Soul searching

Anna Quindlen

January 04, 1991|By Anna Quindlen

ARCHBISHOP Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, who established discussion groups for women to talk about abortion, was asked if he would muzzle himself after the Vatican barred a Catholic university from giving him an honorary doctorate.

He couldn't imagine keeping quiet, he said, "unless you take out my tongue."

Charles E. Curran, the liberal theologian who was barred from teaching at Catholic University, in Washington, D.C., after being censured by the Vatican, finally found a home at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas.

"For the good of the church and its credibility, we just have to recognize the legitimacy of some dissent," he said.

And Bishop Kenneth E. Untener of Saginaw, Mich., rose at the meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to say of the papal ban on contraception:

"The time has come to ask the questions out loud. If we don't ask them, we are causing great damage to the credibility and to the unity of this church that we love."

Each year around this time, thousands of Americans come to church, looking for something. For some it is simply a search for some shred of childhood ritual, a past form without present belief.

For those holding the hands of their children, it is often a search for that thing parents always want for their family, a direction in a world that seems without a compass.

Perhaps there has never been a time when people needed words to live by more than they do now. Perhaps there has never been such confusion about where those words can be found.

Many of us grew up in families in which tenets of church and state were simple: they were inviolate and clear, to be neither questioned nor modified, the stuff of which samplers and slogans were made.

This no longer serves.

It is not hubris that makes this true; it is thought, what we call soul-searching. Weakland says he must discuss, Curran says he must differ, Untener says he must question. And they thereby reflect the most valuable part of what makes us human, the part that looks for answers within.

Cardinal John O'Connor of New York wrote a column not long ago ripping into "Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven," a scholarly book by the German Catholic theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann that accuses the church of twisting its original texts and mission in order to subjugate women and denigrate sex.

The cardinal said he had not read the book and blasted it on the basis of its dust jacket, an omission that he would surely consider unforgivable for anyone assessing a book he had written. A spokesman for the diocese said the book was illustrative of a rise in Catholic-bashing.

Catholic-bashing is not on the rise. But discussion and dissent are, in every place of worship, not because people have lost faith but because they are desperately seeking to reinforce it. That search has changed as our lives have.

Many women no longer accept that they were born to play a secondary role in the lives of any of their institutions. And this is true in rabbinical schools and Methodist churches and in convents, too.

It was not Muslim-bashing that led a group of Saudi women to gather at the Al Tamimi Safeway late last year, dismiss their chauffeurs and drive their own cars, a protest that seemed quaint to Westerners but became a national scandal and led to the firing from their teaching jobs of some of the women. It was knowledge.

To go to college, read newspapers, live in the modern world and believe that driving a Mercedes "harms the sanctity of women" is surely difficult. To look at the pictures from Romanian orphanages, fire sales of unwanted children, is to strain past the breaking point the idea that contraception is immoral.

In both cases, the suspicion that the underlying issue is not sin but misogyny is inevitable.

In its current issue, U.S. Catholic polled its readers on the ordination of women; 76 percent said they would welcome a female priest in their parish and 69 percent said they believed Jesus would have ordained women. But 68 percent said they had little hope of seeing a female priest in their lifetime.

"To be a Catholic, you have to stand for something," says Curran, who always has. "And I have tried to distinguish between core beliefs and peripheral ones."

I suspect people of all faiths are struggling to do the same. There is no evidence that this world is growing any less confounding, which probably means that every year at this time, people will go on a search for answers. They are likely to find them in those places where they can ask questions.

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