In Rome on May 4, the president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Sr. Florence Deacon, addressed 800 leaders of women religious throughout the world.
“Serious misunderstandings” exist between Vatican officials and Catholic sisters, said the head of the U.S. sisters’ group that was ordered to place itself under the review of bishops.
Deacon’s 20-minute address was LCWR’s most public statement to date of their relations with the Vatican. Women religious around the world are watching closely how the process between the Vatican and LCWR moves forward.
“It’s had a huge impact in Australia,” Mercy Sr. Catherine Ryan from Australia told the National Catholic Reporter. “We watch it very carefully because the LCWR … has huge significance for our lives,” said Ryan. “I don’t see that the religious women in Australia are any different than the religious women in America.”
Here’s an excerpt from Sr. Deacon’s address:
“What this assessment shows is that there is serious misunderstanding between officials of the Vatican and women religious, and the need for prayer, discernment, and deep listening.
The historic meeting of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in St. Louis, MO, is drawing to a close.
Sr. Pat Farrell gave her concluding address as she ends her time of service as LCWR’s president. As the body that represents 80 percent of Catholic sisters in the United States reckons with how to respond to a harsh rebuke by the Vatican, Sr. Pat offered this perspective. This is what religious wisdom looks like:
Taking the stage to a standing ovation, Farrell said that “some larger movement in the church … has landed on LCWR.”
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?”
Farrell also said that it would be a “mistake” to make “too much” of the mandate.
“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.”
Ending her remarks with a reflection on the Gospel parable of the mustard seed, Farrell showed an image of mustard plants growing in a field, saying the seed is “uncontainable” and “crops up anywhere without permission.”
Comparing the seed to the spirit of God, she continued: “We can indeed live in joyful hope because there is no political or ecclesiastical herbicide that can wipe out the newness of God’s spirit.”
Ending with a Spanish phrase she said she learned while ministering in Chile during the military dictatorship there, Farrell said: “They can crush a few flowers, but they cannot hold back the springtime.”
As Farrell left the stage, the audience of about 900 stood slowly, clapping for some three minutes and shouting in affirmation. …
When the Leadership Conference of Women Religious gather for their annual meeting, they are usually about 600. This year, under threat of hostile takeover from the Vatican, more than 900 gathered.
Among those guests are a number of representatives of national and international Catholic institutes, including a number of heads of international federations of religious orders, a representative from the Latin American Confederation of Religious, head of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, and more.
On Sunday, after the official ending of the assembly, LCWR’s national board will meet privately. Part of that session, according to LCWR president Pat Farrell, will include a meeting with Archbishop Peter Sartain, one of the “guides” assigned to LCWR, “for the very first conversation that really he’s had with us in any official way” so that “we can communicate with him something of a direction that comes from this group,” said Farrell. Here’s an excerpt from a recent National Catholic Reporter article by Joshua J. McElwee.
The much-anticipated gathering of 900 U.S. Catholic sisters who make up the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) opened here Tuesday night with song, prayer, and references big, small, and in-between to the Vatican’s attempted take-over of the group.
References to the Vatican’s critique of the group, which came in an April 18 announcement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, came early in the two-hour event, with LCWR president Franciscan Sr. Pat Farrell telling the assembled that “we don’t have to remind you that our gathering this week is an historic time in the life of this organization.”
The opening of the annual assembly of LCWR, which represents some 80 percent of U.S. women religious, also included a welcome by St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson and details about how the group’s members would discern steps forward during the gathering, which continues through Friday night. … — Joshua J. McElwee, National Catholic Reporter
Today, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the U.S. begins a week of contemplative discernment in St. Louis, MO, to “reason together” about how they will respond to the Vatican’s crackdown on their organization and their work.
We have an opportunity to watch two starkly different modes of leadership at work. The Vatican uses a command-control model aimed at maintaining homogeneity and the status quo. The Catholic Sisters communities draw on a more ancient model that develops shared leadership, communal shaping of vision, and is agile enough to address the “signs of the times,” as well as remain resilient amid diversity.
Not only are U.S. Catholic laity watching and praying for the LCWR this week, but so are Catholic orders and laity around the world. Your prayer this week will be greatly appreciated (LCWR prayer)
Below is an excerpt of my latest column in Sojourners magazine, addressing these issues:
The Presumption of Equality by Rose Marie Berger
…These Catholic sisters represent an unbroken, cohesive expression of faith in the history of American Catholicism and in women’s presumption of equality, completeness, and active moral agency both under law and under God—a presumption that is a shining light for women around the world. The sisters might have once shared accolades for faithful servant leadership with their brother priests, bishops, and cardinals, but over the course of nearly 30 years of unfolding pedophilia scandal and blasphemous mob-like cover-up, the laity has learned to look to the sisters alone for examples of Catholic gospel witness and Christian maturity, strength, and just plain grit.
But let’s not sideline this issue as “a Catholic thing.” We don’t get off that easy. The struggle over women’s authority runs right through the denominational diaspora of the body of Christ.
“Christian churches have long been ambivalent about us,” wrote Protestant female theologians in a letter of support to the women of LCWR. “Women’s roles have been embraced in private, not public forums. Women leaders are affirmed as long as they are seen, but not heard (at least too much).” And as long as what the women say doesn’t contradict male authorities.
Even in Christian denominations that ordain women to leadership, too often they are forced to operate as second-class citizens. Women pastors don’t get called to prominent congregations; they’re not allowed to prioritize the most urgent needs in their parishes; and they face constant friction. Time and again, we see the ideas of men described (and funded) as “entrepreneurial,” “innovative,” and “bold,” while women’s initiatives are “unorthodox,” “suspect,” and “back-burner, support-staff kind of thinking.”
“The plight of the powerless is familiar to the women of the church,” continue the Protestant scholars. “We, however, do not believe that authorities in any church should take away women’s power to determine for ourselves a vision for our ministries and vocations.” Many women—and men—have raised questions similar to those asked by Catholic women religious. Did God plan for an exclusively male priesthood or did it form as a result of the sin of misogyny? Do our baptismal vows anoint girls into the fullness of ministry as “priest, prophet, and king” in Christ or do they not? Is providing for the poor, the outcast, the sick, the prisoner, and the foreigner at the core of the gospel message or is it not?
“What we see in this struggle is not a lack of our sisters’ integrity and authentic witness to Christian faith,” the open letter continues, “but a struggle that has been too familiar for all women of faith—a struggle over authority and who should have the power to define true faith.”…
Rose Marie Berger, author of Who Killed Donte Manning? is a Catholic peace activist and a Sojourners associate editor. Read the whole article here, the September-October 2012 issue of Sojourners magazine.
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.
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?
This is part four 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 the tasks of those who choose to live a prophetic life. Religious life, says Schneiders, has been called a prophetic life form both in official documents and in spiritual writing almost since its inception. The meaning of this affirmation, however, is often unrealistically romanticized or left so piously vague as to be useless. (See my earlier post on Tom Fox’s interview with Schneiders here, and Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.) The quotes that I highlighted and my set of questions are at the bottom of the post.
Tasks of those who choose the prophetic life style (Part 4 of 5)
Religious Life has been called a prophetic life form both in official documents and in spiritual writing almost since its inception. The meaning of this affirmation, however, is often unrealistically romanticized or left so piously vague as to be useless. In the current situation [Vatican investigation of American Catholic sisters] in which the nature of ministerial religious life as a prophetic life form in the Church is in public contention it would be helpful for us, as a church in general and as religious in particular, to clarify the meaning of this affirmation.
First, it is the life form, not the individual religious, that is characterized as “prophetic.” Just as entrance into an enclosed monastic community (often called a “contemplative order”) does not make one a contemplative, and there are many genuine contemplatives who do not enter monasteries, so entering religious Life does not make one a prophet and there are many prophetic figures who do not enter religious Life. However, different life forms in the Church offer corporate witness (corporate as in “organic,” not as in “corporation”) to particular dimensions of Christian life in which all the baptized are called to participate. All are called to contemplation, to fidelity and fruitfulness, to prophetic witness. But certain life forms, such as enclosed monastic life, matrimony, or ministerial religious life raise one or another of these dimensions to particular visibility by their corporate living of this charism. So what follows makes no claims that all ministerial religious are prophets or that religious life has any monopoly on the charism of prophecy in the Church.
However, the life form as corporate witness to the charism of prophecy does (or should) explicitly challenge its individual members to the exercise of this charism and empower, support, and promote their fidelity to this charism. The felt call to prophetic ministry and the gifts of spirit, mind, and heart for the exercise of such ministry, therefore, should be factors in discerning a vocation to religious life.
At certain times in its history, religious life has been so caught up in a hyper-institutionalized and over-clericalized understanding of Church and ministry, and of itself in that framework, that many Congregations lost sight of this vocational criterion. They preferred candidates who were compliant and docile. The less experienced and competent, the more girlishly romantic about their calling, that they were at entrance, the better, since they were more easily “formed” for submission. Most congregations today prefer candidates who have a sturdy sense of self developed through education and work experience and sufficient maturity to live and work well outside a “total institution” environment. Such candidates are more likely to grow into a truly prophetic ministerial identity and spirituality.
Second, some can be tempted to label “prophetic” any kind of protest that is extreme, conspicuous, or stubborn, or to claim the title of “prophet” for anyone whose ideas or behavior are questioned by authority, no matter how reasonably. The truly prophetic are typically very reluctant to call themselves prophets. They know well their fear in the face of conflict and the high cost of putting themselves in the line of fire of angry officials. Furthermore, they recognize the need to receive seriously and incorporate responsibly institutional authority’s positions and concerns into any discernment that influences other people, in or outside the Church. Again, discerning between the genuinely prophetic stance and mob fanaticism, between courage and arrogance can be very difficult. It requires prayer, communal consultation, testing, and a humble willingness to consider seriously all reasonable and respectful disagreement with one’s position.
The Inaugural Vision or Prophetic Call
Religious life begins, both corporately and individually, in an experience analogous to the inaugural vision of the Old Testament prophets and of Jesus himself. Although the literary form of the biblical narratives of prophetic calls convey the substance but not necessarily the historical details of these experiences, all these texts indicate that the prophetic vocation is not undertaken on one’s own initiative. Nor is one appointed to it by human beings. The call comes from God, often to one who feels frightened, unworthy, or incompetent. Even Jesus is clearly sobered by the dimensions and evident dangers of the life to which he is called. God’s call to him is powerful and compelling, but Satan’s opposition is both real and dangerous.
Religious orders begin, typically, in the charismatic experience of one or more founders who feel impelled to give themselves to God and God’s work, almost always in response to some historically pressing need. Subsequent members respond to a personal call to join the founders in this divinely-originated enterprise. The ensuing process of mutual discernment for later candidates is designed to test the “fit” between the prospective member, the foundational charism, and the historical shape that the order has taken since its founding.
Religious orders, then, are not the creations of the ecclesiastical institution (although it makes certain regulatory provisions regarding the living of the life, approves rules, and exercises some supervisory or protective functions in regard to approved institutes [L.G. VI, 45]), any more than the Old Testament prophets were appointed by Israel’s kings or priests or Jesus by the Temple officials. In fact, those who functioned as “court prophets,” who “worked for” the king or priests by telling them what they wanted to hear or leading the people to submit to their rulers when God spoke differently through the true prophets or “the signs of the times,” were quintessentially “false prophets.”
Religious Life, then, is a charismatic life form, called into existence by the Holy Spirit, to live corporately the prophetic charism in the Church. It is not a work force gathering recruits for ecclesiastical projects and it does not receive its mission nor the particular ministries of its members from the hierarchy. Congregations, in the exercise of particular ministries within dioceses or parishes, are bound by the applicable local directives and must work collaboratively with the ordained leadership. But this does not put the Congregation or its members “under” the bishop or clergy. This is especially true of “exempt” Congregations which minister across ecclesiastical boundaries.
When members of the hierarchy get panicky about the decline in numbers of religious they reveal a serious misunderstanding of the nature of the life. No Congregation “needs” more members than are actually called to it by God. There is no optimal or minimum size for orders or length of their lifespan. Some orders have never had more than a few dozen members and others have thousands. Some are centuries old and others have had a very brief history. The purpose of the life is not to perpetuate particular Congregations nor to staff Church institutions; it is to live intensely the witness to the Gospel to which the Congregation is called and for as long as it is so called. As long as an order and its members are able to live religious life according to its own founding charism and approved constitutions intrusion by ecclesiastical authority into its internal affairs is not only unwarranted; it is unjustifiable and counter-productive (see e.g., Canon 586).
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.