Some thoughts on Philippians, Church Unity, the CDF, and the LCWR

I’d intended to read Paul’s letters in chronological (according to my prof) rather than canonical order, but I got confused and read Philippians next. I’m glad I did, though, because I think that reflection on this letter is fruitful for the current situation with respect to the LCWR and the CDF.

This is a letter that Paul wrote from prison, perhaps in Ephesus. He’s been imprisoned for reasons pertaining to preaching the gospel. He’s happy.

He’s even happy about the fact that his enemies are preaching, and probably badmouthing him in the process! Because it’s all bringing people to Christ, he says. Whether they do it out of envy (even though they are teaching things he disagrees with) or others do it out of love, anything that spreads the Good News is good news to Paul.

On my first read through this letter, I was startled by the flow. It really feels as if 2:19 is the start of the ending of the letter, with its discussion of mundane travel plans and commendations of other named persons – it feels like Paul is winding down. But suddenly 3:2 jumps into insults and arguments against a certain form of legalism advocated by competing teachers, and then Paul hits his theological stride again, describing his own spiritual journey and exhorting the Philippians to holiness, before another section of winding down which does (eventually) lead to the close of the letter. I immediately wondered if it was a composite or pastiche, and indeed some scholars have suggested this. Others, more recently, examine the letter in light of the techniques of ancient rhetoric, and suggest that 3:2 and following is consistent with a rhetorical technique of suddenly, one might say, interjecting an attack ad, in order to recapture the attention of an audience. (Any students of ancient rhetoric want to weigh in on this?)

Philippians is best known, I think, for the beautiful hymn in 2:6-11, which most scholars now believe was a pre-Pauline liturgical hymn that Paul is quoting here. I sang (and accompanied) this hymn at Lenten Evening prayer for many years, and it’s that metrical paraphrase that I know best.

Gorman argues that Philippians is one letter, and that this hymn is the master narrative for that one letter: that it both expresses and has shaped Paul’s understanding of the cruciform gospel and the cruciform life that Christians are called to lead, a life to which Paul in this letter calls the Philippians. He makes this case by noting a number of intertextual allusions between the words of the hymn, and the words (or related forms) used at significant points elsewhere in the letter. Certainly a point in favor of this interpretation is Paul’s unusual (though not unique) self-identification in this letter as a slave of Christ Jesus, rather than as an apostle as is his usual habit; I think Paul does see himself as imitating Christ here in emptying himself and taking on the form of a slave. I haven’t read closely enough to know whether the structure of the hymn can be seen in the structure of the letter, which I would find more compelling evidence.

So just briefly, let me point out some elements of this letter that I invite my sister and brother Catholics to read in light of the current situation involving the LCWR and the CDF.

– In this letter, Paul exhorts the Philippians to unity in the face of “persecution from without and division from within” (NAB reader’s guide).

– In 4:2-3, Paul names two women, Euoida and Syntyche, who “have struggled at [his] side promoting the gospel.” Thus, they seem to be women in leadership positions. They are in disagreement about something serious enough that Paul is calling them out and urging them to reconcile, and urging “you, my true comrade” (or perhaps “you, Syzygos”, a proper name), to help them to reconcile. If it’s not a proper name, presumably “you” is one of the overseers and ministers to whom the letter is addressed in v1.

Consider this in the light of the longstanding disagreement between the majority of the LCWR, and the minority group CPC (Consortium Perfectae Caritatis) formed in 1971. After this disagreement persisted more than 20 years, in 1995, Rome granted this group canonical status as a Conference of Major-Superiors of Women (CMSW), leaving the women religious in the United States divided, with two competing national conferences.

– In Phil 2:3-4, immediately following a plea for unity of heart and mind, Paul urges the Philippians:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

This leads directly into the hymn: Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God…

Can we take this word Paul speaks to the Philippians and take it to heart today?

Whichever “side” you’re on, whether you find yourselves in more natural sympathy with the sisters of the LCWR, or the bishops of the CDF:

Can you count the “other” side as better than yourself? Even though you honestly believe that you are in the form of righteousness: can you not cling to your place, but empty yourself?

Can you look to the interests of the “other” side? What would that mean? What are their interests?

Can you agree to do it only if “they” do it, too? What do you think Paul would say about that?

Can this text apply to this situation? Or is the power differential between the bishops and the nuns so great that doing so would contradict some other aspect of the gospel?

Does this text apply only to those who have power within the community? Or does it apply even to those who don’t?

Does the particular experience of (both lay and religious) women in the Church, against whom texts such as these, that exhort submission and sacrifice for the good of the other, have been systematically over-emphasized as instruments of perpetuating the role of women as supporters to men, influence the way we (can, must, should) read this text to this situation?

What do you think?

Gracious God, we pray for your holy catholic church.
Fill it with your truth;
Keep it in your peace.
Where it is corrupt, reform it.
Where it is in error, correct it.
Where it is right, defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, reunite it;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

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One Response to Some thoughts on Philippians, Church Unity, the CDF, and the LCWR

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on Healy’s “By the Working of the Holy Spirit”: The Crisis of Authority in the Christian Churches | Gaudete Theology

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