Thursday, 7 June 2012

No, 'we' are not necessarily the Church: the magisterium of nuns and the magisterium of 'me'



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The Magisterium of...

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Cath News today contains two truly outrageous gems, with which it is surely digging its own grave.

The first is a blog piece defending religious women who don't wear habits - on which absolutely no comments in reply have been allowed (and yes comments have been submitted, people have emailed me offline!).  More on this below.

The second are some of the truly outrageous comments on the CDF's condemnation of Sr Margaret Farley's anti-Catholic book on 'sexual ethics'.

Where Peter is, there is the Church!

Earlier this week, the Pope visited Milan, and quoted there from perhaps its most illustrious bishop-saint, St Ambrose:

"Saint Ambrose, Milan’s patron saint, came from a Roman family and has always kept his ties with the Eternal City and the Church of Rome alive, affirming and praising the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. Peter represents “the Church’s foundation and the magisterium of discipline.” He then pronounced his famous statement: “Where Peter is,there is the Church."

Over at Cath News, however, a commenter named Nicola rejects this position (reflected in the Code of Canon Law) arguing instead that:

"We are the Church! Us little people at the bottom of the hierarchical ladder are the Church, and have a right to opinions and to share our views on what it is to live out here in the real world."

 Well no Nicola.  There is actually no right to dissent, publicly or privately from the teachings of the Church.  Rather, the Code of Canon Law requires us to preserve our communion with the Church, including its teachings.  Being a Catholic actually means being in communion with the successor of Peter.

But this is just one of a string of outrageous posts over there attacking those who dare uphold the Church's actual teachings...

Debating the state of the sisterhood!

The prize for the day surely goes to the treatment of Beth Doherty's soft soap defence of religious women who do not where traditional habits.

Now I don't agree with a lot of Ms Doherty's post but I respect her right to attempt to argue the case (even if I think she is pushing it uphill!).

But pretty outrageous to run such a piece and then allow no debate at all on it!

So let me just point out a few fairly obvious things on the post.

Religious are actually required to wear habits....

First, Ms Doherty (media officer for the Bishops' Conference) claims that:

"There has been an unfortunate trend in some Catholic circles to put labels on groups who wear or who don't wear the habit. Indeed, this choice by a congregation is no indication of holiness or fidelity to the Church."

Actually it is.

For a starter, wearing a habit is actually mandated by Canon Law:

Can. 669 §1. Religious are to wear the habit of the institute, made according to the norm of proper law, as a sign of their consecration and as a witness of poverty.

So if you are a religious and are not wearing a habit, you are not showing fidelity to the Church!

Secondly, the habit is a pretty good proxy for adherence to the traditions of the Church more generally, as this blog post by Msgr Pope points out - orders that choose to wear the habit are generally those who also live in community, say the Office together and so forth.  

It doesn't automatically make for holier sisters of course - but it probably helps, since it serves to remind the wearer of who and what they are, especially when out in public.

The witness of the habit!

I have to say I found this defense of the 'deeper witness' possible for a non-habited sister when she is outed by her credit card absolutely hilarious:

“Now, when people find out that I am a sister, people still like to start a conversation. I could be simply handing over my credit card at Coles, which has my affiliation as a Sister of Charity. I have a hunch that in some ways, without the habit, that it is a different kind of conversation, and somehow it’s a deeper one. Because you don't wear a strange habit, people are very comfortable chatting to you as a religious woman. They might share something personal that they might not have shared with a “habited nun”.”

Because right, I'm sure a very deep and meaningful exchange indeed can occur as the checkout operator hands you your credit card (!) back and the queue twitches impatiently behind you...

Remember that Code of Canon Law provision:

Can. 669 §1. Religious are to wear the habit of the institute, made according to the norm of proper law, as a sign of their consecration and as a witness of poverty.

If you want to read about some truly deep conversations, made possible by the witness of actually wearing the sign of one's profession, have a look at this post and indeed the whole series on the experience of nuns who have actually tried it over at Patheos.

There is a great story over there of a Carmelite who was able to use her supermarket visit to turn the anger of a young teenager to genuine understanding and joy.  But the story I really loved was her ecumenical moment:

"On still another day, I was looking for detergent. One lady was looking for the same thing. As I picked up one item, she asked in a very harsh and rather cold tone of voice: "Have you accepted Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?" Again, I was surprised by the question and calmly replied: "I have given my whole life to Christ." She stepped back with the most surprised look on her face: "You have, really?" I gave another one-minute catechesis on religious life. She then spent about ten minutes pouring out her soul to me. She then asked me to pray with her, which I did. This day the detergent section helped clean a very troubled soul and made it whiter than any bleach could do."

How to get vocations

There are actually three broad categories of religious women around these days.

The sisters who ditched the habit, and whose orders are dying out (think Good Samaritans, St Mary McKillop's Josephites, etc). 

The sisters who have retained that 70s look (and yes the picture below is Mother Angelica, before she was persuaded that her nuns needed to 'look more Catholic'!), or some kind of uniform at least (think Jamberoo nuns).  They are getting some vocations, but generally speaking the numbers are not exactly filling the growing number of choir stalls vacated by elderly sisters.


And then there are the sisters that look 'traditional'.  And this is where all the real growth in religious life is today.


Australia, unfortunately, only has a few of these thriving new orders, or revivals of older ones as yet - groups such as the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate, the Tyburn Benedictine Sisters, and the Nashville Dominicans.

But despite Ms Doherty's implication to the contrary, the difference in new vocations isn't trivial.

Not all habited orders are thriving, but pretty much all of the orders that are attracting lots and lots of young vocations are habited.

The Nashville Dominicans, for example, are getting around 20-30 new postulants each year in the US.  In Australia, after just a few years of operation (they were invited in by Cardinal Pell at Sydney WYD) Ms Doherty admits that they have already attracted more than 10 women to their community.

That's more postulants than most Australian orders have seen in the last two decades or more!

But hey, if those spirit of Vatican II orders want to keep commit suicide, Cath News and most of our bishops will be cheering them on, and maybe there is something to be said for just letting it happen.

Personally though, I think religious life is essential for a healthy Church. And I hate to see the legacy of all those heroic sisters of the past squandered.

1 comment:

PM said...

The comments on the wrethced Sr Farley went on at length about celibate popes and bishops not living in the 'real world' or being able to understand these things, but this somehow doesn't apply to trendy nuns.

Did you notice, by the way, the story on Kate fom Brisbane, one of theose rare young people who admits to being a practising Catholic? How did this get through the Cethnews filter?: 'Her faith formation during her school years "could have been better" too, something Kate said "contributes in some way to the lack of engagement of many people under 35 with their faith".' Perfectly true but never to be said in polite company!