sr. pat farrell’s strategy for dialogue in the church

The women of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) have shown a remarkable dignity since the release of the Vatican assessment in April. While media, commentaries and discussion boards screamed with anger and displeasure at the bishops, the LCWR leadership waited until their annual Assembly to dialogue with its membership before giving an official response. The National Catholic Reporter has many in-depth reports, news stories, and commentaries from the Assembly, which took place last week.

I’ve been following the LCWR story closely for two reasons. First of all, out of love and respect for the many religious women I know. Secondly, I believe the issue of dialogue is vital to healing the present division; not only between the LCWR and the Vatican, but within the church as a whole. The need for dialogue out of a place of respect and mutual trust is obvious. Many believe that it is impossible, since the two parties are coming from such seemingly opposing views and philosophies.

Sr. Pat Farrell, now past-president of the LCWR, is optimistic. Her Presidential Address to the Assembly, Navigating the Shifts, provides a practical and hopeful model for entering into an effective conversation with the bishops. It is both insightful and inspiring, and I encourage you to read it in its entirety. In answer to the question “How can we navigate these shifts?” she responds with six tools. She believes these tools “have served us through centuries of religious life are, I believe, still a compass to guide us now.”

THROUGH CONTEMPLATION… In situations of impasse, it is only prayerful spaciousness that allows what wants to emerge to manifest itself. We are at such an impasse now. Our collective wisdom needs to be gathered. It germinates in silence, as we saw during the six weeks following the issuing of the mandate from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. We wait for God to carve out a deeper knowing in us.

WITH A PROPHETIC VOICE… There is no guarantee, however, that simply by virtue of our vocation we can be prophetic. Prophecy is both God’s gift as well as the product of rigorous asceticism. Our rootedness in God needs to be deep enough and our read on reality clear enough for us to be a voice of conscience.

THROUGH SOLIDARITY WITH THE MARGINALIZED… Vulnerable human beings put us more in touch with the truth of our limited and messy human condition, marked as it is by fragility, incompleteness, and inevitable struggle. The experience of God from that place is one of absolutely gratuitous mercy and empowering love.

THROUGH COMMUNITY… We have effectively moved from a hierarchically structured lifestyle in our congregations to a more horizontal model. It is quite amazing, considering the rigidity from which we evolved. The participative structures and collaborative leadership models we have developed have been empowering, lifegiving. These models may very well be the gift we now bring to the Church and the world.

NON-VIOLENTLY… The breaking down and breaking through of massive paradigm shift is a violent sort of process. It invites the inner strength of a non-violent response. Jesus is our model in this.

BY LIVING IN JOYFUL  HOPE… Joyful hope is the hallmark of genuine discipleship. We look forward to a future full of hope, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Hope makes us attentive to signs of the inbreaking of the Reign of God.

Two paradigms will gather around the table. One rooted in a hierarchical, authoritarian, and patriarchal style of leadership. The other grounded in a horizontal, collaborative, participatory and communitarian form of life. Both, we would hope, are grounded in prayer. May the Holy Spirit open their minds, ears and hearts to truly listen to the other with love, respect, and mutual trust.

Related story

LCWR’s annual meeting: Some reflections and a little back story by Jamie L. Manson is a first-hand look and reflection from the LCWR Assembly.

LCWR, Cardinal Levada and the dialogue of the deaf

For all who have been following the tale of the doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), today was a big day. LCWR president Franciscan Sr. Pat Farrell and executive director St. Joseph Sr. Janet Mock met in Rome with Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), and Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, the Vatican delegate appointed to oversee the assessment in the US.

The official press releases following the meeting were anti-climactic. The Vatican Press gave an official announcement that reiterated the authority of the Holy See over the sister’s conference, and the role of the CDF in ensuring that the LCWR is in union with the Magisterium. The press release from the LCWR was simple. The sisters were returning to the US to discuss the results of the meeting on regional levels and at their annual assembly in August. No interviews were going to be given.

I was musing on this all day, wondering if there was anything worth writing about. Perhaps all had been said to this point. But something still didn’t seem right. Did any actual dialogue take place? I wrote a blog post for NCR Today, but hesitated sending it in. I kept checking the National Catholic Reporter web-site for more news, and there was nothing. So, I sent off my wee piece. Almost simultaneously, John Allen Jr. posted an interview with Cardinal Levada, the Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Faith. Now here is a story!

The Cardinal describes a `dialogue of the deaf“ with the women of the LCWR. The deafness, he believes, comes from not wholeheartedly embracing the doctrinal assessment of the CDF and accepting the proposals for reform that are being presented to them.

In the short term, Levada said he would take as evidence that things are moving in the right direction if LCWR enters into “a sincere, cordial and open dialogue” with Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle, tapped by the Vatican to oversee the reform envisioned in the doctrinal assessment.

To date, Levada said, that hasn’t happened. 

Cardinal Levada also spoke openly about the possibility of the LCWR cutting their official ties with the Vatican.

So, the LCWR has chosen silence in order to pray, ponder, and dialogue among their membership before any statements or actions are taken. Theirs is a dignified approach. Cardinal Levada, meanwhile, has already put his opinions and musings into the limelight for all to see as if it was a fait accompli. And he has taken a very undignified dig at the sisters with his ‘dialogue of the deaf’ comment.

The story is far from over. My prayers and hopes are with the sisters that they will continue to face this challenge with grace, dignity, and faith in their communal wisdom. As to the deafness in the dialogue…may all ears and hearts be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

the acquiescence of silence

During some very dark days in our parish and in our diocese, my head rolled with those of many others. We suffered under an authoritative bishop whose destructive actions reflected a dysfunctional leadership style. Our pastor was one of his minions. When I locked horns with him, life became intolerable for me and my family. We had to leave.

Friends in the parish sympathized with us, and offered many a listening ear. They also shared their own hurts and frustrations, filling us in on the continuing saga of dysfunction after we left. We also had priest friends in the diocese who were struggling with the situation. They were supportive and compassionate to us, but did nothing. The faithful dutifully went about their tasks, while silence hung like a big, stinky elephant in the room. No one stood up for us or anyone else who had been black-listed. We felt deserted by the community, and the dysfunction continued.

The reason behind the silence was fear. The result of the silence was an enabling of the destructive behavior of priest and bishop. It didn’t change until the bishop retired, dying soon after. Yet, many of the hurts remain. Many who left at the time have not returned.

Today, silence has been broken in a public and courageous manner by two groups in the USA. Seven provinces of Franciscan brothers and priests have published a letter of support for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in wake of their Vatican rebuke.

We believe that your willingness to reflect on many of the questions faced by contemporary society is an expression of your determination to be faithful to the Gospel, the Church, the invitation from Vatican II and your own religious charisms. We remain thankful for and edified by your courage to engage in such reflection despite the ever-present risk of misunderstanding.

The second show of support came from the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) for Sr. Margaret Farley. Her book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics was censured by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The community of theologians not only supported her and her work, but wanted to clarify the distinction between the role of catechists and theologians. They recognize the importance of taking a stand now to ensure that future theologians will be given the necessary academic freedom to address hard issues without fear of reprisal.

Such an understanding of the nature of theology inappropriately conflates the distinctive tasks of catechesis and theology. With regard to the subject matter of Professor Farley’s book, it is simply a matter of fact that faithful Catholics in every corner of the Church are raising ethical questions like those Professor Farley has addressed. In raising and exploring such questions with her customary sensitivity and judiciousness, Professor Farley has invited us to engage the Catholic tradition seriously and thoughtfully.

We speak often of courageously standing up to injustice in the world. We need to show the same courage in standing up to injustices in our church. And, yes, it takes courage. But silence is too easily interpreted as acquiescence. And acquiescence enables the injustice to continue.