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"The Sentinal" 2003 bronze statue by Black sculptor and Dorchester, MA native Fern Cunningham-Terry, resides in Forest Hill Cemetery in Boston. Photo by Matt CC BY-NC 2.0
Catholic Re-Visions

The Politics of the Inner Life in Moore, Cajka, and Woodbine’s New Books

“[These books] exhibit the fruits of decades of scholarship urging us to engage a wide variety of Catholic subjects and to allow for the strangeness of religious experience, and yet at the same time contribute so clearly to older strands of work on intellectual and political history.”

This forum began by noticing some convergence between two major books about to appear that examined the inner and political lives of twentieth century Catholics. Pete Cajka’s Follow Your Conscience: The Catholic Church and the Spirit of the Sixties (University of Chicago Press, 2021), takes up the long history of the rise of “conscience talk” among Catholics as a way to navigate moral decision-making. Brenna Moore’s Kindred Spirits: Friendship and Resistance at the Edges of Modern Catholicism (University of Chicago Press, 2021) examines a group who resisted far-right politics and leftist secularism in favor of “religiously meaningful friendship understood as uniquely capable of facing social and political challenges.”

In seeking out another book to create a larger dialogue, we found that Onaje X.O. Woodbine was about to publish Take Back What the Devil Stole: An African American Prophet’s Encounters in the Spirit World (Columbia University Press, 2021), a deep ethnographic study of the Boston-based contemporary spirit medium Donna Haskins, whose “religious creativity and sense of multireligious belonging… blends together Catholic, Afro-Caribbean, and Black Baptist traditions.” Woodbine’s work offered many points of both connection and contrast in terms of methodology and subject matter. In presenting this forum after all three read each other’s books, I especially thank Brenna Moore and Pete Cajka for their wonderful essays, which generously and with tremendous intelligence tackle the oddball assignment I gave them. I also thank Onaje Woodbine, with great regret that unforeseen new obligations prevented him from contributing his own essay; we all desired his contribution to this dialogue, and yet hope that it is in some way present via our readings of his work. Finally, I thank Vincent Lloyd for the invitation to assemble this forum, Jacques Linder for his tremendous patience through many, many delays, and Mary Kate Holman for her comments on our drafts.

After the journalist Barbara Ehrenreich died recently, I read an interview she’d done with Jeff Sharlet after she wrote a book about mystical experience. Sharlet introduced the discussion by saying “I saw a few reviews saying this book is a departure from Ehrenreich’s concern with class, but I disagree, I think it’s a profoundly populist book.” Having just read the three amazing books in this forum, this line leapt out at me, for one thing they all have in common is a conviction that it is a profoundly political and class-conscious act to write about the divine experiences of those who through chance or choice are set at the margins of church and society. These compelling books look at wildly disparate worlds of thought and action, but all reject the tired binary of the public/private, exterior/interior; the invisible world of the spirit always manifests in the visible, the political. They are, in Christian theological terms, about the working of the Holy Spirit in the world.

With great elan, Pete Cajka, Brenna Moore, and Onaje Woodbine sweep back and forth between the mundane details of their subjects’ lives and the exalted sphere of the divine, as it manifests respectively in all of our consciences; in the friendships of an elite transnational group; and in the spirit world entered by the Roxbury prophet Donna Haskins. They are, in fact, such exciting books – nearly un-put-downable – that a review essay can’t capture even a fraction of their worth: you should just go read them! Having committed myself to this hopeless enterprise, though, I’ll provide brief comments on three running themes that resonate with “political theology”: spirituality as resistance, the liberatory potential of not having (or at least not talking about having) sex, and the sourcing of “Catholic” authority, which is to say, an aspect of political ecclesiology.

Spirituality as (complicated) resistance

Brenna Moore’s subjects lived big, expansive lives, and the resulting scholarship is exhilarating, as we travel from Chile to Paris to Chicago to Cairo both with the figures in the book, and with Moore as she discerns the electric traces they left behind–in her memorable phrase, an “archive of love” (5). More than many scholarly books, this one chooses to expose the journey of discovery in a way that allows us a similar kind of intimacy that Moore’s subjects experienced with each other, and that she experiences with them (244). These holy dead become our companions, just as they themselves so often reached back into time to form friendships with the dead as well as the living.

But what kind of companionship is this? In a world where so many structures shepherd us towards being worse people than we might otherwise be, these spiritual friendships often did the opposite, as the networks of friendships encouraged each other in resistance. Mysticism and friendship emerge here not as covers for or alternatives to political work, but as crucial sources and sustainers of political work. This is at the forefront especially in the chapter on Marie-Madeleine Davy’s resistance to Nazism, but is also particularly intriguing in the case of Louis Massignon, who drew his friends into “the vortex of his spiritual charisma” (113). Moore writes that while “scholars…acknowledge a more radical turn in [Massignon’s] work towards more overt political activism on behalf of Muslims in the Middle East and Algeria,” they attribute this to Gandhi’s influence. While not denying this, Moore uncovers his friendship with the Arab Christian feminist activist Mary Kahil as key to this turn. This friendship was construed in passionately mystical, spiritual terms, a matter of shared vows and shared visions of self-dissolution. And yet Moore also notes the confusing, troubling nature of these friendships, suggested by the word “vortex” as applied to Massignon. Of Simone Weil, whose friendship with Davy unfolded mostly after her own death and therefore in her physical absence, Moore writes that her “holiness was actually disturbing rather than straightforwardly inspiring” (237). But it seems that in many ways it was the very strangeness and disturbingness of these people that drew them both to each other, and into resistance to the great dominating powers of their worlds.

For Pete Cajka, meanwhile, conscience emerges as a “double agent” (43). Like friendship, it’s a capacious idea that cuts everywhere, permeating political movements as disparate as those against compulsory military service, for birth control, and against abortion. The tone of Cajka’s book is less intimate and personal than either Moore’s or Woodbine’s, and many of his sources are government forms and technical works of theology and ethics. And yet, as he notes, the book “recounts how the loss of law’s moral authority facilitated the rise of conscience” as a controlling determinant of individual choice (122).

How, indeed, do we make choices that cut against the ones suggested to us by our surroundings? If Moore answers that these choices are facilitated by networks of friendship with the visible and invisible, Cajka turns even more deeply into the interior, arguing that US Catholics turned increasingly to their relationship with their own consciences as they lost faith in the ability of civil and ecclesiastical law to make authoritative decisions. To me personally, the most interesting of his chapters is the one on Catholic interest in psychology and the 1960s-70s coalescence of psychological concepts with Catholic doctrine on the conscience. Catholic priest-psychologists promoted conscience as “a state of unity inside the self and a radical communion with the divine” (132) – something very like what Moore’s subjects sought in friendship, but turned frequently towards similar political ends, calling on the well-formed relationship with self or other as a way towards resisting either state or church, as necessary.

Woodbine’s narrative is the most spatially confined of the three in some ways – instead of international networks of Catholics we are limited to Donna Haskins’ paths through Boston, and mostly indeed to her various apartments – and yet, Donna’s journeys to the interior self and the spirit world offer in other ways the most expansive space possible. As Donna’s spiritual autobiography unfolds, we see in Woodbine’s work how the spirit world performs the same function for Donna as travel within our world and contact with others does for Moore’s subjects: it opens up new political possibilities, new ways for her to act to help her family, neighbors, and friends who have been absolutely failed by this world’s political authorities. Her journeys into the spirit world are not (only) about her own healing and salvation, but mandate and source her further action in the field. (Her labor on behalf of the ghosts of Boston’s underclass and the trapped ghosts of the enslaved in North Carolina is particularly moving here.) As Woodbine writes of Donna’s movement through different modes of time, “From the vantage point of the speed of light, Donna could enter the past or future in surprising ways, and always to make the present more livable for other people.”

Celibate liberation?

Celibacy is not exactly a popular practice in the post-Freudian world, which casts it as everything from unnatural to actively evil (see, for example, the villain’s role it plays in much analysis of Catholic clergy sexual abuse.) It’s striking, therefore, to see it turn up in both Moore and Woodbine’s work as a liberatory choice under the constrained circumstances of our world. Donna Haskins’s “sense of increasing self-worth” is explicitly not “derived from book knowledge” (126) but her emerging partnership with the Holy Spirit is strongly reminiscent of  what happens to Moore’s Massignon and Kahil, and similarly engaged with the move to celibacy. Haskins’s movement to celibacy establishes her as a person with worth, who cannot be (as she so often was in her earlier life) treated as “sexual property” by men—a choice shaped by her childhood experiences with Catholic nuns.

Moore, meanwhile, writes about subjects who nearly all had extremely complex relationships with their own sexual desires. But while Woodbine, to be true to Donna, goes into intimate detail about her sexual life, Moore, to be true to hers, generally avoids speculation. What seems on the surface like almost completely opposite authorial choices are really grounded, then, in the same impulse: to respect the subjects, to reveal what they want revealed and, if not exactly concealing what they want concealed, to at least distinguish between prurient interest and analytical necessity. To show my own cards here, I particularly value Moore’s choice because it sometimes appears to me that, again in a post-Freudian world, we spend so much time placing sexuality at the center of identity that we almost cannot see all the other ways people have had, over the centuries, of establishing themselves as persons. And yet, while I agree with her that there is something liberating about a kind of historiographical celibacy, it’s also clearly true that we neither can nor should return to a world where very little honest analysis of sexuality was ever conducted. Therefore, it’s valuable to have both of these books together, to present us with a kaleidoscope of analytical options.

And of course, it’s valuable to have Cajka’s in the mix as well, to remind us that not every twentieth-century Catholic saw celibacy as a liberating choice that freed adherents to undertake unconventional relationships with persons both alive and dead. The birth control fight, very movingly, insisted on the rights of Catholics to consult their own consciences about the role sex and procreation played in their marriages, and for most of these Catholics, what they wanted was not the liberation of having no sex, but the liberation of having sex in a way authorized by their inmost selves rather than by an external authority.

Reframing Catholic subjecthood: authority and action

All three books here also plunge, not always explicitly, into an ongoing scholarly conversation about the explanatory value of the marginal and strange for understanding how Catholics authorize their own actions. For example: do all, or most, or any Catholics understand authority as proceeding properly through hierarchical channels, such that laypeople should “pay, pray, and obey”? These three books suggest that the answer is “no,” but they also strongly suggest that it is wrong to oppose obedience and independence. If none of the protagonists of these books accept hierarchical authority, none of them see themselves as isolated individual actors who can do as they please, either. Instead, they source their authority to realms that are inaccessible to ordinary analysis. In doing so they suggest that generally speaking Catholic subjecthood, while it might have a relationship to priests, bishops, popes, and theologians, is in relationship to hierarchical actors, rather than under them, just as it is in relationship to other actors such as the divine, various spirits, the holy dead, and living companions.

Moore’s book covers some territory in common with recent books like James Chappel’s Catholic Modern and Sarah Shortall’s Soldiers of God in a Secular World, both of which look at lay and clerical engagements with “modernity” and modern political projects in Western Europe. Yet Moore’s work follows in a strand of religious studies that engages intellectual history from the standpoint of the marginal. Her story begins with a group built around the deeply weird Leon Bloy, and her archive of affection centers ephemera, the pictures and tokens that fall out of these friends’ letters to each other. She wants to know not just what people thought about “modernity” or “religious difference,” but what “compelled” them to move (34, footnoting Robert Orsi on the centrality of relationality), and so she finds a Catholic subjecthood that is not reducible to ideas or to personal commitments, but is a fragile and unstable blend of both, unique to each life’s story. It is not the case that these people rejected authority; rather, authority in these lives was co-constituted through friendship and relationship, rather than flowing from an external source.

Cajka most directly examines the explicit turn away from hierarchical diktat as the source of Catholic authority. But to do so, like Moore he engages in a deeply sensitive analysis of individual people who had to actually do the work of reframing their own subjecthood to place conscience, rather than say obedience to the hierarchy, at the center. This work was paradoxical in some ways: elevating the self to the role of authority often involved startling commitments to personal exposure and vulnerability, as in the extensive personal essays would-be conscientious objectors had to write on government forms, or the choice of priests to risk their careers by openly dissenting on birth control, or (although this is underplayed in the particular set of stories Cajka tells) the choice of someone like Patty Crowley, with her husband the co-head of the Christian Family Movement, to testify about her own sex life to the papal birth control commission and to further read intimate details shared by other couples as well.

Woodbine’s work seems like the odd one out on this question, but in fact Catholicism and questions about authority both thread their way through his pages. His book is a gift to scholars of Catholicism, who are far from his primary intended audience. Rarely do we get a chance to meet in such depth the kind of person who we know is likely far more common than our usual subjects, but who is so hard to “find” in Catholic archives: a person who has moved in and out of Catholic spaces and circles at different points in her life, taking on board elements of belief and practice as they seem to make sense. Donna Haskins, daughter of a Catholic mother, admirer of nuns, is a Catholic subject, but a kind of hybrid, palimpsest Catholic subject that seldom speaks in Catholic intellectual spaces. In Woodbine’s recounting of her life and thought, too, scholars of Catholicism get a valuable analysis of how mystical authority operates within, alongside, and in opposition to worldly authority. In many ways, she is a person far more marginal to both worldly and church authority than any figure in either Cajka’s or Moore’s book. Yet her continuing dialogue with her Catholic upbringing and with other church figures in her life, as well as with the spirit world that is the key source of her authority as a prophet, shows a woman working out what to do in relationship with a complex variety of sources.

To me as a scholar of Catholicism, one of the most exciting things about reading these beautiful books is that they exhibit the fruits of decades of scholarship urging us to engage a wide variety of Catholic subjects and to allow for the strangeness of religious experience, and yet at the same time contribute so clearly to older strands of work on intellectual and political history. There’s a real maturity to this kind of work and I am so happy to be able to both praise it, and to propose it for the attention of Political Theology’s readership.

Symposium Essays

The Inner Life and the Constraints of the World in Woodbine and Cajka’s New Books

Woodbine’s beautiful narrative is extraordinarily self-aware, and deeply humane. Haskins’ own voice is strong, active, present throughout. I had not planned to read it in one sitting but I literally could not put it down. Only a couple miles northwest of Haskins’ Roxbury, in the mostly Irish Catholic neighborhood of Chestnut Hill near Boston College, there is a totally other religious and cultural world. This is the place of white priests, educated Catholics, lecture halls, and the circuits of urban Catholic power. Particularly in the 1960s and 70s, it might as well have been another planet from Afro-Caribbean Roxbury.

Decolonizing Knowledge with Brenna Moore and Onaje X.O. Woodbine

“Both authors travel to the margins and then send back a warning signal to fellow scholars about the limits and potential intrusiveness of our established methods.”