‘The Struggle Over Women’s Authority Runs Right Through the Body of Christ’

Today, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the U.S. begins a week of contemplative discernment in St. Louis, MO, to “reason together” about how they will respond to the Vatican’s crackdown on their organization and their work.

We have an opportunity to watch two starkly different modes of leadership at work. The Vatican uses a command-control model aimed at maintaining homogeneity and the status quo. The Catholic Sisters communities draw on a more ancient model that develops shared leadership, communal shaping of vision, and is agile enough to address the “signs of the times,” as well as remain resilient amid diversity.

Not only are U.S. Catholic laity watching and praying for the LCWR this week, but so are Catholic orders and laity around the world. Your prayer this week will be greatly appreciated (LCWR prayer)

Below is an excerpt of my latest column in Sojourners magazine, addressing these issues:

The Presumption of Equality by Rose Marie Berger

…These Catholic sisters represent an unbroken, cohesive expression of faith in the history of American Catholicism and in women’s presumption of equality, completeness, and active moral agency both under law and under God—a presumption that is a shining light for women around the world. The sisters might have once shared accolades for faithful servant leadership with their brother priests, bishops, and cardinals, but over the course of nearly 30 years of unfolding pedophilia scandal and blasphemous mob-like cover-up, the laity has learned to look to the sisters alone for examples of Catholic gospel witness and Christian maturity, strength, and just plain grit.

But let’s not sideline this issue as “a Catholic thing.” We don’t get off that easy. The struggle over women’s authority runs right through the denominational diaspora of the body of Christ.

“Christian churches have long been ambivalent about us,” wrote Protestant female theologians in a letter of support to the women of LCWR. “Women’s roles have been embraced in private, not public forums. Women leaders are affirmed as long as they are seen, but not heard (at least too much).” And as long as what the women say doesn’t contradict male authorities.

Even in Christian denominations that ordain women to leadership, too often they are forced to operate as second-class citizens. Women pastors don’t get called to prominent congregations; they’re not allowed to prioritize the most urgent needs in their parishes; and they face constant friction. Time and again, we see the ideas of men described (and funded) as “entrepreneurial,” “innovative,” and “bold,” while women’s initiatives are “unorthodox,” “suspect,” and “back-burner, support-staff kind of thinking.”

“The plight of the powerless is familiar to the women of the church,” continue the Protestant scholars. “We, however, do not believe that authorities in any church should take away women’s power to determine for ourselves a vision for our ministries and vocations.” Many women—and men—have raised questions similar to those asked by Catholic women religious. Did God plan for an exclusively male priesthood or did it form as a result of the sin of misogyny? Do our baptismal vows anoint girls into the fullness of ministry as “priest, prophet, and king” in Christ or do they not? Is providing for the poor, the outcast, the sick, the prisoner, and the foreigner at the core of the gospel message or is it not?

“What we see in this struggle is not a lack of our sisters’ integrity and authentic witness to Christian faith,” the open letter continues, “but a struggle that has been too familiar for all women of faith—a struggle over authority and who should have the power to define true faith.”…

Rose Marie Berger, author of Who Killed Donte Manning? is a Catholic peace activist and a Sojourners associate editor. Read the whole article here, the September-October 2012 issue of Sojourners magazine.

Protestant Women Theologians, Pastors, Scripture Scholars Send Open Letter to Catholic Women Religious

Dr. Frances Taylor Gench

On May 29, Frances Taylor Gench, scripture scholar from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA, read an open letter to Catholic women religious at a prayer vigil held outside the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C. The letter was signed by 34 organizations representing Protestant women from New York to Austin, Texas.

Cynthia Rigby, one supporter who helped gather signatures, said it was meant not as a petition, but as a theological letter. “It was so important to us that this reflect a collective voice,” said Rigby, a theology professor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, “because, theologically, we believe that communities of Christian believers, in this case communities of sisters in Christ, stand together.”

Dr. Gench, a noted biblical scholar, is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Gench was on the faculty of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg from 1986 to 1999. She served as a member of the PC (USA) General Assembly’s Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church. Recent publications include Back to the Well: Women’s Encounters with Jesus in the Gospels and Encounters with Jesus: Studies in the Gospel of John.

This letter, along with Sr. Sandra Schneiders’ excellent analysis of the Vatican’s investigation of U.S. orders of women religious, begins to form a cogent analysis of two very different definitions and exercises of power and mission.

An Open Letter to Catholic Religious Women
May 1, 2012
Dear Sisters,

We write to you as sisters in faith who may not express our vocation in the same particular community of faith, but who share much in common—as believers, as advocates, and as peacemakers. We write in a spirit of solidarity and as witnesses to the authenticity of your ministries, particularly the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, in a time when the integrity of your witness has been questioned by Catholic leadership.

Continue reading “Protestant Women Theologians, Pastors, Scripture Scholars Send Open Letter to Catholic Women Religious”

True ‘Family Values’ Means Loving Your Gay Kids, Say Latino Catholics

Migdalia Santiago: "My daughter is lesbian. I learned this when she was 13. I am Catholic."

The Christian Right has maintained a strong anti-gay plank in their “family values” platform. However, many Christians believe that true “family values” are rooted in the family as a model of Christian community.

Christian families are kinship groups where the basics of Christian virtues and life are taught to the young and exemplified by the elders  — including sacrificial love, deep prayer and study, charity and justice  within and beyond the family, and a bottomless well of mercy and forgiveness.

Latinos are known for holding the family at the core of culture and values. The Public Religion Research Institute’s July 21, 2010, report on Religion and Same-Sex Marriage in California indicates how “family values” are defined among Latino Catholics and Protestants in California when it comes to gays,  gay marriage, and justice.

Here’s what the statistics show:

*57% of Latino Catholics would vote for the legalization of same-sex marriage compared to 22% of Latino Protestants

*Latino Catholics “say they trust the parents of gay and lesbian children more than their own clergy as a source of information about homosexuality.”

*According to the Pew Forum, an estimated 31% of California’s population is Catholic. And of that between 40-50% is Latino.

Joe Palacios, adjunct professor of sociology at Georgetown University, reflects on this trend in On Faith:

Family First: Latino Catholics orient their social lives around the family and extended family even in the context of high Latino single-parent households (estimated 33% of all U.S. Latino households; 36% of all Latino Children in California live in single-parent households). Family solidarity is strong and even though children may not follow “traditional family values” as projected by the church and the U.S. society, parents want to keep their children within the family. It is not surprising that Catholics in general and Latino Catholics in particular, as the Public Religion Research study shows, see that parents learn about gay issues from their children. Their moral and ethical judgments are primarily made through this social reality rather than abstract pronouncements from their church leaders.

Catholic Communal versus Protestant Individual Faith: Catholicism is a communal faith that highlights the life cycle process through the sacraments of baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, and marriage. Families experience their moral lives through communal participation in the sacraments, as well as the Latino community’s cultural observances of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Posadas, Dia de los Muertos, etc. Protestant Latinos, on the other hand, have a faith that is individually driven through faith conversion (“accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior”) that often separates a person from the Catholic sacramental life cycle process and the social fabric of the Catholic-based cultural celebrations. Fundamentalist Protestantism sees such Catholic cultural practices as contrary to a pure Christian faith. The study illustrates this communal-individual faith difference by noting that Latino Protestants (37%) lean toward a style of religious social engagement prioritizing “personal morality and faith” over a Catholic (59%) orientation that prioritizes “justice and action.”

Latino Catholic Tolerance versus Protestant Fundamentalist Judgment: Catholics allow complexity and ambiguity in moral decision-making since Catholicism is neither fundamentalist nor literalist regarding the Bible. Rather, Catholics can weigh factors such as the Bible, church teaching, and social reality affecting decision-making. Latino Catholics in the United States live in this social context that allows the free exercise of conscience rather than enforced scriptural fundamentalism or bishops’ and pastors’ exhortations in making decisions regarding homosexuality and gay rights– as is often exercised in Protestant fundamentalist and evangelical denominations and now by increasingly doctrinaire Catholic bishops. Further, as noted in the study, Catholic priests rarely mention homosexuality or gay issues in sermons except when forced to by the bishops as happened during the Prop 8 campaign.

Read Palacios’ whole column here. Read the whole Public Religion Research Institute report with more valuable data on religious views correlated to gay/lesbian issues. Including this:

A significant number of Californians who initially say they  support civil unions but not same-sex marriage say they would support same-sex marriage if the law addresses either of two basic concerns about religious marriages:

*With a religious liberty reassurance that the law would guarantee that no congregation would be forced to conduct same-sex marriages against its beliefs, support for same-sex marriage increases 12 points, from initial support of 42% to a solid majority at 54%.

*With a civil marriage reassurance that the law would only provide for ‘civil marriages like you get at city hall,’ support increases 19 points, from 42% to about 6-in-10 (61%).

Also read Why Would More Latino Catholics Be For Same-Sex Marriage Than Protestants? by Candace Chellew-Hodge

And for an excellent discussion on the Bible and gay marriage, see earlier post The Good Book and Gay Marriage.

David Anderson’s ‘The Things of This World’

anderson_200_01Friend and fellow poet David E. Anderson has just posted an excellent review essay The Things of This World.

David, who is senior editor at Religion News Service, touches on several books examining the religious sensibilities of famous poets, including Naming Grace by Mary Catherine Hilkert; The World’s Hieroglyphic Beauty by Peter Stitt; The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse edited by Donald Davie; and Cheryl Walker’s God and Elizabeth Bishop.

He also looks at the wonderful Welsh poet R.S. Thomas who died in 2000. Here’s the opening to David’s essay:

For many poets, believers and nonbelievers alike, it is possible to talk about the religious imagination they bring to apprehending reality and describing the world.

Theologically, Christianity provides a language—and some doctrinal and historical metaphors or benchmarks—for two such imaginations: the sacramental and the dialectical. The first is broadly linked to Catholic ways of seeing and understanding God and the world, and the second, equally broadly and generally, to a Protestant sensibility.