07/02/2012 01:16 pm ET | Updated Sep 01, 2012

The Franciscan Way to Love the Vatican

Following the Vatican's criticism and plan to reform the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the leaders of the Franciscan friars (OFM) have made a bold statement in support of US Catholic sisters. The Franciscans called their open letter to the nuns "a public sign of our solidarity with you as you endure this very difficult moment." Commentators including Fr. James Martin, S.J., of America magazine are calling it 'brothers coming to the defense of their sisters."

The doctrinal assessment of the Vatican faulted LCWR for not adequately speaking out against gay marriage, abortion and women's ordination. It also criticized LCWR-sponsored conferences for including "certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith." The Franciscans wrote that the Vatican should enter into dialogue with the sisters: "Rather than excessive oversight of LCWR, perhaps a better service to the people of God might be a renewed effort to articulate the nuances of our complex moral tradition. This can be a teaching moment rather than a moment of regulation."

As a lay Franciscan, I am proud of the strong and loving statement of the friars. They are indeed coming to the defense of the sisters, but they treat the cardinals and bishops as family members as well, and not as enemies. In keeping with their charism as peacemakers, the Franciscans give the Vatican the most respectful interpretation that they can. They write that the Vatican's actions might "inadvertently fuel the current climate of division and confusion" (italics added) and that they trust the Vatican officials were attempting to be faithful to their role as laid out in church teaching. Our church would have fallen apart long ago without an authority to uphold our tradition. The Franciscan way is to love the church and, at the same time, call it to something better. Mostly this is done by preaching the Gospel with our actions. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, OFM, adheres to the principle that "the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better."

At other times, something more bold and direct is needed. There is a story about the last days of St. Francis that illumines the loving and prophetic approach of the Franciscan path. The bishop and the mayor of Assisi were fighting and there was no peace in the city. Francis said it was a great shame on the servants of God that the bishop and the mayor had such hatred for one another. He brought about their change of heart by composing a new verse to a song, calling them to pardon one another and endure in peace, which his companions sang to them. Francis lovingly called those acting in a rash way to a more noble and faithful place. This path resonates with with LCWR's own statement. The sisters, while calling the Vatican's assessment a source of "scandal and pain," also asked that the issues be addressed "in an atmosphere of openness, honesty, and integrity."

The table for dialogue and relationship is set by sisters, Franciscans and many other faithful Catholics. Can those at the Vatican respond with some of the graciousness that the bishop of Assisi exhibited to Francis? He said, "Because of my office humility is expected of me, but because I am naturally prone to anger, you must forgive me."