July 18, 2012
Access to Media and the Formulation of Norms
Authority, political discussion and debates, and the presentation of dissenting views all have their proper role in the formulation of norms; moreover, norm making is an important project of the law. Civil society has its law, and the Church has hers. In both of these contexts, the human law maker has an important role to exercise. There was a time when the natural law was the common denominator of both legal systems, i.e., temporal and ecclesial. But in the present age, getting a message to the public often appears to be just as an important element of norm making. This is the case in the civil sector where radio, television, the conventional press, and the internet have important and influential roles in the manner in which the laws that govern temporal society are made. In some ways regarding ecclesial juridical authority, getting the message to the faithful about how norms are made and how they appropriated by the People of God also brings the media into the fray.
On this past Tuesday, July 17, National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast the first of a two-part series concerning governance in the Church. This past Tuesday’s episode was entitled “An American Nun Responds to Vatican Criticism.” [HERE] The guest on this NPR program was Sister Pat Farrell, OSF who is the current President of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) which is the subject of a doctrinal assessment and visitation by the Holy See. In the near future, NPR will have a second broadcast in which Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, who is a member of the team that is charged with working with the LCWR on the doctrinal assessment, will be the guest interviewee.
In her interview, Sister Farrell made some important points about the assessment and about religious life and its future, especially in the United States. I realize that time was probably insufficient for her to develop all her remarks as she would have liked, and I further appreciate that what she did say in a lengthy interview will have an impact on how many of the faithful and others think about the principles of Catholicism including norms designed for religious life and fidelity to the Church. While there are many elements of the content of her interview meriting discussion, I would like to comment on a few of her points that require further elaboration. These are not the only ones meriting serious discussion, but they contain, I think, mischaracterizations about the truth of the matters asserted. Consequently, elements of this interview will have an impact on how the faithful and others understand critical normative principles of the Church.
The first point I comment on is the reference made by the interviewer to an past LCWR address which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith mentioned in its April 2012 report on the LCWR, namely, the keynote speech delivered by Sister Laurie Brink, OP at the 2007 LCWR annual meeting.
The CDF raised concerns about Sister Brink’s address by pointing to an observation that some women religious in the United States are sojourners who have moved beyond the Church or even beyond Jesus. In her interview, Sister Farrell acknowledged that the CDF called attention to the Brink address, and Farrell acknowledged that this Brink remark “is of serious concern to us.” But Sister Farrell also insisted that “it is a very distorted quotation” and “quoted very much out of context from the presentation that was given.” Because of Sister Farrell’s protest, the interview asked if Sister Farrell if she rejected this Brink option characterizing women’s religious life. Farrell asserted that this “would be a very serious distortion” by somehow suggesting that “the majority of women religious… are beyond Jesus and beyond the Church,” so it “is a very egregious and a very serious distortion.”
But I question if this is the case after having reread the Brink address today. Like Sister Farrell and the CDF, the Brink keynote address is a very serious matter necessitating a careful and objective reading of it in its entirety. Having just done this, I realize that there is more to the Brink address than Sister Farrell contended yesterday. In her keynote, Sister Brink suggested that there are at least four “lenses” through which a person can view women’s religious life in the United States today. Although Sister Brink indicated that there could be other lenses pertaining to “felt experience” of religious life and how it is understood by some individuals, her keynote identified and discussed four that she considered viable methods of understanding women’s religious life today. Consequently, she by no means dismissed this sojourner model that is beyond the Church and Jesus; moreover, she clearly explained that for some women religious, “[r]eligious titles, institutional limitations, ecclesiastical authorities no longer fit [some] congregation[s], which in most respects [are] Post-Christian.” Brink was clear that this “lens” “embraced the renewal in the 1970s.” Brink also indicated that one illustration of these “courageous women” who are sojourners can be found in the Benedictine Women of Madison. A few years ago two Benedictine sisters in Madison WI asked to be released from their vows, and this request was granted by the appropriate ecclesiastical authorities. These former Benedictine nuns then transferred their community’s property in piecemeal fashion back to a corporation of which they were the officers. But what became of the canonical requirements dealing with the alienation of ecclesiastical property is obscured. Then they accepted into their community a woman, who is a Presbyterian Minister, who now presides at the “sharing of the Bread of Life around a common table” at their Sunday worship in a community that purportedly follows the Rule of Saint Benedict. I wonder if this is really an acceptable model “of integrity, insight, and courage” as Sister Brink contends that it is.
While Sister Brink did indicate a personal preference for the “reconciliation” lens which she subsequently developed in her keynote, it is difficult in some respects to see how this “lens” differs in substance from prime elements of the “sojourner” lens. In the context of the “reconciliation” lens, Sister Brink contends that the “theologically educated… American laity” make the hierarchy “more edgy.” I do not think that is what makes the ecclesiastical authorities “edgy”; rather, I think the source of the particular problem here is defining the substance of this theological education and in what it believes and in what it does not. In her defense of the “reconciliation” lens Brink argues that “young Catholics see themselves as spiritual and not necessarily tied to traditional religion”; however, she avoids addressing the candid question that emerges: what makes these “young Catholics” Catholic if they aren’t tied to Catholicism? Yet this contention seems to be a part of her preferred model of Catholicism and religious life. In her “reconciliation” model, she also complains about “Catholic theologians… denied academic freedom.” Really? In fact, do not the very academicians who want “academic freedom” for themselves deny it to those who are considered “traditional” and “orthodox”? That is my “felt experience”; moreover, it is the “felt experience” of others, too.
A final remark needs to be made in Brink’s defense of the “reconciliation” model: she asserts that, “Gays and lesbians desire to participate as fully human, fully sexual Catholics within their parishes.” I don’t think the problem is with anyone participating in their parish and sacramental life regardless of their orientation. But the real question posed by the Brink address is this: what does it mean to be “fully sexual” knowing that particular manifestations of human sexuality in both heterosexual and homosexual contexts are sinful? At this point Sister Brink contends that, “The hierarchy of our Church is right to feel alarmed.” On that point, she is correct; moreover, the hierarchy are also justified in concluding, after careful thought, that alarm is warranted.
In the conclusion of her “reconciliation lens,” it is clear that Brink stated that it is the hierarchy who are to be forgiven and not the LCWR or any of its corporate or individual members. As “prophets”, women religious, in her estimation, are justified in proclaiming the “hierarchy’s abuses of power, shameful behavior and deafness to [women religious’s] cries for equality.” If this is the model of reconciliation, I wonder what is her model of confrontation?
But I must return to a couple of other points of Sister Farrell’s interview. Regarding the Church’s teaching on human sexuality, Sister Farrell contended that this needs to be reevaluated, as these teachings cannot “remain static and really need to be reformulated, rethought, in light of the world we live in…” This statement is a recipe not for the search for universal truth about the essence and nature of the human person but about promoting the acceptance of subjectivism, personalism, and historicism that can serve as the justification for what anyone wants to do in the venue of human sexuality.
When the interviewer brought up the issue of women’s ordination, Sister Farrell recalled and defended the fact that the LCWR favored women’s ordination in 1977. She did this earnestly and innocently by contending that this declaration was “before there was a Vatican letter saying that there is a definitive Church position against the ordination of women.” It is not clear by “Vatican letter” if she meant Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (1988) or his Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994). If she meant either of these, she would be correct in stating that the 1977 position of the LCWR predates these letters of Blessed John Paul. However, she fails to acknowledge that the 1977 position in support of women’s ordination was in direct conflict with the Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law (c. 968) then in effect; with Pope Paul VI’s response to the Archbishop of Canterbury concerning the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood (1975); and with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Declaration Inter Insigniores (1976).
When the interview turned to the matter of whether the LCWR is “pro-life” or not, Sister Farrell quick defended the organization by stating that, “Religious have clearly given our lives to supporting life… Our works are very much pro-life.” But then she registered the LCWR’s concern that “any policy that is more pro-fetus than actually pro-life” trumps “the rights of the unborn” over “the rights of all of those who are already born.” Her statement fails Catholic teaching in two critical ways. The first is that there is a continuum of human life which includes pre-birth and post-birth phases, but these two dimensions of human existence are inextricably connected for everyone. They are not separate but related in an indivisible fashion. The second is that she failed, perhaps inadvertently, to mention that both the USCCB and the Holy See have time and again emphasized the issues of war, capital punishment, fundamental health-care, and basic education in a “pro-life” context. Furthermore, she appeared to push the abortion question aside by emphasizing that it is a divisive issue because it “is often phrased in such extreme and such polarizing terms.” She insisted that the LCWR has given voice to other issues “that are less covered, but are equally important.” If this is so, she did not take any steps to demonstrate how the extinction of over 50 million human lives in the United States since Roe was decided in 1973 can compare to these other “equal” issues—whatever they are.
While much more can be said about her interview, I will stop for now after this final remark. Much of her interview is laced with references to the Second Vatican Council and the “reforms” for which the Council called. It strikes me that Sister Farrell appears to justify the actions taken by the LCWR and some of its members as consistent with the Council’s conclusions about religious life and related matters. If that is her point, I think the LCWR needs to re-read very carefully what the Council said that pertains to the issues she addressed in her recent interview.
In the meantime, I do think that all the faithful need to pray for the LCWR and the three bishops who will participate in the meetings with the LCWR as called for in the CDF’s doctrinal assessment report.
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