Saturday, August 16, 2014

The language of faith

Some readers have enquired as to my long lapse in publishing a blog article.  I have been globetrotting, including spending three weeks in Africa running a technology camp for girls. Thus, I’ve had limited time and internet connectivity to write.  Thanks for your concern and interest.

I returned to the United States coincidental with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) convening their annual assembly.  This year’s assembly carries a smattering of drama due to the Vatican’s recent finger-wagging exercises at the sisters.  The LCWR’s honoree this year is Sr. Elizabeth Johnson.  Her selection increased the hierarchy’s vigor tsk-tsking the sisters because the hierarchy doesn’t like one of Elizabeth’s books.  I’d characterize the hierarchy’s objections to her book as resulting from a willful inability to understand her…to speak or understand her language.

While in Africa, I experienced a certain amount of language confusion as well.  I worked in Rwanda where the country is shifting the official language for educational instruction from French to English.  Despite laws that instruction must occur in English, a fair amount of the camp was translated for campers…not into French, but into Kinyarwanda – the campers’ native tongue.  There are pros and cons to doing this but the camp staff preferred to err on the side of understanding and being understood.

Rattling around in my head all the while has been this proud moment in my family’s history when my grandfather and his brother were officially excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church for about a year during the 1920s.  Their sin?  My great-uncle was part of the leadership team for a Franco-American journal called “La Sentinelle” and my grandfather was part of the Sentinellist movement.  The Sentinellists’ sin involved language.  They emigrated from Quebec to the U.S. and spoke French.  They had this crazy idea that their church and school environments should accommodate their language requirements because they wanted to understand and be understood.  They were called extreme radicals for this.

As some background, William Hickey, the Irish-American bishop of Providence, RI thought American Catholics needed to be more “American.".  He thought English language uniformity would increase unity and reduce the amount of anti-Catholic sentiment which arose largely from Irish opposition to involvement in World War I.  Though the Franco-Americans strongly supported America’s participation in the war by offering over 100,000 soldiers, the Irish-Americans tended to support the Irish’s stance.  Since the Irish-American Catholics and especially Irish-American Catholic clergy vastly outnumbered the anything-else-American Catholics, Catholics in America were seen as being downright “un-American.” 

In an effort to make Catholics appear more American, Hickey embarked on a multi-phase campaign to reroute monies pouring into Franco-American French-speaking parish schools.  He imposed a “subscription” to build English-speaking diocesan high schools.  The subscription was basically a tax upon parishes.  Each parish was apportioned part of the cost to build Hickey’s schools and if donations did not meet the allotted cost, then he just took the outstanding balance from the parish coffers.  This is much like how Diocesan Services campaigns work in U.S. dioceses.  The bishop gets what he asks for because he simply takes it if it isn’t freely given.

The Sentinellists were rightly concerned that losing their language would dilute the ranks of the faithful.  History showed that in the late 1800s, failure by the hierarchy to support Catholics’ language requirements resulted in a 10 million person exodus from the Catholic Church in the U.S.  The Sentinellists were extremely devout Catholics and did not want this to happen to their families and neighbors. 

The Sentellists were also working people who didn’t have a lot of money.  They knew that they could not support their children’s needs and the bishop’s demands.   Therefore, they erred on the side of their children and boycotted paying their “pew fees” (money paid to reserve a pew for your family at church) and the “subscription” in order to build a French-speaking Catholic high school rather than an English-speaking one.   This seemed to be their ultimate sin winning them excommunication…they hit the bishop in the most sacred part of his faith life…his wallet.

I’m a fan of assimilation but I’m also practical.  Assimilation occurs at a pace balancing the culture into which one is trying to assimilate against the practical realities of the ones trying to assimilate.  Third party meddling trying to force a faster assimilation pace can have severe unintended consequences. 

We see that with the profound diminishment of Franco-American Catholics after the aggressive assimilation efforts in the early 1900s.  French-heritage Catholics in the U.S., though some of the most abundant early establishers of Catholicism in North America, are now rare.  Their language was suppressed and they left the church in droves.

I wonder if the same is occurring with women’s language and the church.  Elizabeth Johnson speaks the language of women.  Despite recent lip-service given to developing a “theology of women,” those who speak the theological language of women are sanctioned and censured.  Is the hierarchy again making the error of mistaking “uniformity” as “unity?”  I would say that we can wait to see the possible unintended consequences of suppressing women’s language in the church except we are already seeing it.  Women are leaving the church and taking their children with them.

However, there is a bigger question here and that is whether or not assimilation should occur at all.  In the case of French Canadian emigrants, they chose to move to a land where English was the primary language.  There is a certain responsibility on their part to assimilate to the culture that they chose to join,  In the case of the Rwandans, the French-speaking Belgians imposed themselves on their culture.  By the fact the Rwandans opt for Kinyarwanda rather than French during this time of language transition, we see that the Rwandans didn’t necessarily feel compelled to assimilate to the culture of people who inserted themselves upon the Rwandan culture.

But, what about women?  On the one hand the hierarchy screams about how very ontologically different women are from men.  Yet, on the other hand, the hierarchy seems to want women to assimilate to men’s culture by abandoning their own language and experiences to adopt those of the men.  Is this right or even possible? 

If women ontologically differ from men, then trying to force male voices and thoughts upon women commits one of these pesky “sins against nature” that the hierarchy abhors.  If women do not differ ontologically from men, then excluding women from the priesthood is unfounded. 

Either women are different and hierarchical leaders owe the LCWR and Elizabeth Johnson not only an apology, they owe them their deep appreciation for letting these differences shine forth via their language of women…or women are not different and hierarchical leaders owe a deep apology and expression of gratitude as well as need to reinstate all the excommunicated female priests because they simply denuded a myth about men’s and women’s ontological differences. 

There is a third scenario where the hierarchy both reinstates female priests and apologizes to the LCWR and Elizabeth Johnson which should occur if men’s and women’s differences serve to complement rather than impede clerical ministry.  But right now, the hierarchy’s stance seems to just further undermine its credibility.  Johnson succinctly expresses the real issue at hand, “In my judgment, and this is difficult to say, but I do believe such carelessness with the truth is unworthy of the teaching office of bishop.”

No comments:

Post a Comment