U.S. women religious leaders, take notice, take heart

by Thomas C. Fox

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The Leadership Conference of Women Religious meets next month in Dallas for their annual gathering. Some 800 women will gather with their leadership, their congregations, and their missions under dark clouds, set there by the Vatican.

It will be a time -- all too short -- for serious discernment. And courage.

With this in mind, allow me to direct the attention of women religious everywhere to the talk, posted today, by Cape Town Bishop Kevin Dowling on the NCR web site.

Dowling sees our church in a clear and discerning manner and this bishop's wisdom shows that the deep concerns of women religious are not theirs alone, but extend to church prelates. And who knows how many other Dowlings are there out there who are not yet finding the means to speak out?

Women, take notice -- and take heart.

Consider the words with which Dowling ends his address. Consider his spirit when you gathering in Dallas next month:

Is there a way forward? I have grappled with this question especially in the light of the apparent division of aspiration and vision in the church. How do you reconcile such very different visions of church, or models of church? I do not have the answer, except that somewhere we must find an attitude of respect and reverence for difference and diversity as we search for a living unity in the church; that people be allowed, indeed enabled, to find or create the type of community which is expressive of their faith and aspirations concerning their Christian and Catholic lives and engagement in church and world, and which strives to hold in legitimate and constructive tension the uncertainties and ambiguities that all this will bring, trusting in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

At the heart of this is the question of conscience. As Catholics, we need to be trusted enough to make informed decisions about our life, our witness, our expressions of faith, spirituality, prayer, and involvement in the world -- on the basis of a developed conscience. And, as an invitation to an appreciation of conscience and conscientious decisions about life and participation in what is a very human church, I close with the formulation or understanding given by none other than the theologian, Fr. Josef Ratzinger, now pope, when he was a peritus, or expert, at Vatican II:

"Over the pope as expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority, there stands one's own conscience which must be obeyed before all else, even if necessary against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. This emphasis on the individual, whose conscience confronts him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even the official church, also establishes a principle in opposition to increasing totalitarianism".

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