December 2, 1980: Maura, Ita, Dorothy, and Jean

“When a woman is carrying a child she develops a certain instinct of self-defense. It is not selfishness; it is not egoism. It is an absorption into the life within, a folding of self like a little tent around the child’s frailty, a God-like instinct to cherish and, some day, to bring forth life. A closing upon it like the petals of a flower closing upon the dew that shines in the heart. This is precisely the attitude we must have to Christ, the wellspring of Life within us, in the Advent of our contemplation.”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of Abba in heaven.”Matthew 7:21

On December 2, 1980, Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan—Catholic missionaries from the United States—were murdered by National Guardsmen in El Salvador. Dorothy and Jean were driving to the airport outside San Salvador to pick up Maura and Ita.

On the way back from the airport, they were pulled over at a roadblock by National Guardsmen. The four women were taken to an isolated location, raped, tortured, and shot. Then they were buried in a shallow grave beside the road. The National Guardsmen were also “good Catholics.”

These four women died in the same manner as many of the poor Salvadoran people they served. They are martyrs because they laid down their lives in love for the poor—just as Jesus calls all Christians to be prepared to do. The witness of these four women teaches us about listening to the call of Christ, taking up the cross and following Jesus, and being born again.

A stone cross and small plaque mark the country road where the four women were buried. It reads: “Receive them Lord into your Kingdom.”

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..

First Thursday in Advent

 "Fishers of Men" by Rex DeLoney, Little Rock, Arkansas
“Fishers of Men” by Rex DeLoney, Little Rock, Arkansas

“This Advent, our Advent, is a time of creation. God’s spirit abides in us—brooding over our waters—shaping and forming us, being formed and shaped by us. God alone knows what we shall become. God has visited us with grace and favor. Are we ready to become Light?”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers … And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately, they left their nets and followed him”.—Matthew 4: 18-20

There is a church near my house called “Fisherman of Men Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, Inc.” The insistently masculine language always makes me laugh. It’s as if the church-namers knew that the narrow image of a patriarchal God was on its way out and so over- compensate. Or to paraphrase Shakespeare, “Me thinks they doth protest too much.”

Paradoxically, I find this invitation from Jesus to Peter and Andrew, then James and John, to be distinctly subversive of patriarchy. Jesus woos them like a lover. He seduces them into leaving their fathers’ houses, like young women leaving home to join the home of their husband’s family.

These men respond to Jesus as if they are in love. There is no cognitive decision making. They fall in love. They drop their nets—representing their known world. They follow, like a lover after her beloved. They have eyes only for him.

When were you last in love?

Breathe in. Breathe out. It’s Ad……vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..

What’s an Evangelical Feminist?

Anne Eggebrotten

Anne Eggebrotten, who teaches on women and religion at California State University, Northridge, recently published her article The Persistence of Patriarchy in Sojourners (July 2010). Anne is one of the founding member of the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus.

The EEWC grew out of the 1973 Chicago gathering of young evangelicals who eventually launched the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern. Some of these folks went on to lead Evangelicals for Social Action. Among the participants were women concerned about the inferior status of women in Church and society and who called on the group to consider issues related to sexism from a Christian perspective.

At ESA’s second consultation in 1974 the women’s caucus was one of six task forces formed by participants to study such concerns as racism, sexism, peace, and simpler lifestyles. Thus our group was born as the Evangelical Women’s Caucus. EWC presented proposals to Evangelicals for Social Action on a variety of topics including endorsement of the Equal Rights Amendment, support for inclusive language in Bible translation and Christian publications, affirmation of the ordination of women, and criticism of discriminatory hiring policies in Christian institutions.

The first national EWC conference, held in 1975 in Washington, D.C., addressed “Women in Transition: A Biblical Approach to Feminism.” The conference attracted more than 360 women from 36 of the 50 United States and from Canada. Many of the speakers at this conference were also writing on this topic for The Post American, the predecessor of Sojourners magazine.

Since many people may not be familiar with the EECW’s work, I thought I’d post their mission statement below:

Mission: We support, educate, and celebrate Christian feminists from many traditions.

Purpose:
* to encourage and advocate the use of women’s gifts in all forms of Christian vocation.
* to provide educational opportunities for Christian feminists to grow in their belief and understanding.
* to promote networking and mutual encouragement within the Christian community.

Statement of Faith:
We believe God is the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all. We believe God created all people in the divine image for relationship with God and one another. We further believe our relationship with God was shattered by sin with a consequent disruption of all other relationships. We believe God in love has made possible a new beginning through the incarnation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who was and is truly divine and truly human. We believe the Bible is the Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and is a central guide and authority for Christian faith and life. We believe the church is a community of people who have been divinely called to do God’s will, exercising their gifts responsibly in church, home, and society, and looking forward to God’s new creation.

We Are Christian Feminists:
* EEWC affirms that the Bible supports the equality of the sexes.
* We believe that our society and churches have irresponsibly encouraged men to domination and women to passivity.
*We proclaim God’s redemptive word on mutuality and active discipleship.
* We value inclusive images and language for God.
*We advocate ordination of women and full expression of women’s leadership and spiritual gifts.

We Are Inclusive:
* EEWC is evangelical because our formation was rooted in the belief that the Gospel is good news for all persons.
* EEWC is ecumenical because we recognize that faith is expressed through a rich diversity of traditions and forms of spirituality.
* We offer a community of safety for all who have experienced abuse, marginalization, or exclusion by Christian churches.
*We have discovered that the expansiveness of God calls us to be an inclusive community.

We Welcome You: EEWC welcomes members of any gender, race, ethnicity, color, creed, marital status, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, age, political party, parental status, economic class, or disability. Our biennial conferences sustain our spiritual connectedness and foster our learning about critical Christian feminist issues.

EEWC has a quarterly newsletter, Christian Feminism Today magazine that provides Christian feminist news, articles, book reviews, and inspiration. For more information, see www.eewc.com.

Kristof: A Church Mary Can Love

supermaryWhen I was in Venezuela in in 2004, the country was 95% Catholic and 60% of the people lived in poverty. Hugo Chavez–for better or worse–was trying to change the poverty statistics. But he was alienated from the Catholic hierarchy (the cardinal had plotted a coup against Chavez) and he was not well-connected to the popular Catholic Church on the ground.

It was with this “popular church” that I spent most of my time. In one very poor barrio high in the mountains above Caracas, I met Norma who talked to me about there being “two Catholic Churches”: one is the hierarchy and one is the people.

She said: “The bishop in his black cassock and scarlet came once to our barrio and said it was the most horrible place and he hated coming here, but I said this is my life, my reality, can it be so terrible for him? Our question is why are the church hierarchy not coming to be involved with us rather than always expecting that we will be involved with them?”

I remembered Norma’s wisdom when I read Nick Kristof’s wonderful op-ed in the New York Times titled A Church Mary Can Love. I’m reprinting the whole thing here, as a sign of encouragement to all of us downcast and discouraged by the Vatican’s child abuse scandal. Read Kristof’s column below:

I heard a joke the other day about a pious soul who dies, goes to heaven, and gains an audience with the Virgin Mary. The visitor asks Mary why, for all her blessings, she always appears in paintings as a bit sad, a bit wistful: Is everything O.K.? Mary reassures her visitor: “Oh, everything’s great. No problems. It’s just … it’s just that we had always wanted a daughter.”

That story comes to mind as the Vatican wrestles with the consequences of a patriarchal premodern mind-set: scandal, cover-up and the clumsiest self-defense since Watergate. That’s what happens with old boys’ clubs.

It wasn’t inevitable that the Catholic Church would grow so addicted to male domination, celibacy and rigid hierarchies. Jesus himself focused on the needy rather than dogma, and went out of his way to engage women and treat them with respect.

The first-century church was inclusive and democratic, even including a proto-feminist wing and texts. The Gospel of Philip, a Gnostic text from the third century, declares of Mary Magdalene: “She is the one the Savior loved more than all the disciples.” Likewise, the Gospel of Mary (from the early second century) suggests that Jesus entrusted Mary Magdalene to instruct the disciples on his religious teachings.

St. Paul refers in Romans 16 to a first-century woman named Junia as prominent among the early apostles, and to a woman named Phoebe who served as a deacon. The Apostle Junia became a Christian before St. Paul did (chauvinist translators have sometimes rendered her name masculine, with no scholarly basis).

Yet over the ensuing centuries, the church reverted to strong patriarchal attitudes, while also becoming increasingly uncomfortable with sexuality. The shift may have come with the move from house churches, where women were naturally accepted, to more public gatherings.

The upshot is that proto-feminist texts were not included when the Bible was compiled (and were mostly lost until modern times). Tertullian, an early Christian leader, denounced women as “the gateway to the devil,” while a contemporary account reports that the great Origen of Alexandria took his piety a step further and castrated himself.

The Catholic Church still seems stuck today in that patriarchal rut. The same faith that was so pioneering that it had Junia as a female apostle way back in the first century can’t even have a woman as the lowliest parish priest. Female deacons, permitted for centuries, are banned today.

That old boys’ club in the Vatican became as self-absorbed as other old boys’ clubs, like Lehman Brothers, with similar results. And that is the reason the Vatican is floundering today.

But there’s more to the picture than that. In my travels around the world, I encounter two Catholic Churches. One is the rigid all-male Vatican hierarchy that seems out of touch when it bans condoms even among married couples where one partner is H.I.V.-positive. To me at least, this church — obsessed with dogma and rules and distracted from social justice — is a modern echo of the Pharisees whom Jesus criticized.

Yet there’s another Catholic Church as well, one I admire intensely. This is the grass-roots Catholic Church that does far more good in the world than it ever gets credit for. This is the church that supports extraordinary aid organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas, saving lives every day, and that operates superb schools that provide needy children an escalator out of poverty.

This is the church of the nuns and priests in Congo, toiling in obscurity to feed and educate children. This is the church of the Brazilian priest fighting AIDS who told me that if he were pope, he would build a condom factory in the Vatican to save lives.

This is the church of the Maryknoll Sisters in Central America and the Cabrini Sisters in Africa. There’s a stereotype of nuns as stodgy Victorian traditionalists. I learned otherwise while hanging on for my life in a passenger seat as an American nun with a lead foot drove her jeep over ruts and through a creek in Swaziland to visit AIDS orphans. After a number of encounters like that, I’ve come to believe that the very coolest people in the world today may be nuns.

So when you read about the scandals, remember that the Vatican is not the same as the Catholic Church. Ordinary lepers, prostitutes and slum-dwellers may never see a cardinal, but they daily encounter a truly noble Catholic Church in the form of priests, nuns and lay workers toiling to make a difference.

It’s high time for the Vatican to take inspiration from that sublime — even divine — side of the Catholic Church, from those church workers whose magnificence lies not in their vestments, but in their selflessness. They’re enough to make the Virgin Mary smile.

Save A Nun: The Vatican’s Investigation into U.S. Catholic Sisters

Franciscan Sr. Dolores Smith (Women of Spirit)
Franciscan Sr. Dolores Smith (Women and Spirit)

Several folks have asked me what’s happening with the Vatican investigation into U.S. Catholic women’s religious orders, so I thought I’d post a few things here. This is mostly a roundup and timeline of the investigation.

In January 2009, the Vatican informed American women religious that it would be instituting a “two-year study of their life,” ostensibly to determine why vocations were dropping. It was really to investigate women who may have embraced Vatican II more than the Pope likes.

Sr. Mary Clare Millea, an American and superior general of the very traditional order Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was asked by the Vatican to be the “apostolic visitator,” director of the inquiry. Phase one of the inquiry was personal interviews with selected heads of women’s orders by Sr. Millea, which concluded July 31.

On July 28, Sr. Millea sent a letter to the heads of women religious congregations in the U.S., along with a working paper that outlined the next steps of the investigation. She indicated that the heads of every women’s religious order would be receiving a questionnaire “relating to the life and operations of their orders” to be filled out and returned to her by November 1.

The working paper says that after Vatican officials have analyzed the data received in the questionnaires, there will be “on-site visits” of religious institutes in early 2010. To participate in these visiting teams, you must sign a fidelity oath to uphold the Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church and submit to the teachings of the bishops, “as authentic doctors and teachers of the faith.”

According to the National Catholic Reporter article (Aug. 3, 2009),

The areas of concern identified in the questionnaire include identity; governance; vocation promotion; admission and formation policies; spiritual life and common life; mission and ministry; and finances.

A recent Associated Press story by Eric Gorski (“Catholic Sisters Queried About Doctrine, Fidelity”) puts it this way:

A Vatican-ordered investigation into Roman Catholic sisters in the U.S., shrouded in mystery when it was announced seven months ago, is shaping up to be a tough examination of whether women’s religious communities have strayed too far from church teaching.

The review “is intended as a constructive assessment and an expression of genuine concern for the quality of the life” of roughly 59,000 U.S. Catholic sisters, according to a Vatican working paper delivered in the past few days to leaders of 341 religious congregations that describes the scope in new detail.

Additionally, the Vatican has opened a parallel investigation into the largest umbrella leadership organization of the U.S. women religious, the Leadership Council of Women Religious.

LCWR has its national meeting next week in New Orleans from August 11-14. No doubt, the Vatican investigation will be a hot topic of conversation.

Two responses to these Vatican investigations highlight the approaches taken by Catholic women leaders. The first is by Benedictine sister Joan Chittister (“If They Really Mean It, It’s About Time”), who writes:

[Catholic sisters] of this stock had founded 469 Catholic hospitals from 1866-1917. They had nursed both armies on the Civil War battlefield despite the dismay of church leaders. They had put over 50,000 sister-teachers in parochial schools during the same period and by 1920 had almost two million pupils in 6,550 Catholic schools. These women, had, for all practical purposes, built the Catholic church in the United States. But, suddenly, sometime in the early ’60’s, things began to change. …

This time the women who had built the largest private school system in the world turned it over to the Catholics who had been trained in it and began to build again. They sold hospitals and opened nursing homes for the elderly and began free clinics instead.

With the same kind of zeal that fired their small groups of foundresses to give their lives to make life better and the faith deeper for poor Catholic immigrants in a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant country, this generation of the 1960’s ventured out of the Catholic ghettoes of their own time to do the same.

The second is from theologian Sr. Sandra Schneiders (“We’ve Given Birth To A New Form of Religious Life”), who says:

In my work on the renewal of Religious Life over the last eight years I have come to the conclusion that Congregations like ours [the kind represented by LCWR in this country] have, in fact, birthed a new form of Religious Life. We are really no longer “Congregations dedicated to works of the apostolate” –that is, monastic communities whose members “go out” to do institutionalized works basically assigned by the hierarchy as an extension of their agendas, e.g., in Catholic schools and hospitals, etc. We are ministerial Religious. Ministry is integral to our identity and vocation. It arises from our baptism specified by profession, discerned with our Congregational leadership and effected according to the charism of our Congregation, not by delegation from the hierarchy.

In future posts, I’ll give more of my own insight into this investigation. Suffice it to say that I’m suspicious of the Vatican’s motives. Particularly since such “visitations” are usually reserved for major scandals, like priests and pedophilia or extensive financial abuse.

My thanks to Michael Bayly over at The Wild Reed for his list of other articles on this topic.

Why the LCWR is Being Investigated – Jack Smith (The Catholic Key Blog, April 16, 2009).
The Vatican is Going After the Nuns – Regina Brett (Cleveland.com, July 12, 2009).
US Nuns Facing Vatican Scrutiny – Laurie Goodstein (New York Times, July 1, 2009).
Many Sisters Have Prayed For and Welcome the Vatican Visitation – Ann Carey (PewSitter.com, July 9, 2009).
Vatican Men Enter the Uppity Liberal American Nun Battle – Colleen Kochivar-Baker (Enlightened Catholicism, April 15, 2009).
A Catholic Sojourner and the LCWR Investigation – Colleen Kochivar-Baker (Enlightened Catholicism, April 17, 2009).