Sunday, April 22, 2012

Staying on message


Schadenfreude f (genitive Schadenfreude, no plural)
1.   Malicious enjoyment derived from observing someone else’s misfortune.
2.   Satisfaction derived when an individual has misfortune for disregarding rules or conventions.

Donald R. McClarey admits to having enjoyed the dismay and melodramatic anger with which various people, writing in the National Catholic Fishwrap, have reacted to the announcement that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has called for a reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Certainly, Father Z has a talent for fisking, although the self-righteous blather of Sr. Joan Chittister and Jamie Manson is almost self-parody, so I can’t grudge McClarey for enjoying it.

For me, though, if there’s any satisfaction in the news, it’s sour.  Again with the fake-pious, self-serving portrayal of the LCWR nuns as tireless, holy workers for the poor and oppressed; again with the villainous, even libellous portrayal of the bishops as an evil patriarchy bent on keeping them down, keeping them intellectually enslaved. 

  • “The Absolute Monarchy of the Roman Republican Church is ALIVE and not so well.”
  • “By all means, let us stifle all independent thinking in the Holy Roman Catholic Church.  How dare ‘these women’ help the poor, comfort the marginalized, and worst of all, use their brains. They should absolutely let the holy men of the church do all their thinking and talking for them.”
  • “The rich and powerful bishops are riding high on the backs of the poor, with no one to stop them.”
  • “Have [the hierarchical types] checked their calendars?  Do they know this is the 21st century, when all the issues of NETWORK are crying out for action?”

Sigh.  Any more tropes you care to regurgitate? 


Somewhere in the midst of these hurt feelings and offended political sensibilities, you get the idea that a clear and honest sense of the Church’s mission, her raison d’ĂȘtre,  has been lost.  A common thread among the reactions is that, hey, the nuns have been doing good works for so many years; how dare these pompous, arrogant, do-nothing male bishops insist on dogmatic conformity?  Seemingly, the Church exists solely to feed the poor and uplift the downtrodden: whatever theological rationale or scriptural exegesis you import to justify it is fine, so long as you mention Jesus every once in a while.

The truth, however, is that while running charitable missions is a laudable and worthy extension of the Church’s mission, that’s not the Church’s reason for being, nor was it the reason the contemplative orders were formed.[*]  The Church exists to pass on the teachings of Christ and the apostles, to “go forth and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20).

I get that some people don’t like or disagree with all of the dogmas that have been handed down over fifty generations (give or take).  I get that some people don’t like the priesthood restricted to men, that they don’t agree with the Church’s teachings on sexual justice, that they get frustrated when the Church’s vision of social justice doesn’t coincide with theirs. 

But at the end of the day, people may belong to the Church but the Church doesn’t belong to the people; neither does it belong to the hierarchy.  The Church belongs to Christ; it is his body, not ours.  And it’s precisely for that reason that the leaders of the Church aren’t free to make any and every change people want in the doctrines.

The Catholic Church is, first and foremost, the teacher of the truths of the Faith.  What you, Joe Schmuckatelli out in the pews, do with those truths — live them, ignore them, defend them, traduce them — is your decision, for which you alone will answer.  But they’re not your truths to re-shape and re-define as you please; they can only be “your” truths so far as you profess and adhere to them.

So it is with the LCWR: if they’re going to be Catholic religious, then Catholicism is what they ought to be teaching and living by … not what they want Catholicism to be, not “their take on” Catholicism.  The first job for any group wishing to be part of the Catholic Church is to stay on message.

Max Lindenman comes close to admitting that the orders represented by the LCWR are, for the most part, dying.  He quotes former president Sr. Laurie Brink, OP, who in her 2007 address “[spoke] admiringly of communities that ‘have made valiant choices to die with dignity and grace.’ Closing their communities to new candidates, they ‘recognize that they have served the Church well, and now leave room for a new movement of the Spirit.’” 

But what neither Lindenman, nor Sr. Laurie, nor Sr. Joan or Jamie Manson can admit is that those orders are mostly responsible for their own decline.  They had simply made themselves and their institutions as unattractive as possible to the kind of woman who wanted to be a nun, while failing to give career-minded modern feminists any motivation to consider perpetual vows of poverty and chastity — to say nothing of obedience!

Put baldly, these orders aren’t dying so much as catching up with the suicides they committed almost two generations ago.  Maureen Fiedler tries to convince herself that the LCWR are “leaders of our church for the future”.  However, for most of the Church — which oddly decided to follow Bl. John Paul II and Benedict XVI rather than the “Magisterium of Nuns” — the LCWR is a reminder of a time full of embarrassing mistakes, of bad ideas kept on life support long after they should have died natural deaths.


The reform should not be regarded as the end of the LCWR but rather as a chairos, an appropriate time, a time pregnant with opportunity to revamp and revitalize the second order in the United States.  Rather than indulge ourselves in Schadenfreude, we should perhaps feel some sorrow for lives wasted in pursuit of a will-o’-the-wisp, pray for their reconciliation, and let the winter of discontent fade into the spring of the New Evangelization.

Do not, I beseech you, be troubled about the increase of forces already in dissolution.  You have mistaken the hour of the night: it is already morning.
Hilaire Belloc


[*] Technically, not all women religious are nuns. See “What’s the difference between a monk and a friar?” (OTA 9/12/10).