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?