14 March 2014

"Conscience and Calling: Ethical Reflections on Catholic Women’s Church Vocations" Notes

Notes from

“Conscience and Calling: Ethical Reflections on Catholic Women’s Church Vocations”
A WATER teleconference with
Anne E. Patrick
Wednesday, March 5, 2014
1 pm – 2 pm EST

            WATER is grateful to Dr. Anne E. Patrick for leading a teleconference on her new book, Conscience and Calling: Ethical Reflections on Catholic Women’s Church Vocations (London: Bloomsbury, 2013). The book is meticulously documented, written in an accessible style, and full of good analysis of difficult situations. The bottom line is that Catholic women have moved from a default reaction of obedience to a considered embrace of responsibility as moral, intellectual, and spiritual agents. This book traces some of that evolution and points to even more to come.
            Following are Anne’s presentation notes that she has graciously shared with us. Then there are some questions from participants and Anne’s responses. These are not meant to be comprehensive notes, but simply to give the flavor of the discussion. Feel free to listen to the whole teleconference at .

WATER Teleconference
Anne E. Patrick, SNJM

Thank you, Mary, for your introduction, and for inviting me to discuss CONSCIENCE & CALLING today. I’ve long admired the creative work that you and Diann Neu and your staff colleagues are doing at WATER, and the way you’ve made so many connections with religious feminists around the world. It’s exciting to be giving a WATER teleconference, and I look forward to our discussion very much.

            Essentially my book calls for including women in all ministries of the Roman Catholic Church on an equal basis with men. To argue for this change I give ethical and theological reasons, and tell lots of stories. In the third chapter, for example, I outline the history of an idealistic group of sisters that got started five years after Vatican II, the National Assembly of Women Religious (later called the National Assembly of Religious Women). Although NAWR/NARW lasted only 25 years, it helped launch two groups that have continued its mission for justice: the WOMEN’S ORDINATION CONFERENCE, and NETWORK, the Catholic social justice lobby, now famous for “NUNS ON THE BUS.” Elsewhere in the book I tell the story of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement, which has been largely the work of women not in religious vows. This movement began with the ordination of seven women on the Danube River in 2002. Although its leaders have been formally excommunicated, they continue to claim a Catholic identity. Members now offer sacramental ministry in the Catholic tradition to more than sixty communities in the U.S. and Canada, and they seek to express “a new model of ordained ministry in a renewed Catholic Church.” The jury is still out on whether in a century or two these women will be thought of as more like St. Catherine of Siena or Martin Luther, or indeed whether by then we may be calling him St. Martin. I believe the words of Gamaliel from Acts chapter 5 concerning the preaching of St. Peter are relevant to the womenpriests movement: To quote verses 38 and 39: “For if this idea of theirs or its execution is of human origin, it will collapse, but if it is from God, you will never be able to put them down. . .”

How did it happen it that so many nuns and other lay women have gained the ability to speak and act courageously in a religious institution that trained us to be docile, unquestioning, and submissive to male religious authorities?

It takes more than one book to answer that question, but I can say that a great transformation in Christian ideals of virtue took place in the last century. Whereas before World War II the main emphasis was on obedience and doing one’s duty, after the war, there was a shift in emphasis toward something called “responsibility.” The ethicist Albert Jonsen has traced this development [in Responsiility and Modern Religious Ethics, 1968] and shown that after the trials at Nuremburg, when Nazis tried to justify their crimes by saying they were only being obedient, following orders—after these trials some very influential thinkers brought the concept of responsibility to the fore. Since that time, this shift from a moral ideal of duty and obedience to one of responsibility has been combined with insights from feminism, with the result that many Christians have moved from a “patriarchal” understanding of virtue to a “feminist” one.

In Conscience and Calling, I illustrate this change by analyzing two cases where my religious community, the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, dealt with injustice on the part of priests and bishops in the twentieth century. I’m sure many church women can tell similar stories, but these two cases are particularly interesting because the responses to injustice before the Second World War were so different from the way things were handled after the war and Vatican II.

A Case from the Brooklyn Diocese, 1939
           In June 1939, five Sisters of the Holy Names withdrew from the school at St. James, Long Island after suffering for years from a domineering pastor. They loved the people and their teaching work, but Father Murphy controlled the heat and hot water, and forbade the sisters to talk with parishioners or accept rides from them, although they had no car. Even after the sisters had raised money to buy a furnace, the pastor kept the thermostat turned down and locked. The pupils wore coats in the classrooms, and the sisters’ health suffered. In their convent home they could have hot water for bathing only on Wednesdays and Saturdays. They were grateful when members of their community came by train from Coney Island, where they staffed a thriving school and enjoyed a very positive relationship with the pastor, Father Froelich. Finally, after years of hardship, and one sister’s hospitalization for pneumonia, the provincial superior felt she could no longer leave sisters at St. James.

When Mother Mary of Lourdes told Bishop Thomas Molloy of her decision, he countered by saying that if the sisters left St. James they would have to leave the diocese, which meant giving up the much-loved school on Coney Island. She replied, “Very well, your excellency, we will withdraw from the diocese,” but the way she handled things after that shows how strongly she was influenced by patriarchal ideals. She delayed telling the sisters they were leaving both parishes until late in the school year, and then instructed them not to discuss this with anyone. Although the sisters at St. James could guess why they were being withdrawn, the sisters on Coney Island had no idea it was the bishop’s fault they were leaving, and their abrupt departure from people they loved became a source of lifelong sorrow. Nor did the pastor on Coney Island tell the full story to the parishioners, though he did his best, within the model of virtue reigning at the time, to show his appreciation for the nuns and to invite the people to accept their departure without resentment. We see this in an excerpt from the convent chronicles for June 25, 1939.
“GRADUATION--Thirty-eight of our eighth grade boys and girls receive graduation honors this afternoon. Rev. Francis Froelich, Pastor, reminds them of their duties as Catholics and as American citizens, and again emphasizes the loyalty they should prove to their school and to their Sisters. Father seized this last opportunity to express once more his gratitude to the Sisters.”
[There was nothing like that suggesting gratitude in the chronicles from St. James.]
The wording of the chronicles shows a concern not to question the judgments of religious authorities, whether bishop or provincial superior. But clearly their author is worried that the parents might be hurt by the sudden departure of the sisters from their children's school because of what was said to be a “lack of teachers” elsewhere. The last entry for Coney Island notes that “Since June 28 the sisters have gradually left, to take up their work [summer study] at the various universities and today the remaining three bid a final farewell to the work which has been ours for twenty-one years. God wills it thus and we humbly submit to [God’s] designs in our regard.”
Silence and humble submission were notably absent in the second case of conflict with ecclesiastical employers, which took place in the Archdiocese of Miami in 1989-90. This case shows women operating under very different ideals of what it means to be a good sister. Instead of emphasizing obedience, denial of conflict, and institutional loyalty, their responses to difficulties laid stress on justice, honesty, and personal responsibility. No longer was God's will assumed to be contained within the directives of ecclesiastical authority. Instead, they presumed that women and men ought to dialogue together to discern what God might want for Her people. And if dialogue proves impossible, then the people who will lose the women's ministries have a right to know what’s been going on. Sisters are no longer willing to “cover” for the clergy or to absorb blame for decisions beyond their control.

                                    A Case in Key West, FL, 1989-90
            The Sisters of the Holy Names had played a vital role in the history of Key West, Florida, where they operated schools from 1868 until 1983, when declining numbers led them to withdraw. Five years later, in 1988, the pastor, Father Eugene Quinlan, wrote to the provincial director, Sister Kathleen Griffin, describing four positions and expressing his desire to have sisters return. And so, after much prayer and planning, four sisters agreed to come: one as Director of Religious Education, and another as Associate DRE. A third would write the parish history, and the fourth would visit the sick. In August 1989, there was a joyful celebration when these sisters came to the island.

Within months, however, things fell apart. At a December staff meeting there was a misunderstanding between the pastor and the sisters over whether the two religious educators should also be expected to teach classes in Saint Mary’s School. This erupted into an emotional exchange, and Quinlan suddenly said that none of the sisters’ contracts would be renewed. He soon wrote to Sister Kathleen Griffin to say that salaries would be paid through August 15, but the four sisters had to leave by July 1. She responded that “the nature and content of your letter came as a great surprise,” and said she needed to pray and reflect on the matter and would visit Key West again in February. On January 8, Quinlan wrote to Griffin that his decision was final. A week later she met with the Vicar for Religious in Miami, Sr. Denise Marie Callaghan, to explore “approaches to solutions,” but this proved fruitless. Griffin was unable to obtain an appointment with Archbishop Edward A. McCarthy, or even “even acknowledgement that correspondence or phone calls were received between mid-January and May.”

Meanwhile the provincial agreed to meet with a group of parishioners who had asked to “gain some understanding of why the sisters were leaving so that they, too, could seek solutions.” After the meeting, Griffin and three councilors wrote to the archbishop and the members of St. Mary Star of the Sea Parish. This letter of March 29, 1990 was also shared with all the New York Province Sisters of the Holy Names. Such a step would have been unthinkable in the days of Mother Mary of Lourdes’ conflict with the bishop of Brooklyn fifty years earlier. The letter describes the sisters’ sorrow at being dismissed so soon after returning to the island, and reminds everyone of the historical background:
“The people of Key West hold a unique place in the hearts and in the history of the Sisters of the Holy Names. . . . [I]n 1868, before bridges, railroad or air travel, we came to Key West, bought and cleared our land and began our ministry of education in the faith. During periods when there were no priests on the island we were present with you to gather people for worship, to baptize, to teach. During severe epidemics we were present to nurse the sick, comfort the dying and conduct burial services. During the Spanish-American War we converted the school into a hospital and nursed the wounded. During calm and hurricanes, in periods of great economic growth and severe depression, we were present with you, in good times and bad. The return of four sisters to Key West was prompted by our desire to resume a long ministerial history of response to your needs.”

The letter concludes with the sisters’ clear statement of the message they most wanted to leave with the people, something that their predecessors at Coney Island had not been able to express in 1939:
            “It is not our choice to leave.
While Father Quinlan may choose to exercise his authority to dismiss these four sisters . . . , his choice can never erode or dismiss the affection and the bonds we sisters have with you.”

We can see in this letter how a “personal responsibility and social justice” model of virtue has influenced Griffin and her council, in contrast to the “military obedience and institutional loyalty” model of virtue that held sway in the 1930s.

Well, after their meeting with Griffin, parishioners started a public campaign to “save the nuns.” Their response showed both their post-Vatican II optimism about having a voice in matters of parish life and also their trust that church officials would respond favorably to pressure tactics often employed in the United States. Thus on April 22 they published a full-page ad in the Key West Citizen, featuring a picture of the community’s founder in her nineteenth-century habit, Blessed Marie-Rose Durocher, above the banner headline “Save the Nuns.” The ad also included historical material from the council’s letter, and declared in bold type, “It is not their choice to leave.” Readers were encouraged to write to the archbishop and post the ad in their windows. Laity also distributed hundreds of “Save the Nuns” buttons and gathered nightly to pray at a shrine near the church. This campaign led to coverage in the Miami and Key West newspapers, and even mention on CNN. Sister Rose Gallagher, a provincial councilor, recalled:
“A biplane flew over the island after all the masses one weekend in April trailing the message, “Father, please keep the nuns.” It was this event that prompted the first contact from the archdiocese. The archbishop phoned the provincial to tell her to remove the sisters as soon as possible. [She] met with her council, talked with the sisters in Key West and then finalized their departure in May, three months ahead of time.”
* * * * *
An idealized picture of the early church declares, “The community of believers were of one heart and one mind,” as Luke write in Acts 4:32, but that probably lasted about ten minutes. Disputes have been part of Christian life from the beginning. The examples of conflict between sisters and their ecclesiastical employers are not unique in church history, and indeed, sisters are by no means the only ones who have felt powerless when in dispute with church authorities. But our cases show a clear development in the ideals of virtue held by women who have an important place in the church. This development is the shift in emphasis from obedience to responsibility that’s been in progress among Christians since the mid-twentieth century, and which has been influenced also by feminist insistence on the equal value of women and men. Although the present gender imbalance within the Roman Catholic Church has been defended by some authorities on theological grounds, many believers do not find the arguments convincing, and regard them as limited human positions rather than divinely endorsed realities. And indeed, our new Pope Francis may yet surprise us on these matters.

Were there time, I might show how the differing ideals of virtue for women religious have played a role in tensions between the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which were so much in the news two years ago, but so that we can have plenty of time for discussion, I’ll draw this part to a close now with this observation: Indeed, the church is not yet an Equal Opportunity Employer, but women’s enhanced moral agency is putting pressure on that situation, and we have reason to hope that God, who is with us now and also coming to us from the future, will continue to inspire the reforms we need.

Following Dr. Patrick’s presentation questions emerged:

1. One caller who identified herself as Protestant told Anne E. Patrick how angry these examples made her. She expressed shock and chagrin over how clerical men treat women.
Anne replied that sexism is an equal opportunity phenomenon. It is everywhere. Catholics are not the only ones who experience it. She recommended an essay by the late Christian ethicist, Beverly Wildung Harrison, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love” (Making the Connections: Essays in Feminist Social Ethics, Beverly Wildung Harrison, edited by Carol S. Robb, Boston: Beacon Press, 1985, pp. 3-21). She also mentioned that the women of St. James had not told their story before. All of them are now deceased.

2. Another colleague, an associate of the Sisters of Providence, told the story of St. Mother Theodore Guerin being locked in the dining room by a bishop who later excommunicated her. She noted the importance of telling women’s stories so women can come into their power. Interviewing elderly nuns is a good way to get some of the details.
Anne recommended a resource for daily prayer entitled Give Us This Day that includes the lives of holy persons, some of whom were challenged in the church of their day.

3. A colleague from San Francisco urged that we tell the stories of ecclesial abuse broadly. She described a parallel situation that unfolded recently. A group of Dominican priests served in campus ministry at the University of New Mexico. They were sent a letter stating that they are dismissed as of July, however they learned about it in a Sunday newspaper. More than 1000 letters have been sent to the diocese in support of priests. The bishop refuses to meet with people concerned, whom he calls “too emotional to be rational.” His decision is final, without dialogue.  
Anne E. Patrick said that she had studied at a Protestant divinity school so she is familiar with different models of governance in many churches. She is grateful to stay in the Roman Catholic tradition with its sacramentality and international organization. Congregational models can do some things, and have their own lines of accountability. She would not do away with hierarchy entirely, but would urge consultation and subsidiarity.

She added a lovely clarification about her own name: She uses her middle initial ‘E’ since she was sometimes confused with a wonderful Sister of Loretto, the late Ann Patrick Ware. They had mutual friends, came to know one another, and appreciated sharing about the mix-ups!

4. Another participant asked why, since Anne deals with interstructured issues, she did not use the neologism of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “kyriarchy,” to describe the interlocking forms of oppression, including racism, colonialism, heterosexism, etc.
Anne E. Patrick replied that she felt more readers could understand “patriarchy.”

5. The same questioner asked about The “Francis factor” referring to the new pope.
Anne told how the completion of her book dovetailed with the election of Pope Francis. She added a few lines to the introduction, but was on deadline to get her book published so had no time for more. She believes that Francis “gets it” that women should have a more prominent role in the church. She also observed that sex discrimination in the area of sacraments undermines any claims of equality. Still, she thinks things will change for the better, that full justice for women and girls is ahead of us. The official church claims it needs a “deeper theology of women,” but there are already many resources to use. The Pope said that “the door is closed” on women’s ordination, but he did not say that the door is nailed shut. The papal challenge to clericalism/careerism is a good start. With Simone Campbell, she takes hope from EVANGELII GAUDIUM, which is written with a certain tentativity concerning women’s status, and which emphasizes “process” rather than “turf.” Things are this way for now but can change with continued discussion. She likes the notion that the homily should be like a “maternal conversation,” a change of emphasis from phallic imagery for preaching. She quoted
Kathleen Hall Jamieson who spoke on the PBS MacNeill-Lehrer NewsHour on the occasion of Pope John Paul II’s visit to the U.S. in September 1987. When asked if papal teaching ever changes, Jamieson replied that yes, papal teaching can change, but only after there has been a period of papal silence on a question. Anne thinks the fact that Pope Francis is not repeating arguments of his predecessors concerning women’s ordination, but guarding a certain silence, may be a prelude to substantive change in the future..

6. A representative of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement thanked Anne for her continued support of that group. Anne told the story of one of the RCWP leaders, Patricia Fresen, a native of South Africa. While studying in Rome, Fresen was told by her professors that if women were ever ordained, she had the gifts. She later taught preaching, but as a woman could not ordinarily preach. Once when she was invited to preach, some male seminarians objected. Earlier, in the days of apartheid, she had been a school principal who violated South African law by welcoming students of color into an all-white school. She was arrested and intimidated by police for her “prophetic obedience” in non-violent actions. That set the stage for her 2003 ordination and subsequent work in RCWP.


This audio recording will be on our Web site .

Our next teleconference will be Wed. April 9, 2014 1 PM EDT, with Margaret Mann who will speak on her book A Dramatically Different Direction about living with a disability.

We will send out notice shortly. All are welcome so please join us. 

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