April 29, 2012       
                          David Timbs    (Melbourne)                                       David's previous articles   


Open Season on the US Religious Women

The Mandate of Christ to the Church

At the very heart of the memory of the early Jesus Movement was the overwhelming imperative to leave the land of its origins. Its members were not only summoned but commanded by the Risen Christ to leave home and spread the Gospel message to a world far different from its own former social and religious environment.

In the post-Pentecost years, it became clearer and clearer to Jesus’ disciples that their future lay beyond the borders of Palestine. Within decades, even the most homesick of the Jesus Movement realised that Judaism was becoming too restrictive, too introspective for them to exercise any effective ministry in that domain.          

The movement from a symbiosis or exclusive existence to that of an osmosis or inclusive identity proved a sometimes painful experience. The transition involved a process of determining just exactly what was core to its Gospel message, what could be left behind, what adjustments to their new world were needed and what were the limits, if any, to the absorption of foreign customs and ways of thinking.

The fact that the Jesus Movement, the Church, succeeded in its mission to evangelise is ample evidence that it took its faith in the Incarnation seriously. They made an evident reality the message of Jesus that God is with humanity and that the Word of God had pitched a tent with the outcast and fringe-dwellers. They gave the Word a home in foreign cultures and societies, And the Word was made flesh and became a Gentile.

They had to find imaginative strategies to embed the Gospel message in a new world and give it a new language. It took patience, imagination, fearlessness, maturity and great faith. The Church has always been at its best and its Gospel welcomed when these virtues flourished.

A Defeat for Christ and his Gospel

What the Catholic world is witnessing right now is the sad spectacle of a large group of modern Apostles losing their nerve once again, as they did at the time of Jesus, and placing a stumbling block in the way of the Gospel and scandalizing those whom they were charged to lead.

The United States Episcopal Conference is mimicking in spectacular fashion the current behaviour of the Roman Curia in targeting individuals and groups of Catholics and prosecuting them as if they are fifth columnists, out to subvert essential doctrines and disciplines of the Church. This is not a new story but it is a very American one.

Alarmed at the possibility that Catholicism in the United States of America could drift into  unorthodox patterns of thinking and governance, Pope Leo XIII  issued an 1895 Encyclical Letter, Longinqua Oceani (Wide expanse of the Ocean) to condemn the heresy of Americanism. Leo expressly warned the bishops against promoting or encouraging the doctrine of the separation of Church and State and called for recognition of the Roman Catholic church as a special category in American society and in its political system.

Leo followed up the Encyclical with an 1899 pastoral letter, Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae, addressed to Cardinal Gibbons. Leo reiterated what he had written in the earlier document and went on to condemn roundly growing tendencies among American Catholics to make independent decisions about doctrine. Leo called on American Catholics to submit obediently to the magisterial teaching authority of the Church and to understand in no uncertain terms that this obedience was a fundamental principle of Catholic life.

Rome was worried that American Catholics were thinking and doing their faith too much like liberal democrats. This grated against the Roman demands of obedience to its own centralised and autocratic ways. Catholicism in the United States regressed into a state of blind and supine obedience to the Papacy and Roman Curia and it has never completely recovered.

It is precisely this kind of autocratic mind and exercise of authority which has been adopted by the US Bishops. They have become obedient franchises of the Vatican in dealing with anyone demonstrating tendencies or activities which might resemble deviance from orthodoxy or orthopraxis. The many and varied stories are well documented.

One such example is current headline news with the announcement that the CDF has launched an investigation into the faith and practice of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The process will be conducted by three bishops from the USCCB.

Totally bewildered by this move, LCWR spokeswoman, Sr Simone Campbell has declared: that the sisters have no idea what they are talking about; that while there are differences between themselves and the bishops on policies, faith is not an issue,

Our role is to live the gospel with those who live on the margins of society. That’s all we do.

Sr Campbell, in a recent BBC interview also suggested that the bishops had not grown up. And there’s plenty of evidence to support her claims and there is plenty of evidence to show that the religious women now singled out are a group who have matured and act like it. As Sr Campbell says, they answered the call of Vatican II and educated themselves and prepared themselves with the utmost diligence to their mission in the Church. At least half of these women have gained Masters degrees while a full quarter of them hold doctorates in various disciplines. They are perhaps the most highly qualified, prepared and articulate sector of the Church in all of its history. They are not a soft target.

Over recent times, a small group of the new self-styled evangelical moderate conservative bishops, known in some circles as the Kansas Farm Boys - ++Charles Chaput of Toowoomba fame is one - have made a point of demonstrating their devoted loyalty to the person of the Pope in matters liturgical and unswerving doctrinal orthodoxy.

One of them, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix, AZ, has been a spectacular disaster in both areas. His embarrassments have perhaps become something of a major honour-shame issue with the USCCB and are, in some part, driving their zeal to scapegoat somebody and causing them to place scorched earth around themselves.

Bishop Olmsted has been testing the waters of popular sentiment in the areas of liturgy by issuing instructions in his diocese banning female altar servers and severely restricting Communion from the cup. Not only could he not get away with the latter, he suffered the indignity of another bishop warmly commending Communion from the cup and declaring it to be expected.

Of far greater importance and more relevant to the announced Vatican crackdown on the LCWR Sisters is the excommunication of Mercy Sister, Margaret McBride, her ethics and medical staff at St Joseph’s hospital in Phoenix. Not only were the latae sententiae (automatic) excommunications for permitting a direct abortion confirmed by Bishop Olmsted but he also withdrew the word Catholic from St Joseph’s Hospital. As final punitive act of collective punishment, exclusion and dissociation, he also ordered that the reserved Eucharistic wafers be removed from the Chapel.

Olmsted’s behaviour very quickly came under critical examination from both Canonists and Moral theologians alike. The verdicts from both groups were not at all flattering for Olmsted, promising for his career prospects or a good omen for the arbitrary use of episcopal authority in complex situations.

Bishop Olmsted was found to be wrong in Canon Law and defective in the application of Catholic Moral theology.

Bishop Thomas Olmsted, maybe in line for the vacant Archdiocese of Denver, has, in recent years, been an episcopal flag bearer for the more robustly aggressive wing of the New Evangelisation. However, he has blundered, publicly and spectacularly so. He has not only damaged his own reputation and honour, he has symbolically diminished the collective authority of the entire US episcopate. He is the tarnished representative of them all. It has happened not just because he tripped up over the altar girls or got his rubrics wrong about the Communion cup, but most tellingly because he was unsuccessful in imposing episcopal moral and legal authority on a symbolically important religious woman.

The Bishops, it seems, have learned little or nothing from the memory of the capricious authoritarian Roman crackdown on the US episcopate in 1895-99. They certainly have not responded to this experience with the measure of understanding and compassion which might normally flow from such treatment. It seems that they are now finding it almost impossible to deal on a mature adult level with their own people, to encourage initiative, co-responsibility, partnership and, above all, that kind of obedience which is found in listening closely to the promptings of Spirit and Word and not to magisterial diktats.

It is clear that the US hierarchy has lost an enormous amount of credibility among their people for many reasons and on a variety of issues. Believers feel betrayed, manipulated and ignored. The treatment that the Vatican proxies are now preparing to dish out to the last of the little people of the Church will not go unnoticed by American Catholics.

It will backfire on them badly. The people know it, the Sisters know it. Do they?  

David Timbs writes from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.   29/04/12  

If you would like to comment on this article,
please send comment to John W:

Comments will be uploaded within 24 hours