24 June 2012

Not Better, but Better for Me

[[Dear Sister, you wrote in a post last week, [[ They do not build themselves into their worlds by having families, pursuing wealth, creating business empires, and the like. They live compassionate lives of prayer focused on their call to live a holiness where God's love does justice. These two dimensions of their lives allow them to address the world which God loves with an everlasting love with greater vision and generosity than THEY might otherwise be capable of --- NOT necessarily with greater generosity than others who are called to a different vocation are capable of. ]] I thought that it was church teaching that religious vows of poverty and chastity allowed a more generous life than most people could achieve. You seem to be disagreeing with that. Have I got that right?]]

Thanks for the question. I do believe that generally profession of the evangelical counsels is meant to create lives free from enmeshment in "the world" which makes both vision and generosity easier in some ways. However, I also believe that a universal call to holiness, which the church affirms, means a call to a similar vision and generosity no matter who we are. So how do I reconcile what seems to be a terrific and obvious conflict?

What I wrote was that profession of the evangelical counsels allows Religious to address the world with a vision and generosity which is greater than THEY might otherwise be capable of. I mean simply that this vocation is necessary for ME (or other religious) to achieve the levels of vision and generosity God needs from me (et al); I (we) could not do it in another vocational path. This does not necessarily mean that my own vision and generosity are greater than those of a non-Religious --- far from it!! It merely means that this vocation makes something possible for me and for other Sisters and Brothers I know. I honestly cannot measure these things in the life of another. After all, the very things I perceive as constraints which impede might be the very limits which are part of empowering and inspiring vision and generosity in another. I once heard another Sister put it this way: "most folks do not need to be a Sister to do what I do, but I need to be a Sister to do what I do."

A corollary of what I am saying here is that whatever vocation God truly calls one to is the optimal way to the vision and generosity the Kingdom requires of us. We have all known people who were not very well-suited to religious life or marriage or single life or whatever. Such lives are usually marked by a kind of cramped unhappiness which leads to self-absorption and limited sight. It would not matter that a Sister who was unsuited to religious life had vows and community and the external freedoms these issue in; she would still not be able to achieve the degree of vision or generosity to which God was truly calling her. A woman called to marriage and motherhood, and therefore happy in these, certainly has many limitations in her life but (in my experience of such women) she would be able to achieve a generosity and vision the aforementioned Sister could not.

My sense is this truth is related to the observation that authentic freedom is achieved in conjunction with the constraints of life. God must call us in a way which allows us to transcend these constraints even though such a call does not remove them. The key to authentic freedom and all the vision and generosity which flow from this is not the constraints themselves but the call of God which transfigures and allows us to transcend them. So, as counterintuitive as it seems at first or second glance, and though I will continue to ponder this, I think I am correct in what I said, namely, [[(religious) do not build themselves into their worlds by having families, pursuing wealth, creating business empires, and the like. They live compassionate lives of prayer focused on their call to live a holiness where God's love does justice. These two dimensions of their lives allow them to address the world which God loves with an everlasting love with greater vision and generosity than THEY might otherwise be capable of --- NOT necessarily with greater generosity than others who are called to a different vocation are capable of. ]]

Follow up: On Living Alone and Hermit Surveys

[[Dear Sister, thank you for answering my question on living alone and whether that makes one a hermit. How does "desert dwelling" relate to what you have said in the past about the difference between silence AND solitude and living the silence OF solitude? They are linked aren't they? I also have a different question. How would it impact your life to hear the results of a survey about "Who is the real hermit?" with answers to questions about what people think hermits are like, how they dress, eat, recreate, what they read, how they pray, what characteristics most mark them, etc? I read about two persons doing surveys. One was this type. The other seems to ask for responses from hermits themselves. Have you seen them? Why would a hermit participate in such surveys?]] (redacted)

You are most welcome regarding my answer to your question on the distinction between living alone and being a hermit. I think this particular question is really important today as Bishops and other chancery personnel try to discern whether someone in their diocese is called to be a hermit or not. One of the things I try always to stress is that at least before being admitted to temporary vows the persons they are evaluating must have made the transition from being a lone person to one who is a hermit in an essential sense and is therefore living the silence of solitude as the heart, context, and goal of their lives. Otherwise we have more or less pious folks perhaps living some degree of silence and solitude in various ways but who are not really hermits in any fundamental sense.

You are correct that this is very closely related to the distinction between simply living alone and living as a desert dweller. The common element in both distinctions is "the silence of solitude." This is one of the reasons I have tried to make it clear that the silence of solitude is the defining element of the eremitical life and its actual charism (gift quality) to the Church and rest of the world. In a sense I would be comfortable saying that "desert dweller" and "one who lives the silence OF solitude" are synonyms --- no matter where the latter happens. We can see this when we reflect on the fact that one who perhaps takes a brief trip into the desert and meets (some) silence and solitude there has not yet become a desert dweller nor one who lives (or has even truly experienced) the silence of solitude. I think it is even possible to say that a person who moves to the desert for an extended time but whose home is sealed against the desert conditions and who simply remain shut in that home themselves along with every modern convenience and distraction is not yet a "desert dweller" either.

Regarding your second question, how would such a survey affect me? In the first case, not at all. That is, it would not change how I dress, eat, live my life, style myself (Sister, etc) or behave. I am who I am and there is no need to pretend otherwise, nor to try to hide that from people. My life is an essentially hidden one, but it is also a public vocation with obligations and with a foundational requirement of transparency (not to be mistaken for infringement of privacy!!). If the concern of the first survey you mentioned is defeating stereotypes or correcting popular expectations, for instance, then letting people meet me and understand I AM a hermit is a better solution than anything I know. One does not deal effectively with stereotypes and inaccuracies with pretense. Instead one makes the truth known and thereby dispels common misconceptions. I might say that one affect of the survey could be to strengthen me in my resolve to make this vocation better known and understood. It could also give me some additional clues to what people think about hermits, but otherwise I would say it would not affect me or the living of my life at all.

In the second case which draws on the experience of hermits themselves, yes, I have seen the survey, and in fact was interviewed for a couple of hours by the author and researcher last year. He traveled here to CA and met with me here at the hermitage as well as visiting a couple of other eremitical houses in No CA. The experience was quite fine. It was good to be able to talk about this vocation with someone researching all kinds of experiences of solitude and the effect of several variables on the eremitical experience. That interview left me with questions I still ponder, or which come back to me from time to time in a way which is helpful.

It is always helpful to articulate one's experience --- if not for the person asking the questions, then certainly for oneself. Recently I did an interview for an article on eremitical life. It was interesting to read the draft version and see what presuppositions or assumptions I make in trying to explain this vocation -- especially if someone claims to have read my blog. My own unclarity or silence on several really fundamental issues were alarming because without these one is describing a parody of the diocesan eremitical life. Fortunately the author wanted accuracy and was very willing to allow me to contact him with anything I thought would be helpful. I have yet to see the finished draft, but I am hoping I was able to clarify my omissions! At least I know that I learned from doing this interview, just as I learn things whenever I write or answer questions about the eremitical life. And with regard to the second survey mentioned above, I look forward to reading the results because these involve conversations with people truly living solitude in conscious and reflective ways. These kinds of things are always helpful to me and have the potential to challenge me in the living of my vocation in ways popular expectations do not.

Thus, I do think surveys can be interesting and valuable sources of information --- especially if they are well done and accurately demonstrate what people believe to be true about hermits. Stereotypes are dangerous, particularly if they are held by people who are seeking to be hermits or those who participate in discerning eremitical vocations. The basic problem here is that hermits' lives are of tremendous value in a society which is intolerant of silence and touts individualism or narcissism rather than an individuality which is properly situated as a dimension of community. They are equally valuable for people who are trapped in situations which isolate or demean and require a way to redeem these because they suggest creative possibilities. But stereotypes --- which remain far too prevalent, do not serve in this way. Instead they tend to reinforce all of these elements: individualism, narcissism, isolation, etc. Surveys can help us be aware of and even understand such misconceptions; for chanceries or others dealing with eremitical vocations (or potential vocations) these may assist in recognizing when such things are driving an individual's desire to be a hermit or a diocese's admission to profession.

23 June 2012

Questions re Canon 603 and Public Profession

Hi Sister O'Neal, I think you have written about this before but I read the following in a blog after I looked up "public and private hermit vocations". [[Or, if public profession is God's will and the hermit's accepted format for profession of promises or vows, Canon 603 does not need to be utilized or incorporated. If not, the hermit is publicly avowed and consecrated, but not bound by that Canon. Regardless of Canon 603 or not, a public profession is that: public. People know.]] Can you either comment on this or point me to other places where you have already done this? (redacted slightly)

Yes, I have written about this issue quite a bit. You can find pertinent posts under labels like "public vs private vows", "lay hermits v diocesan hermits, " "consecrare vs dedicare" etc. There are several misconceptions in this comment, three of which are quite significant.

The most fundamental error comes in the last sentence which asserts essentially that whether a profession is canonical (canon 603 in this case) or not, so long as it is done in front of people and people know of it, then it is a public profession. This is not true. When we speak of public vows we are not speaking of vows which involve some degree of notoriety --- no matter how modest that may or may not actually be. We are speaking about vows in which the person assumes public rights and obligations. Public vows are received "in the name of the church" and in such a profession the person assumes a new ecclesial identity (in this case, that of a diocesan hermit) while private vows are not received in the name of the Church --- even if they are witnessed by the Pope --- and do not indicate a new ecclesial identity. (In this case one is and, at this point in time, remains a baptized lay person with all the legal rights and obligations which come to one by virtue of baptism --- no small matter --- but the legitimate rights and obligations involved in being a solitary Catholic Hermit do not attach.)

The second, but related error comes in the first sentence where the writer affirms that public vows as a hermit can be made but that canon 603 need not be used. Were this writer speaking of religious eremitical life (semi-eremitical life that is) where hermits are publicly professed as part of a religious congregation like the Carthusians, Camaldolese, etc, this statement would be strictly true. Persons publicly professed in this way use other canons but not canon 603. But in the given context, where s/he is speaking about a solitary hermit, it is not true. To state what I have written before here in reference to the history of canon 603, etc, if one is to be publicly professed as a solitary hermit one MUST be professed under canon 603. There is no other option within the Roman Church. This is part of the significance of canon 603. Canon 603 makes something possible in universal law which has never been possible before. So, if one truly believes she has discerned that God is calling her to be publicly professed as a hermit in the Roman Catholic Church, she must seek admission to profession and consecration under Canon 603. This will entail the Church's own discernment in the matter because ecclesial vocations are vocations where God's own call is mediated by the Church. They are never assumed by the individual on her own. Again, public vocations involve the assumption of rights and obligations not found in private vocations so the Church must be involved in the discernment of such vocations. Canon 603 is precisely the Canon through which such rights and obligations are granted or assumed by the solitary hermit.

The final error involves the use of the term consecration. This is a really common mistake and I have heard people at every level of the church make it in adopting the common usage re "consecrating oneself" but it remains a mistake. Namely, consecration is not simply the act of giving oneself to God. In fact, it is not something a human being does at all. Vatican II rightly (and carefully) reserved the word consecration for the action of God alone. Since God is Holiness, only God may make holy --- only God, that is, may hallow or set something aside as holy. The human action involved in profession is "dedication." In definitive or perpetual public vows the act of profession is accompanied by prostration, the calling on the communion of saints to witness and participate in what is happening, and a solemn prayer of consecration. We refer to the entire event as "profession" or "consecration" but even so, consecration per se is something only God does. Meanwhile, the proper term for a person with private vows is "dedicated." The act they make in making private vows is an act of dedication.

Further, except for baptism itself, we reserve the term "consecrated" as a kind of shorthand for entry into the "consecrated state." Here the term "state" refers to a stable state of life or "status." Private vows do not initiate into the consecrated state of life  nor do significant private prayer experiences where God in Christ touches and "consecrates us"; thus, it is not accurate to speak of a person with private vows as "consecrated." (By virtue of our baptisms we are all consecrated by God but this does not initiate us into what is called the "consecrated state (of life)." It is important to remember this in case we are tempted to think that "consecrated state" means "holier than everyone else" or a "higher vocation." There is nothing "higher" or "holier" than Baptism and the recreation that occurs there. After all, we can leave the obligations of the consecrated state but we cannot ever truly leave the obligations of the consecration of Baptism behind.)

Hope this helps.

22 June 2012

Religious Life today: One Heart, a Diversity of Expressions

I have received several comments and questions asking me how it is I can support the social justice vision of the Nuns on the Bus tour. It seems clear to those emailing that my life could not be more different than the Sisters on the Bus. How can an eremite living the silence of solitude be embracing the same values as active, ministerial Sisters? How can (as I put it) we share the same heart and embrace such very different lives?

One of the very startling emphases in Sister Simone Campbell's presentation (found in the video posted here a couple of posts ago) is the complementarity between individual responsibility and koinonia or solidarity with our brothers and sisters. In speaking about the intimate relationship between these two found in
Caritas in Veritate specifically and in Catholic social teaching more generally, Sister Simone made essentially the following statement which I will need to paraphrase somewhat: [[. . .It is the role of government to counter the excesses of any culture. [It is the role of government in the US] to counter [our excessive] individualism with the keen knowledge of solidarity. . . .it is solidarity which prevents us from slipping into isolation, loneliness, and depression. The only time we are fully human is when we are connected to others.]]

I don't think anyone reading my blog for the past 5 years will be able to miss the similarities in what Sister Simone and I have been saying --- though I have been doing it from the perspective of a hermit calling attention to 1) the dialogical and covenantal nature of the human being, and 2) the distinction between genuine solitude (which is communal and other-centered) and isolation (which is often selfish, self-pitying, bitter, and/or misanthropic). Quite often here I have spoken of the individualism and narcissism of our world and especially our society as countered by the hermit's authentic life of "the silence of solitude." You may also remember the comment a friend of mine made re inauthentic vocations to eremitical solitude: "in solitude we should hear the anguish and cries of the world; if we do not we are not mature enough for such a vocation."

How like the talk Sister Simone gave the other night referring to her own prayer and Yahweh's speech to Moses: "I have heard my people's cry. . ." The only things I have perhaps spoken of more often are the unnatural solitudes of our world which need to be redeemed, and the fact that human beings are called to completion in community with God and others --- a fact which is true of hermits as well, though that completion assumes a paradoxical form in their lives. Both themes are also central to the life Sister Simone lives, the message she proclaims, the work she does, and the passion which drives both of those.

What Sister Simone represents very clearly is a form of life which is countercultural and so, unworldly in the best Christian sense. It is, in other words, rooted in and supportive of the values of the Kingdom of God. It is prophetic because it confronts a central untruth of our culture (individualism and its variations of narcissism, greed, selfishness, and misanthropy) with the Gospel of God that says that in God we are ALL equal, all gifted with God's grace (remember this week we heard the reading announcing that God causes it to rain on the just and unjust), all called to wholeness and holiness, and ALL called to support the dignity and integrity of our neighbors in their quest for wholeness and holiness (love them as you love me). What I represent and speak about is identical except that the form of life in which I find all of these dynamics embodied is that of eremitical solitude. Thus, it is no surprise to me that Sister Simone's prayer centers often on desert dwellers and prophetic images of burning bushes and the dry bones raised to new life in Ezekiel, nor that my own leads to a sense of the strong sense of the other-centered and covanental nature of genuine solitude.

There should be no surprise for any of us in this. We (the Nuns on a Bus type Sisters and diocesan hermits like myself) live two very different Religious lives embodying the very same values and commitments; more, we do so precisely because we both live lives rooted in the Gospel of Christ. Our hearts are the same though the lives they empower and call for are, superficially at least, very different. One of the reasons I have been posting about the Sisters of the LCWR and the Nuns on the Bus tour is precisely because I recognize my own heart in what they are about. I would say it is the heart of a hermit; Sister Simone would say, I think, it is the heart of a Sister of Social Service or other ministerial Sister. It could not be of greater importance that Catholics in particular look at the compassionate heart which empowers the variety of forms of Religious life extant in our Church today. I believe this unity, this sameness at the level of heart in the presence of great diversity is of critical importance to the Church and a sign of the authenticity of what we each represent. Being able to perceive and appreciate it is as important for anyone wishing to understand religious life today.

What is my word of encouragement then to all those who see only the clear but superficial differences --- and sometimes exploit them for various agendas? Look deeper to the Gospel underpinnings and the love of God which constitutes their unity. Look with the eyes of faith and see a love which does justice at the heart of these vocations to Religious life. After you have done that, then look at the elements or structures which order and support such love --- elements and structures like community (in a variety of forms), the vows, a deep prayer life, etc. Only then will the diversity of expressions make sense to you as wonderful expressions of the same reality.

Followup on the Question re: What a "woman Religious looks like"

In an earlier post a reader objected that the Sisters who are part of member congregations of LCWR don't look like representatives of consecrated life because, presumably and generally speaking, they no longer wore habits. I said I would respond to that objection in a separate post so let me give it a shot. Let me be clear though: in this response I don't intend a comprehensive discourse on the issue of wearing habits. Instead I want to focus on one of the things that is happening because of the Nuns on a Bus tour --- namely the act of making clear "what a ministerial woman religious actually looks like".

Let's be clear, as a kind of introduction, that apostolic or ministerial Sisters often only wore the daily dress of their cultures. Some of the habits we identify today as "nun's habits" were really the widow's weeds of the day. In fact, Sisters wore these and were encouraged to wear them by other Sisters in the early days of the US because of the anti-Catholicism prevalent during that time. In time these costumes (the common European term for them) became a formalized habit which, rather than assuring these Sisters fit in well with the culture and society of their day and could minister effectively, stood out from the normal garb of the day. Various parts of such habits also eventually acquired religiously symbolic value but this was because they were intimately related to the consecrated women who wore them (including those in monastic life from the long past)--- not because the garb itself began as symbolic or religiously significant. Thus, we need to be aware that religious habits were born of necessity, custom, and association with the persons who wore them and the lives of generosity, prayer, and holiness those women actually lived.

In 1900 in a text called
Conditae a Christo which still defined all religious life in a monastic shape but without strict cloister, and then 1917 with the Code of Canon Law, the Church recognized a kind of hybrid religious life which made normative anachronistic dress which sometimes had been forced on Sisters so they could be called "real religious." Often the Sisters' ministries had to be tailored as a result and so there were significant trade offs in the situation. After Vatican II, and because of its directives and values, women religious modified their religious garb, and often, as they re-examined the history and charisms of their congregations they went back to simple contemporary dress. They also began appraising their commitment to set corporate ministries or "apostolates" in light of their own charisms and the Council's teaching on the universal call to holiness. What was clear to the Sisters was that projects that had needed Sisters originally (the foundation and staffing of hospital and school systems) now could easily be turned over to lay persons. In any case, government took over the responsibility of education and health care in ways which made the Sisters' work to bring these to the marginalized less imperative or necessary --- and in some cases, less possible.

They moved on to other ministries which were as ground-breaking and unaddressed as had been health care and schooling for the poor and otherwise marginalized they had first been involved in. In such ministries archaic, expensive habits (and make no mistake that traditional habits were expensive in several ways!) were not helpful but in fact often created a barrier to those the Sisters sought to serve. Christ's presence never created unnecessary barriers. Unfortunately the result of all of this meant that Sisters largely passed from public view and many Catholics felt Sisters had abandoned them and the institutions they had established. Because Sisters weren't readily identifiable by distinctive dress and also worked on the margins of society rather than in parish schools, etc, many Catholics and non-Catholics wondered if they still existed at all. Neither did they realize that the changes in Sisters' ministries and dress were, in part, directly tied to a need to lift up the vocations of ALL of the laity to serve without distinctive dress or a kind of "special" status beyond the consecration of their Baptism in Christ.

Today in the Nuns on the Bus tour one of the things that is happening is that Sisters who were thought to have died out, abandoned ministry and/or the religious life, and whose consecration beyond Baptism was inextricably tied to distinctive garb, are demonstrating what they have been doing for the last 47 years since
Vatican II ended. These Sisters are giving the lie to all the stereotypes and malicious rumors --- that, for instance, they are not women of profound prayer, that they are not living community, that they are unfaithful to their vows, that they have given up important ministry to deal in weird and wacky spiritualities, etc. Further, they are giving a face and voice to what it means to be a ministerial Religious today. In the Sisters associated with this tour we see deeply faithful, profoundly compassionate, and radically committed women whose credibility is rooted precisely in their commitment to their vows to stand in solidarity with those on the margins of society. They are making visible to the mainstream what has so long and unfortunately been invisible to most of the church --- lives of total dedication to God and those he holds as precious, and total consecration by God to lives of real holiness.

It is instructive and ironic that all of the media are still using the iconic images of nuns we associate with Sisters prior to Vatican II. In a sense the media is underscoring stereotypes and not paying attention to what is actually going on right in front of them, namely the public revelation of a form of religious life which is marked by simplicity and solidarity. Further, it is a form of religious life which is carried on by strong women who value their own womanliness and therefore empower women in this society more generally --- especially women who will never have "special status" in the Church and will never wear distinguishing garb which comes with the special perqs and deference attached to religious habits. In the Nuns on the Bus tour increasingly the images of the Sisters involved create normative images in our own minds of just what most consecrated women dress and act like today. This is a piece of the picture that has been missing and it is important. As a result, instead of looking for the presence of women religious because of their distinctive garb, we begin to look for them as the superficially hidden leaven in all kinds of vital "love-does-justice" projects and contexts. We begin, in other words, to seek (and to see that we are responsible for seeking) evidence of genuine holiness and compassion in the unexpected place -- a holiness and compassion which we can ALL find ourselves called to.

This is the original pattern of ALL religious life rooted in the incarnation of the Word of God. It is a pattern which has been recovered by women Religious who seek to empower others, not to garner esteem and status for themselves or their "state of life." It is a pattern which breaks open stereotypes and draws our attention to what is profoundly important, the reality of commitment to God and consecration by God lived out in hearts which are humble and with which we should all be able to completely identify. As important as I personally believe habits are in given situations, I recognize that they are ALWAYS less important than the more profound and personal witness given by the women Religious on the Nuns on the Bus tour (or in any other situation for that matter). After all, few in our church or society will ever wear habits or be able to completely identify with those who do; but everyone can identify with and be
inspired by those who reveal their hearts to us during these weeks of the bus tour. They are the face of one form of religious life in today's church and we are privileged to see it so clearly.

21 June 2012

Responding to Questions Critical of the Sisters of the LCWR

[[Dear Sister, I have read your blog for some time and have admired a lot of what you have written. You pursue a hermit life of holiness and prayer in separation from the world but how can you speak of the Sisters of the LCWR and Network as though their lives are also about holiness and prayer? They are too immersed in the world. They are too involved in social justice. When the Church talks about "consecration" she means "set apart for God". These sisters are consecrated but who can tell? They don't dress like it, act like it, or live like it.]] (Redacted)

Thanks for your comments and questions. I assume these are in response to my post about Holiness as a Love that does Justice so I would prefer not to repeat what I already wrote there. Let me just say that the active, effective love of God that reconciles, heals, and therefore does justice (sets everything to rights) always spills over into ministry. Reconciliation is not only about our own souls, but about our entire lives, the lives of everyone around us, and in fact, our entire world. It always impels us to reach out to others and work for their own dignity and welfare, their own human wholeness and holiness. It compels us to work for the Kingdom of God --- that realm in which God is truly sovereign and so, that realm marked by a covenantal love that makes completely just. For a very very few of us that means a solitary life of prayer and penance, a life of the silence of solitude. We believe such a life signals to the whole church that there is a foundational relationship which is the source and ground of our lives, identities, and integrity. The very nature of human life is dialogical, and in fact, covenantal; hermits call attention in an especially vivid way to one dimension of this truth in particular.

But the rest of the Church calls attention to this truth in other ways, focusing on different facets of it. In Baptism all of us are consecrated into this truth and commissioned to discern how it is God calls us to make it real in our society and world. But note that consecration here has two interrelated senses. First it means set apart in and for holiness BY God --- for only God who is the Holy One consecrates. Secondly it means set apart for God, for his will, for all that he holds precious. For the majority of people this means vocations which are secular. As leaven in bread most express their consecration in the world. They do so in the world they are immersed in, the world of family, business, politics, economics, academia, etc. As Vatican II emphasized, ALL are called to an exhaustive holiness no matter the context of their lives and mission.

Men and Women Religious are also called to this SAME exhaustive holiness. However, their own call means letting go of various possibilities so that they may live out this call to holiness in a life which is more clearly countercultural and more explicitly set apart by and for God. Through their profession of the evangelical counsels they forego some ways of living which may mitigate or distort this countercultural stance. They do not build themselves into their worlds by having families, pursuing wealth, creating business empires, and the like. They live compassionate lives of prayer focused on their call to live a holiness where God's love does justice. These two dimensions of their lives allow them to address the world which God loves with an everlasting love with greater vision and generosity than THEY might otherwise be capable of --- NOT necessarily with greater generosity than others who are called to a different vocation are capable of. They are not, as you say, immersed in the world yet neither are they uninvolved in it nor ignorant or uncaring of it; neither are they called to live apart from it in the same way a hermit or cloistered religious is. They are called, again, to live countercultural lives which summon the world to become the Kingdom God wills it to be --- the Kingdom where the Divine completely interpenetrates reality and all of us live as brothers and sisters in God. Afterall, this incarnational way of working for the Kingdom is precisely the way Jesus lived it and summoned his disciples to do.

Remember that "separation from the world" can have a number of meanings and expressions. While some treat this term as meaning separation from anything except a convent, monastery, or hermitage environment and life, in canon law it means separation from that which is resistant to Christ and NOT from the whole of God's good creation. Given this latter sense women religious who live more radically countercultural lives rooted in prayer and commitment to a love that does justice can be said to be every bit as faithful to this element of their lives as anyone else. In fact, to the extent they really are grounded in the countercultural values and vision of Christ, they may be more sincerely faithful to it than the so-called hermit who closes the door of her hermitage out of selfishness or individualism and does whatever she wants, or the Sister who lives comfortably in her convent pursuing personal holiness but who cannot or will not muster the compassion or real concern she should have for those living in poverty and/or in separation from love that makes whole.

You complain that the Sisters whose congregations belong to the LCWR are too involved in social justice to the detriment of any personal pursuit of prayer and holiness. But remember that Jesus spoke often about things like feeding the poor, visiting prisoners, etc, and one of the Gospel counsels we have is, "Whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, that you do for/to me." Apart from what I have already mentioned above about commitment to a love that does justice and flows from personal holiness, what seems to be critical for the Sisters we have been speaking of is the reason they are engaged in social justice. Sister Simone Campbell, who was featured in the video I posted, once noted that early on in the days of the civil rights movement she scanned the room in which a lot of fellow demonstrators were clustered and realized that while they all agreed on the action taken, no one else there was there on behalf of the Gospel of Christ. The Sisters who are involved in social justice activities are involved not only because of a holiness which issues in a love that does justice, but precisely because they take the Gospel counsels seriously --- including the counsels about the poor and least. I would suggest to you that this may not be maintained UNLESS the person is deeply grounded in prayer.

The life of women and men religious is a large and vital reality. It is composed of many streams and tributaries. We mustn't make the mistake of identifying one stream or current as the sole representative of a religious life of holiness and prayer, nor one as the only cogent expression of separation from the world. At the same time we cannot draw an absolute dichotomy between social justice and concern with individual holiness and lives of prayer. To do so is to call Jesus and the Gospel of Jesus liars. I hope this answers most of your objections and questions. The question of garb is one I will write about separately if you don't mind.

20 June 2012

Personal Holiness is driven by a Love that does Justice: Reflecting on Nuns on the Bus

I have read a lot of comments in response to the Sisters of LCWR and Network being too political, not sufficiently concerned with holiness or grounded in prayer. I have to say that my own understanding of the Gospel supports the clear connection between concern with social justice (which implies political engagement), holiness, and the prayer that is the source of both. Even hermits whose lives are focused in the ways of solitary prayer and the silence of solitude know that genuine holiness stems from prayer and issues in compassion while compassion issues in ministry and ministry is a form of love doing justice. We see this dynamic clearly from the remarks of Sister Simone Campbell as she and a group of Sisters begin their Nuns on the Bus trip.

I am reminded in Sister Simone's emphases (social justice and prayer) and the way they dovetail so well that one of the truly wonderful renderings of the NT's term "righteousness" is "covenant behavior". This is a translation that NT Wright uses. What this means is that we are righteous when we act out of the fact that God is actively and truly our God and we (together) are actively and truly God's People. Both words in this translation are critical: covenant, which points to the dialogical or communal nature of our existence, and "behavior" which focuses us on the living, compelling, and effective nature of the love which stands at the heart of this covenantal reality and also issues from it. Another word for the righteousness that results when God's reconciling love does justice within us and within our world, is "holiness". Unless there is a "love that does justice" at the heart of our being, and therefore, a love which impels us beyond ourselves to extend this justice-making love to our brothers and sisters, our society, and our world, we are not dealing with that "covenant behavior" --- that holiness --- which Jesus' life, death, and resurrection made real in our world. Genuine holiness does justice; the two simply cannot be separated from one another, and they certainly cannot be separated from one another in the lives of ministerial or apostolic religious.

It is not always easy to be transparent about one's prayer. Neither is it easy to make it clear that for Sisters involved in either apostolic or ministerial religious life a passion for social justice stems from prayer, is supported by prayer, and leads back to prayer. (Too often in discussions and debates critics arbitrarily draw lines between faith and political action, for instance, and we are left with a truncated and inadequate perspective on what it means to be a person of faith, a person committed to holiness, to covenant behavior in our contemporary world.) But Sister Simone managed all this in her comments above. My thanks to her for so clearly revealing the heart of this vital form of religious life.

19 June 2012

Feast of St Romuald: 1000 Years of Camaldolese Presence

Congratulations to all Camaldolese monks, nuns, and oblates this day, the feast day of the founder of the Camaldolese Congregations! Not only is it a more-usual feast day but it is the 1000 year anniversary of the founding of the Camaldolese. Special greetings to those who are on pilgrimage to the Sacre Eremo in Tuscany.

Saint Romuald has a special place in my heart for two reasons. First, in a way many found singularly unhermit-like, he went around Italy bringing isolated hermits together or at least under the Rule of Benedict --- something I found personally to resonate with my own need to subsume my personal Rule of Life under a larger more profound and living tradition or Rule, and secondly, he gave us a form of eremitical life which is uniquely suited to the diocesan hermit. St Romuald's unique gift (charism) to the church involved what is called a "threefold good"; here Romuald recognized solitude, community, and martyrdom or evangelization, and treated them as dimensions or fundamental dynamisms of every monastic life --- whether essentially eremitical or essentially cenobitical. This meant that for hermits Romuald gives us a model of life which is essentially communal even while it is solitary, and also one which is responsible for proclaiming the Gospel in season and out.

So often people understand the eremitical life as antithetical to communal life, and opposed as well to witness or evangelization. Romuald modelled an eremitism which balances the human need for solitude and a commitment to God alone with community and outreach to the world. The vocation is essentially eremitic, but rooted in what we Camaldolese call "The Privilege of Love" and therefore it spills out in witness and has a communal dimension or component to it as well. This seems to me to be particularly well-suited to the vocation of the diocesan hermit since she is called to live for God alone, but in a way which ALSO specifically calls her to give her life in love and generous service to others, particularly her parish and diocese. While this service and gift of self ordinarily takes the form of solitary prayer, it may also involve other ministry within the parish including limited hospitality --- or the outreach of a hermit from her hermitage through the vehicle of a blog!!! So, all good wishes on this feast of Saint Romuald!!

And for those who are not really familiar with Romuald, here is the brief Rule he formulated for monks and oblates. It is the only thing we actually have from his own hand.

Sit in your cell as in paradise. Put the whole world behind you and forget it. Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish. The path you must follow is in the Psalms — never leave it. If you have just come to the monastery, and in spite of your good will you cannot accomplish what you want, take every opportunity you can to sing the Psalms in your heart and to understand them with your mind. And if your mind wanders as you read, do not give up; hurry back and apply your mind to the words once more. Realize above all that you are in God's presence, and stand there with the attitude of one who stands before the emperor. Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God, like the chick who tastes and eats nothing but what his mother brings him.

15 June 2012

Feast of the Sacred Heart

We are faced today with a feast that seems sometimes to be irrelevant to contemporary life. The Feast of the Sacred Heart developed in part as a response to pre-destinationist theologies which diminished the universality of the gratuitous love of God and consigned many to perdition. But the Church's own theology of grace and freedom point directly to the reality of the human heart -- that center of the human person where God freely speaks himself and human beings respond in ways which are salvific for them and for the rest of the world. It asks us to see all  persons as constituted in this way and called to life in and of God. Today's Feast of the Sacred Heart, then, despite the shift in context, asks us to reflect again on the nature of the human heart, to the greatest danger to spiritual or authentically human life the Scriptures identify, and too, on what a contemporary devotion to the Sacred Heart might mean for us.

As I have written here before, the heart is the symbol of the center of the human person. It is a theological term which points first of all to God and to God's activity deep within us. It is not so much that we have a heart and then God comes to dwell there; it is that where God dwells within us and bears witness to himself, we have a heart. The human heart (not the cardiac muscle but the center of our personhood the Scriptures call heart) is a dialogical event where God speaks, calls, breathes, and sings us into existence and where, in one way and degree or another, we respond to become the people we are. It is therefore important that our hearts be open and flexible, that they be obedient to the Voice and love of God, and so that they be responsive in all the ways they are summoned to be.

Bearing this in mind it is no surprise that the Scriptures speak in many places about the very worst thing which could befall a human being and her spiritual life. We hear it in the following line from Ezekiel: [[If today you hear [God's] voice, harden not your hearts.]] Many things contribute to such a reaction. We know that love is risky and that it always hurts. Sometimes this hurt is akin to the mystical experience of being pierced by God's love and is a wonderful but difficult experience. Other times love wounds us in less fruitful ways: we are betrayed by friends or family, we reach out to another in love and are rejected, a billion smaller losses wound us in ways from which we cannot seem to recover. In such cases our hearts are not only wounded but become scarred, indurated, less sensitive to pain (or pleasure), stiff and relatively inflexible. They, quite literally, become "hardened" and we may be fearful and unwilling or even unable to risk further injury. When the Scriptures speak of the "hardening" of our hearts they use the very words medicine uses to speak of the result of serious and prolonged wounding: induration, sclerosis, callousedness. Such hardening is self-protective but it also locks us into a world which makes us less capable of responding to love with all of its demands and riskiness. It makes us incapable of suffering well (patiently, fruitfully), or of real selflessness, generosity, or compassion.

It is here that the symbol of the Sacred Heart of Jesus' is instructive and where contemporary devotion to the Sacred Heart can assist us. The Sacred Heart is clearly the place where human and divine are united in a unique way. While we are not called to Daughterhood or to Sonship in the exact same sense of Jesus' (he is "begotten" Son, we are adopted Sons), we are meant to be expressions of a similar unity and heritage; we are meant to have God as the well spring of life and love at the center of our existence. Like the Sacred Heart our own hearts are meant to be "externalized" in a sense and transparent to others. They are meant to be wounded by love and deeply touched by the pain of others but not scarred or indurated in that woundedness; they are meant to be compassionate hearts on fire with love and poured out for others --- hearts which are marked by the cross in all of its kenotic dimensions and therefore too by the joy of ever-new life. The truly human heart is a reparative heart which heals the woundedness of others and empowers them to love as well. Such hearts are hearts which love as God loves, and therefore which do justice. I think that allowing our own hearts to be remade in this way represents an authentic devotion to Jesus' Sacred Heart. There is nothing lacking in relevance or contemporaneity in that!

Hermits: Not Merely People who Live Alone but Desert Dwellers

Dear Sister, recently I read a hermit who claimed the word hermit meant one who lived alone. They said, [[The very word hermit is a label that means "solitary" in Old French, late Latin, and Greek. So perhaps the first hermit was simply someone who lived alone in a time when all other people lived together in family units, and a single person living by themselves would be unusual enough to have a word coined to describe the phenomena. Then others began to live like that first hermit, alone, or in whatever other ways that first hermit appeared, acted, and was for what purpose of being.]] Is this correct? Is it how the Church uses the word hermit? Thank you.

Solitariness is a part of the eremitical life, yes, but the word hermit (eremite) has its origins in the Greek word eremos, which means desert. An eremite (hermit) then is a desert dweller and there is much more involved in truly being a desert dweller than simply being alone. Consider what it means to live in the desert generally, and then in terms of the judeo-Christian heritage. It is in this way we come to understand what a hermit is from the Catholic perspective and how the eremitical life differs from simply being or living alone. After all, many people live alone; does this of itself make them hermits? I would say no.

Deserts and wildernesses are equivalent concepts or realities. They are places where human poverty and weakness are writ very large, where the horizon of human existence is seemingly infinite, and where the ability to be one's own source of life, to secure oneself whether physically, psychologically, or spiritually, simply and clearly doesn't exist. There is no room for delusions in the desert. Delusions kill. We know how fragile, finite, and threatened we are in such a place. In the face of such reality we ask the really huge questions implied by existence but often crowded from our vision by the comforts and distractions with which we live every day: Who am I? Why am I alive at all? How can I continue to live? How can my puny, insignificant existence really be of any meaning in the grand scheme of things? Is my life simply absurd? Should I hold onto life, should I fight for it or let go of it? Why or why not? And if I choose to live, then what is essential to that and how do I find it, supply it, or open myself to it?

These are some of the questions which well up in the wilderness in the absence of distraction and satiety. These are the questions the hermit lives out in one form and another every day of her life. But the hermit, especially the Christian hermit, also lives the answer to these found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For the Christian hermit, the wilderness/desert is also the place where the Jewish refugees from Egypt came to terms with and claimed their identity as God's own, ratified the covenant with their lives, and became Israel, the covenant partner of God. The desert is the context where the prophet John the Baptist was nurtured and called to proclaim a baptism of repentance. It is also the place where he learned clearly who he was and was empowered to proclaim the One he was not. The desert is the place where Jesus was driven by the Spirit of God's love to grapple with his newly divinely-affirmed identity as Son of God and the shape that Sonship would take in this world. Here he struggled with the temptation to misuse the gifts which were his: his power, his authority, his very identity; here he struggled with the temptation to relinquish his complete dependence upon God the Father and act autonomously. It was in the desert that in a special way Jesus claimed his own identity and embraced the values and wisdom of the Kingdom rather than the identity, values and wisdom the world affirmed and offered him.

Similarly, the desert is the place where Paul, following his Damascus experience and his initial acceptance by the primitive Christian Church spent time consolidating the changes in understanding his meeting with Christ occasioned. It was here that Paul reframed his own understanding of Law in light of the Gospel, where he worked out the meaning of Jesus' scandalous death on the cross, where he came to part of an ecclesiology which would move Christianity from being a sect of Judaism to being a universal faith. In short, in Scripture, the desert is the place where we are remade in solitary dialogue with God. It is where we do battle with the demons that dwell in our own hearts and the world around us; it is where we learn to live our own human poverty and weakness because we also live from a grace that enriches and strengthens us; it is where we learn to see our own smallness and insignificance against the infinite horizon of a God who loves us immeasurably and eternally.

More, we do these things not only for ourselves, but for what the Scriptures call the glory of God. What this means is that we do it so that God's presence and nature may be clearly revealed in our world through our lives. That is what it means in the Bible to speak of God being glorified. And of course, we do this so that others might be nourished and inspired by it; we do it so that people may find hope when there seems nothing and no one to hope in, so that people may be nourished and their thirst quenched when the landscape of their lives seems entirely barren. We do it so that the least of the least among us may discover and be affirmed in the infinite value of their lives and so even the most isolated may find that God is with them ready to transfigure isolation into solitude. Eremitical life witnesses to the essential wholeness that we are all called to in God through Christ, no matter our poverty, our weakness, or our brokenness and isolation.

The hermit's life then is not merely about living alone, but rather living alone WITH, FROM, and FOR God, and in a way which is specifically FOR others as well. That is why Canon 603 defines it in part as follows: [[Can 603 §1, Besides institutes of consecrated life, the Church recognizes the life of hermits or anchorites, in which the Church's faithful withdraw further from the world and devote their lives to the praise of God and the salvation of the world through the silence of solitude and through assiduous prayer and penance.]]

There is nothing unusual about people living alone today (nor in the past!). Many do so for unworthy or unavoidable reasons (selfishness, misanthropy, chronic illness, incarceration, bereavement, isolated old age, etc); some of these are --- or may be made --- even relatively pious. But very few have given their lives over to the redemptive dynamics and demands of desert living as epitomized by figures in our history like Elijah, John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and so forth. For this reason I have to say the person who wrote the passage you cited is inaccurate on the very nature of what a hermit is and is about. This life involves living alone --- especially when one is a diocesan or solitary hermit --- but that is part and parcel of a desert existence which is very much more as well. One must define eremitical life in these (desert) terms or miss the mark completely.

Note: some of this I spoke of relatively recently --- not least in a post for the first week of Lent : Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Driven into the Desert by the "spirit of Sonship". Folks might want to check that out as well. It is also linked to the term "desert spirituality" below.

13 June 2012

Diocesan Hermit: a Risky Commitment?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I have wondered before - and have read a lot of your stuff which relates to [the question of] just why you would choose to put yourself under obedience to a bishop - since being a lay hermit wouldn't require that. From my perspective it was a very radical choice at a time in modern church history when it seems particularly risky. Don't you find it so yourself? Do you have a Bishop you see eye to eye with?]]

Thanks for the comment and questions. I have written about this a lot in the past, as you are clearly aware, but given all the things that are happening in the Church and news in the past weeks, especially regarding women religious, women theologians (or theologians more generally) there is no doubt that questions regarding my own relationship to the institutional church, especially to my diocese and local Bishop are raised afresh or with more urgency than at other times. As I prepare for an annual meeting with my Bishop precisely at a time when I stand with the women of the LCWR or reflect on my own vocation as a theologian, the question surfaces in my own mind as well --- not so much as one prompted by doubt about the wisdom of my vocational commitment, but as one which I personally must answer afresh for myself.

Your related comments about lay hermits are also well taken and, as I have written before, one of the responses one sometimes gets from lay hermits regarding the question of seeking canonical standing is that canonical standing binds the hermit too closely to the institution and curtails the freedom typical of the eremitical life. One has only to recall the example of the desert Fathers and Mothers who moved to the desert to disassociate themselves from an institutional Church they felt had compromised itself because of its constantinian ties to the world of power, politics, and pressure. It is a valid answer for some, even relatively many of those embracing eremitical life, but not for me.

I don't want to repeat everything I have said here before except to recall that solitary life is about relatedness, first of all to God and to the proclamation that God alone is sufficient for us, and then to all that (he) regards as precious --- God's people, God's world, God's Church, etc. It is a mistake to think of a hermit as someone who lives in a sort of isolated splendor or that our lives are marked (or marred!) by alienation of whatever sort. Hermits are hermits because they are loved and love in return. The very word solitude in the Christian eremitical tradition does not simply mean being alone, but rather being alone with God and for others. The silence of solitude embraced by the hermit is not the mere absence of sound; it is the silence which occurs when one exists with and in the love of another --- the silence of completion, the quies of shalom, the hesychasm resulting from being exhaustively known and wholly accepted and regarded as precious. It is the silence of two friends sitting quietly together in grateful presence each for the other and the God (or others) that made this friendship possible.

As a hermit I am not silent (or solitary) for instance, because woundedness and pain have rendered me mute and cut off from others, but because silence and solitude are the accompaniment and context for profound speech and articulateness. Silence is part of the music of being loved completely by God; it is a piece of allowing the separate notes of one's life to sound fully, but also to be connected to one another so that noise is transformed into a composition worthy of being heard and powerful and true enough to be inspiring to others. It is an empowered silence and solitude, the silence of solitude, which finds its source in God's love and reflects relatedness to God and others at its very core. Something similar could be said of all of the elements which comprise the life described in Canon 603. The eremitical life, especially in its freedom, is one of relatedness and love in all of its dimensions.

For me, because I want to live this fully and witness to it with my life, this has meant responding to an ecclesial vocation, a call specifically and concretely mediated to me by the Church and for which I am therefore answerable in specific and concrete ways. We have all done something similar in agreeing to baptism --- though I wonder sometimes if the average person in the pew understands well enough that gifts oblige us to act out of our giftedness, and that a gift which recreates us completely requires the corresponding gift of our whole selves. Eremitical life, especially solitary eremitical life, is simply too difficult, too rare, too fragile and too threatened by the world around it as well as by dimensions of the hermit's own inner world to live without concrete limits, mediating structures, formal relationships, concrete expectations, and avenues for sharing. At the same time it is a rich and fruitful life because of its close and dedicated relationship with God; Hermits stand at the heart of the Church and say something about this rich identity but they therefore do not do so in some merely abstract way. Because of this too they require concrete limits, mediating structures, formal relationships, concrete expectations on the part of their brothers and sisters, and avenues for sharing.

I think most solitary hermits (lay or consecrated) who embrace such a life because they feel God has called them to do so belong to a parish community which supports them in their life. (Religious hermits live as part of a community which functions similarly.) Most have spiritual directors and confessors who assist them and help them be accountable for their life. For me, however, it was not simply that I felt called to live as a hermit; it was that I felt called to represent a specific vocational tradition in the church --- a tradition which I felt was very important and even redemptive especially with regard to certain segments of the population --- and which therefore could represent not only continuity with the desert Fathers/Mothers and the whole history of eremitical life, but which could suggest new instances and "applications" of it. To do this meant not only the requisite experience, theological education, and sensibilities but, again, an ecclesial vocation which was supervised, inspired, and rendered accountable by the Church in some formal and concrete way.

Regarding my vow of obedience. It is not primarily to my Bishop nor, by extension, to my delegate, but to God. Of course, this does not mean that I do not owe either my Bishop or others he delegates my obedience, but merely that they are a part --- a significant one, but a part nonetheless -- of my discerning how God is speaking to me and what he is calling for from me. It is true that because I don't belong to a congregation and, except for my delegate who can and would speak for me, I have no legitimate superior between myself and the Bishop it can sometimes seem a bit "risky." What if we disagree on something central to my life, for instance? What happens then?

My own sense of obedience means attentive listening first of all and honest and open discussion as needed to assist my discernment. I listen carefully to my Bishop, and (fortunately for me) my experience is that he listens carefully to me. He asks good questions, gives me time to answer completely, allows me to ask him questions, and answers himself. As you will have read, we meet only annually (more frequently if I need something) and in the meantime I meet with my delegate. Should something happen which has either myself or my Bishop concerned and needing to talk about it, or if he should himself require more information or assistance, my delegate is there to serve in that way as well.

No, my Bishop and I probably don't "see eye to eye" on a few things (I am not speaking of doctrinal matters here nor of our vision of the eremitical life), but we are also bound in a canonical relationship because of two distinct but related ecclesial vocations which the Church has recognized and affirmed, as well as because of the related commitments which we have made and she has accepted. We both love Christ and Christ's Church and care that the eremitical life is lived with integrity and faithfulness. At the risk of sounding self-serving, I trust and desire to trust that with the help of the Holy Spirit and for these overarching reasons we will both continue to act attentively and responsibly, as well as with charity and respect for one another in this common project. I have hope then that what risk there is is worth it --- particularly for this vocation and for the Church as a whole. I suspect that in this I am not much different from anyone with public vows.

07 June 2012

CTSA Supports Sister Margaret Farley, RSM

I don't often talk about the task of doing theology here, though quite frequently I am engaged in it when I write about eremitical life, its nature, prophetic role, capacity to answer or assist with certain contemporary questions, and so forth, or when I deal with topics like the theology of the cross, for instance. But recently the challenging and creative place of theologians and theology in the life of the Church has been coming up everywhere with insistent regularity and today is one of those.

One of the more difficult questions for theologians and for Rome is the relationship between theologians and the Magisterium of the Church. A similarly neuralgic question, not just for these two groups, but for the rest of the church as well has to do with the difference between doing theology and catechetics, that is, the distinction between "faith seeking understanding" and teaching others what the church teaches. The relationships in these questions are complex with points of overlap and ambiguity but above all the two groups are supposed to be engaged in a constructive, collaborative relationship where both serve the truth and the source and ground of truth we call God, and where trust is evidenced even (or especially) when theologians push the envelope by engaging new questions and perspectives which call for new ways of thinking of or speaking about the truth.

In its recent condemnation of the work of Margaret Farley, RSM the conflict between doing theology and doing catechetics is especially highlighted. There is no doubt that some of Sister Farley's positions are not in accord with Church teaching. Neither is that necessarily problematical from the theologian's perspective, especially when the work is mainly academic and geared to scholars, but of course it is quite problematical from the perspective of the Magisterium --- especially if theologians and Magisterium (of Bishops) cannot work together in a way which allows complementary roles to be made clear to the rest of the Church. (In Aquinas' day we had the magisterium cathedrae pastoralis (a teaching authority "of pastors" exercised by the Bishops) and a magisterium cathedrae magisteralis (a teaching authority exercised by "professors" or, that is, a Master or Doctor of theology), Readings in Moral Theology #3. When disagreements occured the Pope might eventually intervene but sometimes he reminded both sides of the need for humility with regard to the mystery of God and forbade them from condemning one another (cf Paul V). But the situation is different today --- on many levels.)

Today the CTSA, the Catholic Theological Society of America has made a statement supporting Sister Margaret Farley's work and speaking to the distinction between theology and catechetics and so, implicitly reminding us all that theology is an ongoing search for understanding which, precisely because of the incommensurability of God's mystery, does not cease with the Church's profession of faith. (Quarens in fides quarens intellectum is a present participle and therefore indicates an ongoing project).

The statement is found below. Some might also be interested in Gaillardetz's new book, When the Magisterium Intervenes, The Magisterium and Theologians in Today's Church which deals with these points. It includes the dossier on the US Bishops' committee's investigation of Elizabeth Johnson's book, Quest for the Living God and an analysis of the relationships which exist between theologians and the Magisterium of Bishops and how each are called to carry out their responsibilities towards one another and the Tradition of the Church.


On June 4, 2012, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a “Notification” entitled “Regarding the Book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics by Sister Margaret A. Farley, R.S.M.” The “Notification” judged that, in a number of respects, Professor Farley’s book presents positions on matters of sexual ethics that are contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium.

We, the undersigned members of the Board of Directors of the Catholic Theological Society of America, wish to note that Professor Farley is a highly respected member of the theological community. A former President of the CTSA and a recipient of the Society’s John Courtney Murray Award, she has devoted her life to teaching and writing on ethical issues and has done so in ways that have been reflective, measured, and wise. Her work has prompted a generation of theologians to think more deeply about the Christian meaning of personal relationships and the divine life of love that truly animates them. The judgment of the “Notification” that a number of Professor Farley’s stated positions are contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium is simply factual. In our judgment, however, Professor Farley’s purpose in her book is to raise and explore questions of keen concern to the faithful of the Church. Doing so is one very legitimate way of engaging in theological inquiry that has been practiced throughout the Catholic tradition.

The Board is especially concerned with the understanding of the task of Catholic theology presented in the “Notification.” The “Notification” risks giving the impression that there can be no constructive role in the life of the Church for works of theology that 1) give voice to the experience and concerns of ordinary believers, 2) raise questions about the persuasiveness of certain official Catholic positions, and 3) offer alternative theological frameworks as potentially helpful contributions to the authentic development of doctrine. 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.


John E. Thiel, Ph.D.
Fairfield University
Fairfield, CT

Susan A. Ross, Ph.D.
Loyola University
Chicago, IL

Richard R. Gaillardetz, Ph.D.
Boston College
Chestnut Hill, MA

Mary Ann Hinsdale, I.H.M., Ph.D.
Boston College
Chestnut Hill, MA
Past President

M. Theresa Moser, R.S.C.J., Ph.D.
University of San Francisco
San Francisco, CA

Jozef D. Zalot, Ph.D
College of Mount St. Joseph
Cincinnati, OH

Michael E. Lee, Ph.D.
Fordham University
Bronx, NY

Kathleen McManus, O.P., Ph.D.
University of Portland
Portland, OR

Judith A. Merkle, S.N.D. de N., Ph.D.
Niagara University
Niagara, NY

Elena Procario-Foley, Ph.D.
Iona College
New Rochelle, NY

June 7, 2012

In Memoriam: Sister Mary Ann Scofield, RSM

I received the following notification today. Please join me in grieving the death of Mary Ann Scofield, RSM

Dear Sr. Laurel,

Sister Mary Ann Scofield, RSM, returned gently to God, Sunday, June 4, at about 10:00 a.m. Pacific Time in Burlingame, California, USA. She was surrounded by family, her beloved Mercy community, and the prayers of many. Being Sunday morning, perhaps she knew it was time for Mass and slipped away.

A beloved teacher, spiritual companion, mentor, and friend, Mary Ann was a founding member of Spiritual Directors International and served as the organization’s first executive coordinator in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Her deep passion for spiritual direction nurtured SDI from its humble beginnings, in her bottom desk drawer, to a global movement. Today, the global learning community of Spiritual Directors International includes more than six thousand members in six continents.

Mary Ann’s influence was global, and her impact, deeply personal. As a spiritual director, she trusted the movement of the spirit to help people claim and share their distinctive gifts with the world. In her own words: “I do believe there is a unique image of the Divine that is placed in each of us and all the activity of the Divine in us is to bring us to that true self.”

The global learning community of SDI holds, together, this time of memory and mourning. Sandra Lommasson, former chair of the SDI Coordinating Council shares: “[Mary Ann] once told me that the hardest thing of all is to truly take in how deeply, fully, unreservedly loved we are by God because it changes everything. I trust that she now soaks in that Love as a fully alive, liberated spirit dancing with her God.”

A vigil will be held for Sister Mary Ann Scofield, RSM, on June 13 at 7:00 p.m. at the Mercy Center Chapel in Burlingame. Her funeral Mass will take place on June 14 at 10:30 a.m. at the Mercy Center Chapel in Burlingame with burial and reception immediately following.

If you would like to make a contribution to the Mary Ann Scofield, RSM, International Scholarship Fund in honor of Sister Mary Ann Scofield, RSM, please follow the donation link. To share a personal story or tribute on the SDI website, visit the Tributes in Memoriam webpage. By sharing our stories, we keep Mary Ann’s legacy alive.

Franciscan Men Write Open Letter to LCWR and Members

Until recently there was a notable silence from amongst all the various expressions of support for the LCWR. That silence was among men religious (and, with a handful of notable exceptions, clergy in the church), and precisely because these men share essentially the same commitments and vision, it was a painful silence. (I recognize that men religious often have added difficulties because they are often also priests. Still, the silence was painful.) The following represents the first breach in this silence and I personally hope it will not be the last. I also personally believe these men got it just right.

They appreciate not only what the Sisters do but the way they do it. They acknowledge the prayerful, thoughtful silence that preceded the LCWR's initial response to the CDF's charges and which sets the tone for the way they will proceed in this matter; they refer to official documents which call not only for dialogue but for leaving the responsibility for ultimate decision making in the hands of councils and conferences. They rightly distinguish between "remaining silent" on issues (as for instance, I often do in this blog) and questioning church teaching, as well as between moral principles which must be held, and the application of such principles where disagreement is completely legitimate. Most importantly, they recognize that the LCWR and member congregations are carrying out the mandate of Vatican II to attend to the signs of the times and proclaim the Gospel in response, as well as that they are doing so in a responsible and faithful manner.

One key sentence, it seems to me, (and the place this document differs from the CDF's) is that the Franciscans recognize and are grateful not simply for the service women religious' give but for their discernment. They affirm they are edified by this. One of the more superficial weaknesses of the CDF's assessment was that it began with a statement of gratitude for the women's service but then proceeded to denigrate and curtail any activity which suggested adult discernment and application of that to complex problems even as it criticized the nature of their service. Statements of appreciation and gratitude sound hollow at best and disingenuous or hypocritical at worst when they are undercut by criticism which is so broad and pervasive. But the Franciscan men got it right here and their example is edifying.

It takes courage for groups of men religious to write such an affirmation of those under fire by the CDF. Unfortunately, that is also a sign that there is something terribly wrong in our church. It should NOT need to involve courage to affirms one's sisters or brothers in this way in a church which is a communion in Christ. One should not need to fear reprisals ("canonical actions" or censure), for instance, nor even consider that perhaps we will fall foul of the CDF, CICLSAL, the USCCB, et al, for speaking the truth in such a way.

The Letter

May 31, 2012

Open Letter to the United States Catholic Sisters

We, the Leadership of the Friars Minor of the United States, write today as your brothers in the vowed religious life who, like you, have great love for our Church and for the people whom we are privileged to serve. We write at a time of heightened polarization and even animosity in our nation and Church, with deep concern that the recent Vatican Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) may inadvertently fuel the current climate of division and confusion. We write, too, as a public sign of our solidarity with you as you endure this very difficult moment. We are privileged to share with you the journey of religious life. Like you, we strive in all that we do to build up the People of God.

As religious brothers in the Franciscan tradition, we are rooted in a stance of gratitude that flows from awareness of the myriad ways that God is disclosed and made manifest in the world. For us, there can be no dispute that God has been and continues to be revealed through the faithful (and often unsung) witness of religious women in the United States. Thus we note with appreciation that the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith (CDF) “acknowledges with gratitude the great contributions of women Religious to the Church of the United States as seen particularly in the many schools, hospitals, and institutions of support for the poor which have been founded and staffed by Religious over the years.” We certainly know how much our service has been enriched by the many gifts you bring to these ministries.

However, your gift to the Church is not only one of service, but also one of courageous discernment. The late 20th century and the beginning of this century have been times of great social, political and cultural upheaval and change. Such contextual changes require us, as faithful members of the Church, to pose questions that at first may appear to be controversial or even unfaithful, but in fact are asked precisely so that we might live authentically the charisms we have received, even as we respond to the “signs of the times.” This is the charge that we as religious have received through the “Decree on the Renewal of Religious Life” from the Second Vatican Council and subsequent statements of the Church on religious life. 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.

Moreover, we are concerned that the tone and direction set forth in the Doctrinal Assessment of LCWR are excessive, given the evidence raised. The efforts of LCWR to facilitate honest and faithful dialogue on critical issues of our times must not result in a level of ecclesial oversight that could, in effect, quash all further discernment. Further, questioning your adherence to Church teaching by your “remaining silent” on certain ethical issues seems to us a charge that could be leveled against many groups in the Church, and fails to appreciate both the larger cultural context and the particular parameters of expertise within which we all operate. Finally, when there appears to be honest disagreement on the application of moral principles to public policy, it is not equivalent to questioning the authority of the Church’s magisterium. Although the Catholic moral tradition speaks of agreement regarding moral principles, it also – from the Middle Ages through today – speaks of appropriate disagreement regarding specific application of these principles. Unfortunately, the public communications media in the U.S. may not recognize this distinction. Rather than excessive oversight of LCWR, perhaps a better service to the people of God might be a renewed effort to articulate the nuances of our complex moral tradition. This can be a teaching moment rather than a moment of regulation -- an opportunity to bring our faith to bear on the complexity of public policy particularly in the midst of our quadrennial elections.

Finally, we realize and appreciate, as we are sure do you, the proper and right role of the bishops as it is set out in Mutuae Relationes to provide leadership and guidance to religious institutions.[i] However, the same document clearly states: since it is of utmost importance that the council of major superiors collaborate diligently and in a spirit of trust with episcopal conferences, ‘it is desirable that questions having reference to both bishops and religious should be dealt with by mixed commissions consisting of bishops and major religious superiors, men or women. …Such a mixed commission should be structured in such a way that even if the right of ultimate decision making is to be always left to councils or conferences, according to the respective competencies, it can, as an organism of mutual counsel, liaison, communication, study and reflection, achieve its purpose. (#63)

We trust that CDF was attempting to follow their counsel from Mutuae Relationes; however, we fear that in today’s public media world their action easily could be misunderstood. We hope that our bishops will take particular care to see that the way they take action is as important as the actions themselves in serving the People of God. Otherwise, their efforts will surely be misunderstood and polarizing.

Lastly, we appreciate the approach that you at LCWR have taken to enter into a time of discernment, rather than immediately making public statements that could be construed as “opposing the bishops” after the release of the Doctrinal Assessment. The rancor and incivility of public conversation in the United States at this time make the possibility of productive dialogue more difficult to achieve. We pray that the future conversation between LCWR and CDF might provide an example to the larger world of respectful, civil dialog. Such dialog will require a degree of mutuality, trust and honesty that is absent from much of our world. We trust that you will continue your efforts to live out this principle, and we trust and pray that our bishops will do the same.

Please be assured of our on-going support, prayers, respect, and gratitude for your living example of the following of Christ in our times.


Leadership of Franciscan (O.F.M.) Provinces of the United States

Assumption BVM Province
Franklin, WI, U.S.A.

Holy Name Province
New York, NY, U.S.A.

Immaculate Conception Province
New York, NY, U.S.A.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Province
Albuquerque, NM, U.S.A.

Sacred Heart Province
St. Louis, MO, U.S.A.

Saint Barbara Province
Oakland, CA, U.S.A.

Saint John the Baptist Province
Cincinnati, OH, U.S.A.

[1]Sacred Congregation for Religious and for Secular Institutes, Directives for the Mutual Relations Between Bishops and Religious in the Church, Rome, May 14, 1978

01 June 2012

LCWR's Initial Response to the CDF Assessment

The following is the initial response of the LCWR board to the CDF's doctrinal assessment of the group which was released this morning. I am posting it here in full. My own belief is that every step of this process will need to be made as public and transparent as possible if the Church is to be truly served and further damage prevented.

For those wondering how they could support the LCWR, two things come immediately to mind besides suggestions which have been made in the past month:

1) support the travel expenses of the Sisters to Rome. Ordinarily the Sisters travel there once a year, sometimes twice, and travel expenses are (appropriately) paid for by the member congregations. Rome does not assist with such expenses. In this case, however, the whole Church needs to assist the Sisters, for it seems to me that the whole Church has much at stake here.

2) Continue to speak up for and demand transparency and clarity. If Rome understands the nature and basis of the charges against the LCWR, demand that they explain them not only to the LCWR, but to the Church at large both specifically and in sufficient detail to be convincing. If the Sisters are guilty of what the CDF has accused them (radical feminism incompatible with the Catholic faith, not spending enough time on one form of or focus in ministry when we are busy with others, loss of Christological focus, etc) I am afraid most of us (including those clerics whose
ministries and lives are in Rome!) are guilty of the same or at least similar things without even knowing that is the case! If Rome feels the sanctions brought against the conference are proportionate and just, then ask --- and continue asking --- that they explain the reasons for these specific sanctions and their proportionality.

In addition, as has already been suggested a number of places, folks need to:

3) Continue to write to the Papal Nuncio in Washington DC, to the CDF (Prefect, William Cardinal Levada), to the Congregation for Religious (CICLSAL), and to ABp Peter Sartain, and Bishops Blair and Paprocki with your concerns, support, questions, and respectful disagreement or agreement. If Rome is clear that this is to be a collaborative process, then by all means, let's do whatever we can to make collaboration a reality which assists Rome to reform the church itself from top to bottom! Let us all be equally obedient and subject to God in his Word and Spirit! If Rome is clear that this process is to bring healing and greater Christian witness across the board, then let's participate in ways which help ensure that is realized.

4) Continue committing to regular prayer in support of the Sisters and the Church as a whole as we all find ways to respond adequately in this crisis. Mark specific dates (e.g., June 12th, the date when two Sisters fly back to Rome for the first time and the days which follow, etc) for special prayer periods, vigil, etc.

The Statement:

[Washington, DC] The national board of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) held a special meeting in Washington, DC from May 29-31 to review, and plan a response to, the report issued to LCWR by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The board members raised concerns about both the content of the doctrinal assessment and the process by which it was prepared. Board members concluded that the assessment was based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency. Moreover, the sanctions imposed were disproportionate to the concerns raised and could compromise their ability to fulfill their mission. The report has furthermore caused scandal and pain throughout the church community, and created greater polarization.

On June 12 the LCWR president and executive director will return to Rome to meet with CDF prefect Cardinal William Levada and the apostolic delegate Archbishop Peter Sartain to raise and discuss the board’s concerns. Following the discussions in Rome, the conference will gather its members both in regional meetings and in its August assembly to determine its response to the CDF report.

The board recognizes this matter has deeply touched Catholics and non-Catholics throughout the world as evidenced by the thousands of messages of support as well as the dozens of prayer vigils held in numerous parts of the country. It believes that the matters of faith and justice that capture the hearts of Catholic sisters are clearly shared by many people around the world. As the church and society face tumultuous times, the board believes it is imperative that these matters be addressed by the entire church community in an atmosphere of openness, honesty, and integrity.