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All Hail to Those Who Hold Up Half of Heaven

03:06 PM May 19, 2014

New York—I suppose it was bound to happen but I was hoping it would happen much, much later on in Francis’s tenure as the pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. The revival of a crackdown on American nuns, specifically the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), however, by the Vatican-appointed Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, lets us in on the good cop/bad cop dual role that Francis has started to exhibit.  It’s a kind of balancing act apparently, so no faction of the church is completely happy or unhappy with his policy decisions.

There was, for instance, the recent canonization of two popes, the avuncular Papa John XXIII and John Paul II, signaling according to veteran Vatican observers, an attempt to reconcile the progressive and the conservative wings. The former opened the ancient institution to the winds of modernity, allowing through the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, for instance, a greater role of the laity in church life and the use of other languages for the Mass to be conducted in. The latter (who participated in that council) is credited with spurring the collapse of Communism, particularly in his native Poland, though the failure to curb sexual abuse by priests during his term is a huge stain on his record.

Francis has famously said “Who are we to judge” when queried about gay priests, going on to stress that the church had to shift away from its moralizing, judgmental, and sour predisposition towards the by-the-letter enforcement of church doctrine, and more towards the issues that bedevil our time, paying particular attention to the excesses of global capitalism. It wasn’t exactly a new or even radical message being conveyed, i.e., people before profits, but it augured well that his papacy would be a more humanistic, understanding, and inclusive one.

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And yet, here is the Vatican once again attempting to rein in the independent-minded nuns of the LCWR, who continue to focus on social justice issues.  Cardinal Mueller has criticized the organization for honoring Sister Elizabeth Johnson, a theologian associated with the Jesuit-run Fordham University here in New York, with its top leadership award. Sister Johnson is perceived as an iconoclast by the conservative United States Conference of Bishops. The good sister is a feminist who has written on liberation, ecological, and interreligious theologies, among other subjects—all certain to provoke those who devoutly believe in an institution as eternal and unchanging in its approaches to the world. Mueller has reaffirmed the appointment (by Benedict, the previous pope) of Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain as the designated watchdog for the LCWR’s dealings with the public. In other words, the patriarchy is coming down hard on these uppity women.

If anyone had hoped that creaky church doors were being slowly opened to have women play a much larger, and equal, role in the church, then he or she must surely be disappointed.

What gives? Why the conflicting signals? What fears does a patriarchal religion harbor when it comes to women? Why the focus on what lies between one’s legs and not on the vocation to participate in serving one’s community in spiritual matters? What substantive theological argument can its doctrinaire clerics offer that support such a retrogressive attitude?

The main justification seems to be that all the apostles, the first priests, were men. How anyone can see in this a serious theological argument for keeping the status quo is beyond me. Reductio ad absurdum: Yes, Peter, John, Mark, Matthew et al were all male but they were also all Jewish.  Does this mean then that only male Jews can be priests?

This fear of the feminine is atavistic, and surely, a two-millennia old institution will not only survive but flourish if and when it gets rid of this backward macho attitude. Listen up, fellas. Mao had it right when he said that women hold up half of heaven.

About two months ago, Verses Typhoon Yolanda: A Storm of Filipino Poets was published by the California-based Meritage Press. Edited by the press’s founder and editor, Eileen R. Tabios, and with a foreword by Leny Mendoza Strobel, this anthology reflects a multitude of views—emotional, intellectual, political, ecological, all of the above—held by 133 Filipino poets living in various parts of the global Filipino diaspora. (Full disclosure: I am one of the poets included.) The book is indeed a storm, as the title indicates, but a storm that seeks to heal rather than wound, that builds rather than destroys, that raises the solid shelter of hope against the winds of cynicism and despair.

While the poems are mainly in English, there are works written in other Philippine languages including Tagalog, Waray, and Cebuano. The latter come with English translations. I encourage readers to purchase a copy or more. Go to http://versestyphoonyolanda.blogspot.com/

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The profits from book sales will be given to relief organizations working to help those kababayan in dire need of help. Those living in or near Tacloban may want to attend the launch there, at UP Tacloban, on August 8.

Copyright L.H. Francia 2014

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TAGS: church doctrine, feminism, Leadership Conference of Religious Women, Luis Francia, nuns, Pope Francis, Roman Catholic Church, theology of liberation
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