April 30, 2010

Liturgical Reform in a Time of Crisis

Ecclesial reform has been on my mind lately. In search of some inspiration, I picked up Rosemary Radford Ruether’s book Catholic ≠ The Vatican: A Vision for Progressive Catholicism. At the outset of this book, Ruether outlines a vision of “authentic Christian community” that is multicultural, democratic, liberated from sexism, and committed to the poor and oppressed. This vision of community is one that lives by grace, where prayer and social action go hand in hand. In other words, one of the key elements of working for transformation is the cultivation of a mature spirituality. As Ruether suggests, we need to become people of prayer. In her words, this means overcoming the split between spirituality and social action, a split that has been enhanced by the mystification of the ritual prayer in Roman Catholic communities.

Last week a new English translation of the Roman Missal was completed and will be implemented in parishes as soon as it is approved by Pope Benedict XVI. [The Roman Missal contains prayers and instructions for the celebration of the Roman Catholic Mass.] This translation is based on Pope John Paul II’s 2002 third revised edition of the Latin text. While this is certainly not the first time the Vatican has revised the language of the liturgy, what is unique about this edition is the criterion used for translation into English. According to Ratio Translationis, the English translation will be marked by a grammatical structure that closely follows the Latin text and reflects the noble tone of the Roman Rite. Consider the following examples, available on the USCCB’s website:
  • Any time the celebrant greets the congregation with the phrase: “The Lord be with you,” the congregation is to respond “And with your spirit.” The current response is “And also with you.”
  • The penitential rite will be expanded to include the words “greatly sinned” and “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” The present version is simply “sinned through my own fault.”
  • The Nicene Creed also reflects a number of changes in translation. “We believe in one God” becomes “I believe in one God,” “consubstantial” replaces “one in being.
While these are just a few examples of the changes to come, they signal a significant shift in emphasis in spirituality: one that emphasizes divine transcendence over immanence, individual over community, spirit over body. As a native English speaker, professing “I believe” instead of “we believe,” conjures up the image a lone individual standing before God. Whereas, stating “we believe” foregrounds the communal dimensions of making an act of faith. Similarly, the addition of the words “and with your spirit”—to the average English speaker—connotes a distinction between “spirit” and “body.” [For instance, think of the difference it would make to respond “and with your body.”] For too long, Christian spirituality has operated out of a dualistic framework that has valued spirit over body, men over women, human beings over the natural world—a framework that has been used to justify the exclusion of women from positions of leadership in religious and political spheres.

As feminists have long argued, God-talk is far from value neutral. Liturgical language does more than point toward the reality that is God; it functions in the human community, shaping our commitments to one another and the earth. In a time in which the church is the midst of a crisis, our communal prayer needs to be that which empowers and nourishes the community to work to bring about justice and peace in the world.

April 12, 2010

Iowa One Year Later

It’s been a year since Iowa shocked progressives on both coasts and became—as local t-shirts love to proclaim—“officially cooler than California.” On April 3, 2009 our Supreme Court unanimously declared that all citizens have the right to access the civic benefits and responsibilities that come with marriage. Theirs did better than any ruling so far to directly address public confusion about the role of religious freedom in all of this. Our justices carefully explained why recognizing the right to marriage for all citizens does not violate the religious freedom of any community of faith and why denying equal rights to marriage does.

We’re marking the anniversary with gala affairs, celebrations of love and family, federal and state tax complications, and a visit from Fred Phelps.

I’ve been an ambivalent participant in the marriage equality mania. This wasn’t the issue I would have chosen to occupy center-stage for the lgbt movement. When I officially married my two friends three months after the ruling, I was thrilled that R. would finally have access to health insurance through her firefighting spouse and relieved she could finally get that long overdue mammogram. But, I couldn’t shake the bitter sense that her right to a mammogram existed long before the Court recognized her right to marry.

Still, when the ruling came down I felt compelled to show up and be counted—an out and proud lesbian living in Iowa. And, I was deeply moved by the courage, hope, and pride that overflowed in the halls of our County Recorder’s office. One couldn’t help but feel that she was taking part in history. Meanwhile, the crowd gathering to apply for marriage licenses was by far the most racially and generationally diverse group of lgbt people, folks who appeared to come from a variety of socioeconomic classes, that I have seen in my six years living here. My fears that marriage equality is an implicitly white and middle-class lgbt issue or that the racial cleavages and white ignorance we saw in the aftermath of Proposition 8 in California are necessarily inherent to the marriage equality struggle have been challenged during the last year. I have been pushed to think with more nuance.

The belief that same-sex marriage is a magic harbinger of full-blown equality for all lgbt people—and thus the issue—or the “next” chapter in the civil rights struggle—implying the one for people of color has been successfully concluded—is one that can only be held by those of us privileged enough to be insulated from the ongoing daily effects of white supremacy, unbridled capitalism and an array of other oppressive forces. But, as I have witnessed the effect of marriage equality on lgbt people in Iowa—a place in which it is arguably more difficult to be out and proud than it is in many other places in this nation—I have come to believe that privilege also shapes the lens of those of us who too easily dismiss marriage equality as irrelevant, meaningless or as nothing more than the wrong issue. The argument for disregarding, abolishing, or simply opting out of our very imperfect, but powerful, social institutions is made much more easily by those of us with the power to mitigate or negotiate the impact institutions have on our lives.

Family law is imperfect, but the ability to draw on the protections of the law and courts is something some lgbt folks (or their children) sometimes need. The public recognition and formal respect that marriage equality confers matters for those of us who face other kinds of public dismissal, disparagement, or vilification because of race, class, nationality or a myriad of other disparaged social locations. Marriage equality does not solve many things, but here in the Iowa it has changed the social landscape, the public discourse, and sometimes simply the relationship between neighbors for the better.

Still, the venom of Fred Phelps’ press release was spewed not only against lgbt people, but against a society that would embrace a Black president, religious pluralism, empowered women, and virtually any other group or idea that represents the possibility of realizing something other than Christian, white, male supremacy. He brings us a critical reminder of the connections between racial justice, gender justice, the empowerment of lgbt people, religious freedom, and economic systems that humanize the lives of the people who inhabit them. And so, as we raise our glass of celebration here in Iowa one year later, as we courageously sustain the struggle against the public calls for us to move back to where we were 53 weeks ago, we must not pause even for a moment, but instead keep our feet to the pavement working to realize liberty and justice for all.

Jennifer Harvey

Associate Professor of Religion

Drake University