Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Centered Living for the Polar Positioned

Eight years ago I picked up a magnificent CD in Rome, entitled Canticles in the Cloister: Music from the Convents of 17th Century Bologna. An hour long, it consists of a small selection of a much more vast repertoire of intricate sacred music that cloistered nuns composed or transposed, played and sang for their own inspiration and for the enjoyment and inspiration of the nobility, who flocked to their frequent concerts. The Daughters of St. Paul would have felt right at home.

There’s a fly in the honey, though. The Bolognese bishops were not pleased and over the course of more than a century imposed restrictions on the nuns, who did not take kindly to having their artistry invalidated and their sources of revenue dammed up. Their cat-and-mouse “games” with the local hierarchy included threats of excommunication, open rebellion, and an encounter with the Inquisition. Guess who won.

The women were not all cut out for religious life. In fact, even though Church officials took measures against noble families that dumped their pre-adolescent girls at the convent door to avoid pouring their wealth into dowries, the nobility did it anyway. The result was a reclusive life turned inside out by talent and education that needed an outlet. Women of at least nominal faith were square pegs forced into round holes and perhaps saw little value to their lives beyond their art. The bishops were clearly concerned for the integrity of religious life, yet perhaps were threatened by talent they either didn’t understand or felt they had to control. Hampered by cultural mores, apparently neither side was free enough to listen to the other’s legitimate grievances or regard each other as participants in a conversation, nor creative and motivated enough by love of God to work out a solution.

Fast forward three centuries and span an ocean. There are enough points of convergence between their story and ours to make us all squirm. The point of divergence between the sisters of the U.S. and the nuns of Bologna is first of all in the nature of our religious consecration. We’re not cloistered. We’re supposed to reach out with the message of God’s truth and love in Christ in a variety of ways, and for the most part, we freely choose to answer the call we hear. A second difference: For the most part clergy get that. The hierarchy confirms that prophetic impulse of the Holy Spirit whenever it approves a community’s Constitutions, which by the way, is part of their job; they have the gift to discern where the Spirit blows. They’re not always supportive in practice, in the day-to-day carrying out of our common mission, but just as American sisters have come a long way, they have too.

The glaring difference, though, between the two scenarios is that in the current situation the Vatican is not objecting to sisters’ way of life or attempting to corral us in the good work we do for God and humanity. The confrontation is about what we believe and teach and its effect on our discernment of God’s call.

As I mentioned last week, for ten years the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has studied the presentations and policies of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), prompted by complaints on this side of the Atlantic by clergy and by religious, some of whom are members of the LCWR. The perception that some of those complaints come from less than noble or open minded individuals does not obscure the possibility that the LCWR has been advocating tenets contrary to the faith of the Church we’re supposedly serving.

After living in the U.S. as a religious for over thirty years, in which I have read or heard some of those theological positions, I have to say that concerns for doctrinal integrity are not misplaced. A case in point is the address of Sr. Laurie Brink, O.P., to the LCWR in 2007, which the CDF cites in its recent letter to the LCWR. While she expresses some excellent insights, many of her comments are clearly outside the pale of Christian faith in some basic ways. She knows that and makes no apologies for it.

She rightly points out, “One of the benefits of Post-Modernism—the wholesale critique of modernity and its reliance on objectivity and western assumptions that there is one obtainable ‘Truth’—is that we are more readily able to recognize the place of subjectivity.” Looking at life through a personal lens, she calls it. There certainly is value to bringing one aspect of reality—my own perspective—into a dialogue, as long as we also acknowledge that dialogue itself is meant to lead us to truth beyond our own limited view. Sr. Laurie Brink could say that she is only defining postmodernism, not necessarily agreeing with it. However, she quickly adds that whatever she will say in the rest of her talk is only her opinion seen and expressed through her personal lens. That includes the four paradigms for the future of religious life, one of which runs entirely counter to what we believe as Christians:
“The dynamic option for Religious Life, which I am calling, Sojourning, is much
more difficult to discuss, since it involves moving beyond the Church, even beyond
Jesus. A sojourning congregation is no longer ecclesiastical. It has grown beyond the
bounds of institutional religion. Its search for the Holy may have begun rooted in Jesus as
the Christ, but deep reflection, study and prayer have opened it up to the spirit of the
Holy in all of creation. Religious titles, institutional limitations, ecclesiastical authorities
no longer fit this congregation, which in most respects is Post-Christian.

“…Who’s to say that the movement beyond Christ is not, in reality, a movement into the very heart of God?”
"Christ the Teacher," M. O. McGrath

Yet Jesus claims, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6), and for 2,000 years the Church has unequivocally proclaimed that message, even today, when we understand better than we did how and whom he saves. Christ is in Buddhism, Islam, and “all of creation.” If truth is there, so is Christ. If goodness is there, so is Christ. If beauty is there, so is Christ. In other words, Christ is the one who connects us with our sisters and brothers everywhere, whether he is acknowledged or not! The task of evangelization is, first, to uncover his face for all to see, and then, by fully sharing his story, bring his face into focus, allowing Christ to bring people to faith in him for their salvation and ours.

True evangelization never discounts the true, good, or beautiful either in the one who turns to Christ from other religious traditions or in the person who remains there. To discount it would substitute a mask for the face of Christ. In addition, when true evangelization brings that face into focus, it reveals that his face is connected to a body. That body is the Church—you and me, parents, pastors, teens, the LCWR, the CDF. Intimacy with Christ brings us to kiss his face where we see it and embrace his scarred, yet glorious body.

In women who do God’s work, why should theology matter? It’s no secret that, as educators, catechists, parish ministers, counselors, media evangelizers, and medical professionals, women religious in the U.S. command the attention of a wide swath of humanity, including, “future ministers of the global church”—in Sr. Laurie’s case, at the prestigious Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. They speak and act in the name of the Church, whether in a lecture hall or a hovel. They hold the present and future of people’s lives in their hands. Lots of power there. Thus, the ongoing formation at LCWR meetings and the crafting of corporate policy is no small matter.

In addition, what we believe directly affects the way we live, including the way we treat one another. Sr. Laurie asks, begs, women religious to initiate reconciliation with “our brother bishops.” She believes that as victims, we’re in the position to do this. In saying so, she contrasts “women religious who have given their lives for the Mission of Jesus” with “the very men who control the power in but not the Spirit of the Church” [sic]. (I think you get what she’s saying.) Yes, American sisters, including the Daughters, have been undervalued, patronized, and mistreated. But “good girl-bad boy” caricaturing will never accomplish the reconciliation she calls women religious to initiate, unless her vision of “reconciliation” aims for reverse discrimination.

It’s easy to demonize those whom we feel have done us wrong, but the justification we revel in only feeds our self-righteousness. That goes for all of us—religious, clergy, and the laity who side with one or the other. This is what happens when we overvalue our personal perspective and so, fail to recognize the objective and obtainable truth that transcends even group perspective. Then we don’t even try to listen to another. Neither ecclesiastical offices nor religious communities are immune from manipulative behavior—power grabbing and bullying included.

The story of the singing nuns of Bologna is a cautionary tale, for groups and societies, yes, but also for us as individuals. Collectives don't change until individuals do. Who or what is the center of our lives—really? Can I be big enough to honor giftedness in someone else? Humble enough to use my position for the good of all, including those I like least or fear most? Maybe today we can take time to actually talk with, not at, someone we work or live with. Prayer will bring perspective, allowing us to see goodness, truth, and beauty—Christ—in them and allowing them to see the same in us.


  1. I've been reading various essays about this issue, rather bemusedly because it seems that so many pundits are weighing in with their ever-so-informed opinion; and I want to query "yes, and what is your actual experience with religious life...?" Not that secular perspective is unwarranted or even wrong, but I just had to laugh at the irony of many who purport to be advocating "those poor beleaguered nuns"...being ordered around and represented by others...can't speak for themselves... never mind that their authorial position they pose in their prose might be re-inscribing the very thing they decry.

    I am finding it increasingly challenging to maintain my moderate head during these polarized times. My evangelical friends (and by that I mean born-again like Pentocostal and non-denominational, charismatic Christian types) classify me as a left-wing liberal; then my mainstream denomination Christian friends or friends who claim to be agnostic or "other" religion suspect that I'm a conservative right-wing republican. Probably others think I'm wishy-washy. My academic training has instilled in me the rigors of thorough inquiry; because as you rightly say, not everything is as it seems.

    Our secular society - and our very human nature, I would argue - would have us ricochet across the emotional and rational extremes, and accepting such chaos as a way of life would our undoing. This is a deeply thick moment that has been informed by a multitude of perspectives and situations, reflecting the people, the discipline, the decision, all of it! None of it will fit into the slick sound-byte format of hip media though. I often wonder about the authors of declarative essays, whether they ever look back upon their surety and cringe. When I read some of my stuff from years past, I sure do.

  2. Another great posting! I loved how you place the LCWR dilemma within a wider framework (comparing it to what happened in Bologna was brilliant). I also loved how you picked up on the problem of the "good girl/bad girl" dynamic with Sister Laurie's address.

    My one question is about Sister Laurie's framing of the four models/paths for religious life she outlines. After I read the speech, it looks like Sister Laurie is making an observation of the paths that some communities have already chosen. It seems that her point is that each community needs to make a choice.

    From my vantage point, I see a problem in how she characterizes each of the paths or choices. She's making a personal choice to follow the path of reconciliation but as you rightly pointed out, she's set up a good girl/bad girl dynamic that cannot really lead to constructive dialogue. As far as the other three models, it's obvious which ones she respects. Calling the second model "Acquiescence to Others’ Expectations" is really an unfair characterization of the more traditional communities. The title already denigrates this choice and make it look like the sisters are not really exercising personal choice. Who is she or we to make that judgement?

    As far as the sojourner model, I wish she had brought the same level of respect to the second model that she had brought to this model. I agree with her that we cannot be definitive in saying that a particular path will or will not reach "the heart of God." The same could be said of the second model. I wished she had expanded on what she meant by "beyond Christ." I'm only speculating but I believe she is referring to congregations who have already made this choice. Maybe she's asking these groups to own up to this choice publicly? I don't know.

    Thanks always for your very thoughtful posts!


    Frank DeVito


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