Can nuns go “beyond Jesus”?

presidentsYour GetReligionistas are big fans, when it comes to the work of Associated Press religion scribe Eric Gorski. However, there are times when it is hard to pack all of the good stuff into the small package that is the typical wire-service story.

Thus, before you read Gorski’s recent report about the Vatican and the postmodern nuns — the USA Today headline was “U.S. Catholic sisters probed on doctrine, fidelity” — kindly consider the following quote from the famous 2007 address by Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink praising the many suns who have moved “beyond the church, even beyond Jesus” and into an interfaith approach to their work and theology. She was speaking at the national gathering of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organization at the center of the Vatican’s concerns about the religious health of many religious orders here in North America.

In a Scripps Howard column on the subject, I offered this slice of this famous speech about the “sojourning” orders in this day and age:

“Religious titles, institutional limitations, ecclesiastical authorities no longer fit this congregation, which in most respects is Post-Christian,” added Brink, a former journalist who is a biblical studies professor at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union. For these women, the “Jesus narrative is not the only or the most important narrative. … They still hold up and reverence the values of the Gospel, but they also recognize that these same values are not solely the property of Christianity. Buddhism, Native American spirituality, Judaism, Islam and others hold similar tenets for right behavior within the community, right relationship with the earth and right relationship with the Divine.”

Now, with that quote in mind, work your way through Gorski’s report about this “apostolic visitation” and the research document that is guiding it.

Read on:

… (The) nature of some questions in the document seems to validate concerns expressed privately by some sisters that they’re about to be dressed down or accused of being unfaithful to the church.

The report, for example, asks communities of sisters to lay out “the process for responding to sisters who dissent publicly or privately from the authoritative teaching of the Church.” It also confirms suspicions that the Vatican is concerned over a drift to the left on doctrine, seeking answers about “the soundness of doctrine held and taught” by the women.

Still other questions explore whether sisters take part in Mass daily, or whether they follow the church’s rules when they take part in liturgies. Church officials expect consistency in how rites and services are celebrated, with approved translations and Masses presided over by a priest.

Liberal Catholics are framing this investigation in terms of women’s rights and they have every right to do so. Conservatives basically agree with the Vatican, which is what conservatives do most of the time.

However, the story never provides insights into the wide array of doctrinal issues at stake. It’s sounds like another fight over women’s ordination, not a debate about essential, creedal issues of ancient Christianity — such as the uniqueness of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

lbrinkBrink is by no means the only sister saying what she is saying. Where are the quotes in the AP story that point toward the actual doctrinal issues that are involved?

It seems that there is a big ecclesiastical mystery here and some people have no idea why the Vatican is concerned. Thus:

Francine Cardman, associate professor of historical theology and church history at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry, said it isn’t clear why these questions are being asked now in the U.S.

But she said the focus on doctrine puts it in the context of establishing a “correct” and exclusive interpretation of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s and of women’s religious communities. She said the inquiry should be seen “as part of a much older tradition of misogyny in the church and especially distrust of women who are not directly and submissively under male, ecclesiastical control.”

In the end, we have another “she said, she said” story. This was a case where the editors needed to give Gorski a bit more room. We needed some real, live quotes to establish the width and depth of the issues that are really at stake.

Is the Vatican ready to move “beyond the church, even beyond Jesus”?

That’s the heart of this story. Right there.

Photos: From the 2007 LCWR assembly. A group of past and present leaders of the conference (top). Sister Laurie Brink gives her famous address.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Ed

    When in doubt, toss in words like misogyny to spice it up for the unwashed masses!

  • Jerry

    Vatican is concerned over a drift to the left on doctrine

    That is a big, screamingly bad comment. It conflates politics with Catholic church theology. Or maybe I’m mistaken and the Pope is 100% aligned with the far right wing politically? (see what I mean?)

    I know you like Gorski’s work, but to me it’s a fundamental mistake to use left/right terminology in reference to Catholic church doctrine. I would expect any decent reporter to avoid that pitfall.

    After all, there’s quite a bit of what the Pope has written about economic justice as part of Catholic theology that aligns quite well with the political left in the US. Or maybe the Catholic church is afraid the Pope is drifting too far to the economic left wing?


  • Richard Hooker

    Catholic doctrine can be conceptualized on a left-right spectrum, just like politics can. These “nuns” are clearly far out on the left of that scale in terms of their faithfulness to Catholic belief (or lack thereof). In any case, I have a sneaky feeling — I don’t know why — that these “nuns” are probably just as far out on the left of the political scale, as well. Anyone care to go out on a limb with me?

  • SteveP

    The article is fine as it attempts balance despite its brevity–the quote from Cardman is well offset by the paraphrase from Hitchcock showing the reader that the inquisition has polarizing effects. Of course there was not enough space on the web page, I suppose, to delve any further into the polarization and why those who are polarizing maintain the necessity of doing so.

    As a personal aside, I was left with the hunch that I’d just read an article about Episcopalianism rather than Catholicism. Perhaps I’m just starting at shadows.

  • Susan

    There are a number of books about what happened to the RC women religous after Vatican II. Donna Steichen’s UNGODLY RAGE is the most supportative of the concerns of the Vatican. Ms. Steichen is clearly an orthodox RC … making no bones about it. However, she has very heavily documented her book. That alone of course does not make her case .. because the underlying assumptions can always be challenged.

    Having just read the book last month, I checked the comments on Amazon and found that the three and one star reviews were poorly done (perhaps they were referring to another book?) but the two star reviewers have some very fair criticisms. One five-star reviewer hates the book because of its negative protrayal of “Pagans” and its support of the RCC … thinks it is important to know the enemy and, in general, probably makes Ms Steichen’s case. (You cannot make this stuff up!)

    On the whole, I found it an interesting read.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The complaining “modern” and usually unorthodox sisters seem to have gotten most of the media coverage (usually positive, of course). How about more coverage of the REAL Catholic sisters who are welcoming dialogue with Rome. More coverage of the sisters who still wear habits, who don’t dance around phony Masses, who embrace orthodox teachings, who live in community, who still revere Our Blessed Mother, who still regard Jesus as our One Saviour and Redeemer, and whose orders are, consequently, vibrant and growing. Yes, there are a good number of these. And these are NOT disappearing into history’s graveyard as are those orders whose religion has become “relevancy” or some other with-it catchword of the day.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Something else that Gorski missed are the nuns who take people down to Central and South America on ‘pilgrimages’ in order to find their inner goddesses. Or the ones who take people on Dan Brown tours. Honest. Yes, they’ve moved ‘beyond Jesus’ alright — moved from the hard and narrow path to the one with wide gates and broad roads.

  • Brian Walden

    These sisters freely took vows which they’ve totally abandoned. I don’t see why they get any sympathy. If I treated my marital vows like they treat their religious vows I’d be rightly ridiculed and no one would listen to whatever crazy notions I had about marriage. They don’t deserve to be given a forum.

  • Joel

    “U.S. Catholic sisters probed?” Please tell me it didn’t really say that.

    Somewhere, a copy editor is snickering.

  • Julia

    Documents in Vatican II called for sisters to re-examine their constitutions and by-laws in reference to their lives in the modern world – they were given time to experiment.
    The earliest cracking of the sisters’ view of themselves was the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters’ famous experiments with encounter groups conducted by Carl Rogers in California where the famous psychologist tried out his theories on the convent of sisters. Almost every one of them left within a few years. Other orders of sisters soon followed: some developed a love of analyzing life with Meyers-Briggs test based on Jung; many adopted a feminism of the Ms Magazine type as a reaction to real paternalism; new age and goddess theorizing became popular; and many switched to a relativism regarding almost everything including their religion; few lived in community any more. The baby was thrown out with the bath water.

    The only reason the “modern” sisters who have gone beyond Jesus want to hang on to the name of “Catholic” is for the cachet they thing it brings. And maybe enables them to still get contributions from faithful Catholics who were taught by the “good sisters” back in the day who don’t know what’s become of them.

    Here is an abstract on a paper written about Carl Rogers and how his work changed how people viewed religion, in particular the Immaculate Heart sisters in California.

    - – - – - – - -
    And here is a link to an article in the LA times about the Immaculate Heart sisters and their struggle with Cardinal McIntyre that ended in the 400 sisters leaving within 3 years of the start of their encounter group experiments with Carl Rogers.

    Here’s most of the part about the sisters v the Cardinal:

    Nowhere was this conflict more dramatically apparent than in the contretemps between McIntyre and the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, headed by the charismatic Sister Anita Caspary. Not surprisingly, given the accepted scenario of this conflict (autocratic cardinal versus reformist nuns), Weber attempts a certain chiaroscuro of motivation and engagement on both sides of the conflict. The sisters, Weber argues, were already in a condition of communal meltdown before the controversy emerged. At their mother house in Montecito, the Dutch theologian-psychologist Father Adrian van Kamp and a team of psychological professionals were already offering a series of 1960s-style group encounters, in which all the community rules were suspended. A number of sisters were hostile to these sessions, sensing that such free-wheeling efforts to get in touch with inner feelings, ambiguities and ambivalences would ultimately destroy the sisterhood in its present format. Here was emerging, after all, one of the church’s thorniest issues–the role of women–that to this day is still a point of contentious debate.

    And what better figure could there be for the other side of the dialectic–to wear, in this case, the black hat of a villain instead of a cardinal’s red hat–than the great cardinal himself? Yet in this locomotive of a biography, Weber offers meticulous evidence that McIntyre did not deliberately interfere with the governance of the Immaculate Heart Sisters. He especially did not tell them that they had to wear their habits, as was widely reported in the press. The cardinal, Weber argues, turned the entire matter over to the Sacred Congregation of Religious in Rome, where it properly belonged. Eventually, the Immaculate Heart Sisters divided into two groups, one avant-garde and the other traditional. Weber argues that the cardinal, sensing that it was a no-win situation, remained aloof from the debate. But no matter: By this time, the cardinal was playing a near-mythological role and certainly a psychological role in one of the most profound men-versus-women controversies to emerge in the American Catholic Church. Sadly, the reformed Immaculate Heart community was unable to sustain itself. A significant percentage of a generation of nuns, after all, wanted out of religious life, as so many of them had already discovered during the group therapy sessions in Montecito. Most regrettably, the archdiocese lost Immaculate Heart College of Los Angeles, an institution en route to becoming the Mills College, the Sarah Lawrence College, the Mount Holyoke College or the Scripps College of American Catholic women’s higher education.

    It all went downhill from there, IMHO. But there’s the start of some interesting news articles for a reporter who wants to really dig into the reasons for the visitations.

  • Maureen

    The list of questions to be asked has been released, and it’s pretty simple stuff. If your order’s leaders are prepared to write essay questions about your order and its charism, which is sister/nun stuff learned in the novitiate and basic to spiritual life in an order; and about how the order’s current governance, financial, work, study, and prayer policies fit into that charism and general canon law.

    It’s much easier to answer, and far more to the point, than the evaluations at my workplace or the infamous questionnaires forming mission statements at my work. Take a look and follow the pdf link to the “instrumentum laboris”.

  • Bob

    Thank goodness all of the nuns pictured in the article appear to be above 50 years old. Time will accomplish what the hierarchy can’t.


    What I believe to be relevant is not the mega locations but small and somewhat remote ones such as most of Florida. If the nuns are to serve the Bishops they are going to have to not be in community but instead be close to the Cathedral. I am an active layman and I do not see any wild eyed activity here in our rather orthodox local RCC communities.
    If the desire is to keep the nuns in convents should this not also apply to the fine order priests who serve us?

  • Peter

    We in Australia have long realised that the Church in America is profondly disturbed; just as is the rest of your culture. It is sad to see the failure of Vat. Two reflected in the lives of so many good women. We too have nuns without purpose, making candles and doing courses to find meaning in otherwise meaningless lives. Pity they do not help with the sick or the poor rather than their vapid ordinary lives feeling unrecognised and misunderstood. They will die off and not be replaced as the young are not attracted to despair. AMDG

  • Elaina Lewis

    It is not only in America. We see it even “Down Under” in the Pacific. All this ‘right’ and ‘left’ leaves me cold.
    Jesus said “On this rock I will build MY CHURCH” – we are either faithful to the teaching magisterium or we are not. “Who is for ME cannot be against ME” – very simple.
    Such little “knowledge” can be a very dangerous thing. They think they are clever and learned but beware – Jesus has hidden from such as these and revealed them to mere children.
    Let them look to Buddah, and Hindi and whoever they wish – but for me – I look only to Christ because He is the Way the Truth and the Light. Very simple

  • Elaina Lewis

    Sorry, I had not read Peter from Australia’s comments above.
    Peter, America is no different than here or elsewhere. There are also some very good things comming from America and I mention Right to Life marches, Mother Angelica, the wonderful Bishop’s in many diocese throughout USA. It is not about what the nuns are doing eg making candles as much as how they are doing it. If indeed they are fusing their wills in the will of the Father then they are indeed doing everything. It may seem as though they do nothing. Likewise if someone is helping the poor but not doing it united to Jesus and done without love then they are doing less than those nuns making candles which may even be used to brighten the altars where Jesus is exposed in the Blessed Sacrament.

  • Michael Rafferty

    Whenever I read the words “faithful to the Magisterium”, I think of the Pharisees who used their knowledge of Jewish law as a badge of superiority. Jesus rebuked them and welcomed sinners of all types into his company.

    I’d rather be in the company of dissenters than Pharisees.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Michael Rafferty,

    You misread those words, “faithful to the Magisterium.” Those who no longer are, such as those who are the subject of tmatt’s discussion, are not the sinners Jesus welcomed into His company. Please remember (and I wish all journalists would keep this in mind) that when Jesus ate and drank with sinners, He wasn’t just sitting down and having a good time with them. He was calling them all to conversion. He called the woman caught in adultery to conversion. He called Matthew, the former tax collector, to conversion, as well as all of Matthew’s friends at the banquet he held in Jesus’ honor after his conversion.

    The nuns of which tmatt spoke are objectively worse off than the sinners with whom Jesus first ate and drank. The sinners didn’t know at first who He was. But then after they got to know Him, they were called to conversion, and many responded and gave up living in darkness. These nuns have known Jesus — or at least that’s the presupposition of the reason they entered the convent in the first place — and they now claim to have ‘gone beyond’ Him. I’m not sure how turning from the truth of Jesus to idols, as some of these women have, is something to be applauded. Granted, they’re not being pharisaical, but there are sins other than the arrogance and haughtiness of the Pharisees — like the infidelity of which the prophets constantly accused Israel and in which it seems to me these nuns have engaged. Of course, Jesus is calling them to conversion as well, just as He calls everyone else to conversion.

    Certainly there are those who wear their fidelity to the Magisterium as a badge of honor. That doesn’t mean, though, that one should not be faithful. Using someone else’s sin as an excuse for our own can’t be right.

  • James O’Connell

    I’m not sure what going beyond Jesus means. If it means rejecting his teaching, then that must in some measure be a rejection of Christianity. But if it means taking on problems that Jesus did not say anything about but that have become acute in our time, then it can be given a proper meaning. In the latter case we take inspiration from the broad teaching of Jesus and from our closeness to him. While there will always be the odd maverick, it seems to me that the vast majority of American nuns are trustworthy and true.

    These nuns may well be ageing but they are much of the same age as a clergy declining in numbers. They are also no older than the cardinals and bishops having them investigated.

    I regret the investigation of the nuns. I wish that the nuns and the rest of us could get together to discuss recruitment and attitudes in our contemporary situations. American Catholics appear to have lost one third of their number in the last twenty years. Can the nuns be primarily blamed for that loss.

  • Barb

    To “move beyond Jesus” is apostasy. It is that simple.

  • elleblue

    If some nuns see themselves as beyond the Church and/or beyond Jesus that’s fine. By that definition they are no longer Roman Catholic and should leave and join another religious tradiiton or perhaps found their own communities.

    But please don’t stay and tell us everyone else is wrong and you are right, because you are not, plain and simple!!
    Move on, do your own thing, have a career, an apartment and your own ministry because you are no longer living consecrated life according to the norms of the Catholic Church.

    Frankly, I’m sick to death of hearing sixties rants. You people are stuck, really stuck. Most women have moved on and evolved.

    The Church is relevant because our culture isn’t!

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Note–On Aug. 10 the NY Times ran an article titled “New nuns and priests seem Opting for Tradition” by Laurie Goodstein. I saw it on a Catholic internet site so do not know how much prominence it got on the Times website or its newspaper. But it proved the point I made above about which Catholic religious orders are healthy and growing.