The editors of America asked Christine Firer Hinze, a professor of ethics at Fordham University, to respond to Archbishop Peter Sartain's article, "Deepening Communion," on the Vatican's doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Council of Women Religious. Archbishop Sartain has been appointed by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith as delegate, charged with overseeing the evaluation of the L.C.W.R.
As neither a bishop nor a religious sister, I reflect on events surrounding the Vatican’s Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Council of Women Religious as an observer, not a direct participant. But my life and vocational path have been decisively shaped by the intertwining narratives of the Catholic Church and of U.S. women over the past half-century. What’s more, flesh-and-blood religious sisters and their stories have been a constant part of my own. In special ways, religious sisters and lay Catholics have been companions through a tumultuous and dramatic time for women and for the church. This being so, like many others, my interest in the Vatican-L.C.W.R. intervention has been intense, and my responses, surprisingly visceral.
My Michigan childhood was suffused by the pre-Vatican II church, especially through my teachers, the semi-cloistered Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHMs), who staffed my Detroit parish’s grade school. The Second Vatican Council concluded, and during high school we students watched, literally before our eyes, dramatic transformations of dress, names, practices and ministries among teachers belonging to three different renewing religious communities. Later, as an inner-city lay minister and educator, I was privileged to befriend, learn from, pray and serve with sisters in the process of forging what would become two distinct currents in post-conciliar women’s religious life. Among IHMs and Adrian Dominicans, Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist and Mercy Sisters of Alma, I encountered talented, gutsy, wholesome and holy women
, charting different paths in the new territories that the council’s call for renewal had opened.
The story of U.S. religious women and a reforming Catholic Church unfolded amid unprecedented shake-ups in cultural thought and practice concerning sex and gender, power and authority. This story, and contestation over how (and by whom) it is to be told, forms the context for the Vatican intervention. Their respective tellings will affect how Archbishop Peter Sartain, the delegate for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and the L.C.W.R. team see and relate to one another, the process and its outcomes. Insofar as each group comes to the table understanding the narrative differently, the dangers of talking past one another, stalemate or alienation are high.
Archbishop Sartain’s essay (Am., June 18, Web Only) voices warm appreciation for religious sisters’ historical contributions to the U.S. church and society. He praises the “pioneer courage” of “consecrated women at the heart of the church” who extended its ministries into new geographical, professional or cultural frontiers. With varied ways of “being in the church, with the church and for the church,” sisters radiate divine love through lives of creative service grounded in contemplative prayer and passionate love for God.
Yet, the archbishop acknowledges, “conflicts and misunderstandings” have arisen within and between religious congregations, and with their bishops, often due to “disagreements regarding mission, apostolate, discipline, doctrine, style of life and personality.” We face such a moment now, he writes, and it offers a pivotal opportunity “to seek reconciliation and collaboration at the heart of the church, in the communio that is God’s gift.” For women religious in the United States, this C.D.F. call for renewal of the L.C.W.R. is an important moment “in living out communio.” Implementing this “sensitive task” according to quite specific C.D.F. mandates will be challenging. “But by God’s grace and with mutual respect, patience and prayer it can be indeed accomplished for the good of all…with renewal and even deeper faith the outcome.”
Equally essential to the outcome will be the extent to which interlocutors are able to understand and take into mutual account the orientations and authority of two distinct visions for radical discipleship among U.S. religious women today.
These two currents are embodied, broadly, among the member communities of the L.C.W.R. and the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. Like the pioneer sisters Sartain praises, both L.C.W.R. and C.M.S.W.R. communities serve the gospel at contemporary frontiers, living lives of passionate love in and from heart of the church. Both articulate and practice the basic elements of consecrated religious life (vows of poverty, chastity and obedience; life in community; and mission) in light of prayerful discernment of the needs of the church and the signs of the times.
But differences between these two renewing currents have led to warm relationships between the Vatican and the C.M.S.W.R., and friction that has culminated in Vatican intervention for the L.C.W.R.
For L.C.W.R. communities, renewing radical discipleship after the council meant relinquishing many securities and external accoutrements of their pre-Vatican II lives. Drawn to serve at the ecclesial and social margins and frontiers, these sisters experimented with new forms of being “in, for and with the church.” Through their vowed, communal, missioned lives, they have emulated Christ’s incarnational insertion into his religious and social worlds, and his prophetic practice in relation to both.
Sandra Schneiders, I.H.M., describes these sisters as claiming their baptismal identities by embracing Jesus’ prophetic mission as proclaimed in Luke 4. As Jesus’ mission exemplifies, prophetic women’s communities must be deeply rooted in prayer; be and live among the people; must discern the signs of the times; must denounce sin and injustice, both personal and systemic; and must be agents of gospel healing, peace and transformation. Religious women faithful to this mission will encounter tensions with societal and religious authorities, and their reward will be a share in Jesus’ cross.
Postconciliar CMSWR communities, by contrast, have been drawn to forms of radical discipleship that more closely reflect pre-Vatican II patterns and styles of religious life. Accenting the sacramental and cultic aspects of their identity and mission, these communities embrace distinctive religious dress, semi-enclosed, communal living and schedules of prayer, Eucharistic adoration and worship much like the IHM sisters of my childhood. A 2009 CARA study reports that these communities are attracting members, many younger, who prefer a “more traditional lifestyle of religious life” in which “members live and pray in community, work in a common apostolate, wear religious garb and “are explicit about their fidelity to the Church and the teachings of the Magisterium.” CMSWR communities align themselves with the “communio” ecclesiology espoused by Pope Benedict, and have made Pope John Paul’s call for religious’ “ready obedience to the Bishops and especially to the Roman Pontiff” a strong priority.
Sisters in both types of community, writes Ilia Delio, O.S.F., (Am. 10/12/2009) “witness to the Gospel revealed in Jesus Christ, but their trajectories differ. Their differences, Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., concludes, do not represent “a conflict between those who are faithful to the council…. [versus]… those who are faithful to the tradition,” but rather, “two different understandings of the council and how to carry its work forward.”
For some, the current Vatican action and the graying of many L.C.W.R. communities signal that this post-conciliar debate is ending, and the L.C.W.R. model debunked: Roma locuta est, causa finita est. These Catholics sometimes compare the church to a corporation or a military organization, with clergy, religious, and laity answerable to bishops and pope as their top executives and CEO. From this (ecclesiologically dubious) vantagepoint, “wayward” behavior of L.C.W.R. members or their affiliates endangers the church’s discipline, and requires firm correction; their continued obstinance constitutes de facto separation from the church and grounds for dismissal.
But insofar as the Vatican intervention delegitimizes or obscures the witness and voices of thousands of pioneering and faithful churchwomen, women who bravely followed the council’s call into risky modern frontiers, women who over decades have renewed, struggled, stayed and served, it will not serve communio. Instead, the intervention will further damage the vital dynamic of mutual obedience (from obedire, to listen) and learning that ought to unite our diverse church communion.
As Vatican II affirms, the episcopal office uniquely serves the revealed truth of the gospel. But that truth resides in and with the whole church. Beholden to military or business organizational models, pundits who deride L.C.W.R. sisters for posturing falsely as a “magisterium of nuns” disrespect the authentic authority not only of religious communities, but of the laity in their various charisms and vocations. Because the official magisterium does not have a monopoly on gospel truth, office-holders must constantly listen for that truth in the whole church, and all must work to avoid what Avery Dulles, S.J., called “excessive conformism” and “excessive distrust” among hierarchy and faithful.
From this point of view, the Vatican intervention, intended to “assist the L.C.W.R. in implementing necessary reforms” to bring it more fully in line with “an ecclesiology of communion,” cannot be properly understood as a one-way street. The very meaning of “communion” forbids this. C.D.F. investigators have detected in certain L.C.W.R. gatherings, speakers and materials “a cry for help” (p. 2). L.C.W.R. sisters, striving to enact prayerfully discerned prophetic missions, may detect in the Vatican’s latest action something of the same. If bridges toward communion are to be strengthened in this process, what John Paul II calls the “dialogue that leads to repentance” must work in both directions.
Creating such an atmosphere is especially urgent for addressing three crucial points of concern over which the L.C.W.R. and the Vatican appear to be at impasse.
Gender and power in church and society. The theology of communio advanced by the Vatican and many CMSWR communities entails very specific understandings of the meaning of sexual difference and of men’s and women’s vocations, revolving around the symbol of “nuptial mystery” in Ephesians 5. Women, called by vocation to embody the Marian, “feminine” dimension of humanity and the church, go wrong when they try to grasp and or replace the (complementary, equally important) vocations of men, who embody the Petrine “masculine” dimensions.
Many L.C.W.R. sisters, also drawing on Scripture (e.g. Galatians 3) and recent theological and social-scientific scholarship, question this tightly wound picture of gender and its implications for women’s participation in church and society. Many study or engage in theological analyses that challenge gender-based asymmetries in social or ecclesial power or status. For them, doctrinal intervention into women’s communities by an all-male episcopacy, whatever its warrants, easily looks and feels oppressive, and it puts L.C.W.R. leadership in the wearying position of constantly discerning when they are called to cooperate, resist, challenge or forgive. Given the Vatican’s concerns about “radical feminism” (a term it nowhere defines in the assessment) affecting L.C.W.R. materials, does the intervention require that religious women (and by extension, all believers) give religious submission to one particular theology of sexuality and gender? Are the fruits of L.C.W.R. sisters’ years-long study and reflection on feminist themes to be dismissed as so much secular political ideology? Or will this intervention be an opportunity for mutual prophetic speaking and listening?
Authority and freedom in the church. As they discern prophetic identities and missions in modern church and world, L.C.W.R. communities have periodically raised their voices in lament and critique of structures and practices harmful to human dignity, including in the church. But the Vatican document explicitly denies “the possibility of divergence between the Church’s magisterium and a ‘legitimate’ theological intuition of some of the faithful.” Prophecy can never be directed “at the Magisterium and the Church’s pastors” (italics in original), because “true prophecy is a grace which accompanies the exercise of the responsibilities of the Christian life and ministries within the Church, regulated and verified by the Church’s faith and teaching office.” Might the Vatican’s statement here overplay an institutional understanding of church authority as residing exclusively in hierarchical office, and the inerrancy of the magisterium so understood? If magisterial office is diaconal, does it not need to take seriously prophetic utterances from among the faithful?
Religious institutes’ discernment of their charism and missional priorities. The Vatican assessment cites evidence in certain L.C.W.R. materials or actions of “positive errors” concerning church teaching and culpable “silence and inaction in the face of such errors.” It also chides an “absence of initiatives by the L.C.W.R. aimed at promoting the reception of the church’s teaching, especially on difficult issues such as Pope John Paul’s letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis and church teaching about homosexuality.” This raises larger questions concerning the freedom and obligations of religious communities to discern their missional priorities, and how these relate to papal and episcopal priorities. Are mounting public defenses for such teachings a litmus test for sisters’ ecclesial communion? By using the examples it does (non-infallible teachings relating to sex, gender, authority and power) and by underscoring ecclesial communion as “allegiance of mind and heart to the Magisterium of the Bishops…which must be lived honestly and clearly testified to before the People of God by all consecrated persons,” the document seems to leave little room for sisters’ own conscientious discernment about how they and their communities will express this ecclesial communion in the face of such “difficult issues.”
What is the way forward in this process? Archbishop Sartain’s team and the L.C.W.R. leadership will surely agree that deep prayer and appeal to the guidance of the Holy Spirit will be essential. What God is up to here is bigger than either of these two groups of disciples, and not entirely clear. As they take up their sensitive work, by grace all will be receptive to the Holy Spirit’s light, lure and movement, especially at moments of hurt or lament, clashes of perspective, or seeming impasse. In this season of pain and Pentecost, Veni Sancte Spiritus.