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Gender and the ‘Sensus Fidelium’

Gender and the ‘Sensus Fidelium’

Veronica Brady

from Proceedings of The Inaugural Conference Conference of Australia Reforming Catholics, 2002

Let me begin by remembering where we are, on the land of the Garigal people. Nor was it once but still is their land. We are the only former British colony which never made a treaty with the indigenous peoples of the land to which we came. We are on sacred land, on land which has been celebrated and prayed upon by its indigenous peoples where God has spoken.

But since Tissa has spoken about young people and the unchurched, let me begin with some lines by a friend of mine, an academic, a poet who has never darkened the door of a church. This is the very first entry in a collection of ideas and poems he gave me last night. It leads, I think, however, into my subject, gender:

Life is defined by those who lose

Because by losing they discover the point
At which loss becomes possible, indeed necessary.
There are those who live on edges,
The edges of language, of politics
And, I would add, of the holy Catholic Church
Of life itself.
Haunters of frontiers, they can’t be safe
Because safety is death.
They risk all to find out what it is that they have
They live between borders in no-person’s land.
It is only by losing that we are given ourselves.
Those who in this way have themselves completely
Are terrifying because they have lost everything.

My subject is Gender and the Sense of the Faithful which I would like to approach from an inclusive position - there has been far too much ‘male-bashing’ in my view. Let me start with a proposition by Julia Kristeva: ‘This “situation of women” raises questions more generally about the way we represent and define ourselves and our search for meaning and value’.

I want to argue that these binary divisions which underlie the oppositions between male and female are ridiculous, nonsensical, non-Christian and out of touch with reality. As the Macquarie Dictionary points out, gender is essentially a grammatical term, that is a way of ordering reality, not ‘reality’ itself. It has to do with a set of classes, a system of classification, which means that it is part and parcel of our present epistemological foundation - the way we think about ourselves and about the world. I am woman and some of you are men, just as some of us are ‘white’, others are ‘brown’ or ‘black’ or belong to cultures which we call ‘Western’ or ‘Eastern’, ‘Christian’ or ‘Muslim’. Ad so on. However, we tend to think we are the norm and everybody else the exception so that if they all became like us all will be well. That is nonsense, however, in social and biological terms but above all theologically.

We move now to what we mean by ‘the sense of the faithful’ - our reflection throughout the ages of the meaning of God’s gift to us in Jesus. As Tissa says, God has also spoken through Buddha, Mohammed and other religious traditions. But we believe there is a special revelation in Jesus. This sense of the faithful then is a great and noble tradition, if we really understand what it is as many of us have been privileged to do, growing up loving Mother Church - who sometimes now disappoints us - though we still, most of us, love her. We grew up with a sense of mystery, for instance, and we grieve for its loss. That is why I now want to draw on the work of Balthazar, a theologian who was preoccupied with aesthetics, the beauty of God. According to him, the problems we have today should always become more luminous in the light of the great mystery of God, that mystery of what we don’t know, we can’t know. Finally, he argues all problems can be contained within the light of that mystery. As he goes on: ‘We don’t grasp the truth without being grasped by what is the truth.’ Is-ness, if you like. As Shakespeare says: ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made of and our little life is rounded with a sleep’. ‘A faithful response to this truth and being grasped by it’, Balthazar argues, ‘constitutes the community of those of us who have been gifted with the call to live in faith, hope and love, and called also to share this gift.’ As one of my sisters, Sister Christine Burke, points out: ‘It is not that the Church has a mission, but God’s mission has a Church’. We are then figured and shaped by the fact that we are called into this mystery and this mission and sifted by it. In its light the problems facing us today dissolve. Take, for example, the challenge posed by the new understanding of the world given us by contemporary science which suggests that the whole cosmos (of which we are part) has been evolving, stage by stage, from the Big Bang onwards towards some great fullness of life and energy, at each stage reaching just the point necessary to carry it on to the next stage. In this sense our genes go back to that original Big Bang. Surely this great vision of God, of the is-ness of things (and is-ness was amongst us in Jesus and still works in other ways in his Spirit) gives us a vision of God, a sense of the faithful: worthy of what I might call the “goodness of God”. In it there is no room for the egoism, the divisions, the violence, the individualism of contemporary culture.

This brings us back to the idea of gender as division. Whatever our anatomical differences, or differences in social position and power, they have to do with the economy of God’s creation which is infinitely various. To refer to the passage I quoted to begin with, however, it is perhaps easier for those who are powerless, live on the edges - where many, if not most, women live - to be aware of this. That, I suspect is why Alicia Ostriker can write: ‘I am concerned with the question of what will happen when the spiritual imagination of women is released into language and history’. The patriarchal church has silenced women and imposed an impoverished patriarchal view of the world on us all - you men, I think, have suffered almost as much as we women. To a greater extent, we are ‘male’ and ‘female’ inside, even in a patriarchal society like Australia in which the ‘feminine’ aspect is suppressed in most men. This means, as Ostriker argues, that so many of us are deeply fractured and living as we do in a pathological culture which neglects the ‘feminine’ - a dimension, I would argue, which goes beyond the dimension of mere ‘gender’.

We have to think about who we are in the light of the larger mystery of being which we have been trying to reflect on. To think about ‘gender’ and the ‘sense of the faithful’ we need a larger model. Here I suggest that the French feminist philosopher, Hélène Cixous, has much to contribute. She suggests that there are two main ways of being in the world - she calls them economies - the masculine and feminine. In our culture, she argues that the masculine is dominant, the economy of the proper which has to do with property, propriety, appropriation, control, of knowing where you are going. In the patriarchal economy, for example, we know exactly who and what God is. In effect, however, we make a God to our own image and we make the rules we say God wants us to follow. The other mode is the economy of the feminine and what Cixous calls ‘the economy of the gift’. It is preoccupied with internal reality and is not concerned with frontiers and boundaries but crosses them all the time, giving and receiving, in tune with whatever is the case. As we are beginning to realise, indigenous cultures, the Aboriginal people of this country for example, were like that. They knew what we are only just beginning to realise what, as the British astronomer Fred Boyle wrote in 1942 as space travel was just becoming possible: ‘When we have digested the implications of photographs from the earth taken from space, we will begin to realise what we haven’t realised before, that all human beings whatever colour, culture, language or gender, all the animals, birds, fishes, insects, plants, the air, the waters and the earth itself all share the one life of our very small, very fragile planet suspended in space.’ We have therefore to love and care for one another though we human beings may have a very special place in this planetary life because we are conscious of it. That, I suggest, is the ‘feminine’ mode and it may be the only way through for humanity in the future on this fragile, over-populated planet. To become aware of the importance of the ‘feminine’ mode, there is a call to develop the full range of our psychic possibilities, a call which the Roman Catholic Church has for some time avoided. It also involves different notions of power, based not on war and conquest, domination and hierarchy, but on mutuality, on giving and receiving.

There is a sense then in which we have neglected an important strain in our culture, a strain which I will argue is strong in great medieval Christian classics like Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Indeed Dante may foresee in the angel’s lament in The Pergatori:

‘O, Christians, arrogant, exhausted, wretched.
Your intellects are sick and cannot see.
You place your confidence in backward steps.’

So those who have been excluded and oppressed may be in a privileged position since it is easier to see from the fringes. As Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza says, it is very difficult being a Catholic Christian and a woman in these days. But that is not because there is something wrong with Christianity but something wrong with the people who have claimed to define and control Christian faith and practice. Prejudice by definition leads us to select some facts and not others and that is what has been done in the interpretation of the mystery of God amongst us and shown to us in Jesus and continued in the Spirit.

In this respect, we have much to learn from contemporary thinking. There is a wonderful essay in a recent Concilium on the subject of identity by a Brazilian Franciscan sociologist, Jean-Marie Susin. In the West, he argued, there are basically two notions of identity: the first one, which is masculine and patriarchal, is based on the model of Ulysses, the Greek hero who went with the expedition to Troy. His great feat, however, was his return home. As he travelled through strange places, he saw this strangeness as hostile, trying to destroy it or turn it into what was familiar. In this sense his journey constituted a great circle around identity - the model perhaps of colonialism and its alliance with Christendom.

The other model of identity is, however, the model of Abraham who was called beyond the horizon to a promise not yet realised and, trusting in that promise, journeyed into strange and unfamiliar places. The model of Ulysses, if you like, is patriarchal and belongs to the economy of the masculine. But Abraham lives by the economy of the gift, lives by a model which is open and dynamic.

It is the notion of identity which is surely in tune with the definition that God gives us of God-self in Jesus and, through Paul, in his description of what the community of Jesus might be. It is a community in which there is neither male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, since we are all one in Christ. We all exist as human beings, not just as Christians, or women and men, in relation to the other. They are not enemies; they are called in love by love. They are the other through whom the Other, God, speaks. This then is the tradition of faith - as someone has said, ‘Tradition means running errands for the dead!’ Amongst these dead, John Baptist Metz suggests that those who suffer, have been oppressed and marginalised, are the crucial people because until we recognise and context their suffering the Church’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth is still not realised. So long as people suffer, are marginalised and neglected, so long as some dominate over others, then the energy which is God’s spirit moving through the world has not achieved its goal. This wonderful passage is surely relevant to us in this country as we contemplate the sufferings of Aboriginal peoples.

What I am arguing for then is the need to recover our sense of who we are - a vision which is completely in tune with our time since it also demands that we care for God’s creation, the earth, the plants, the animals. The long tradition of mysticism is also in tune with this vision. Here too, the renewal of the liturgy seems to be crucial, reminding us that we celebrate the mystery of God’s gift to us, God’s presence amongst us, in bread and wine and in the community of friends, celebrating the giving of life, the losing of life and the taking of it. As Balthazar, to return to him, says: ‘God’s power also depends on his beauty, his unattainable, primal beauty’. This is one of the great ways in which God convinces and persuades us. Beauty used to be a mark of worshipping community, and we need to recover that ‘feeling for the glory of God’, ‘the grandeur of God’ that, as Hopkins had it, will ‘flame forth like shook foil’, something we have forgotten by turning God into a moraliser. The dream of God, to quote Balthazar again, is a dream of beauty, a dream springing from the old promise, that all God’s people can become prophets.

We have lost this way in a world of division and conflict. But we need to get back to this sense of the holy, return to this ‘feminine’ economy - men and women together. The whole idea of sexual difference therefore has become a great problem. But, as Balthazar says, it can be seen also as the chiaomus of creation, i.e. the crossing place, where the masculine and the feminine come together and we commune with and receive from one another. It is, he says, a threshold which indicates no horizon or limit of the world of God who is always in an erotic relationship with us and the world, as we need to be with God.

This world then is a threshold as we move onwards across frontiers from the fringes. So we must never settle down. Perhaps indeed in this country we might reflect on the treasure we have in our folk song, Waltzing Matilda. Folk song it may be but it speaks to something deep in us abut a man travelling light who keeps moving and, on the other hand, there’s the rich man who grudges him one sheep and tries to keep control. Rather than lose his freedom, however, the swagman chooses to leap into the dark mystery of the billabong and chooses death. I learnt this, by the way, from some students in Spain! Today this is the kind of courage perhaps which we need to transfigure what we believe in, the mystery with which we are gifted.

So, to sum up: let us take our stand on God’s promises and see the Church as a stained glass window through which God is. Institutions can become obstacles to human happiness and vision. But they can also become channels of grace and transcending all distinctions, transfigured in and by the mystery of God.

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