In this third part of their lengthy essay examining the hegemony being sought by a small remnant element in Catholicism Sr Charlene Ozanick and John Chuchman get more specific about the attacks on American Catholic Religious Women. For educated people around the world the Vatican charade to turn back the clock looks more ludicrous and childish with each passing week. (See also today the articles being discussed in the Catholica Forum from Spiegel Online and from Dr David Tacey.)
The Vatican Defines the Nature of Women
During the time of John Paul II and into Benedict's pontificate — the Vatican was attempting to have every Sister understand herself as a "spouse" of Christ. It was a 'one-size-fits-all' traditional understanding of the relationship of a Sister to Christ. But with the renewed study of the Scriptures, and especially that of the Gospels, neither this term nor a marriage relationship was ever used as a model by Jesus and his call to discipleship (of both men and women). Secondly, brides in biblical times — were passive. They were selected for their future mate. A bridal fee was paid for them. They were taken to the home of their future husband — -all very passive postures (and of course, the Vatican embraced this concept). The Sisters for their part — did not see themselves as belonging to a huge harem owned by Jesus.
When the Sisters (and other women as well), formed by their own life experiences and education, defined themselves differently, the Vatican labeled them as "feminists" and condemned those holding this theory. The Vatican does not want independent-minded American religious women. It does not want American women biblical scholars or theologians — unless they are the puppets of the Vatican.
In 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote the 'Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and the World'. Expressing a great deal of hostility to what women (in general, and Sisters specifically) have attempted to say about themselves, Ratzinger demeaned feminist theory as inimical to the common good of the church, the family, and society in general. The whole thrust of the Vatican is the enforced passivity of all religious institutes of women. The Pope, and his men, wants from American religious communities no dissent, no comment, just silence and a total compliance of the Vatican's terms.
The Traps Laid in the Inquisition of Sisters
Official religious groups are masters at imposing impossible verbal traps for individuals. Jesus, himself, was subject to several ones presented by his religious leaders, because Jesus was perceived to be a religious threat. He was asked:
In each case, it was believed that no matter what the answer, Jesus would be wrong, and his answer would diminish his message to the people (and he could be eliminated by the religious leaders).
The Inquisition hearings in the fifteenth century also laid an ecclesiastical trap for the teen-aged Joan of Arc. The Inquisitors asked, "Do you know yourself to be in God's grace?" If the girl answered "Yes", she would be condemned as a heretic — because of the Church's long-standing teaching that no one could be certain of being in God's grace. If Joan answered, "No", then that would be an admission of guilt (she was charged with witchcraft and working in concert with the devil). Joan, guided by God's Love, responded, "If I am not in God's grace, may God put me there; if I am, may God so keep me."
Throughout the course of history, many men and women have found themselves facing ecclesiastical traps set by the Office of the Inquisition. The Sisters, especially through their leadership, experienced these actual 'traps' in a bumpy history with the Vatican and the American bishops after the Vatican Council. In 1971, when the Conference of Major Superiors of Women (CMSW) proposed to change its name to Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) — the Vatican showed its displeasure. Although Vatican Council II called for activism on behalf of social justice (and that applied to religious women no less than the rest of the church), the Vatican felt that this name change could make it more difficult for the Vatican (and the American hierarchy) to limit the Sisters to issues 'outside' of the church.
The leadership group went ahead and changed their title in 1971. However, as many times as the leadership group traveled to Rome and asked to meet with the Pope and other authorities, the requests were always denied. A break away group of Sisters, the Consortium Perfectae Caritatis, was formed in opposition the LCWR. This group comprised of traditional minded religious communities, was encouraged by the Vatican. It was given the name of Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), and was granted an equal and competitive footing with the LCWR. Religious communities in this smaller group, wear traditional habits, and follow in strict obedience the traditional (pre-Vatican II) teachings of the Church. They receive heavy backing from the Vatican, and American cardinals and bishops. Today, America is the only country with two rival groups of religious Sisters.
Sister Margaret Brennen (head of the LCWR from 1972-73) stated that "the church had called us to renewal, and we took it seriously. When we began to live it out, however, we became a threat to the centrist church. In dealing with Rome, their insistence was that we weren't obeying. I can't count the number of times we met in Rome and tried to speak out to the Holy Father — not to complain, just to explain who we are and why we're doing what we're doing — but our requests were never granted." After a number of attempts by the Vatican to 'reform the reform' in the Sisters and in the LCWR — in 2009, the Vatican ordered two investigations of American religious women: one aimed at all congregations and the second was aimed specifically at LCWR and its theology.
During this time period, two American Sisters found themselves within the 'gun-sights' of the American hierarchy. Both encounters had profound implications for women religious and for Americans in general. One of these women was Sister Margaret McBride, RSM.
The case of Sr Margaret McBride...
Sister Margaret McBride, holding a Masters Degree in Nursing, served on the ethics committee of St. Joseph Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. Late in 2009 a pregnant woman, married and the mother of four young children, was brought into the hospital suffering from acute pulmonary hypertension. The woman in her eleventh week, found herself in a life-threatening condition, which would take both her life and that of her child, if the pregnancy continued. Sister Margaret approved the request of emergency doctors to remove the fetus from its mother's womb to save the life of the mother. There was no option other than to permit both the mother and the fetus to die.
Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix shook even the most profound prolife Catholics, when he announced that Sister Margaret McBride had excommunicated herself in permitting this abortion. According to Bishop Olmsted, abortion is not permissible under any circumstance, not even to save the life of the mother.
While the situation was extremely complicated, even some of the most conservative moralists would agree that the procedure was only intended to save the mother's life and that it was not aimed at destroying the fetus. That the fetus died — was an outcome, but not the intended primary aim of the abortion.
Bishop Olmsted, without a medical background, was content to attribute to Sister Margaret an intentional defiance of Catholic teaching. Without questioning her and the surgeons, Olmsted ignored the years of dedication and good faith shown by both Sister Margaret and the doctors and nurses on the surgical team. His words and actions made many Catholics and others believe that the Catholic Church cares only for unborn babies — and nothing at all about their mothers. The whole situation put all Catholic hospitals in America on notice that they, too, could be under indictment, even as they sought to bring the healing, peace and comfort of God's love and mercy to their patients.
The case of Sr Elizabeth A. Johnson...
In March 2011, the Committee on Doctrine of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a critique of theologian Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson's book Quest for the Living God claiming that it "contaminates the traditional Catholic understanding of God" and therefore "completely undermines the gospel". The doctrinal committee had Sister Elizabeth's book for a few years (never informing her that they were investigating it). Their pronouncement was a complete shock to the American Catholic theological communities hurled at one of the most popular theologians today.
With as strong a background in science as in theology, Sister Elizabeth Johnson had done what few contemporary theologians had been able to achieve. She communicated an appreciation of the Christian mysteries in a faithful, consistent, and faithful manner. Her Quest of the Living God was just one of her many profound works which unfolded the richness of Christian faith. Throughout her distinguished career, Sister Elizabeth had brought the love of God into the hearts and minds of countless readers, including many Catholic students, with force and clarity. And, unlike many other theologians, she had done so in a way that took seriously the discoveries of science, especially that of evolution.
The Bishops' Group was led by a priest, (Fr. Thomas Weinandy, OFM Cap.), who neither has a background in science nor seems capable of comprehending what the discoveries of Darwin and others have taught us about creation, life and human nature. Weinady (and the Bishops who rely upon his theological expertise), were not able to understand Johnson's term "panentheism" (a distinct term from "pantheism") which corresponded with St. Paul's statement in the Acts of the Apostles, where Paul explains that God is the one "in whom we live, move and have our being". Elizabeth Johnson believed that God loves the created world, the animals, and especially humans enough to touch them and bless them. This also corresponded with an understanding of the sacramental nature of Catholic theology. This teaching has always believed that God touches us, and our world, in order to bring about healing. And when we suffer, God is not just One who observes us, but shares with our suffering out of love for us. This was Sister Elizabeth Johnson's contention (in a very simplified rendition of her thesis).
While the Committee of Doctrine did not silence Johnson, it left all serious theologians wondering how a Committee has as its purpose to teach authoritatively, fail to take evolution seriously. And how much veracity can scientifically educated Catholics attribute to it?
That brings us to trap set by the CDF for the LCWR today. If the LCWR submits to the demands of the oversight — they will be treated as children who do not know what is best for them. They will relinquish the support and inspiration that they have come to appreciate in each other over the years. If they don't submit, then the Catholic Church will claim that this group is now no longer Catholic. If they are not Catholic, then all the Sisters that this group leads can risk losing anything and everything that their communities have accrued over the years — housing, savings, and medical care.
The ecclesiastical trap laid gives the LCWR two basic choices: submit or leave!
Sister M. Charlene Ozanick, CSSF
What are your thoughts on this commentary?