Friday, May 18, 2012

Obedient everywhere but where it counts

This was a letter to the editor at the New York Times earlier this week. I think this letter highlights something, but not what the author had in mind. The Fathers speak of obedience as a thing of unquestioned importance. Matched with humility, a life of askesis lived in community requires much of a monastic. So how did the Latin nuns of America go from the habited, pious women seen in black and white movies of old to the business suits and sensible shoes of today? That road was paved when living in community, a shared prayer life centered in a convent, was replaced with an emphasis on activism and social justice.

Often the goals were laudable, but they were striven for at the cost of the foundational construct that makes monasticism what it is. So today a nun can say that she knows what the orthodox opinion is (repeated for aeons in the Tradition of the Church), but believe that she knows better. I can no more imagine any Orthodox nun I have ever met saying this than imagine an Orthodox convent with a highly developed space program with aims on a lunar landing.

The current Pope of Rome acknowledged that his church will be a smaller and stronger organization in the future. He has rejected the idea that numbers matter as a benchmark of health and fidelity to the goals of the Church. It's safe to assume that many of the women religious in this country will break away individually or in groups, and there's no way to avoid it. Sometimes the ties that bind are so tenuous that any strain will sever the connection. So be it.

(NY Times) - Re “Nuns on the Frontier,” by Anne M. Butler (Op-Ed, May 16):

The account of the Vatican’s edict reprimanding American nuns for their liberal views on political and social issues is a stirring reminder of the courage and activism of American nuns.

Between 1971 and 1975 I taught in a college with one such nun I greatly admire. She was instrumental in the formation of the college, which served a primarily African-American population in Brooklyn, and in forming one of the first Harlem-based storefront schools for children.

I remember being startled one afternoon when a group of college faculty members were discussing reproductive rights, and Sister Ruth firmly stated her belief in a woman’s right to choose. She said she thought abortion should be legal and accessible.

I am not Roman Catholic, and Sister Ruth was the first nun I had ever met. I said: “Didn’t you take a vow of obedience? Don’t you have to oppose abortion rights?” She answered: “The church can tell me where to go and what to do, and I will obey. But no one can tell me what to think.”

I greatly admire the liberal, progressive nuns who are willing to take principled stands because they think for themselves. They are role models for all of us.


  1. Curiously, this spiritual dysfunction is actually described quite admirably by Dee Pennock in her book "God's Path to Sanity," in which she writes of the "Eve Complex" - Eve prefers knowledge to obedience, and is seduced by the illusion of possessing wisdom - so that she is smart and right, where God and others are mistaken. Created on a par with Adam, as a result of her misuse of equality, she is made subject to Adam (lawful authority) as a protection against further seductions.

  2. I am struck by how non-Catholics seem so heartened whenever a Catholic agrees with their unorthodox position. So much struck that I wound up writing a post on it.

  3. One caution, there was a time when a Roman Catholic could no more imagine "a nun ... say that she knows what the orthodox opinion is (repeated for aeons in the Tradition of the Church), but believe that she knows better" than they could ... " imagine [a Catholic] convent with a highly developed space program with aims on a lunar landing." While I hope we don't go down the same road as did the Roman Catholic Church there isn't any reason to believe that the Orthodox Church is immune to like spiritual pathologies.

    1. I support the Bishop of Rome maintaining the integrity of his church like Josephus. Integrity to one's conscience is paramount to the future of any religion.

  4. The current post-Vatican II struggles have often been compared to the Arian crisis. The real difficulty is how to act when entire nations have apparently fallen into heterodoxy. When the SSPX broke ranks and ordained without a mandate it was swiftly dealt with, but would it be so prudent to act so swiftly when entire regions seem to lapse, e.g. the Dutch Catechism or the current Austrian Rebellion. It is a large and complicated problem, but I agree with the Pontiff that we should be more concerned with fidelity than numbers.

  5. i am not sure if this matters to those who read this, but i agree with Fr Gregory's comment. this is something that happens in all churches (i am thinking of the Lord's words to the seven churches in revelation) and that gives a certain context for all Christians. Also it may seem a small point, but in the roman churches "sisters" have never been technically nuns. nuns in the roman churches are dedicated to the monastic path (carmelites, poor clares, trappistines) and their situation over the past 40 years is very different, for the most part, that that of the sisters. and even among the sisters, for over 40 years a small but significant group have separated themselves from the group that rome has issued this directive and most of them are growing and attracting many young women.

  6. in case someone is interested here is a link to one of the "new monastic" orders in the roman church that has grown up in the past 50 years and has made many foundations.

  7. The title says it all - this reminds me of a book I once read (can't remember the title) in which the author interviews various Catholic nuns. She finds some of them saying they would always be Catholic but do not think that some of the opinions of the Pope are correct. I just didn't understand why they would remain in the Catholic church when they didn't even trust the Pope. It just seemed like religious schizophrenia, and I would think it would be a hard position to maintain, let alone live within as a nun. But I suspect people who maintain just that position would think I was some kind of mindless zealot...You know, you've inspired a future blog post of my own. I'll link to your blog when I write it!