Volume > Issue > Briefly: June 1996

June 1996

Sexuality and Authority in the Catholic Church

By Monica Migliorino Miller

Publisher: University of Scranton Press.

Pages: 286 pages

Price: $45

Review Author: Janice Daurio

This book’s main point is that if men have authority in the Church, it is not necessary for women to be like men in order to have authority too. Equal doesn’t have to mean identical. There are different kinds of authority, just as there are different roles within the Church. In fact, it is absolutely essential to the full symbolization of God’s saving work that there be distinct kinds of authority in the Church. The author makes this bold claim: To reduce women’s authority to men’s is to lose redemption itself. As I understand it, her point is that because salvation is covenantal, it is fully symbolized by two elements, savior (Christ) and saved (the Church). The ecclesial authority of women comes from the latter role.

Miller states that feminine ecclesial authority is complementary to male priestly authority, and is authority without which the sacramental life of the Church could not exist. Christ alone is not the sign of redemption; Christ and the Church is the full sign of redemption. The authority of the Church is marital, and therefore not exhausted by bishops and priests, whose symbolic value is only one side of the covenant. As marital and covenantal, the icon of redemption requires another kind of authority, the kind of authority only women have. Miller closes with an inspiring chapter of brief biographies of women, suitable for spiritual reading (the one on St. Margaret Clitherow is especially moving).

The chapter critiquing the present state of feminist theology is the best one. It is fairly easy to see that the present state of feminist theology is most unsatisfactory. For example, feminists can’t agree about whether they want women to be equal to men by being indistinguishable from them, or if they want women to be different from men and superior to them. On the latter view, women don’t want to “lower themselves” to accepting roles men play. So, for example, Mary Daly says that the male Catholic priest is a symbol of the oppression and subjection of women, so women shouldn’t want to be priests. Those feminists who think of women as superior to men are even more out of line with the spirit of the Catholic Church than the distinction-erasers.

Miller argues that male references to God in Scripture and Jesus’ own maleness are not cultural or accidental and thus dismissible; they are vital to understanding who God is and what He is up to in creation. Some feminists think that Christ’s maleness is utterly insignificant; Miller argues that it is not. Christ’s maleness, she says, is necessary to express the role of God as creator and sustainer of creation. It follows that women play the symbolic role of creation. The male body is the symbol of transcendence, the female body of immanence. To try to make women symbolize the Creator, the male role, is to spiritualize (Miller’s word) women in an inappropriate way, and to do so — to underplay or dismiss women’s materiality — is to take from them their one legitimate area of authority. In Miller’s view, some feminists, such as Rosemary Ruether, mistakenly think that Christ symbolizes redeemed humanity. This is role confusion, Miller says: Women symbolize redeemed humanity and men the redeemer. According to Miller, justice itself demands that women be allowed to keep their separate role in the Church, and be kept from taking men’s role.

Miller says that the male body expresses active engendering, and the female body receptivity, and such is the way things are, like it or not. Therefore the roles of creator and creation — and Christ and Church, priest and people — are distinct and symbolized by men and women respectively. The Church is covenant partner with Christ, just as women are covenant partners with men in marriage. This active receptivity of women is a kind of creative authority, as the Blessed Virgin Mary’s fiat mihi is creative authority.

Feminists think that referring to God as “he” is dangerously arbitrary, and that God should be referred to as “she” with equal regularity. Miller gives much evidence for the theological importance of restricting reference to God to “he.” God is Father — and Father is not Mother; God is completely differentiated from what He has made and stands in relation to what He has made as life-giving source. God’s role as source — the role played by God alone and by the priest alone as his symbol — demands a male clergy.

Although I’m sympathetic with Miller’s undertaking, I see problems. For example, I don’t see why the male body symbolizes sustainer; for at least the nine months after conception, the woman is the sole sustainer of the new life within her. Nonetheless, it must be emphasized that Miller has responded to the present confused state of discussion of the role of women in the Church with a positive and (by comparison to most feminist discussions) clear contribution to that discussion. Her response to the unfounded assertions of feminists is a gift to the Church.

Giving Birth

By Margaret L. Hammer

Publisher: Westminster/John Knox Press

Pages: 226

Price: $14.99

Review Author: Kalynne Pudner

Hammer says her treatment of this very personal subject is that of a Lutheran pastor who has given birth three times. So, too, my reading of it was colored by my perspective as a Catholic laywoman who had just hours before given birth for the fifth time. The difference in perspective became apparent in the fifth paragraph, where Hammer begins a lengthy argument that the Hebrew word issabon in Genesis 3:16 (which, God tells the woman, will be greatly multiplied in childbearing) is more correctly understood as “toil” than as the traditional “pain.” I may not know Hebrew, I thought, but I sure know pain, and that was pain!

Actually, pain has a significant role to play in understanding the religious dimension of childbirth. There is a longstanding tradition of viewing birthing pain as a consequence of — if not punishment for — original sin, but Hammer denies it. Paul prescribes subservience for women (1 Tim. 2:15), since the infamous original occasion of woman leading man resulted in the fall of the whole human race. “Yet,” Paul writes, “she will be saved through childbearing, provided they [women] continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.” Hammer finds this passage problematic (and quotes others who find it downright offensive). Unwilling to embrace it, Hammer opts instead for the view that women going through the difficult experience of childbearing will be preserved — i.e., will make it through. But the idea that women can be saved by virtue of childbearing makes sense to me: Childbirth is a uniquely feminine way of participating in the sufferings of Christ. As Paul says (Col. 1:24), all pain can be redemptive if it is united with Christ’s passion.

Hammer refers to “Jesus our sister.” This theme of the feminine in God surfaces throughout the book. Hammer refers frequently to God as “she,” and at one point she (Hammer, not God) presents as a model a “WomenChurch” liturgy recasting the creation story in terms of the egg and the Mother-Spirit, and so on. But as one who believes that Jesus’ full humanity was deliberately male, and that he revealed the Godhead explicitly as “Father” — even as God’s most perfect creature was purposely female — I find Hammer’s language distracting and distasteful. Nor am I persuaded by the possible explanations Hammer offers for my resistance (a historical dearth of female theologians, or a fear of female sexuality).

Hammer’s feminist bent combines with her Protestantism to throw a negative cast on infant baptism (“baptismal ‘rebirth’ might be a patriarchal religion’s attempt to improve on and diminish the importance of natural birth”) and celibacy. Celibacy/virginity for the sake of the Kingdom and the “spiritual parenthood” it engenders is placed in direct opposition to physical parenthood; Hammer suggests that the perceived good of the former is necessarily inversely proportional to that of the latter. One is left with the impression that the Catholic Church reserves holiness for the celibate, and tolerates marriage and procreation as a kind of necessary evil. This is unequivocally false. Marriage is a divine vocation, a path to sanctity; procreation is God’s gracious invitation to co-operate with him in the loving work of creation. Apostolic celibacy is held up as a higher ideal by Jesus and Paul as well as the Magisterium, but it is a sacrifice whose value depends on appreciation of marriage and procreation.

The Art of Praying

By Romano Guardini

Publisher: Sophia Institute Press

Pages: 184

Price: $16.95

Review Author: Denise L. Despres

Catholics no longer receive extensive instruction in the rich methods of prayer that distinguish the Church’s tradition. The differences between meditative and contemplative prayer, the role of the saints in intercessory prayer, and the purpose of the Rosary, for example, are no longer general knowledge among us, let alone the finer distinctions of Catholic moral psychology relevant to prayer. Guardini’s classic Prayer in Practice, now reissued under the title of The Art of Praying, is an inspiring remedy to this loss of orientation. While the work functions with the simplicity of a handbook, it recognizes that prayer means most when we comprehend prayer in the larger context of faith, Providence, and the liturgy. Guardini incorporates with elegant efficiency the basic tenets of the faith that transform prayer from immature repetitive petition into a mature ongoing colloquy with the Divine. The wisdom, sustenance, and freedom that result from disciplined prayer are powerful forces for God’s love in the world, Guardini argues, but they demand patience and attentiveness.

Guardini’s primary purpose is teaching the subject to pray in a variety of circumstances. The book is learned, but the author wisely addresses his audience with a respectful familiarity and avoids showy erudition.

Guardini dismisses misguided generalizations about prayer that lead to failure, from the commonly held notion that real prayer is spontaneous and ethereal to the view that “sorrow teaches people to pray.” Himself a great intellectual, Guardini was aware of the tendency of intellectuals to turn to the arts for that sense of heightened self-awareness that often attends prayer, but he dismisses the arts as substitutes for the real thing. Above all, he admits that an awakening of our spiritual selves entails discomfort and a “strange desolation” when we have been restlessly busy and spiritually unfocused for too long.

Despite his assessment of modern life as hurried and lacking introspection, Guardini repeatedly returns his argument to the dignity of human beings and their potential to conduct this essential and nourishing colloquy. Humility and abasement are different; the latter in prayer is a mistaken kind of piety. Prayer isn’t a form of tribute, but a discipline, only because we forget how to speak and listen properly.

Guardini’s most compelling chapter concerns the role of contemplative prayer in determining God’s will. Prayer liberates us from the conception of Providence as an inevitable and fixed series of events — determinism — and instead enables us to see God working in our particular lives, whereby He demands that we act, “do what is required at this moment for the coming of the kingdom.”

For Guardini, the saints and Mary are exemplars of those who forged special relationships with God, often requiring them to enter blindly into the “mystery” of a life imbued with His presence. By this he means a life in which the individual accepts “a potentiality” for living as an instrument of God’s love. The models he cites, Catherine of Siena, Martin of Tours, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, were all exceptionally strong-willed individuals who forged themselves into such instruments, not always with great ease and sometimes at a high cost. They were individuals who above all else chose to press the colloquy to its utmost, through a faith “not rooted in emotion, but in character, not in experience but in loyalty.”

Encyclopedia of Catholic History

By Matthew Bunson

Publisher: Our Sunday Visitor Books (800-348-2440)

Pages: 1,008 pages.

Price: $39.95

Review Author: Dale Vree

The history of the Catholic Church is wondrous and multifaceted, and this handy encyclopedia puts this rich heritage at your fingertips.

This volume is especially satisfying because it is reliably orthodox. But its historical interpretations are not, alas, always reliable. An occupational hazard of historians is being so entrenched in the past that they cannot see its continuity with and pertinence to the present. Thus Bunson characterizes Americanism as the view that “Catholicism should be adapted as much as externally possible to the modern cultural ideas and values of America,” and concludes by saying that after it was condemned by Pope Leo XIII it “quickly disappeared as a meaningful force in the U.S.” The publisher of this encyclopedia also publishes Our Sunday Visitor, and it’s too bad Bunson didn’t take account of the insightful article on Americanism by Michael Schwartz in its February 26, 1989, issue. Schwartz points out that Americanism is “a key” to understanding the fault lines in the American Church today — and many others have said the same thing. The issue raised by the Americanist controversy is, says Schwartz, that of “who should be converting whom”: Should the Church be converting America or should the Church let herself be converted by America? Today, as Schwartz perceptively notes, “when secular society has gone insane, the ‘Americanist’ attitude of cultural surrender is a prescription for catastrophe.”

Similarly, Bunson states that “the last vestiges of Gallicanism were stamped out in the 1800s….” If that were so, how does he explain the huge furor in France that followed the Holy See’s sacking of the flaky French bishop, Jacques Gaillot?

Bunson’s treatment of Anglican-related topics is quite clumsy. For example, he states that “Anglo-Catholics remain a legitimate presence in the Anglican Church” — truly a weird formulation. On the one hand, virtually any theological opinion is regarded as “legitimate” among Anglicans; on the other hand, many Anglo-Catholics themselves feel that their position has been delegitimized by the ordination of women, which is a major reason why so many Anglo-Catholics have been fleeing Anglicanism for Rome.

But these are quibbles. Theologically dependable encyclopedias about Catholicism are hard to come by these days, and this one is worth three times the asking price. Also to be recommended is Our Sunday Visitor Books’ Catholic Encyclopedia, edited by Peter Stravinskas, and a steal at $29.95. Among its contributors are several authors who’ve written for the NOR: Ronda Chervin, Giles Dimock, Mark Frisby, Stephen Miletic, and Stravinskas himself. Unlike other general Catholic encyclopedias released recently, such as the HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism edited by Richard McBrien, the Stravinskas volume is theologically sound.

Is Christianity True?

By Hugo A. Meynell

Publisher: Catholic University of America Press

Pages: 149

Price: $14.95

Review Author: Michael Pakaluk

We might expect a book with this title to provide an argument for or against the truth of Christianity. Instead, it basically replies to a few assorted objections to Christianity arising from the study of world religions, biblical criticism, and science. The author of this extremely confused book seems unclear about the structure and character of his own argument.

Confusion greets us in the very first chapter, entitled “Isn’t Secular Morality Enough?” Meynell evidently assumes that Christianity and secular morality agree on what counts as right and wrong (a ludicrous assumption, now that “secular morality” has become the champion of abortion, euthanasia, divorce, etc.), so his problem becomes that of explaining how Christianity contributes anything distinctive, beyond what secular morality maintains. His answer is that human wrongdoing is so deeply rooted in human nature that people cannot overcome it simply by assenting to a secular account of right and wrong. They need to accept a religion that encourages “repentance” and teaches that good will be rewarded and evil punished after death.

It is hard to see how this sort of argument supports Christianity in particular, since, if it were correct, it would apply to many religious systems — as Meynell grants in a footnote. And even if a religion were “relevant” to morality in Meynell’s sense, that would hardly imply that it was true; and this too Meynell concedes: “Perhaps it is worth reminding the reader [yet he never said this earlier!] that what is immediately at issue is not whether theism is true; but whether, if true, it would be relevant to morality.” But since he grants all this, why does he include the chapter in the book?

The next chapter maintains that Christianity is the “fulfillment” of all other world religions, which Meynell supports with an argument similar to C.S. Lewis’s famous response to Fraser’s Golden Bough (though Lewis is never acknowledged). Lewis argued that similarities between Christianity and pagan myths do not imply that Christianity too is a myth, since pagan myths might be, as it were, anticipations of Christian realities. Note that Lewis’s argument is simply a reply to an objection. But Meynell quite implausibly tries to turn this into a positive argument for the truth of Christianity. This commits him to the absurd view that there is some historical reality in Christianity corresponding to every myth in every other religion (otherwise, Christianity would not “fulfill” that religion). Moreover, he neglects to see that this sort of argument has no obvious application to religions that do not teach myths but rather make historical claims — viz., Judaism, Islam, Mormonism.

Meynell’s argument for the Incarnation and Atonement is bizarre. Relying on the work of the biologist Konrad Lorenz, Meynell claims that human beings are by nature prone to form into groups that are perpetually at war with one another. The only remedy for this condition, Meynell holds, would be the establishment of an enduring transnational association (i.e., Christianity) for promoting the good of all human beings. But such an association could only be effective if it had “a leader bearing signs of the highest possible moral authority, of a character which is such as to attract people’s affections, control their aggressions, and hearten their puny moral efforts to the highest degree.” The only sort of leader who could play this role effectively, Meynell thinks, is God incarnate; thus the Incarnation is true, as being the only remedy for the innate aggressive tendencies of human beings. The Atonement gets explained away in terms of this eccentric theory; thus, for example, to say that “Christ took our sins upon himself” is simply to say that “God had to become incarnate, to help human beings overcome their aggressive tendencies.” The reader should need no help from me in locating the various fallacies, preposterous assumptions, and misrepresentations of Christianity contained in this unfortunate line of thought.

The longest chapter of the book is a highly selective, but nonetheless extremely verbose, discussion of biblical criticism, in which Meynell argues that the results of modern scholarship do not entirely rule out the idea that Jesus viewed himself as God. How this helps to show that Christianity is true is left unexplained; Meynell does not proceed to develop an aut Deus aut homo malus argument, as one might expect. Presumably his point is that if Jesus did not view himself as God, then the Incarnation could not have been true. Thus, if Meynell shows that biblical scholarship does not demonstrate that Jesus never viewed himself in this way, he removes a reason for thinking the Incarnation false. Fair enough, but his review of biblical criticism is much too superficial to accomplish even this modest goal.

The book finishes with chapters on the Trinity and life after death: Meynell very sketchily argues that human aggression and domination (a favorite theme of his) can only be understood in terms of the doctrine of the Trinity, as an inversion and corruption of the Trinitarian character of human consciousness; he relies heavily on R. Crookhall’s quirky books on psychical phenomena to conclude that human consciousness survives death. An Appendix surely beats a dead horse in arguing against Marxism and its criticisms of Christianity.

The Scandal of the Gospels: Jesus, Story and Offense

By David McCracken

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 204

Price: $29.95

Review Author: Christopher Nugent

An increasingly conspicuous aspect of American Christianity is its inoffensiveness. Judgment is taboo, and a slogan of the Parisian student revolutionaries of 1968 is all but a cultural orthodoxy: “C’est interdit d’interdire” — it is forbidden to forbid. Against this unprophetic setting a study of the offensiveness of the gospels can be most welcome. That is the subject of the book before us.

David McCracken has written a bold work, informed by literary critics such as Frank Kermode, Harold Bloom, René Girard, and Mikhail Bakhtin, and above all by Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard properly saw Christianity as the religion of paradox, but the paradox here is how Scripture itself is a scandal or stumbling block to human sensibilities. McCracken speaks of “the violence of Jesus,” a variant on The Violence of God of Girard. The violence of Jesus is constituted of such things as the “millstone” of Mark (9:42). The book’s “muscular” theology presses faith to its limits, as with the case of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac. “Paul,” we are told, “is no first-century Brownie exuding pleasantness and conciliation indifferently.” The Scandal of the Gospels concludes pointing up our “domestication” of it.

But the considerable strengths of the author are too often undermined by the strains of his argument. He must, if you will, antithesize. Parables, normally taken as accommodation to the multitude, become “lies,” and McCracken even finds himself “drifting toward scandalous assertion that Jesus is a liar”! Fortunately, Jesus is saved by the paradox that parables are revelatory as well as obstructive. So, better to say with the great mystics that virtually all of Scripture both reveals and conceals. God is revealed, yes, but “through a glass darkly.”

No doubt a part of the differences between the author and myself is ecclesiastical. Classical Protestantism, with its strong predestinarian thrust, exalts the power of God (“Let God be God”); Catholicism, my own tradition, accentuates the goodness of God (“Let God be good”). And therefore we have the Catholic centrality (and paradox, let us add) of the vulnerable God-man on the cross. This is by no means to turn Jesus into a “Brownie.”

McCracken’s unqualified “violence of Jesus” runs the risk of, say, blessing the religious partisans of the Pentagon. Thus there is more than one way to domesticate the gospels.

Otherwise, the author has given us a challenging book.

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