Archbishop Sartain

The Phantom Menace: Women Religious and the Catholic Church

The Phantom Menace:
Women Religious and the Catholic Church


Now that I have your attention. No. This is not a blog about a Star Wars episode. It is far more serious. At the same time, not unlike the Star Wars saga, this entry touches upon the aspirations and values of people. Aspirations of equality and values of freedom. Hopefully, it is also a challenge--at least to the Catholic population of America.

Over time there have been many profound reflections on power: its place, use and misuse in history. Frequently it is the subtext of a biography about political leaders. Sometimes, power itself is the subject, occasioning a forthright and direct comment or observation. Or both.

Arguably, the most over-used, and often misquoted, statement about power comes from Lord Acton. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” A second statement about power pre-dates Acton by nearly 2,000 years.

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant…” This reflection, admonition, command, (call it what you will), comes from Jesus. It appears in nearly the same words in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. It would appear that the Vatican has deliberately chosen to ignore both of these cautions on power.

Recently, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s watchdog on doctrine, issued a censure against the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). The document chastised the sisters for publicly disagreeing with the U.S. Bishops (read health care). More perplexingly, they were admonished for remaining silent on other issues. I’ll return to that in a moment.

Some may think that I exaggerate by casting this in the light of power. However, for much of the Church’s 2,000-year history, Rome (and bishops throughout the world) has turned a deaf ear to Jesus on the very issue of power. The translation I chose uses the word “tyrant”. That may not be as extreme as it first sounds.

The women who have come under censure are highly educated. In fact, as a group they are far more educated priests. They are also profoundly religious and holy servants of the Church. Now Rome comes along and decides that these women, who have dedicated their lives in service of the Gospel, are not competent to run their own affairs. In a phenomenal abuse of power, the Vatican has decided that Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle should now control the LCWR. This includes approving what women may or may not speak at LCWR meetings. Did I mention that the Archbishop is a man?

It is not a stretch to suggest that the U.S. Bishops have opposed the LCWR not because the sisters disagreed with them, but rather because the bishops are speaking themselves into irrelevance. And they are lost.

It would be inaccurate to suggest that the bishops are single-issue oriented when it comes to public policy. However, their obsession with electing politicians who claim to be anti-abortion, has left the bishops on the fringe of American life when these same politicians advance legislation that is alien to Gospel values. The sisters were clever enough not to fall into that trap. However, there is a deeper problem. Rome does not seem to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ admonition.

Authority and power are two very different entities. The bishops are concerned that power might slipping through their fingers. This recent censure suggests that the bishops are the only ones who can be right, and everyone else (which includes all women) should serve them and acquiesce to their ideas and interpretations.

By contrast, the sisters are concerned with serving (empowering) the people, especially the poor and marginalized. They are concerned with recognizing the movement of God’s Spirit among all the people. As such, the sisters are the ones who speak with moral authority.

Rome’s censure has caused me to recall a scene in the film “A Man for All Seasons”, about St. Thomas More, who served as Lord Chancellor under Henry VIII. When More was brought up on false charges, one of the accusations was that he opposed the king’s title and claim of supremacy over the church in England.

Cromwell accused More of denying the king’s title by remaining silent. More defended his silence by invoking an ancient adage. “The maxim is ‘qui tacit consentire’. The maxim of the law is silence gives consent.” If the sisters remain silent on positions taken by the bishops, then their silence should be construed as agreement, not opposition. That is not good enough for Rome. The sisters are not only being told what
not to say, they are now being told what to say.

One day the sisters will be vindicated. In ancient mythology Atlas was depicted as holding up the earth. In the real world the Vatican does not hold up the sun. Force and abuse of power cannot hold back the night. Look outside. Darkness is beginning to settle on the men who lord it over the Church.

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