At LCWR 2015 Two Approaches to the Doctrinal Assessment but One Direction — Avanti! FORWARD!

2015_lcwr_assembly_logo_smallAvanti! This Italian word for “forward!” seems to have been the unofficial theme of the 2015 Assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. To applause, LCWR President, Sharon Holland, IHM urged her fellow sisters “Avanti” several times in her presidential address.

The 2015 Assembly marks the first time the LCWR gathered since the doctrinal assessment came to an end back in April and many were anxious to see what the sisters would have to say about the process. By way of ending her presidential address, quoting Dr. Vanessa White, professor at Catholic Theological Union, Holland reminded the LCWR “What you focus on is what you give power to.” It was a clear signal that the LCWR’s leadership had decided focus its attention on moving forward instead of looking back.

Individual attendees I talked to shared the same interest in looking forward rather than dwelling on the assessment. One sister I sat with on the plane to Houston told me “it’s over. That’s what matters” when I asked her about the assessment. Another gently refocused me – as only a sister can – saying, “how we move forward is the more important question.”

Of course, for the sisters, moving forward doesn’t mean ignoring the past or pretending that the assessment never happened. As Holland said, “In considering what to say this morning about moving forward, I did look back briefly.” There were attempts to place it in context, to learn from it, and to identify the graces that brought the sisters through it.

sharon holland

Holland attempted to answer the question “why?” by framing the assessment in the context of a larger “cultural chasm,” saying, “we were somehow looking at the same realities, but were standing in different places. We didn’t realize that we were experiencing the incomprehension of two groups who did not know each other’s deeper assumptions. We risked slipping into talking about each other, without really talking more deeply with each other.” Looking hopefully at the results of the meetings, she wonders “perhaps all left the room thinking that this time they had been understood.”

MockBYDan2 (1)Keynote presenter, Janet Mock, CSJ, looked for the graces that guided the sisters through the assessment and opportunities to use that grace moving forward. She reflected, “If I have taken away anything from the past three years, it is a greater desire to enter wholeheartedly into both the activity of God when I am called to companion that movement and to wait poised for the action of God when it is beyond my capacity to act.” She recalled that “there were moments when we were rendered silent…it was those moments that God’s activity became most evident.” One such example of God’s activity through the process, according to Mock, was the election of Pope Francis. Mock insisted that “knowing when God is calling you to activity and when God is calling you to passivity is a critical discernment for our times,” urging her colleagues to “let go of the desire to do everything we want to do by ourselves.”

It’s worth noting that both of these treatments of the mandate and assessment were offered at the service of moving forward. For Holland, continuing to close the “cultural chasm” between the LCWR and the Vatican is one direction forward, saying, “a profound issue and goal was and is ecclesial communion.” She pointed out two symbols that ought to give us hope that closing the cultural divide is attainable. First is the joint report of the assessment itself, which she described as being “truly a joint report written and worked through by the same people who had engaged in the dialogue.” The second symbol was the photo of the leadership of LCWR with Pope Francis which she said was “immediately recognized as a long-awaited public symbol of the communion our sisters feel and desire with and within the Church.”

The progress towards greater communion between the LCWR and the Vatican is well underway under Pope Francis. The sisters generally, and Holland specifically, praised Evangelii gaudium, the Year of Consecrated Life, the extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, and Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si. Of course the themes of Evangelii gaudium and Laudato Si are not new to the sisters. They’ve been working on these issues since they undertook the work of renewal following Vatican II. But this sort of official recognition of the importance of these themes by this Pope must bring a sense of validation of the last fifty or so years of work the sisters have been doing.

For Mock, the ability to discern times of activity and times of passivity will be vital to religious life in the future. “It is not a time for super stars, even among congregations,” she said. Pointing out that there are approximately 1,200 women in the United states in initial formation in religious congregations, she called upon the leadership to address the educational, spiritual, psychological and personal needs of these women “across congregations together” rather than trying to go it alone. Addressing the needs of the world –immigration, ecological advocacy, human and trafficking to name a few – is another area where the congregations could work together according to Mock. Of course, this will mean congregations each need to embrace a time of activity and a time of passivity.

For Mock, working together, at times taking an active role and at times taking a passive role doesn’t mean squelching the of any individual congregation because each will always bring their charisms and their wisdom to the table: “Instead of threatening our individual charisms, we find working together enhances them – because these charisms illuminate a way of approaching ministry that together makes our service so much richer.”

There well may be as many ways of making sense of the assessment and mandate as there are members of the LCWR. But from what I can tell, there is only one direction: Avanti! Forward!

By way of conclusion, I’d like to offer prayer in solidarity with the LCWR — the same prayer that Janet Mock opened the assembly with:

“And so, God of deep waters, we come as we are. Wash over us with your grace. Refresh us with your Spirit. Lead us into new depths that we may emerge from these days as if baptized anew, strengthened and renewed for your mission. May we be what you want us to be in our time. And may what we are about here be healing for our world. To this we say AMEN.”

AMEN, indeed!

Catholic Women Speak Up in Time for the Synod

CWSEven before the Synod of Bishops could get up to speed after Vatican II, it suffered setbacks under Popes Paul VI, Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  Instead of forums for real discussion and decision-making, the “rubber stamp syndrome” came into play as bishops learned to firmly align themselves with the Pope in power.

Pope Francis has set the synod on a new path that is closer to the vision of Vatican II.  Still, as a way toward collegiality, it includes only those who are ordained.  There have been no provisions that allow for full and equal decision making powers by the laity.  Lay input and decision-making are important across the board, but are especially critical as we head toward a synod where family and marriage are front and center. Women’s voices have only been heard at the very margins of synods in the past, yet are critical components in any credible decision making process that involves discussion and debate about pastoral practices related to family life, relationships, marriage and birth control.

This year, a new effort has been launched to make bring women’s voices forward in the lead up to the 2015 Family Synod.

Catholic Women Speak: Bringing our Gifts to the Table, is an extraordinary effort to make women’s experience and reflections on a variety of topics related to the 2015 Family Synod available to synod delegates, auditors, experts and to Catholics everywhere.

Tina Beattie, Director of the Digby Stuart Research Centre for Religion, Society and Human Flourishing at the University of Roehampton, headed this effort and is a force of nature in the Catholic Church.

With almost miraculous speed, she and a small group of dedicated editors wove together this first-of-its-kind resource.  Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table is an anthology of essays by women who represent a broad international perspective and come from a variety of personal backgrounds, who believe that the Church cannot come to a wise and informed understanding of family life without listening to women (Paulist Press blurb).

The book is divided into four sub-parts with more than 40 authors from diverse geographies and backgrounds addressing a) our traditions, b) family, marriage and relationships, c) poverty and exclusion and d) our institutions.

The book begins with an essay by Cettina Militello, an Italian theologian who sent a few blessed shockwaves when, at the April 28th conference held at the Pontifical University Antonianum entitled “Women in the Church: Prospects for Dialogue”, she gave an overview of a history of misogyny in the Church, spoke about the devastating effects of Inter Insigniores and criticized the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for its  demonization of gender theory.  In her essay in Catholic Women Speak she follows a similar track sketching the history of women as well as the new realities of 21st century life that should inform Church teaching.  She calls for equality and greater roles for women in the Church noting, “Women have moved from silence to speech, from invisibility to presence, from submission to co-responsibility. The journey has been long and is far from complete, but the goal is now illuminated by the new awareness that God’s design is an inclusive one.”

Lucetta Scaraffia, editor of Donne, Chiesa, Mondo for l’Osservatore Romano likens a synod without women to “breathing with just one lung.”  She makes the observation, “The absence of women at the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family reveals two negative aspects of the life of the Church: ignorance of and lack of interest in the female point of view – even in situations where women are at the heart of the matter – and disconnection from daily life.”

Amelia Beck tells of her experience with Vatican sanctioned birth control and the many babies she conceived even though she was meticulously following the Natural Family Planning method. She calls her essay “Vatican Roulette.”

Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, writes about the marginalization of women in the family and points to the challenges their lives pose to the idealized notions of family and marriage set out by the Church. Where women have little to no access to power of any sort she points out that, “struggling to survive in a world that is marked with poverty, exploitation and lack of personhood, marriage for them is a burden and being born female a curse. Sold or off-loaded into marriage before the age of sixteen, for many of these women “the desire to marry and form a family” is not a choice (Lin. 1). It is a prison sentence, replete with marital rape, domestic violence, isolation, subservience to the point of slavery, and unplanned pregnancies that have fatal consequences for both mother and child.”

Agnes Brazal of the Philippines looks at family life through the prism of out-migration where greater and greater numbers of women are leaving home to bring in much-needed income.  Linked to “international capital’s search for cheap labor and domestic services, as well as to the increasing poverty in the sending countries,” families and especially children are suffering as their parents leave in search of work.  Brazal examines Church teaching with its assumptions about male/female and parenting roles and shows how it fails to take into account the economic strains on family life in the Philippines and beyond — adding to their burdens rather than relieving them.

In the last sub-section dedicated to the institutional church, Christine Schenk, CSJ, describes how the Lectionary leaves out the stories of women, and especially those who acted with authority in early Christianity.  Madeleine Fredell brings in the powerful story of the witness of Mary of Magdala and Rhonda Miska talks about young Catholic Women working in ministry in the Church.

These are just a few of the authors who have contributed to this well-produced resource.  Bishops attending the 2015 Family Synod would be better informed by reading it.

A synod on the family that does not engage women in meaningful ways leaves the Church limping, “breathing with just one lung.”  But more than that, it leaves women and children at risk by what is passed over or assumed because of the blind spots created by race, sex, geography, class, age, privilege, etc.

In my international travels to South Africa a few years ago, I met a women whose words unsettled me because they were so counter-intuitive.  She said, “the most dangerous thing a woman can be is married.”  As my jaw fell open, she explained that she lived in a region where the HIV Aids rate is one of the highest in the world and where men bring the disease home to their wives.  In one of many moments in my life, I, again, saw how limited my own understanding was and how my own privilege blinded me to the realities of women from other parts of the world.  May our bishops understand this is true for them as well, especially as they try to fashion guidance in worlds where women, children and men face life and death situations daily.

May this new book of essays help fill the gap.  Where male experience and wisdom has its limits, may it help the Church to provide meaningful and, yes, life saving guidance to all the baptized.

Deborah Rose-Milavec

FYI, this book is being published by Paulist Press and is available for pre-order from their website.  It is also being offered as part of FutureChurch’s Pentecost campaign.  Learn more.