A House of Strangers

The LCWR assembly has come and gone without any apparent change in the status quo in the scrape between itself and the Vatican. The hard talk was presumably reserved for the closed sessions. Theoretically this permits a more open discussion but it's usually at the cost of further diminishing honest confrontation. In similar settings I've observed, secrecy has rarely emboldened truth-telling but itself induces another layer of fear. But I don't know what happened behind the LCWR closed doors.

I did hear and read references to a recurrent justification for continued talks with the Vatican after recent rebuffs. Catholic friends utter the same theme: the beleaguered sisters are modeling a more egalitarian way of being the church which will win out over the structures of vertical authority because it is the wave of the future. The "circle," in the imagery, will overcome the "pyramid" in God's good time and that requires sisters to stay the course rather than fight on the hierarchy's turf. Reform depends on keeping the vigil for vindication of the cause to come about.

From an eschatological point of view, this may make sense in the particular circumstances of this stalemate. This is a world unto itself with its own shadow dances and subtleties largely unknown to outsiders like me. Whether the soil from which these routines have grown is nutritious or debilitating is for sisters finally to decide. The LCWR has been treated deplorably, forced by bullying tactics to defend their dignity and divert precious energies from pressing needs such as providing care for aging nuns. Their road has indeed been hard and second-guessing isn't in order.

From a political science standpoint, however, the existence of a bonafide egalitarian way of life within a strictly top-down system of authority seems untenable. It implies serious compromise. A democratic ethos in principle vests each person with the same rights and standing and  doesn't permit its collective will to be overridden by a greater authority under which it is permitted to function. Any intrusion into its internal affairs is likely to face fierce resistance. To permit another authority veto power over its decisions would be at least a falsifying of democracy. Some believe American democracy is suffering that very kind of damage from undemocratic forces from within such as corporate lobbying.

It's true that democratic movements bubbled up in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union before the governing dictatorships collapsed. In most cases, however, the movements were openly dissident and bluntly opposed to the regimes in which they struggled. In the case of the sisters, however, the differences are more often sublimated and deferred at the point where an invisible barrier says, "This far and no further," out of an understanding of obedience that has its own character within the mind of Catholicism.    

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