By Rosemary Radford Ruether
Editor’s Note: Following is the third and final installment of the transcript of the talk delivered by theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether at Lake Elmo Park Reserve, MN on July 6, 2010. This text is reprinted with permission. To start at Part 1, click here.
Once we have sketched something of our vision of authentic Christian community, the key question is how do we get there from here? What are the ways of moving toward that vision, given a present church polity and ideology which mostly institutionalizes and sanctifies the opposite? I would like to talk about four ways we can begin to change ourselves and some ways of building organizational bases to support such alternatives.
First, we need to grow up. I say this with no intention of demeaning an audience of mainly middle aged and older adults, including myself, who regard ourselves as already pretty grown up. Rather I am pointing out the great difficulty we have really liberating ourselves from the residue of a spirituality of infantilism which was deeply bred into our psyches in our traditional Catholic socialization.
Catholicism, like all patriarchal hierarchical institutions, recreates relationships of domination and submission, modeled on a fusion of male over female with parent over child relations. We learn to dominate those below us and submit to those above us, but not how to be equals in mutually affirming relationships. We are not encouraged to become genuinely autonomous adults, but rather to remain always the dependent child under some kind of higher authority. These patterns of relationship are central to clerical patriarchal culture.
This socialization into paternalistic dependency fixates us between rebellion and submission, ever reverting back to forms of submission as a way of assuaging feelings of guilt for rebellion, but not really being freed to be a responsible adult. By responsible adult, I mean someone who has a confidence in one’s own autonomous mind and agency, without either self-inflation or self-negation, and who is able to take responsibility for helping to develop the future of a community, without needing either to assuage guilt or assert power relations through such service. This is the kind of maturity required for real ministry, but it is difficult to develop in a paternalistic system.
Secondly, we need to be people of prayer. This also means we need to overcome of the kind of split between social action and spirituality which has been endemic in our culture. Real ability to stay the course of reform and service for the long haul is only possible if we have a deep grounding in the disciplines of daily prayer, meditation and cultivation of the presence of God in our lives. This means resisting the demands for workaholism and endless achievement to find time for this kind of quiet meditation on a regular basis, and from these disciplines to then begin to cultivate a sense of this presence of God even in the midst of activity.
Third, we need have critical knowledge about church history and theology, able to sort out with adequate tools of historical and theological reflection what Christian themes are really meaningful and what truth claims need to be questioned as assertions of power that is not conducive to spiritual health. As theologically trained people who have been in ministry, it may seem beside the point to say that we need to be better educated in theology and church history. But one of the things I learned from a dialogue which the women’s Ordination Conference conducted with the Catholic bishops of the Bishop’s committee on women some thirty years ago was that their seminary education was woefully inadequate.
The bishops did not have a critical education in the Bible or Church history, which enabled them to sort out the questions being put by feminist theology vis a vis the assertions of the Papacy that topics like women’s ordination were against church tradition and so could not be discussed. In fact their general tendency was simply to say this could not be discussed because church authority had said so, without even being able to conceive of independent investigation of this claim from Scripture and church history.
Fourthly, we need to be socially committed. Like taking time for prayer, this calls for some rearrangement of our lives, and sometimes the way we make a living, to find ways to connect at least part of our wealth and energy to solidarity with those less fortunate and living more sustainably with the earth. Preferential option for the poor and an ecological life style cannot just be a rhetorical slogan. It has to relate to the way we live our lives.
It has to be part of an organized effort to create an alternative society against the present global (dis)order being imposed by the World Bank and the powerful nations. We need a global uprising against the triumphalism of the rich and powerful who wish to make it appear as if there is no other alternative possible to the neo-liberalism economic system which is impoverishing the earth and the majority of people of the earth.
We need to take ecological impoverishment as seriously as the poverty of humans. We need to recognize that these are not separate topics, but part of one and the same picture. This means bringing the ecological question home to our daily lives; it means examining how the way we live everyday is part of the problem of global impoverishment of the earth and all its inhabitants. Obviously ecological sustainability cannot be accomplished solely by changes in private life style. It is basically a macrosystem of production, consumption and waste. But we need to cultivate a certain awareness of how we participate in this system by examining and making some adjustments in how we transport ourselves, consume food and goods, use energy, discard wastes.
We need to find ways to build some of these shifts into our households, schools, offices and other local institutions, including churches, over which we may have some influence. From this base in consciousness and concrete struggles for ecological sustainability, we may then be able to build larger networks to change the patterns of earth-destruction that is diminishing the life of regions and the globe on a macro-level.
These four projects of maturity, prayer, knowledge and social and ecological commitment need to be fleshed out in our social relations and, most particularly, how we live as church. It seems to me there are two levels of living as church in a way that cultivates mature and liberating spirituality and social commitment to which we have access and power, regardless of what the official church institution is allowing or not allowing. These are base communities and parallel organizations.
Base Communities: Whether or not we have reasonable parish communities where we feel nourished in weekly worship, it seems to me that base communities in which a small groups of 10-15 people covenant together for regular prayer, study, worship, discussion, and mutual support are an important base for Christian life. Such base communities was an integral part of the vision of the church created by liberation theology in the last two decades. But in my experience many of these base communities remained too clerical, too dependent on bishops and failed to really address many of the real issues of daily life, particularly issues of women and of sexual and domestic abuse. We need to recommit ourselves to developing these communities in a way that will be deeper and more long lasting.
Parallel organizations: In addition to the small covenant group, parallel organizations are important for projects of both church reform and social action. North American Roman Catholicism, with its tradition of volunteerism, is particularly rich in parallel organizations, which work to extend the boundaries of Roman Catholic activity in a way that is not dependent on hierarchical approval. Call to Action, Peace and Justice Centers such as the Quixote Center in Washington D.C., the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church, the Women-Church network, CORPUS and Pax Christi, including the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform of Minnesota, are parallel organizations which are increasingly bonding together in national and international networks.
Parallel organizations are also developing all over the world among Catholics, the Catholic Women’s Network in Britain, the Eighth of May movement in Holland, feminist theology networks in India and other Asian countries, Catolicas por el Direcho a Decidir in Latin America, among others. Such parallel organizations might be seen as the Catholic expression of the creation of civil society. Such parallel organizations of Catholics operate within the Catholic community, but not under the juridical power of the hierarchy. They are vital expressions of democratization in the church.
Why call such groups Catholic? Basically such groups see themselves as Catholic both because the membership is rooted in people of Catholic roots and also because they see themselves as addressing reform issues in the Catholic Church, as well as doing the direct work of ministry which is understood as inspired by Catholic Christian faith and life. In short those in such groups see themselves as being the church. Their Catholic Christian identity is self-chosen out of a sense of taking responsibility for both being the church and calling the institution to open itself to such concerns, while at the same time being free of the sort of institutional control that could close them down or dismiss their leaders.
Ultimately we are engaged in a process the future of which cannot be predicted. It may be that Catholics concerned with such reforms will grow tired of institutional intransigence and go elsewhere, or it may be that at least parts of the official institution will open itself to more acceptance of such movements. We hope that we are engaged in a process that will lead to eventual transformation of the official institution sufficiently to allow legitimacy to the broader range of thought and life. But meanwhile we can and must carry on living ways of being Christian community that satisfy our vision of what is authentic and truthful; in short we need to insist on being the church today and not just waiting for it to be allowed to do so tomorrow.
For Part 1 of Rosemary Radford Ruether's "Creating a Liberating Church," click here.
For Part 2, click here.
Above: Approximately 300 people gather July 6 at Lake Elmo Park Reserve to hear theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether speak. The event served as a fundraiser for the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (CCCR).
Above: Mary Vaughn (center) with CCCR organizers Jane Collova (left) and Eileen Rodel.
Above: CCCR co-chair Michael Bayly stands besides a banner highlighting the coalition's upcoming Synod of the Baptized: "Claiming Our Place at the Table."
Above: Rosemary Radford Ruether converses with an attendee of CCCR's July 6 event.