Sisters are doing it for themselves

Sisters are doing it for themselves April 20, 2012

So President Bush (the first one) was rallying for a war with Iraq (also the first one) and Pope John Paul (the second one) issued a strongly worded condemnation of such a war as unjust.

I was in a room filled with formidable women who had themselves been opposing the march to war using much the same language the pope was now using. They were very pleased with his statement. Someone suggested they might include a quote from that statement in the group’s newsletter.

A spirited conversation followed. On the one hand, the effort to stop this war needed all the support it could get, and since the pope is quite well-known, quoting his statement might be helpful. But on the other hand, this wasn’t the only matter the pope had issued pronouncements on, and many of his other statements were decidedly less constructive. Quoting the pope in the newsletter might create the impression that the group was endorsing all of his views, reinforcing the notion that his every opinion ought to be closely followed.

This latter, more cautious, view was shared by the majority of those present, and the group decided it would be more prudent not to include the pope’s statement in the newsletter.

Such was my introduction to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

The LCWR — the nuns, the sisters, the largest umbrella group for women’s orders in the U.S. — are an impressive bunch. They’re some of the smartest, toughest and holiest Christians I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting.

That these numerous orders of women religious exist at all is kind of inspiring. These are women called by God who had to build and sustain their own alternative structures, institutions and ministries just to be allowed to follow that calling. These are women who were called to ministry and called to leadership. When the Church decreed that men should enjoy a monopoly on ministry and leadership, these women went out and created a thriving black market of their own — an underground economy in which, for centuries, the hungry have been fed, the naked have been clothed, the sick have been tended and good news has been given to the poor.

It seems the male monopoly finds this threatening:

The Vatican has appointed an American bishop to rein in the largest and most influential group of Catholic nuns in the United States, saying that an investigation found that the group had “serious doctrinal problems.”

The Vatican’s assessment, issued on Wednesday, said that members of the group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, had challenged church teaching on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood, and promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

The sisters were also reprimanded for making public statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.”*

The National Catholic Reporter brings us the response from Sr. Joan Chittister, whose views I would guess are widely shared among the LCWR and the orders it represents:

“Within the canonical framework, there is only one way I can see to deal with this,” said Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, who has served as president of the group as well as in various leadership positions. … “They would have to disband canonically and regroup as an unofficial interest group.

“That would be the only way to maintain growth and nourish their congregational charisms and the charism of the LCWR, which is to help religious communities assess the signs of the time. If everything you do has to be approved by somebody outside, then you’re giving your charism away, and you’re certainly demeaning the ability of women to make distinctions.”

… Chittister said she was deeply distraught at news of Sartain’s appointment and the order for LCWR to revise itself.

“When you set out to reform a people, a group, who have done nothing wrong, you have to have an intention, a motivation that is not only not morally based, but actually immoral,” she said.

“Because you are attempting to control people for one thing and one thing only — and that is for thinking, for being willing to discuss the issues of the age … If we stop thinking, if we stop demanding the divine right to think, and to see that as a Catholic gift, then we are betraying the church no matter what the powers of the church see as an inconvenient truth in their own times.”

In attempting to take such control of people’s thinking, she said, “You make a mockery of the search for God, of the whole notion of keeping eyes on the signs of the times and of providing the people with the best possible spiritual guidance and presence you can give.

“When I was a child in this town, I was taught that it was a sin to go into a Protestant church. In my lifetime, the church, to its eternal credit, admitted that it was wrong. The scandal and the sin is that it took 400 years to do that.”

Chittister said women religious have been trying since Vatican II “to help the church avoid that kind of darkness and control … they have been a gift to the church in their leadership and their love and their continuing fidelity.

“When you set out to reform that kind of witness, remember when it’s over who doomed the church to another 400 years of darkness. It won’t be the people of the church who did it.”

Chittister’s response is rather tactful and employs a good bit of theological language and some profound theological argument. But what it boils down to is pretty much the same as Gen. McAuliffe’s terse reply to the Germans’ ultimatum at Bascogne.

More links and reactions after the jump.

Maureen Fiedler: “The ultimatum to LCWR

Last Saturday, I was privileged to attend the 40th Anniversary dinner of NETWORK, the Catholic social justice lobby founded by nuns 40 years ago. Since 1972, this organization has done stellar work on the Hill advocating for social justice, the needs of the poor, world peace and the earth itself.

It was a wonderful gathering, and LCWR leaders were very visible and vocal in their praise of NETWORK — and well they might be. Here was a gathering of the real leaders of our church for the future, members of religious communities: nuns, co-members, associates and wonderful friends.

Now, we get news from the Vatican, appointing an archbishop to lead what they dare to call “renewal” of LCWR. When you look at the specifics, it’s more like dismantling, if LCWR actually does any of it.

Joshua J. McElwee: “Options facing LCWR stark, canon lawyers say

As the largest leadership organization for U.S. women religious begins to discern what steps to take following news Wednesday that the Vatican has ordered it to reform and to place itself under the authority of an archbishop, experts say the options available to the group are stark.

Ultimately, several canon lawyers told NCR, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has two choices: Either comply with the order or face ouster as a Vatican-recognized representative of sisters in the United States.

Aphra Behn: “Nothing Says You Value Women Like Siccing the Inquisition on Nuns!

So, you’re going to discipline some of the only figures within the Catholic leadership who are (a) women and (b) consistently serving the health and defending the humanity of women? Well, that gives me all kinds of warm fuzzies about the Vatican’s care and concern for anyone who isn’t a patriarchal man-type!

… Catholic nuns are not a monolith, nor are they perfect. As individuals and as orders, religious women have participated in their fair share of religious oppressions and abuses of power, in the U.S. and around the world. But it is undeniable that Catholic religious women have also been historically one of the few female voices allowed to even speak to the male-dominated power structure of the Catholic church. While far from the “radical feminists” presented in the hostile imaginings of conservative Catholic clergy, members of the LCWR provide an important alternative to the radically misogynist and homophobic teachings of the current Catholic leadership.

That they are to be silenced for their efforts on behalf of those on the receiving end of kyriarchal oppression is profoundly depressing, and profoundly revealing.

See also:

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* For Christ’s sake, what will it take before these people realize that the current crop of bishops has zero credibility and that it’s an unholy blasphemy to call such men “the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals”?

If culpability in decades of child-rape doesn’t diminish the bishops’ sense of their own righteousness and moral authority, what would?

I don’t have a hyperbolic punchline there. I can’t readily think of anything worse — of anything more egregiously reprehensible and universally condemned compared to which the bishops’ years of enabling child-rape might seem relatively less evil. Nothing can make it seem so. Children were tormented. They knew this. They allowed this. For generations.

If these bishops were in prison, they would be at the bottom of the pecking order. Their fellow inmates — mere murderers, thieves, drug dealers, muggers and addicts — would all regard these bishops as their moral inferiors. They would not be wrong.

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