Today's case in point: 'From Where I Stand' - Joan Chittister's column at the National Catholic Distorter: Why Them and Not Us? (not reproduced in whole, with my comments in blue)
The church world got a really good piece of advice this week. The pope, we're told, warned the Anglicans not to split over their internal controversies about homosexuality and the ordination of women bishops. He warned, quite wisely, about the dangers and the destructiveness of schism. (See Pope rides to Rowan's rescue) As easy as it sounds to simply go away and play in your own ecclesiastical sandbox, the fact is that divisions are never neat -- if for no other reason than that they not only fail to resolve the present problem but they model how not to resolve the next problem, too....
Now if the Catholic church could only get to the same clear point about the question of "excommunication" and/or "interdict" -- the process of splintering a church within a church, of putting people outside the pale of the sacraments, of separating ourselves from contentious questions one person, one diocese, at a time ... we clearly have some serious problems about how to deal with individuals who dare to raise new questions in the midst of a shifting body politic. Like how to be personally moral in a pluralistic state if you're a politician or, worse, a candidate for political office, for instance. Like how to maintain past liturgical forms in the face of the development of more contemporary ones.
OK, Exhibit A of the "false report" charge: Excommunication and/or interdict is not the process of splintering a "church within a church". What the heck is that phrase supposed to mean? They're the final penalties given to people who remain in obstinate disobedience to their bishop, as a last resort, to shock the individual into realizing that they've crossed a line and the state of their soul is in jeapordy. And it isn't the separating of "ourselves from contentious questions", either. It's the separating of the disobedient persons from the body of Christ (temporarily, hopefully) to prevent scandal, further harm, etc. etc.
Let's read on:
Nevertheless, more important than the question of excommunication is the unevenness with which it is applied. We excommunicate women (and men too!) who support the ordination of women, for instance, but we don't excommunicate either military officers or military chaplains who support the use of nuclear weapons. (it's a question of the difference between a doctrinal issue and prudential Church teaching, I think) We excommunicate people who belong to groups of which we don't approve. (um, you don't excommunicate anyone. Last time I checked, you pretty much welcome any and all dissenting and heretical group known to man...uh, I mean person) In the past, for instance, YMCAs and YWCAs were forbidden to Catholics. In the present, in some places, it's membership in Call to Action. (for good reason, too! Too bad all the bishops don't do this consistently) But we didn't excommunicate bishops or priests who said nothing about Adolph Hitler in Germany or Augusto Pinochet in Chile, nor did the church excommunicate those who belonged to their organizations. (right now my patience has just about run out, and all I can say is #$%&*! First of all, the former groups' members joined voluntarily. The latter - conscripted for the most part. And surely not all were Catholic. Secondly, Hitler and Pinochet were murdering Catholics at the time!!! Do ya think that maybe, just maybe, a formal excommunication would have exaceberated the situation? Geez Louise! And speaking of Louise...)
Now we are watching while Sister of Charity Louise Lears is denied the sacraments and the opportunity to minister in the archdiocese of St. Louis for her support of the role of women in the church (misleading - she supported the ordination of women, which is a lot different than just saying "role of women in the church"), though women religious have always worked on behalf of the role of women in church and society (a lot of men have done that too!) when the rest of the world stood aghast at the thought of even educating women, let alone training them for independence. Yet, at the same time, executioners in prisons -- who do their public work secretly! -- will not be excommunicated for executing prisoners. (what the hell does that have to do with anything?) Whatever we think of the essential morality of state executions, the number of errors we now know to be the norm in the public practice of capital punishment ought surely be enough to make the practice morally reprehensible.
We are, in other words, dangerously close to being more punitive of women (and men!) who raise theological questions about women's role in the church than we are of any other facet of moral confusion or contention in society. (questions aren't being raised, and you know it. Dissent and disobedience are being preached, and it's being flaunted in the face of the Church. Your actions are forcing the Church's hand) And the situation is not a new one. In the 1600s, the church excommunicated Mary Ward for wanting to start a religious order of non-cloistered women. (maybe she was told no when she asked, and she did so anyway. That's a no-no) In our own era, in Indiana, they excommunicated M. Theodore Guerin, foundress of the Sisters of Providence, for starting new schools without the bishop's permission. She was canonized in 2006. (and since she was canonized, that meant the ex-communication was lifted. Which means one of two things - she repented, or it was unjust. I'm opting for the latter) In 1871, they excommunicated Mary MacKillop in Australia for trying to do the same and then beatified her in 1995. (The excommunication was done unjustly, as I found in the book "John Paul II's Book of Saints" - "The local bishop excommunicated Mary... the following year, near death, the bishop absolved the excommunication and apologized to Mary...", pg 308.
There will be a great deal written about Lears' situation, of course, -- and it should be -- while we all try to sort out both the question and the so-called spiritual cure. (The cure is called humility and obedience to the Church. If she, and others like her, repent and acknowledge the authority of the Church given Her by Christ, then that will be the moment of healing)
But the issue, not the system, is the issue. Instead of a difference of opinion about the role of women in religion, a subject that is at this moment of history a topic in every tradition, every religion, every part of the globe, we now have a full-blown ecclesiastical shoot-out. (Brought about by the actions of the sinners, not the teaching of the Church) An "excommunication." A casting out even of those who do not break the canon laws on the subject but who do broach the forbidden discussion. What should be seen as part of the spiritual discipline of living in hope and faith and openness to the Holy Spirit in "the-already-but-not-yet" is labeled instead as infidelity.
But the scripture is there and won't go away. In the face of all that, Jesus tells us a parable: "Do you want us to go and pull up the weeds?" the laborers in the story ask the farmer about the bad seed "an enemy had sown." The answer, at a time of great change and deep reflection, ought perhaps to give us great pause: "No," the scripture answers, "because as you gather the weeds you might pull up some of the wheat along with them." (me thinks this is not a proper interpretation of the parable. Nice try, though) We pulled up a lot of wheat with the excommunication of Martin Luther and the reformers, for instance, (Council of Trent was rather specific. And what - are you defending Luther now too?) and have been trying to repair those exclusions ever since. Surely this is no time to start doing the same kind of thing again. (I think the Church should be doing more of it, actually) Surely we have learned better by this time. Surely we don't want to do it to one nun whose only crime is a question (keep repeating the lie with the hope that it will change into the truth, Sister, but it won't fly here - the crime is the obstinate disobedience) and in whom the people see a minister (nice - use a masculine term instead of what she is - a "nun".) of uncommon quality. Maybe we ought to "leave some chaff and grain to grow up together" for a while longer until we can see clearly which is which. (Christ said we have to beware of wolves in sheep's clothing, too. Do we wait until they consume the flock, or before?)
From where I stand, Pope Benedict XVI is dead right about urging the Anglicans to sit down together and work things out. He's right about calling us to remember that we're all in a time of new beginnings. He's surely right, history shows us, about making community a more demanding factor than law with all its cultural vagaries and historic changes. Now if we ourselves would only take the call to heart and sit down together and do the same.
The Church is ready to listen to your apologies, Sister. Whenever you're ready.