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Embodying Church Reform: A Tale of Two Documents
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Lo cotidiano: The Narrative Voice the Church—and the World—Still Needs

Times of crises will scatter people into different directions to make sense of what is occurring or to gather ideas for what can be done. The current global condition of fear and disruption caused me recently to amble through some older documents and articles, and happily I came across several essays by the late feminist theologian, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz. Her voice in those writings is clear and dynamic, and she compelled her reader to ponder some difficult questions and confront some unsettling realities.  Paging through a few of her essays, I recognized that many of her ideas still resonate today in our tumultuous era of global pandemic, political and cultural protests, and the increasingly rancorous polarization between and among communities of citizens. Her call for a renewed appreciation of Christian caritas—love of God, love of neighbor—as a love that is cohesion (dare one say, solidarity?) rather than a kind of concession, and her insistence that the neglected voices of the marginalized (women, the poor, the oppressed) must be acknowledged and integrated into the theorized narrative that has been Church, find echoes, not surprisingly, in the words and ministry of Pope Francis. Indeed, reading Isasi-Diaz from 1996 and hearing Pope Francis in 2020 is like eavesdropping in on an amicable conversation between two impassioned advocates for human dignity and moral accountability. Yet, it is also true that now, as then, there are certain constituencies within, and without, the Church that reject even to the point of denouncing such advocacy, except perhaps as a vague (and, thereby, non-threatening) ideal.

Like most theologians of liberation, Isais-Diaz wanted to extricate the Church (the people of God) and its rhetoric (the good news of Christ) from the tight hold of an exclusive and powerful cadre who continue(d) to arrogate to themselves solely the representation of the Church and of the Catholic faith. Isasi- Diaz and her colleagues sought to illuminate the Church with the light of the simple faith lived by the disenfranchised millions and, for that reason, she placed at the heart of her own theology the concept of lo cotidiano, the “everyday.” It is an elusive term and does not neatly translate into English but Isasi-Diaz explains it as

… the sphere in which our struggle for life is most immediate, most vigorous, most vibrant … what we face everyday and … how we face it … (it) refers to the way we talk, with the impact of class, gender, poverty and work on our routines and expectations; it has to do with relations within families and among friends and neighbors in a community. It extends to our ... central religious beliefs [1] 

 Such a ‘liberating’ theme was/is not unfamiliar but the Church and the world are at a crossroads, and so her idea bears repeating. Isasi-Diaz was reminding both the leaders of the Church as well as the people in the pews of the necessary meaning of Christian caritas: it is a ‘love’ that is a kind of kenosis, an emptying of the will to be fully receptive to the reality of another. Christ is of course the sublime exemplar of caritas that is really kenosis and, for all his divinity, Jesus was fully human, fully aware of the people among whom he walked—among whom he chose to walk—and whom he loved and who loved him. He walked not among the priests and the scribes and the powerful but among the poor, the lost and the broken. Jesus knew the people in their daily lives and participated joyfully in that lo cotidiano: he went to the home and ate a meal with a social outcast; he understood with certainty the frantic fear of a parent whose child is ill, and he went fishing with a fisherman whose nets were empty but he still had to feed his family.

Pope Francis also perceives in the message of Jesus the principle of lo cotidiano. While he has spoken and written extensively about the physical blight of the global pandemic, its catastrophic reach and its cruel intrusion, he has also recommended a reframing of the current situation. Rather than focus on despair and fear (although he himself has identified with such sentiments), he has urged people to conceive of this time as a period of introspection and as an opportunity for spiritual and moral renewal, both an interior conversion (a personal kenosis) but also a sincere participation in lo cotidiano, following Jesus. As Pope Francis explained at a general audience in August,

Faith, hope and love necessarily push us towards this preference for those  most in need, which goes beyond necessary assistance... it implies walking  together, letting ourselves be evangelized by them, who know the suffering Christ well, … Sharing with the poor means mutual enrichment … we are led  to this by the love of Christ, Who loved us to the extreme and reaches the boundaries, the margins, the existential frontiers ...[2]

Walking with Christ and those ‘most in need’ to the edges of the human condition is a formidable challenge for anyone but it is a challenge that must be met if the Church is not fully and finally to be emptied. The high-minded rhetoric of a select few increasingly echoes along silent aisles and unoccupied pews exactly because it is rhetoric of a few who are privileged and the powerful but who  are no longer accepted to speak for others, especially for the many marginalized and poor ‘from the margins’ who have for too long been forced to remain silent or who were not permitted to tell their stories, to speak of their realities, have their voices heard. As Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz two decades ago and Pope Francis a few weeks ago both have suggested, for the Church not only to survive but to flourish, it must become filled with the light of day, irradiated and brought to life by the luminosity of lo cotidiano of the people of God.

June-Ann Greeley is a medievalist and professor of Catholic studies, theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.

[1] Ana Maria Isais-Diaz, “Lo Cotidiano: A Key Element of Mujerista Theology”, Journal of Hispanic/Latino Theology, 10:1 (Aug. 2002), 9.

[2] http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/audiences/2020/documents/papa-francesco_20200819_udienza-generale.html 


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Thank you, June-Ann, for reminding us of the wise insights of a theologian we lost all too early. It was a great treat to have met her in person in the early 2000s, for which you were responsible, I believe.

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