In the “New Archaic Afterwards” written in 1985 to The Church and the Second Sex (1968), Mary Daly describes some of the difference between her 1968 self’s commitment to working within the church structure for change as a Christian believer and her 1985 self’s post-Christian commitment to working outside of church structures for spiritual, political, and social transformation is an appropriation of the virtue courage. In order to escape from “the stranglehold of patriarchal religion, with its deadly symbols, its ill logic, its gynocidal laws and other poisonous paraphernalia” one requires what she terms the “Courage to Leave” all patriarchal institutions (xii). This kind of courage is characterized by a “Leap after Leap of Living Faith” beyond the “error/terror” that locks one in a prison of false faith. This series of acts of bravery is eventually transformed into the “Courage to Live” as a free woman full of true faith, hope, and love and to act out of one’s deepest “potential/potency” (xvii).
I have a lot of sympathy for Daly’s recommendations. My own experiences of working within the Roman Catholic Church structure have been marked by constant struggle—most of them, up until this point, have centered on struggles with preaching. It has been extremely painful to feel a desire to give one’s own talents and skills to the church, but to be blocked in doing so again and again. It is heartbreaking to hear misogynist, homophobic, racist coming from the same white man every Sunday at church, when I can look around and see that there are so many other important voices that should be heard belonging to the people sitting next to me in the pews. I’d like to hear their stories and learn from their wisdom. I’d also like to be able to offer my own. But, my religious tradition permits only a small portion of the believing population the privileges of access to ordination, and with ordination the space to speak and be heard.[i]
But, if all courageous women and men leave the church, what will become of the church? If all who hear the proclamation of “good news” every Sunday and ask themselves (and others) critically “whose good does this serve?” leave, where will we go? Do we not lose our very power– i.e., our togetherness, our collective strength– when we disperse? In many ways it is true that what keeps me coming back to church most Sundays are the real relationships that we form there, the many hours praying together, drinking coffee, crying, singing, dancing, laughing, and arguing with each other. Yet, on the other hand, it is also the case that I worry whether the frustration I repeatedly feel is breeding a slow, quiet (and unnecessary!) resentment which will result over time in a full spiritual death, or at the very least the prohibition full spiritual growth. The cultivation of a robust spiritual life requires much time and patient practice. If one is constantly struggling in the church to merely find a safe space, it is all the more difficult to practice patiently making space for God in prayer and cultivating virtue in one’s daily life.
Another thinker who speaks about courage is Thomas Aquinas (see ST II-II Q. 123-140). That might seem like a strange connection to make, but surprisingly his understanding of courage is very similar to Daly’s (though perhaps I should say, Daly’s understanding is really similar to Aquinas’s since she read him and not the reverse!). For both Aquinas and Daly, courage is not acquired overnight. It is a disposition that is practiced overtime and gradually transforms the entire person.[ii] Thomas Aquinas also understands courage as doing something that is difficult despite fear. Aquinas specifies, however, (perhaps unlike Daly) that acts of courage can be either acts of aggression (meaning, doing some specific act of daring; this would be most along the lines of Daly’s understanding of courage as tied to the activity of leaving patriarchal institutions and seeking alternative structures) or acts of endurance (meaning, standing firm and immovable in the face of attack; this would be more akin perhaps to the idea of remaining committed to the church despite destructive forces within it). Aquinas argues that acts of endurance are, in some ways, more properly classified as belonging to the virtue of courage because they are more difficult than acts of aggression: they imply a greater position of weakness and, for Aquinas, it is more admirable to overcome difficulty in weakness than in relative strength. Though, it is important to note, that acts of endurance are only possible, and indeed admirable, when there is no other alternative. Here, Aquinas is thinking chiefly of martyrdom. When the martyr has no other choice apart from renouncing her integrity/deepest convictions rather than die, it is virtuous for her to endure to the point of death.
Is it the case that those experiencing oppression in the church have no other alternative but to endure and perhaps fight for structural/theological reform? It is not my point to try to imagine what Thomas Aquinas would answer to the exact question of whether those experiencing oppression within the church should leave. Rather, I’m inspired by what Aquinas has to say about courage and would like to use it in order to further my own thinking on the subject. So perhaps, I should ask the question in a more personal way, since I’m not sure how to speak for others: do I have any other alternatives? do I have anywhere else to go? would I be leaving too much with my departure? what is gained by staying? These are still open questions for me.
Aquinas adds to his discussion of courage the important note that courage is a virtue related to other virtues, most significantly, prudence. Prudence, the intellectual virtue which is characterized by knowing what the right thing is to do in a particular situation, directs the exercise of courage in the virtuous person. So, this means, the courageous person (through the direction of prudence) knows how to be courageous here and now even when the situation that presents itself here and now is unlike what she has ever faced before.
I don’t prescribe to Daly’s overarching[iii] recommendation that all women everywhere should cultivate the Courage to Leave. In many situations, this may not be helpful and even harmful. But, I do leave open the possibility that this may be the good (and holy!) option for some. It is only through the prayerful and persistent cultivation of courage, especially prudent courage, that one can discover what is the next faithful step forward. Let us pray for courage.
[i] Perhaps the centrality of preaching in my ecclesial concerns has to do with a naïve assumption that if we have good preaching, i.e. if we are really able to hear and process the good news for us today, then this has the power to transform so much that is destructive within the church. This is just where my head is right now.
[ii] This is true of Aquinas’s idea of acquired courage. His understanding of infused courage is another matter, and surely a more complicated matter.
[iii] Daly has been criticized by many scholars as tending toward an over-essentialized understanding of the condition of diverse women around the world.