A “FAMILY” FEUD
I write this from a Delta jet flying at 34,000 feet just west of the French coastline headed for Atlanta where I will surely miss my connection to St. Petersburg and an uncertain future on a Sunday night. This morning I awakened in Rome having spent a week there for the ordination to the diaconate of our Ryan Boyle, a resident of the North American College and a student this year at the Angelicum (last year he graduated from the first cycle of theology at the Gregorian University). My next blog, coming very soon, if not tomorrow, will give more details about my visits in the last ten days to three of the four seminaries where our men study. Even as Ryan’s ordination in St. Peter’s Basilica along with forty-two of his fellow classmates was a major moment, for him and for them, the major happening in Rome began last night with tens of thousands again gathering in St. Peter’s Square with St. Peter’s successor to pray for the Extraordinary Synod which began this morning, just as I was leaving.
On the “street” where I live on the fifth floor of the North American College were to be found Cardinals Wuerl, Dolan, and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, our current President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, all members and participants in this papally called “Extraordinary Synod on Marriage and Family Life in our Day.” A great deal of print has been spilled in the secular and Catholic media in the last week about the event beginning today and being there among all these “heavy hitters” gave me pause to reflect and pray for this first exercise by Pope Francis in the “Synodality” envisioned by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council and for the gift of the same Spirit inspired wisdom in their deliberations.
In those reflective moments, I thought about what I might say, had I the opportunity to speak to the Holy Father and those gathered around him for the next two weeks. Slowly this thought came to me and I could not put it away. Our beloved Church is itself a family – a family of faith, of practice, of divine creation. And like most modern families, we have our share of disfunctionality at times, disagreements at other times, digression at times, and differences of opinion at times. The synod fathers are going to be talking about real challenges to marriage and family life in our time and culture. I would love to see at least an hour devoted to a dispute, which has taken far too much energy in our Church in this country than I think it deserves. While praying during the ordination of the 43 men in St. Peter’s last Thursday, I asked what Peter would have done and what Peter now might do with the current disagreement between certain Roman offices of our Church and the religious sisters of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (hereafter “LCWR”). The thought occurred to me that if Pope Francis could coax the leaders of Hamas and Israel to meet for prayer in the Vatican Gardens during which each side spoke respectfully of each other, could not the family of the Church try a little harder to settle something of a “border dispute” between the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (hereafter “CDF”) and the major branch of religious women in the US?
In popular Catholic opinion in the United States, I think clearly that the sisters in LCWR have conducted themselves quite admirably in avoiding the same heated rhetoric which came a couple of weeks ago from CDF. They are facing a mandate that they find very hard to swallow which is at its base, “Shape up or ship out.” In the late eighties the USCCB had a similar mandate come down from another Roman office and we politely ignored it and it went away. While the sisters have largely remained cool, calm and collected, the other side in what was perhaps a momentary (one might hope) peak of anger or frustration responded by saying “we are not misogynists” – a principle I would not wish to defend for the universal Church at large. Then there is the preposterous proposition that the LCWR does not represent American religious women. Had CDF said “all religious women” I would have had no qualms. But LCWR sure has a heck of a lot more religious sisters in its communities than any other body of religious women. As a local bishop, I love my sisters. Most could have retired to the motherhouse long ago but they long to help in many ways. And while I am at it, while my own USCCB was bound up for the last decade in liturgy and culture wars, those same members of our family, the sisters, kept the social justice agenda alive for which their leaders seem to now being blamed. These women are neither terrorists nor heretics and while some of the older sisters may not follow the drift or direction of some of the major speakers at the LCWR annual leadership assembly, they hang tough for their leadership and the most of the rest of the “Catholic” family supports them. Ask most of our priests about whether or not they support our sisters and the response will be positive. Ask the same group if this wing of the family ought to be taken to the woodshed for introducing topics of interest to them, and most of the rest of the family would likely say no. The Church at this moment in time does not need an internecine war between two respected bodies that love the same God, serve the same mission, as did our Lord.
I said at the time that the secret to success in getting this matter to go away was found by Pope Benedict XVI in the person of Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, a good, fair, nonideological man. Sadly, he is required to take his marching orders in this family feud from CDF. So if I had five minutes on the Synod Floor to talk about families and the Church in the next two weeks, I would ask the Holy Father when he has time to empower Archbishop Sartain to find a way to gain a truce on his own which the Pope could himself embrace which respects the interests of both but resolves disputes before they become, at least by one side, a soapbox gone too far. This seems in the political world to be a time of truce and peacemaking, why not also within our family. If the battle continues, there will be no winners, and I would opine that the Church may well lose more respectability and credibility.
Much of this extraordinary synod’s time is going to be devoted to best practices in keeping people within the family circle. How then about the good sisters who worked for decades at less than subsistence wages, taught us about God, bound up our hospital wounds, ran free clinics for the poor and homes for the aged. Let’s love them to death, not beat them to death. Please, Fathers of the Synod and Holy Father, take this contretemps for yourself and solve it for all. The Church as family would rejoice.