F e a t u r e A r t i c l e
THE NEW VOWS: CHASTITY, POVERTY, DISOBEDIENCE?
By JULIE A. FERRARO
Volume 8, Number 6
Some Catholic lay people and members of religious communities ask a lot of questions these days. They doubt the ban on women�s ordination, the feasibility of celibate priesthood, and the role of authority within the Church. Almost every document from Rome or declaration by the American bishops is questioned�almost unquestioningly. Many have organized into lobbying groups like Call to Action. Are those who ask questions (and sometimes demand policy changes) actually being disobedient to Church authority?
The questioners would say they are being obedient�to their personal consciences. Some Church authorities, however, see their actions as defiant. To resolve the matter, we need a thorough understanding of what obedience is and how it has evolved since the Second Vatican Council.
Obedience is an especially tricky issue when religious communities are discussed. Besides vows of poverty and chastity, all religious vow obedience to their rule, their superiors, and to God. religious communities are sanctioned on a diocesan or pontifical level, and canon law makes it clear that religious must also obey the local bishop and the pope in matters over which they have jurisdiction.
Such obedience used to be habitual. All the saintly founders of religious orders obeyed their bishops, even though corruption plagued the Church hierarchy during some periods of history. St. Francis of Assisi was told by God to "rebuild" the Church, yet he did it in obedience to the pope�s directives.
Teresa of Avila sought to reform the Carmelites, but subjected herself to all manner of authority, including the Spanish Inquisition. Almost every word she wrote in her Life, Way of Perfection, and Interior Castle was read and reread by theologians to ensure that no heresy was present. Each Discalced Carmelite monastery she founded was approved by the local bishop.
St. John of the Cross espoused obedience in his life and writings, as well. He saw obedience as a true way to understanding God�s will. Visions, locutions, and other personal revelations cannot be trusted, he said, since they come, not always from God, but possibly from the devil. He saw obedience to one�s superiors as obedience to Christ.
It could be said, though, that many founders of the "branches" of these major orders disobeyed their superiors in splitting from the existing group, which brings in the "conscience matter" stipulation that is part of almost any rule. St. Benedict wrote in his rule, "A brother may be assigned a burdensome task or something he cannot do . . . Should he see . . . that the weight of the burden is altogether too much . . . he should choose the appropriate moment and explain patiently to his superior the reasons why he cannot perform the task" (rule of St. Benedict in English, 68:1) In other words, if an individual cannot honestly obey�seeing that what is asked as sinful or impossible�then it is proper to say as much.
Many offshoots of the original Franciscan, Dominican, and Benedictine orders came about because of disagreements involving interpretation of the respective rule or constitution. That is not the same, though, as disobeying the declarations of Church authorities, especially infallible or definitive doctrines. Yet authority itself has come into question for some Catholics. They do not hesitate to quarrel with the pope, the bishops, and priests. Much of the reasoning for this may come from books such as The Vowed Life by Adrian Van Kaam (Dimension, 1968) and Call to Integration by V. F. Vineeth (Crossroad, 1981). Both works, published after Vatican II, speak of vowed obedience as a process of listening to God�s word and dialoguing with others to reach a decision. "The religious discovers the Word in the community. Every member of the community is in one way or other contributing to the discovery of the Word" (Call to Integration, 64).
This is almost word for word the way many active women�s congregations define obedience today (see Ann Carey, Sisters in Crisis, reviewed in this issue). No mention is made of the actual purpose of obedience being to see Christ in one�s superior and in Church authorities, as pointed out in Christus Dominus of Vatican II: "religious should always attend upon bishops, as upon successors of the apostles, with devoted deference and reverence" (35).
For many, personal intellect and discernment have replaced acceptance that the Holy Spirit speaks through those who are legitimately ordained superiors. Instead, Vineeth sees authority as something obeyed because someone has a "personal liking for it" (Call to Integration, 67). The popular view that the Church is the people (an interpretation derived from the Vatican II documents Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes) has led some to believe that Church authorities must "dialogue" with "the people" before making any binding decrees.
Church leadership, in this model, is seen as an office of service�meaning that the people should be able to dictate policy to their leaders. This is the operating principle behind such phenomena as the We Are Church petition drive. In fact, Church leadership is an office of service, but service to the Triune God, who inspires and enlightens according to Scripture and divine revelation. It is impossible for the Church to offer any teaching, no matter how popular, that does not accord with that revelation.
When religious publicly challenge that revelation, they should be and sometimes are censured. The dismissal of Sr. Carmel McEnroy from St. Meinrad�s Seminary for signing a petition seeking dialogue on women�s ordination is evidence of this. Some bishops have hesitated to exercise their legitimate pastoral role in calling dissidents to account. Their wish to avoid the inevitable conflict such censure would provoke is understandable. Opposing viewpoints have caused a breakdown in communication and understanding on both sides of this issue. While members of all religious orders vow to obey their superiors, some communities do not seem all that willing to obey Church authorities. They see flaws in the working of the Holy Spirit at higher levels, especially levels where men claim sole authority.
Which brings up the feminist perspective so prevalent today. Many religious women seem disinclined to obey Church authorities simply because they are men. These women protest not only Church proclamations, but even translations of the Bible. Everything must be "inclusive," from the psalms to the Mass to the hierarchy.
In many cases it is impossible to distinguish between lay women and vowed religious when protests are mounted. This is because so many religious have cast off their habits�both traditional and modified�for street clothes. This, too, can be construed as disobedience to the Church, for Vatican II states, "Since they are signs of a consecrated life, religious habits should be simple and modest, at once poor and becoming" (Perfectae Caritatis 17). While the argument has been raised, ever since the first sister stripped off her veil, that religious habits merely reflected the apparel of women during the era when a religious community was founded, Church directives are quite clear that distinctive garb is to be worn. This does not include blue jeans or a closet full of business suits. If a vowed religious does not wish to look like a vowed religious, why did she join a religious community at all?
The obedience debate among religious includes the other two evangelical counsels, poverty and chastity. It is not uncommon for vowed religious to live in inner-city apartments, townhouses, and so forth, alone or with one or two others. Naturally, this brings "worldly" concerns into play, such as paying bills, buying groceries, maintaining transportation. The size of a paycheck has become a major concern as religious apply for the same jobs as lay people.
Friendships with members of the opposite sex are common, too, as male and female religious work in offices, restaurants, and universities. Occasionally these relationships escalate into sexual encounters. Or, in the process of living a less cloistered and regimented life�misled by "holistic sabbaticals" and the chimera of self-discovery�some members of religious communities may discover they are homosexual, a scandal of its own vast proportions. Paying too much attention to worldly concerns while neglecting one�s soul only leads to disaster.
Since Vatican II, rampant changes have eliminated, in some instances, traditional religious life as Catholics remember it. The Council asked religious congregations to revise their constitutions and custom books, eliminating elements that were clearly outdated. This renewal was to be monitored and approved by the pope and the bishops: "It is the responsibility of competent authorities alone . . . to issue norms, to pass laws . . . though in all such matters . . . the approval of the Holy See and of local Ordinaries must be given when it is required" (Perfectae Caritatis 4).
Nothing in opposition to the documents of Vatican II should ever have been implemented by religious communities, yet, through "dialogue" and "personal discernment," disobedience overcame Church dictates. Bishops should have called religious in their dioceses to abide by Church norms�they have that authority and obligation�but the few who did (Cardinal McIntyre in Los Angeles, Bishop Vincent Waters in Raleigh, North Carolina, for example) faced catastrophic consequences. In Los Angeles, almost the entire Immaculate Heart of Mary community left, rather than obey the Cardinal�s instruction, and in Raleigh, religious left the diocese rather than wear even modified habits.
It has been widely reported that the number of new religious vocations continues to drop, except in religious communities in compliance with Church authorities. Those communities that have radically cast off the past and much of their tradition in favor of modernity and protest should reassess their actions. Rather than blaming a lack of vocations on selfish young people or the oppressive patriarchal system, perhaps they should reflect that obedience is the keystone of religious life; without it, poverty and chastity have no safeguard (as has been seen). Only through obedience to God and the Church can there be true renewal and true fulfillment of the vows.
Julie A. Ferraro freelances from Indiana.