Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Our Catholic “Stonewall Moment”

At about this time last year, CPCSM and St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church hosted a three-part symposium entitled “Exploring Contemporary Issues Within the Catholic Church.”

The symposium featured internationally renowned expert on clergy sexual abuse, Dr. Gary Schoener who, through an insightful presentation on February 10, 2006, emphasized seldom reported facts concerning the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal –including the range of victims, the different types of abusers, and the impact of the abuse on the victims and their families. Gary also explored the scape-goating of gay priests and the implications of the sex abuse scandal for the future of the institutional church.

The other keynote speaker of the symposium was Catholic feminist theologian and ethicist Mary E. Hunt (pictured below with myself and CPCSM-co founder David McCaffrey), who on February 17 presented “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic: An Ecclesia for Our Children and Ourselves.”

In her talk, Mary envisioned the kind of church “we want to pass on to our children in light of the current institutional scandals, the increasing pluralistic religious setting in which we live, and the demands of justice in the midst of war, ecocide, and greed.” She relied on the traditional “marks of the church” to guide this analysis and visioning.

Following are excerpts from Mary Hunt’s insightful and inspiring presentation, “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic: An Ecclesia for Our Children and Ourselves.”


Our Catholic “Stonewall Moment”
Excerpts from “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic: An Ecclesia for Our Children and Ourselves”
By Mary E. Hunt
CPCSM/St. Joan of Arc 2006 Symposium
February 17, 2006

The Sad State of Kyriarchal Affairs

The word “kyriarchy” is a good one to add to your vocabulary.* Recall “kyrie eleison” and you will recall that “kyrie” is the Greek word for “lord.” Kyriarchy means structures of lordship. Theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza coined the word so as to move away from simply understanding the world in gendered terms as “patriarchy” or “rule by the fathers” suggests. While sexism is a problem, as we in the Catholic Church can attest to from personal experience, it is hardly ever without its companion racism, which is hardly ever found without economic oppression, which is usually paired with imperialism and colonialism, and carries heterosexism as a constant. It is these forms of oppression that are interstructured and then used as the ideological foundation for social and cultural institutions that constitute kyriarchy.

The Roman Catholic institutional church is one of the most graphic examples of kyriarchy. It is a top down model with a handful of men making most of the decisions. Women are virtually excluded. Western men predominate; people of color are rarely in positions of power at the international level or in places where white people predominate. Since Vatican II there has been a studied effort on the part of liberal to progressive Catholics to change that model, to follow the Council’s lead toward more open, participatory, and egalitarian approaches. But John Paul II, then Cardinal Ratzinger, and other powerful Vatican figures, understanding correctly that such moves would result in a diminishment of their power and many changes in church life, began to backpedal. They insisted that the doors and windows that had been open at the Council were in fact opened in an experimental mode that was not meant to be permanent. Indeed, they declared that it was time to close them and get back to business as usual.

The opposition to their efforts comes from those of us in the women-church movement, in church reform circles, and in progressive parishes like this one that seek to act like an ecclesia, not a kyriarchy. An ecclesia is a congress or an assembly, we might say the community of those who strive to be a “discipleship of equals,” to use another happy phrase from Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.** We organize and hold ourselves accountable according to the participatory models we discern work best for us. So to the tired old excuse “the church is not a democracy” many people are saying “it ought to be and we will make it so.” Or, we might say, kyriarchy is not democratic but ecclesia is.

That struggle between those who want an open and participatory church which would be quite diverse and those, including now Pope Benedict XVI and other conservatives, who believe that a smaller, more homogeneous church would be better—what I have come to think of the leaner/meaner style—is a struggle that forms the context or the backdrop for most of our contemporary experience of church.

I will not rehearse the priest pedophilia and episcopal cover-up scandals because you have recently had a lecture by Gary Schoener, who I am sure covered the territory well. But let me observe that these unspeakable injustices brought the kyriarchal nature of the church to world attention. While sexual abuse is the primary problem which the whole community must face, acknowledge, and prevent while providing justice for survivors and judgment for perpetrators, the cover-ups are what leave the lasting impression that something is radically wrong with the system. It is the system with which I concern myself tonight, not the individual cases, each of which is deplorable.

. . . [T] the clear and consistent pattern of episcopal policy, bishops keeping such information from the police, passing offending priests from diocese to diocese, unleashing on unsuspecting congregations in their most vulnerable aspects persons whose professional ministerial competence was substandard, reveals three striking problems: 1) bishops enjoy unchecked power that frankly no one is competent to handle; 2) decisions were made that favor clergy as clergy rather than prioritizing ministry and the well being of parishioners, especially young people; 3) little has changed despite the magnitude of the problem.

. . . The . . . dynamics of top down decision making, clerical privilege, and successful resistance to pressures for change are evident on many other issues. Let us think about homosexuality, for example. The recent pronouncement against gay seminarians is an effort to link the criminal activity of pedophile priests with homosexuality, and to distract from the reprehensible behavior of bishops who covered up their misconduct. This is an absurd gambit on the part of the Vatican; homosexuality has no relationship to child sex abuse. Note those same three dynamics again:

(1) The Vatican pretends to pronounce on something that the community as a whole is not in agreement on, top down leadership at its worst. I would join them in efforts to eradicate heterosexism, the real problem at hand here, but short of that they are simply flexing their tired muscles, this time in vain.

(2) The Vatican trains its sights on seminarians, once again missing the forest for the trees due to the myopia of clericalism. Most Catholic ministers today are not ordained; eighty percent are lay people and eighty percent of those are women. So even as a way to solve the problem of sexual misconduct, smoking out a few gay seminarians is an inefficient approach. Providing all who work in our churches with training on professional boundaries and appropriate interpersonal conduct as offered by the Seattle-based Faith Trust Institute would be a good start. The issue is not the sexual orientation of seminarians, but the welcome, education, and training our community provides to all who wish to engage in ministry, not merely the small percentage who will be ordained. It becomes clear that clericalism, apart from being offensive, is dangerous.

(3) Finally, the resistance to change. How long, oh God, must we rehearse the same old arguments from natural law ramped up in the anti-gay seminarian document to indicate that gay men can’t have proper affective relationships with anyone—please! Now we have the first encyclical from the present pope which does not inspire confidence. Actually, the second part of it was recycled from his predecessor. But the first part reads like a graduate seminar on love which is relatively benign until you realize he means hetero love. True to the Ratzingerian approach (general claim on the basis of natural law, theo-ethical explanation, public policy implementation), Deus Caritas Est lays the philosophical and theological groundwork for the ethical status quo and provides the rationale for public policy pronouncements against same-sex marriage, divorce and remarriage and the like. God, after all, is love and there is only one monogamous, committed, open to procreation package that fits God. To which I say, human experience happily admits of far more variety and it is good. Yet how do we get that Good News into the press and the pews?

I call this our Stonewall moment. The Stonewall was a gay bar in New York where, in 1969, patrons resisted arrest during one of the police’s regular gay-bashing raids. Rather than acquiesce to the harassment that kept up a “neurotic minuet” (a wonderful phrase from the theologian John Frye) between police and bar patrons, courageous lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people stood up, spoke out, and resisted. They probably surprised even themselves at the power of their own righteous indignation.

I believe that Catholics should respond to the latest Vatican bullying of seminarians the same way. After decades of the Vatican implementing a system that takes authority away from local communities and presumes to impose its will on Catholics who can think for themselves, it is time for Catholics to stand up, speak out, and resist not simply on issues of sexuality and reproduction, but on war, ecology, race, poverty, and the many justice concerns about which the kyriarchy has little credibility left to speak.

Evidence suggests that American Catholics do not support many of the narrow-minded tenets of our church. In opposition to the male hierarchy’s belief that ordaining women priests is theological treason, more than 60 percent of American Catholics say they would support women in the priesthood, according to the most recent Zogby/LeMoyne poll. Another poll, conducted by the Boston Globe in the Boston Archdiocese—where the incidences of sexual abuse by priests were among the worst—finds that nearly 60 percent of Catholics oppose a ban on gay priests. Combine this with American Catholics’ clear disregard for the church’s medieval views on marriage, divorce, and birth control, and increasing numbers of Catholics who think abortion is morally acceptable under certain circumstances. Then it becomes obvious that we find ourselves in a church that does not speak to our everyday concerns in any meaningful way, much less exert any effective leadership on issues of war, racism, economic injustice, or ecological destruction.

The Vatican, in its patriarchal echo chamber, continues to portray Western values of tolerance and equality as the fallen morality of a secular society. In so doing, the institutional church treats millions of faithful Catholics in America not as spiritual adults, but as perpetual adolescents in need of guidance from on high. The time has come for American Catholics to claim our full baptismal citizenship and publicly call for changes in church policies on sexuality, ordination, relationships, and ministry. Considering the enormous economic and political influence of the American church, if Catholics here really stood up to their bishops, loudly and in numbers, the Vatican would have little choice but to listen.

There is increasing evidence that despite the dissembling of the hierarchy, American Catholics are refusing to let the institution scapegoat gay priests, feminism, and modernity for the Vatican’s outmoded theology. For example, the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the leaders of the U.S. men’s religious orders, announced plans to send a delegation to Rome to oppose the anti-gay policy. In a welcome response to an inflexible Vatican regime, the superior of the New York Province of the Jesuits, Fr. Gerald J. Chojnacki, wrote: “We know that gay men…have served the church well as priests—and so why would we be asked to discriminate based on orientation alone against those whom God has called and invited?” This is a question that could be asked about women and married men as well.

Choices We Face

The Stonewall moment we face is not simply on the matter of sexuality. Rather, sexuality in all its grace opens the community to some new choices. The alternative is to struggle endlessly over the wrong issues—homosexuality rather than heterosexism, ordination of women rather than new models of ministry, power rather than cooperation.

Other religious groups have come to this kind of juncture where seemingly irreconcilable differences prevail. Protestants have a long and proud history of forming new denominations, and we can learn from them. Jews have figured out how to group themselves according to beliefs and practices that unite them as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist and to still all be Jews. We can learn from them as well.

Catholics, on the other hand, strive to keep ourselves in one organization, a goal that may prove to be beyond our ability this time. Of course we have the Old Catholic Church, and the American Catholic Church, and several other groups that signal their connection to the Catholic community without wanting to affirm their Roman ties. I understand their reasoning. But I think the power of the Vatican—its financial resources, its communications advantage, and its symbolic capital—is touched very lightly by such groups it brushes off as apostate or otherwise trivial.

I suggest there is a need for structural change that implies “claiming the center” as feminist theorist bell hooks described the task of those who are marginalized. The move from margin to center does not mean replacing one pope with another, one curia with another. Rather, it involves rethinking the center so that the many people who are now on the margins are taken more seriously as the whole configuration of church changes from a top-down to a horizontal model of interlocking communities. Pie in the sky, you may think, but let us explore this possibility, imagine and revel in the energy such changes would unleash before we capitulate to the current forces. In tomorrow’s workshop we will deal very concretely with strategies.

A Catholic Feminist Approach

[At the same time] I think there is a value in maintaining ties to our tradition, indeed, claiming that who we are and what we believe is central to the community’s life and well being. This is what Catholic feminist theologians have done; rather than leave the church we claim ourselves church, rather than even struggle with kyriarchy we seek to create ecclesia. I find it difficult and uncharted to do so, but I think spiritual integrity requires we do what we can. Otherwise I would opt for the Protestant approach which I respect, or the Jewish model which seems to work nicely for them. As a Catholic I want to keep trying without sacrificing my own integrity.

I may come to see the error of my ways, but for now I suggest we rely on the traditional marks of the church, that it is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic as we outline some parameters of a church we want to share with our children today as well as when they are celebrating in memory of us.

(1) One. Unity is sometimes overrated, I think. When it comes at the cost of conformity, violation of one’s conscience, offense to one’s spirit, I think it is not worth it. For example, I do not go to Mass regularly, certainly do not support a parish financially, knowing that I will be offended by the exclusive language, repulsed by some of the imagery, and reminded of the exclusion of women from sacramental leadership, all this before the sermon. But I think there are many ways to be Catholic, including the women’s base community (SAS, Sisters Against Sexism) in which I have worshipped and found support for more than twenty years. So “oneness” need not look alike in how we are Catholic. Our oneness is in our intention and practice to be in communion with one another.

Moreover, at a time when religious pluralism in this country is at an all-time high, when there are more Muslims than Presbyterians, it is rather fanciful to think that I am somehow something other than Catholic. Relatively speaking, the issues that divide us as Catholics are insignificant given our cultural and spiritual sameness in contrast to the very real challenges of understanding how a Muslim prays, what a Hindu believes, and the like that are the stuff of the exciting interreligious work we all have ahead of us. At the same time, I find more in common with progressive Jews and Muslims than I do with fundamentalist Christians, including fundamentalist Catholics. What were straight lines of tradition and denomination are now lines that crisscross in everyday life. I see this as Sophia Wisdom’s gift—pushing us to a oneness of spirit we can barely imagine but that a fragile planet requires for our common good.

(2) Holy. What of holiness in all of this? It is easy to lose track of the call to holiness that is part of religious consciousness when the trappings of kyriarchy are so distracting. Last year’s papal funeral and the conclave that followed left me with a deep sense of despair. In fact, women were consigned so far to the margins under their mantillas that a casual observer would have thought this was a religion that welcomed only men, clerics at that.

The all-male nature of the conclave seemed lost on the media. A Franciscan sister observed to me, “When those in power claim to be guided by the Holy Spirit, we look to see if there are white feathers outside the door, a sure sign that she flapped her wings against the glass but never made it inside.” I observed a pile of white feathers outside the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel, a big pile, after the gathering was over and a pope was elected. The conclave was a process so utterly flawed, bereft of any input from women, lay people, children, undemocratic and elitist beyond any reasonable limits. The papacy is meant to be a symbol of unity, not a person with authority.

I realized that about the only thing that could have rescued the sorry Vatican scene from what I predict will be history’s harsh judgment would have been if the doors had opened and an African woman, HIV positive, with her baby in her arms had come out onto the balcony proclaiming the love of God for all of creation. What a symbol of unity she would have been. Behind her we would have seen the cardinals tiptoeing out, taking off their fancy clothes as they left. Their heads would be bowed as they tried to blend into the crowd, lest anyone notice them and realize that they had been involved in such a scandalous process of cloning themselves to create another person with authority rather than lifting up a person, this woman, as a sign of unity. Then and only then would the presence of the Holy Spirit have been clear—her wings flapping freely, her feathers intact. Our tears of joy at such a miracle would have cleansed this world. According to my fantasy scene, then, we would have been a Catholic Church worthy of its name. I mourn the failure of religious imagination as much as anything else. It is there that holiness dwells, in our collective imagination, there that we draw resources to make all things new.

(3) Catholic. So “Catholic” takes on new meaning in our time. I am not suggesting that we back off of it, that we cede the title to others. Rather I think we need to insist that just as we were taught that “catholic” means “universal,” we can learn that “catholic” comes in many forms. For example, the death penalty is an issue on which there is a diversity of opinions among committed American Catholics. So it is possible, I consider it ill-advised but still I must admit there is a Catholic way of thinking about the death penalty that concludes in the affirmative. I do not happen to share that view but I am sure that those who hold it do so as Catholics. Or, Catholic judges who pronounce it do so without risk of their faith, much as I wish it were otherwise. Imagine the same kind of thinking on abortion or homosexuality or any number of matters on which we have a rich diversity of views. I believe that Catholic is not so much a lockstep agreement on issues as it is a commitment to do justice and return again and again to the ecclesia’s table to offer thanks with bread and wine, to garner strength, and to unite in love with companions who share the same commitment.

(4) Apostolic. The apostolic dimension of the ecclesia is at once the most conflicted and the most obvious. On one side, the matter of apostolic succession in priesthood, the concern over papal lineage border on theological fetishes. They came from a worldview in which the biological rather than the symbolic was in vogue. Such biologistic quantifying—the hands that touched the hands that touched the hands—is intellectually embarrassing but still very much alive and well in kyriarchal circles. On the other side, the apostolic spirit that has infused our tradition from the beginning remains alive and well in ecclesias. We want to serve; we want to share; we want to break bread and drink wine in memory of her and of him, and one day it will be done in memory of us. This is the stuff of apostolic Catholicism. It is worth sharing.

How Do We Make This Happen With or Without Upsetting the Applecart?

I submit that the applecart is upset. Just ask Catholic women, lgbtq Catholics, divorced and remarried folks, former priests, young people struggling with how to be faithful in the 21st century. So don’t worry about upsetting the applecart; that has been done. The question instead is how to share the apples and who owns the cart. The sharing question is complicated—who says what Catholic is, are there any limits, can one be Buddhist and Catholic at the same time? But the ownership questions are even harder—who decides what can happen on Catholic property, who pays the bills when corporate Catholicism goes bankrupt, and far more painfully, who belongs at the table when it is time to celebrate? I suggest these are some of the issues we need to address.

Who Are Our Allies?

In doing so, I look first and foremost to my allies, the ones who want to make this “discipleship of equals” happen in our lifetime, not simply for our children and grandchildren. Some allies are Catholic, and some even are part of the kyriarchy like Bishop Gumbleton and a few priests who risk their privilege for the ecclesia. Many are people like ourselves, whom I have come to think of as lifers for social justice and permanent rebels for love. Some allies are as far from Catholicism as one can imagine—either pushed or moved away by the kyriarchal content, or simply having found in other traditions the same impulse toward a just human community and powerful divine presence. Frankly, I’ll take them all without distinction, grateful that the ecclesia is big enough to welcome all comers and persuaded that variety reflects the uncountable dimensions of the divine.


My analysis of our current situation, and my proposal that we do major and not cosmetic surgery on the kyriarchal model of church, is but one approach. I look forward to our discussion and to our workshop tomorrow when we can deal concretely with some of the issues I have raised. For now let us practice the ways of ecclesia by starting our conversation with everyone’s voice. Tell one person next to you your first reaction to some of the issues I have raised. That very action, perhaps more than anything I have said, will signal your commitment to taking these ideas forward into new ways of being church. Then we can give thanks for the Spirit’s warmth even on a cold night.

* “Kyriarchy” is a term coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. It means, literally, structures of lordship. It denotes the interstructured forms of oppression – gender, race, class, nationality, sexuality and the like – that result in power differences and injustice. Kyriarchy is used to distinguish the hierarchical, clerical model of church from the larger Catholic community. She includes a useful discussion of kyriocentrism in her Wisdom Ways: Introducing Feminist Biblical Interpretation, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001.

** In the same book Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza explores the “ecclesia of women.”

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
CPCSM’s Year in Review
Authentic Catholicism: The Antidote to Clericalism
Comprehending the “Fullness of Truth”
Beyond a PC Pope
Casanova-inspired Reflections on Papal Power – at 30,000 Ft.
What the Vatican Can Learn from the X-Men
Paul Collins and Marilyn Hatton
The Many Forms of Courage

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