Monday, May 18, 2009

Benedict at Nazareth: Joseph, Jesus, and Manly Piety

Last week, in commenting on Benedict’s homily on 10 May in Jordan, I wrote,

[I]f the bishops want to be convincing when they talk about life, they need to cultivate the maternal virtues that, as Benedict’s homily last Sunday rightly notes, are central to a profound ethic of life.

They’d need to begin nurturing the young and the weak, healing the sick, tending the earth and making it flourish, creating a safe and welcoming space for others, building a community of homes in which everyone has welcome places throughout the land. They’d need to start doing these things themselves and stop relegating them to some woman somewhere, or any woman anywhere (the paternalistic rhetoric of the magisterium assumes women are objects, generic care-providing things).

Two days after I posted those observations, Benedict celebrated Mass on the Mount of the Precipice at Nazareth, and gave another homily in which he speaks of male-female complementarity and the unique, God-given roles he believes each gender must play in order to fulfill God’s plan. Here, since he was speaking at Nazareth, where the gospels have Jesus growing up in the family of Joseph and Mary, he focused on what Catholics call the Holy Family as “the model of all Christian family life.”

In Benedict’s view, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus signify “the sacredness of the family, which in God’s plan is based on the lifelong fidelity of a man and a woman consecrated by the marriage covenant and accepting of God’s gift of new life.” Benedict views family as “the first school of wisdom,” which trains the young in the virtues they will need in order to live responsible, productive lives moving towards salvation.

And this is where his sermon becomes interesting. One could note the strangeness of using the Holy Family as the model for all Christian families, particularly as a model of lifelong fidelity open to God’s gift of new life, when Catholics believe that Joseph and Mary never had intercourse or any children born through intercourse, and Mary conceived Jesus through divine intervention.

But that’s not where I want to focus my attention here. Instead, I’d like to note what Benedict makes of his observation that the family is the first school of wisdom, and that the Holy Family exemplifies how growing up in a male-female household prepares one for a life of virtue. In his homily in Nazareth, Benedict speaks solely and exclusively of the relationship of Joseph and Jesus, in this primordial school of wisdom and virtue. Mary is left out completely, as Benedict muses on how growing up in the household of Mary and Joseph prepared Jesus for a life of virtue:

From Joseph’s strong and fatherly example Jesus learned the virtues of a manly piety, fidelity to one’s word, integrity and hard work. In the carpenter of Nazareth he saw how authority placed at the service of love is infinitely more fruitful than the power which seeks to dominate.

Jesus learned from Joseph “the virtues of a manly piety.” From Mary, it appears he learned nothing—at least, it appears that way in this contemporary retelling of the Nazareth trope, as the papacy struggles in every way it can to draw sharp lines between the genders, to base those lines on scripture and natural law, and to use that sharp distinction to reinforce the notion of one man, one woman for life as the only possible Christian definition of marriage.

And notice what Jesus learned from his father: to work hard, cherish his word, live with integrity, and place authority at the service of love rather than using authority to dominate. Authority: a curious word, since it has little play in the gospels and their story of Jesus’s life. Male authority, something given uniquely to men; authority in the household, to make determinative decisions, to regulate the behavior of one’s wife and children. Authority that is to be used in love and not to dominate—but authority, nonetheless.

Authority just like the authority of the papacy, of bishops, of clerics, all of whom just happen to be men, in the Catholic worldview . . . . Male authority over others, in business, in the military, in church and in society, rooted in the gospels, in this reading of the story of Nazareth by the current pope . . . .

This is a fascinating reading of the story of Nazareth and the Holy Family, from many standpoints. First, Joseph is such a shadowy figure in all the gospel accounts of Jesus’s upbringing, that Catholic hagiography has traditionally removed him from the stories rather conveniently and quickly, by imagining him as a very old man (who would more easily tolerate a young wife’s decision to remain abstinent after they marry), who dies early in Jesus’s life, and thus models what Catholics like to call “a happy death.”

Benedict’s attempt to retrieve Joseph as a symbol of the “manly piety” that shaped Jesus’s outlook flies in the face of centuries of Catholic hagiography, which reads into the lacunae of the gospel stories about Joseph something quite different than Benedict wants to read into those gaps.

And second, Benedict also conspicuously overlooks what has long been the dominant theme of Catholic hagiography, when it comes to the question of the Holy Family as a school of wisdom and virtue. That tradition has focused overwhelmingly on the role that Mary, and not Joseph, played in schooling Jesus for virtue.

The dominant imagination of Catholics over the centuries about the “hidden life” of Jesus’s childhood in Nazareth has been all about Mary’s submission to God’s will, in the Annunciation story—a submission she taught Jesus, preparing him for his crucifixion. The constant tradition passed down in Catholic hagiography re: Jesus’s upbringing has been a tradition of Mary schooling Jesus in prayer, teaching him to treasure God’s word in his heart just as she did, to put God’s word and will above every earthly value, to respond to God’s call when it entered his life with as much freedom of heart as she herself responded.

Why does Benedict gloss over these traditions—these maternal virtues—to focus on the shadowy figure of Joseph and the “manly piety” in which he schooled his son? Why does Benedict develop an entirely new hagiography of the Holy Family at this point in history, as he speaks of the Holy Family as the model of Christian life and the school of virtue?

Clearly, he does so in order to push the entirely new, innovative, and a-traditional idea that male-female complementarity is somehow central to God’s plan and to the gospels. And that this complementarity includes not only the right, but the obligation, of men to exercise authority—in the household, in church, in society, everywhere, since maleness rules and is meant to rule.

Please note: I'm not arguing that Christians have not presupposed male-female complementarity as a part of God's plan, throughout history. I am proposing, however, that there's something decidedly different about what's going on today, when gender complementarity is not merely being presupposed, but is being aggressively asserted, against the inprecedented claims of women to full personhood at this point in history, and against the claims of gay and lesbian persons to full human rights at this point in history. And this principle is being asserted today as something central to Christian revelation and Christian faith: and that aggressive assertion of the centrality of gender distinctives to revelation is new.

And so the magisterium today leaves Catholics with quite a puzzle. On the one hand, centuries upon centuries of tradition teach Catholics to revere—as a central symbol of the life of faith—Mary’s female submission to God, as the ultimate obligation of all Christians, both male and female. And those centuries of tradition also teach Catholics to imagine Jesus as someone whose life was so decisively shaped by that particular maternal virtue that he willingly accepted death on the cross, abasing himself, lowering himself, letting himself be poured out—like a woman—to effect the salvation of the world.

On the other hand, the magisterium today wants to develop a new midrash of the Holy Family story, to bolster a male-dominant, authority-centered, manly reading of the gospels that reinforces the unjust claim of men to rule in church and society. Which reinforces some of the most noxious applications of the Christian gospels today, from American soldiers sauntering into the Middle East with guns in one hand and bibles in the other to force the heathen to submit to the gospel, to bashing women and “effeminate” men and boys in the name of the Lord . . . .

Something is wrong with this picture, with Benedict’s reading of the story of Nazareth, with the swaggering male-dominant reading of the gospels that began to claim the attention of many men throughout the Christian churches in the final decades of the 20th century—and which Benedict is intent on promoting enen now, no matter how lethal this “manly piety” is proving to be at this point in the history of the globe.

And so I’ll say it again: “. . . [To] be convincing about life, the bishops would have to do what seems not to come naturally to them these days: they’d have to act maternal for a change.

They’d have to think like mothers. They’d have to think like what they keep insisting the church is to all of us, a mother. They’d have to start wrapping their arms around the world the way God does in the very first image of God we meet in scripture, in those very same Genesis creation stories, which speak of God creating the world by folding matter under her divine wings and brooding over it until it comes to life.”