Jewish-Christian Dialogue: The Nuns Versus the Bishops

Photo Courtesy of Nun Justice

Much has been written about the ongoing assault by the male Catholic hierarchy on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, as well as individual women religious whose writings have been deemed “erroneous.” Non-Catholics might be inclined to dismiss this as merely an internal church issue. However, there are important implications for interfaith conversation between Jews and Christians that have not been as widely considered.

In its most stark terms, the women religious have largely embodied what I call the “religion of creation” while the bishops speak from within the “religion of empire.” These labels point to what I’ve shown in my recent book, Come Out, My People!: God’s Call Out of Empire In the Bible and Beyond, to be the two, competing religions in the Hebrew Bible. The “religion of empire” seeks to claim divine authority for systems of domination and hierarchy, where violence is used to establish “peace” and to quell resistance. The “religion of creation,” on the other hand, claims God’s support for egalitarian social relationships of mutual respect and participation. Jesus took up the religion of creation as the authentic expression of God’s purposes for humanity and creation, rejecting the religion of empire as a demonic counterfeit. Because of this, the upholders of the religion of empire – both within the Jerusalem temple establishment and the Roman Empire – found him intolerable and conspired to put him to death.

The Roman Catholic Church, ever since the days of Constantine, has found itself caught between the polar tensions of these two, diametrically opposed “religions.” Taking up the structures of Roman imperial religion in the fourth century, the church has long used threats of violence and other forms of punishment to instill obedience. At the same time, though, there has always been a countermovement, grounded in the liberating Gospel of Jesus. We first see this in desert monasticism, then later, in such traditions as St. Francis and the women’s communities of the Beguines. Today’s nuns have largely shed the religion-of-empire-based structures of hierarchy which they inherited. Instead, they have worked by communal discernment processes befitting the religion of creation, which respect each person’s capacity to be a vessel of the Holy Spirit.

What is crucial to note for the purpose of Jewish-Christian conversation is that “the Catholic Church” is deeply divided between those who seek to maintain traditional power and authority and those who put the Gospel at the center of personal and communal discipleship. There can be little effective dialogue between Jews and “religion of empire” Catholics. However, “religion of creation” Catholics, such as the women religious and their supporters, share much in common with progressive Jews, as we do with many Muslims, socially engaged Buddhists and Hindus.

Just as Jesus challenged not the “Jews” of his day but the upholders of the religion of empire, so Jews today might recognize that the problem isn’t with “Catholics,” but with those, like the bishops, whose loyalty is less to the Way of Jesus and more to defending their own, institutional authority. From Moses through the prophets – ancient and current – the Voice of YHWH empowers women and men to speak truth that topples entrenched power and reveals the joyous reign of the Creator God. May that one Spirit fill us all with strengthening courage to stand against domination in all its forms and in solidarity with one other.

10 thoughts on “Jewish-Christian Dialogue: The Nuns Versus the Bishops

  1. aAs a recovering catholic I can say that I have lost all respect for the church of Rome and their pretense of following the teachings of Jesus. They are all about power and control using fear to coerce people who have relinquished the ability to think for themselves. The nuns are the true followers of the message of Christ

  2. As a committed Roman Catholic who struggles with the inanity of our bishops, you spot the issue clearly for me. Often an outside eye can do that more effectively than an inside eye. Your categories of “religion of creation” and “religion of empire” are accurate descriptors of what is going on in Roman Catholicism. It’s a very Catholic instinct to be both/and rather than either/or even if a lot of Catholics won’t recognize that. Right now the “religion of empire” seems to be on top; we pray that the “religion of creation” will reclaim its rightful place in the Catholic conscience. That would represent a real healing of the world.

  3. Thank you for the differentiation between “religion of empire” and “religion of creation.” It helps get a handle on the source of a heartache :-) And it does feel so true, as well.

  4. (I’m a parishioner at St. James, Seattle, WA) There is a near-exact correspondence between Mr. Howard-Brook’s dichotomy (“religion of empire” vs. “religion of creation”) and the very progressive ideas of George Lakoff, a professor of philosophy at Berkeley. Lakoff, speaking of conservatives and liberals in the political realm, distinguishes between a “Strict Father” model, usually embraced by conservatives, and a “Nurturant Parent” model, usually embraced by liberals. The Strict Father model favors hierarchical authority and obedience, and does not tolerate questioning authority; while the Nurturant Parent model emphasizes respect, caring for others, and open communications. I find it very encouraging to think that there could be strong common ground between committed religious people and people who do not declare themselves to be religious; too often, there is a sort of implied antagonism, with non-religious folks assuming that religious believers are narrow-minded and backward-thinking, and religious folks believing that non-religious are militantly opposed to all forms of religion. Thanks, Wes, for the summary of the ideas in your new book. I’ll be looking for a copy at the St. James bookstore. -WDJ

  5. This article is full of false dichotomies …. one side universally good, the other completely bad. It is total nonsense. I’m not going to the effort of listing them all. Just one, the author writes “There can be little effective dialogue between Jews and ‘religion of empire’, which depicts Jews as uniformly good, peace loving, and violence abhorring, while the Catholics, or at least the traditional Catholics, are the opposite. Good grief !

  6. Gurfinkle,
    Thanks for your comment. You seem to have missed the central point of the article. I am not putting any particular “Jews” in a category and declaring them “good.” Rather, the point is that Catholics who insist on “only Catholics who are obedient to the bishops are practicing the ‘true’ religion” are not interested in finding common ground with people of any other religion, as they’ve already decided that they are “right” and all others, including dissenting Catholics, are wrong. Of course, “Jews” come in many varieties, many of whom are not equally uninterested in conversation with Catholics or Christians in general. Tikkun, however, is a place where people who seek to find common ground may, in mutual respect and dignity, exchange ideas and experiences. I appreciate you taking the time to read the piece and share your thoughts.

  7. Beautiful defense of the heart of Christianity, and the distinction between types of empire is illuminating. Christ lived the ideals of the prophets who fought oppression. It’s sad to see the Vatican hierarchy ignoring its better angels and his true message. Affect theorist Silvan Tomkins also saw a broad dichotomy in human behavior and thinking, between those who were normative and those who were humanistic. One privileged rules, the other individuals.

  8. The Bible has always singled-out woman for the “Original Sin”, blaming her for the “Mother of all Evils”. Holy Qur’an on the other hand, proclaims that both male and female child are born “sinless” and pure.

    Woman is so despised in Christianity that priests and popes are not allowed to marry (though they have been found sexually abusing youth and Nuns). Judaism doesn’t give wife the right to divorce her husband while Holy Qur’an awards woman the right to marry or divorce of her own choice. Women in Judaism and Christianity are not entitled for inheritance while Holy Qur’an commands inheritance for widows and daughters. Bible forbids women to receive religious education while Islam more emphsizes on women education. Under Judo-Christian law, a women cannot stand witness without the consent of her father or husband while in Islam, a woman is allowed to be a witness with the exception of a few jurisdictions. A Judo-Christian woman involved in adultry is commanded to be put to death, even by burning her alive (Leviticus 21:9 and Genesis 38:24). A Jewish wife is not allowed to help her husband in distress (Deut. 25:11-12 and 23:1). If a woman gave birt to a daughter, she becomes impure (Leviticus 12:2 and 12:5, Psalms 51:3-5), and so on.

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