This semester at Sacred Heart, all students enrolled in the core great books seminars in the Catholic intellectual tradition will be reading a short address from Sr. Thea Bowman, which she gave to the 1987 National Congress of the Religious Formation Conference. The address presents the urgent need to decenter whiteness in religious formation, embracing the multicultural reality of Catholicism. Sr. Thea grounds this call in Christ’s own call to all people. With homiletic artfulness, she builds a litany of Jesus’ call to people from every continent, age, race and marital status.
The final movement of this call turns to those on the margins of both church and society:
“‘Only virgins of good reputation and good family were admitted.’ Now Jesus calls virgins of good repute, also victims of sexual abuse, child abuse, chemical abuse, violence and war; some who have been and perhaps are sexually, heterosexually, homosexually active, presenting the whole threat of AIDS in our formation programs; some people who are sexually preoccupied, misunderstood, misunderstanding and grieving. […] Jesus calls to the diverse, and how often they find themselves misunderstood.” (Bowman, “Cosmic Spirituality,” in Shooting Star, p. 110)
This speech, of course, is marked by the particulars of Sr. Thea’s own moment, such as the AIDS crisis, at its height in the 1980s and 90s. Yet, in rereading it, I found it to be timely in its description of a church marked by both misunderstanding and a desire to reflect the mission of Christ’s love.
There are three kinds of misunderstanding, at least, that the church must grapple with to better live out its mission. The first is a willful misunderstanding that at a certain point becomes so malicious as to warrant a stronger vocabulary—not simply misunderstanding, but a will to do harm. Read from our own point in history, Sr. Thea’s discussion of the victims of sexual abuse and child abuse takes on a terrible new significance in light of the ongoing revelations about the scope of the sexual abuse of children and adults by Catholic clergy and lay workers globally. The story of this crisis far too often continues to reflect a will to protect institutional power rather than an effort to understand and side with the pain of victims/survivors.
On a smaller scale, this malicious misunderstanding is reflected in moments like this week’s Twitter discussion after The Catholic League tweeted that Pete Buttigieg’s marriage was a “legal fiction.” Fr. Jim Martin’s factual correction to this tweet—that Mr. Buttigieg is married legally and in the eyes of his Episcopal church—was met with both torrents of homophobic abuse and theological gatekeeping about the distinctions of legal and sacramental marriage. Both kinds of response to Fr. Martin echoed a willful misunderstanding of Christ’s call to people of all sexual orientations. This type of willful misunderstanding continues to protect institutional power and norms at the cost of the diversity of the members of the body of Christ.
The second kind of misunderstanding is the tragic consequence of structures of social sin that separate us from one another. Prior to our conscious consent, we enter into scripts about the value of our bodies, our class, our culture, which some of us then internalize in ways that lead us to harm others. This is the kind of misunderstanding Sr. Thea discusses when she speaks of white formation personnel who assume the normativity of their spiritual practices without a real desire to learn from the spiritual practices of other cultures.
There is, I think, a relationship between this kind of misunderstanding and the third, which is the simple human error of not fully understanding the experience of another. These are the small misunderstandings that may be impacted by social sin but may also result from a lack of gracefully navigating human community. This kind of misunderstanding is the source of the smaller but real feelings of a lack of acceptance in spaces like parishes. During the local phase of the synod, I heard from many people who had some small interaction with their priest or a long-established parishioner that left them feeling misunderstood. While some could point to the second misunderstanding as the root cause, an exclusion born of racism or the privileging of married people, for others, it was a more intangible feeling that they had not truly been seen.
In her life and ministry, Sr. Thea undoubtedly encountered all these kinds of misunderstandings. Yet, in this address, she makes it clear that throughout all these human errors, both malicious and unintended, Jesus continues to call. This continual call is a grace—a grace that empowers us to try to misunderstand less, both as individuals and as a church. If the church does embrace synodality more fully—and what exactly that means and looks like is still being discovered—then we will presumably find more patterns for speaking and listening together. This is a small grace, perhaps, but still one that might allow us to misunderstand less and to be more ready, in Sr. Thea’s words, to hear Jesus’ call.
Callie Tabor is a lecturer in the Department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.