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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Baptismal water: Surf's up!

If you woke me up out of a dead sleep at three o'clock in the morning and asked me who my role models were for ordained leadership in the church, I would rub my eyes, open my mouth and say, "Nuns."

The nuns of my Roman Catholic youth were women in long black skirts, which hid even their black shoes (we thought they walked on air) and a full veil, which hid their buzz-cut heads.

I only knew about the buzz-cut because I had several aunts who were nuns and one let us have a wee bit of a peak on one of our Sunday afternoon visitations. It had to do with taking a vow of 'chastity' and giving up the "outward and visible sign" of female sensuality / sexuality (Recall, please, 'the woman' who anointed Jesus with oil, washed his feet, and then dried them with her hair).

They were strong women - in their faith and in their spirit - women who were very clear about who they were and who Jesus was in their lives.

They were also as serious as a heart attack about their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. While I have heard all the horror stories of abusive behavior, and even have a few stories of my own to tell, I never, ever felt any resentment from any one of them about the sacrifices involved in the choices they had made for their 'lifestyle.'

They were also the most intelligent, well read, well educated women I knew. Indeed, they were passionate about education, whispering to us girls to 'further your education, dear,' and always prodding us with questions like 'Have you filled out your college application?' and 'What are you going to make of your life?'

I suppose, then, that no one should wonder that they were also strong - standing courageously against the barricades and barriers of the sexism of the institutional church of Rome.

"Father" may have ruled the church, but it was "Mother" and her Sisters who had the final say in matters of education and training.

They also thought 'outside the box' about matters of faith, some of whom questioned things like the atonement and the resurrection and the virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary long before those in the Academy began writing about it.

They were also the major proponents of Liberation Theology, assigning middle and high school students books by Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez and Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff.

They were quick to point out the parallels of the ideas about praxis and Christian Base Communities in the writing and work of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Indeed, they even hired the buses and organized the schools to attend Civil Rights Marches.

The convent often became a meeting place for our parents who were labor union organizers and it was they who organized the women of the parish to cook soup and bake bread when the men were on strike.

They may have had to wear a habit, but by God, they made it seem as if it were a party dress for God.

At least, the nuns of my youth did.

So, are we surprised, really, to hear that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has initiated a doctrinal investigation of the largest U.S. women’s religious leadership organization, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious?

If you are, you haven't been paying attention.

The CDF is making an 'doctrinal assessment' of three areas of concern.

Oh, g'won, you can probably guess all three without even breaking a sweat. Ready:

(1) The "Proper matter" for priestly ordination (The 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis)

(2) The "spiritual defectiveness" of non-Catholic Christians (the 2000 declaration Dominus Jesus from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith),

And (you knew this was coming).

(3) “The problem of homosexuality" - a favoite rant of the Church.

Ordinatio sacerdotalis, Latin for “On the Ordination to the Priesthood,” was a Vatican document that reasserted that Catholic ordination to the priesthood is reserved for men alone and that the church “has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.”

Dominus Jesus was a declaration that, in part, insisted that non-Catholic Christians are “in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the church, have the fullness of the means of salvation” and that non-Catholic Christian communities suffer “defects.” It was viewed at the time by some Catholic theologians and leaders of other religions as a major setback in interreligious dialogue.

In a 1986 letter written by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, to the world’s bishops, he wrote: “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”

The decision for this 'doctrinal assessment' was made in April of this year. You can read the NPR (National Catholic Reporter) story here.

Mother Mary Clare Millea, superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the apostolic visitor charged by the Vatican with directing the study, sent a letter dated July 28 to the heads of women religious congregations, along with an Instrumentum Laboris, or “working paper."

The paper outlined the next phases of the investigation, including the thrust of a questionnaire that the religious heads are to fill out and return to Millea. The paper also explained in greater detail the focus of the Apostolic Visitation.

You can read that report here.

This is me. Giggling. I'm sorry. It's an old habit, as it were.

When we were kids in RC school, we used to giggle whenever the nuns referred to something very common using Latin. Calling the 'working paper' an Instrumentum Laboris just set me off again.

I'm squelching the urge to launch into the other activity we kids would engage: make up poems, writing limerics that rhymed in Latin.

Intrumentum Laboris. Bwaaaaahhhhhaaaa.

Okay, okay. I'm back now. Ahem.

When the study was first announced it was explained that it was intended to examine “the quality of life” of U.S. women religious, with an eye to finding out why vocations have dropped over the years. Initially, some women religious expressed confusion and skepticism concerning the purpose of the investigation. They questioned its intent.

Well, and with good reason.

NCR reports that:
The 341 religious institutes of women in the United States contain approximately 59,000 women religious. Communities of cloistered, contemplative nuns are not officially part of the study.

Meanwhile, the Vatican has opened a second investigation into the umbrella leadership organization of the U.S. women religious, the Leadership Council of Women Religious. The leadership council meets next week in New Orleans for its annual gathering.

I suspect that the nuns will do what the nuns of our youth taught them to do: When there's a storm brewing in the baptismal water, jump in and swim.

Yo, Sistah! Surf's up!

Time to par-tay like it's Vatican II.

Institutional Religion: It's not for the faint of heart.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


About twenty years ago, this Lutheran did some post graduate study with the Benedictine monks of St John's School of Theology in Collegeville, Mn. As a general statement, the students fit into one of three categories a) candidates for the priesthood, b) Catholic women -- often nuns, and c) Protestants such as myself.

I can vouch for your comment that nuns are among the most intelligent and well educated among us. That was obvious from rubbing elbows with these women, but it was equally obvious how they strained under the yoke of Catholic patriarchy.

The original presiding Bishop of my ELCA, Herbert Chilstrom, in an open letter to delegates to the upcoming ELCA convention in Mpls that encouraged the adoption of gay marriage and gay clergy resolutions, commented on the retrenchment of the Vatican. “How long are we going to live with the illusion that Vatican II is alive and well in Roman Catholicism?” He asked.

Thanks for a great post.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

I am reminded of a quote by my very very RC friends B. and J. ...both have discussed "the priest shortage" a lot over their dinner table with me and both have said, "You know, I think the Church would handle ordination of celibate women way before it would handle married male priests."

They both seem to think at least in the RC church, this could be a reality sooner than one might think. FWIW, they are not the "liberal Newman Center type" RC's, they're pretty traditional with Jesuit overtones.

Theodora May said...

Funny, the last time I heard about salvation, it belongs to God and not to the Roman Catholic Church.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Theodora, you hit the nail right on the cross!

Paul (A.) said...

The cure for those who contributed to Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is -- and always has been -- a mohel.

marla said...

This investigation may cause a schism in the RC Church. Having gone to a Catholic parochial school myself I am very protective of the nuns and I suspect a lot of American Catholics that went to RC schools are too. Where is the Charity?

I am so grateful for TEC.