Nuns Under Fire (NCR)

Nuns firm under fire

NCR Staff
Dublin, Ireland
July 13, 2001

Under Vatican threat of serious penalties, Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister addressed June 30 the first international conference for women’s ordination groups around the world. Based on letters sent to her superior and conversations with canonical advisors, Chittister said she believed she could be expelled from her religious order or excommunicated.

Under a similar Vatican threat, Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Myra Poole of London came out of retreat and addressed the conference on the same day. Poole, who played a major role in organizing the conference, had also been ordered by the Vatican to stay away.

Sr. Christine Vladimiroff, prioress of Chittister’s community, the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pa., declined to deliver to Chittister a March 20 Vatican order forbidding her to speak or attend. The order, a formal precept of obedience, was in the context of a letter to Vladimiroff from the Congregation for Institutes of the Consecrated Life. Vladimiroff could also face “just penalties,” which, under the church’s Code of Canon Law, could include her removal as prioress.

All three women said they had agonized over their decisions to disobey Vatican orders, which derive from a 1995 church ban on even discussion of women’s ordination. Chittister was among conference participants who said the Vatican’s intervention had turned what would have been a quiet, though international, conference into a watershed in the movement for women’s ordination to the Catholic priesthood.

In response to an NCR inquiry after the conference, though, the Vatican appeared to soften its stance. Archbishop Piergiorgio Silvano Nesti, secretary of the congregation, directed questions on the matter to the Vatican press office. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told NCR, “The Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life believed that the participation of the two female religious in the women’s ordination conference would not be opportune without the permission of their superior generals. The congregation has not taken -- in this case -- disciplinary measures into consideration.”

Vladimiroff said she was gratified by the statement. It represents a major step forward, she said, in that it suggests a willingness to dialogue and recognizes the legitmate role of a religious superior in decisions affecting members of her community.

Some 370 participants from 27 countries attended the conference, held June 29-July 1 at University College Dublin. The event was sponsored by Women’s Ordination Worldwide and hosted by an Irish group known as BASIC (Brothers and Sisters in Christ). Women’s Ordination Worldwide was founded in 1996 as an umbrella organization over women’s ordination groups and movements around the world. Poole was the organization’s first chairperson.

Many delegates were from women’s ordination groups in their own countries. Participants gathered to discuss, plan and pray about what one of the event’s organizers called “the wonderfully disturbing gift of women’s ordination.”

The Vatican issued its ban on discussion in November 1995, declaring Pope John Paul II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, to be infallible teaching requiring “definitive assent.” In that document, issued in May 1994, the pope said the church has no authority to confer priestly ordination on women.

The threats applied to the three nuns derive from canon 1371 in the church’s 1983 Code of Canon Law. The canon says that Catholics who teach a doctrine condemned by the pope or a council, or who refuse to comply with “legitimate precepts or prohibitions” of the Holy See, or of an ecclesiastical superior, are to be punished with a “just penalty.”

Precept of obedience

Canon law provides for removal of superiors in religious orders for violating church teaching or law. Chittister said she had been advised that attending or speaking at the conference could result in expulsion from her order, excommunication or interdict -- a formal ban from all the sacraments.

Vladimiroff and canonical advisors met May 28 with members of the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of the Consecrated Life, the curial office that deals with matters pertaining to religious orders.

The day before she left for the conference, Chittister told NCR in a telephone interview that she was waiting for Vladimiroff to hand her the precept of obedience, as the Vatican required. Chittister had already decided to disobey the order. But it never came.

Instead, during evening prayer Vladimiroff read a letter she’d written to Vatican officials explaining why she felt she was unable to deliver the precept and invited all 128 active nuns in the community to add their signatures to the letter.

Only one of the 128 nuns declined to sign. Nuns in the community then gave Chittister a special blessing. “After that,” Vladimiroff said, “we had dinner together. That’s what families do.”

When Chittister spoke at the meeting here, she noted that some of the nuns who signed did so from wheelchairs. Further, she said, 35 of the younger nuns had taken another step: They signed a statement asking that any punishment meted out by the Vatican to Chittister be given to them as well. Chittister carried the signatures of the 35 with her.

Before the meeting, Soline Vatinel, cofounder of the 180-member BASIC with her husband, Colm Holmes, put out the word that no women were to be ordained at the conference, squelching rumors that ordinations could occur. Conference sponsors called attention to the conference by erecting seven billboards in five Irish cities, three in Dublin (including one across from the residence of Cardinal Desmond Connell), one each in Cork, Limerick and Galway and one in Belfast in Northern Ireland.

Vatican moves to chill the gathering may not have been confined to warning Catholic nuns.

Aruna Gnanadason, an official of the World Council of Churches and a member of the United Church of India, in early May withdrew her commitment to be the meeting’s keynote speaker. Gnanadason coordinates the council’s Justice, Peace and Creation team, with special responsibility for the women’s program.

Regarding Gnanadason’s withdrawal, Vatinel told the The Irish Times, “The official reason was that the World Council of Churches said it didn’t want to interfere in the internal affairs of the Catholic church. The unofficial reason was that the Vatican said it would withdraw from commissions involving the World Council of Churches if Ms. Gnanadason spoke at the conference.” Catholics constitute half the membership of the council’s Faith and Order Commission.

Vatinel told NCR that her information about the unofficial reason came from friends of Gnanadason.

However, a spokesperson for the World Council of Churches said, “It is not correct to say we had pressure from the Vatican, even though that would be a very enticing story. Of course,” she added, “I cannot monitor internal conversations of [council] officials.”

Chittister, author of some 20 books and one of America’s best-known nuns, said she had gone through weeks of turmoil and hours of discussion with her prioress and other members of her order before deciding to honor her commitment to speak.

“How is it that the church can call other institutions to deal with women as full human beings made in the image of God when their humanity is precisely what the church itself holds against them in the name of God?” Chittister said in her talk, titled “Discipleship for a Priestly People in a Priestless Period.” She referred to the church’s refusal to ordain women because they are physically unlike Jesus, a man.

To preach a theology of equality “and at the same time maintain a theology of inequality, a spirituality of domination that bars half of the human race on the basis of gender from full participation and [that] in the name of God says that women have no place in the dominion of the church and the development of doctrine, is to live a lie,” she said. In a global age, what was once a hierarchy of human kind “is coming to be seen for what it is: the oppression of human kind,” she said. “The church preaches the equality of women but does nothing to demonstrate it in its own structures.

Ecclesiology of superiority

Chittister, recovering from surgery and walking with a thick, carved cane, told NCR after her talk, “This isn’t an ordination question. This is a question of freedom of speech, of human rights, authority, adulthood and development of doctrine in the church. This is a question of the sensus fidelium [the sense of the faithful].

“This is a strong doctrine of the church -- the primacy of conscience -- in conflict with its position on women priests,” she said. Chittister said Vladimiroff and others had been in dialogue with Vatican officials in an effort to help them understand monastic obedience. “It’s not like military obedience,” she said. “Benedictines see authority as relational. We do not see a prioress as having a base of power.”

Benedictines have been around for 1,500 years, Chittister told the conference. “We survived the Dark Ages, feudalism, two world wars. We’re not going to let a little letter from Rome get us down.”

At the end of her talk, Chittister received a long standing ovation.

In a telephone interview after her talk, Chittister expanded on the difference between the hierarchical or “military” model and the Benedictine model of obedience. “We don’t give people orders,” she said. “We give them information, and on the basis of their sense of responsibility and their own discernment, they make decisions. And we support those decisions. We trust those decisions.”

Both Chittister and Vladimiroff said the basis of their decisions was a strong sense that they would be violating their own integrity as individuals and as religious women if they followed the Vatican’s directives.

Vladimiroff, 61, said, “I felt it would be a lack of integrity on my part to give a precept for something I do not agree with. I cannot accept an order of silencing.

“Secondly,” she said, “no religious superior should be put in the position that I have been put in: to deliver a precept from Rome to a community member. The relationship between a community member and her superior is sacred.”

She said the decision had been “extremely difficult. Extremely. I love the church. In my role as prioress I need to protect the community and to support Joan, and all those forces had to be in play.”

“My community met many times around this issue, giving me counsel and advice,” Vladimiroff said, “and I met many times with Joan. It was a discernment process. We are looking at obedience from the position of people who live in this tradition, and the Vatican is looking at it from a tradition of canon law. The norms are different.”

Vladimiroff, an Erie Benedictine since 1957, has been the community’s prioress since 1998. Benedictines are organized as autonomous communities who join together in federations. Unlike many other religious orders, Benedictines have no single authority in Rome.

In a statement issued to the press, Vladimiroff said, “My decision should in no way indicate a lack of communion with the church.”

Chittister said in the telephone interview, “Sr. Christine told me of the Vatican’s concern that my participation in the conference would not be good for the church.” Curial officials had told Vladimiroff that “religious have to be in communion with the church” at all times.

“My discerned judgment was, after checking with a lot of people, that what was bad for the church was not discussion but the oppression of ideas, the silencing of people, the repression of conversation, the reflection that leads to doctrinal development. That’s what’s not good for the church.

“I did not do this in defiance of the church,” Chittister said. “I did this because the best history of the church is in discussion. To suppress discussion, Chittister said, is “a sin against the Holy Spirit.”

“It didn’t work with Humanae Vitae,” she said, referring to the 1968 papal encyclical banning artificial means of contraception, which is widely ignored. “There was no public discernment” on that issue. “People didn’t own that. It’s affected the church negatively ever since.”

The other nun ordered to stay away from the conference, Myra Poole, had decided after what friends described as “great suffering” to comply with the Vatican directive, and during the first half of the conference she stayed away. She was staying south of Dublin praying for the success of the conference, a friend, Dorothea McEwan, also of London, told NCR.

Late Saturday afternoon at the close of a panel of women from Hungary, Brazil, South Africa, Uganda, Mexico and Japan, Poole bounded up the steps of the speakers’ platform and took the microphone. Poole was largely responsible for arranging for the attendance of women whose voices are less frequently heard on church topics.

Poole, 68, said, “The spirit of Julie Billiart is here in this room.” The statement honored the founder of her order, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, and was also a plug for Poole’s new book about Billiart’s spirituality, Prayer, Protest and Power, published by Canterbury Press and available at the conference along with other books on women in the church.

“The church is in grave error on the question of women’s ordination,” Poole told the group. “I have been a member of my community for 42 years. I will never leave the Catholic church. I will never leave my community.”

Poole told the reporters who immediately circled her, “I had to speak for the women of the developing world.” On Vatican efforts to squelch the conference, she said, “It’s tied into violence against women.”

Following her meetings with reporters, Poole greeted Genevieve Chavez of Las Cruces, N.M., executive director of Women’s Ordination Conference, a U.S. group that marked its 25th anniversary last fall. Thirteen of the group’s 14 board members were at the conference.

At the end of May, Poole and her superior in Rome were summoned to the Vatican, The Irish Times reported. In addition, she has had three letters from the Vatican related to the conference. Poole’s order is based in Rome.

Speaking in Gnanadason’s stead was the Rev. Rose Hudson-Wilkin, a Jamaican Anglican who explained how, as vicar of two London East End congregations, she “faced rejections along with the welcomes. It’s been a bit of a double whammy -- being a woman and black.”

Hudson-Wilkin pointed to “all the energy taken up preventing women from contributing to the full life of the church.” Women are being barred from ordination by “so-called gatekeepers, who know more than God and who dare to say that they know the will of God, and women play no significant part in that,” she said.

Two speakers had nothing to fear from the Vatican. One was Nobel Peace Prize winner Máiread Corrigan Maguire, co-founder of the Community of Peace People in Northern Ireland.

Maguire said in her talk, “Many people are coming to see that this kind of theological argument based on biology is nonsense.” She described the Vatican’s stance as “spiritual violence” against women.

‘Spiritual violence’ against women

The other was John Wijngaards, who resigned from the priesthood in 1998 to protest the pope’s apostolic letter Ad Tuendam Fidem (“In Defense of the Faith”), which placed discussion of women’s ordination under severe penalty. Wijngaards, who holds a doctorate from Gregorian University in Rome, served 14 years in India and was for six years head of the Mill Hill Missionaries, maintains that Rome’s arguments against the ordination of women are untenable from a scriptural and theological point of view.

In the question period following his afternoon talk, Wijngaards drew laughter when he offered this proposal for nudging ahead the cause of women priests: plan an event and pray it stirs controversy.

Also attending the conference was Fr. Eamonn McCarthy, who has been denied an appointment in his Dublin archdiocese for more than a year, ever since he defied a request from Cardinal Connell that he refrain from commenting on women priests.

Connell made no statement about the conference. “It was an unofficial event, and the church’s teaching is clear,” Ronan Mullen, the archbishop’s spokesman said July 3.

“The danger is, if we focus on the impossible, we may lose sight of the possible -- the urgent need for renewal in the church,” Mullen said. To fulfill the teachings of Vatican II, he said, “laymen and women must become more knowledgeable and active in living the faith and in giving witness to it in the workplace, as educators, parents and participants in public life.”

On the final day of the conference, those attending adopted 11 resolutions, including one calling on the pope to revoke the ban on discussion of women’s ordination.

Participants described the conference as historic in that it marks the beginning of a coordinated worldwide movement for ordination of Catholic women. Vatinel declared, “Its success exceeded our wildest dream.”

Former Jesuit William Callahan of the Quixote Center in Baltimore said the meeting “takes away the myth the Vatican has promulgated that this is a North American movement. ”

Vladimiroff, Chittister’s prioress, said of the Vatican’s post-conference statement: “It’s heartening to me that the Vatican would continue the dialogue so that there would be better understanding between religious communities’ place in the church and the role of religoius leadership in their communities and with the church’s hierarchy. This will be great news for religoius all over the world, because it’s been difficult for religious to establish that kind of dialogue. We want to be able to exercise leadership within our communities and want our judgment to be trusted.

“We have simply asked, and they seemed to have heard us.”

Of the 350 attending the conference, nearly 300 who had pre-registered were women, and about 30 of those were nuns. Before the conference opened, registrants included 93 from Ireland, 82 from the united States, 67 from England, four from Northern Ireland, 20 from Germany, 11 from France, seven each from Austria and Scotland, six from Australia, five each from Spain, Holland and South Africa, three each from India and Mexico, two each from Japan, Portugal and Uganda and one each from Kenya, Ghana, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Denmark and Hungary.

Velisiwe Mary Mikhwanazi of Durban, South Africa, said, “The most important thing to take home is the spirit of solidarity.”

The assembly defeated one resolution, which called for withholding of the Peter’s Pence payment to Rome and redirecting contributions to organizations that support the ordination of women. It narrowly failed to get the 60 percent required to pass.

Other resolutions adopted called for:

  • Women to study for the diaconate and priesthood, along with provision of suitable training courses where they are not available to women;
  • Ministers in all churches to use gender-neutral language in liturgies;
  • Women and men who have been punished for their support of women’s ordination to tell their stories and make public the Vatican’s actions. In some cases, such penalties, some involving prominent theologians, have become public only years later.

The conference closed with a colorful liturgy. Many participants wore purple stoles, a symbol of priesthood. and of the movement. There was no official celebrant. Instead, all participants joined in blessing the bread and wine.

Some reporting for this story was done by NCR staff members in Kansas City, Mo., NCR Vatican correspondent John L. Allen Jr., and Patricia Lefevere, a correspondent in New Jersey.

National Catholic Reporter, July 13, 2001