie Winters, whose dismissal I wrote about last week. One of the co-authors of the piece is Mary Scullion—a member of the Religious Sisters of Mercy and co-founder and executive director of Project H.O.M.E., an organization devoted to ending homelessness in Philadelphia. Scullion is well known both inside and outside the city, having received Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal in 2011 and being named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2009. Joan McCannon—co-founder of Project H.O.M.E., fellow recipient of a Laetare Medal, and parent of a Waldron graduate—also lent her byline, as did philanthropist James J. Maguire, president of the Maguire Foundation. Scullion’s input on the firing comes as a welcome development to the parents I’ve been in touch with, many of whom had been hoping for her to comment.
From the column, which appeared yesterday on Philly.com:
The recent controversy at Waldron Mercy Academy brings to light that we are at a critical moment for the Catholic Church, and for all persons of faith and conscience in this country. It is a moment rife with pain and struggle, but also hope. ...
[W]e believe that the Church’s truest integrity is at risk when it emphasizes orthodoxy and doctrine without meaningful engagement with human and historic realities. We love the Church: We draw deeply from its rich traditions of spirituality, compassion, service, and justice. But we also recognize (and need to take responsibility for) our many historic blind spots—persecution of heretics, oppression of indigenous peoples in the name of “mission,” and second-class status for women.
While it is painful for us to have to publicly dissent, we are convinced that this is a moment when insistence on doctrinal adherence is clashing with what we believe the Spirit is unfolding in our history—just as it has in the past, with issues like slavery, the rights of women, and the environment. Many Christian denominations have listened to the movement of the Spirit and moved toward both full inclusion and full embrace of the gifts of our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers.
The Church is at its best when it listens to the Spirit speaking in our times and through human experiences. As we listen, we hear the Spirit speaking through the testimony of hundreds of parents and former students, who affirm that Margie has been a marvelous teacher and influence. She has been a gift to the Church, nurturing the faith and morals of countless young people, fostering a spirit of mercy, compassion, and justice.We believe the controversy surrounding Margie Winters is the Spirit inviting us to reflect on Church doctrine that upholds the dignity of every person. ...
As we work through the pain and conflict, as we listen to each other, as we struggle to make sense of the power of tradition and the challenge of newness, we believe this can be a moment of hope and grace.
The first tuition payment for the 2015-2016 school year at Waldron Mercy Academy in Philadelphia is due Wednesday. How many families will choose to meet this deadline, however, is unclear. A number in this tight-knit community of parents plan to withhold payment to protest the recent firing of long-time religious education director Margie Winters.
Winters’s dismissal shares some similarities with the firings of staff and teachers from Catholic schools around the country in recent years: personal details (in this case, a same-sex marriage) come to light; a disapproving parent lodges a complaint; a beloved figure is relieved of duties; students and parents rally in support. While such movements may lose steam in the face of long odds against reinstatement, the parent community of Waldron thinks it can keep the pressure up through the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia so that it will still be an issue when Pope Francis visits in September. And an open letter to Francis from Winters’s wife, Andrea Vettori, that is now being shared across social media and news outlets is providing further energy. “Waldron is a community that acts when there is a crisis,” said Diana Moro, who is in charge of the Facebook page StandWithMargie, which has garnered more than 10,000 likes in just over a week.
How realistic are their hopes?Read more
In my last post, I remarked that the archdiocese of Bombay had started the practice of carbon fasting for its Lenten practice of 2014 and repeated it in 2015. I received in a variety of ways many positive responses to the blog. While I know we are a long way from Lent, still in the wake of Laudato Si,’ we are being asked to change our ways immediately and carbon fasting seems like an exercise that can get us started.
In 2014, the Bombay archdiocese posted on their website a booklet, entitled “40 earth-saving ways to fast this lent.” It is a simple set of reminders to reduce one’s carbon foot-print each year. The archdiocese also made an app available that would text daily very specific practices to follow.
Carbon fasting brings us into the world of an asceticism that’s mindful of our place in our environment. This mindfulness helps to develop, I think, a new humility. Prompted by the Magnificat, I have long defined humility as knowing one’s place in God’s world. Carbon fasting helps us then to develop a 21st century humility, making us more mindful of our place in God’s creation.Read more
Now that hostilities have ceased between the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, it is hard to resist the temptation to declare a winner. Certainly, the conclusion of the whole unfortunate episode, with this week’s release of a brief and anodyne “joint final report” and follow-up meeting between LCWR leadership and the pope, has been as positive an ending, from the sisters’ perspective, as anyone could have hoped for. Some credibility was salvaged for the CDF, as (and, I would argue, because) the sisters held their ground on their commitment to collaborative leadership and mutually respectful dialogue. But nobody really won—no one could have won a conflict that never should have happened this way to begin with, one that exposed real fault lines in the church relating to sex and power and the relationship between the two and ended without directly addressing, much less repairing them.
The first thing that strikes me about the “final report” released last week is that it is a “Joint Final Report.” The whole thing started with the CDF attempting to bring the allegedly out-of-line nuns to heel with an exercise of authority whose origins were muddled and unexplained. It was hard to imagine back when Cardinal Levada was charging the LCWR – a stand-in, it seemed, for various individuals and communities among its member organizations, who went mostly unnamed in the CDF’s complaints – with being soft on doctrine and derelict in supporting bishops’ initiatives and priorities that the whole episode would end with anything other than another authoritative “assessment” from the Vatican. One could only hope the CDF’s conclusion would be a little more informed about what the LCWR actually is and does and a little less hostile to the work sisters do and the faith that informs the choices they make. But enter Pope Francis – and Cardinal Gerhard Müller as the new head of the CDF, and Archbishop Peter Sartain to take charge of the CDF’s reform mandate – and, praise the Lord, we find ourselves ending with a collaborative statement signed by both bishops and nuns, as though they had been pleasantly investigating each other all along.
The statement, it seems clear to me, is designed to allow both sides to save face. It describes various measures being undertaken by the LCWR, but few radical changes – the revision of the LCWR’s statues was already underway before the investigation began, and the promises that speakers and publications will be responsibly vetted seem to address the CDF’s broad concerns while not necessarily requiring any departure from the LCWR’s current procedures. The most embarrassing parts of the CDF’s assessment, meanwhile, are ignored. There is no response to the expression of concern that “feminism” might be taking root among women religious. There is no reference to the accusation that the sisters have been “silent on the right to life” or have not spent enough time and effort on supporting their bishops’ priorities. And the whole thing concludes with a kind of mission statement that reads more like a commendation than an admission of fault or a concession of defeat:Read more
That’s one of the responses to the unexpected news today that the Vatican has ended its three-year oversight of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Quoted in an AP story, Christopher Bellitto, a church historian at Kean University in New Jersey, “called the announcement a complete vindication of the sisters' group and American nuns in general. ‘Anything coming out of the Vatican this morning is nothing other than a fig leaf because they can't say “oops” in Latin.’”
David Gibson at RNS calls the end of the “controversial investigation of American nuns” a “face-saving compromise that allows Pope Francis to close the book on one of the more troubled episodes that he inherited from his predecessor, Benedict XVI.”
Josh McElwee at NCR characterized the announcement as a “curt and unexpected end” and quoted from LCWR president Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sharon Holland’s statement “that the oversight process brought the sisters and the Vatican to ‘deeper understandings of one another's experiences, roles, responsibilities, and hopes for the Church and the people it serves. … We learned that what we hold in common is much greater than any of our differences.’” And from Cardinal Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Vatican doctrinal congregation: “[H]is congregation is ‘confident that LCWR has made clear its mission to support its member Institutes by fostering a vision of religious life that is centered on the Person of Jesus Christ and is rooted in the Tradition of the Church.’”
Fr. James Martin in a Facebook post: “The LCWR agreed to implement some changes, mainly regarding speakers and liturgies at its annual conventions. But overall, the operations of the LCWR remains intact …. In the end there is one thing to say to the Catholic women who have worked so hard in the Lord's vineyard: Thank you, sisters.”
It's a tough day for people who think sisters should be seen (in full habits) and not heard. #LCWR
— Mollie W. O'Reilly (@MollieOReilly) April 16, 2015
LCWR investigation by CDF is over! officers will meet Pope Francis- Alleluia!
— Mary Ann Hinsdale (@MaryAnnHinsdale) April 16, 2015
— Tom Fox (@NCRTomFox) April 16, 2015
When it comes to policing grammar and usage, as any editor must, there are shifts in what is considered acceptable that it is fruitless to fight against. Ending a sentence with a preposition, splitting infinitives, using "decimate" to mean "destroy almost completely"—there's no compelling reason to resist any of those things, aside from pedantry for its own sake. But I will always hold the line on the misuse of "beg the question" to mean "raise the question." I don't care if it gets past the copy-editors at the New Yorker; it must not win the day. And the reason I resist is that "begging the question" is an important concept, and when we want to talk about it, we ought to have a phrase that clearly points it out. I was glad to be able to call on it in the final paragraph of my most recent Commonweal column, where I wrote this: "Who knows: maybe my kids will grow up to be the ones who can explain the all-male priesthood to me in a way that makes sense—who can offer a theological justification that doesn’t sound like begging the question."
Now, in his recent eyebrow-raising interview with (yes) the New Emangelization, Cardinal Raymond Burke has given us all a perfect and dismayingly high-profile example of what I'm talking about. He says:
I think that [the introduction of female altar servers] has contributed to a loss of priestly vocations. It requires a certain manly discipline to serve as an altar boy in service at the side of [a] priest, and most priests have their first deep experiences of the liturgy as altar boys. If we are not training young men as altar boys, giving them an experience of serving God in the liturgy, we should not be surprised that vocations have fallen dramatically.
What is it about serving as an altar boy that is "manly"? Well, the fact that it is similar to what a priest does, and what a priest does is manly by virtue of the fact that only a man can be a priest. "It requires a certain manly discipline," Burke says, but then later he concedes that "girls were also very good at altar service" once they were allowed to try it. So maybe it doesn't require any distinctly manly aptitude after all. As we have seen, this is a familiar part of traditionalists' argument for restricting the role of altar server to boys: the notion that they won't be interested in doing it if it's not something only boys can do. Thus my impression that most common defenses of the all-male priesthood, and the choices we make to maintain it, are begging the question: Unless you take for granted that the priesthood is properly and necessarily reserved to men, a role only a man can fulfill, none of this stuff meant to support that idea—e.g., claims about altar servers needing to be "manly"—makes any sense.
It should be clear from my column that my cultural assumptions are basically the opposite of Burke's: he thinks young boys need to be raised with a strong sense that the roles open to them are open only to them because of their incipient manliness; I think it is bad to impose arbitrary gender-role boundaries on children before they've had any chance to develop a sense of self based on their individual gifts and inclinations. Burke, or his fellow traditionalists, would reply that the boundaries they value are not arbitrary. But if so, why do they require such effortful reinforcement? Burke points to the pernicious influence of "radical feminism," but he seems to mean just "feminism." I don't deny that there's any significance to gender or sex in personal development. But I have faith that the non-arbitrary boundaries that will guide my sons into their future lives as men will assert themselves without much help from me. It's the assumptions they will make about where women fit into the picture that I'm worried about.
In short, I don't want them to look at the world the way Cardinal Burke seems to, as though women were not worthy of much consideration at all. Oh, when he mentions women he knows enough to say positive things. "Women are wonderful, of course," he says, and later: "It is easier to engage women because our sisters tend to be very generous and talented." But he doesn't mention us much. And what he says about men—who are, after all, the subject of this interview—is most notable, to my mind, for the way it leaves women out of the picture altogether.Read more
Earlier this month I participated in an all-day symposium on the Catholic press at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York, otherwise known as Dunwoodie. Our topic was “In Service of the Word: The Catholic Media in the New Evangelization.” I was one of the featured panelists, along with the editors of America, First Things, the National Catholic Register, and U.S. Catholic. Matt Malone, America’s editor, organized the event in collaboration with the seminary. Happily, he also brought James Martin, SJ, along to moderate an afternoon discussion among the panelists.
Dunwoodie is not the easiest place to get to, so the audience was sparse, but Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari, the rector of the seminary, was an exceedingly gracious host. In the morning session, all the panelists were asked to explain how they understand the mission of their magazine, and what their estimation was of the challenges and opportunities facing the Catholic press today. For example, America sees itself explicitly as a ministry, while Commonweal does not. R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, was unapologetic about his magazine’s “combative” approach to issues and “conservative” philosophy. Meinrad Scherer-Emunds emphasized that U.S. Catholic, a ministry of the Claretians, is written for “ordinary” Catholics, not academics. Five-dollar words are ruthlessly expunged from its pages. National Catholic Register editor Jeanette Demelo spoke of the tension she has to navigate between the bishops’ views on immigration and the reactions of her very conservative readers. Not surprisingly, all the editors agreed that it is a good thing that a wide a spectrum of views is available in the Catholic press.
As we were sitting down for lunch, a woman from the audience came up to me to offer some friendly advice. As best I can remember, she said something along the following lines: “At some point, you know, you really have to pick a side. Otherwise it just gets boring.” I took this as a critique of Commonweal’s tendency to present a variety of views in our pages and where possible to seek compromise solutions to problems. Sometimes we criticize the church and defend certain aspects of the secular culture; other times we criticize the secular culture while defending the church. In my opening remarks, I quoted from a statement written by Commonweal’s editors in the early 1950s. In it the editors explained why the magazine tried to avoid overt preaching or any pretension to “priestly” authority. “We have been asked from time to time to spell out Commonweal’s political philosophy,” they wrote. “It is not an easy thing to do, because the magazine does not commit itself to any ism, party-line, or partisan loyalty…. If it can be said that Commonweal operates according to any political dogma, it is the right to take a fresh look at things periodically, to make all judgments tentative, and to consider the total political situation.”
So, I’m sure it didn’t surprise the woman when I replied to her remark by saying, “But what if you can’t decide which side you’re on?”
The conversation ended rather abruptly there.
I suspect my interlocutor took my reply as an example of precisely what she was complaining about. I understand her impatience, but on any number of contested issues I honestly don’t know what the right answer is. On whether the United States should torture prisoners, I know. On whether same-sex marriage will further undermine the marriage culture and the important connection between sex, procreation, and family life, I’m just not sure. On whether divorced and remarried Catholics should be readmitted to the sacraments in certain circumstances, I think I know the answer, but I want to hear more arguments for why that might be a mistake. I feel the same way about the possible consequences ordaining women might have for church unity as well as on the gender symbolism that pervades Catholicism. (I'm only speaking for myself here. The magazine's positions on such questions are arrived at collaboratively.) On a host of questions, I believe Catholics have a lot more thinking and questioning to do. I don’t want these debates to be shut down prematurely from either side, and I suspect the answers we finally arrive at in a decade or two or three from now will be a little different from the alternatives now on offer. Yes, eventually one must pick a side, but deciding a question too early can be as much of an error as deciding it wrongly. I think Cardinal Newman said something like that somewhere, didn’t he?
The final report (.pdf here) on the "apostolic visitation" of U.S. sisters, after effusively praising them for their work and witness over the course of seven pages, concludes on a high note, fit for the Advent season:
Our times need the credible and attractive witness of consecrated religious who demonstrate the redemptive and transformative power of the Gospel. Convinced of the sublime dignity and beauty of consecrated life, may we all pray for and support our women religious and actively promote vocations to the religious life.
Indeed, the entire Church sings the Magnificat to celebrate the great things that God does for women religious and for his people through them.
Hear hear. But not everyone is joining the chorus. The mood at the National Catholic Register, for example, is rather somber. Ann Carey, who has dedicated herself for years to exposing the distasteful excesses of American nuns, is clearly disappointed that the visitation process did not result in the public scolding she feels is warranted. Still, the report is not just a "love letter," she points out in her "news analysis" for the Register: "A careful reading of the report reveals that, while some issues were ignored, there was an effort to point out that certain areas of religious life among U.S. sisters do need improvement."
The allusions in the report to areas that might need improvement are not that hard to suss out; determining that "some issues were ignored" on the basis of what's in that report requires more of an effort. Carey has her own ideas about what issues should have been addressed more forcefully:
For example, in discussing the lack of religious vocations, the report noted that vocation personnel find that candidates often prefer to live in community and wear religious garb. The report notes this is a “challenge” to orders that do not have that lifestyle, but it gives no counsel to orders to stop blurring the lines between religious life and secular life, something many orders of women religious freely admit they are doing.
They admit they're not wearing habits! We've got them dead to rights! Come on, CICLSAL, this was a gimme.
The report advises that private, individual reports will be sent to all the orders that were visited and those where problems were found. If directives are given by the congregation for religious for specific reforms in an order, that likely will not be known unless the order releases that information.
I did not mention that in my own response to the visitation report, and I probably should have, because it is important. This is from the report's introduction:Read more
To read the "Final Report on the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States of America," which was released this morning by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (or CICLSAL), you would think the aim of the whole project was to produce the world's wordiest (and most expensive) thank-you note.
CICLSAL is "sincerely grateful for the presence of women religious in the United States," and for the work that they have done "courageously" and "selflessly" for so many generations. That's on page 1 (click here and scroll down for links to the PDF of the report, and of the remarks at this morning's press conference). "The Dicastery expresses its gratitude to women religious" -- page 5. On p. 7, "this Congregation expresses its gratitude to the sisters who minister within their own communities for the precious service rendered to their institute and to the Church." And "once again," on p. 8, CICLSAL "wishes to express the profound gratitude of the Apostolic See and the Church in the United States for the dedicated and selfless service of women religious in all the essential areas of the life of the church and society."
Way back in 2008, when the visitation was first announced, it did not seem likely to end in a lengthy note of grateful recognition. That was partly because the news came alongside that of the CDF's doctrinal investigation of the LCWR, and partly because of the visitation's opaque origins and stated aims: "to look into the quality of life of religious women in the United States," in light of then-CICLSAL head Cardinal Franc Rodé's concerns about "a certain secularist mentality that has spread among these religious families, perhaps even a certain 'feminist' spirit."
It didn't take a cynical mind to feel pessimistic about a project aimed at exposing feminism among women's religious congregations. The whole point of that "Thank You, Sisters" campaign you may recall -- an outpouring of affection and support, in various media, from Catholic laypeople and priests -- was to counteract what looked like an uncalled-for attack on the lives of faithful U.S. sisters.
But that was years ago. CICLSAL has new leadership. We have a new pope, one who has troubled himself to say unambiguously positive things about women's contributions to the church (and the inadequacy of current provisions for same). The Year of Consecrated Life, the Vatican's tribute to vowed religious, has just begun. And the visitation itself -- which took three years and God knows how much money to complete -- was generally left to sisters themselves to conduct. The result, as Jim Martin has pointed out at America, is "a positive, sometimes adulatory" document that says nothing at all about feminism or any other supposed heresies, and communicates the challenges facing women's apostolic congregations in terms that the sisters themselves would recognize and affirm. That's a relief. It will go a long way toward repairing the strained relationship between the church's male hierarchy and its women religious -- though the ongoing LCWR investigation is obviously still a problem. As Sister X put it in Commonweal in 2009, "Any pastoral invitation to dialogue in the current visitation has largely been compromised by Cardinal Levada’s simultaneous investigation of the LCWR’s doctrinal orthodoxy."
But if the report is a relief and an affirmation, it also represents a huge waste of time, and of money.Read more
Today the New York Times is featuring on its homepage a video “retro report” on the murder of American churchwomen Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan in El Salvador in December 1980. The report is titled “A Search for Justice,” and the tagline reads: “Nearly 35 years later, the case continues to take surprising turns.”
The video is just over thirteen minutes long and is variously disturbing, heartbreaking, and enraging, with footage of the discovery of the women’s bodies; of family, colleagues, and officials speaking of the women and of efforts to identify the murderers; and of Ronald Reagan’s U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick (“the nuns were not just nuns but activists”) and Secretary of State Alexander Haig (“perhaps they ran a roadblock”) suggesting that the women were culpable in their own rapes and executions. The report also reminds us of the involvement of two U.S. administrations in supporting the right-wing military government at whose hands the women were killed; of the reluctance of the Reagan administration to pursue an investigation; and of the fact that the two generals ultimately identified as having issued the orders had since “retired” and were living legally in Florida (one having received the Legion of Merit award from Reagan). There’s also a clip, in the early part of the video, of Maura Clarke’s 1980 interview in the U.S., just prior to her return to El Salvador, and for all of the report’s painful reminders and revelations, it’s her simple statement that also should be noted: “In my work, it has been very much trying to help people realize their own dignity, to realize the great beauty that they have.” You can watch the video here.
When we talk about the American "Catholic Imagination" in literature and the arts, the work of Flannery O'Connor is a sine qua non. Teaching on this subject, I often surprise people by juxtaposing her fiction writing not with Graham Greene or another great Catholic novelist, but rather with the songwriting of Bruce Springsteen.
Considering The Boss's oeuvre in this light is neither flight of fancy nor mere excuse to play music in class. The topic has been covered in the pages of Commonweal, the man effusively praised on the blog, and his stature confirmed back in 1998 by none less than Andrew Greeley, the scholar perhaps most associated with the analysis of the Catholic imagination.
Now it's true that Springsteen has cited Flannery O'Connor before, but I have not seen a quote as exquisite and evocative as this, from an interview in this weekend's New York Times. The reporter asks:
If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
And then Springsteen, who had earlier in the interview already cited O'Connor as the first author to influence his career as a songwriter, offers this assessment of his top literary influence:
One would be difficult, but the short stories of Flannery O’Connor landed hard on me. You could feel within them the unknowability of God, the intangible mysteries of life that confounded her characters, and which I find by my side every day. They contained the dark Gothicness of my childhood and yet made me feel fortunate to sit at the center of this swirling black puzzle, stars reeling overhead, the earth barely beneath us.
Perhaps he has the final scenes of the short story "Revelation" in mind, but really the quote encapsulates so much of what haunts O'Connor's world -- and thereby the American Catholic imagination writ large.
It is the mystery that does not confuse but halts through wonder; the experience of all life as both suffering and glory; the stubborn refusal to separate nature and grace.
We now have the names of the new members of the International Theological Commission, including the five women theologians Cardinal Gerhard Müller mentioned a few weeks back, when he revealed in an interview that Pope Francis had asked for more women to be included. Looking over the list, I'd say the CDF won't need to fear exposure to the influence of radical feminism any time soon.
According to the press release from the Vatican announcing the new appointments, the list of advisers was proposed by Müller (prefect of the CDF) and approved by Pope Francis. Among the appointees, who will serve a five-year term, are five women, two of them sisters, and twenty-five men. That may not sound like much, but it's a significant increase over the two-out-of-thirty women who served on the previous roster. "Women now constitute 16% of the Commission’s members," the press release says, calling that fact "a sign of growing female involvement in theological research." Is it a "sign" that more women are involved in theology, or a belated acknowledgment of that fact?
I am mostly interested in what the advisers might have to say to the CDF on the subject of their reform of the LCWR. Remember that Cardinal Müller cited the USCCB's negative judgment of Elizabeth Johnson in a public scolding of the LCWR leadership -- something he might not have done if he'd asked around about the quality and reception of that particular document. I had hoped a broader complement of women among those chosen to advise the CDF might help prevent such lopsided interventions in the future, but I can't say I'm optimistic that the CDF will be getting the advice it needs to hear.
Of the five new women members, there is one American: Sr. Prudence Allen, RSM. Lest you be misled, as I was at first, by the "RSM," please note that she is a member of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan, a more traditional offshoot of the well-known congregation founded in Ireland by Catherine McAuley. (Those Sisters of Mercy belong to LCWR; the congregation to which Allen belongs is a member of the alternative religious-women's leadership group, the CMSWR.) She is a philosopher, the author of a two-volume work called The Concept of Woman, an expert in the complementarity of the sexes, and a proponent and supporter of John Paul II-inspired "New Feminism." She formerly held the Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap, Chair of Philosophy at the St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver. I am sure she is a fine scholar and will bring wisdom and dedication to her new role. I just can't see her prodding the CDF to reconsider its ingrained fear of ordinary, not-actually-radical Catholic feminist theology. (On the other hand, according to this brief biography, she is also a divorced mother of two, so she may represent a greater diversifying of the committee than is at first apparent.)
I'm more familiar with the other American named to the commission: Thomas Weinandy, OFM Cap, author of Does God Suffer? and former executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine of the USCCB. Weinandy was in that position when the USCCB's committee on doctrine released its critique of Elizabeth Johnson's Quest for the Living God, and although the final document (available as a PDF, linked here) did not bear his name -- signed, as it was, by the members of the doctrine committee, all of them bishops -- it bore strong marks of his involvement (see John F. Haught's expert take on that, in Commonweal). If the USCCB's take on Johnson was wrong, as I would say it clearly was, that error was likely due in large part to Weinandy's personal approach to reading her work. I can't see him telling Muller to ease off on judging Johnson, and by extension the LCWR, based on the USCCB's badly argued takedown of her book. Remember also his weak explanation for why the USCCB doctrinal committee wouldn't meet with Johnson before issuing its judgment of her (misrepresented) views. And of course there was his weirdly hostile reproach to CTSA president Terrence Tilley, published in the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly -- here's the PDF -- and replied to by Tilley here. And then there's this response he wrote to Richard Gaillardetz's Commonweal article "The Limits of Authority," disagreeing with Gaillardetz's claim that "The bishops’ teaching authority is not binary in character; it is simply not the case that they either teach with an authority that demands unconditional and unquestioning assent or they teach with no authority at all."
(Daniel K. Finn replied to that here.) In short, if the CDF is looking to broaden the range of viewpoints it considers, and especially if it wants to get on top of the contributions of women in contemporary theology, Weinandy would not have been my recommendation.
I haven't found any evidence of progressive views or an inclination to challenge authority among the other members of the commission, which includes Moira McQueen, a Canadian bioethicist and mother of seven (per her Twitter bio), and Tracey Rowland, who is among other things Dean and Permanent Fellow of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne.
Still, a few more women, a few more lay people, a few more non-Europeans: all of these are steps in the right direction. It's worth noting, too, that Francis has indicated that policing doctrinal disputes is not a major priority for him. Perhaps we'll be hearing less in general from the CDF during this papacy.
In an interview with L'Osservatore Romano (
not yet published in English Update: strike that, here it is), Cardinal Gerhard Müller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, revealed that Pope Francis has directed that more women be included in the Vatican's international theological commission. Andrea Tornielli reports for Vatican Insider:
The members of the theological commission that assists the Holy See, particularly the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in examining crucial doctrinal questions are nominated for a five-year period and there are currently thirty of them, including two women: Barbara Hallensleben (professor of Dogmatic Theology and Ecumenism at the Faculty of Theology in Fribourg, Switzerland) from Germany and sister Sara Butler (professor of Dogmatic Theology at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake - Mundelein Seminary – in Chicago, US).
According to Müller, the number will increase to "five or six," which "would be a significant increase," Tornielli points out.
An increase in the number of women theologians would also, of necessity, mean an increase in the number of lay theologians. I'm a little baffled by the honorific titles in the list of members on the Vatican website, but from what I can tell, everyone identified as "Rev." is ordained -- with the exception of "Rev. Sr. Sara Butler, MSBT." That means twenty-five priests and five lay members of the commission, including Butler; the other four are Hallensleben, Thomas Söding, and Johannes Reiter, all of Germany, and our friend John Cavadini of Notre Dame.
In her address to the LCWR last month (which I blogged about here), Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, pointed out that the opening of the study of theology to lay Catholics after Vatican II led directly to the increased participation of women in church life. That participation has been reflected, valued, and celebrated in academia, in many dioceses, and most especially in the congregations of women religious whose leaders make up the LCWR. But it has not been reflected in the hierarchy, where the relationship between power and sex remains firm (and is carefully protected).
Johnson talked about what it means for her to do theology as a woman:
Early on one key question arose for me when I realized that all the great thinkers whom I had been exposed to in my studies were men. I loved many of their insights. But where were the women? I was struck by the absence of their critical insights and spiritual wisdom. Inspired by a pioneering generation of American women theologians, I grew committed to bringing women’s voices to the table. This does not mean thinking about women all the time. It does mean using the human dignity of women as one lens through which think about other religious and ethical subjects. It means attending to poverty, lack of education, sexual violence, and other injustices that ruin women’s lives. It means employing theologically what promotes the flourishing of women in all their diversity....
Clearly, my work engages theology done by men and does so with critical appreciation. But I am convinced that this is not enough for the church of today and tomorrow. The submerged female half of the church, indeed of the human race, is rising, and the faith we pass on to the next generations will be poorer if women’s insights are ignored.
Now, she said, thanks to the open doors of Vatican II, "while excellent theology continues to be done by ordained priests, all kinds of new questions, methods, and understandings are now blossoming, fed by the experience of the laity, women and men alike." That experience will be reflected to a much greater degree on the international theological commission if the number of women members is increased, even to just one-sixth of the membership instead of one-fifteenth.
What kind of difference could that make? Well, imagine if the U.S. bishops' conference committee on doctrine had sought out the input of some women theologians before expressing its alarm at Johnson's not-very-radical thoughts on female images of God. And the evidence is strong that the CDF could benefit from closer aquaintance with a diversity of women's views. See David Gibson's report on the same interview with Müller, which focuses on his remarks about the LCWR. He sounds some familiar, minimizing notes -- they don't represent all the U.S. nuns; they need help to "rediscover their identity"; the CDF is obliged to come to the rescue of more orthodox sisters who are upset with their orders' rogue leadership. But Müller also insists that he is not a misogynist, which is a good sign, I guess. I presume the way in which he phrased that avowal -- "We are not women gobblers!" in Tornielli's account; "We don’t want to gobble up a woman a day!" in Gibson's -- makes more sense in Italian.
Don't miss Jason Berry's lengthy update on the Legion of Christ's ventures in the Holy Land, in the National Catholic Reporter this week. How has the order coped with diminishment and disgrace following the belated exposure and censure of its founder, serial sexual abuser and all-around con artist Marcial Maciel? Oh, you know, they're working on it.
"Marcial Maciel's initials are also MM, just like Mary Magdalene. She had a problematic past before her deliverance, so there's a parallel. Our world has double standards when it comes to morals. Some people have a formal, public display and then the real life they live behind the scenes.
"But when we accuse someone else and we are quick to stone him, we must remember that we all have problems and defects. With modern communications so out of control, it is easy to kill someone's reputation without even investigating about the truth. We should be quieter and less condemning."
Berry quotes the above from a booklet promoting the Legion's new project, the $100 million Magdala Center at the Sea of Galilee. (Learn more at this website -- but be warned, there's a startling autoplaying introductory video.) The author is Fr. Juan María Solana. [UPDATE: Solana has apologized and the booklet has been withdrawn: see below.]
When the allegations against Maciel were first surfacing in the media, I remember hearing that rank-and-file Legionaries themselves were shielded from the worst of it. That, at least, was the excuse offered for why some priests didn't leave the order sooner. Given the amount of control Maciel and his fellow leaders exerted over the lives of their recruits, it seems plausible. But Maciel is dead; his corruption and crimes are definitively exposed; the order is supposedly reforming itself under Rome's supervision. So what's the excuse now for someone in a leadership position with the LCs to be referring to Maciel as having had any kind of "deliverance" (when, in fact, he and the order denied the allegations against him to the end of his life, even after Benedict removed him from ministry and ordered him to a life of repentance), or using his story as an example of how "We should be quieter and less condemning"?
I understand how awkward it must be for anyone who remains with the Legion of Christ to talk about their founder, given that the order itself has always been directly based in the spiritual leadership of Maciel. But if you can't talk about him honestly, non-defensively, with a sense of shame and sorrow and not self-pity, then maybe just don't talk about him at all.Read more
You may recall, from Grant's coverage on this blog or from the column I wrote in May, that Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, dressed down the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for its decision to present Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, with an award at this year's assembly. The award, Müller said, was an “open provocation against the Holy See,” because Johnson had been criticized by the U.S. bishops for alleged doctrinal errors in her book Quest for the Living God.
As I wrote at the time, Müller's presumption of bad faith on the part of the nuns -- and of correct judgment on the part of the bishops -- did not seem to leave much of an opening for a mutually respectful and collaborative process of reform. After all, as Müller might have known if he'd looked into it, the USCCB's doctrinal committee's indictment of Quest was a pretty shoddy piece of work, one that even contradicted its own claims in its rush to condemn Johnson for "undermin[ing] the Gospel."
Johnson accepted that award on Friday, at the end of the LCWR's annual assembly. For the most part, according to reporters who covered the event, the conflict with the CDF was absent from the group's public talks and deliberations. But in her acceptance speech, Johnson addressed it directly -- deciding, I gather, that since the honor had already been labeled a "provocation," she might as well say what she thought. And did she ever. David Gibson has the full transcript at RNS, and it's excellent: a forthright, clear-eyed, and (in my opinion) very astute analysis of what motivates the hierarchy's suspicion of American sisters and what would be necessary to overcome that tension.Read more
In my column last month, I asked, "Why hasn’t Pope Francis stepped in to get the Vatican off the nuns’ backs" and revoke the CDF's mandate to reform the LCWR? "If Francis really wants a less authoritarian, more mission-focused church," I wrote, "shouldn’t he have called this whole thing off already?"
Mary Gordon asks a similar question in the August issue of Harper's, in an essay titled "Francis and the Nuns." It's a strong piece of writing and a very good summary of the tensions between U.S. sisters and the Vatican. Harper's readers will be well caught up on where things stand and how they got that way. And the piece ends with an interview with Simone Campbell, SSS, that gives a personal dimension to the way she and her fellow sisters from LCWR congregations have responded to the scrutiny and censure directed their way from Rome.
But when it comes to the Francis angle, Gordon's analysis is less solid. That's because there simply isn't much to go on. "Is the new Vatican all talk?" the essay's subhed asks. But on this subject Francis has hardly talked at all, so that anyone who wants to build a case for or against him has to resort to reading tea leaves. And silence has many interpretations, after all.
After an introduction that sums up the remarkable shift in tone and priorities that Francis has brought about since taking office, Gordon brings in the nuns as a test case. I think she's right to propose the U.S. sisters as the embodiment of what we might call the Francis agenda:Read more
Writing for the National Catholic Reporter, Robert Mickens takes up the case of Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and protege of the pope emeritus. Why, some have asked, has Francis left Benedict's man in charge of the CDF, when Muller's priorities seem so out of line with Francis's own?
As Mickens sees it, getting rid of Müller just a year into his appointment to the post "would have been seen as a serious criticism of the retired pope's judgment and wisdom." (Even the pope has to worry about being Fr. Bulldozer.) Of course, It may also be that Francis sees reasons to trust Müller in the job. But Mickens thinks it may not matter so much, because the CDF itself is becoming less powerful as Francis reshapes the curia and grants more power to the Synod of Bishops.
His unquestioning acceptance of the USCCB's criticism of Elizabeth Johnson's Quest for the Living God was frustrating -- although it's not completely unreasonable for him to expect the U.S. bishops' committee on doctrine to do respectable work. What bothers me more is his insistence that, in light of that criticism, the LCWR's decision to honor Johnson could only be viewed as "a rather open provocation against the Holy See and the Doctrinal Assessment." And, he says, the fact that the sisters decided to honor someone the bishops had criticized just proves that the sisters need to get approval from the bishops (specifically, from Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, their CDF-appointed overseer) before they decide to honor anyone else. "Had [Sartain] been involved in the conversation as the Mandate envisions, I am confident that he would have added an important element to the discernment which then may have gone in a different direction."
The fact that Müller could not even imagine another way to look at the situation suggests just how difficult it will be for the sisters and the bishops to move forward together. He ended his remarks to the LCWR leaders by saying, "at this phase of the implementation of the Doctrinal Assessment, we are looking for a clearer expression of that ecclesial vision and more substantive signs of collaboration." But that collaboration always seems to require a lot more effort on one side than the other -- he told the sisters that the decision to honor Johnson "further alienates the LCWR from the Bishops," as though the fault for that alienation were entirely on their side.
Thus it's hard to be hopeful about the progress of this "collaboration," as I said in my column. But one reason I am is that the LCWR keeps sounding optimistic. "The actual interaction with Cardinal Müller and his staff was an experience of dialogue that was respectful and engaging," they said in a public statement after their April 30 meeting. In a longer statement to their members (quoted in Origins), the LCWR officials said, "in the honest, respectful, and engaging discussion that followed Cardinal Müller's opening remarks, we were able to offer responses that illuminated some of the perceptions about LCWR held by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith."
That's good news. If the CDF is operating on the assumption that everything coming out of the USCCB's doctrinal office is trustworthy, they need someone to tell them otherwise. And if the sisters are going to examine their organization through Rome's eyes, it will be important to clear up whatever is preventing Rome from seeing them clearly. Archbishop Sartain may indeed help the LCWR in their discernment processes going forward. But discernment is not the sole province of the ordained, and the CDF can certainly benefit from the sisters' help, too.
Last week Matthew Boudway and I spoke with Cardinal Walter Kasper here in New York. We covered a lot of ground over the course of an hour. Naturally, some territory was left unexplored, but here's a sample of our conversation, which we just posted to the homepage.
Commonweal: In your book Mercy, you argue that mercy is basic to God’s nature. How is mercy key to understanding God?
Cardinal Walter Kasper: The doctrine on God was arrived at by ontological understanding—God is absolute being and so on, which is not wrong. But the biblical understanding is much deeper and more personal. God’s relation to Moses in the Burning Bush is not “I am,” but “I am with you. I am for you. I am going with you.” In this context, mercy is already very fundamental in the Old Testament. The God of the Old Testament is not an angry God but a merciful God, if you read the Psalms. This ontological understanding of God was so strong that justice became the main attribute of God, not mercy. Thomas Aquinas clearly said that mercy is much more fundamental because God does not answer to the demands of our rules. Mercy is the faithfulness of God to his own being as love. Because God is love. And mercy is the love revealed to us in concrete deeds and words. So mercy becomes not only the central attribute of God, but also the key of Christian existence. Be merciful as God is merciful. We have to imitate God’s mercy.
CWL: You also note that mercy and justice cannot be finally established here on earth, and that whoever has tried to create heaven on earth has instead created hell on earth. You say that this is true of ecclesiastical perfectionists too—those who conceive of the church as a club for the pure. How dominant is that view among church leadership today?
Kasper: There are those who believe the church is for the pure. They forget that the church is also a church of sinners. We all are sinners. And I am happy that’s true because if it were not then I would not belong to the church. It’s a matter of humility. John Paul II offered his mea culpas—for the teaching office of the church, and also for other behaviors. I have the impression that this is very important for Pope Francis. He does not like the people in the church who are only condemning others.
When it comes to the CDF’s criticisms of some theologians, there was not always due process. That’s evident, and here we must change our measures. This is also a problem when it comes to the question of Communion for divorced and remarried people, which is now under consideration in preparation for the Synod of Bishops this autumn. On the other hand, we have positive signs of mercy within the church. We have the saints, Mother Teresa—there are many Mother Teresas. This is also a reality of the church.
- 1 of 2
- next ›