Interview with Marian Ronan, author of Tracing the Sign of the Cross: Sexuality, Mourning, and the Future of American Catholicism

Marian Ronan is the author of Tracing the Sign of the Cross: Sexuality, Mourning, and the Future of American Catholicism . This interview originally appeared in EqualwRites (EwR)

EwR: Can we begin by asking the significance of its title, Tracing the Sign of the Cross?

Marian Ronan: The title, Tracing the Sign of the Cross, refers to the centrality of the cross in the Christian faith, but also, in the white ethnic immigrant American Catholicism in which I and many other American Catholics have our roots. The word “tracing” calls to mind “making” the sign of the cross, but also suggests that in our time, that is, during the years since Vatican II, there has become something elusive about the cross, something demanding our attention now.

EwR: And the subtitle elaborates on that “something”?

MR: Yes. The subtitle: “Sexuality, Mourning, and the Future of American Catholicism” expands on this theme. “Mourning” is the word most obviously linked to the cross. But it also signifies the wider approach that I use in my book, a way of understanding human experience. According to this approach, engaging or working through loss is so painful that human beings (and groups) undertake all kinds of defenses to avoid it. They become enraged, they become depressed, they get stuck and repeat the same actions over and over. The cost of this “inability to mourn” is very high.

In line with this approach, I argue in Tracing the Sign of the Cross that at the beginning of the 1960s, white ethnic American Catholics were poised to achieve the idealized way of life our immigrant forebears had struggled to attain. Many of us were also convinced that with Vatican II the democratic vision of the church we had long favored was going to become dominant. Yet by the end of the decade, the “American dream” had exploded into social conflict and the Vatican was fighting our much anticipated liberalization of the church with increasing ferocity. Then came the economic downturn of the 1970s and the refusal of women’s ordination. Our losses were enormous.

Yet for reasons that I explore in Tracing, many American Catholics did not engage and work through those losses. Instead, we—conservatives and liberals alike—threw ourselves into the Catholic culture wars. Central to this development was the decision on the part of the episcopacy and the Vatican to shift the center of the Catholic faith from doctrine to sex and gender prohibition, a shift that contradicted what many of us had come to believe about the church. In truth, the Vatican had been focusing more and more on abortion and contraception since its massive losses in the liberal democratic revolutions of the nineteenth century. But after Vatican II, the gloves came off. Sexual prohibition replaced doctrine as the heart of the Catholic faith, and although the governance structure after Vatican II remained monarchical, so that we still have little or no impact on what the bishops and the Vatican do, many of us have spent much of our lives fighting against it. And let me be clear, I include myself in this “we.” We believed this was the right thing to do, but it also protected us from mourning our enormous losses.

EwR: This doesn’t sound very cheerful. Why would anyone want to read your book?!

MR: Well, I suppose it would be silly to try to convince you that a book about mourning is cheerful! But I definitely delineate in the book what I believe to be the path toward a more faithful and productive American Catholic future,

EwR: Tell us more about that part.

MR. Well, first of all, instead of making an abstract theological or sociological argument, my book draws on fiction, memoirs, and essays by four American writers with distinctively Catholic imaginations. I use this material to illustrate not only the ways in which post-Vatican II American Catholics have resisted mourning their losses, but also to discern an emerging engagement with those losses, the beginning of a new vision for American Catholicism.

EwR: Which writers do you deal with?

MR: The work of James Carroll, the archetypal liberal American Catholic, forms the basis of my exploration. Carroll’s writings, especially his memoir, An American Requiem, seem to embody the very engagement with loss that concerns me, but when we turn to his novels, we find a highly gendered pattern of resistance to mourning. We see a similar Catholic “inability to mourn” in the early works of the novelist Mary Gordon, the feminist philosopher of science, Donna J. Haraway, and the essayist and television commentator Richard Rodriguez. But we also see something else: Gordon’s characters increasingly engage their profound losses, Haraway’s female cyborg begins to wear a crown of thorns, and Rodriguez confronts the pain of his own gay/brown identity, pointing in all three cases toward a new and chastened vision of the church.

EwR: If you don’t mind us asking, what on earth led you to write about these things?

MR: I don’t mind you asking at all. As a Catholic teenager growing up in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in the 1960s, I honestly thought that the election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and then the Second Vatican Council were the most exciting things that had ever happened. I did an undergraduate degree in theology and religion and joined the Grail Movement because of that enthusiasm, but of course, by the early 1970s, things weren’t going nearly as well as I had expected. I postponed dealing with these losses by joining the staff and residential community at Grailville, the Grail’s national center outside Cincinnati, and specifically, throwing myself into feminist theology, which literally had its origins at Grailville in those years. (See Janet Kalven’s memoir, Women Breaking Boundaries [SUNY 1999] for one take on all of that). I actually wrote the first of my books, Image-Breaking, Image-Building (Pilgrim 1981), a Christian feminist worship handbook, with two other Grail women, based on a week-long program we lead at Grailville in 1978. And my next two books, Sophia: The Future of Feminist Spirituality (Harper and Row, 1986) and Wisdom’s Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration (Sheed and Ward, 1996), which I wrote with two United Methodist clergy, Sue Cole and Hal Taussig, also were, in part, based in work done at Grailville as well as in my co-authors’ research and ministry.

But by the 1980s, I began to have big questions about the feminist theology that had shaped me, and in 1985, I went to graduate school, to find resources for thinking through these questions Tracing the Sign of the Cross is based on the dissertation that I wrote at the end of my Ph.D. studies in the Religion Department at Temple.

EWR: What problems are you referring to?

MR: Well, for one thing, that second wave feminist theology was so upper middle class and liberal-optimistic. I came from an extremely working class background—I’m a second generation Irish immigrant, and my father was a shift-worker who dropped out of high school to join the Civilian Conservation Corps. Hearing feminists from Ivy League institutions make generalizations like “Men write history and women don’t,” when, in fact, most men don’t write history either began to really get me down. And then after I enrolled at an African American seminary in New York because it was a night school and I had to work in the daytime to support myself, I realized how extraordinarily white feminist theology was in those days. So I began to go through my own process of mourning the optimistic vision of the world I had carried from Vatican II through my love affair with feminist theology. Gradually, my attempt to engage my own distinctly white ethnic American Catholic losses led me to read Carroll, Gordon, Haraway and Rodriguez. Hence the book.

I am also really hopeful that Tracing the Sign of the Cross will lead to some productive discussions about the future of American Catholicism, and particularly about how, once we American Catholics begin to come to terms with our losses, we may be freed up to engage more with God’s mission in the world, especially among our deprived brothers and sisters here in the US and in the global South.

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