The bishops will direct you to notice that "The Thinker" is a man

Seattle’s Archbishop J. Peter Sartain is a busy guy. Like every bishop, he’s trying to run his diocese, but he’s also involved in getting his flock motivated to put an anti-marriage equality measure called Referendum 74 on the ballot in the state of Washington.

Several weeks ago, he and his auxiliary bishop wrote a letter [pdf] to all the priests of the diocese and leaders of the parishes, asking them to help with signature gathering. That effort is not going too well, at least in some places, including one very close to the archbishop’s heart.

“After discussing the matter with the members of the [St. James] Cathedral’s pastoral ministry team, I have decided that we will NOT participate in the collecting of signatures in our parish,” Fr. Michael Ryan, the cathedral’s pastor, said in a letter.

“Doing so would, I believe, prove hurtful and seriously divisive in our community,” Ryan explained.  St. James Cathedral is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle.

Other parishes and priests have taken the same approach, with an interesting reaction during a mass eight days ago when a similar decision was announced: a standing ovation. Said the priest, “I only wished the archbishop could have experienced the sustained applause — the ‘sensus fidelium’ — of the people.  He needs to listen to this ‘voice.’”

As if Archbishop Sartain didn’t have enough to do in his own backyard, now he’s been given a new side job by the Vatican: overseeing a Vatican-ordered reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the umbrella organization of most of the women’s religious orders in the United States.

Citing “serious doctrinal problems which affect many in consecrated life,” the Vatican announced a major reform of an association of women’s religious congregations in the U.S. to ensure their fidelity to Catholic teaching in areas including abortion, euthanasia, women’s ordination and homosexuality.

Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle will provide “review, guidance and approval, where necessary, of the work” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

The “areas of concern” identified in the report from the Vatican office that led the investigation, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, [pdf] were (a) addresses at LCWR assemblies, (b) policies of corporate dissent, and (c) radical feminism. Dominican Sister Laurie Brink’s 2007 keynote address came in for particular criticism, perhaps because it seemed to embody all three of these concerns.

Most of Brink’s (very readable) address is pretty solid and basic stuff about leadership and ministry on the margins. Some of it is descriptive of what she sees in the church, not prescriptive about the way she thinks things ought to be. In the descriptive sections, she pauses from time to time, inviting the attendees to reflect on what she has just said. Brink also includes a strong disclaimer at the top, indicating she is speaking only for herself when she gets into more prescriptive critiques.

And make no mistake, she gets into some very substantial critiques, taking direct aim at the bishops, the Vatican, and Pope Benedict like this (pdf p. 23):

Are we [LCWR and the women who belong to its orders] not victims of patriarchy within our society and church? Have we not—individually and corporately—felt the heavy hand of church politics? Has not the rigidity of the hierarchy set a poor example for its priests, who, formed in a spirit of domination and dogma, become not servants of Christ but stalwart soldiers of the Vatican?

The Vatican’s investigation of LCWR and the resulting command from the Vatican for reform is proving just how prophetic Brink is. Later in her address, she named the pains that women religious endure, and also named as destructive in 2007 the very behavior that the Vatican has chosen to employ in 2012.

We have lost sight that we are ecclesial women. We have tired of the condescension, and we have opted instead for ministry outside the Church. We may have some members who continue as persistent widows before an unjust judge, but those sisters are few, and largely unsupported by the congregation as a whole. We may not avail ourselves of the Sacraments, because we are angry—not about the Eucharist itself—but about the ecclesial deafness that refuses to hear the call of the Spirit summoning not only celibate males, but married men and women to serve at the Table of the Lord. We are on the verge of extinction, not because of some cataclysmic event, but because for the last thirty years or so, we have slowly removed ourselves from Church circles, and have failed to recognize when we were no longer needed as a work force, that perhaps the Spirit had a new call for us.


Because in many respects we stand in the awkward position between the laity and the clergy, and because we are, in fact, professional women of and for the Church, we are the best ones to extend a hand of unity and forgiveness. I’m not naïve. I expect that hand will be bitten on more than one occasion, or at least ignored. But that doesn’t deny that the Spirit of God has strategically placed us at this crossroads. We are fond of calling ourselves prophets, and naming our own actions as prophetic. Well, the true prophet never wants the title, and real prophetic actions cost. Shall we line up with Miriam, Deborah, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Catherine of Siena? Or shall we excuse ourselves because we are too old, too financially-strapped, too disenchanted, too disaffected?

But if our congregations do take this less traveled path, it will require a congregation-wide commitment, an appropriate attitude of openness, a deep and continual prayer life, and formal training in theology, scripture, and ecclesiology as well as methods of peace-making and reconciliation.

Consider your hands bitten, sisters. (For those interested in a good theological discussion, do go read the whole address.)

Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister offered her own take on LCWR takeover and the appointment of Archbishop Sartain:

“When you set out to reform a people, a group, who have done nothing wrong, you have to have an intention, a motivation that is not only not morally based, but actually immoral.

“Because you are attempting to control people for one thing and one thing only — and that is for thinking, for being willing to discuss the issues of the age.

Back in 2009, when this investigation was first announced, the Jesuit magazine America ran a piece by “Sister X”. She provided a look at how the distrust between the hierarchy and women religious has a long history, and her words from two and a half years ago about the attitudes of the Vatican are eerily on target today.

Particularly offensive was the 2004 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and the World, issued by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, which demeaned feminist theory as inimical to the common good of the church, the family, and society, and as the logical outcome of this analysis argued against women’s ordination. In my opinion, his letter expressed a great deal of hostility to what women have attempted to say about themselves for the past forty years. It hardly encouraged dialogue.

What I sense today is that the Vatican will not budge in how it thinks theologically about what it means to be a woman; nor will it consider opening positions of real ecclesial authority to women. There is simply no getting away from the fact that in the Catholic Church it is men who tell women how they should understand themselves as women. Rome wants women religious to accept such understandings not merely without dissent, but without comment. The Vatican doesn’t want independent-minded women theologians or biblical scholars, and seemingly won’t read or quote them unless the women mimic the Vatican’s—and that means men’s—voice and views. But we are not “men” or “mankind.” We are persons with minds and hearts and voices, who have lived lives of integrity and loyalty, and who remain loyal to this church, even when it treats us as second-class citizens and makes us beg for financial support in our old age.

Sister X knows that persons with minds and hearts and voices are not what Archbishop Sartain, the USCCB, and the CDF are looking for.

Sister Chittister knows that communities of people who think and are willing to discuss the issues of the age are not what Archbishop Sartain, the USCCB, and the CDF are looking for.

Sister Brink knows that unity and forgiveness are not what Archbishop Sartain, the USCCB, and the CDF are looking for.

These women and thousands of women religious around the US know that there is only one thing that Archbishop Sartain, the USCCB, and the CDF are looking for: obedience.

The RC hierarchy seems to have a single message for women, for the supporters of marriage equality, and for anyone else who might possibly disagree with them on anything: “Don’t worry your pretty little heads with thinking. You should leave that to us.”

In the church, we are still celebrating the season of Easter, and I can’t help but think of that first Easter morning. As Luke tells the story:

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they [the women followers of Jesus] came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.

It seems the male leaders of the church didn’t believe the women then, and they aren’t about to start believing the women now. It’s a tradition, and you know how the Vatican is about keeping its traditions.


Photo h/t to KellyK