Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Tom Roberts Responds to Michael Sean Winters: The "Narrow Range of Options" Within Which MSW Permits Women's Issues in the Church to Be Discussed

Tom Roberts's NCR column "Contra MSW" seems me to get it just right. Roberts quickly zeroes in on what is for me the salient point in Michael Sean Winters's slam of theologian Mary Hunt (and his slams of theologian Anthea Butler, Catholic intellectual-activist Frances Kissling, and journalist Maureen Dowd--see my reflections on this point several days ago). Roberts states,

The column, I think, illustrates both a consistent blind spot on Winters’ part regarding women’s issues in the church and the rather narrow range of options within which he would permit them to be addressed.

It's that "narrow range of options" that draws my attention. Tom Roberts is, of course, speaking of the false dichotomies--the either-or options--that Winters typically sets up as he castigates those with whom he disagrees on both left and right, while claiming for himself the position of objectivity and balance those on the left and right forfeit by having the misfortune not to stand with him on the little spot of Catholic Truth in the middle.

But here's the other thing about that "narrow range of options": they also represent a straitjacket for women interacting with the Catholic tradition and its truth claims. If we begin with a definition of Catholic orthodoxy that rules out of hand the aspirations to autonomy and to human rights of one woman after another, then we've defined orthodoxy in such a narrow, straitened way that it is practically meaningless for many of us who live and breathe Catholic identity in the real world in which we move and have our being. Because it has lost all intrinsic and vital connection to orthopraxis, to the lived pursuit of Catholic truth that is, for many of us, all about seeking to make the lives of people on the margins more humane . . . . To accord human rights to those denied human rights . . . 

Effectively, Michael Sean Winters defines Catholic orthodoxy in a way that makes Catholic orthodoxy and women's valid aspirations to autonomy and human rights antithetical to each other, polar opposites that can have no meeting point in the middle. Because truth. And because its opposite.

Michael stands for and with orthodoxy, with Catholic Truth. As does the pope. As does the College of Cardinals. As do the Curia and the Vatican. As do all bishops in the world viewed as a collective. As do all priests around the globe viewed as a group.

In the case of Mary Hunt et al., the claim to represent orthodoxy, to stand for Catholic truth, is up to question from the outset. And isn't it interesting that this way of framing the discussion of women's issues in the church elides precisely the major problem that cannot be elided from the outset, if that discussion is to go anywhere productive? It skates right across the one most important quality of all that those who possess and define Catholic truth in a unilateral way have--and which all women in the world lack.

I'll leave it to readers of this posting to work out what that one most important quality is, and to ask why it should predetermine who gets to define Catholic identity and who gets to be the defined. (Tony Morrison, Beloved [NY: New American Library, 1987]:

Clever, but schoolteacher whipped him anyway, to show him that definitions belonged to the definers—not the defined [p. 190]).

I'm framing these remarks about Michael Sean Winters's recent response to Mary Hunt, and about Tom Roberts's critique of Winters's response, by talking about orthodoxy for the following reason: as soon as I had published my critique of Winters re: Hunt linked above, I began to receive communications from a number of online friends who stand well to the right of me in their understanding of what it means to be Catholic. 

The gist of their concern: "But, even if Michael Sean Winters may grate and overstate his case, at the very least he's orthodox. Isn't he? And shouldn't that demand our defense?"

My response to these questions: But why on earth should we yield the definition of orthodoxy to Michael Sean Winters (and all the other male Catholic leaders for whom he claims to speak as he upholds orthodoxy) as he rules people like Mary Hunt out of the circle of orthodoxy from the outset of any discussion of what orthodoxy means? In our discussion of these issues, why shouldn't we assume from the outset that our understanding of orthodoxy may very well be expanded and enriched if we provide room for the possibility that Mary Hunt and other outspoken Catholic women defending women's human rights have something of critical importance to offer all of us Catholics as we arrive at our definition of orthodoxy? 

If Catholicism is, at the most fundamental level possible, all about here comes everybody, setting up a definition of Catholicism that is aboriginally closed to the aspirations of women seeking the full range of human rights vastly diminishes what catholicity means. This way of dealing with women's aspirations to autonomy and to human rights radically impoverishes what we understand by orthodoxy. And it also radically undercuts what is perhaps the most significant truth claim of all made by Catholic orthodoxy at its classic best: namely, that the church exists to call everybody to the fulness of life: 

The glory of God is a human being fully alive, Irenaeus tells us, echoing Jesus himself in John's gospel (10:10).

I should perhaps mention--it's hardly coincidental or beside the point--that all of those contacting me to express disgruntlement that I disagreed with Michael Sean Winters in his critique of Mary Hunt are men. White men, as it happens. 

It also happens that these are white Catholic men who came of age in the church of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and whose preoccupation with the term "orthodox" and with defining this group as orthodox insiders and that group as heretical outsiders owes much to those two popes. I myself do not fully understand this preoccupation.

As I look at my church at a global level today, it's not intuitively obvious to me that the great threat to Catholicism at this point in history is an onslaught of unorthodox ideas. To my way of thinking, the great threat we deal with at this point in our history is our failure to demonstrate that our orthodox faith has any real meaning for our real lives in the real world--because we are failing at orthopraxis rather than at orthodoxy.

We're failing to give authentic lived witness to the truth of Catholic faith. And choosing to exclude from full humanity and full membership in our faith community whole sectors of the human community--say, the half that lacks a penis--just because: if that doesn't represent a spectacular failure of Catholic orthopraxis that completely militates against the claim that we're suffering from a lack of orthodoxy in our church, then I don't know what does represent such a failure.

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