Rebuilding the People’s Church


(Image via Christians for Socialism)

I recently completed a research project on the ecumenical dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). As a Roman Catholic student at a Disciples of Christ seminary, I am interested in the historical relationship between these two communions and the broader complexities of ecumenism and dialogue across lines of difference. This research interest led me to remarks by World Council of Churches ecumenist Aram I, who serves as the Catholicos of Cicilia and head of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Aram spoke in 2005 to representatives of the Joint Working Group (JWG) dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches. In this dialogue, he offered a challenge to ecumenical workers, urging them to make their work relevant to the Church universal:

“How many churches, clergy or theologians are aware of the work of the JWG? Its work is confined to a limited circle of ecumenists. To address this situation, the work of the JWG must be related to the life of the church on the local level, and must be appropriated by the churches through a process of ecumenical education. Reaching the local churches: I consider this a major task before the ecumenical movement for the years to come.”

 Aram’s call for a relevant ecumenism that speaks to the needs of the local church reminded me of another challenging call to the Church by Sheila Briggs. At the 2000 gathering of the Women’s Ordination Conference, Briggs challenged dominant views of ordination:

“Sheila Briggs, an African American Catholic religious studies scholar, stated that ordination is by its very nature an elitist practice, one that by definition excludes women (and men) who are not highly educated. She asked, ‘when will the poor begin to celebrate the Eucharist?’

Like Sheila Briggs, Roman Catholic labor leader Dolores Huerta challenged the elitism of Roman Catholic power structures in negotiations with the Catholic Conference of California. When César Chavez asked for a priest to support striking farmworkers, corporate interests convinced bishops to take the priest away.

“Dolores Huerta lead a group of farm worker women into Bishop Manning’s office in Fresno and asked, ‘Why did you take our priest away from the farm workers? We’re not going to leave until we get an answer.’ Bishop Manning said ‘I’m going to go now and pray.’ Two hours later, he came back and said ‘I’ve been praying to the Holy Spirit.’ Dolores and the women said ‘We are the Holy Spirit incarnate. We are the poor!’ He thought about it and agreed.”

The words of Huerta, Briggs, and Aram challenge people like myself who are invested in the world of academic theology. They shake our ivory towers, reminding us that God’s transformative reign of global flourishing, peace, and justice will not be brought about by academic elites. The good news cannot be proclaimed on high from comfortable seats of abstract theological discourse. Our theological debates are meaningless if they have nothing to say to the poor and exploited, to lay members of the local church, and to those whose voices and priestly callings are repressed by the Church because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

How can we debate the two natures of Christ without resisting the exploitation of nature itself? How can we examine the intricacies of the Eucharistic meal without working with those who have no food to eat? How can we wonder about the details of God’s embodiment in the Incarnation without demolishing the material oppressions that the United States’ racist warmongering, policing, and deportations inflict on the bodies of people of color at home and around the world? How can we inquire about the metaphysics of Jesus’ healing while our neighbors die because they cannot afford healthcare? In the words of St. John Chrysostom, how can we see Christ in the chalice, but not in the beggar at the church door?

If we believe Dolores Huerta’s words, that the Holy Spirit is incarnate in the lives of the poor, oppressed, and exploited, then we must change the voices we value:

  • Instead of uncritically praising Pope Francis, we must turn to the survivors of clergy sex abuse he has harmed, the women whose priestly calls he has denied, and queer and trans people who have suffered under the church’s oppression.
  • Instead of centering popular Catholic voices who have the backing of hierarchs and celebrities, we must turn to academic thinkers, church workers, and revolutionaries who have faced excommunication and marginalization for questioning the racialized, gendered, and economic power imbalances of our Church.
  • Instead of believing that the Good News can only flow from respectable institutions of Catholic higher education, we must turn to those workers whose union rights have been denied by Catholic colleges and universities. We must turn to those whose neighborhoods have been gentrified by Catholic schools, and to those who suffer under the boot of US imperialism while Catholic colleges allow military training on their campuses.
  • Instead of presidential candidates, priests, and popes, we must turn to the witness of workers and the laity, knowing that “faith without works is dead.” (James 2:17)

We must revive the call of liberation theologians, re-building a “theology from below” that forms the foundations of a “People’s Church.” When it comes to war and the environment, we must stop thinking like Catholic hierarchs and start thinking like Catholic Workers.

When we dare to dream of a liberating future for all of humanity, we must turn to the witness of the People of God enacted through groups like Christians for Socialism, the Movement for Black Lives, the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, and the Poor People’s Campaign. Instead of dancing around controversial issues in the Church, we must fully affirm the lives, loves, reproductive freedom, and priestly callings of women and LGBTQIA+ people.

It is time to break free of institutions that stifle, and to enact God’s live-giving presence against oppression and exploitation in our local and global communities.

Well, What are They Going to Do about It?

For two years, the parish that my mom “officially” belongs to (although she never attends Mass there) has been pressuring her to be Vice President of the Board. The reasons are fairly simple: the parish is small, and they’re running out of people who haven’t already done it. The first year, she avoided phone calls for weeks, while she vented her frustration to us about how she didn’t have time to be board vp, and she wanted to leave that parish anyway. I urged her to just tell them that she was leaving. But she couldn’t bring herself to do it. What would people say? But she did work up the courage to tell the board that her ideas were probably “too liberal” for the parish and they wouldn’t like the way she’d get things done.

They relented, for a year. Then we went through the same drama this past April. She avoided phone calls. She vented her frustrations. I told her to officially leave the parish. She didn’t.

Continue reading

Fox News, Women Priests, Black Smoke, and the Whole Self

Recently, my friend Jenny published an article at Relevant about women in ministry, in response to a recent report that women are leaving the church at twice the rate that men are. This paragraph particularly resonated with me:

“It’s not so much that women feel the Church doesn’t value the contributions they do make; it’s that they don’t see opportunities or don’t feel the freedom to bring their whole selves to the table.”

This pretty much sums up my whole experience within the Catholic Church. I always felt drawn to the Church, loved it, even, but continuously felt as if I just couldn’t quite fit. Even at age ten, the arguments against women’s ordination made no sense to me, and they make just as little sense now. I believe what kind of family planning a couple decides to use is none of the Church’s business. And as a bisexual woman, I believe that God would have blessed my love just as much if I’d fallen in love with a woman as I feel God has blessed my love (and me) when I married my husband. When it comes to issues of sex and gender in the Catholic Church, most of my writing and exploration has followed the consistent theme of never being able to feel completely whole in the roles assigned to me by my church.

Pink smoke would look so much less ominous.

I normally wouldn’t have watched the coverage of the Vatican conclave (we don’t have a TV), but Fox News happened to be playing it while I waited in the lobby to get my car worked on today, so I saw the black smoke rise. A priest gave commentary to a correspondent about how the conclave hadn’t been able to come to a clear agreement on the Papal successor, and the correspondent asked, “Well, isn’t it especially hard when you exclude half of the population?”

I’d brought work with me, and so I’d been trying not to get too distracted by the news. But this made me put my book down. Was Fox News asking about women’s ordination?

Indeed they were. The priest responded by talking out of both sides of his mouth. First, he said that he thinks it would be wonderful if there were more women involved in positions of power within the Church, and that he would love it if women took a more active role in choosing the next Pope. As if the lack of women at the conclave is because, you know, those women just don’t get involved.  What he failed to explain, for those watching who may not have been familiar with Catholicism, is that only Cardinals are allowed at that conclave. And only priests can advance to the position of Cardinal. And only men can be priests. Which means that if we want more women involved in that level of decision making, we need to a) ordain women or b) open the power structure up to include the laity. But he didn’t suggest either of those things outright — my suspicion is because, to do so, he’d have to admit that the problem doesn’t lay with “uninvolved” women, but with a Church that systematically shuts them out.

After that, he gave the usual excuses about the male apostles, and he offered a delightful twist (they always do!) about how, “Men and women were just designed by God to play different roles. I don’t consider it unfair that I don’t get to give birth!”

The Fox News correspondent didn’t seem convinced; and I felt grateful for women like Janice Sevre-Duszynska, who I know are the reason mainstream news sources are talking about these issues. The Vatican may be able to shut us out, but it can’t shut us up!

In the meantime, I’m attending a United Church of Christ church, where I can bring more of my whole self to the table than I can in my native tradition. It still doesn’t satisfy all of me. I miss Holy Water, Catholic hymns, and the ritual of the Eucharist. But the pastors at this church know I come from a Catholic tradition, know that I still have ties to the church, and everyone is OK with that. They know more about my “whole self” than I’ve ever shared with a Catholic priest.

A few weeks ago, one of the pastors asked me whether I was going to write about the resignation of Pope Benedict for this blog. I said I didn’t have much to say about it. I still don’t have a lot to say — the Papacy feels so distant from my day-to-day spirituality, from who I am as a Christian or even a Catholic. And while I wait with a certain level of semi-detached interest, I’ll really start paying attention when, as folk musician Dierdre Flint says, “they declare Pope Catherine.”

On Fixing Roofs, Breaking Bread, and Women’s Ordination

By now, most of us have probably come across the Vatican theologian’s most recent justification for barring women from the priesthood. The piece strikes me as so convoluted that were it not published directly on the Catholic News Service website, I would have suspected I was reading a parody. Some gems include:

“The son of God became flesh, but became flesh not as sexless humanity but as a male,” Father Giertych said; and since a priest is supposed to serve as an image of Christ, his maleness is essential to that role.

Hm, this seems a little fishy to me. If God’s purpose was to become truly human, why would God appear as a sexless entity? Back in Jesus’ time as now, one’s sex and gender are central facets of our identities, of how we see ourselves, and in how the world sees us (including the roles allowed to us by the Catholic Church.) How could God  become truly human if God did not take on this aspect that remains so central to our humanity, for better or for worse?

Continue reading

I Couldn’t Stay

“After I had put on the robes and a stole,” she said,  “I just sat there and cried. I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy…”  I had been casually listening-in on a conversation between two fellow Divinity School students for some time before I heard the young woman describe this moment.  From what I gathered, she is preparing for ordination in the Unitarian Universalist (UU) tradition, and currently working as an intern at a local UU church where she had, for the first time, tried on the pastor’s robes she would wear while preaching during some upcoming Sunday service.

For the first time in my life I am surrounded by women who talk openly, almost unthinkingly, about their calls to ordained ministry. Continue reading

My Weekend on the Church Reform Cruise Ship

I spent this weekend at the Inclusive Ministry and Renewal in a Complex Age Conference in Boston.  This joint conference was co-sponsored by Roman Catholic Womanpriests, Federation of Christian Ministries, CORPUS, and Women’s Ordination Conference. 


From the moment I arrived at the conference I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was on a cruise ship.  Maybe it was because the conference was held at a fancy hotel right on the Boston Harbor.  Or perhaps it was because 99% of the attendees were white people in their 60s and 70s donned in floral prints and khaki shorts.  Or it might have been because of the numerous cocktail hours held overlooking the water.  Nonetheless, as I sat in an adirondack chair watching one older heterosexual couple practice Tai Chi as another clinked wine glasses – I couldn’t help but think – I am on the Church Reform Cruise Ship.


Now, the thing about cruise ships is that people board at one port.  They eat.  They drink.  They relax.  They may stop off at a few other ports, but they always come back to the exact place from where they started.  I think this may be the problem with this part of the Church Reform movement.  (By “this part of the movement” I mean folks  – mostly older, white, upper-middle class folks – who stand ardently behind the Roman Catholic Womanpriest movement, see it as the most radical form of change the Church has ever seen, and further the ideology which puts folks who have been “legitimately” ordained in a position of superiority.  While not everyone at the conference took this position, it was clear that this ideology was steering the ship).  These women and men sail off with the best of intentions, but they end up right back where they started – patriarchy, white privilege, heterosexism, classism, elitism…


I witnessed this several times at my weekend on the Church Reform Cruise Ship.  I watched in wonder as folks at the first cocktail hour rushed around the reception room to get to shake the hand of the newest womanbishop.  I listened in terror as the man giving a presentation on pre-marriage told me about the difficulties that couples face in preparing for marriage especially when “one is a man and one is a woman.”  I tried to understand with compassion as one person in the workshop entitled “Addressing Racism in Inclusive Ministry” discussed celebrating Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month as key ways to be an inclusive Church.  I cringed as I heard that when each of the sponsoring organizations was having a breakout meeting, the RCWP meeting was only open to those ordained and the candidates for ordination.  And I laughed when one man tried to claim that women are “just more programmed to like chocolate than men – it is something in their genetic makeup,” and I wanted to cry when the women around the table agreed with him.


This Church Reform Cruise Ship was definitely going back to the port from which it started.  And maybe it is good that these folks do take this cruise, see what is out there, and come back to tell us what they’ve seen and show us what it means to come back.  But I am convinced that we, as the next generation of this movement, need to be sailing to a different place entirely.  We need to chart our own course to a place where all people are considered priestly.  To a place where there is a true discipleship of equals.  To a place where we can create a genuine inclusive community.  And the ship I was on this weekend – well intentioned as it was – is just not going there.  So, let us set sail.

Should I stay or should I go now?

The recent excommunication degree is no new news around this blog.  I’m not so interested in debating the ordination of women and excommunication; we’ve already done that.  But I do want to talk about how it affected me. Not how it affected me as a woman who feels called to the diaconate.  Not as someone who has advocated for women’s ordination and knows some of these amazing female priests. But how it affected me as Lauren. A woman born and raised Catholic who has a great love for the Church and its people, and an intense bond with all that it is (and all that I hope it will be). A Catholic woman whose church leaders, without missing a beat, took care of this little problem when it took years for them to respond to pedophilia, for example.  A Catholic woman whose church leaders just said it’s better to be a pedophile, etc. than to be a woman answering her call from God. (I’m putting words in their mouth, I know, but I’ll get to my point).  


I learned about a beautiful church that I fell in love with.  A church that is yet to be, but will come through the amazing teachings we have but have been kept in the books so far.  I keep asking myself if at some point hope is just naive? Do I just fear change? Or fear my deeply devout grandma? Do I fear not finding any religious or spiritual tradition that comes close to what I have now? Yes, Yes, Hell yes, and Yes. 


The thought of leaving my church family is sad. It is so much a part of my identity that it would be like telling me to stop being an Ivory.  It would be like many Amish youth who decide to leave their faith communities, only to lose their families as well who are not supposed to speak to them after that.  How do you go out into the world as an orphan, especially when you know you’re not? How does a father not speak to his daughter? A daughter he raised, loved, taught, formed, and was (is) proud of?


There are those who would love for me and others to just leave but I don’t understand that. They would handicap their selves, sacrifice an arm of the body of Christ for not complying. Rather than work on our differences and find places to incorporate everyone, we are told if we don’t like it, tough. I don’t understand how one group can claim ownership of something like our Church. 


So I ask, why should I stay? I’m not wanted and I’m not happy. And I don’t want the rest of my spiritual life to be about conflict; I’ve already got that with my biological family and don’t want it in my religious family too.  Furthermore, I have been asking myself for a few years if I am even called to function in my church that way, as someone who challenges from within.



The long and the short of it for me is that I’m Catholic, and probably always will be somehow.  We don’t have the ethnicity tie that those in the Jewish faith often have, but it is still in our bones.  So I ask, can a fish be anything but a fish? (I know, someone wants to say, “but women aren’t fish, only men can be fish!”).


Go tell them I am what I am. They’ll recognize that from somewhere.