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Catholic Church of the Beatitudes: The Legacy of Women Activists in the Church

For many women of the LCWR, their expression of religious life has undergone significant changes

On Tuesday, Sept. 11, the Catholic Church of the Beatitudes will sponsor a talk, “The Story of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious: A Conversation with Sr. Judy Cauley, CSJ, and Barbara Marx Hubbard.”

They will tell their eyewitness experience of the conference. Hubbard delivered two keynote addresses at the August meeting of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and Cauley was her thought partner.

Please join us at Trinity Episcopal Church, 1500 State St., at 7 p.m. Tuesday for a reception and at 7:30 p.m. for their talk.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious has been in the news quite a bit lately after the Vatican criticized them publicly for not speaking out more on issues such as abortion, homosexuality, ordination of women, and contraception. They mandated that the LCWR be overseen by three American bishops as they look into reorganizing.

Many of the issues with the Vatican seem to stem from the interpretation of how to live out Vatican II, which began 50 years ago in October. Founded in 1956, the mission of the conference is to assist its members to collaboratively carry out their service of leadership to further the mission of the Gospel in today’s world.

The Vatican claims that its issue of concern is not with women religious but with the Leadership Conference for Women Religious. Women religious elect their leadership who in turn become members of LCWR; they live and act as one. There are more than 57,000 sisters/nuns in our country, 83 percent of whom are active members of LCWR. The women are current or past members of the congregation’s leadership teams and seek to make the Gospel a living reality in our ever-evolving world through their collective and collaborative efforts.

For many of these women, the world and their expression of religious life have undergone significant changes since they joined their communities. These women took the Vatican Council seriously and have continued to respond to the needs of changing times. They walk and work with our marginalized and disenfranchised sisters and brothers to bring forth the emerging church and world.

Sister Sandra Schneiders, IHM, recently referred to Jesus’ leadership, saying: “Jesus did not come to exercise coercive power over recalcitrant sinners, to forcibly mold them according to some abstract divine plan of moral perfection. ... Jesus never resorted to violence, thought-control or loyalty oaths, intimidation through shaming or threats of rejection, expulsion from the covenant community, execution, or eternal damnation. Rather, Jesus taught by world-subverting parables, challenging questions, insistent dialogue, by patient persuasion, repeated invitation, probing argument, and especially by his original and arresting interpretations of Scripture, which were sometimes startling in their radicality because Jesus favored people and their needs over the requirements of even the most sacred laws.”

This interaction of the Vatican with the LCWR is not something new in our church history. Recently, the media reported that Pope Benedict will name Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th century mystic, as a Doctor of the Catholic Church in October. The title, Doctor of the Catholic Church, is reserved for those women and men whose writings have greatly helped our understanding of Scripture and living a spiritual life.

Hildegard is known for her art, music and poetry, but she also wrote volumes on theology, religious practices and medicine. She was an outspoken woman who was consulted by and gave advice to bishops, popes and kings. She took the hierarchy to task for the corruption that took place in the form of sexual, monetary and self-indulgence. When someone asked if it was proper for a nun to speak out, she responded, “Yes, it is both a woman’s and a nun’s place to make their voice heard.”

I was delighted with the news that a fourth woman would be named one of the 35 Doctors of the Church. I began to wonder about the other three women who had been given this prestigious honor. Did they, like Hildegard, feel the necessity to speak out, to question and to seek dialogue?

Saint Teresa of Avila was a mystic of the 16th century. Some critics considered her insights and teaching of doctrine to be suspect. She was under scrutiny for heresy by the Spanish Inquisition for advocating her thoughts on a prayer style that was more meditative than the intellectual Latin form that was the norm.

Catherine of Siena in the 14th century had a long interchange of letters with Pope Gregory calling for the reform of the clergy.

Saint Therese of Lisieux was from the 19th century and only lived to age 24. Her spirituality, called The Little Way, is about finding God in all things, even the simplest of chores such as washing dishes or sweeping the floor. When told at 14 she was too young to enter the convent, she would not accept the ruling that she wait until she was 21. She pressured her father, convent leadership and the bishop. All declined. Undaunted, Therese went to the pope, who allowed her to enter the convent when she was 15.

Although all four of these women came from different eras and cultures, each, in her own way, was a model of understanding the primacy of conscience, seeking dialogue, speaking out against injustice and speaking the truth to power.

Their actions and interactions do not seem very different from that of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. In her address to the 900 people gathered in St. Louis for the LCWR conference, Franciscan Sister Pat Farrell said, “What would a prophetic response to the doctrinal assessment look like? I think it would be humble, but not submissive; rooted in a solid sense of ourselves, but not self-righteous; truthful, but gentle and absolutely fearless. It would ask probing questions. ... Does the institutional legitimacy of canonical recognition empower us to live prophetically? Does it allow us the freedom to question with informed consciences? Does it really welcome feedback in a church that claims to honor the sensus fidelium, the sense of the faithful?”

Ending her remarks with a reflection on the Gospel parable of the mustard seed, Farrell showed an image of mustard plants growing in a field, saying the seed is “uncontainable” and “crops up anywhere without permission. ... They can crush a few flowers, but they cannot hold back the springtime.” John Paul II prayed for another “springtime” for the church.

Is that not our prayer, our call — to bring back the springtime?

— Harriet Burke is a parishioner at the Catholic Church of the Beatitudes, which meets at 5:30 p.m. Saturdays at First Congregational Church of Santa Barbara, 2101 State St. Click here for more information, or call 805.252.4105. Click here for previous columns.

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