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Catholic compassion, not condemnation

Alex Coccia | Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), while devoting one sentence to acknowledging “the great contribution of Women Religious to the Church in the United States,” condemned LCWR for having, “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith in some of the programs and presentations sponsored by the LCWR … Moreover, some commentaries on ‘patriarchy’ distort the way in which Jesus has structured sacramental life in the Church.” The statement came as a great surprise to the sisters involved in and with LCWR. In addition to surprise, many religious and laypersons in the U.S. are outraged by the Vatican’s unexpected and unreasonable appointment of Cardinal Sartain to oversee the group.

Former LCWR president Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister said that the Vatican’s response is an attempt to control people’s thinking, which would “make a mockery of the search for God, of the whole notion of keeping eyes on the signs of the times and of providing the people with the best possible spiritual guidance and presence you can give.” Unfortunately, the spiritual guidance that has been emanating from the Church and its hierarchy as of late to help people with their search for God has resulted in the decrease of practicing American Catholics. Whether it is the Vatican excommunicating the mother of a nine-year-old girl who had had an abortion after being raped by her step-father, or Monsignor William Lynn or Reverend James Brennan regarding their involvement in a clerical sex-abuse scandal in Philadelphia. Whether it is the clear lack of understanding from Archbishop Dolan with respect to the plight for homeless LGBT youth in New York, or Bishop Daniel Jenky likening President Obama with Hitler and Stalin, or the Vatican reprimanding the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for supposedly promoting radical feminist themes and being silent on the issue of abortion. The Church and its male hierarchy have fallen very hard from grace in the public eye.

What has certainly become clear from the outpour of critiques of the Church is the dichotomy that exists in the American Catholic Church between preaching and practice. The Church must consider the image it creates for itself in the United States and recognize that there does exist a point at which the words that are preached must be in line with the actions that are practiced. For the Church to gain a positive presence in the United States, there is a need for a renewed catholic vision that focuses on the teachings and actions of Jesus Christ. Condemnation of the work of American nuns does not resonate well with this vision.

However, condemnation should not be the means the Vatican uses to attract more people to the Church. Catholic means universal, a truth that should not be applied only to scripture and doctrine, but to behavior that models that of Christ. The moments that force people out of the Universal Church are all teachable moments, but only if the Church is willing to use them as such. Such condemnation removes focus from the good work that the Church does in cities, towns and villages across the world. Such condemnation hides from many what should be the reasons to feel a sense of belonging to the Catholic Church – the grass roots and structural focus on social justice from a myriad of Catholic groups, like Catholic Relief Services, the work by other groups to create interfaith dialogue in some of the most war-torn regions of the world, or the efforts of some to educate others to enter the world with a commitment to serving others as the driving force of professionalism, among many. The negative images of the Church and its hierarchy damage can hinder the image of the work that others, like the sisters of LCWR, are doing in communities to help the oppressed and promote the dignity of individuals.

Sister Simone Campbell, who was reprimanded in the Vatican’s recent report, said in an NPR interview, “What we do as Women Religious is, we minister to people everywhere who are suffering, who are being discriminated against, and we don’t ask to see a baptismal certificate. We serve everyone we find, in keeping with the Gospel of Jesus.” The faithful need the visible leaders who exemplify that faith and that Gospel teaching. They have those leaders in the sisters. The beauty of the Church is and should be its ability to reach the poor and vulnerable and to speak a language of love to all people. However, the hierarchy must set the same example as the sisters, and exercising condemnation of those who are compassionate rather than showing compassion itself is most certainly not the right way to go about it.

Alex Coccia is a sophomore. He can be contacted at acoccia@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.