Monday, November 20, 2017

A Reflection on the Insights of Elizabeth Johnson: The Impact of Feminism in my Spiritual Journey and Ministry by Dr. Suzanne De Froy, ARCWP Applicant, Windsor,ON (20 Nov 2017)

A Vatican released fresco from the Roman Catacombs of Priscilla(230-240 AD) One of many, this 230-240 AD fresco was found in the Catacombs of Priscilla of Rome.  This fresco shows a group of women celebrating banquet of the Eucharist.  Another shows woman with outstretched arms like those of a priest.  Vatican says assertions that these women were priests are 'fairy tales'.  
By Ellie Zolfagharifard (Published: 12:03 GMT, 20 November 2013)

       Researchers are providing a refreshing analysis to celebrate the feminist movement’s efforts and accomplishments.  Elizabeth Johnson’s book ‘Abounding in Kindness: Writings for the People of God’ and her you-tube lectures provide scholarly insight that addresses a dominating perspective to overlook or omit the presence of those considered less important and brings these characters into the light. This perspective represents dramatic change in retelling. While there are some who would consider the pace of this dramatic reconceptualization is not moving fast enough, it can be considered relative to the times, considering the centuries of intentional female subjugation in all aspects of human existence. I believe her scholarly efforts will contribute to a more just and humanistic world-view away from the current oppressive paradigm of domination, inequality, sexism and misogyny evident in so many human relationships. 
         Unjust issues, concerns, dilemmas and problems have appeared insurmountable over the centuries and Johnson cites evidence that time and time again the Church community has been a collaborator both within and without.  However as she eloquently summarizes in her lecture on Mary Magdalen, the Church as a redemptive faith community is called upon to bring moral law, both natural and evangelical to bear hope and bring the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ to the world. 

            Johnson predicts that the feminist work that is currently being done will not only have an impact on the Catholic faith community but will directly inspire ‘profound change’ in the world. She offers hope that despite any effort to maintain the status quo currently professed by the institutional Church, it is time to acknowledge the influence between the civil domain and the spiritual dimensions of human existence.
         This complex ‘tangle of knots’ has been untied in an in-depth academic fashion, which I have given considerable cognitive and prayerful effort to understand.  I wanted to differentiate my personal view as a ‘humanist’ with the realities of ‘sexism’ and ‘feminism’.  The following reflection can be grouped into three main areas that I found especially interesting for reflection purposes. 
         First I have tried to define the actual dilemma, second I found major contradictions in Church teachings, and third I tried to describe the global feminist movement that will ultimately impact the lag phenomenon within the institutional Church.  This theme is a very passionate one for me and I hope to weave these three groupings into my own personal story and journey toward Ministry.

The Dilemma
         Communities of faith imply identity and relationships with self and others, which can ultimately become healthy and nurturing or unhealthy and demeaning.  Of concern are the on-going sexist and bias teachings impacting the cultural norms endorsed by the institutional structure, theologies and practice of the Roman Catholic Church.  Women have been robbed of their dignity and reduced in position within the faith community of discipleship.  I question how this view has been perpetuated and how can this injustice be rectified?
         Family is the place where we begin our life’s journey and has always been at the center of my own circles of personal relationships. I was born on the Immaculate Conception feast day, so my ‘Catholic’ family told me that this date was a blessing to me. It was so special that the Church declared it a religious holiday and in the separate school system we as children had a day off from school. But ever since I was able to understand the birds and the bees I always wondered why the ‘virgin’ condition was a necessity in the Jesus story and what that condition meant for anyone lucky enough to be born a female.
         To make things even more confusing, over time I realized Jesus was said to have brothers and possibly even sisters (Mark 6:3; Luke 8:19-21; John 2:12), but I never heard about their relationships.  Little was written about Jesus’ youth so I often wondered about how they would have treated one another in the day-to-day interactions that were necessary to function and flourish in ‘dignity’, so that each family member could become fully human persons in their own right. 
         Along with my father’s mother and wife, he had three sisters and three daughters.  I realize how fortunate I was that he felt blessed by being surrounded by a strong female presence and by his encouraging actions his actions reflected an appreciation of gender equality.  It was Dad who introduced me to notion of collaboration as the preferred form of discussion and decision making, whether at work or when it came to matters that would impact me personally or my family.  He had the patience of Job, always available to listen patiently and without prejudice as I wrestled with social justice issues of the 60s and 70s.  He shared his world view and respected the emerging perspectives that I brought to our conversations.  Dad brought spiritual values and a lot of common sense to our many discussions as I navigated the realities of day-to-day life. 

            I believe that many of the alternatives that Jesus presented are also ‘common sense’.  I would argue that He tried to remind us that despite travails and temptation to put the ‘self’ first, humankind’s basic nature is to work together for a common goal, act with ‘harm to none’ and maintain intentions for the ‘higher good’. Jesus’ teachings reminded me of this, for love was always at the heart of His message.  This line of thinking about the nature of humankind is left for consideration on another day but I only need to look at the many acts of loving kindness I witness each and every day to reinforce this belief.

The Contradictions
         Johnson postulates that the ‘Good News’ advocated by Jesus was intentional to prevent His community from setting up a system where an individual or group ‘lords’ over another. One of the strongest images from my youth was Jesus’ final lesson when He modeled the humble service of ‘washing feet’.  Time and time again on Holy Thursday, I witness the reenactment and interestingly in these modern times I see women representing the apostles.  The following words provide inspiration:

“Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their master nor are messengers greater than the one who went them (John 13:16)
         My attempts to reconcile this pointed directive from Christ to the deeds of exclusive men who received the Holy Orders have become a perplexing contradiction. Jesus would not be speaking solely to his 12 male appointed apostles because I believe He would have intentionally included His wider circle of disciples.  Never the less, Jesus’ prophetic message of service has left a formidable foothold guiding the work for justice left to be done. 
         So why has equality been so difficult to achieve?  The Bible has been a significant influence.  The writings are susceptible to the many modes of interpretation, such as words being taken literally, metaphorically or ideas considered through the socio-contextual lens of the times they were written.  Powerful messages are conveyed and caution must be applied in the intention of interpretation.  Scholars and Church theologians also recognize that there are numerous compilations attributed to single authors along with numerous revisions made over time.  It can be said that deep interpretation requires formal knowledge, justifying the institutional church’s decree to leave this to the ‘rational’ ordained priesthood.   

            However wisdom resides in a the spiritual realm of higher power.  During difficult times in my life I often turned to the insights of my grandmother to help guide me in my life choices.  She was a humble practicing United Church parishioner and together we would often turn to her well-worn pages of the New Testament.  My initial inquiry led to discussion and distinctions were slowly made as comfort and guidance unfolded.  It was during these times that I began my personal relationship with Jesus as counsellor and the Bible truly became the ‘Living Word’.  St. Paul asked those who believed in Him to go out and spread His message: 

Romans 10:11-15
How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”

         Gratitude will forever be never-ending for those special times in my life when I was cloaked in this nurturing and unconditional love.
         In my youth I was also fascinated by the stories of the few women who joined the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples and his traveling companions.  The Bible says a repentant prostitute was redeemed. However, Johnson’s lecture on the truth of Mary Magdalene’s relationship with Jesus Christ acts as an open door for women to become equal participants in the Church. 
         Her perspective fascinates me.  Turning the mirror inward in order to recognize the falsehoods that have oppressed a woman’s own self-image and dignity creates an opportunity for individual change that has the immense potential to influence a more just society.

            But why introduce this particular beautiful, reciprocal friendship in this way?  To initially condemn the personhood of Mary Magdalene as an inferior, sinful, marginalized woman will forever be perplexing to me.  Elizabeth Johnson has shed light on the truth, that this part of the story was perpetuated by Pope Gregory in 591 and the institutional Church.  The pope acts by virtue of Holy Orders in ‘Persona Christi Capitis’. The consequences of his ‘inspired’ profile of the devoted female companion has ‘stuck’ for more than 1400 years and has been a powerful lingering force on the human psyche. 

            Differences in gender have always dominated the human consciousness, more so than similarities. Notable followers of Jesus were men who represented a wide range of occupations marginalized by the Hebrew culture of the time.  Yet not one was cast in a demeaning sexualized light as was Mary Magdalene.

         The entrenched western world-view of women as deserving subjugation can be traced long before Pope Gregory’s statements.  This is evidenced by the impact of ancient Roman values and the long history of western society’s laws, cultural customs and social order.  Johnson also brings our attention to statements of bias against the dignity of woman’s full humanity over the centuries.  Esteemed Christian theologians used the Bible as justification for these beliefs such as Tertullian (160-225 A.D.), Augustine (354-430 A.D.), Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D.) and Martin Luther (1483-1546). The core ‘Good News’ message brought by Jesus was and still is considered revolutionary.  It appears that this deep level need for a more humanist paradigm shift will forever be a difficult undertaking. 
The Feminist Movement

         Thankfully, many feminist theologians have promoted a counter argument that identifies prejudice, bias and fear as key variables to overcome.  Ingrained sexism has been legitimized therefore painting the illusion of the male gender ‘superiority claim’ to be the ‘official’ guardians of the inspired word. Johnson’s scholarly overview of biblical texts and archaeological inscriptions gives evidence that women and men in the early Church courageously brought the inclusive teachings of Jesus into the daily lives of their community.  Participation was viewed as being part of a liberating, collaborative community including male and female disciples.  They followed Him and were sent out to share the ‘Good News’ as the ‘Living Word’ (Luke 10:1-24). 
         Jesus taught his followers through example by having inclusive table fellowship, solidarity with the marginalized and He criticized those whose mantle was one of domineering power and oppressive leadership. A collaborative faith community ensures that one gender is not placed above another safeguarding full participation in mind, spirit and body. This honourable model for behaviour in relationships and forms of interaction was seeded within me a long time ago and has surfaced as the inspiration to follow the call of becoming a Deacon within the companionship of ARCWP.

         Johnson notes that before and after the death of Jesus, women and men had respectful roles as apostles, missionaries, prophets, teachers, healers, deacons, leaders of house churches and preachers sharing the inspired living word and deeds of Jesus. Divisions no longer applied because the state of being baptized into Christ literally means taking on what Jesus represents – and that means all of us.

         Ancient Gospel stories are relevant to this day for they illustrate that the Good News proclaims that there can no longer be distinctions based on race ‘Jew of Greek’ economic class, ’slave or free’, or gender ’male and female’ (Galatians 3:28). Therefore there is inevitable tension between what Jesus professed and what has been created through a long standing comfortable preference for tradition that perpetuates Church leadership as an exclusively male hierarchy.

            This rigid structure seems insurmountable but women and men are courageously meeting the challenges head-on.  Johnson eloquently outlines the patriarchal versus prophetic debate by referencing the institutional Church’s Second Vatican Council’s Decree of Revelation and John Paul II’s Encyclical on the Dignity of Women.  She predicts that this theoretical lens will facilitate the process of clearing up the ambiguity of women’s human dignity.    

            But opposition is steadfast. Johnson summarized three current reasons why women cannot be ordained, outlined in ‘Inter Insignores(a document issued on 15 October 1976 by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith):

1)      Jesus ordained 12 men as apostles (which means one sent with a message)    so it is imperative that a natural symbolic    representation be sustained     during the sacrament of the Eucharist
2)      By not allowing women into the ministerial priesthood the unbroken tradition of the Church will continue
3)      This tradition represents a complimentary view of human   nature and   gender orientation
·      Men are rational and are inherently able to lead in the public realm
·      Females are loving and inherently able to nurture the vulnerable in thepublic realm

         How these narrow characterizations continue to be justified is beyond me.  I heard these reasons, among others, echoed by a young priest (five years ordained) who gave a presentation on the Sacrament of Holy Orders of Jesus Christ at Corpus Christi Parish in Windsor on Friday, November 17, 2017.  I left his ‘talk’ once again realizing that transforming a male-only sanctioned Priesthood will be a monumental task, if not impossible as my husband and friends are saying.  I was dismayed to say the least as the young priest’s arguments were old without any reference to recent scientific revelations. 

         Paul cautioned that learning while in the priesthood is an evolving process that requires openness:
Philemon 6
And I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.

         My companions in AWRCP made a connection between the forward thinking theories of cosmic entanglement by Ilia Dellio to the women priest movement (  My own academic studies complement this progressive thinking, helping to steady my ship as I experience the rough seas unfolding in my Ministry journey. Change will be necessary and delving into the scholarly conceptual change literature has the potential to make an impression on those enlightened for transformation within the Church.   

            Hope is also powerful, resolutely suspended on the cresting horizon.  In the year 2017 we are witnesses to powerful movements in western civil society that will have influence. An important example to illustrate the shift is the global Human Rights movement which has ensconced equality and human dignity into legislation. The face of feminism is also changing as we see Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada publicly declaring his position with a seemingly common sense statement.  On March 16, 2016 at the Women’s Conference on Gender Equality at the United Nations Headquarters he said,

“I’m going to keep saying, loud and clearly, that I am a feminist … It shouldn’t be something that creates a reaction. It’s simply saying that I believe in the equality of men and women and we still have an awful lot of work to do to get there. That’s like saying the sky is blue and the grass is green.”

         There is a long way to go for women to become priests in the Roman Catholic Church.  One significant barrier is the way that ‘Councils of Men’ continue to set the agenda and control doctrinal teachings, laws, moral and ethical mandates of the Church. 
         Johnson points out that women’s equality is being acted upon across the ‘civil’ front impacting a wide spectrum of human activity including, making it ever more difficult to separate civil and spiritual realms of service:
·        Education
o   Catechists
o   Teachers
o   Directors of religious education
o   Pastoral volunteers such as Eucharistic ministers, parish administrators, judges in marriage tribunals, seminary professors
·        Medical technology controlling fertility
·        Workplace access promoting a measure of economic independence
·        Laws being written that guarantee equality


            Johnson notes that deeply problematic is ‘the male clerical elite has power without accountability and operate within their own in-house norms’.  Stories of domination, inequality and misogyny are still abundant.  But as I said in my introduction, it is time to acknowledge the influence between the civil domain and the spiritual dimensions of human existence.

            Fortunately many instances are no longer concealed or buried as they are surfacing across the world each and every day. Scandals of sexual misconduct, failure to protect the vulnerable through cover-ups, misappropriation of funds and corruptive practices have produced a huge toll that has to be paid. People’s trust and the very structure of the institutional Church have been undermined and possibly irreversibly damaged. Words and acts of condemnation or apologies will not suffice.  Transformative change is necessary. 

            I believe good eventually comes from bad.  As Trudeau stated there is considerable work left to be done.  In Ministry our focus has to remain steady, taking counsel from the Dalai Lama who said, “I find hope in the darkest of days and focus on the brightest”.  Recent current events are unfolding at a rapid pace and adding fuel to political movements.  A recent example is the 10th anniversary of the Survivors March to stop abuse of power and sexual misconduct, which was highlighted in numerous international media outlets including the Canadian National broadcast on November 12th, 2017.  

            The barriers that hide unjust practices in both civil and institutional domains are crumbling, predicting the Roman Catholic Church will no longer be an exception.

            I believe the movement for equality and dignity has gained such momentum that it cannot be stopped.  Women are examining and coming to terms with external influence that prompted the internalization of beliefs which diminish their sense of dignity and self-image.  Brave souls are receiving the message from voices shouting, “It’s about time”.  Their actions defy those in the institutional Church of the Vatican that bar them from participating fully in the mysteries of salvation.

            Importantly, collaboration as envisioned by Jesus Christ is a relatively renewed conception for human behavior for today.  I would argue that in these tumultuous times we are still fumbling with establishing the necessary conditions that would allow these forms of respectful interaction to flourish.  For certain, it will not be found in the trappings of illusory power and control. 

            By participating in the Heart of Compassion Faith Community in Windsor Ontario, I am joining a global community of faith that honours the female’s voice in the Living Word’s homilies.  I am witnessing women priests presiding at Eucharist which ultimately reflects the feminine worthiness to represent Christ in liturgical proceedings. The sacrifices of women and men thousands of years ago are being acknowledged and there are courageous women and men who support the vision of an inclusive collaborative table of Jesus Christ.  Thankfully they are echoing the intentions underpinning the historical foundational beginnings of the early Church.  The biblical Mary Magdalene, as a beloved friend of Jesus, is being respected as an apostolic woman whose voice joined the disciples on their courageous journey.  By honouring her devotion and courageous deeds, she will be forever memorialized.

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