Not too long ago I wrote a brief post about the purported nun-vatican standoff in the immediate aftermath of Cardinal Levada’s NCR interview. Other than throwing in my two cents that our tendency to cast “sides” in this issue will only prove damaging in the long-run, I was mostly silent on my own thoughts on the matter.
As many others have already observed, and even Levada has urged people to remember, the Church moves slow. Like took 1900 years to infallibly proclaim teachings the Church had always held to be true slow. So it is no surprise that the media (both ecclesial and secular) coverage of the tensions, conflict, loving challenge, confrontation, full-on attack, or whatever you want to call it between the CDF and LCWR leadership has come in an ebb-and-flow manner. Over the past few days, however, it seems that we’re back in a rush of coverage, assumptions, and less-than-charitable chiming in from viewers at home. And, yesterday, I came upon a blog post that hit so wonderfully to the heart of the matter that it made me want to affirm her conclusions and throw in my own voice as well.
The post comes from Sr. Susan, a sister of St. Joseph of Peace, who has a fabulous and comprehensive blog, Musings of a Discerning Woman, that captures her journey from maybe-discerner, through the trying novitiate years, and now as a temporary professed. The whole post can be found here, but I’ll quote some of the highlights as I meander my way to a point.
To provide some background, Sr. Susan’s community is a part of the majority that belong to the LCWR, she is considered a young religious (aka under 40), and has a great investment in thinking about what it means to be a new sister in aging communities with so much experience and wisdom. So if anyone should have a stake in the current Vatican-LCWR talks, and if anyone has a right to sound off about their frustration and confusion in the matter, it would be her. What I love and respect about Sr. Susan, though, is that in a move that speaks to her true character and love of her vocation, she has remained largely silent on the matter. As she reminds readers,
In my world of course, one of the biggest happenings of late has been the recent hullabaloo between the men who make up the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and the women called to leadership of religious communities like my own. Regular readers of the blog will know that I’ve not written much here about that situation here, mostly because I want to respect the process and place my trust in our leadership and the Holy Spirit.
Read that last part again. It’s beautiful – I want to respect the process and place my trust in our leadership and the Holy Spirit. And I think she hits it right on the head.
It’s painful for the bishops and Vatican officials because the general assumption seems to be that their primary motivation is anything but love and genuine pastoral concern. At best, they seem to be accused of clinging to out-dated tradition and set of expectations for women; at worst, they are misogynistic, anti-poor, abortion-obsessed, controlling, and threatened male hierarchy trying to hold onto whatever power they may have left.
It’s painful for the LCWR communities because they have been homogenized, villianized, victimized, manipulated, misunderstood, misquoted, and politicized. It’s painful because it’s hard to not feel personally attacked and under-appreciated when the constitutions by which you live your life and pledge your whole self are being questioned and picked apart. And it’s painful because all of this has been played out on a national stage, making them symbols of an ecclesial revolution that I would venture to say most are not interested in fighting.
Finally, it’s painful for onlookers, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, because we’ve allowed this issue to bring out the worst in us. No matter where we find ourselves on the spectrum of support, I think it’s fair to say that most of us have made comments (or read and condone online comments) that do no honor to Christ by disrespecting his brides. This was called out for what is beautifully in a recent Facebook post on Fr. James Martin’s public figure page (I suppose I don’t know for sure if this is associated with him or not, but it was brilliant nonetheless).
Earlier I posted a profile about Sister Pat Farrell, OSF, the current president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. David Gibson’s article for Religion News Service focused on her work for the Church, and with the poor, in Central America over the last 30 years, often in situations of great danger. How is it possible that, within a few minutes, I had to delete so many ad hominem comments about Sister Pat, which critiqued her for not being a “good Catholic”? Have people no sense of perspective any longer? If not, I have an idea: If you’d like to criticize Sister Pat for not being a good Catholic, as some did, then I would suggest that you do the following: First, spend some time working with the poor in San Antonio. Then, spend six years working with the poor in Chile during an oppressive and violent political regime. You’ll be working in a Catholic parish in a small town in the desert, by the way. Next, move to El Salvador, where you will be in danger of being killed for working for the Catholic Church. That is, put your life on the line every single day for Jesus Christ and for the Catholic Church. At one point during your almost twenty years there, work in a refugee camp, run by the church, that is the target of military raids. Do all of this, by the way, while living under vows of poverty, chastity and obedience; living far from your home country; and having nothing to call your own. Then feel free to come back and post a comment on this Facebook page about what a bad Catholic she is.
Ok, so it definitely can be read with some passive-aggressive undertones, but it gets to the point. And at the end of the day, I think it’s this: the LCWR is and remains a canonical body of the Church, and inasmuch, it is absolutely acceptable that it’s teachings, publications, governing statutes, formation statutes, and public image be examined and adjusted if necessary. In fact, it is the bishops’ vocations and pastoral duties to do so. What is not acceptable, is when we make the leap from questionable teaching to questionable people. Everyone is prone to error, misjudgment, and sin. The LCWR leadership is no exception, but neither are the men who make up the CDF, the CMSWR leadership, or any of us. The Church doesn’t ask us to forget our conscious and automatically submit to her teachings. No, what she asks us to do requires more simplicity, humility, and trust. When we don’t agree or don’t understand, she simply tells us, that’s ok. You still belong. Just keep learning, keep searching, and keeping opening yourself to my Truth. (See here for an interesting article on “legitimate diversity of opinion.”)
Yes, there are times that the LCWR has, in my opinion, publically strayed from official Church teaching, and as a body that carries the heavy burden of publically representing the Church to others and the world, that’s a problem that should, and is hopefully being corrected. But while the missteps are so small, they are unfortunately being judged by them. But it’s what these women are doing right that should be the real story here!
As Sr. Susan puts it,
Over the past 40 years, many women religious have lived and ministered with people on the margins of society, whether that is with AIDS patients or homeless urban Native Americans, with children with multiple disabilities or families without health insurance. We have a saying in our community that wherever one of our Sisters is, we are all there. So while I have not had these ministry experiences, my Sisters have, and this in turn has informed our shared experience of life as followers of Jesus who pay special attention to the “little ones.”
Yes. We can talk all day about what makes up the “essentials” of religious life – habits, type of dwelling, size of community, horarium, daily mass, line of work, you name it. But the problem comes in as soon as we start delegitimizing someone else’s expression of it. Oh, there are some nonnegotiables – Catholic Religious Life implies communion with the Catholic Church and then there are the evangelical counsels – but beyond that, “authentic” religious life can be open to individualized expression.
And located within this, I would argue, is the real tension of what’s going on, and I would put it this way: The Vatican should rightly facilitate the alignment of the essentials of religious life. Women religious should rightly protect their communities’ unique charisms and expressions of religious life. Some within the Vatican hierarchy are redefining the essentials to include these individual expressions and are thus overstepping bounds of control. Some within LCWR religious communities are redefining individual expressions to include the essentials and are thus interpret this through a lens of violence, and the media’s leaving no room for anything but the extreme.
Both are off the mark, but both speak to very real pain and confusion. So what’s the answer? I would say that as a starting point, all parties involved should define the terms, work towards establishing a common language, and stop with the polarizations. But even as I say that, I have to believe that those truly invested and at the center of this issue are already doing just that. So maybe it’s just something the rest of us need to get on board with too?
Obviously, this is a difficult issue to discuss and write about. As a lay woman, I know that my concern and investment only goes so far, but as someone who has discerned Religious Life and has spent a great deal of time breaking down stereotypes and building relationships with women religious of all flavors, this is something that matters deeply to me. I’d like to close with Sr. Susan’s closing thoughts and call to prayer:
Please join me in praying for our Church, for the Bishops appointed by Rome to engage with LCWR, for the women in leadership who will meet in St Louis next week, and for all of God’s people. That we may learn to follow Jesus with integrity and love, open to the call and presence of the Holy Spirit, living the good news in service of God and all of God’s people, especially the most vulnerable.