Dialogue is one way

By  Stephen Morris, Catholic Register Special
  • August 26, 2008

{mosimage}Feminist Theology with a Canadian Accent, edited by Mary Ann Beavis, Elaine Guillemin and Barbara Pell (Novalis, softcover, 444 pages, $34.95).

With the Catholic Church refusing to ordain women or even entertain the idea, feminists and the church have entered into a longstanding non-meeting of the minds. Because of this deadlock, dialogue has turned to monologue, a sad reality reflected in the pages of Feminist Theology with a Canadian Accent, a collection of 19 essays by Canadian feminist theologians and scholars.

The essays here are diverse and defy classification, however various themes emerge. They include:

  • the history of the women’s movements in Canadian churches, including efforts to ordain women in the Catholic Church;
  • the experience of women in various contexts — Asian, First Nations, lesbian, francophone — and the theological and spiritual struggles therein;
  • feminism and ecological issues; and
  • feminist theology and the arts in Canada.

The most notable contributions are on the topic of ecology, which appears to be the most promising new chapter in feminist theology. Essays by Heather Eaton, Cristina Vanin and Jessica Fraser explore this most pressing concern. Those interested in the arts will also find a rich exploration of feminist theological themes in Canadian art and literature.

But save a handful of essays, the overarching trouble with this book is that it all too often reads less like theology and more like cultural studies critiques of the church. The problem with that is that cultural studies stand on some extremely shaky left-wing ideological foundations. If concepts such as neo-imperialism, neo-liberalism or phallocentricism are not part of your worldview this book will often prove alienating. Some of the more radical examples include essays slamming the United Church for its insensitivity towards homosexuals (no, that’s not a misprint). Or the critique of Canadian multiculturalism from the perspective that it only pretends to welcome immigrants, but is really just a tool of the scheming status quo devised to dominate new recruits of immigrant serfs (foiled again by the evil genius of Caribana!).

The tone is all too often against Christianity and that is antithetical to the greater purpose of theology — faith seeking understanding. I’m sure the authors in question see themselves as purifiers or liberators of the Christian tradition, but the overall feel is much too hostile for any constructive dialogue to emerge.

This is not to say that the Christian tradition has nothing to account for in its relations with women. But on page after page the baby is thrown out with the bathwater as post-modern praise is lavished on the transgression and subversion of Christianity, rather than on its healing and restoration.

All too often I was jarred by sentences like this: “For these authors, the traditional themes of martyrdom, vicarious atonement and self-sacrifice only serve to mask, justify and perpetuate ancient patterns of patriarchal violence. Rather than resorting to traditional religion for comfort, answers or solutions, the novels cite alternative spiritualities (goddess spirituality, ecological spirituality, mysticism) or no religion at all as sources of insight and inspiration” (Beavis p. 368). Or Cree poet Louise Bernice Halfe’s poem “Blue Marrow,” which is celebrated because “By rewriting those earlier traditions, the poet simultaneously criticizes colonial religion (a.k.a. Christianity) while articulating an entirely different system of belief” (Gilmour p. 371).

There is a fine line between liberation theology and liberation from theology — a line crossed way too many times in these essays.

Perhaps it is fitting that the publication of this book should coincide with the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae. Writing in First Things (Aug/Sept 2008) Mary Ebestadt argues that this once laughingstock of a document appears to have been vindicated by history (insert gasp here). The dark side of the sexual revolution has been a dramatic de-population of the West, the breathtaking ascent of pornography, the breakdown of marriage and the family — and the dire economic, social and psychological impact this has had on women. Not to mention the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of abortions performed annually (many of which are increasingly becoming sex-selective, targeting female fetuses). Why are these matters not addressed?

Not to put all the responsibility on feminists for repairing the relationship with the Catholic Church — the church is certainly not excelling in its outreach to feminists. But to move from monologue to dialogue, feminist theologians would do well to break with party line and address some of these realities, perhaps even conceding that there is some wisdom in church teaching on issues relating to women. Female ordination in the Catholic Church is unlikely to happen any time soon, and the church will certainly never sanction abortion. But that doesn’t make it a one-dimensional boogeyman of patriarchal oppression either.

(Morris is a freelance writer in Mississauga.)

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