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Theologian calls for recognition of holiness in women

NCR Staff

If the Second Vatican Council resurfaced the “subversive truth” that all in the church are called to holiness, then the case must be pressed today especially for women, said theologian and St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth A. Johnson in a keynote address to the annual Call to Action convention.

Women have long been “denied equality with men in access to sacred ties, places, actions and even identity,” she said, addressing some 3,700 Catholics attending the Nov. 3-5 meeting of the reform and renewal movement at the Midwest Express Center in Milwaukee.

“Women have been consistently robbed of our full dignity as friends of God and prophets,” said Johnson, whether due to “theories like Augustine’s, who claimed a man taken alone was fully in the image of God, but a woman was fully in the image of God only when taken together with man who is her head; or philosophies like Aquinas’ which argued that women are misbegotten males with weak minds and defective wills.”

In her talk, Johnson also cited more recent church statements in the ordination debate “that locate the image of Christ in the male body rather than in the whole person being made christomorphic by entering into the dying and rising of Christ.”

Johnson, professor of theology at Fordham University in New York, is former president of the Catholic Theological Society and the author of books including She Who Is (Crossroads 1993) and Friends of God and Prophets (Continuum 1998). She described Call to Action as a charism, or gift, to the church, “freely given in unpredictable ways by the Spirit.”

It is a gift that often breaks through “routine, apathy and even corruption,” and one that is naturally in tension with the role of church office, which is “to teach, rule, and sanctify, thus assuring right order,” she said.

The theme of this year’s Call to Action conference was taken from one of Johnson’s books. “Friends of God and Prophets: Toward Inclusive Community,” was the theme of a gathering that included dozens of workshops and lectures on justice and peace, topics ranging from the role of the church in Kenya’s civil strife to the place of the homosexual.

Talks were delivered by laity -- men and women, including nuns -- as well as by priests and two bishops, Raymond Lucker of New Ulm, Minn., and Thomas Gumbleton, auxiliary of Detroit.

Vatican II’s broad call to holiness in effect re-emphasized that the communion of saints, mentioned as a matter of faith in the third article of the Apostles’ Creed, is primarily about the living, not the dead, she said. “Just imagine this communion of saints: Down through the centuries, as the Holy Spirit graces person after person, in land after land, they form together a grand company of redeemed sinners. This community stretches backward and forward in time and encircles the globe in space, crossing boundaries of language, culture, race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and all other human differences, stretching into eternity.”

It is a holiness, said Johnson, that is not primarily a matter of ethics or something someone can earn. “Rather, it is participating in the very life of God through Jesus Christ.

“Too often theology has squeezed this inclusive meaning of the holy community dry, eliminating most baptized persons from sainthood in favor of a small group of elite office-holders or canonized saints.” Such a limited view of the holy community does an injustice to God’s gift and is particularly exclusive of women, Johnson said.

“A theology of the communion of saints rooted in scripture and baptism reclaims these human persons: women from our own families and women of different races, classes and ethnic cultures; women who bear and give birth and do the cooking and cleaning that makes life itself possible; women who ponder and pray, heal, protect, teach and guide; women who exercise their wits in a patriarchal world; marginalized and silenced women; raped and brutalized women; caring and ministering women; strong and vibrant and artistic women; sexually active women; dreaming, shouting, scared or defiant women; setting-out-not-knowing-where-they-are-going women; all holy women of the world. All are friends of God and prophets through the grace of Holy Wisdom.”

Johnson recalled Gloria Steinem’s response, on turning 40, to a reporter who said, “But you don’t look 40.”

Steinem replied, “This is what 40 looks like.”

In the same way, women “must simply declare of themselves, ‘This is what Christ looks like,’ affirming in this way their deepest baptismal identity and resisting its denial until the heart of officialdom be converted.”

That declaration, however, would still have to overcome the fact that those who shape “public memory in the church” are “mostly an elite group of men.”

The large investment of time and money needed to advance the cause of canonization “virtually ensures that lay persons and poor persons will be largely excluded.”

As a consequence, the official saints “mirror the face of the bureaucracy that created it, being largely clerical, celibate, aristocratic, European and male, except for groups of martyrs.”

“The position of women in the public memory of the church as a result of canonization is particularly troubling,” said Johnson. Seventy-five percent of canonized saints are men, “if Mary be counted once.” Three-fourths of saints’ days on the liturgical calendar honor men. “Does this mean that men are holier than women? Of course not. But it does highlight who has the power of naming in the church.

“Least represented among these saints are married women who remained so for their lives,” that is, those who did not eventually become nuns. The conclusion, said Johnson, is that “to be female is a handicap, but to be a sexually active woman renders one almost incapable of embodying the sacred. The few exceptions are queens. As a result, the history of women’s holiness has been largely erased form the collective memory of the church.”

Tom Roberts’ e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 17, 2000