We must make room for all the lenses in our church

by Christine Schenk

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Looking over Catholic news lately, I find much that is confusing and, alas, much cause for lament. First, there is the reality of Catholic teachers being required to sign expanded six-page contracts that are essentially loyalty oaths as conditions for employment. Then there is the threatened censure of the respected Asian theologian Jesuit Fr. Michael Amaladoss by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Amaladoss is an expert in interreligious dialogue and Christology who, according to colleague Peter Phan, "has made an enormous and lasting contribution to the elaboration of a genuinely Asian theology."

Close to my own heart is the doctrinal congregation's recent harsh criticism of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for, among other things, having the audacity to decide on its own to honor a deeply loved and internationally respected theologian, St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, with its Outstanding Leadership Award. Come on, guys. Do you really need to tell the sisters to whom they can and cannot give awards? It's not like the women aren't competent. I haven't counted, but I'm guessing there is a higher percentage of master's degrees and doctorates among LCWR members than among most other groups. Their main problem seems to be that they are, um, women, and even worse, women with minds of their own.

Yep, a lot of fodder there for extended weeping and gnashing of teeth. But wait: There is some good news. Spoiler alert: This news may confuse and confound even as it is cause for celebration. Here's a headline from Vatican Insider: "Francis: 'The Holy Spirit pushes the Church beyond the limit.' " Now how does the pope know we are at risk of being pushed beyond our limits? Well, he is the pope, after all. I suppose it's comforting to know that it's the Holy Spirit behind all this gnashing of teeth.

Kidding aside, I found the pope's May 12 homily extremely heartening. He preached on Peter's conversion after seeing the Holy Spirit descend on some Gentiles even before they had been baptized. Alluding to Peter's question, "Who was I to be able to hinder God?" (Acts 11:17), Francis preaches:

"Who am I to admit impediments?" A nice word for bishops, for priests and for Christians. Who are we to close doors? ... The Holy Spirit is the living presence of God in the Church. He keeps the Church going, keeps the Church moving forward. More and more, beyond the limits, onwards. ... And He makes unthinkable choices, but unimaginable! To use a word of St. John XXIII: it is the Holy Spirit that updates the Church: Really, he really updates it and keeps it going.

Now if we could only put Francis' inspiring words into practice. A respected pastor once told me something I have thought about many times. In the early church, he said, the function of leadership was to bear witness to the action of God in the community and make decisions based on what the spirit of God was doing within the people of God.

Acts 11 and Acts 15 show both Peter and Paul behaving not as judges but as witnesses to the gifts the Holy Spirit had already poured out on the Gentiles even before they had been baptized. This led to a change in church practice. Church leaders decided that new converts need not observe cultic food restrictions, nor did they need to be circumcised before becoming Christian.

These were undoubtedly "unthinkable" and "unimaginable" choices for the earliest Jewish Christian communities, but the Spirit found a way to broaden their horizons.

If an important function of church leadership is to notice the Spirit and make decisions based on what the Spirit is doing within the people, where are the structures today that allow such experiences of Spirit to be brought forward?

This is an important question because these experiences may sometimes change church practice. They may, in fact, be the Holy Spirit's way of "updating the church."

When and where can divorced and remarried Catholics tell other Catholics and church leadership about their anguished love and longing for the Eucharist? How can LGBT Catholics witness to the deepened love for God and God's people that arises from their committed love? Where do women share the Spirit's unmistakable call to ordained ministry, a call that won't go away no matter how many obstacles appear? Where do Catholic teachers witness that their Christ-like love for family and friends, regardless of perceived moral failures, trumps loyalty oaths?

The sad truth is there are no structures that allow ordinary Catholics to share their experiences of Spirit with church leaders.

This is why, in my view, the dogged determination of LCWR sister-leaders to remain in dialogue with church officials is so important. Their nonviolent love is creating a virtual space, if you will, for this long-awaited witness to emerge.

Gandhi's first rule of nonviolence is nonacceptance of anything that is demeaning. Check. The sisters are standing up for their own dignity, and by extension, the dignity of all of the people of God. The second rule is active nonviolent resistance to oppression. Check. One way of actively resisting is staging a virtual sit-in with nonresponsive church structures until they respond.

Here is a real-life analogy. In the 1980s, like many Catholics, I was very involved working to end U.S. funding of the war in El Salvador. We tried for months to get a meeting with the Ohio senator who sat on an important congressional committee that controlled funding, to no avail. Finally, we decided to occupy his office. Seven of us, along with the religion writer from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, entered our senator's Cleveland office and asked to schedule a meeting. When told this was impossible, we simply said OK and that we would wait in his office until a meeting time became available.

Much scurrying around and many telephone calls back and forth to Washington ensued. We peacefully watched it unfold, backpacks and granola bars at the ready. Then came the threat to call the police and forcibly evict us, whereupon our friend from the Plain Dealer made his presence known. Silence. Negative publicity over this issue was definitely not in the senator's best interests. At last, negotiations began.

"We want to help the senator see through our eyes what is happening in El Salvador," I told his aide.

At last, we negotiated a specific time and date to meet. Months later, our senator withdrew his support for funding the Salvadoran war. He was not a bad man. He just didn't have the lens to see what we saw: innocent people dying by the thousands in a senseless, unjust, brutal war.

I like to think LCWR is helping some church officials see with a different lens, too. Simply by standing their ground and not going away. (By the way, here is a website where you can help the sisters stand their ground: nunjustice.org.)

We must make room for all the lenses in our church. We need to learn from these many deep and diverse experiences of a God whose expansive love is beyond all imagining. Then, in Francis' words, maybe we really will be "keeping the Church moving forward. More and more, beyond the limits ... "

[A Sister of St. Joseph, Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years.]

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