The Catholic Church in the Next Millennium
by Joanna Manning
Chapter 6 in Is the Pope Catholic? A Woman confronts her Church.
Malcolm Lester Books, Toronto, 1999. Chapter 6, pp 192 – 226. Reprinted here with permission of the author and publisher.
- The search for a healthy counterbalance
- The dominance of corporate culture
- The realignment of the Christian World
- The Church in the Twenty-first Century
- The preferential option for the poor
- The preferential option for women
- The preferential option for creation
- Pilgrim Catholics in exile
Hope has two daughters,” wrote St. Augustine, “anger and courage.” It is paradoxical that a theologian who had such a difficult relationship with women, and whose theology is so remorselessly antipathetic toward women, should name hope, anger, and courage as female virtues. Augustine of Hippo bears much responsibility for the negative attitudes toward sexuality that have marred Christian thought; but despite my suspicion of Augustine’s opinions on sexuality and the nature of women, I can still acknowledge that many of his other writings—his prayers and his discourses on the Trinity, for example—are inspirational. In fact, the Confessions of St. Augustine was one of the formative influences of my youth.
A recognition of the ambivalence within every human being—of the juxtaposition of good and evil, human and divine, dark and light, in the depths of our souls—lies at the heart of the renewed spirituality that is struggling to be heard around the world at the outset of this new millennium. The feminine principle, which has so often been viewed with suspicion as the shadow side of humanity, is now seen as a way forward out of the dualism of patriarchy, a philosophy that, in separating reality into antipathetic, polar opposites, now threatens to destroy the planet.
I have learned to recognize that there can also be a negative side to feminism. At times, women’s anger at injustice can slide into bitterness and recrimination. As well, feminism is not without its high priestesses of righteousness. Much as the papacy of John Paul II has often come to resemble the totalitarian system of repression he so successfully resisted in Poland, feminism has sometimes reproduced the very hierarchies and dualism which it rejects.
“Men are the enemy” provided a neat but simplistic theme for some early feminist discourse and actions. This has been giving way to the more nuanced view that while patriarchy has oppressed women in general and while men in general have benefited from it and must be held accountable, individual men are not responsible for all the deleterious eflfects of patriarchy on individual women.
The Catholic spirituality which nurtured me provides a healthy counterbalance, one which undercuts any assumption of self-righteousness by acknowledging that “we hold our treasure, not in cups of gold, but in earthen vessels.”(1) As we struggle to create a more just and balanced world for our children and grandchildren, we must constantly seek to heal and reunite the brokenness and divisions of humanity which we experience within ourselves and in society, and also in the planet we inhabit. In Jesus risen, all divisions are healed: body and spirit, earth and heaven, female and male—all are reunited within the inner life of God.
As tribute to the mystery of the uniting of opposites, Catholic spirituality has celebrated this divine-human union by using earthly and fleshly sacraments to “body forth” the mysterious essence of God. Catholics drink and dance at the altar as well as at the hearth. In its best moments, Catholicism has acknowledged that the Church is a human institution and therefore not perfect but semper reformenda—always in need of renewal and reform. As acknowledged in the final document of Vatican II, the Church itself has been responsible for the alienation of many from the gospel message. In discussing the rise and spread of atheism in the modern world, the Council accepted that “believers themselves often share some responsibility for this situation.. . [Atheism] arises from a variety of causes, among which must be included a critical reaction against religions… and against the Christian religion in particular. Believers can thus have more than a little to do with the rise of atheism.”(2)
The tragedy of John Paul II’s papacy is that it has been false in so many respects to this insight into the need for humility and gracious generosity, qualities which have so often characterized the Catholic spirit in the past. The final years of John Paul’s papacy have seen a retraction of the condemnation of Galileo as well as a formal apology to the Jewish people for the conduct of the Catholic Church during the Second World War. Although it fell short of acknowledging that Catholicism bore much responsibility for the long history of anti-Semitism in Europe, the apology demonstrates that the Pope is somewhat open to the need for repentance in high places in the Church. Perhaps a future pope will see fit to apologize to women for the Catholic witch hunts of early modern Europe and to retract the handbook of the Inquisition, the Malleus Maleficarum: The Hammer of Witches (1486),(3) which condemned thousands of girls and women to torture and death.
But under John Paul II’s papacy, women’s equality is considered to be at best a completely secular notion; at worst, feminism is imagined to be a corruption of God’s design for women, and the ordination of women is considered a heresy. In this way, he has evoked the dangerous, shadow side of Catholicism, which has surfaced before in periods such as the Inquisition. With the ascendancy of Opus Dei in the Vatican, this papacy has witnessed the return of anonymous denunciations, secret trials with no right of appeal, and excommunication of theologians on a scale not experienced in the Catholic Church since the time of Pope Pius X and the antimodernist crusade at the beginning of this century. The lightning rod for this spiritual oppression, especially in the latter half of his papacy, has been feminism.
Many Catholics have been struck by the ambivalence of the papacy of John Paul II. On the one hand, he undoubtedly sought to advance the cause of human rights in society, and has campaigned arduously for the advancement of universal human rights. On the other hand, he has ruthlessly and systematically denied any discussion of the advancement of these same rights within the Church. The United Nations Charter of Universal Human Rights, to which the Vatican is a signatory, has not been enforced within the borders of Vatican City, nor has it crossed the threshold of any Catholic Church worldwide. This hypocritical “Do as I say but not as I do” posture is one of the main factors alienating Catholic youth from the Church and has caused increasing numbers of older Catholics to seek elsewhere for the living God.
As outlined in Chapter 3, I believe that in its relentless and increasingly hysterical opposition to the ordination of women, the Roman Catholic hierarchy (as distinct from the People of God as a whole) has fallen into a dangerous delusion which has led it into serious distortions of some central Christian beliefs. This is not the first time this has happened in the history of the Church. During the time of the Aryan heresy in the fourth century, many bishops and even Pope Liberius fell prey to the heretical teaching that in the Trinity, God the Son ranks lower in divinity than God the Father. Pope Liberius forced Athanasius, one of the champions of orthodox belief in the Trinity, into exile and publicly condemned his teaching. But the People of God debated the Aryan controversy in the squares and marketplaces and their persistent resistance to the papal and episcopal heresy eventually set the bishops straight.
I believe that a similar situation is occurring in the Roman Catholic Church today. Despite the threat of excommunication, the People of God must continue to use all means possible to challenge the Vatican’s heretical stance and to oppose their bishops on the issue of the ordination of women until the Vatican is either discredited or is released from the grip of this delusion. I believe that, to paraphrase the quotation from Augustine at the beginning of this chapter, the anger and courage of those who continue to resist this spiritual blindness bears within it the hope of a renewed Catholic Church.
In a brilliant study of the spirituality of nonviolent resistance, Engaging the Powers, the American biblical scholar Walter Wink has described the spiritual anatomy of what he terms the “Domination System.”(4) Modern institutions, including the Churches, are dominated by what the Bible calls the “Principalities and Powers.” These Principalities and Powers are the spiritual forces at work within all systems and institutions, forming the inner direction of the institution. That patriarchal powers have come to dominate much of modern institutional life is a result of past human choices, not of some supernatural or demonic force. This means that the same powers can be resisted and rendered impotent as a result of human choices in the present and future.
Wink describes the Powers as “the inner and outer aspects of any given manifestation of power,” and continues:
As the inner aspect, they are the spirituality of institutions, the “within” of corporate structures and systems, the inner essence of outer organizations of power. They are at once personal and structural realities, the personal and political manifestations of the life of an institution. As the outer aspect they can be recognized at work in political systems, appointed officials, the chair of an organization, laws—in short, all the tangible manifestations which power takes.(5)
When a particular power—and the powers are named in various parts of the Scripture as diversely as kings and rulers, death itself, Pharisees and synagogues, angels and archangels—places itself above God’s purposes for the good of the whole universe, it becomes idolatrous. “The Church’s task,” writes Wink, “is to unmask this idolatry and recall the Powers to their purpose in this world.”(6) As described by Walter Brueggemann in Hope Within History, this is a process not unlike that of the awakening of Moses and the exodus of the people of Israel out of slavery.
But the call to the Churches to unmask the “Principalities and Powers” of this world is by no means a call for a return to the dualistic ideology that the Church is all good and the world is all bad, an ideology prevalent before the Second Vatican Council. The Churches, too, according to Wink, can fall prey to the influence of the Principalities and Powers. “The angel of a church [a symbol used at the beginning of the Book of Revelation] becomes demonic when the congregation turns its back on the specific tasks set before it by God and makes some other goal its idol… indeed, it is precisely those institutions that have the highest task that are capable of becoming the most demonic.”(7) It then falls to other members of the Church to discern, unmask, and engage with the powers within the Church in order to exorcise the influence of their delusions.
In the various Christian denominations, this function has been fulfilled in history, often at great individual cost, by saints and other prophetic figures who have been rejected as heretical in their own time but vindicated as messengers of God by later generations. The medieval reformer Catherine of Siena comes to mind in this connection, or closer to our own context, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who unmasked and challenged the union of Church and State in Nazi Germany, as did Oscar Romero in El Salvador some thirty years later. I believe the same kind of courage is called for today to unmask the delusional patriarchal system which holds sway over the Catholic Church.
For a delusional system to achieve absolute power over the hearts and minds of its adherents, people must be made to believe that there is no other system: “There is no alternative.” Following the collapse of Soviet communism, the free market capitalism of the 1990s, aided by a largely captive media, has had brilliant success in this regard. The well-being of society and its ability to function properly—or in the case of the Church, the eternal soul of the believer—is made dependent on his or her uncritical obedience to the rules of the dominant system, whether this be the code of free market capitalism or the code of canon law. One of the other strategies of this corporate culture is to convince everyone that the system is constantly under threat and must be defended against enemies, both internal and external; otherwise, their own future survival will be placed in peril. This feeds into the adversarial mentality of patriarchy, which fosters an “us and them” or a “win-lose” approach to reality. If I am right, you must be wrong. If I am stronger, I must always win.
Vatican II represented a significant attempt to unmask the ways in which authority and power have been misused in the Catholic Church. The Council made very tentative steps toward acknowledging that a hierarchical system modeled on the Roman system of government, and with it the whole apparatus of patriarchy, are not inherent to the Catholic Church. It was adopted to structure the Church as a result of historical circumstances and is therefore subject to change in the present or future. The Council called on the Church to return to its most ancient roots: back to a dream forged by a wandering Exodus people and carried forward in the life of a poor preacher from Nazareth.
But the corporate culture of clericalism within the Catholic Church was not rooted out after the Council, and it has reasserted itself with a vengeance during the papacy of John Paul II. This corporate culture in the Church is virulently opposed to the equal participation of women in the priesthood. Opposition to women’s ordination has been carefully crafted by the powers that be in Rome to convince the “simple faithful” that so-called secular feminism poses a grave internal threat to the survival of the Church. The very fact that Rome’s denunciations of feminism and women’s ordination have in recent years grown so vehement is proof of the fact that these issues challenge the “Principalities and Powers” of the Vatican.
As Chapter 5 made clear, the reassertion of a patriarchal hierarchy within the Catholic Church and the increasingly stringent penalties attached to a denial of this have come at a time when the Pope has assumed a posture on the world stage as a champion of human rights, including the rights of women. This kind of cognitive dissonance in high places is evidence of a system caught in the depths of delusion while wearing a mask of benevolence and peace.
Even as John Paul fought so successfully to undo the grip of the totalitarian communist system in Poland, he has been bent on restoring totalitarian rule within the Catholic Church. Unquestioning obedience to authority is upheld by threat of exile—if not to a camp in Siberia, at least, in the case of Bishop Gaillot of Evreux, to the desert see of Mauritania. Bishop Jacques Gaillot was summarily removed from the French episcopate in January 1995 because he had spoken out in favor of married priests, the ordination of women, and the use of condoms for the prevention of Aids. In commenting on Rome’s removal of Gaillot, Joseph Duval, president of the French bishops, stated:
This is an authoritarian act which cannot be accepted by society, even if it is carried out by the Church. Authoritarian gestures on the part of Rome have multiplied in recent days. The Universal Catechism, the encyclical on morality, the ban on ordaining women. These acts make the Church look like a rigid, closed organization.(8)
The Catholic Church, for all the great encyclicals and pastoral letters on peace that it has produced in recent times, has seen Rome and its episcopal appointees of the past twenty years resort to increasingly extreme means of dealing with internal dissent. It seems clear that the corporate culture of clericalism demands the suppression of new ideas.
Those who favor a Church of self-defined purity, free from contamination by what is regarded as the hostile influence of the world, have rejoiced that John Paul II refused to lend a sympathetic ear to questioning within the Church and moved to reimpose rigid conformity in Catholic belief and practice. This withdrawal into a fortress type of Christianity has also been occurring in other Christian denominations. Some of these Churches have found common cause with John Paul’s version of a Catholicism firmly opposed to both the ordination of women and the acceptance of homosexuality as part of the human condition.
But increasing numbers of Christians today, in denominations hitherto divided by history, have been moving in a different direction. As Jesus showed so often with his paradoxical parables and his absolute refusal to be drawn into denunciations of those labeled by the Pharisees as sinners, each and every human being, from pope to peasant, lives in a world of ideals misdirected and energies misspent. The only certainty that we can trust in absolutely is the love of God. This does indeed call for fidelity to the past, but a creative fidelity which acknowledges that new wine cannot be forced into old wineskins or it will burst out, its flavor dissipated.
I believe that compassion, humility, and generosity must be the hallmarks of institutional Christianity if it is to survive into the next millennium. The cost of this will be high, because it will involve the constant re-evaluation of Christian history as well as the discernment of the ongoing movement of the Spirit within and outside the churches. It takes courage and hope to face up to this. The United Church of Canada, for example, caused a storm of controversy among its membership in 1992 when it formally apologized to native peoples for its part in the treatment meted out to them in the past in residential schools run by the United Church.
One of the reasons the delusional system within the Catholic Church is so hard to unmask is that the system socializes people from a very early age. The phrase “cradle Catholic” is an apt description of the pervasiveness of Catholic culture. The rewards offered by unquestioning obedience to the system seem to outweigh the penalties inflicted on those who dare to question. Wink quotes the words of Vaclav Havel, written when the communist regime was still in power in Czechoslovakia:
Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything… past, present and future… It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing… Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, make the system, are the system.(9)
Many Catholics, priests as well as laypeople, reject the Vatican’s teaching on the place of women in the Church, on sexual orientation, on contraception, divorce, and remarriage. And yet they continue to make more and more accommodations to “live within the lie” because they have no faith in the possibility of change within the Church.
Feminism, as a movement based on nondualistic and nonhierarchical principles, is more at ease with ambiguities than absolutes. It is viewed by some as the most potent threat to the power of the Catholic Church today. I see it instead as one of the greatest hopes for the future. The age we live in has witnessed global shifts in the balance of equality and power between men and women in every sphere; yet during the late twentieth century there has been a backlash against the gains of the women’s movement. While the churches on the one hand are called to be agents of conversion and transformation, and there are many recent examples of this, the Church as an institution is also, as Vatican recognized, under the sway of a hierarchy of power.
This profound ambivalence calls for an abandonment of triumphalist spirituality in favor of profound humility and a willingness to accept that those who hold opposing views act in good faith as well. Resistance to the dominant stranglehold of patriarchal structures in all institutions has been part of the Zeitgeist of the second half of the twentieth century. I believe that we are witnessing a profound realignment of the Christian world which will continue into the future and will ultimately unmask and confront the system of patriarchy in all religious institutions. This process is already well under way in other Christian denominations.
The fate of the historical phenomenon known as the Catholic Church will revolve around its response to three sets of issues which are at the heart of witnessing to the gospel in the contemporary world. These issues touch every Christian, indeed every person of faith, and will form either bridges or chasms between the historically separate denominations within Christianity. In fact, what is now occurring is, I believe, a transformation of the world’s religions around these three areas, namely: women, the poor, and the earth. These issues are distinct but linked. All of them demand an abandonment of hierarchies of power and dominance in favor of an ethic of mutuality and service.
Although the Vatican has highlighted sexuality and sexual practices as defining of Catholicism—indeed, sex before marriage has been subject to the penalty of excommunication since the 1998 revision of canon law under John Paul II —I would hazard the opinion that sexuality will gradually cease to be a defining issue for Catholicism. My generation of cradle Catholics, many of us grandparents as we move through our fifties, has already massively disobeyed the Church’s teachings on premarital sex, contraception, and divorce, and there is little indication that this trend will be reversed in the future. The relaxation of clerical celibacy is but a matter of time. When clerical celibacy goes, the prohibition against homosexuality will ultimately follow, in part because a significant proportion of candidates for ordination now entering Catholic seminaries are gay.
I do still believe that there is hope for a renewed Catholicism in the next generation. It is a hope that I cling to because I believe in the unlimited power of the Spirit of God to bring forth life even in the midst of death. As a teacher of some thirty years, the latter half of which have been devoted to teaching religion to Catholic youth and young adults, and as the mother of two sons, I have often had occasion to ponder the fate of the Catholic Church in the generations to come.
In both my religion classroom and while conducting street walks for young people, I have experienced the inbreaking of the Spirit into the hearts and minds of young people in marvelous and unexpected ways. In the mid-eighties, before the contemporary wave of repression took hold in Catholic education, I would go into grade 12 religion classes with a newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. A student would be assigned to bring in a current video or song, to open the class.
Every day we would plunge into current issues, the issues of the students’ lives now and in the future. I would guide them through experiences based on the principles of what the great educator Paolo Freire called a “pedagogy of critical conscientization’(10) as opposed to the ”banking method of education.” (11) We asked questions like: Who wrote this song, or story, or designed this video? For what purpose? Who stands to gain from it? Whose lives are placed at risk by it? Then I would challenge them to search the Scriptures to see if they could come up with either a critique of or a justification for that particular behavior or opinion.
I remember one particularly bright young woman who had taken a seat in the back row of the class because, she later told me, she had never found anything worth listening to in a religion class. It was not long before she was one of those who would stand upon their chairs in order to participate and be heard during the rambunctious debates that ensued in the classroom. A few years later I met her downtown while I was leading a street walk. She had graduated from university with a degree in biology and was working on contract in a health clinic for poor women, conducting an investigation into women’s health as part of her research toward a master’s degree. She had completely abandoned any hope of change on the part of the Catholic Church and had given up attending Mass.
My critics then and now would say that by encouraging students to question, I am leading them to leave the Church. Not at all—my classes were actually attracting students to an exciting and challenging way of living out their faith. I remember two young women who had not been to Mass regularly since their confirmation in grade 8. “This class is so exciting,” they told me one day, “that we have decided to go back to Church.” This they did the following Sunday. On Monday they returned to class with crestfallen faces. “Miss, it was terrible. The priest just lectured us about how bad young people are today. . . we’re not going there again.”
These grade 12 classes coincided with my first public involvement, described in Chapter1, with the issue of the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. One day I was asked to be the guest on a popular lunchtime talk show. I had a spare period which coincided with the time of the program, and the radio station sent a cab to ensure I would not miss a minute of scheduled class time. Some students were listening to the show on a portable radio in the cafeteria, and when a particularly hostile listener called in to express her views, one of my students called in to the station from the cafeteria phone and went on the air in my defence.
Now it happened that the Director of Education of the Catholic School Board had also been listening to the show on his car radio. When this young woman came on the program and identified herself as a student of mine and named the school, the director picked up his car phone to call my principal—who had given me leave to appear on the program—and, in the latter’s words, “He hit the roof.” When I got back, the principal stopped me in the hall and told me I had been summoned for an interview at the Board the next morning. At that meeting, the director handed me a letter stating that I was denied permission, under pain of suspension from teaching, to ever leave the school in future to do media interviews.
When I returned to class, the students were proud that one of their peers had been on the program in what they considered to be a rare opportunity to hear the voice of youth in the Church. When I told them of my experience with the school authorities, they were dumbfounded. The repression and fear of their opinions served to reinforce all their previous cynicism and readiness to dismiss the Catholic Church as an anachronism, an impression that I was trying so hard to combat both inside and outside the classroom.
The effects of this repressive Church culture came into play in a similar incident I was involved in more recently. One of the first acts of the Conservative government of Mike Harris, elected premier of Ontario in 1995, was to drastically slash welfare rates and social services. ln response to this attack on the poor, various religious groups customarily keep vigil on the steps of the legislature at Queen’s Park to pray and protest the government’s actions. One day when I was conducting a street retreat in the downtown area, I took a group of students to participate in one such gathering.
On this particular day, a larger than usual group had assembled, including spokespeople from the opposition parties, and microphones had been set up on a stage outside. After the speeches and formal prayers, the mikes were made available for anyone who wished to speak. Two of the students with me spoke movingly of their encounters with street people that day, and of their desire to respond to the call of Jesus to speak up on behalf of the “least” among us. I felt proud that they had found the courage to bear witness in such a public forum to the truth that is within them.
The teacher who was accompanying this particular group was the vice-principal of the school. She made no comment at the time, but the following day I received a phone call from the school chaplain, who had arranged the retreat. The chaplain had been called into the school office and reprimanded for allowing the students to participate in a “political protest” that had not been officially sanctioned in advance by either the Church or the school. Some of the parents, she was told, would be upset if they knew their children were being exposed to such one-sided political propaganda, and in future students from the school were forbidden to visit Queen’s Park in the course of the retreats.
I hoped and prayed that the students would have the maturity to realize that this incident demonstrated how powerful their young voices could be as a contemporary expression of the call of the gospel. Just as it was in the time of Jesus, to identify with the poor today is a threat to the powers that be. Even within the walls of a Catholic school, the small sparks of enlightenment nudged into expression through the action of the Spirit can be prematurely snuffed out by a corporate culture of fear.
“Do not quench the Spirit and do not restrain inspired messages,” wrote Paul in one of his earliest letters to the Thessalonians.(l2) I wondered if the school administrators were aware that their suppression of even the mere threat of controversy could sow the seeds of disillusion in the hearts and minds of these young people. These and other experiences with young people led me to the conclusion that they feel themselves to be very much on the margins of the Church, but it is from these margins that future insights into the gospel will flow.
The Spirit is speaking at the margins in our time, in a diversity of tongues and through subversive narratives. This is leading to a deconstruction of patriarchal Church structures by the reading of Scripture through the eyes of those who have not been considered reliable interpreters of the Word of God—women, the poor, and non-whites, for example. These new movemeets catch the energy and imagination of the emerging generation of believers who are open to a rearticulation of Christian tradition. They engage the historical memories of disadvantaged groups and so revitalize and infuse the Christian tradition with new insights under the guidance of the ever-present and ever-creative Spirit of God.
The past fifty years have seen a massive shift in the Christian world toward theology, liturgy, and history from the perspective of the disadvantaged. The Latin American Church was the first to put into practice the insights of Vatican II. A revolutionary theology of the “preferential option for the poor” was articulated at the Latin American bishops’ conferences at Medellin (1968) and Puebla (1979) The 1970s and early 80s saw a flowering of liberation theology from the perspective of the poor in Latin America. This Church of the Poor in Latin America continues to be baptized with the blood of martyrs: mostly lay women and men, some priests, and now two bishops, Oscar Romero of El Salvador in1980 and Juan Girardi of Guatemala in 1998.
At the heart of liberation theology is Jesus’ preaching of the coming of the Reign of God. The inbreaking of the Reign of God occurs at moments of conversion of individuals and structures away from the delusion of selfishness and toward the communal ethic expressed in the Beatitudes. The Reign of God does not wait for Heaven but is something concrete, to be realized in the here and now. Jesus showed humanity a way to live as if God reigned. Indeed, the heart of the gospel message lies within the preferential option for the poor that Jesus lived out. This does not imply that God dislikes the rich, but rather that those who follow Jesus are called to live as he did, in solidarity with the poor.
This call to solidarity with the marginalized is a call to conversion, a conversion that is both personal and collective. The theology of liberation includes a transformation of the notion of sin beyond the personal to the social. There is a structural element to the personal oppression suffered by the poor. European colonialism, for example, led to the destruction of the indigenous cultures of Latin America and the appropriation of its resources by dominant nations such as Spain, Portugal, and, in more recent times, the United States. Liberation theology unmasks the system of colonialism and the part played by Christianity in the oppression of indigenous peoples. It calls the Catholic Church to account for its part in supporting the conquest of that continent by Europeans, whose main goal was the acquisition of wealth and slaves, with forced baptism as part of the agreement between Church and State.
Liberation theology calls in question the notion that any individual Christian, or the Church collectively, can follow the gospel and remain politically or socially neutral. This call to participate actively in transforming the structures of society in favor of the poor is one that echoes the social teaching of the Catholic Church over the past hundred years. It is one which continues to encounter fierce resistance from conservative Christians, who prefer that the Church should focus on individual sexual morality rather than on corporate social ethics. Despite this resistance, a renewed Church of the Poor and the Latin American base communities dedicated to living the preferential option for the poor have spread like the fire of a new Pentecost in the aftermath of Vatican II.
The analysis of colonialism on the Latin American continent also brought under scrutiny the contemporary politics of the Vatican. At the time of Archbishop Romero’s assassination, the Vatican was embarking on an alliance with the conservative Republican governments of Ronald Reagan and George Bush. As already mentioned in Chapter 5, the Catholic Church was restored to power in Poland in exchange for Vatican acquiescence to the U.S.-backed supression of the liberation movement in Latin America, and the discrediting of liberation theology within the Church as a whole.(l3)
Despite this, the influence of liberation theology has by no means died out within the Catholic Church. Following its supression in South and Central America, liberation theology has attracted a broader audience worldwide. The question arises: if liberation theology preaches a message of freedom to the poor in the Southern Hemisphere, what is the call of the Spirit to the oppressors of the poor in the North? If liberation theology arises out of the experience of the poor, what are the repercussions of their experience for the wealthy, especially in those countries that continue to reap the rewards of colonialism in the South? What does it mean for a Church of the wealthy to live and act in solidarity with the poor? The simple answer is: to live as we are told the early Christian community did, “claiming no possession as their own, but holding all in common.”(14)
Jesus’ phrase, “Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,”(15), has often been used as an excuse for the Church not to do anything to combat the misery of the poor here on earth. But liberation theologians such as Gustavo Guttierez point out that neither Jesus nor the early Church promoted poverty as an ideal in and of itself, but instead formed a community whose ideal was to hold all goods in common so that there would be no poverty. “The meaning of the community of goods is clear: to eliminate poverty because of love for the poor person… only by rejecting poverty and making itself poor in order to protest against it can the Church preach something that is uniquely its own: ‘spiritual poverty,’ that is, the openness of humanity and history to the future promised by God.”(16)
Wealthy North Americans and Europeans need to hear a different kind of call to conversion than do the poor of Africa or Latin America: not one of liberation from the structures of oppression, but freedom from the stifling effects of greed and materialism. As I experienced in the course of my visit to Africa, the material poverty of the South unmasks the spiritual poverty of so much of what passes for religion in the North. The poor themselves are instruments of this call to conversion. As global capitalism has become more dominant in the1990s the insights of liberation theology have in turn become more timely and provocative than ever.
The central theme of the street retreats that I have led over the past two years is the call to today’s disciples to adopt the preferential option for the poor, not just by arm’s-length donations to charity, but by “walking humbly, acting justly, and showing a tender love”(17)toward those whom the rest of society so often marginalizes. Poverty in a rich society such as Canada is not only a physical burden but also an emotional one. The poor are hidden away, almost as if they have a shameful and contagious disease.
The street walks that we conduct in downtown Toronto provide students with the opportunity to consciously live out the gospel for one day in solidarity with the poor, to go to the kinds of places where Jesus would spend time if he were in a modern city, and to let the poor be their teachers on the streets. After the experience, which takes the form of small group walks or visits to places where the marginalized in society gather, we ask participants to identify how the Holy Spirit has spoken to them through their encounter with the poor. If they experienced any strong emotions such as shock, anger, or delight, we ask them to pray over these reactions to discern if they may be indications that God is calling them to do work for transformation in their own lives and communities.
I remember one particular group of students from a suburban high school who were walking with me in Parkdale, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Toronto. We went into one of the local drop-ins for homeless people, and I told the students to sit at separate tables and try to melt into the crowd. I noticed that not a single one of them went to get a cup of coffee, and they sat at the tables with their arms folded. When I raised these observations about body language with them at the de-briefing later, they told me that they were afraid to drink out of “their” cups or to let their bodies touch the tables, even though the homeless people had all been very welcoming. Though they did not put it quite so bluntly, it turned out that they were afraid of contamination by contact with the poor.
When I asked them to identify where the fear which led to the creation of such barriers between human beings resides, they replied, “Within us.” This led to a conversation about how the gospel calls us to renounce the prejudices inculcated in us by family, friends, and society. Through the life of Jesus, God challenges us to conversion and a recognition that the poor are actually our teachers in this process. The shame and uncleanness which the powers that be would have us believe resides in the poor actually comes from within ourselves. As Jesus said, “It is not what goes into your mouth from the cup outside that makes you unclean but the hatred and deceit which comes out of your own heart.”(18)
To sit at a table with the homeless and share a cup of coffee from a common coffee urn becomes a small but significant act of solidarity with the poor. It demands that we allow God to break through our defences to let the message of the gospel shake us out of complacency. Young people do not necessarily need to go to Latin America to experience the profound impact of adopting the option for the poor. Sadly, the opportunities are right here in our own backyard. In this way, the Churches of the North can become places where youth and adults work together toward a more just society.
On many occasions I have witnessed the grace of God at work on the streets of the city and in the lives of young people who are open to Vatican II’s call to interpret the gospel in the light of contemporary society. This is often a painful process. Their spontaneous reactions to direct encounters with the poor can bring students face to face with Jesus’ challenge that the fire he brought to earth “will divide fathers against sons, mothers against daughters.”(l9) A simple invitation to drink a cup of coffee in solidarity with the poor can also bring home the cost of Jesus’ invitation to encounter him in the poor.
During the bitterly cold Canadian winter, some churches in Toronto have become part of the Out of the Cold movement. Volunteers undertake to provide food and warmth during the day to the increasing number of poor and homeless people out on the streets. Students on street walks will often help other volunteers to prepare and serve these meals. Sometimes we invite a few students to participate in the much more challenging experience of being on the receiving end of this charity and to actually line up incognito with the poor and eat lunch with them.
One day I was particularly struck by a girl’s reaction after she and a friend had gone through the experience of lining up for an Out of the Cold lunch. She described in detail the conversations she had had with people (“I never knew that these people were so normal”), but then she suddenly became crestfallen. “You know,” she said, “I don’t think I’ll be able to tell my mother what I did today. She would be in total shock.” She pondered and prayed during the rest of the afternoon. Would she have the courage to continue the process she had begun, of seeing life in solidarity with the poor if this meant confronting some of the prejudices within her own family?
On another occasion I was trying to persuade the group of students I was with to buy lunch at a local café, but they balked at this and eventually, after a long search, found the one pizza franchise in the neighborhood. This search in itself was enlightening. When I asked the young people why it was that none of the familiar fast-food chains was readily available there, they realized that it was because none of these corporations thought that such a poor neighborhood was worth investing in. The tiny corner pizza outlet felt safe to them because it was closest to their experience of the shopping mall. I stayed outside while they ate inside in silence, all six of them squashed into a booth designed for four.
An old and destitute woman, a garbage bag slung over one shoulder, went into the pizza shop. She laboriously counted out some coins and then stuffed the slice of pizza she had bought into the garbage bag. As she came out, I approached her and asked if she was all right. She looked at me and nodded. She had a gnarled face with no teeth, framed by lank strands of mousy hair. She wore a blue polyester top which was undone, apart from one button, exposing her cleavage and a rolling belly underneath. I asked her if she would like a drink. “Oh yes, please,” she replied. I went into the store and came out with a can of Sprite, which I gave her. She reached into the garbage bag and took out the pizza. “Here, take half,” she said, and held it out to me. I took it, and we ate side by side. I asked her name. “Lois,” she replied, and I told her mine. Then we shook hands solemnly and she shuffled away.
The students had watched everything through the window. “Do you know why I did that?” I asked them afterward. They shook their heads. “Well, when I saw Lois go in there, I said to myself: There goes Jesus in disguise. And sure enough, like Jesus on the road to Emmaus, she broke bread with me.”
“That woman would never have been allowed inside our local shopping mall,” one of them remarked.
“Would Jesus be welcome there, I wonder?” added another.
On other walks, we challenge students to examine the corporate values of consumerism that dominate so much of their lives. First, we study the labor practices and environmental ethics of some of the big-name brands. Then we invite them to go into the stores to examine the manufacturers’ labels and ask questions of the sales staff about the labor and environmental codes of those companies. Before they go out, the students practice by reading the labels on each other’s clothes. This exercise in analyzing some of the values of the multi-billion-dollar clothing industry can cause students to conclude that the clothes they wear come to them at the price of abusive labor practices. It is the kind of shock that Jesus gave people when he overturned the tables of moneychangers in the temple.
We encourage students not to throw up their hands in despair at this discovery but to begin to work to overturn the abuses of global capitalism by using their own power as consumers. Youth are the number-one target of manufacturers eager to capture and hold the loyalty of future buyers. Most students, once they are enlightened, are eager to see how they can use that power to work for a better world. The reactions of sales staff in clothing stores to direct questioning by students about the labor practices of their suppliers is often telling. Students will come back with statements like “They seemed so threatened by us” or “They were really rude.” These reactions are indications to young people of their potential power to effect change on behalf of the poor.
We also send students, two by two like the first disciples, into the head offices of the big banks in the downtown core. As often as not, on the way into the bank they will have encountered a homeless person begging by the door. Once inside, they will ask about loan policies for youth. Then they will pose a question such as: “If a poor or homeless person came in and asked you for money or a loan, what would you do?” Responses from bank staff will vary from shock and disbelief to outright ridicule. “But surely you are making enormous profits,” the students will respond, with all the innocence of doves. “Why can’t your branch spare the odd five dollars for lunch for a homeless person on your doorstep?”
On their return, the students read the parable of Dives and Lazarus. It hits home, but they do not descend into mere guilt or helplessness. They have experienced firsthand how they can act as advocates for the poor in the halls and chambers of commerce. Many will have future aspirations to study law or business. Use your talents to the full, we tell them, and equip yourself to be a strong and credible voice for the voiceless in the corridors of power. This is one of the differences that having a Catholic education could mean when you get to university or college.
For many of these young people, this will be their first experience of the cost of what it means to be, as the theologian Gustavo Guttierez describes it, in solidarity with Jesus as revealed in the poor. “In the humiliation of Christ, his kenosis, he does not take on the human sinful condition and its consequences to idealize it. It is rather because of love for and solidarity with others who suffer in it… it is to struggle against human selfishness and everything that divides persons and allows that there be rich and poor, possessors and dispossessed, oppressors and oppressed.”(20) For some students, a street walk will be a one-time experience, but for others it will sow the seeds of a lifetime’s orientation to the gospel. Hard-hitting though many of these experiences are for students, they are nonetheless truly an example of the Spirit of God moving in the hearts and minds of this generation no less than in previous times.
Feminist theology, which interprets theology from the perspective of women, is another voice of the Spirit speaking to the Churches in our time. Previous chapters in this book have outlined some of the dimensions and dynamics of feminist analysis, and traced the intense war against the recognition of an equal place for women within the Catholic Church which has been waged during the pontificate of John Paul II. The will to persevere in this struggle has been strengthened by the groundbreaking work of feminist theologians who are reclaiming and articulating what are often ancient but hitherto hidden or censored facets of the truth.
A brief survey of the hope that feminist theology has inspired within my own life cannot do justice to more than a few of the treasures I have discovered. The recognition and honoring of the God beyond gender is certainly a central insight. The reinterpretation of biblical texts and the recovery of hidden or neglected Church traditions have played a major role as well.
One such treasure has been the recovery and reassessment of the biblical figure of Sophia, who appears late in the Hebrew Scriptures in the Book of Wisdom. The scriptural legacy of Sophia remains one of the most tantalizing mysteries recovered by scholars who are mining the treasury of the Scriptures today. Sophia is described as the companion of the Creator at the moment of Creation and the guiding spirit at key moments of Hebrew history such as the Exodus. She appears in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, where Christ is named as the “Sophie of God.”’’ This elusive feminine metaphor of divine presence and action is portrayed in ways which highlight connectedness as contrasted with the dualistic transcendence of the patriarchal tradition. Sophia in the Book of Wisdom is the feminine spirit whose creative power was present within God from the beginning. She represents insight and discernment, but is also playful and free, not bound within the constraints of a nurturing or motherly role.
This and other contemporary insights into the neglected feminine presence of God in the Scriptures has been complemented by the study of the history of women in the Church and the unique contribution they have made. One example of this is the rediscovery of the women saints and prophets who have gone before us like a cloud of witnesses, and in whose memory we can strive toward the goal of a transformed creation. The history of women saints has been colored by patriarchal revisionism—the early martyr Perpetua, for example, who nursed her baby son in prison, appears later in the Church’s calendar as a Virgin—but the miracle is that such a strong and diverse witness to women’s holiness has survived in the Church’s memory at all.
The rediscovery of this suppressed history has been an incentive to women in all Churches to struggle toward a greater contemporary recognition of their gifts. This is beginning to spill over into the consciousness of Catholic girls. As described in Chapter 2, the cult of the submissive and asexual virgin Mary has long been a hallmark of the patriarchal Church and was revived under John Paul II. But Catholic girls today reject this meek and mild Mary.
I remember one group of students who had come to a retreat at the Centre for Justice, Peace and Creation and had visited a refugee intake shelter. They were using Matthew’s story of the flight of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph into Egypt as the lead-in to their presentation. I have scripted a version of this story in a contemporary setting which portrays the Holy Family arriving at Pearson International Airport and claiming refugee status in Canada. The role of Mary is one of a wife and mother pleading for a new opportunity for her family. She is quite deferential toward the authorities. The girl who played Mary on this particular occasion introduced subtle changes in the text so that her Mary was more assertive and demanding. When I commented on this afterwards, she replied, “This Mary has brass knuckles!”
“Mary with brass knuckles” is an image I have often meditated on since then. That young girl, who may have herself come from a refugee family, articulated the gospel using a metaphor that captured the image of Mary for her generation. Uninhibited by the constraint of generations of patriarchal interpretation, she had illumined the gospel story with startlingly fresh insight. Here was the playful but profound spirit of Sophia moving over the waters, bringing new life to a familiar story. If we adults could put aside our need for control and instead open ourselves to trust in the Spirit of God, we would see that young people are indeed engaged in the process of reinterpreting the gospel for their generation.
The impact of feminist thought and theology has been what some theologians describe as a kairos moment in the lives of young Catholics today. Kairos means a moment of crisis in which there is both challenge and opportunity. Some of the street walks organized by the Centre for Justice, Peace and Creation around issues of gender and power have had just this effect. The Centre is located on the edge of what is locally known as the gay district, the strip of Church Street in downtown Toronto which runs south from Bloor Street to College. We use the opportunities presented by this proximity to raise issues of homophobia and gender relationships which are so central in the lives of young people. The “gender-bender walk,” as the leaders call it, has become an occasion for some powerful moments of conversion.
It is quite fascinating to see the role reversals that take place when a mixed group of youth takes a walk into the heart of the gay district. Often a young man will grab the arm of one or even two young women. Why? “To protect myself ” will be the response. I have never witnessed a single threatening gesture directed toward these students from anyone in the gay community, but because sizing up and rating the potential attractiveness of young women is so much a part of adolescent male culture, the young men assume that they will be the target of similar ogling on the part of gay men. “How does this make you feel?” we will ask them. “Like a piece of meat,” they answer. Then we turn to the young women: “What’s your response to that?” “Now they know how we feel twenty-four hours of the day,” they will reply.
As part of this walk, we invite students to sit and drink a coffee in the Second Cup, a coffee shop in the heart of the gay district. Occasionally one or more will refuse to even go inside. “Where do you think Jesus would be? Who did Jesus identify with, and what does that mean for us today?” we ask them. The experience of being in a minority, and what they perceive as a threatened minority, can provide a powerful opportunity for the unmasking of the ugly face of domination which hides behind gender relationships. Fear of the feminine often also results in intense homophobia among adolescent males. I remember one casual though very dramatic incident which brought this into the open.
One day a group of students was sitting somewhat nervously drinking coffee in the Second Cup on Church Street when one young man said, “Can you believe we’re actually in a gay bar?” To which another replied, “Oh, don’t be such a fag!” A moment of shocked silence was all it took for the group to realize the context in which they were using this offensive term, one which has become a common put-down in adolescent culture today. The students expected a reaction, retribution even. They were, after all, in the minority in what was unknown and perhaps hostile territory for them. A gay couple at the next table rolled their eyes, but no one returned the insult.
As they related this incident to the rest of the group later that afternoon, one of the young men broke down in tears. “This has made me realize just how much homophobia is all around me… in my house, my community, my school. My father told me he would throw me out of the house if I even got an earring,” he said. “People at school call each other fag or dyke all the time. Next time I hear it, I’m going to say something.” His confession and tears of repentance were followed by several minutes of silence. This was a sacramental moment, where the presence of God was palpable.
And what was the vehicle God used for this inpouring of grace? A community of gay men. Their nonviolent reaction to insult was a key element in this moment of conversion for the students. If the gay men had reacted with a return of insults or an exchange of threats, the likelihood is that this would have reinforced the homophobia of the students. Instead, their nonviolent response to evil reduced it to impotence. It struck me again that if Christianity could revert once more to its peripatetic and provocative roots—the Pilgrim People of God—it would be a powerful antidote to the watered-down version of the gospel preached in so many Churches today.
The movement that looks at theology and spirituality from the perspective of the earth itself is the most recent work of the Spirit within the Churches, although its roots are perhaps the most ancient. It has arisen from a variety of sources and, like the other two movements of the Spirit outlined above, it is still in the process of evolution.
There are two fundamental orientations within which creation theology, as it is known, places the revelation of the divine. First, that the initial revelation of God in the Scriptures is through moments of original blessing (Creation) and liberation (Exodus). This presents a significant shift from Christian spirituality, which has traditionally been oriented along a Sin-Fall-Redemption axis. Secondly, creation theology emphasizes the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life, including animal, plant, and inanimate life.
In 1907, the historian Lynn White wrote an article in Science titled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.”(22) White had worked in Sri Lanka, and was prompted to write the article by his observations of the contrast between Buddhist and Christian approaches to the relationship between nature and technology. Christianity had always operated under assumptions of a hierarchical separation of humanity and nature, with the latter being regarded as soul-less and therefore inferior. In the commonly accepted Judeo-Christian interpretation of Genesis, God places all creation at the disposal of humanity. In contrast, Buddhism views all life as interdependent. White cites examples where, in Buddhist culture, the demands of technological progress are considered secondary to the rhythms of nature. On one occasion, for example, he witnessed a delay in the completion of roadwork in Sri Lanka to accommodate the passage of a colony of snakes.
The controversy provoked by articles such as these, coupled with the pressing need to respond to the deepening global ecological crisis, have caused a re-examination and re-evaluation of the androcentric nature of Christian beliefs and ethics. The biblical injunction in the Book of Genesis to “subdue the earth” has often been used as a license for unbridled exploitation of the earth’s resources in the name of a humanity exalted by God over and above creation.
While creation-centered theology has unmasked some of these delusions, it has also uncovered alternative voices within the Judeo-Christian tradition. The biblical figure of Sophia, the creative and playful energy of God present at moments of creation and liberation, provides a link between liberation, feminist, and creation-centered theology. So much of the imagery of the teaching of Jesus is also rooted in the earth: seeds, flowers, trees, birds, weather—all are vehicles for the revelation of God. As a healer, Jesus used physical touch and had an intuitive grasp of the connection between mind, body, and spirit. Jesus challenged those who would hoard or squander the goods of the earth: its riches are not to be exploited or sold for exorbitant profits but are to be used sparingly and held in common.
The ethic of environmental conservation is a contemporary expression of the ancient Christian practice of asceticism. One of the challenges we place before groups on street walks is to forgo the usual fast-food diet and go out into downtown Toronto in search of a vegetarian restaurant. If they are open to it, we suggest that they begin to raise questions about the food supplied in their school cafeteria, the disposal of waste, the use of paper, and other myriad ways of befriending creation within their own contexts.
In one way or another, all three developments in contemporary theology and spirituality have challenged some of the presumptions of patriarchal religion. In my experience, all three provide rich means of preaching the gospel in the language of today’s society.
The spirit of the gospel must be caught, not taught in a vacuum. While many teachers in Catholic schools dread being assigned to teach religion, I revel in it. Too often, students are presented with an arid truths culled from the pages of a catechism, with no context or meaning in their own lives, and couched in language that is unreachable and unrecognizable. They are forbidden to question or open up any debate. Then they are told to go and put the gospel into practice.
This is so contrary to the way Jesus taught, and it is crucial to remember that the one title Jesus preferred was “teacher.” Jesus took hold of life, and only then started to ask questions and teach about it. His teaching arose out of real life stories and situations, not vice versa. By contrast, the present rulers of the Church expect real life to fit what is set out in preordained and eternally unchanging text. True joy, exuberance, and creativity have been stifled in favor of a stuffy pomposity and contrived celebration. The fierce feminine spirit of Sophia has been fenced into carefully guarded areas labeled chastity, motherhood, and meekness, while the Vatican’s response to the spiritual yearnings of our age has been to constrain the Catholic people within a “ Universal Catechism.”
This present period of repression in the Catholic Church may yet bear fruit at a much deeper level. The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s seemed to open the way for the Catholic Church to renew and transform itself into a means of transmitting the message of God’s love within the contemporary world. Yet looking back from the vantage of some thirty five years since the Council ended, we can see that in some ways the changes introduced by the Council were too easily adopted and the language of aggiornamento (bringing the Church up to date) was too superficial. The Second Vatican Council was only the beginning of what has become a seismic shift in outlook and priorities at the foundation of the Catholic Church. Also, at that time the new work of the Spirit in the Church and in the world had not yet been tested and strengthened in the fire of opposition.
Many Catholics who began to implement the work of the Council with joy and enthusiasm, and who sought to carry forward and develop the impetus toward renewal, have been forced into exile during the papacy of John Paul II. Still, the latter half of the twentieth century, since the end of the Second World War, has witnessed an enormous outpouring of the Spirit of God into the modern world. This is too fiery, fierce, and feminine to be contained within the boundaries set by the excommunicators and inquisitors of the present Vatican. God has new revelations for her people which transcend even the scope of the Second Vatican Council. Catholics who experienced the changes in the way the Mass was celebrated which followed immediately in the wake of the Council did not realize at the time that changing the altar around to face the people was just the harbinger of radical upheavals in the way the Church understood itself and its mission.
Catholics in exile have found that the God of life has accompanied us on our pilgrim way, though we have often lacked the confidence to articulate this intuition. The living God has deserted the temple in Rome and pitched a tent once more with the people in exile. This Church of the People must travel light, and tread with care upon the earth. It will not look for the living God in houses of stone or golden tabernacles, but deep within the pulse of the life of the planet. The Catholic Church cannot return to its former worship of power. In this time of transition, Catholics in exile need not become fixated on rebellion or submission but can confidently move forward to complete the process of renewal begun by Vatican II, and so grow into full stature as adult believers. The anger that so many have felt at the reversals of the Council’s insights during the pontificate of John Paul II has given birth to new signs of courage and hope.
Increasing numbers of Catholics are creating and discovering new life in small faith communities, and building alternatives outside the walls of the temple. These small faith communities are both autonomous and connected, as well as inclusive and ecumenical. This movement is now beyond the control of the Vatican; its authority comes directly from the Spirit and does not seek the blessing of a centralized power.
New developments have emerged within these small faith communities. One is the naming and celebrating of the feminine in God; another is the emphasis on social justice; and the third is the reaching across denominational boundaries toward the worldwide movement of Christians who are beginning to define themselves by what unites them rather than what divides. A new Christian Church “from below” is in the making, and its dimensions reach beyond the boundaries of denomination. God’s Spirit is being dispersed in our age in a new Pentecost, similar to the first one. The gifts of the first Pentecost came without strings labeled “gender” or “race” or “class.” Following in the footsteps of Jesus, men and women, married couples, single people, Jews and gentiles, set out in the footsteps of Jesus to risk their lives to break new ground under the shadow of empire and temple.
In the very earliest days of the Church, Priscilla and Aquila, friends of Paul in Rome, were a married couple united in ministry. There is no record that they asked permission to serve the Church in that capacity— they just did it. The apostle Philip baptized a non-Jewish Ethiopian without permission, but he checked in with the community after the fact. Lydia ran her own household church. Phoebe traveled and preached as an apostle. The early Church was unencumbered by prejudices around gender or material assets. Catholics now must act with the same confidence. The Church is being renewed again at its very foundations by a faith nurtured by the compassion which results from becoming directly involved with the marginalized in society.
The key to the discovery of the Spirit of God at work in our age is to walk the earth, as Jesus and the earliest Christians did, among its most marginalized peoples and creatures. It is there that we will hear the voice of the Spirit speaking “from below.” The way forward—especially for those of us who in one way or another have been banished from the hierarchies of power bestowed by race, gender, or class—lies in acknowledging our personal and collective darkness and uncertainty and in total reliance on the grace of God. We must learn to make a home for the darkness within ourselves and our institutions, not to wallow in victimhood but to be aware of our ongoing need for personal and collective conversion. This is especially hard for Catholics, raised as we have been for centuries in a system of hierarchical power and certitude.
In August 1995, I spent a week on a pilgrimage that had been organized to mark the fiftieth year since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Participants from many faiths and from all across North America, some from beyond, gathered at the University of Nevada on the outskirts of Las Vegas. After some days of study, discussion, and prayer, we prepared to travel to the site of the U.S. nuclear testing range, still restricted by the military, deep in the Nevada desert, for a commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary. This day was to weave many threads of my past experience and my hopes for the future into a rich tapestry of courage and hope.
We gathered before dawn on the grounds of the university. A Buddhist monk tolled a bell which had been cast from the remains of used and unused bombs taken from B-52 bombers. Similar bells had tolled in 1945 as the Japanese survivors of the atomic blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki searched for the remains of bodies; the bell had summoned them to mindfulness as they went about their gruesome task. Then a fire was lit, and two members of the Shishone tribe, on whose ancient lands the test sites are located, began to sound a drumbeat which was a call to prayer and dance. As they danced a circle around the fire, the Shishone chief sang out a prayer, a prayer for the rocks, the rivers, the plants, and the sun. Gradually the sky lightened, and a fire lit up the rim of the clouds to the east. The sky turned from green to pink, then orange and yellow, and the blinding edge of the sun rose from behind the clouds. The fire we had built was extinguished.
We traveled for over an hour, deeper and deeper into the desert and into the silence. Only the mountains kept vigil over our journey. Once we arrived at the test site, the service began. An altar had been set up at the barbed-wire fence which surrounds the test site. A procession of dancers blessed the altar and laid garlands of origami cranes, symbols of the post Hiroshima dream of peace, all along the wire fence. A male and a female rabbi came to the altar and together began a great lament. A lament for the two thousand years since the burning of the Temple in Jerusalem, and for the fifty years since the Holocaust. They brought prayers written by Jewish children in Israel to be burned here, at what they called “the Wailing Wall of the West.”
I started to weep as I listened to these ancient melodies and gazed out onto the scorched circles etched by the bomb blasts into the desert terrain. I remembered my uncle Frank, killed during the Second World War. I thought of Grace, of Assumpta, and other men and women at Anne Frank House, victims of contemporary violence and wars. I felt the sheer vastness of the blue sky: not a cloud, not a whisper of an airplane. The highway, too, was silent. Only the wind carried the sound of our prayer and anguish. The Christian chant “Veni Sancte Spiritus” began, again accompanied by a most beautiful dance. We raised our hands in invocation to the Spirit of God to bring fire once more into our hearts.
Then Bishop Leontine, one of the first black female bishops ordained in the Methodist Church in the United States, rose to speak. Her words indeed brought fire to our hearts. She spoke of visiting U.S. Army bases and talking to black recruits there. They spoke to her of their good life in the military of health care and education for their children, who, in their words, “would otherwise be diseased, drugged, or dead.” But the irony was that these black soldiers risked their lives for a democracy which at home denies them basic human rights. She spoke of Martin Luther King, and as her great golden episcopal robe billowed behind her in the wind, she began to chant the song “We Shall Overcome.” She reminded us of how that same song had been sung in German at the fall of the Berlin Wall, in Mandarin at Tiananmen Square, in Czech as the city of Prague was liberated, and in English in South Africa as Nelson Mandela walked out of jail.
This woman afire with hope in the midst of despair inspired us to link arms and march to the entrance of the test site, led by the Shishone drummers and singing “We Shall Overcome.” We formed a huge circle at the entrance and then, in small groups, some of us went through the barrier to be arrested and placed in holding pens in the desert. I went back to the fence to touch the origami cranes. In the deep desert silence, I thought of the shattering of the earth below and on the surface by the terrible rage of the bomb.
On the way home from the test site, we saw a sign, “Women’s Temple,” and decided to investigate. A stone pathway bordered by green plants led to a small clearing in which there was a cream-colored adobe building, open at the roof and on all four sides. A woman came out to welcome us, as though we had been expected. She laid out a soup made of blackberries and different fruits, cups of cider and plates of sponge cakes. She introduced herself as the guardian of the temple. The Women’s Temple had been constructed a few years earlier by a woman who had been unable to bear children. She had prayed to the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet, and became pregnant not just once, but three times. Three daughters were born. In thanksgiving, she had bought twenty-two acres of land near the test site and returned it to the Shishone, having secured their permission to construct the temple.
Inside the temple were four large statues in the corner niches. Two were from Latin America, the Madre del Mundo and Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Egyptian goddess Sekhmet and Aphrodite filled the other two niches. A small statue of Artemis stood at the doorway. I sat in silence for a while. The dome above was a perfect circle open to the sky. Inside the temple it was peaceful and shady. I felt a powerful and strengthening presence, beyond categorization or description. “O Sacred One,” I prayed, “lift me up to you.” At that moment, I knew that the feminine divine presence which I could feel within that sacred place would heal our world, shattered as it was by war, racism, sexism, and environmental destruction. All my experience of God, illuminated by the personal and political events of my life, came together in that still point in the desert. The utter sacredness and all-consuming love of God can somehow accept ambiguities. A dualistic world in which male and female, black and white, rich and poor, nature and humanity are held to be mutually exclusive and irreconcilable opposites is false to the nature of God. The Sacred One is beyond gender: “neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, rich nor poor,”(23) but in both and all at the same time—in glorious diversity.
It has been my experience, over fifty-something years of life, that I have found God present in new and unexpected ways whenever I have exhausted the resources of whatever outer and inner strength I could summon of my own volition and let myself fall into the arms of God. This was my early experience of descending into a dark well during the Spiritual Exercises and, on a more recent occasion, in the silence of the Nevada desert. As all mystics have experienced, God is reached and reaches out from darkness: God is found in obscurity, in the struggles of faith and the dark nights of hope. The rich ambiguity of the mystic and the fierce fire of the prophet are the most reliable guides for the future. We must watch and pray in order to be ready when the moments of breakdown and then breakthrough appear.
My dog and I still walk in the park at the dawn of each day. Women still sit in the early morning light on the steps of the shelter at Dundas and Bathurst. These are survivors who have endured long nights of terror and abuse, and are now living in exile from home and family. Their struggle to cling to life and sanity has inspired me to persevere and to complete this book. Theirs is the true courage and sheer tenacity that has kept me clinging to the hope for a better future for women in the Catholic Church and in the world. The Sacred One who moved a great stone from the entrance to the tomb and sent women out into the Easter dawn can yet change stony hearts into hearts of flesh. For all women, whoever and wherever we are, this long time of exile will come to an end.
Que es la tenebrosa nube
Que a la noche esclarecia
How dark is the cloud
Which lights up the night
—St.John of the Cross (Juan de la Cruz)
Stanzas Concerning an Ecstasy of Experience
in High Contemplation, 1584 (24).
See the review of Is the Pope Catholic?
1. 2 Corinthians 4:7.
2. Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes, par. 19.
3. Robin Briggs, Witches and Neighbors: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witcheraft (New York: Viking, 1996), p. 259.
4. Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), p. 3.
5. Ibid., p. 5.
6. Ibid., p. 164.
7. Walter Wink, Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, (986), p. 78.
8. Bernstein and Politi, His Holiness, p.509.
9. Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers, p.98.
10. Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman (New York: Continuum, 1988), pp. 104 – 113. “Conscientization refers to learning to perceive social, political and economic contradictions, and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality.” (Translator’s note, p. 19).
11. Ibid., pp. 57- 65.
12. 1 Thessalonians 5;19
13. Carl Bernstein, “The Holy Alliance,” Time (February 24, 1992), pp. 14—21.
14 Acts 2:45.
15. Luke 6:20.
16. Gustavo Guttierez, A Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988; revised edition), p. 173.
17. Micah 6:8.
18. Matthew 15:16.
19. Luke 12:50-53.
20. Guttierez, A Theology of Liberation, p.172.
2l. l Corinthians l:22.
22. Lynn White, “The Religious Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155 (1967), pp. 1,203 – 1,207.
23. Galatians 3:28.
24. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross (Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1979), p. 719.
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