LCWR, the SSPX and the Vatican; Fun Times in Catholicland UPDATED

Busy days here at Patheos and I am only now getting to a bunch of emails from people asking me what I think about “this misogynist outrage from the Vatican” concerning the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Others, possibly recalling a piece I wrote three years ago sound like they’re rubbing their hands together in anticipation; “I can’t wait to see what you have to say about this!” wrote one woman.

I wrote back, “what I think may surprise you.”

The possibility of the uberconservative-traditionalist Society of St. Pius X finding accord with Rome is interesting, but I’ve never opined about the SSPX before, and really don’t mean to start, now.

Besides, the story about women religious tussling with the bad old Vatican is the one that is going to get the most attention — it is grist for the “Catholic War on Women” narrative, and one that will find ready-takers in some who were far too smart to fall for that theme over contraception, a subject which was-and-is-still being tossed around by Democrats and mediafolk trying to keep the meme alive. I read somewhere on social media yesterday that, “the church thinks women are not as capable of striving for holiness or as valiant in witness as men”. Well, that’s one-part worldly-trained sentiment and two parts media-code. It’s a statement that belies the reverence and honor we show to Our Lady (a human woman named before the angels in our Litany of Saints) and to Mary Madelene, Catherine of Siena, and so many, many other women.

I’ve never bought the “church is an oppressor and hater of women” stuff. To me, the church has always seemed the sole institution (when societies were using women as chattel, under-educating them and limiting their potentialities) to give women free rein to run where the Spirit led them. Most of the time, the church said, “here is a nickle and a blessing! Go with Providence and educate! build monasteries and hospitals! Orphanages!” Sure there was a demand of obedience but that was hardly exclusive to women. Everyone had someone to answer to.

Things got dicey when the world went into an unprecedented revolution — one where almost every norm common to cultures for millennia was suddenly tossed away or oxymoronically “deconstructed” — just as the church was opening the windows for some fresh air. Issues and ideas got swirled up. Eventually, when things calmed, people looked around and said, “okay, this is working; it strengthens our teaching, but that’s not; we don’t miss this, but we kinda do miss that.” That brings a new round of action.

Women were told “be all you can be” by the church back when the world didn’t think they could be anything. Then the world said, “be all you can be,” but it seemed to preclude anything the church had to offer. Perhaps now we’re just beginning to see an inevitable adjustment, along with a layering and gathering of wisdom.

As completely expected, the 8-page doctrinal assessment delivered by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is being hailed by some as something heroic and by others as something heinous. Conversely, some find the LCWR’s response to be not enough (“it’s time to tear the church down!”) and others are just being needlessly rude about the “aging liberal brides of Christ”. I don’t have to link to these pieces; they’re easy enough to find.

People wondering what “side” I am on should know that I distrust any story that runs on the cheap and inefficient fuel of emotionalism; they generally become all about sound, fury and heat and once that happens, the realities become victims to the distortions of agenda. My thoughts are not in tune with either “side.”

I was taken, though, with Joanne McPortland’s heartfelt rant at God. A revert (and a dandy writer) her piece yesterday was a sincere searching, and a calling out for answers.

Like McPortland, (and like my friend Father James Martin who has promoting a kind of social media “we like US nuns” supportgroup) I know many “sisters in pantsuits with bad haircuts” who have lived out their lives of faith and service, and their vows, like a poured out libation; their gentleness and generosity of spirit would shame some of their most vociferous critics, should they actually meet up. Often they are besmirched, dismissed and ridiculed as “hippie nuns” (and worse) by people for whom the only good nun is a habited nun.

As I’ve made clear, I love to see nuns in habits; I count many habited sisters as dear friends, too, and believe there are plenty of sound reasons for a return to some sort of religious garb — not least being the silent witness they pronounce — but to overgeneralize and inveigh against any sisters because they’re not suiting one’s idea of what a nun “should be” is deeply unfair. These religious women are still, like their habited counterparts, consecrated “brides of Christ” and to my way of thinking, to disparage a bride of Christ — even if, in one’s opinion, she’s not the right bride for Jesus — is to tempt a rebuke I wouldn’t want.

That’s not to say unhabited (or habited) nuns are above critiquing. They’re certainly not, and even those who mightily support the LCWR will admit, when pressed, that some corrections are necessary and valid. But hateful ridicule and judgement, in my opinion, goes too far. I know that even when my husband and I are not quite in sync, he certainly wouldn’t stand for anyone disrespecting his bride!

These new interactions between the “liberal hippie nuns” and the ubertraditionalists and Rome, emotions aside, are simply means to an end – God’s end. He makes all things new, continually. Nothing can be made new while in stasis. Movement is required, and intention. When we worship a Being whose ways and thoughts are not ours, it’s easy to get emotional. But we know all things work for God’s glory, and we know that all things have their times and seasons toward that end. 40 years ago, it was the season for religious sisters reach out with new vibrancy, even as others said, “but I liked it the other way!” Now, their petals are waning and new growth is having its day, who knows for how long? And when what is new today fades, someone will wring the hands and stomp the foot and say, “but I liked them that way!”

To an extent I am glad for these busy waters. They tell me the church is full of life, and not safe-but-dead. The Barque of Peter has always traveled rough waters and her skippers will shift right, then left, correct and over-correct as we sail her toward Eternity.

I think the key — the thing that makes everything difficult, and is at the heart of both the LCWR and SSPX stories — is obedience. Even Jesus had trouble with it, one night. All of the saints, and even mystics from other traditions, tell us it brings perfect freedom and peace, but it’s such a balls of a thing to knuckle down to. And yet, Jesus’ own example tells us it guarantees glory. I think of him telling Peter, “one day you will go where you would rather not go…”

Peter went. Martyrdom sucked. Glory followed.

Both of these groups had issues with obedience, and not only to the church, but to their own first understandings and promises. Generally speaking, they let their evolving second and third and forth understandings take precedence over the first. A certain amount of turmoil has followed. It will continue, even if both groups fall into line with Rome or never do, because there will always be within their next move the doubts and wonderings they admitted with their first movements away from obedience and toward “self-actualizing.”

It’s kind of like Eden. Moving away from their first understanding into “growth and self-actualization” Adam and Eve moved away, also, from obedience and ever since then, we’ve been roiled, questioning, unsettled. I think both of these situations are microcosms of our giant macrocosmic dis-ease since Eden, and (I know this is unpopular to say, but here goes) the answer Jesus demonstrated — the healing and corrective “way” — was a return to obedience.

Eden keeps happening, all over again, in all of our lives; none of us have avoided doing what both groups have – moving away from our first understandings, the first things, because we’re sure our latest thought is the most perfect.

With that in mind, I just look at the lively waters and sing, “roll, river, roll!”

UPDATE: Julie Davis at Happy Catholic takes a look at Joanne McPortland’s blog posts and writes a heartfelt and instructive one of her own

Meanwhile Thomas McDonald gives an illustrative taste of how far some have moved, from not just Catholicism but the Christian Creed

More Reactions:
Omar F. A. Gutierrez urges a sober take on all this
. I agree.
Rocco Palmo: always great analysis
Get Religion: Vatican to Sisters: Enough moving beyond Jesus Strong media analysis, and a correction to Sister Simone.
Happy Catholic: Her daughter takes issue With NPR and (also) Sister Simone
David Gibson also with great analysis
God and the Machine: pointedly noting that the LCWR leadership is not representative of its whole membership
Kathryn Lopez: Talking to and about a whole different sisterhood

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About Elizabeth Scalia