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Julie Leininger Pycior

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Catholic Nuns, the Vatican and Straight but Crooked Lines

Posted: 10/05/2012 5:58 pm

At present there is a standoff between the Vatican and the organization that represents 80 percent of American nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious/LCWR. The hierarchy likely will break the stalemate right after the noisy election season, and they hold all the power (that is, unless the nuns simply rebel).

Or maybe not? God writes with straight but crooked lines, according to two people often characterized as Catholic activist icons, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

The dividing line between the Vatican and the nuns does seem rigid. Rome scored the LCWR for "radical feminism" and placed a male prelate in charge of monitoring these 75,000 women (yes, even as the episcopate remains tainted by the pedophilia cover-up scandal). The monitor, Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, is urging the Catholics in his archdiocese to vote in favor of a resolution, which he promoted, that would overturn a law recognizing gay marriage -- this, in line with the Pope, who has stated that same-sex unions "threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself."

Contrast that sentiment with these words from the president of LCWR, Sr. Pat Farrell: "The philosophical underpinnings of the way we've organized reality no longer hold. The human family is not served by individualism, patriarchy, a scarcity mentality, or competition." Former LCWR president Sister Joan Chittister recently put it this way:

Everybody talks about how the Pope wants a smaller, purer church. Well, they talked about that in the 16th century. And they got it -- they lost half of Europe. Now they are losing Ireland, Austria, the American church is teetering. You have people who love their faith but cannot support these acts by the institution.

LCWR's social justice affiliate, NETWORK, responded to the Vatican prohibition of its activities by ramping them up. NETWORK's "Nuns on the Bus" tour barnstormed the nation, famously lobbying against the Ryan/Republican budget, and the executive director addressed a cheering Democratic National Convention.

But what seems like a straight, rigid line looks more convoluted on further examination. The people who founded the nuns' own religious orders themselves sometimes clashed with Rome, according to the LCWR president. A few of these same founders were even excommunicated -- and, she points out, least two of those excommunicated were later officially declared saints!

Meantime the LCWR and Archbishop Sartain both are on record favoring dialogue. And while the hierarchy ordered NETWORK to curtail its social justice lobbying, it is also true that the Church officially lobbies Congress on the same side as NETWORK.

NETWORK's executive director, Sister Simone Campbell, was "stunned" by the edict against her organization, but that did not stop her from telling the Democratic National Convention, "Paul Ryan claims that the budget reflects the principles of our shared faith, but the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said that the Ryan budget failed a basic moral test because it would harm families living in poverty." No wonder CNN caught a Democratic delegate looking puzzled.

Such convolutions would not have surprised Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. When their peace movement cohort Fr. Daniel Berrigan complained to Merton, a Trappist monk, about limits that Church authorities placed on his writing, Merton replied, "So you have got deep into that great mystery of paralysis in which we all are." His own Abbot General had ordered him to stop publishing antiwar/antinuclear pieces, but still Merton told Berrigan, "Do not be discouraged..."

The Holy Spirit is not asleep. First there is the problem of communication, which is impossible. Then there is the fact that God writes straight on crooked lines anyway, all the time, all the time. And we are what He is writing with, I suppose, though we can't see what is being written. And what He writes is not for peace of soul, that is for sure...

A few months after this letter, the ban on Merton's peace publications was lifted, and many of them appeared in The Catholic Worker. The leader of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day, also referenced God's straight but crooked lines in replying to a friend upset by the Church hierarchy: peace activist Ammon Hennacy.

"Of course conscience comes first," she wrote, referencing this fundamentally-important Church doctrine.

But just the same, nothing would ever drive me from the Church. No pronouncements from the Pope or Bishops, no matter how wrong I thought them, would cause me to leave the Church. I would rather stop the work, keep silent and wait. The spiritual weapons of prayer and sufferings would do more to further any cause than protest and defiance.

"God writes straight with crooked lines," she concluded, "and arrogance and pride would do more to wreck a cause than any pronouncement from the hierarchy." But she hastened to add, "Not that I anticipate being stopped, being suppressed by the Church." She never was ordered to close down the Catholic Worker, even though many diocesan newspapers called it "subversive."

Dorothy Day even applied the straight-but-crooked maxim to Catholic dogma, locating the authority of dogma in the grass roots, of all places. Citing the only two doctrines ever labeled "infallible" by any popes, she wrote, "All dogma such as the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption is first of all believed by the masses of the people before it is pronounced a dogma." And, she told her pacifist friend, "It would be the same with war."

The LCWR president makes a similar point.

Women religious stand in very close proximity to people at the margins ... That is our gift to the church ... A bishop, for instance, can't be on the street working with the homeless. He has other tasks...So if there is a climate of open..dialogue among us, we can bring together some of those conversations. And that's what I hope we can develop in a deeper way.

For all the Catholic Church's complicated convolutions, its foundational teaching is simple: love God, love your neighbor. But simple does not mean easy. "Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams," Dorothy Day reminds us, quoting Dostoevsky.

"Our real journey in life," Merton observed, "is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts. Never was it more necessary for us to respond to that action."

 
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