LCWR & NPR – Airing Our Dirty Laundry

I have always loved Fresh Air with Terry Gross on National Public Radio (NPR). She is the perfect interviewer, intelligent, compassionate, and always knowledgeable about her interviewee. She has an amazing ability to keep her personality vanilla enough not to distract from the main attraction, the person being interviewed. Of course, she has bad days, especially when she cannot keep a biased edge out of her normally incisive, and detached questions.

I was actually excited to listen to her recent interview with Sr. Pat Ferrell, the president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) because I like Terry Gross, and I am always happy when religious speak to secular media. Unfortunately, Terry could not quite manage to keep her disdain for the Church, especially its positions on birth control, abortion and homosexuality out of her voice. She clearly respected Sr. Pat, however during the interview, it was evident that Sr. Pat’s desire not to speak out against Church teaching, at least overtly, was baffling to her. As I listened to the interview, I did notice that I felt a bit ashamed, like a little child listening to her family’s dirty laundry being aired for the world to hear. Not that it is Sr. Pat’s fault or anyone’s really, it was just a feeling I noted and thought interesting.

I have read several different takes on the interview. On one side of the spectrum an article compared Sr. Pat to a manipulative 7-year old, and on another was a glowing account of the interview as a journalistic “breath of fresh air.” Both accounts left me feeling a bit queasy and depressed at the continued polarization of the Church that is exemplified in the ongoing debate over the LCWR.

If I were to describe my reaction to Terry’s interview of Sr. Pat, I would say it was a mixture of agreement and sad disappointment.

These are the main points that struck me:

1. Open, nonviolent dialogue – Sr. Pat advocated open, nonviolent dialogue between the hierarchy and the LCWR. This is definitely needed between the LCWR and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) as well as between different factions of the Church. I remain hopeful that the upcoming discussions between the LCWR and the CDF will be a model of this kind of dialogue for the divided faithful within the Church. Sr. Pat took issue particularly with the CDF’s use of the phrase “radical feminism” to describe the LCWR. I agree that this phrase is inflammatory but I am also not sure what other phrase would have been appropriate. I did notice in the interview that Sr. Pat did not indicate a sense of understanding any aspect of the CDF’s assessment. It’s certainly understandable that she disagrees with much of it, but for her to not have any concessions makes me wonder if real dialogue will be possible.

2. Seamless Garment – Sr. Pat, when asked about the LCWR’s silence on abortion, said that the sisters view right to life issues as a seamless garment. In other words, there are many issues which fall under the right to life umbrella. I agree with this wholeheartedly and I do think this is something that Catholics can work on. Often because of the false division of life issues between the Republican and Democratic parties, Catholics in general, not just the hierarchy, fail to promote all life issues.

However, Sr. Pat’s reason for the sisters not entering the abortion discussion was baffling to me. She stated that the bishops already talk about abortion often and the issue is too polarized. If the LCWR doesn’t believe the seamless garment is being presented seamlessly, why not present all the issues rather than ignoring a huge issue of life? And it further confuses me that the LCWR would particularly choose to remain silent on a women’s issue. Isn’t abortion the very issue women religious should be chiming in on? After asking myself all these questions, I honestly begin to wonder about the LCWR’s true stance on abortion. I am not attacking the sisters; this just seems to be a valid concern on the part of the CDF, as it is what people will naturally wonder due to their silence.

3. Questioning Catholic – At one point in the interview Sr. Pat says that the main issue at hand is, ‘Can you be Catholic and have a questioning mind?’ I think this is a good question. Some orthodox Catholics shut down dialogue by insisting that Catholics must adhere unquestioningly to the Magisterium or they are not “real” Catholics. How does a person get to the point of adherence to the Magisterium? For some it is by really struggling with it, asking questions, and sorting through the teaching enough to understand the source of the disagreement. Questioning your understanding of Church teaching is a sign of a mature faith. Part of the process of growing in faith is to ask questions with a genuine desire to understand.

Where the problem begins, however, is when both Catholics who disagree with Church teaching and those who agree, simply stop at the sound bites. A questioning mind necessitates the continued asking of questions. If we stop at the sound bites and begin to feel comfortable, we are not a questioning Catholic, we are a stuck in the mud Catholic. Unfortunately, some Catholics are stuck in the mud, and are not even open to the possibility that they are not seeing things as God sees them. This is where dialogue becomes difficult. I am not going to assume the sisters of LCWR are one way or the other. I think there are probably sisters who are genuinely questioning Catholics and others who are stuck in the mud. I just hope there’s enough humility among both the CDF and LCWR to promote genuine dialogue.

4. Obedience to God – I think the crux of the issue between the LCWR and the Church, and the polarization within the Church can be found with Sr. Pat’s description of the vow of obedience of a woman religious as primarily a vow of obedience to God. I am no expert on the vows yet, but I do know that when religious sisters take a vow of obedience, they are vowing obedience to God through obedience to another. Taking out our superiors simplifies things but it easily makes our vow of obedience meaningless as we very easily can begin to obey the God of our limited understanding, or the God we want, rather than the God who expresses himself, often imperfectly because of human failings, through the Church and our superiors.

Part of the humility and faith of being a faithful Catholic, religious or not, is found in trusting that God is powerful enough to act through what is imperfect and very human. Of course lay people do not take a vow of obedience. But the same problematic issues arise when we withdraw support from Church teaching and rely solely on conscience. What becomes the basis for our conscience? What forms our conscience?

I continue to hope for renewed dialogue between the left and the right within the Catholic Church. When I read coverage of the LCWR, on the right I hear a lot of intolerance, anger and a desire that these “fake” Catholics just leave the Church already. On the left I hear a lot of disrespect for Church hierarchy and overconfidence in the left’s prophetic ability to see things the Church hierarchy doesn’t see. Both sides are underestimating each other. The Church needs the left and the right, like a person needs a left hand and a right hand. She needs to be challenged sometimes, in faithfulness and love. But she also needs to be respected. The Church structure was something initiated and put in place by Jesus himself to protect, teach and guide. I do not trust the Church because I trust humans, I trust the Church because I believe in a God powerful enough to work through her sometimes very serious imperfection.

Theresa Noble is a postulant, aka nun in training, with a religious congregation of sisters in the US. She left her job in California with eBay to follow God two years ago. She currently lives in a convent in Boston where she prays, evangelizes, bakes bread and blogs at Pursued by Truth..
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