Friday, January 30, 2015

I'm a Catholic Feminist, and My Church Needs Me More Than Ever

By Kristina Keneally

Note: This op-ed was first published January 28, 2015 by The Guardian.

I recall standing in my grandmother’s kitchen with her yellow Bakelite phone to my ear, waiting on hold for a talkback radio program. I was eight years old, and my family was in another room listening to the Catholic Bishop of Toledo take questions from callers on the local AM station.

Finally it was my turn. “Bishop Donovan,” I said, “I’m in third grade. The priest at our school has come to our class to ask for boys to volunteer to be altar servers. Why can’t girls volunteer too?”

Poor Bishop Donovan. He mumbled something about church tradition and the importance of serving at mass as a first step towards priesthood – where, again, one obviously had to be male – and moved on to the next caller.

Unsatisfactory, I thought. And my career as a Catholic feminist began.

38 years later, I’m still a Catholic and a feminist. I’ve got a degree in religious studies, specialising in feminist theology, and while girls can be altar servers now (take that, Bishop Donovan), we’ve still got a long way to go, baby.

Pope Francis’s recent comment that Catholics need not “breed like rabbits,” while insisting that artificial contraception is still banned, left many shaking their heads. Here was yet another example of the all-male Catholic hierarchy completely failing to understand what it is like to be a woman, or to live in a family, or to exercise control over fertility.

The Catholic church so overtly and fully excludes women from certain jobs and seeks to deny them certain rights that some dismiss the idea that a true feminist can profess the Catholic faith. Yet this is precisely why the Catholic church needs feminists.

The idea that one can’t be a Catholic and a feminist usually starts with a misunderstanding of what it is to be Catholic. In strict technical terms, a Catholic is someone who believes in those things listed in the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed: God, the creator of heaven and earth; Jesus Christ, the son of God who was crucified, died and resurrected; the Holy Spirit; the holy Catholic church (that is, the entire community of those who believe in Jesus Christ); the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.

That’s it. No mention in our creeds of artificial contraception, an all-male priesthood, denying communion to divorced people or excluding homosexuals. It’s not particularly surprising – not one of the four Gospels records Jesus passing significant comments on such matters.

Everything in the Catholic church after Jesus’s death and resurrection represents human attempts to interpret and apply the teachings of Christ to our circumstances. Because men fairly exclusively ran the world until very recently, it has been fairly exclusively men in the Catholic church who’ve done the interpreting and applying. Not overly surprising, then, that the result is a set of teachings and rules that exclude and oppress women.

A Catholic feminist insists that women’s experience is just as valid as men’s when it comes to understanding the nature of God, the teachings of Christ, the movement of the Holy Spirit and how we are to live as Christians in the world today.

OK, I hear you saying, but how can a Catholic disagree with the church? Don’t you Catholics believe the (male) pope is infallible? Aren’t you required to follow what the (exclusively male) bishops say?

There’s no simple answer to that question, but the short answer is no. First of all, papal infallibility (and its related concept, the infallibility of the church) is not what people often think it is. The pope is not infallible in every utterance he makes. In fact, he only very occasionally speaks infallibly, and when he does it is specifically noted. For example, the Assumption of Mary (into heaven) is an infallible teaching. The ban on artificial contraception is not.

Secondly, a Catholic has an obligation to follow her fully-formed conscience, even if it brings her into conflict with church teaching. A fully-formed conscience consults not only scripture and church teaching but also the sciences and human experience.

Conscience is a crucially important aspect of Catholic teaching and was given great emphasis in Vatican II, the reforming and modernising council that took place between 1962-65. Conservative popes – such as John Paul II – have sought to redefine conscience in order to discourage debate and dissent, but the role of a fully-formed conscience in the life of Catholics is significant and cannot be extinguished.

A Catholic feminist is a bit like a conscientious objector. She loves what sits at the heart of her faith, and fights what she cannot, in good conscience, accept in her church.

Sometimes people ask me why I don’t just leave such an anachronistic institution and join a Christian church where women can have a say, serve as ordained minsters and formally contribute to theological and moral teachings. Sometimes I ask myself the same question. It’s not easy being a Catholic feminist – sometimes it is downright infuriating – but I love the sacraments and the liturgy of the Catholic church, and I love the value it places on scripture and tradition. Why should I abandon my expression of faith to the all-male hierarchy? Why not stay and advocate for a more inclusive church, better theology, and teachings more reflective of the lived experience of women?

I’m no saint, but when I am most exasperated with the church, I recall that among the communion of saints are hundreds of examples of people who openly disagreed with the church hierarchy. Think of Mary MacKillop – excommunicated at one point – now elevated to sainthood by the same institution that threw her out.

Agitators for change are part of the Catholic church’s rich history: Catholic feminists follow in that tradition.

Related Off-site Links:
Altar Server Scandal is Reminder of How Far the Catholic Church Has to Go with Women – Lydia O'Connor (The Huffington Post, January 30, 2015).
Vatican Hits Sour Note with Women, But Progress May Come – Nicole Winfield (Associated Press via Yahoo! News, January 31, 2015).
Pope Francis, Women, and the Band of Brothers: The Ambiguity of the Jesuit Heritage That's Being Ignored by Commentators on Francis as Reformer – William D. Lindsey (Bilgrimage, January 31, 2015).

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Dialoguing with the Archbishop: Unity With or Without Diversity

By Paula Ruddy

Archbishop John Nienstedt met with a delegation from CCCR and Council of the Baptized on January 20 in a conference room at the Chancery Office in St. Paul. The delegates were Bob Beutel, co-chair of the CCCR Board, Mary Beth Stein, co-chair of Council of the Baptized, and I, a member of the CCCR Board. The Archbishop had invited Bishop Andrew Cozzens and Father Erich Rutten to join us.

Archbishop Nienstedt was cordial, gave us an hour of his time, and accepted the agenda we proposed. He led us in prayer to start the meeting. The agenda was 1) to explain the mission of CCCR and Council of the Baptized, 2) to explore how we could work together to comply with Pope Francis’s request for lay input for the Synod on the Family to take place in Rome in October 2015, and 3) we also wanted to know generally how we could work together to make our archdiocese a growth supportive community for all.

The Archbishop listened carefully while Bob explained the mission and activities of our joint organizations. When Bob had finished, the Archbishop asked this question: How do you think of yourselves as a Catholic organization when some of the member organizations of the coalition have opted out of the Roman Catholic Church?

Good question. We all talked about it in the spontaneous way that semi-formal conversation happens. I don’t have a transcript, but I had the perception that we reached some understanding with the Archbishop. He said he understood us more clearly and we went on to the next item on the agenda.

The question is an important one for CCCR and Council of the Baptized. How do we think of ourselves as Catholic when people are all over the board on Catholic teaching? Our policy, we explained to the Archbishop, has been to accept anyone who self-identifies as Catholic, and, at the same time, keep all the questions open for discussion, on the assumption that discussion is the way for people to grow toward truth in their thinking.

Is CCCR/Council of the Baptized justified in its policy of inclusion?

The question gets muddled up with the ideas of subjectivity and objectivity. Is being Catholic about being under the canonical jurisdiction of a bishop? That would be objective. Is it about identifying yourself as a Catholic? That would be subjective. Is it about having had water poured over your head with the right words as a baby and having been registered in a Catholic parish? Is it about giving internal assent (subjective) to statements in a catechism (objective)? Is it about getting yourself physically to Mass every Sunday and obeying the laws of the church (objective)? Can it be completely subjective with no external observance? Can it be completely objective with no internal assent?

Let’s say it is about both/and. Some objective observance and some internal assent. To draw lines we have to identify the essential objective observances and the essential subjection requirements. Has that been done? How are they tested? By whom? Is the person making the objective judgment using any subjectivity? Is determining who is in and who is out part of the mission of the church?

Is CCCR/Council of the Baptized justified in trusting the Holy Spirit to work within a whole community of self-identifying Catholics who are all across the board in their thinking and in their observance and yet somehow drawn to grow within this community? Does Jesus’s point about letting the weeds grow with the wheat have relevance? Or his caution not to snuff out the smoldering wick?

Or is it better to draw lines for being either in or out and to provide programming in standard thinking and practice to support the people who are in? In a fragmented world with so many influences working against the Christian faith, is it necessary to get clear on some formulations of truth and zero in on a faith formation?

Choosing between these two modes of operating—inclusion or exclusion—is necessary to run a coherent program. So it is a fundamental question. What do you think?

Friday, January 16, 2015

St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese Declares Bankruptcy in Response to Abuse Lawsuits

By Jean Hopfensperger

Note: The following is an excerpt from an article first published January 16, 2015 by the Star Tribune.

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Friday, saying it cannot meet its financial obligations from an unprecedented wave of clergy sex abuse lawsuits.

The move freezes lawsuits against the church, protecting the archdiocese from creditors while allowing it to develop a reorganization plan.

“I make this decision because I believe it is the fairest and most helpful recourse for those victims/survivors who have made claims against us,” wrote Archbishop John Nienstedt on the archdiocese’s website Friday morning.

“Reorganization will allow the finite resources of the Archdiocese to be distributed equitably among all victims/ survivors. It will also permit the Archdiocese to provide essential services required to continue its mission within this 12-county district.”

Archdiocese officials have said such a move was a financial necessity, as it faced more than 20 lawsuits from people who charge they were sexually abused by priests. More than 100 other lawsuits are pending.

Church officials have scheduled a news conference for 2 p.m. Friday.

The bankruptcy filing does not provide precise figures on archdiocese finances. It showed estimated liabilities of $50 to $100 million, estimated assets of $10 to $50 million, and estimated creditors of 200 to 999.

All of the top 20 creditors listed in the filing are representatives of victims of clergy sex abuse, which is typical of church bankruptcy filings nationally.

Jeff Anderson, the St. Paul attorney handling most of the clergy sex abuse cases, said in a news conference Friday, “It is our belief that the action taken today is necessary.”

“We will do this in a way like it’s never been done before, and not fight and get involved in contention … but in the spirit of cooperation … and healing.”

Victim’s advocates charge that the move is one more example of the archdiocese shirking its responsibility to abuse victims.

“Why is it that when all the dioceses file bankruptcy, they do it on the eve of a trial?” asked Bob Schwiderski, longtime advocate for abuse survivors. “Is it because they can’t put their hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth?”

Schwiderski was referring to three clergy abuse trials slated for Jan. 26, that will now be halted.

All cases and claims will be reorganized in bankruptcy court, Anderson said

“The good news is that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has insurance and it has a lot of it,” he said.

“We and the archdiocese in the last weeks and months have tried to bring the insurance companies to the table,” Anderson said.

However, he said that has not succeeded. In November, it sued 20 insurance companies in federal court seeking to force them “to cover the type of injuries” suffered by the clergy abuse claimants.

Anderson said he thinks the archdiocese will prevail in the end.

The move is not expected to affect the roughly 200 Catholics parishes or Catholic schools, which are incorporated separately from the chancery.

Related Off-site Links:
Archdiocese Files for Bankruptcy Amid Abuse Claim Worries – Martin Moylan and Madeleine Baran (Minnesota Public Radio News, January 16, 2015).
St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese Files for Bankruptcy – Amy Forliti (Associated Press via Crux, January 16, 2015).