Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Don't Spare the Rod

Twenty Third Ordinary Sunday Year A

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which claims representation from more than 80% of American nuns, is being investigated by the doctrinal watchdog of Vatican, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, for “manifest problematic statements and serious theological, even doctrinal errors.” In April 2012, the Vatican appointed Archbishop Sartain of Seattle as the LCWR's "archbishop delegate" and gave him authority to revise its statutes and programmes. Of course, his appointment has been criticised as heavy-handed interference. For its part, the Holy See has maintained that this intervention is not to be regarded as a 'sanction,' but rather “a point of dialogue and discernment."

It is really difficult at this point to see how there is going to be a breakthrough, when the sisters persistently claim the right to “faithful dissent” and their own understandings of faith, ecclesial authority and religious obedience. There seems to be no backtracking from or lessening of or remorse felt for the frequently negative and critical position vis-a-vis Church doctrine and discipline and the Church’s teaching office. From both the speeches and actions taken by individual members as well as by the LCWR collectively, they seem to be conveying this clear message to the rest of the Church: “We are the Magisterium. The bishops know nothing. The bishops are backward, misogynist, heartless, fools who live in the past, useless old tyrants. If this means that the LCWR is no longer recognised by church authorities, so be it. Though we have given our lives to the church, we have not given our consciences to anyone but God. We renounce Rome’s authority, i.e., we have all authority.”

Perhaps, in the ensuing “battle royale” between this group of nuns and the Vatican, it is so much easier to depict the former as the powerless underdogs and the latter as the big bully, especially when the discussion is compounded by the gender-war hermeneutics of men trying to put defenseless women in their place. Many would certainly sympathise with the cause of LCWR, even though they may not be aware of the real issues at stake. So, should Vatican and the US Bishops leave this group of nuns alone? Should they even assume an Orwellian “Big Brother is watching you” stance with regards to the LCWR and similar groups of dissidents?  From the time Cain asked his evasive question, after conveniently murdering his brother, Abel, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” the answer has been an unequivocal and indisputable ‘Yes’! We are indeed “keepers” of one another in the Lord.

In today’s first reading, the prophet Ezekiel’s perception of his vocation as a prophet is more aptly described as that of a concerned brother watching out for his brothers and sisters in the faith. A prophet was considered to be the conscience of the nation, and we know from experience that the conscience often pricks and convicts. Ezekiel, therefore, compared his role to that of a sentinel or watchman who searches the moral horizon for impending disaster and then sounds the warning so that others take heed. He did not relish being thought of as a busy-body who waits to pounce on every fault of his wayward brethren. His vocation flowed from his love of God and his love for his people. He was willing to be the voice of reason and Truth, and even to be at the receiving end of hostility and misunderstanding, if only he could convince his brethren to cease following the route to self-destruction.  

St Paul, in the second reading, also waxes eloquently on the matter of love. St Paul too claimed that love was the basic principle on which hinged all the precepts of the law. He understood that love, however, did not just free one from the prescriptions and rigours of the law. Rather love demanded a much higher standard from us. St Paul emphasises that right living in all spheres of one’s life should be motivated by a higher imperative (and not just on the basic requirements of the law). He writes, “Love is the one thing that cannot hurt your neighbour; that is why it is the answer to every one of the commandments.” Most everyone would agree that love is the answer but to interpret love as inaction and silence is ludicrous.

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus provides us with a concrete illustration of how love is translated into fraternal correction. He indicates the three escalating levels of fraternal correction. First, we are to correct the sinner privately. Then, if he refuses to listen, we bring one or two others. Finally, if necessary, the sinner must be brought to the Church. If he refuses even the correction of the Church, and if the matter is serious, he is to be excommunicated. The last stage seems harsh and even at odds with the first two, but a careful reading would reveal that all three stages serve one single purpose. In the verses immediately preceding today’s text, Jesus speaks of searching for the one lost sheep. In a sense, brotherly and sisterly correction should follow the same idea. Therefore, correction’s goal is not retaliation but reconciliation, that is to lead back into the sheepfold the one who has gone astray and who has gotten lost along the way. Fraternal correction, therefore, is not punitive but as St Thomas Aquinas teaches us, “fraternal correction is a work of mercy” and he cheekily adds, “Therefore even prelates ought to be corrected.”

Love isn’t something that makes us feel good. There are times when we are asked to love at a great cost. Our refusal to correct may have less to do with charity than to do with a self-serving motive. In all honesty, it’s always difficult to correct because we don’t want to appear as the bad guy. We don’t want to lose the friendship of the other. Silence and inaction is never the solution, and both definitely do not flow from the well-spring of love.  Love, by contrast, places a duty on us to confront the evil that our brother and sister has done. Ultimately, if we truly love them and others who may be hurt and misled by their actions, we must always wish and work for their salvation. Pope Benedict XVI had always emphasised the intimate connection between charity and the Truth. Charity is always at service to the Truth, it can never be a cover up for a lie. In one of his homilies, the erudite Pope refers to an important part of the regalia of the bishop, his pastoral staff, and uses this to speak of the Church’s authority to correct – the crosier now seen as a disciplinary rod. “The Church too must use the shepherd’s rod, the rod with which he protects the faith against those who falsify it, against currents which lead the flock astray.” One can imagine the Pope reminding us of that age old adage, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”

At the end of the day, the chief issue in the LCWR interventions by Vatican is not a bunch of aged, authoritarian chauvinists using the Church’s power to bully innocent sisters into conformity, as some defenders of the LCWR are alleging. The obedient are never held captive by Holy Mother Church but it is the disobedient who are unknowingly enslaved by the world, and who must be freed. Such fraternal correction is about the Church’s desire to help sisters who are veering from the understanding and teaching of the Catholic faith to come back into doctrinal communion and to prevent their wounding the understanding of faith among others who look up to them. When the Church seeks to correct us, it is only because she wishes to inspire us to greater fidelity, not less. And when the Church extends the rod of authority, it is not to beat us into submission, but to gather us into the safety of the sheepfold. If the Church seeks to impose its sanction on us, it is only because she wishes to provide the moral parameters for our actions so that we may be guided back to the path of salvation. And that is why we should always be grateful that the Church continues to speak with the prophetic voice of Christ, and that is most certainly why we should always pray for those who deliberately choose to take their own path, that they be led back to the sheepfold and respond, not with the language of power, but with true Catholic faith.  

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