Cambridge, MA. Readers know that matters internal to the Church are not my major priority in blogging, except in the refined sense that as we treat others, we learn something about ourselves, and as we receive or reject others, we make choices defining and constraining who we are. So I am willing to leave to others the most recent controversy over the CDF “Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.” I share with many a reader, I am sure, the recognition that if the Vatican had more credibility with women, a better track record in listening to women, its words on the matter would be received more readily; likewise, I am sure, if we all had more humility and a willingness to listen, we would benefit from this CDF document too. So, in a spirit of dialogue, I began to read the CDF “Assessment.”
But I had not proceeded very far in my reading when I found reference to Sister Laurie Brink, OP, and her 2007 LCWR address, “A Marginal Life: Pursuing Holiness in the 21st Century.” (It is not easy to find on the web, but you can find a link to the pdf imbedded in Max Linderman's Patheos piece on the controversy.) Cardinal Levada and the CDF indicated concern about her address, particularly her comments on “some religious ‘moving beyond the Church,’ and even ‘beyond Jesus.’” The CDF sees this movement as incompatible with Catholic theology, and incompatible with religious life. Something must be done!
In her speech, Sister Brink does indicate that some women religious have moved to a sojourner model, “an option difficult to discuss, since it involves moving beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus.” These women have stepped away from the institutional Church, are in a sense “post-Christian.” The “God of Jesus might well be the God of Moses and the God of Mohammed” — points on which I think most of us, including Church leaders, already agree — and to finding our basic values also and already present in “Buddhism, Native American spirituality, Judaism, Islam” and other religions, for “wisdom is found in the traditions of the Church as well as beyond it” - a view which, if "beyond" is understood properly, is as old as the Church itself and as new as recent papal teachings.
But sometimes such things are said, inside and outside religious orders, in an undisciplined manner, such as indicates "moving beyond Jesus" as a flat and final conclusion. If you have read my blogs over the years, you will know that I do not favor the looser and less disciplined ways of saying such things. (Such is the point of being a professor.) Even with great good will, people can speak of God everywhere in the world — a great truth — in a poorly informed and poorly grounded manner, evincing an "openness" as naive as its twin, "close-mindedness in the guise of piety." Relativism, even with honest and sincere spiritual roots, does not work to our benefit, whether we are Christian or of any tradition. Better, I have always suggested, is to go deeper and deeper into our own Catholic tradition while, by the grace of God, going deeper and deeper into the study of another tradition at the same time. As the Psalm says, "Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts." (42.7) Depth cries out to depth, but the echo is not relativistic. So one can take issue with what some sisters are reported to think. We could even debate the matter.
But the preceding paragraph is not to the point, since the issue here is Sister Brink’s lecture. Here too careful reading has to take priority over being shocked. At this point in her lecture, she is in the midst of proposing four models of religious life, which the Sisters listening to her need to consider: 1. “Death with Dignity and Grace,” as in fact congregations are dying out and disappearing; 2. “Acquiescence to Others’ Expectations,” and living in accord with the options available to women in the Church today, even in return to older models; 3. “Sojourning in a New Land not yet Known,” and 4. “Reconciliation for the Sake of Mission.” Sister Brink, a Biblical scholar, introduces each model with a scriptural passage, and her presentation of each model is followed by time for reflection among the gathered sisters. This is, therefore, a model for learning that is both meditative and interactive. We should all learn even from her style of presentation, one good model for how to teach in and with the Church. (She is a Dominican - rarely are we Jesuits so interactive in our lectures!)
It is also clear that at the end of the speech she is expressing a personal preference for the fourth model — continuing fidelity to the Church, a ministry of reconciliation among all of us, and between women religious and bishops and others tasked with governance. As she writes, “Reconciliation is not the only choice, but it is my choice, because it is also my Church.” That is, she is not opting for the other models – the dying away of the congregations, or a return to older models of fidelity, or moving beyond the Church and even Jesus. She does not think those models work, or serve well the many faithful sisters or the Church itself. But she does admit — and this perhaps bothers the CDF – that women, like men, have choices before them and can in fact opt for one of these other models. Sisters can do the same, congregations can do the same. Indeed, instead of drifting unreflectively down one or another road, Sister Brink suggests, we need to stop and ask ourselves where we are going and at what cost. Perhaps it is that fact that she does not fulminate against the sojourner option that bothers some readers; perhaps it is the uncomfortable suggestion that people are free to choose – no one has to remain a religious or remain in the Church – that disturbs the CDF.
I am sure Sister Brink would not demand that her listeners and readers agree with her. Surely she would not insist that the CDF back away from a critical reading of her lecture. But precisely at this point, her thoughtful and honest presentation is a perfect place to begin a dialogue, not to intimate that it is too late for dialogue. Her lecture is not evidence that things are chaotic and out of control, but quite the contrary, that it is time for us to stop and think about where we are.
Were I a bishop – alas, I shall never be such – or a member of the CDF – only God would imagine such a thing – I would study and pray over Sister Brink’s presentation, meditate on the stark choices that confront all of us, and then begin the dialogue, together in a context that allows for prayer, conversation as sisters and brothers in Christ – and leave notions of states of emergency, actions to be taken, etc., to some future date. There is a conversation to be had now about religious life in the Church, and we can only hope – and pray – that all concerned realize that Sister Brink has given us not a symptom of decline, but light shining on a way forward.
There is more to be said, of course - read the CDF document and Sister Brink's lecture, and I am sure many more points require careful reflection - but this is my thought on the matter.
PS: 24 hours after writing this reflection, I came across a fine analysis, similar in some ways, over at Commonweal, by Mollie Wilson O'Reilly. Be sure to read her reflections.