Self-styled 'post-modernist' challenges traditional doctrine REBEL PRIEST

April 08, 1994|By Frank P.L. Somerville | Frank P.L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

The Rev. Matthew Fox's admirers -- and they are legion -- have placed him in some illustrious company. And with a wry, self-deprecating laugh at his admitted immodesty, this rebel Roman Catholic priest agrees with his admirers.

The company? St. Thomas Aquinas, Galileo, Meister Eckhart, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross for starters.

Add some of Father Fox's celebrated contemporaries: Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, moral theologian Charles Curran, poet-bishop Pedro Casaladaliga.

What do they have in common, these pioneering, unconventional, even controversial Catholic thinkers and writers, past and present?

All were -- or are -- "silenced" by the Vatican.

The hush can be pure abstraction, of course. Despite his expulsion in 1992 (for "disobedience") from the Dominican religious order of which he was so long an international star, and the Vatican's formal withdrawal of his right to offer Mass and perform the sacraments, Father Fox, 53, continues to crank out theological best sellers.

He attracts big crowds of Catholics and non-Catholics to his lectures and seminars. He is a celebrity on the faculty of a small Catholic liberal arts college in Oakland, Calif.

On Sunday he will be holding forth in Columbia, Howard County.

In a telephone interview from a rented island retreat in Puget Sound, where he's been working on his autobiography, Father Fox said his relations with Pope John Paul II remain as strained as those of another dissident priest, exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

"I'm in the same boat as Aristide," Father Fox says. "We're both learning what limbo is."

It is the pope's ban on priests in politics that applies to Father Aristide, whose radical theology and grass-roots Catholic movement in Haiti were often in conflict with the conservative church establishment.

But there is a conflict. When they were ordained, both men were told they were priests forever. "They can't take the priesthood away," says Father Fox. "I'll pray with those who want to pray with me."

The most usual criticism of Father Fox's books, from other liberal Catholic theologians as well as the conservative watchdogs at the Vatican, is that they are a pandering blend of New Age pop culture and Christian mysticism -- lightweight if not heretical.

Lawrence Wright of New Yorker magazine, in his book "Saints and Sinners" published last year, describes a "bravura Matthew Fox performance" for an idolizing audience at his Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality on the campus of Holy Names College in Oakland.

"But was it Catholic?" Mr. Wright wonders. "Was it Christian? Was it even religious? Or was it just a feel-good New Age spiel tailored to make the yuppies feel better about themselves, a designer theology for the millennium -- God Lite for the free-floating middle class?"

In a 1989 issue of Listening, a Dominican magazine started by Father Fox in his student days, fellow academics were less than kind.

"Fox's representations of historical figures and movements tend to be caricatures," wrote Tiina Allik, adding that the priest "finds it tactically and rhetorically useful to sweep complexities under the rug."

Roberto S. Goizueta wrote that, "far from being counter-cultural," the Fox message "extols eroticism, sensuality, enjoyment of the physical world, the individual over . . . institutions" and, as such, is "but one more technique to be purchased by bored middle-class consumers in their ongoing search for meaning and self-fulfillment, without any threat to their lifestyle."

Unkindest criticism

Father Fox says it was the blistering criticism by feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether that hurt the most, as he considers her a kindred spirit. She wrote in 1990 that his work was "superficial and lacking in historical and spiritual depth."

The constant refrain that he is part of the New Age causes Father Fox to bristle. "That label comes from lazy journalists," he says. "I'm not at home with the New Age. I'm different, although in some respects our goals are the same. Many New Age followers are ex-Jews and ex-Catholics looking for mysticism."

It is little wonder the label is attached to him, however. A masseuse, a Zen Buddhist, a yoga teacher and the self-described witch Starhawk have been on his faculty at the "creation spirituality" center in Oakland, which seeks to combine the insights of Christian mystics, environmentalists, feminists and American Indians.

He prefers the "post-modernist" label. "I'm an intuitive person," Father Fox says. "I am looking at the past with new eyes. I derive so much energy from the Middle Ages."

Father Fox acknowledges his position on abortion may seem contradictory. "I'm against it in principle, but even more, I'm against the government forbidding abortions," he says.

"I am in favor of abortion clinics and making them as safe as possible to minimize loss of life."

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