The CDF, the LCWR, and Obedience

This issue is very difficult for me to write about. As a Roman Catholic woman and as a feminist, I am profoundly disturbed by the actions of the CDF (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) towards vowed women religious (aka nuns) and the recent actions with respect to the LCWR (Leadership Council of Women Religious) in particular. As a Roman Catholic who takes seriously our charism for unity (one of the creedal marks of the church) and an ecclesiologist who takes seriously the structural and visible aspects of the church, I am profoundly disturbed by the divisive spirit of much of the popular discourse on this issue. As a theologian who takes seriously the mimetic insights into anthropology and the gospel, I am profoundly disturbed by the factions and corresponding rhetoric which have crystallized around either “the bishops” or “the nuns.”

It is clear to me that succumbing to the temptation of simply aligning with one side or the other is wrong.

It is likewise clear to me that simply keeping silent is wrong.

That’s about all that is clear to me (other than the need for heartfelt prayer for the LCWR, for the bishops, for all participants in this discussion in any way, and for the whole church). But if keeping silent is wrong, then I must begin somewhere. This is my attempt to begin.

The Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious begins with these words:

The context in which the current doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the United States of America is best situated is articulated by Pope
John Paul II in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Vita consecrata of 1996. Commenting on the genius of the charism of religious life in the Church, Pope John Paul says: “In founders and foundresses [of religious orders] we see a constant and lively sense of the Church, which they manifest by their full participation in all aspects of the Church’s life, and in their ready obedience to the Bishops and especially to the Roman Pontiff.

The quotation from Vita Consecrata (which means Consecrated Life, a phrase used to describe vowed religious women and men) continues, including this statement:

A distinctive aspect of ecclesial communion is allegiance of mind and heart to the Magisterium of the Bishops, an allegiance which must be lived honestly and clearly testified to before the People of God by all consecrated persons, especially those involved in theological research, teaching, publishing, catechesis and the use of the means of social communication.

This quotation defines the “constant and lively sense of the church” exhibited by the founders (and thus exemplars) of religious orders in terms of both “full participation in all aspects of the Church’s life” and “their ready obedience to the Bishops and especially to the Roman Pontiff.” These items are initially placed on equal terms, but the subsequent quotation appears to give more weight to the latter, explicating it not only in terms of obedience but “allegiance of mind and heart.” The purpose of this quotation appears to be to define the standards by which the doctrinal correctness of the LCWR will be (or rather, has been) assessed.

This raises several questions:

– What is the authoritative status of a “Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation”? Documents within the Roman Catholic church are not all of equal authority; they do not all carry equal weight. Different types of documents are differently authoritative. Where does the quoted document fall in this scheme?

– Is it, in fact, true that all founders of religious orders have been “readily obedient” and exhibited “allegiance of mind and heart” to the bishops and the pope? I am not a particular student of the history of religious orders within the church, but my understanding is that the religious orders were frequently the sources of reform movements within the church. Reform movements in general are critical of, not loyally allegiant to, the powers that be; and in this case, that would be the bishops and the pope.

For example, I seem to recall that Francis of Assisi’s original petition to form the Franciscans as a mendicant order was rather strongly at odds with the understanding of religious life held by the bishops and pope of the day, such that God sent the pope a dream telling him to approve the request, contrary to his original inclination.

Thus, this picture of founders having been at all times “readily obedient” and exhibiting “allegiance of mind and heart” to the bishops appears to me to be a rather revisionist history, understandably motivated by human tendencies towards wishful thinking and a desire to see the church, and those who have been in one’s own place within the church, as always having been in the right. The Roman Catholic church has frequently had a tendency towards triumphalism, which likely comes into play here as well

– It also raises the question of whether a person even can possess “allegiance of mind and heart” to the bishops as a whole, as they are not all of one mind and heart themselves. (The quoted document says “Magisterium of the Bishops.” This term Magisterium is sometimes used to mean the teaching office of the bishops, sometimes the college of bishops itself, and sometimes that which this college teaches. In light of the earlier quotation, I interpret it here, perhaps incorrectly, to mean the bishops themselves.)

– One must also wonder about the historical conditioning of the lives of the founders of religious orders, in times and in places where Christendom for the most part held sway, in times and in places where the church was conceived of as a feudal society, where obedience and allegiance was naturally owed to some figure of authority, whether ecclesiastical or civil. Are examples drawn from such a society really directly applicable to the post-Christendom church in a world that rejects feudal patterns of social order?

But let’s grant all those premises. Supposing that the Apostolic Exhortation is of sufficient authority to outweigh any other documents that might bear on religious life; supposing that all founders of religious orders really were readily obedient at all times on all matters and really did exhibit allegiance of mind and heart to all the bishops all the time; supposing that the historical conditioning of the lives of the founders is irrelevant to their application today:

Then this text is still extremely problematic for the Roman Catholic church in the early 21st century, because “a constant and lively sense of the Church” surely, surely cannot be manifested by obediently keeping silent to civil authorities about Catholic priests who have sexually molested Catholic children.

Because that’s what “ready obedience” to the bishop would have involved, you know.

“Allegiance of mind and heart,” too, would have entailed intellectually and emotionally agreeing that the doctrine of scandal was more important than the wellbeing of the victims. It’s not just that a bad, sinful bishop gave in to the temptation of covering up the wrongdoing of a sinful priest, because it made him look bad or because he didn’t want to deal with the results of going to the authorities, and personally sinned when instructing his subordinates to collude in the coverup. (Not that anyone looking at the church could think this was the case, or surely we would have seen lots of bishops being reprimanded or asking forgiveness and doing penance for their personal sinfulness in this matter.) There was a legitimate doctrinal argument that influenced bishops to cover up these incidents in the legitimate belief that they were acting for the good of the church with which they had been entrusted.

Legitimate, but — I take it there’s no dissension on this point now? — but wrong.

I’ve heard it said that the sex abuse scandal was, of course, a terrible thing, but that it is really not relevant to this issue at all. I disagree. The CDF itself made the sex abuse scandal relevant by framing the doctrinal assessment in terms of “obedience” and “allegiance of mind and heart”.

You can’t condition “obedience” with “except when it would be obviously wrong, of course” — which seems to be the implicit assumption behind the dismissal of this issue as irrelevant — without granting the individual the right and the responsibility to consider whether a particular teaching is “obviously wrong.” Traditional Catholic teaching holds that it is the responsibility of every Catholic to develop a well-formed conscience, and then abide by that conscience.

There is a stream of thought within the Roman Catholic church today that holds that it is simply impossible for a Catholic to develop a well-formed conscience and then arrive at a conclusion that differs from what is taught by the church: if one finds oneself in that position, then one can know, ipso facto, that one’s conscience is not as well-formed as one had believed.

I find this position historically naive, given the undisputed fact that church teaching has changed on matters of morality. (The alternative is that morality is relative, and it was a change in the actual morality of matters such as slavery and usury that caused the teaching of the church to change.)

I’m painting this with a bit too broad a brush to be accurate. I do think one can distinguish grave matters from lesser matters, and matters of faith from matters of morals.

But that distinction itself is subject to the judgment of conscience; and we know from church history that sometimes the established position held by the Magisterium of the Bishops has turned out to be wrong, and subsequently (although generally gradually, and with as much face-saving rhetoric as possible) declared to be wrong… by the Magisterium of the Bishops, who were prompted to reconsider the matter by the words and actions of those who were not exhibiting “allegiance of mind and heart” to the prior teachings.

It appears to me that a very large part of the problem in the Catholic church today is that there is no means by which persons whose consciences cause them to question or dissent from Catholic teachings can interact in a meaningful way with persons whose role in the church has traditionally been conceived of as “authentic teachers” of church doctrine. For the most part, when I look at the bishops, I do not see teachers; when I look at their statements, I do not see teaching. I see governors and legislation.

While it is also a traditional role of the bishop to govern the church, exercising the episkope (oversight) from which the word derives, governing and teaching are two very distinct functions and they must be pursued in distinctive ways if they are to be successful. Governing is a matter of formulating laws and enforcing them with appropriate discretion. Teaching is a matter of convincing, persuading, even cajoling — just read Paul’s letters! It does not rest upon authority alone. “Because I say so” from my parents stopped working to control my behavior as soon as I was old enough to have effective autonomy. And it never worked to convince my mind or convert my heart.

When I look at the introduction of this assessment, I do not see standards by which teachers will assess the comprehension of students. I see standards by which authority figures will assess the submission of subordinates, with submission defined as necessary and sufficient evidence of comprehension.

Gracious God, we pray for your holy catholic church.
Fill it with your truth;
Keep it in your peace.
Where it is corrupt, reform it.
Where it is in error, correct it.
Where it is right, defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, reunite it;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Amen.

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11 Responses to The CDF, the LCWR, and Obedience

  1. Andrew says:

    “Then this text is still extremely problematic for the Roman Catholic church in the early 21st century, because “a constant and lively sense of the Church” surely, surely cannot be manifested by obediently keeping silent to civil authorities about Catholic priests who have sexually molested Catholic children.”

    Years ago, I read on a blog (can’t find the cite, unfortunately) concerned with the promotion of rationality, an aphorism that went something like this: “By all means, attempt to make your decisions based on as much logic and reason as you can. But remember that your brain is not perfect at reason, and thus it is wise to reexamine your reasoning very carefully, if “reason” is telling you that you must murder a child.” All organizations should foster groups within their midst that serve as checks on trains of thought or habit that are leading towards repugnant destinations (see also the last section of Sturgeon’s “More than Human” (the section called “Morality”))

    P.S. Other aspects of this discussion remind me of an important theme in Egan’s “Quarantine,” by the way, regarding how to decide who speaks for an organization.

    • Thanks for the thought-provoking comment, Andy, and sorry for the late reply. (I was thinking!) It’s interesting, because I generally hear such advice applied to the process of discernment of spirits: ie, if I think God is telling me to do something, the first thing I should do is go talk to some other Christians about whether they think that’s really God I’m hearing.

      And traditionally, those “other Christians” would certainly include clergy. In the case of visions and apparitions, it would certainly include the bishop and even the Vatican, part of whose oversight responsibilities does involve investigating and declaring on the merit of such claims.

      But you’re pointing at something else here, in this case. I think another way to say it would be that all groups should be aware of the danger of groupthink, and take action to mitigate it: cultivating a diverse membership, or having a trusted friend-group for reality checks.

      Unfortunately the current culture of the bishops and the curia fails on both counts: the bishops, and much of the curia, consist of clergymen who spend and have spent most of their lives with other clergymen. And the bishops’ understanding of their role places them as the ones who perform reality checks for others: who oversees the overseers?

    • Thanks, Theophrastus. That is a beautiful prayer.

      I’ll note that today is the feast of the Visitation, the day we celebrate Mary’s visit to Elizabeth when they were both pregnant, and Mary responded to Elizabeth’s greeting with her Magnificat, which draws on the tradition of her foremother Hannah: a good day to keep the women of the LCWR in our prayers.

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  3. AngelaMarie says:

    There are two things in particular I appreciate about your post: (1) your acknowledgement of the complexity of the issues and that the only thing that is clear to you is that “keeping silent is wrong,” and (2), this critical observation: “It appears to me that a very large part of the problem in the Catholic church today is that there is no means by which persons whose consciences cause them to question or dissent from Catholic teachings can interact in a meaningful way with persons whose role in the church has traditionally been conceived of as “authentic teachers” of church doctrine. For the most part, when I look at the bishops, I do not see teachers; when I look at their statements, I do not see teaching. I see governors and legislation.” I think so many of us have experienced this, and it is frightening to consider the Church as an institution where “law and order” pervades as if all were black and white (and followers are to be like soldiers responding to a hierarchy), rather than one that leads by example, teaches, and supports individual and collective formation of conscience and healthy practices of discernment — practices that would necessarily allow for meaningful dialogue (including the right to discuss and disagree in a manner in which all involved parties are equally open and willing to be transformed by the conversation)… a freedom that would seem so absolutely necessary to basic human development, not to mention to the pursuit of living lives inspired by the Gospel… where we learn by parables and radical examples, not by the establishment and enforcement of ‘legislation.’ I, too, know that I do not have all the information or answers, but I have many concerns and many questions. Thanks for sharing the thoughtfulness of your post!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, AngelaMarie. Your vision of how the church would best function as a “school for saints” is similar to mine, and I think really that is such an important element of what the church is supposed to be and do. At the same time I also have sympathy for the perspective of the bishops who feel they have a responsibility to conserve the faith, and would therefore feel they were being negligent of their responsibility if they entered into a dialogue with an attitude that was equally open to being transformed. They might reasonably ask, what kind of oversight am I exercising, and what kind of teaching am I doing, if I enter into dialogue just as open to transformation and conversion as the person I’m dialoging with?

      I think there are some fundamental issues of anthropology here (what is the nature of people, how do they learn and grow) as well as of morality (are there black and white distinctions, or are there complexities of gray, or both, and how do you tell) as you mention, in addition to the ecclesiological issues (how should the church be organized, what is the nature of episcopal authority, how does individual conscience interact with the communal discernment).

      Thanks for stopping by to share your thoughts on this difficult issue.

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