Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Church's interest in our religious sisters

This isn't a subject I want to write about--but I think it's important that I say something.

As you probably know, there have been several stories involving some sort of disagreement between Church authorities and some of our religious sisters. What's that about, you may wonder?

Well, one story has to do with a series of concerns with a group called the "Leadership Conference of Women Religious"; the other has to do with a book authored by Sister Margaret Farley. In both cases, the concerns are being expressed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith--i.e., the office in Rome that seeks to ensure that those charged with teaching the faith, do so faithfully.

So what's this about? To put it simply, some of the decisions and statements of the LCWR have, over the years, sure seemed to deviate from what we believe as Catholics. The CDF folks have cited a number of concerns, such as speakers at public events, statements about "moving beyond" the Church, and other ways that Church teaching and practice have been contradicted or called into question.

Now, of course, if the folks at the LCWR believe that's not true, they have been invited to respond. Some of their leaders just met, yesterday I believe, with officials in Rome. This has yet to work itself out completely. And it isn't just about direct challenges to the Faith, but also how these religious orders might best go forward, so that they flourish, rather than shrink--as, sadly, many of them are.

But let's not beat around the bush. This didn't come out of nowhere. There have, indeed, been very real causes for concern over many years. So serious were these concerns that in the 1990s, a group of women religious in the country sought, and received, from Rome permission to form a new leadership group to represent them--because they grew unsatisfied with the LCWR.

Now, just to be clear, the issue is not with all religious--although that's how it's being framed. My understanding is the LCWR has a membership of about 1,500--as it's name makes clear, it's made up of leaders; those leaders may, or may not, accurately reflect the views of all the thousands of women religious in this country.

By point of comparison, there are two groups that might be taken as representing priests in this country: the longer-established "National Federation of Priests Councils," based in Chicago, and the recently established, "Association of U.S. Catholic Priests." I have no particular issue with either group--but I am not a member of either one. Many of the priests of the Archdiocese are affiliated with the first group, and one of our priests is part of the leadership. If any of our priests are part of the second, I'm not aware of it. The thing is, if someone--either in Rome or elsewhere--were to find fault with either group, I might agree, or disagree, or have no opinion; but why would I take that as a criticism of me?

The other question that comes to mind is this. For those folks who are up in arms about Rome calling for changes in the LCWR, is it their position that Rome isn't allowed to exercise this oversight?

It might be well to point out:

-- Every five years, every bishop in the world is required to present himself personally to the pope in Rome and give an account of his office.

-- Before I was ordained a deacon, I swore an oath on the Gospels to uphold the entirety of the Church's teaching; I repeated that oath when I became pastor, first of St. Boniface, then of St. Mary.

-- Every several years, my performance as pastor is subject to review by the Archbishop. Parishioners, staff and the pastoral councils complete evaluations which are sent to the Archbishop.

-- Besides these, there are many other ways I am accountable--to finance committees, to the pastoral councils, etc.

So while I can understand someone saying, the complaints aren't fair. But I don't accept the notion that Rome simply has no business even providing oversight.

Then there is the question of Sister Farley's book.

I haven't read it; I doubt I'll find time to do so. But in all the news reports I've read, I have yet to see her dispute the main point: that in her treatment of various subjects, such as sexual morality, marriage, and who can be ordained, she departs from, and in some cases directly contradicts, what the Church teaches.

So...why is she surprised that the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith would issue a statement saying her book is contrary to the Faith in these respects?

Again, if I wrote a book touching on questions of faith and morals, and if my book were contrary to the Faith--aside from the fact that I'd be mortified, aside from the fact that my soul would be in peril, both because I'd denied the Faith, and taught others to do so--well, as a priest, OF COURSE I'd expect someone in authority to throw a flag!

Here's what a lot of folks don't seem to understand about our Faith. I suspect a lot of us Catholics aren't clear on this.  This has to do with who has authority to teach in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

As Catholics, we profess firmly that our Lord established his Church, and he gave to the Apostles--with Peter as the head--the "power of the keys." Now, there are folks who love to quibble and argue this point. They'll say, "Oh, did Jesus really establish the Church?" They question just what our Lord actually might have said to Peter and the Apostles, and what things might have "evolved" in the years after the Day of Pentecost.

Now, there are legitimate questions to consider in just how it happened--but what is not in question, for a faithful Catholic, is what happened: the God-Man, Jesus Christ, established his Church on the foundation of the Apostles. The exact words, where and when...how much one might attribute to the Holy Spirit--who, Jesus said, would be sent precisely to continue to guide the Apostles and to illuminate those things they didn't quite understand before the Resurrection--such issues do not challenge the fundamental truth: He founded his Church on the Apostles. Period.

There is no need to quibble over whether our Lord used terms such as "sacrament" or "Mass" or "bishop," "priest" and "deacon," etc. These are distractions. What is important is that the Church, led by the Apostles, and their successors, his His Church--it's His enterprise more than it is ours; and thus it is up to Him, not us, to keep her on the path He intends.

So we believe, firmly, that in establishing His Church, our Lord conferred on her a "teaching office"--this is what is called "the Magisterium." Who exercises this teaching office in the name of Christ?

The answer is, the pope, in union with the bishops; and the bishops, when they are in union with the pope and each other. To the extent you and I teach what they teach, we teach authentically. (I've attempted to present this subject accurately yet simply. If anyone wants to read more about it, you can read the relevant sections--paragraph 85 and following--of the Catechism of the Catholic Church here. You have to scan down to find the section.)

Now, anyone who is looking at the present situation can see very plainly that there is great confusion about this.

We have priests in Germany who are openly defying the teaching of the Church regarding folks who have attempted marriage contrary to the Church's teachings, being able to participate in the sacraments. Sorry, Fathers, that's not your call.

We have colleges in this country who are more embarrassed to be associated with the Catholic Faith, than they are to be associated with political figures who think killing unborn children must remain legal. (Yes, I said "must"--that is the position of President Obama, HHS Secretary Sebelius, and many others.)

We have a newspaper called the "National Catholic Reporter" that, when not embracing and promoting heresy, pours acid on the foundations of faith.

Last year, we had a religious sister, as head of the Catholic Health Association, ride to the rescue of President Obama's health care bill, just when the bishops were united in seeking ironclad language protecting the unborn. At the moment when the bishops had firm prolife language almost in place,  Sister Carol Keehan's intervention was decisive in convincing pro-life Congressmen to ignore the bishops' concerns, to drop insistence on better language, and to pass the bill as it was.

At the time, Sister Keehan assured everyone that the bill was fine. Fast-forward to last February, when the Obama Administration issued rules--which are now law--that would force Catholic hospitals (and charities and universities and even religious orders) into immoral participation in contraception, sterilization and abortion.

When that happened, Sister Keehan said, in effect, "oops"--only quickly to reprise her role as Catholic apologist for the administration yet again, when the White House issued an essentially meaningless "accommodation" that, even if it is worth something, still hasn't been written into law! Millions of Americans will begin having their consciences coerced in this matter, starting August 1, thanks to Sister's intervention. And if we don't turn back the full implementation of the President's coercion, our Catholic institutions, including Catholic hospitals, will be shipwrecked, with her help.

And when we have a religious sister authoring a book that--by her own admission--contradicts the Church's teaching, and church authorities, as is their duty, point this out, what does the so-called association of Catholic "theologians" do? They endorse Sister Farley's book that contradicts the Faith!

My friend, Father John Zuhlsdorf, to describe this crisis, has coined a term, "Magisterium of Nuns." I would simply refer to all those, religious or not, who are determined to undermine the authentic teaching office ordained by our Savior--bringing with them many others who are unwittingly part of this.

Now, I said from the outset this isn't a comfortable item to write. Why did I say that?

Because there are priests and religious who will say, the Church's approach to this is unfair. (And that's possible; let them make their argument.) Or that I am being unfair. There is an admirable quality in so many of us Catholics, particularly priests, that we feel so much gratitude for what our religious sisters and brothers have done for us, that even where a criticism may be warranted, we'd rather not voice it, certainly not publicly.

There's something else worth mentioning.

Many times our religious brothers and sisters--especially our sisters--are subjected to cracks and criticisms from Catholics of a more traditional bent. A lot of this criticism quickly devolves into mockery.

Sometimes it's because sisters are deemed "too liberal"; or because they don't wear a habit, or other reasons. And while it's not that there can't be questions or criticisms about these matters, I have to say I find a lot of that commentary offensive and unworthy. I make a practice of wearing clerical attire most of the time; not all priests do that. Obviously I have my view on the matter, but I don't see the need to make cracks about other priests who handle it differently. If I have something to say to them, I'll say it directly, not here. Even moreso do I find it distasteful to make cracks about our religious sisters.

In my experience, I have known many religious sisters. We would not always see eye-to-eye on all matters. Yet I have tremendous respect for their commitment. Many of the sisters I know may not wear the habit, and you can make the argument they should, that's fine--but they are very serious about their service to the Church, and to their vows of poverty. I have seen it first-hand. That demands respect.

So, for all that, you might wonder--why then did you publish this post?

The answer is that this subject is being discussed--widely. Sadly, some who (I think) should know better are lining up against the Magisterium. The grave confusion that I described above is being made worse. And that is a crisis. That is, properly speaking, a "scandal"--meaning something that causes others to stumble and be turned away from the Faith.

As a priest, I have a duty to help build up the Faith, not tear it down. Others are choosing to use this situation as a means to tear down the Faith. Many of them are doing it, shamefully, under the cover of the name "Catholic"--as described above. I believe it's necessary to take a stand.


phil dunton said...

The only thing that I question is why it took Rome so long to take action against the obvious abuses. Many of these nuns have been giving scandal for nearly 50 years. How many souls have been lost because of the failure to nip this problem in the bud?

Phil Dunton, McLean, VA

Simon said...

The thing that dismays me about the dispute is the shadowplay by LCWR and its defenders. We all know what the issues are, and we all know that everyone else knows it; it produces not a single lumen of light, but a great deal of heat, to pettifog about process or to ask why the Vatican hates the corporal works of mercy performed by the sisters. None of those things are seriously implicated here. This is about the magisterium, and it is about the clear blue water that some sisters have placed between it and themselves. If LCWR believes that CDF's concerns are ill-taken, let them declare forthrightly: "We are not in dissent. We profess and believe everything Holy Mother Church believes, teaches, proclaims to be revealed by God, including the magisterium, including Humanæ vitæ, and including Ordinatio sacerdotalis." But they can't say that. They don't. So we can now see why we get misdirection and shadowplay; if LCWR and its defenders were willing to honestly and candidly deal with the actual issues involved, they would have to say outright what everyone already knows: That CDF's concerns are well-taken, that the sisters disagree on some important points of doctrine, and that the Holy See is wrong. And because that position is irreconcilable with Catholicism, the cognitive dissonance (and loss of support among Catholics) that would ensue serves as a powerful incentive to change the playing field.

(Cf. my post here).

Fr Martin Fox said...


I agree with you.