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Jamie Manson: “The Church at a Crossroads”

By Leo N. Egashira, from notes taken at a presentation in Seattle, October 14, 2012.

(This article was edited for the QV from the original, which appeared in Dignity/Seattle’s November 2012 Newsletter)

Theologian and National Catholic Reporter (NCR) weekly columnist (“Grace on the Margins”), Jamie Manson, and her partner Gretchen, stopped in Seattle on October 14, 2012 during a nationwide speaking tour. An engaged audience of 85 progressive Catholics and allies greeted her enthusiastically at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral. Jamie first acknowledged and thanked the Protestant space in which Catholics are welcome to discuss issues. Left unsaid was the obvious: Progressive Catholics would not have been allowed to discuss or question views of the hierarchical church.

Jamie joined the NCR four years ago. “Where do I get content? With the controversies buffeting the Catholic Church and society in general, I have views on everything all the time.”

She briefly went over her own story as reflective of the tensions within the Church. People constantly ask, “Why do you remain Catholic, especially as a woman, clerical leader, and lesbian? Am I such a masochist?” Jamie grew up on Long Island, descended from Italian Catholic grandparents who immigrated to Brooklyn. Her maternal grandmother wanted to be a nun, but was too poor to pursue the vocation. Once, when the grandmother put coins in the church poor box, she was scolded by the priest. She stopped going to church, and set up a “home church.”

At the age of 12, Jamie attended Triduum services. It was at that point that she became enamored and committed to Catholicism and theology. She attended a Catholic high school, taught by Vatican II adherents. At college, she studied Biblical scholarship. When she pursued graduate studies at Yale Divinity School, it was the first time Jamie was exposed to Protestant classmates and Protestant thinking, and exposed to a God “who was out there. . . Mind you, I grew up on Long Island, which was Catholic Disneyland.”

“So, I was disoriented by theology class, until I was introduced to Sr. Margaret Farley, who explained, ‘You’re just a Catholic. You have a sacramental view of the world. It goes back to the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation: Finite is capable of the infinite. Sacrament is a sign of God’s grace. Everything can be sacramental.’ As Fr. Andrew Greeley wrote, ‘God is lurking everywhere.’ That is Sacramental imagination.

“The Counter-Reformation re-affirmed the fact that God is in love with us and that humans have intrinsic goodness. This is the opposite of John Calvin’s view that humans are wholly depraved. Only God can redeem people; one cannot redeem oneself. I was recruited by many Protestants to join them, but was unable to give up the sacramental view.

“Sacramental theology gave birth to social-justice teaching; that’s why we have people like Dorothy Day and Teilhard de Chardin. Sacramental theology still makes meaning in our lives. When it is no longer effective, religion needs to be reformed. This is what we’re seeing now in our Church.

“Here’s a scary thing: In the U.S., 1 in 6 have no religion. Two-thirds of Catholics are not involved in the Church.

“I worked at a Jesuit parish in New York City that hired LGBT people. St Francis Xavier Church encouraged women to preach. At the same time that liturgy was held upstairs, 900 people were being fed downstairs. When I went downstairs, my gender or orientation did not matter—only ‘presence’ mattered. Compare this to Eucharistic presence . . . This is what Eucharist is about.

“The exclusion of women, of LGBT people, of married priests, all seems absurd. It defies our sacramental understanding of the world. The Pope’s statement on pedophilia was marred by his comparing women’s ordination also as a sin against the Eucharist. This is cosmic hubris, or as we say in New York, ‘chutzpah.’

“The hierarchy constantly places limits on God—where God can and cannot be present. It offends our sacramental understanding of our Church.

“Evangelicals believe that humans are innately depraved. They also have a literal and selective view of the Bible.

“The Roman Catholic Church is becoming anti-intellectual, quite unlike Vatican II’s embrace of science. The last two popes have emphasized teachings against ‘pelvic zones.’ What defines Catholics, according to the hierarchy, are pelvic zone issues!”

At this point, Jamie Manson took a break to answer questions from the audience:

Q: What was it like to come out?

A: My aunt was a lesbian. I came out in Divinity School, which has a strong LGBT presence. That is not surprising, since LGBT are often hurt people, who want to enter the “healing arts.”

This was not an issue until I became an NCR reporter. I was disinvited from speaking engagements more often than invited. It was a painful situation. Many popular and respected Catholics are in the closet. Coming out invalidates everything you say.

Q: Is it more difficult being a lesbian versus being a woman?

A: It is more difficult to be a woman. I have the same education as a pastor, but I have no authority. Not seeing women on the altar shatters me. Jesus’ most radical thing was empowering women in John’s gospel.

Q: Are the people who discount you always male?

A: No. Clericalism is very much ingrained among the laity.

Q: Do you expect attacks on sacramental theology to continue, for example the Minneapolis archbishop’s full-on attack on marriage equality?

A: It depends on the bishop—how much do they want to turn people off? No-one speaks “truth to power” in the Church, so the status quo gets solidified.

Part Two of Jamie Manson’s talk:

“Kenneth Osborne at the University of California-Berkeley stated, ‘We must find Jesus not just in the table of the Eucharist, but in the world around us. If we do not seek Jesus in this table of the world, we really will not find Jesus in the table of the Eucharist.’ This is the sacramental view of the world. Catholic theological tradition finds Jesus everywhere. ‘When you fed the hungry, you fed me. When you clothed the naked, you clothed me.’ This is the genesis of Catholic social justice teaching.

“The Catholic Church is becoming a drag show . . . as young men aspire to ‘the smells & bells’ of the pre-Vatican II Church.

“The current investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) is an attack on women who have been leaders, who have modeled what leadership should be. Near the Greenwich Village parish was St. Vincent’s Hospital—ground zero of HIV/AIDS in New York City. The sisters at St. Vincent’s were first to care for and physically contact people with AIDS (PWAs). Why? Because of Matthew 25, they saw Jesus in PWAs. How can you not see Jesus in people who are most vulnerable and broken?

“Women religious have done much work among sex slaves, the homeless, and victims of domestic violence. How can you not understand the need for reproductive care? That’s where their theology developed; that’s how they formed their understanding of Eucharist. The crackdown on the LCWR is so dark and deep. The LCWR show the prophetic voice of the Church. Is there a place for the prophetic voice in the Church? Is there room for intellectual curiosity in the Church? This is a hierarchy that doesn’t see Jesus at this table of the world.

“LCWR meetings are 2000 nuns in a room. It is a non-heirarchical, inclusive community with deep connections to the sacramental life of the Church. This is the church of our dreams, something the hierarchy finds threatening.

“While fighting the Church, we need to make sure that we are fed and clothed at the same time. We have to recognize more and more the Church we already are. What is it about the Church that is so meaningful and keeps us as Catholics?

“Young people hunger for community, not necessarily in a traditional parish. How do you get young people in? Share a non-committal meal. So many young people are working in social justice—homeless shelter, domestic violence, environment—without knowing it as social justice.

“Before we get too disenfranchised and disgusted with the Church for the hurt it has inflicted, and betrayal of Vatican II ideals, we need to find God in “Grace on the Margins” [title of Jamie’s NCR column]. Margins are holy places where prophets dwell, a liminal space.

“We don’t listen to one another; our communication, our communion, our presence to each other, is eroding. When we are present to each other, we form community.

“I want to close this talk with a story about Sr. Louise Lears of St. Louis, who attended a Women’s Ordination Conference ordination. The archbishop placed Sr. Lears under “interdict,” which means she can’t receive sacraments within the diocese. She was devastated and broken. On the first weekend under interdict, she wondered whether she should go to Mass, since that might traumatize the parish. She finally went with her mother. When communion time came, Louise’s mother said, ‘Come with me.’ Mom takes communion, breaks it in half, and gives half to Louise. ‘I was the first person to feed you, and I’ll feed you now.’

“We have profound sacramental power. You cannot tell God who God can feed. Boil the gospel down to its essence: Everyone needs to be fed and we’re obligated to feed each other.

A second and final comment and question period followed:

JM: Vatican II stated, “We are the church.” Once you know that, you cannot un-know that.

Barriers to sacraments are being thrown-up; they aren’t prizes for being good. The sisters’ response has been, “What do you need?” Invite the person first, then let the sacraments transform the person.

JM: The culture of fear is so strong in the Church that priests don’t speak up. They risk serious economic disenfranchisement, with no marketable skills, loss of retirement pensions, etc.

JM: Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks were not prophets in a vacuum. They had the support of community. We need to support leaders who speak out, as well as each other.

Audience member: I stay in the church, having internalized it as part of self, as much as I am gay and Japanese-American, because I do not want to give power to those who seek to define who is Catholic and who is not.

JM: Young peoples’ approval of Marriage Equality is because they have a sacramental view of the world.

Q: Can you comment on the sex-abuse scandal?

A: I can’t believe that this Church is still going on. No other institution in the Western world could have survived this. In this country, $2 billion has been paid out in settlements. “Go away, we can’t afford you anyway.”

Audience member: In a Fairbanks, Alaska church, there is a list of all abusers and the number of abused. “We have to acknowledge it, deal with it and heal the victims.”

JM: A declaration of faith [sense of the faithful] has been signed by thousands, but there have been no excommunications or interdicts. The problem is that there are too many small groups that have become silo-ized, isolated from each other. But now that the church is attacking and alienating ordinary people, the people may become energized: Is this the work of the Spirit?

Audience member: Call To Action addresses the “movable middle.”

Audience member: I believe the new liturgy wording is individualistic, not communal. Also “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa” is moving people away from the sacramental view.

JM: Honoring the dignity of the human person and emphasizing the social justice teachings of the Church will broaden the image of church to the younger generation.