Paul and Third World Women Theologians (1999), and, Feminism and Beyond (2004) by Sister Loretta Dornisch

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Paul and Third World Women Theologians (1999), and, Feminism and Beyond (2004) by Sister Loretta Dornisch

“What if the letters of Paul were written by Paula?” Paul and Third World Women Theologians begins. Sister Loretta Dornisch, the author, never refers to him as Saint Paul. She seems to have very little respect for him–or for the sacredness of Sacred Scripture. She takes it for granted that Paul’s letters are “patriarchal and oppressive.” Sister Loretta asks, “Can we convert these texts to be woman-friendly, user-friendly, liberation-friendly?” The back cover describes this as a “dialectic.” Sister Loretta is guided in her characterization of “Paula” by thinking of third world women (liberation) theologians.

Sister Loretta Dornisch is a professor of Religious Studies at Edgewood College here in Madison, WI. She, and perhaps even other college professors, may use this to “teach” college students. I bought my copy from Amazon and it has college used bookstore stickers on it.

Paul and Third World Women Theologians reminded me of something: fan fiction, as in fan-written stories about TV or movie characters. And more specifically than that, the rather “classic” book on the topic, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture by Phillip Jenkins–though I’m not claiming Sister Loretta has read that book.

 The raw materials of the original story… [provide] instructions for a preferred reading, but they do not necessarily overpower and subdue the reader. The same narratives (Dragnet, say) can be read literally by one group and as camp by another. Some groups’ pleasure comes not in celebrating the values of their chosen works but by “reading against the grain,” in expressing their opposition to rather than acceptance of textual ideology.

I didn’t realize till I looked the book up again the other day, that Jenkins actually drew his central concept of “textual poaching” from a 1980 book titled The Practice of Everyday Life, by a dissident French Jesuit who was an academic at a secular university, Father Michel de Certeau. Besides de Certeau’s ideas about the creativity (rather than passivity) of the reader who rejects the “official interpreters”, Textual Poachers is also heavily influenced by gender theory. Jenkins is very interested in what he labels a “utopian” aspect of women’s fan fiction, in which characters’ sex and sexual orientation can be quite fluid. Jenkins says:

The strategies Bleich identifies as characteristically feminine reflect, rather, ways women have found to circumvent male-centered narratives and to rewrite them in a fashion that serves feminine interests. Such strategies deflect focus from male protagonists onto the larger sets of social relations constituting the narrative world; such strategies reclaim from the margins the experiences of female characters. These approaches are born of alienation and discomfort rather than closeness to and acceptance of narrative priorities.

This brings us back to Sister Loretta Dornisch and her utopian reading of the Pauline Epistles as if they were written by “Paula.” We are immediately confronted with a malleability of gender in the first chapter, on 1 Thessalonians. Sister asks, “What is it that Paul, Paula, Sylvanus, Sylvana, Timothy, and Timothea send to the women, children and men who live in Thessalonica?” And there is a statement in regards to 1 Thes 2:2 that “Many women from Africa, Central America or Asia can relate to Paula’s autobiographical allusions to her suffering and being shamefully treated….” My annoyed pencil reply in the margin: “Paula is not real.” There are quite simply no autobiographical allusions about Paula at all in the actual New Testament. There is a specific genre of fanfic that Sister Loretta’s book makes me think of, by the way: “Mary Sue.”

This is an especially horrible book to introduce Scripture to someone without a lot of knowledge thereof, because the translations are Sister Loretta’s own. She knows New Testament Greek, maybe–however she has very little respect for what the words actually say. Here is her translation of 1 Thess 3:12-13:

May your hearts be blameless in holiness before God and our Mother in the presence of Jesus (1 Thess 3:13), our liberator with all those in freedom.

The RSV-Catholic Edition has verse 13 like this:

so that he may establish your hearts unblameable in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

Okay, so what does the Greek look like? I don’t know Greek (here is a more detailed interlinear version), but I would think most of us can tell by looking at it, if it says “Mother” or “Father.” It seems to me that “theou” is God and “patros” is the word I am looking for:

eis to sterixai (AAN) umon tas kardias amemptous en hagiosune emprosthen tou theou kai patros emon en te parousia tou kuriou emon Iesou meta panton ton agion autou.

And she does not point out to her reader what she is changing in her texts.

Continuing on with her New Testament “fan fiction” to mutilate 1 Corinthians, Sister Loretta imagines that “Paula sees herself a ‘called apostle through the will of God.'” There is strife among some of the Corinthians, and “strife seems unfortunately to be part of the human condition, even in church groups. We are indeed called to that kind of love, but it does not come easily and dissension is always a scandal.” But then, confusingly, Sister Loretta wastes no time before engaging in dissension: “we think of women being denied access to certain ministries by reason of their being women.” This is essentially exactly the same formula by which Sister Theresa Kane called for “women’s ordination” in the presence of John Paul II in 1979. I reflected while reading this book that these ideas are a sort of utopian “reading” of the Church, taking the materials of Christianity but rejecting its values including the ordered complementarity of man and woman, “rewriting them in a fashion that serves feminine interests,” to quote Henry Jenkins–or rather, a certain kind of feminist interests. To me, the idea that women only have dignity if they can do specifically male things is insulting. Women can’t be, and don’t need to be, husbands, fathers, or priests.

Moving on, “Paula” says Christ is the new passover. Sister Loretta decides that “one of the possibilities of the meaning of “passover” is “dance” therefore, in keeping with the rejection of any likelihood of actual personal sin she had described in her chapter on 2 Thess, “Christ is the new dance, the new passover.” Through redefinition, her idea of Jesus apparently ceases to have to do with sinners’ atonement with God, and salvation.

Sister Loretta says that in 1 Cor 14:34-35 “Paula” says women should keep silence in church. She’s just reflecting what the custom is, Sister says. Then Sister makes a claim about what other commentators on “Paula’s” words say: “Others insist these words are such a contradiction to the Christianity preached by Paula that they must have been inserted by another author.” Who are these other “exegetes” commenting also on the letters of “Paula”? She probably means the “redaction criticism” on Paul–this is misguided enough.

In the Second Letter to the Corinthians, “Paula names herself as apostle of Christ Jesus through the will of God and associates herself with Timothea….”

The Letter to Philemon, according to Sister Loretta Dornisch, “is from Paula and Timothea. Their letter is also addressed to ‘beloved Apphia’ and Archippa, a co-worker, and the church in their house (Phlm 1:1-2).” In the actual letter of Saint Paul, in the Bible, the letter is from Paul and Timothy, and addressed to “To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house.” “Paula” pleads for “her ‘child’ Onesimus whom she ‘brought forth’ in her bonds(Phlm 1:10). In the actual letter, Saint Paul has become Onesimus’ “father.” Maybe the both of them are in prison and “Paula” has become the runaway slave’s spiritual mom, and Saint Paul his spiritual dad? But it is not wise to think about this alternate universe too hard.

In the Letter to the Phillippians, Paula and Timothea become a good example of female friendship building up a sense of “power and worth” in one another, like “Third World women have become newly conscious of the strength they find in each other as they share common goals.” I wrote in the margin, “Prosperity Gospel feminism: Jesus will make you feel powerful and good about yourself.” In these stretches of the book, it is pretty continuously about “Paula.”

Finally we come to “Paula’s Letter to the Romans,” which “is thought by many to be Paula’s most important letter.” It’s “[e]specially treasured in the Protestant tradition,” says Sister Loretta, which made me wonder how a sincere Protestant would feel about what she is doing in this book, and whether she ever thought about the ecumenical harm of this kind of radical disrespect toward Sacred Scripture!

After talking about the law, and how we will be justified through faith, Sister Loretta and one of her Third World women theologians veer quite directly in the opposite direction from Saint Paul. “For some, this faith and hope lead them beyond what they have known of an oppressive Western Christianity. Chung Kyung, for example, writes, ‘I do not know what kind of new spirituality and theology will come out of Asian women’s struggle to be authentically who we are in the fullest sense. I do know, however, that the future of Asian women’s spirituality and theology must move away from Christo-centrism and toward life-centrism.'” Though, “others, like Paula,” still place their faith in Jesus.

It is worthy of mention that one of the injustices Sister Loretta refers to is that “many girl children are not even allowed to be born”; this is actually her second disapproving reference to abortion of girls, the first having been in the chapter on 1 Corinthians. I am very glad indeed she is concerned about this, on the other hand she does not mention the lives of the boys, or abortion in general, only the sex-selective abortion of girls.

Saint Paul in the Letter to the Romans speaks of the Spirit groaning within him, a profound prayer beyond words. Sister Loretta, relentlessly material, says that “For many women this is a political groaning where is the spiritual is not separated from the political or religious.” It seems that for Sister, it’s high time that Christianity got “corrected” in accord with liberation theology. “Paula writes: ‘The sufferings of this present time cannot be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us’ (Romans 8:18). For two thousand years this concept has been used to oppress people in their sufferings, to condone their sufferings in exchange for the promise of ‘pie in the sky.'” That, it appears, is what Sister Loretta thinks of non-liberation-theology Christianity.

When Sister Loretta gets to Romans 13 she finally switches back to talking about Paul, because she doesn’t like the first part of Romans 13. It’s about being subject to authorities! She attributes his belief that we should be subject to the governing authorities to the fact that, unlike Jesus who had a rural upbringing, “Paul had imbibed a tradition of civil laws in the Roman urban style of order, with authority at the top and with the necessity of obedience to what he considered lawful authority.” According to Sister, he “adopts the Roman ideas of authority coming from God and authorities as being appointed by God (Rom 13:2).”

I’m no Bible scholar at all, but there is an immediately obvious and glaring problem with her theory of Jesus’ and Paul’s radically differing beliefs about that, which is that Jesus said to Pilate: “you would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). But, according to Sister Loretta “This difference between Paul and Jesus will plague Christianity and societies affected by Christianity for all history.” In the Liturgy of the Hours just this evening, I prayed a Canticle  from the letter of Saint Paul to the Philippians, “He was known to be of human estate, and it was thus that he humbled himself, obediently accepting even death, even death on a cross.” But according to Sister Loretta, Jesus “was crucified for resisting unjust laws and authorities.” According to the Bible, Jesus was crucified because He had indicated in various ways that He was the King of the Jews, and the Jewish leaders who did not believe therefore accused Him of blasphemy; Pilate the civil authority tried to say this was a religious matter and Jesus had not done anything against the civil laws, but the religious leaders, who under Roman rule did not have authority to execute anyone themselves, insisted, and Pilate gave in, out of the sin of human respect.

The chapter on “Paula’s Letter to the Romans” concludes with a fan fiction version of the extensive list of warm personal greetings in Romans 16. Only, “Paula’s” greeting is to numerous third world women liberation theologians!

Greet Maria and Juana, my helpers in Christ Jesus, who have risked their own necks for me…. Greet Rigoberta, my beloved, who is first fruit from Guatemala. Greet Elizabeth, who worked so much for us. Greet Maria Clara and Hilda…. [etc]

There’s no way to be very gentle with this book, it’s grotesque and ridiculous. I can’t describe it to people without laughing. It’s not remotely reconcilable with the Vatican II Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum.  And I have spent far too much work on this review.

Feminism and Beyond (2004)

Feminism and Beyond by Sister Loretta Dornisch is self-published via AuthorHouse. This book displays the sheer unreasonableness and perversity of radical feminism, and its incompatibility with Christianity.

Feminism and Beyond reflects religious disorientation and indifferentism that has become common today. On the second page of Chapter 1, Sister Loretta tells us that in today’s world, “Persons are disillusioned. Their worlds fall apart. In some cases they search for new arrangements of meaning. New languages, new stories, even new religions, or religions new to them provide new ways of thinking about their lives. They convert from Catholicism to Buddhism, from a Baptist tradition to Islam, or from secularism to Judaism.” Feminism, defined in the book as “the struggle to end sexist oppression,” is a major source of this disillusionment and indifferentism. Feminist critique of religion becomes the reason why “In North America many Christian women move from traditional Christianity with its patriarchal structures, and then to a search for the earth goddess and then to the goddess within.” Sister does not suggest that she has the slightest problem with that. “Theological reflection on the meaning of God or gods… opens up a way perhaps to understand, and to move the critique to developments of the twenty-first century and perhaps of a new aeon.”

Chapter 3 gives me insight into what she thought she was doing in Paul and Third World Women Theologians. “The etymology of the word [dialectic] suggests reading one view against another or in contrast to another.” The conflicts and contradictions entailed are, says Fr Bernard Lonergan, “only overcome by conversions.” The contradiction Sister Loretta then points to highlights what is actually the most striking aspect of this book: “Most American young women are culturally interested in traditional marriages. They are not usually open to understand or acknowledge sexism,” for instance “sexism which denies access to religious leadership or ordination.”

Some see the defense of male-only ordination as good, Sister Loretta says, while they view opening ordination to women as evil. But she gets this wrong–this statement is simply untrue. Whether “women’s ordination” is good or not is actually, from a Catholic perspective, absolutely moot. We believe that there is no such thing; God has not given His Church any authority for it. Viewing the opposition to women’s ordination as simply a biased human dislike of the idea, she sees the need for “a reversal Lonergan calls a conversion.” She then tells us about priests who, out of “integrity,” “converted” away from a Catholic understanding of Holy Orders and then left the priesthood.

Sister Loretta next refers to Paul Ricoeur, a protestant Bible scholar and philosopher who had been the major focus of Sister’s academic work. He sees opposing viewpoints as possibly converging, like spokes on a wheel. This suits her interest in dialectic. She does not seem interested in some kind of moderate or centrist view, though. She is interested, apparently, in “Pushing the dialectic to full reversal. Studying some Native American societies which are matrilineal opens up new ways of interpreting data.” As some women find these new ways of thinking, they “engage in a dialectic with traditional texts…. They re-write history from a new perspective.” This feminist “conversion” shakes also “made previous foundations suspect, or even to be rejected. For some women in the Roman Catholic tradition, Eucharist which is linked only to male authority and patriarchal ritual was recognized as a contradiction of the good news of love….”

I mentioned earlier Sister Loretta’s comment that “Most American young women are culturally interested in traditional marriages. They are not usually open to understand or acknowledge sexism.” Remember, marriage, even when the woman and man are non Christian, is from God, and Holy Matrimony is a sacrament when two baptized persons marry validly. Vatican II speaks beautifully of the good of marriage. But to Sister Loretta Dornisch, marital intimacy is lumped with unchastity; she tends to think of exploitation when she thinks of relationships of men and women: “Sexual services, whether to a husband, a business associate, a boss, a pimp, or a ‘customer’ are the lot of millions of women.”

Feminism is one of the factors shaking up the perceived structure of relationships. At least theoretically in the twentieth century, the nuclear family was taken as the norm in some societies. Male and female were assumed as the basic sexual partners and as the basic family unit. Sexual orientation within that construct was understood to be a given.

Feminism shook that up, Sister Loretta says, and “some movements within feminism soon moved to include sexual and relational female partnering. Within another decade same-sex parenting became more widespread.” And these relationships came to be seen as parallel to marriage, and some were engaging in “same sex marriage” ceremonies. Marriages broke down amidst society’s assault against chastity: “Some husbands and fathers discovered their homosexual orientation. Some wives discovered themselves in love with female partners, felt obliged to leave their families and enter into relationship with female partners. Their love included sexual relationships and even the parenting of children….” Sister Loretta nowhere points out that this is disordered and gravely immoral–though Saint Paul does so very clearly in Romans 1:26-27, which Sister Loretta ignored in Paul and Third World Women Theologians.

Of course, “some remained feminists within a male-female structure.” But some feminists were opting for the single life, choosing “to interact with other women, not to be involved with men, and to achieve an independence and freedom they do not see as part of marriage.” Sister Loretta, explaining that “western Victorian so called nuclear family is far from being universal,” incredibly even speaks of plural “marriage” more favorably than real marriage of man and woman–especially polyandry, which she says occurs in western Asia with “one woman and as many as seven men”: “Far from being oppressive, this often makes it possible for the woman to play one man against the other, to use her favors for control and as a means of obtaining what she wants.” Some Mormon women in polygamous “marriages” “felt their shared relationships worked well.” And “In ancient Rome, male and female slaves, as well as other men and women, were available as sexual and even friendship partners.” She doesn’t evaluate this morally. She’s just describing different kinds of “community.”

In the last chapter, she asks “How will the female evolve in the future?” The real story in this book is that Sister Loretta sees male-female relationships as harmful. She foretells: “In Western society we can project an increase in single females as well as lesbianism.” It is difficult if not impossible to avoid concluding that this what she wants to recommend. Sister Loretta’s negative assessment of marriage is consistent and relentless.

Basically the book ends with this radical pessimism and rejection of the love of man and woman. I wrote: “This is very sick.”