I've been waiting all day to hear a statement from the Leadership Conference Women Religious (LCWR), an organization that represents 80% of the estimated 57,000 Roman Catholic women in religious orders (AKA "Nuns") in the United States.
It was supposed to have been released around 3 PM. Nothing yet. I've been praying for them all day.
You may or not be aware that these women have been under official Vatican rebuke, which came in the form of a mandate on April 18, 2012, which ordered the group to revise and place itself under the control of three U.S. bishops. official Vatican’s rebuke, which came in April 18 mandate ordering the group to revise and place itself under the control of three U.S. bishops.
The backlash of outrage and anger from American Roman Catholics has been amazing to see. It's not just about "the nuns". The Vatican's attack on the LCWR is emblematic of a growing concern that strikes at the heart of American Roman Catholics.
That concern? No, not pedophile priests. No, not the ordination of women. No, not the ability of clergy to marry. No, not even whether or not "non-Roman Catholics" can receive communion.
I'll give you a hint: It was the real spark that ignited the Reformation. No, not the divorce of King Henry the VIII. That was just the last straw.
The issue is authority.
A growing number of people in the American Roman Catholic Church - which is to say, the laity, are wrestling with the same questions Anglicans struggled with - and, in many ways, continues to be central to our church. Just how much authority does a 'foreign' (that is, not "local") body have on a community of faith and still be able to call itself "catholic" (small 'c', meaning 'universal')?
This morning, Franciscan Sr. Pat Farrell gave a rousing message to her sisters. A key question facing LCWR, she said, is “What would a prophetic response to the doctrinal assessment look like?”
“I think it would be humble, but not submissive,” she continued. “Rooted in a solid sense of ourselves, but not self-righteous; truthful, but gentle and absolutely fearless.
It would ask probing questions. Are we being invited to some appropriate pruning and are we open to it? Is this doctrinal process an expression of concern or an attempt to control?
“Concern is based in love and invites unity. Control through fear and intimidation would be an abuse of power.
“Does the institutional legitimacy of canonical recognition empower us to live prophetically? Does it allow us the freedom to question with informed consciences? Does it really welcome feedback in a church that claims to honor the sensus fildeum?”
“We cannot allow it to consume us,” she said. “It is not the first time that a form of religious life has collided with the church, nor will it be the last.”
“The doctrinal assessment suggests that we are not currently living in an ideal ecclesial world,” Farrell continued.
Yet, she said, the sisters also “cannot make too little” of the Vatican’s move. It’s “historical impact,” she said, is “apparent to all of us.”Isn't that simply remarkable?
Oh, that we had asked the same questions of the Anglican Covenant! Wait, wait. wait. Hang on just a minute. In fact, I think we have.
In fact, I think we did concern ourselves with issues of "control through fear and intimidation". And, I think we did ask the question: "Does the institutional legitimacy of canonical recognition empower us to live prophetically? Does it allow us the freedom to question with informed consciences? "
Just because the Anglican Covenant appears to be dead in the water, it is too soon to dismiss it as a dead issue. As I said in a post earlier this week, depending on who is elected the next Archbishop of Canterbury, we could be witnesses to the resurrection of that dread document. Unfortunately, the Episcopal Church's "umm..., maybe, but not yet" response in B005 will only kindle the spark of power and control that continues to smolder in the councils and corridors of the institutional church.
It was ever thus, my dears. It's the Anglican Covenant for our generation. It was the 39 Articles in a previous generation. Don't even get me started about the political nature of the Nicene Creed.
Meanwhile, these religious woman - these, "nuns" - continue to be dismissed as being "old, dying women". If I hear, one more time, that the average age of nuns in the US is 70, I'm going to scream. As if that has anything to do with the liberation of the Gospel, promised to us all.
God delights in surprising the human race S/he created. Ever since The Garden, God has surprised us with the unexpected. God surprised Sarah in her old age with the gift of a child. God surprised us by choosing Mary, a young un-married woman, to be the Theotokis, the God-bearer.
I suspect God is surprising us all with the prophetic witness of these "sisters" of ours, who are, I believed, being called to give birth to a new understanding of the power and authority of the institutional church.
One that is humble, but not submissive. Rooted in a solid sense of ourselves, but not self-righteous. Truthful, but gentle and absolutely fearless.
What a vision of the church! What a profound understanding of obedience and power and authority.
I just checked. No word yet from The Sisters. No smoke coming from St. Louis, so no one has tried to run them out of the building. At least, nothing has hit the newsstands in cyberspace.
I'll keep you posted as soon as I get word.
Meanwhile, I ask you to join me in prayer for them. It's a short little, "arrow prayer" like the kind the nuns of my youth taught me. (It is also known as an "ejaculatory prayer" - like saying, 'Jesus, Mary and Joseph' or writing JMJ on the top of your exam paper). It's just eleven words of prayer:
Go, Sisters! Be gentle but fearless with the truth you know.
At the end of its annual assembly Friday in St. Louis, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious said it will proceed with discussion with the Vatican "for as long as possible" but will reconsider if the sisters are "forced to compromise the integrity of [their] mission."