Pregnant with possibility: Joyce Rupp on keeping the faith

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In this edited version of her acceptance speech for the 2004 U.S. Catholic Award, author Joyce Rupp describes herself as a spiritual midwife, aiding the birth of a more balanced and inclusive church.

A medical midwife has to be knowledgeable about the birthing process. She informs and helps the one giving birth. She cheers the mother on but cannot do the birthing for her. So, too, with a spiritual midwife.

The common factor I find in all the circles I’ve entered is that women are listening to a voice deep within that calls them to spiritual transformation. They are willing to invest a lot of time and energy into heeding this voice, and they support one another in that process.

I realize there are also men who are attentive to their inner voice. Some of my good friends who are men respect the feminine and feel as badly as I do about how women have been treated by the institutional church. I have received wonderfully affirming letters from men about my writing. These men are obviously not afraid of the feminine and welcome it as integral to their spirituality-but it is mainly to women that I feel called to minister.

There are two central approaches to faith formation and spiritual growth in church ministry. One favors yang energy and the other yin energy. A yang, or masculine, approach, is organized, structural, and concrete: "Here is the information. I have found the facts. Take them in. Believe them." The yin, or feminine, approach, is to look at a theme or topic from many angles, reflect upon it from one's lived experience, and then present it to the group: "Here, I've reflected a lot about this theme and have come to believe this from my life and from others. Take a look and see how it fits, or does not fit, into your views and lived experience."

A yin approach always allows for more to be discovered and for others to do their own reflection for greater clarity. It never acts like it has the final answer. Healthy yin energy is comfortable with mystery and not having it all together.

We need both yin and yang, a balance of both lived experience and information, for good spiritual growth. We need facts and foundational information. We also need room to let this information dance around in us. If we let it dance in us, we'll know whether or not it is meant to become a part of us.

There is such a predominance of yang energy in church leadership right now. Governance is through doctrines and moral imperatives. There's not much room to let these things breathe and dance inside of one's self. They are proclaimed as ultimate truth and pronounced as the final word. Yin energy has almost been snuffed out, but I see women refusing to let this yin energy go to the church's graveyard.

Yang energy is definitive and assertive. It's about structural organization, the detail of rubrics, defending the doctrine. Yin energy is reflective, embryonic energy. It is pastoral, relational, compassionate, able to live with veiled mystery and essential diversity. This is where I see women bringing vital gifts to the church. I admire women for continuing to try to share their gifts even when these gifts are refused or challenged. The current church leadership is dying of an overabundance of yang energy. The life of the future church depends on whether or not the yang of church leadership will become balanced with yin energy-which is where we find Christ-like pastoral leadership.

A long time ago I read a quote from the wonderfully integrated theologian Karl Rahner. He said that good religious education means to draw faith out of those we teach, rather than to pour it in. Rahner believed that people have the ability to think for themselves, that they have a lot of inherent wisdom. He knew that facts and doctrine alone do not lead to spiritual transformation. They remain in the head and do not flow into the heart and into life until they are connected with one's own lived experience. A good spiritual teacher will give just enough information to lead the student into her or his own heart to make connections with what has been offered.

Apparently some in the official church do not see it this way. For them, one's lived experience is seen as suspect and an enemy of dogma rather than as a valuable tool for the spiritual integration of doctrinal concepts.

Last year a dedicated Catholic publishing company announced that it was suspending publication of its high school religion textbooks. The Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism directed the publishing company to remove questions for student reflection, especially questions that invite students to offer their personal opinion on some matters. The company was also directed to remove references to typical teenage experiences out of a concern that such references could imply that experiences of this nature are condoned by the church. So much for attempting to help students draw out their own faith and wisdom to understand and integrate church doctrine.

In the past women did not trust their own lived experience. They looked to outside authority to tell them what to think and to believe, but this is changing. Everywhere I go women are growing in their self-esteem and in their ability to trust that they know what is best for their spiritual growth and for their participation in the church. That is why U.S. CATHOLIC writers like Kathy Coffey, Alice Camille, and Dolores Curran are such important resources for readers. They present valuable information for spiritual growth but always integrate it into life.

Life experience is vital. That's why it scares me when the recent Vatican document On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World starts out with "The church, expert in humanity..." Really? Which church? The institutional church? Or all those people with life experience who form the Christian community? If the official church were expert in humanity, would its leaders not value life experience and see it as an essential aspect of spiritual growth? Would they not also see the essential need to incorporate the feminine into the worship, doctrine, and church governance?

Many women in the Roman Catholic Church are in immense pain because of how women are treated by this church, particularly by the hierarchy and other ordained clergy. I once told the late Bishop Kenneth Untener that I felt like I had "just one little toe in the church." He responded with a twinkle in his eye: "Keep it there." I have, but I also understand the throng of women who have left the church because of such things as the continued arrogant use of exclusive language and the constant refusal to recognize the fullness of their gifts in church ministry.

If there are miracles happening in the church today, the central one is that women continue to remain within the church as faith-filled members. They have suffered endless blame and embarrassment. Let me give you a few examples. I have a friend who died this week. When I first began working in adult education in her parish, the pastor took me aside and said, "Look out for this woman. She's dangerous and kind of crazy." Of course that made me want to get to know her! I discovered her to be intelligent, creative, and well-read in theology. She directed an excellent religious education program. She also had the courage to speak her beliefs. Amazingly she never left the church and some years ago even went through the diaconate program with her husband.

Women suffer a lot because of the church. Last year on Mother's Day a young celebrant harangued the mothers present by blaming them in his homily for the lack of priestly vocations. This past summer I heard the story of women in a parish who were eucharistic ministers. Their pastor had scheduled them for the next weekend's liturgy before he went on vacation. When these women came up and stood around the altar that Sunday morning, the visiting priest seethed at them: "Get back to your pews. I will not have any women on my altar." I can never imagine Jesus treating anyone that way or causing them that kind of humiliation.

You see, it's not just the ordination issue that drives women away. It's being treated the way these eucharistic ministers were treated. To use the language of my rural background: Women are not cows to be herded back into pens; they are not hens to be shooed away from the altar. It's this attitude of sneering domination and the obvious lack of respect for their individual worth that causes such immense angst in Catholic women today.

I am very disappointed with the recent church document on women. I am saddened because it blames feminists for "the lethal effects in the structure of the family." Once again women are being blamed for society's failures. I am offended by the way this document pushes the power issue off onto women when the official church has, time and again, used power abusively to silence those longing for dialogue and has threatened into conformity those who dare to question doctrinal ultimatums.

The document chides feminists and states: "Faced with an abuse of power, the answer for women is to seek power." Now I ask you: Why is it all right for men in the church to have sought and held power for years, but when women seek it, it is not OK? Power in itself is not bad. Every human being needs to be empowered in order to reach her or his best potential.

Power rightly exercised can be healthy and helpful. Rome agrees, but only so long as this power is in the hands of men. When women begin to assert their rights and seek to have their God-given potential and gifts fully acknowledged and accepted for service in the church, they are not only denied this right but are written off as adversaries, reactionaries, and power-seekers.

Church documents, issues of doctrine, and liturgical rubrics give women spiritual heartburn, but their pain also comes from other life situations. Women are acutely tuned into the sufferings of their own families and friends, as well as the world's afflictions.

It's not just women's suffering related to church issues that has brought me into kinship with them, however. It's their attention to personal growth, family issues, and the world's pain. It's their joy in learning about and living the message of the gospel. It's their ability to go inward, to discover the kingdom of love in their midst. It's women's ability to connect their inner experience with their outer experience and to trust that the divine is found in this connection. It's women's willingness to be open to growth, to stay in the fray, to give themselves to transformation by continual attentiveness to the movement of the Holy One in their lives.

Despite all of the pain in our church and world, I still find nuggets of hope. I often describe the amazing movement of women's spiritual growth around the globe as discovering "pockets of hope." When I grow discouraged about our church and world situation, I remember that I have found dedicated women gathering faithfully with one another, week after week, month after month, to ponder their relationship with the Holy One in every place I have visited.

Women's hope must be sustained if they are to continue their journey in the church. As a spiritual midwife, I want to be there for them and with them. I believe the feminine is being birthed in our church and in our world. It is an enormously long and painful pregnancy. The labor is excruciating but the birthing will happen and the new child of the feminine will come forth.

As any concerned and dedicated midwife would do, I will be by the side of women in the church, helping them nourish their spirits, urging them to continue their labor until the child of the feminine is born. It may be a long process of birthing, but come forth she will, restoring the church to a much needed balance.

We will all be there at that birthing, either on this side of life or cheering from the other side. We will be there to receive this child when she appears, when the yin and the yang are finally accepted as equals, when they settle into the peacefulness of Isaiah's lion and lamb.

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the December 2004 issue of U.S. Catholic magazine (Vol. 69, No. 12, pages 39-42).