do not be masters of doctrine

During an ordination ceremony on Sunday, Pope Francis stressed that

…priests are not “masters of doctrine” but must be faithful to it. Francis described the pain he feels when he hears of people that no longer go to confession because they fear being told off; they felt the church was slamming the door in their face. “Please don’t do this,” Francis urged priests, stressing the importance of mercy.

The next day, he spent an hour in a question and answer session with seminarians and young priests in Rome in which he stressed the danger of “academicism”,

“There are four pillars to a priest’s education:” “spiritual education, academic education, community education and apostolic education.” “I would not be able to understand a priest who comes to study for a degree here in Rome but doesn’t lead a community life – this will not do – or who does not look after their spiritual life, taking part in daily mass, daily prayer, the lectio divina and personal prayer with the Lord.” “Academic purism is not good” in this sense. If you only focus on the academic side, there is a danger of slipping into ideology and this is not healthy” because we become “macrocephalus” and “this is bad, it is a sickness.”

I agree wholeheartedly. We need doctrine. We need academics who are willing to do the hard work of studying the faith in order to teach others. What we do not need are doctrinal bullies who use church teachings as a hammer of orthodoxy to force us into unquestioning submission. And, we do not need a narrow, judgmental view of faithfulness that focuses only on doctrinal “purisms” and disregards our personal relationship with God through prayer and our attempts to live this relationship in our works and deeds.

And, yet, the image of church leaders as masters of doctrine continues to not only haunt us but to also make its presence known. Recent headlines have been disheartening to say the least.

The religious women of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) are once again in the lime-light. In a recent meeting with Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the women were told in no uncertain terms that they and their work are still under suspicion. (NCR has ongoing coverage of the LCWR story here.)

Theologians continue to be threatened with censure. The latest is Fr. Michael Amaladoss, a Jesuit from India and author of The Asian Jesus. The LCWR was also reprimanded by Cardinal Müller for awarding its 2014 Outstanding Leadership Award to “a theologian criticized by the Bishops of the United States because of the gravity of the doctrinal errors in that theologian’s writings.” This theologian is the well known and much respected Sr. Elizabeth Johnson.

“Masters of doctrine”, for me, brings with it images of past, inquisitorial times. Inquisitions are used to regain and maintain purity in the church, but at what cost? They encourage an atmosphere of accusations rather than dialogue, secrecy rather than transparency, and cruel emotional and spiritual torture rather than mercy.

Sadly, today’s inquisitions are showing a growing disconnect between the words and actions of Pope Francis. The reform that Francis has called for, the reform that has given so many of us hope, is in danger of morphing into the counter-reformation style of doctrinal purification that was the distinguishing factor of the previous two papacies.

If Pope Francis truly believes in a church of mercy, a church that does not slam its door in the faces of her own, it is time for him to rein in the modern day inquisitors.

 

Pope Francis and the LCWR

Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, reported that Pope Francis has re-affirmed the need for a reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (the organization representing 70% of US women religious) and approved the critical “evaluation” that was published last year by the CDF, including the demand that the Sisters cooperate with individual bishops and the US Episcopal Conference.

The initial assessment and subsequent demands issued to the LCWR resulted in a massive outpouring of support for the social justice work done by American women religious. Many believed that the assessment was another example of heavy-handed control by the hierarchy. The nuns were being treated more harshly than child abusing clergy and the bishops who actively covered their tracks. The more skeptical believed that the bishops, whose dioceses face financial ruin due to the sexual crises, were trying to get their hands on the property owned by some of these religious congregations.

Critics of the LCWR were happy with the crack-down, believing that the women had become too progressive and should embrace the growing trend of more traditional orders back to convents, habits and strict obedience.

Support or critique for the LCWR is clearly divided along the usual ideological camps.

The initial response from more progressive Catholics to the papacy of Pope Francis has been almost unanimously positive. His calls for a more simple church with a preferential option for the poor has resonated with all who have been discouraged with the increased focus on liturgical and doctrinal purity and clericalism of recent years. His words and actions gave reason to hope that change will come.

The news that Francis is supporting the LCWR crack-down has shattered this hope for many. It has been likened to post-honeymoon blues; that it was all too good to be true. This pope will be like the one before him. Nothing has changed.

Others are encouraging a more optimistic, cautious approach. I put myself squarely in this camp.

These are the early days of a new papacy. It is impossible for Francis to know the intricacies of each issue that he has inherited. It is impossible to fix each mess overnight. Perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into Müller’s words. Saying the pope has allowed the work of the LCWR assessment to continue is not the same as giving the content of the work his stamp of approval.

Pope Francis has granted only provisional approval to all the Congregational heads. None of the prefects are guaranteed their positions at this point. Francis needs time to catch up on all the issues he inherited, to discern where the weaknesses lie and their root causes. He needs to identify and vet persons who have the gifts and back-bone to move forward with all that is good, and reform all that isn’t. With all that is on his plate, it is probable that he has not had enough time to study the nuances of the LCWR issue, or to dialogue with the parties involved.

As with politics and life, many in the church have a personal issue that becomes a focal point of their energies and passion. This is good and needed. The value of lobby groups is that they invest time and energy into researching and keeping on top of developments with a specific issue. They also ensure that an important issue is not forgotten or swept aside.

The dark side of becoming too focused on an issue is that we expect everyone to share our passion, and give it prioritized attention. We judge the effectiveness of a political party, ruling government, or leader by how they have responded to our demands. Their general success or failure depends on their success or failure in promoting and defending our agenda.

Of course, the future of the LCWR is more than an “agenda” for the religious women involved. At the core of the issue is one of heavy handed power and a deep lack of respect given to women who have given their lives for the service of God and God’s people. Justice is demanded for them, and hopefully it will come.

I am not ready to write Pope Francis off yet based on this one news story. Swift judgments are easy to make. I, and many others have made many swift judgments about our new pope based on the integrity of his words; words that are reflected in many simple gestures.

I’m going to hold on to those first, swift and positive judgments. I’m still enjoying the newness of the feeling; a feeling of hope for our church. I’m not ready to let go of the honeymoon yet.

LCWR coverage in the Prairie Messenger

The latest catholic dialogue column in the Prairie Messenger is titled Difficult conversations have a greater need for dialogue.  It builds on a previous blog reflection on Sr. Pat Farrell’s strategy for dialogue as described in her presidential address to the LCWR Assembly in August.

I’m proud of the Prairie Messenger for its coverage of the ongoing story surrounding the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. One might wonder why a news journal from the Canadian prairies is so interested in what happens to an American organization of religious women. The Catholic Church extends far beyond our local parish walls, and the PM tries to give a fair and balanced coverage of local, national, and international church stories. The more we learn about each other, the more we can rejoice in shared gifts and support each other in our struggles.

The present situation between the bishops and the women of the LCWR is a microcosm of the bigger issues facing our church today. What are the roles of women and men in our church, whether vowed religious, ordained or lay? How do we address the tension that exists between an authoritarian,  hierarchical style of leadership and deep seated beliefs in participatory leadership, equality and freedom of conscience? How do we begin to build the bridges across the ideological chasms that continue to divide liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists?

I believe we have much to learn as we watch the drama unfold to the south of us. Dialogue is key. We can only pray that true, respectful dialogue will be possible.

Check out the August 29, 2012 issue of the Prairie Messenger for more LCWR commentaries and reports.