Friday, April 17, 2015

Destined for the Rise and the Fall of Many in Israel

Pope Francis meets with Sisters
from the LCWR: they came to
the Vatican, I understand, on a

Well Pope Francis called the dogs of war off the American nuns and that marks another watershed day in the history of the American Church as it is a clear sign that the JPII/Benedict XVI old guard is finished, at least for the length of this papacy.  There had been a mounting tension between the American Religious Women and the Holy See dating back to 1979 when Sister Teresa Kane publically addressed Pope John Paul on behalf of U.S. nuns and asked him to consider admitting women “to all the ministries of the Church.” This opened the question of ordaining women, a question John Paul was quick to put the kibosh on and which angered him and his Curia that it was even mentioned.  Pope John Paul had very definite ideas on the place of women in the Church and in particular on how religious women should conduct themselves.  While his understanding of the role of women in the Church actually marked a step—or several steps—beyond what up to then had been Church practice, it hardly fit our current cultural conviction that men and women are equal and should have equal access to responsibility in our world today.  (I choose the word “responsibility” as it is more consistent with gospel values than the word “power,” but I certainly mean power when I speak of responsibility in this context.) 
The changes in religious life, and especially the life of religious women, has been remarkable in the decades after Vatican II.  In following the Vatican II mandate to return to the charisms of their founders, many religious women have renounced the monastic practices that were imposed on them in the late 18th and in the 19th centuries, adopting modern dress, moving out of large convents and the quasi-monastic life required in that sort of environment, taking more personal responsibility for their finances, and revamping authority structures to be more collaborative than directive.  They live now not as semi-monastics but as consecrated lay women living according to the evangelical counsels and devoting themselves to the works of the Church.  Of course there are still monastic and contemplative communities, generally enclosed (cloistered) but that vocation is essentially different than that of Religious Sisters in Apostolic communities.  The monastic life too has, in most places, undergone some external change, but remains essentially focused on prayer and the common life.  If anything, the changes in Religious Life after Vatican II have permitted the Apostolic and the Contemplative vocations to more clearly differentiate themselves from each other and permitted women to make the appropriate choice according to the graces given to each person. 
Of course the changes in Religious Life have also empowered women to take responsibility for their own life and mission and this has been deeply troubling to those who favor the misogynist hierchical power structures for which the Catholic Church was once so famous.  The last thing burned-out or incompetent male clerics need is to have self-confident religious women around.  And let’s face it, if there is anything the experience of the Vatican troubling the American Sisters has shown us is that the rank and file Catholics still love the nuns while the good folk in the pews are more reserved in their affection and respect for the clergy.  In 1995 the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of the Consecrated Life and Societies of the Apostolic Life (once known as the Congregation for Religious) divided out the more “traditional” religious communities of women from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (originally known as Conference of Major Superiors of Women) and established for the more compliant nuns The Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.  This left two distinct groupings of American Sisters.  About 80% of American Sisters belong to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. 
The LCWR’s problems began in earnest early in the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI when the Congregation of Institutes of the Consecrated Life and Societies of the Apostolic Life announced a “visitation” of American Sisters belonging to the LCWR affiliated communities.  This was supposedly “for their own good” to see why they weren’t getting the vocations they had once garnered in the 1960 vocational heyday.  The problem obviously was that most of the good sisters weren’t properly veiled and they were living in apartments and had drivers’ licenses—oh, and minds of their own, and used them.  A moving factor behind the original investigation was that nemesis of change, our own beloved Cardinal Burke who, at the time, was a member of the Congregation of Institutes of the Consecrated Life and Societies of the Apostolic Life.  (I am getting tired of typing and retyping that title—from here on out CICLSAL.)   Mother Mary Clare Millea, a Canon Lawyer and the Superior General of the Congregation of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (a community belonging to the Conference of Major Superiors of Women) was put in charge of the visitation.  This—it was thought—would be like putting Ted Cruz in charge of investigating Hillary Clinton’s campaign.  But guess what—it became clear that under the microscope of Mother Mary Clare, the Sisters of the LCWR looked just fine!!!  That wouldn’t do.  So stage II kicked in and Cardinal William Levada, an American who at the time was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (at one time known as “The Holy Roman Inquisition” and the most powerful of the Roman dicasteries) announced that the CDF was going to do a doctrinal investigation of the LCWR because they good Sisters were writing a lot of heresy and spreading false doctrines in their various ministries.  As if they had not learned with Galileo—some people just never learn.  Levada is not Torquemada and was only the front man for a cabal of the truly evil: Cardinal Burke (again!), Cardinal Law (the disgraced Archbishop of Boston whose intransience about a fictional princely immunity kicked off the sex-abuse scandal in the American Church), Archbishop Lori of Baltimore (a slimy sycophant of a prelate if there ever was one—you don’t want to know how he got where he got) and their bankrolling stooge, Carl Anderson, Grand Poobah of the Knights of Columbus whose generosity to Vatican causes with other people’s money has given him great influence in the hallowed halls of the pre-Francisco Reform Vatican Bank.  (Just mentioning these boys makes me want to take a shower.)  Well, the pyre was well on its way to being completed when Pope Benedict surprised the world with his retirement and within a month many things had begun to change.  Within a few months of his election, Pope Francis was addressing the Religious from Latin America and he said, in obvious reference to the North American nuns:
They will make mistakes, they will make a blunder [meter la pata], this will pass! Perhaps even a letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine (of the Faith) will arrive for you, telling you that you said such or such thing... But do not worry. Explain whatever you have to explain, but move forward... Open the doors, do something there where life calls for it. I would rather have a Church that makes mistakes for doing something than one that gets sick for being closed up...
Clear enough? One would think.  But just because Petrus locutus est doesn’t mean Roma locuta est, as is becoming increasingly clear in so many ways with top Cardinals publicly disagreeing with a reigning pontiff—something that hasn’t happened in a century and a half.  Ten months later, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, current Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, made it clear that the heat was still on the good Sisters.  And then this past Thursday, suddenly, the Vatican said, in tones reminiscent of Gilda Radner’s Emily Litella on SNL, “never mind.”  There, gone. Poof.  Just like that.  Oh yes, there’s a new sheriff in town—or to put it more biblically for Law, Lori, Burke, Anderson and co: there came a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph. 
As if that wasn’t enough news for one day, on Friday Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop emeritus of Chicago, passed to his eternal reward.  May God be good to him.  I will do a posting on his someday soon.  He was not a bad man, he certainly was not princely (or princessly) as some other prelates chose to be, but he represented that return to hierarchal autocracy that we witnessed during the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  It will be interesting to see that now that Chicago no longer has a living Cardinal, if the new Archbishop, Blase Cupich, will be given a red hat in the next consistory.  Of course, Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput’s predecessor, Cardinal Rigali turns 80 next Tuesday, freeing up another possible red hat.  Cupich and Chaput are cut from very different cloth.  Chaput, despite his Capuchin/Franciscan background is more of the sort of silk popular in Benedict’s papacy; Cupich, a diocesan priest, is more of the Franciscan homespun.  Yes, it’s true: the Religious take the vow of poverty and the diocesan priests live it.  I have seen it all before.  For the best food and wines, the friars and monks will guide the way. But I digress.  The Red Hat contest is further complicated by the fact that Francis will be the guest of Chaput in September for the World Meeting of Families.  Under the two previous popes, such hospitality was usually acknowledged by a cardinal’s hat for the hosting prelate.  But Francis is quite unpredictable.  Nevertheless, it would be perceived as a snub for Cupich to get the hat and Chaput not, after Chaput had organized the September event.  In the meantime, poor Bill Lori is still sporting a green galero on his coat of arms. I am going to be surprised if that changes in this papacy.  And disappointed.  

1 comment:

  1. I applaud your analysis overall and I am equally happy to see the papal pitbulls called off. These curial cranks have had their day and, hopefully, will not be returned to their playpens once Francis no longer wears the (scruffy black) Shoes of the Fisherman.

    I do, however, think some honesty is called for in some aspects of the critique one might make of women religious in this country since the conciliar reform -- a critique that is in no way inspired by the lisping misogyny of clerical wags nor in any way dishonors the steady witness of so many American sisters in their tireless and manifold service. (I hale from a diocese that is honored still to have among us a number of the valiant Selma Sisters of St. Joseph and one, by the way, that until recently was in the forefront of promoting women in church ministry and leadership).

    The critique includes the questionable choice of speakers at LCWR gatherings and the seemingly muted emphases on a distinctively Catholic spirituality in favor of what strikes me often as loopy theological and liturgical agendas. (By the way, this does not imply any sympathy for those who have accused the nuns of heterodoxy for their continuing insistence that the church not foreclose continuing dialogue on the tendentious issues surrounding teachings on ordination and ethical issues).

    More vitally, however, I have always thought that three distinctive features of religious life prior to the Council, namely, the religious habit, an ordered community life, and a corporate apostolate, never found equally evocative and attractive alternatives where these were abandoned or minimized. I grant that the decline in numbers has been largely due to tectonic sociological shifts in the West, but somehow too little attention was paid to what, besides these three reliable features of their lives, could magnetize young women to embrace this calling. It's a matter of honest self-appraisal and discernment to ask if the absence of these things (and their presence in these neo-con orders with significant growth) is a factor to be revisited when looking at the paths of renewal followed in the half-century now past and where paths forward might still be identified as a very threatened future looms.

    It's either that, or these post-Tridentine communities should forthrightly acknowledge that their form of consecrated life was appropriate for one era of the church's history now over, and that other ones will emerge in a post-Vatican II milieu whose outline is only now becoming apparent -- and in my view is to be located mostly in the transposition of the charism of these communities into lay forms through associate programs so as to ensure that at least some of their legacy will survive their institutional demise. Other forms of vowed life more in line with conciliar ecclesiology will, in my opinion, continue to spring up as part of the (predominantly lay) new ecclesial movements.

    As for groups like Mother Angelica's nuns, the Nashville Dominicans, and other apparent "success stories" among the traditional foundations, time will tell. I take the Oedipal drama surrounding the foundation of the Sisters of Life to be a cautionary tale about their long-term prospects.