The Good Sisters and Schism
In our church, it pays more to rebel than to faithfully question. The Vatican, under Benedict XVI, is doing somersaults to get the excommunicated, anti-semitic Lefebvrists back into the church’s tent. First the Vatican said that the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) had to agree to accept the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, which they reject as heretical, before any deal could be made. But then (flip!) maybe not. The SSPX leader, the illicitly ordained bishop, and recently un-excommunicated Bernard Fellay, has been telling the press that Rome no longer makes total acceptance of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council a pre-requisite for SSPX’s full reconciliation with the church.
But what parts of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council will SSPX get to pick and choose? I bet some of those teachings they want to get rid of are those crazy Vatican II decrees on the priesthood of the laity (Lumen Gentium), on the rights of Christ’s faithful (Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes), and certainly those nutty things the Council said about the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium), about religious liberty (Dignitatis Humanae) and the unacceptability of ant-semitism (Nostra Aetate). Fellay has been quoted as saying, "Some claim that in order to work safely in the church, she must first be cleansed of all error. This is what [our members] say when they declare that Rome must convert before any agreement, or that its errors must first be suppressed so that we can work.” So now it is SSPX (flip!) that gets to tell the pope what he needs to believe?
And what is even more troubling in this bizarre roundelay is that it is the Vatican that is pursuing the Lefebvrists, and not the other way around (flip!). It is incontrovertibly true that the Vatican took the first steps here. Why is the true church pursuing these schismatic heretics and making deals with them about what church teachings they need to or don’t need to accept? The Vatican’s most recently-floated idea is that it would be willing to grant the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) the canonical status of a personal prelature, similar to Opus Dei (flip!). Like I said, somersaults. But only for the rebels, not for the faithful questioners.
Compare this jilted lover’s pursuit of SSPX with the Vatican’s treatment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an organization established with Vatican approval. The Vatican has come down hard on them for supposedly being radical feminists and not being concerned enough about fighting abortion and contraception. As I said when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s assessment was first issued, that description did not match my experience with women religious in the United States. I don’t know any group who is more concerned with Christ’s poor than LCWR. And as for holiness, well, I have seen a lot more holiness in the convents than I have in the chanceries. But according to the Vatican, the goodsisters are too much concerned about the poor and the marginalized and not enough about crucial church teachings against abortion and contraception. But helping the poor is the best way of fighting abortions, since the vast majority of abortions are economic ones. And as for fighting contraception, well, we all know what the church teaches, and we can judge for ourselves the acceptance of that teaching by Christ’s faithful. The nuns have absolutely nothing to do with that. (They take vows of chastity, you know, and by all accounts have a much better track record than the ordained for living up to them.)
True to the ideals of the Gospels, the sisters have not gone into schism. They have not espoused heretical positions. They have remained faithful to our increasingly patriarchal church, although some might wonder why, given the utter lack of appreciation that patriarchal church has shown them. And I don’t mean the appreciation of effusive praise. There is, truth to tell, a fair amount of praise for the goodsisters in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s doctrinal assessment of LCWR. True appreciation would be to allow women religious to exercise a meaningful ministry within the church’s sacramental and governance functions.
So what is the lesson of all this? Let me make a modest proposal, offered in a purely Swiftian spirit. To get the Vatican to begin pursuing instead of persecuting them, the goodsisters need to go into schism. They need to find a bishop or two with apostolic succession to get them started. Citing the findings of the Pontifical Biblical Commission that there is no scriptural basis for the prohibition on female priests, they could declare John Paul II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis to be heretical, much as SSPX has declared the teachings of the Vatican Council to be heretical. (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is the 1994 Apostolic Letter to which the CDF under Cardinal Ratzinger attempted, after the fact, to apply a previously undisclosed veneer of “infallibility”, that said that the church had no warrant from Christ to ordain women as priests.) Then ordain some priests, maybe the odd bishop or four. Go back to the liturgy of Vatican II that the recent top-down changes from Rome took away. Preach about the Gospels and social justice and not about politics. I bet those churches would be full. And then all the good sisters would have to do is sit and wait because, eventually, the Vatican will ring their schismatic door-bell.
Nicholas P. Cafardi