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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Our sisters

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I am the priest I am today because of the witness and example of the Roman Catholic nuns of my youth.  They taught me to love the Gospel of Jesus Christ so much that I would be willing to take the risk of actually embodying it and putting it into action.

I pray for them daily - for their ministry with me and the ministry they continue to do in the Name of Jesus. Often, at great cost to themselves.

For those of us who grew up Roman Catholic, it was the nuns - not the priests - who taught us and our children in schools. They’ve run hospitals. They minister parishes where there is a shortage of clergy, keeping the faith and tending deeply inflicted wounds caused by the scandal of child abuse by Roman Catholic clergy. They’ve encouraged those committed to their care in good times and bad. Perhaps more than any other group within the church, they’ve shaped the faith of families and congregations.

The Vatican last week ordered an umbrella organization representing 80 percent of the sisters of America, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, to reform its programs to conform more closely to the official teachings of the church or face further disciplinary actions. 

It should be noted that the LCWR represents some 57,000 Catholic nuns, whose median age is 70.

To oversee the reform process, the Vatican has appointed Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain and given him wide-ranging power to oversee and direct LCWR as he reviews and revises the organization's policies.

No one should be surprised. This "process" actually began in 2008 when the “doctrinal assessment,” as it is known, was aimed at investigating the “serious doctrinal problems which affect many in Consecrated Life.”

Mary Hunt, a feminist Roman Catholic theologian and one of my real heroes in the church, has written that:
[The Vatican] is trying to put LCWR in the untenable position of having its every conference, publication, and public utterance subject to episcopal veto.

The real aim, in my reading of the situation, is to replace LCWR with the Council of Major Superiors of Women (CMSW), a group of conservative, habit-wearing, bishop-obeying nuns that Rome has been cultivating all along. That group’s blueprint for religious life is expressed in The Foundations of Religious Life: Revisiting the Vision, a volume that reads like Vatican officials wrote it. Perhaps they did.
Although what is more disturbing is that the Vatican has set women up against one another. Conservative women religious collaborated on the Apostolic Visitation and will be appointed to the Archbishop Delegate’s Advisory Team.

The effort to rein in LCWR is meant as much to scare the rest of us into line as to corral the nuns. I can say with confidence that it won’t work.
I absolutely agree with Hunt's assessment. There are too many of us who were taught or cared for or tended to by these religious women not to see that this is an attempt, much like the Anglican Covenant, to cement the centralization of power within the institutional church.

Have you noticed? When people - especially men - with institutional power feel their power base being threatened - especially by women - they circle the wagons. 

Oh, and if the women don't assent to “the doctrine of the faith that has been revealed by God in Jesus Christ, presented in written form in the divinely inspired Scriptures, and handed on in the Apostolic Tradition under the guidance of the Church’s Magisterium,” (or, simply, the fathers know best)? Well, the Vatican will simply close them down.

And, here's the thing: Take their property, sell it off, and pay off all the legal expenses incurred by the scandal of child abuse and pedophilia of their priests and the cover up of the church's hierarchy.

I don't know what makes me angrier - the fact that these men in black (or, red or purple, depending on their own sense of self importance) are doing this to these faithful religious women or that they think the rest of us can't see what's really going on here.

They really think the rest of us are stupid. And, they actually think they can get away with it.

Is there any arrogance quite the arrogance of the institutional church?

Nuns relinquish the opportunity to be wives and mothers and take vows of poverty in order to serve Christ without the pomp, perks and payoffs of priesthood. Many nuns are quite poor, have little vacation or recreation time. Most work very hard for low pay. Many nuns are quite well-educated, but unlike priests, who have always been exhorted to study, nuns have had to fight for education. In the context of medical issues and education of children, it is Roman Catholic nuns, not priests, who work in hospitals as health care professionals and and teach in schools. For very good reasons, the expertise of its women religious scares the Vatican.

Nuns are best and brightest of Roman Catholic religious.

So, why should an Episcopal priest - albeit one who was formerly Roman Catholic - care? Why should anyone - lay or ordained - of any denomination be concerned?

Well, can you say, "baptism"? Like it or not, admit it or not, they are our sisters.

Okay, can you say "sexism"? Or, "misogyny"?

How about these words: "War on Women"? It's not just for Republicans, you know. Indeed, they are emboldened by Evangelicals and ....wait for it....The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who have been the four-star generals of local skirmishes as well as on the national battle lines.

What can we do? Well, I intend to continue to pray for them daily, and will do so more fervently. I invite you to join me. All you have to do is simply shoot them a few "arrow prayers" a few times a day. I do that and read the Magnificat every morning, dedicating it to them.

Go over to FaceBook and "like" the group "Support Our Catholic Sisters". Leave a supportive message every once in a while, just so they know they've got wide ecumenical and interfaith friends.

I've also written a letter to the Roman Catholic Bishop of Delaware, telling him of my distress. I don't think it will make a difference. Indeed, I'm sure it's already in the "circular file," but if enough of these letters come in, maybe they won't be as smug.

I'm going to write to my Episcopal bishops and ask them to work this issue into their conversations with their Roman Catholic brothers. Again, not that I think that, alone, will make a difference, but because, cumulatively, I believe it may have a 'softening' effect on the way the process is implemented.

If you know of anything else we can do, please post it here and I'll support it.

I am the priest I am today because of these religious women. I am deeply grateful for their lives, their witness and their ministry.

If your life or the life of someone you know has been touched by a Roman Catholic nun, please show your gratitude. Please pray for them daily. Pray for God's justice to be done.

As the nuns of my youth taught me, "God hears the prayers of the righteous".


June Butler said...

Oh Elizabeth, I so agree with you about these wonderful women whose elder sisters, now amongst the saints in heaven, taught me for 12 years. What a dastardly deed it is that the bishops do.

IT said...

THis: Take their property, sell it off, and pay off all the legal expenses incurred by the scandal of child abuse and pedophilia of their priests and the cover up of the church's hierarchy.

YES, indeed! Just htink of it--they are trying simultaneously to silence those uppity women AND gain full control of their properties. This isn't about doctrine or discipline, it's only about power and control.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mimi - Dastardly is a good word. I'm sure it was a nun first taught it to me. This is a moral outrage.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

IT - That's the way it looks to me. Then again, I tend to be cynical about most things RC - except for the nuns.

I wonder how xxMichael will try to explain this one. Nah, I'm thinking he'll be silent on this one - just like the Bishops and priests in the American RC Church. It's too embarrassing. How to even try to defend this?

claire bangasser said...

Thank you very much for this post :-)

claire bangasser said...

Thank you very much for this post.

The agony of the Catholic hierarchy is taking forever...


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Claire - I'm not sure if you posted twice of if there are two different 'Claires'. Not to worry. You're welcome and you're right: the agony seems never to end.


Thanks for your post. The situation with the Catholic nuns is infuriating. Even when women don't have much, and the Catholic sisters don't own anything themselves as individuals, the power structures still find ways to disenfranchise them even more. The one thing the power structure cannot take away is the love, respect and support of other Christian women who believe in the ministry and lives of the Catholic sisters.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Lelanda - You're right, and that is precisely what will block these misogynist bozos from doing their worst. If this isn't the time for the people of God to rise up, I don't know when is.

Anonymous said...

I suppose righteous anger should have boiled up in me when I first read about this in the NCR; but, at last it did not. I expected as much when the visitations were announced. I too pray for the sisters. They were the ones that took care of us. Many of them now are older and are at the mercy of the RCC even if their order was smart enough to have their property in their name and not that of the RCC. (I am thinking of the sisters in Arkansas a few years back. The RCC tried to take their property after they failed to disassociate from a group in Canada. But failed because of the title . However, they were excommunicated.)
I fear more sisters will be excommunicated. It will be time then for us to take care of them. Perhaps, the intentional Eucharistic communities and the cyber communities, like Monestraries of the Heart, will be able to help support these sisters financially, emotionally, and spirtually. May the Lord bless them and keep them.
Thank you for your post.

rick allen said...

"How to even try to defend this?"

It is simple oversight. That's practically what the word "bishop" means.

It's rather early to know exactly how this will turn out. The New York Times called it a "crack down;" the right-wing blogs rejoiced at the anticipated comeuppance of a "smack-down."

It doesn't seem to occur to many that this is the ordinary give-and-take of a Church where theologians routinely push the envelope and those in authority periodically reel them back in. It's the old cliche, "The better your brakes are, the faster you can drive your car." If there is only freedom, the Church repeatedly splits; if there is only authority, it atrophies. It is the dialectic of freedom and authority that allows development without loss what has been entrusted to confess, teach, and pass on.

Personally, I am more concerned for the bishops than for the sisters. Authority is fine so far as it goes, and it is necessary in any large institution. But the sisters are held together by something more enduring, and, unless the bitterness of our secular politics somehow seeps in, I am hopeful that both groups profit by this.

I suspect this attitude will sound impossibly blinkered to you. But Church history is full of this kind of tension between bishops and religious orders. When rightly directed, though, each can keep the other rightly directed. It's a tension that the Reformation churches largely eliminated, but one from which I think the modern world can still benefit.

Anonymous said...

"The median age is 70"? Why not just wait for them to die and then deal with their property?
BTW, a lot of nuns became nuns for the same reason lots of priests and brothers and friars joined up; they were gay and this was a way to hide that fact and still work in the church.
Lots of weird conflicts as gay men chase lesbians around in circles.

parodie said...

For those on Twitter, there's also the hashtags #supportthesisters and #whatthesistersmeantome

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Maria - I think these women are smart enough to figure out a way to hold onto their property. There may be more excommunications to come. That will be a loss to the institution - not the nuns or the people they serve.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Rick Allen - Well, yours is not so much a defense as an explanation. It is the longview and history is written by the victors.

I am not at all concerned with the future of the bishops. They are getting their reward. And, I think, in the longest view, Jesus will deal with them.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Turnip Ghost - Yes, the church is filled with ordained clergy and religious nuns who fled to the convent or monasteries or churches as a way to deal with their sexuality - gay or straight. And yes, it does make for a very weird dynamic - misogyny and sexism being chiefly among them.

sally hague said...

I can't help thinking that they have now gone one step too far.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Speaking of sisters… are you familiar with Christina Rossetti’s wonderful poem “Goblin Market” about two sisters (not nun, but maybe lesbians) who overcome temptation by goblins? Today is Christina’s feast day in the Episcopal and Anglican churches, so I blogged about her. It was inspiring to immerse myself in her life while researching and writing my piece. She is also known for her Christmas carol “In the Bleak Midwinter.” I thought of you, Elizabeth, while I was writing it, because she seems like a saint you would like. I would enjoy reading your thoughts about her.

Here’s a link to my piece about her:
Christina Rossetti: Queer writer of Christmas carols and lesbian poetry

Kittredge Cherry said...

Meant to send a clickable link:

Christina Rossetti: Queer writer of Christmas carols and lesbian poetry

JCF said...

The problem the Vatican has w/ the LCWR, is the "L": Leadership.

They want the sisters to be uncritical Followers.

It is simple oversight. That's practically what the word "bishop" means.

...and only men can be (RC) bishops. Behold the closed loop!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Kit. Left a message on your blog.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - It's just flat out disgusting. Period. I can't believe that The Vatican hasn't overplayed its hand and that this will won't all backfire.

Anonymous said...

What comes to mind to me is the 19th century case of Mary Helen MacKillop in Australia. After reporting a priest's abuse, Mackillop was thrown out of her convent and excommunicated by the bishop on the charge on insubordination. She was later reinstated. She was canonized a saint in 2010.

whiteycat said...

I definitely hope for a big backfire on this one ... a shot heard round the globe. A Sister I know told me that the Vatican can seize their property. I think that and their fear of women is what it is all about.

Anonymous said...

Closeted gay men with too much power on their hands being real jerks to saintly lesbians... that's what this is really all about. Women need to rise up in outrage at how the Vatican has treated these women -- median age 70-- why don't they pick on someone their own age?

What is all women just walked out of the Catholic church in solidarity... no more free labor, no more women supporting those closet cases in the Vatican! Let's just end this male supremacy women, enough!! Turtle Woman

Brian said...

Thanks for this post Elizabeth. It helped me to remember dear Sister Suzanne, who shepherded me into the RCC many years ago through personalized RCIA classes.

I have never forgotten how she startled me the day we were studying The Sacraments and when we got to Holy Orders I confessed that I had a great deal of trouble with the way priests were required to be celibate and women were treated as second class citizens by the church. She replied: "The Church requires you to have a penis to be a priest then denies you the natural use of it." What a woman!

Perhaps it is my cynicism but I see this as part of the long game planned by the conservative orthodox after they were shunted into the background during Vatican II. They never forgot and never let go of the dream of "retaking" the church and rescinding all of the "innovations" and they are succeeding quite well thanks to John Paul II's appointments of arch conservative cardinals during his reign followed by Benedict XIV's concurrence.

It is what ultimately led me away from Rome and into the Episcopal Church. I still love the RCC and the Mass but I couldn't live with what it did to my heart watching these conservatives attack priests and sisters that I loved and respected.

May God show God's strength in defense of American women religious.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

QED - I think they should all be canonized. Now. They are living saints

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Whiteycat. It's a deadly combination of misogyny and greed. You can smell its toxins all over the world.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Turtlewoman - I can always count on you to take the position on the extreme left of the spectrum but I must say, on this one, I'm not too far behind you. Most of these women would fit nicely in The Episcopal Church. That wouldn't make you happy but I'd be THRILLED.

rick allen said...

"why don't they pick on someone their own age?"

Cuz they can't find any organizations with a median age of 85?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Rick Allen - You're probably righter than you know.

Anonymous said...

Not much to explain: LCWR has been led by progressive wackos and has poorly represented its member orders for decades. The women orders range from conservative to progressive but the LCWR does little to reflect that diversity, to the point that the CMSWR had to be formed to represent the conservative voice.

Having a series of parodies as keynote speakers for the LCWR conference (this year's version: Barbara Marx Hubbard) is just the tip of the iceberg for the weirdness and unfaithfulness issuing forth from LCWR.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Michael, Michael, Michael. You can always be trusted to give me a good laugh - when you don't occasionally set my teeth on edge. "Progressive wackos". Ah, you are just too funny! If you really knew who you were talking about, you'd keep your mouth shut - and your knuckles out of sight.