Teaching and Gender Note: I Do Not ‘Mother’ My Students

I’ll be teaching a year-long introductory college class on Catholicism again for 2014-2015. As I prepare to teach this class again, I’ve been thinking not only about the requisite alterations I need to make to the syllabus, but also about what teaching even is and what it means to me.

Here’s why.

I am recalling a memory I filed away at some point, and it has to do with women, the practice of teaching in a university context, and how we place those two things together.

One early September a couple years ago, I was at a departmental party, and I ended up having a conversation with another female graduate student in theology who was preparing to teach for her first time. We had never met before, so our exchange gravitated toward our most obvious common tie: starting a new semester and being relatively new university instructors (though I had taught once before). Continue reading

A Curse and Affliction Upon the Church? On Vitriol and Theologians

Some of our readers may have seen that John Allen, writing for the National Catholic Reporter, recently summarized a talk Thomas Weinandy OFM Cap (executive director of the US Conference of Catholic Bishop’s doctrine committee) gave in May to the Academy of Catholic Theology. This talk, “Faith and the Ecclesial Vocation of the Catholic Theologian,” was published at the end of July in Origins (the documentary service of the US Catholic Bishops).

Update: Somewhere in my editing of this post, I accidentally deleted a sentence noting that WIT first learned of Weinandy’s talk from our friend (and favorite Franciscan) Dan Horan. I recommend his post on this topic.]

In speaking about Catholic theologians, Weinandy uses troublingly polemical language. NCR’s headline is “Bishops’ staffer rips theologians as ‘curse'”; Weinandy’s actual words are

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Another Kind of Mandatum: the Pedilavium – or, the Commandment to Love and Serve

Holy Thursday is a complex liturgical celebration. The commemoration of the Lord’s Supper may include ritual emphasis on the institution of the eucharist, Christian service and mutual love, the sacramental priesthood, and Eucharistic adoration. In my own mind it likewise conjures several distinct images. I remember the symbolic damage of a service at a university parish when twelve young men – some friends and classmates, all seemingly selected for their height and ability to connote square-jawed leadership – processed in identical white robes to have their feet washed at the altar, against the backdrop of a homily pleading for such masculine vocations. I remember several years later as a Jesuit Volunteer in Phoenix when I spent the hours prior to the start of Triduum services washing the weary, well-trod feet of individuals seeking a meal at the downtown soup ktichen. For those following this blog, you’ll know that more recently we’ve all been occupied with the USCCB’s statements critiquing Elizabeth Johnson’s book, including discussions about a theologian’s putative obligation to seek a “mandatum” as a sign of her willingness to dialogue and her commitment to do theology as an ecclesial service. Continue reading

Misunderstandings between Bishops and Theologians

Those who have been following WIT’s commentary on the US Catholic Bishops’ Doctrine Committee’s report on Elizabeth Johnson’s book will find the National Catholic Reporter article “Bishops Ignored Own Guidelines in Johnson Critique” to be of interest.

Briefly, the doctrine committee’s choice to publish their statement on Quest without informing Professor Johnson that her book was being investigated or seeking dialogue with her violates the guidelines for handling disputes between bishops and theologians which were drafted by the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Canon Law Society of America and approved by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1989 by a 214-9 vote (“Doctrinal Responsibilities: Approaches to Promoting Cooperation and Resolving Misunderstandings between Bishops and Theologian“).

Some excerpts I’d like to highlight from the 1989 document:

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Elizabeth Johnson’s Response

Elizabeth Johnson’s response to the Bishops Committee for Doctrine’s critique of Quest for the Living God:

Response by Dr. Elizabeth Johnson C.S.J., March 30, 2011:

It is heartening to see the Bishops Conference give such serious attention to the subject of the living God. I appreciate how this statement acknowledges the laudable nature of the task of crafting a theology of God, and the number of issues on which the statement judges that I am “entirely correct.” The book itself endeavors to present new insights about God arising from people living out their Catholic faith in different cultures around the world. My hope is that any conversation that may be triggered by this statement will but enrich that faith, encouraging robust relationship to the Holy Mystery of the living God as the church moves into the future.

I would like to express two serious concerns. First, I would have been glad to enter into conversation to clarify critical points, but was never invited to do so. This book was discussed and finally assessed by the Committee before I knew any discussion had taken place. Second, one result of this absence of dialogue is that in several key instances this statement radically misinterprets what I think, and what I in fact wrote. The conclusions thus drawn paint an incorrect picture of the fundamental line of thought the book develops. A conversation, which I still hope to have, would have very likely avoided these misrepresentations.

That being said, as a scholar I have always taken criticism as a valuable opportunity to delve more deeply into a subject. The task of theology, classically defined as “faith seeking understanding,” calls for theologians to wrestle with mystery. The issues are always complex, especially on frontiers where the church’s living tradition is growing. Committed to the faith of the church, I take this statement as an occasion to ponder yet further the mystery of the living God who is ineffable.

At this time I will make no further statements nor give any interviews.

WIT Stands with Elizabeth Johnson

Today the USCCB website released news that the Bishop’s Doctrine Committee has found fault with Elizabeth Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God. We, the women of WIT, find the assessment of her work troubling in that it does not accurately represent her work; a more detailed post on this issue will follow in the next few days. Our immediate response is to say that we stand with her. As a brilliant theologian and gifted teacher, she has been an inspiration to us all.

Some various words on the Annunciation

Annunciation from the Philippines, Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth

Mosaic from the people of the Philippines, Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth. (photo by Bridget)

Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson:

“This young peasant girl discerns the voice of God in her life commissioning her to a momentous task. Exercising independent thought and action, she asks questions, takes counsel with her own soul. In a self-determining act of personal autonomy, she decides to go for it. This is her choice and it changes her life. A woman of Spirit, she embarks on the task of partnering God in the work of redemption.”

Catholic womanist theologian Diana Hayes:

Black Catholics also speak a new and challenging word about Mary, the mother of God, rejecting the symbol of passivity for the courageous and outrageous authority of a young unwed mother who had the faith in herself and in her God to break through the limitations society placed upon her in order to say a powerful yes to God, standing alone yet empowered. Hers was not a yes to being used merely as a passive, empty vessel, but a yes to empowerment, challenging the status quo by her ability to overcome those who doubted and denied her and to nurture and bring forth her Son as a woman of faith and conviction. The image of Mary and the infant Jesus is an image of strength and courage, of a mother’s determination to bring forth this child regardless of the circumstances and conditions opposing her, a situation in which many black women have often found themselves.

But why is this proof or authentication so often necessary? Historically, persons of African descent have not been seen as Catholic. Despite our more than five hundred years in the church in the United States and our two-thousand-year-old presence in the universal church, whose origins were in the Middle East and Africa, including black Africa, we are seen usually as newcomers, converts all, with little right or authority to demand what are seen as the privileges of the faith. Continue reading