Notes for Sunday's sermon (on clericalism)

by Phyllis Zagano

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In today's Gospel, Jesus explains he must "suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes" (Matthew 16:21).

Not only Jesus.

A few weeks ago, approximately 800 members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious gathered in Nashville, Tenn. Against a backdrop of Vatican criticism of their organization and of the sister who would receive LCWR's annual award, the sisters listened as a Vatican representative listed eight points for their reflection.

A letter from the prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life -- the acronym they use is CICLSAL -- challenged the sisters, asking: 1) about their return to the sources of Christian life; 2) had they adapted in an evangelical way to the changed conditions of the times; 3) if their supreme rule is to follow Christ in the Gospel; 4) do they preserve their founding charisms; 5) do they "think with the church"; 6) are their members made aware of the needs of the church so they may live in communion with others; 7) is each member loved personally; and, 8) whether obedience and authority are dimensions of the life of true fraternity amongst them or instruments of power and of enslavement, perhaps disguised by an unhealthy spirituality?

My friends, can we not surround clericalism with this octagon of statements? Can we not consider the specter of an unfeeling church bureaucracy that ignores real situations? Can we not reflect on the ways some clerics personally and institutionally treat others?

I refer here specifically to the last of the eight points I summarized earlier. The letter from the prefect of CICLSAL questions, directly, whether obedience and authority are measures of true fraternity. (I will skip over the fact that he read the letter to 800 women.) The CICLSAL letter directly questions whether obedience and authority are "instruments of power and enslavement, perhaps disguised by unhealthy spirituality."

That is what the suffering caused by clericalism is all about. Are obedience and authority instruments of enslavement? Are there clerical members of the church, of our church, who do not follow the sources of Christian life? Have they adapted to changing times? Do they ignore Christ's Gospel message and Christianity's founding message? Do they refuse to think with the church -- the whole church? Do these, who wield power and authority, love each member personally or do they pay lip service to the fundamental questions of living the Christian life?

Finally, do they listen or do they enslave? Do they use their power in a healthy or an unhealthy way?

That is the question, you know.

It all boils down to how these clerics view the church and all organizations within it. Do they see Christians gathered around a center of communion and leadership, or do they see Christians ruled through a jurisdictional and organizational structure? Is their church essentially communal or juridical?

These questions underlie and underscore how the world sees the men and women of the church. But the caricature of the "boys' church-girls' church" has gone about as far as it can go. No matter where I travel, I am immediately asked: "What about the way the Vatican is treating the nuns?" That is all anyone learns from major media. The question comes from believers and nonbelievers, from people of all faiths and of no faith.

Yet it is not necessarily "Vatican vs. nuns." Rather, it is a question of whether the church is primarily communal -- involving everyone -- or juridical -- with restricted participation. Within one "side" of the apparent conflict are many clerics who identify more with the Vatican's juridical structure; within the other "side" are many others, especially women religious, whose organizations are governed communally.

Even deeper within each "side" are conflicted questions of what holds the church together, what brings each "side" to the table -- indeed, whether members of each "side" will even sit at the table.

Yet they all profess to love the same God.

The Christian response to any difference is to sit and talk, to stay in deep conversation, to pray and think and talk some more. But the response of some clerics is to ignore the other, to shun the writer or speaker who pushes the conversation forward. But shunning is not a part of who we are as Christians. Shunning is done by the weak, not the strong. Shunning is done by the angry, not the peaceful. Shunning is done by people who may not fully understand their own positions and who therefore cannot address the positions of others.

The 800 sisters who attended the LCWR meeting in Nashville earlier this month have traveled back to their convents and monasteries. Some returned to apartments or houses. All returned to the charge they received from their own communities to govern with care and concern, to lead with insight and understanding, to live the Gospel in the light of their founding charisms. They are committed to respectful dialogue.  

They are. They most certainly are.

[Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University and winner of the 2014 Isaac Hecker Award for Social Justice. She will speak Sept. 18 at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Ill.; Oct. 14  at the Church of the Assumption in Fairport, N.Y.; and Nov. 9 at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia. Her newest books are Mysticism and the Spiritual Quest: A Crosscultural Anthology and Ordination of Women to the Diaconate in the Eastern Churches.]

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A version of this story appeared in the Sept 12-25, 2014 print issue under the headline: Notes for Sunday's sermon (on clericalism).

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