Resolved: the ritual of footwashing on Holy Thursday should be abolished or completely revised.
Another Holy Thursday has come and gone, and with it the predictable storm over washing women’s feet during the ritual laving at the evening mass. Pope Francis has made his opinion on this matter very clear, going out to wash the feet of 12 men and women with disabilities at a home in Rome. Bishop Morlino led the opposition, very publicly instructing his priests that they were to either wash the feet of 12 men or omit the rite entirely. Various conservative bloggers huffed and puffed. Fr. Z stiffly argued that Bishop Morlino was only enforcing Church law: the Pope may violate it if he chooses, but the rest of us are obliged to observe it, despite his example. Canonist Edward Peters has mostly been silent this year, but his two columns from last year (here and here) are still heavily cited. His argument is more subtle, but in essence he argues that we should observe the letter of the law lest we encourage disregard for the law. (He is, however, perfectly happy to change the law.) Fr. Ray Blake, a priest in England, gives a passionate argument for preserving the traditional practice. And of course, any article about this at the National Catholic Reporter includes endless comments ranting against the Church.
Reflecting on this tempest I am led to ask: though every year traditionalists and progressives (and indeed, traditionalists and pretty much everyone else) fight over whether to wash the feet of women, are we asking the right question? I want to dig deeper and suggest that the rite has become an exercise in self-absorption and no longer works as a ritual. In the typical parish, the pastor dutifully selects a handful of folk (often after agonizing as to whether they are truly representative of his parish), they come up to the sanctuary and sit uncomfortably while the priest or deacon washes one foot and (though less often) kisses it before moving on. They put on their sock and shoe and return to their seats. Does it make an impression? Probably. Does it drive home Jesus’ commandment to love one another? I am far less certain. It follows the powerful passage from John’s gospel and the chants and hymns that accompany it focus on humble service, but I really wonder whether the symbol itself still conveys this message. The symbol itself is foreign—we no longer have foot washing bowls at our front doors, or slaves to wash our visitors—and despite some powerful homilies that I have heard, it does not connect well to our current understanding of service. In particular, that it is the priest who washes the feet of laity is a distancing mechanism—this is something that the more heroic among us do, but has no connection to what we are supposed to do.
If we look at the example set by Pope Francis this year and last, we should ignore the fact that he washed the feet of both women and men, and concentrate on the other dimensions of his choices. Each time he has left the Vatican and gone out to the poor and marginalized: first to a prison, and then to a home for the disabled. He has called repeatedly for the Church to stop turning inward and to go out into the world, and to not be afraid to get its hands dirty in the process. Historically this is the way the rite evolved: prior to the reforms of Pius XII in 1955 the foot washing was not part of the mass, and in many places, particularly religious communities, it was reserved for twelve poor people.
I think we should give serious consideration to following this aspect of the Pope’s example. What would it say to the world (and equally importantly, what would we be forcing ourselves to remember) if instead of a solemn liturgy in our parish Church, the parish went out into the community in an act of service and self-abegnation? We could repaint the local homeless shelter, cook a fancy meal for all the residents, stock their pantry, buy the children new outfits, and then—only then—have a ceremony in which our pastor and deacon wash the feet of 12 residents as a ritual sign of the love we had spent the day trying to live out.
This would not be easy: in fact, it would be very easy to do this badly, turning the poor into liturgical objects that we use rather than people whom we serve and love. Or it could, as Pope Francis has warned in another context, turn the church into a social-service agency and not into a community of believers. But I also think that with effort it could be done well and make the words of Jesus take root in our hearts:
[Jesus] said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
To all the readers and commentators on Vox Nova: I wish you all a blessed and happy Easter. May the joy of the risen Christ be with you and your near and dear ones, and may you find all consolation in the light of Christ. DCU.
Updated (an hour after posting): I had forgotten that this was a topic of discussion last year. Many of the commentators touched on issues related to my post today.
MY MIDDLE SCHOOL CLOSED ITS DOORS FOR GOOD four and a half years ago. I discovered this while I was on one of my nostalgia benders (what is middle age for?) and had stopped by to walk the grounds after school hours and savor bittersweet memories of gym class, a girl in eighth grade named Monica and long-ago pick-up basketball games that filled my after-school hours.
I stopped by the office and remarked on the steady stream of people carrying boxes of mementos out the door, and a woman told me in a voice tinged with a resigned grief that the building had been condemned. Like lots of schools built in the 1950s and ’60s, it had been built quickly in an effort to keep up with a demographic tidal wave of students during the Baby Boom years. But after 50 years, the back, downhill side of the school had settled so that it was becoming structurally separated from the front. It was too old to fix, according to the ruthless logic of accountants, and thus would be closed forever.
I realize middle school is not a period in anyone’s life that is remembered as a golden era. It usually coincides with puberty and all of its upheavals and awakenings, and if you offered me a billion dollars and Cindy Crawford’s hand in marriage to return to that time I would turn you down without a second thought.
Adams Middle School, and here I mean the building itself, was not a particularly distinguished piece of architecture. There apparently was some sort of Great Cement Surplus in the middle decades of the last century, thus concrete became the go-to material for practically every project. Adams was built in a style I call Mad Men Modernism — right angles, asphalt tile and pastel-colored window inserts defined the look of the place.
That said, the end of any public institution is usually an occasion of sadness, and schools especially so. The end of a school is like a death. Schools are much more than just buildings and blackboards, desks and chalk; a school is a place that has learned, perhaps even more than it has taught. As it ages, its staff and teachers learn and pass along to newcomers the places we kids go to hide from their eyes, what the best option for P.E. is on rainy days, where to hold the assemblies to maximize the attentiveness of hormone-addled students, and much else.
The principal of the school when I was there was a man named Mr. Crouch, and he was a man of almost superhuman tolerance and compassion.
There was a kid named James whom I knew and occasionally hung out with, and James decided one day to rob the school snack bar — at gunpoint. James’s father was a motorcycle gang member of some repute, and James brought his father’s .410 shotgun to school, pointed it at an understandably stunned lunch lady and demanded the register. Mr. Crouch came down immediately, calmly talked James into giving him the shotgun and then took him up to the office.
(Quick aside: If the above incident happened today, I imagine the campus would have been cordoned off and SWAT teams in Kevlar helmets and full battle-rattle would have cleared the school urban-assault style, maybe with helicopter support and barbed wire perimeters. It’s strange that even as national crime rates have dropped precipitously the last 20 years, our police have become more explicitly militarized. There’s probably a future column there.)
Then there was the only snow day in the history of Adams Middle School: Feb. 5, 1976.
I awoke that day to a sky the color of stainless steel. The temperature had been dropping all day, and at 2:30 it began to snow. It is safe to say that the first flake rendered further instruction impossible, and both teachers and students streamed outside and gazed around in wonder and simple delight, suddenly and fully children once again, as the winter grass was quickly whitened by the cascading flakes and the world became a frigid, glittering wonderland.
That snow day, James’s thwarted robbery and 50-some-odd other years of adventures, heartbreaks and achievements entered the lore of the school, and became part of its institutional memory. But in June 2009, the teachers and staff of Adams Middle School scattered to other institutions, ones with different stories and separate legends and different institutional wisdom, and the story of Adams came to an end with barely a whimper.
I’ve mentioned before that this country has always been an incredibly dynamic place, in love with the new, always searching for the Next Big Thing, ruthlessly casting aside the old; “been there, done that” is a very American expression. This restless inventiveness has always been both our most bewitching draw to striving peoples in other corners of the world, but also our most tragic flaw.
America has never been a place where you grow old with the people and places you were young with, and though we excel in reinvention and dynamism, we too often carelessly sacrifice collective wisdom in the name of progress.
Nine years ago the science fiction writer John Scalzi published a blog post entitled Being Poor. It became very popular and was reprinted in a number of venues. It consisted of a series of short statements that attempt to encapsulate what being poor in America really means. The list is long, but here are a few examples:
Being poor is stealing meat from the store, frying it up before your mom gets home and then telling her she doesn’t have make dinner tonight because you’re not hungry anyway.
Being poor is thinking $8 an hour is a really good deal. [In 2005 the Federal minimum wage was $5.15. ed.]
Being poor is crying when you drop the mac and cheese on the floor.
Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually lazy.
Being poor is getting tired of people wanting you to be grateful.
Being poor is a $200 paycheck advance from a company that takes $250 when the paycheck comes in.
At the time I found the blog post reprinted in World Ark magazine (house organ of Heifer Project International) and posted a copy outside my office. I had more or less forgotten it was there until one of my current students noticed it and said to me, “Why did you put this up? It makes me sad!” (Unfortunately, there is no way in print to capture the precise combination of humor, defensiveness and sadness that tinged his voice.)This encounter led me to revisit the original. As I discussed in an earlier post, I have started a new ministry in my Secular Franciscan region, and as the first step I led my own local fraternity in an open-ended discussion about poverty and the poor. In the course of this I was surprised by some of the things I heard. Two things stuck out: the first was an inability to really articulate any sense of what it means to be poor in America. The one in my community who could speak to it was an elementary school teacher, who talked about students living in shelters and depending on free lunches to eat. As a result, I am going to incorporate Scalzi’s list into my presentations in the future in some way. (I am still discerning whether to use them to start the discussion or introduce them after the discussion has gotten rolling.)
The other thing that struck me was an attempt to romanticize third world poverty: “they have nothing but they’re still happy—happier than we are in the West!” But while they extolled life in a mudbrick house on the banks of the Nile, no one indicated any desire to trade places. Several members tried to challenge this view, but they made no headway. They tried to speak to what it means to be poor in the third world, but could only frame it from a western perspective: e.g., we buy clothes made in sweatshops as opposed to the actual experience of workers in sweatshops.
To address this in the future I decided to write about the daily experience of the poor in the Third World in the way that Scalzi did in his post about America. The following list is my first attempt to do so. This proved to be much harder that I thought. I claim no particular expertise in poverty, but I do realize that it is not monolithic: the experiences of a slum dweller in Port Au Prince, Haiti, are not going to be the same as those of a factory worker in Bangladesh, which in turn differ from those of a peasant farmer in Bolivia or Peru. Moreover, there are cultural differences and social institutions that are not simply outside of our daily experience but totally foreign to our understanding of what the world is like: human trafficking, death squads, crop failure and pervasive infant mortality have no real meaning in our middle class (or even working class) lives.
Nevertheless, I hope that I have, in some small way, made the daily experiences of the least among us more tangible. I would welcome corrections and emendations to this list.
You feed your children mud cookies because you cannot afford anything else.
You cannot send your children to school even though tuition is only $50 per year.
You raise poppies for the heroin trade because it is the only crop that pays enough to feed your family, and then soldiers come and burn your crop.
You walk five miles every day to get water from a contaminated well.
Your husband is gone for years to find work in the city, and when he comes home he gives you AIDS because he was having sex with infected prostitutes.
You sell your daughter to a brothel to get enough money to feed the rest of your children.
You live and work next to a toxic waste dump, recycling computer parts dumped there by western corporations.
Your wife dies in childbirth because the closest clinic is twenty-five miles away over dirt roads.
Brutal murders happen in your neighborhood every day and the police do nothing.
Your land is expropriated because a foreign corporation wants it, and you have no recourse at all.
You live in a shack and raw sewage flows past your front door, but you think you are better off than you were before you moved there.
You do piecework in a dirty, unsafe factory for $2 a day, and your employer tells you that you should be grateful to work there.
You watch your children die of diseases you know can be treated, if only you could afford it.
You are beaten and shot for trying to organize a labor union.
You travel 2000 harrowing miles to the United States, work twelve hours a day in a minimum wage job, pay taxes, and send money home to support your relatives, but are called a parasite when you want to send your kids to school.
You are expected to be grateful when your local clinic is given a shipping container filled with expired drugs.
Your nation was exploited by colonial powers and multinational corporations, but it is your own fault that you are poor and underdeveloped.
The rest of the world only pays attention to you when there is an earthquake or hurricane, and their attention wanders long before anything gets rebuilt.
You try to advocate for your village and you get branded a terrorist.
You can see a rich beautiful world, but you know that you will never be able to give it to your children, no matter how hard you work.
You sit and beg from Western tourists every day, because you are willing to endure their pity and contempt if it means you can feed your children.
You are pressured into letting a foreign couple adopt your child because they will be better parents than you are.
An unintentionally ironic evaluation has been voiced, by some, following screenings of Noah. The film, it seems, has been deemed “historically inaccurate”. Phil Cooke, of the National Religious Broadcasters, identifies Noah as “more of an inspired movie than an exact retelling”. An “exact retelling” of what, precisely?
Persons exist who do believe in an historical Noah. Perhaps it is the relationship between that supposedly real Noah, and this reel Noah, which Cooke wishes to emphasize. Perhaps Cooke seeks simply to draw Noah into relation with the biblical tale. Marketing materials, following that possible motivation, identify Noah as having been inspired by the story of Noah and interested viewers are referred to Genesis.
Noah is not, I agree, an “exact retelling” of Genesis. I am not sure why that fact would matter. My opinion is that, among those suspicious of the creative retelling that is Noah, insufficient consideration has been given to the extent to which the biblical tale is, itself, a creative retelling. Creativity need not be taboo.
Flood narratives exist in a variety of traditions. The narratives which most closely parallel the biblical tale are found in the literature of Mesopotamia. Common elements include a divine decision to destroy that which exists upon the earth. A warning, however, finds its way to a particular individual on that earth and a command is given that an apparatus be built to survive the destruction. The obedience of that individual follows and some are spared. The apparatus, eventually, is grounded upon the side of a mountain and, following the release of a bird sent out in search of life, sacrifice is made and this sacrifice is pleasing to the divine. These are a few of the points of contact between the biblical tale and narratives found earlier in the literature of Mesopotamia.
As an interpretive lens, one way of capturing something of what an author might wish to have communicated is through comparing his or her text to ones with which that text appears bound. Something of authorial intent, the argument goes, can emerge when an author retells a story but, in his or her retelling, introduces particular alterations. For example, in both the Atrahasis Epic and the Gilgamesh one, gods holding council lead the god Anu (in Atrahasis) and Enlil (in Gilgamesh) to destroy humankind. This decision to destroy, however, is not unanimous. Ea (in Atrahasis) and Enki (in Gilgamesh) inform a human being of how the gods holding council have settled. This is how Atrahasis, the hero of the epic bearing his name, and Utnapishtim (in Gilgamesh), survive the destruction which the gods have sent their way.
The story of Noah, as told in Genesis, is almost exclusively monotheistic. I accept the consensus of mainstream biblical scholarship that, particularly in the primeval history which Genesis narrates, there is not only a consciousness of other ancient Near Eastern narratives but also a sort of intentional opposition. The monotheistic heart of the story of Noah, as told in Genesis, represents one such opposing stance.
In the story of Noah, as told in Genesis, there is not really any uncertainty about whether humankind will have a future. Men and women, in that narrative, are not presented as having to worry about placating a particular god. They are not presented as having to worry about whether there will remain a personality among the council of gods who will continue to be interested in their survival. Communicated throughout the story of Noah is the sense that God is sovereign. God is the one who instructs Noah, preserves his life, sends the waters and causes those waters to recede (in contrast, perhaps again, to the gods of the literature in Mesopotamia who lack the ability to control the waters and are struck by terror at the power of the waters).
It is my opinion, further, that as Genesis is taking shape in the context of the Babylonian Exile, the redactor is drawing together texts which have something to say to a Jewish people who have their own questions about the future. Judah and Israel have been conquered and the lives of those within have been dramatically altered. A story which communicates something of the sovereignty of God and the fate of those who remain righteous, then, might be seen by a redactor as having some impact on his hearers. In that sense, the story of Noah is not about the chronicling of history. The story of Noah, as told in Genesis, serves to communicate something of a God who, in the midst of seeming destruction, has not forgotten those who call upon him.
What I am trying to communicate is that the story of Noah is a creative retelling. I think that, in his own Noah, director Darren Aronofsky has preserved key moments of that story. Two examples:
First, in Noah wickedness has spread to such a point that, as Genesis also states, Yahweh “regretted having made man on the earth and his heart grieved”. In Noah that wickedness has not simply manifested in how humans have since abused the world in which they live: For ten generations, Noah narrates, sin has walked among us. Brother against brother, nation against nation, man against creation. We murdered each other. We broke the world.
Second, in Noah there remains something that distinguishes the man from his contemporaries. This is biblical too. Despite the regret of God at having created, Genesis states that Noah “found favour with Yahweh”. One Watcher, in Noah, tells that when he looks into the eyes of Noah he can see something of the first man. In Noah the distinctiveness of Noah does not manifest simply in his being a conscientious guardian of creation. It is his singular desire to do what God would have him do that makes him unique (a desire which particularly distinguishes him from his nemesis, Tubal-Cain, who asserts that a man isn’t ruled by the heavens. A man is ruled by his will.). Aronofsky emphasizes this particularly in the latter half of the picture and, in doing so, introduces the difficult aspect of how revelation, because it is mediated, is subject to misinterpretation. However, Aronofsky also provides something of an antidote to misinterpretation by identifying love as the criteria of substance in discerning a right path.
Viewers, no doubt, will experience numerous other preservations of the story of Noah as it is told in Genesis (Noah perceiving the impending doom, interpreting God to be guiding him toward sparing some from destruction, understanding that God intends to begin again after the destruction…).
Midrash is a word which has emerged in some of the more informed reactions to Noah. As I understand the term, this is basically a type of Jewish interpretation which, in enfleshing a biblical narrative, draws persons to new considerations of that narrative. The reason midrash has been associated with Noah is because Aronofsky seems to be doing midrash with his own creative retelling. There are elements of Noah which readers will not find in Genesis. Of two elements which some question, one surrounds the presence of Watchers and the other surrounds the emotional turmoil Noah endures while on the Ark. Both elements, although particularly the latter, have their place and do succeed, I think, in enfleshing the narrative. In doing so, I felt, both can draw viewers into new considerations of the story of Noah.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins
and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
As I read the conclusion of the Creed, the following passages come to mind.
I believe in the Holy Spirit: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (John 14:26, NRSV)
The Lord, the giver of life: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” (Dt 30:19, NIV)
Proceeds from the Father and the Son: “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7, NRSV)
One, holy, catholic and apostolic Church: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:20-22, NRSV)
The resurrection of the dead: “Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you.” (Ezekiel 37:12b-14a, NRSV)
“Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:23-26)
The life of the world to come: “ I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. (Rev 21:22-26, NRSV)
Amen: “Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.” (Nehemiah 8:6, NRSV)
When St. Thomas Aquinas argued that the female sex is an impediment to receiving the Sacrament of Holy Orders, i.e., becoming a priest or deacon, he cited the First Letter of Paul to Timothy, wherein the inspired author wrote that, in the gatherings of the faithful, women should learn in silence and with all submissiveness, never teaching or having authority over men. Aquinas added, “Since it is not possible in the female sex to signify eminence of degree, for a woman is in the state of subjection, it follows that she cannot receive the sacrament of Order.” By and large, you won’t today hear apologists for the all-male priesthood follow Aquinas’s lead when trying to explain Catholic doctrine to a hostile audience. To our ears, his reasoning rings of sexism, sounding exactly like the sort of arguments historically (and still today) used to defend the mistreatment and degradation of women. Nowadays the church’s most common refrain is that it hasn’t the authority to ordain women because Jesus Christ didn’t give it that authority: it’s not the limits of women, but the limits of the ordained men that prevent women serving as priests. This line of reasoning works to maintain the exclusiveness of its priesthood while evading the charge of sexism.
No surprise, critics of the all-male priesthood disagree. President Jimmy Carter, for one. He’s on tour for a new book, A Call To Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power, about the abuse of women around the world. Women today suffer inequality, enslavement, murder, legalized rape, torture, and other atrocities enabled by religious beliefs, practices, and structures of power. In interviews, Carter has included the Roman Catholic teaching on the priesthood among the causes of abuse and mistreatment, saying that it influences people to think of women as inferior to men–the kind of thinking that precipitates abuse.
The National Catholic Register has an article quoting prominent Catholic laywomen responding to President Carter, but their criticism of his statements doesn’t really address the key issue he’s raised. They accuse Carter of misunderstanding Catholicism and God: God didn’t make women inferior and the church doesn’t teach that they are inferior. Maybe Carter doesn’t understand the doctrine of the all-male priesthood, but whether he’s exactly right about the doctrine isn’t the question. The issue is whether he’s right or wrong about the real world consequences of the doctrine and the institution. He could be wrong about the teaching but be right about its influence on thought and behavior. Proving that the priesthood as such is free of sexism doesn’t prove that it in effect contributes nothing to sexism.
And the charge of sexism isn’t going to go away. If the door is closed to women priests, as Pope Francis and pontiffs before him have said, then the all-male priesthood is going to receive more condemnation as society becomes more respectful of women’s equality. Accusing critics of being ignorant of Catholicism won’t do the job. Nor will framing the priesthood as an institution of service instead of power, as Ashley McGuire does. “As Pope Francis continues to remind us,” she says, “it is service to others that is the primary aim of Catholics, not authority or power.” Yeah, okay. So what? Service requires power. An organized ministry such as the priesthood necessitates a complex power structure. Women, being women, are excluded from exercising the power to serve the church in important and consequential ways: administering certain sacraments, celebrating the Mass, preaching from the pulpit, leading a diocese, and defining doctrine, for example. Is such a power structure of no consequence because its aim is service? Would excluding women from running for public office be defensible by saying that public office is really about public service and not authority or power? Obviously not.
If President Carter is correct that the institution of the all-male priesthood contributes to sexism and the abuse of women, then it behooves the church, if not to change its doctrine on the priesthood, at least to acknowledge this unintended effect and work diligently to counter it.
Vox Nova is happy to present this post by Leah Perrault. Leah’s previous guest post at Vox Nova is available here: I’m Right Here. See Me.
Last week, John Rogove, over at Ethika Politika, put out a piece that got me thinking about pornography again. It was a fascinating economic analysis of the “market” for the bodies and intimacy of women in the face of rising costs of living (in this case, of university tuition).
I think the author is right to suggest that in the sexual “marketplace”, patriarchy is engrained, where women generally are placed in a vulnerable position by virtue of generally higher male demand for sex. This places women in a position of both power and vulnerability, and it is equally interesting to me that women get blamed for the problem and exploited by it, generally – also a sign of cultural, rather than merely capitalist, patriarchy.
Early in the post, however, I think the author fundamentally misunderstands the appeal of porn for the consumer when he writes: “That’s precisely the appeal of porn for the consumer: it takes a dignified human being, often one in a position of power or at least of autonomy, however socially limited, and degrades her: having already reduced her personhood to a mere symbolic social role, it then reduces even that to the simple material presence of a passive body, ready for consumption. It is precisely this body-as-meat ready for consumption that the entrepreneurial sex worker effectively exploits and sells as a product. ” I don’t think that porn is appealing to the consumer because it objectifies and depersonalizes the person viewed, though porn and porn use certainly does this. I think porn is appealing and addictive because it satisfies some unmet need in the viewer; porn speaks to a longing for sexual intimacy, for belonging and being desired by the other. When a person cannot find a meaningful relationship, fails to succeed in making it last or is seduced by a culture that promises instant gratification in every arena including human relationships, porn offers us the illusion of what we really want. In some cases, the viewer is threatened by the people or situations represented in pornography, and offers the illusion of control, manipulation or oppression of the other; this too is primarily about the dysfunction in the viewer, a fear of vulnerability, equality and intimacy.
We live in a society that often profoundly misrepresents the reality of real human love (think blockbuster representations of marriage, lifelong fidelity, and parenthood or the bizarre popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey). People long for intimacy, connection, belonging, and mutual love. Urbanization, social media, longer work weeks and a myriad of other factors have us more connected than ever and also increasingly lonely. Objectification and depersonalization are natural consequences of porn, but I don’t think that the average porn user, at least at the beginning, is aiming for those consequences as a primary goal. The appeal of porn, and eventually the compulsion or addiction, isn’t about the (often female) body, person or sexual appeal. It’s about the longing, fear and/or compulsion in the viewer.
When women and academics talk about pornography, they typically discuss it through the lens of what it does to the (often female) subject(s). When I have been privileged to discuss pornography with men and women who have struggled with compulsive or addictive habits with porn, they have never said that they began or continued to use porn in order to objectify others. They talk about their own brokenness first, expressing sorrow over what porn has done to them, and only then about how it affects others (their significant others, the subjects of the porn, etc.) This makes sense to me, even when I want to get on a soap-box about cultural patriarchy.
When you want to assist a recovering alcoholic or addict, you get no where until the individual can see that the problem is not out there somewhere (the presence, legality or availability of alcohol or drugs, or my annoying partner or boss who drives me to use), but rather the problem is in here, inside me, a problem of living that I am trying to mask or satiate with a substance. As long as the problem is abstract, external and focused on others, behaviour doesn’t change. Porn is especially problematic because the object of the addiction is a person, not a thing. Of course the objectification of people (many of which are women) is more serious than the abuse of a substance, because the alcohol or crack does not have inherent dignity or worth that is damaged and manipulated in the process. But if pornography is only a problem when it hurts someone else, rather than because it hurts me, there is very little motivation for the user to stop using.
Our culture has a strange relationship with morality and sin, where right and wrong have been distorted by a relativism that leaves us disconnected from one another because unless something hurts us directly, it might be “right for you”. For nearly a decade now, I have been using a working definition of sin: any action which does damage to me, to my relationships with others and my relationship with God. Patriarchy, like pornography, is a corporate and an individual sin, but no individual experiences the totality of corporate sin. Our sin, our damaging and compulsive coping behaviours, are first deeply personal. It is often only when we acknowledge our own weakness that we are able to have true sorrow over how our actions have hurt others and how we have isolated ourselves from God out of shame.
In Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II has a very rarely cited appendix on the ethics of the subject of the human body in art and culture (reflections 60-63). His conclusions about the ethics of nude art might surprise you. In his affirmation of the beauty, dignity and worth of nude art, he implicates three persons in the ethics: the artist, the model and the viewer, all of whom have a moral responsibility to treat the dignity of the whole person. Each has a responsibility that can be ignored, distorted or abused, turning art into pornography. For John Paul, the prevention of sin does not extend to removing all opportunities for sin by banning nude art; it begins with teaching people about the dignity of the person, the power, purpose and beauty of our sexual longing.
When will we shift our focus and start talking about pornography with reference to the incredible power of human longing for intimacy alongside the sin of objectification? The market for sex work does not emerge primarily out of a patriarchal desire to objectify, but out of our human need to be desired by and in relationship with others. In an individualized capitalism, it is possible for the sin of objectification to be written off by “libertarian” sex “workers”, to use Rogove’s language. In a framework that acknowledges deep relationality inherent in human action and relationships, the damage and sin of replacing real human intimacy with a fake remains regardless of whether the human object of the porn identifies with being victimized or objectified. That is to say that the viewer can sin even if the model doesn’t think she has.
If we fail to address the real reasons that porn users and/or addicts are using in the first place, our words about objectification and depersonalization fall on deaf ears. If we fail, as a culture to turn the light onto the viewers of porn and be honest about their reasons for using it, we will continue to participate in corporate sinfulness that refuses to acknowledge deeply personal realities that are the building blocks of our culture. Market demand is created by individual persons arriving at similar conclusions. We have indeed created a market for objectification and depersonalization, but it is a secondary symptom rather than a primary cause.
If we make porn use primarily about the female subjects (or male, for that matter) in the porn, we further the patriarchial injustice by refusing to ask the viewers of porn to take responsibility for their own actions and motives. Women’s use of and addictions to porn are also on the rise, and that’s not just patriarchy at work – it’s about a fundamental and universal human, rather than exclusively male, longing for connection and intimacy being distorted. Patriarchy destroys right responsibility for power, attempts to divert the focus of the discussion and employs victim blame – regardless of whether those victims are women, men, children, or any other marginalized group. There is comfort being protected by that patriarchy. The cultural and personal patriarchy we participate in covers up our deep longing for intimacy and its power to make us do things that hurt ourselves and each other. And that, in my opinion, is why Belle Knox claims liberation in her “work”, why her viewer gets away from the limelight, and why we all talk about the characters and market forces at play at the risk of excluding the power and purpose of human sexuality.
Leah Perrault is the author of Theology of the Body for Every Body and co-author (with Vox Nova’s Brett Salkeld) of How Far Can We Go? A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating.
We continue our Lenten reflection on the Creed. Please see Part I for the ground rules. Please contribute!
Update 4/5/14: Part III has appeared.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.
I want to offer the following verses in reflection on this portion of the creed:
by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary: “The Word became flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory that he has from the Father as only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
he came down from heaven: “though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,but emptied himself,taking the form of a slave,being born in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:6-7)
he suffered death and was buried: “The snares of death encompassed me;the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me” (Psalms 116:3)
his kingdom will have no end: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; the first heaven and the first earth had disappeared now, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride dressed for her husband. Then I heard a loud voice call from the throne, ‘Look, here God lives among human beings. He will make his home among them; they will be his people, and he will be their God, God-with-them.He will wipe away all tears from their eyes; there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness or pain. The world of the past has gone.’” (Rev 21:1-4)
A few years ago my wife taught art to children and adults, and she regularly employed the pedagogy of teaching the masters. Her students studied the works of famous artists to better understand the methods, techniques, and purposes of their art. None of the masters followed the exact same rules; each one’s “how to” was always to an extent their own. Learning their ways helped the students discover their own best practices.
Few could deny that Pope Francis has proved to be an effective leader. Indeed, history might someday declare him a master. Author Chris Lowney, whose latest book is Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads (Loyola Press, 2013), certainly sees the pope as a leader worth emulating. In this book, Lowney examines the theology, philosophy, and personality behind the way Pope Francis leads. More importantly, he draws lessons from the pope’s example for leaders in churches, businesses, governments, and everywhere else.
Lowney’s central premise is that “leaders act on beliefs and convictions formed long before they reached the executive suite or papal apartments” (67). Leadership is more than tactics and more than strategy. And it isn’t about the leader. According to our Jesuit Pope, leadership involves service to others and immersion in the world, living in the present while respecting those who have gone before, learning from the past and creating a better future. Leadership is about the journey that both the leader and the led must make. Your beliefs and convictions determine where you’re going.
If you’re a leader intrigued by the manner of Pope Francis, I recommend you read Chris Lowney’s spiritually-reflective and highly-practical Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads. After all, the pope does seem to know what he’s doing!
It was 1980 and El Salvador was in crisis. Conflict was raging between the military government and paramilitary groups (a conflict that would escalate into the twelve-year Salvadoran Civil War). The rural poor were suffering oppression at the hands of wealthy landowners while death squads patrolled the country. Each day innocent people were being tortured and raped and killed.
Whenever I read about this period – or talk with those surviving – I am dumbfounded. I cannot comprehend how Salvadorans managed to carry on any semblance of normal life amid such violence. Even more difficult to imagine is the courage of those who dared to speak their opposition. Each Sunday, Archbishop Oscar Romero would broadcast a radio sermon denouncing the human rights violations of the government: “In the name of God I implore you, I beg you. I order you: stop the repression!” he once famously cried. His plea was not heeded. On 24 March 1980, Romero was shot while saying Mass in a small chapel. For twelve further years, his country would be razed by war.
I first learned of Romero when my eighth grade religion teacher showed us the 1989 film based on his life. I was inspired by this man who, at the age of sixty and after a lifetime of honourable (but quiet) service to the church, became a champion of the poor and oppressed. Throughout my childhood, I had loved my Catholic faith for its spirituality and its emphasis on community but, after seeing Romero, I learned that my Church was also meant to be a refuge for the poor and the oppressed. I developed an interest in Latin America that remains to this day. I learned that charity and good works, though integral to Christian living, were not enough; that I was called to act against oppression and transform the world in which I live.
Romero is often portrayed as a bookish traditionalist whose appointment as Archbishop met the chagrin of the progressive wing of the Salvadoran Church. When his friend, the Jesuit Rutilio Grande, informed Romero of peasant farmers being oppressed in the Aguilares region of the country, Romero stated that priests should not meddle in politics. His position changed after the assassination of Grande. Deeply affected by the loss of this friend, Romero felt called to take up the cause of these peasants: “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path”. In that moment of conversion, Romero made the cause of these peasants his own.
While I generally accept this telling, I am somewhat bothered by the sharp contrast that is drawn between the before and after of his conversion. I grant that it is difficult to believe that someone who studied in an Italy run by fascists, and who wrote a doctoral dissertation on ascetical theology, and who edited a conservative newspaper, would champion social justice and emerge as an emblem of the Latin American left.
However, the conversion of Romero becomes much less surprising when considering an aspect of his daily life which remained constant. Committed to a daily examination of conscience and of constant self-offering to Christ, the deeply pious Romero strove to live out his faith in the best way he knew. I am convinced that his deep spirituality guided him whether writing his doctoral thesis or visiting the poor in Aguilares; when establishing apostolic committees as a parish priest and when denouncing the crimes of his government. I do not believe that his conversion, in 1977, surrounded his changing political thought. Instead it was the culmination of his lifelong commitment to the love of Jesus Christ.
The ministry of Romero shared much with the ministry of Jesus. Like Jesus, Romero embarked upon an intense ministry that lasted three years. Like Jesus, Romero identified with the plight of the marginalized and he dared to speak out against the state. Like Jesus, Romero sparked a movement that has continued to this day. He is now recognized by millions – Christians and non-Christians alike – as a tireless seeker of peace.
Whenever I revisit Romero, I am struck by how ordinary he was. Undoubtedly a man of talent, Romero was nonetheless an ordinary man striving to live out his principles as best he knew. What distinguishes him from many, perhaps, is that when he witnessed the crisis unfolding in his country, he did not succumb to the temptation to be a bystander. He did not shake his head in despair. Instead he listened to his conscience. Bravely he dared to walk a path which, though difficult, was the one he knew to be right.
While the Salvadoran Civil War may have ended, death squads and torture and war are not only stories of the past. They are featured not only in headline-making places such as the Ukraine or Syria but also in the streets of North American cities. There poverty and inequality of opportunity continue to cause suffering for millions. I believe that no matter where a person is in his or her life, and no matter his or her location or profession, each can draw inspiration from Oscar Romero. Whether resisting large-scale global injustices by joining activist movements or working for greater justice in the local community … whether travelling to conflict-ridden areas or seeking to resolve conflict within the home, each is presented with the same call that Romero answered.
Each is called to become a messenger of peace.
Jeannine M. Pitas
Jeannine Pitas is a Ph.D. candidate at University of Toronto’s Centre for Comparative Literature. Jeannine is completing her dissertation on Latin American women poets of resistance. We, at Vox Nova, are grateful that she would share this post with our readers.
I would like to invite our readers to join me on a spiritual exercise over the next three weeks. Posted below is a passage from the Nicene Creed. I am asking each of you to reflect on it and add scriptural quotations that are closely related in some way to a phrase or passage in the Creed. I have been toying with this idea for several years, every since I read Luke Timothy Johnson’s The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters. Further motivation comes from a lecture course on early Christian history from Reform Theological Seminary. Not surprisingly, given his conservative Protestant background and audience, the instructor, Professor Donald Fortson, makes a great effort to show the close relationship between the Creeds and scripture. And as the Fathers of Vatican II put it:
[T]here exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. (Dei Verbum 9)
Any good commentary on the Creed (such as Johnson’s) will provide a detailed discussion of the scriptural basis of the Creed. But I think it is worthwhile to reflect on this individually and collectively, bringing forth from our own experience passages we find meaningful, and share them here.
Below is the first part of the Creed; over the next two weeks I will post the subsequent parts. Following this I get the ball rolling with a few quotes, and then some basic ground rules for this exercise.
I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
Whenever I reflect on the beginning of the Creed, the following passages come to mind:
I believe: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24 NRSV)
one God: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (Dt 6:4 NIV)
(added 3/25) light from light: “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There in their presence he was transfigured: his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as dazzling as light.”
(As this goes on I may come back and add more, either here or in the commboxes.)
I want to encourage everyone (especially our many readers who do not ordinarily comment on posts) to share the passages that come to mind during the week. As you contribute and share in this spiritual exercise, please keep the following commonsense rules in mind:
- Please quote the phrase you are commenting on.
- Include the book and verse and a notation on the translation you are using.
- If the verse you quote seems oblique or the connection is not obvious, feel free to explain why you think this particular passage is relevant.
- Please do not criticize verses other people quote: this is not a discussion on theology but a moment of reflection.
- Please do not digress to talk about other issues (such as the translation) or include quotes from sources other than Scripture (such as the Fathers or modern theologians).
If this goes well, I may compile the results into a small devotional book of some kind. If I do, I promise that if it is illustrated it will not contain pictures of the Dragon Ball Jesus genre!
Update 3/29/2014: Part II can be found here.
Vox Nova is pleased to welcome a guest post from Francisco Cruz-Uribe.
There are a fair number of paintings that I have noticed recently while faffing about online. They all share a few common features; features similar to those displayed by characters on the show Dragon Ball. For those few lucky enough to have never heard of Dragon Ball, here is a very brief recap. Dragon Ball is a Japanese cartoon featuring over-muscled men fighting in intergalactic battles. The storyline is complex and over-the-top, but all of the characters share the same features. They are all absurdly strong, they can shoot energy beams out of their hands, they all have really wild hair, and they always have an energy aura about them. I have included some example images, for comparison later.
Anyway, after seeing a certain painting (see below), and then noticing a large number of paintings similar to it, I have sarcastically dubbed them “Dragon Ball Jesus,” since they feature Jesus sporting ludicrous features shared by the characters in Dragon Ball. Sometimes, they are deliberately ironic or for the sake of comedy, like this one here:
Other times they are oh so serious, yet come across as hilarious. Dragon Ball Jesus paintings all have one or more of the following features in common. They either have Jesus surrounded in some glowing aura, as though he were about to explode with radiation:
An aside to explain the inside joke: In the show, one of the villains they fight, Freeza, would constantly transform, each time exploding in a burst of light, and with each new form would grow in power. His most famous line in the show was “this isn’t even my final form!”
Note the comedic similarity of this image and the image from Dragon Ball above. Other features of Dragon Ball Jesus include him holding light in his hands, as though he is about to throw a massive energy beam at the viewer.
This is the picture that started it all. Imagine seeing this projected 2o feet high during a religious education program at my church:
I mean, just look at it, and tell me it doesn’t resemble this:
I have sarcastically dubbed this odd genre of paintings Dragon Ball Jesus simply because it is hilarious to do so. However, I began to ponder why I find them so funny. Other people (whom I am sure shall present themselves in responses to this) take these paintings very seriously. They admire these images in a way I cannot fathom. So why do I find it uproarious to compare these paintings to a cheesy cartoon?
Perhaps it’s due to the fact that these images so colossally miss the point of Jesus. I find it amusing to compare them to Dragon Ball in order to point out that they have as much to do with Jesus as a silly TV show. The fact that these are taken so seriously despite them not being very accurate makes it funny to draw comparisons to something equally ludicrous.
These paintings were made with the correct intent in mind, certainly, but came out wrong in representing Jesus. Here, I will only use the last painting as an example; otherwise individually judging all the paintings I found would take too long. I am also going to extrapolate as to the motive of the artists. It seems that the artist was trying to capture Jesus, but was not quite clear on how to do so. They compiled what they knew on Jesus, and threw that into a painting. They know he is omnipotent, so they put him in space and made him look big! He is good, so make him holding light! He is the Son of God, so make him looking directly into the audience! However, these paintings don’t really capture any of the actual meaning behind these concepts, or anything that Jesus actually did. They merely show abstractly the ideals and bare bones models of what Jesus should be, rather that what he actually was. These come from a vague understanding of Jesus, without any elaboration. It is not specifically Catholic, or even Christian: it is only vaguely deistic. Jesus existed, but they don’t have the spiritual vocabulary to articulate the details of his existence, merely that he is good and stuff. This is a literal and heavy-handed interpretation of Jesus and I think it deserves to be mocked.
Francisco Cruz-Uribe is an amateur philosopher and avid anime fan. His father David bears no responsibility for the contents of this post.
As the twentieth century progressed, the Catholic Church would approach ecumenical marriages with lessening degrees of apprehension. While persons continue to voice approaches of that past when speaking of marriages between a Catholic and a non-Catholic Christian, my attempt is to chart something of the changing language attached to such relationships.
Catholic thought had tended toward identifying practical challenges. These challenges would be expressed through concern for, for example, the Catholic faith of children reared in an ecumenical context as well as for the faith of the Catholic spouse. In paragraph 82 of the 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii, Pope Pius XI would cite the assertion of the 1917 Code of Canon Law that
everywhere and with the greatest strictness the Church forbids marriages between baptized persons, one of whom is a Catholic and the other a member of a schismatic or heretical sect; and if there is, add to this, the danger of the falling away of the Catholic party and the perversion of the children, such a marriage is forbidden also by the divine law (Canon 1060).
The pope would comment that, when such marriages did occur, it was because the Church had not refused to grant a dispensation from its laws (para 82). Further, when such marriages did occur, the pope observed, it was because the dangers identified in Canon 1060 had been shown to have been sufficiently guarded against (ibid).
Besides these practical challenges surrounding the preservation of Catholic faith, the pope would voice a more abstract challenge that he believed was implicit in such marriages. The religious character of marriage, he would argue, signifies the union between Christ and the Church. Though those who marry strive to approach as “nearly as possible” that archetype (para 81), in ecumenical marriages it “becomes much more difficult to imitate” that “close union” (para 83).
Both of these challenges – surrounding the (1) preservation of Catholic faith in the Catholic spouse and in any children reared in an ecumenical marriage, as well as the (2) union between Christ and the Church which couples strive to signify but have difficultly doing so when not sharing one confession – continue to be given voice in the 1966 Instruction Matrimonii Sacramentum.
Observing, however, the circumstances of a changing world – one wherein more frequent contact exists between Catholics and other Christians – the Instruction highlights the need for a more vigilant approach to those seeking to contract marriage. Provisions, however, emerge which surround, for example, the inclusion of words from a non-Catholic minister following the celebration of marriage or, to cite another example, surrounding prayers that might together be recited by Catholics and other Christians in the context of a celebration of marriage (4. V.).
Pope Paul VI, in his 1970 Apostolic Letter Matrimonia Mixta, echoes concern surrounding the faith of the Catholic spouse and of children reared in an ecumenical context. He notes, however, that the risk of religious indifferentism is lessened not only by the Christian conviction of each spouse but also by each being properly formed in his or her own respective tradition. The rearing of children, he adds, is especially challenging since both spouses have responsibility to them. Nonetheless “so far as it is possible”, children are to share the faith of their Catholic parent.
With some exceptions, the pope continues, ecumenical marriages do not serve to re-establish unity among Christians. However, if “even the difficulties arising in marriages between a Catholic and an unbaptized person can be overcome through pastoral watchfulness and skill”, how much more, then, in a marriage between two Christian persons; marriages which the Church does not approach in the way it has marriages between a Catholic and a non-Christian.
Pope John Paul II, in his 1981 Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, frames his concern in terms of the “special needs” of couples living within an ecumenical marriage (para 78). While attention is given to the obligation of the Catholic spouse – to exercise his or her Catholic faith and, “as far as is possible”, to see that children reared share in that faith – the pope also notes the importance of respecting religious freedom: Undue pressures to make either partner change beliefs, or constructing obstacles to the manifestation of such beliefs, are to be avoided (ibid).
Marriages between a Catholic person and another Christian contain numerous elements that
could be made good use of and developed, both for their intrinsic value and for the contribution they can make to the ecumenical movement. This is particularly true when both parties are faithful to their religious duties. Their common baptism and the dynamism of grace provide spouses in these marriages with the basis and motivation for expressing their unity in the sphere of moral and spiritual values (ibid).
Such marriages which, in the estimation of John Paul II, are of “ecumenical importance” (ibid), can become, to Pope Benedict XVI, a “practical laboratory of unity” (Warsaw, 2006). For this to happen, Benedict views, there is “need for mutual good will, understanding and maturity in faith of both parties, and also of the communities from which they come” (ibid).
There’s a reason that my title is so unwieldy. It has to do with the fact that I’m trying to parse out several things from the standpoint of a non-professional on these matters. When it comes down to it, I know very little about same-sex attraction, whether psychologically, biologically, or sociologically. What I do have are some friends who have taught me a lot about it, some articles I’ve read, and some ideas I want to throw around to get some feedback.
My basic starting point is that, while I accept the Catholic Church’s teaching on same-sex acts, I seem to interpret that teaching very strictly. I say “seem” because I have many Catholic friends who seem to interpret it much more strictly. My interpretation is that the teaching of the Church extends only to same-sex genital acts and does not refer to the sexuality as a whole. In other words, if sexuality is primarily about relationship, as some psychologists describe it, then there is much more to a sexuality than its genital expression. So what I’m not going to do here is speculate on why the Church thinks the genital manifestation of this sexuality is wrong. I’m going to take that for granted right now. I just want to explore how it seems to me that many other aspects of homosexual sexuality are very rich in their manifestations.
To borrow an example and then probably to mess it up completely, James Alison gives the following analogy:
Think of it this way. There is a distinction between left-handedness and the act of writing left-handedly. For most of us the distinction remains exactly that, and has no moral consequences. We would understand that a left-handed person forced to write right-handedly owing, say, to having their left arm in a plaster cast, or a right-handed person forced to write left-handedly for analogous reasons, would, with some difficulty, be able to learn to do so. These people would in some sense be acting “contra natura”. But the use of the hand appropriate to their handedness would be entirely unremarkable, and if we used words to describe it at all, they would be words like “typical” or “natural”. Now, imagine that, involved in a Catholic discussion, you find yourself addressing a left-handed person. You say: “Any left-handed writing you do is intrinsically wrong; and in fact the inclination we call left-handedness must be considered objectively disordered.”
I think what I’m saying, to continue with the left-handed metaphor, is that the index finger of the left hand has disordered inclinations such that it can’t point right, for example. However, the whole hand is not disordered as a result, and if the index finger is taped together to the other fingers, it can contribute very well to, say, shooting a basketball. It can make a very positive contribution.
To some degree, I think that’s what is being said over at the Spiritual Friendship blog. They say things like:
Our same-sex love can “express itself as chaste friendship or mystical approach to God rather than as gay sex.”
What we, in modernity, have chosen to call a “homosexual orientation” (or “being gay”) includes much of what Scripture and the Christian tradition commend as Christian virtues.
One of these virtues is the ability to form bonds of deep friendship with members of the same sex. He concludes that writers at Spiritual Friendship understand
“same-sex attraction” or “being gay” as broader, more inclusive categories that can’t be reduced to the behavior, or even the desire for, gay sex. Just as chaste chivalry, to take just one example, can be an expression of heterosexuality, so we’re suggesting that chaste friendship (or a number of other ways of expressing love) can be an expression of homosexuality.
I find this position attractive and probably another good reason why we should be wary with Michael Hannon of the category of “orientation.” There is so much to homosexual sexuality that cannot be put into the orientation box just as there is so much to heterosexual sexuality that cannot be put into that same box.
Within the broad category of “relationality,” spirituality, friendship, and apostolic effectiveness come to mind.
Spirituality. In my experience, there is a richness to homosexual expressions of spirituality that are entirely separable from the desire for genital expression. For me, it’s almost enough to read John of the Cross’ Spiritual Canticle to make this point. Stanza XXVII for example:It seems apparent to me there is 1. A beautiful spiritual expression here of same-sex attraction and love that 2. Does not have to have anything to do with “orientation,” and which 3. I’m not capable of having. This is not my spirituality, pure and simple. It makes me uncomfortable. But it is quite comforting to many others and has been a profound source of a rich spirituality throughout the centuries.
There He gave me His breasts,
There He taught me the science full of sweetness.
And there I gave to Him
Myself without reserve;
There I promised to be His bride.
Friendship. It has been my experience as well that often friendships with those who have same-sex attractions grow and develop richly as a result of those attractions and not despite them. There is something helpfully intuitive about friends with same-sex attractions that allow them to emphathize with other men in ways that many heterosexual men cannot do. Which leads to…
Apostolic Effectiveness. Many men with same-sex attractions have been profoundly successful in ministry, both within the priesthood and outside of it, again, as a result and not despite their particular sexuality. That is at least my observational experience.
So what I ask and welcome are any helpful comments about how to think about these realities, beginning from what the Church teaches. I’m curious as to whether others interpret the Church’s teaching in the same way and what they think it means practically. I’m also curious as to whether others have found my observational ramblings to match their experience.
In one sense, this should be expected. Christian theology has Jesus Christ being fully man and fully God. Not everything he said and did would be appropriate (or possible) for a mere mortal to imitate.
In another sense, however, Christians should be expected to act like Christ. According to orthodox theology, Jesus revealed both something of the nature of God and something of the nature of humankind. Jesus showed what it means to be human. It stands to reason, then, that the followers of Christ would strive to follow his example.
What is that example? If there’s an overarching theme to Christ’s ministry and passion, a logic that it follows, I would say it’s total, unconditional self-emptying or self-giving. Theologians call this kenosis, a word initially used to describe the humility of God becoming man (Phil 2:6), but since used also in reference to his complete obedience and service to the Father, his willingness to give his life for the expiation of sins, and his absolute, unconditional gift of self for the good of creation. According to the gospels, Jesus followed the logic of preservation as well–e.g. working a job, attending a wedding, eating food–but these acts were all done for the sake of his ministry. Jesus followed the logic of preservation so that he could better follow the logic of self-emptying.
Should total, unconditional self-emptying also be the logic of the Christian life? In his preaching, Jesus implied that it should. Following him meant selling everything you had and giving it to the poor. To be his disciple, you had to hate your family and even your own life. The early disciples took him at his word. Many were martyred, offering their lives as a witness to those who killed them. They gave everything to help build the Kingdom of God, and the Church celebrates them for their sacrifice. They gave all despite the dangers to themselves and those under their care. They believed bringing souls into the Kingdom was more important than their physical lives. Spreading the gospel deserved their full devotion.
Interestingly, over the course of the Church, this logic of self-emptying is rare among Christians, and not only because Christians try and fail. It’s rare also because it’s not always expected, not even by the Church. Why? Perhaps because this logic isn’t rational. Not if the logic of preservation, built into our nature, rules. Not in comparison to the logic of prosperity built into our culture. It doesn’t work. You can’t build a social order on total self-emptying, not one we’d recognize anyway. Our species seeks to perpetuate itself. Our social arrangements do as well. For the “world,” so to speak, the logic of preservation largely reigns.
This goes for Christians as well. As they work to live long and prosper, Christians might also work a spirit of kenosis into their lives, but it’s not the primary ethos that governs all that they do. They must give something to the good of others, but not everything. In some cases, denominations even permit the faithful to act against the good of others when one’s own good or the common good necessitates it. Traditionally, Christians can kill justly under certain conditions.They can destroy others, rationally and licitly. Christ chose self-emptying over self-preservation, but his followers, by and large, don’t have to be as radical or irrational.
I’m certainly not. The entries on my Google calendar do not give witness to a life lived in service to others. I don’t even try, as a Christian, to live ultimately according to the logic of kenosis. This is sort of odd because it’s precisely this logic that most attracts me to the Christian life.
The rare Christian is as radically irrational as Christ. The church honors them for this, but why? Because these souls successfully lived the Christian life? Or because they successfully went above and beyond it?
I couldn’t help but feel that this passage from the Office of Readings this morning by St. Asterius of Amasea was perfect for the anniversary of Pope Francis’ election:
“Let us then be shepherds like the Lord… When one of them was separated from the flock and lost its way, that shepherd did not remain with the sheep who kept together at pasture. No, he went off to look for the stray. When he found it, he did not chastise it; he did not use rough blows to drive it back, but gently placed it on his own shoulders and carried it back to the flock… Let us look closely at the hidden meaning of this parable. The sheep is more than a sheep, the shepherd more than a shepherd. They are examples enshrining holy truths. They teach us that we should not look on men as lost or beyond hope; we should not abandon them when they are in danger or be slow to come to their help.”
Thank you Lord for such a good Shepherd you have given us!
There is an old bit of advice that a trial lawyer should never ask a question he does not already know the answer to; another version, illustrated by the following (apocryphal) story, says he should never ask a question if he does not want to hear the answer.
In a trial, a small-town prosecuting attorney called his first witness, a grandmotherly, elderly woman, to the stand. He approached her and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know me?”
She responded, “Why, yes, I do know you, Mr. Williams. I’ve known you since you were a boy, and frankly, you’ve been a big disappointment to me. You lie, you cheat on your wife, and you manipulate people and talk about them behind their backs. You think you’re a big shot when you haven’t the brains to realize you’ll never amount to anything more than a two-bit paper pusher. Yes, I know you.”
The lawyer was stunned. Not knowing what else to do, he pointed across the room and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know the defense attorney?”
She again replied, “Why yes, I do.” And, again, she continued, “I’ve known Mr. Bradley since he was a youngster, too. He’s lazy, bigoted, and he has a drinking problem. He can’t build a normal relationship with anyone, and his law practice is one of the worst in the entire state. Not to mention he cheated on his wife with three different women. One of them was your wife. Yes, I know him.”
The defense attorney nearly died.
The judge asked both counselors to approach the bench and, in a very quiet voice, said, “If either of you idiots asks her if she knows me, I’ll hold both of you in contempt of court.”
Last fall, in preparation for the Synod on the Family, the Vatican (presumably at Pope Francis’ behest) sent a survey to all the national bishops’ conferences, asking them to gather responses to the questions as widely as possible. The survey was not a poll constructed according to modern sociological standards, but rather a list of lengthy questions more easily answered in a narrative format. Several bishops conferences, most notably in England and Wales, Germany and Switzerland, nevertheless conducted surveys of their laity to gather responses. The secular press also took part, with the Spanish language network Univision commissioning a methodical, multi-nation survey. (An executive summary is here as a PDF document.)
In the United States, however, the USCCB did not conduct a national survey, nor did it call on each bishop to conduct surveys or otherwise seek responses from a broad pool of people. In my own archdiocese, I have heard nothing about if or how our archbishops (in December Archbishop Mansell stepped down and was replaced by Archbishop Blair) planned to gather information and respond. A few dioceses, however, did attempt to survey their laity, including San Jose, California, and St. Petersburg, Florida. Bishop Lynch of St. Petersburg, like the German and Swiss bishops, released the results publicly.
What is the reason for this reticence on the part of the American bishops, both individually and collectively, to gather responses from a broad array of the laity? It would not have been too difficult to get CARA or some other research firm to convert the synodal questions into a meaningful survey document—indeed, they would probably have done a better job than a secular firm, since they could have probed with more depth and more nuance into issues that are not sexy but are fundamental. (This is what the Swiss bishops did.) Or they could have simply asked publicly for feedback, and used the many responses, with all their biases, to get some some sense of what people are thinking.
I started this post with two bits of advice for trial lawyers. The first does not apply: I find it impossible to believe that our bishops are not aware of the disconnect between Church teaching and what the laity actually believe and do. Indeed, there have been rumors for years that these very topics are discussed quietly at the annual USCCB meetings, but pressure from Rome and the most conservative faction of bishops kept it off the official agenda. Were they to ask the laity what they think, I do not believe they would be surprised by the answers.
With regards to the second bit of advice: I think it is quite possible that they do not want to ask the question because if they do and then hear the answer, they will have to acknowledge the facts on the ground. Like the judge in the story, they are afraid the answer will not reflect well on the Church, or at least on the effectiveness of the teaching magisterium. And in one sense it won’t: the media and the broader culture already see the current situation as a massive failure of the Church’s teaching office, and the bishops acknowledging this fact will only make it worse. Of course, this trope ignores the complicated and messy history of Catholic teaching and its reception. The vision of the laity marching in lockstep to the directions of Rome exists only in the minds of nostalgic restorationists and the fantasies of anti-Catholics (among whom I include, in it softer form, much of the secular media).
Now, however, the bishops have the problem that Rome has asked the question, and the Pope is genuinely interested in hearing the answer. How should they respond? Two predictable suggestions split in opposite directions. One is that they should hold firm on Church teaching and preach it more forcefully. Indeed, when these issues come up in our commboxes, a common response is for someone to say: “I never hear my deacon/pastor/bishop preach forcefully about these matters.” Or they point out a priest or bishop who does, but do so to highlight their minority status. The alternative response is that the Church should change its doctrine given the massive failure of this doctrine to be accepted. There is some truth to both positions: the Church does need to teach clearly but at the same time, the reception of doctrine, or the failure to be accepted, is a mark of the sensus fidelium of the whole faithful.
However, neither answer is adequate. We cannot continue to teach in the same way, with the same language, if it is clear that we are not being heard. As we discussed in an earlier post, this problem applies not just to controversial issues but even to core doctrinal issues such as the Real Presence. And I will be the first to admit that the sensus fidelium cannot be reduced to polling data. (I believe Pope Francis made a similar point, but I cannot find the quote.)
I propose instead that the bishops begin by really listening to their flocks. Not to dispute with them, or to agree with them, but to understand them. They need make an effort to hear “[t]he joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted” as the Fathers of Vatican II put it in Gaudium et Spes. Reflecting on the sexual abuse crisis, one thing I noticed was that many victims wanted, more than anything else, to be heard, to have their suffering acknowledged. Unfortunately, it took many (most?) bishops far too long to understand this fact.
The Synod on the Family will be in two parts. There may not be time before the first half in October 2014, when the bishops are to report, but there will be plenty of time before the 2015 meeting. Armed with what they have heard from other bishops, the American bishops should return home and listen to the laity for themselves, and shape their responses and proposals in light of this. This will be hard and for many reasons the bishops will be loath to do this. Their own experience shows the problems that can occur: their last attempt at broad consultation—the failed attempt in the late 80′s to write a pastoral letter on women—ended badly.
Will things change? I think they will: there already appears to be movement to address the question of divorce and remarriage, though it is not clear what shape the final solution will take. But I hope and pray for a bigger change: a change in the relationship between the bishops and the laity. “Pray, pay and obey” never really worked, and it will not work now. The Latin root of the word “obey” is “obedire”, to listen. I want a Church in which the laity listen and understand their bishops, whether on abortion and same sex marriage or on immigration and economic justice. But I don’t think this will happen until the bishops start listening to the laity.
On Wednesday, March 5th, the Church began a period of intense prayer, fasting and of giving alms to the poor. Lent.
At Eucharistic services on that day, the faithful received the sign of the Cross on their foreheads with ashes. After the homily, the priest was to say: “Dear friends in Christ, let us ask our Father to bless these ashes which we will use as the mark of our repentance. Almighty God, bless the sinner who asks for your forgiveness and bless all those who receive these ashes. May they keep this Lenten season in preparation for the joy of Easter. We ask this through Christ our Lord.” The faithful, then, were to come forward and have ashes signed onto their foreheads. As the ashes were imposed, the minister would say: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.”
One of the assigned antiphons, to be sung during the rite of the imposition of the ashes, comes from the book of Joel: “Come back to the Lord with all your heart; leave the past in ashes, and turn to God with tears and fasting, for he is slow to anger and ready to forgive.”
The Gospel for this first Sunday of Lent is from Matthew. Jesus is about to begin his public life and he goes into the desert to pray for forty days and nights. There the Evil One tempts him. The tempter tries to convince Jesus that it is nonsense for Jesus to expect to save the world by the way God proposes. Jesus is tempted to turn stones to bread, to throw himself down from the roof of the temple and, finally, to worship the Evil One.
These same temptations assail the Church today. We ask Jesus to turn stones to bread without first changing our own hearts. We ask for signs and wonders while forgetting the signs and wonders that have come through God’s love and that have come through the mystery of the cross. We want to be powerful and to “go along to get along” with the society in which we live. We often participate in the evil of our society and forget that the end never justifies the means.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel, we were told on Ash Wednesday. Lent gives opportunity to “change our hearts by the grace of God” and to change our deeds and our lifestyle. It gives opportunity to really change, and not simply intend to.
Living the Christian life is no easier now than it was for our ancestors in faith. Greed, hatred, revenge, lust for power, selfish disregard for others … are still the norm. The love of God, however, urges us on and the fact that we are saved by the grace of God can empower us to turn away from sin and into the arms of God.
Father Carl Diederichs
Father Carl Diederichs is the pastor of All Saints Catholic Church in Milwaukee. We, at Vox Nova, are grateful that he would share this guest post with our readers.
In another of his off-the-cuff remarks to a journalist, this time at Corriere della Serra, Pope Francis took issue with the bifurcation of Church moral teachings into “non-negotiable” and “negotiable”.
Here is what he said: “I have never understood the expression non-negotiable values. Values are values, and that is it. I can’t say that, of the fingers of a hand, there is one less useful than the rest. Whereby I do not understand in what sense there may be negotiable values. I wrote in the exhortation ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ what I wanted to say on the theme of life.”
American Catholics have been accustomed to this for years. Groups like Catholic Answers have come up with a list of non-negotiables, five of them – abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, embryonic stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage. The logic is that since these are “intrinsically evil”, they can never be supported. Everything else is “negotiable” in the sense that prudential differences are possible.
Clearly, this does not pass the smell test. The concept of “instrinic evil” is simply not a useful way of thinking about public policy – after all, masturbation is intrinsically evil, while drunk driving is not. This argument was made brilliantly by Bishop Robert McElroy in America magazine, which has become essential reading for American Catholics.
As an example: war is not intrinsically evil, because some wars are just. Taken to its logical and absurb conclusion, this approach to public morality would argue that what Bashar al-Assad is doing in Syria is not “non-negotiable” and so can be supported. A less extreme example concerns poverty reduction. Yes, this is a prudential issue, and yes, there are many approaches consistent with Catholic social teaching. But actions to make the poor poorer and the rich richer is not one of them.
As Pope Francis puts it, values are values. Protecting life is non-negotiable. Social justice is non-negotiable. Protecting the planet is non-negotiable.
This bifuracation – an approach that, as Henri de Lubac once said, reflects more of a Protestant than a Catholic outlook – has always been about certain American Catholics imparting a fake apostolic blessing on a particular political party. It has never been consistently Catholic in its approach. Hopefully, this comedy is now over.
On January 1, on the Feast of Mary Mother of God, a guest priest at my parish took the opportunity to talk about the advance of women’s rights under Christianity, compared to many pagan and other worldviews (he dared mention Islam in this regard). On the other hand, he noted, our own household is not entirely in order, and he noted, specifically, that the Catholic Church still refuses to ordain women despite the fact that women are just as qualified for ministry as are men.
I’m not sure if Father meant to say that the Catholic Church recognized that women are as qualified as men, but refuses to ordain them anyways, or if the Church has not yet itself recognized that women actually are as qualified – but I suspect the latter. If, however, he meant the former, I am inclined to agree. That is because official Church teaching makes no mention whatsoever of women’s capacities (or lack thereof) when defending its decision to ordain only (baptized) men.
While it is true that some arguments against women’s ordination popular in the past were based on men’s supposed greater innate capacity for ministry (sometimes due to an ostensible advantage in terms of rationality), it is also the case that these arguments were speculative rather than positive. That is, they took the constant practice of the Church for granted and sought merely to explain it in terms amenable to their audience. This being the case, the deficit of such arguments need not be debilitating for the Church’s current (and, we can remember, constant) position on the matter.
The argument is not, the Church seems to be saying, even about whether or not women are capable. They certainly are. The question has to do with something not functional but sacramental. In positive terms, what did Christ intend as the sacramental structure of the Church? In speculative terms, what, within the whole set of symbols that illuminate the Christian view of the world, the doctrines of creation and of grace and redemption, does a male priesthood represent?
My goal here is to present a speculative answer to the second question. As to the first, the teaching of the Church is that Christ chose only men and that the Church has always chosen only men and that it does not feel at liberty to change that constant practice. Positive (in the technical sense I am using here) arguments for the ordination of women, if they are to be successful, need to meet the Church’s self-understanding on this question on its own ground. No (speculative) argument that women are just as capable as men is going to convince a Magisterium that does not deny this to change a teaching which it feels to be bound to quite other criteria.
(Of course, many do not believe that the Magisterium does believe women are so capable, but that is a fight for another day. In any case, insisting that people believe something they claim not to believe is a fairly ineffective way to get them to consider your point of view.)
But to my own project here.
I want to present, in fear and trembling, a speculative reason for the practice of ordaining only baptized men to the priesthood. (As an aside, we can leave the question of the diaconate for another day. John Paull II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, for what it’s worth, specifically mentions priesthood, and not diaconate, when it asserts that the Church has no power to confer ordination on women.)
The germ for my line of thought came from reading recently about the debate over men’s obsolescence. Men, or so many argue, have become obsolete. In the current state of the world, given various economic, political and scientific realities, men are no longer necessary. On the other hand, I have also recently seen an upsurge in articles about the importance of fathers in the lives of their children. Being a father of four, I am predisposed, I must admit, to taking a favorable view to such arguments.
The thoughts generated here have recently cross-pollinated with the response to David Bentley Hart’s new book on God. The atheist critics (though not all of them), seem to think that a God such as Bentley Hart describes is, like biological fathers according to some others in the culture, obsolete. They see in Bentley Hart’s articulation of classical theism not classical theism at all, but an attempt to preserve God from the advance of scientific knowledge that ends up turning God into something other than anything any normal believer, or even the great theologians of the past, could have meant by the term – and as something rather remote and harmless and effectively useless at that.
Others have engaged this battle and I need not do it here. I mention it because, however, it strikes me as an interesting parallel with the claim that men, i.e, fathers, are obsolete.
Let us step back for a moment. It is not hard, given the realities of human reproduction, to determine the mother of a given child. Determining the father, is, however, a much more delicate task. We know, or at least we used to know (before the advent of certain technologies), nevertheless, that there must be a father.
(Virgin births, once considered miraculous, will soon be quite commonplace, one suspects –at least in the sense that no sexual event led to the conception of the child. Whether the woman in question has ever “known a man” is a separate question but, interestingly I think, a moot one. That question is now irrelevant to whether or not she may have conceived a child.)
But I digress. The point is that in normal, biological human reproduction, the man’s role is, in at least a symbolic sense, transcendent. The very immanent fact of the pregnant woman is evidence of it, but pinning it down can be tricky. And one wonders, if the pregnancy could be explained without him (as it now can be), would the father be necessary at all?
The immanent is not in any such danger. No one argues that women are obsolete.
My thesis, then, comes down to this: presuming that fathers are, in fact, necessary and not merely superfluous or obsolete (and I think it is fair to say the Church is presuming this), restricting ordination to men symbolizes both the irreducibility of the transcendent to the immanent in a culture where more and more people doubt the possibility of transcendence in principle, and the necessity of fathers in the lives of their children in a culture where more and more people think that dads are replaceable.
There is a way, of course, that no argument based on something as complex and intuitive as a symbol system can be a knockout blow. And I do not intend my argument as such. The point here is to take seriously the Church’s assertion that what is at issue for the question of the sex of the ordained person is what it says sacramentally.
The ordained man, as symbol of transcendence, exists only within Mother Church. While it is easy for most of us (including, to a great degree, myself) to imagine an ordained woman, it is not at all easy to imagine Holy Father Church. The idea is alternately comical and terrifying. But are these two images, essentially of Christ and his Bride, not inseparable? Is not the womb of Mother Church that immanent place in which the transcendent can be met?
I have no doubt that there are many women who are as capable as men for ministry. And I think the Church can only benefit from giving such capable women support in ministry. But I suspect there is wisdom in maintaining the Church’s constant practice in a world in which men are increasingly seen as replaceable and in which transcendence is increasingly seen as an illusion.
Brett Salkeld is Archdiocesan Theologian for the Catholic Archdiocese of Regina, Saskatchewan. He is a father of four (so far) and husband of one.