James Patterson’s “Woman of God”: Its Call to Reform the Catholic Church from Below

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James Patterson surprised me recently by publishing a book about the Catholic Church and faith. Usually, of course, Paterson deals with the world and adventures of ex-F.B.I. agent Alex Cross. There Patterson’s fiction revolves around spies, the C.I.A., terrorists, murder and general mayhem.

So I was intrigued when I came across Woman of God. I was even more surprised to find it addressing the problem of reform in the Catholic Church. In fact, the book might be seen as a parable – if we understand parable as a fictional story inviting its audience to conversion and action. The action in question is transformation of the Catholic Church independent of established church authority.

Woman of God traces the life of Brigid Fitzgerald, a not particularly religious physician, whose first assignment takes her to Africa’s Sudan. There horrendous experiences with grinding poverty, terrorist attacks, battlefield operations and dying children drive her to rediscover her long-abandoned faith.

The book is filled with prayers and mystical reflections about the unity of creation and of humankind. It also details Brigid’s series of romantic relationships and marriages that all end tragically. As a result, I sometimes thought I was reading one of those Christian romances where each and every plot turn is cloyingly related to God, faith and prayer.

But Patterson somehow pulls this one off.

With her faith deepening with every chapter, Brigid’s second marriage joins her with a progressive Catholic priest. Together they start the Jesus, Mary and Joseph (JMJ) Catholic Church. It offers an alternative to the local parish, but stubbornly continues to identify as Catholic, even over the objections and threats of the local bishop. Eventually, Brigid herself becomes a priest – ordained by a dissident prelate.

Gradually JMJ becomes a movement that spreads across the United States. So does Brigid’s fame as a married female cleric. Accordingly, she receives threats from conservative Catholics and accolades from almost everyone else. A final seal of approval comes from the pope himself, when Brigid (and her daughter) are summoned to Rome to meet the Holy Father. When he eventually dies, there is even speculation that Brigid herself might be chosen pope.

The connections between Woman of God and bottom-up reform of the Catholic Church are obvious – especially in the light of prospects that threaten the very continuity of human life on our planet. As parable, the book calls committed Catholics to actually do something by way of resistance that calls upon the Church’s long (a neglected) social justice tradition. it’s time, the story suggests, to start a JMJ church of our own.  Committed Catholics must become the change Pope Francis called for in his landmark Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel.

Chris Hedges’ recent article on the state of our country intimates something similar. We’re living in circumstances that parallel events in 1933 Germany, he says. As Hedges argues, all of our institutions – government, military, police, media outlets, schools and universities, churches and synagogues – have been too long silent. We’ve simply gone along with their own gradual corruption. When it’s all over, we’ll stand there scratching our heads and wondering how we could have let it all happen.

Regarding the role of churches, Hedges predicts we will ask:

“Where were the great moral and religious truth tellers? Why did they use the language of identity politics as a substitute for the language of social justice? Why did they refuse to condemn as heretics those on the Christian right, which fused the symbols of the state with those of the Christian religion? Why did they collaborate with the evil of corporate capitalism? Why did they retreat into churches and synagogues, establishing exclusive social clubs, rather than fight the injustice outside their doors? Why did they abandon the poor? Why did they replace prophetic demands for justice with cloying political correctness and personal piety?”

Chris Hedges suggests that only a deeply engaged spirituality focusing on social justice can save Catholics from repeating the “go-along-to-get-along” mistakes they committed under Nazism. We need the U.S. equivalent of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church. We need a JMJ community that will make its business resistance of all forms of Trumpism in the name of Jesus’ God.

Recall what Bonhoeffer, Pastor Niemoller, Karl Barth and others did when Adolf Hitler came to power. They saw their churches silent at best, and at their worst actually cooperating with Hitler by giving him their blessings. So they started their “Confessing Church.” Originally the movement concentrated on ecclesiastical threats from Hitler. Later however those foci broadened to embrace persecuted Jews. In the face of concentration camp atrocities, its members ended up asking

“Why does the church do nothing? Why does it allow unspeakable injustice to occur? … What shall we one day answer to the question, where is thy brother Abel? The only answer that will be left to us, as well as to the Confessing Church, is the answer of Cain. (“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Genesis 4:9)

Catholics should make the Confessing Church’s question our own as Nazism has morphed into the contemporary Alt-right. In the face of its current unprecedented threat, corresponding action is required that works every day for the defeat of the neo-fascism Trumpism represents. And the Catholic Church with its unparalleled social teaching (recently expanded by Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’) offers us the guidance we need to shape the responses of a present-day Confessing Church.

Following the parabolic example of Brigid Fitzgerald and her JMJ Church, here’s what we might do:

  • Admit that in most cases, present forms of church are hopelessly disconnected from the unprecedented tragedy and threat represented by the accession to power of the Neo-Fascist Alt-Right.
  • Recognize the power of the Catholic tradition as expressed by Pope Francis as he addresses climate change, environmental destruction, income inequalities, racism, xenophobia, and interminable wars.
  • Publicly move out of our local church building.
  • Open store front JMJ Catholic churches with names such as “St. Francis’ Catholic Church of Resistance.”
  • Invite former Catholics, college students, and other disaffected church members to join.
  • Publish the invitation in local newspapers.
  • Meet in the store front for Eucharist each Sunday at the very times the local church celebrates Mass.
  • Empower faithful women in the JMJ community to preach and celebrate the Eucharist.
  • Gather in the storefront on Wednesday evenings to plan the week’s acts of resistance to Trumpism in all of its manifestations.

Certainly there will come objections from sincere Catholics. They will say:

  • We have no authority to do this.
  • It’s better to continue our reform efforts from within.
  • This will only cause division in our church.
  • The status quo really doesn’t bother me, because I use the quiet provided by Sunday Mass to facilitate my own prayer life.
  • (If, like me, you’re of a certain age) I’m too old for such radical disruption of my life.

To such objections Brigid Fitzgerald might reply:

  • As baptized Catholics, we have all the authority we need. Given the unprecedented threats we face, none of us can wait for top-down leadership to address them adequately. (This was the conclusion of the Confessing Church.)
  • Reform from within? Remember: some of us are operating in churches where announcements deemed “too political” are forbidden. Some parishes don’t even have Peace and Social Justice Committees.
  • Division in our churches? The divisions that already exists are precisely the problem. Papering over such fissures actually prevents even naming the problem of Trumpism.
  • Withdrawing into personal prayer? The times will not allow us the luxury of such pietism in the face of a threat that is truly planetary.
  • Too old? Christian faith will not allow us to identify with the physical as if we were primarily bodies with souls. Our spirits are ageless. The truth is that we are primarily ageless spirits who happen to inhabit temporary bodies. The imperative for action is no less incumbent on older people than on the young. Moreover, the JMJ movement promises to invite energetic college students (and others) to join us as leaders in our community.

This is not time for those with experience to step back and relax. Like Brigid Fitzgerald our experiences have caused us to mature. They have made us wise. That wisdom tells us that time is running out – for us personally, for our children and grandchildren, and for the planet itself. These unprecedented times call for radical response.

Thank you, James Patterson for your parable and its summons to Catholics. It remains for us to respond.

Published by

Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

17 thoughts on “James Patterson’s “Woman of God”: Its Call to Reform the Catholic Church from Below”

  1. Mike R-S, many people live in 1930s Germany in their imaginations to the point of distorting reality here and now. Trump has publicly asked any and all supporters to stay away from violence–hardly a Nazi principle. Meanwhile, Bob Creamer and a number of DNC operatives are recorded on video (Project Veritas) advocating for incitement of violence by unstable personalities at Trump rallies and elsewhere.

    “It’s not hard to get the crazies to pop off”

    The hate and intolerance of the Alt Left was and is on full display during recent Great Smokies wildfires which claim many innocent casualties, human and animal.

    As Alt-Left advocates aim hatred towards Trump and Trump supporters, suggestion: examine your own conscience and support for violence, mayhem and destruction deliberately instigated for political ends. When you get to the other side beyond this life, will you look back and regret your support of violence by buddies? They say that everyone gets to review their own life over there. Where do we hide now, what cannot be hidden then? Is it worth it?

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    1. w999 – Are you saying alt-left folks set the fires in Tennessee? Any proof of that? Otherwise your remarks seem like one group of extremists accusing another group who differ from their views “extremist.” Anyone who does not believe as we do is an extremist?

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      1. Mike k, this is a matter of principle. The press and opposition to Trump have cast anyone who does not believe as you do (Trump and his primarily mainstream supporters) as an extremist.

        And, there have been anti-Trumpers rejoicing in the wildfires, to their disgrace, because many Appalachians supported Trump. Lots of haters in the Alt-Left. Recognize and distance from them.

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      2. Don’t you agree that climate change deniers are extremist? The entire Republican Party falls into that category. It’s a rogue organization. And under its leadership the United States is becoming even more rogue than under Bush and Obama.

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      3. The Transpartisan review article is interesting, thanks. I like the focus on trust. Not naive trust, not gullible trust; the trust that relies on healthy mutually respectful relationships. That sort of trust.

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      4. Climate change is real; I’ve been to Alaska and have seen the receding glaciers. I also noticed many years ago that the development of four-lane highways, asphalt parking lots (many parking lots in my childhood were simple gravel) and houses without porches or shade trees made the local environment seem hotter. I don’t know if this has been documented or researched in any way. What can people do locally that creates a healthy environment? The education would start there — not from self-interested government lobbyists. I don’t see genuine environmental impulse or understanding at the basic individual voter level. That might be a more productive place to focus

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  2. Hi Mike,

    James Patterson: who would have thought?

    Francis has been aiming at bottom-up organization since his first official publication, as you note. His challenge is to hang around long enough to shepherd it into existence.

    The challenge for the Church of JMJ is two-fold: how do you get them in the door, and more importantly, what do you have to offer inside the door beyond a concept?

    I’ll need to read the book, I see.

    Hank

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    1. Those are good questions, Hank. And I’m not sure how to answer them. There’s reluctance on the part of people I know and respect to leave our local church, even though it causes them to grind their teeth and complain about its irrelevance. We’ll see. Perhaps the election of Mr. Trump will supply the needed motivation. As for what’s done inside the door . . . That will be up to those who show up. With female leadership, it will be interesting to see. I’ll keep you posted.

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  3. Americans of all classes are becoming suspicious of politicians, priests of all kinds, science, media, each other….. And with good reason in all cases. We are a culture of liars, ignoramuses, delusionals, spin doctors, con men and women, pill heads, neurotics, fanatics, cowards, egoists.……. who can you trust anymore? I blame everybody and forgive everybody in this madhouse human culture we have mindlessly lurched into. It was going full blast when I was born in 1931, and it’s getting crazier by the minute, and is on course to blow itself to smithereens any day now. This underlying unease has very real bases, and gives rise to a lot of the otherwise inexplicable behaviors so common in these times.

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    1. Agreed. I am currently laboring in a workplace that struggles with trust issues. The simplest transactions must be documented, double locked, double checked, and passed through multiple hands because of the openings for abuse. I am trying to have a cooperative attitude but the rigmarole is time consuming and endlessly frustrating. Thieves will simply fill out papers and mouth promises, and continue to steal and cheat; I wish I worked with honorable, trustworthy people; we’d get so much more done, and with ease.

      I long to live in a culture where you don’t have to lock your doors, where people know not to steal, not to lie, to honor verbal promises and commitments, not to enter without knocking just because the trust factor has such a high value. “Trust but verify”, okay, but it’s annoying to be unable to trust in the first place

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      1. Glad you stuck around w999. So many folks just bug out if someone questions their beliefs about whatever. Pretty hard to get a discussion going under those circumstances. And one thing we really need is more sharing ideas and feelings about the mess we are all in.

        The truth about the climate disruption monster is really grim and scary. I understand why those who should know about it lie to themselves and others. The near term ending of human life on Earth is not something people want to seriously consider. Those who know how great and near the danger really is are stuck with a message that is undeliverable, due to peoples refusal to entertain it. Those of us in addiction treatment know it as denial, and it is the crux of why it is so hard for people to accept the extensive and difficult changes they need to make in their lifestyles to have any chance of avoiding the deadly scenario which is even now unfolding before our uncomprehending eyes.

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  4. Memory is the foundation for the first lie, the illusion that realities not immediately present to our experience can be stored in one’s mind and called up when no longer physically present. The development of language permitted an even more artificial, symbolic reality in the mind that could be made up of things never experienced directly, but merely the result of juggling the store of symbols (words) now stored as a vocabulary, a dictionary of tokens divorced from immediate concrete experience.

    And so we came to live in a consciousness constantly selected and interpreted by the presence of this vast apparatus of thought. I recommend Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary for clarification of this situation and it’s profound impact on the modern world.

    What is meditation such as Zen practice but an attempt to slip out of the straitjacket of thought to experience an unmediated reality which we long ago became detached from? And so we are living in and suffering from a human world created by our minds which are out of contact with basic realities and on an insane course that threatens to destroy all of us.

    Those who have begun to awaken from this dangerous mental trance find themselves confronted by a public which is totally unaware of their situation and actually resistant to being told about it. These deluded souls will end up telling you that you are the one suffering from delusions, and that they are just fine just as they are – and please stop bothering us with your nonsense!

    There is a tacit agreement among people to not bring up vital problems and tortured emotions that threaten to erupt into open consciousness. Anyone who dares to do so becomes an enemy to those hanging on with quiet desperation to the myths that tell us everything is really OK. Our flimsy house of cards we call reality is too fragile to risk playing with matches or checking out the foundations. On the edge of the precipice we counsel each other to keep dancing faster, and above all DO NOT LOOK DOWN!

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  5. Here’s one thought about tortured emotions. Constance Reed recently died alongside her two young daughters in the Smokies wildfire. A couple of years ago, Constance had bared her soul in a video describing her anxieties. She had been alcoholic and addicted at age 12. If you have a minute, Constance’s story is a good example of the micro-environment that might need to change before anything larger can succeed… people trying to appear adult while coping with broken hearts and souls, how can it work?

    http://wate.com/2016/12/03/you-are-note-alone-gatlinburg-fire-victim-constance-reed-shares-story-of-abuse/

    Constance most certainly was not alone with her story. Many of my coworkers cope with similar stories, if you listen and they open up; addicted parents who abandoned them to grow up on their own; grandparents trying to raise abandoned grandchildren while working 50+ hours per week for low wages. Ours is not a gentle culture.

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