Jesus Was a Radical Feminist: 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sunday’s Readings: Wisdom 1:13-16, 2:23-24; Ps. 30:2, 4-6, 11-13; 2Cor. 8:7, 9, 13=16; Mk. 5:21=43

All of us, I know, have been following with great interest the Vatican’s confrontation with U.S. nuns. Officials in Rome are disturbed because the sisters have adopted what the patriarchy considers a “radical feminist agenda.” That agenda includes advocating a priesthood open to women.  It also places service of the poor ahead of issues dear to our male church leadership such as contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage.

Towards resolving the crisis, the Vatican has insisted on placing a major national organization of sisters under the authority of a Rome-appointed bishop. The idea is that this man would determine what is best for the women religious.

Not surprisingly, the nuns find the Vatican’s action unacceptably patriarchal, patronizing and insulting. They also insist that the issues Rome finds objectionable are more in accord with the actual teaching and example of Jesus than the focus the hierarchy prefers. After all, the nuns say, Jesus said a great deal about the poor, but nothing at all about contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, or women priests.

Jesus himself might also be considered a radical feminist, some sisters hold.  They point out that in addressing specifically female issues, he favored women who spoke for themselves and courageously exercised their own initiative. Jesus even praised women who disobeyed laws aimed against them precisely as women. He ended up preferring them to females who were passive captives of the religious patriarchy. We find an example of such radical feminism on the part of Jesus in today’s reading from the Mark’s gospel.

First of all consider Mark’s literary strategy. In today’s reading he creates a “literary sandwich” – a “story within a story.” The device focuses on two kinds of females within the Jewish faith of Jesus’ day. In fact, Mark’s gospel is liberally sprinkled with doublets like the one just described. When they appear, both stories are meant to play off one another and illuminate each other.

In today’s doublet, we find two women. One is just entering puberty at the age of 12; the other has had a menstrual problem for the entire life span of the adolescent girl. (Today we’d call her condition a kind of menorrhagia.) So to begin with the number 12 is centralized. It’s a literary “marker” suggesting that the narrative has something to do with the twelve tribes of Israel – and in the early church, with the apostolic leadership of “the twelve.” The connection with Israel is confirmed by the fact that the 12 year old in the story is the daughter of a synagogue official. As a man in a patriarchal culture, he can approach Jesus directly and speak for his daughter.

The other woman in the doublet has no man to speak for her; she has to approach Jesus covertly and on her own. She comes from the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum from the 12 year old daughter of the synagogue leader. The older woman is without honor. She is poor and penniless. Her menstrual problem has rendered her sterile, and so she’s considered technically dead by her faith community. Her condition has also excluded her from the synagogue. In the eyes of community leaders like Jairus, the petitioning father in the story, she is “unclean.” (Remember that according to Jewish law, all women were considered unclean during their monthly period. So the woman in today’s drama is exceedingly unclean. She and all menstruating women were not to be touched.)  

All of that means that Jairus as a synagogue leader is in effect the oppressor of the second woman. On top of that the older woman in the story has been humiliated and exploited by the male medical profession which has been ineffective in addressing her condition. In other words, the second woman is the victim of a misogynist religious system which, by the way, saw the blood of animals as valuable and pleasing in God’s eyes, but the blood of women as repulsively unclean.

Nonetheless, it is the bleeding woman who turns out to be the hero of the story. Her faith is so strong that she believes a mere touch of Jesus’ garment will suffice to restore her to life, and that her action won’t even be noticed. So she reaches out and touches the Master. Doing so was extremely bold and highly disobedient to Jewish law, since her touch would have rendered Jesus himself unclean. She refuses to believe that.

So instead of being made unclean by the woman’s touch, Jesus’ being responds by exuding healing power, apparently without his even being aware. The woman is cured. Jesus asks “Who touched me?” The disciples object, “What do you mean? Everybody’s touching you,” they say.

Finally, the unclean woman is identified. Jesus praises her faith and (significantly!) calls her “daughter.” So what we end up finding in this literary doublet are two Jewish “daughters” – yet another point of comparison.

While Jesus is attending to the bleeding woman, the first daughter in the story apparently dies. Jesus insists on seeing her anyhow. When he observes that she is merely asleep, the bystanders laugh him to scorn. But Jesus is right. When he speaks to her in Aramaic, the girl awakens and is hungry. Everyone is astonished, and Jesus has to remind them to feed her.

What does all the comparison mean? The doublet represented in today’s Gospel addresses issues that couldn’t be more female – more feminist. The message here is that bold and active women unafraid of disobeying the religious patriarchy will save the faith community from death. “Believe and act like the bleeding woman” is the message of today’s Gospel. “Otherwise the community of faith will be for all practical purposes dead.”   

Could this possibly mean that we should imitate the women religious who evidently represent such a threat to the Vatican today? Could today’s gospel be telling us that their bold specifically feminist faith that sides with the poor and oppressed (like the hero of today’s Gospel) will be the salvation of the church which is otherwise moribund? Are they today’s real faith leaders, rather than the elderly, white, out-of-touch men who overwhelmingly claim to lead the church?

Consider some patriarchal history related to today’s Gospel reading. Does it suggest déjà vu?

As late as the 13th century Christian theologians were warning people that it was a mortal sin to have relations with a menstruating woman because sickly or possessed children would result from them. A hotly debated theological theme during the middle ages was whether a woman during menstruation (also called her “periodic pollution” or her “monthly venting”) could receive communion during mass or not. Even worse, the blood of a woman giving birth was considered to be more noxious that the menstrual blood. The Synod of Treves in the year 1227 established that after childbirth women needed to be “reconciled” with the Church – a disposition which combined the Jewish laws of ritual purification with Christian theologians’ rejection of the pleasure that is implicit in every sexual relation. In many cases of that epoch the religious hierarchy determined that women who died in childbirth could not be buried in Christian cemeteries because they had not been “reconciled.”

Such recollections do not inspire confidence in patriarchs making pronouncements on women’s issues. I mention them here only because they show those male “leaders” pontificating quite confidently about women’s biological processes, about the effect of sexual intercourse on fetuses, about God’s attitude towards women during menstruation, and about women’s “pollution” following sexual intercourse and childbirth. And in hindsight all of it turns out to be pure nonsense!  In summary, it reveals that male church leaders never have really understood female sexuality – or sex for that matter. Obviously, pronouncements like those just mentioned (however confident and supported by scripture) have nothing to do with “revelation.” Is it any different – can it be any different – in our own era? 

Today’s Gospel then suggests that it’s time for men to stop telling women how to be women – to stop pronouncing on issues of female sexuality whether it be menstruation, abortion, contraception, same-sex attractions, or whether women are called by God to the priesthood . Correspondingly, it’s time for women to disobey such male pronouncements, and to exercise leadership in accord with their common sense – in accord with women’s ways of knowing. Only that will save our religious community which is currently sick unto death.

All of us can imagine how such suggestions apply to the controversy between the Vatican and U.S. nuns. Let’s discuss that now. (Discussion follows).

PERSONAL STEPS AWAY FROM THE PRIESTHOOD: Why I Left the Priesthood (Pt. 3)

 Besides alienation of youth, another “sign of the times” of the late sixties and early seventies was the sexual revolution. Here too the church had lost a great deal of credibility in its refusal, especially at the conciliar level, to discuss clerical celibacy. Charles Davis helped me realize this with his A Question of Conscience justifying his own exit from the priesthood to marry.

The situation deteriorated following the publication of Humanae Vitae in 1968. Many of us wondered how Paul VI could simply reiterate the church’s traditional position on birth control in the face of statistics showing that something like the sensus fidelium had long since decided the question in the opposite direction. Sensus fidelium it should be remembered refers to a widespread harmony of belief and/or practice among Christians; such accord is considered infallible even according to official church teaching.

In any case, polling consistently showed that Catholic couples were practicing artificial birth control according to the same percentages as their non-Catholic counterparts. Was Humanae Vitae just another case of celibate, out-of-touch old men legislating behaviour in a field about which they knew virtually nothing? The answer seemed obvious even in 1968.

As far as I could see, something like the sensus fidelium had also kicked in among priests regarding clerical celibacy. The phenomena were showing that many of them had concluded that if the church were not going to remand legislation exacting clerical celibacy, they would decide the matter for themselves. This, of course, had long been the rumoured situation in Africa and Latin America.

From 1967-1972, while I was in Rome, the situation moved beyond the rumour stage to one of overt practice within the clerical sub-culture there. Dating and other more developed relationships between priests and women friends became common. “Dispensations” in the form of brotherly pastoral advice from priestly peers condoning the morality of it all were also normal. Failing that, approval took the form of wink and nod.

Despite such unofficial permission, the internal tension resulting from the contradictions evident in such relationships proved too much for so many. One by one they (we) left the priesthood, eventually to marry. I recall discussing all of this with Cardinal Wright of Pittsburgh in the Vatican itself, and his getting red in the face exclaiming, “And don’t tell me that the best priests are leaving!” Despite the cardinal’s visage and raised voice, my personal observation and common sense told me he was wrong.

All of this represented chickens coming home to roost. The training we had received in the seminary was truly inadequate regarding the integration of sexuality with our chosen vocation. How could it have been otherwise? Celibacy, I’ve come to understand, is a gift that “happens” to some as their spiritual lives develop. As this occurs, some evidently become so attuned to the unity of all creation and to their own undifferentiated oneness with the Source of Life that they experience little need for intimate sexual expression. Their lives are so consumed with service of others in a community that far transcends couples and families.  

However, the church and seminary training had gotten all of that backwards. Instead of nurturing a truly spiritual life and allowing the charism of celibacy to emerge naturally for those called, the church imposed celibacy on uncomprehending young men, and then asked them to develop a spirituality that would support that heavy burden. It did not work. It could not.

That was true especially for youths with my own background. I had entered the seminary at 14 years of age. My overwhelming desire at that point was to become a priest. Nothing else mattered to me. Celibacy was a sine qua non condition for realizing my dream. I remember as a high school freshman hearing our rector, Dan Boland, explaining that “You can’t carry a chalice in one hand, and push a baby carriage with the other.” At that point in my life, Father Boland’s words made sense.

However, the result of all this was a terribly distorted attitude towards sex. Everything connected with it seemed mortally sinful — thoughts, words, deeds in that field could send you to hell. I recall going through three periods of “scrupulosity” before I was twenty-five. And all of them revolved around sex. Scrupulosity is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder that has its subjects worrying themselves sick about sin and going to hell. Seminary spiritual directors unwittingly cultivated this disorder in young seminarians by explaining elaborate methods for determining whether one had “given consent” to “impure” thoughts or feelings. I remember those periods of scrupulosity and their attendant sessions in the confessional as truly hellish.  

In accord with all of this, I had no real relationships with girls or women before ordination. I was not allowed to have thoughts of them, much less any friendly interaction. Once at the age of fifteen or so, when I had remarked to my own sister in a “happy birthday” letter that a picture of herself she had sent me was “pretty,” the seminary dean called me to his office to admonish that such remarks were inappropriate. I apologized, said the equivalent of “What was I thinking?” and continued to suppress a dimension of life absolutely central to personal development.

Such suppression was to exact its inevitable retribution later on in the form of immature expressions of developmental stages in a 30 and 40 year old that should have been left behind in my early twenties. For instance, once outside the seminary walls and in Rome more or less on my own, I remember being truly astonished by the beauty of Italian women.

Again, the insanity of all of this came home to me in some vague form just before ordination to the diaconate. I went to my spiritual director for advice. I had been reading about “reluctant celibates” somewhere or other, and came to the conclusion that I was one. My spiritual director advised me that I was merely experiencing pre-ordination jitters. Anyway, he seemed to agree with me, all of this was going to change soon; the days of mandatory celibacy were strictly limited.

Just nine years later, I found myself confessing to that same spiritual mentor (whom I still admire greatly) that I was indeed a reluctant celibate, and had decided to leave the priesthood.

Revocation of mandatory clerical celibacy seemed then, and seems today as far away as ever.

 Next week: Spiritual Steps away from the Priesthood

Faith Is a Subversive Activity: Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Sunday’s Readings:  Is. 49: 1-6; Ps. 138: 1b-3, 13-14ab, 14c-15; Acts 13:22-26; Lk. 1:57-66, 80

Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. The liturgy this morning focuses on vocation, prophecy, and the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus’ own cousin. This is an important day because John’s ministry highlights faith as a subversive activity. His birthday calls us to adopt such faith in the midst of pedophile scandals, devaluation of women, official support of right-wing politics, and absence of visionary leadership on the part of those who hold the highest ecclesiastical offices.  

To grasp what I mean, begin by considering the Christianity we’ve inherited and its view of Jesus in relation to John the Baptist. Like most matters of faith, we have it backwards. Our understanding begins with Pope Benedict XVI and then runs to the Second Vatican Council, the Council of Trent, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, Paul, and ends with Jesus. That line gives us a church-centered Jesus concerned with esoteric doctrines and above all with the sexual preoccupation that has traditionally afflicted our patriarchal church officials.

 A more biblical approach begins in the other direction. It runs from Adam to Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, John, and finally to Jesus. It knows nothing of what comes after Jesus with all of its distortions, misconceptions, and patriarchal abuses. The Jesus that emerges here is not at all church-centered. He is less “Christian” and more focused on the Jewish tradition which is what Jesus knew. Jesus of course, was a Jew, not Christian at all. That more biblical approach helps us see both John and Jesus as engaged with their world specifically as prophets – as possessors of a subversive charism sorely needed by our world in severe crisis and in a church that finds itself in irreversible decline.

Already in today’s second reading, we see the more domesticated understanding of John emerging in Paul whose letters represent the earliest entries we have in the Christian Testament. Paul’s vision is what most of us are familiar with. For Paul, Jesus was the Son of David. John the Baptist heralded his coming as Messiah. He groveled before Jesus at the River Jordan when Jesus came to be baptized. “I am not worthy to loosen the strap of your sandal,” he says “You should be baptizing me; I shouldn’t be baptizing you.” For Paul, John ends up being purely instrumental for Jesus.

Paul’s view finds elaboration in the four canonical Gospels. There we can get the impression of the prophet as a kind of first century Billy Graham out there in the desert. His concern with Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife makes him sound rigidly moralistic and focused on sex – just the way the Church’s teaching has been all these years.

That’s not the John who emerges if we put him in that biblical context running from Adam through Moses, and the prophets. It’s not the John who discloses himself if we consider his historical context. In that perspective John becomes Jesus’ mentor and even his rival. In a sense, he becomes the founder of a Christian movement that understood faith as synonymous with religious and political subversion.

I mean John was a prophet before anything else – a reformer of Judaism. In today’s Gospel, Luke says John grew up in the desert. And that’s where he later realizes his vocation as a sharp-tongued social critic – the essence of prophetic identity. In the desert John led a flourishing reformist sect. As Luke says, people from all over Palestine came to listen to him. His message wasn’t that of Benedict XVI or Billy Graham. Rather, it was the one Jesus took up after John’s execution by King Herod, the Roman puppet. “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand.”  (The Kingdom of God, remember, is what the world would look like if God, not Caesar were king.)

John’s location in the desert wilderness is important for understanding the Jewish revival he was leading there. The desert was the original place of refuge for God’s people when they escaped from their first captivity in Egypt.  It was the spawning place for insurgency movements against the Romans who occupied Palestine in the first century.

Above all, the desert was not Jerusalem. It was not the temple. So Jewish religious authorities were deeply suspicious of John and hostile towards his movement. John was not one of them — not a priest or rabbi. He was an outspoken prophet operating at the margins of society. He was radically free from social obligations and expectations as defined by standard Judaism and by the Roman Empire. Literally, he was an outlaw (one living outside the law). Even his clothing and diet showed that.

Additionally, John’s criticism of Herod was seen as politically subversive.  One of Herod’s great rivals was a king called Aretas of Nabatea. Herod had divorced Aretas’ sister in order to marry the wife of Herod’s brother Philip. The people were outraged, and took that marriage issue as a cause of criticism and rebellion. Their concern was not inspired by some first century anticipation of Victorian “moral” scruples. Herod’s divorce and remarriage showed how much their supposed king had strayed from their own culture and had adopted the Roman oppressors’ ways. 

John sided with the people in their criticism. So Herod saw him as stirring up rebellion. He therefore had John arrested. Eventually, of course, he beheaded the prophet. That’s when Jesus then stepped in and took over John’s reform movement.

Jesus seems to have been completely devoted to John. In all the Gospel traditions he presents himself for baptism at John’s hands. The appearance of inferiority implied in that gesture is unmistakable. So the Gospel authors had to reverse that impression by that groveling I mentioned earlier. This was especially true since even forty years after the Baptist’s beheading, many still thought of him as the Christ. What I’m saying is that “Jesus Christianity” found a rival for itself in “Johannine Christianity”

 But despite their desire to emphasize Jesus’ superiority to John, the Gospel authors find themselves compelled to recall that baptism of Jesus at John’s hands. They also record that Jesus lauded John as the greatest of all the Jewish Testament prophets. Even more significantly, they associate Jesus’ message so closely with that of John the Baptist that Jesus is repeatedly understood both by his enemies and his disciples as John redivivus (come back from the dead). Some even see in Jesus’ final cry on the cross, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani!” as a cry to John (himself as Elijah redivivus), “John, John, why have you forsaken me?”     

All of that is to say that John and Jesus are like twins inseparably joined at the hip. And what does that mean for us?

It means that Christianity (Jesus or Johannine) must be prophetic. Remember though what biblical prophets were. They were not fortune tellers concerned with predicting the future. They were social critics with two tasks. The first was to denounce serious departures from the faith of Abraham and Moses. Their second function was to announce a new future – that another way of living out the Jewish faith was possible. That way stood in sharp contrast with the understanding of Judaism embraced by their chief priests, the scribes and Pharisees.  

Being prophetic today suggests that we open our eyes to the similarities between the situations of John and Jesus on the one hand and our own on the other. Both prophets found themselves involved with a faith that had sold out to the Romans, and their puppets (like Herod). It was a faith that identified with keeping arcane rules and social distinctions.

For John and Jesus, that had nothing to do with the faith that had begun in the desert outside of Egypt. In their eyes, it was time to move back to the desert, away from the temple, and reclaim their faith from corrupt “leaders.”

I’m suggesting that our church today has moved as far from the Gospel of Jesus and John as had the high priests and scribes of their day moved from the tradition of Abraham and Moses.

Isn’t it time for us to move back to the origins of the prophetic traditions we celebrate this day – returning in effect to the place where it all began. For John and Jesus that was the desert – away from the temple. For us, it’s home churches and lay-led liturgies like those that characterized the primitive Christian community.

In the subversive spirit of John the Baptist, we’ve got to let the corrupt Vatican and our local bishops know that we are no longer following them, no longer supporting them.  There are many ways of doing that.

Can you think of any?  (Discussion follows)

Why I Left the Priesthood: Pt. 2 Intellectual Influences

I didn’t have much of an intellectual life when I was in the seminary. True, I studied hard and got good grades. I learned what I was expected to know on tests. But the intellectual curiosity just wasn’t there. Why should it have been? As Catholics we had the whole truth; there was nothing new to learn. There was no salvation outside the Church. The pope, at least, knew all the answers. There was no need to think much, except to “defend the faith.” 

Beyond that, thinking critically wasn’t much encouraged at all. In fact, from my high school seminary days till half-way through the major seminary (when I was about 23) a palpable anti-intellectualism pervaded the curriculum. For instance, I remember being taught in my first or second year as a philosophy major that Descartes “didn’t know his head from his elbow.” We never read Descartes, nor anybody of much consequence as far as “the world” was concerned, apart from snippets in the various manuals – and then only as parts of refutations. These quotes, followed quickly by rebuttal, did after all give the distinct impression that Descartes, Kant, Marx, Freud – not to mention the “Modernists” and Protestants in general – were clueless. So why be concerned about them or their writings?

In 1962, of course, things started to change, when John XXIII summoned the Second Vatican Council. I was a senior in college then. And some of our professors started encouraging us to actually read books, and to discover what was happening in the world. I resisted. I had well internalized the passivity which the seminary curriculum had encouraged in terms of not thinking for myself, at least theologically.

I had the good fortune, however, of having classmates and friends who were less gullible than me. They were excited by the prospect of the Council. After a bit of a struggle, one of them even got our library to subscribe to the National Catholic Reporter. In class and outside, others voiced criticisms of a whole host of things I considered sacred. I remember, for instance, a spirited seminary-wide discussion about the worth of continuing to regard The Imitation of Christ as a source of spiritual wisdom. I resisted that too. I remember writing something “learned” defending The Imitation’s author, Thomas a Kempis.

A series of lectures put together by the Paulist Fathers in downtown Boston was especially instrumental challenging my defensiveness. First of all it was a relief to be outside the seminary walls to attend the series. Most importantly though John L. McKenzie, Harvey Cox, Andrew Greeley and others gave powerful lectures as part of the program. Particularly memorable for me, however, was a talk by Barnabas Ahern. As a scripture scholar, he spoke of the human Jesus, and of the way the Gospels had gradually elevated the historical Jesus almost beyond recognition.

Our faith, Ahern reminded us, is that Jesus was a divine person who is fully God and fully human. We believe the first part with all our hearts, he said, but pay only lip service to the second. Ahern’s words made such profound impression on me that the next day I wrote out from memory virtually everything that he had said. His approach showed me what demythologizing in its best sense is all about. I resolved that I wanted to think and speak that way. That represented a tiny step towards adopting as my own a motto suggested to me by one of my mentors years later in Rome: “No more bullshit.”  

Eamonn O’Doherty, one of my scripture professors in the major seminary also moved me in that direction. The beginning of the Council coincided with my class’ entry into our four-year theology program in Milton. Central to it all was Eamonn’s introduction to modern scripture scholarship. Eamonn insisted on dealing exclusively with primary sources. His own notes and lectures provided the commentary. His approach was contextual. And with that I was introduced to genuine critical thinking for the first time. In Eamonn’s class (unlike Moral Theology of all places), questions were encouraged. I especially remember two colleagues (both a couple of years ahead of me) raising many questions I found interesting. Even more intriguing was the fact that they could actually ask them.

I wondered what they were reading. One of them gave me a list of three books – two by Hans Kung. Meanwhile our Liturgy professor acquainted us with Edward Schillebeeckx, and had us read Christ: the Sacrament of the Encounter with God. Soon I was delving into James Kavanaugh’s A Catholic Priest Looks at His Outdated Church. I was on my way.

I didn’t realize it then, but even before my ordination, I was starting my exit from the priesthood. I was beginning to recognize that what I was aspiring to – its rationale, its way of life, its theological justification – just couldn’t stand up to the evidence, not scriptural, nor historical nor theological.

By the time ordination came, I was secretly hoping I’d be sent to do graduate work instead of to the “foreign missions.” I wanted to know more. So I was delighted when my first appointment was to Rome and the Academia Alfonsiana to “do” Moral Theology. Evidently, my superiors planned for me to teach in the seminary following my years in Rome. (My intellectual development there however soon had them rethinking that idea.)

I knew Bernard Haring, the great Catholic moral theologian, taught at the Alfonsiana, and looked forward to studying under him. However, before beginning that three-year program, I had to get a degree in Systematic Theology. (Even after four years of theology in Milton, we had no corresponding degree to show for it.) So I enrolled in the Benedictine Atheneum Anselmianum.

Rome was still electric in the aftermath of Vatican II. After each day’s lectures at the Anselmo, I remember coming home on fire. I really admired Swiss Professor Magnus Lohrer. I can still see him smiling enthusiastically as he explained some fine point of the Council, Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth – in Latin. Raphael Schulte wasn’t far behind in my estimation. Their excitement about theology, their engagement with the world, their scholarship shook my world and drove me to make up for all that “lost time” at Milton. I read voraciously – everything I could by Rahner, along with books by Congar, Schillebeeckx, Dewart, Cox, Tillich, Moltmann, and (later) by liberation theologians, especially Franz Hinkelammert of Costa Rica. Meal times in the Columban residence on Corso Trieste were spent in hot debate. I remember those discussions so well: liberals versus conservatives – and all the time enduring our rector’s dark scowls.

It was at this point that news started trickling in about seminary colleagues who were leaving the priesthood. The huge post-conciliar exodus from the priesthood had begun. Table talk on Corso Trieste refocused to that topic. Was the priesthood really forever? And what about celibacy? By now everyone knew that renunciation of marriage was quite late coming along as a requisite for ordination. Its imposition and defence had a lot to do with protecting church property from the heirs of priests. Besides all of that, Vatican II had changed the very ideas of priesthood and church. The priesthood of the faithful had been emphasized. And the church itself was primarily understood as a People of God, not as a top-down clerical hierarchy. Clerics were less important. So, what harm if ordained priests realized all of that and acted accordingly?

Such insights and insistent questions spilled over into the General Chapter of the Society of St. Columban, which I attended in Ireland in the early ‘70s. There I and an Irish and Australian colleague were specially elected “youth” delegates – even though all of us were over 30. Because we were such youngsters, we had voice at the Chapter, but no vote. I remember being disappointed, but not surprised at how closed older delegates tended to be to new ideas expressed not only by the three of us (who were literally “back benchers” in the Chapter hall), but to those expressed by forward-looking priests I had come to admire.

We were impatient for change, and for addressing big questions such as the purpose of missionary activity in an ecumenical world, and even priestly celibacy. Lack of serious response had an alienating effect, at least on me. Additionally, personal observation of the way my order worked, of its members’ basic fear of change, of stonewalling, machismo, and denial intensified the impression that those in charge didn’t really know what they were talking about.

But then, of course, alienation of youth was a “sign of the times” in the early ‘70s. Estrangement of young priests from church structures was part of all that.

It was also part of my story.

 Next Week: Personal Steps away from the Priesthood

Why Is the Left So Weak and the Right So Strong? (Final posting in a series on liberation theology)

Not long ago, when I was working with the Center for Global Justice in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, I twice ran into a question that frequently surfaces among liberals.  The question was first posed at a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship meeting after a paper by an American political scientist. It was a pre- July 4th presentation entitled, “Democracy Matters.”  A week later, the question came up following a talk by a Mexican activist on his country’s current political context. In both cases someone asked, “Why is the political left so weak and the right so strong?”

The Mexican activist sharpened the question by observing that the political left is not weak everywhere. Yes, it is feeble in the United States, he remarked. However such weakness is not true of Latin America. The left and its solidarity movements are actually waxing there. And they really have been over the last half-century at least. Recall, he reminded us, that Cuba’s revolution in 1959 ignited a “Latin American Spring” everywhere south of the U.S. border. Only the U.S. sponsored installation of military regimes throughout the region – everywhere but Mexico and Costa Rica – prevented the complete triumph of progressive forces in that part of the world. And those forces are coalescing once again today. They’re electing progressive governments across the region. It’s a mistake, he said, to universalize U.S. experience.

The activist was perceptive in his distinction. As a theologian, I would add that the difference between the Latin American left and the U.S. left is the difference between Latin America in general and the United States. And it’s all connected with religion. Like Americans north of the border, most Latin Americans claim to be Christians. However, the left in Latin America has learned to use that fact in the service of social justice and profound political change. (Here I’m referring to liberation theology.)

In the United States, that has not been the case. There, religion has become the nearly exclusive preserve of the conservative right. This is because intellectuals on the U.S. left have surrendered to the right the religious language, symbols and metaphors that actually motivate ordinary people. Put otherwise, the U.S. intelligentsia tends either to ignore religion or to treat it with disdain – as fanatical, pre-scientific and therefore not worthy of serious analysis, much less of scholarly appropriation. Such attitude, I have implied in this series, is entirely counterproductive. It can be remedied by appropriating the roots of the critical thought essential for those concerned with social justice, and indispensable for mobilizing the grassroots majority. Those roots are to be found within the Christian tradition itself as identified by liberation theologians.

Put otherwise, we on the left have allowed the divinities Marx called the “gods of heaven” to prevail. We’re victims of the (highly understandable) aversion to religion so prominent among the left’s intellectual elite. We imagine ourselves living in what even theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, termed “a world come of age” – a highly secularized context. But as indicated earlier, the 21st century context is far from secularized, not only for the less highly educated, but for the imperial leadership responsible for the creation and defense of the given order. As a result, everyone but the left’s intellectual elite is manipulating the powerful field of myth – not just the religious right, but their political and economic counterparts as well. As a result when people in the U.S. think “Christianity,” “moral principle,” “strength of character,” they automatically identify it with the far right and its agenda. When they think “morals,” they think “abortion” and “sex” – almost never “social justice.” That’s why the left appears weak – no moral principle, no connection with God. 

The suggestion here has been that the left must engage its opponents precisely upon the field of myth and story. And liberation theology makes available even for would-be secularists a set of understandings that empower them to do so, and thus to communicate with our lost audience which overwhelmingly interprets the world in mythological, if not in theological terms. LT is critical theology. As argued earlier in this series, it represents the tap-root of critical thinking in its most comprehensive form. In a sense it is an anti-theology set against both the “gods of heaven” and the “gods of earth” beyond which it is difficult for the secular left to see.

None of this implies that entering the arena of myth is a job merely for theologians or “believers.”  Marx himself saw that. He was no believer. Yet he said famously in his “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” that “. . . the criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism.”

However in contrast to Marx’s time and thanks to liberation theology, the left’s critique doesn’t have to involve throwing the baby of the “faith of Jesus” out with the bath water of “faith in Jesus.” Again, taking cue from liberation theologians, the left doesn’t have to alienate believers by ridiculing faith or religious people. All of that has been counter-productive and fatal for those committed to social justice.

No, the left can reclaim its place in the crucial arena of mythology. It can appreciate the person of Jesus and his call for social justice without subscribing to antiquated notions of a God “up there” manipulating the world like a vast chessboard. Liberation theology finds God not “up there,” but in horizontal relationships with the poor whom Jesus reveals as the primary repository of God’s presence and preferential choice. And backed by the work of 90% of contemporary biblical scholars the left can do so with scholarly integrity.

What has been suggested here is that to be strong and to be effective in solidarity movements, all of us have to become liberation (anti-) theologians.

Stop Being a Control Freak: (Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time)

(Sunday’s Readings: Ez. 17: 22-24; Ps. 92:2-3, 13-14, 15-16; II Cor.5:6-10; Mk. 4:26-34)

It’s June now and most of us are trying to get rid of dandelions. They’re all over the place. Most of us hate them. I’ve long since given up on trying to kill them. I figure the way nature works, they’ll be gone in a month or so anyway.

What bothers me are “trees of heaven.” The hill behind my house on Jackson Street is now filled with them. Some people call them “stink trees.” I cut them down one spring, and the very next, they’re back, more than ever. They just won’t go away. They want to take over and create their own forest. As I’m cutting them down, I imagine them laughing at me. “Your chain saw can roar and smoke as much as it wants,” they seem to be saying, “It makes no difference. We’ll prevail in the end.”

Today’s Gospel reading caused me to think of dandelions and trees of heaven – and some other things as well. It really makes three points. The first is about God’s providence, the second is about those “trees of heaven,” and the third is about Jesus’ teaching method. He taught in parables which help us understand God’s providence, the processes of life, and the inevitably of the Kingdom of God and its mystery.

The first point about God’s providence brought to mind Sir Arthur Eddington. He was a physicist who did his work before the middle of the 20th century.  At the end of his life, he remarked that after all his time and effort, he knew only one thing. “Something unknown,” he said ”is doing we don’t know what.”

In parable form, Jesus says something like that in today’s Gospel. Farmers sow seeds, he says, and then some mysterious force takes over and brings them to fruition. The farmer sows the seed; nothing else is required of him, but to reap the harvest.

“Don’t worry,” is the implication. There’s no need for you to push the river; no need to control. God is in charge. After you’ve done your best, Eddington’s “Something Unknown” takes over. And the outcome is the very best possible. Inevitably, that outcome will be the Kingdom of God whether we want it to come or not.

Central to Jesus’ parable is the notion of faith as “letting go” so that God’s work might be done in God’s own time. That’s so hard for us to accept, isn’t it? Just looking around the world, watching the news, thinking about our own lives, our marriages, our children, most of us find that counsel incredible. We’re convinced we have to get to work, not waste a moment, and clean up the mess.

Yet today, Jesus implies that acting like a control freak is exactly the wrong strategy in life. It leads to unhappiness, nervous breakdowns, discouragement, and to a negativity that brings others down. Jesus was not about any of that. He was about kindling hope not giving in to stress and worry.

Jesus was able to avoid that kind of negativity because he had a guiding vision. Once again, he called it the “Kingdom of God.” That vision held, as today’s Parable of the Farmer and the Seed suggests that God is in charge and so it’s foolish for us to worry and fret.

But what is God up to? Jesus surprises us with his answer. (And that brings me to the second point of today’s Gospel – stink trees.) Jesus says God’s Kingdom is like a mustard tree. That’s like saying it’s like a tree of heaven or a dandelion.  

I say that because, I’m told the mustard tree really isn’t a tree at all. Scripture scholar, John Dominic Crossan says it’s a plant that’s more like a weed. We don’t like weeds, do we – those dandelions again? We don’t recognize them as beautiful or powerful. But they could be seen that way – and probably should be. Deep down we know they have a part in the earth’s ecology. Birds come to the mustard tree (or the tree of heaven), and make their home there, Jesus reminds us.

As for power, have you ever seen a weed move a rock? I have. I think that’s what Jesus meant (with his typical hyperbole) when he said, “If you have faith like a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain move from here to there and it will move.” Compared to the mustard seed, a rock of almost any size is like a mountain. Weeds are beautiful; they are part of God’s plan; weeds are powerful. Learn from them Jesus seems to be saying – inevitably, I think, with a mischievous smile.

But learn what? That what we see as small and weak, what we see as negative is all part of the plan. See beauty in what the world sees as ugly. Small is beautiful. But whether you do or not is irrelevant in terms of God’s will. It will be done in any case. You can dig up the dandelions, spray them with Roundup, or cut down those pesky trees of heaven. You can’t stop that Something Unknown from doing we don’t know what.

And that brings me to the third point of this morning’s Gospel – the power of parable. They can turn our worlds upside down. They surprise, delight, confuse, disturb, challenge, or comfort. They’re meant to make us think more deeply and to stimulate discussion. That’s the case with today’s Parable of the Farmer and the Seed, as well as with the Mustard Plant.

Above all, the power of parable is illustrated in the case of Jesus himself. Jesus, after all, is the best parable our tradition holds.  He was a seed sown 2000 years ago that continues to bear fruit today. But he and his message were also like a weed. He wasn’t a Cedar of Lebanon, but more like that mustard plant. Like the rest of us, Jesus lived such an extremely limited life, but he accomplished everything.  

Think about it. We believe Jesus is the very presence of God. Yet in the world’s eyes, he did absolutely nothing with more than 90 % or his life. We know nothing of what he did with his life till he was about 30. And then, history records, he did a few relatively insignificant things in an insignificant part of the world.

Not only that, what he did eventually do all ended in failure. He evidently thought the Kingdom was coming in his own lifetime. But here we are 2000 years later, and not a sign of its arrival as far as we can see.

…  As far as we can see. Our trouble is with our limited vision. We’re expecting God’s Kingdom to be the “Cedar of Lebanon” referenced by Ezekiel in the first reading. It won’t be like that, Jesus says. With a smile, he suggests, it will be something small – even something we see as undesirable, ugly or failed – even like our own lives.

Our perception forgets about the Kingdom vision that was so central to Jesus’ life. In modern terms, we might say, we only see a small part of life’s computer screen – that lower right hand corner for example. We see maybe an inch or so of a screen that’s 21 inches big. On the huge part we’re not seeing, God is up to all kinds of things we’re not aware of – that we can’t be aware of or even understand.

Something unknown is doing we don’t know what. All we have to do is our best at whatever task life has given us, and then get out of the way. That’s what Jesus seems to be telling us this morning.

What do you think? Can we accept that Good News? Can we recognize God at work in the mustard plant, in the dandelion, in the tree of heaven?

Why I Left the Priesthood: Part One

At least before all the scandals hit, I had always admitted quite freely and with a certain sense of pride that I had been a priest “in a former life.” I suppose that’s because as a Catholic born before the Second Vatican Council, some positive residuals still lurked in my mind around the ideas of priesthood and church. It’s also because I still sincerely value the training, education, spiritual focus, lasting friendships, and tradition of hospitality that I inherited from my 20 years of formal association with the Society of St. Columban (the organization of priests to which I belonged). Besides, people in the contexts where I’ve worked since then –   mostly at Berea College in Central Kentucky, or in our local St. Clare’s church (where I had also served as a priest in that “former life”) – seemed to appreciate my previous incarnation. So when they’d ask me why I left the priesthood, I used to say,

I don’t think I’ve ever left the priesthood, or even could. They always told us “once a priest, always a priest;” and I think that’s true. The priesthood isn’t something “they” confer on a person. It’s an acknowledgement of an identity, a “character” that no one and no decision by me or by “them” can remove. I, and so many of my colleagues in the seminary, had a priestly character from the beginning, and ordination simply amounted to its acknowledgement and confirmation by the church. So I still think of myself as a priest. It’s true, the sacramental dimension is missing. But apart from that, as a teacher of theology and director of a Peace and Social Justice Studies program, I’m pretty much doing the same work I did before I left the canonical priesthood. I’m still a priest.

 That’s what I used to say. I don’t any longer like that answer. Its approach to the priesthood was too exceptional, setting me and my friends apart from others in a way I’ve come to see as self-serving. None of us was at all that unique. We were pretty much ordinary, working class kids, who escaped factory work (or truck driving, or delivery routes, or the policeman’s beat) to become the first in our families to get a college education. We joined a highly exclusive club that put us on a pedestal from the beginning, and gave us an exaggerated opinion of our own importance. Before we were 30 or had done really anything at all, we were among the most honoured and important people in our communities. That sort of unmerited aura and especially the accompanying expectations eventually drove me from the priesthood as I once knew it. 

Still there was truth in my statement about priestly character. There was indeed something special about me and those who came with me through the seminary. But the specialness belonged not to me or to them uniquely. What my words unwittingly expressed was an intuition about the nature of being human. The intuition is that everyone has that priestly character I was referring to. Luther, I think, (with his dependence on Augustine) was gesturing towards something like that. Though he didn’t say it as clearly as mystics like Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross – or as Hindus or Buddhists do – he was referring to the spark of the divine (the indwelling Spirit) deep within everyone. Awareness of its presence simply dawns on certain people earlier than on others. For some, it never reaches consciousness at all. It happened to dawn on me (more or less) quite early, but not in the way it has over the past decade or so. To get there I had to do a lot of growing, sometimes painful, but often delightful.  The growth was intellectual, personal, and spiritual. Each step moved me further and further from the priesthood as I imagined it for myself and experienced it in others before ordination.

(Next Monday: Intellectual Steps away from the Priesthood)