Let me start this essay with a sort of dramatis personae:
The International Union of Superiors General (IUSG) is an organization consisting of the leadership of all the vowed religions orders of women and men (ie, nuns and monks). The “superior” in its name is the same as in the title “Mother Superior” that may be somewhat familiar from books and movies about Catholic nuns. This organization includes the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the leadership body for most (80%) of the communities of American nuns.
This week, the IUSG is meeting in Rome for its triennial meeting.
Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz is the head of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (the CICL), which is one of a number of departments of the bureaucratic structure of the Roman Catholic church. Collectively, this structure is called the Curia, or less precisely “the Vatican.” As you may be able to tell from its name, this department is the one in charge of all forms of consecrated and communal religious life and societies (ie, nuns, monks, and some lesser known forms). Cardinal Braz de Aviz has led this department since 2011.
Today, he addressed a session of the IUSG which included about 800 leaders of vowed women religious in an “open dialogue session.”
The session was anticipated with great interest, given the difficult and painful state of affairs between “the nuns and the bishops”, or more precisely, between the LCWR, the CICL, and the CDF: the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a different department of the Curia, which is in charge of investigations into questions of doctrine.
He also spoke at a press conference following the session, and preached at Mass for the sisters earlier Sunday morning.
Got all that? Okay — now on to what he said!
The cardinal spoke on two themes that I want to talk about. First, regarding the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR, which (as I’ve written before) was presented as a joint assessment of the CDF (the doctrine department) and the CICL (the nuns and monks department) in April 2012 and included the appointment of three American bishops who were charged and empowered to review and revise the charter, activities, and materials of the LCWR.
[The cardinal] said that his office — which is tasked with overseeing the work of an estimated 1.5 million sisters, brothers, and priests around the world in religious orders — first learned of the move against the U.S. sisters’ group in a meeting with the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith after the formal report on the matter had been completed.
Wow. His office didn’t find out about it until after the report was complete???
Well, that explains why the LCWR was blindsided: they’d been talking primarily with the CICL, whose department they are in; and apparently, the CICL was blindsided too. Wow.
He agreed to go along, in obedience to the pope, who had approved the report; and, I imagine, out of a desire to present a united front.
He has not spoken about this publically before today because, he said, he previously “didn’t have the courage to speak.”
In the press conference afterwards, he described an ambitious, competitive curial culture, with different departments jockeying for power and influence on papal decisions.
The fact that the CDF was led by Cardinal Josef Ratzinger for years before he became Pope Benedict seems obviously relevant in such a culture.
This reinforces my previous sense that, if I could make one change in canon law effective immediately, it would be to render ineligible for election as pope anyone who is presently, or was previously, in curial department leadership positions. It’s just human nature for people to be loyal to and trusting of their previous supervisors and subordinates, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. At the same time, if you want the pope to be equally well served by all the departments of the curia, then they all need to be on an equal relational footing with him.
Speaking about authority more generally, the cardinal said,
Obedience and authority must be renewed, re-visioned. Authority that commands, kills. Obedience that becomes a copy of what the other person says, infantilizes.
This is not a new idea to me. But it sure is new to hear it from a cardinal.
During his homily at Mass, the cardinal talked about the need for balance in church leadership in two ways. He described the “hierarchical” and “charismatic” dimensions of church leadership as equally essential. His identification of the hierarchical with the bishops, and the charismatic with religious orders, seems a bit odd to me. I understand that religious orders understand themselves primarily in terms of their special charisms (which I define roughly as “gifts that come with a mission”).
But the tension between the (institutional, hierarchical, clerical) and the (charismatic, collegial, prophetic) movements within the church is much broader, deeper, and older than either the office of bishop or the emergence of religious orders. It’s great to hear a bishop define leadership as broader than just the bishops, but for a bishop in charge of religious orders to broaden it simply to religious orders, too, is… not as much broader as one might hope.
The other form of balance that he emphasized during the dialogue session was the balance between women and men.
Regarding the advancement of women into church leadership positions, Braz de Aviz said “we can take a lot of steps in this direction” to create “a church more maternal” and not only paternal.
“The two aspects together would be much more balanced, much more human,” he said. “We must not be afraid of this.”
While this sounds promising, I’m suspicious of the implicit gender essentialism that usually underlies the notion that women have a special genius for kinder, gentler leadership. (And these remarks rang especially oddly to me after reading Melissa’s comment on this blog last night about women calming men!)
But there’s another association that this language has for me, when brought up in the context of authority:
How shall we accept from [Rome] decrees that have been issued without consulting us and even without our knowledge? If the Roman pontiff, seated on the lofty throne of his glory, wishes to thunder at us, and, so to speak, hurl his mandates at us from on high, and if he wishes to judge us and even rule us and our Churches, not by taking counsel with us but at his own arbitrary pleasure, what kind of brotherhood, or even what kind of parenthood can this be…? We should be the slaves, not the sons, of such a Church, and the Roman see would be not the pious mother of sons but a hard and imperious mistress of slaves.
These are the words of bishop Nicetas of Nicomedia, spoken in 1136 to bishop Anselm of Havelberg, ambassador to Constantinople, in a public debate over the relationship between the bishop of Rome and the universal church, and particularly the churches of the East. His words have survived because bishop Anselm, at the request of Pope Eugenius III, kept a written record of both sides of the debate, which scholars describe as remarkably objective and equitable. In this debate, Anselm and Nicetas defended their own theological positions, and critiqued the opposing view, in a manner that was simultaneously blunt and courteous. 
I am deeply grateful to Cardinal Braz de Aviz for his open and honest discussions with the sisters today, and for his willingness to speak publicly, bluntly, and courteously about those aspects of curial culture that do not live up to the Christian ideals of humility, service, and love. I pray that the Holy Spirit will continue to guide the church towards an ever fuller realization of its mission.
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.
 All quotations of the Cardinal’s remarks are taken from Joshua J. McElwee’s news story.
 Aristeides Papakis in collaboration with John Meyendorff, The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 1994), 156-8. The quotation from the debate (emphasis mine) is cited therein as Patrologia Cursus Completas: Series Latina, 188:1219B-1220B.