Here we are blessed to present two complementary homilies by Roman Catholic women Priests. Rev. Dr. Roberta Meehan of Arizona captures the importance of living God’s Laws, while Rev. Dr. Judy Lee’s is about the statement of Jesus that we disregard God’s commandments and cling to human traditions, with its implications for the Church and women’s ordination. Both see the heart of the Law as living justice and love with all of God’s people, especially the broken, the outcast and the economically poor.
Clinging to Human Traditions
In this Sunday’s homily we will combine the choice given us-to follow or to leave Jesus- in last week’s Gospel (John 6) with this week’s Markian Gospel (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15,21-23) about clinging to human traditions instead of God’s Law. I am struck with the connection. To choose to follow Jesus is often to turn away from tradition-in fact tradition and ritual can almost become a ‘false god’ when it is an end in itself and not a means to doing what Jesus did-showing us how to bring God’s reign of love and justice on earth.
Clinging to human traditions ( Mark 7: 8 and 9) is exactly what we are struggling with when we struggle with the institutional church, a church that we need to be careful not to become despite our yearning for its renewal. In Mark’s Gospel,Jesus is charged with not following all of the rituals of Judaism around ritual purification (hand washing) and he quotes Isaiah who said “The doctrines they teach are only human precepts. You disregard God’s commandments and cling to human tradition”.
Human traditions can be wonderful, giving order, meaning and often joy to our lives. Family traditions, like what is cooked and served for Thanksgiving dinner or how special holidays are observed, or summer reunions enhance anticipation and give structure to our lives. We may want to celebrate “traditionally”, “the ways we always have”, without thinking. We identify with our traditions. But indeed they are traditions and not truths or facts, perhaps. I love Christmas celebrations including the usual children’s pageant with its Nativity Scene. As a Pastor, I find it a great way to teach and involve children, and have made that a part of our Christmas celebration as a congregation. Now, I know that the “wise men”, magi, or “three kings” were not necessarily wise, nor kings, nor three. Mainly, I know that they, whoever they were (astrologers?), or if they were, would have come many months after the birth of Jesus given the star’s description. And was there a real gleaming, leading, star? And was it really Nazareth or Bethlehem? It is hard to separate the traditions of Christmas from what scholarship tells us, if it tells anything on the subject. Still, the tradition can have deep life-giving essential meaning that we can teach and live. But what happens when traditions are presented as absolute truth? When, in fact, they are even placed above Scripture, God’s Law of love and justice and, indeed above the spirit of the Law? That is a question Jesus raises and answers in the Gospel of Mark for this Sunday.
Non-violent resistance to man-made traditions and laws that were not God’s Law changed the direction of racist and imperialistic history in India with Ghandi, in South Africa with Nelson Mandela and others, and in the United States with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and others. The Law of love, justice and equality trumped the laws made by men. Yet, long after laws were changed and to the present time, people struggle with giving up traditions like derogatory language and white-only clubs (and later male only clubs) that were racist (sexist) and inflammatory under the new laws and traditions.
The Canon Laws of the Roman Catholic Church and many of the Papal Encyclicals are a big part of the church’s tradition. They are not Scripture and they are not all reflecting the essence of God’s Law as Dr. Roberta Meehan explains below. Canon 1024, for example, that says only men can be ordained as priests, is simply a man-made rule of the church. It is a rule that negates the early history of the church where women served and were ordained on all levels, deacons, priests and bishops. (See for example books by Gary Macy, Jan Aldridge, Dorothy Irvin and others). This Canon Law is not infallible. Some church traditions are deemed to be “infallible teaching”. Whether one believes in this level of human teaching or not (and I think that the teaching on infallibility is, at best, fallible) it is important to note that only very few of the thousands of church canons (rules) or encyclicals have been deemed “infallible teaching” by anyone. When Pope Francis, who is generous and humble and a most wonderful role model for serving the poor and caring for all people and for the earth, says almost out of character “the door is closed” on women’s ordination, he is in the tradition of what seems to be the infallible teaching of John Paul II and Benedict the 16th. However, it is not even clear that this is “infallible teaching.”
A responder to a blog on the closed door to women in the priesthood notes:
“Infallible? Not quite, Rev! Pope John Paul II does not use the word “infallible” in announcing his position against ordaining women — this much is clear from your citation from Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.
Further, the then CDF prefect, later Pope Benedict XVI, uses weasel language to address the issue of infallibility — “In this case, an act of the ordinary Papal Magisterium, in itself not infallible, witnesses to the infallibility of the teaching of a doctrine already possessed by the Church.” J. Ratzinger, Letter Concerning the CDF Reply Regarding Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, dated October 28, 1995.
Without more, no one can conclude that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and its teaching on women’s ordination is INFALLIBLE.”
Bearing in mind that Jesus ordained no one (“ordination”-the Sacrament of Holy Orders- happened in later church history) but had faithful followers who were both men and women, many feel, hope and pray that Pope Francis will be able to find or make the crack in the door. Whether he does or not, women in the Roman Catholic Women Priest Movement have chosen to follow Christ’s commandment of love and justice in breaking the tradition of Canon Law 1024 and answering God’s call to the priesthood. God can call whomever God calls, human traditions cannot limit God. Human “laws” cannot supersede God’s Laws. Obviously the man of God, the bishop still in good standing with the Church whose name will be revealed at his death, who ordained our first women bishops in 2003, was willing to break with tradition, and break man’s laws for the life of the Church. It is not easy to break with human /church traditions. The almost 210 validly ordained Roman Catholic women priests throughout the world are loyal to Christ and to the Church, including having the courage to break the tradition of the church regarding male only priests. The rewards for this are in serving God’s people, including the poorest and outcast sacramentally but the “rewards” also include criticism, ostracism and cutting off from the life giving and God given love of the formal Church. Some of us have lost ties and relationships and opportunities to serve as well as work situations and livelihoods that have meant a great deal to us. Yet we put God’s law above man’s laws. We differentiate, as Jesus did, human tradition from God’s Law. Where human traditions actually seek to limit God’s powers and God’s Law of love we seek instead to live the Law of love and justice as interpreted by Jesus the Christ, who tells the church here: “You disregard God’s commandments and cling to human traditions”. Let us, as Rev. Dr. Meehan says below, be “doers of the word” enacting “religion that is pure and undefiled before God…to care for orphans and widows in their affliction…” (James 1:22b, 27) and let us follow God’s call for each one of us and God’s Law of love and justice, letting go of all human traditions that are not in the spirit of that Law.
Rev. Dr. Judy Lee, RCWP-USA-East
Co-Pastor of The Good Shepherd Inclusive Catholic Community in Fort Myers, Florida
Rev. Dr. Roberta Meehan’s Homily for the 22nd Sunday – Cycle B – 30 August 2015
Dt 4:1-2, 6-8
Ps 15:2-3, 3-4, 4-5
Jas 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27
Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Today’s readings follow a marvelous theme – the law of God! Of course for some the temptation is to say that ALL of the readings from ALL of Scripture deal with the law of God, while others squirm and wonder what is so great or marvelous about a list of laws. And both of these statements may be true in their own way. But, today’s readings are special in the way they develop this marvelous theme based on the REAL law of God.
We all know the REAL law, as given by Jesus (who was repeating what had been said in the Old Testament numerous times), don’t we? Love God above all things and love your neighbor as yourself. That is the fullness of the law – the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Jesus says it. Jesus lives it. Jesus teaches us about it. Past and present. And future. That is the law! But, do we believe it? I think sometimes we do not.
Oh, but those parts aren’t in today’s readings. True. However, to understand the fullness of today’s message, we have to remember that that is the summation of the law as Jesus taught it.
Way back from the time of the Pentateuch onto and including the Judeo-Christian split, the people were being told – actually mandated! – to follow the commandments of the Lord but not to add or subtract from them. What a concept! Just follow the commands from the Lord. Not anything else. Just the commands from the Lord. Then Jesus simplified it. In his own words he said that the two great commandments were a summation of the law and that everything that was needed could be found in those two love commandments.
Go back to the first reading from Deuteronomy and look at what is said. “In your observance of the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it.” Why do we insist on adding and subtracting from Jesus’ law of love? The usual excuse that is given is that the writers of more laws – 1752 canons in the present Roman Catholic Canon (which, of course, break down literally into thousands of laws) – are simply clarifying the law. I am not certain that is what either the Old Testament prophets or the New Testament’s Jesus meant.
The responsorial psalm today gives us some hints about what this law – this command – is – thinking the truth, no slander, no harming people, no reproaching people, no usury, no bribery. Those, plus numerous other social points go along very well with what our religious ancestors knew to be the true law of the Lord. The Jews knew they were required to love their neighbors. Hospitality, helping the poor and orphaned and widowed, welcoming strangers, and sharing were paramount virtues and were required to be practiced by those who were following the Lord. That was the real law – the real commandment of the Old Testament. Everything from Sodom and Gomorrah to the rantings of the prophet Amos (and everything in between) speak of the essentials of these concepts that centered around loving one’s neighbor. And, look at the New Testament. Look at the parables of Jesus. How many of those parables can be summed up in the ultimate hospitality of loving one’s neighbor?
The reading from James brings us closer to our understanding of our mission. Look particularly at this line: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.” DOERS. We have got to be DOERS. That is, we have got to be DOERS of the WORD. What is the WORD? Jesus, of course, is the Word! We learn that in other parts of Scripture. Jesus is the Word. The Gospel of John begins with “In the beginning was the Word….” We all know that line! DOING requires action. We are not to sit back and just hear what is going on. We have to DO what is going on and we have to DO the Word. Jesus is the Word – Jesus is also the Way, the Truth, and the Light. Rather impressive credentials! Back in Deuteronomy we learned that we are to be followers of the law of God by DOING the commandment. And Jesus is the Word – the Word of God. And we are the DOERS of the Word. Fantastic thought. We need to DO Jesus!
What is it we are supposed to DO in order to DO Jesus? As we listen to this message, we probably all recall the great commandment of Jesus (mentioned above) – the great act of DOING – to love God and to love our neighbor. But, what about this church rule or that ritualistic tradition? Bow here. Don’t talk in church. Dress appropriately. Look down your nose at your neighbor who is obviously committing some very horrendous sin. Oh, the list is endless.
But, is this what we are supposed to DO? Is this DOING Jesus? Hardly!
Look at this Gospel of Mark. The Pharisees were upset because the followers of Jesus were not observing ritual tradition. Jesus became frustrated. Jesus then made one of his strongest statements in Mark. Jesus said, “You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.” And when we look at this in the context of the great commandment – love God and love neighbor – our understanding of the strength of this statement becomes even deeper and more profound.
Jesus went on to list a number of examples, but the essence is crystal clear. There is only one command. The Jews were told this in ancient times. This message was stressed over and over throughout the Old Testament. We are to reach out – to love God and neighbor. In the New Testament we are again told to be DOERS. We are told to love. Jesus gave us the beatitudes, the sermon on the mount, the sermon on the plain, and countless parables demonstrating how we can DO as he commanded. Jesus gave us these countless parables to demonstrate how we could love. Jesus became upset with the human laws that stood between the people of God and the DOING of the gospel.
How can we defy what Jesus has taught us? How can we put human tradition and ritualistic codes above the great law of God? The commandment from the beginning has been to love. There is no other commandment. To DO Jesus (the Word) is to love. There is no other way to love God and to love our neighbor. And by that we are fulfilling the law and the prophets. And that is the law of God!
— Roberta M. Meehan, D. Min.