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Posted April 14, 2005 at 1:53 p.m. CDT

'No time for glorifying and exalting': Two perspectives

By Arthur Jones

"This church will survive as a whole only if it has the vision and the strength to become a discipleship of equals," says theologian Maria Pilar Aquino in an interview with NCR's Arthur Jones. Meanwhile, ethicist Christine Gudorf tells Jones that today's issues are "tough, and the church doesn't recognize it."

This is no time for glorifying and exalting, feminist theologian says

Maria Pilar Aquino, the daughter of migrant farmworkers, grew up "with a thirst for knowledge and a passion for theology." The young woman from Nayarit, Mexico, who moved with her parents to San Luis, Ariz., as a young girl saw Cesar Chavez active in nearby fields, and nuns as role models. For several years she was a member of a French order, the Society of Helpers.

Decades later, when Aquino, who has a doctorate in theology and teaches religious studies at the University of San Diego, takes stock of the Catholic church following the death of a pontiff, she compares it with a generation earlier.

"What best reflects the identity of the church," she said, "is rooted in biblical principles and the long-standing Roman Catholic tradition of being with the poor. We see in the past 20 to 25 years a detachment of the church from the concerns of the people.

"During the early years of John Paul II's pontificate, his initial two major social encyclicals Laborem Exercens (1981) and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), which advocated for the dignity of work, the primacy of labor over capital, global justice and solidarity, seemed to confirm that the church was oriented toward transformation and renewal," she said. "But these hopes were soon suffocated and turned into despair.

Strong signs of theological intolerance and of rigidity in the exercise of power emerged in his first decade, she said. "During his (1983) visit to Nicaragua, the pope refused to listen to the cries of thousands of mothers who pleaded for his intervention for justice for their children who'd disappeared or were tortured under the Somoza dictatorship." That same year, she continued, in El Salvador, John Paul "was very clear in his refusal to recognize that the impoverished Salvadoran people had acknowledged and proclaimed Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero as 'St. Romero of the Americas.'

"To this day,' she said, the pope "has canonized 482 saints, but he has never acknowledged the life, work, martyrdom, and powerful presence of St. Romero of the Americas."

Aquino said the direction taken by the hierarchical church in nearly 30 years of "a long and controversial pontificate" was a "source of frustration for thousands of women and men in the church, and many of them express this openly and publicly through their scholarly writings or through personal opinion."

Aquino then spoke of the pontificate's toll on the Catholic image, on Catholic universities and colleges, and Catholic life. "My more than two decades of experience in the classroom provides extensive evidence of disinterest, disappointment, and frustration," she said.

She further asked: "How are we Roman Catholic theologians expected to teach about the pertinence and validity of 'Catholic theology' when we are confronted on a daily basis with young students whose knowledge of the church has come through the news media speaking about the priests' sexual abuses, about unjust censorship against prominent Catholic theologians, about sexist Vatican policies and declarations, or about the abuses of power by the authoritarian Roman curia? I am aware of the difficulty of finding any reasonable and credible response to this question given the current panorama of the church."

Continued Aquino, "Each passing year it is becoming more and more difficult to teach 'Catholic theology' or 'Catholic social teaching,' I am faced with younger generations who have barely or never heard about the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), or the conclusions of the Latin American bishops at Medellin (Colombia, in 1968). Contemporary youth increasingly finds it difficult to accept a Vatican-directed doctrinal content that is highly essentialist and speculative" she said.

Elsewhere, she said, during this ponitificate, while the post-college generations of Catholics "in the rich and highly developed countries abandoned the church, or joined movements and organizations that dissent from the official teaching, a large segment of grass-roots Catholics in the so-called 'Third World' contributed to the increased membership in 'born again' fundamentalist churches by moving to them." Many other Catholics have simply chosen "self-exile from Roman Catholicism in order to preserve a minimum of mental and spiritual health," she said.

"The traditional structure of seminaries for priestly formation crumbled due to the decreasing appeal of a 'priestly vocation' to younger generations," meanwhile, she continued, "the religious practices of large communities in nations traditionally Roman Catholic have become rather dispersed or monotonous; the impoverished and excluded majorities of these nations find neither support nor inspiration in the hierarchical church because it has relinquished its prophetic commitment. Also, the intractable patriarchal nature of the Roman Catholic ecclesial institution is deterring many women around the world. This panorama is not encouraging."

Globally, she said, "many people saw the hierarchical church of the past quarter-century and more as an institution, an absolutist monarchy, that lacked transparency as it operated among others nations in the halls and meeting rooms of the United Nations and elsewhere exerting what influence it could through its Department of State.

Large numbers of Catholic scholars and intellectuals, she said, show a clear "rejection of the outdated, imposed, and one-sided thought patterns of the Roman Curia and the Vatican as a whole. We feminist Catholic theologians profoundly disagree with the intractable position of official Roman Catholicism regarding reproductive rights and women's human rights," she said.

But Aquino is certainly not without hope. "As I see it," she aid, "the last 30 years under the papacy of John Paul II, have been of resistance -- resistance against the Vatican and Roman curial oppression in its obsession to eliminate any trace of critical, liberation thinking. Those years have also been of struggle for a new, democratic and participatory paradigm of church. Perhaps the great achievement of John Paul II is that, through his implementation of pyramidal and centralizing policies, he has unintentionally contributed to widen the space of the church for theological dispute and contestation, thus intensifying the notion of church as a site of struggle."

In many ways, she said, the actions and decisions of the late pope have resulted in "a way of being church that works as a sign of scandal and contradiction" Aquino continued, "these actions and decisions have suffocated the vision of aggiornamento [Italian for "updating"] and renewal promoted by the Second Vatican Council. The model of church promoted by John Paul II was widely characterized by authoritarianism, centralism, conservatism, imperialism, and by mono-culturalism, as consistent with the patterns of dominant male-centered Western-European Christianity. He fashioned a non-participative church where the clerical structure and sexist hierarchy had primacy. He sought to deactivate any theological discourse based on the option for the poor and the oppressed, and he showed no inclination nor will to discuss issues of the full participation of women in all spheres of the church's life."

During the early years of his pontificate, she said, many people around the world had raised hopes about the church preparing the conditions for engaging in a process of internal structural transformation. "In my view," Aquino said, "these hopes developed on the grounds of three major notions that supported the understanding of the church's mission and identity in the contemporary world:

  • Vatican II's Gaudium et Spes, that by scrutinizing the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel, the church seeks to respond to the perennial questions that humanity asks about itself and makes its own the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of our age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted.
  • Paul VI's Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975), that there is "a profound link between Christ, the church and evangelization. The church, as the bishops repeated, has the duty to proclaim the liberation of millions of human beings, many of whom are her own children -- the duty of assisting the birth of this liberation, of giving witness to it, of ensuring that it is complete," that this mission for liberation includes engaging in every struggle to "overcome everything which condemns [people] to remain on the margin of life: famine, chronic disease, illiteracy, poverty, injustices in international relations and especially in commercial exchanges, situations of economic and cultural neo-colonialism sometimes as cruel as the old political colonialism"
  • And from the challenging and seldom remembered document, Justice in the World (1971), when the World Synod of Catholic Bishops, stated, "action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel,"

"Today, instead, the Roman Catholic church is to me a site of struggle," she said. "This church will survive as a whole only if it has the vision and the strength to become a discipleship of equals as a whole. The major concern of the Roman Catholic church should not be that of exalting and glorifying any pope's figure, but that of radically transforming the structure of the papacy and the relationship of the Vatican State to the world. Only by doing that can the church demonstrate that it continues being faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

Today's issues are 'tough, and the church doesn't recognize it,' says ethicist

Christine Gudorf travels the world to meetings that support women. At home -- she's an ethicist at Florida International University, Miami, a state university -- many women, including her ex-Catholic graduate and undergraduate students, ask her, "How can you remain in this church?"

One answer, said Gudorf, is that she hopes things will get better in the next pontificate. The other is that in some people Catholicism is so deeply held, so extensive in their lives and being, that leaving is as hard as staying -- even when the church deteriorates into its present dysfunctional divide.

"I'm the oldest of nine children," she said. "My father built the grade school that I went to, and the rectory garage. We said family rosaries. I'm the only one of the nine of us who is still in the Catholic church."

In a Catholic setting, such as Xavier University in Cincinnati where Gudorf taught for 15 years, she would be called a theologian. In Protestant circles, she said, " 'ethicist' is better recognized as being separate from theology. The change that John Paul II brought about is the reason I'm no longer at Xavier, it was no longer a safe place for someone like me, in ethics, who specialized in sexuality." She left in 1993, "entirely voluntarily. My colleague, Paul Knitter (theologian and international expert on interreligious dialogue), was already getting a great deal of heat.

"The (Xavier) university's academic leadership was very supportive of academic freedom. But I'd get calls from the development office informing me that some big donor had just withdrawn a pledge because of some lecture I'd given," said Gudorf. "We got a new president, a Jesuit. It was clear he had a problem with women, and he tended to be very orthodox and expected the theology department to toe the line."

The ethicist said her "initial introduction to the whole silencing issue' was that she was a teaching assistant in graduate school for Gustavo Gutierrez. "He has spent years and years and years harassed by Rome, and basically it's what drove him into the Dominicans, which I think is just sad. That the man in his late 70s should be driven into a religious order when one of the things he had been most proud of in his whole life was that he had demonstrated that secular clergy in Latin America could be intellectuals."

Asked what she could say as a theologian 15 years ago in a Catholic university that she'd be unable to be forthright about today, she immediately went to John Paul's "entirely new definition of the 'ordinary' and the 'extra-ordinary' in medical ethics. That was just incredibly awful." (see Artificial Nutrition, Hydration: Assessing Papal Statement, Thomas A. Shannon and James J. Walter, NCR April 16, 2004).

Gudorf speaks from heart-rending experience. "Two of our three sons have serious birth defects. One died in October. Some years ago we decided that because some bishops were very conservative about this issue we would not use Catholic hospitals for these sons. They've both been in situations where they've been comotase for some days. And we knew what was going to happen. And they did not want and we did not want to have them in a vegetative state for years at a time."

When asked about Catholic women who have left the church during this pontificate, Gudorf said, "Oh, my goodness, I had a graduate class last night. I teach in Miami, something like 70 percent of our students are Hispanic. Most of them born Catholic." At the graduate level, she said, perhaps 20 per cent still have some lasting allegiance to or formal practice in the church, and the undergraduate level, perhaps 30-35 per cent.

She recalled a lunch meeting a few months ago with the new crop of teaching assistants at the graduate level, five women. "It turned out they were all born and raised Catholic. I'd no idea," she said, "because of their studies: Native American studies, Buddhism, etcetera. It was the same as in class, they wanted to know why I'm still in the church. I tell them it gets harder all the time.

"I'm teaching this class on the medieval church. It used to be cancelled all the time because there's so little interest in the church, the Catholic church. They all want something exotic. I renamed it 'Saints, Witches and Cathedrals.' In the last three or four years I get 70 to 80 students in this class. It just says something about how easy they are to manipulate," she said, with a laugh.

"Such responsibility," said Gudorf, "I bet you 25 people in this class are going back to Catholic churches, at least initially, on the strength of my words. It's scary because God knows what they're going to get. I had a student last night come back in during the break. She approaches me and she said, 'You know I stopped going to church years ago. But this class has kind of turned me on and made me see that there are some really important things there. And I realized, a total surprise to me,' she said, 'but I missed the Eucharist.'

"So," said Gudorf, "she'd gone back to church. 'It was awful. Awful,' the student said. 'They set up a big screen and projector in church for the homily, and then we had to listen to some guy trying to convince each family to give $125 for this collection for the mission.' "

Gudorf continued, "The student said, 'You know, I'm in sales.That's what my work is. I recognize a spiel when I see it, and this was really offensive.' Another student who went back to church told me, 'Oh, it was all about how we should all imitate Mary and be silent because that's what's appropriate for women.' And then they say to me, 'How can you do it?' And I said, 'well, I walk out of about one in three sermons.' "

The ethical issues of the day, said Gudorf, are "tough, and the church doesn't recognize it." She gave as an example an e-mail she'd received from a young woman who's taken one of Gudorf's sexuality classes. The student has two children, the father committed suicide two years ago. She wrote that she was four weeks pregnant by a man she'd been seeing for three months. Said Gudorf, "The woman is still in school and working, too. 'This is not necessarily a permanent relationship,' the woman wrote. 'It's early days, we can't see each other very often.'"

Gudorf said, "She said, 'Intellectually I think I want an abortion. But I don't know if I can live with it.' One of the questions she asked me was, 'What can you tell me?'

"I thought, oh, my God, so what am I going to tell her? Go see your parish priest?' " Gudorf said, "I told her that everybody has to make decisions for themselves. I can only point out some of the reasons on both sides. And that I advised her that whatever she did, she should do some praying about it. That she should think ahead to the future if she decides to have the child, to what kind of a mother she thinks she can be to this child. If she decides to go for an abortion, she should find some way to ritualize it so that she accepts her own decision and deals with this and doesn't just desperately try to forget it. What angers me so much about the church position is they don't recognize that it's so tough."

She gave another example. Earlier this year she gave a series of lectures on the status of women in Abrahamic religions that the State Department supported in Indonesia, to Catholic women theologians and pastoral ministers from Mongolia through Myanmar.

"There were about 65 women and two, three, four, five from each country, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Cambodia. One woman from Mongolia." Said Gudorf, "they're very involved in supporting women in the Catholic church organizing lay women around issues like violence against women. Maybe three of them were not only theologians but lawyers. And some of them do tribunal work especially freeing women from abusive situations. But they're really about the right of women to do theology.

"One Indian women," she said, "has been silenced by her bishop. She's a beautiful writer, and poet. And the reason he silenced her that is she's married to a Hindu -- although they raised their children in the Catholic church and her husband knows as much Catholic theology as the bishop, which really upsets him. The bishop said she had to quit writing because her personal life -- simply because she was married to a Hindu --was not an example for others."

Asked "Where are we as church now that the pontificate has ended?" Gudorf replied, "I don't know. At the beginning of the pedophilia crisis I thought maybe this would turn out to be the beginning of something. Even if only for economic reasons the laity would take control of their own parishes. That they would have more power in the assignment of priests, more power in the personnel committees that that might introduce some changes. I guess there is some potential in that. I just don't know if there's enough engaged laity left to do it.

"The whole Vatican II period," concluded Gudorf, "was a kind of Protestant Reformation in that it engaged the laity in theological questions that they hadn't been involved in before. What John Paul did was to end that, because it didn't make any difference what the people said. So now, theology doesn't matter to them."

Reverting back to Gudorf's own situation, her hope for improvement in the new pontificate. If the situation doesn't improve, what will she do?

"If it doesn't?" she said. "I don't know what -- I really, really don't."

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is arthurjones@comcast.net

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