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.