Catholic Church Targets Proponent of Women’s Ordination; Feminist Theologian

As a senior official for Pope John Paul II, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger envisioned a leaner, meaner church, with conservative doctrine and compliant faithful. Now that he is Pope Benedict XVI, his dream is coming true. Other senior churchmen, apparently unaware of the scandal that pedophilia and episcopal cover-ups have wrought, go blithely about their business of disciplining priests, nuns, and theologians. What used to be a large tent of a church is now a tepee—soon to be a pup tent—if these gentlemen have their way. Catholics wonder where it will end.

This afternoon, Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois joined other supporters of feminist ministry on the sidewalk in front of the Vatican Embassy. Bourgeois is the founder of the School of the Americas Watch, a group dedicated to changing US foreign policy in Latin America and closing the Army’s SOA (recently renamed the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation”), a combat training school for Latin American soldiers whose graduates have been involved in torture and murders. Roy  reiterated his support for the ordination of Catholic women, which he demonstrated earlier by being a part of the ordination of his friend Janice Sevre-Duszynska. He was automatically excommunicated in 2008 and now his religious order is expelling him.

Roy’s refusal to accept the hierarchy’s unjust treatment of Catholic women, or what his superiors have labeled his “contumacy,” is a recipe for punishment in this shrinking church. The Maryknoll Father and Brothers (not to be confused with the Maryknoll Sisters or the Maryknoll Lay Missioners which are separate organizations), in cooperation with the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, have issued a canonical warning that they will dismiss him from the order and request that he be laicized, i.e., deprived of his clerical status, if he does not “publicly recant” his views and “agree to obey [his] legitimate Superiors.” One more warning is forthcoming and then out he goes.

I predict that Roy will find himself far freer as a layperson than as a cleric compromised by the immoral values of the institutional church and its leaders. He will find himself yet one more person on the street corner denouncing injustice—whether by church or state—and that is how it should be in a “discipleship of equals”; that is, in communities when all members have equal status and responsibility, albeit with different tasks.

Women’s Ordination Conference, Roman Catholic Womenpriests, Women-Church Convergence, Call to Action, many women’s religious orders, and many other feminist groups have denounced clericalism and announced feminist ministry for decades. They’ve also supported myriad justice issues including the eradication of militarism. It’s about time some ordained male priests saw the light and the connections between and among these issues. It’s high time they have the integrity to speak out, dismantling the clerical system from within, and thus creating a more inclusive church. To Roy’s credit, he now regrets only that he didn’t speak out earlier. Here’s hoping other male priests will finally follow his lead.

Theologians are another target of the Vatican’s efforts to create a smaller, more obedient church. What better target than a feminist nun who teaches at a Catholic university? So the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine declared that Professor Elizabeth A. Johnson’s latest book, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (NY: Continuum, 2007) contains “misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors that bear upon the faith of the Catholic Church.” Or, as the bishops insist, it “contaminates the traditional Catholic understanding of God.” At issue is nothing less than how we engage in theological reflection in postmodernity—a wonderful topic for a follow-up article.

What makes this condemnation of Johnson’s work so egregious is that it comes at the price of violating the bishops’ own guidelines for “promoting cooperation and resolving misunderstandings between bishops and theologians.” Adopted in 1989, these guidelines were crafted precisely to encourage dialogue and discourage this kind of heavy-handed response to theological work that I would wager most bishops do not understand.

Professor Johnson reports that she was neither informed of the investigation of her work nor invited to a dialogue in which she could clarify her positions. Such elementary professional courtesies were lacking allegedly because the book was so popular and so dangerous that the bishops had to race to condemn it lest the faithful suffer dire consequences of not knowing exactly who or what God is. The bishops evidently think they know.

Alas, they are not as swift as they pretend. Thomas Weinandry, Executive Director of the Secretariat for Doctrine of the USCCB, acknowledged that it took them three years to even know about the book, then another “year or so” to develop their condemnatory statement. Where do they live? With more theology happening in blogs than between hard covers these days this timeline is hard to square.

Donald Cardinal Wuerl, chair of the Committee on Doctrine, suggested that if only Professor Johnson had asked for an imprimatur—i.e., a seal of approval from the Catholic hierarchy—she would have saved herself all of this attention; in other words they would have told her not to print it and that would have been that. Of course, Catholic theology doesn’t work that way anymore—a shift Mr. Wuerl evidently isn’t aware of. To the contrary, as one of the leading feminist theologians once remarked, there is so much research to do that when she see a book with an imprimatur she knows she doesn’t have to read it!

At issue here is not theology but power—the power to name theology ‘Catholic’. Countless interpretations of Dr. Johnson’s work later, the bishops’ point is simply to insist that they alone are the arbiters of all things Catholic. It doesn’t matter that many don’t understand, much less appreciate, contemporary theological method, nor that Elizabeth Johnson is hardly outré in feminist theological circles. What matters here is the fact that she writes and teaches at Fordham University, a social location that matches her commitments to theologize in the heart of the tradition.

The whole point of this exercise in my view is to send a message to the larger academic community that only those who toe the doctrinal line, absolutely and without any wiggle room, are theologically acceptable. Their numbers are small. Dr. Johnson will not be silenced or prohibited from teaching. But the graduate students who come after her, and some of her colleagues teaching in Catholic institutions, will think twice about what they write or say for fear of similar repercussions. A shrinking church can apparently do with fewer, more doctrinally conservative theologians. God help it.

Starving the base

John Wojnowski protests priest pedophilia every day in front of the Embassy of the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See to the United States in Washington, DC, (known as the Vatican Embassy) during the noon and evening rush hours. He’s done this for more than a dozen years in silent vigil as cars and buses pass by the mansion on busy Massachusetts Avenue across from the Vice President’s house. Mr. Wojnowski holds a sign decrying priest pedophilia and its devastating impact on his own life.

Initially thought to be a typical street person one sees in many major cities, Mr. Wojnowski was obviously ahead of the curve on what has turned into a multi-billion dollar payout by the Roman Catholic Church to survivors of sexual abuse perpetrated by its clergy and religious. The scandal is far from over. Recently the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Shortly thereafter, they announced a settlement of $166 million for more than five hundred survivors, many of them Native Americans and Alaskan Natives, who had been abused by more than 100 Jesuit priests and brothers.

A damning grand jury report in Philadelphia in February made clear that abuse cases are still piling up. Justin Cardinal Rigali in Philadelphia piously assured his flock that no priests with allegations against them were still in active ministry. A few weeks later he suspended 23 priests suspected of abuse, implicitly admitting that he either lied or didn’t know about the cases. Pick your poison. Either way, he didn’t inspire confidence. So much for the zero tolerance policy that the U.S. Catholic Bishops adopted in 2002 [for more details on the cases see Anthea Butler’s Trial Date Nears for Priests Indicted in Sex Scandal].

Many Catholics have lost respect for their clergy. New Hampshire Republican State Representative D. J. Bettencourt publically referred to Bishop John B. McCormick of Manchester as a “pedophile pimp.” While I know some Catholics who wish they’d coined the phrase, one could reasonably assume that Catholic Church leaders would be begging forgiveness during the Lenten Season and trying to restructure their failing institutions.

Recent polls indicate that U.S. Catholics far surpass the general population when it comes to supporting same-sex marriage despite the hierarchy’s efforts to fund the opposition. Health care reform passed over the bishops’ protests with public support from many Catholic members of Congress, the Catholic Hospital Association, and some Catholic nuns.

Now the bishops are poised to lose even more credibility as they tell the Department of Housing and Urban Development not to adopt “a proposed regulation that would add ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’ to the list of protected categories from which discrimination in HUD programs is prohibited. 76 Fed. Reg. 4194 (Jan. 24, 2011).” Is this a misprint? Christian leaders who want to make it harder for homeless people to get shelter? What version of Matthew 25 do these fellows read?

Given that they’ve lost the better part of their base, the bishops would do well to make common cause with anyone who deigns to deal with them so as to transform the Roman Catholic Church from an unsafe, unsavory hierarchical institution to a safe, harmonious network of interlocking communities with transparency and accountably as its hallmarks. No such luck as the shrinking base becomes even smaller. Instead, the hierarchs are ratcheting up the pressure on people like Fr. Roy Bourgeois and Elizabeth Johnson who are in the heart of their structures. It doesn’t make sense unless their goal of a “faithful remnant” is paramount. Apparently it is.

Time will tell how this chapter of church history will play out; whether Catholicsm will become a tiny tribe of clerics in brocade and their sycophants repeating Roman mantras, or a big, diverse, crowd in lively conversation and committed solidarity. If history is any measure, I daresay the crowd on the sidewalk will prevail. To be ‘catholic’ is to be broadminded, liberal, and inclusive even if to be ‘Catholic’ in the Roman sense is not. The needs of the world, a la the SOA Watch, and not the failings of the institutional church set the justice agenda. Right now, they look very similar.