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Spotlight Report

  James Carroll  

A woman for our season

11/12/2002

THIS WEEK the American Catholic bishops are meeting between the rock of the church - its hyperdefensive clericalism - and the hard place of a clear-eyed laity that will not return to its former blindness.

Will the bishops dilute their own Dallas reforms - particularly the absolute requirement of reporting all abuse allegations to civil authorities and the empowered role of the laity on oversight boards? Will the bishops find it possible both to maintain credibility with the faithful and to submit to a Vatican that regards the faithful with suspicion?

For help with the former, the bishops have turned to a woman - Kathleen L. McChesney, until recently a top-ranking FBI official and now executive director of the bishops' Office for Child and Youth Protection. For help with the latter - how to deal with autocratic church authority - the bishops might turn to another woman, to the memory of St. Teresa of Avila, one of the greatest figures in the history of the Catholic Church.

The story begins in 1485, before Teresa was born. In that year, her father, as a child of 6, was hauled with his family before the Inquisition in Spain. His father was a Jew who had accepted baptism but then ''relapsed'' into Judaism. Now the court gave the man and his family a choice: Either repent that ''relapse'' or be burned at the stake. Teresa's paternal family ''returned'' to the church.

Teresa was born (in 1515) into the thicket of guilt, denial, fear, and contempt that defined the lives of the so-called ''conversos,'' Catholics who, because of their Jewish background, were ensnared in the church's gravest self-contradiction. That condition was, in Teresa's case, the engine of genius, driving her, in the historian Gerald Brennan's words, ''against her will along the hard path of the mystic and religious reformer.''

Teresa lived through the world-historic period of Luther's challenge and the church's consequent effort to recover from its own corruptions - a period not unlike our own. Teresa was a key to that recovery, becoming widely known as a nun who brought a new authenticity to the religious life, with broad influence on men as well as women. Her mystical writing was trailblazing within Catholicism (although with echoes of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition). She is famously identified with the ''ecstasy'' of mystical union with God, but far from being merely ''spiritual,'' Teresa knew that a felt sense of the transcendent required real change in political and ecclesiastical structures. Thus her autobiography - ''Book of Life'' - drew the scrutiny of the Inquisition. Ordered to stop writing, she composed her masterpiece ''The Interior Castle'' in secret. For Teresa, reform and faith were as necessary to each other as silence and speech.

Like every human institution, the Catholic Church has a constitutional inhibition against reforming itself. But the Catholic tradition also contains principles of its own self-criticism; the memory of St. Teresa is one of those. The daughter of a family victimized by the worst sin of the church and a victim herself of its censoring defensiveness, Teresa created out of those very experiences another way of being Catholic.

Her many letters broadly inspired such hope while she was alive, and today - an image of hope I experienced for myself last week - one of her letters is on display in New York City in an exhibit of treasures from Spain at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Morningside Heights. The letter is dated ''27 de Julio de 1573,'' when she would have been 58 years old, at the peak of her influence. The page of neat, tiny writing was indecipherable to me, but her signature was quite clear - ''Teresa de Jesus.'' I found it impossible to look at the careful script, the slanted letters, the sharp punctuation, without feeling Teresa's presence. Her letter drew me close to the wellspring of courage and faith from which the church has, despite enduring opposite impulses, taken draughts of renewal again and again.

So yes, the reform that has been sparked by the current crisis in Catholicism is worth struggling to continue. The movement of lay people against clerical triumphalism can be the main source of restructuring, but in response to failures tied expressly to bankrupt male dominance, the fresh energy of Catholic women carries special promise.

Men and women alike, we will not be turned back, and we recognize in Teresa of Avila our perfect patron saint. In her honor we will not be censored. In her honor we will not be silenced. In her honor we will not accept distinctions between piety and politics. In her honor we will be faithful to reform. In her honor we will affirm the absolute connection between love of God, who never changes, and love of the church, in which change is more required than ever.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

This story ran on page A17 of the Boston Globe on 11/12/2002.
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