The National Catholic Review

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.

Comments

jacopo alberti | 8/20/2012 - 8:08pm
 It may be a bit late, but i'm writing from Italy, and it takes a bit to find the piece. I've read Sr Brink's 2007 keynote after trying to understand what is going on between CDF and LCWR. My point of view is somehow an outsider's, I presume.
I found the keynote frankly bold, as it offers 4 possible chances in evolution. Some may differ from schismatic to heretical, but it was in 2007 an academic field of discussion, where you have tu presume even 'ad absurdum'.

But what i found in the keynote even more interesting than the 4 paths is the cultural background that uderlies all of them.

1. Brink shows an importance of the subjective point of view that goes beyond the personal view upon an item everybody masters, but underlines the importance of the personal point of view even without trying to know: the questions about who ever was John Paul 1st or Paul 6th for example, or about who ever cares about latin mass or Vatican 2nd. What I read here is that truth, even historical truth, is not something somebody has to study to understand present. It's just like saying: ok fols, that's all gone, what should we care about those oldies....
It shows a cultural implant that recognize reality only as an immanent situation, ''it is as you see it'', and not a result of consequences on a long run. I would say istant-reality vs time-generating reality. Problematic, according to me.

2. A personal sensation of Sr Brink that all what she experienced from Patriarchal Church is mainly shameful, dishonorful, fruit of neglection, as the women condition in the Church is related only to humble or, at the best, aid services, while men rule.
It doesn't convince me for simple hystorical reasons. Saint women recognized as saint in the Church exist as many as men, and this means that at least after death there hasn't been historically so much misoginia, and many of them were strong characters, not so docile and subservient to men, as Joann d'Arc and Therese of Avila, not exactly the portrait of humble and silent passive women....It doesn't convince very much because among the 'Doctors' of the Church, historically you find Catherine of Siena, Therese of Avila, Therese of Lisieux and soon Edith Stein, who are recognized for their giant intellectual gift (that should sound odd if we consider literally woman's role in the church according to St Paul).
I hope things can improve for a positive role of nuns inside the Church, because just the history of the Church shows that.

3. I think we should remind that until 30 years ago even the western world was mainly a male world in all the nations, and that the Church structure was partly fathered by the same culture, and it had to deal with it. And if you exclude today the western world, roughly 1 billion people, there's still a 5 bilions people world that expresses a male oriented society. Not just because the rest of the world is sexist, but because it's still a world of farmes, blue collars in heavy industries and warriors, where to be male means to phisically protect and to phisically work, more than women.
I think that the Church, that is catholic, i.e. ''universal'', referred to all people and all cultures, still has to move with caution without provoking rejects, because its decision are made not only for the west, but for Middle East , and Asia, and Africa. This means that a change of woman role iside the Church wil be progressive, but slower than wished in the West. Brink's keynote is heavily western minded, I'm a bit afraid she misses the whole.

4. Is Brink's keynote maybe sexist?. The problem with women condition is due, I presume, to the sexual polarisation the Church happened in the last 30 years, just while the society got more egalitarian in regard to sexes. Two opposite paths, that means that Church hasn't been prociclical to society. It has happened sometimes before, no panic, and there's been a reason for that, not so easy to recover.
Until the WW2, men who served in the clergy were a strong minority among the men. This means that there was such an abundance of male vocation, that the standard life of a religious man wasn't inside the clergy, but the friar. Friars and nuns lived a simple life of aid and service, each separated in their own convents, and a sexual division of duties couldn't be called out so strongly as today. What happens in a period of few male vocation is that almost every friar is a priest for need, and this means that almost all religious men can have today a career up to bishopry and a voice to speak, while nuns don't.
The presumed only aid and service role of nuns was simply shared with friars until 30 years ago, and then it was not such a problem. I see this as a gift of a bad demography and of an even worse faith decline, more than an objective statement.

5. I find very bold from Sr Brink to choose the 4th path. I appreciate this a lot. The Church has always changed deeply its organisation model in history, since the first comunities in the Roman Empire, up to middle age social anarchy, then again in Renaissance to strenghten rules against the monarchies, then again in contemporary world going back to plain people. Never made such a fuzz of it, because change of organisation roles in the Church are always needy, to better serve Christ and His people in their age, but change has to be slow, as you have to modify roles and structures without touching the Faith Deposit, and sometimes it's a hard skill to recognize what is human habit and what is God's revealed Truth. They even changed at least 4 times the election modalities of the Popes, when necessary.

6. Because of this inevitable caution and subsequent slowness, the Holy Spirit may inspire the change through movements in the Church, it happend so many times since St Benedict up to St Francis and even today....
but these movements have to wait as the widowess who keeps knocking on the Judge door, in obedience but keeping knocking. So, if You know that the wait is necessary but that doesn't mean to renounce, you will be fortified by the Spirit. It could even happen a long resistance to change, not only to preserve the Faith Deposit but also for a trivial human inertia of men in power, as it partly happened in 15th century with the Council of Trient, that had to wait for more than a century to begin, due to political and conservative inertia, and it began when it was too late to recover Luterans.
''Waiting in obedience but keeping on knocking'' is just a christian virtue, because we don't know the times of Holy Spirit for the whole Church. Movements must learn to stay ready pray, ready to confront but ready to pardon.
Just what Luther decided not to do.
ROBERT KILLOREN | 5/2/2012 - 8:54am
Joe, truth is a two-edged sword. If your words about progressives is true then isn't the flip side true as well? "Most of the conservatives are swept up in the spirit of revolt against the spirit of Vatican II.  They have no intention of reading either this document or the documents of the Council." Neither point of view is all true or all false and neither opinioin will kill the Church. However, the bitter polarity the two keep fired up wounds the Church daily.
Patricia Raube | 4/30/2012 - 8:51am
The options outlined by Sr./ Dr. Brink are not unlike those faced by many mainline Protestant congregations as we deal with the challenge of decline in an age of plurailsm. For us, ''Acquiescence to Others' Expectations'' manifests itself in the imitation of the megachurch model, with all its attendant marketing-inspired strategies. Many, however, are finding that a re-commitment to mission for the sake of the gospel, even when it leads to natural death, also leads to resurrection in unforeseen ways.

Thanks, Frank, for this lovely and balanced piece. I have been following this news story with interest and concern.
CLAIRE BANGASSER MS | 4/25/2012 - 5:35pm
A really great presentation of the dilemma faced by the religious sisters today and ourselves as well. Thank you very much for this. Much to think about.
Carlos Orozco | 4/23/2012 - 8:00pm
Amen, Joe.
Anonymous | 4/23/2012 - 6:49pm
Unfortunately most of the progressives are swept up in the spirit of revolt and the spirit of Vatican II.  They have no intention of reading either this document or the documents of the Council.
Juan Lino | 4/23/2012 - 4:22pm
Many of these spats seem to center around a denial (sometimes a perceived denial and other times an explicit denial) of the fact that the Church is ecclesia docens, which I am defining as “the authoritative administrator of God’s will and His law, the divinely-commissioned mediator of His grace through Word and Sacrament, dispensing justice through church discipline; as well as, the authorized teacher and interpreter of His revealed will and guardian of the meaning of Scripture.”
 
Having read Sr. Brink’s address (parts of which I actually liked), if she is accurately painting a portrait of the worldview/landscape of the LCWR, then I think the “Doctrinal Assessment” section of the Congregatio Pro Doctrina Fidei letter is quite moderate (especially since, from what I’ve read, discussions have been going on for eleven years!).
 
Of course, as we who comment here regularly know, a written text (or comment) can very easily be misinterpreted.
 
To paraphrase end of film Casablanca – “I hope this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Colleen Baker | 4/23/2012 - 2:15pm
I read Sister Lauri Brinks presentation four years ago and was struck by it's honesty.  I think every Catholic should read this presentation because it forces you to think about the choices she presents and which might fit your own faith relationship with the Church.

I suspect a lot of Catholics have found themselves 'sojourning' precisely because the hierarchical Church has forced this choice on them.
joseph o'leary | 4/23/2012 - 1:56pm
I read Sr. Brink's presentation and the CDF's report via the links here. CDF does not provide specifics as to what in Sr. Brink's presentation is contrary to doctrine. I do see comments in Sr. Brink's talk that would raise eyebrows and/or hackles among conservatives, but only when taken out of context. This damages CDF's credibility.

Joseph O'Leary
Carlos Orozco | 4/23/2012 - 1:05pm
I apologize for my comment (#1) for I wrote it before reading the article. It is obviously does not concern the topic of the discussion. My fault.

However, I do not find it politicized, as I have never gone into Democrat vs. Republican games, and don't consider supporting the Pope "political".
Gerelyn Hollingsworth | 4/23/2012 - 11:21am
You're welcome, Craig.  I had never heard of her, before, but now, seeing the  insults on various blogs, etc., I'm intrigued.  I haven't seen any of her detractors/calumniators refute a single one of her ideas.

(Check out the Louis Marx article at Wiki.)
Craig McKee | 4/23/2012 - 10:37am
Gerelyn - thanx for reading my mind and taking the words right out of my mouth, only more succinctly.
Rick Fueyo | 4/23/2012 - 9:52am
An exercise of pure power without legitimacy or support
Gerelyn Hollingsworth | 4/23/2012 - 9:34am
The speaker for this year (the woman whose name conveniently includes ''Marx'') sounds like a run-of-the-mill kook.


I wondered about Barbara Marx Hubbard's middle name, too.  I wonder if some  who are hurling insults at her are motivated by anti-Semitism.  They offer no specifics to support their derision.  Are they mad because she's the daughter of Louis Marx of Marx Toys? Are they mad because she went to the Dalton School?  To Bryn Mawr?  To the Sorbonne? 

Here's her picture:  https://www.google.com/search?q=barbara+marx+hubbard&hl=en&prmd=imvnsob&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=eleVT76ZE6Kg2gWpo6XxCg&ved=0CEEQsAQ&biw=1187&bih=512&sei=l1eVT-e1FoPq2AWO5fyVBQ

Here's her web site:  http://www.barbaramarxhubbard.com/site/

Here's Wiki:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Marx_Hubbard

The Marx Toy Museum:  http://www.marxtoymuseum.com/

Anyway, the men in charge will surely cancel her scheduled talk, so those who are all hysterical about an old woman's notions about the future can relax.
ed gleason | 4/22/2012 - 3:56pm
See how Carlos O. gets in  the  Obama connection?.. so what.. if the 2007 LCWR presentation was before Obama.   partisan bishops please note how Carlos 'scored'  and you missed  your scoring opportunities. [2007 stuff is still a hot topic??.. how 'out of touch' are they anyway?] 
I say the LCWR should take their case/cause/ creativity to venues in every city. Catholics laity, with clerical allies, who don't feel 'called' to the march orders for 'religious liberty'.. will welcome a place to gather.  Bet the fed-uppers will come back too. Of course there would be no ads allowed in diocesan papers but that's one reason why Al Gore invented the Internet!!   (-:
ROBERT NUNZ MR | 4/22/2012 - 3:46pm
Both Fr. Clooney and Mr. farrell make reasonable and fair approaches to the talk.
I too think carlos Orozco"s comment is the heavily politicized and partisan comment that often appears in blogs and is divisive and poisonous to our poor Church.
David Pasinski | 4/22/2012 - 2:53pm
Carlos, I believe that your post is irrelevant to this discussion and only reiterates your usua viewpoint about the relationship with the magisterium with which I disagree in substance.

The blog as written points out the dialogical nature of teh presentation and subsequent posts seem to confirm that. It seems very clear that either the readrs of the document - the Vatican or bishops or their "interpreters" - have either no subtlety, no appreciaion for this style of discourse, and/or are seeking something to hang their objections onto and have seized upon an challenging, homiletic, scholarly, meditative approach to assert their critiques. In whatever case, it seems to be poor exegesis. 
Amy Ho-Ohn | 4/22/2012 - 2:47pm
Sister Brink's talk sounds like some high-blown theological verbiage thrown under the depressing question of how to manage the inevitable demise of religious life in the West. The speaker for this year (the woman whose name conveniently includes "Marx") sounds like a run-of-the-mill kook.

But why is it anybody's concern whom the major superiors want to listen to anyway? The Church isn't paying the speaker's fee, it's not paying for the convention center, it's not paying the travel costs. The religious women do great work, isn't that universally agreed? If they want to sit around on their own time and watch the Duke lacrosse team juggle eggs naked, how is that anybody's business but their own?

What does the council of male religious superiors do at their conventions? Sit around and drool in front of ESPN? Who wouldn't be thrilled to think that's all they're drooling at?
Thomas Farrell | 4/22/2012 - 12:00pm
I have read the 28-page 2007 paper by Laurie Brink, O.P., titled "A Marginal Life: Pursuing Holiness in the 21st Century."

I have also read Francis X. Clooney's comments above about her paper. On the whole, Clooney's comments are fair.

Nevertheless, I would quibble with an admittedly small point in his wording. He characterizes Brink's presentation as a lecture. I can understand that any organized oral presentation to a group can be characterized as a lecture. However, even though she had organized her presentation beforehand, there is a clear exploratory spirit in her presentation. At certain junctures, she even stops and poses specific questions for discussion about what she has just said. As a result, her way of proceeding can in this respect be described as interactive, as Clooney says. But in this respect, her way of proceeding to pose questions for discussion strikes me as resembling the way that a retreat director might present certain biblical passages and then pose a few questions for reflection about the biblical passages and how one might understand them in one's life.

Next, I would mention that Brink's paper is not the only item mentioned in the CDF statement. But I've not seen the evidence regarding the other items.
Craig McKee | 4/22/2012 - 10:41am
Before considering the ramifications of Sr./Dr. Laurie Brink's four models of current religious life, including the now infamous ''moving beyond Jesus'' which the newly-released CDF assessment seems to have erroneously imposed upon ALL American women religious, perhaps it would be helpful to take a step back and read the entire paper given at an LCWR assembly whose title was: ''The Next Frontier: Religious Life at the Edge of Tomorrow'' especially the preliminary 5 questions ''the LCWR Planning Committee posed and prioritized for my deliberation as I prepared for this presentation:'' 
For those who have yet to access or read the entire paper, here they are:
-What are the challenges for us today - within congregations, in the church and in our own world? What biblical insights can we get into these challenges?
-What is your vision of Religious Life for the future and what biblical stories support your vision?
-What are the reasons for religious to be hopeful?
-What voices would you like us to listen to as we contemplate the future of religious life?
-In what ways could Generation X see the future as needing to be different from the past?
Dr. Brink was called upon by the LCWR specifically for her expertise to provide scripturally-based images to contextualize, ground and respond to those five questions, some of which are pretty blunt and tell it like it is without being in-your-face, as she led her listeners to REFLECT BIBLICALLY upon the many of the very same questions posed by Cardinal Rode, Mother Millea, her Vatican visitators and even -in his own way- Cardinal Levada, albeit much less polemically. By their very act of seeking guidance from a recognized FEMALE Scripture scholar, the LCWR had hardly moved ''beyond the Church'' and certainly not ''beyond Jesus.'' What they have moved beyond is an ecclesiology in which ''FATHER -and only FATHER- knows best!''
The headline-grabbing soundbyte about the sisters who have ''moved beyond Jesus'' is but ONE of FOUR models Sr. Laurie is observing among her sisters, and wielding it as a weapon to caricature contemporary American female religious life as far too many have done and continue to do renders a serious disservice not only to the speaker, but to the countless FAITHFUL women religious in the United States who may not wear a whimple, but for whom this ''model'' is neither a current option nor a future direction and NEVER will be!
Those women religious for whom serious ''SOJOURNING'' as it is called, becomes a viable alternative, are certainly not sitting around waiting to be investigated, castigated and kicked out by the CDF. They're MOVING on...as did the MOTHER of all SOJOURNING women religious: Anita Caspary, whose WITNESS TO INTEGRITY: The Crisis of the Immaculate Heart Community of California provides an important documentation of another painful encounter between male and female church ''professionals.''
One can but hope that some of the lessons of HERstory imparted in that book will have been learned, lest HIStory repeat itself and the American Catholic Church of the 21st century is even further impoverished with another mass exodus of educated, competent female leadership.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Carlos Orozco | 4/22/2012 - 9:36am
There should be no surprise that the public Non Serviam of many in religious leadership  would have consequences. The unwise support for Obamacare -despite the fact that with it the President was enforcing eugenics policies and violating the separation of Church and State- along with the attacks on the bishops for their clear defense of Catholic teachings, was shameful and scandalous.