The Catholic Courier’s annual jubilee edition always generates a good deal of comment. The same was true this year. People are genuinely appreciative of people who persevere in priesthood or religious life for many years, and who do so in a spirit of joy.
This year my experience of the comments included two dominant elements. The first was the fact that Sister Angela Sutula, SSJ, has been a Sister of St. Joseph for 85 years. Many people — myself included — draw great energy, strength and hope from people like Sister Angela. She and the other jubilarians encourage us all that when we grow weary, have doubts or veer off in bad directions, God’s faithful love will strengthen, reassure and call us back.
The second common element raised by many people was about the recently concluded investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) initiated by the Vatican and headed by Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio.
The investigation concluded that some speakers invited to address LCWR conventions had made some statements not in accord with church teaching; and that the LCWR had not been sufficiently clear and unambiguous in defending church teachings on such matters as the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood, and certain elements of the abortion controversy.
As a follow-up to these concerns the Vatican appointed Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle to chair a group including Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., Bishop Blair, and a number of women and men religious. The assignment of the group is to work with the LCWR over the next five years to develop statutes that would forestall similar concerns in the future.
My understanding is that the LCWR, having received notice of this, is thoughtfully considering the situation, and taking counsel before making any formal response.
Obviously this is a sensitive situation, and one that has generated considerable anger in some quarters. The most common expression of such anger, at least in my hearing, wonders why the church "picks on" these wonderful women when we have so many real problems to work on.
While I care deeply about this issue, I do not have any direct involvement in the process. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, does anyone else in our local church. But I do pray every day that through the guidance of the Holy Spirit all who are involved directly in this conversation — and eventually all of us — will come to new life through what I think can be fairly described as a time of some dying.
In the shorter run, let me share with you some thoughts with the hope that they might be helpful to you:
* This is not meant as a slap at the women religious of this country, or certainly, of our diocese. I and the vast majority of bishops I know or have ever met love and respect our sisters, and recognize that their contribution to the church in our country has been of incalculable value. In so many ways they have been the face of the church in health care, education and concern for the poor.
* As I read the current situation, it is one at the bottom of which is the issue of authority in the church. Who holds that authority? How is it best exercised? What is the best way to mediate/negotiate/settle differences when they arise? Twenty-five years ago a similar issue came up in relation to theologians in the case of our Father Charles Curran. Today, if my reading is correct, it comes up with reference to the LCWR.
* I do not know personally any of the current leadership of LCWR. Over the years I have had the privilege of calling many of them my friends. I have always found them to be women of deep faith, loving and loyal to the church, and utterly faithful to the Gospel.
* By way of full disclosure, I say that I have known Peter Sartain since he was a seminarian at the North American College, and I was privileged to be among his mentors. My admiration for Peter began in those years and has only increased as I have followed his life as priest of Memphis, Bishop of Little Rock, then Joliet and now Seattle.
* It’s hard for me to believe that, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, such people as Peter and his committee together with the wonderful women of LCWR cannot find a way to honor our deepest shared values and help us to move forward in peace and unity to carry on our common mission.
Peace to all.