Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Tom Roberts Tells It Like It Is

Tom Roberts mentions the 5.8 earthquake in Virginia last year.  One of the buildings to suffer damage was the National Cathedral.  What makes this photo even more synchronistic is the bishop of West Virginia, Mickael J Bransfield sits on the Board for the National Cathedral, once served as rector, and has now been named by two witnesses as an abuser in the Philadelphia trial of Msgr Lynn.  This clerical system has to go.

The National Catholic Reporter has just printed an editorial written by Tom Roberts.  It is generating an enormous number of comments for the short time it's been up. I have reprinted it in full.

LCWR earthquake snaps tensions present since Vatican II

NCR Commentary - Tom Roberts - 4/24/2011
It is almost instinctively that one reaches, when attempting to explain what is going on today in the Catholic church, for metaphors out of the natural world -- storms, earthquakes, seismic shifts -- to get at the magnitude of events.

We search for the terms that explain what we're experiencing: phenomena beyond the ordinary disturbances we've learned to weather one season to the next. Just as seismologists or climatologists begin to put together patterns over time, to construct a mega-image of what is happening, so are we. Another piece of the puzzle has just fallen into place for us with the delivery last week from the Vatican of the "Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious."

The 5.8 earthquake that hit the East Coast in August was insignificant by West Coast standards, yet it was felt hundreds of miles from its epicenter in Virginia. Geologists explained that the earth's crust in this part of the world is more dense and less disturbed and fractured than that in the usual earthquake zones, allowing the seismic waves to travel further than they would, say, in Los Angeles or San Francisco.

In a similar way, the shockwaves emanating from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), a gathering unlike any that preceded it in tone, purpose and language, have reverberated through the relatively undisturbed crust of the institutional church's presumptions and leadership culture. The assessment of the nuns is the latest of the aftershocks. This council, popularly known as Vatican II, did not announce anathemas; did not condemn heresies, as was the case with others; did not dwell on dogma or establish new lines for who's in and who's out of the community.

Instead, to state the matter broadly, it asked that we all go to the roots of who we are as a people of God and to figure out what that means in the contemporary world. And while it is a far more complex story -- indeed, a universe of stories -- than can be done justice in the space of this essay, we can know some things about what's happened since we began to feel the rumblings beneath the ecclesiastical crust.

One of the realities shaping today's news is that the bishops and the nuns took very divergent paths in the wake of the council, and that has set up an unfortunate dynamic. Kenneth Briggs explains the growing tension between bishops and nuns in Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church's Betrayal of American Nuns. The sisters in the United States, he contends, were largely overlooked in historical accounts of the development of both church and nation because of their "exclusion from positions of power within the Church. Their subjugation to a male clerical order not only kept them out of the public eye but also ultimately crushed their efforts to refashion themselves boldly and creatively."
 Many of the problems experienced by women religious in the last half-century, he argues, derive from "the hierarchy's refusal to make good on the promise of renewal" implicit in the council documents. (This is especially true about the hierarchy and the clerical system itself.)

The rumblings that began to disturb the church's crust in the mid-'60s swelled to a giant heave at the end of that decade with the debate over Humanae Vitae. It may seem jarringly inappropriate to raise that old squabble anew and in this context. But it was important and remains relevant. The Catholic landscape was rearranged in a big and unique way. The laity, in this instance, led by their own experience and by prominent theologians, said no. They said they did not accept the church's ban on the use of artificial contraception. And that was that. Little has changed since. That decision, informal but widespread, created quite a rumble. The church stood, minus, perhaps, a gargoyle here and there. God remained in the heavens, and life went on, but a key new insight pervaded those in the pews. The fear of eternal damnation for disregarding a teaching that didn't make sense began to evaporate as a reason to obey. (This point can not be stated enough.)

Religion scholar Phyllis Tickle says global Christianity is going through one of its every-500-year upheavals, when old "carapaces" are cracked and encrustations of habit and practice and belief are jarred loose. In each of those cycles, she says, we're left asking, "Where's the authority?" (This 500 or so year upheaval perfectly reflects changes in human consciousness and world view.  500 years ago coincided with a major earthquake in both human knowledge and world view.)

The birth control controversy forced that question in a bold and new way in the Catholic world. One senses that just as the United States is trying to find, post-Sept. 11, how power works in a world more shrunken, interconnected and broken by technology than ever before, so, too, are the bishops trying to figure out how their authority works in an increasingly fractured church where the trappings and presumptions of an all-male monarchy have little hold on the contemporary Catholic imagination. Power and authority no longer function as they once did. (Nor do most western Catholics want it to function as it historically has.)

In the church, no greater challenge exists to hierarchical power and the traditional way of doing things than the sisters. Following the council, the women did what they thought the gathering had mandated: They dug deep into their own histories, reviewed their founding documents, reflected long on the lives and examples of their founders. Many came out of that period of intense prayer and scrutiny with startling conclusions. One of them was that their mission was to be more than cheap labor for the hierarchy.

Another was that, having rediscovered their original "charisms," they saw their work taking them beyond the walls of cloisters and convents and into the wider world, particularly at its margins and among the poor.
An inevitable result of all of the introspection and meditation on their lives, their histories and their missions was a new discovery of themselves as women. In fact, Briggs speaks of them as a kind of pre-feminist movement. Nuns were performing tasks normally reserved for men long before many other women in society. They ran schools and hospitals and other institutions. They were, he writes, "distinguished leaders in charge of big, complex structures. They were, in short, the CEOs of institutions before women were CEOs of institutions."

Thousands were earning college degrees in the 1950s and carrying their new knowledge and skills into a wide range of new professions, says Briggs, who writes that the "total of doctorates awarded to sisters more than doubled" between the 1950s and 1970s.

Through the long arc of their history in the United States, it is a simple fact that women religious built the church. We wouldn't have the Catholic school system without them. We wouldn't have a hospital system without them. We wouldn't today have a Catholic presence in many of the worst parts of our cities without them. We wouldn't have ministry to the displaced, unwanted and hurting without them. In many cases we wouldn't have any ministries or education programs in our parishes and dioceses without them. And in some of the priest-poor sections of the country, we wouldn't have parishes without them.

We are, at the same time, Catholic, and bishops are an important part of our story. So it must be asked, Who would want to be a bishop in today's church? The ground is shifting beneath it in unprecedented ways. The old symbols of power are disappearing. The baronial bishop's residence in Boston has been sold off to pay for the sex abuse scandal; the one in Philadelphia is up for sale. Bishops' authority everywhere is compromised, their moral stature diminished as the world keeps hearing through trial testimony and released documentation how the leadership culture of the Catholic church ignored the horror that was being done to children in order to protect their priests and the reputation of the clerical culture.

For the majority of ordained men alive today, it must seem at times as if nothing is as it was, that what they signed up for decades ago is gone.
And that includes the way nuns act today. It includes the way nuns think today, the fact that they would engage in re-imagining God in the multiple human manifestations that reflect his/her images. That they would entertain questions about women's place in the church, ordination of women, how the church treats homosexuals -- all fly in the face of good order and the community as men have constructed it.

The eight-page doctrinal assessment -- an indictment, really -- calls into question the lives, motives, spirituality, fidelity, theology and ways of approaching the church and the world of members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organization representing more than 80 percent of the nation's sisters.

The document is properly anchored in papal quotes about the need for "consecrated persons" to have total "allegiance of mind and heart to the magisterium of the bishops" as did their founders and foundresses. As is often the case, those at greatest risk from a breakdown in presumptions and the surfacing of questions paint church history in crisp, neat lines. But the reality of some of those founders and foundresses is far more jagged and involved a great deal more struggle with the institution and those in power than contemporary papal admonitions to obedience and allegiance would reference.

There's a consequence to the nuns having been the builders of the church, the ones on the ground, the representatives of the church where the hurt is, where people are actually living, being cared for and dying. They're known, they're trusted and they inspire an admiration and loyalty that will not be abandoned in this time of testing.

This should not be a contest between men and women. It shouldn't be a test of who is more important to the church. It shouldn't be a win-lose matter. But the men have forced it to this point.  (I disagree, the men have not forced it to this point except to force Catholics to finally admit human consciousness has changed and the clerical system can not and does not represent this change.  One could say it is the Holy Spirit that is moving for this change. After all the men started the process at Vatican II.)

Yesterday, nuns were approached by Catholics at Sunday liturgies across the country with a simple question: What can we do to help? I am told by one sister that nuns from other countries have sent messages of solidarity, asking if there's anything they can do.
In one parish on the East Coast, a sympathetic message of support for the sisters from the pulpit brought a loud and sustained round of applause. Certainly it wasn't a singular experience. Laypeople everywhere are looking for whatever way they can do to support the nuns. Petitions are circulating in the ether and attracting thousands of signatures.

I'd bet that most bishops really don't want this fight at this time. With all that needs fixing in the church today -- and with the amount of brokenness for which the leadership is responsible -- now is not the time to be casting aspersions on any other groups, and certainly not on the sisters.

The questions the nuns are asking, the topics they discuss, the views they dare express publicly that might be at variance with the bishops emanate from their lived experience as well as their education. Whether the bishops want to acknowledge the fact, they are the same questions and concerns that occupy the community at large, and they're not going to magically disappear.

Xavier Le Pichon, a French geophysicist, is known for constructing a comprehensive model of plate tectonics, but also for extracting from his knowledge of the activity of the earth's plates deep insights into human behavior and the dynamics of human community. In an essay, he writes: "As I knew from my own scientific experience, the weaknesses, the imperfections, faults facilitate the evolution of a system. A system which is too perfect is also too rigid because it does not need to evolve. This is true in politics; it is true within a society, within families, within nature." I think it can be inferred, without unduly stretching the point, that this holds true as well for the Catholic church and its ecclesiology. 

A perfect system, he writes, "is a closed system that can only evolve through a major commotion; the evolution occurs through revolutions." In one case, it's the cracking of rigid rocks; in the other, one might extrapolate, it is the slow crumbling of ecclesial systems that have become too rigid or that discover that their usefulness has been overrun by time, circumstance and new insights.

The Vatican assessment has, indeed, begun a "major commotion." In ways that no new evangelization campaign ever could, the critique of the sisters has unified Catholics to rally to a good cause as Catholics, because they are Catholics. They will do whatever they can to protect the nuns. Bishops should be ready for the onslaught of letters and petitions.
The U.S. hierarchy is aiming its rage at the sisters, but the temblors moving the earth beneath their feet have little to do with women who serve the poor and dare to ask unsettling questions.


This is quite an essay and I don't have much to add to it except to hi light the most important point and that is that whether the Vatican likes it or not, the days when docile laity connected the clerical system as being the Roman Catholic Church are over.  In spite of what the USCCB would like us to believe, it is not the Roman Catholic Church which is experiencing 'anti catholic' attacks.  It is the Roman Catholic clerical system which is under attack.  In their minds it may still be that they connect themselves with and as the totality of the Church, but that's no longer true in the minds of the laity.  We can separate out the two issues.  One is no longer synonymous with the other.  The sisters of the LCWR, along with the courageous survivors of clerical sexual abuse, whether they intended this or not, have been hugely instrumental in fostering this shift.  They have forced us all to spiritually grow up and get out from under the cassocks of our clerical leadership.  That's a very good and Holy thing.  


  1. Basic premise: "This clerical system has to go."

    What, seriously, would you want to replace the hierarchy with? Go on, play Jesus for a moment and let us know.

  2. Invictus I think that's one of the problems the Vatican has with the LCWR itself, not the congregations. The LCWR represents an alternative goveernance structure which is very democratic and works very well. One of the issues the CDF has with the LCWR, and I haven't mentioned it yet, is their Leadership training process and manual. It's conceptual basis is far more in line with the idea of servant leadership than anything in our seminaries. It's also based on the best social research on effective leadership and consensus building.

    This is paradigm is very different from the direction the last two papacies have taken the Church. The Vatican is centralizing all authority rather than attempting to build any kind of meaningful consensus. This is very much the opposite of the idea of subsidiarity as taught at Vatican II.

    For myself, I think the Church would be better off with a hierarchy situated in a group structure, rather than individual clerical titles. In other words a global type structure based in LCWR organization would hold authority and members would be elected by regions or whatever, and be subject to a term limit of some sort. Participation in this group or it's subsidiaries, would not result in any permanent high falutin' clerical title and would be open to all laity as well as ordained ministers.

    1. I'm new to their existence, and their website doesn't seem to be working, so I'll have to leave that to one side for now.

      If the Church was really about consensus rather than truth, then it would have lost all of its doctrine by now. It would have become pagan in the early medieval era, it would have become protestant in the reformation, it would have rejected all truth and certainty with the intellectual waves of modernism and postmodernism.

      The Church exists through consensus in the true sense of agreement, of 'consent', rather than through consensus in terms of compromise. The Church exists because we consent to Catholic doctrine, because we agree with its truths, and not because we have fought to have our own little imprint made upon it, thus feeling we can claim it as our own project.

      After all, if you cut out the hierarchy, if you cut out the established bones of the Church, you give free rein not only to these erroneous groups you favour, who advocate priestesses, gay marriage, abortions, contraceptions, sterilisations, relativisms, neopaganisms and all the rest.

      You give equal free rein to those other erroneous groups, who would have us transformed into a global Westboro Baptist Church.

      Just because the hierarchy resists those fringe extremists of whom you approve, doesn't mean they don't resist those fringe extremists of whom you so violently disapprove.

      Without a hierarchy, there can be no security for our doctrines, no safety for the future, no foundation for our progress.

  3. Colleen, your comment above prompts a couple of thoughts.

    After the Vatican Council II there were forums promoted by the Council that attempted to preserve the openness and more democratic processes experienced by that world gathering of bishops in Vatican Council II. There would be Synods of Bishops which would meet periodically, and there would be national conferences of bishops. Under the last two popes both of these structures have proved too threatening. The result of the world Synod of Bishops has been that the agendas have been controlled and set by the pope who would always have the final edit of any document produced.

    In the United States the struggle began with the national conference of bishops, after a decent start, when the bishops felt compelled no longer to issue their own documents on their authority, but decided everything had to go to Rome before even the a national group of bishops could say anything.

    Thus ended the hope that even within the clerical system there could be any kind of openness or forward movement.

    Here is another thought. In recent years Call To Action has promoted lay synods. This is a terrific idea in my opinion. I think Call To Action even had materials on how to go about setting up and organizing a lay synod in a diocese. Well, guess what? Some bishops when they heard about this said: “You can’t call a synod without ME.” Well, I think we are seeing that: “Yes they can” and the present earthquake will shake the good ole boy clerical system to its foundations.

    As you would say: "It's about time".

    1. What would a "lay synod" decide? And how would it enact it? And how would it safeguard itself against errors?

  4. Colleen,
    Do you know whether any of the 'problematic' speeches, documents, publications, etc. that the CDF based their mandate upon have been made available to the public? I think it is interesting that all we really know is what the CDF says was a problem, we don't really have any specific examples, taken in context, of what they are referring to.

    Oh- and Invictus, I am all for keeping the structure and doctrine of the church. But not for a clerical body in which all the power for resides, particularly when there is no check upon that power AND when the lay people seem to equate obedience to that body to obedience to Christ. The Magisterium has a poor track record of Christ- like decisions. Like a centuries- long poor track record. Not that their haven't been good things as well, but the magnitude of the bad stuff is a bit staggering.

    1. How can you keep the structure of the Church and protect the doctrines of the Church if you don't have the hierarchy?

      What would stop the Church fissioning into myriad little rafts like the protestant sects?

    2. 'You' do not stop the breakdown of the Church, neither does Colleen, the hierarchy or the pope. The Holy Spirit does, and I would not presume to place limits on what or through whom the Holy Spirit would act. Nor would I insist the the Holy Spirit needs The Vatican through which to speak to individual conscience in matters of acts or of faith.

    3. But if you reject Christ's doctrines, you reject Christ, if you reject Christ, you are not in the Church.

      This is why such lay-led democratisations are risky, and why attacking the hierarchy is risky. Because in doing so, you open up space for a rejection of Christ and a falling away from the Church.

      And we shouldn't forget that although the Holy Spirit was sent throughout the world to all peoples, the assurance of protection from error was only offered to those on the rock.

    4. But they have been in error- repeatedly- throughout history. Again, not that they(the Magisterium) haven't done good as well. Ultimately, they are human. Just like the rest of us. What greater rejection of Christ is there than the decades- long abuse of children? I'm really asking a question here. I need to know how I can stay in a church that repeatedly does unethical things. Repeatedly as in hundreds and hundreds of years of unethical things. Certainly the Holy Spirit is present in the Catholic Church, right?But these are mortal men running things, and it seems ther ought to be some check upon the absolute power that is the Magisterium. How is corruption consistent with Christ? How is persistent corruption and damage perpetuated by the Magisterium not a rejection of Christ?
      I definitely agree that a structure along with clearly defined procedures are needed, particularly in an organization the size of the Church. But that does not mean that the structure we currently have is the apprpriate one.

    5. The Church has never abused children. Child-abusers have managed to get into the Church (in equal or lesser proportion than they have managed to get into protestant sects, other religious groups, schools, and youth organisations).

      You shouldn't be in a Church out of the expectation that it and all the people in it are perfect and flawless (remember that of all the disciples, Peter was chosen to lead after Christ's ascension?), but because it is faithful to the teaching entrusted to it and because it alone stands up in the world to share that teaching.

      One should be careful not to be like the Donatists, and to accept that the people (and the Church) do not exist in a state of Godly perfection, but that they exist in the world as flawed, distinguishing themselves by their purpose and their faith, by their love.

    6. I'm glad we can agree that one shouldn't expect perfection from any human. That is why I cannot, in good conscience, unconditionally obey/agree with the decisions of the Vatican.

    7. Invictus, one should also not use the existence of this imperfection of people as an excuse to tolerate and even promote hypocrites and truly anti social men just because we've been told the magic still works in spite of them.

      Most people who read this blog have gotten past the kind of circular reasoning you use in another post in which you say rejecting 'Christ's doctrines' is rejecting Christ and is rejecting the Church.

      Christ didn't leave any written doctrines. All we have is his commands to love God and each other like ourselves and other concepts such leaders of people should be servants to the servants. Doctrines are from the Church and they have frequently not withstood the test of time. When the Vatican insists on continuously confusing and blurring the line between themselves and Jesus, it becomes very irritating. They are not Jesus and Jesus is not them.

    8. Well said, Colleen. One only needs to look at the biographies of the previous 'Vicars of Christ' to see how very, very clearly they are not Jesus and Jesus is not them. The history of the Church makes the contemporary church look really good.

    9. Colkoch,

      Jesus left us the Church. If you don't want it, you don't want it, but all this pretending it doesn't exist or never existed is pretty tiresome stuff.

      And blatantly protestant.

  5. Erin, here is a start to some of the info you've asked about:

    I have downloaded a copy of the Systems Thinking Handbook from the LCWR website but haven't had time yet to start reading it. Come to think of it, I should transfer that file to my Kindle now...

    1. Thanks! Hope to read after I get my little ones in bed. I have a Kindle, guess I could transfer the Handbook.

      Also wondering what, if anything, else there is to be done about this situation (for the layperson). Any ideas?

    2. Every link I have tried to Sr. Brink's talk is broken

    3. Erin, this is the best I can do for you, link to my own original posting about Sr Brink's address. The link with in the post which used to work, no longer does. Isn't that interesting.


  6. The pic is of the Episcopal cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul called the National Cathedral. Michael Bransfield was rector at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and serves on its board, also called the National Cathedral for Catholics, declared a minor basilica by JP II.

    1. Thanks John. I've never been to DC and don't know one Cathedral from the other. I liked the police tape though.

    2. I lived in DC for 32 years so am quite versed in these subtleties. Thanks for your blog.

  7. Christianity as a whole seems to be facing challenges on two fronts in modern industrial nations, especially those in the western world. One has to do with credibility, which is at the heart of the posts on this blog have been about of late, and the other is relevance.

    Without a doubt, many ancient orders of religious such as the Benedictines and Franciscans, and the women and men who serve in them, can give all denominations a model to follow. The focus on a lived gospel as opposed to merely the recited gospel and its symbols is a good start. The religious, ordained and otherwise, seem to be much better at translating the stories of the heart into the contemporary world without rejecting the core of the tradition from which they spring.

    The work of these nuns and monks with so many of the most vulnerable people and in some truly dangerous situations, with the priority as caring rather than mechanical conversion, has been a boon to the battered image of Christianity in an increasingly cynical atmosphere toward organized religion and an era of mega churches touting prosperity gospels while appearing to despise the poor and those on the margins.

    For some reason this unfolding story about the LCWR and the Vatican reminds me of the fable of the goose that laid the golden eggs.

  8. "The Church has never abused..."

    If by 'Church' you mean the clerical hierarchy - then you are wrong. Their abuse, and compounding of earlier abuses, wholly re traumatizes in even more profound ways. And you are complicit in that abuse by your denial. Shame on you !!!! May God forgive you for you will answer to it one day too. Now go and make a proper confession and keep your ignorance where it belongs - same place it came from - where the sun don't shine.