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Misrecognizing Resignation: Thoughts on Paul Elie’s NYTimes Op-ed

“Resignation: that’s what American Catholics are feeling about our faith. We are resigned to the fact that so much in the Roman Catholic Church is broken and won’t be fixed anytime soon.  So if the pope can resign, we can, too. We should give up Catholicism en masse, if only for a time.”

A few days ago writer Paul Elie joined the chorus of voices offering commentary on the Catholic Church surrounding the resignation of the now-Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI.  As the above quote indicates, Elie’s op-ed, “Give Up Your Pew for Lent,” plays with the double-meaning of the term “resignation” to make a case for a temporary, protest exodus from the Catholic Church.  While Benedict resigned—that is, gave up his office—Elie notes that many American Catholics experience another form of resignation—that is, an acceptance of the inevitable unpleasant reality of their church.  From this, he exhorts Catholics to vacate parishes in an effort express to church leaders the resignation they feel, and to spend time reconsidering their resignation. Perhaps some time away and the experience of other faith communities can even dispel their resignation.

There is much to say in response to Elie’s piece. My friend Dan over at datinggod.org has already articulated well how Elie’s proposal betrays our theological conceptions of church and Eucharist, and misplaces the power of ecclesial change in the hands of those who leave the Church rather than those who articulate their criticisms with the tradition. To this, I would add my concern for Elie’s general characterization of American Catholics—Are we really all so “resigned”?

In my mind, “resignation” connotes passivity, a disposition of disinterest, acquiescence.  To characterize the temperament of American Catholics—particularly those troubled by Catholicism’s interfaith relations or leaders’ handling of the clergy abuse crisis, to cite some issues listed by Elie—is to depict a gross misrepresentation of American Catholics that overlooks some of the most engaged and faithful practitioners in the Church today.  Surely, many dissatisfied Catholics might be characterized appropriately as “resigned,” but to say that this represents the “what American Catholics are feeling,” is an overstatement that overlooks the complex reality of lived Catholicism today.

Furthermore, many of the Catholics I know who are most committed to the types of ecclesial changes underwriting Elie’s op-ed are—undoubtedly—the most engaged and least “resigned” Catholics I know. They have not resigned to bitterness and complaint about the Catholicism; they are deeply hopeful and actively engaged in actualizing a Church grounded in the Gospel.

They are Catholic like those who wrote for the recent publication, Hungering and Thirsting For Justice, co-edited by Lacey Louwagie and my friend Kate Ward, or the colleagues and friends alongside whom I wrote in the collection, From the Pews in the Back: Young Women and Catholicism.  These and so many other Catholics are anything but “resigned,” and most would adamantly disagree with Elie’s charge that resigning—that is, giving up on one’s place in the pew—is a good way to engage Catholicism.

What’s more, many of the Catholics I know who have resigned—who have left Catholicism—rarely if ever do so in a state of emotional resignation.  They wrestle with the Church and the Catholic tradition, and often experience an incredible amount of conflict about their decision to seek God in another faith community. The kind of easy departure that Elie presents in his op-ed betrays the genuine strife that many Catholics experience as they struggle to understand their place inside—or outside—the Church. The idea of “giving up one’s pew for Lent” seems rather trite in view of the genuine struggles of these faithful friends.

That many American Catholics–on any side of the aisle–are unhappy about the realities of Catholicism is true. That we all feel so resigned is an overgeneralization, I think. It is a misrepresentation of American Catholicism’s complex realities. And, that we ought to resign from our pews, wherever we sit, is no solution for the resignation that some folks do actually feel.

Can the Eucharist Unite Us?

Check out my latest post on Patheos.com, entitled “Can the Eucharist Unite Us?

What If Resurrection Is A Choice?

Check out my reflection on the Easter Sunday readings at From the Pews in the Back, entitled “What If Resurrection Is A Choice?“.  You can also find this entry cross-posted on God’s Politics, a blog by Jim Wallis & Friends.

Silence.

“We don’t need a moment of silence.  There has been too much silence already. I propose noise—a moment of clapping.”

A woman said this to Karen during her recent trip to Honduras. Along with a group of students from Harvard Divinity School, Karen was there to learn from the women of this rural Honduran community whose lives are plagued by rape and murder.  She had proposed a moment of silence to initiate the gathering of local women and foreign students that day, but she learned there was no more tolerance for silence in this community.  For too long violence and abuse has been hushed.

So they clapped.

Increasingly, I am aware of how silence shapes my formation as a young Catholic theologian.  Beginning with my early undergraduate years, I was schooled in the politics of Catholic speech: there are theological statements—even questions—that one simply cannot ask before certain audiences.   Over the years, however, I have learned that with meticulous care, one can find ways to articulate these inquiries in a language that veils its hints of potential “uncertainty” or “disagreement.”  If I break this decorum of speech, even in the nascent phases of my theological career, I fear it may cost me a professorship or a ministry job. I can already name numerous theologians and ministers for whom this is the case.

It is unsettling to recognize the many ways in which I must privately silence myself for the sake of avoiding potential silencing from others.  What kind of theology can happen in this environment? Can I produce relevant theology when I often feel that I cannot outwardly address the probing, courageous questions of my community?  Maybe once I’m tenured.  Can these questions wait twenty years?

For years, the unfolding public recognition of the Church’s orchestrated silencing of clerical sexual abuse victims has shaped my life as a Catholic.  These clergymen stood up and spoke before their congregations week and week—year after year—while their victims sat silently in the pews.  Yesterday in a report on Pope Benedict’s Palm Sunday Homily, the New York Times analyzed what sounded like an implicit response to critics who implicate his guilt in the European abuse scandals.  Granted, the Times reads between the lines of the Pope’s homily, but in the context of his public indictment, his words strike me as a clear attempt to hush his critics: “The pontiff said faith in God helps lead one ‘towards the courage of not allowing oneself to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion.’” The silence continues–and I continue to wonder what kinds of faith development, worship, or social justice work can happen in a church of whispers and hushed voices.

How can a young theologian, situated within her own matrix of silence, speak out against the perpetual silencing that enabled—and continues to enable—the grave injustice of the global clerical abuse crisis and its mismanagement at seemingly every level of church leadership?  My silencing—as a woman, as a lay person, as a theologian and minister—will never amount to the painful silence imposed upon so many abuse victims in our church.  Breaking my silence will not cost me nearly as much either.

I do not know how to speak to our Church right now. In fact, these days I find myself so hurt and angry words feel useless for articulating the magnitude of our situation.  But I know there must be noise. “We don’t need a moment of silence.  There has been too much silence already.”  There must be noise.

Perhaps on Good Friday when I approach the cross of Christ’s suffering with our suffering, there will be no moment of silence.  Perhaps I will do as Jesus did—I will shout. “God, why?”

Image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/42304632@N00/351678683/

Wide White Margins, And A Few Words

On the days when I particularly overwhelmed–when I am convinced that any reform in my church will require at least 10 million perfect words, when I am sure that nothing I can think or say or write will ever make any difference, when I am tempted to think that the countless number of books in Harvard’s theological library may actually make so little an imprint on the world–on these days you will probably find me cross-legged on the floor of the Harvard Bookstore.  I will be hunched over barren pages held together by thin bindings in the poetry aisle. Their words belong to people that most people do not know, people I do not know.

I don’t just come for the poems; I come for all the white space that fills these poetry books.  The white space actually comforts me more, I think, reminding me  of two things:  First, reminding me of the arduous silence–all the wordless thinking–that accompanied very worthwhile word I have ever written.  Wordlessness can be precious and productive in its own ways.  Second, reminding me that I do not need to say everything–I do not need to say everything–only a few beautiful, dangerous, honest-to-God, true things.  Poems are so captivating because they say so much with so little.

I am so little, and I want to say something worth so much.

Image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/kokjebalder/366508847/

Wally’s Cathedral

The liturgy begins when a handsome young man, dressed neatly in an argyle sweater, lifts the worn brass trumpet to his lips. His eyes are closed, his composure calm.  With just one breath, everything in the tiny cathedral comes to a halt.  We remove drink classes and beer bottles from our lips.  Bar chatter hushes. We join the trumpeter’s band in shifting our eyes toward the sound—toward the man who is filling this tiny Boston bar with the most commanding, memorizing music….

Throughout the years I have experienced the benefits of going to worship services at unfamiliar churches.  Foreign religious environments force me to face my own assumptions about God and religion—about who God is, how that God is to be worshiped, and what God’s worshipers look like and think about.  When I stand with charismatics lifting their hands in praise, or kneel with Muslim women as they whisper Arabic words of prayer, I ask myself, “What can I learn from this genuine expression of worship? How does this push me to think about God in new ways? Who is this God before me?”

Last night in Wally’s Jazz Cafe, I found myself asking these questions.  Although I have a casual appreciation for jazz music, I am no musician (to my dismay).  I know nothing of the music theory and rhythms and chords upon which jazz improvisation is situated.  I could not recognize the finger settings and swift movements as the musicians’ fingers fluttered across trumpet, alto sax, electric guitar or acoustic bass.  The rhythmic bounce and sway of the drummer appeared chaotic to my untrained eye.

But while sitting there at the small wooden table—I believed.  The aesthetics and decorum of the worship space were foreign, but the energy, vulnerability, conviction of the performance before me was intoxicatingly persuasive.  I didn’t know how to recognize It, but I knew the Jazz God was in the room. I believed it.  I could feel It. I heard It.  I witnessed It in their worship.

I want to believe in the religious experiences of others, at least most of the time.  Only in assuming their genuineness can I begin to meet their Gods for myself.  And many times, these meetings become meetings with my own God in new ways.

In Communion with John Kerry

Last Sunday I found myself smack in the middle of a protest between pro-choice feminists and anti-abortion Catholics.  This Sunday I took communion with Senator John Kerry.

It wasn’t until halfway through the Mass that I realized the deep singing voice behind me belonged to the famous American Catholic politician.  “Peace be with you,” I said, offering the tall man my tiny hand. Only as he reciprocated the gesture and words of peace did I became aware of who this man is.

It wasn’t mere celebrity that had his presence on my mind throughout the Eucharist and the rest of the Mass. After a week of meditating on the difficulties of being a Catholic feminist in light our nation’s debates concerning reproductive rights, there I was with the famous public figure who has been set apart as the embodiment of this tension between women’s rights and religious tradition.  I was humbled. What kind of courage and devotion must one possess to show up to Mass time and time again, undoubtedly aware of the political implications accompanying every walk one takes toward the altar in that communion line? Although there is real friction in my feminist Catholic identity when it comes to navigating the question of abortion, the discomfort I experience and the Catholic allegiance I profess in light of it is really so easy compared to a man who must work out these tensions so publicly.

From the protest lines to the Communion line. I felt a great deal of courage, standing in that line with him.

Where Do I Stand?

Today the sun finally broke through the clouds in Boston.  So, after finishing lunch in a cute little Italian cafe in Beacon Hill, I decided to head to the nearby Boston Public Gardens for an afternoon stroll while making a phone call to an old friend from school.  I didn’t get very far.

Still a couple hundred feet from the park, I could see the flashing blue lights of the police cars that blocked the road along the permitter of the Boston Commons.  I heard horns honking, voices chanting, and as I drew closer I began to recognize the “NOW” logos on the large white picket signs along the sidewalk.  My studies in feminism have familiarized me with NOW, the “National Organization for Women” that headed up America’s Second Wave feminist movement. I have fantasized about marching in their protest lines at the height of their movement in the 60’s and 70’s, a time when it seems collective action was so much more energetic and visible than today.

As I drew closer, there were other familiar images. Banners with the colorful emblem of Our Lady of Guadeloupe.  Masses of people, their hands thrust into the air cradling rosary beads or wooden crucifixes. Women in habit, and men with starched white collars. The anger in the air shook me as I realized: I am walking straight into a feminist/Catholic standoff over abortion rights.  And that’s exactly what it was.

Where do I stand? My eyes darted from one activist crowd to the other like the screams that flew back and forth between them. Where do I stand? For a moment I thought I would just continue to the park, but I couldn’t. These are my people en masse! How could I pass this up?! …But where would I stand?  I kept asking myself this.  Where do I stand? I didn’t fit in among the harsh juxtaposition of the protest lines.  My convictions about abortion–and any other topic for that matter–aren’t relegated to one aspect of my identity (feminist) or any other (like, Catholic).  My views about the world are Catholic and feminist–because I am both Catholic and feminist. In the “us” or “them” of these protest lines–and in much of the moral debate between these parties–there often isn’t a place for someone like me to stand up as I am.

I wanted to stand where I stand–between the lines and posters and the yelling–right there in the middle of it.  You see, I live in the middle of it all the time. And the anger in the air shakes me.

Sometimes Love Is Stronger Than One’s Convictions

121666253_3f9026bd83 Sometimes love is stronger than [one’s] convictions.” -Isaac Bashevis Singer

It is my experience that one of the marks of falling in love, particularly in its glorious initial phases, is an unshakable desire to be with one’s partner. This desire is such that even when physical presence is impossible, alternative connections are eagerly welcomed: a phone call that simply brings the sound of that voice. A message with words that capture that charm.  A day on a calendar that marks our next meeting. An imagined vision of what he or she is doing at the present moment…

I realized today that I have fallen deeply in love with the simple Catholic liturgy I experienced on weekday afternoons this past summer. I find myself longing for it, longing to be present to it again, the way I have eagerly longed for the comforting presence of my beloved.  I worry, sometimes anxiously, about the next time I will experience  a liturgy that brings me such peace. Sometimes I hear a song or enter a sanctuary or recite a prayer here in Boston, and their aesthetics recall that simple noon service, and more than anything I want to celebrate a liturgy like that again.  I want us to be together again.

As genuine as it is, I’m sure my longing for the comfort of this beloved liturgy is only magnified by the religious displacement I currently experience.  I’m thinking and talking all the time about why I am Catholic, and how that really does make me different from so many people here.  I always talk about  how I possess lots of convictions that align with the tradition, and plenty of convictions that do not.  The more I talk about the former and the latter–especially on the tough days, like today, when the convictions for and convictions against seems particularly convoluted–I sometimes feel as if all I have to offer up in response to “why” is this mysterious longing to be in that simple, white-walled chapel in Seattle.  I’m in love, and I long to be with my beloved.  That’s why I am Catholic today.  I have fallen in love in this Church, with this Church, and today, that is stronger than my convictions.

Image from http://farm1.static.flickr.com/55/121666253_3f9026bd83.jpg

A Muslim Woman in the Pews

Read my latest post at CTA’s Young Adult Catholic Blog, entitled “A Muslim Woman in the Pews.”