What is she trying to say?

What is she trying to say? March 2, 2012

In my reading of the Catechism for my diaconate formation program, I came across a passage that has set me thinking.  In the discussion of the resurrection, it says:

Mary Magdalene and the holy women who came to finish anointing the body of Jesus, which had been buried in haste because the Sabbath began on the evening of Good Friday, were the first to encounter the Risen One. Thus the women were the first messengers of Christ’s Resurrection for the apostles themselves. (CCC 641)

This event is pithily summarized in the long conclusion to the Gospel of Mark:

When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene,out of whom he had driven seven demons.She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping. When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it. (Mark 16:9-11)

I was always struck by the fact that even though Mary Magdalene was the first to believe in the Resurrection and to bring the good news to the apostles, they refused to believe.  I can almost imagine them saying to one another, in their incomprehension:  “What is she trying to say?”  Yet, in the end they listened, at least to the extent of going to see the empty tomb for themselves.  Ultimately, this event was woven into the gospel narratives, and the Church has called her “the Apostle to the Apostles” since at least the Middle Ages.

But in reading this passage in the Catechism, what struck me most was its juxtaposition with a nearby passage on the Last Supper:

The Eucharist that Christ institutes at that moment will be the memorial of his sacrifice. Jesus includes the apostles in his own offering and bids them perpetuate it. By doing so, the Lord institutes his apostles as priests of the New Covenant. (CCC 611)

As Catholics we understand that at the Last Supper Jesus instituted two sacraments:  the Eucharist and Holy Orders.  But it is also clear that this is a back reading onto the text itself.  Jesus does not explicitly say in these passages that this is what he is doing.  Rather it is our Tradition (with a capital “T”) that invests this historical moment with this transcendent meaning.  And what struck me is that while this passage is so interpreted, the story of Mary Magdalene is not read as having meaning beyond the event itself.

One could imagine, counter-factually but plausibly, a Tradition having arisen in the Church of an order of “Apostles to the Apostles”:  women selected from the community whose mission was to speak to the (male) apostles words they may not want to hear or believe.  Women whose mission was to remind them that Christ is Risen: that they should look for Him where they least expect to find Him, and to hear His voice whenever He speaks.  In a word, they would have been there to speak truth to power, to be a living embodiment of what St. Paul described:

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. (1 Cor 1:27)

I am not going to push this fantasy any further: our tradition is what it is.  (Though recent feminist scholarship has hinted at some interesting things in the early apostolic period, I don’t know enough to comment on them meaningfully.)  But here and now, I wonder:  do we need such a ministry?  Do we need, formally  or informally, someone who brings us—particularly the male “us” both lay and ordained—up short and makes us ask ourselves, “What is she trying to say?”  Or to put it another way: do we as a Church listen to the voices of women as we ought to?

When I first raised this question in class, the discussion got side-tracked because it was suggested that I was arguing that the Church hates women.  To be clear:  no, I don’t think the Church hates women.  But I sometimes think that even as it claims to love and respect them, it doesn’t always listen to them.    The argument in response to this is that of course the Church listens to women:  there are women who are Doctors of the Church.  Yes, but you can number them on the fingers of one hand:  Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Therese of Lisieux, Hildegard of Bingen.  They may simply be the exceptions that prove the rule.

Now there is nothing original in this question; indeed, as the debate swirls around the HHS mandate it has been a fairly common refrain in commboxes across the blogosphere.  But I am moved to ask it because of a chance discovery of a series of posts at the Women in Theology blog.  (Hat tip to the readers of Vox Nova who sent us email about it.)   The series is entitled “Women speak about Natural Family Planning” and is intended to record first person narratives by women about their experiences with NFP.   The stories told are moving and insightful and I recommend them to everyone, whether or not you agree with the conclusions that the anonymous authors reach.

But coming across these posts as I was reflecting on Mary Magdalene, what I noticed above all was the feeling all the posters seemed to share:  that the Church (whether it is right or wrong about NFP) does not listen to the voices of women or take their lived experiences into account.  Closer to home, my wife has made it plain that she believes that women often go unheard in the Church.  Women in the modern era are raising their voices and speaking out as never before.  But many of them seem to feel that, like Mary Magdalene, the successors of the Apostles respond with disbelief:  “What is she trying to say?”

Once there was an institutional attempt to listen.  Thirty years ago the USCCB attempted to write a pastoral letter on women’s concerns to accompany their historic letters on peace and the economy.  What was noteworthy about the process that led to the initial draft was the effort they made to listen to women before writing it.  And this also seemed to be the source of much of the opposition to the pastoral.  Conservatives rejected the initial drafts as being subservient to a feminist minority in the Church.  And, as one press report at the time said, the Vatican criticized the second draft for being “too heavily influenced by women and insufficiently instructive to them.”  Ultimately, after three successive drafts, the document failed to win approval and the project was shelved.

Let me close with an honest question to the women readers of this blog:  what do you think?  Do you believe you are heard or unheard?  Or is your answer a messier “yes” and “no”, “sometimes, but not always”?  As someone who aspires to become a deacon, I need to follow the advice of Eli to the young Samuel and say, “Speak, your servant is listening.”  I can’t promise to agree with you, but I will promise to think before responding.

Editorial note:  I usually allow pretty open comments to my posts, but in this case I am going to exercise closer control.  Snarky or belittling comments will go straight into the trash.

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  • Julia Smucker

    Well, since you asked…

    I am somewhat afraid to say this, but I personally am often puzzled by many of the claims about women being repressed in the Church. True, in terms of voices in the tradition, there is a gender imbalance that’s hard to deny, and I know that the male priesthood is an issue for some. But in my limited experience as a Catholic woman (and theological scholar), and in the lengthy process leading up to it, I have never felt disrespected because of my gender. Actually, feminism may be the one part of my upbringing that didn’t really stick; I grew up hearing that women are oppressed, but fortunately without that matching my experience.

    A guest post I wrote last year for US Catholic provides a fuller explanation: http://www.uscatholic.org/blog/2011/01/entering-big-tent

    On further reflection, the only times I have felt pigeonholed by gender have ironically had to do with the assumption that I have to be a feminist in order to be a female theologian.

    • To that regard, I believe for many that the question is not whether women are disrespected, but whether the proceedings of the Church honor women to the degree that they honor men.

      We honor a man’s spiritual paternity sacramentally, and call it a physical manifestation of grace, refer to his character in this sacrament as indelibly marked, and allow him to stand in persona Christi. Why not have a means of honoring spiritual maternity? analagous to the priesthood for men, it would honor the spiritual action of women in the Gospel that becomes women’s honored ministry.

      It is interesting that the annunciation happens to a woman. Women remain with Jesus at the crucifixion. Women care for his body. Women are the first witnesses of the resurrection. Christianity’s “first responders” as it were.

      Many passages using feminine imagery are optional in our lectionary (woman with the coin, etc). Women still cannot be formally instituted into liturgical office (eg, lector, etc). not disrespecting women should be our baseline. Honoring well the role that women play in the life of the Church, I believe, is our nobler goal.

      • My first problem with this argument is that it seems to treat the sacraments as though they were of human origin, as opposed to divinely instituted. You seem to act as if the Church could create an 8th sacrament. Your complaint is thus with God, not the Church. Secondly, who are you to dismiss the experience of millions of religious women in the history of the Church and to treat it as somehow lesser? Your argument is circular since you assume from the start that which you claim to prove: that women’s experiences are somehow honored less than men’s. You are using the world’s categories to determine what honor should look like. But the Church doesn’t think like the world. Priesthood is not fundamentally a position of power but of service. You kind of remind me of the two apostles who ask Jesus if they can sit at his right hand in Heaven and his reply shows that they just don’t understand what His Kingdom entails. Your argument shows that you don’t fundamentally understand what the Kingdom of God entails. Christ calls us to service not to positions of honor. He calls us to the cross not to the throne. And those who appear to be in positions of power in the Church act as though they are rulers at their peril. Bishops and priests are shepherds, not Lords. The Pope is the servant of the Servants of God, not a king. We are called to lay down our lives for each other humbly and without seeking reward. We are specifically told not to seek honor, fame, and glory as the world knows them.

        I dispute your claim that the proceedings of the Church fail to honor women. The proceedings of the Church bestow the highest honor– sainthood– on women as often as on men. The most honored of all saints is Mary, a woman. In what way would spiritual motherhood being made into a sacrament make it any more honored by the Church than it is now? The sacraments aren’t meant to bestow honor on the recipient but to be vehicles of God’s grace. The priesthood isn’t a sacrament in the service of the man who is ordained, but a sacrament in service of the other sacraments, a sacrament in service of the entire people of God. Historically priests have been reviled and martyred for their faith as often as they have been given human praise and honor. Look at all the brave priests who bring the sacraments to people in places where the Church is persecuted, risking their lives to bring people the sacraments. Look at priests in Elizabethan England who were killed in the most brutal way imaginable. Look at priests in China today. That is the real honor that the world bestows on priests.

      • Jacob Torbeck


        I certainly believe that the sacraments are divinely instituted, and I certainly don’t believe we can create them from thin air because we decide we need one more. Nor did I intend for my words to imply such. I believe you’ve misread my statement.

        I do contend, however, that we may justly give honor to those good things reflecting the image of God, that we may only do so as humans, and that public ceremony has pedagogy and formation as one of its effects. Thus, while we may understand that the sacraments and the liturgy confer on women the highest dignity, that which we have through the merits of Christ by the workings of grace, communal celebration of feminine dignity must not be limited to a woman who is “alone of all her race” “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.”

        This could be things as simple as structuring our lectionary thus that we hear more about Deborah, Ruth, Judith, Esther, Phoebe, Prisca, etc during Mass (because most people do not pray the hours), and insuring that scriptures featuring feminine imagery for God are not skippable as part of the “long” reading.

        Note that I suggested a “means of” rather than a “sacrament” honoring maternity. There are many other possible means of acknowleding the image of God in women – sacramentality is our means (given to us and for us by God) of celebrating, remembering, and enacting (by the power of the holy spirit) the conference of grace that God has made explicitly known to us through revelation. It’s true to say, however, that our knowledge and expression of the sacraments develop over centuries (the sacrament of confession is in its fourth form), but whether it’s theoretically possible for Orders to be open to women (not the priesthood, but Orders, ie, the permanent diaconate, or some other expression) I’ve not investigated. The CTS conference this year is looking into that, I believe.

        • I do think there are many sacramentals that bestow dignity on women and not just on Mary, though. For example, a part of the Baptismal Rite is the blessing of the mother, which has been one of the most moving experiences of the Rite for me as a mother. Also, I’ve been present for a blessing of mothers on Mother’s Day. Perhaps what we really need is a greater emphasis on attending daily Mass, praying the liturgy of the hours, reading the lives of the saints, and noting the feasts of the saints. These options are not only available but officially encouraged for laypeople; but I do agree that more can be done at the parish level to promote them. In other words I don’t think we so much need to invent new traditions as to return to the ones we already have that aren’t well-enough known. If you visit the great cathedrals of Europe you see plenty of art that celebrates women in the Bible and female saints. If we returned to having more sacred art in our churches, wouldn’t that help to provide more teachable moments? It is scandalous that our modern churches are so ugly and bereft of the fine art that should be a part of every Catholic’s spiritual heritage. Again, not something new but a return to that which the Church has always found valuable and which for some reason has been abandoned in recent decades.

      • Jacob W Torbeck


        We are certainly in agreement about promoting sacred art that celebrates the great women of our tradition, and encouraging a more active participation in the communal prayers of the Church.

        On the subject of “new traditions” I would not propose we do anything novel, merely a recovery of those things that honor the feminine genius from within our great tradition or in continuity with it.

    • We should bear in mind, just to have an important witness and insight from John’s Gospel, that Mary Magdalene is *not* the first to believe, but rather “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Faced with the empty tomb, Mary is just as slow of heart to believe, just as refusing to see by the eyes of faith. Her only question is where “they” have taken the body. So, she and Peter, who on seeing the tomb, is also unable to believe, are equals, but equals in their incapacity to believe. It is the disciple whom Jesus loved, however, who runs first to the tomb, and on seeing, believes.

      Likewise, it is not true that only women remain at the Cross, since once again we find there the disciple whom Jesus loved, and he is man, made a Son of the Lord’s Mother.

      Finally, while the myrrh-bearing women are notably (and obviously) all women, we should not look past the heroic work of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus in caring for Christ’s body. They got the body in the first place, it was their money that bought the costly ointments to prepare it, and they provided the tomb.

      While I am no more discounting the role of the women in the New Testament than the post above is critiquing the Church, I did want to add the Johannine witness to both the Magdalene and the larger question of women’s witness. The lovely thing about John is that he does tend to knock the chair out from under *everyone’s* feet!

      • Jacob Torbeck

        Thanks, Fr. Dominic, that’s a good clarification. I remembered John and Joseph of Arimathea this morning after I’d hit the enter key, but had not the time before work to make the necessary addition – it’s good to remember that the gospels are not univocal in their accounts.

      • Megan McCabe

        Dominic, While it is true that John does include the elements you mention, the other three gospel narratives all place a greater emphasis on women as the first witnesses and proclaimers of the resurrection. To go directly to John to the exclusion of the other texts seems to miss (and even obscure) the point hat the biblical accounts do leave us with portrayals of women that are often neglected. While the men you specifically mention are, in fact, often overshadowed by a conflation of “disciples” with the smaller group of “the twelve,” the discipleship of men is never forgotten or failed to mention in ecclesial settings. The same cannot be said of the women included in the New Testament. We should be allowed to mention women in roles of discipleship (as an addition to the larger horizon in which we all already know there were men). There is no danger of forgetting that men followed Jesus. Unfortunately, there is one when it comes to the women. The lack of inclusion of these women (and women in Scripture more generally) in the lectionary for Sundays (which, if we’re honest, is just about the only place many Catholics encounter the Bible), indicates to me a general inability of our Church to “hear” women as full members of the Church.

      • Megan, as I stated, my goal was to add the Johannine witness to the mix, not to “go directly to John to the exclusion of the other texts.” I’m sorry you chose to read my text that way; it’s neither what I said nor what I meant.

        While there are women of the Bible not features prominently in the lectionary, this is precisely not the case for the Easter narrative. I can’t imagine any churchgoer who regularly goes to Mass on Sundays who would not know that (a) Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden and sent her to tell her brothers to go to Galilee or that (b) the angel commissioned “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” to proclaim the Resurrection and that they met Jesus along the way. A Sunday-only churchgoer, to be honest, is likely not to know so much about Joseph and Nicodemus!

        My point, if there was any, was to “trouble” (as they say) the all-too-often cliche (which is not accurate in the Scriptures) of perfectly-believing and faithful women disciples contrasted to men slow-of-heart to believe, and I raised the example of John’s Gospel as a way to trouble that kind of reading. I say this, too, as a Dominican, three of the historical co-patron’s of whose Order are women (the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene precisely in her role as Apostle to the Apostles, and, not as well appreciated today, Catherine of Alexandria, the philosopher/martyr who bested the men of her day in debate), not to mention Catherine of Siena.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Dominic, I was going to respond, but Megan beat me to it. Thank you for your clarification, since in reading your post I drew the same (unintended) conclusion she did: that you were trying to divert attention from Mary Magdalene and the other women in the Gospels by putting emphasis on the Johannine narrative. As I said, I am glad you spelled out your intentions more clearly.

  • brian martin

    I would suggest that there is for some reason a fear of the feminine voice. And there seems to be an assumption on the part of both the conservative and liberal ends of the spectrum that someone advocating for acceptance of women’s voices must be advocating for women priests, which is not necessarily the case.
    Clearly, as you point out, The Holy Spirit works in women as well as men (one need only read Catherine of Sienna’s admonishment of male leaders of her time to know it isn’t always a subservient voice).

    • Julia Smucker

      Yes, and my confirmation saint, Hildegard, also was often unafraid to give even popes and emperors a good scolding.

  • Your post touches a nerve in me which hurts, because what you wrote is so true.

  • Michael

    I think when you look at the true woman, you see that ability to nurture. Women who are mothers (spiritual and biological or adopted) are fulfilling their most beautiful call from God. Mary Magdalene’s role of giving news to the Apostles was, in it’s most basic sense, nurturing them to go and look for themselves and come to full realization of the risen Christ.

    If you wonder where the voice of women needs to be, it needs to be raising the children. Nowadays women put career before family and the idea of nurturing a child naturally is seen as “archaic,” and the woman “needs to grow out from that.” But when you look at the most beautiful woman, EVER, you get the Blessed Virgin Mary. She raised Christ to fight pharisees, to stand up for the truth, to respect women, to bear His cross, to die for humanity. This is where the woman’s voice needs to be, and will be most effective.

    • Melody

      Raising children and having a career are not mutually exclusive. I was fortunate that I was able to stay home with my children until they were in school. After that point I really did not have a choice; I had to work at least part time in order for us to afford the basic necessities. My son and daughter-in-law don’t even have the possibility of her staying home with their kids until they are in school; her job is a necessity. She is a very dedicated mother; they are doing a great job as parents. They have a loving day-care provider, their daughter is doing fine. They just had their second daughter last week; I am taking a few days of vacation time to go and help them out a bit. We do what we have to do. I’ll bet Mary did, too. With the help of God it all works out. It doesn’t help working mothers (and all mothers work!) when other second-guess the choices they make and make assumptions about them.

    • Kacy

      I agree with Melody. Your comment does a disservice, not just to working mothers, but to women in general and the importance of fatherhood. (I’m a stay at home mom, and I took offense to this comment.) First, the Proverbs 31 women works, which seems to be a biblical example of for a woman’s place outside the home, as well as within. Most women, throughout history have done work other than childbearing and raising. In fact the phenomena of the stay-at-home mom is relatively new, and only an option for a limited number of women.

      Also, not all women are natural nurturers, and once you have children, a mothering instinct doesn’t necessarily kick in. Nurturing is something that takes work, and women AND MEN are both capable of nurturing, if the proper amount of devotion is applied to the task.

      You also would not say that a man’s accomplishment can be viewed simply by looking at their children. Why are you eliminating the role of the father in the formation of children? Fatherhood is important too. And for many children, their father can, indeed, be a bigger influence than their mother.

    • Jennifer

      What about fathers? Once you hold them to the same standards you expect of mothers, namely that fathers are primarily judged by how well they raise their children, then we can talk further.

      Also, what about all the women who remain single (nuns, consecrated virgins, etc.)? Your post suggests that a woman’s whole role and purpose and only way to make change in the world is through her children. That is very dismissive of women as persons.

  • Melody

    You said, “Let me close with an honest question to the women readers of this blog: what do you think? Do you believe you are heard or unheard? Or is your answer a messier “yes” and “no”, “sometimes, but not always”?”
    I think you got it exactly right with that “messier ‘yes and no'”, and “sometimes but not always.” People interpret even bringing up the questions as somehow disrespecting Mary, or disrespecting motherhood. I don’t think any of us wants to do that. But about the listening thing; I think the Church needs to do better; particularly in the area of the lived experience of women.

  • Kacy

    After reading the Crowley story on WIT, I am left feeling sad. Here is an example, when the Church had the opportunity to listen to faithful married women, but chose to go in a different direction.

    My initial thought, though I’ll certainly need to think more on this topic, is that the Church listens to religious women, but not to married women. In a way having a religious vocation, would put these women on the inside, connections to religious men and bishops, that simply aren’t available to married women. All the saints mentioned as female voices were consecrated religious women.

    At the same time, the same argument can be made that the Church listens to religious men more than married men, and perhaps, this gets more to the root of the “problem.” Marriage is a vocation, just as much as the consecrated life, but married people do not have a voice in religious matters, and there are fewer married saints than their are religious saints. There are also fewer religious women than there are religious men, and religious men have access to positions where Church decisions are made.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      “My initial thought, though I’ll certainly need to think more on this topic, is that the Church listens to religious women, but not to married women.”

      A good friend of mine is a woman religious, and if her bitter, acerbic comments about the recent visitation in the US are representative, then women religious do not feel as though they are listened to either.

      Moreover, I think you are correct that the Church listens less to the voice of married folk (of either sex) than it should.

  • Ronald King

    Please consider Matthew 16:19 and 18:18 when taking into account the role of women in the Church. The power to bind and loose is critical in my opinion when considering who can do what in the Church. Isn’t it the males’ interpretation of scripture which defines these roles? Do these males have a full understanding of scripture and of women?

    • Your question makes no sense at all. Either the Holy Spirit has guided the Church for 2000 years and preserved her from errors in matters of faith and morals or else the whole thing is untrustworthy– Scripture, Tradition, faith. In which case, what’s the point? You can’t even trust that Jesus is present in the sacraments because maybe the Church is wrong on that too. If the Church is a human institution and the Pope and the bishops are just “males” making up their interpretations of scripture to suit their own desires, then why be Catholic at all?

      • I’m not 100% certain what Mr. King is getting at, either, but maybe this will help:

        One could fully believe that “these males” are correct in what they’ve discerned by the Holy Spirit, but at the same time do not have a “full understanding of the scriptures and women.” We define both scripture dogma as things revealed, but know our understanding of them can grow over time.

      • Ronald King

        Your question makes no sense at all- Melanie. It makes sense to me.
        You also questioned, Why be Catholic at all? Good question.
        Now I must resume my Lenten fast. God Bless.

  • Did the Woman Say?

    Frances Croake Frank

    Did the woman say,
    When she held him for the first time in the dark of a stable,
    After the pain and the bleeding and the crying,
    ‘This is my body, this is my blood’?

    Did the woman say,
    When she held him for the last time in the dark rain on a hilltop,
    After the pain and the bleeding and the dying,
    ‘This is my body, this is my blood’?

    Well that she said it to him then,
    For dry old men,
    brocaded robes belying barrenness
    Ordain that she not say it for him now.


    • Julia Smucker

      The poet has a point, but her uncharitable portrayal of priests is not true to the ones I know.

  • Mary

    Individual priests may listen, but the church does not. Yes, the church does cause suffering, especially those women trying to trying to adhere to the Church’s rules about intimacy in marriage, but find that NFP does not work for them. These women’s voices are silenced. They are good Catholics who are shamed by being called “selfish” and “sinners” so they feel isolated and can’t talk to others…and if they do, the labels placed on them warn “good Catholics” not to listen to them. Some women have conditions that prevent them from being able to have normal or safe vaginal intercourse and the church prohibits any other form of sexual intimacy. So the message is that good Catholics either have sex the church-approved way or don’t have sex at all. That is destructive. (Just look of “vaginismus” and you’ll find couples that have not been able to have vaginal intercourse for many years.) The lived experiences of real women is more important than the heady rational philosophical ideals of theology, but the latter is what is emphasized in the church. The real world is messy and cannot always fit into the little theological boxes. Those who cannot fit are those who suffer. We need more compassion and empathy in our doctrines…that involves listening to women instead of judging them. Sometimes I feel Jesus displayed more compassion for those suffering than than the church leaders who are supposed to represent him.

    I was very glad you brought up this series because I now know that I am not alone:


    • Melody

      “Those who cannot fit are those who suffer.”
      That is certainly true and applies to many situations.

  • dominic1955

    Lived experience, being subjective, does not have any real import on the veracity or falsity of any given position. This is why the Church, in all her wisdom, judges practice and teaching on objective norms of revelation and what follows rationally and philosophically.

    If one truly believes, as the Church has always taught, that it is the One True Church outside of which there is no salvation then one will do whatever they need to do in order to remain in this Church. The yoke being easy, the burden light in relation to Eternity.

    If that is not what one believes, but rather than the Church is wrong on these issues and so many others, than what does it matter? You can seek out any liberal priest who will tell you whatever you want to hear, you can go and join the Episcopalians and hear the same thing from them. What Rome says is quite irrelevant if one thinks they are wrong and can change doctrine on the shifting sands of “lived experience” and “relevancy”.

    As such, it would seem that the only reason to rail against the “Roman authorities” would be to assauge a troubled conscience. Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery, “Go, and sin no more.” Not, “Oh, that’s OK, what you did is just fine…” As such, true compassion is helping people shoulder their burdens, not finding ways of avoiding taking up their crosses through undercutting doctrine. In that way all of us, clerical or lay, men or women, young and old, etc. can use a good examination of conscience.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      “Lived experience, being subjective, does not have any real import on the veracity or falsity of any given position.”

      Or, as we used to say at the University of Chicago: “That’s all well and good in practice, but how does it work in theory?”

      Moral positions are lived by real people, and as such must be examined in the lives of real human beings. One can make beautiful arguments in theory, only to discover that in practice they simply do not work, because your model of human identity and behavior is flawed or incomplete. Much of the evolution of Church teaching on the death penalty, for example, comes out of the praxis of the modern world. The death penalty has not been completely rejected in theory, but lived experience has shown that it must be held at arms length, at best.

      To challenge or question Church teaching, particularly when trying to live it (as many of the women who wrote about natural family planning at the WIT blog were trying to do) is not to cast aside the Church to “assuage a troubled conscience.” This argument simply does not respect the conscience and the struggles of real people, and frankly, smacks of pharisaic self-righteousness.

      • Ronald King

        Broke my fast again due to my weakness of being overjoyed with reading true insight and compassion. Thanks David. Now I must start over.

  • dominic1955

    Doctrine is not mere “theory”, as you should well know. The application of a given doctrinal point may be, but not the objective principle. Your death penalty example is a good choice to highlight where actual theory can get problematic. When a prudential judgment overshadows, at least for a time, the authentic doctrinal principles such that this prudential judgment is seen as the principle itself-this is extremely problematic. Actually, one of the best reasons for this prudential judgement on the death penalty is from the praxis of the world, but not in a good way but in the “Moses allowed divorce on account of your hardness of heart” sort of way. “Modern society” does not understand the roll of the State, where authority comes from, etc. etc. Regardless of all of this, the Church could not come out and say that the State does not have a right to inflict capital punishment in accord with justice. The principle always stands.

    In matters of sexual morality, the principle cannot change on account of the hardness of heart of the people. I see the emphasis on love, man and woman being complimentary, etc. as that same kind of “prudential judgment” given to try to speak to people who no longer choose to understand the traditional statements. They become problematic when people try to take them where they out of relation to the underlying traditional principles and we have to remind those people of the boundaries at that point.

    Love does not justify anything that is objectively immoral, that belies a misunderstanding of love in the first place. That the Church rightly teaches that conjugal love is good cannot be used as justification for holding it up as an excuse to break the moral law.

    A thousand difficulties do not one doubt make, but part of this entails not trying to upend the teaching. That puts one past the pale of struggling with difficulties and into a position of explicit rejection. One may argue that other factors come into play that would justify such, but prudence would demand silence and inaction if you are being motivated by passions or ignorance. Struggle with it, discuss it with learned and wise people, pray about it, etc. etc. but there is no reason to rail against it-“lived experience” or no.

    Likewise, conscience is ours to conform our actions to the good, and this is cultivated by education and experience both of which can either perfect or ruin conscience. We might have an erroneous conscience that makes incorrect judgments, and if followed in good will, only makes people subjectively inculpable but it no way changes the objective moral import of the action itself. Regardless of conscience, it is the Churches God-give duty to teach what is right and proper respect of conscience entails instructing the (in charity, presumably invincibly) ignorant.

    • grega

      one has to appreciate your careful and patient explaination of the churches official position. Clearly like most things in this world when humans are involved this is in the end all about power. What most modern catholics right now all but tell the church indeed is a firm NO – too much control- we do not trust your judgement here – we are not willing to buy into an ‘ideal’ of reflective obedience. How can you not be touched by the witness of these women? I doubt that our church will regain the type of ‘smart’ power required to guide the flock towards the ‘ideal’ you eloquently attempt to describe.

  • dominic1955


    If you want to reduce it to materialist considerations, I suppose so. We would see it as the salvation of souls, though.

    That “most modern Catholics” tell the Church no is quite irrelevant to the objective truth of the matter. All that really proves is the constant teaching of the saints and doctors about the fewness of those who will be saved and visions like that of the children at Fatima who saw souls falling into hell as if they were snowflakes.

    I’m not “touched” because the objective always stands, regardless. Like I said before, I’m all about the proper “pastoral” stance that is to be available to help shoulder burdens and carry crosses, not saying that something which is objectively wrong is somehow magically right because someone doesn’t want to take up their cross.

    There has been much said about the laity being more “educated” and “mature”, but disobedience and the rejection of Church teaching has nothing to do with education and maturity-quite the opposite. I know clerics do not have all the answers (especially now days when they’ve often been formed in ignorance or outright heresy) but the teaching is clear and constant in these cases.

    • grega

      I disagree that this is ‘reduction to materialist consideration’ –
      I disagree that you or anybody would know about the ‘objective truth of the matter’ – certainly many claim that – for me these are just that – selfserving convenient claims.
      In my view the spiritually,emotionally and intellectually lazy ones are folks who’s only ‘vision’ seems to be to insist on a ~1950 model of church leadership – a model that is de facto clearly rejected by the actual Catholics in 2012. As a matter of fact official church ~1955 even recognized that this model did not serve the Catholics all that well – Vatican II resulted – Vatican III is needed not pre VaticanII.
      Souls falling like snowflakes – these sort of images do not cut it these days and are seen for what they are – imagery informed by the teaching at the day and the overall mood at the time. For me the “Children of Fatima” in 2012 would have a different vision.

      We as modern day parents shoulder plenty of crosses as it is – we as a global society have plenty of work cut out to truly share the finite resourches of this beautiful planet – yes the church vision of sexual relations for married couples with a strict eye on progreation is IMHO the WRONG model within the global context. We have to find a sustainable model of marriage and number of children blessing the marriage. In my view as a society we are actually gravitating towards such a sustainable model. Those of us that wish are free to have as many children as they wish – those that find a more limited number of children desirable and more appropriate in the gloabal context – follow that path.
      And yes we all seem to have more marital intercourse than strict progreation would dictate.
      Go figure we are thinking creatures – we are social creatures – we developed an frontal cortex to specifically support complex social interactions.
      We are NOT a herd of animals.
      The Saints of the future in my view are actually perhaps those that follow a path that fits within a global sustainable vision.

      Frankly in my view what the women here and in the link describe is much more deeply informed by the true human spirit of the scripture. For me as a church we have come full circle to the situation in Jesus days – an out of touch official church busy setting rules and comfortable enforcing an anchient divine vison that oh so conveniently primarely serves the priestclass.

      • A clear and trenchant analysis and one that bears more discussion. I agree we need a Vatican III but the model by which views and listening would take place would have to change radically too.

      • dominic1955

        “For the doctrine of the faith which God has revealed is put forward
        not as some philosophical discovery capable of being perfected by human intelligence, but as a divine deposit committed to the spouse of Christ to be faithfully protected and infallibly promulgated. Hence, too,that meaning of the sacred dogmas is ever to be maintained which has once been declared by holy mother church, and there must never be any abandonment of this sense under the pretext or in the name of a more profound understanding.”-Vatican I, On Faith and Reason

        Well, this is a microcosm of the problem in the Church. We stick to what has been infallibly passed down and folks like yourself reject practically all of it or interpret it completely out of recognition.

        This isn’t just a matter of “power”, maybe to you folks it is, but to us its a matter of the constant teaching of the Church, which teaching comes from Christ himself. You make much about “intelligence” and “maturity” and this is an ancient, nay primordial, temptation to put too much reliance on human abilities.

        “Models” have nothing to do with it, Vatican II did not change anything essential. You can find no real support in Vatican II for radical restructuring of the Church or other such things, that certain unfortunate elements had a field day with its ambiguous wording is unfortunate. However, it is fortunate (and inevitable) that things have been put back on paths towards correction. The work in this field is far from done, but there will not be a “Vatican III” to put the coup d’grace to the Church once and for all-Modernism will not and indeed, cannot, triumph.