27 July 2012

Bishop Cordileone to take over as Archbishop of San Francisco

It has just been reported in Whispers in the Loggia and via diocesan emails that Bishop Cordileone has been assigned Archbishop of San Francisco. His installation will be held in San Francisco at St Mary's Cathedral, October 4th on the Feast of St Francis. Of course congratulations are in order for Bp Cordileone while the Diocese of Oakland waits and prays for his replacement. The Archdiocese of San Francisco is a major assignment and there is no doubt it will be challenging for Bishop Cordileone in a number of ways. (Commentators note that his assignment to the Archbishopric will be the seismic equivalent to the 1906 earthquake for the church in San Francisco.) The assumption seems to be that he will be there for the next two decades when he is eligible for retirement.

As to how this affects me, something folks have asked about already, I have to say I am not quite sure. It is the second time in the space of five years that I have had a change of Bishops and my third annual appointment with Bp Cordileone was to be Sept 5th. Whether I will be keeping that appointment is a yet-unanswered question. It takes time to establish a relationship with one's Bishop so this means there will be a period of letting the new Bishop (who ever that is) find his feet in the diocese and only then setting an appointment. In the meantime I continue on as my Rule calls for. Diocesan hermits don't follow a Bishop to a new appointment (as one person asked me earlier today); they are professed within a specific Diocese and if the Bishop changes, so does their legitimate superior. In such a process the hermit's delegate (quasi-superior) continues on as they have right along as do contacts in the Vicar for Religious' Office and the Bishop's Office as well.

The Bishop's statement on the public announcement of this new appointment is included above. The statement begins about 10:30 into the video and is given in English and Spanish.

26 July 2012

Followup Questions on Loyalty Oaths

[[Dear Sister, are you really suggesting that so-called "Catholics" who struggle with aspects of the Faith are as fully Catholic as those who do not struggle? Should a person who cannot affirm the things in a loyalty oath be allowed to teach our children? Are they really a good model for our children? Would you want them teaching yours? What Bp Vasa and others are doing is making sure that people who do not respect the faith and who sometimes don't even believe in it cannot teach in hypocritical ways to our children or minister in half-hearted ways to the rest of us. Why should I want someone who doesn't hold the entire Catholic faith to give me Eucharist at Mass? I think you are missing the bigger picture here.]]

First, I assume your question about people teaching my children is rhetorical. It would be difficult to answer otherwise. But, seriously, thank you for your questions. And thank you for saying straight out what is implicit in a lot of the commentary I have heard or read by those approving the use of loyalty oaths, namely, that a person who struggles with aspects of Catholic doctrine (including authoritative, non-definitive, doctrine --- or matters of disciplne) are hypocrites. Thank you also for the chance to clarify what I am saying and to expand on why I am saying it.

Uncritical Appropriation: Swallowing things Whole

Clearly I believe that conscientious struggling with dimensions of the Church's teaching is appropriate. I say this because the only people I have ever known to NOT struggle with (aspects of) it at some point tend to have a juvenile faith which has swallowed things whole and uncritically. In short, they have swallowed, and may be able to regurgitate such teaching, but they have not digested nor assimilated it. You recall the story I told about the person who "Did just what the church teaches" but who could not think morally, had a fundamentally unformed conscience, and therefore, was incapable of being Church in complex situations with competing values and disvalues? I think that is, unfortunately, a fairly typical portrait of a person who never struggles with any aspect of the Church's teaching. To my mind the person who struggles or wrestles with these kinds of doctrines is more Catholic, or at least more maturely Catholic, than the person who was incapable of making a truly moral decision for herself (which, Richard Gula reminds us, is not the same as a decision made by oneself)!

Similarly I often think that the person who simply says, "I accept that" without any wrestling or struggle at all doesn't understand (or care about) what they are being asked to affirm. I say the creed at least every weekend and every weekend at least a little something more is brought to that profession and something more is either understood more profoundly or a little differently. I may understand something new about what it means to profess Jesus as Son of God or to affirm the One, Holy, Catholic, Church, and so forth. More, I understand afresh how really complex such truths are theologically and I thank God I didn't need to be a theologian with the level of understanding I have today to have been initiated into the faith. Now let me be clear. One does not need to have a ton of theology to make affirmations of faith. People can and do entrust themselves wholly to God without significant theological expertise. Still, just as knowledge can get in the way of such faith, it more often assists a person in making an act of fundamental trust we call faith. Answers ALWAYS raise more questions; understanding usually shows us how much we don't really know. Also, as one's knowledge grows one may well move through crises of faith, times when decisions about one's faith are especially needed, but it is in deepening knowledge that one comes to more profound faith.

Faith as a Centered Act of the Whole Person

In a like way I think people who accept things without struggle are accepting with one level or dimension of their selves, but compartmentalizing that and separating it from other levels, dimensions, or functions within themselves. Faith is not simply a matter of intellectual assent; it is, as Paul Tillich affirmed, a centered act of the whole person wherein one entrusts themselves entirely to the truth they are affirming. For instance, when I affirm the resurrection of Christ in faith, I say that my entire life is given over to this truth and that in fact, I expect the fulfillment of my life as a human being and my eternity with God to be promised by it. An article of faith both demands everything from us and promises everything eternal to us. But one may be intellectually in one place and emotionally or psychologically in another, for instance, and thus, growth in one area or another may yet be required for a truly integrated act of faith. A person who is aware of such lack of complete integration may honestly recite the Creeds but be unable to make a loyalty oath which spells out dimensions of the teaching one has not yet assimilated on some level, or which one disagrees with at this point in time. There need be nothing hypocritical in this. It can be rooted in the very nature of faith itself.

Obsequium animi Religiosum

Also bear in mind that at Vatican II the Church herself recognized the category of authoritative, non-definitive doctrine and the appropriate correlative level of assent known as "Obsequium animi religiosum" --- which in and of itself includes the meanings "willingness to be taught/learn", "willingness to give internal assent", etc. This says to me that the Church herself (i.e., the ordinary universal Magisterium of the Church) recognizes the importance of the human need to grow in one's ability to understand and embrace a teaching, and also that she respects a person who, in humility and docility, tries conscientiously to do so with mind and heart. If I were to ask you if you were okay with someone ministering to you who affirmed that they ". . .have read everything possible on the church's teaching on x but [are] still struggling with this doctrine out of love for the Church and for the truth" would you really consider them unworthy to minister to other Catholics? The Church herself teaches the appropriateness of such responses to these kinds of doctrine.

On a different level of truth, how about someone who affirms, "I don't see how this is more than a sign of Jesus' body and blood, but the church teaches it so I believe it!" or "I don't need to read about z or pray about x or understand the difficult bits if theology it involves; the church says it so I believe it"? Which of these shows greater, "Religious docility" or more reverence for the doctrine and for truth and the church? Which is the better disciple? I would hope this is hard for you to determine. Loyalty oaths will have lots of the second and third kinds of signers --- and probably a few who think its fun to show up others or simply choose to lie --- but they will most often rule out people on their way to a more mature faith, people who HAVE questioned and continue to do so because they are coming to terms with a very demanding and transcendent truth, people who love the Church God calls into being --- which is not necessarily identical to the Church we see in front of us day to day --- people who are dedicated to the Kingdom of God and who therefore serve a critical and prophetic role in the Church. (And remember, not everything in some of these loyalty oaths are matters of faith or morals).

Ministry and Communion: A Mutual Act

As for who you should want to give you Communion at Mass I honestly can't see where it makes a difference. The person is there to serve you and apparently desires to do so; they remind you (and themselves affirm) this is the Body of Christ and give you a chance to affirm this and receive it yourself. What is in their heart of hearts does not affect this exchange and you know nothing of it. I would expect the communicant, however, to assume the person serving them, ministering to them believes as they do. It is what they say in their ministry and if it is untrue, then the judgment falls to God in his good time. Meanwhile, the very act of ministering and affirming the reality of Eucharist again and again, as well as the sense of joy and completeness one gets in doing so while watching the faithful receive may cause the person ministering to come to profound faith in this matter. Loyalty oaths could effectively short-circuit the mutual growth of faith brought about in all acts of ministry.

Jesus calls the disciples to COME TO fullness of Faith

My final point is that I don't think I am the one missing the bigger picture here. I can cite all kinds of Scripture which supports ministries of the imperfect, ministries of those struggling with aspects of church teaching, ministries of those moving towards a more mature faith, and at least one who did not. Not least then let me point to Judas and Jesus. Judas was called to follow Jesus and follow he did. He followed and eventually betrayed Jesus. In the meantime he was keeper of the disciples' purse and seemed to have a role in organizing missions. Jesus allowed the situation to come to a head. He could have eliminated risk (and growth in faith) and asked for a loyalty oath right from the get go before he let Judas into the disciples' circle or ministry, but instead he allowed Judas the opportunity to come to fullness of faith in the process. Jesus did the same with Peter --- whose faith failed despite protestations that it never would (HE would have signed a loyalty oath in a heartbeat --- and then betrayed it!). But Jesus gave Peter the chance to minister and come to fullness of faith in the act of ministering --- just as he did with all the disciples.

One last example from those standing outside the circle of discipleship. You may remember in the Gospels (Mark 9:33-39ff) that the disciples who have just previously been arguing about who is greatest amongst them come to Jesus and complain that someone is ministering to others (casting out demons in fact) in Jesus' name, but that he is not one of them. They had told the man to stop ministering. Jesus says, "Do not stop him! He who is not against us is with us." Only after this does Christ speak of those who scandalize the little ones (which is not precisely the same thing as someone, like one of the disciples for instance, taking scandal or offense, by the way). It is not a matter of "anything goes" of course. The outsider is truly acting in Jesus' name (presence and power) --- if not as one of the disciples. The way Christ told us we judge such matters? "By their fruits", not their protestations (or professions) of loyalty, "ye shall know them."

P.S. I apologize for not answering your question about folks who teach your children. I thought my answer was getting a bit long. I may answer that part of things here when I have a bit more time as a kind of addendum or I may answer in a separate post because I do believe it is an important question. Thanks for your patience.

19 July 2012

On Hypocrisy vs Imperfection: An indirect look at Loyalty Oaths

There are times when I struggle with eremitical life. Sometimes I just don't live it as well as I feel called to do. Sometimes I am not as generous, not as loving, not as faithful to my daily praxis and Rule as I am obligated to be by my profession. And yet I wear a habit which signals publicly that I am a hermit (for most it just says I am a nun) and I write about eremitical life here and elsewhere; I have even given interviews on the life as well a talk or two about it here and there --- and will likely do so again somewhere in the future. So, does this make me a hypocrite? Do I live a life of pretense while I show the face of fidelity to the world around me? I have certainly struggled with THAT piece of things as well!

But this year I also came to a bone deep, heart-level realization (I have been working on this for some time and, in a moment of profound healing, what I knew intellectually finally "clicked" in a deep-down way) that there is a profound difference between hypocrisy and imperfection. I am an imperfect hermit, an imperfect religious, an imperfect Christian who struggles to live fully the Gospel of God within the context of eremitical life, but I am not a hypocrite. As far as I can tell, struggle is part of my very vocation, just as it is, I think, with ANY really serious attempt to live out a divine call with integrity.

Similarly, I strive to believe what the Church teaches; as a theologian I work hard to wrap my mind and heart around every doctrine. I sometimes have struggled to give an assent of faith when that is required and I struggle to give "religious submission of mind and will" where that is required (which is a good thing since, among others, obsequium carries the senses of willingness to assent and struggle to assent). I struggle to believe that the episcopacy has a clear charism of truth in days when members of the episcopacy have made themselves incredible to me in any number of ways, and I struggle to see where Christ's church really is; I struggle, that is, to see where the Church that remains indefectible in the power of the Gospel of freedom really abides today in season and out.

I struggle with that especially in these days of "loyalty oaths" which conflate matters of faith with others that are not, which blur the critical boundaries between internal and external forums and imply (or state explicitly) that some of us are incapable of ministering to fellow Catholics because we are not "Catholic" enough or are deemed hypocritical because we wrestle with many things in today's church including the fundamental offensiveness of loyalty oaths themselves. I struggle in these days when women religious are misrepresented, demeaned and punished while members of the hierarchy commit heinous criminal acts and are rewarded anyway; I struggle in these times when it has become acceptable for the self-righteous to be happy with, indeed, to sometimes slaver over the prospect of a "leaner, purer church" while others they call "brother" and "sister" are forced, in good conscience, to leave the church for ecclesial communities where they can be genuinely respected and nourished in their faith,

I am not, however, a hypocrite. I am a Christian, a Catholic Christian whose faith is imperfect just as was the faith of Peter, or Thomas, or Mary of Magdala, or James and his group, or the disciples on the road to Emmaus. I am a Catholic Christian as imperfect as any Catholic Christian ever was or is who is set on maturing in their faith. I am a Catholic Christian who recalls that some have sometimes translated the word "perfect" in the evangelical counsel "Be you perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect," as "whole" or "mature" or "fully alive" or "holy." And, like the Church herself --- the entire Pilgrim People of God --- I am therefore "always in need of reform," always called to conversion, always summoned to a fuller understanding and embrace of the faith Christ has entrusted to me and to the whole Church.

I have no doubt that some in the Church would like to simply stamp out or force me to abjure those dark, yet-to-be illuminated areas of my mind and heart that do not yet reflect the light of Christ or the power of the Holy Spirit. I am sure that some in the Church would say that because of these imperfections I am unworthy to minister, or to do theology, or to be a canonical hermit who lives out her life in the name of the Church. After all, I am an imperfect Catholic Christian who struggles in these and other ways as well. But perhaps these folks should reread the admonition that one deal with the beam in one's own eye before blindly and recklessly plucking at the splinter in another's. Perhaps they should reread the parables of patience, faith, and quiet growth --- where, admitting their own inability to do anything more, farmers (and indeed, Popes like John XXIII who once prayed, " Lord, I am going to bed, the Church is yours,") do indeed go to bed and trust that God is doing in the depths and darkness what only God can do.

You see, I was taught --- indeed the Holy Spirit taught me, Christ himself patiently taught me, the one I call Abba gently taught me over the space of many years --- that I am part of the Church where the imperfect are called to belong, to be, and to be made whole; it is the Church of wounded healers, the communion of those with troublesome thorns in their sides and lance holes in their hearts. I was taught, not least by the Church Council called Vatican II, that she desired my full and active participation in the "work of the people" --- a full and active participation that includes ministry to one another (EEM, cantor, lector, acolyte, sacristan, lay presider, chorister, musician, etc. --- I have done them all) as an integral part of my act of worship. This, Vatican II reminded me, was my privileged right and responsibility as baptized --- with training, yes --- but without additional public acts of faith or manifestations of conscience beyond my profession of the Church's creeds.

The lesson I learned at the level of heart this year was one the Church hierarchy could do well to remind themselves of. It is one that the self-righteous minority of orthodoxy police would do well to learn themselves. We are imperfect, all of us, but this does not mean we are hypocrites. I struggle as my own faith grows and matures, but I am called to do so and can only do so within the Communion of the Church, not outside it. Within my mind and heart grow weeds and wheat together. Only the truly foolhardy would try to uproot the weeds while thinking they will not also harm the tender wheat that grows there too. Only the pastorally naive would ask me to show the wheat and not expect there also to be weeds interspersed.

But, imperfect as my faith may be, what is there for anyone with eyes to see is a life which nourishes the faith of others nonetheless, a life which, through the grace of God, ministers in season and out, in weakness and in strength. Even I, the once-consummate perfectionist can see that! In any case, I am a Catholic not because my faith is perfect, but because with the grace of God and (his) People's assistance I struggle towards the day it will be; I am Catholic --- and an effective minister of the Gospel I have given my life to and for --- not in spite of my struggle but because of it! I am imperfect in all the ways any serious, faithful, Catholic Christian is imperfect -- and probably more as well. But I am not a hypocrite. I am surer about that today than ever.

18 July 2012

Obsequium Animi Religiosum and Loyalty Oaths

[[Dear Sister, if a loyalty [or fidelity] oath requires a "religious assent of mind" what does this mean?]]

The first thing it means is that one is dealing with a category of non-definitive teaching known as "authoritative doctrine." It is a level of teaching which is authoritative but at the same time does not rise to the level of either definitive doctrine (which requires "firm acceptance") or dogma (which requires the assent of faith because one trusts this is revealed by God) and it is a level of teaching which admits what some refer to as "a remote possibility of church error." It therefore means or should mean that the fidelity oath does not combine different levels of teaching in the hierarchy of truths and allows the faithful to take into account that the teaching requiring such a level of assent could change. Lumen Gentium affirmed this level of teaching as well as this level of assent (LG25).

The second thing it means, however, is more complicated. The actual meaning of the term "Religious submission of mind and will" hinges on the Latin obsequium, which has been defined in a variety of ways. Richard Gaillardetz lists the following meanings: obedience, submission, docility, due respect, or assent. (These are not synonyms but responses along a spectrum of responses.) Noting that there is great disagreement on this matter he also proposes [[that the appropriate response to authoritative doctrine requires the believer to make a genuine effort to assimilate the given teaching into their personal religious convictions. In doing so, the believer is attempting to give an "internal assent" to the teaching.]] He goes further in articulating the requirements of "religious docility" as meaning three things: 1) one will be willing to engage in further study of the issue; 2) if the teaching in question regards moral matters one will do an examination of conscience and "ask oneself some difficult questions" with regard to the difficulty one is having with the teaching. [[ Am I having difficulty because I cannot discover in it the will of God, or is it because, if true, this teaching would require real conversion]] or change in lifestyle? 3) Do I have trouble with this specific teaching or with the idea of a teaching office itself?

Gaillardetz's conclusion here is important: [[This is a fairly demanding regimen, as it ought to be if I am to take issue with accepted church teaching. However, if I have difficulties with a particular teaching and I have fulfilled these three steps and still cannot give an internal assent to that teaching I have done all the church can ask of me and my inability to give an internal assent to this teaching does not in any way separate me from the Roman Catholic Communion.]] By What Authority? A Primer on Scripture, the Magisterium, and the Sense of the Faithful, Richard R Gaillardetz Liturgical Press

Avery Dulles echoes much of what Gaillardetz says about the term "religious submission of mind and will" when he writes, [[. . .noninfallible teaching. . . as we have seen, is reformable. Such teaching is not proposed as the Word of God, nor does the church ask its members to submit with the assent of faith. Rather, the church asks its members for what is called. . . obsequium animi religiosum --- a term which, depending on its context, can be suitably translated by "religious submission of the mind, " "respectful readiness to accept," or some such phrase.]]

He goes on, [[This term actually includes a whole range of responses that vary according to the context of the teaching, its relationship to the gospel, the kind of biblical and traditional support behind it, the degree of assent given to it in the church at large, the person or office from which the teaching comes, the kind of document in which it appears, the constancy of the teaching, and the emphasis given to the teaching in the text or texts. Because the matter is so complex, one cannot make any general statement about what precisely amounts to"religious submission of the mind." (See on this subject Ladislas Orsy, SJ, "Reflections on the Text of a Canon," America, 17 May, 1986, pp396-99.)]] Dulles, Avery "Authority and Conscience" Readings in Moral Theology #6, Dissent in the Church pp 97-111.

Ladislas Orsy adds to this rich and hard-to-nail-down-to-a-single-meaning sense of the term when he writes about obsequium as a seminal word from Vatican II which therefore, like all such words, "must be assimilated, pondered over before its potential meaning can unfold." He goes on, [[When the council spoke of religious obsequium it meant an attitude toward the church which is rooted in the virtue of religion, the love of God and the love of the Church. This attitude in every concrete case will be in need of further specification, which could be "respect", or could be "submission," depending on the progress the church has made in clarifying its own beliefs.]] or a bit later, [[ To put it another way: the ongoing attempts to translate obsequium by one precise term are misguided efforts which originate in a lack of perception of the nature of the concept. Obsequium refers first to a general attitude, not to any specific form of it. The external manifestation of a disposition can take many forms, depending on the person to whom the obsequium must be rendered, or the point of doctrine that is proposed as entitled to obsequium. Accordingly, the duty to offer obsequium may bind to respect, or to submission --- or to any other attitude between the two.]] Orsy, The Church Learning and Teaching, Michael Glazier, pp 82, 87-88.

17 July 2012

Questions on Loyalty Oaths

[[Dear Sister, in today's NCR a man who has been a catechist for 15 years in the diocese of Arlington spoke about the problem of loyalty oaths and conscience. He said he would need to cease teaching catechism. Why would someone have a problem with a loyalty oath? Would you have a problem signing one if asked?]]

Personally, while I have no problem being asked if I do or would profess the Church's official creeds, I have a number of problems with the proposed loyalty (or fidelity) oaths.

In the first place I don't personally see how such loyalty (or fidelity) oaths are even legal. The Church's own teaching on the inviolability of conscience is so absolute that Canon 630.5 makes clear that in religious institutes a superior is [[prohibited from inducing a subject in any way whatever to make a manifestation of conscience.]] While this canon is situated in the section on religious life it is so categorically stated that there is no doubt it expresses a fundamental theological principle of conscience and justice which should obtain in any situation between superior and subject. A loyalty oath certainly is a manifestation of conscience, a showing of one's internal dispositions, a laying bare of what is in one's heart of hearts. I think I have to ask, when does such a principle cease to be binding on the Church as a whole?

Though not a canonist I would submit a pastor is, for purposes of such an oath, a parishioner's superior, as is a Bishop. After all, they are the ones demanding and implementing such oaths for those who, hierarchically, are "under" their leadership. (In some dioceses Bishops have stated ministers are assigned to serve in this Bishop's name; this seems to me to be the statement of a superior speaking of a subject.) As superiors then they have the right to ask about external activities: "Do you teach x?" "Will you teach y?" "Do you affirm you will live your faith the best you can?" "Will you continue to strive to greater understanding of and living out of your faith?" etc, but never about the interior dispositions of those they are placed over (Do you believe x? Do you agree with y? Do you struggle with z?). Again, in religious life superiors are forbidden to even ask questions which approach requiring a manifestation of conscience. How then can loyalty oaths which go far beyond a profession of the creeds be acceptable in the Church?

To further complicate the situation, if one's pastor (who is often one's confessor and thus, one to whom one does and is expected to be able to pour out one's heart in perfect confidentiality) is required to administer such an oath and in some cases verify the sincerity of the one signing it (cf the affirmation required by Bp Vasa and the clarifications on the nature of the assent required in his Baker Oregon Diocese; he places the pastor in precisely the position of one who judges the sincerity of the one making the "affirmation"), then I would suggest this is an unconscionable blurring of the boundaries between internal and external forums. At the very least, such a requirement would affect the ability of the pastor to truly shepherd one who struggles in a conscientious way with issues of faith or morals and the penitent to truly celebrate the Sacrament of Penance in complete openness. No matter the legality or content of such an oath, I would personally not be able to sign such a one for this reason alone. It would be a violation of my own conscience. After all, these reasons are very weighty ones to my mind and they negatively affect the very nature of the Church at her heart.

And if these difficulties are not enough, additional problems obtain when a single level of response is applied to teachings which have different weights or degrees of authority. While we have seen the erosion of the church's affirmation of a hierarchy of truths in past decades, this is a frontal assault. When we are asked to say "I affirm and believe" a whole spectrum of statements which range from matters requiring an assent of faith to matters which allow for an affirmation which indicates one's struggle and willingness to assent, for instance, the Church is doing violence to her own teaching on the hierarchy of truths and corresponding hierarchy of assent. (Other objections aside, not all loyalty oaths do this however; I have seen one form which was carefully divided into matters of faith, definitive doctrine, non-definitive but authoritative doctrine, and finally matters of discipline.) Even more problems crop up when things which are NOT properly matters of faith or morals at all, but are tangential to these or touch on them only remotely, are made part of such oaths (for instance, what one holds with regard to what is a proper reading of Obama's healthcare bill), or when one is required to relinquish the only absolute moral right and obligation any person has, namely to freely and responsibly form one's conscience and act on one's conscientious judgments. (The morality of implementing the Obamacare bill can only be determined by individual conscience judgment --- a consideration of the objective values and disvalues it supports or fails to support, a preferencing of these, and a judgment on the way one will act and the person one will be in light of this process.)

The Church has never taught "One is free (or obliged!) to form one's conscience EXCEPT with regard to x or y." (One loyalty oath (Baker Diocese, OR) requires one to affirm that "no one has the moral right to form one's conscience with regard to [abortion]"; this is simply antithetical to Catholic teaching on conscience. If the Bishop meant one may not simply follow one's whims and justify that with a facile nod to "conscience" then it would have been better to have said that. Unfortunately, he did not.) The Church teaches both the right and obligation to inform and form one's conscience in a serious way, and to continue doing so throughout the whole of one's life. This obligates each of us to work towards forming a conscience which is capable of thinking morally or discerning the (objective) values and disvalues in a situation, preferencing them as THIS situation requires, and making a (conscience or conscientious) judgment on how one will act --- not simply a conscience which believes what one is told one must and at the same time not simply a conscience attuned to one's own whims. The Church accepts that one's conscience judgment may err; if acting in good conscience is merely a matter of doing what the church teaches, how could one do so and err? The situation, and the church's own teaching on conscience is more complex than this.

Finally then, an important misunderstanding must be addressed. An erring or errant conscience does not mean a conscience which disagrees with or cannot act in accordance with church teaching in a given instance, whether in ignorance or not. It means one which makes an errant judgment on how to act in a given situation. There may be many causes for an errant conscience judgment. Neither, as I have noted here before, does a "well-formed" conscience merely mean one which is made to accord with church teaching. Again, it means instead, having a conscience (a discerning and critical faculty of judgment) which is capable of thinking morally, of discerning and preferencing the multiple competing objective values and disvalues present in a given situation, and which has the courage to make a judgment upon which one acts accordingly. As I wrote in an earlier post, the theological commission at Vatican II was asked to change statements in one document relating to conscience which affirm the individual's responsibility to listen attentively to church teaching in informing and forming one's conscience. The minority group asked that the passage be changed to read "in (or "to") accord with church teaching" so that a well-formed conscience was defined in these terms. The theological commission rejected this formulation and affirmed that the text accurately stated church teaching despite the tensions present in the church's own teaching as it already stood. They found the minority suggestion both too narrow and too rigid. Thomas Aquinas and Innocent III, among others, would have agreed with this assessment.

What I believe this means is that besides being potentially canonically illicit, loyalty (fidelity) oaths which include limitations on the right and obligation to form one's conscience in all matters in attentive dialogue with God (in one's heart of hearts), as well as with the church, science (including medicine), and other appropriate authorities or sources of pertinent guidance, or oaths which define an errant conscience judgment as one which is not in accord with church teaching and which confuse the various levels of assent required in a hierarchy of truths, are actually contrary to the church's own teaching here.

NPR Interview with Sister Pat Farrell, OSF

The video represents a 40 minute interview with Sister Pat Farrell, OSF, president of the LCWR. In this interview Sister Pat explains LCWR positions, adds often-missing nuance from common understandings of what is happening between the CDF and the LCWR, clarifies important distortions of the truth (e.g. what Dominican Sister Laurie Brink's keynote speech actually said), points to the broader ramifications of the CDF's actions with regard to the LCWR, and paints an accurate portrait of the life-supporting ministry of women religious and the choices they have made regarding what they will speak to with their lives and otherwise.

Personally I think it is a wonderful interview for these reasons and because it demonstrates the tone of genuine discussion in the church modeling for us all what this needs to look like. When Sister speaks she does so credibly, whether or not one agrees with individual assessments, and with a palpable integrity. I highly recommend listening.

15 July 2012

Diocesan Hermits becoming Cloistered Nuns: Possible?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, can a diocesan hermit become a cloistered nun?]]

Yes, if a congregation is willing to accept her for formation, she can certainly do so. However, what she cannot do is simply transfer her (perpetual) vows to the contemplative community. She could do this if she was perpetually professed in another cloistered community, but it is not possible to simply transfer from diocesan eremitical life to cloistered religious life despite some similarities extant between the two. She is vowed as a solitary hermit under canon 603 and this is actually NOT consonant with cenobitical life. Instead she would need to go through the same discernment period and formation program as any other candidate for solemn profession as a nun though canonical possibilities for anticipating vows may be appropriately applied.

Thus too, I believe she would be required to be dispensed from her vows as a hermit in order to discern a vocation as a cloistered nun. I say this because she would not be able to live her rule of life while in discernment and formation in comunity and her eremitical vows are linked integrally to this Rule or Plan of Life. There might be another solution which allows a suspension of vows for a time of discernment in cenobitical life without actual dispensation but I don't actually know there is such an option. This might be more likely if the vows she has made are temporary. One would need to speak to a canonist who is truly expert in the law regarding consecrated life to know these things. I myself would suspect that even if this is a real option in law generally, it would be inappropriate for the diocesan hermit because if this hermit were later to leave the community, allowing her simply to resume life as a (perpetually) vowed hermit would not really be prudent or possible. By entering a community she effectively says she is unsure of her vocation as a solitary hermit. Thus, she would need to discern yet again whether she was truly called to solitary eremitical life or not and could not be admitted to (much less merely resume) perpetual vows until both she and her diocese was clear about this. How this all would need to be handled canonically I don't know.

To summarize, the point here is double: 1) while a person can move from being a diocesan hermit to becoming a cloistered nun she can't transfer her perpetual vows the way a Benedictine Sister wanting to become a Camaldolese might do for instance (even though doing so involves a three year process of discernment); it requires instead a separate discernment and initial formation period because it is a different vocation; 2) if a diocesan hermit decides to discern a cloistered vocation she may well be saying with this decision that she doubts her solitary eremitical (c 603) vocation; if she then leaves the cloister she is unlikely to be allowed simply to resume her eremitical vows without some sort of specific and supervised mutual period of discernment so that both the diocese and the hermit are sure of the wisdom of either readmitting to vows or allowing her to resume these. Perhaps one of the canonists that read here occasionally will contact me with an opinion and I can pass that on!

I hope this helps.

Followup Questions on Conscience

[[Dear Sister, you wrote a couple of weeks ago [July 6th] that, [[ Simply knowing and believing what the Church teaches abstractly is not the same as having a well-formed conscience which can make moral judgments in specific situations.]] I was very struck with that and surprised by your comment that the church depends on people being able to be church by making moral judgments in concrete situations, but some of the language was new to me and I am not sure I understood completely. Can you give some examples of preferencing, discerning, etc?

You also said that conscience is inviolable and that one must act on a conscience judgment even if one errs in doing so. How can the church teach that?? What happens if one errs? What happens if one makes a judgment which is contrary to what the church teaches? Does one still act on that? What happens if one believes one thing is right which is against church teaching and then decides to do what the church teaches instead?]] (redacted, especially by culling questions from longer text)

These are great questions and I am not surprised the comment that the Church depends on us being Church (that is, being the presence of Christ) in concrete situations is new to you. Remember that the Church cannot discern or preference all the possible values and disvalues present in any given situation from amongst those we each run into every day. I was taught this as an undergraduate in theology but don't think I have heard the matter put in exactly those terms by anyone else; other theologians teach the same thing, but the language was my professor's. The possibilities are infinite. Of course the Church can and does tell us what is intrinsically evil; she can and does tell us what objective values should be affirmed and what disvalues must be eschewed. She can remind us of basic moral principles like "one may not do evil in order to do good", but the application of these in concrete situations require a human heart and mind schooled by the spirit of Christ. You may recall that Friday's gospel passage from Matthew centered on Jesus' admonition that his disciples be simple as doves and shrewd as serpents. One application of this admonition is that of conscience formation. Jesus asks that we become people moved simply by the love of God but who are capable of negotiating the moral demands of a complex and complicated world. That is, in fact, our mission as those sent by Christ.

Discerning and Preferencing Values and Disvalues

When I speak of discerning values and disvalues and then preferencing them I am speaking of determining the values and disvalues present in a situation which, because they are objectively real, make an existential claim on us in some way and then "sorting" these in terms of which will have priority over the others and in which way that occurs. The simplest kind of situation might be a dilemma about feeding one's family and facing the choice whether to steal food to do that or not. Remember that the Church teaches that values are objective realities and that these are also keys to understanding the very call of God to us. So closely linked are these that we even speak of people who discover the existence of values as discerning the presence of God or we deny that persons who affirm the existence of values are truly atheists, for instance. So, with regard to this situation there are a number of objective values present which make a claim on the person and there are certain disvalues (usually the opposite of the values) which are also present. In most of what follows the disvalues are merely implicit and I mainly leave them to you to articulate explicitly.

Honesty (the value) and dishonesty (the disvalue), the commandment's prohibition not to steal and fidelity to divine law, compassion (both for one's family and for the store owner's own need for reimbursement and the ramifications of stealing from him), one's responsibility to provide for one's family, the health or well-being of that family, the example one sets for them in stealing (both positively and negatively), the demands of personal integrity and what that means in this situation, the presence of other options which might mitigate the need to steal in other ways (shelters, food banks, welfare programs) and any number of other values or disvalues and mitigating or aggravating circumstances are present in this simple situation. A person needs to be able to discern these, preference them (by which I mean determine which is more or less important than the others at this moment in time) and then to make a conscience judgment (a decision on how one is called to act) on the matter. We need to be able to do this not only because God calls us to do this but because WE literally are the Church incarnated in this specific situation, and so, we need to make the best moral judgments we possibly can.

The Inviolability and Primacy of Conscience, and the Erring Conscience

Essentially the Church teaches that one may act in either good faith (good conscience) or bad faith (bad conscience). This is the most fundamental division recognized in the Church's teaching on conscience. What this means is that at any point in time, no matter how well-formed and informed one's conscience is, one will be called upon to make conscience judgments and to either act on those judgments or to act against them. This recognition is based on the fact that conscience is, in one sense, the place where God dwells within us and summons us to embrace the good, the true, etc. This place or event within us is sacred ground and no one can enter in here or ask us to show them this "place" unless we freely give them that right. Neither can anyone coerce us to act in a way which is contrary to the call we hear here. In another sense, conscience is defined in terms of judgments. We make what are called conscience judgments on the basis of the entirely inviolably personal conversation that goes on between ourselves and God as we discern and preference the values before us. This conscience judgment also has primacy. Once we have gone through the process of informing ourselves as best we can, of discerning and preferencing the values and disvalues present in a situation and made a judgment from this deep, immediate, and original place of truth within ourselves, we must either act on it or act against it. There is no other choice open to us.

If we act on our conscience judgment, that is, if we do what our conscience tells us we must then we may be right in our judgment or we may err in our judgment, but still we MUST act on this conscience judgment if we are to act in good faith as we personally hear God calling to us to do. Even if we were mistaken in our judgment we have acted according to the voice of God as we heard it and for that reason there is merit in the act (St Alphonse Liguori, et al). if, on the other hand, we act against what we have deemed to be the right thing to do at this point in time, then we act in bad faith and go against what we heard God calling us to do. Because of this, to act in bad faith or bad conscience is ALWAYS a sin, and often a very grievous one. Note that all of this reasoning stems from the theology which regards conscience as involving the very voice of God within our heart of hearts (as well as the other ways this voice is mediated to us) which NO ONE can oppose or gainsay. Even if what our sincere (or literally conscientious) judgment tells us is God's will goes against Church teaching the Church herself affirms that we MUST act on it or sin.

The classical version of this was set forth (based upon the teaching of St Paul in Rom 14:23) by Thomas Aquinas who said that if a person found that they acted in good conscience (followed the dictates of their conscience) and were unjustly condemned to excommunication as a result, they "ought rather to die under the interdict than obey superior orders he knew [in his heart of hearts] to be mistaken". In other words if, in acting in good faith one opposed the church's teaching in a way which resulted in even the church's worst penalty, one was still obliged to act in precisely this way. Obviously Aquinas recognizes that acting in good faith ("in the spirit of faith") does not mean merely doing what the Church teaches or he could not have raised the question he does nor given this answer. Further, while he recognizes that actions have consequences and one must bear the consequences of one's choices, he also recognizes that a good conscience act should NOT result in a severing of one's relationship with the Church or he would not have referred to "unjust" excommunication.

Innocent III put the matter this way: [[What is not done from faith is sin and whatever is done contrary to conscience leads to hell. . .as in this matter no one must obey a judge against God, but rather humbly bear the excommunication.]] (By the way, the fact that Innocent III said one is to "humbly" bear the penalty also implicitly affirms that one remains in communion with God since humility is a kind of remaining in the truth and since the presence of humility implies communion with God. ) Thus, even if one's conscience is in error one is obliged to obey it. (If one suspects it is in error or doubts the conclusion or knows one has not done what one could to inform it, then one has not yet made a conscience judgment and is obligated to do what one can to rectify the situation.) In other words, to follow one's conscience and to act on the voice of God one hears in one's heart of hearts involves some risk. We may hear incorrectly; we may discern and preference values wrongly. YET, we are obligated nonetheless to follow the dictates of our conscience. The corollary is that when we do so we must also bear the consequences of this obligation, whether those are ecclesial or civic.

Conscience: How about just Acting in Accord with Church Teaching?

In order to do away with this risk should we simply do what the Church teaches? My previous post dealt with one dimension of this question, but another revolves around the following question: should we assume that if we are in apparent disagreement with the Church that we have not adequately formed or informed our consciences? This is a position put forward often today by conservatives trying to smooth out the tensions inherent in the Church's own teaching on the primacy of conscience. At Vatican II however, when a minority group approached the Theological Commission with this position they were rebuffed. The group suggested that a text that read (paraphrase) "one should always listen attentively to church teaching in forming one's conscience" should be rewritten to read instead, "a well-formed conscience should be formed in accord with church teaching. . .." The Commission effectively said,"No, what we have written is church teaching," and found the proposed redaction too narrow and rigid. And they were right; Innocent III said essentially the same thing. Nothing, no other judge or authority can remove our obligation, nor the risk of informing, forming, and acting on our own sincere conscience judgments. Nothing relieves us of the obligation to be obedient to the voice of God which speaks in our heart of hearts.

If one sincerely determines that x is the right thing to do and simply instead does y (even if y is what the church rightly teaches one should do), then one sins. Now, let me be clear: if one determines x is the right thing to do and then realizes she has not informed or formed her conscience properly, she can then determine that doing y or acting in accord with what the church teaches is the right thing to do. In such a case she has reached a second conscience judgment and is obligated to act on it. Similarly if one comes to a decision regarding a way to act but doubts she has formed or informed her conscience properly, then she cannot really act in good faith in terms of the decision marked by doubt. (Such a decision does not actually rise to the level of a certain conscience judgment.) In all cases one must continue to discern as well as inform and form one's conscience. One must especially continue to do so if one finds after the fact that she has erred. Even so, sincere conscience judgments bind despite the risk that the person making them is in in error.

Finally, one caveat with regard to this last paragraph. One NEVER reaches the end of informing and forming one's conscience, nor is one ever relieved of the obligation to continue doing so. When I refer to "adequately" doing so I mean that one has sincerely done the best they can at this point in time and knows that to be the case. The fact that one may err while acting in good conscience underscores the fact that one MUST act in always-imperfect circumstances and cannot become paralyzed by the prospect that a judgment is not perfectly informed. While real indecision or doubt must ALWAYS be attended to whenever a judgment can be safely put off, we cannot always simply wait until there is greater information and formation to judge and act. We must make decisions in concrete circumstances with temporal and spatial limits and constraints and this is the reason developing the ability to discern, preference, and make a judgment on the values and disvalues present is so very important. That is simply part of being human and incarnating the word of God in our own lives and world.

12 July 2012

Amish Grace: Simple as Doves, Shrewd as Serpents

The gospel for tomorrow is both challenging and consoling. In case you have not seen it yet, it is Matthew's account of Jesus' counsel about needing to be gentle as doves and shrewd as serpents in a situation which is literally tearing Matthew's community asunder. When (not if) people are brought before political and religious leaders Matthew reminds them of Jesus' teaching, "Do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say. You will be given at that moment what you are to say. For it will not be you that speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you." Jesus then tells them that Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child, children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all because of my name (my powerful presence), but whoever endures to the end will be saved.

Now I have heard homilists and others trivialize what is being taught in this reading. One deacon I know (not in my parish!) once said he never prepared homilies because of this text; he preferred to allow the Holy Spirit to speak through him! Years ago I heard an undergraduate theology student try to use this text as a justification for his un-prepared presentation on the meaning of a text. It didn't go over very well. Nor should it. The readings from Hosea and the Psalms, but especially Psalm 51 reminds us that speaking rightly with the power of the Holy Spirit comes only after long experience of God's compassion and forgiveness. It is only God who can teach us wisdom in our inmost being, only God who can create a clean heart in us, only God who can put a steadfast spirit within us, only God who can open our lips so that our mouths may proclaim his praise. This doesn't happen in a day. It comes only after more extended time spent in the desert (for instance) listening to the Word of God, allowing it to become our story as well, grappling with the demons we find there while we come to terms with and really consolidate our identities as daughters and sons of God in Christ.

I recently heard a story that illustrates the dynamics of Matt's gospel. Though it is not a recent story (sometimes being a hermit means I don't hear these things when they happen), in it people are asked to confess their inmost hearts as they are brought face to face with a world which sometimes seeks to destroy them. Matthew describes this in his gospel. In such a confrontation Jesus asks us be simple as doves and shrewd as serpents. He asks us to have to have done the long, demanding heart work that prepares us to be prophets and mediators of the Holy Spirit --- people with a heart of compassion and forgiveness intimately acquainted with the mercy and love of God and committed to being one through whom God speaks to change the world and bring the Kingdom. This is not about not doing our homework or being presumptuous; it is about becoming the people Jesus sends with pure hearts and a shrewdness which disarms --- like turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, and so forth would have done in Jesus' day. (cf Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Clever as Serpents, Gentle as Doves)

The story is that of the Amish school massacre in Nickel Mines, PA. I would ask that you check out the following video as Bill Moyers tells the story. [[Released from anger and bitterness, but not from pain. Forgiveness is a journey. You need help from others. . .to not become a hostage to hostility.]]

The responses to the story, as Moyers notes, were diverse. Mainly people were awed, some thought such forgiveness could only be a kind of planned show and other suggested the church told the Amish to do this rather than accepting it as the natural expression of a deeply ingrained and authentic spirituality. Others who had failed to draw the important distinction between forgiveness and pardon or release from consequences, argued the forgiveness was undeserved, illegitimate, and imprudent. (cf Jacoby, "Undeserved Forgiveness." Jacoby has another, similar op ed article on Cardinal Bernadin's decision to minister to a serial killer when Bernadin had only 6 mos time left because of the cancer he struggled with.)

What Moyer's account indicates but is unable to detail sufficiently in the above brief video is the extent of the acts of forgiveness and the real reconciliation that occurred as the Robert's family were repeatedly visited by Amish and in turn came to assist with the injured children (who in fact asked why they had not yet visited their families!). (One child continues to be very severely disabled and Roberts' mother comes each week to read to her, sing to her, and sometimes bathe her. The Amish remark on the blessing her presence has been, and of course it has served similarly for her.) At every level Amish and English (especially Roberts' own family) worked to rebuild relationships and shared their mutual grief. Forgiveness, real forgiveness recreated a community that had been shattered by the killings. It was not naive and did not simply avoid or suppress emotions but it made the painful and healing process of moving forward into a "new normal" possible for everyone. The Amish had prepared, not for the tragedies themselves exactly, but for the hard work of reconciliation by long habits of the heart, as Bill Moyers affirmed. But the picture they also give us is one of people who are indeed simple as doves and shrewd as serpents --- just as Christians are called and empowered to be.

If you haven't read the book, Amish Grace, please do so. I admit I read it last night and was in tears practically the whole evening. I don't think I can remember another book or story that has so broken or broken open my own heart nor convinced me how elemental our desire and need for forgiveness or for being people who truly hand on the ministry of reconciliation we are called to be (2 Cor 5:17-21) really is.

11 July 2012

Solemnity of St Benedict (reprise)

Benedict's Rule was a humane development of Rules already in existence. In it he truly sought to put down "nothing harsh, nothing burdensome." Today's section of chapter 33 of the Rule of St Benedict focuses on private possessions. The monk depends entirely on what the Abbot/Abbess allows (another section of the daily reading from the Rule makes it clear that the Abbot/Abbess is to make sure their subjects have what they need!) Everything in the monastery is held in common, as was the case in the early Church described in Acts. Today, in a world where consumerism means borrowing from the future of those who follow us, and robbing the very life of the planet, this lesson is one we can all benefit from. Benedictine Oblate, Rachel M Srubas reflects on the necessary attitude we all need to cultivate, living as we do in the household of God:


Neither deprivation nor excess,
poverty nor privilege,
in your household.
Even the sheets on "my" bed,
the water flowing from the shower head,
belong to us all and to none of us
but you, who entrust everything to our use.

When I was a toddler,
I seized on the covetous power
of "mine."
But faithfulness requires the slow
unlearning of possession:
to do more than say to a neighbor,
"what's mine is yours."
Remind me what's "mine"
is on loan from you,
and teach me to practice sacred economics:
meeting needs, breaking even, making do.

From, Oblation, Meditations of St Benedict's Rule

My prayers for and very best wishes to my Sisters and Brothers in the Benedictine family on this Solemnity of St Benedict! Special greetings to the Camaldolese Sisters at Transfiguration Monastery, the monks at Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley, and New Camaldoli in Big Sur, the Trappistine Sisters at Redwoods Monastery in Whitethorn, CA, and all those at Bishop's Ranch (Healdsburg, CA) participating in the Benedictine Experience Retreat.

Reclaiming Key Terms: The Spirit of Vatican II, a Pastoral Council

Since we are approaching the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council I have been reading several things on the Council and what happened there. One of these is the 900 page Journal of Yves Congar. (It is an amazing read for its frankness.) Last night I read an article about a Church historian who said he believed there would be a schism in the Roman Catholic Church. In general he acknowledged that such things are healthy so this was not really a doom and gloom piece. There is no doubt that the Church as a whole is in crisis, and that is true in Europe, the US and South America as well as Australia. One of the specific problems Diarmaid MacColluch brought up was the following: [[ Catholicism faces a division over attempts by popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI to "rewrite the story of the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council by portraying it as a "minor adjustment" in church governance, rather than as a "radical move to change the way authority is expressed.]]

I found that statement a remarkable summary of what has come to be the struggle over the interpretation of the Council. Most importantly it occurred to me that the phrase "radical move to change the way authority is expressed" is a pretty good summary of part of what is sometimes called "the Spirit of Vatican II." And as I thought about that I realized that I have become somewhat reticent to speak of "the Spirit of Vatican II" because of all the complaints about the vagueness of the term. Most criticisms of Vatican II, most statements of resistance to it I have read or heard usually start with objections to "the Spirit of Vatican II" as though that phrase never referred to anything real and as though we can truly understand the documents themselves apart from that Spirit which drove their composition and redaction; some have tended to forget that this term refers to the reality which mainly animated the Council itself and was the inspiration for John XXIII's calling the Council at all.

The related word then, the term which defines the Spirit of Vatican II and gives shape to all it meant to accomplish is "pastoral." It is no surprise then that this term is the second one which is usually demeaned by critics of Vatican II and those who would like to reduce our reading of the Council to the documents themselves divorced from their history and the struggle it took to compose and promulgate them. In other words the Spirit of Vatican II was the Spirit of the pastoral Church, the Church which trusts the power of the Gospel entrusted to her; it is the Spirit which defines how authority is to be expressed and how the Church is to teach and be Christ for a needy world. In calling for a PASTORAL council John XXIII clearly opted for a different way of expressing authority. It was the HUGE struggle throughout the council --- getting documents that were truly pastoral in tone and approach. The individual documents were important but at least as important was the tone and tenor John XXIII wanted the Church to assume in its teaching.

And yet, right from the beginning of the Council's history of reception these two terms were demeaned and ridiculed. We've all heard innumerable times, "Oh, it was just a pastoral council" and the implication was that it was not authoritative, not a solemn teaching of the ordinary universal Magisterium. Sometimes this was explicitly claimed. Questions were raised during the Council --- and resolved there as well. Yet, even today you will find people, usually traditionalists, who play Trent, a dogmatic council, off against Vatican II, a "merely" pastoral Council. At the same time these same folks tended to ridicule what was done in "the Spirit of Vatican II" because these things meant being pastoral, exercising authority in the way Jesus himself did; they were done --- dare I say it --- in ways which were sensitive to and respectful of individual truth as well as objective truth and so, represented a sometimes more feminine, nurturing way of approaching reality. And you know, all of this ridicule, scoffing, and denigration of central hermeneutical keys had an affect!

I would ask anyone reading this if you too have become more reticent to speak of the Spirit of Vatican II in the face of it all. How about becoming more hesitant to boldly proclaim that a PASTORAL Council is more demanding than and just as authoritative in what it teaches as one which is concerned with making dogmatic "de fide" statements? After all, together these two terms define a Council which called the Church to reform herself, to be converted in every way into a community of faith in Jesus Christ and the power of the Spirit. She was called not only to teach, but to teach CREDIBLY and with the authority of authentic Christians --- something John XXIII and the majority of Bishops at the Council understood meant pastorally.

So MacCulloch's comment really struck me. I came to see that as long as we are left without a sense of the SPIRIT of VII we will be missing what we are meant to proclaim --- and that is a radical move to change the way authority is exercised/expressed. Unless we reclaim our insistence that this was a demanding pastoral Council which, precisely in this way, provides us with the keys to reading and implementing the documents of the Council we will continue to lose the ability to move forward with that task. All too often today we are seeing the way authority is expressed by an unconverted, yet-unreformed hierarchy, a hierarchy which has defined the process of reading and implementing the documents of the Council by effectively ruling certain words out of the conversation. Bearing this in mind, I think my own hesitancy is cured. With what the NT calls parrhesia, I think I will speak boldly of the Spirit of Vatican II; I will try to make clear what it really means to call this Council a pastoral Council --- that is, a Council where the Church, speaking with the authority of Christ, calls herself --- her entire self --- to conversion and then reaches out to the world she is meant to pastor. I sincerely believe this is a key to reclaiming the Council and making sure the work of the Holy Spirit continues.

08 July 2012

On Secular Hermits, Habits and Titles, and Persistence in Dealing with Dioceses

Dear Sister, I wonder if you could help me think about the following passage from a hermit who describes himself as a secular hermit? I have deleted the name from the passage. I guess I wonder if it is really all right to adopt a habit and a religious name simply because one wants to. Though I am not a hermit I would like to do that but I wonder if it is right or very prudent. I also wonder if it is true that diocesan personnel have neither the time nor the expertise in canon law for such foolishness as individuals who desire to become diocesan hermits. This hermit writes: [[ I am free to live as I choose, and to call myself whatever name I like and to wear whatever clothing I want. I choose to live as a religious under vows and a rule, I call myself brother . . . and I wear a habit without a collar to witness to Jesus. There are not too many dioceses that have hermits or recognize them as such, and diocesan personnel, I am told, have neither the time nor the expertise in Canon Law for such foolishness.]]

On the Designation "Secular Hermit"

Thanks for your questions. I understand your unease with this person's statements --- at least as they are cited here. They make me uneasy too. First, one thing you did not ask me about and that is the term "secular hermit". This person is using the term secular as the opposite of religious but that is not really accurate. Religious men and women live lives that are separated from the world (saeculum) in specific ways while others live their lives "in the world" and are called to be "in it but not of it." These latter folks became known as "seculars." Further, "religious (n.)" became set off against "seculars" and unfortunately Religious men and women were seen to be called to a higher holiness than those Baptized Christians living their vocations in ministry in and to the world. Secularity became associated with secularism and then, mistakenly, identified with it. Despite the lessons of the Incarnation, holiness was seen to be the province of those who were "separated from the world."

Today we realize that the situation is much more complex. Vocations are not so neatly differentiated and the Incarnation reminds us that the entire world is Sacramental and meant to be brought to fullness if God's Kingdom is to be truly realized and God is to be all in all. We recognize a universal call to holiness whether that call means one builds oneself into the world of family, business, economics, politics, etc, or whether one makes vows which separate oneself (that is, qualify one's life) in significant ways from or to the world of relationships (consecrated celibacy), power (obedience), and commerce (religious poverty). One person whose vocation is more especially marked by a "stricter separation from the world" than most other persons,whether Lay or Religious, is the hermit. In other words, I don't think we can speak of secular hermits. One may be in the lay state, the consecrated state, or the clerical state, but if one is a hermit who lives the elements of canon 603 (even without public vows), one is not secular.

On Habits and Titles

Habits are no longer ordinary garb. For good and ill they are ecclesial symbols. They have meaning because the Church and the people who have worn them in season and out have invested them with meaning. Because of this when people see them they have the right to certain expectations. They have the right to expect the person in the habit has accepted all the legitimate and moral obligations attached to the (rights of) wearing of such garb. They have a right to expect that person to have formally and legitimately accepted a place in the long tradition of martyrs, ascetics, virgins, and hermits who have worn such habits through the centuries and many times suffered because of it. They have a right to expect the person to be precisely what the habit says they are --- publicly professed men or women whose vocations have been discerned and mediated by the Church. They have a right to expect the person is available to them because of all of this because the person acts (and is commissioned to act) in the name of the Church who, in real ways, also supervises their vocation and generally affirms them as worthy of peoples' trust in pastoral matters.

As I have written before, even hermits did not simply adopt a habit on their own. The desert Fathers and Mothers were given the habit by elders and those elders could take the habit away again if the person failed to live their vocations with integrity. In the Middle Ages it became common for Bishops to give their consent to persons wishing to adopt the habit of the hermit. Again, habits were seen as significant and their wearing was regulated --- even at a time when there was no universal Code of Canon Law, and a somewhat varied theology of consecrated life. The same is true of titles. In the Roman Catholic Church the titles Brother or Sister indicate something specific --- not so much personal status or standing as the way the Holy Spirit is working in the Church's life through specific persons and states of life.

So, while it is strictly true that a person can pretty much wear and style themselves any way they like in public (though even civilly there are significant exceptions to this rule) it is not true that they can do this without disparaging the meaning of these things (Habits, titles etc.) or betraying the expectations which are associated with them in the eyes of believers and the entire world. Habits and titles do not simply indicate what the person believes of themselves; they indicate ecclesial vocations and witness to something which has been made to be true in the People of God. Now, if the person who wrote this was wearing a habit and using a specific title privately (silly as this might seem), that is ONLY in his own hermitage and no where else there would be no problem. He is completely within his rights. However, if he goes out, attends Mass, etc, or even blogs under this name with pictures of himself in his habit, the practice is problematical at best. In my opinion a Catholic does NOT have the right to do this --- first because s/he has not accepted the commensurate obligations that are part of doing so, and secondly out of charity to others who might be misled. One of the most fundamental things Christians are responsible for is truth in advertising --- which we also call transparency and which allows our lives to be Christ's truth for others.

I understand both this person's feelings about thinking of himself as a religious and dressing the part --- especially if he has been refused admission to public profession --- which sounds like it is the case. I also understand your own desire to do so. In the first case it is very difficult to feel called to something in one's own heart and have the institutional church disagree. One wants to find a way to live the truth of who one is while coming to terms with what one experiences as a rejection of one's deepest self. On the other hand, some people argue that they wear the habit because they esteem it or because they want to witness to religious life when many Sisters no longer wear the habit. The problem is that the very act of pretense (for in these cases one is pretending to something one has no right to) does not indicate genuine esteem nor does it witness to religious life or the God of truth. It is not the case that one can adopt ecclesial titles and garb  and expect to be recognized in terms of the ecclesial meaning of those while thumbing one's nose at the canons and customs which govern these things within the church. Certainly one cannot do so and pretend to esteem consecrated life in that very ecclesial community.

Diocesan Personnel and the Diocesan Eremitical Vocation

I have sometimes written that not all dioceses are open to having diocesan hermits. I have also written that diocesan personnel tend to have neither the time nor the expertise to form hermits. Finally I have also written that it often takes an extended period of time to discern and form hermits in preparation for temporary or perpetual vows. (This is not the job of the diocese but the work of the hermit herself with her director and, sometimes, others in cooperation with God.) However, what is not generally true --- at least not in my experience --- is that diocesan personnel are insufficiently expert in Canon Law (they may not specialize in consecrated life, but that is a somewhat different question). And, while there are certainly anecdotes about Vicars who say they do not believe in eremitical life, neither is it generally the case that they treat people wishing to become hermits as though they are pursuing some sort of foolishness.

It is true that dioceses do not routinely admit individuals to profession as diocesan hermits. It is true that they tend to be demanding about the signs of genuine vocation as well as cautious about anything that might signal stereotypical distortions or destructive eccentricity in persons seeking to be professed. It is true that some do not believe much in contemplative life and even less so in hermits --- mainly because they misunderstand solitude as isolation and eremitical life as essentially selfish. But, except in this latter situation, I have not known any dioceses to reject good candidates out of hand; they might well extend periods of discernment, require regular meetings with Vicars or vocation directors as well as all kinds of recommendations (Spiritual director, pastor, physicians, psychologists, etc), but generally they do not treat possible vocations as foolishness.

One must be patient with a diocese if one is the first person/hermit they have seriously considered professing under canon 603. They have a lot to learn not only about eremitical life generally, but about Canon 603 specifically and the way it is implemented along with the kinds of stories dioceses have about their own experiences with hermits thus professed. Even if one is not the first hermit the diocese has professed the diocese will also need to learn a lot about the candidate for profession both before they make recommendations regarding further formation requirements and during the process of discernment which is associated with formation. And they will need to assess how such vocations will be supervised and lived out in their diocese.

On Patience and Persistence

One must also be persistent in one's efforts to be admitted to public profession. It may take some time before a diocese is clear they have a good candidate, or before they have done enough research to even know when this is the case. A single letter to the diocese requesting profession under Canon 603 will not usually be sufficient. One of the things a diocese will want to know is whether or not c 603 is being used as a stopgap way to get to wear a habit and be called Brother or Sister. In other words, they will rightly expect a person to live as a hermit whether or not public profession is in their future and to show all of the characteristics genuine hermits demonstrate: not only a commitment to all the elements of Canon 603 which are absolutely foundational, but to whatever is necessary for continuing growth in this vocation: self-discipline and individual initiative, spiritual direction, reasonable involvement in the parish community, ongoing formation (education, growth in prayer, greater responsibility for the eremitical tradition itself, regular retreats, consultation with other hermits or experts who can assist them in this, and above all, growth in humility (which is a function of truthfulness), authentic humanness (holiness), and one's capacity to love others.

While I am not telling candidates or potential candidates to nag their dioceses, sometimes it does take real persistence to get an adequate hearing. One needs to be honest and ask clear questions about what one is hearing from a diocese. But whatever occurs one needs to carry on honestly living one's response to God --- and if one feels generally called to the life described in Canon 603 then one needs to live that as a lay hermit without habit or title --- either with the diocese's aid or  in spite of its lack. In time the situation may change in various ways. Discernment and growth does not stop -- no matter what the diocese's response is.

I hope this has been of some help to you. You might also check Notes from Stillsong Hermitage: Difficult Questions When Dioceses Decline to Profess

07 July 2012

Faithful Citizenship

Unfortunately,the high visibility given by the media to disagreements between LCWR with its partner in social justice efforts, Network, and the Vatican tended to obscure the significant agreement between the Nuns on the Bus and the USCCB on issues pertaining to the poor, the Ryan budget, and the nature of faithful citizenship. The situation was worsened by the failure of any Bishop to join in supporting the Nuns on the Bus project against Ryan's budget (an entirely separate issue from the affordable care act and the questions remaining to be resolved there) --- something I personally found to be very disappointing. But as I look back on the past two weeks, and especially the celebration of the birth of this nation on the 4th, the following reflection taken from the US Bishops' "Faithful Citizenship" is especially poignant and credible. For those Catholics who wish to divide faith from political action it will offer some significant challenges.

[[Our nation has been blessed with freedom, democracy, abundant resources, and generous religious people. However, our prosperity does not reach far enough. Our culture sometimes does not lift us up but brings us down in moral terms. Our world is wounded by terror, torn apart by conflict, and haunted by hunger. We renew our call for a new kind of politics --- focused on moral principles not on the latest polls, on the needs of the poor and vulnerable, not the contributions of the rich and powerful, and on the pursuit of the common good not the demands of special interests. Faithful citizenship calls Catholics to see civic and political responsibilities through the eyes of faith and to bring our moral convictions to public life.]] USCCB, Faithful Citizenship (2004)

Freedom for the Catholic is the power to be the person God calls us to be. It is the power to embrace and lead others to the abundant life proclaimed in the Gospel. It involves the capacity to love in ways which honor the covenant nature of human life and therefore, it involves a love which does justice. While accepting and transcending limitations are part and parcel of genuine freedom, significant economic poverty (NOT religious poverty) can prevent a person from being able to become the persons God calls them to be. Let us join together to work for the end of poverty and a nation marked by solidarity with one another which issues in genuine freedom. Our faith as well as our citizenship demands it.

06 July 2012

Where is the real Sin???

This morning at coffee with a group of parishioners we got to telling stories of how the church taught about morality before Vatican II. One person told the story of a classmate in high school @ 1959 whose sister was getting married to a non-Catholic. While this person wanted to attend the wedding she was told by the nuns at her school that doing so would be a "mortal sin." 55 years after the events this person's classmate attended a reunion with her old friend. At some point she discovered that her friend HAD attended her only Sister's wedding but because of what she had been taught by the Sisters she felt she had committed a mortal sin and therefore had NOT been to Communion for 55 years! Why had she not gone to confession and dealt with the matter there? That wasn't known but for a person to remain separated from Communion all these years for something she was TOLD was a mortal sin is appalling. But where is the real sin in all of this? God knows fingers can be pointed in several directions but the failure to actually assist a person in informing and learning to form their consciences in a responsible and dynamic way has to be a central target.

We are called to make moral (or conscience) judgments and to act on those conscience judgments. We are not called simply to do as we are told is right or wrong by an outside authority --- no matter how well-placed, well-informed, or well-intentioned and authoritative that external authority is. Instead we are called to listen to our heart of hearts and respond to that personal revelation of God's will in a given situation. (More about informing and forming our consciences below.) One of the most important insights of Catholic moral theology is the inviolability of conscience and the imperative that we must act in good conscience even if we err in doing so. What Catholic teaching recognizes is the presence of God within us, speaking, summoning, calling us to authentically human and holy action in our world. This is the more original and immediate voice of God than even that mediated to us by the Church. We are called to extend morality into those places and situations which the Church cannot address apart from our own discernment and action. We do this, in part, by learning to discern and then listening to the Voice of God within us as well as without, and responding as we believe is best at any given moment. To act otherwise, to act contrary to a certain (that is, a fixed or "reached") conscience judgment (even if it is in error) is ALWAYS to sin.

But what of formation and informing of our consciences? Aren't we obliged to take care of these demands? And what is the difference between truly forming and informing our consciences and merely doing what we are told as in the original example? Perhaps another example will help here. A few years ago a person in a discussion on conscience and formation of conscience said, "I always do just what the Church teaches." When asked what they did when there was no clear church teaching on the matter the person was a bit stymied and had not considered this might be the case. We were talking about the Commandments, for instance and this person affirmed "the Church teaches thou shall not kill or cooperate in killing. She values life and asks that we choose life. That's clear enough!" He asked for an example of a situation which was ambiguous. The one given was the conundrum we now refer to as "Sophie's choice." You know the story: A Jewish woman (Sophie) has two children. All three are transported to Auschwitz and eventually end up in a selection line where either the mom will be separated from her children and taken to a labor camp while they are taken to the gas chamber or all three will be taken and killed. Sophie, who has caught the eye of a Nazi soldier is given a different choice when he intervenes --- one he thinks is more sympathetic: "You may save ONE of your children, or you will all die!"

What does the Church teach about such situations? While a number of moral principles apply, there is no single one-size fits all answer here. Instead the Church DEPENDS upon people being able to think clearly and morally, to discern and preference the values and disvalues present in the situation, and to respond with one's own conscience judgment. The Church actually depends on individuals to BE Church in such situations and to do the very best they can; she expects us to extend Christian morality into situations which she cannot simply address with a one-size fits all answer. To form one's conscience means to be increasingly able to think morally; it means to be able to discern the multiple values and disvalues in a given situation, to preference them, and then to act courageously on one's "certain" conscience judgment. (Again, "certain" does not exclude the possibility of error; it means that at this point in time this is the conscience judgment one has come to in listening to one's heart of hearts and that this cannot, must not be violated or betrayed.)

As horrifying as the decision asked for in Sophie's Choice is, what was more immediately horrifying was that in the discussion which raised it as an example, the person who asked for the example did not know how to think about such a situation or how to make a moral decision where there were competing values and disvalues. He was not able to say how he would make such a decision or think about any of the values or disvalues present. Since the Church had not said, "this is the answer" (she cannot do so when there are serious competing values) he was at a complete loss. In other words he was used to doing what the Church taught, but had NOT managed to develop a well-formed conscience which allowed him to make mature or --- in this case anyway--- ANY decision. Like the situation brought up at coffee this morning, this person had been taught that certain actions were never okay, but could not think morally (could not really preference the values present), nor had they learned to assist in the formation of their own consciences or listen to God's voice in their own heart of hearts. Simply knowing and believing what the Church teaches abstractly is not the same as having a well-formed conscience which can make moral judgments in specific situations.

So where was the real sin in this morning's story? Well, in my humble opinion it lays in large part with a Church that never taught the fullness of its own theology of conscience. In both of these stories persons were in fact victimized by an overly simplistic approach to authority and the church's own teaching on what it means to act in good conscience. Vatican II specifically rejected such an approach to conscience as inadequate. We really have to do better in fidelity to the WHOLE of what the Church teaches on conscience.