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Review of "Is the Pope Catholic? A Woman Confronts her Church"

Review of "Is the Pope Catholic? A Woman Confronts her Church" by Joanna Manning, Malcolm Lester Books, Toronto, 1999.

by John Wijngaards, in Renew, Spring 2001.

RENEW can be ordered from: John Challoner 278 Gillot Road Birmingham B16 0RU, UK. Is the Pope Catholic? is also published by Crossroad for the English-speaking world outside Canada.

This is the kind of book the Pope should take seriously indeed. Not only because of its well-reasoned contents, but by the phenomenon itself. Respect for the Holy Father and obedience to his authority are ingrained in Catholic tradition. When a prominent Catholic, with first-class credentials in Church service and Catholic commitment, challenges the Pope in public, he should take heed. For what a competent author as Joanna Manning says eloquently in print, hundreds of millions of Catholics world wide are thinking in their hearts. The Pope is facing a huge crisis in public credibility.

Joanna Manning is well known for her incisive articles in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and the Catholic New Times. For 30 years she took an active part in Catholic education as Catholic Chaplain, teacher in the Social Science Department, Head of Religious Education, Principal, mentor of Catholic candidate teachers. In 1995 she received the Marian Tyrell award for outstanding contribution to Catholic Education. She also operates Anne Frank House, a non-profit housing community in Toronto for refugees. She is a Catholic who has searched for the meaning of faith in her life and her work, and who has come to a passionate commitment to the consequences of her faith. Criticism by such a person amounts to the cry of a prophet. The Church can only ignore it at its own spiritual peril.

Manning examines the present Pope's position under four main headings. First she tackles the Pope's antiquated view of a woman's nature, showing that Mulieris Dignitatem harbours a lot of unresolved misogyny. Underneath the Church's position regarding women she sees the enduring conviction that God is Male. She shows that in Catholic education for girls the old stereotypes of male domination and privilege are still being inculcated. And she accuses the Church of irresponsibly holding back international progress towards the liberation of women.

The old prejudices against women inhere the whole complicated system of Church life. They rear their heads in Church law, the liturgy, the running of dioceses and parishes, the instinctive behaviour of the clergy as well as the traditional thinking of many Catholics. Yet Manning knows that the Pope himself is personally responsible for having maintained many of the prejudices. In her book she has decided to tackle this point. I believe she is quite right in doing so. After all, popes have an enormous influence on the direction which the Church takes by their own personal preferences, the people they appoint to key jobs and the policies adopted by central curial offices. I believe that the author would agree with me that this has not to be understood as a personal attack on the character of the Holy Father, but a substantiated criticism of specific aspects of his approach and leadership.

In this context Manning rightly asks the question: “Is the Pope Catholic?”. This is not to be understood in the flippant sense. It is a legitimate question, since it would seem that the Holy Father, in spite of his best intentions, has deviated from what we as Catholics believe to be central tenets of our faith. Manning tries to document this in the case of such crucial doctrines as the Incarnation, Resurrection and the Eucharist. She argues that the nature and role of women, as seen by the Pope, would by implication exclude women from a full participation in those redemptive mysteries.

Without wanting to enter into this argument in detail, it seems to me that she is making a very valid point. The old principle by the Cappadocian Fathers was that “what has not been assumed is not redeemed”. By making the masculine gender of Jesus a substantial element of the Incarnation, the Pope and like-minded theologians are, in fact, excluding women both from a complete and equal union with Christ and from the fullest fruits of the salvation he brought. In other words: just as in Old Testament times, when women were only supposed to be members of the covenant indirectly, through the menfolk to which they were related, so in the concept honoured by the Pope women would only participate indirectly in the new life brought by Christ.

Reading Joanna Manning's book I was saddened by the fact that such a frank espousal and criticism of the Pope's flawed theological reasoning has to be voiced by lay people. Not that I object in any way to lay persons speaking out forcefully and with conviction - on the contrary: this is part of their rightful task and responsibility. What I am asking myself is: where are the bishops in all this? Why do we not have more bishops to correct the Holy Father and his advisers in public? Surely many bishops in the world must be as aware of the Pope's wrong approach as many of our educated laity are? Then why do they not speak out clearly and visibly? According to Vatican documents, it is first and foremost the task of the bishops who share the teaching authority with the Holy Father, to point out any mistakes or flaws in his way of thinking or acting. Do we not have here a clear example of a misdirected loyalty, in which respect for Church authority is held higher than respect for truth? Or have our bishops, in fact, been reduced to be purely “yes-men”, unable to rise themselves to any prophetic corrective action in the Church?

I hear anger resonate in Joanna Manning's book. Perhaps, this will occasion some critics of the book to write it off as just another example of an outburst by a hurt feminist. I would thoroughly disagree with such an assessment. The anger that comes through is a righteous anger. It is not unlike the anger of Moses who, coming down from Sinai with the stone tablets of the Law, was aghast at seeing the people of Israel adoring a golden calf. It also reminds me of Jesus' own anger when he found the religious leadership of his time permitting gross commercial activity in the Temple courts, thus preventing non-Jews from using the Temple as a “house of prayer”. Thank God for the right kind of anger. Thank God for people like Joanna Manning who has the courage to speak out and the deep Christian optimism that helps them hope and believe that the Church will eventually turn back to its original teaching: that both men and women are equal in Christ, that in Christ there is no discrimination, no exclusion, no putting down or minimising of any race, status or gender.

John Wijngaards

Read: ‘The Catholic Church in the Next Millennium’, by Joanna Manning, chapter 6 from the book.


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