There is much to reflect on in this famous poem, engraved on the Statue of Liberty’s base. What a sober reminder of what once made America great. And what a stark contrast it sets up when one reflects on the aspirations of the new president of the United States.
In my forties, I attended university to study theology. I expected to take that study and extend it beyond the walls of the classrooms. I had big dreams. The broader world would be my laboratory. I would find new ways to speak about what I learned – beyond the limits of theology in the classroom. I don’t want to be defined by one religious tradition, which means being open to diverse expressions. Many years down the road, I’ve experienced equal parts excitement and frustration in communicating what I am learning.
Lots of metaphors come to mind, but the best one for me is the fishbowl. What if we think of every religion as a fishbowl? Each one is a small world. The fish in the bowl can study the world they live in as a world of shared meanings, values, beliefs and hopes. Everyone in their world communicates using the same imagery, motifs, themes and stories because they are gleaned from their experience of living in their small world. All fields of study encounter this limitation unless they are able to grow their language and culture by venturing beyond what are assumed to be the limits of their fields.
Every once in a while, as it happens, some naughty fish will cast its gaze outward, beyond the confines of the fish bowl and wonder, “What’s out there?” Well, what’s out there is, in some very important ways, not what is in there. If we leave the bowl, we are truly fish out of water. What is in the bowl has the pressure of definition pressed upon it by the container itself as well as by those who revere it precisely as a container. The fishbowl world is “contained,” and is therefore a finite context for exploration and exploitation. The world is limited enough that it can be precisely catalogued, evaluated, analyzed, sorted, labeled and, perhaps most importantly, owned and controlled.
But what if that fish was to escape the confines of the bowl and be thrust into the world beyond in something of a “Plato’s Cave” moment? Of course, at first that fish would experience panic. What if it’s impossible to live outside the bowl? The myths of monsters that lurk in that great beyond, ready to devour and spit out anything that is not protected by the bowl, may be true. But, what if the fish had sufficient doubt about these dangers, so that it was inspired to take the risk? What would or might or could happen to such a fish?
The fishbowl metaphor is a way of expressing my experience of – well – trying to think outside the bowl. Life outside the conventional world of religious conversation is an adventure. People want to talk about God, religion, faith, spirituality, truth and ethics. They have strong opinions, criticism, and suggestions that matter. What they don’t want is for the terms of the conversation to be dictated by particular kinds of language, doctrines, taboos, images, dogma or doctrinal statements. They actually want to talk about “their” experiences and they want to put their stories forth in their own ways.
These days, it’s increasingly important to have these conversations. Religion seems to be falling short in meeting people where they are. So say the statistics, anyway. While I can’t really speak for people in the fishbowl anymore, people outside the bowl are frightened, anxious, depressed and angry about the realities they are encountering and it’s fascinating to hear how and where they are finding inspiration. There are no limits to the ways that the themes of hope and liberation can be expressed as responses to the realities we face. We can engage one another and learn from our encounters. We can create responses that result in a better world.
We just have to be careful not to create a bigger fishbowl.
A view of life centred on the goals of “safety and security” can be a fruitless path to death. The human race has not endured because it was safe from extinction. Quite the contrary! The human race has continued to exist because it has proven itself to be adaptable and creative in the face of certain annihilation. Human beings live when they can look beyond the obstacles and obstructions to life and see possibility in novel ways to move forward.
My husband and I are facing the prospect of entering the “retirement” phase of our working lives. While it is a time of great expectations, anticipation and planning, it is also a time of concern, anxiety and fear. One thing we can do is to try to stay focused on possibility so that we can be flexible and adapt to new realities.
Focusing on safety and security often means focusing on what we stand to lose. We can become too concerned with supplies that are diminishing, and that can send us into hoarding and hiding behaviours. Focusing on creativity and possibility means focusing on abundance. It means not clinging to things we thought were safe or absolutely necessary for our happiness, health or wealth. It means letting go of what’s not working in order to follow a new path towards something life giving.
The history of human evolution certainly hasn’t been a story about security. We have endured because we are risk-takers. We try creative new things when the old things don’t work anymore. This can mean anything from finding a new food source to dealing with a changing climate.
Two things are required to live this way. First, we have to be able to let go of things the way they are, even if we have been taught to believe that the way things are means we’ll be safe and secure. Second, we have to hone our commitment to engaging life as it really is. That means that among the endless arrays of possibilities that lie before us are choices that we can make that will be a way forward towards living meaningfully and fruitfully.
These choices often won’t seem “safe” and sometimes they may even seem threatening. We may have to look beyond the behaviours, habits and traditions that we’ve been clinging to. We may have to abandon our certainty that safety and security can only be found in those places.
Staying safe and secure in what we “know” means the world shrinks to the size of what we can “handle” with our diminishing strength and power. True power lies in launching ourselves in new directions, exploring new possibilities, and in stretching our minds, bodies and spirits to adapt to new environments and new challenges.
I read the headline today concerning Pope Francis’ appointment of 15 new cardinals with a heavy heart. It read, “Pope names 15 new cardinals, aims to reflect church diversity.” (Associated Press, 4 January 2015).
I thought to myself, “Surely, the author intends this headline sarcastically.” Sadly, I was wrong. The author, Frances D’Emilio, earnestly reported the Pope’s appointment of cardinals who reflect the diversity of the church because they are men who come from different parts of the world. Hip, hip, hooray! This is REAL progress, isn’t it?
The next step, of course, would be to appoint a woman or two to the mix. Pope Francis has already said, however, that this won’t be happening during his pontificate. Increasingly, the diversity of the Canadian Catholic Church is reflected in the distance between those who support the Church’s disregard of woman as possible leaders in the Church and those who continue to fight for women’s rights, or who have simply walked away.
According to Pope Francis, the door is closed on the question of women’s ordination and therefore, on the possibility of any woman in the Roman Catholic Church assuming a role in the clerical hierarchy. This also means that the governance and representative profile of the global Catholic church as it appears in the curia, will continue to represent only the diversity of the Church’s men.
In February, the pope will lead discussions about Vatican reform of the curia, where it is unlikely that the role of women in the Church will even be mentioned. Members of the Roman Catholic church, instead of being outraged by this flagrant disregard for the rights of women, will likely praise and encourage such open-mindedness and such a vision for reform.
Please, reporters, do not report any of this as “news.” There is nothing new about the fact that religion is one of the last havens for misogyny operating on a global scale on this planet.
It has been a difficult week for Canadians who came face to face with an act of violence in Ottawa that was rife with symbolism.
Walking out to my meditation garden this morning, I found that a maple leaf had dropped into the centre of a little “circle of friends” icon. I was struck by the beauty of this image and its symbolic power. I leave it with you with no words, but with an invitation to you to share whatever thoughts and feelings are evoked by this image.
This week in Canada marked the official opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. The historical movement in Canada for equal rights for women and the end to discrimination based on gender is sure to be a central focus of the museum. There will be exhibits about women’s suffrage, about women in the workplace, about women in politics and in the universities. We often think of museums as housing artifacts from the past, but in many dimensions of Canadian society, the movement for women’s equality continues and, in some social institutions at least, it is still in its infancy. The Roman Catholic Church in Canada is one such institution.
Early in his papacy, Pope Francis said, “With regards to the ordination of women, the church has spoken and says no. Pope John Paul [II] said so with a formula that was definitive. That door is closed.”
When that door closed is a matter of some reckoning, but with each new pontiff, closed doors must be checked for cracks of sunlight that may be making their way through, and re-closed if need be. Pope Francis had obviously exercised due diligence in his door checking and was emphatic that the door was safely, securely closed against any intruders who may have threatened the Vatican stronghold.
Many doors have been slammed shut in the faces of members of the Church by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The door that closed on women’s ordination, finally, firmly and forever protects the all-male caste of priests who operate with relative impunity behind it. On the other side of that door, many people – both men and women – who had been pounding on the door and asking the warden to open it have slowly walked away. With them, I find myself on the wrong side of the door, closed out from full participation in the complete life of the Roman Catholic Church because I am a woman.
This experience has been definitive in my relationship with the Roman Catholic Church.
Something about the opening of the Canadian Museum for Human rights has moved me to try writing about this topic at least once more. As I contemplate the great strides women have made in Canadian society, I am a bit ashamed that I have stood, staring at a closed door for an unreasonably long time.
Among the many artifacts housed in the museum, there will not be one that describes the overcoming of the Roman Catholic Church’s discrimination against women and the event of the first official ordination of a Canadian woman. Among the many artifacts describing women’s achievements, illustrating the movement of women into arenas of social life that were formerly only open to men, there will be accounts of other religious evolutions that ended gender discrimination. That is encouraging and these artifacts depict a vibrant tradition, in Canada, of striving towards full human equality in all areas of social life.
Those artifacts will show closed doors only in rear view mirrors – doors that now stand either partially or fully open, visible in backward glances and perhaps one day completely lost to view, except in museums.
The closed door that is marked “Roman Catholic Women’s Ordination” is only one of many doorways, thank God. When we turn around and look at the world, we can see very plainly that this closed door is of very little consequence when there are so many other open doorways beckoning to us in a world where intelligence, reasonableness and responsibility trump tradition and allow for things to evolve and change.
Women in Canadian society gave up waiting for change, and instead moved toward full participation and an end to their discrimination. Women changed their own behaviours and stopped their complicity in systems that sought to limit their involvement and to keep them in place. Women today can see more clearly how they are involved in the dynamic of deceptions that determine not only how they cooperate with their own oppression, but how they have been unwittingly complicit in their own manipulation.
We still have a long way to go. In fifty years, will the Canadian Museum for Human Rights house an artifact that describes the progress of the Roman Catholic Church towards full equality for women?
Only time will tell.
Lately, I have begun asking myself if it just might be impossible for the Catholic Church to do away with its old wineskins, to use a metaphor from Scripture. The old wineskin I am referring to is the ancient culture of patriarchy in which our ancient religious institutions are rooted. Some societies have made great gains in finding new ways to imagine the relationships of persons – ways that call for reform of patriarchal biases, reform of laws and customs associated with the primacy of males.
Some of us had hoped that the new Pope, Pope Francis, would open a door to new discussion about the equitable distribution of power within the Church’s own structures and seek an end to gender discrimination. It seems, however, that the patriarchal roots of the Catholic institution run so deep that it may be “impossible” for anything substantial to change when it comes to, say, the ordination of women. What recourse do people have when a desire for change is present among them in their communities, but when their leaders stand behind religious barricades shouting demands for obedience to out-dated and harmful laws and customs?
What does it mean for a Catholic to be faithful? What does it mean for a Catholic to be obedient? Some would argue that these two questions can be answered quite easily, while most of us stand in the midst of a dilemma. Growing up as a child of the fifties and sixties, my generation had one foot in a paternalistic culture where “Father knows best,” and the other in a brave new world of democracy, dialogue and institutional reform. Obedience to conscience led revolutionary movements both in the public arena and in the so-called “private” realm of the domicile.
In some areas of human development, the Church has been a leader in opening new pathways for justice and equality. It must be noted, however, that whenever such pathways have been suggested and followed by renegades within the Church, these revolutionary thinkers and actors have almost always met with resistance from within the institutional Church. Sometimes, the Church officially takes a stance of opposition in response to these new pathways, refusing to acknowledge calls to reform its teaching in the face of new knowledge. This can be especially trying for those who work and walk along new pathways in innovative ministries that, only a few decades ago, would have been difficult to imagine.
When the Church “clamps down” and denies Catholics the right to adjust their understanding and knowledge of the faith in light of new learning and new opportunities for ministry and mission, we can be left with the feeling that we are faced with two bleak alternatives. Either we abandon conscience and responsibility, deny the validity of our thinking and feeling, go against the grain of social consensus in the new movements objected to by the official teachers and leaders of the Church, or we “opt out” of the narrow consensus of official Catholicism in order to explore new ways of being faithful.
Why should we be presented with such stark alternatives in living dynamic lives of faith in the year 2014? While we can probably agree that new ideas, concepts and methods require the whole Church to enter into a process of discerning their value, it’s hard to agree that the discussion should be limited by imposing rules on what can be explored. Once the “queen of the sciences,” theology as a field of study seems to be quickly losing its appeal to those who want the freedom to explore what God is doing by peering outside the box of conventional understandings.
If the post-Vatican II period has been a time of renewal it has also been a time of retrenchment. At times the People of God move rapidly in the direction of novelty, and at other times we seem to be abandoning the inspired teachings of Vatican II. At times we are encouraged to engage the world as the context in which we find the raw materials for personal and social transformation. At other times, we picture ourselves locked in a battle with everything in the world that is not exactly like us.
Influence and persuasion can be positive ways of advancing change and development in society if they are aimed at the goal of greater justice and compassion, redressing of wrongs and institutional reform. But using positions of power and dominance to advance agendas shaped by “what we want” is not the proper way to advance any genuine religious mission. There are no biblical parallels that connect Jesus and his followers with this way of advancing the Christian mission, no matter how much that pattern of behaviour has been part of the Church’s history.
In a way, it is because the early Church fathers selected a canon of scripture that could not be added to or have anything taken away from it that we find ourselves in dilemmas when it comes to Christian faith and Catholic teaching. Each new generation must discern what the scriptures mean in the here and now. What dissenters disagree with is interpretation of Scripture, especially particular interpretations that clearly advance traditional law and custom and refuse to engage contemporary understanding shaped by innovation and revelation.