The U.S. Sisters & the Holy See

A Culture of Encounter in Action?

Why hasn’t Pope Francis stepped in to get the Vatican off the nuns’ backs? After all, he has said he wants a more collegial church, in keeping with the vision of the Second Vatican Council. He urges priests and bishops to focus on encounter and outreach. He talks about leadership roles for women.

And yet the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 2012 “assessment” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious stands, and the LCWR—composed of the heads of some 80 percent of U.S. sisters—is still under orders to reform its ways to the satisfaction of the CDF. If Francis really wants a less authoritarian, more mission-focused church, shouldn’t he have called this whole thing off already?

The fact that he hasn’t, and the scolding the LCWR took from CDF head Cardinal Gerhard Müller in April, has led some to grumble that Francis is all talk. But to wish for the pope to cut short a process that began under his predecessor is to wish for him to play the autocrat, albeit on the side of the angels. Out of shrewdness, indifference, or agreement with the nuns’ critics, Francis seems inclined to let the negotiations continue. And the awkward conversation between the LCWR and the CDF may turn out to be just the kind of encounter the church needs.

Laurie Brink, OP, suggested as much in a 2007 address to the LCWR [.pdf], in which she acknowledged the serious divisions between hierarchy and nuns: “Until we as congregations of women religious initiate a process of reconciliation with our ecclesiastical brothers,” she said, “we cannot hope to have much of an impact elsewhere.” Ironically, the CDF cited Brink’s talk as a reason for its crackdown. Still, then-prefect Cardinal William Levada promised the mandated reform would begin with a “personal encounter” between his office and the accused, “in a spirit of mutual respect and collaboration.” The sisters have tried to take him at his word.

The question is whether the parties can have a respectful, collaborative relationship, given that the paternalism that rankles the sisters and their many supporters is, in Rome, the proper order of things. In the view of the CDF, bishops are always presumed to be acting correctly and in good faith, and the sisters are expected to take their cues entirely from them. Women’s religious communities have a more expansive view of their vocations. Moreover, they know bishops do not always act wisely or in good faith. Recall that in 2011, the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine issued a critique of Elizabeth Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God. The tone was hostile and hyperbolic—Johnson’s work, the bishops claimed, “completely undermines the Gospel and the faith of those who believe in that Gospel”—and the arguments grossly distorted what she had written.

Müller may not know that; he does, however, know that the U.S. bishops criticized Johnson “because of the gravity of the doctrinal errors in [her] writings,” and so he interprets the LCWR’s decision to give her an award at its August assembly as an “open provocation against the Holy See.” He presumes both that the bishops’ critique of Johnson was justified and that the sisters are acting in bad faith in honoring her. In fact, he insists, “there is no other interpretive lens, within and outside the church, through which the decision to confer this honor will be viewed.” It is hard to be hopeful about any exchange that begins with one side declaring that there are no valid perspectives besides its own.

The American sisters’ response to the investigation has been “humble, but not submissive...truthful, but gentle and absolutely fearless,” as Pat Farrell, OSF, put it in her 2012 LCWR address. It could be that the group now wishes to honor Johnson to spite the bishops. But given their deliberate avoidance of open provocation thus far, it seems more likely that their decision to “recognize and thank [her] for modeling extraordinary leadership” is a sincere expression of admiration for the graceful way she has responded to the assault on her good name.

American women religious draw their remarkable strength in part from a half-century’s experience living out the vision of Vatican II in their own communities. “The participative structures and collaborative leadership models we have developed have been empowering, life-giving,” Farrell reminded the LCWR. “These models may very well be the gift we now bring to the church and the world.” I hope so. I do want the CDF to get off the sisters’ backs. But I also want bishops and sisters to be able to work together. Appeals to authority alone won’t get us there. Intentionally or not, Francis is giving us all a chance to find out whether we can work through the messiness that comes with a culture of encounter.

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The nuns were made to answer questionnaires.  Where are the results?

The nuns were forced to admit visitators to their convents, provide them with food, shelter, offices, and computers, and submit to being observed and questioned by them.  Where are the results?

American nuns gave their lives to the Church, and now, instead of being allowed to enjoy their retirement, they are investigated and calumniated.  

We still don't even know how many nuns there are in American convents.  The statistics have been worthless for decades.  We still see ludicrous numbers like 50,000.  (More like 15,000, imho.  If nuns were listed by name in the Official Catholic Directory, as priests are, there would be an answer at long last to that question.)

I read a lot of books about nuns and women's religious communities.  Nearly all are independently published, of course, because the publishing conglomerates are not interested in convent histories.    The books are fascinating.  (Commonweal never reviews these self-published books.)

A recent one, Monastic Springs, by Sr. Paula Howard, a Benedictine Sister at Mt. St. Scholastica, has  several pages on the "unprecedented 'apostolic visitation.'"

From that:  the visitation "came as surprise, was inadequately communicated, and lacked clarity.  No one seemed to know what prompted it or what purpose it would serve since there was to be NO REPORT (emphasis mine) back to the communities on the results."

For information on obtaining a copy of the book which is not available on Amazon:

http://www.mountosb.org/publications/monastic-springs

 

 

Most of us, I'm sure, have known a flaky nun or two, but mainly they've been remarkably generous and wise women of faith.  Unfortunately, I suspect that Pope Francis won't be much of a help to them.  He is, after all, an Argentinian, a South American male and that often spells male chauvinism.  I've seen him quoted twice talking in stereotypical terms about women.  Once he told a group of nuns who were worried about the value of their vocation, "Don't worry.  Your're not old maids".  What a patronizing thing to say to the nuns, not to mention the insult to old maids.  On another occasion he said, "If you do such and such you'll be like mothers-in-law, and that's not good".  That leaves nuns and young married woman, I guess, as being the only  women with a modicum of sense.  

It doesn't bode well for the nuns. He just doesn't seem to understand the depth of the feminist revolution.  Or maybe there hasn't been one in Argentina.

 

@ Ann Olivier:

"I've seen him quoted twice talking in stereotypical terms about women."

You mean kinda like this?: "He is, after all, an Argentinian, a South American male and that often spells male chauvinism."

 

I have said it before, and I will say it again: for this mess, no one, IMO, is blameless -- not the sisters, and certainly not the CDF. And don't even get me started on certain American bishops (gah!).

Despite it all, everyone would have to agree that the only way to move forward is to dialogue, dialogue and dialogue, but for such dialoguing to really work, a hefty dose of humilty will be needed.

Sadly though, there doesn't seem to be an ounce of humility left on either part. For they are still arguing and counter-arguing, criticizing and getting defensive. Lather, rinse, repeat, ad infinitum.

And to be honest, it's become tiresome. Just reading about them is immensely tiring and I cannot imagine what those in the thickest of it all must feel. 

 

 

To Maria:

To say the nuns do not have "an ounce of humility left" reveals how little you know about nuns.  

Just another crude and uninformed jab at women who gave their lives to instructing the ignorant.  Now the ignorant pay them back on message boards.   

Müller may not know that; he does, however, know that the U.S. bishops criticized Johnson “because of the gravity of the doctrinal errors in [her] writings,” and so he interprets the LCWR’s decision to give her an award at its August assembly as an “open provocation against the Holy See.” He presumes both that the bishops’ critique of Johnson was justified and that the sisters are acting in bad faith in honoring her. In fact, he insists, “there is no other interpretive lens, within and outside the church, through which the decision to confer this honor will be viewed.” It is hard to be hopeful about any exchange that begins with one side declaring that there are no valid perspectives besides its own.

Agree.  It's totally one-sided.  There have been various stories in media about the "recent" surge of violence against girls and women.  But abuse of women and girls by men and boys is not new.  This particular manifestation, the persecution of nuns by inquisitor bishops, is not new, either.  Those who are clueless about nuns, the history of convents, etc., should do some reading.

 

For anyone interested in learning more about the history of women religious (as well as their current state), this link will give you some starting points.  

http://cushwa.nd.edu/assets/103216/2013_may_24_hwr_program.pdf

Gerelyn:

And it is the very people like you with your very own "crude and uninformed jab" at anyone who does not share your particular view on this matter that just keep making things worse and worse. 

It's really quite sad and tiresome.  

You've used the word "tiresome" twice this morning.  If reading about nuns is "immensely tiring," why did you read this blog post AND comment on it?  Are you hoping to discourage others from reading about nuns?

As to imagining that "the very people like" me "just keep making things worse and worse"?  Delusional.  

 

@ Gerelyn:

I read and post comments because I love nuns. The Salesian Sisters at my church are beyond wonderful. And also, because I too want the bishops and sisters to figure out on their own a way out of this sad mess. 

It is not the sisters but the "I am right and you are wrong" kind of divisive rhetoric which, btw, you seem to embody, that I find tiresome, which I believe does nothing to help move things forward. 

But, enough about you. You don't seem to know how to have a conversation with another without resorting to name-calling, and ain't nobody got time for that.

 

Another odd comment.   At 7:16, you said to another poster:

 

I have said it before, and I will say it again: for this mess, no one, IMO, is blameless -- not the sisters, and certainly not the CDF. And don't even get me started on certain American bishops (gah!).

.

.

 

Sadly though, there doesn't seem to be an ounce of humility left on either part. For they are still arguing and counter-arguing, criticizing and getting defensive. Lather, rinse, repeat, ad infinitum.

And to be honest, it's become tiresome. Just reading about them is immensely tiring and I cannot imagine what those in the thickest of it all must feel. 

I was not part of that "conversation," but I'm always wary of whatever follows "to be honest."   

To say you "love nuns" after claiming there's not "an ounce of humility left," is . . . strange.

 

 

For me the operative sentence in MWO piece is:

The question is whether the parties can have a respectful, collaborative relationship, given that the paternalism that rankles the sisters and their many supporters is, in Rome, the proper order of things.

I really don't think a relationship and dialogue based on respect and collaboration is even possible at this time.  

Papa Francesco for all his very welcomed “humble” approach still is a creature of the clerical culture - along with all that Argentineans machismo - which created him.  When it comes to trying to understand and communicate with religious women, like all hierarchs, Papa Francesco is a "stranger in a strange land."

 I have never met a priest that was not encouraged or motivated to his vocation if not by his mother.  I have often speculated that perhaps one of the major factors in the precipitous drop of men in the priesthood in recent decades is that priests became increasingly unable to psychologically maintain their vocations as their mothers have died-off and/or withheld their approval of the vocation choice of younger men in recent years.  

Priests have always seemed to me to either be living out their lives in order to obtain their mother's approval, or in reaction against an overbearing intrusion into their personal space.

Once when I was with the SF review board, we were trying to pin down now Cardinal Levada as to just exactly when was he going to initiate in writing the formal process of suspending one of his more egregious perpetrator priests. 

As one of the female members of the board tactfully and respectfully, but persistently, attempted with great difficulty to hold Levada to his own verbal decisions to remove this pastor by walking him through his calendar setting dates and deadlines, Levada suddenly looked up from his leather-bound appointments book with its satin, multicolored ribbon-markers, his face a full scarlet, he barely spit out through a Nixon-like tight, toothy smile, jaw clinched:  “I’m not used to arranging my calendar under supervision.”

Needless to say, eyebrows around the room rose perceptibly.  I remember locking eyes across the conference table with a retired SF policewomen acknowledging to each other that we had seen the same thing:  Levada was livid that a woman was holding him accountable and forcing him to take actions to which he had previously only given lip service - apparently a hierarch’s worst nightmare.

That incident helped me to conclude that hierarchs in general and all but a few priests have a deep-seeded, primitive enduring fear of all things feminine.  For me it explains a lot of the feckless pastoral leadership from the hierarchs over the last four decades where they have driven the church over the proverbial evolutionary cliff.

Is this fear of the feminine in priests and hierarchs an artifact of the early childhood development of these men?  Did seminary training infused these psychological complexes in men, supporting it with the complete mythos of paternalistic clericalism? 

We can't and don’t know for sure.  But Catholics had better sort this out fast in the short term, or we’re headed for extinction just like the feudal hierarchs.

I always thought my sainted sixth-grade teacher, Sister Mary Adelaide, was referring to the BVM when she told us that: “You can’t be a Christian without a woman in your life.”  Now, I’m not so sure?

Agree, Jim.  If I hire someone to clean my house, I'm not interested in how S/HE thinks it should be done.  It's my way or the highway.

And agree about mothers.  I remember a case where a priest ran away with a woman, leaving a mess behind.  Another priest, after hearing that the first priest had run off, said to me, "I'd leave tomorrow, if I could."

Why can't you?

"It would kill my mother."

Jim and Gerelyn --

I agree that there ar a goodly number of priests who seem to be bound to their mothers in a psychologically debilitating way.  JP II and the others who push the "co-redemptrix" heresy are extreme examples of this.  No doubt it's a classic reaction formation in many of them  -- fear of women leads to over-valuing one of them..

Indeed, this is the kind of dialogue that the church needs!  The purification of sacramental theology from patriarchal ideology may be the most urgent and greatest need in the church today.  Let us pray that the CDF process with the LCWR may become an opportunity to have such a dialogue.

LCWR’s decision to give her an award at its August assembly as an “open provocation against the Holy See.

 

Given that Johnson is at the center of the issue, it certainly demonstrates at least a stunning lack of etiquette on the part of the LCWR to honor her.  They obviously could have waited until there was a better understanding before honoring her.  Its like throwing gasoline on the fire. 

I believe that there is a sound empirical basis for the MWO thesis that the current "negotiation" provides a rare opportunity to tunnel through the seemingly impentrable barrier that is the presumptive stance of the CDF. This 2006 article http://hbr.org/2005/03/want-collaboration-accept-and-actively-manage-con... from the Harvard Business Review highlights the necessity of learning to manage conflict not banish it.

I can believe and even anticipate that in their communities since Vatican II that many sisters have gained skills and experience managing conflict while sustaining collaboration. Certainly doing social work amidst the Urban Poor provides ample opportunity to put such "dress rehearsal" to work.

It is certainly the case that men like Levada are not accustomed to being held accountable by those of us not ordained; but determination has gotten the sisters this far and I can certainly hope that (and in fact have no doubt) they will carry on in their Shackleton like test of persistence and self-confidence until some permeability appears or more promisingly that shell cracks altogether.

thank you for your cogent posts.

I think the bishops around the world are scared to death of the American sisters. They are God's tigresses and do not suffer fools gladly. Around the worl, the work of the church only gets done because a sister or cloistered nun does it. When a sister speaks out, bishops tremble, tremble, tremble. Thus the negative reaction, especially from cultures who think women should stay in their "place." As this develops further, the whole church may tremble...

astounding. ...nuns are not listed by name in the Official Catholic Directory?

well well. I'm sure it's for efficiency reasons - perhaps they don't own many. 

or perhaps it's for economic reasons - or perhaps it's to keep the nuns in the dark about each other. 

or perhaps it's tradition & mandate since first publication date is to only print the lords and not the serfs. 

or perhaps it's to keep people from reaching out for witnesses years later after PTSD has worn off  

perhaps it's to prevent nun-raiding by rival parishes

perhaps it's so they don't violate their vows of obscurity

perhaps they are more easily governed that way.  

but really, why?  they must not be Official Catholics. 

 

The only hopeful movements I know of in in the Catholic Church are the St. Eligio Society, Gen Verde, and Focolare. Gen Verde is made up of women. Focolare was founded by and must be headed by a lay woman. Focolare and Gen Verde so not challenge the hierarchs but they do their work steadily and suversively of truculent authority. They actually put into practice the rule of love, something that many priests and bishops cannot do because they are simply too rude and often too crude. I do not cliam to practice this rule, only that I am amazed that Focolare has managed to get so many people - mainly lay perople, Catholic and non-Catholic - to do so. To me this is miraculous.

A lot of this nuns-vs-Rome contention is really about bad manners. If these bishops are overl influenced by mon then their moms failed to instill good manners in them. The bishops act without human grace. The nuns try to act graciously without being dorrmats.

Would you ientrus your child to these inquisior bishops for tarining in good manners?

I'm pretty sure the opriginal reason was pragmatic, the sheer number of nuns. This is obviously no longer the case but the practice is now ingrained.

Experiential argument is always threatening to people who don't have any resume except politics. Not real gratifying to plead your case with failed leadership. I wish the sisters a good outcome because the church is supposed to be a meritocracy.

Wow, CS @5:23.

Great one.

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About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is Commonweal's associate editor at large. She blogs at dotCommonweal.