Sisters Against Abusive Power: St. Teresa, Port-Royal, and Modern African Religious

Seal of the Little Sisters of Saint Francis (LSOSF). Credit: LSOSF (Source)

Following on the heels of my first co-publication on this blog, I am pleased and proud to present my first guest post. The essay you will find here makes a compelling case both for justice in the cause of oppressed African sisters, and for following early modern models in that struggle. I was very pleased to read and edit Sister Edelquine’s formidable work here, especially given my own specialty in the history of French Jansenism. In re-approaching the nuns of Port-Royal as a potential model for contemporary Catholic women, Sister Edelquine follows a similar strategy put forward recently by, inter alia, Dr. Elissa Cutter.

Sr. Edelquine Shivachi is a Kenyan sister from the order of the Little Sisters of St. Francis. She is a PhD student in Theology at the University of Notre Dame—USA, specializing in World Religions and World Church. Sr. Shivachi is passionate about the developments and trends of Christianity in Africa and in the world. She is also interested in deeply understanding the growth of the life of women religious across the globe over the past centuries and linking that history to the contemporary life of sisters. 

Without further ado, I present her piece below:

Sisters Against Abusive Power: St. Teresa, Port-Royal, and Modern African Religious

Early Modernity was not only a time of Catholic renewal after the Reformation but also a new spring time for religious orders. St. Teresa of Avila’s reform of the Carmelites is well known, but perhaps less recognized are the achievements of the Cistercian abbesses of the Arnauld family in Port-Royal, Mère Angélique Arnauld (1591-1661), Mère Agnès Arnauld (1593-1671), and Mère Angélique de Saint-Jean Arnauld d’Andilly (1624-1684). While St. Teresa fought for reforms of her order, the nuns of Port-Royal defended their way of life on the basis of a philosophy of education. Both, I argue in this paper, can be an inspiration and resource for contemporary African sisters to develop a vision of courageous religious life based on education and prayer, which will help them regain control over their institutions and resources and combat the power abuse of secular or ecclesiastical authorities.

The Historical Background

St. Teresa of Avila and the Arnauld Abbesses [hereafter Abbesses] both non-violently defended themselves against patriarchal oppression. St. Teresa encountered trials because she was a mystic. Her visions, levitations, and transverberations—ways she communed with God—threatened both religious and civil authorities who, at that time, thought that a woman could not speak to God.[1] Her fervent zeal to protect the values of the convents ushered in her Catholic reforms against the elite of the time and her own order. She stopped the elite’s influence on convents in such issues as dowries and encouraged sisters to pray unceasingly. Her reform of Carmelite prayer shaped the convents’ prayer and religious life, as many communities emulate today. In a similar manner, the Abbesses wholly defended their Jansenist theology.[2] Most of them were highly educated in that theology and philosophy to their advantage. Soeur Jacqueline Pascal, for instance, was seen as “one of the leading philosophers of the Port-Royal convent.”[3] Her “mystical theology has an acute apophatic sense of God’s alterity.”[4] Angélique clearly understood the theology concerning God’s providence.[5] Their social background also enabled them to resist abuse of power and persist in their theology because they were backed up by their families and relatives who got involved in the affairs of the convent.[6] Their reforms embodied the Benedictine and Cistercian ideals of monasticism.[7]

Both St. Teresa and the Abbesses maintained focus in their quest for justice by fully vesting themselves with “revolutionary modes” that ranged from education, courage, humility, and honesty. These modes made them speak and dialogue with God and with their abusers. They also displayed competency in their theologies and understood their call to religious life as originating from God and not from human authorities, whether religious or civil. Can African sisters learn anything from them? Indeed! I suggest that a reconsideration of St. Teresa of Avila and the Abbesses’ persistence to defend themselves, their theologies, and philosophies against the abuse of patriarchal power can provide a helpful prism for African sisters to defend their existence in dioceses as they face patriarchal power abusers.

Review on Abuse of Power

To flesh out this proposal concretely, I am asking how St. Teresa of Avila and the Abbesses’ battle with early modern gendered abuses can inform the contemporary African sisters in their challenges with, first, abuse of power, and, secondly, the ongoing subjugation of women throughout history. Looking back shows that we are not just constructing something based solely on wishful thinking, “but out of the need for a perspective in order to interpret the past to the present.”[8] It is necessary to be informed about what has been done before to avoid stagnation. Kwesi Dickson, an African woman theologian, affirms this by stating that

The present stagnation may be accounted for by reference to the fact that recent discussions often seem to be unaware of past discussions on the subject. Again and again, contributions made at conferences have not been such as to build upon the insights which have already been gained into the subject.[9]

Kwesi Dickson

Musa Dube, an African woman theologian, also confirms the importance of the past by asserting that the static nature of oppression among African women that involves the struggle over social, religious, and imperial independence is far from won.[10] To win that struggle demands a revolutionary action that is rather subtle, intelligible, and prudent.

More specifically, and using concrete examples, I propose an “institutional dynamism” among African sisters through holistic education and a return to prayer, just as the lives of Teresa and the Abbesses illustrate. By “institutional dynamism,” I mean that African sisters’ individual institutes should follow the footsteps of St. Teresa and the Abbesses and employ zealous and innovative pedagogies to end the ongoing oppression of sisters by clergy and advance a history of sisters that fosters freedom and autonomy.[11]

Let me first offer the current state of life of most African sisters. The context within which East African sisters reside are oppressive, treacherous, and vicious in themselves and to the sisters. From my own experience as a member of an African sisters’ community, there are significant vestiges of oppression in most of our African convents, as there were during the time of St. Teresa and the Abbesses. Most communities of sisters lack permission from local ordinaries to begin their own income-generating projects. They are only allowed to manage diocesan projects with no equivalent remuneration—making the sisters perpetually dependent on international aid. Involvement in any income-generating projects leads to threats from these very authorities. Secular and religious authorities also take over sisters’ schools, convents, and hospitals founded by their foundresses. Sadly, the convents are in dilapidated situations for lack of renovation and can collapse on the sisters at any time. Sisters risk their lives in the name of serving the diocese. Such mistreatment is accompanied by verbal statements from local ordinaries such as “your convent is under my jurisdiction and you must do what I say,” or even, “you are under me.” These phrases mirror those that Péréfixe, Archbishop of Paris, said of Mère Agnès and her religious: “These sisters are as pure as angels, but as proud as devils.”[12] These statements of pride are—as it were—unchristian.[13] They also indicate how the authorities override their mandate and obedience to the canon law.[14]

Some sisters of the LSOSF. Credit: LSOSF (Source)

But the most grievous thing is that most Church authorities do not comprehend the institutes’ constitutions. The constitution of an anonymous institute, for instance, permits sisters to use four colors of habits—beige, white, cream, and coffee brown. Unfortunately, some authorities ordered that those sisters stop wearing the coffee brown habit because those authorities disliked that specific color. This defeats the logic of the constitution, the governing principles of an organization. It is also against the call of the canon law that “religious are to wear the habit of the institute, made according to the norm of proper Law.”[15] The constitution safeguards the autonomy of religious institutes as well as the patrimony of religious founders, without which sisters lose direction for lack of a road map.[16] Failure to hearken to the constitution is also illicit because it literally indicates a breach of the law, which ought to safeguard the subjects. This should not be the case. Since it is the case, we can only categorize it as abuse of power. It is consistently and consciously stepping on sisters’ rights present in their own constitution—which the sisters know, while, apparently, they cower in fear. They are perhaps ignorant of their own rights in their constitution. This also shows how authorities take for granted the laws that govern religious institutes. They opt for “cold oppression” because, most likely, sisters are heedless of being oppressed—or even of their own constitution. Pope Francis recognized this abuse of power by the clergy towards sisters and advised sisters worldwide that their call is for service and not for servitude. The Pope went on to warn sisters that, “you didn’t become nuns to be cleaners for a clergyman, no!”[17] To become aware and fearless, education to eradicate ignorance and naiveté is crucial for sisters.

The oppression of African sisters is reminiscent of that of St. Teresa and the Abbesses. St. Teresa’ mysticism, for instance, was often suspected to stem from deception or demonic influence.[18]  The medical and scientific authorities of the time perceived Teresa’s ecstasies as signs of experiencing sexual orgasm, a product of hysteria, mental illness, and psychological disorder as some artists had depicted her.[19] In 1651, a Jesuit theologian, Jean de Brisacier, denounced the Abbesses, calling them “impenitent women, desperadoes, opponents of the sacraments, fanatics, and foolish virgins.”[20] Thus, the history of sisters’ exploitation by abusive power is ongoing and, at the same time, must end.

Abuse of power is also internally orchestrated by institute leaders who fail to rule diligently as the canon law demands.[21] Unlike the Abbesses who defended their sisters, some superior generals collude with the clergy to abuse their power by intimidating their subjects in convents, who, in return, cower in fear of dismissal from the institutes. Some superiors adamantly refuse to support sisters to study because of tribalism, dislike, and jealousy. Others deliberately appoint sisters to poor communities not as the Holy Spirit directs, but rather as a way to punish sisters who seem to be a threat, perhaps because they are educated or are vocally challenging unsororal structures and aspects in the institutes. Although this essay deals with the male authority abusers in particular, it suffices to state that superior generals of institutes of consecrated life must desist from misuse of their power, act in solidarity with their sisters, and together forge a way forward to eradicate oppression that incapacitates sisters.

Mère Agnès Arnauld, Abbess of Port-Royal, in a 1662 portrait by Philippe de Champaigne (Source)

African sisters should emulate the solidarity that St. Teresa and the Abbesses of Port-Royal created in convents to move in unison from such abuses into institutionally dynamic pedagogy. St. Teresa received support from her sisters in the community, who always watched her during her levitations and trances and positively witnessed her mysticism against dissenters such as the Inquisition.[22] Her trances caused physical changes in her body, which was “perilous” in mid-sixteenth-century Spain. The sisters offered information on her levitations and trances to ecclesiastical authorities who needed authentic information to judge Teresa’s orthodoxy.[23] The Abbesses too supported each other in their defense of Jansenism. Mère Agnès “stoutly defended her sister [Mere Angélique] in her subsequent reform initiatives; morally and physically she stood at the side of her sister during the decisive Journée du guichet [1609],” in which Mere Angélique denied her parents entry into the strict cloister she had imposed on the convent.[24] Their own solidarity was the keystone to getting rid of oppression from the external forces that threatened them. African sisters must defend and support each other against external abuse and influence as the Abbesses did. Supporting each other through strong bonds of solidarity in our communities instead of hating each other is crucial to completely mitigate abuse of power.

Besides ending this ongoing oppression, holistic education and enracinement in prayer will also promote peaceful non-violent dialogues and wholesome existence between sisters and diocesan authorities, thus reducing the long-standing animosity between the two parties. This institutionally dynamic pedagogy of holistic education and rootedness in prayer is opposed to the mere “submissive acceptance” that African sisters have been socialized into.

Holistic Education of African Sisters as a Way Forward

One thing that makes African sisters susceptible to oppression is their choice of studies. Many of them work as either teachers or nurses because circumstances discourage women from undertaking more serious studies. For instance, theology in Africa is currently not a lucrative discipline for women as law or medicine. Women don’t value theological and philosophical studies because they no longer want to work in seminaries or novitiates—or even teach at universities without salaries. Moreover, they feel that theology and philosophy are male disciplines. This gendering of disciplines means that sisters lack holistic knowledge because they avoid male subjects. The gendering of education makes women vulnerable because they cannot defend themselves in disciplines where they lack competence. This deficiency in some disciplines is a source of progressive oppression. That is why returning to a holistic education like that of St. Teresa and the Abbesses could remedy the consistent oppression of women historically because sisters will defend themselves in the disciplines where men claim authority. Conley observes that we do not hear about the Abbesses because their literary and monastic genres of writing had heavy theological content that only few contemporary readers can penetrate.[25] He also observes that the philosophical contribution of these nuns is eclipsed by “the extraordinary philosophical stature of the male clerics and laity” who were close collaborators with them, including Blaise Pascal and Antoine Arnauld.[26] The Abbesses were educated and had competence in their subject such that men like Conley recognized it, even though some contemporary authorities did not.

While it is true that education in the time of St. Teresa and the Abbesses differs from that of present-day African sisters, their zeal and the power to take on an interdisciplinary type of education should solve sisters’ quest to mitigate oppression from abuse of power. African sisters are compelled, as Swart argues, “to work towards a theology that continues to renew and empower, to stand up with dignity and worth like the healed crippled woman.”[27] The only way out of oppression into dignity and integrity as a people who share in the communion of the creation of God is through holistic education, because then, sisters will eliminate ignorance and naiveté. They will demonstrate that the world of the convent should not be foreign to the normative venues of modern philosophy, but rather that modern convents are great libraries of deep interdisciplinary discourses on enormous ancient and contemporary matters.[28] Sisters will demonstrate that convents are research centers where authorities—whether secular or spiritual, from within and without—yearn to draw knowledge.

An example of the lack of holistic education and its effects will be helpful here. A sister shared with me how the diocese had taken over their school property. The diocese alleged that the school failed to adhere to the charism of the foundress. The sisters in administration raised tuition and employed even non-Catholics. On inquiring whether the administration had the necessary education even to lead the school, I was told that “the headteacher has only a high school diploma.” This satisfaction and pride in a single diploma were to the detriment of the order. A high school diploma is not sufficient to argue for and defend the sisters on the issues raised about tuition and employing non-Catholics. The deficiency of holistic education in such areas as theology, law, and philosophy made the sisters incompetent in defending and protecting their school. They widely and imprudently opened avenues for the authorities to take over their school—loopholes that could have been sealed with appropriate education. This lack of holistic education has exacerbated susceptibility to patriarchal oppression since the time of St. Teresa and the Abbesses. Conley observes about the Abbesses that the exclusion of early modern convents from philosophical arguments was because the voices of the “most highly educated group of women in this period” and the suppression of their canon was shaped by “a profound theological culture.”[29] Although the Abbesses were theologically stable, authorities ingeniously hid their literature as a way to suppress the Abbesses’ genius nature.

Considering that challenges occur in all institutional settings such as schools, hospitals, and orphanages, it is imperative for superior generals to ensure that their sisters study in various fields. Superior generals relish authority over other sisters, as the Constitution of the Little Sisters of St. Francis [LSOSF] affirms. It states that the superior general “exercises authority over her sisters” and has the supremacy to either send nuns to school or not.[30] So, superior generals ought to direct their sisters to venture into other fields such as theological studies, where they will study the Bible, the lives of the saints, doctrinal theories, the liturgy, and spiritual authors.[31] The Abbesses advocated the education of women in theology and philosophy by their own example so that these women could make conscious “judgement in the ecclesiastical and political disputes of the age.”[32] Soeur Jacqueline, for instance, was seen as “one of the leading philosophers of Port-Royal convent.”[33] Angélique for her part, “had a sophisticated understanding of theology” especially concerning God’s providence.[34] They offered a different perspective on the “doctrine of grace and the legal arguments against the sanctions imposed on them.”[35] They defended their theology with their conscience by failing to append their signatures, which, Conley holds, is “an apology for the right of women to engage in critical discussions of religious issues and of questions of the limits of authority.”[36] African sisters must also venture into civil and canon law and the social sciences to keep abreast of issues in the political arena.

One of the model sisters who come to mind when I think of educating sisters interdisciplinarily is the Kenyan sister and Professor Anne Nasimiyu, the former superior general of the LSOSF [2012-2016]. She was very pro-education and she strongly supported sisters to study courses such as law, medicine, theology, and philosophy that would be beneficial to the institute.[37] In her own words to the donors, “…as I told you before, we do not have any LSOSF who has studies in Philosophy to MA level.”[38] In stating how the institute delayed to take sisters to school, she once remarked that “it is now thirty years since I graduated and embarked on teaching and there is no LSOSF who followed into my footsteps.”[39] Nasimiyu—whom other superiors should emulate—gave pride to the LSOSF who now support their own sisters in numerous disciplines. Yet, a lot is to be done if taking numerous sisters to school is the sure pace that sisters should walk to end subjugation. As a matter of fact, this modern era of science and technology, of secularism, and of modernity does not exclude sisters from such a holistic education. Inarguably, sisters face challenges from all walks of life during their ministry. Holistic education is their only credible, realistic, and achievable approach to end sisters’ intellectual challenges and render the sisters competent and dependent in their ministry as well as combat the long-lasting, stunted history of sisters’ oppression.[40]

Saint Teresa of Avila, in what is probably the only portrait of her painted from life. (Source)

Reconsidering holistic education by African sisters is advantageous in numerous ways. First, they will recognize any challenges “by an ecclesiastical judgement that appears to contradict the truth.”[41] St. Teresa faced opposition from theologians such as Father Gaspar Daza, who told her that she could not commune with God in her imperfect nature. Alonso de la Fuente, a Dominican friar, also held that the Vida had “the venom of heresy within it, so secretly expressed, so well disguised, so smoothly varnished…”[42] He added that the subject of the Vida “exceeded the capacity of any woman.”[43] Furthermore, the skepticism by people like René Descartes and secularism in Western culture in the eighteenth century reduced the Vida’s popularity.[44] In response, St. Teresa drew theological lessons such as God’s love for all His people from her encounters with the divine, and these lessons help us understand mystical theology as a way that God intimately encounters his people. Moreover, she credits the power of God’s love within her. She says, “a great love of God grew within and I did not know who had put it there, because it was very supernatural, and I had not sought it out.”[45] The Abbesses focused on controversies concerning the dogma of grace and the dogmatic authority of the Church during the decades of persecution by Louis XIV and his ecclesiastical allies.[46]

Holistic education will help African sisters to find and dare to find their “self-identification in the life and teachings of Jesus, who accepted women as full human beings,” and not as the Aristotelian definition of woman as a “misbegotten male.”[47] The Abbesses found their place in society by making claims to defend the right of nuns to exercise authority and the convent to enjoy autonomy.[48] Angélique held that women should exercise authority in an evangelical manner, which is being vigilant to help the poor in wars, pestilence, and famine.[49] She was convinced that if power could be used to persecute the elect [Port-Royal nuns], it could be well used in the governance of religious and civic communities by women. She held that women religious should be in authority and that the community should elect the superior, adopt laws, and approve ways of resolving convent problems.[50] Moreover, she claimed that a female superior should be spiritual director, theological instructor, and disciplinarian for her nuns.[51] She proposed that nuns should appoint and dismiss convent chaplains and preachers. On the part of St. Teresa, modern “seekers” like Evelyn Underhill, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Edith Stein, and Dorothy Day consider St. Teresa’s Vida as an accessible model of female devotional life and, more recently, a valuable source for scholars of women’s writing. They appreciate it as a sign of love, ecstasy, mirroring Mary the Virgin who was impregnated by God, as well as martyrdom and the superiority of Catholicism.[52] It is exigent for African sisters to end oppression by trailing the path that the Abbesses and St. Teresa blazed and perceive their womanhood with a more optimistic perspective than that shaped by manipulation.

At the same time, they will embrace what they know is relevant for the Church in terms of faith and morals and fill in the gaps of misjudgment in religion and politics, just as the Abbesses were convinced about Jansen’s theology amidst pressure to “choose between unqualified submission to condemnation of Jansen or the gradual destruction of the convent.”[53] They refused to submit to the “Church’s condemnation of the five controversial theological propositions on grace.”[54] Moreover, they “refused any assent to judgments of fait” that claimed that Jansen had advocated such positions.[55] African sisters must imitate these brave examples and authentically embrace what is relevant in their lives.

To illustrate how East African sisters will embrace what is relevant, let us return for a moment to the story of the “diploma sister” and illustrate how she would have responded to the accusations had she embraced a holistic education. She would have argued that the context of their foundress and her current working context differed. In her present context, everything was expensive. This caused her to ask for tuition from students because she needed money to run the school. Had she studied better, this sister would have cited Perfectae Caritatis [October, 1965], which argues “adaptation to the changed conditions of our time… is to the Church’s advantage.”[56] The decree further states that each institute has “its own proper character and function.”[57]

The sister would have argued further that she was renewing the institute’s life to adapt to modern situations, as the above papal document admonished. On the issue of employing non-Catholics, she would have argued for ecumenism as a tool for brotherhood, where we encourage and strengthen one another in Christian discipleship.[58] By employing non-Catholics, the sister wanted to learn and deeply know her tradition in relation with Islamic traditions. She would have readily come by these responses if she had studied different fields, such as administration, theology, and even accounting. Since she did not partake of such important studies, an abusive authority took advantage of her—she had nobody to whom to air her miseries.

Moreover, holistic education will keep African sisters abreast of current issues and help them to engage in debates, write books, and have huge convent archives of literature as in the time of St. Teresa and the Port-Royal Abbesses. St. Teresa wrote the Vida to explain her ineffable experiences to the Inquisition. Eire notes that the Vida is “an attempt to come to grips with her mystical experiences and place them in some intelligible theological context.”[59] She had a grasp of theology and “intertwined description and analysis in an effort to make sense of something that was beyond rational thought.”[60] The Abbesses documented the experiences of their lives. Angélique wrote an autobiography, which was mostly the story of her community’s heroic resistance in the face of its religious tribulations, such as struggles against Jesuits and their defense of their schools.[61] Mère Angélique de Saint-Jean and Antoine Le Maître documented the life of Mère Angélique and her convent reform.[62] They also encouraged the sisters in the convent to document their own lives and those of others.[63] They studied and understood the need to write about their lives, namely maintaining the legacy of their rule and Jansenist theology.

When sisters study, they will write and research, and like St. Teresa and the Abbesses, they will intellectually dialogue with the authorities rather than accepting defeat without mounting an informed defense of their position. Maurice Muhatia, Bishop of Nakuru diocese, observes that for a long time, Africans were accused of lacking a philosophy because they lacked written literature, but that did not mean that Africans lacked a philosophy. According to Muhatia, “time has come to aggressively back up such affirmations with written literature.”[64] Sisters ought to be on the forefront in writing these literatures. Additionally, they will together express themselves fiercely about issues that oppress them and amicably address those issues. Additionally, they will cultivate their religious “culture and authority” through their own writings because education advances one’s ability to write.[65] In sum, holistic education will ensure that the history of sisters is a dynamic source of hope for lay women who—I have seen—are oppressed in society today. The lay women look to educated sisters as models, who are no longer confined to “wageless work of paradise,”[66] but rather, prudently engage their counterparts in healthy discourses. The educated sisters will avoid petty competition that is based on uninformed matters.

The Power of Prayer and Contemplation

The second insight that will ensure institutional dynamism for African sisters and what St. Teresa and the Abbesses suggest for African sisters is the power of prayer. St. Teresa spent most of her time in prayer. She observes how a feeling of God’s presence engulfed her until she could not doubt that God was within her, which she claims was “mystical theology.”[67] On their part, prayer motivated the Abbesses even as they wrote their texts. Mère Angélique, for instance, “made a retreat in order to write.”[68] But even during that time of retreat, “she gave more time to prayer than to writing.”[69] She observed a balance between prayer and writing.[70] Her texts focus on the direction of God of her reform and provides a model that others can follow. Angélique’s goal in writing was not so much to “record history by naming all relevant facts,” but to record “God’s view of history.”[71]

A stained glass window illustrating a mystical experience of St. Teresa, Avila, Spain. (Source)

Therefore, prayer is a tool to disempower abusers and usher in freedom to African sisters. From my own experience as a student who rarely gets or creates time to pray, there is too much involvement in the outside world. Sisters forget the essentials of consecrated life—prayer and penance.[72] They need to be re-rooted in prayer because praying is part and parcel of what it means to be a sister. The canon law confirms this by upholding contemplation of divine things as the first duty of religious.[73] Lack of prayer is the source of both vertical and horizontal spiritual emptiness. When we are spiritually empty, we break the essential communication with God and begin to revere ourselves because we lose focus of the one we should worship. St. Augustine refers to this self-reference as a reversal of the hierarchy of being, where humanity places itself at the top and replaces God.[74] In this state of emptiness, we get lost in the non-essentials of life such as travelling, absence of community life, and noise. Doing this guarantees a continued legacy of failing to convert the minds of obstinate authorities because we lack spiritual powers. Holding on to prayer is crucial in consecrated life, and, unless religious engage in more prayer, they shall continue failing to understand the core call to serve God and not God’s creatures. They will keep serving both subjugating male and female authorities, and, sorrowfully, “a chasing after the wind.”[75]

But how should African sisters pray? I propose having a prayer that names all that oppresses sisters, but also includes and blesses the oppressors. For instance, a prayer like:

Dear God, help Bishop Y to understand that we are here because you called us and not because we called ourselves. If closing this school is your will, show us a sign by softening our hearts to let it go. If it is not your will, do direct our beloved Bishop not to oppress us for what you have given us. Amen.

Such a prayer that names what oppresses the sisters could be a helpful way out of subjugation because when you name what oppresses you, you are self-released from the pain of abuse and hand over that pain to Christ. Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis, which is an association of ideas with memory, posits that what people reveal on the outside was already in their unconscious.[76] Here, the sisters apply this theory to themselves and bring out what oppresses and has been pushed to the unconscious for healing to take place. In other words, they discover that their vulnerability can only be replaced by the love of God.

Mère Angélique de Saint Jean Arnauld d’Andilly, the extremely formidable Abbess of Port-Royal in its “glorious autumn.” (Source)

Other practices include increasing the number of days for retreats, inclusion of daily adoration in their prayer program, unceasingly seeking personal prayer, and prudently desiring reconciliation with their opponents as individuals and as communities. St. Teresa loved personal prayer because she met Christ through it. One thing that changed her life was seeing the image of the suffering Christ, which prompted her to love silent prayer.[77] The Abbesses constructed their prayers. When Soeur Angélique de Saint Jean was put under house arrest for failing to append her signature on the formulary, she constructed “her own daily office of prayer” in order to “maintain her integrity.”[78] She also commented on biblical “passages and graces in meditation.” This “bolstered her resistance as her imprisonment lengthened.”[79] Prayer was, thus, at the center of the convent of Port-Royal. For personal prayer, for instance, African sisters should create extra time outside the customary community time to pray. They can do this by going to the chapel thirty minutes earlier than the scheduled time. They can also create a different time to pray, perhaps in nature as they walk in the compound or silently offer their prayers in the chapel or Church, not forgetting the lectio divina.

The first call of sisters is to pray consistently because prayer is efficacious in many ways. First, prayer is God’s word in humanity that is spoken to us.[80] It is communing with God, asking His advice, and profoundly befriending Him—the one who responds to our needs. This gift of divine providence propels us to courageously face challenges, believing that God’s response is remedial to those challenges.[81] Prayer also helps to relate our experiences with those of Christ as St. Teresa and the Abbesses did. Mère Angélique developed the ethics of resistance to abuses of power when their convents were attacked. This ethics discerns the role of persecution in the mystery of divine providence. She held that God abandons the elect to the violent opposition to the world.[82] She argued that when evil surrounds the convent, it is a sign that God’s elect share in the suffering of Christ. Angélique further held that suffering for the truth was in line with the philosophy of the convent.[83] Nothing pays off better than realizing how human history is engraved in the story of Jesus. Yet it is even better when we discover that we have no right, no strength, no room to fight for ourselves, but rather, must let Jesus fight for us because of His graciousness.[84] When sisters understand that their suffering is a single story within the huge story of Christ’s suffering, they accept suffering in faith—as the Abbesses advised—rather than to retaliate without credibly-informed pedagogies.

Moreover, the call to prayer is a call to “conversation between the creature and God.”[85] It is a mission to understand how our humanity is vulnerable and in need of God alone. Prayer is a radical way to keep the history of women religious dynamic and free from oppression through abuse of power. Through prayer, people obtain scholarships for study, they get employed, and they come to know better how to handle challenges and become models of the love of God in society. Moreover, sisters will attract authorities to themselves, who will defend them instead of persecuting, as Teresa’s mysticism attracted the entire Church. Eire says of Teresa that she “reified Catholicism, embodied it, and made evident its many truth.”[86]

Conclusion

Let us conclude by reiterating that St. Teresa of Avila and the Arnauld Abbesses of Port-Royal rejected the abusive power of male authorities. Instead of blind submission, they developed their convent philosophies orally and in writing—specifically, in manuscripts, displaying their competency in matters that authoritative powers failed to comprehend, thus, failing to subjugate the sisters and end their theology and philosophy. They invite African sisters to embrace holistic education through which they can debate at the same table with both male and female figures as well as with the educated majority of people that they minister to and with. In this way, sisters will defend themselves competently as well as command the respect, dignity, and autonomy that their constitutions demand. Our models also summon African sisters to become rooted in prayer—praying for their friends as well as their enemies to let God fight for them.[87] Holistic education and prayer are the sure ways for African sisters to become institutionally dynamic and combat the history of sisters’ oppression in Africa.

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__________. The Other Pascals: The Philosophy of Jacqueline Pascal, Gilberte Pascal Perier, and Marguerite Perier. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2019.

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Dube, Musa. Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. Missouri: Chalice Press, 2000.

Eire, Carlos. The Life of Teresa of Avila: A Biography. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2019.

Fournet, Pierre Auguste. “Arnauld.” The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1907. 19 May 2018.

Karl, Rahner. Karl Rahner Spiritual Writings, Endean Philip (Ed.). New York: Orbis Books, 2004.

Kwesi, Dickson. Theology in Africa. Maryknoll: London, Orbis Books, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1984.

Makumba, Muhatia Maurice. An Introduction to African Philosophy: Past and Present. Nairobi: Pauline Publications, 2007.

Oberman, Augustinus Heiko. The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Thought. Edinburgh: T&T. Cark LTD, 1986.

Pals, Daniel. Eight Theories of Religion. Oxford: Oxford university Press, 2006.

Pope John, Paul II. 1983 Code of Canon Law. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, September.

Pope Paul VI. Perfectae Caritatis, Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, promulgated on October 28, 1965.

Pope Paul VI. The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. (15 August, 1967).

Ruether, Radford Rosemary. Sexism and Godtalk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1983.

Sedgwick, Alexander. The Travails of Conscience: The Arnauld Family and the Ancien Régime. Harvard University Press, 1998.

St. Augustine. Concerning the City of God Against Pagans. Henry Bettenson (Trans). England: Penguin Books, 1972.

Swart, Angelene. “Dignity and Worth in the Common Wealth of God” in Groaning in Faith, African Women in the Household of God. Nairobi: Acton Publishers, 1996.


[1] Carlos, Eire. The Life of Teresa of Avila: A Biography. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2019.

[2] This theology stressed simultaneous affirmation of the radical Augustinian philosophy/theory of grace, which offers less to do with free will, and a social philosophy of limited civil power, which defended the right of dissent as a guarantor of human freedom [38]. Cf. John, Conley. Adoration and Annihilation: The Convent Philosophy of Port Royal. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009. Here, I am not claiming that Jansenist theology was good or bad. I am specifically dealing with how successful were the strategies they employed to defend that theology.

[3] Conley. Adoration and Annihilation. 25.

[4] Conley. The Other Pascals: The Philosophy of Jacqueline Pascal, Gilberte Pascal Perier, and Marguerite Perier. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2019. Introduction.

[5] Elissa, Cutter. “Apology in the Form of Autohagiography: Angelique Arnauld’s defense of Her Reform of Port-Royal” The Catholic Historical Review. Volume 105, 2(2019). 290.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Conley. Adoration and Annihilation. 4.

[8] Heiko, Augustinus Oberman. The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Thought. Edinburgh: T&T. Cark LTD, 1986. 19.

[9] Kwesi, A. Dickson. Theology in Africa. Maryknoll: London, Orbis Books, Darton, Longman and Todd. 1984. 8.

[10] Musa, Dube. Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. Missouri: Chalice Press, 2000. 99.

[11] Pope Paul VI. The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. (15 August, 1967).

[12] Auguste, Pierre, Fournet. “Arnauld.” The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 19 May 2018.

[13] St. Augustine. Concerning the City of God Against Pagans. Henry Bettenson, Trans. England: Penguin Books, 1972. Bks 1-5.

[14] Pope John Paul II. 1983 Code of Canon Law. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, September 19. 609, section 1.

[15] Canon 669, section 1.

[16] Canon 662; 578.

[17] Pope Francis’s message to major superiors in Rome, May 10, 2019.

[18] Erie. The Life of Teresa of Avila. 38.

[19] Ibid. 178-9; 184.

[20] Conley. Adoration and Annihilation. 52.

[21] Canon 617-19.

[22] Erie. The Life of Teresa of Avila. 89-91.

[23] Ibid. 43.

[24] Conley. Adoration and Annihilation. 115.

[25] Conley. Adoration and Annihilation. 2.

[26] Ibid. 2.

[27] Angelene, Swart. “Dignity and Worth in the Common Wealth of God.” in Groaning in Faith, African Women in the Household of God. Nairobi: Acton Publishers, 1996. 60; Lk 13:12.

[28] Conley. Adoration and Annihilation. 3.

[29] Conley. Adoration and Annihilation. 3.

[30] Little Sisters of St. Francis, Third Order Regular. Constitution of the Little Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi. Meru: Kolbe Press, 1994. 102, 45.

[31] John, Conley. The Other Pascals: The Philosophy of Jacqueline Pascal, Gilberte Paschal Perier, and Marguerite Perier. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2019. 13.

[32] Ibid, 2.

[33] Conley. Adoration and Annihilation. 25.

[34] Cutter. “Apology in the Form of Autohagiography: Angelique Arnauld’s defense of Her Reform of Port-Royal” 303

[35] Conley. Adoration and Annihilation. 31.

[36] Ibid. 41.

[37] Anne Nasimiyu. “Scholarship application” Donnerstag, March 10, 2016

[38] Nasimiyu, “Scholarship application” Donnerstag, March 10, 2016

[39] Ibid.

[40] Better Cooperation of religious orders regarding education could also be helpful here. An example is Chemchemi institute in Kenya. It is owned by religious orders in Eastern Africa to educate sister catechists and formators. Tangaza college is also a university owned by religious communities and it offers higher education. The only problem is that sisters are only focused on education and nursing and avoid other disciplines.

[41] Conley. Adoration and Annihilation. 108.

[42] Ibid. xi. Erie. The Life of Teresa of Avila. 21.

[43] Ibid. xii.

[44] Erie. The Life of Teresa of Avila. 131.

[45] Ibid. 22.

[46] John Conley. Adoration and Annihilation. 2.

[47]  Rosemary, Radford, Ruether. Sexism and Godtalk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1983. 96. Swart. “Dignity and Worth in the Common Wealth of God.” 60.

[48] Ibid. 41-2.

[49] Ibid. 109.

[50] Ibid. 109.

[51] Ibid. 109.

[52] Erie, 171-77

[53] Ibid. 54.

[54] Ibid. 53.

[55] Ibid. 54.

[56] Pope Paul VI. Perfectae Caritatis, Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, promulgated on October 28, 1965. 612-613.

[57] Pope Paul VI. Perfectae Caritatis. 1965. 612-613.

[58] Vatican News. Pope to Finish Ecumenical Delegation: Standing Together as Baptized Christians. 17 January 2020, 11.25.

[59] Ibid. 20.

[60] Eire. The Life of Teresa of Avila. 20.

[61] Alexander, Sedgwick. The Travails of Conscience: The Arnauld Family and the Ancien Régime. Harvard University Press, 1998. 8.

[62] Conley. Adoration and Annihilation. 179.

[63] Ibid. 179.

[64] Maurice, Muhatia Makumba. An Introduction to African Philosophy: Past and Present. Nairobi: Pauline Publications, 2007. 25.

[65] Conley. The Other Pascals. 13.

[66] Kathleen, Cummings. New Women of Old Faith: Gender and American Catholicism in the Progressive Era. The University of North Carolina Press, 2009. 101.

[67] Eire. The Life of Teresa of Avila. 20.

[68] Cutter. “Apology in Form of Autohagiography.” 282.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Cutter. “Apology in Form of Autohagiography.” 283.

[72] Canon 673.

[73] Canon 663. # 1.

[74] St. Augustine. Concerning the City of God Against Pagans. Henry Bettenson (Trans). England: Penguin Books, 1972. 1.1.

[75] Ecclesiastes 1:14

[76] Daniel, Pals. Eight Theories of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 64-65.

[77] Erie. The Life of Teresa of Avila. 18.

[78] John, Conley. (Ed.). Angelique de Saint-Jean Arnauld d’Andilly: Writings of Resistance. Arizona: Iter Academic Press, 2015. 21.

[79] Ibid.

[80] Karl, Rahner. Karl Rahner Spiritual Writings. Philip Endean (Ed.). New York: Orbis Books, 2004. 89.

[81] Ibid. 88.

[82] Conley. Adoration and Annihilation. 109.

[83] Ibid. 109.

[84] Patout Burns (Ed.). Theological Anthropology. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981. 65.

[85] Ibid. 84.

[86] Erie. 95.

[87] Matt 5:43-47.

A Florilegium of the Saints on Dancing

Salome Dancing Before King Herod, Gustave Moreau, 1876 (Source)

Recently I got in a small argument on Twitter about the exact nature of Jansenist rigorism. It was pointed out by a friend, citing the estimable work of John J. Conley SJ, that Mère Angélique strictly forbade instruction in singing and dancing at the Port-Royal schools. Her comments on this point, taken from a letter to Madame de Bellisi, are as follows:

Singing, however innocent people like to find it, is very corrupt in its charming words, which are full of poison beneath their decent appearance. The same problem exists in simple airs where a false joy and foolishness are found. As for dancing, beyond its evil there is madness. Finally, my dear sister, according to the laws of the gospel, the morals of Christians must be as pure as they were at the beginning of the church.

Mère Angélique Arnauld, Abbess of Port-Royal
Quoted in John Conley, Adoration and Annihilation (University of Notre Dame Press, 2009)
pg. 87

Conley goes on to point out that this attitude represents the rigorist discipline of the Jansenists, especially in contrast to the Jesuit schools where theatre, song, and dance were important elements of the curriculum.

He’s not wrong. Certainly, the Abbess’s words on singing are a bit severe, to put it mildly. Yet while Conley does a good job setting this opinion in the context of the seventeenth-century French church, he fails to consider the broader and deeper context of Catholic moral teaching. This point matters insofar as it helps us assess the extent to which we can actually classify Jansenists – and the Port-Royal community in particular – as “rigorists.” What was the traditional teaching of the Fathers, Doctors, Saints, and Councils on dancing? Can we discern a general stream of teaching here? If so, what does it say, and how does it compare with the teaching of Mère Angélique?

To make a tentative answer to this question, I have compiled a brief florilegium of quotes on dancing. Where I have specific textual citations, I have included them. I will also preface this florilegium by saying that I don’t necessarily agree with these authorities in all cases. I am not a Puritan at heart – though I did once play Reverend Shaw More in a High School production of Footloose. Quite apart from that, there is a problematic gender dynamic here; the authorities quoted below are much more attentive to women dancing than men (though once again, this is perhaps one reason that Mère Angélique, a learned nun responsible for the moral instruction of an early modern Catholic girls’ school, took the position she did). The point here is to ascertain whether or not the position of Mère Angélique was a reasonable interpretration of longstanding Catholic teachings, or whether it was a truly “rigorist” aberration and an innovation with heretical tendencies.

With those caveats, let us begin.

The Fathers of the Church

“For there are excessive banquetings, and subtle flutes which provoke to lustful movements, and useless and luxurious anointings, and crowning with garlands. With such a mass of evils do you banish shame; and ye fill your minds with them, and are carried away by intemperance, and indulge as a common practice in wicked and insane fornication.” – St. Justin Martyr, Discourse to the Greeks, Ch. IV

“Since, then, all passionate excitement is forbidden us, we are debarred from every kind of spectacle.” – Tertullian, The Shows, Ch. XVI

“Are we not, in like manner, enjoined to put away from us all immodesty? On this ground, again, we are excluded from the theatre, which is immodesty’s own peculiar abode, where nothing is in repute but what elsewhere is disreputable.” – Tertullian, The Shows, Ch. XVII. While this florilegium will not go deeply into the (extensive) Patristic condemnation of the theater, I will note that the nuns and solitaires of Port-Royal also adhered to this neglected teaching. Their position caused some tensions with one of their most famous students, the celebrated playwright Jean Racine.

“Now the pomp of the devil is the madness of theaters and horse-races, and hunting, and all such vanity: from which that holy man praying to be delivered says unto God, Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity. Be not interested in the madness of the theatre, where thou wilt behold the wanton gestures of the players, carried on with mockeries and all unseemliness, and the frantic dancing of effeminate men.” – St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 19.6

“Whence comes the dance? Who has taught it to Christians? Truly, neither Peter, nor Paul, nor John, nor any man filled with the Spirit of God; but the hellish dragon!” – St. Ephrem the Syrian

“With unkempt hair, clothed in bodices and hopping about, they dance with lustful eyes and loud laughter; as if seized by a kind of frenzy they excite the lust of the youths…With harlots’ songs they pollute the air and sully the degraded earth with their feet in shameful postures.” – St. Basil of Caesarea

“There ought then to be the joy of the mind, conscious of right, not excited by unrestrained feasts, or nuptial concerts, for in such modesty is not safe, and temptation may be suspected where excessive dancing accompanies festivities. I desire that the virgins of God should be far from this. For as a certain teacher of this world has said: “No one dances when sober unless he is mad.” Now if, according to the wisdom of this world, either drunkenness or madness is the cause of dancing, what a warning is given to us amongst the instances mentioned in the Divine Scriptures, where John, the forerunner of Christ, being beheaded at the wish of a dancer, is an instance that the allurements of dancing did more harm than the madness of sacrilegious anger.” – St. Ambrose, Concerning Virgins, Book III, Ch. 5.25

“What say you, holy women? Do you see what you ought to teach, and what also to unteach your daughters? She dances, but she is the daughter of an adulteress. But she who is modest, she who is chaste, let her teach her daughter religion, not dancing. And do you, grave and prudent men, learn to avoid the banquets of hateful men. If such are the banquets, what will be the judgment of the impious?” – St. Ambrose, Concerning Virgins, Book III, Ch. 6.31.

“Our rest is from evil works, theirs from good; for it is better to plough than to dance.” – St. Augustine, Exposition on Psalm 92, Paragraph 2.

“Avoid also indecent spectacles: I mean the theatres and the pomps of the heathens; their enchantments, observations of omens, soothsayings, purgations, divinations, observations of birds; their necromancies and invocations….. You are also to avoid their public meetings, and those sports which are celebrated in them….. Abstain, therefore, from all idolatrous pomp and state, all their public meetings, banquets, duels, and all shows belonging to demons.” – Apostolic Constitutions, Book II, Paragraph 62.

“For where dancing is, there is the evil one. For neither did God give us feet for this end, but that we may walk orderly: not that we may behave ourselves unseemly, not that we may jump like camels.” – St. John Chyrsostom, Homily 48 on St. Matthew’s Gospel, Ch. IV.

Councils

“Christians, when they attend weddings, must not join in wanton dances, but modestly dine or breakfast, as is becoming to Christians.” – Council of Laodicea, Canon LIII

“Since therefore the more these things contribute to usefulness and honor in the Church of God, so the more zealously must they be observed, the holy council ordains that those things which have in the past been frequently and wholesomely enacted by the supreme pontiffs and holy councils concerning adherence to the life, conduct, dress, and learning of clerics, as also the avoidance of luxury, feastings, dances, gambling, sports, and all sorts of crime and secular pursuits, shall in the future be observed under the same or greater penalties to be imposed at the discretion of the ordinary.” – Council of Trent, Session XXII, Decree Concerning Reform, Ch. I

While I have not been able to find the specific quotes from medieval councils, I appeal to historian Ralph G. Giordano, who has helpfully summarized high medieval ecclesiastical discipline on this matter. He writes, “Actually, during the thirteenth century, all social dancing as part of religious ritual was eliminated from the Catholic Church. In 1215, the Lateran Council declared ‘lascivious’ dancing a sin requiring confession to a parish priest. In 1227, the Council of Trier specifically excluded ‘three-step and ring dances.’ Similar edicts were issued by the Synod of Cahors (1206), the bishop of Paris (1209), a Hungarian church council (1279), and the Council of Wurzburg (1298). All the edicts upheld the common decision to prohibit dancing in any churchyards, the churches, or as part of religious processions” (See Giordano, pp. 49-50).

Early Modern Saints

“Dancing, so dangerous to Christian morals, should be banished entirely by the faithful, as it originates many sins against purity, and causes extravagances, evil deeds, and assassinations.” – St. Charles Borromeo

Another saint who will appear later in this list also notes that St. Charles Borromeo once gave someone (probably a cleric) a penance for dancing that lasted three years, and said he would excommunicate the sinner if he ever danced again.

“Believe me, my daughter, these frivolous amusements [balls and dances] are for the most part dangerous; they dissipate the spirit of devotion, enervate the mind, check true charity, and arouse a multitude of evil inclinations in the soul, and therefore I would have you very reticent in their use.” – St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Ch. XXXIII. I have discussed St. Francis’s notable aversion towards dancing before.

Later Saints

I could certainly end my florilegium here and prove the point. However, for good measure, let’s continue to see if Port-Royal represents a particularly rigorous vision of dancing even in light of subsequent Catholic development.

St. Louis de Montfort, who clashed with the Jansenists in his own day, managed to agree with the Abbess of Port-Royal on this point. He writes, “Soldiers join together in an army to overcome their enemies; wicked people often get together for parties of debauchery and dancing, and evil spirits join forces in order to make us lose our souls.” – St. Louis de Montfort, The Secret of the Rosary, Forty-Sixth Rose.

In the very same chapter, the Saint continues, “Before the Holy Rosary took root in these small towns and villages, dances and parties of debauchery went on all the time; dissoluteness, wantonness, blasphemy, quarrels, and feuds flourished.” He takes it as self-evident that dancing is an occasion of sin.

But lest we fall into the trap of attributing this attitude merely to Gallic severity, let us turn our eyes south to Naples. When we consider that famously anti-Jansenist (even allegedly laxist!) moral theologian and Doctor of the Church, St. Alphonsus Liguori, what do we find?

“Parents should prohibit their children from all games, which bring destruction on their families and on their own souls, and also dances, suggestive entertainment, and certain dangerous conversations and parties of pleasures. A father should remove from his house books of romances, which pervert young persons, and all bad books which contain pernicious maxims, tales of obscenity, or of profane love.” – St. Alphonsus Liguori, “Letter to Parents”

St. Anthony Mary Claret, by no means a Jansenist, claimed that “The Devil invented balls for girls to be lost, and extended them throughout the world like an immense net in order to catch the young people and submit them to his tyrannical domination.”

And returning to France, we come to the Curé d’Ars. What has this patron of parish priests, this great and ever-to-be-esteemed shepherd of souls, this jewel of the ultramontane church to say on our chosen subject?

St. Jean-Marie Vianney was absolutely resolute in his opposition to dancing of any kind. He even set up a statue of St. John the Baptist under an arch in his church, whereat he painted the words, “My head was the price of a dance.” He preached against it vehemently on more than one occasion. I shall here select only one of many, many warnings he gave against dancing (which he seems to have taken as almost intrinsically sinful, given the number of sins to which it gave occasion) in his sermons.

“St. Augustine tells us that those who go to dances truly renounce Jesus Christ in order to give themselves to the Devil. What a horrible thing that is! To drive out Jesus Christ after having received Him in your hearts! “Today,” says St. Ephraim, “they unite themselves to Jesus Christ and tomorrow to the Devil.” Alas! What a Judas is that person who, after receiving our Lord, goes then to sell Him to Satan in these gatherings, where he will be reuniting himself with everything that is most vicious! And when it comes to the Sacrament of Penance, what a contradiction in such a life! A Christian, who after one single sin should spend the rest of his life in repentance, thinks only of giving himself up to all these worldly pleasures! A great many profane the Sacrament of Extreme Unction by making indecent movements with the feet, the hands and the whole body, which one day must be sanctified by the holy oils. Is not the Sacrament of Holy Order insulted by the contempt with which the instructions of the pastor are considered? But when we come to the Sacrament of Matrimony, alas! What infidelities are not contemplated in these assemblies? It seems then that everything is admissible. How blind must anyone be who thinks there is no harm in it…The Council of Aix-la-Chapelle forbids dancing, even at weddings. And St. Charles Borromeo, the Archbishop of Milan, says that three years of penance were given to someone who had danced and that if he went back to it, he was threatened with excommunication. If there were no harm in it, then were the Holy Fathers and the Church mistaken? But who tells you that there is no harm in it? It can only be a libertine, or a flighty and worldly girl, who are trying to smother their remorse of conscience as best they can. Well, there are priests, you say, who do not speak about it in confession or who, without permitting it, do not refuse absolution for it. Ah! I do not know whether there are priests who are so blind, but I am sure that those who go looking for easygoing priests are going looking for a passport which will lead them to Hell. For my own part, if I went dancing, I should not want to receive absolution not having a real determination not to go back to dancing…Alas! How many young people are there who since they have been going to dances do not frequent the Sacraments, or do so only to profane them! How many poor souls there are who have lost therein their religion and their faith! How many will never open their eyes to their unhappy state except when they are falling into Hell!” – St. Jean-Marie Vianney, a sermon against dancing.

In Conclusion

Lest I be accused of failing to adequately account for the context of these disparate condemnations, I would note that the Catholic solution is almost always to say “both-and,” not “either-or.” We have seen the saints attack a wide variety of dances, including but not limited to a) pagan rituals, b) secular spectacles, c) dances in Church precincts, d) dancing in general, e) dancing at weddings, and f) dancing between young men and women. These are not mutually exclusive.

Once again, I don’t pretend to agree with all of these warnings. I have often enjoyed myself at dances. Morris Dancing was one of the most charming English customs I discovered when I moved to Oxford. I have very fond memories of going to the ballet, both as a child and as an adult. And I have written very highly of the artistic use of dance in, for example, The New Pope.

But the point at stake is not my opinion, but rather how we evaluate the Jansenists. Are Mère Angélique’s words in any way divergent from the spirit of these diverse condemnations? I should think that the only reasonable answer is no. The reforming Abbess of Port-Royal, ever the daughter of austere St. Bernard, may have seemed a rigorist in a century when this teaching was largely unfashionable. Keep in mind, too, that the abbey she reformed – Port-Royal des Champs – had for several decades before been known for its laxity, including an annual carnival ball. That past state of affairs shaped Angélique’s pastoral concern here, and if she over-reacted a bit (especially in her comments on singing), it was with the memory of her personal experience of those abuses.

But even keeping all that in mind, I can find nothing in her words about dancing that sets her apart from the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. If we condemn her, how much more must we condemn the Curé d’Ars, so much closer to our own more tolerant age!

Conley’s book is very good. I don’t mean to dispute his broader argument. I am not even making a point principally addressed to academic historians of Jansenism, who will not be surprised by what they have read here. What I mean to suggest, however, is that in general we (Catholics at large) are too hasty to judge the Jansenists by anachronistic standards that do not actually conform to our own moral tradition, a tradition with elements that are genuinely more rigorous than the practice of Catholicism we know today. And a reconsideration of those elements – whether we end up adopting them or, in prudence, choose not to – is a helpful exercise in becoming more self-reflective and more historically-grounded as Catholics.

Elsewhere: A Review about Magic in Modernity

Portrait of Robert Boyle, Father of Modern Chemistry. A scientist distinguished by his open-minded and empirical attitude towards paranormal, supernatural, and magical phenomena. (Source)

I am pleased and proud to announce that I have a book review up at the Genealogies of Modernity Blog. I examine a compelling recent work by historian of science, Michael Hunter. The Decline of Magic: Britain in the Enlightenment (Yale UP, 2020) is well worth your time. I think it provokes really intriguing questions about the process of disenchantment – a transition that Hunter effectively describes as the methodological eclipse of Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle by Isaac Newton. You’ll understand what I mean when you read the review (and the book), so please head on over and give it a read-through!

Thank you to the GoM Blog for hosting my writing, and especially to Mr. Terence Sweeney for kindly asking me to contribute. It was an honor and a pleasure to write for a platform with such intriguing content.

The Clock of the Passion

What follows is an original translation of L’Horloge de la Passion, a brief meditative text written by the Solitaire of Port-Royal, Jean Hamon (1618-1687), a doctor of medicine, mystic, and exegete. Hamon wrote L’Horloge for the sisters of Port-Royal to use during perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, perhaps during the Triduum. Perpetual adoration was a central feature of life at Port-Royal from 1647, when Mère Angélique returned from the unsuccessful venture of the Institut du Saint-Sacrement.

Each hour represents a different mystery of the Passion and is calibrated to follow the Passion narrative in real time. Hamon concludes with several prayers, probably composed first in Latin and then put into the vernacular. I have take the liberty of reproducing the Latin below while translating from the accompanying French.

This document, though originating from the heyday of Port-Royal, was only published in 1739 in the post-Unigenitus ferment of Jansenist print culture. It remains a very edifying text and a testament of the vitality of the spiritual life that characterized those wayward ascetics clustered around Port-Royal. I offer it here both out of historical interest for those who, like me, look at Port-Royal for academic reasons, and because I felt that such a text may be of some use and consolation to the faithful in this very unusual Holy Week, when death hedges us all around.

Christ on the Cross, Philippe de Champaigne, before 1650 (Source)

L’Horloge de la Passion

At six o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ washes the feet of His Apostles. Humility. Help to our neighbor.

At seven o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ institutes the Most Blessed Sacrament. Recognition and perpetual memory of this benefit.

At eight o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ prays to His Father for the salvation and union of His Elect. To renounce everything that can stops us from being one with Jesus Christ and our brethren.

At nine o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ is sad even unto death. Confidence in the weakness of Jesus Christ, who is our strength in our dejection and our miseries.

At ten o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ prays to His Father to take away the chalice of His sufferings. Submission to the will of God.

At eleven o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ enters into agony. To resist sin with courage.

At midnight: Jesus Christ, after having turned back the Jews by a single word, allows himself to be caught. To see God in all that man cause us to suffer.

At one o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ allows himself to be carried off by the Jews. Sweetness and humility in ill-treatment.

At two o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is presented to the High Priest. To revere God in secular and ecclesiastical authorities.

At three o’clock in the morning: Renunciation and penance of St. Peter. Fidelity in confessing the name of Jesus Christ. Humble return to Him after our falls.

At four o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is presented before the Council of the Jews. To listen to the word of God as being truly His word. To adorer the Truth, never to raise ourselves against it.

At five o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ mocked and outraged by the servants of the Priests. To suffer humbly both scorn and injuries.

At six o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is brought before Pilate. Adoration and imitation of the silence of Jesus Christ, when we are accused.

At seven o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is sent to Herod. To pass as foolish before men even though we be truly wise.

At eight o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is scourged. To take part in the sufferings of Jesus Christ and His members.

At nine o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is crowned with thorns. To adore Jesus Christ as our King. To suffer with him, is to reign.

At ten o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is condemned to death. To die to one’s self is to live in Jesus.

At eleven o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ carries His Cross. Let us carry ours after him; he carries it with us.

At noon: Jesus Christ is crucified. To attach ourselves to Jesus Chris, and to desire to be attached by Him to the Cross.

At one o’clock in the afternoon: Jesus Christ is lifted up upon the Cross. To raise our eyes and heart towards the mysterious and divine Serpent.

At two o’clock in the afternoon: Jesus Christ speaks to His Father, to the Blessed Virgin Mary His Mother, and to St. Jean. Attention to these divine words that comprehend our duties.

At three o’clock in the afternoon: Jesus Christ gives up the ghost. To adore His death; to unite ours to him.

At four o’clock in the afternoon: The open side of Jesus Christ sheds blood and water. Rest in the Side and in the Wounds of Jesus Christ. To honor the Sacraments established in the Church.

At five o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ is buried, and placed in the tomb. To be buried with Him. To hope for the Resurrection.

Prayers – That one can say in adoring the Death of Jesus Christ

Ut beatam horam Mortis tuae adoramus, Domine, da nobis ut horam mortis nostrae, quam solus nosti, perfecto corde & vivendo & moriendo adoremus.

Vouchsafe unto us grace, O Lord, that in adoring the hour of Thy Death, we might adore, in living and dying with a heart perfectly submitted to Thine commands, the hour of our death, that is known to none but thee.

Domine Jesu, qui mori voluisti ne moreremur, sed de morte ad vitam transiremus, recordare Mortis tuae in tempore mortis meae, cum nec tui nec mei recordari potuero.

Lord Jesus, who hast desired to die to deliver us from death, and to cause us to pass from death to life, remember Thou Thy Death at the hour of mine, when I will be no longer in a state to think of either myself or Thee.

Mortem meam quae poena peccati est, tutetur & protegat Mors tua, quae tollit peccata mundi, ut jam pie cogitando quia mortuus es, tunc moriendo non moriar.

May Thy Death that nullifies the sins of the world be my protection in death, which shall be the penalty of sin; and in thinking with piety that Thou art dead, in dying even may I not die.

Versetur semper ante oculos meos tempus Mortis tuae, quae mihi sit fons vitae, cum vita mea defecerit, ut in Morte tua vitam invenire possim qui in vita mea mortem singulis diebus invenio.

May Thy Death always be present to me, so that it may be unto me a source of immortal life when I will lose this corruptible life; and instead of often finding death in my life, may I find life in Thy Death.

Fac, Domine, semper conjungam cogitationem Mortis tuae cogitationi mortis meae, ut quod in morte mea amarum esse potest, benedictione Mortis tuae dulcescat; sicque vitae permanentis amore, mortis transeuntis levem ictum non reformidem.

Vouchsafe unto me the grace, O Lord, of ever uniting myself to the thought of Thy Death in the remembrance of mine, so that what there might be of bitterness in my death might be sweetened by the blessing of Thine; and thus that the love of an eternal life might cause me not to dread anything of the blow, so light, of a voyaging death.

Bene vivam, Domine, ut bene moriar. Ut bene vivam, vivam de te. Ut bene moriar, moriar in te,. Vitam meam informet Vita tua, ut sancta sit; & mortem meam defendat Mors tua, salus nostra, ut sit salutaris,

Vouchsafe unto me the grace, O Lord, of living well, that I may die well. May I live in Thee, that I might live well: and to die well, may I die in Thee. May Thy life be the rule of my life, so that it may be holy; and may Thy Death, which is the cause of our salvation, safeguard my death so that it may procure unto me salvation.

Christ on the Cross. Another treatment of the Passion by Philippe de Champaigne. c. 1655. Given by the artist to his sister Marie, a Beguine in Brussels. (Source)

Jean de Bernières on Humility and Communion

This week’s contribution to the Lenten Spirituality Series comes from Jean de Bernières-Louvigny (1602-1659), a pious lay mystic who lived and died in Caen. From his hermitage in this rainy Norman town, Jean de Bernières gave himself over to profound experiences of contemplative prayer. His spirituality, as expressed in the two volumes of his Le chrestien intérieur (Paris: 1661), was deeply indebted to the apophatic tradition of mystical theology. Although a solitaire, Jean de Bernières was engaged in ecclesiastical and charitable networks that included some of the greatest spiritual figures of his day. He was a member of the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement in Caen and corresponded with such notable individuals as St. François de Montmorency-Laval, Bishop of Québec, and Mother Mectilde de Bar, Foundress of the Benedictines of Perpetual Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. He met the latter at Caen; she became, as it were, a dear friend. Translated into German in the eighteenth century, Jean de Bernières had an important influence on the trajectory of Pietism in that country. He has, as far as I can tell, never been fully translated into English. What I produce below is my own translation, in the hope it may offer some aid to pious souls in this time of temptation. The excerpt comes from the Second Volume, Book V, Chapter II of Le chrestien intérieur, pp. 6-11. I would add, for those who take an interest in such matters, that one of the extra difficulties in translating Jean de Bernières is that he uses Norman French vocabulary that no longer appears in standard French. I hope I have managed to capture his sense here.

May the Blessed Hermit Jean de Bernières pray for us in this time of penance. (Source)

To commune worthily, one must place oneself in a state conformed to that of Jesus, in the Blessed Sacrament.

Jesus Christ wishes to give Himself to us in this august mystery, in a state of death with respect to the life of the senses, but as a source of life with respect to the interior life, the divine life, the life of grace, the life of contemplation and continuous application to the grandeurs of God His Father; a life poor and annihilated [aneantie] in exteriors, but entirely brilliant with majesty, and infinitely rich under the veil of the species that hide it from the eyes of the world. It is with these dispositions that that He comes to present Himself to us, wishing as well that we too should present ourselves to Him with dispositions conformed to His.

The Humanity that He gives to you in Communion has been elevated to the divine life by the hypostatic union; we too must be such by grace, that our understanding would be elevated to a high knowledge, and our will to a sublime sentiment of love of God, and that our soul would live the life of grace. O sublimity of the life of grace, you are so admirable, you are so high, you are so ineffable! You raise man from earth to heaven, and you make him live in God, and even of God, because you dispose him to live on the earth from the same substance by which the Blessed live in heaven. O great life of grace, you are poor to the exterior, but very rich in the interior: you seem low, but you are most high: you have ravished me with you beauty, I can no longer live a moment without thee, who make [me] live from a divine life, who places the soul in the heart of God, and who disposes her to see God placed in her heart.

Since the beauty of this life manifests itself to the soul, she leaves everything to embrace it, and everything else seems to her naught but death and corruption; we abandon the world, honors, and riches; we condemn ourselves to penances, to mortifications, to poverty, so as to live this divine life; and we feel a holy hunger for this adorable food that nurtures the soul. O that I might know it, my God, and that I might follow it, this divine life, so little known to the world, practiced by so few in the world, that also does not find itself altered by the waters of Thy eternal fountains! O Jesus, draw me after Thee in the actions of the life of grace, which is in its full exercise in misery and scorn. Draw me, Lord, I run after Thee in the odor of Thy perfumes. What pleasure, my soul, to behold you walking as a giant in the ways of grace, nourished and fortified in your course with the bread of grace: Ambulavit in fortitudine cibi illius usque ad montem Dei.

To live in one’s own death, as Jesus seems to us in the Blessed Sacrament, to lose one’s glory in contempt, to be ravished when one is annihilated [aneanti] and sacrificed; this is proper to the life of grace. Making everything dead to the exterior, it brings life to the interior, and gives principally the spirit of prayer, putting it almost continuously in exercise in the soul, applying itself to this infinite and incomprehensible Being that it adores, unable to comprehend It, and annihilating itself [s’aneantit] before Him, unable even to admire His divine grandeurs, as annihilated [aneanties] in the Eucharist. O my soul, how great is your vileness, how extreme your poverty! What is man, that You should have remembrance of him, Lord, and that You should visit him, and that You should take Thy delight from coming to dwell personally with him? His soul is drawn from nothing, and his body is nothing but a little mud, and Thou deignest to set Thine eyes upon him! How is it that this creature, so dirty, so minuscule, so coarse, could receive the infinite majesty of God? Humble thyself to the bottom of thy nothingness, and confess thy baseness, my soul. Lower thine eyes, and swear that thou art unworthy to turn them only towards that formidable grandeur; but be still more moved with admiration, of recognition and love of such excessive goodness, which deigns well to annihilate itself [s’aneantir] in that incomprehensible mystery, to bring itself to you even unto your nothingness.

We must truly love the state of interior captivity, where the soul, bound and tied up, stays in the obscurity of its prison. This state will honor the captivity of Jesus enclosed under the little host. This divine Lord place himself in a little prison for our love. The King of Glory is restricted under these small species, and thereby a captive and prisoner of man, He renders Himself, it seems, his slave, giving Himself entirely to him; He suffers, so to speak, and dies for him, and communicates to him all the merits of His Precious Blood. O divine Captive, captivate my heart so strongly, that it may never more return to natural liberty; but that all destroyed and annihilated [aneanti], it may not live another life than the superhuman, nor may it enjoy any other liberty than that of Thy children.

Each time that one takes Communion, Jesus Christ giving Himself entirely to all, there are all new obligations that we contract to live entirely for Him, and to render all our actions divine. It is necessary therefore for a good soul not to say: I have not such time to prepare myself for Communion; because she must not aim at another thing by all the actions of her life, but to receive the Bread of Life, in order to live the life of Jesus, and to persevere perpetually in similar dispositions to those that appear to us in the Blessed Sacrament.

A Litany in Time of Plague

A depiction of the Madonna and Child with Patron Saints against the Plague. Colored engraving by T. Van Merlen. (Source)

“Is it my will that a sinner should die, saith the Lord God, and not that he should be converted from his ways, and live?” – Ezekiel 18:23 DRA.

In Nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, Amen.

Stella Caeli extirpavit, quae lactavit Dominum:
mortis pestem quam plantavit primus parens hominum.
Ipsa stella nunc dignetur sidera compescere
quorum bella plebem caedunt dirae mortis ulcere.
O piisima Stella Maris, a peste succurre nobis.
Audi nos, Domina, nam filius tuus nihil negans te honorat.
Salva nos, Jesu, pro quibus virgo mater te orat.

Kyrie Eleison
Christe Eleison
Kyrie Eleison

God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, have mercy on us.
God the Son, Redeemer of the World, have mercy on us.
God the Holy Ghost, Sanctifier and Vivifier of All Things, have mercy on us.

Holy Mary, Mother God, pray for us.
Our Lady, Queen of Heaven, pray for us.
Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us.
Our Lady, Help of Christians, pray for us.
Our Lady, Health of the Sick, pray for us.
Our Lady, Salvation of the Roman People, pray for us.
Our Lady, Star of the Sea, pray for us.
Our Lady, Untier of Knots, pray for us.
St. John the Baptist, pray for us.
St. Joseph, pray for us.
St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us.
St. Michael and All Angels, pray for us.
St. Thecla, pray for us.
St. Valerian, pray for us.
St. Corona, pray for us.
SS. Cosmas and Damian, pray for us.
St. Zacharias of Jerusalem, pray for us.
St. Roch, pray for us.
St. Sebastian, pray for us.
St. Christopher, pray for us.
St. Adrian, pray for us.
St. Blaise, pray for us.
St. Macarius of Ghent, pray for us.
St. Patrick, pray for us.
St. Pantaleon, pray for us.
St. Dymphna, pray for us.
St. Rosalia, pray for us.
St. Anthony of Egypt, pray for us.
St. Benedict, pray for us.
St. Gregory, pray for us.
St. Bernardine of Siena, pray for us.
St. Anthony of Padua, pray for us.
St. Philip Neri, pray for us.
St. John Nepomuk, pray for us.
St. Charles Borromeo, pray for us.
St. Camillus of Lellis, pray for us.
St. Aloysius Gonzaga, pray for us.
St. Damien of Molokai, pray for us.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux, pray for us.

O Sacred Heart, Furnace of Charity, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, spare us, O Lord.
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, graciously hear us, O Lord.
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

O Crux, ave spes unica
hoc Passionis tempore!
Piis adauge gratiam
reisque dele crimina.

We beseech Thee O Lord, in Thy compassion, to turn away from Thy People Thy wrath, which indeed we deserve for our sins, but which in our human frailty we cannot endure; therefore embrace us with that tenderness which Thou art wont to bestow on the unworthy; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto,
Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum.
Amen.

A plague cross. (Source)

Bossuet on the Sufficiency of God

There are many candidates for the title of “Greatest Preacher in Christian History,” but my money’s on Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704), “The Eagle of Meaux,” Bishop and Tutor to the Grand Dauphin of France. Famed in his own day for the clarity of his doctrine, the incisive vigor of his spirituality, and the dazzling versatility of his oratorical skill, Bossuet stands as one of the late flowers of the Grand Siècle. Trumpet of the Gallicans and Hammer of Quietism, Bossuet nevertheless is not merely to be regarded as a relic of dusty seventeenth-century controversies. He still has much to teach us. In this excellent passage, excerpted from a recent translation and edited collection of his Meditations for Lent by Christopher O. Blum (Sophia Institute Press, 2013), we can see the essentially ascetic cast of Bossuet’s mind. This was the same man who, in a felicitious turn of phrase, elsewhere referred to the Rule of St. Benedict as “a little abridgment of the Gospel.” The relevant passage can be found on pages 10-12 of the source text.

Portrait of Bossuet by Charles Sevin de la Penaye, after Hyacinthe Rigaud, c. early 18th century (Source)

“Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied” (John 14:8). God alone suffices, and all we need to possess him is to see him, because in seeing him, we see all his goodness, as he himself explained to Moses: “I will make all my goodness pass before you” (Ex. 33:19). We see all that attracts our love, and we love him beyond all limits. Let us join St. Philip in saying with all our heart, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.” He alone can fill all our emptiness, satisfy all our needs, content us, and make us happy.

Let us then empty our heart of all other things, for if the Father alone suffices, then we have no need for sensible goods, less for exterior wealth, and still less for the honor of men’s good opinion. We do not even need this mortal life; how then can we need those things necessary to preserve it? We need only God. He alone suffices. In possessing him we are content.

How courageous are these words of St. Philip! To say them truthfully, we must also be able to say with the apostles: “Lord, we have left everything and followed you” (cf. Matt. 19:27). At the least we must leave everything by way of affection, desire, and resolution, that is, by an invincible resolution to attach ourselves to nothing, to seek no support except in God alone. Happy are they who carry this desire to its limit, who make the final, lasting, and perfect renunciation! But let them not leave anything for themselves. Let them not say: “This little thing to which I am still attached, it is a mere nothing.” We know the nature of the human heart. Whenever a little thing is left to it, there the heart will place all its desires. Strip it all away; break from it; let it go. To own things as though one had nothing, to be married as though one were not, to make use of this world as though one were not using it, but as though it did not exist, and as though we were not a part of it: this is the true good for which we should strive. We are not Christians if we cannot say sincerely with St. Philip, “Show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.”

It is from the very depths of faith that these words are spoken, and it is in a certain sense from the very foundation of nature itself. For in the depths of our nature we sense our need to posses God, that he alone is capable of fulfilling our nature, and that we are anxious and tormented when separated from him…Man, abandoned to himself, does not know what to do, nor what to become. His pleasures carry him off, and these very same pleasures destroy him. With each sin of the senses he gives himself a killing blow, and he not only kills his soul by his intemperance, in his blindness and ignorance he kills the very body that he would flatter. Since the Fall, man is born to be unhappy…We do not know how to desire or ask for what we need.

St. Philip’s words teach us everything. He limits himself to what Jesus taught us is the one thing needful. Lord, you are the way.

Elsewhere: Catholic Kabbalah

Portrait of Giles of Viterbo in his old Palazzo (Source)

Over at Church Life Journal, Andrew Kuiper has a tour-de-force article on the history and theology of Catholic Kabbalah. His review of four Catholic Kabbalists – Pico della Mirandola, Johannes Reuchlin, Giles of Viterbo, and St. John Fisher – is a model of intellectual history. He does a great job showing the continuing relevance of Kabbalah for Catholic (and other Christian) thinkers throughout the centuries.

The piece is amply cited and provides several helpful theological considerations. I thought Kuiper’s nod towards Sophiology was particularly enlightening. If Christian Kabbalah has a place in Catholic theology today, I predict that it will be in the writings of latter-day Sophiologists.

If I were to offer a criticism of Kuiper’s piece, it would be a very minor one at that: he makes no reference to the works of Margaret Barker. Her research has shed a new light on the roots of Christianity and Jewish mysticism (in both its Merkabah and later Sephirotic developments) in the memory of the First Temple. Reading Kabbalistic texts through a Temple lens can ease their Christian interpretation. But I digress.

Pico della Mirandola, a pioneer in the Christian use of Kabbalah. (Source)

Perhaps the most exciting part of the article, for a historian of the period, is Kuiper’s various references to the Kabbalistic books written by these Christians of the 15th and 16th centuries. I would particularly keen on finding the text of Giles of Viterbo’s Shechina or Pico’s Heptaplus. Some of these hard-to-find volumes have never been translated into English.

It is not easy to summarize the teachings of the Jewish mystics, nor their Christian interpreters. Kuiper does both with commendable attention to detail and obvious competence, all while keeping things clear and concise enough for a lay reader. This article also provides a badly-needed defense of the respectability of Kabbalah as a field of study. Its bastardization in recent times, exemplified most clearly by Madonna et al., has led some to question whether Kabbalah is anything more than a gnostic mishmash of magic with Hebrew letters. I have heard colleagues dismiss it entirely as a field of serious inquiry for a historian or theologian. This tendency seems especially strong with Christian academics, many of whom retain outdated ideas about Jewish mysticism or who simply haven’t up with the post-Scholem rediscovery of Kabbalah. Kuiper’s intervention is a broadside against this boring complacency. It’s not exactly “a cruel angel’s thesis,” but it is one worth defending.

The Ratzinger Letter: A Failure

The Pope-Emeritus’s letter was a deeply unhelpful document on the whole. (Source)

In the ongoing sexual abuse crisis that has wracked the Roman Catholic Church, it is helpful to remember that the evil transpires on both spiritual and historical planes. That is to say, we can productively speak of sexual abuse as a spiritual attack upon the Church’s absolute purity, a purity she receives from Christ, her spouse and head. The violations committed by priests and religious is a stain upon that purity but nevertheless leaves the fundamental holiness of the Church intact. And this because the Church has no holiness that is not primarily the holiness of Jesus. All that is good in her flows from Him.

However, we can maintain this truth while simultaneously recognizing deep underlying structural problems in the Church’s culture and modus operandi. The holiness of the Church comes from above, not below; in the course of human history, we have often seen great evils nurtured within the very breast of the Church as a human institution. The sex abuse crisis is one such horror. Only a realistic attitude can bring us the reform that we so desperately need.

It’s because of this that I was disappointed to read Benedict XVI’s recent letter on the subject. There are certain passages that show the Pope-Emeritus’s continuing theological acumen. He writes movingly about the primacy of Faith, especially Faith in the Blessed Sacrament, as a foundational principle of renewal in our time. He also calls for a deeper ecclesial sensibility among the faithful. Catholics should meditate on these passages, which have a good deal of insight and even consoling power. His words on martyrdom are particularly profound and poignant, given his own impending mortality.

However, as a response to the egregious crimes committed by priests and other clerical personnel against innocents, the document represents a major failure.

This letter is a turgid, historically specious bit of sleight of hand. In treating the abuse crisis as a problem of laxity in moral teaching, the Pope turns sex abuse into a theological problem. He is closer to the heart of things when he discusses the evolution of the disciplinary measures in Canon Law and the various difficulties thrown up by legal “reforms” in the middle of the century. However, he also dissolves the very real psychological and social factors that permitted a culture of tolerance for pedophilia within the church to flourish for so long. Ratzinger writes, “Why did pedophilia reach such proportions? Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God.” This is, strictly speaking, a spiritual truth. Had the Pope-Emeritus treated this as a statement about the souls of the pedophiles, for whom God must be in some way ultimately unreal, the statement would be entirely defensible. However, Ratzinger is speaking historically. He immediately seems to attribute to the spread of pedophilia to secularization in Europe.

After the upheaval of the Second World War, we in Germany had still expressly placed our Constitution under the responsibility to God as a guiding principle. Half a century later, it was no longer possible to include responsibility to God as a guiding principle in the European constitution. God is regarded as the party concern of a small group and can no longer stand as the guiding principle for the community as a whole.

Joseph Ratzinger

The problem is relativism – namely, secular relativism as an other, as something outside the life of the Church. We read, “The long-prepared and ongoing process of dissolution of the Christian concept of morality was…marked by an unprecedented radicalism in the 1960s.” According to the Pope, “Part of the physiognomy of the Revolution of ‘68 was that pedophilia was then also diagnosed as allowed and appropriate…It was theorized only a short time ago as quite legitimate, but it has spread further and further.” He takes the cause of recent pedophilia, and thus of the scandals within the Church, to be the sexual revolution.

But apart from Gayle Rubin, the filmmakers who got Jodie Foster and Brooke Shields naked, and the perverts at NAMBLA, who exactly were the people trying to normalize pedophilia? C.C. Pecknold suggests it might be those activists in favor of “abolishing age-of-consent laws since the 1970s.” Possibly. At any rate, the Pope provides neither names nor sources. It’s a serious enough claim that he owes us that courtesy. To what extent were these efforts merely marginal phenomena? He seems to take them as a synecdoche of the broader movement, however implausibly.

By appealing to an established right-wing boogeyman (sixties revolutionaries), he dissolves the problem into a theological haze. He makes no mention of the complex psychological reasons for abuse, simply posits that relativism leads to sexual license. Nor does he prove any causes to tie together his case studies. He just asserts that various phenomena are connected without supplying proof. Given the genre of the piece, perhaps this brevity is to be expected. But is this schema really representative of Ratzinger’s mentality as he handled sex abuse cases in his tenure as head of the CDF and, later, as Pope? If so, no wonder things were so long mismanaged and so often minimized. Sex abuse is not a matter of which moral theologians you’re reading, and to treat it as such is profoundly irresponsible.

Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, a voracious, predatory, and hypocritical homosexual who fostered a culture of abuse in his diocese in the 1950’s. Reports of him groping a West Point cadet during an interview have recently emerged. (Source)

The fact that Francis asked Benedict to prepare this statement suggests to me that it represents an attempt by both Popes to shoot the elephant (and scapegoat) in the room, namely, the homosexuality of the clergy. This phenomenon has become the cause célèbre of conservative and traditional Catholics trying to understand the sex abuse crisis. It has also been recently highlighted in a largely credible if somewhat sensationalist way by the gay activist Frédéric Martel, whose book on clerical homosexuality Catholics should read (if with a grain of salt). Too sharp a focus on homosexuality (a) doesn’t actually solve the problem of clerical sex abuse and (b) is too dangerous for all ideological camps (no pun intended) within the clerical establishment. Ratzinger’s letter here shifts the focus away from that particular systemic and more or less quantifiable phenomenon and onto an amorphous if politically-charged abstract. While I can’t be sure, the missive seems to be designed to influence Ratzinger’s own partisans and lead them away from the gay issue.

After all, the one narrative that Ratzinger doesn’t tell us is the one most favored by conservatives. Namely, as Pecknold puts it, “by the late 1980s the homosexual hierarchies that ruled now were descending, with greater frequency, into pedophilia.” But this is not what the Pope writes. In a passage worth quoting at length, Ratzinger tells us,

In various seminaries homosexual cliques were established, which acted more or less openly and significantly changed the climate in the seminaries. In one seminary in southern Germany, candidates for the priesthood and candidates for the lay ministry of the pastoral specialist [Pastoralreferent] lived together. At the common meals, seminarians and pastoral specialists ate together, the married among the laymen sometimes accompanied by their wives and children, and on occasion by their girlfriends. The climate in this seminary could not provide support for preparation to the priestly vocation. The Holy See knew of such problems, without being informed precisely. As a first step, an Apostolic Visitation was arranged of seminaries in the United States. As the criteria for the selection and appointment of bishops had also been changed after the Second Vatican Council, the relationship of bishops to their seminaries was very different, too. Above all, a criterion for the appointment of new bishops was now their “conciliarity,” which of course could be understood to mean rather different things. Indeed, in many parts of the Church, conciliar attitudes were understood to mean having a critical or negative attitude towards the hitherto existing tradition, which was now to be replaced by a new, radically open relationship with the world. One bishop, who had previously been seminary rector, had arranged for the seminarians to be shown pornographic films, allegedly with the intention of thus making them resistant to behavior contrary to the faith. There were — not only in the United States of America — individual bishops who rejected the Catholic tradition as a whole and sought to bring about a kind of new, modern “Catholicity” in their dioceses. Perhaps it is worth mentioning that in not a few seminaries, students caught reading my books were considered unsuitable for the priesthood. My books were hidden away, like bad literature, and only read under the desk. The Visitation that now took place brought no new insights, apparently because various powers had joined forces to conceal the true situation. A second Visitation was ordered and brought considerably more insights, but on the whole failed to achieve any outcomes. Nonetheless, since the 1970s the situation in seminaries has generally improved. And yet, only isolated cases of a new strengthening of priestly vocations came about as the overall situation had taken a different turn.

Joseph Ratzinger

That first line is the only explicit reference to homosexuality in the entire letter. In his his forceful First Things follow-up, Archbishop Chaput confirms this point:

He remains silent on what many see as the continuing resistance of Rome to candidly name the core issue of the clergy abuse problem, which is not primarily a matter of clerical privilege but rather a pattern of predatory homosexuality.

Archbishop Charles Chaput

Ratzinger is quick to move from the various gay circles among the seminarians of yesteryear to the presence of women in seminaries, and then on to theological liberalism in general. This is not the argument, put forward by so many, that homosexuality in the priesthood leads to sex abuse. It’s a broader case, one that sees homosexuality as only one part in a constellation of radicalism.

And it’s a radicalism that emphatically has its origins outside of the Church. Archbishop Chaput builds on Benedict, writing,

But priests and bishops have no miraculous immunity to the abnormality bubbling around them. Ratzinger locates the seed of the current crisis in the deliberate turn toward sexual anarchy that marked much of Europe in the 1960s, and the complete failure of Catholic moral theologians to counter it—a failure that more often resembled fellow-traveling.

Archbishop Charles Chaput

This is nothing less than an abdication of moral responsibility. The 1960’s did not produce pedophilia, ephebophilia, or the longstanding culture of omertà among the hierarchy (see the extensive research carried out by, inter alia, Richard Sipe). Indeed, predatory sexuality has been in the Church for a long time. I refer the reader to the cultures created by Cardinal Spellman in New York, Cardinal O’Connell in Boston, and Cardinal Wright in Worcester. The permissiveness in these dioceses was in place before the sexual revolution hit, and in each we see major flare-ups of the child sex abuse crisis. We could look back even further. There were pedophiles in the circle of St. Joseph Calasanz, and he died in 1648!

The cover-up, too, has a long life. As Ulrich Lehner has pointed out, the old practice used to be that religious orders had to destroy any incriminating files every five years; the use of special prisons for clergy and religious only added to the secrecy of the early modern ecclesiastical disciplinary apparatus. All of these points undermine the basic historical narrative Ratzinger tells us – namely, that the sexual revolution and subsequent buckling of Catholic moral theology lead to a simultaneous spread of pedophilia and a complete failure of the ecclesiastical establishment to respond.

One of the less edifying elements in the letter is that Ratzinger took the time to engage in subtle if unmistakeable academic score-settling throughout. Speaking of an ethicist he disagreed with, Ratzinger writes,

I shall never forget how then-leading German moral theologian Franz Böckle, who, having returned to his native Switzerland after his retirement, announced in view of the possible decisions of the encyclical Veritatis splendor that if the encyclical should determine that there were actions which were always and under all circumstances to be classified as evil, he would challenge it with all the resources at his disposal. It was God, the Merciful, that spared him from having to put his resolution into practice; Böckle died on July 8, 1991.

Joseph Ratzinger

Leaving aside the question of whether Böckle was right (and he wasn’t), the slight chuckle with which Benedict describes his death is extraordinarily petty. What a tawdry, sorry, cynical intervention from the ailing pontiff.

The letter fails in its description of the sources of pedophilia and ephebophilia. Yet at least Ratzinger attempts to make a case for why the priesthood has seen such widespread sexualization, with such prominent lapses, over the course of the last few decades. His letter does not, however, address the cover-up at all. If anything, he seems to end the letter on a rather troubling note:

Today, the accusation against God is, above all, about characterizing His Church as entirely bad, and thus dissuading us from it. The idea of a better Church, created by ourselves, is in fact a proposal of the devil, with which he wants to lead us away from the living God, through a deceitful logic by which we are too easily duped. No, even today the Church is not just made up of bad fish and weeds. The Church of God also exists today, and today it is the very instrument through which God saves us.

Joseph Ratzinger

I suppose that, on the spiritual level, the Pope is not wrong here. But it does rather seem to me that he is perhaps too concerned with the reputation of the Church – a holy body, yes, but also one riddled with both sexual predators and the venal men who protect them. In trying to end on a hopeful message, the Pope sounds a false note. He seems to have erased the mysterium iniquitatis. The effect is one of minimization of grave evil rather than a proper and reforming zelus domus Domini.

Yet the most frustrating feature of this letter, beyond its occasional historical errors and indulgence in the petty sparring of academia, is that it feeds into a narrative that conservative Catholics have used for years to exonerate themselves in the sex abuse crisis. That narrative chalks up clerical sex abuse to post-conciliar laxity alongside the sexual revolution. If only, these conservatives and traditionalists say, if only we hadn’t gone off the rails in 1968. Sex abuse becomes the exclusive property of ecclesiastical liberals.

Fr. Marcial Maciel and Pope St. John Paul II, who admired and protected the Mexican sexual predator for years. (Source)

But this is a false narrative. It’s a lie – a half-truth, perhaps, but still a lie – that conceals the suffering of victims prior to that age as well as all those who have suffered abuse at the hands of conservative and traditionalist clergy. Men for whom the Revolution did not transpire. There are many examples of this kind of thing. One only needs to point to Marcial Maciel, Carlos Urrutigoity, Tony Anatrella, Fernando Karadima…the list goes on. None of these men were liberals. Some worked closely with John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Yet the narrative in this letter cheapens the experience of their victims and lulls conservatives and traditionalists into a false sense of self-righteous security – exactly the opposite of what we need if we are ever to get a handle on the problem of clerical sex abuse wherever it should rear its ugly head. It’s a narrative that helps us look the other way as more and more innocents get hurt. And it’s gravely irresponsible for the Pope-Emeritus to propagate this lie.

Thus passes a great theologian.