Sunday, June 3, 2012

When Communion Is Anything But: Vatican Rationale for Attack on American Nuns

This past week, Archbishop Peter Sartain, the man appointed by Rome to oversee American religious women, who have been charged with failure to be faithful to their vocations and church teaching, issued a statement about his new assignment.  Archbishop Sartain's statement is published in America magazine and is entitled "Deepening Communion."  At National Catholic Reporter, Joshua McElwee has also published a synopsis of Sartain's statement with commentary on it.

As Sartain's title suggests, he attempts to hinge his new Vatican assignment on the theologically significant concept of communio--a central, core concept of Catholic tradition and Catholic theology.  After painting a glowing picture of the lives of American religious women in the past (read: obedient, wearing habits, presumed to be docile to men running the church, presumed to be accepting of female subordination), Sartain then turns his attention to contemporary American nuns, where he finds that "conflicts and misunderstandings" and "disagreements regarding mission, apostolate, discipline, doctrine, style of life and personality" have become widespread rather than sporadic, as they were in the past with religious communities and church authorities.  They've now become widespread and they demand the intervention of the church's governing authorities.  

Sartain accepts and builds on the judgment of the Vatican that the large majority of American Catholic religious women have moved themselves outside the communion of the church through their post-Vatican II understandings of their own missions, apostolates, community disciplines, styles of religious life, and through their understanding of Catholic doctrine.  Missions and apostolates they dreamed up in response to Jesus's call to them in the gospels.  Missions and apostolates and communities they have formed and sustained as they read the gospels.  To be specific: he charges the vast majority of religious women with having adopted understandings of Catholic faith and Catholic religious life that are "not grounded in Jesus Christ as Lord and redeemer."

And he paints the decision of the Vatican to place the Leadership Conference of Religious Women, which represents the vast majority of American nuns, in receivership, effectively to strip the women the conference represents of decision-making authority over their own religious lives, as an invitation to dialogue about communion(!)  As an invitation to deeper communion, to refashioning the Catholic communion we're asked to imagine that American Catholic religious women have abandoned in droves after Vatican II.  Have abandoned in droves in contrast to their brothers in the episcopal state, we're asked to imagine, too--in contrast to their brothers in the episcopal state who have, after all, been too busy dealing with the abuse crisis (and cover-ups and pay-offs and dissimulation and misleading the media and lay Catholics) to permit them to abandon Catholicity and Catholic communion . . . .

What Rome is doing to American religious women is, Sartain insists, "an opportunity to seek reconciliation and collaboration at the heart of the church, in the communio that is God’s gift.  Such a pivotal opportunity is now before us."  And then he adds, 

The recent call by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for the renewal of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious marks an important moment in the life of women religious in the United States, an important moment in living out communio.

What to make of Sartain's analysis of his job and the situation Rome is asking him to address?  First, it's interesting to read that, as Joshua McElwee puts the point, Sartain "frames the Vatican rebuke of U.S. women religious as one of a series of 'inevitable conflicts and misunderstandings between religious congregations and their bishops.'”  And that he then goes on to speak of the Vatican's action of placing LCWR in receivership and under absolute control of himself as--and this strikes me as an astonishing claim to make--an opportunity for enhanced communion!

It's quite an admission to note that there has been a series of conflicts and misunderstandings between religious congregations of women and bishops following Vatican II of such duration and of such widespread expression that they call for a dramatic intervention by Rome to place the vast majority of American religious women back into communion with Rome.  The claim that, as they have imagined they were following Jesus as Lord and engaging in ministries centered on discipleship of Jesus as Lord, a majority of American nuns have (apparently without even recognizing the error of their ways) departed from Catholic faith in Jesus, is monumental.  Sartain (and the Vatican) are effectively saying we have been living through a moment of Catholic history since Vatican II in which the kind of conflicts between communities of religious women and church officials that have always been a part of church life haven't been merely occasional and sporadic as they were in the past.

They have been, so to speak, built into the system of the church after Vatican II.

This is, as I say, quite an admission.  What's interesting to note about this admission is that, if it accurately depicts the relationship of religious women with the pastoral leaders of the church in the period after Vatican II, then the question that ought probably to asked first and foremost by anyone with authentic pastoral sensitivity is why the protracted tensions and problems are there.  And what role the men ruling the church might be playing in producing those tensions and problems.  And therefore what their own obligation in addressing the tensions and problems might be--short of placing the vast majority of religious women in receivership and snatching all authority for self-governance (as an organized body of women religious across the nation) from them.

Above all, it strikes me as interesting that neither the Vatican nor Archbishop Sartain is addressing the situation of tension between religious women and church officials that both authorities claim is now fracturing the communion of the church by asking what might be the primary pastoral obligation of the   men ruling the church in this situation of tension.  And whether the way in which the men ruling the church exercise pastoral leadership might be at the very center of the problem the Vatican and Archbishop Sartain claim they want to address with religious women.  The way the men ruling the church exercise pastoral leadership in contravention of the example of Jesus and the gospels, in the view of growing numbers of Catholics . . . . 

Sound pastoral leadership surely calls for dialogue as the first step in response to a serious situation in which the majority of American religious women have fallen into error and no longer follow Jesus or represent authentic Catholicity in their ministry and religious lives.  Dialogue is surely the most obvious initial pastoral step in such a situation, rather than repression, attacks, condemnation, removal of self-governance from those charged with error of the most fundamental kind possible, since giving up Jesus as Lord is giving up the very essence of Catholic faith . . . . 

And to note this--that dialogue rather than repression, attacks, condemnation, removal of self-governance is the first step in authentic pastoral leadership--is to move to Sartain's foundational concept of communio, and his claim that what he and Rome are about is mending the broken communion of the church as they deal with the broken relationship between religious women and the pastoral leaders of the church.  The relationship we're asked to believe religious women have broken.  Not the pastoral leaders of the church . . . . 

As I understand the concept of communio, no authentic communio, no communio that means what that rich term has long really meant in Catholic tradition, is imposed from above, by doctrinal fiat and by commands to obey.  Fiat and commands have, in fact, an effect opposite to that of producing communio: they produce a "union" that is merely superficial and pro forma, one based on false premises and coerced consent.  

Real communio is a lived reality that involves the lives and contributions of the entire church, not merely its governing officials.  It is what happens throughout the whole church when all sectors of the church focus their lives, their practice of discipleship, on Jesus as Lord.  It cannot be mandated, ordered, dictated.  It happens when we live together in the community of faith, with Jesus as the center of our communitarian life--listening respectfully to each other, respecting the different charisms of one another, learning from the charisms of each other.

By contrast, I hear in what Sartain and the Vatican are saying to American religious women the following bottom line: when it comes to Catholicity and communio, it's our way or the highway.  Take it or leave it.  If you don't adhere to what we tell you to think and believe, even about your own particular charisms and your own communities' practice of discipleship of Jesus as Lord, then you're outside the communion of the church.

I hear this bottom line quite clearly when I hear Archbishop Sartain stating unambiguously that some of the positions and practices of the vast majority of American religious women in the period following Vatican II have not been grounded in faith in Jesus as Lord.  This is quite a serious claim to make about communities of religious women whose charisms have long since been tested by the church and approved by its pastoral leaders, and which have long since been found by those pastoral leaders to be centered very directly on Jesus as Lord.

Sartain's (and the Vatican's) bottom-line declaration in their dealings with American religious women is that only Sartain and his brother bishops, in communion with the pope, own Jesus as Lord.  And insofar as I understand the concept of communio in the Catholic tradition, that proclamation radically departs from the traditional faith of the church and fractures its communion.  It is the current leaders of the church, in their exercise of pastoral leadership that departs from the example of Jesus and the gospels, who are radically fracturing the communio of the Catholic church at this point in history.

The Vatican judgment about the quality of discipleship of American religious women echoed by Archbishop Sartain implicitly judges as outside the communion of the church and faith in Jesus as Lord communities of religious women who have, in the view of many lay members of the Catholic church, been faithful in exemplary ways to their charisms and have set an example for the whole church--including the men ruling it--through their fidelity.  

Leading many of us to conclude that the lived fidelity of religious women to Jesus as Lord, to the gospels, and to the charisms of their communities, is essentially and ironically the very thing that is proving problematic for the men now ruling the church.  Many of us lay Catholics are concluding that the fidelity of American nuns to Jesus as Lord and their lived practice of faith rooted in the gospels call into question the fidelity and lived faith of the men ruling the church, who claim unilateral ownership of Jesus and of the definition of Catholicity.

And the men called into question don't like having the quality of their faith and discipleship, and their claim to own Jesus, called into question in this way.  Not one little bit.  They don't intend to let it continue, and if the price of shielding themselves and their claim to unilateral and unique ownership of Jesus from critique is a broadside attack on the vast majority of faithful American Catholic religious women, they don't consider that price too high to pay.

Not when their power and authority are in question.

Addendum, 6 June 2012: Readers, please note that the comment by Selfowned Cat / Steven Faludi below, which links to a blog posting by Thomas McDonald, contains serious disinformation about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and its history.  For my response to that disinformation and my request that Mr. Faludi retract it, see the thread below.  As my response below states, I am appending this statement to this posting because I do not want readers misled by seriously erroneous information about a group of faithful religious women who do not deserve calumny and slander as their reward for years of sacrificial service to the Catholic church.  

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