“Even as Pope Francis washed the feet of women on Holy Thursday—a papal first—he reaffirmed in April the highly controversial interrogation and hostile takeover, initiated under his predecessor, of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an organization representing the majority of U.S. Catholic sisters. On Holy Thursday in the juvenile detention center in Rome, Pope Francis explained the important symbolism of the foot washing. ‘It means, “I am at your service,”‘ he said to the youth. What an opportunity the pope has to extend this same gesture to Catholic nuns in the U.S.”
Some say Pope Francis was not properly informed about the unfolding process with U.S. Catholic sisters. Others say his inclination was not to overturn what was started by his predecessor. But all of his public acts indicated that open, positive, respectful conversation with women religious is something he deeply desires and knows that he needs.
Perhaps, in advance of Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. next autumn, this tide too is turning. Here’s an excerpt from the Detroit Free Press:
On at least one front, the Vatican’s perceived war against America’s Catholic nuns may have reached a peace settlement.
On Dec. 16 at the Vatican, top Catholic church officials and three American nuns, including one from Michigan, will hold a press conference to publicly reveal the final report of a five-year investigation of congregations of Catholic sisters in the U.S., the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman told the Free Press.
The inquiry of nuns, known as an Apostolic Visitation, sparked a vast outcry by many American Catholics, who viewed it as an attack on the workhorses of the Catholic church, the women who taught and ministered to generations of Catholics and help run parishes and social outreach programs to society’s poor and marginalized.
Rosica, president of Windsor’s Assumption University, said he could not divulge contents of the report, but said it should allay the fears of many Catholic sisters about the investigation.
“It will hopefully be a very positive message for women religious in the United States,” Rosica said Tuesday, after he spoke at Detroit’s Catholic Cristo Rey High School, where he received hundreds of letters from students inviting Pope Francis to visit Detroit in 2015. …
You may not have been tracking the recent switcharoos in Catholic hierarchy, but here’s one to note. The guy in charge of investigating the American religious women’s orders has been replaced. The elder Slovenian Cardinal Rode (he of the flowing robes and multiple robe bearers) has moved on. Detroit native Fr. Joseph Tobin has taken his place.
To put it succinctly, the nuns like this guy a whole lot better. And he’s making nice with them trying to repair the damage the Vatican has done to its relationship with American nuns and the laity who love them.
The first thing Tobin did when he had power of his new office was to acknowledged the “anger and hurt” among U.S. nuns caused by the probe by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
“There’s a great deal of misunderstanding among American religious about the decisions of the Holy See, and in particular the visitation of women religious,” Tobin said in an National Catholic Reporterinterview. “Maybe I can offer a different picture of American women religious than the one that sometimes has been presented in Rome,” Tobin said. “My own impression is extremely positive.”
The Vatican scrutiny of American women’s religious orders began in December 2008 and is scheduled to continue through 2011. Many Catholics around the world have criticized the investigation as a heavy-handed attempt to rein in U.S. nuns because regressionists in church hierarchy see them as too independent.
The Vatican’s investigation has become a referendum on defending and promoting the precepts of Vatican II. “Many sisters answered the call of the church’s Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) which encouraged social activism, freedom of expression and conscience and respect for other religions,” reports Michael O’Malley (Nuns hopeful on U.S. prelate’s role in Vatican probe). “Critics believe the hierarchy in Rome is trying to turn the clock back to a more conservative and traditional church.”
“The heart of the issue is not about nuns,” said Sister Diana Culbertson, a retired professor of literature and Scripture at Kent State University, in O’Malley’s article. “It’s about the interpretation of Vatican II. The current hierarchy of the church does not have the same interpretation of Vatican II as we do.”
Culbertson, who refers to the investigation as the “nunquisition,” said: “They see us as Marxist-feminist radicals. Rome has a picture of American nuns that doesn’t correspond to the picture we have of ourselves.
“They want us in our place. But we don’t make vows to the hierarchy. We make our vows to God.”
It remains to be seen how Tobin will handle the infrastructure and procedures of the investigation and how significantly he will involve the Catholic women’s orders. The separate Vatican investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group that represents the leaders of 95 percent of the nation’s 59,000 nuns, continues.
In December, the University of San Francisco honored Catholic women religious for their contributions to the country and the church by awarding them with an honorary doctorate. Dominican sister and president of the Leadership Conference of Catholic Women Religious (LCWR), Mary Hughes, accepted the degree on behalf of all religious sisters in America.
Sister Annmarie Sanders, a spokeswoman for LCWR, said that they’ve had no communication with the Vatican panel since April. Asked whether she feels the nuns’ conference is being kept in the dark regarding the investigation, Sanders said, “Very much so.”
I was very happy to see that both the Sacramento and Portland-OR Catholic newspapers printed the letter below in support of American Catholic sisters and asking the Vatican to discontinue its investigation.
I was doubly happy that this letter was written by my own parents! In addition to themselves as signatories, 30 others also signed in support.
When Pope Benedict proclaimed the year for priests, the Vatican began an investigation of American Catholic Sisters. The investigation lacks collegiality, subsidiarity and transparency, core values of the Vatican II Council. The investigation is an insult to the Sisters and to American Catholic lay people.
American Religious women, in struggling with the needed reforms from Vatican II, offered vision in examining our Catholic Christian roots. They instilled their charisms of faith, vision and courage and empowered us all to be advocates for peace and justice. They became our witnesses of discipleship and faithfulness. They, too, truly deserve our gratitude and support.
The emphasis from Rome, “Praise the Priests, Investigate the Sisters” illustrates the disparity in our church.
We have much to be thankful for the good and faithful priests who bring us the Eucharist. They deserve our fullest appreciation.
They are reeling from the sordid actions of a few, about 4.5 percent over the past 50 years, including bishops, who perpetrated and covered up the scandals. Financial settlements have cost dioceses, American Catholics, and their insurance companies $1 billion.
The Sisters and we lay people deserve better. We pray the Pope will cancel the investigation of the American Religious women and proclaim a Year of the Sisters.
As part of the response to the Vatican investigation into American Catholic sisters’ communities, many groups decided to not fill out those pesky and intrusive and demeaning questionnaires. Instead, they sent Sr. Millea, the feminine face of the Vatican’s investigation, copies of their charters of institution–the basic documents that define their mission and organization that have already been approved by the Vatican.
It seems to be a polite, clear, and respectful response to an unasked for intrusion into their lives and ministries.
Apparently, Sr. Millea isn’t too happy with the sisters’ “failure to comply.” (The institution is never happy when it says jump and your response is walk away.) She sent a letter on Jan. 12 regaling the communities with the lovely time she had in Rome over Christmas and requesting that the sisters do what she said and that the Pope agrees with her. I have no doubt that her’s is a futile task.
The questionnaires, sent last year to the heads of some 325 religious communities, were to have been returned by Nov. 20. A substantial number of the religious communities — some women religious leaders saying the “vast majority” of the communities — refused to comply with an initial Millea request to fill out all the questions on the questionnaire and instead filled out only some or none. A number of religious communities chose, instead, to return to Millea their order’s Vatican approved constitutions.
The decisions by congregation leaders not to comply followed nearly two months last fall of intensive discussions both inside and across religious congregations. They followed consultations with civil and canon lawyers, and come in the wake of what some women religious see as widespread support by laity for their church missions.
Effectively, the acts of noncompliance were mechanisms by U.S. women religious to signal their collective displeasure at what they view as an unnecessary and ill-formed investigation of their religious communities.
Millea’s letter, dated Jan. 12 and placed this week on the official apostolic visitation web site , was the first official acknowledgement of the failure of religious communities to fully comply with the Vatican request for information about the religious communities.
This is part five of a five-part essay by Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sandra Schneiders on the meaning of religious life today. The series is published in the U.S-based National Catholic Reporter. In this part Schneiders, professor of New Testament Studies and Christian Spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, offers a conclusion to her essay on prophetic ministry and the nature of true Christian obedience. (See my earlier post on Tom Fox’s interview with Schneiders here, and Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.) The quotes that I highlighted and my set of questions are at the bottom of the post.
Religious Life is Sharing Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection (Part 5 of 5)
We can now see the parallel between the two-level analysis of the execution of Jesus and the two levels of the struggle between U.S. women Religious and the Vatican. At the surface level Jesus was executed to put a stop to his “stirring up the people” which threatened the status quo of the Empire and the Temple. But at the deepest level, although “they knew not what they were doing,” the officials were trying to neutralize the radical revolution Jesus was introducing into their “world.” Jesus was initiating, by his prophetic words and works, a “new creation,” totally at odds with the satanic domination systems in power not only in political and religious institutions but in the human race as a whole. He was inaugurating and inviting people into the Reign of God, into a regime of endless and unconditioned compassion that would overflow into and empower a new form of justice based not on retribution and coercive power but on forgiveness of sins and inclusion in the all-embracing love of God. The Resurrection was God’s “yes” to Jesus’ work and “no” to the murder that tried to stop it.
Since Jesus, the Reign of God is “loose” in this world, working its painful way through the witness of saints and martyrs toward its full eschatological realization. The “powers” of this world are still at work to prevent this realization but, as Jesus said to his disciples on the eve of his death, “Have confidence; I have overcome the world.”
When we get down to the deeper levels of the question with which this essay began, “Why are Religious, of all people, being investigated by the Vatican?” we can discern the same two levels. At the surface level Religious are being threatened because they have been “upsetting the (patriarchal) order” of the Church as institution in which the hierarchy has its position of power. But they are calling into question not only absolute male power over women (which was not invented by and is not restricted to the Church) but also the necessity of understanding the Church itself as essentially an institution based on sacralized power. Religious, by their community life, are aligning themselves with the ecclesiology of the Church as People of God expressed in Lumen Gentium, a discipleship of equals, within which they are both exemplars and facilitators but also in solidarity with those to whom they no longer wish to be “superior” or “elite.” They are gratefully living among their lay sisters and brothers the oneness of the Body of Christ. This ecclesiology is no threat to the community Jesus gathered around him but it is a threat to an understanding of Church as a sacralized empire. It goes back to Jesus, not to Constantine.
But this Body of Christ, which we are, exists not just for the Church itself but for the world which God so loved. It is not a place of privilege or power, a sanctuary of the perfect, but the effective presence of Christ in the world in service of all those for whom Jesus died and rose. This is the vision of the Church in the world that came to marvelous expression in Gaudium et Spes.
The struggle between Religious and the hierarchy is really, at its core, a struggle over the nature of Religious Life itself which is necessarily determined by how one understands the Church in its relation to the world. Is this life a job corps of submissive workers carrying out hierarchically assigned and supervised institutional Church tasks designed to bring all people into the Roman Catholic Church and into subjection to its leadership? Or is Religious Life a charismatically grounded, prophetic life form in the Church called by God to the ever ambiguous task of discerning how the Gospel, the good news of the Reign of God, can be made salvifically operative in the concrete and confusing situations in which believers must live their Christ-life today in witness to all peoples of the infinite loving-kindness of our God?
I got a little behind in this Sandra Schneiders’ series due to the earthquake in Haiti, but now I’m back on track. This is part three of a five-part essay by Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sandra Schneiders on the meaning of religious life today. The series is published in the U.S-based National Catholic Reporter.
In this part Schneiders, professor of New Testament Studies and Christian Spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, explores Jesus’ life out of which his prophetic ministry flowed. One asks: Is it a realistic model for the life of ministerial religious today? If so, what are the implications of the prophetic character of religious life for the behavior of religious in ministry and in relation to church hierarchy? (See my earlier post on Tom Fox’s interview with Schneiders here, and Part 1, and Part 2.) The quotes that I highlighted and my set of questions are at the bottom of the post.
What Jesus taught us about his prophetic ministry (Part 3 of 5)
The Prophet’s Life
We turn now to Jesus’ life out of which his prophetic ministry flowed. Is it a realistic model for the life of ministerial religious today? If so, what are the implications of the prophetic character of religious life for the behavior of religious in ministry and in relation to the hierarchy?
First, Jesus’ prophetic vocation was rooted in and expressive of his mystical life, the intense contemplative prayer life that the Gospels present as the root of his experiential knowledge of God. He not only took part in Jewish vocal prayer and liturgy (e.g., see Lk. 4:16; Mt. 26:17) . He spent long periods — whole nights (Lk. 6:12), hours before dawn (Mk. 1:35), times of decision making (Lk. 6:12-13) and anguish (see Mk. 14:32-42), and, at least once, “40 days” — in prayer to God (see Mk. 1:13 and pars.). Jesus not only knew about God; he knew God intimately. He experienced God as his “Abba” (Mk. 14:36), his loving parent, from whom he drew his own identity, and whose project was his own. In John’s Gospel Jesus speaks of being “one” with God (Jn. 10:30) whose words he speaks and whose works he does (see Jn. 14:10).
The prophet’s direct and immediate experience of God is the root of her or his words and actions. But this activity is often enough critical of or even in opposition to the positions of the legitimate ecclesiastical authorities who are usually presented as, and in fact are, God’s institutional representatives. Jesus’ confrontation with the officials over the woman taken in adultery was not an isolated case. He was frequently in heated conflict with the hierarchy.
We can be tempted to think that such opposition to institutional authority was fine for Jesus in relation to the Jerusalem hierarchy in the first century but not for us in relation to ecclesiastical authority in our own time. Jesus, after all, was God so he knew all the right answers. And the Jerusalem hierarchy was degenerate and filled with evil hypocrites.
To sanitize (and even trivialize) Jesus’ prophetic ministry in this way is to miss the point entirely. Jesus did not claim personal divine authority when he acted prophetically in relation to the religious institution. He claimed to be speaking for God, not as God. And it is important to note that his adversaries were claiming exactly the same thing, that is, to be God’s official representatives to the people which, in fact, they were. They actually had the ecclesiastical authority of office on their side, which Jesus did not because he was not a priest, an elder, a scribe, or any other kind of religious official.
Jesus had prophetic credibility among the people because he “spoke with authority,” precisely not as the scribes, that is, not by virtue of institutional position nor backed up by texts (see Mk. 1:27; Mt. 7:29). He spoke “like no other person ever has” (cf. Jn. 7:45-46). It was not because he was God in thin disguise or because he was credentialed by the religious establishment, but because his truth telling, despite overwhelming personal threat when what he said and did ran counter to what the laws or the officials required, manifested to the people that he was indeed representing the true God. Only later, only after the Resurrection, did they realize that this “prophet, mighty in word and work,” was indeed the Son of God. During his public life, his authority flowed from what he did and said. No one can confer, and no one can “claim,” moral authority. It belongs only to one earns it. Jesus was powerfully, personally authoritative and that is why he was recognized as a prophet.
Furthermore, the religious officials of Jesus’ time were no more wicked, hypocritical, oppressive, immoral, or corrupt than officials of state and Church in other ages. They had the same status among their contemporaries as do our legislators, priests and bishops, presidents and popes. The presumption of legitimacy and competence was theirs by virtue of their office. The officials Jesus confronted were not wearing signs saying embezzler, hypocrite, pedophile, adulterer, pornographer, so that anyone looking at them would know that Jesus was certainly right to call them to account. Jesus was seeing in them, in their teaching and their behavior, what his contemporaries, like so many of us when we deal with people in high places, were conditioned not to see, or were afraid to name. And he bore witness, at risk of his life, to what he saw.
The problem for Jesus’ contemporaries was the same as ours today. How are we to judge between voices competing for our acceptance? How do we recognize the prophet, the one who “speaks for God?” Obviously, as the horror of the Holocaust made clear for all time, it is profoundly immoral to uncritically “follow orders” simply because they come from someone in authority. Jesus warned his contemporaries to beware of the official teachers, of the priests and elders and Pharisees who “sit in the chair of Moses” but are hypocrites (see Mt. 23:1-5), whited sepulchers (see Mt. 23:27), self-serving oppressors of the poor in the name of God.
There were, of course, sincere men among the ecclesiastical officials of Jesus’ time, like Nicodemus (Jn. 3, 7, 19); and the scribe who was “not far from the kingdom of God” (Mk. 12:28-39). But there were many others, like Caiaphas (Jn. 11:49-50 with 18:14), who were “the blind leading the blind” (see Mt. 15:10-14). We face the same challenge today. There are many men of integrity, holiness, and compassion holding office in the Church. But popes can be wrong, even culpably so; bishops can be criminals; priests can be embezzlers or sexual predators. One thing is certain: hierarchical status, office in the Church, is no guarantee that the speaker or his message comes from God. An office holder may be prophetic, or a prophet may hold office, but the two charisms as such do not imply each other. And history suggests that there is virtually always tension, if not opposition, between institutional and prophetic authority.
Besides an intense life of prayer which unites the prophet to God, was extraordinarily “unattached,” not only inwardly, but even in his personal lifestyle. By his own choice, he had no family to provide for or to protect. He owned no personal property that he could lose. He held no official position of power, political or ecclesiastical, that his actions could jeopardize.
Of course, family, property, and power are not necessarily impediments to prophetic freedom. Like St. Thomas More, many people in high places, with much to protect personally, professionally, and politically, have given their lives in witness to the truth. But being without such attachments is a bulwark of prophetic freedom simply because it makes it easier to “hear,” without distortion from one’s own inner voices or outer demands, the voices that are relevant to the issues one must discern. With less “static” from legitimate competing interests the prophet can more easily listen full-time, with all his or her attention, for the truth to which witness is required, the truth that must be done regardless of orders to the contrary. Discernment based on attentive listening, not submission to the will of another, is the essence of prophetic obedience.
Third, a major and non-negotiable criterion of the true prophet is the coherence between the prophet’s message and the prophet’s life. The more insensitive one is to the devastation one’s teaching or legislating causes in the lives of real people, the more willing one is to “stone the sinner” in order to bolster official authority and guard public morality, the more likely it is that, no matter how highly placed, one is a “blind guide,” one of those Jesus described who “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; while they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Mt. 23:4). Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela were willing to pay the price for their witness for racial justice. Jesus defending the woman taken in adultery was risking his life for hers. Witness to the truth is never comfortable or self-aggrandizing for the true prophet, and the risks are usually high. “Witness” from the favored side of power is dubiously prophetic.
The issue that emerges as central when the prophetic charism conflicts with institutional authority is precisely the one operative in much of the current struggle between the institutional church and religious, namely, obedience. Can we equate obedience to God with doing what we are told by people who hold office? And can we submissively abstain from interpreting the present situation in light of the Gospel and responding to the present needs of real people, because those who hold office require that we do so?
We will return to this topic shortly, but, by way of anticipation, it appears from Jesus’ practice and especially from his life that religious obedience cannot be adequately understood or defined as “blind or absolute submission to official authority,” whether to people, teaching, or laws. No matter how highly placed in the religious institution they might be, human beings do not take God’s place in the life of believers. To pretend otherwise is blasphemy on the part of those who claim to do so and idolatry on the part of those who accord to humans the obedience that belongs to God alone. There is no avoiding the challenge and the obligation of discernment and “blind obedience,” i.e., uncritical submission to power, is neither discernment nor obedience. Nor can it ever be a substitute for either.
Coming to grips, in genuine obedience to God, with the tension between their prophetic vocation and the demands of ecclesiastical authority is at the heart of the current struggle between religious and the Vatican. So we turn now to a focused examination of contemporary ministerial religious life against the background of the understanding of Jesus’ prophetic vocation in which religious are called to share.–Sr. Sandra Schneiders
I think this series by Sr. Schneiders offers an important opportunity for serious conversation among all Christians–not just Catholics–on the quality of our life in Christ and our relationship to our church and our world. Below are some quotes from her article and a few questions of my own.–RMB
* “First, Jesus’ prophetic vocation was rooted in and expressive of his mystical life, the intense contemplative prayer life that the Gospels present as the root of his experiential knowledge of God.”
* “[Prophetic] activity is often enough critical of or even in opposition to the positions of the legitimate ecclesiastical authorities who are usually presented as, and in fact are, God’s institutional representatives.”
* “No one can confer, and no one can “claim,” moral authority. It belongs only to one earns it. Jesus was powerfully, personally authoritative and that is why he was recognized as a prophet.”
*”An office holder may be prophetic, or a prophet may hold office, but the two charisms as such do not imply each other. And history suggests that there is virtually always tension, if not opposition, between institutional and prophetic authority.”
* A second requirement of prophetic identity and mission is a certain freedom from attachments which pressure the person to prefer personal or institutional goods, the maintaining of the status quo within which one’s own position and interests are protected, to God’s interests or the good of those to whom one is sent.”
*”Third, a major and non-negotiable criterion of the true prophet is the coherence between the prophet’s message and the prophet’s life.”
* “Uncritical submission to power is neither discernment nor obedience.”
1. Jesus rooted his life in prayer–privately, in community, and in officially religious settings. In what ways do you allow prayer to root your life in and out of “official” church settings? We can assume that Jesus’ “prayer practices” changed over the course of his life. How have yours changed over time? Do you experience prayer as increasing a sense of intimacy with God?
2. In modern society, we have terrible examples of “prophets” who are told by “the voice of God” to commit terrible anti-social acts. What distinctions does Schneiders mention and might you add that help distinguish prophetic ministry from mental illness (to put it bluntly)?
3. Schneiders says that “Jesus did not claim personal divine authority when he acted prophetically in relation to the religious institution.” Do you agree? Do you think Jesus ever doubted whether he was doing the right thing? What questions do you ask yourself when you are compelled to speak out against an established authority?
4. In some Christian traditions, if a person has a vision for a new ministry, that vision must be “confirmed” by 3 others before it is considered a legitimate ministry of the church. Schneiders implies that Jesus’ prophetic word was “confirmed” because the people heard it as “truth,” as full of “authority.” When have you heard someone speak who you felt immediately had touched on a deep truth that you needed to hear? How did you respond? What actions did you take?
5. Schneiders says prayer, unattachment, and integrity of life and word are hallmarks of prophetic ministry.How are these elements balanced in the life of a prophetic community, not just an individual?
6. Post-Watergate/post-Vietnam era Americans have had experiences that make them very skeptical of authority. The post-9/11 generations often see authority as the only thing protecting them from forces of chaos. How do generational or psychosocial differences influence “prophetic action”? For those in institutional leadership, how do they view “prophetic action”? Can you act prophetically from “within” the system?
This is part two of a five-part essay by Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sandra Schneiders on the meaning of religious life today. The series is published in the U.S-based National Catholic Reporter. In this part Schneiders, professor of New Testament Studies and Christian Spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, sets the context for “Religious Life as Prophetic Life Form.” (See my earlier post on Tom Fox’s interview with Schneiders here and the part one of this series here.) The quotes that I highlighted and my set of questions are at the bottom of the post.
In this essay, Schneiders goes beyond the description of the itinerant ministerial religious lifestyle into the theological nature of the prophetic life form that this lifestyle embodies. Meanwhile, we need always to keep in mind that all believers, whatever their particular Christian vocations, are equally called to discipleship and to holiness.
Call, Response, and Task of Prophetic Action (Part 2 of 5)
In an article published by NCR last October I described ministerial religious life as it emerged in the [Catholic] Church in the 1600’s, was officially approved in 1900, and has finally become distinct, in the wake of Vatican II, from the semi-cloistered monastic-apostolic hybrid lifeform of the early 1900’s. I described it as a lifeform closely modeled on that of Jesus’ original itinerant band of disciples, those women and men like Peter, Mary Magdalene, and others whom Jesus called to go about with him on a full-time basis in Palestine during his earthly ministry and, after his resurrection, to the ends of the earth. Like Jesus himself they were called to leave home, family, employment, personal belongings, life projects and to devote themselves full-time to the ministry of proclaiming the Reign of God in word and deed.
In this essay I want to go beyond the description of the itinerant lifestyle of these disciples into the theological nature of the prophetic lifeform that this lifestyle embodies. In such an investigation we need always to keep in mind that all believers, whatever their particular Christian vocation, are equally called to discipleship and to holiness. However, not all disciples are called to this particular lifeform which, as we will see, consists in a particular assimilation to Jesus’ prophetic identity and mission.
John Paul II insisted at considerable length in Vita Consecrata (the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation published in 1996, Part II, 84 ff.), following the lead of the Council, that Religious Life is a prophetic lifeform in the Church. Prophecy is not all there is to Religious Life, just as it did not exhaust the mission and ministry of Jesus. But our question here is: what does it mean to say that ministerial Religious Life is essentially a prophetic lifeform? Only from this basis can we address some of the questions about the life, and particularly about the role of obedience in this life, that are being raised by the current Vatican investigations [into American Catholic women’s religious communities].
The Pre-Paschal Jesus as Prophet: Model of Religious Life
Throughout his public ministry Jesus functioned as a prophet recognizably in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, especially Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea who are evoked explicitly and implicitly in the narrative of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. People clearly regarded Jesus as a prophet (see Mt.14:5; 21:11, 46; Lk. 7:16; 7:39; Jn. 6:14) and he did not reject or refuse this identification as he did that of king. On the contrary, Jesus spoke of himself as a prophet by comparing himself to the prophet Jonah (see Mt.12:39), identifying himself as the prophet not accepted in his own town or among his own people (see Lk.4:24), and predicting that he would suffer the fate of the prophets, namely, persecution by the religious authorities and finally execution in the Holy City (see Lk. 13:33).
In John’s Gospel there are two extraordinary scenes in which the pre-Easter Jesus’ prophetic identity is progressively discerned by his textual interlocutors and clearly revealed to the readers. In John 4 the Samaritan Woman starts by seeing Jesus as a “man” and a “Jew,” and then recognizes that he is a “patriarch” greater than Jacob, and finally exclaims, “I perceive that you are a prophet” (Jn. 4:19). In John 9 the healed man-born-blind starts by referring to his healer as “the man called Jesus,” and goes on to solemnly testify before the Jewish authorities (at the cost of excommunication) that Jesus “is a prophet” (Jn. 9:17) come from God.
After the Resurrection, when the risen Jesus, unrecognized, joins the two disciples on the way to Emmaus and asks them what they are discussing as they walk, they reply that they are talking about “Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet mighty in word and work before God and all the people” (Lk. 24:19) and whom their leaders had executed. Obviously, they were voicing the perception of Jesus’ identity common among his followers.
The itinerant band of followers who accompanied Jesus during his public life and were commissioned by him after his Resurrection to continue his mission were initiated into Jesus’ own prophetic ministry by Jesus himself. Many ministries of the Word, such as apostleship, evangelization, and teaching developed in the early Church and there was much overlapping among them. All of them had a prophetic dimension though each was specified by distinctive goals such as proclaiming the Gospel to people who had not yet heard it or catechizing converts. Religious Life, as the lifeform most closely modeled on that of Jesus’ original itinerant band, also involves participation in these various forms of ministry of the Word. But I want to suggest that one of those ministries, prophecy, is central to and defining of the Religious lifeform as it was of Jesus’ pre-Easter ministerial life.
This is part one of a five-part essay by Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sandra Schneiders on the meaning of religious life today. The series is published in the U.S-based National Catholic Reporter. In this part Schneiders, professor of New Testament Studies and Christian Spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, sets the context for “Religious Life as Prophetic Life Form.” (See my earlier post on Tom Fox’s interview with Schneiders here.) The quotes that I highlighted and my set of questions are at the bottom of the post.
The Pernicious Appeal for Blind Obedience (Part 1 of 5)
When the Vatican investigation of U.S. women religious was announced some months ago without any preparation, consultation, or even the courtesy of a notification to congregational leaders that it was about to happen, many people, religious and laity alike, were stunned at what seemed like a surprise attack aimed at a most unlikely target, given the massive and unaddressed problems besetting the clergy and hierarchy at the moment. Persistent efforts to learn the charges and the accusers hit a stone wall since virtually no one believed that a decline in numbers of entrants constituted a “crime” calling for such a massive response or that a judicial proceeding of such magnitude was instituted to ascertain (much less foster!) the “quality of life” of religious.
Little by little pressure from a variety of sources seems to have uncovered the answers to those two questions. The “charges” are that LCWR (Leadership Conference of Women Religious)-type Congregations (the vast majority of Religious in the country) have implemented in their lives and in their ministries changes called for by Vatican II to the detriment (manifested in the decline in numbers of vocations) of religious life itself. Cardinal Rodé (the highest officer in Rome on religious life) believes, in his own words, that the [Second Vatican] council precipitated the first “world-wide crisis” in the history of the church and women religious, in his view, are primary promoters of that crisis in the United States.
The “accusers” are a small group of extremely conservative women religious who, in September 2008, held a conference at Stonehill College in Massachusetts on consecrated life as they understand it, to which they invited Cardinal Rodé. At this conference, which included no presentation of positions at variance with their own, they put contemporary ministerial religious Life on trial in absentia, found it seriously wanting, and raised the cry, “Investigate them!”
Cardinal Rodé, having heard what he apparently thought was a widely held consensus that U.S. women’s apostolic religious life was in serious decline concluded, “We have no further need of witnesses.” Unfortunately, he failed to consult the many thousands of Catholic laity who have received from women religious their formation in the faith, ongoing spiritual support, pastoral care in times of need, and colleagueship in ministry and who are now expressing their solidarity with the sisters by petitions and personal letters of protest to the Cardinal, the Visitator, the Apostolic Delegate, and local ordinaries as well as by individual and collective testimonies to and about the sisters (see, e.g., U.S. Catholic, Entered into Evidence [75:1, Jan. 2010]).
He failed to consult moderate bishops, like those in California, who have publicly testified that without women religious their dioceses would not have become what they are and would not be functioning as well as they are today. He failed to consult significant groups of religious outside the United States, such as AMOR (conference of women Religious in Asia and Oceania) and UISG (International Union of Superiors General in Rome), which have expressed in public statements their appreciation of, support for, and solidarity with U.S. religious. He failed to consult the sisters themselves who could have enlightened him on the size and ideological commitments of the one small group of religious he did consult and the few rightist bishops, in this country and in Rome, to whom he listened.
A couple of months ago, New Testament scholar Sr. Sandra Scheiders published in the National Catholic Reporter her reflections (We’ve Given Birth To A New Form of Religious Life) on the Vatican investigation of American Catholic religious women. She hinted at a very important topic in the life of the American Catholic church (and, I would suggest, all dedicated Jesus-followers): How Christian ministry shapes the way one lives and engenders a prophetic stance within the society.
Now NCR will publish a five-part essay by Sr. Sandra Schneiders, who teaches at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, on their site beginning Jan. 4 and running through Jan. 8. The essay, titled Religious Life as Prophetic Lifeform explores the meaning of religious life today. This is made more radical because it comes during a controversial three-year Vatican study of U.S. women religious congregations.
Below is NCR editor Tom Fox’s interview with Scheiders asking her about the purpose of her essay. Note: When she uses the word “religious” as a noun, she’s referring to Catholic nuns and sisters in “vowed religious life.”
I’ll try to publish excerpts from each of the five sections as they are released. I have a feeling that Schneiders’ essay will be a critical tool for conversation in Catholic communities in the days ahead. And her thinking serves not only Catholics, but beyond as well.
NCR: Why did you write this article, why now?
Schneiders: To begin with “why now,” because the Vatican investigation of U.S. women religious has created what the Chinese ideogram for “crisis” means, namely, a situation of danger and opportunity. Religious and their life are in danger from three directions.
* First, they do not know what the Vatican plans to do with whatever information it collects and, if those who suspect that the conclusions were reached before the investigation began are correct this danger is not illusory.
* Second, there is the danger that some religious will become so disgusted, discouraged, disheartened, even justifiably angered by this implied questioning of the integrity of their lives and the authenticity of their ministries, and by the clear signals that they are expected, if they want ecclesiastical approval, to get back “in the box” that defined their pre-conciliar lives, that they will simply give up, either on religious life itself or on their own vocations to it, or on a church which seems to be defined by a narrow, rigid, exclusively institutional ecclesiology.
* Third, there is the danger that generous younger women who are intelligent, courageous, motivated not by medieval romanticism or elitism but by love of the world for which Christ died, and who feel called to the following of Jesus in ministerial religious life will decide that they do not want to spend their lives and energy struggling with a patriarchal institution which denies their full human and Christian personhood.
I wrote this article in hopes of helping to counteract these dangers by helping religious seize the opportunity this situation offers to reflect deeply on the real meaning of religious life as a participation in the prophetic vocation and mission of Jesus and on our ministry as participation in his work of announcing Good News to the poor even unto the laying down of his life for those he loved. Part of seizing this opportunity is the deepening experience of solidarity among religious themselves within their congregations and across congregational lines, which fosters courage in the face of misunderstanding and persecution. I want to promote this sharing of experience and self-understanding.
NCR: What do you hope to achieve by the essay?
Schneiders: I want to do two things, to the extent that is possible in a short essay. First, I want to analyze the current situation of religious life under investigation as a “two level” event analogous to the “two level” opposition to Jesus that led to his rejection by the religious establishment of his day. Second, and on the basis of the understanding of our life as a reflection of Jesus’ own mission and ministry, I want to encourage the clear articulation and courageous claiming of our experience, which will encourage us to live the vocation to which we have been called, willingly living (not being passively overwhelmed by) whatever suffering that may involve.
The authorities of Jesus’ time thought they were protecting the religious establishment of Judaism by getting rid of a politically dangerous “messiah” figure who was upsetting the fragile religious status quo within which their power was guaranteed by Rome. But they “knew not what they were doing”, because their deeper opposition, of which they were undoubtedly unconscious, was to Jesus’ reinterpretation of the very meaning of God’s revelation, God’s work in the world. Jesus, God’s prophet whom the Spirit of God had anointed to proclaim “good news to the poor,” was announcing a “new world.” He was undoing the “old world” of salvation reserved for the pure and earned by scrupulous observance of law by the religious elites, and opening up the “new world” of God’s absolutely inclusive love and unconditional mercy to the unclean, the sinners and the outcasts. In that sense, he was announcing the end of their world to the religious authorities who had to get rid of him before what he announced became reality.
Religious are under investigation, at one level, for upsetting the ecclesiastical status quo of the Church understood as a divine right absolute monarchy. They are resisting patriarchal control of their own lives which is a threat to hierarchical absolutism in general. They are perceived, correctly, as promoting the ecclesiology of Vatican II. But the real and deeper issue is that religious are participating in the prophetic ministry of Jesus, announcing the Good News of salvation by their preferential ministry to the outcasts of society and church. By declining to serve as enforcers of dogmatic and moral absolutism they are proclaiming salvation that comes not through blind submission of mind and will to laws and office-holders or helpless dependence on religious mechanisms that are put out of their reach, but through humble acceptance of the power and desire of an all-loving God to save even those who are “hopeless” in their own eyes or the eyes of authority.
I also want to encourage religious (myself first of all) to look within, individually and in community, to reclaim and articulate the prophetic vocation to which we responded at profession, perhaps without realizing even vaguely where that could and would lead because of the times in which we were born. In reclaiming that vocation we must recognize and accept that tension with institutional authority — defined by the latter as “disobedience” — is part of our commitment to true obedience to God not men. Obedience is practiced in prayerful attention to all the “voices of reality” of our times, to the “signs of the times” in which we live. This attention, at every moment, leads to careful discernment that facilitates the three-way encounter among God, God’s people, and the concrete historical situations in which God’s reign must be incarnated in this world.
NCR: How is this essay connected to the one you wrote last October in NCR on “Ministerial Religious Life?”
Schneiders: The connection is in the close following of Jesus that constitutes religious life. In the first article I was trying to show how what I called the “lifestyle” of ministerial religious was that of Jesus and his original band of itinerant disciples. Because ministry is intrinsic to the life of these religious, as it was to the life of Jesus and first disciples, their lifestyle (dress, dwelling, prayer life, activities, etc.) is determined by their itinerancy, their availability to and their solidarity with (rather than separation and distinction from) those whom they serve, their understanding of common life in terms of economic interdependence rather than sociological structure, and so on. Religious live the “mixed life” of deep contemplation grounding urgent public action, as did Jesus, and their lifestyle reflects that reality.
In this essay I am going beyond the “lifestyle” to the “prophetic nature of the life” itself. I am suggesting that the very heart of ministerial religious life is its participation in the prophetic mission of Jesus. That mission, of proclaiming the Good News of salvation to the poor, is enacted in their interpretation of the Gospel into concrete historical situations of suffering. And this will inevitably lead to tension between the status quo of Church as hierarchical power structure enforcing doctrinal uniformity and moral subordination, and the Church as the Body of Christ in this world caring by preference for those on the margins, those who do not and cannot measure up, those who can only say, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” even when they cannot promise to meet the standards.
Good news this morning! It appears that some good old-fashioned communicatin’ is going on between the heads of Catholic women’s communities and their sister, Mary Clare Millea, who has been tapped by Rome to investigate them.
(As far as I know, this does not affect any change in the investigation process of the Leadership Conference of Women religious who meet with Bishop Blair in Baltimore on Nov. 24.)
U.S. women religious superiors will no longer have to supply to the Vatican some of the most controversial information it had requested as part of a three-year study of religious congregations, writes Tom Fox in the National Catholic Reporter, according to a Nov. 5 letter obtained by NCR.
Information no longer being requested as part of the Vatican Apostolic Visitation, which began last January, includes the properties owned by the congregations, their most recent financial audits, ages of the sisters, and the ministries they are involved in. Word of the change in procedures came in a letter dated Nov. 5 sent to the women religious superiors by Apostolic Visitator Mother Mary Clare Millea. Millea explained in her letter why she had dropped the request for the information.
“Many major superiors have already addressed concerns to the Apostolic Visitation Office regarding confidentiality and protection of privileged information about their congregation, the sisters themselves and their apostolate. Although our canonical and civil advisors concur that the Apostolic See has the right to all the information contained in the questionnaire, in response to your legitimate questions, I have determined that documents number 5, 6, 7, requested in Part C of the questionnaire, are not to be submitted to the Apostolic Visitation Office as part of this visitation. This change in design of the questionnaire was made after listening to your concerns and after considerable prayer and counsel. “
Read the whole story here. Nice work by Tom Fox and NCR staff.