Dorothy Day, that lightning rod of a lay woman who has inspired so many young Catholic women to seek a faith that does justice, became notorious for, among other things, getting herself arrested. An avowed pacifist, Day led the members of her Catholic Worker community to refuse to participate in the annual civil defense drill for New York State on June 15, 1955. Such civil defense drills were ostensibly to prepare citizens for a nuclear attack, and Day saw them as a tool to convince the public that nuclear war was something that they could survive and the United States could win. Instead of cowering in subway tunnels, she sat on the steps of City Hall and handed out leaflets stating, “In the name of Jesus, who is God, who is Love, we will not obey this order to pretend, to evacuate, to hide. We will not be drilled into fear. We do not have faith in God if we depend upon the Atom Bomb.” For action that day, and every year until the drills ceased in 1961, Day was arrested.
The themes of this week’s readings focus on a faith that does justice and following the commandments of a just God. In the first reading from Deuteronomy, Moses asks, “What great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?” St. James exhorts his readers in the second reading, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” The gospel, taken from Mark, takes this theme a step further: that the law of God, which we are called to follow, goes much deeper than human laws or traditions. When challenged by Pharisees as to why his disciples did not keep certain cleanliness laws, Jesus quotes Isaiah, “In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts,” and follows up with a terse, “You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”
For Catholic women today, many of us struggle not only with the injustice of civil laws, but with the traditions of our church as well. Recently, I had the privilege of attending the ordination of three Catholic women to the priesthood in Minneapolis, MN. These women, mothers and grandmothers, had spent their lives within the church, teaching Sunday school, leading prayer groups, and studying theology. They each, like Day, were moved by the church’s social teachings to become advocates for the disenfranchised in their communities. And as each woman stood before the altar and responded, “Here I am, I am ready,” I was moved by the humility of their gesture – not acting to spite the church, but finally responding to the call placed in their hearts to serve their God as priests rather than continuing to live under an unjust human tradition which would deny them that.
This week’s readings, as a whole, call attention to the tension that constantly exists between civil law, tradition, and the God’s great commandment of love. What laws would you be willing to break to follow the law of love? What traditions of the church do you struggle the most with? In what ways do you navigate that tension, moving towards justice in the church and in the world?
Johanna Hatch is a feminist activist, writer, and amateur hagiographer. She currently resides in Wisconsin with her spouse Evan and their mostly blind dachshund. They eagerly await the arrival their newest family member in mid-November. Johanna will presenting a prayer session, “Women Mystics for Today” at the national Call to Action conference.