Just Joan - Joan Huguenard

A view on the latest controversy in the Catholic Church

On April 18, 2012, with explicit approval of Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a statement following an intense investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

The National Catholic Reporter elucidates:  “The doctrinal congregation’s document charged that ‘the current doctrinal and pastoral situation of LCWR is grave and a matter of serious concern’ and criticized the organization – whose member congregations represent four of five U.S. women religious – for being mute on issues such as abortion and euthanasia and displaying ‘corporate dissent’ on topics including homosexuality and the ordination of women.

I’m outraged over the attack on courageous Catholic Sisters I’ve long admired. Read the letter below dated May 2, 2012 from Susie Leonard Wellerto the man charged with sorting things out to seek resolution, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain:

I’m thankful for the Vatican’s investigation into the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR),—but probably not for the reasons you might think.

For too long, the larger body of the church has been silent. Pope Benedict’s recent indictment of Roman Catholic sisters within the United States is a welcome wake-up call.  It’s time we had a wider discussion about the Vatican’s concerns:

1.      What is the core of the Gospel message?

2.      What does it mean to be a Catholic Christian?

3.      To what degree does the hierarchy of the church understand the different schools of thought regarding feminism?

This current controversy reminds me of a similar debate within the early church about whether or not believers had to follow the strict rules of Mosaic Law (i.e. circumcision and dietary restrictions) prior to becoming Christians. As you know, Paul advocated for a wider interpretation of who would be welcome to be included within the church.  He refused to limit the faith to only those raised in a Jewish tradition.

I take St. Paul’s words to heart from Galatians 3: 26-29: “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female; for we are all one in Christ Jesus.” Although it took a long time for the church to condemn slavery, the church has yet to include women in any major decision-making or positions of authority within the church. Despite women being recognized as leaders within the early church (quite a radical inclusion for their time in history) the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church remains clerical and male-dominated. Is this really in keeping with Jesus’ vision?

We’re at a similar crossroads of what it means to be a member of the Catholic community.

In the 21st Century, which vision of the church will inspire unbelievers to see us as witnesses who know, love and serve God, as well as love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:38-40)?  Today’s debate is about whether a person of faith needs to be a Catholic, or even a Christian, to fully love God and others.  Instead of focusing on only one particular form of faith, Roman Catholicism, I hope you’ll emphasize the universal message of being catholic—God’s love includes all people.

Today, we’re faced with important choices:

· Will the institutional Roman Catholic Church be internationally known as a leader that lives and challenges us to respect all of humanity and the environment?

· Or, will it focus on maintaining order, control and purity of doctrine within the organization?

· Will it emphasize respect for the beginnings of life, but neglect advocating services for the most vulnerable once a child is born?

·  When will the lived experiences of Catholic married couples be respected to guide church policies about contraception? What will it take to shift the focus to a common concern of preventing unwanted pregnancies by using birth control and avoid using abortions as a remedy?

Before I became confirmed as a Roman Catholic, I studied the Council Documents of Vatican II. I felt inspired to join a faith community that celebrated Baptism as our entrance into the “priesthood of all believers” and re-affirmed the primacy of conscience. However, during the last 25 years my heart continues to ache as I’ve observed many clerical leaders consistently thwarting this visionary message. Instead of affirming the principles of Vatican II, I’ve noticed a retreat to defend the views of Vatican I.

Archbishop Sartain, as the Pope’s Delegate, you and your advisory committee, are in a tough position. You will face challenges on all sides as you choose how to respond.

1.      Will you follow the primacy of your conscience and truly listen to the leaders within the LCWR?  Will your advisory committee include representatives from the LCWR communities, as well as clergy and bishops who support them?  Or, will you avoid a genuine dialogue and patronize the sisters and other lay leaders with platitudes?

2.      Will you consider how the Spirit often speaks in non-traditional ways and through those often considered as “outcasts”? Or, will you reject their message because it’s uncomfortable to hear?

3.      Will you respect the gifts and accumulated wisdom of 57,000 women religious leaders? Or, will you discount their perspective due to their role and gender?

4.      Will you encourage the Roman Catholic Hierarchy to make decisions as enlightened leaders or misuse power to “get those nuns (and others) back in line.”

I predict that how YOU and other institutional church leaders choose to handle these important issues will literally make or break the future of the Roman Catholic Church within the United States. Many life-long, actively involved Catholics that I know have already left the Church (including their children) or are barely hanging in there with one foot out the door. In my opinion, the hierarchy has demonstrated a very poor track record of leadership—especially during the last 10-15 years in how they’ve handled cases involving clergy sexual abuse.

In contrast, the women religious have been exemplary leaders within their communities. They’ve consistently lived (not just preached) the gospel message within the trenches to serve ALL of God’s people—including gays and lesbians. Like other spiritual leaders, they are not afraid to speak truth to power and are willing to pay the price. Frankly, if you choose to dismiss their message and visionary leadership there will be grave consequences.

Pope John XXIII prayed for a new Pentecost and an outpouring of the Spirit to give us guidance. I, too, am praying for you and ALL members of the church to seek a wisdom that embraces courage and respect for diverse points of view during this season of Pentecost.


Susie Leonard Weller,

M.A. in Pastoral Ministry, Seattle University

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