I was, of all places, in Assisi, Italy, when I first heard the news of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s (CDF) report Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which levels serious — if ultimately misguided — critique at the leaders of the majority of women’s religious communities in the United States. Having only recently returned from a European academic-conference tour in the United Kingdom and Italy, I’m still working to catch up on the news, read the documents and commentaries, and form a constructive response to the CDF’s move. I will refrain from offering a full response at this time, due to the fact that my examination of the materials has only been cursory, and instead simply wish to express my solidarity with my sisters in religious life.

Even an initial review of the CDF’s materials and Cardinal Levada’s summary letter leads an informed and knowledgeable reader to conclude that there is much more to the story than at first meets the eye. There will be many who will unthinkingly “go with the flow” of such “concerns,” choosing to capitulate to the pressures of accepting caricature in place of factuality, and uncharitable assumption in place of truth. Fear is a powerful motivator, perhaps the most influential in our human society. My hope is that women and men of faith, especially the male religious and diocesan priests of this country, will find the strength of the Spirit to overcome the fear of subsequent reprisal and stand up with charity and respect for the ministry, Gospel witness, prophetic example and holiness of these women who are, quite frankly, undeservedly criticized. As has been said by many women and men I have spoken with in the last few days in Italy and in the United States, this appears to be an attempt to regain or maintain an antiquated and paternalistic form of control, motivated by the fear that certain iterations of patriarchal hegemony are indeed dissolving in the Church and world. Is that the real fear? What is really behind this sort of move?

The initial reading of the report suggests, to me at least, that there remains an inadequate appreciation on the part of the report’s authors for the complexities of intelligent, critical and reflective thought necessary to be a minister in the Church today, especially in the United States, which is not afforded the luxury of a tiny and insulated oikos of ecclesiastical hegemony. One is led to believe that there is a grievous confusion on the part of the text’s authors between charitable critical reflection that perhaps challenges antiquated or inept systems of ministry or engagement with the world and so-called dissent, which appears to be the specter of accusation most centrally leveled at the sisters. In our twenty-first-century world women as well as men are to be granted the inherent right to use their God-given intellectual faculties for the service of God and God’s People, which is the Church. That a concern about the free exercise of the sisters’ ability to discuss, reflect, pray about and discern complex and timely matters of theological, social and moral import serves as a primary impetus for this report is troubling.

At this point, this is all I will say about the document(s) until I have the opportunity to examine them in greater detail. In the meantime, I wish to extend to my sisters in religious life my support, my prayers and my solidarity — I hope that all others will too, especially those of us men in religious life who belong to the sibling organization the Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM). This is a challenging time for those in religious life to wisely, respectfully and strongly maintain the millennia-old responsibility of religious life to recognize the twofold position of religious to (a) remain faithful to the Body of Christ, which is the Church; and (b) remain prophetic in the challenging spirit that initially called women and men into a particular charismatic life and vocation of religious community in the Catholic Church.

Photo: RNS

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