‘Are the people of God powerless?’ Mary T Malone
Mary T. Malone, Theologian.
Lecture at 25th Pobal De conference 12/2.2011
‘Are the people of God powerless?’
In my mind I have two other titles for this presentation. One is Back to Square One. I have been astonished at the process of the current General Election. The country is in great peril and politicians seem to be acting as if this were just another election with the usual sniping and self-congratulations. Similarly, the Church is in peril with its people disillusioned, broken-hearted, and many of its members struggling, with enormous grace, to recover their cruelly damaged lives. Church leaders, however, seem to think that when the dust settles, we can go back to business as usual and call on ancient loyalties, without any real challenge to the clerical abuse of power that has caused so much damage. As in politics, so in the Church: those who led us to this pass may not be the best equipped to lead us in the absolutely necessary transformation So we need to go back to Square One.
The politicians like to say that we were all to blame, but this has not been my experience. In the Church’s case, however, some blame does rest on many of us, and hence the second provisional title for this talk – Catholic Boot Camp. I am not thinking here of a militaristic process, but something along the lines of the recent TV program of the ICA Boot Camp, that is the often hilarious, but revealing and sometimes moving event organized recently by the Irish Countrywomen’s Association. Three gifted elderly women welcomed a group of young women from various parts of the country and initiated them into a kind of organic lifestyle, based on the women’s long life experience. What came to my mind as I watched was the RCIA process (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults). This is not the place to spell out the details of this 5th century initiation process, but the final stage of the six-stage process is called Mystagogy. This is where those of us who have made the journey are invited to “name what we have come to know”, to bring to expression our particular experience of the journey of faith for the benefit of the whole community. The power of speaking a word of truth has been officially consigned to the ordained members of the community, but we must all take up the task of speaking our own word of truth, of doing mystagogy, in our own church contexts
What I want to awaken here is the awareness of our effective historical consciousness, and a realization of the consequences of a truncated understanding of the tradition. Each of us has a kind of potted version of the history of Catholicism which, whether we know it or not, guides our lives of faith to some extent. One element of this history is the notion that we were always divided into a clergy/laity arrangement, and that this constitutes God’s gift to the Church. As Bernard Lonergan has said, “Doctrines have dates”, and so the theological understanding of both clergy and laity comes from our patriarchal/hierarchical past, where the laity were seen in a dualistic manner as the less qualified members of the Church institution. This emerged particularly in the 13th century when the powers of clergy were increased and sacralised, while the role of the laity was decreased and secularized. It is for this reason that I am using the word disciple here as the one designation that includes all of us without exception, from pope to peasant, as Augustine of Hippo would say.
A disciple is a learner, a seeker, one who is part of an egalitarian inclusive community. A disciple is learning to embody the vision of the teacher, Jesus, and as any teacher knows, the teacher/learner transaction is wholly reciprocal. The teacher teaches and learns simultaneously, as is illustrated in a recent liturgical gospel reading where Jesus learned something about inter-racial respect from the Syro-Phoenician woman and was amazed at her faith. (Mark 7:24-30).Discipleship is based on an inner conviction rooted in a wholly new vision of freedom and possibility. A disciple’s view of self is changed radically as is the disciple’s view of God. It is a vision rooted in a total reversal of values where the poor are brought in and the rich cast out, the lowly are exalted and “those of high degree” are brought down. Disciples are invited to take sides with justice and against injustice. Disciples practise commensality (John Dominic Crossan’s word) and break bread together at the same table, in imitation of Jesus who “was a friend of publicans and sinners” and scandalised those of more discerning taste with his choice of associates. These are the gospel values that gnaw at the heart and urge us to move beyond our narrow tribal boundaries. Whenever, in the history of Christianity, these values are rediscovered, leading to new evangelization, something extraordinary happens, and the kin-dom of God seems to take shape among us.
I am not talking, however, about generic discipleship. Disciples come as male and as female. The gospels tell us that the male disciples were led by Peter and this we have remembered well. It is a well established fact in our effective historical consciousness. The female disciples were led by Mary Magdalene, as the gospels relate over and over, but this has escaped our historical consciousness and been replaced by silence about the women and a fictionalization of Mary Magdalene. Instead of the disciple and eventual apostle and first witness and preacher of the Resurrection, we remember a prostitute who actually never existed, but was concocted by Pope Gregory !, among others, from an amalgamation of the sinful and repentant women in the Gospels, especially the woman in Luke who “washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair” (7:36-50)
Mary Magdalene and the other women from Galilee constitute the sole biblical witnesses to the final foundational events of the life of Jesus and form the link between the death of Jesus and the beginnings of Christianity. The male disciples, as Mark tells us, had fled (Mk.14:50) Nevertheless the infant church with its male and female disciples assembled, all received the Holy Spirit, and much of the rest of the story illustrates the tension between the two Greek terms for the first “followers of the way”, kyriakos and ekklesia, both of which are translated by the English word church. The Greek word Kyriakos signifies the “Lord’s house” and takes shape in the hierarchical and patriarchal church which has more or less prevailed through the centuries and which we know so well. The word Ekklesia signifies the gathered community of equal disciples, which seems to have been the shape of the Church for the first few decades and continues to lurk as hope and longing among believers, but never as a complete reality. One catastrophic result of the hierarchical institutionalization of the church is the marginalizing, silencing and rendering invisible of the women disciples.
So what happened to the women disciples? Why did and does the Church think that the theological contribution of women is entirely unnecessary to the full understanding of Church? Why, in the development of Christian understanding is the voice of women absent from the formation of every Christian doctrine and every Creed? Why is there not one reflection in the whole history of Christianity by a mother on the miraculous experience of conceiving, carrying, bearing and nourishing a child? Why instead was this miraculous life-giving event regarded, for much of our history, as sinfully tainted? And why has the preservation of this injustice and loss of so much richness been justified by a false theology down the long years of our history, ending in the distorted theology which forbids the priestly ordination of women. It is obvious from his abundant writings that Pope John Paul 11 agonised over the place of women in the Church, not with a view to restoring the Gospel vision of discipleship, but with ever more mangled theological reasoning, culminating in his “new feminism” rooted in “ontological complementarity”. This is his teaching about the essential characteristics that constitutes a woman’s life and, specifically, her role in the church. There are mountains of Christian literature on this subject, but not one page of it is informed by the voice of women. Women, in the church, are required to lead prescribed lives. Most women and many men have moved beyond this state. Every time I see a young man with a tiny infant on his chest, I realize that history is lurching forward and have to say “So much for ontological complementarity”. The distancing of men from the lives of infants and children can be seen as one of the building blocks in our recent disastrous history.
The charter of discipleship is Galatians 3:26-28. This pre-Pauline baptismal formula is a recipe for discipleship and a ground-plan for the kin-dom of God All baptized in Christ are all one. There is no more Jew or Greek, no more slave or free, no more male and female, but all are one. It is a vision of a Church without racism, without oppression of the poor and without sexism. It is a vision that has never been realized, though it remains as one of the reversals of values that constitutes the true disciple. On the contrary, even within the biblical record itself, this has been contradicted. I will mention only two of the modifications of this vision that form part of our heritage.
Around the year 55CE, Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1Cor.14:34 – 36) As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they need to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Several decades later, the author of the letter to Timothy gives the first theological reasoning for such a silencing of women. Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. (1Tim.2:11-15) This formula from the Letter to Timothy became the oft-repeated mantra about the place of a woman in the church: created second, sinned first.
Some male church teachers were always conscious of the intra-biblical contradictions here, and throughout history, there are at least five “intrusions” of women on the ecclesiastical scene who chose to live as disciples beyond this dichotomous provision. Of these, the medieval women mystics are, perhaps, the most significant example as we have several thousand pages of text from them. Another huge and yet to be explored source is the volume of writing from the post-Tridentine women founders of religious communities. The Council of Trent had barely noticed women, but of their own initiative, these extraordinary women set out as teachers, healers, preachers and missionaries to all corners of the world. The history of almost every community is the history of the taming of the original woman’s vision in order to make it fit male ecclesiastical requirements.
One leader who sought insight on the subject was Pope Paul VI who asked the Pontifical Biblical Commission at the end of the 60s to explore the above quoted text from Corinthians in order to discern whether or not this was the Word of God, or whether it was a pastoral decision made by Paul in a particular place at a particular time and therefore could be changed in another place and at another time. The response was that it was the latter – a pastoral decision, and therefore changeable. The response of the Church was symbolic and barely noticed at the time or since. Teresa of Avila was named a Doctor of the Church, representing all religious women, and Catherine of Siena was named a Doctor of the Church, representing all “lay” women. The consequences of this event were barely noticeable except, to some extent, in the religious communities concerned. A further consequence was that the 1983 revision of Canon Law eased somewhat the total ban on official teaching of women, again with barely discernible consequences.
A second modification of the original inclusive discipleship occurred in the case of the slave. Whereas originally convert slaves were required to be treated as “brothers”, eventually, in the later pastoral writings, when wealthy slave-owners have become Christian, slaves are instructed to accept the authority of your masters, with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle, but even those who are harsh. For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly…In the same way, wives accept the authority of your husbands. (1Peter 2:18 – 3:6) Thus begins the long Christian tradition of placing the burden of suffering on the poor and the weak and women. This has the potential to be toxic teaching as both weak and strong internalize, through constant teaching, their respective positions of power and weakness, suffering unjustly and “just” punishment. It is not a recipe for discipleship.
The story of discipleship weaves in and out of several other Christian teachings and practices such as the naming of sin, vocation, the virtues of resignation to one’s lot and obedience to superiors. But perhaps one of the most significant has been in the understanding and practice of Eucharist. There have been two Eucharistic traditions weaving in and out of our history from its earliest days, that related to Good Friday and that related to Holy Thursday. It is a question of emphasis, but with differing results in terms of the experience of the participants. The Holy Thursday tradition is rooted in the experience of a shared meal where all are welcome, and where the symbol of shared bread and fish was primary. This follows the tradition of the many meals celebrated by Jesus, and was always aware of the hunger of the world and those who had no bread. The Good Friday tradition is rooted in the notion of sacrifice and the necessary worthiness of those who participate. This Eucharistic celebration has been hedged around with notions of reverence and has led to the magnificent liturgical celebrations shrouded in Latin and incense and music, which were so familiar some decades ago. Our current controversies about Vatican 11 innovations, about language and about priesthood stem, in some sense from these two understandings of Eucharist. My own experience is that there is a kind of parallel church where officially or unofficially both traditions exist side by side. Perhaps the perceived tragedy of non-attendance at Eucharist today is that one tradition is rooted in invitation, the other in commandment.
What is the authority of discipleship? It is invitational evangelisation. In the early Catechumenal process, evangelisation constituted the second stage. It was preceded by the stage of Enquiry, a stage we so often tend to ignore. The Enquiry stage was designed to discover the life and death questions of the individual and of the culture. The Murphy Report spoke about what was endemic in the Church, that is what is characteristic of us as a people. In the early days of Liberation Theology, theologians spoke of the ability to name the sin and the grace of a culture and to respond to that with the Good News. In the Enquiry stage no question is seen as peripheral. There are no set contexts for the Gospel to be preached, and, as in the life of Jesus, the result will be a kind of reciprocal evangelization, followed by a deepening catechesis. In catechesis, the word echo is at its heart – where an echo of response rebounds between disciple and catechist. This is so much deeper than “teaching the catechism” where both questions and answers are pre-ordained..
This is an inner authority, an authority that increases (Latin: auctor, augere) the effect of one’s presence through the sharing of a biblical spirituality. It is an authority rooted in prayer, the prayer of integrity, the prayer that arises from the heart and is expressed in words that aim to express fully the mingling of humanity and divinity in the life of a person. It is a prayer founded in our humanity and in the shared humanity of Jesus. In many ways we have not allowed Jesus full humanity, but have limited the incarnation to a chosen set of super-human values. When the followers of Jesus said “He speaks with authority” they were speaking of an authority that they could recognize humanly.
The authority of discipleship, of women and men disciples, is an authority that arises in a reclaimed ekklesia. It is the authority of Mystagogy, of naming what we have come to know of our God and our Church and of the Good News. This authority most likely has as a prerequisite a huge task of education, but the actual authority of the Christian community and its most unlikely members, conventionally speaking, should never be underestimated. Whenever Canadians speak of holiness, they always first refer to Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche. In his writings he speaks of making two great discoveries. The first is that we are healed and transformed by the “poor”, that is the most negligible among us. And the second is that we are all in some sense the “poor”. Here is the locus of real Christian authority.
The goal of discipleship, the proof of the pudding, so to speak, is the public exercise of compassion. Compassion has traditionally been envisioned as a virtue best exercised in private. It constituted a large part of the private lives of women, as envisioned by Pope John Paul 11. There is little point in saying that Church leaders, politicians and others are much nicer in private than they appear in public. This just conceals the public use and abuse of power. We have been involved in a cover-up that is deeper than the institutional decisions of leaders. The cover-up is of our addiction to the abuse of power shrouded in a kind of sacred clericalism. All of us have fed the addiction of our leaders for our own purposes. This is not the action of disciples.
We are disciples of an outrageous leader who left us an outrageous gospel which demands of us outrageous discipleship. I end by naming some of our outrageous tasks: radical self-critique, radical reconciliation, radical conversion from alienation to integrity, radical public compassion, radically inclusiveness, and to celebrate it all, radically expressive ritual.
Why Not Soar?
You have the wings of longing,
You know the pull of hope,
You feel the flowing of desire:
So why not soar?
Fish cannot drown in water,
Birds cannot sink in air,
You cannot fall from my sight:
So why not soar?
Woman, I have adorned you,
Woman, I have delighted in you,
Woman, I have made my home within you:
So why not soar.
Be s the dove, I soar in her,
Lighten your heart, I soar in you,
Uplift your being, be an Easter song:
Why not soar?
(Mechtilde of Magdeburg, 13th century Beguine and Mystic)