As you may have heard, last week the Vatican issued a document that was quite critical of a group representing most of the Roman Catholic nuns in the United States. The report concluded that the nuns had emphasized certain social teachings of the Roman Church over others, and had shown signs of departure from certain of the church’s doctrines. The public reaction in the United States seemed largely sympathetic to the nuns, and largely critical of the all-male hierarchy of the Catholic Church. My own friends who are Roman Catholic were somewhat divided in terms of their reaction, with some pointing out that the nuns seemed to indeed have departed from some of the teaching of the bishops, and thus the criticism of them by the Vatican was appropriate; others sided with the nuns. One commentator remarked online that the Roman Catholic Church is, after all, “not a democracy.”
That the Roman Church is not a democracy is manifestly clear. For centuries upon centuries, the authority to discern the truth for Roman Catholics has been reserved to the church’s bishops, who are (as the document about the nuns reminded people) the church’s “authentic teachers.” But even all bishops are not quite created equal. Among the bishops, there is a hierarchy which ultimately leads to Rome and to the pope, who is THE teacher par excellence in the Roman system. The question that most interests me is that, given the clear lines of authority within Roman Catholicism, why did the nuns walk so far out onto an ecclesiastical limb? They must have known that there was a rather high risk that a bishop, or group of bishops, or even the pope himself would eventually climb their tree armed with a saw.
While I don’t have access to any inside nun information, I think that their willingness to hang out near the end of that limb is, at least in part, meant to question the official Roman position about how truth is discerned. The nuns, I think, are not convinced that the bishops alone have access to the mind of God, and they dare to suggest that the Spirit moves not only among the bishops but among their community of women, as well, and that this same Spirit is whispering some new things that the bishops are unwilling or unable to hear. The question for the bishops, it seems to me, is whether the challenge posed to the church’s hierarchy by this group of nuns is a challenge only from the women themselves or whether the women are instruments through whom the Spirit is seeking to say new things to the church?
My own experience of church (which has been not in the Roman mode, but first in the United Church of Christ and then in The Episcopal Church) has helped me to see that the process of discerning the movement of the Spirit within communities of faith is a messy business. It has also taught me that most people wish it was not messy. So many people would like things to be clear when it comes to the mind of God so that they can be sure that they are living in harmony with God. It also seems true that there are a number of people who would like to have the work of discernment done for them by others rather than have to engage it themselves. But, as Jesus reminded us, the Spirit blows where it wills, and one can never quite know where it is coming from or where it is taking us. This makes it difficult to insist that the Spirit must operate only through particular channels. I sometimes think that the more we insist the Spirit move through our structure in a particular way, the more the Spirit seeks to unsettle and confound us by moving in unexpected ways.
I am not Roman Catholic, so I really don’t have a dog in this fight, so to speak. However, I cannot help but think that through the nuns, the Spirit is indeed trying to say something to the church. These women have devoted themselves to an ordered life of prayer and service for many years, and to some degree, they have surely learned the subtle language of the Spirit, and they have sought to share the fruit of those sacred conversations with the larger body of the faithful. Certainly, the bishops have their own ordered life of prayer and service and undoubtedly they, too, have to some degree come to know the intimations of the Spirit. Christian tradition, at its best, has long maintained that the most reliable way for the church to discern the leading of the Spirit is by bringing the people of God together to take counsel with one another and engage in the difficult and often messy conversations that help to uncover the leading of God among them. Whenever a church — any church — narrows the number and kind of people who are allowed to participate in those conversations too much, we risk missing something important.
Our lives as faith communities may become messier for a while, but they will always be enriched and, ultimately, become more faithful when we are able to recognize that whatever hierarchies we may value, the Spirit moves where it will, and sometimes those we think least likely to know the mind of God may actually have the greatest insight into where the Spirit is leading.