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Questioning the Paternalism of Patriarchs

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput

Since the Vatican announcement of the doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), I’ve been talking with various Roman Catholic sisters I know. To a woman, they are angry and upset. To a woman, they are taking counsel with one another, seeking an adequate response from their community. To a woman, they do not take kindly to having the faithfulness of their leadership questioned.

Especially by paternalistic bishops, whose primary concern seems to be protection of hierarchical power.

See here.

And here.

And here.

And here.

And here.

And here.

And especially here and here.

Or, if you’re into legal documents, see here [long pdf]. But if you’ve just eaten, you might want to wait at least thirty minutes before you read it. After these charges came out agaist Msgr, William Lynn, who oversaw the movement of clergy in the archdiocese, the new archbishop of Philadelphia offered an oblique comment on them:

During the invitation-only dinner for Archbishop Charles J. Chaput at a parish hall in Montgomery County, Chaput singled out Lynn in the crowd and noted how difficult the ordeal has been for him, according to one priest who attended and two people briefed by others at the gala.

Much of the audience, which included hundreds of priests, then stood and applauded, said the sources, who asked not to be identified.

This is the clerical cultural mentality that the sisters of the LCWR and its constituent organizations are up against. I’m sure it has been tough on Lynn. But how anyone can read that grand jury report and applaud him is revolting. This is what passes for leadership, apparently — at least in Philadelphia.

Contrast this kind of leadership with that offered by Sister Joan Chittister. As she describes in a column at NCR, about a month ago, she was traveling in Africa with a group of religious leaders from various faith traditions. One particular day, they were listening and speaking with each other about forgiveness.

We heard, for instance, about the progress of the revolution in Egypt from Egyptian philosophers, the ongoing social upheaval in Cambodia from international peace workers, the delicate situation of Christians in the Middle East. It was a very interesting session. Until, suddenly, it became more horrifying than interesting.

The horror came from the lips of Congolese women, as they described — in raw terms that could not be papered over — the horrors through which they had lived. Said one of them, after the initial efforts to make their point fell flat.

“I will give you an example: One night, robbers came to a house and demanded that the man hand over his wife and daughters or die. He refused. So they began to cut him. They cut off his fingers and blinded his eyes. His wife couldn’t stand it anymore. ‘Take me and let him go,’ she screamed. And they did. Then after they had gang-raped her and each daughter, they robbed the house and left.”

She waited again — for what felt like eternity — before she went on, tight-voiced and loud. “Then the husband began to scream. He threw the wife and daughters out of the house. Those women had no place to go,” she said. “No one, no one,” she paused, “would take them in.”

There was an audible gasp in the tent.

That’s the sound of recognizing horror. Attacks and rapes, sure. This is war, and wars are ugly. But expulsion by the husband? Rejection by the community?

No one would take them in? I felt my arms get a little weak. No one? Where did they go?

The questions came from everywhere at once: “Why not? What are you talking about? Why, in God’s name, did the husband put them out? Do you mean that the husband got angry at the wife?” The disbelief and incredulity in the group was palpable.

“Wait a minute,” I called from the other side of the tent out of my own growing sense of agony. “What in that culture could possibly justify that kind of behavior — from either the rapists or certainly of the husband?”

Because you know that the culture had to support this behavior. If it didn’t, then the wife and daughters would have been taken in by a neighbor. If it didn’t, then the community would have turned on the husband. No, the culture approved of the husband’s actions, and reinforced them with their own.

The woman raised herself up in the old plastic chair. “Men,” she said, “must begin to believe that women are human beings. They must stop saying that women ‘want it.’ Because he believes that women want it; he threw them out. They all do. And the families that will accept the woman back refused to take the child that comes from the rape.”

A dark silence hung heavily in a tent full of monks and ministers, catechists and keepers of ancient faiths for a long, long time.

It hung, because as Joan noted, the teachers of these communities were the shapers of the culture, and far too many of those teachers were male religious leaders. And the monks and ministers, catechists and keepers of ancient faiths knew it.

Joan Chittister’s regular column at National Catholic Reporter — an independent, lay run Catholic newspaper — is entitled “From Where I Stand.” In the penultimate paragraph of this column, she lifts up that phrase most powerfully.

From where I stand, it seems to me that male “protection,” paternalism and patriarchal theology are not to be trusted anymore because the actions it spawns in both men and women have limited the full humanity of women everywhere, and on purpose.

Amen, Sister Joan. Amen.

But from where the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith stands (with the explicit support of the Pope), this is the kind of stuff from which heresy springs. The “overarching concern of the doctrinal Assessment” is “ecclesiology” (pdf p. 2) — that is, the theological structure and nature of the church. The problem, says the CDF (p. 5), is that the LCWR is questioning the authority of the bishops.

Some speakers [at LCWR assemblies] claim that dissent from the doctrine of the Church is justified as an exercise of the prophetic office. But this is based upon a mistaken understanding of the dynamic of prophecy in the Church: it justifies dissent by positing the possibility of divergence between the Church’s magisterium and a “legitimate” theological intuition of some of the faithful. “Prophecy,” as a methodological principle, is here directed at the Magisterium and the Church’s pastors, whereas true prophecy is a grace which accompanies the exercise of the responsibilities of the Christian life and ministries within the Church, regulated and verified by the Church’s faith and teaching office. Some of the addresses at LCWR-sponsored events perpetuate a distorted ecclesiological vision, and have scant regard for the role of the Magisterium as the guarantor of the authentic interpretation of the Church’s faith.

Which brings me back to the stories coming from Philadelphia.

Where was the Magisterium when the sisters brought forth their stories of problem priests? Where was the Magisterium when the parents brought forth their stories of priests abusing their children? Where was the Magisterium when the victims themselves came forward?

Biblically speaking, the role of the prophet is to speak God’s word to those who ignore it — to call them back to God’s ways. The most powerful prophets were those who spoke *against* the magisterium of their day. Nathan, Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah . . . they all took on the rulers who misused their power, including especially the religious leaders.

This struggle between the Vatican and the LCWR is not simply an in-house Catholic spat. It’s the same battle being fought between the USCCB and HHS over contraception, and between the hierarchy and the medical community over who gets to make medical decisions.

“Who are you to question us?” is what the CDF assessment of the LCWR boils down to. “Who are you to question us?” is what the hierarchy in Philadelphia has said for years to those who brought allegations and evidence of abuse to their attention. “Who are you to question us?” is what the USCCB says to HHS, to its employees, and to the rest of the American public.

Though I am a Lutheran pastor and not a Roman Catholic, I stand with LCWR and their prophetic speaking.

And I stand with Sister Joan.

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.