Saturday, October 24, 2015

The walls begin to crumble. A book review of "Catholic Women Speak"

Catholic Women Speak - Bringing Our Gifts to the Table
Edited by the Catholic Women Speak Network
Paulist Press, 2015

For anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

-Ephesians 5:14

This is a remarkable, yet too often unremarked, thing about almost two millennia of history and scholarship within and without the church. Women, as subjects, as persons in their own right, are mainly invisible. . . [F]or Christians, feminism confronts us not with an ideology but with the more tangible and urgent issue of standpoint. The gift that feminism has given us is not a new set of rules but an enhanced capacity for men to know what it is like to stand in a woman’s place, to know more about what it is like to be a woman, to see women. Feminism pulls our recalcitrant hands away from our eyes and insists that we see women—real, enfleshed, breathing, hungering, thinking, feeling, loving women who are imprisoned within the structures of male power, structures both visible and invisible. Feminism calls on us to recognize real women beyond our concupiscent imaginations and outside the vast symbolic universe of that male power. As a body of work by and for women, feminism has taken the fist step by standing where women stand to look at a world that men command; and the view is astonishingly different.

from the Preface, Borderline
When I wrote that book, I wrote as a Catholic man, calling myself and other Christian men to repentance (to "turn around"). The irony, I suppose, is that I myself am incapable of providing the firsthand account of the standpoints of women. The good news is that there is a new book, by forty-four Catholic women (and one man), from around the world and many walks of life, that does exactly that.

Assembled almost on the run, with a generous fast-track assist from Paulist Press to be published in time for the 2015 Synod on the Family, Catholic Women Speak provides forty short, pithy, thoughtful reflections on precisely those concerns that are being ostensibly addressed by the Synod: sex, marriage, family. That skeptical qualifier "ostensibly" refers to the fact that voting members of the Synod are 279 males, with only 30 women as non-voting "auditors." And so this book stands (Hier steh ich?) outside the door of the Synod as a testament to those who are not at the table. All these many years, now, with a body of men, surrounded by other men, citing an ancient pagan Greek man's version of "natural law," explaining to women what it means to be a woman - a kind of two-millennia of mansplaining

I won't spoil the book by detailing each of the remarkable midrashes in this book or their specific subject matter; but we can do a fly-over.

In Jesuit Father Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator's Foreward, he writes:
In every voice there is a story.  And every story is unique. The narratives voiced by contributors to this anthology are at times joyful and jolting, consoling and painful, exhilarating and exasperating. They tell of the 'joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties' that Catholic women live and experience in multiple forms of human sexuality, family, marriage, and relationships. They lament the painful exclusion, violence, and poverty that compound these experiences, and question the institutions and structures that sustain them, but without abandoning faith and hope - that each story will be heard, received, and affirmed, with compassion, mercy, and humility.

The reflections in this book are divided, following Fr. Orobator's introduction, into four parts:  (1) Traditions and Transformations, (2) Marriage, Family, and Relationships, (3) Poverty, Exclusion, and Marginalization, and (4) Institutions and Structures.

The contributors are, in addition to Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, are Sr. Anne Arabome, Olive Barnes, Tina Beattie, Amelia Beck (nom de plume), Pippa Bonner, Agnes M. Brazal, Lisa Sowell Cahill, Anna Cannon, Catherine Cavanaugh, Julie Clague, Rachel Espinoza, Margaret Farley, Madeleine Fredell, Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, Cristina Lledo Gomez, Sr. Janette Gray, Katie Grimes, Nontando Habede, Ursula Halligan, Emma Jane Harris, Tawny Horner, Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, Alison Concannon Kennedy, Ursula King, Sr. Trish Madigan, Sara Maitland, Cettina Miletello, Rhonda Miska, Sr. Mary Aquin O'Neill, Jean Porter, Carolina Del Río, Lucetta Scaraffia, Christine Schenk, Giovanna Solari-Masson, Janet Martin Soskice, Sophie StanesPatricia Stoat, Ana Lourdes Suárez, Eve Tushnet, Clare Watkins, Margaret Watson, Deborah Woodman, and Sr. Gabriela Zengarini.

The pieces in this anthology are quite short, ranging from two to five pages, making it ideal in many ways for small group book studies. (hint hint) The language is generally accessible, though there are frequent abbreviated references to various Church documents. The editors, however, have thoughtfully included an index of those abbreviations just after the Introduction.

In the part 1 Traditions and Transformations Introduction it states:
The last half century has seen a global revolution in the self-understanding of women, a dramatic change that poses many challenges to historical institutions, cultures, and religions.The Catholic Church has played a major role in the empowerment of women through education, and it remains a provider of health care to poor women and girls. Nevertheless, women are still subordinate to men in all the Church's institutions and structures.

This diplomatic tone is maintained throughout the book by all the authors.  This does not mean the content is evasive. As Ursula King pointedly writes, "Will Catholic women ever be fully recognized? Will they be encouraged to make their full contribution to the intellectual life of the Church and, more importantly still, will women become real coequals and copartners in shaping the Catholic intellectual tradition? That is what will count in the end."

In a sense, she and the other contributors to this volume answer that question.  Rather than wait another thousand or so years for powerful church men to willingly abandon their shifting rationalizations for male dominance, and eschew that power themselves in the likeness of Christ, these women are entering the spaces created (thankfully) by the fall of Christendom - a system of power that was always self-consciously male-dominant - and engaging those intellectual traditions.  Sometimes, with support.  More often, against resistance.  But that horse will never go back into the barn.

This is the hope that this book gives me, not merely in its publication, but in its intentional timing. It is holding a mirror up the male power structure within the church precisely when, in every other field, the new Pope is calling the Church to repentance for its unseemly and oftentimes corrupt alliances with power. The retrenched position of patriarchal apologists has been to criticize the flaws of liberalism (a critique I enthusiastically share), and then to put an equal sign between liberalism and feminism. This is a cynical and sly fallacy. Many of the contributors to this book are fluent in Thomism and other Catholic philosophical traditions, and they show clearly that this language can be wielded against male domination, as soon as we abandon the discredited Aristotelian excuses for male power that are stilled tucked away within the larger concept of "natural law." As many feminists have shown, as and many contributors to this book show again, one can demonstrate the errors in patriarchal intellectual traditions without resort to liberal categories. Moreover, there are abundant feminist critiques of liberalism - inside and outside the Church - that show liberalism itself to be yet another masculinist (and warlike) epoch.

Julie Clague, in her "Views from the Pews" essay in this book, quotes Sensus Fidei, a document published by the Vatican's International Theological Comission in 2014:
Problems arise when the majority of the faithful remain indifferent to doctrinal or moral decisions taken by the magisterium or when they positively reject them. This lack of reception may indicate a weakness or a lack of faith on the part of the people of God, caused by an insufficiently critical embrace of contemporary culture. [True, but all feminism is not that.] But in some cases it may indicate that certain decisions have been taken by those in authority without due consideration of the experience and the sensus fidei of the faithful, or without sufficient consultation of the faithful by the magisterium. (Emphasis added)
Which is precisely what is taking place when 279 men make decisions about the Church's "position" on matters that go to the heart of relations between men and women as men and women (and yes, the issue of "sexual orientation" is, at bottom, about sexual norms and their roles in the reproduction of male power), with 30 non-voting women on the sidelines. It is this glaring contradiction that is exposed by Catholic Women Speak, in one midrash after another by faithful Catholic women. 

The political power of the Church during Christendom is gone and can no longer serve as an outer bulwark for the citadel of male power in Rome.  What's left is this hypocrisy, these transmogrifying intellectualizations, this institutional inertia combined with control over a vast administrative apparatus. And the women outside these eroding walls are awake. 

Catholic Women Speak is calling on us all to wake up.
So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.
-1 Thessalonians 5:6