Let the Walls Come Tumbling Down by Dawn Morais Webster

Dawn Morais Webster, the Pope off to his summer palace, Castel Gandolfo. He tells the world he will now become just a “humble pilgrim.”

If we want to see real change in the church, Catholics need a Rosa Parks moment.

Thousands fill St. Peter’s Square for the final blessing. A gleaming helicopter whisks the Pope off to his summer palace, Castel Gandolfo. He tells the world he will now become just a “humble pilgrim.”  But this humble pilgrim will be housed in an apartment behind the “Apostolic Palace,” be addressed as “His Holiness,” share a secretary with the new Pope, carry the newly created title of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and continue to wear his white cassock.  Sound like a humble pilgrim to you?

Speaking with Tavis Smiley recently, theologian Gina Messina-Dysert pointed to the resignation of this pope as probably the most progressive sign in the recent history of the Catholic church. She argued that an act so singular, it has not happened in more than 600 years,  suggests that the church can also break with other traditions.

She is right. This radical act should beget other radical acts. We are at a time in church history when we might end the destructive practice of celibacy that has led to so much hypocrisy and abuse. The church might finally be ready to attest to the equality of women and ordain women as priests.  The church might find the will and courage to welcome LGBT Catholics to full communion at the Eucharistic table and to full access to marriage and family life that heterosexual Catholics enjoy. The church might, but it is unlikely the church will.  The theater of the Pope’s departure and his plans for how he will live the life of a pilgrim suggest otherwise.

When asked why she remained a practicing Catholic despite the pain of the still unfolding sexual abuse and discrimination, Dr. Messina-Dysert gave the only answer I think possible for those for whom Catholicism will forever be a part of their life force. To be deeply angered by those who have clung to power while forgetting their duty to people is to be angry at a man-made institution that has allowed the rot to set in. It does not diminish the radiance of the Gospel. It does not silence the Gospel’s call to stand in solidarity with those who have been pushed to the margins. If anything, anger and a sense of betrayal fuel the desire of dissident Catholics to reclaim the church that Jesus gave us.

Hans Kung wrote recently of the possibility of a Vatican Spring.

Can what happened in the Middle East happen in the Catholic church? Tavis Smiley asked Dr. Messina-Dysert the question that Kung says the whole world is asking: “Might the next pope, despite everything, inaugurate a new spring for the Catholic Church?” Perhaps we should ask, “Will we–in the face of the obstructionism of a decaying institution—will WE inaugurate a new spring?”

It really is up to us. The more voices from the pews make themselves heard, the more likely are we to cause such reverberations that the walls of prejudice might eventually come tumbling down.  I share Dr. Messina-Dysert’s belief that the chorus of voices is growing stronger every day. And it will help ensure that the monarchical edifices of rules and pledges of obedience that stifled conscience will crumble and be thrown out the way Christ drove the traders out of the temple.

In the face of all the pomp and power, all ordinary Catholics have at their disposal is their presence in the pews. If we want to see real change in the church, Catholics need a Rosa Parks moment.

Will it happen? E.J. Dionne made public the private hopes of many a Catholic when he suggested that the next pope be a nun.  But he was quick to call this “the longest of long shots.” Dr. Messina Dysert expressed the same longing in her conversation with Tavis Smiley but also added that “it’s not going to happen in my lifetime.”

I have to ask, “Why not?” Why should it be such a long shot in 2013? If it is so, don’t we lay Catholics have ourselves to blame? Why do we fill the pews when half the church at least has the status of second class citizens? Why do we accept within the church what we refuse to accept in other spheres of civic or professional life?

We sing hymns to Mary for her obedience, but didn’t Mary intervene in the face of impending catastrophe at the marriage feast at Cana?

Dionne reminds us that Pope John XXIII recognized in 1963 that women “are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons.” Fifty years should be long enough for his successors to act on that recognition.

Dawn Morais Webster is the mother of two young adults, wife of a man with Quaker and Episcopalian roots, was raised in a strongly, pragmatically Catholic family in Malaysia and was educated by Franciscan nuns whom she loved and admired. She currently spends a good deal of time talking back to the neanderthal leadership of the Catholic church in hopes of reclaiming the faith from the stranglehold of its institutional perversions. Her blog at http://freecatholic808 is a small voice–but she believes she is part of a much larger community of dissident voices. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Hawaii, Mānoa in 2008. Hawaii has been her home for the past twelve years–and  the homage that the islands and the Hawaiian culture pay to the voices of its kupuna (elders) as well as the strong sense of spirituality and rootedness in place and people are healing and allow the soul to sing.

13 thoughts on “Let the Walls Come Tumbling Down by Dawn Morais Webster”

  1. This is not a hostile question, but comes from thinking about what you say here. How do you see the “sit-down” occurring and how can it lead to transformation? Vatican 2 was initiated from the top down. Protests against the RC hierarchy seem to end in schism creating new denominations (Luther being the first), capitulation, or leaving the church (as many nuns, priests, and other formerly faithful laypeople have done in Europe and the North America). I admire the womanchurch movement, but what is its longterm prognosis, dying out with its members or schism or? It seems to me that the only hope for the RC church is another top down reformation, initiated by the hierarchy, most probably the pope. Is this what you see, some day a pope responding to Catholics who are worshiping outside the boundaries of the official church and changing the church for them? This can always happen, despite the college of cardinals being packed with conservatives, but is it likely? What about all the Catholics who seemed to have liked Ratzinger? Or???? What is your vision of a Rosa Parks movement?


  2. Thanks Dawn, for “talking back to the neanderthal leadership of the Catholic church” as you say in your bio. Your life and upbringing among deeply committed religious people filters profoundly through your words. There may be in fact an ongoing, though hidden, “Rosa Parks movement,” already at work in the Church. As regards “other radical acts” — I once participated in a private community, comprised of mostly Catholic, along with some Anglican members, and a few lay people unattached to any religious affiliation at all. The group was practicing their own version of the daily Catholic mass, with mostly women taking on the role of priests. The Eucharist was redesigned as living light so that a candle in the center of a beautiful crystal glass was passed around the room between the attendees. There were at that time, and probably still are, many other private and independent Catholic groups performing a more inclusive and liberated version of the mass in their own homes — not a rejection of the Church they still love, but courageous and loving souls, like Rosa Parks, who simply move round the obstacles in amazingly creative and peaceful ways.


  3. Excellent piece and I hope we’ll be hearing from you again, Dawn.

    Like Carol, I’d be very interested in your vision of a “Rosa Parks movement.”

    And–also like Carol–it seems to me that given the top-to-bottom power structure of the Roman Church (plus the enormous momentum of bureaucracies toward simply keeping themselves IN power) no real, top-initiated reform is likely. I keep waiting, as an interested outside observer, formerly Catholic, to see the (spiritual) moneychangers’ tables overturned…but I’m certainly not holding my breath while I wait.

    I look forward to your future essays. Thanks again!


  4. I have the same hope: if the church can learn something new in 600 years, it can learn other things. Pope John Paul II agonized : how could the holocaust and WWII happen in christian Europe???.. and he called on historians to find the causes. Well, I have seen no responses from any historians but the question did not leave me alone and since I experienced the horrors of WWII personally I came to the startling conclusion: it did happen precisely BECAUSE of male dominated christianity! The 30-years war too claimed 7.5 million lives; and what is the very starting point of male-domination-insanity? Genesis 2, written app. 600BC, condensed from some 4000 years of verbal stories. The defamation of women and elevation of males to the throne started right there “ecce unde” as Augustine would say.
    This tragedy, written down by some hebrew scribes ironically portrays not a god who creates man in his image, but quite the opposite: a god invented in the image of patriarchal males.
    So to begin to end male domination, Genesis II has to be put in quarantine or re-written in the light of what we know today about god. And this I have begun to do, but thats for another post.


  5. Thank you all for your comments and questions. Carol, I think Ross answers the question you –and others–raise about how I envision the Rosa Parks moment. Ross is right. I think it is “already at work in the church” even if we don’t We see it in the leadership of a St. Margaret McBride who supports an abortion to save a young woman’s life, knowing that she will incur the wrath of the bishops and excommunication. We see it in the women who keep writing, teaching and speaking despite “visitations,” excommunications and thundering denunciations without dialogue from the Vatican or the US Bishops. We see it in LCWR’s calm refusal to blink in the face of bullying. We see it in the independence of thought and action of Sr. Carol Keehan who broke with the Bishops to support Obamacare early and in the leadership of St. Simone Campbell of Network Lobby who is relentless in insisting that being prolife should keep our conspicuously pious politicians from taking away nutritional assistance to thousands of women, infants and children through the sequester and other draconian efforts to rein in spending by further punishing the poor while protecting the wealthy.

    I believe the more we act by the light of our conscience, not by the rules of the monarchical institution that passes for church today, the more we reshape what church is and make the current leadership irrelevant. I love the meditative peace of a beautiful Sunday eucharistic service and I love the poetry of ritual and am lucky to be able to find that here amongst the Marianists at the Mystical Rose Oratory at Chaminade University in Honolulu. But I can also envisage creating church in the way Ross describes in the manner of so many “courageous and loving souls, like Rosa Parks,who simply move round the obstacles in amazingly creative and peaceful ways.” I am struck by how many of the people I most admire for their living of the Gospels are now persona non grata with the powers that be. That says something about the path I find myself taking…

    And I repeat, why is a woman pope in 2013 so out of the realm of possibility even with those who dream of it? But then again, why would a woman want the job–unless perhaps we acknowledge that it still takes a woman to really clean house! And the Church is a very big house….. Dawn


  6. I have fond memories of a feminist theological conference organized by the nuns of Chaminade University in 1978. They invited me too. In 2005 in Australia it was radical nuns who asked me to speak. In general I have found Protestant feminists to be the ones who draw the line against the Goddess.


  7. I have to say that I’ve envisioned a Rosa Parks moment as something more in line with what her actions actually started. What would happen if all Catholic women, girls and their male allies just refused to go to Mass until the situation changed just like blacks in Alabama refused to take the city buses while the boycott was on? That would send quite a message wouldn’t it?


    1. What a great idea! But, maybe they’d all be too afraid that they’d go to hell if they missed mass!


  8. Ivy, You’re right–that would make it more of a real Rosa Parks moment–and one I, like so many others have contemplated. The only problem is the current leadership has said repeatedly that they would welcome a smaller “purer” church more in line with their mad orthodoxy. So rather than change, they would see our departure as a cleansing, not a call to change. So, I stay and keep talking back….and not because I am afraid of “going” to hell :-) We’ve been given a pretty good glimpse of what hell looks like right here…..no? Today’s NYT carrried a hymn to Timothy Dolan and his “charm” offensive…and he informs us that all he (and the boys at the top) are interested in is to take “timeless truths of the faith,” church teaching and “tradition” and “wrap it in a more attractive way.” Lovely…..


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