We’ve all heard about it by now: the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has done it again, issuing a hotly contested critique of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the United States. Hopefully, we’ve all cooled down enough after the initial explosion to begin a more nuanced discussion of the matter (although my frequent frustrations with ecclesial polemics lead me to fear that this may be hoping for too much). Nathan O’Halloran has given us a helpful starting point in his discussion of the role of prophecy and the interdependence of “charismatic” and “hierarchic” gifts within the church. This reminds me of a recurring talking point of a professor of mine about the role of theologians as being on the cutting edge of the church’s thinking, with the role of the magisterium being to go slow and be the voice of caution. As much as I appreciate this interplay as a large-scale paradigm for the development of church teaching, I have wondered how many Catholics – whether maverick theologians, magisterial authorities, or laypeople taking sides between them – are really seeing the big picture in this way. With this latest bombshell, my suspicions of widespread short-sightedness are unfortunately proving true.
Case in point: the always amiable Jesuit James Martin, God bless him, tried to simply give his “sister friends” a needed morale boost by expressing his gratitude to Catholic sisters via Twitter and inviting others to do the same, with the idea “that people could show their gratitude for sisters, and read other messages of support, without being in any way negative. No need to be anti-Vatican or anti-bishop or anti-anything. Just pro-sister.” The Huffington Post promptly missed the point, calling Martin’s expression of support a “Twitter drive” (changed from “campaign” at Martin’s request, although that word slips in at the end of the HuffPo story), and drawing a stark line in the sand (complete with predictably unnuanced good-guys-and-bad-guys language, including a conjecture about the motives of “the U.S. bishops and the Vatican” that, oddly, contains the unfounded suggestion that “the nuns” support abortion). Reactionaries on the other side just as predictably rose to the occasion, raining vitriol on what was intended as a simple gesture of good will.
Before getting into my own evaluation of the “doctrinal assessment,” as it is officially named, let me first clarify that by “balanced” I do not mean “neutral.” My intention is not to avoid evaluative judgments, or even to make them come out even on both sides. I do, however, hope to make them in a way that does not merely add to the cacophony or even make it about “sides” in the first place.
Largely because it has been so polarizing, the reprimand was a mistake. The CDF should have been more circumspect in anticipating how it would be perceived. Putting the accuracy of the perceptions aside for a moment, by provoking a popular reaction that sees the U.S. nuns as being “under attack” by the Vatican, the CDF (along with every other element of church structure and leadership that it gets conflated with as the more hard-lined face of the Vatican) is simply making itself look bad, even indefensible. This is not a wise move, either politically or, more important, pastorally, which makes it hard to escape the conclusion that the CDF is thinking neither of its own public image nor of pastoral concern for the faithful but is simply thinking ideologically. Perhaps that goes with the territory as the doctrinal arm of church leadership, but on the other hand, pastoral and doctrinal concerns can’t be neatly dichotomized, which means the CDF can’t be completely absolved of its responsibility to consider the former. It could at least put itself more clearly in perspective as complementary to the church’s other magisterial offices.
That said, the actual content of the document has sometimes been distorted in the ensuing reactions. By the time I actually sat down to read it, I was bracing myself for a scathing condemnation, along the lines of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof‘s summary that “the Vatican accused the nuns of worrying too much about the poor and not enough about abortion and gay marriage.” But the document was considerably less inflammatory than I had been led to expect, and nowhere in it did I see any criticism of a focus on caring for the poor. On the contrary, it praises both the LCWR and women religious in general for their social justice work, though these commendations have gone basically unnoticed. The accusation is of being “silent” on abortion and euthanasia, and of publicly dissenting from official church teachings on issues of sexuality and women’s ordination. The uncomfortably authoritarian tone of this, and of the document as a whole, makes it easy for the praise to be missed in the sting of the critique. Moreover, it reflects a certain naïveté regarding how authority is received. Automatic assent can no longer be taken for granted (if indeed it ever could), and the CDF, along with the rest of the magisterium, needs to come to terms with this and find a way to voice its concerns such that they might actually be listened to. Critiques such as this might perhaps be better received if they were better explained: for example, if there are concerns that public dissent on ordination and sexuality may jeopardize the ecumenical progress being made with the Eastern Orthodox churches, it would be better to say so rather than to simply say, “Don’t go against church teachings.” My having to resort to a speculative example here further illustrates my point on the need to be honest about what the underlying concerns are. Appealing to magisterial authority in and by itself can only backfire, further entrenching the self-appointed crusaders for the magisterium and alienating everyone else.
Whatever position we take on all this, we do well to take a Catholic long view and remember that on numerous occasions the church has been known to admit to previous mistakes. (Even Kristof, after his carelessly misleading references to the CDF document’s source and content, recognizes this.) If we can keep this in mind, then perhaps we can have faith that the church (laity and magisterium and whatever – nobody is off the hook here), under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, will continue to learn from its mistakes. And perhaps we (laity and magisterium and whatever) can take a few lessons on pastoral and charitable approaches to ecclesial controversies from the Acts of the Apostles, which we’ve been hearing through the Easter season – so that, as in today’s reading, there may be “joy in the exhortation.”