It has been a long, slow journey that continues even now — a kind of immigrant's journey from one spiritual culture into another. It has been filled with all the elements that spiritual and cultural sojourners must come to expect: hard choices, griefs observed, unexpected possibilities, surprising joys. I look back on the years with the SNDs as the most formative of my life, rooting me in a gospel worldview of justice and solidarity, and challenging me to ever more confidence in the power and the leading of the Good God.
From this "bi-cultural" place, I witness what is happening now between the Roman Catholic sisters represented by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and the Vatican. It is painful to witness all that is transpiring; I applaud the courage of the leadership of LCWR who are going to Rome to address the situation, and I pray for their wisdom, eloquence and continued confidence in working toward the change which must come. But if I am pained, I often find my Protestant sisters and brothers quite bewildered at how to respond. So here are some suggestions that may help:
1. Avoid generalizing about "The Nuns" you don't know; instead, engage the sisters you do know!
You probably have encountered Roman Catholic sisters in ecumenical ministries and witnesses. You may value them as well educated, socially concerned, committed colleagues, but you may not know much about the traditions that they come from.
This is an opportunity to get to know the sisters in your city or town — ask about their history, when and how they came to work in your neighborhood, how their ministries have evolved through the years. Enjoy some wonderful stories of creative faithfulness, as you learn of sisters who shared the lot of immigrants to America in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is a fascinating cycle of grassroots beginnings growing into large educational and healthcare institutions, now often returning to smaller, community-based centers of education and social service.
Ask the sisters about changes in community life and governance since Vatican II. Don't be surprised if you learn a useful thing or two about the practices of authority in faith communities. Most of the orders represented in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) have spent the last 50 years examining how authority may be faithfully exercised in their contexts. From almost entirely hierarchical structures, sisters have experimented with democratic and consensus building models of governance — all in the effort to make a space for the Spirit's leading to be discerned in their midst. (Note to UCC self — sisters who have succeeded in this have generally not gotten stuck on Robert's Rules.)
Ask the sisters to share something about their vowed life — how the "Evangelical Counsels" shape their lives. Let stereotypes fade away as you listen to interpretations of traditional promises which sound radically countercultural to American values: Poverty — a simple life sharing resources in common, striving for solidarity with, care and justice for the materially poor; Chastity –– a life of love undergirding friendship and service; Obedience — life response to the call of God rooted in personal prayer, mutual discernment and accountability, and attention to the movement of God –– "signs of the times" –– in the world.
2. Recognize the complexity of this moment.
Catholic sisters are part of ecclesial institutions that are very old — they have been around for generations and have distinctive histories in relationship to the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The history and relationship is very complicated. Many religious orders do not answer directly to bishops, while others are diocesan institutions. Sisters are capable of taking the long — very long — view, in light of their histories and practices of discernment. Media attention, which may depict the sisters as hapless victims of church authority, doesn't do the sisters justice; they are moral agents who are responding with wisdom and courage to this latest challenge.
One passionate voice which gives expression to some of the complexity of this situation comes from Ivone Gebara, A Brazilian sister, whose scholarly work has, in the past, been silenced by the Vatican.
Speaking in very general terms, Protestants and Catholics often have significantly different impulses when it comes to dealing with ecclesial conflict. Protestants may come to impasse and respond by splitting off from the old structure, starting over to "get it right this time" — a metaphor often heard is "city on a hill." Roman Catholics may come to impasse and make every effort to stay, to go deeper into the tradition to find another way to stay in communion and effect transformation however long it takes — metaphors dear to this endeavor are seed planting and leaven. Both impulses are responses to the Spirit, each has its own challenges, possibilities and temptations. Our American Protestant popular-democracy-steeped responses to a deep Catholic conflict may not be the most helpful.
3. Offer solidarity where it counts!
In the midst of all the controversy, most of which we cannot influence from the outside, it is important to focus on where we can be of help. Supporting the commitment of sisters to the materially poor is one such area. Historically, sisters have lived among, cared for, given voice to and fought for justice for those people whom social systems and "safety nets" leave behind. Their concerted anti-poverty commitment is one that members of the United Church of Christ can support wholeheartedly. We can strengthen ecumenical work already begun with sisters in ministries that address the needs of poor people. We can write letters of support and thanks for this work to the sisters themselves, to their governance groups, to LCWR, and Network (the DC social justice lobby founded by sisters), to the local dioceses, and to the local newspapers –– all of these may help call attention to this vital work.
4. Read the theological work of the sisters.
If you want your own theological thinking clarified, challenged, deepened, read the work of sisters who have recently been censured, reprimanded or even silenced by the Vatican (and whose religious orders continue to support them): Margaret Farley, RSM, Professor Emerita of Christian Ethics at Yale University: "Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics"; Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ, Fordham University: "She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse" and "Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God"; Ivone Gebara, a "Sister of Our Lady" from Recife, Brazil: "Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation" and "Out of the Depths: Women's Experience of Evil and Salvation." Quote them in your sermons; include them on your adult education programs.
And read the work of those who have not experienced the "Vatican Bump" in publicity and sales, including: Barbara Fiand, SNDde Namur: "Awe-Filled Wonder: the Interface of Science and Spirituality"; Mary C. Boys, SNJM: "Has God Only One Blessing? Judaism as a Source of Christian Self-Understanding"; Janet R. Walton, SNJM: "Feminist Liturgy, A Matter of Justice; Art and Worship: A Vital Connection"; and Joan Chittister, OSB — anything! There are other voices, far too many to list.
In the United Church of Christ, we have a tradition of stepping out in faith and trusting that "There is yet more light and truth to break forth from God's holy Word." Let us pray with and for the sisters of LCWR that more light and truth may break forth in this dialogue on the lives of women in the Roman Catholic Church.
The Rev. Susan A. Blain, a UCC minister and a former Roman Catholic sister, is the UCC's minister for worship, liturgy and spiritual formation.