The Long Hand of the Law

Three sisters' communities have so far been subpeonaed  by the Vatican for questioning after a supposedly amicable treaty ended the barbed investigation of U.S. religious orders. It seems to show that for Rome at least, the prosecution had not actually rested its case. Who knows how many more communities might be subjected to more grilling for allegedly violating hierarchical "standards." In time honored fashion, the suspects are expected to show obeisance by trekking to the seat of their inquisitors.

A big part of me wonders why anyone is surprised. These summonses show that Rome intends to have the last word, lest anyone suspect that they regarded the sisters exactly as equals. The treaty never guaranteed that wouldn't happen but sketched out generalities and "trust us" assurances that bygones would be bygones. But it seems that the "bys" have in fact gone. The idea that the top command would allow itself to have been influenced by lower orders of the church was no doubt unthinkable. That would chip away at prerogatives.

I don't blame sisters for fixing the best spin on the settlement, as if it had been achieved in roughly equal partnership, because the custom of deferring to church authorities has been so powerfully inculcated, for good or ill, that it doesn't quickly melt away even under renewed thinking. And, to their credit, many do display the capacity to think the best of fellow church workers. Even small gestures of good will, which I might find patronizing, can be interpreted as demonstrations of support. Often they are. The question is what kind of support is expected in return. 

It's become more difficult for bishops and priests to maintain an upper-hand posture as sisters have come to conceptions of the church that aren't decidedly hierarchical. Their ministries have reflected styles of leadership and religious practice that inherently chafe against top-down, all-male exercises of authority. The sometimes over challenges and the many more covert ones helped build the crisis that triggered the investigations. The resolve to stay the course was in good measure carried into negotiations between Rome and American sisters. What didn't seem to me to change all the much was the inclination among many of them to become a bit too eager to make too much out of too little, to overly respond to the slightest sign of "give" or open-mindedness. Scraps of hope were magnified. To women of immense dedication and talent, who lent themselves to the hard work of service without recognition of equals in their church life, it's understandable even if it can be wishful thinking. To want to think well of others is wonderful; to bestow that gift on those who use it to maintain the status quo it's sad. I'm sure many sisters and others would disagree with my premise and I'd welcome their responses.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis lets it all happen. His gaze is on the broad picture: clericalism, poverty, church priorities, mercy and justice, while allowing the underlings conduct their business without much interference. The off-the-cuff quips that raise eyebrows and hopes aren't likely to be translated into action, corrective or otherwise. Upholding the poor is a poignant cry though church resources aren't rushed into the breech, for example. Gays? "Who am I to judge?," heartfelt I'm sure, but goes untranslated. The Vatican under John Paul II has already judged, harshly, so maybe Francis meant that. On his watch, women continued to be investigated for whatever "wrongdoing" meant and peace -- or at least a moratorium -- was declared. But Francis never said the Vatican's case was closed. It looks as if the investigators were free to take matters into their own hands.

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