By Dave, at Subversive Thomism:

By now, everyone has heard about the Vatican’s decision to rehabilitate the LCWR, the main organization representing nuns and women religious in the United States. If you haven’t heard, just Google it and you’ll find analysis and opinions from everyone and his brother. Some are saying that this represents the divide that grew between female religious and the bishops fifty years about how to interpret Vatican II; some say that female religious are leading the way in the truest display of Christian charity and ought to be respected and learned from; and then some are saying its about time we deal with these radical nuns who think they can get away with wearing pants and studying academic theology with the big boys.

I haven’t been able to think of anything original to add to the analysis already out there, so I thought I would offer random questions and thoughts about the matter. Some of these points I hope to return to in the future. But these are the points which jump out at me in the whole discussion.

1. What exactly is the charge? The LCWR is accused of some sort of doctrinal heterodoxy, but specific examples are lacking. The Bishops do cite a speech given several years ago by Sr. Laurie Brink, O.P. in which she mentions that some religious today see themselves as moving “beyond Jesus.” Yet if one examines her comments in context, she is only pointing out what everyone has known all along: That the Gospel isn’t the end of the story, but the beginning, and that our deep meditation on it should lead us to encounter something more profound than words. If the best example the bishops could find of something doctrinally questionable is a single comment taken out of context, what, then, are we to make of this charge in general?

2. The Double Standard. Are we to really believe that controversial theological opinions are only expressed in women’s religious community? Who does not know a priest who does not hold or has not voiced a controversial opinion. And in many seminaries some level of creative questioning is not only tolerated but sometimes encouraged. So why the crackdown on women? Is it that we are stuck clinging to a mindset in which theological discussion and creative innovation, “the dirty work” of academia, is still restricted to men while it’s the job of women to simply prop up the institutions?

3. The condemnation of silence. One of the most unusual assertions made by the Bishops is that, while religious sisters have done a fine job campaigning for the poor, they have not spoken out often enough about abortion. Is there some specific minimum number of hours we need to spend talking about gonad politics in order to confirm our Catholic identity? Or, in the midst of the election year debacle the USCCB is getting itself involved in, does this look more like “We’re trying to set an agenda here and you really need to get on board?”

4. The Double Standard, Part II. For as much money as the Church has had to pay out in sex abuse cases, with two bishops currently involved in legal cases of abuse, with ten years of priestly abuse cases still yielding no clear solution, why is the Vatican more concerned with nuns expressing new ideas than with priests violating the church teaching that prohibits rape?

5. The man who will fix everything. I am not going to put down Archbishop Sartain. I’ve heard he is a very compassionate man who has a nuanced and genuine approach to his pastoral office, and I wish him well in his new task. But if one of the supposed charges against the LCWR is that they have openly questioned the all male hierarchy of the Church, does anyone really expect it will do any good to send a male representative of that all male hierarchy to correct the problem?

6. How often have women theologians been encouraged to participate in active dialogue with the bishops and Roman hierarchy? Last year the Bishops roundly condemned Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s book Quest For the Living God without any consultation or meeting with her. As female religious theologians have continued to put forth alternative Catholic theories in theology, have the Bishops taken them seriously or have they merely said the questions must stop?

7. What does it mean to be obedient to the Church? If the Church is the people of God, the body of Christ, the living manifestation of the divine among human beings, human society, and human history, then surely obedience must mean more than doing whatever the pope says. If we are going to accuse nuns of disobedience, then we must find out what we mean by obedience (this will be the topic of a future post, I am sure).

8. To what extent is this about spiritual growth and to what extent is this about political control? It is not at all clear how the Vatican’s action is going to lead to anyone’s spiritual growth or improve anyone’s relationship with God. But that has been a growing problem for a while: Most major actions by the hierarchy today are not pastoral but political. Instead of reforming from without the LCWR, perhaps the bishops should be asking “What can we do for you to help you in your mission and spirituality?”

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