Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Where the Spirit Blows

Two weeks ago today, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) met with representatives from the U.S. Leadership Conference for Women Religious (LCWR). In a decision that garnered some notoriety even in the secular press, the CDF called for a revision of the LCWR, following its doctrinal Assessment of the conference initiated in 2009, as well as a revision of some of LCWR’s policies and practices.

The pushback by the LCWR and others who share its perspective was not unexpected, certainly not at the CDF, which had reviewed addresses given at LCWR assemblies over the past ten years, long enough to get a sense of its worldview. Add to this the letters that the CDF received from leadership teams of LCWR member communities, and it smelled the storm long before it struck.

I think the LCWR did, too, despite its public claim to be “stunned.” We women religious in the U.S. have had two “investigations”—one in 1983 and a follow-up about ten years later—plus the visitation conducted two years ago. Doctrinal concerns factored into all three. Regardless of which side of the fence people landed on, why was anyone surprised?

A number of Catholic bloggers have weighed in on the issue over the past two weeks. One of the more enlightened is John Allen’s All Things Catholic. Most have appealed to anecdotal evidence for one position or another, which appears to be a smokescreen for the fundamental issues. Others have beat the war drums, summoning support for one side or the other. Some try to make sense of what seems like a household squabble that has taken to the streets, sometimes using secular categories to explain religious ones. A Catholic journalist told me last week that he had read one source that referred, inaccurately, to the LCWR and its alternative conference, the CMSWR, as “sisters’ unions.” I have my own horror stories of encounters with religious and clergy/hierarchy alike, which I resist telling here or in most polite company. What purpose would it serve? I’ve come to terms with most of them; water under the bridge.

Fr. Art Coyle and then-novice Emily Marsh, Easter 2011

One point I would like to mull over with you if you’ll allow me is the, by now, somewhat threadbare and certainly artificial, opposition between the “charismatic” and “institutional” nature of the Church. I bring it up in the context of this current controversy, especially since one of the examples that the CDF mentioned in its letter to the LCWR is the address—not an isolated case—by Sr. Laurie Brink, O.P., in which she extolled some women religious who, in the “prophetic” nature of their call, are “moving beyond the Church or even beyond Jesus.”

During the inquiry into U.S. religious life in the early nineties, our community was invited, along with every community in the diocese where I was assigned at the time, to gather in conversation with each other. The group I participated in touched on this very topic. I felt moved to suggest that, while the charismatic and institutional aspects of the Church are different in theory, they’re rarely if ever, separate in real life. In fact, the institutional character of the Church that gives rise to its structure is just as much a gift of the Spirit as the charisms that give rise to religious orders and congregations: both are Spirit-given charisms in their own right and both exist to build up the Body of Christ. At the same time, no religious community is purely charismatic; by its nature as a community, it’s institutional. Just ask anyone who’s gone to Catholic school run by religious!

The reaction to my comment was mixed, as I expected it to be. It probably did more for me than for anyone who heard me. It brought into sharper focus my understanding of my own calling in the Church and gave me a little more patience with the contradictions and tensions I continue to see within the Church, within religious life, and within myself.

In popular imagination, the charism of prophecy is connected with foretelling the future. While that can be a part of genuine prophecy, it’s not essential. What is, is the prophet’s call by God to witness on behalf of God to his People. At times, the prophet speaks to God on behalf of the People. I think of Moses, who prays for God’s mercy on Israel (Ex. 32:11ff.; Nm. 21:7), and Jeremiah, who begs God not to abandon the nation (Jer. 14:7ff.). In this light, religious life is often described even in Church documents as “prophetic.” It points to Gospel values even in its silence.

It’s also a distortion of prophecy to make it and authority mutually exclusive. Who says that those in “positions of power” can’t also be prophetic? I think of Moses again: The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me…” (Dt. 18:15). Or Jesus, Priest, Prophet, and King. Or the entire Church communicating God’s word to the world. Or saints galore. Each baptized Christian, in fact, shares in Christ’s priestly, prophetic, and royal presence in the world.

The prevailing fiction is that the Holy See and its minions are only interested in seeing women religious—especially in the U.S.—subjugated to a male hierarchy and force fed their theology, rather than encouraged to think for themselves. While some men (and even women) are threatened by independently minded women, to predicate that of all who work in or for the Vatican is unjust and simply not founded on truth. As behaviorist and psychologist David Burns would say, an “all or nothing” view of reality is a cognitive distortion. 

Consecrated life is certainly prophetic. Sometimes that costs dearly, even to witnessing to those in authority in the Church—but always in service of unity in truth and love. For this reason, it’s a travesty of truth to appeal, as Sr. Laurie Brink does, to Catherine of Siena and others like her, as models of those who fly in the face of the Church’s faith, in the name of prophetic courage.

The CDF hears under Brink’s “phenomenological analysis” of religious life in the 21st century “a cry for help.” I doubt very much that anyone in the LCWR would concur; I’m not so sure I would either. At the very least, they’re not crying to the hierarchy, except perhaps for the reconciliation she calls for. Nevertheless, such an analysis is gaining enough momentum that it warrants a separate article here on Pauline Faithways. You’ll run into it again somewhere, so check in here soon!

As we, the Church, journey toward Pentecost, it’s worth asking the Spirit of God to breathe new life into us, so that, whoever we are, we might witness to Jesus Christ in authenticity and freedom, to the glory of God the Father in our world. Pray for women and men religious, for the bishops, and for all those entrusted by God with gifts to help the Body of Christ grow.

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