Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Reflections on Mary's "yes"...

New Year’s Day brings us a Marian Feast Day, a day upon which many clergy will extol the virtues of Mary’s “yes.”  Calling Mary’s response a “yes” implies there was a question with the possibility of answering “no.”  But, did Mary really have a choice?  

In Luke’s gospel the angel Gabriel didn’t seem to ask Mary a question when he announced her impending pregnancy.  He didn’t say, “Mary, what do you think about becoming pregnant before you get married?”  Or, “Mary, would you be willing to have the Holy Spirit impregnate you even though this could totally screw up the partially transacted business deal of your marriage to Joseph and get you stoned to death?”  He just said it was going to happen and that she shouldn’t worry.  Gabriel’s statements were declarative not interrogative.    

In Matthew’s gospel, the announcement didn’t even come to Mary; it came to Joseph - who according to Mosaic Law did have options…quietly end the betrothal, accuse Mary of being damaged goods or complete the betrothal process and marry her, likely for a lower bride price.   Mary’s religious, social and legal status largely depended upon what Joseph said and did, not what she said or did.      

The non-canonical gospel of James offers some insight into Mary’s early life, telling us Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachim, donated her to be a temple virgin when she was about three years old.  If I had done similarly with any of my daughters, I would probably be in prison for child neglect or human trafficking.   However, the church sings the praises of Anna and Joachim, calling them saints.

What is the likelihood a child donated at and conditioned since three possesses sufficient critical thinking skills to realize, assess and exercise any of her options, limited and unpalatable as they may be?   

Some might dismiss this with a hand-wave, saying that those were different times - and they were.  Children and women were considered property with zero to few rights.  They had very little legal voice to oppose authority.   Would she have even thought “no” was a possible response?

According to Luke’s infancy narrative, Mary’s response to Gabriel’s announcement was that things should be done unto her according to Gabriel’s word.  That seems predictable based upon her childhood experiences…pretty ho-hum given the context, some might say.  Personally, I would be more amazed if she had said, “Gabe, Thanks, but no.”  Please note, I’ve not found saying “no thanks” to God to be a consistently reliable technique for God sparing me from things I do not want to endure.  So even if Mary said “Gabe…not gonna lie on this one…not loving your tidings…please tell the Lord to favor someone else” would that have prevented her pregnancy according to her wishes?

More interesting to me than Mary’s “yes” was her referring to herself as a “handmaiden of the Lord.”  In ancient Hebrew culture, a handmaiden’s married female owner could order the handmaiden to sleep with her husband to conceive a child on her behalf if the wife was unable to conceive.  Sarah ordering her handmaiden, Haggar, to sleep with Abraham to bear a child is such an example. 

The husband could not order the handmaiden to be sexual proxy for his wife; only the wife could do this.  Therefore, I wonder if Mary carried feminine rather than masculine imagery of God…in that her response was to consider herself conceiving a child as proxy for God…something culturally she would only do for her female owner?

We actually know almost no facts about Mary.  Over the years, myths evolved adding details based upon supposition and imagination rather than fact.  Eventually some of the details within those myths were declared infallible doctrine by Popes Pius IX and Pius XII - her being conceived immaculately/free from original sin, and her being assumed into heaven - sucked up by a Holy Hoover vacuum cleaner into heaven rather than taking the standard route by dying.  As an aside, her perpetual virginity has never been declared infallible doctrine, although it is doctrine.

Though we know little about Mary, we know a little more about Mosaic Law and the status of women at the time.  In some respects it offered women a degree of financial security not offered in other cultures at the time.  But if you read the various details regarding women’s virginity and legal implications for tampering with it, you see that women get a pretty raw deal.  They are property; they are objects upon which to be acted; their punishments are more severe, etc…  The list of marginalizing aspects is long.

Fast forward through history to today and we see that though some women have progressed in financial and physical security, discriminatory and marginalizing attitudes ingrained over thousands of years are difficult to shed.  Attitudes depicting women as dependent objects lead to practices that make them dependent objects.  For example, many girls around the globe prostitute themselves just to get a secondary or university education because their families believe formal education for girls is frivolous - females are to depend upon their fathers until they depend upon a husband.  Practices like this have led to a disproportionately large percentage of adults in poverty being women.  I have read statistics as high as 70% of impoverished adults are women. 

Pope Francis says he’s an advocate for both the poor and women.  A true advocate for the poor must be an advocate for women because they are to a large extent “the poor.”  A sincere advocate for the poor would also try to help alter the circumstances leading to poverty.  With women, this includes offering education and eradicating attitudes and practices defining women as dependent upon men.  This includes eradicating attitudes and practices that artificially limit women’s chances based upon gender. 

Unfortunately, I have not yet heard Pope Francis acknowledge the connection between poverty and the marginalization of women.  With his supporting institutionalized sexist practices in the church that emerge from its gender-based ideology while at the same time declaring feminists’ efforts at empowering women as “demonic gender-based ideology”, he seems primarily to reinforce regressive attitudes about women – attitudes that jeopardize their financial and physical security – attitudes that place more women in poverty.   Furthermore, Francis can’t seem to speak about women without sexist drivel and/or sexist jokes escaping from his mouth.  It makes his statements about valuing women ring hollow.  Meanwhile, his actions to support his words take a long time to occur and have been underwhelming when they finally do – to the point that they seem largely to be token gestures.

Even in a developed nation with great progress towards women’s empowerment, I am experiencing the downstream effect of the rock-star popular Francis repeatedly making sexist jokes.  For example, Christmas Eve Mass the priest told us the highest ministry a woman could have was to make cookies for a priest…har-dee-har-har.  If an executive made such a sexist comment at my secular job, the executive would be reprimanded or possibly fired depending upon severity.  But there are few people willing to go against the grain and call Francis out for his sexist statements.  This gives a sense of normalcy or invincibility to downstream clergy.  They can make similar sexist comments without fear of repercussions.  This also works against empowering women and ultimately increases their poverty.

Another area causing severe poverty ties to women’s reproductive health – an area where the church increasingly tries to eliminate women’s options, making “yes” the only “answer” regarding conceiving children.  Perhaps this explains or mirrors the clergy’s fixation with Mary’s non-optional “yes.”  Is giving women actual options truly something to fear to the point of restricting them?

Rather than prattle on about Mary and her “yes,” I ask Francis and the clergy to shed the scales from their eyes that blind them from seeing the role church hierarchy’s centuries of gender-based ideology plays in determining women’s economic options.  I ask them to stop the disparagement of feminism and feminist theology that empower women by helping them actually address the causes of poverty via developing self-confidence and independence.  Such theology is not afraid to be surprised by what the Holy Spirit asks women to do as it places no limitations around what the Holy Spirit can or will do.  When I see marked progress in these areas, then I will believe that the rock-star pope is a sincere advocate for women and consequently the vast majority of the poor.

I acknowledge Francis has done some heart-warming gestures in support of giving comfort to the poor.  But, when is he going to address the core issues causing so many women to live with their children in poverty?

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Spiritual Fruit Salad...

Just before I read reports of his Christmas address to the Vatican Curia, I was wondering if Pope Francis ever actually received the Christmas card and other letters I’ve sent him.  He doesn’t write…; he doesn’t call…; he doesn’t visit…  What’s a girl to think?

However, now I think it’s possible he has received my mail because his “15 Ailments of the Curia” echo many concerns I’ve expressed in my missives.  If you’ve not read his list, I encourage you to do so.  

As much as I appreciate Francis acknowledging and even chastising the hierarchy for its arrogance, hubris, insensitivity, hypocrisy, insecurity, self-absorption, fear and unhappiness resulting in over-bearing, domineering, control-freak, career-climbing, self-promoting, money-grubbing, gossiping, suck-up, fashionista hierarchy members who travel in cliques, his litany had a glaring omission: the ailment of “sexism.”   I don’t know why he overlooked that ailment unless maybe it’s one that plagues him or one he does not acknowledge.  Regardless, without addressing it, the other ailments will never be fully addressed. 

I actually believe that tackling Pope Francis’ list of 15 without correcting the ailment of sexism likely will just make a sick turn of the crank grinding women down further within the church and society.  I don’t know if that would be an intended or unintended consequence but humble, sensitive, secure, confident and happy sexists are still sexists.  One might argue that such sexists are even more destructive ones because their charm wins people’s confidence enabling them to manipulate and abuse people more easily.  

I think Francis would bristle at being labeled a sexist.  I think he probably envisions himself a very pro-female kind of guy what with him appointing 5 whole women to his 30 person International Theological Commission.  That mentality is fairly common amongst people of Francis’ and my parents’ generation.  They are so indoctrinated into promoting a gender ideology of females’ limitations and duties, that they often see their sexism as just a factual manifestation of nature…”it’s just how things are…”  And though some such folks believe themselves to be rather equality-minded, their face-palm worthy sexist statements and actions belie the gender ideology to which they are enslaved.

Historically, women and their anatomy have been frequently compared to many fruits: peaches, apples, melons, cherries to name a few.  These tend to be degrading sexual metaphors.  However, some people from my father’s generation actually think they’re paying a compliment when they admire a woman's “melons.”  Lack of appreciation for such “compliments” simply baffles these folks.   Francis calling women theologians “strawberries upon a cake” might fall into this genre of sexism.  It might not.  

And while Francis might see magnanimity in him having 16% female representation on his theological commission, I see it as woefully inadequate.  Numerous qualified women theologians could bring the commission to an equal 50/50 split right now, today, no waiting.  Yet, my lack of appreciation for Francis’ “magnanimity” might befuddle sexists in the crowd.  My mathematical competence that realizes 16% is markedly less than 50% somehow gets confused with the word, "ingrate."

Perhaps rather than having sexually inappropriate undertones Francis just meant he thinks male theologians provide the foundational substance (cake) of theological thought and women theologians add superficial, yet palatable adornments (strawberries) to that foundation making it more attractive to consume; I don’t know.  But, I would expect a non-sexist to say something like this, “Women theologians are like male theologians; the depth and breadth of their diverse experiences of God are intrinsic to the very substance of theology.”

I discussed Francis’ “women theologians are like strawberries on a cake” statement recently with my youngest daughter (in her 20s) while eating her strawberry adorned birthday cake.  She mused that since strawberries atop a cake provide the only healthy nutritional part of it, maybe Francis believes women theologians provide the healthiest theological contributions.  If Francis’ few female leadership appointees prove to do anything other than mirror or smear frosting on 2,000 years’ of male theologians’ cake, I’ll agree with her. 

However, Francis overlooked female theologians such as Elizabeth Johnson who might actually act as a conduit for the “freshness, fantasy and novelty” of the Holy Spirit that Francis says he greatly desires.  He instead opted to appoint female theologians that seem to parrot what the guys have already said.  Francis, why are you so reluctant to letting the Spirit blow where it will when it comes to women?

By the way, Francis, a friendly warning here…When I acknowledge those same ailments in your list of 15, I’m labeled a “clergy-hater” or “church-destroyer”, so brace yourself...  But don’t be discouraged.  When people feel threatened, they often label and try to discredit the source of their threat.  Sometimes they even try to accuse the opposition of doing what they actually do.  It’s kind of like how the church hierarchy has peddled gender ideology for about two thousand years but now people who call the church out for this sexist practice get labeled by you as “demonic” peddlers of gender ideology.

Bottom line: whether or not Ray Burke wins Cardinal fashionista of the century, whether or not George Pell, Sean O’Malley and Tim Dolan avoid headlines and talk shows, whether or not the hierarchy starts interacting more frequently and directly with their flocks, it will not make your gender ideology that artificially limits women’s abilities any more acceptable.  Possession of a uterus does not magically or biologically make women more qualified to wash clothes, bake cookies, change diapers, make coffee, run photocopies or type documents.  Nor does it make them less qualified to think and lead.  In a globally connected world with instantaneous communication abilities as well as economic opportunities for women, taking centuries to correct errors and imbalances that could be corrected instantly just does not cut it.

Dear brother Francis, please be guided by the words of Michael Jackson…look at the man in the mirror and “if you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make that change.”  I appreciate you are doing this on many fronts but in the area of women, it is far too little, far too slow and suffers setbacks by your intermittent sexist statements. 

I welcome the opportunity to share with you the "freshness, fantasy and novelty" of the Spirit that blows through me.  Please feel free to visit when you're in the U.S. or give me a call anytime. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Black Friday Special!

Last Thursday we celebrated Thanksgiving here in the United States and many celebrated the retail extravaganza “Black Friday” the following day with all its usual deals for toys, housewares, clothing and electronics.  However, hands-down this year, the best Black Friday deal did not come from a retailer but from Pope Francis.  On Black Friday, Francis announced “Get out of Purgatory Free” cards, otherwise known as plenary indulgences. 

For those unfamiliar with the term, “Purgatory” is where one’s soul is excoriated until it shines brightly enough for heaven.  Though the sacrament of penance forgives people of their sins, forgiveness in the Catholic dogmatic style does not include freedom from punishment.  The Catholic Church teaches that people commit sins, and God forgives them using priests in confessionals as conduits, but then God will still exact at least a pound of flesh in punishment, typically in this quaint place called Purgatory.  It’s kind of like saying, “I forgive you for eating my cookie, but trust me, Bucko, I’m still going to make you pay for doing it.”  This might sound to the inexperienced as a non-forgiving form of forgiveness but let us not get caught up in pesky details lest we miss out on Pope Francis’ Black Friday special.

Moving on, let’s review “indulgences.”  They are like coupons one exchanges in lieu of enduring purgatorial punishment.   One can have partial indulgences which, as the name indicates, partially cover your punishment...sort of like a 50% off coupon.  Or one can have a plenary indulgence which completely gets rid of any punishment...sort of like a "get one free" coupon. 

I read this very statement to my youngest daughter (in her 20s) assuming she would stop the car and excitedly exclaim, “Where can I get my indulgence?  I want an indulgence!”  I regret to inform you, this was not her reaction. After re-reading the statement to her today, she decided it was a story from "The Onion." 

Yes, such magnanimity is hard to believe so I understand how someone might confuse it with satirical writing on a comedy website.  But, no, this is REAL and the pope is sincere.  He is spraying anti-whoop-ass but not just willy-nilly into the atmosphere so that freedom from punishment lands on just any old surface.  He is following the “customary conditions” for indulgences.

I hope you are sitting down because my daughter did NOT know the customary conditions for indulgences.  Thus, I read them verbatim to her from a Catholic website.  And, I read them to her again….and again…and again.  Finally she said, “This is more complicated than learning the rules for Monopoly…” and began speculating if rolling double sixes might have the same effect as receiving a plenary indulgence. 

By the way, the “customary conditions” for an indulgence do not include paying oodles of cash, playing BINGO at the local Knights of Columbus hall, cheering for Notre Dame, walking backwards while reciting the rosary in Latin, or whistling “Lift High the Cross” while eating Lenten Friday fish-sticks.   The customary conditions are simply these: In addition to doing the pious act, 1) go to confession, 2) receive Holy Communion, 3) pray for the pope, and 4) be absent of all attachments to sin.

Holy crap, it was a slam-dunk until the whole “be free from sin” thing.  Not to fear.  If you don’t get the full plenary indulgence, you can still get a partial one.  It’s kind of like doing a very complex chemistry problem where you get partial credit for the things you did do correctly.

Buying and selling indulgences inspired people like Martin Luther to insist upon hierarchical reforms.  The hierarchy, being every bit or perhaps even less good natured about criticism then than it is now, excommunicated Luther but did reform the corrupt practices around buying and selling indulgences.  Thus, you cannot buy your way out of purgatorial suffering with indulgences purchased at a local Catholic boutique like Hobby Lobby.  But, you can still give them away!!!  Wondering what to get that special someone who is hard to buy for?  What to get for the person with everything?  Try going for an indulgence, gift wrapping it and giving it to your favorite someone this Christmas Season.  Certain restriction apply; see Pope for details.