Our world is increasingly diverse in terms of understandings, ideas and beliefs. In what can be called a global repositioning, countries once colonized by Western powers have begun to chart their own courses. Alongside this trend, women and persons of color have worked to distinguish themselves and, in many ways, have benefited from the emergence of a more globalized world, in which all people are encouraged to participate.
This global shift has also influenced the spiritual realm. In light of the Second Vatican Council’s call for reading and responding to the “signs of the times,” the Catholic Church has worked to react to the changes of this era. Historically, the tradition and practices of spirituality were understood within the context of specific religions and specific groups within those religions. Thus, in Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism, there have been divisions between active and contemplative practice, as well as along the lines of state of life and vocation.
Today, these rigid categories are becoming more fluid as spiritual seekers, especially women and persons of color, develop and promote practices and understandings that are rooted in their particular cultures and lived experiences. This is done in recognition of the fact that all spirituality is embedded in the particular culture of its time and place. The dominant cultures of the past are still viable and valued, but most people today long for a spirituality that speaks to them personally both as individuals and in community and allows them to reinterpret and understand their faith as a source of spirituality.
There are many definitions of spirituality today both within and outside the church that reflect our era’s growing diversity. Joann Wolski Conn notes that for some, “spirituality refers to the experience of life energized by a desire for self-transcendence in love, in free commitment to goodness and truth without any connection to the divine or holy. For others it means a desire activated by Holy Mystery as understood in a person’s particular religious faith.”
Among the most significant religious spiritualities emerging today are those of women of every race and ethnicity. This sense of spirituality is both individual and communal; it is deeply rooted in women’s lives but varies from culture to culture. Contemporary women’s spirituality differs greatly from what has been historically understood as women’s spirituality, which was defined, generally by men, as a passive, emotional and nurturing perspective. Today, there cannot be said to be a singular women’s spirituality as such.
These spiritualities differ, as women differ, but they also have commonalities that can be built upon by women in the Catholic Church in order to forge spiritual solidarity, not only with other women, but with men as well. These spiritualities are supported in several ways. Women, singly and in groups, have worked to develop self-knowledge and to discern who they are in relationship to a God who created both male and female in God’s own image.
Women have sought out and built up theologies that affirm and empower them. These theologies have emerged as a result of women looking back into their particular histories and recovering that which is empowering, liberating, sustaining and nurturing. Women bring a critical hermeneutical lens to this endeavor as they interpret sacred Scripture, history and church tradition from their particular perspective in order to construct new understandings of the Catholic faith within the context of its teachings. By working with these understandings of self and God, women create new structures of church and society that are a critique of and in opposition to enduring racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and other sinful structures that alienate, oppress and destroy humanity.
The fruits of these efforts can be seen in Womanist spirituality, which is based in a theology of, by and for women of African descent who have developed a critique of church and society with regard to race, class and gender and their multiplicative impact on black women. Latina feminist/mujerista spirituality has also focused on race, class and gender as these affect Latinas in particular. Asian American women’s spirituality and that of Native American women have also evolved. All of these spiritualities are self-defined, rooted in the Catholic faith (although they also have Protestant branches) and liberating for all. The focus of these spiritualities varies according to the particular women engaged in retrieving and reconstructing the traditions of their particular cultures, yet they also share commonalities as they present, often for the first time, the stories, songs, prayers, music and rituals of their particular people. They reveal that women are very often truly the bearers of their cultures, passing down and advancing that which is self-defining and freeing in each.
Women of every culture, and men as well, have much to learn from these diverse spiritualities that continue to develop. Neither they nor their theologies are contradictory; such spiritualities, in their critiques of church and society’s role in the oppression of women and persons of color over the course of history, do not seek to oppress or deny the humanity of others or the validity of others’ experience.
As women of every race and nation continue to work with one another, as well as apart, to reclaim and rename themselves, the church as a whole gains from their insights and participation. Diversity is a gift to the church when we recognize that we all have our own lived experiences to discern and share, and it is understood that this diversity is to be welcomed. It is our responsibility to work out the spiritualities within our church both individually and in community.
For those who are members of the Catholic Church there is much that unites women of various backgrounds and ethnicities; but while we share commonalities, it is important to recognize and affirm our differences as well. It is especially critical that we do not attempt to claim another’s story, traditions or rituals as our own but instead work diligently to uncover and recover our own and then share what we have learned and listen to others. In this way we all, male and female, will be engaged in the liberating mission of Christ Jesus.