The Diocese of Providence invites representatives of religious congregations to speak each year in area parishes to raise funds for their missionary efforts.
One local pastor welcomed the religious sister who had been assigned to speak and informed her that time would be available after Communion to make her presentation. The sister wrote back and said that since she could not speak at the homily time after the Gospel, she was enclosing a copy of her text, which the pastor himself could read at that sacred moment. I recently spoke with a senior religious sister and asked if she were keeping busy in retirement. She replied that she was quite busy and that she was about to make phone calls on behalf of Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren, was then the pro-abortion, pro-contraception, pro-gay marriage candidate for the Senate from Massachusetts.
While these are minor incidents, they do lend credence to Rome’s concern about the direction that some women religious and some religious congregations of women have taken. Vatican leadership is concerned that some women religious are soft, so to speak, on abortion, contraception, the male priesthood, so-called gay marriage and other social issues. Rome cites “serious theological, even doctrinal, errors” and “policies of corporate dissent” in some programs and presentations. The recent appearance of a religious sister at the Democrat National Convention along with pro-contraception Caroline Kennedy and Sandra Flucks could not have done much to lessen Rome’s concern.
Ann Carey, a journalist with the National Catholic Register, attended the recent Leadership Conference of Catholic Women held in St. Louis. At the end of the three day meeting, reporter Carey found that the reply of one religious sister to a journalist’s question focused the entire issue: “If you look at the whole church, if you look, for example, at statistics of what Catholics hold, you will find that the Leadership Conference for Women Religious is not a whole lot different from what Catholics in general hold.” Recent statistics readily indicate that official Catholic teachings on a number of issues differ considerably from what the American Catholic laity hold as acceptable. A majority (68 percent) of lay Catholics diverge from the church’s doctrine on artificial contraception. A substantial number of Catholics take exception to the church’s teaching on so-called gay marriage (43 percent) and civil unions (31 percent). The New York Times claims 6 in 10 American Catholics see no problem with the ordination of women.
The argument could be easily made that the traditional teachings of the church on faith and morals are discerned by prelates who pace marbled corridors and by bishops who sit behind mahogany desks while the good sisters arrive at their conclusions while supervising health clinics, meal sites and college campuses. As reporter Carey noted, “I had the very real sense that some sisters feel that the church can address problems in the modern world only by reconsidering some of its doctrine.” The columnist rightly perceives that the fundamental problem here is ecclesiology: Is Catholicism founded on divine revelation entrusted to the church’s Magisterium or is the church empowered by the Sensus Fidelium, the intuitions of the faithful, who daily face practical choices in a modern world. The difficulty almost comes down to the difference between theory and practice. The bishops wrestle with theory while the sisters struggle with practice. But let us remember: nothing is more practical than a good theory.
Religious sisters and all contemporary Catholics must recall that truly authentic behavior, truly free behavior, flows only from truth. “You shall know the truth,” Jesus insisted to his disciples, “and the truth shall make you free.” Experience alone is not a sufficient basis for the Christian life. Pursuing one’s own perceived good is not true freedom. Autonomy is not authenticity.
True Christian activity stems only from the truth whose fullness is found in Jesus Christ who, in turn, entrusted that fullness to his Catholic Church. To trust daily experience more than revealed truth is to reverse the Gospel message. Jesus and his church possess the fullness of truth. An effective ministry and a fruitful life can be constructed only on that foundation.