Can nuns go "beyond Jesus"?

presidentsYour GetReligionistas are big fans, when it comes to the work of Associated Press religion scribe Eric Gorski. However, there are times when it is hard to pack all of the good stuff into the small package that is the typical wire-service story. Thus, before you read Gorski's recent report about the Vatican and the postmodern nuns -- the USA Today headline was "U.S. Catholic sisters probed on doctrine, fidelity" -- kindly consider the following quote from the famous 2007 address by Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink praising the many suns who have moved "beyond the church, even beyond Jesus" and into an interfaith approach to their work and theology. She was speaking at the national gathering of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organization at the center of the Vatican's concerns about the religious health of many religious orders here in North America.

In a Scripps Howard column on the subject, I offered this slice of this famous speech about the "sojourning" orders in this day and age:

"Religious titles, institutional limitations, ecclesiastical authorities no longer fit this congregation, which in most respects is Post-Christian," added Brink, a former journalist who is a biblical studies professor at Chicago's Catholic Theological Union. For these women, the "Jesus narrative is not the only or the most important narrative. ... They still hold up and reverence the values of the Gospel, but they also recognize that these same values are not solely the property of Christianity. Buddhism, Native American spirituality, Judaism, Islam and others hold similar tenets for right behavior within the community, right relationship with the earth and right relationship with the Divine."

Now, with that quote in mind, work your way through Gorski's report about this "apostolic visitation" and the research document that is guiding it.

Read on:

... (The) nature of some questions in the document seems to validate concerns expressed privately by some sisters that they're about to be dressed down or accused of being unfaithful to the church.

The report, for example, asks communities of sisters to lay out "the process for responding to sisters who dissent publicly or privately from the authoritative teaching of the Church." It also confirms suspicions that the Vatican is concerned over a drift to the left on doctrine, seeking answers about "the soundness of doctrine held and taught" by the women.

Still other questions explore whether sisters take part in Mass daily, or whether they follow the church's rules when they take part in liturgies. Church officials expect consistency in how rites and services are celebrated, with approved translations and Masses presided over by a priest.

Liberal Catholics are framing this investigation in terms of women's rights and they have every right to do so. Conservatives basically agree with the Vatican, which is what conservatives do most of the time.

However, the story never provides insights into the wide array of doctrinal issues at stake. It's sounds like another fight over women's ordination, not a debate about essential, creedal issues of ancient Christianity -- such as the uniqueness of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

lbrinkBrink is by no means the only sister saying what she is saying. Where are the quotes in the AP story that point toward the actual doctrinal issues that are involved?

It seems that there is a big ecclesiastical mystery here and some people have no idea why the Vatican is concerned. Thus:

Francine Cardman, associate professor of historical theology and church history at Boston College's School of Theology and Ministry, said it isn't clear why these questions are being asked now in the U.S.

But she said the focus on doctrine puts it in the context of establishing a "correct" and exclusive interpretation of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s and of women's religious communities. She said the inquiry should be seen "as part of a much older tradition of misogyny in the church and especially distrust of women who are not directly and submissively under male, ecclesiastical control."

In the end, we have another "she said, she said" story. This was a case where the editors needed to give Gorski a bit more room. We needed some real, live quotes to establish the width and depth of the issues that are really at stake.

Is the Vatican ready to move "beyond the church, even beyond Jesus"?

That's the heart of this story. Right there.

Photos: From the 2007 LCWR assembly. A group of past and present leaders of the conference (top). Sister Laurie Brink gives her famous address.

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