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Call to Action celebrates equality sought and earned

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

During the recent Call to Action annual gathering here, someone commented, loud enough to be overheard, “They should have realized what would happen if they taught the slaves to read.”

That sentiment characterized much of the message given by some 80 presenters to the more than 3,500 participants who had come from all parts of the United States, with a sprinkling from Canada and Europe.

“Created in God’s Image: Women and Men Seeking Equality” was the conference theme. The consensus of speakers and audience members was that women’s equality continues to be resisted at the institutional level, producing frustration and anger throughout the church.

Equality emotionally, however, is being achieved by more and more Catholics, and this was celebrated at the meeting in a dozen prayer sessions and at the closing Eucharist, in uplifting song and happy dance and in a sense of the presence of Jesus.

Edwina Gateley, founder of the Volunteer Missionary Movement, a lay overseas mission group, and Genesis House, a house of hospitality for prostitutes in Chicago, received Call to Action’s 1998 Leadership Award. Gateley, preaching at the Sunday liturgy, described retreat participants who assist poor people at Corpus Christi Parish in rochester, N.Y., and volunteers at Genesis House. Of the joy that comes to those who serve others, she said., “Their eyes shone.”

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza set the tone in her keynote address. “We are the people of God, made in her image and likeness. We are church. We are neither clergy, hierarchy and people, religious and secular. We are the people of God.”

Schüssler Fiorenza has been professor of scripture interpretation at Harvard Divinity School since 1988. Before that she taught in the theology department at the University of Notre Dame for 15 years.

Her opening challenge grabbed her listeners. Time and again during her talk they repeated after her, like a mantra: “We are the people of God.”

“If we are church, we must never talk about the church as something out there. Language builds up or destroys self-identity. Language that says the church teaches about women or that says it teaches about the laity must become a no-no. Are women not church? Are lay people not church?

“Never, never call yourself or let anyone else call you lay. You are the people of God, not second-class citizens. ... We are church. We are equal, not only on the ground of creation but also that of baptism. We are God’s people, called and elect, holy in body and soul, gifted with divine spirit wisdom.

“This call to be God’s people is not exclusive but inclusive, for there are many different religious ways for being God’s people. Ours is not the only way.”

At this point Schüssler Fiorenza set a trap for her audience. “Called to a discipleship of equals,” she declared, “we are church, the ekklesia of women.”

She then devoted several minutes to an erudite analysis of the two words, church and ekklesia. Church comes from the Greek word kuriakon (hence curia), meaning “belonging to a lord or master,” whereas ekklesia, the public assembly or democratic congress of all citizens, was the word used in the Pauline literature to identify the Christian community.

“The best translation of ekklesia is not church. Rather it must be understood in terms of political notions of a public assembly or as a democratic congress of decision-making citizens. Synagogue similarly means the congregation of the people of God. The very self-description of the early Christian Messianic communities gathered in the name of Jesus was a radically democratic one. The notion of church as monarchical and hierarchical entered only when the church became Roman.

“It is ironic that in defense of the Roman imperial structures -- which, we may not forget, had crucified Jesus -- the hierarchy has insisted that the church is not a democratic community.”

In principle, Schüssler Fiorenza said, the Greek institution of democracy promised freedom and equality to all citizens but in practice gave them only to elite, propertied, educated male heads of households. “Hence the ekklesia of women, understood as radical democratic community, has never been fully realized in history. Neither the French nor the American Revolution sought for women and disenfranchised men to become fully empowered, decision-making citizens. For 300 years the disenfranchised have been seeking to correct this injustice.”

With a serene smile, Schüssler Fiorenza paused before springing the trap she had set. “You have listened patiently,” she continued, “but I’m sure that some of you have accused me of feminist chauvinism and exclusiveness because I seem to have restricted church and democracy to women. Hence, I must hasten to explain how I used the term women. Whenever I mentioned women, I used it in the generic sense so as to include men, the word she as including he, and the word female as including male.

“By using the term women as inclusive of men, I want to invite men in the audience to think twice and to adjudicate whether they are meant when I speak of women, to experience what it means not to be addressed explicitly.”

The language reversal was greeted with applause and gales of laughter.

The similar messages from many other presenters at the conference demonstrated the extent to which the invasion of theological institutions by women has already changed both the themes and the language of theological discourse. Riane Eisler, who has studied ancient partnership societies that honored the leadership of women, urged women to reclaim moral authority, priesthood, leadership roles and reproductive freedom. Warning that we are in a period of “dominator backlash,” she called for “the spiritual courage to follow what you know is right.”

In the same vein, Sr. Theresa Kane, former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, denounced church structures of idolatry. Defining idolatry as “anyone or anything that replaces God,” she identified as idolatrous all structures that give one person power over another, that dominate, intimidate or coerce.

For example, she said, women were kept in ignorance. Until the 1950s women in the United States could not go to schools of theology. The same limits prevailed in philosophy and history and were found earlier in the so-called manly sciences of medicine and law. Until Vatican Council II, women were not allowed to form their own consciences. “Patriarchy, a political, social and religious phenomenon, was at the core of the belief that the male was created in the image of God, was at the center of creation with dominion over the earth, including the female.”

The conference dealt with many other themes. Bob Bossie and Kathy Kelly described the effects of sanctions on the people of Iraq. Fr. Roy Bourgeois, just out of prison for trespassing as part of a protest, renewed his call to close the School of the Americas. Australian Fr. Paul Collins, still under the shadow of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for his 1997 book on Papal Power, outlined his vision of the radical changes he expects to see in the papacy in the next 50 years. Bishop Raymond Lucker of New Ulm, Minn., discussed Vatican II and its emphasis on the central role of the mission and ministry of all the faithful.

For all the frustrations expressed by speakers and echoed in the applause as well as in the questions and comments of the audience, conference participants, overwhelmingly white and middle-class, describe themselves as firmly associated with the institutional church.

Ninety-five percent of the participants described themselves as regular churchgoers; 75 percent said they were active as volunteers in their parishes. Bishops and priests made up 5 percent of those attending. Religious women and men accounted for 25 percent, although few were identifiable by their apparel.

At over 3,500, attendance was up 10 percent from last year. Twelve percent of attendees were under 35, up from 9 percent. The conference will meet in Milwaukee again next year.

National Catholic Reporter, November 13, 1998