Moving beyond the Church?, Part 2: “Relationship with the Institutional Church”

Posted in A Report on the Sinsinawa Dominicans Today

Moving beyond the Church?, Part 2: “Relationship with the Institutional Church”

Although a small minority of Sinsinawa Dominicans feel estranged from and avoid the Eucharist, a sense of estrangement from what they term “the institutional church” is extremely prevalent. Individual sisters feel this way, and even the congregation as a whole is perceived by many to be in a difficult relationship with “the institutional church,” of which they stand as critics. Sinsinawa Dominicans apparently even formed in 2008 an “Relationship with the Instutitional Church Committee.”

What do they mean by this? One sister refers to “distinctions we have all made between the church as an institution and the church as the people of God.” The Church as “the People of God”  is direct from the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. But the Council doesn’t actually support making a distinction whereby a Catholic could legitimately stand aloof from or opposed to “the Church as an institution” but remain in a perfect relationship with the Church as “the people of God.” This one Church, which Lumen Gentium calls “the universal sacrament of salvation,” is universal, ie catholic, is the Body of Christ, and is both a mystery and (like any body) a visible unity:

[T]he society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things; rather they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element. For this reason, by no weak analogy, it is compared to the mystery of the incarnate Word.”

[Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on the Church–Lumen Gentium]

Lumen Gentium teaches also: “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by God through Jesus Christ, would refuse to enter or or to remain in her could not be saved.”

Yet this did not prevent Sinsinawa congregation leadership from listing in 2008 among questions some members of the congregation had raised in regards to “the institutional church”: “Is it better to work within or step outside and have our own church?” Although this does not appear to be what most want, some have already stepped outside, and the sisters also reflect on: “What is our reaction to the exodus of people from our church and our own sisters’ exodus from our church?”

Perspectives on whether to remain a sister even if one can hardly bear “the institutional Church”

In 2003 one of the Sinsinawa Dominicans’ youngest members wrote on the sisters’ email discussion list, of anxieties she felt due to the congregation’s looming demographic cliff. Most Sinsinawa Dominicans are now elderly, and there have been few new members in recent decades. She said: “I turned 40 this past April. The most difficult part of this past birthday was not the number, but the number plus the realization that I had been in this congregation for twenty years and at that time there was only one woman younger than me.” Clearly struggling, at that time she nevertheless felt she wanted to stay, and invited others to give their own reasons why they were staying.

But by the end of 2005 this sister had submitted to the prioress a request for dispensation from vows, and wrote to the SinsinOP email list in January 1, 2006 with two reasons. One was that she questioned the wisdom of staying since there were very few behind her in age, and if she left now then there was still a possibility of building a retirement in secular life. The other was:

Our relationship with the institutional church—(While I find my life still centered on the values of the Gospel and mission that we preach and live), I find myself growing further away from the institutional church, with the most prominent feeling being one of embarrassment at this time in history.  I have come to question my own integrity in remaining in the congregation which is so integrally tied to the institutional church.  I know that many of you have difficulties with the institutional church too and have found ways to be women of integrity.

The replies were generally sympathetic and frank. Another sister reflected:

Do I feel connected with the institutional church today?  No.  But I am excited and hopeful about where we are at this point of our history.  As someone very committed to adult faith formation and spiritual growth I feel very connected to the church as “people of God’ as the “Living Body of Christ”.

She wrote also “I was very impressed when I heard about a Dominican Sister who was challanging a Bishop about certain issues and he said to her ‘If you are not satisified, [sic] then leave the church’.  She looked at him and said ‘HOW DARE YOU invite me to leave my family,'” launching then into angry criticism of this Church family, “in dire need of help.” Remaining within while sowing confusion and discord, and damaging others’ relationship with the Church and with God is so harmful that the bishop urged that they just leave. The Father Mazzuchelli Society does not believe in telling people, “leave the Church.” We love all the sisters and we pray and retain hope beyond hope of them truly coming back to the Church, insofar as some have left spiritually. It’s true, the Catholic Church is their family, and Jesus longs to have us all united. He is as much the head of “the institutional Church” as of “the people of God,” because these refer to His one body.

Another of the younger sisters in the Sinsinawa Dominican congregation, Laurie Brink, replied also to the sister who wanted to be dispensed, saying “This is not a new conversation between us, but, now at your invitation, it is a public one.” She herself had a sense of loss: “I have spent a good portion of my life as a Sinsinawa Dominican being disappointed that what the Congregation promised in its Constitution and documents about community life was not and could not be delivered. That’s due mostly to the fact that in the last fourteen years, we’ve experienced massive losses: of members (most all of my peers have left), of institutions (are there any convents left?), of identity (folks don’t think there are sisters anymore). We are not who we once were.” But her authentic vocation and the call to holiness compel her. A Scripture scholar, Sister Laurie refers to Jeremiah 20:9: “it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.” She explains: “It is that fire which cannot be held in that keeps me in this institutional Congregation and institutional Church. It is, in a word, my vocation.”

One of the next posts is by one of those peers of Sister Laurie who left the order. But like some others, she had remained close to the Sinsinawa Dominicans as a lay Associate. “I began the journey of vowed membership in 1986 and left in 1995.  [Sister] – your note touched me deeply. I speak as someone who did choose to leave – for different reasons than you – I think it was easier for me to stay Catholic when I was part of the congregation – I could count on regularly having meaningful worship outside of institutional settings.”

Another sister replying to the one who wanted a dispensation also sees the “institutional Church” as a problem but is steadfast in her vocation: “There is absolutely no doubting the realities you identified:  there are few behind us in age and, by virtue of our baptism and profession, we are integrally tied to an ‘institutional church’ that is (and has often been) rife with problems.  Additionally, it is hard to imagine anything resembling a secure retirement for any of us who hope to turn 70 within the next 15-25 years.” This sister says that since they have vowed poverty they should not have such an expectation. (The Father Mazzuchelli Society, on the other hand, strongly encourages lay people to please donate for sisters’ retirement, either directly to a congregation such as the Sinsinawa Dominicans or through the USCCB’s Retirement Fund for Religious). “Still, for me, the wisdom of remaining a vowed member in a community of women tied to a flawed institutional church is not informed by these harsh realities.” She has been called by Jesus and she loves Him.

The teaching of Vatican II was in continuity with what the Church already taught. There, 1941 Office Book for Dominican Sisters published by the Dominican Sisters of Racine, WI, speaks of the holiness of the Church.

The teaching of Vatican II was in continuity with what the Church already taught. The 1941 Office Book for Dominican Sisters published by the Dominican Sisters of Racine, WI, speaks of the holiness of the Church, and the need for her members to become holy.

The Church, though “indefectibly holy” in the words of Vatican II, “holds sinners in her bosom”–and it is nothing new that many are scandalized by that fact. We are all sinners, and this is why Lumen Gentium, calling to mind Saint Paul, says all are called to holiness: “[I]n the Church, everyone whether belonging to the hierarchy, or being cared for by it, is called to holiness.” It is clear from some sisters’ comments that the real imperfection of the Church’s members is a part of what they are disturbed about. This is intermingled with a sense of antagonism toward the Church hierarchy, which has continued to sound a call to holiness to sisters that includes a call to embrace Catholic teachings, traditions, and legitimate disciplinary authority.

But, to quote one of the principles of Saint Thomas Aquinas, “whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.” Another sister says in the same discussion, “In protest training one is taught to stand a bit sideways when confronted with negative energy so it passes by rather than through one…. In relationship to the Church I do a lot of ‘sideways standing.’ If I lived a life of perfect integrity I’d expect the same of the Church; I don’t therefore I don’t.”

In an edition of Sinsinawa ExCHANGE magazine from the early 1970s, Fr Thomas Clancy SJ wrote on "A New Theology of Holiness" based on "personal responsibility" but no longer valuing obedience.

In an edition of Sinsinawa ExCHANGE magazine from the early 1970s, Fr Thomas Clancy SJ wrote on “A New Theology of Holiness” based on “personal responsibility” but no longer valuing obedience.

From having read the Sinsinawa Dominicans’ 60s and 70s era magazine ExCHANGE, which had “rocking the boat” as one of its stated purposes from the beginning, I can say the congregation quite actively acted to destabilize sisters’ beliefs and sense of their vocation and vows, and their mission and identity. Sister Kaye Ashe was a witness and participant in this, and her reply to the sister seeking dispensation recalls:

In the late sixties and early seventies, many of us thought deeply about our call and our commitment to the congregation and to one another, and our relationship with the institutional church.  We read and reflected and had late-into-the night, heart-to-heart talks about church, future, religious life and the vows. Many left, many chose to cast our lot once again “even unto death” with our sisters in the congregation.  The perspective changes, but the dialogue continues.

Most sisters seem to feel the way this one did, who entered the discussion late: “I feel much more encouraged to continue the quest as a Dominican of Sinsinawa than I do as a member of the institutional Church. The ambience in the institutional Church right now is way off balance with the Magisterium squelching theologians instead of encouraging or at least listening to new insights.” This sister followed up the next day with further thoughts: “Staying does take its toll. Due to the craziness/sinfulness of our church structure, many of us have chosen to leave ministries that put us directly in contact with the abuse of power that is permitted and too frequently wielded in the institutional church. This has been hard to do and necessary for many.”

Only a little while later, at the beginning of February, the sister who had wanted a dispensation wrote again to everyone on SinsinOP. “Dear Sisters, I am grateful beyond words for your responses to my email….While at Sinsinawa, I asked Toni [the prioress] to shred my request and renewed my vows with her and all of you.”

A congregation-level discussion of “relationship with the institutional church”

At the end of 2007 and beginning of 2008, the Sinsinawa Dominicans launched into a professionally-facilitated visioning process, called “Appreciative Inquiry.” The idea was that it would, in the words of prioress general Pat Mulcahey, “assist us in identifying how we see ourselves into the  future, or as someone suggested, what we hear God calling us to.  As I mentioned in my letter of November 19, the Appreciative Inquiry process begins with our appreciating the best of what is and moving from that to what can be.  It seems particularly suited for our desire to set a context for planning for our future.” A core team of sisters, a fairly sizeable and diverse group which included the current prioress, the 1967-1977 “change era” prioress Marie Amanda Allard, and even Sister Donna Quinn, would be trained to conduct interviews with sisters, lay Associates, “stakeholders” such as donors, sponsored institutions, and prioresses of other Dominican congregations, and members of the public, for example “…Real Estate Agencies, State Historical Society, Native American Communities…Media (options for publishing stories), Business community….” The interview questions seem to have been focused on what these people’s expectations were of the Sinsinawa Dominicans, going into the future. I did not notice any special attentiveness to the Catholic Church’s vision of religious life, or how best to fulfill the mission of Jesus Christ and His Catholic Church for the salvation of souls, as part of the Appreciative Inquiry process’ thinking about the future.

The almost year-long process culminated at the Sinsinawa Dominicans’ Community Days gathering in the fall of 2008. The sisters did an evening exercise wherein they “‘dreamed’ about what life would be like in 2018, how we are fully living into and embodying our Dominican mission.” This led to a “design dialogue” activity the following day, based on 17 topics “selected from dream statements done yesterday.” This involved table discussions with a purpose: “We were given two tasks to complete.  One was to discover the key questions that when answered will take our chosen topic to a new level of possibility and innovation.  The second task was to come up with next steps, conclusions or recommendations for moving the chosen topic forward.” Each sister chose two topics to engage with. One of the relatively lower-participation topics (16 sisters, compared with 40 or more on several others) was “Relationship to the Institutional Church.”

The questions and ideas for moving this particular topic forward were later posted to SinsinOP, by the secretary to the prioress and to the congregation, apparently on behalf of prioress Pat Mulcahey, whose name was among those listed in the message as Committee Members for this particular topic (as was Sister Mary Ellen Gevelinger who is now prioress). The congregation as a whole was invited “to share and reflect on them at your regional/circle meetings.” These questions, which surely not all sisters would agree with, but which nevertheless the Sinsinawa Dominicans themselves put on the internet, accessible to anyone’s eyes via the public archive of their email discussion list, were thoroughly outrageous and opposed to Catholic belief.

A.  Questions which arise from our sense of integrity in living our
Gospel beliefs
1.  When and where does the institutional church serve as an obstacle to fulfillment of our mission?
2.  What would Catherine do?
3.  How does remaining faithful to our mission invite us to transform the institutional church and its structures?
4.  Can we as a congregation call Bishops to account?

B.  Questions about process in which to engage
1.  How do we talk with the hierarchy?
2.  How can we dialogue with the institutional church?

C.   Questions about movement toward truths some of us perceive?
1.  How do we formulate a feminine sacramental system?
2.  How do we support and proclaim feminist theology and feminist theologians?
3.  How can we change our vocabulary about God in such a way that we experience an inclusive God?
4.  How do we help all people understand that the violence of the world will never be stopped until we stop the violence against women in all organized religion?
5.  How do we move toward addressing the deeper issues of human sexuality evident in the sexual abuse crisis?

D.   Questions about necessity of the institutional church
1.  What is the point of having the institution?
2.  What is the value of canonical membership for our community in today’s society?
3.  Is it better to work within or step outside and have our own
4.  Could the congregation have a united voice regarding the
institutional church?

E.    Questions about supporting those who cannot accept statements or decisions of the hierarchy?
1. How do we support priests and bishops suffering the same way we are?
2. How much support, given our own integrity can we show for women now being ordained?
3.   How do we support the laity and our sisters in repressive diocesan structures?
4.   Could we as a congregation publicly support women’s ordination?
5.   How do we remain faithful to our mission of the Gospel vis-à-vis demands of the institutional church which we see as contrary to the Gospel?
6.  What is our reaction to the exodus of people from our church and our own sisters’ exodus from our church?

F.  Questions about our commitment to the teaching of Vatican Council II
1.  How do we educate laity caught in an understanding of authority and who don’t know the freedom of the children of God defined by Vatican Council II?
2.  What do we say when people ask us what it is really important to believe?
3.  How do we address or impact the indifference of people in our faith tradition?
4.  How do we revitalize the concepts of Vatican II?

G.  Questions about our responses to the firing of laity and sisters
1.   How do we deal with ultra-conservative, inexperienced pastors firing laity and sisters?
2.  How do we deal with the creation of elaborate buildings followed by the wholesale elimination of programs?

The first reply is from a sister who says: “Thank you all for these fine questions.  We are dealing with many of the same issues/questions in our MADISON-CTA group at this time, given our local diocesan situation.” MADISON-CTA is the local Madison, WI branch of “Call to Action”. The local bishop, Robert Morlino, has said this organization opposes basic tenets of Catholic doctrine and discipline, and is not Catholic.

A more doctrinally grounded sister, Anne Marie Mongoven, had a strongly different reaction, and put a lot of care into a thoughtful essay which she posted in two parts. “I have seen the institutional church.  It is us, and I love it…. The word “institution” does not refer only to the leaders or even less only to some of the leaders in the institution.  It refers to all members of the group.” ” The Church is both a healing and sometimes, painful, presence in our lives.  It is made up of sinners as well as saints.” She wonders, “Maybe some church members would like to reform us.  How would we feel about being reformed by others who were not allied with us in our Dominican institution.  How would we respond?” Sister Anne Marie is concerned about “the way in which some members treat other members of the Church, particularly in correcting them. Sometimes corrections do need to be made but how did Jesus make corrections?” How I have prayed for and sought the way to do this project of the Father Mazzuchelli Society in true charity, with a really heartfelt love and for everyone’s true good! Sister Anne Marie says transparency is “a virtue”–but, this is more transparency than some can feel comfortable with, and I do not take pleasure in that.

Groups of Sinsinawa Dominicans began carrying out the instruction to discuss these questions, and even the congregation’s Circle of Preachers decided that “when COP meets at the Mound on April 18–19, 2009, discussion will center on concerns about our relationship with the institutional church.” A Madison, WI circle of Sinsinawa Dominicans saw a “growing gap between religious orders and the institutional church” as one of the more complex types of issues that needed to be dealt with at the 2011 Chapter meeting.

An Alabama group of Sinsinawa Dominican sisters “expressed general sadness and frustration about the Catholic hierarchy and the emphasis on selected issues during this election time,” and, far from wanting to hide the disturbing list of “institutional Church” questions, had ideas about disseminating it somehow: “Should we send the Community Days questions from the Institutional Church group to NCR [National Catholic Reporter dissident newspaper] or should we join with other groups like Network, Call to Action, LCWR, NCAN, etc. to unify our voice?”

Some Atlanta-based Sinsinawa Dominicans at this same meeting (the Penn community) were enthusiastic about the fact that “a member of the extended community is moving toward being ordained as a women priest.  She has fulfilled most of the requirements…” And, “even though the risk of excommunication is real,” they seem to have wanted the Sinsinawa Dominican congregation to officially support her: “How can we be proactive as a congregation and local community as she moves closer to ordination? How will this affect our congregation, the Penn local parish [Our Lady of Lourdes in Atlanta, GA], the poor served by the Sullivan Center if they lose Catholic financial support?” I am not aware of who this woman was. I know only that there is no such thing as a woman Catholic priest, and that this kind of thing is a break with the Catholic Church of a considerably serious sort. Past prioress Sister Kaye Ashe replied supportively in a message titled “Institutional Church”: “Nora and I attended the first Eucharist of an ordained Roman Catholic woman here in Bay area…. The church was crowded, and so far — no excommunications.” A couple of years earlier, August of 2006, a Sinsinawa Dominican lay Associate (not a sister) had posted proudly to SinsinOP that her mother had recently received “ordination.” I did not see anyone reply.

An Illinois local community meeting discussed the “Relationship with the Institutional Church Committee” questions and declared that “We acknowledge a sense of frustration and helplessness as we observe what seems to be a step backward with regard to fuller participation by all in the institutional Church. Having acknowledged this, however, we believe that there is a value to maintaining our status as a canonical congregation.” Their reasons for wanting to stay a canonical congregation include “to try to effect change from within… to be the voice of the marginalized and oppressed… to remind the hierarchy that preaching is our charism… [to be] a sign of hope and a source of strength for other women in our Church who experience oppression… to be a reminder to some members of the hierarchy and clergy that we do not believe that the Church, as many experience it today, is really being completely faithful to Gospel values.” It will allow them “to train future leaders within our Church” and ” To continue to educate regarding any number of social justice issues….”

The Sierra Madres Circle in California contributed some helpful definitions of terms : “There is a need for a clarification of the terms hierarchy and Institutional Church. While church as institution embraces us all, feminist scholars and our own experience have made us aware of the extent to which we as women have been excluded from the Roman clerical system of institutional power. We have come to understand the term ‘institutional church’ as designating, in Mary Collins’s words ‘that controlled and controlling exercise of power and the symbols of power which feminists have helped us identify as ‘patriarchal’.” Colloquially, it seems, “institutional church” means those aspects of the Church which feminists reject. Sister Kaye Ashe, the message’s author and author of a book titled The Feminization of the Church?, notes that “Some, like Richard Rohr, speak of the contemporary Church as standing at the edge of a precipice and describe a broader ‘Emerging Church.'”

Like many other sisters, members of a Cuba City, WI group “Samuel’s Missionaries,” stated in their “Report on institutional church” that “we believe there is great value in maintaining our status as a canonical congregation. We cannot begin to effect change to an institution we are not a member of.  In fact, by our very Baptism, we are church.” This may likely be an offhand allusion to the dissident organization We Are Church or Wir Sind Kirche.

The Siena Chapter in Oak Lawn, IL, too, felt that “Criticism is more powerful from within the church…. As one sister said, “I won’t leave, but keep working from within.’ We talked about the fact that ‘law follows custom’—the sensus fidelium—and that therefore we should ‘keep pushing but not in a way that puts  you outside the church.’ The value of being Catholic is enormous.” Someone in the group proposed that there should be women Cardinals. They want women’s voices to have impact in the Church and in the world, and indeed the impact of their voice, even though they do not speak with unified voice as a congregation, has a great deal to do with the Sinsinawa Dominicans being part of the Church: “We agree that our validity as a congregation has to do with the fact that we are part of the institutional church.  We could, of course, become a wholly secular society, like the Lionesses or Zonta, doing good works, but our very identity—who we are—includes being part of the church.”

The next summer, August of 2009, Community Days kicked off with Sister Delmarie Gibney FSPA (D. Min from an Episcopalian divinity school) giving a presentation of “the Universe Story”, which is based on Tielhard de Chardin and “contemporary scientific understandings of the evolution of the Universe, Earth, life, and human consciousness as a single unfolding process. Through the perspective of this new cosmology, we can understand both why and how we must change direction to participate in the healing and flourishing of life,” to quote Genesis Farm, a leading promoter of this New-Agey worldview which has been embraced enthusiastically by many LCWR type sisters. In the dissident film Band of Sisters, which I viewed at Sinsinawa Mound in January of 2013, a sister devotee of this belief system explains that this new cosmology no longer includes heaven or hell. After Community Days participants had lunch, there was a review of the history of the Dominicans, from the time of Saint Dominic, “through the 21st Century – Into the Mystery … the future, the unknown….” After this dramatic preparation for ongoing discussion about the future and relationship with the Church: “The evening found many of us joining together in a filled Westview to explore perosnal experiences with the Emerging Church – filling us with hope for the Church that IS emerging in the lives and hearts of the People of God – and hearts on fire for the potential that is yet not realized.”

Although this was precisely the time at which the scandal of Sister Donna escorting women to an Illinois abortion clinic was beginning to explode, which was quite stressful for her, a pleased Sister Donna Quinn wrote on SinsinOP the next week, “Again Thanks to the Emerging Church Group who involved all of us during Community Days in the discussions of Creating an Emerging Church and Changing what it means to Dissent in Our Church.  The number of participants was overwhelming and gave us hope and courage to continue to say what Church is to us.” She notes that responses included: “How do we encourage and support Interfaith dialogue?” “How do we create a strong voice to address the power structures in the Church?” and “Could we have Emerging Church Committees in each Region?” The Emerging Church Committee seems to be successor to the Relationship with the Institutional Church Committee, and Sister Donna lists its members, including then-current prioress Sister Pat Mulcahey, and Sister Mary Ellen Gevelinger, who is today prioress.

The same day, Sister Donna’s friend Sister Patty Caraher wrote, “We live in an historic moment of monumental change and as women religious we are experiencing this transformation as well. Within this evolution many of us see ourselves called to be prophetic in relationship to the Institutional Church. We are in the process of defining ourselves not as handmaidens but as equal partners in church and society.” She speaks of “inviting the hierarchy and our beloved church into the dance circle” and frames the real problem in regards to Sister Donna’s clinic escort activities as not about abortion but about people being judgmental, and states that others (ie pro-lifers) must not be allowed “to define what was happening from their point of view.”

Follow up in the various local area chapter meetings after this spoke of “What can we as Sinsinawa Dominicans do to help shape the emerging church?” and “We feel our gift to the emerging church and to our world is that our compassionate and deep love of God, each other, all God’s people and creation be really visible.” A sister writing in January of 2010  felt that “underneath our vocation discussion is the troubling issue of the hierarchical church with its sometimes, really often times oppressive behavior. Perhaps that reality as much as, or even more than any other is a stumbling block to those who might consider joining a religious community for the sake of mission.” Since the 17 LCWR Dominican Sisters’ congregations, including Sinsinawa, that participate together in a “Collaborative Novitiate” in Saint Louis, produce only a small handful of novices each year all together, whereas the two more orthodox, traditional type Dominican Sisters in Ann Arbor and in Nashville have dozens of joyful young novices each year, as is well known to the Sinsinawa Dominicans who have moments of bitterness, this claim seen repeatedly on SinsinOP that support for “the hierarchical Church” is an obstacle to religious vocations is really demonstrably, conspicuously false.

Another sister’s reply the same day indicates reluctance to even invite women to a religious vocation: “…I seriously question what aspect of this hierarchical Church, of which I am a part, do I continue to hold up/shore up by my being a part of it? In inviting others to join me in religious life am I assisting propping up patriarchy, a hierarchal system that is at the root of the planet’s demise? Is Spirit urging us to fan something new into flame?”

Kaye Ashe, serving as scribe for a group of sisters meeting at Dominican University in Chicago, said, “What does it mean, e.g., to be ‘public persons in the Church’ but not its agents?  (see Sandra Schneiders’ talk ‘God So Loved the World, June 14, 2009).” They reflected: “Our relationship with the hierarchical Church:  What does it mean to be a ‘non-canonical’ congregation?   What constitutes responsible ecclesiastical dissent?  How do we carry out our role as women religious in a large Dominican family (friars, brothers, and other laymen and women)  acting in the midst of the Church and in every corner of the world?” Within the Catholic Church, those who are not in the religious state  of life in accord with canon law are not religious sisters or brothers but seculars, and organizations they form are not religious congregations. Also, those who truly know Catholic doctrine but obstinately dissent and freely teach something gravely opposed to it are technically known as heretics. It is not responsible, conscientious, or healthy to be a heretic.

During spring of 2010 the local Sinsinawa groups began to engage in discussion preparing for the 2011 General Chapter meeting. Imperative matters included for them “Vocations re: identity and membership, i.e., Do we as Dominicans of Sinsinawa want to live or die?” and “Ways in which we can help shape the emerging church.” Another group said: “Relationship with consideration with Church.  Don’t let it shackle.”

Community Days approached again, and yet again this was a key topic on which there was planned to be “deeper conversations.” A subcommittee of the Core Team for Community Days calling itself “Preparation for Community Days Discussion on Our Relationship with the Church” (or, humorously, “Church Ladies”) wrote: “Dear Sisters,  To prepare for a discussion of our relationship with the Church, we hope that during the next few weeks you will bring to prayer, study and discussion the following questions.  Our legacy as Dominicans is an important part of our relationship with the Church.” These questions included “With what realities in the Church of their day did Dominic and Catherine struggle?” “What realities in the Church today do you believe need to change?” “In what ways do we as a Congregation want to work for change?” and “How do we want our relationship with the Church to be perceived by others?”

Sister Donna Quinn replied by posting an article by dissident Marquette University professor Daniel Maguire which she felt “might be helpful to our discussion of Church during Community Days.” It was a breezily mocking piece on “educating bishops” in regards to abortion and homosexuality, from “Conscience, the newsjournal of Catholic opinion published by Catholics for Choice,” the pro-abortion organization.

Sisters living in the Siena section of Sinsinawa Mound discussed the “Church Committee”‘s questions about the Dominican Saints’ struggles in their own day, and had quite a few refreshingly reasonable thoughts. “Love the Church – understand its all inclusive reality. Accept reality of the human imperfections of the Church made up of weak and sinful people (including us.)” Another two sisters reflecting together on these same questions noted with similar reasonableness that Saints Dominic and Catherine had to deal with “Heresy, dissention, illiteracy, human suffering, and  little connection between Church and the daily struggles of people – lack of compassion for the oppressed, those living on the margins of society.” The Saints “Confronted evil within the Church with justice, truth and mercy – not afraid to confront the immorality and corruption of their day.”

In regards to the questions about the Church today, Sisters engaging in discussion at Sinsinawa Mound identified need for change from a very typical “Call to Action” type dissent perspective: “The role of women in the Church – to work toward equality in all areas of Church life/ministry” (ie ordination) “The way church leadership is chosen” “The celibacy issue should be changed.” “Fear of reprisal for ‘speaking up and speaking out’ needs to change.” Also they wanted more openness and transparency in the Church–perhaps that is why they had all this out publicly on the internet for the general public to know in so much detail what they are thinking amongst themselves. The sisters hope that “hope that the leadership of our Congregation working with the leadership of the LCWR and with the support of the members of the Congregation would have influence in bringing about some of the above changes.” They viewed as an example of good collaboration that made a difference “the role of sisters in passing the Health Care Bill.” This refers to Obamacare, which forces employers and individuals to buy insurance for such immoral things as contraception, abortifacients and sterilization, without any adequate conscience protections.

Another community reflecting on the same questions posed by the Church Committee had very similar responses to many others, until the last entry in a list under the heading “Realities in Church today that need change:” “EWTN–powerful, and is seen by many as authentic Catholicism, danger of knowing only this one perspective.” It was alleged to me by someone who may have direct knowledge, that EWTN, the faithfully Catholic cable TV channel founded by a nun, is banned from Sinsinawa Mound.

When Community Days rolled around again in August of 2010, the prioress Sister Pat Mulcahey started off her talk on Day 1 by speaking of renowned protestant Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann. Protestants, of course, hold a fundamentally different belief about the nature of the Church and about the Eucharistic liturgy–or else, of course, they might come into full Communion with the Church, as Catholics. Yet these are the matters on which Sister Pat cites Bruggemann.

Brueggemann says, “the great crisis among us today is the crisis of the common good.”   He goes on to say that commitment to the common good is particularly entrusted to the church and its allies.  He then qualifies it by saying:

“I take “church” here to refer to the institutional church, but I mean it not as a  package of truth and control, but as a liturgical, interpretive offer to reimagine the world differently. When the church only echoes the world’kingdom of scarcity, them it has failed in its vocation. But the faithful church keeps at the task of living out a journey that points to the common good.”

The next day included the inevitable conversation on “Church,” which was facilitated this time by Sister Nancy Shreck, OSF, current president of her Dubuque-based congregation and a former LCWR National President. She said, for instance “We need to re-read ‘Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.'” and “Maybe our role today is to reach out to those who have been hurt by the institutional Church.” It was judged to be “truly an experience of ‘thick talk!'”

The next afternoon, Saturday, “there were groups formed to further our energy around specific topics.” The “Our relationship with church” topic was co-led by Sister Clare Wagner, a Madison Call to Action member who has led programs at the Holy Wisdom Monastery former-Catholic sect, and who said on SinsinOP in April of 2009 that she had “resolved not to put energy into ‘church reform’ but rather into sowing seeds for a new church.”

Chapter 2011: a holy and just Church and society

Chapter meeting only comes around every five years and is a major event in the life of the Community, to be prepared for thoroughly.

As Chapter 2011 drew near, Sister Donna Quinn was grumbling about the unlikelihood that Rome would let them remove all male language for God from their Constitutions, language which she equated with rude name-calling. “Perhaps we need a statement to sign saying we disagree with the language but now we are feeling too disconnected to the Institutional Church to change it.and we don’t have the energy to bother with it.”

Another sister believed in regards to the same matter of changes they wished to make to their Constitutions that would never be allowed by Rome, that for the sake of “integrity” and “the historical context for our archives” (as if there was really a lack of documentation that they feel at odds with “the institutional Church”), it was necessary to make “a statement of declaration that speaks to our experience of our relationship with Rome in 2011. Jesus calls us to the freedom of the daughters of ‘Ineffable Mystery’. Such a statement would acknowledge our conflicted relationship to the institutional church and our experience of the magisterial imbalance in its relationship to other branches of the church. ”

Then the Penn Community in Atlanta raised an idea on SinsinOP in November of 2010, which I think others had batted around before: “We suggest adding the word ‘church’ to our mission statement.  ‘….in order to participate in the building of a holy and just society and church.'” Until this point, the congregation mission statement had begun: “As Sinsinawa Dominican Women, we are called to proclaim the Gospel through the ministry of preaching and teaching in order to participate in the building of a holy and just society.” Vatican II teaches, in continuity with Catholic tradition, that the Church itself is “indefectibly holy” even though her members sin. Also, it is Jesus Who sanctifies the Church. The suggested new wording of the mission statement is not well phrased–but, it caught on. When it was added to the official roster of Chapter proposals the rationale was given, which is precisely in the same vein as others who had wanted there to be some kind of statement of their conflicted relationship with “the institutional Church”: “We believe that adding the word ‘church’ is needed for the sake of integrity.”

The congregation’s repeated returns to the “relationship with the institutional Church” theme over several years may have increasingly disturbed the peace of some sisters, even while it is certainly true that sisters disturbed about “the institutional Church” were driving the attention to the theme. “Right now, we have sisters in angst regarding our relationship with the institutional church,” said one sister in December of 2010. This was why, even though she was “not in total agreement with the starting point of that proposal” she had recently signed in support of a Chapter proposal for “An Alternative (Additional) Non-Canonical Form of Membership” that would accommodate those sisters who felt they did not necessarily want to remain in the Catholic Church, but wanted to remain Sinsinawa Dominican sisters. It would “would allow us to STAY as a canonical congregation but make room within the congregation for an additional form of sisterhood that is non-canonical – but fully participative in the life and mission of our congregation.”

Sister Donna Quinn made a Chapter Proposal “That we Call for a Committee of those interested to look at Systemic Change to those Structures which oppress,” evidently intending a change-the-Church focus: “That we not embrace the Guidelines now of a group that consistently oppresses women, namely Institutional Church.” This was not universally approved by the other sisters. Some at Sinsinawa Mound said of it that within their group, “All agree that we do not endorse this “Systemic Change” proposal (about which see also my discussion of the LCWR Systemic Change Handbook in the article on “What is Eucharist For Me?”); the relationship to the Institutional Church will come up during conversations about Identity.” Even Sister Clare Wagner said: “My own sense is that we ,the majority, are not ready to consider systemic change to structures which oppress us…not at this time. Those of us ready must wait.”

However, the 2011 General Chapter that April did indeed add “Church” to the mission statement, which now is like this: “As Sinsinawa Dominican women, we are called to proclaim the Gospel through the ministry of preaching and teaching in order to participate in the building of a holy and just Church and society.” The sisters knew what they meant by this, while outsiders would not necessarily look askance. Sister Donna’s “Systemic Change” of the Church proposal was not adopted.

Meanwhile, it is still Jesus alone Who makes His Bride the Church holy, and this He has already accomplished, while we the members of this holy Church strive to dispose ourselves that He might fill us with holiness, each and every one.

Sinsinawa and Call To Action

In October of 2011 Sister Donna Quinn recounted a dream:

My dream last week was seeing a person on the second-floor balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican yelling at the Italian police .”Hey, Let My People Go”   and then in another shout-out “Erin, Roy, Jim, Janice and All you down there from Women’s Ordination Conference, Call To Action, Roman Catholic Women-Priests come on up for some hot chocolate and Italian cookies …We will meet in the Library and you can tell me what is bothering you…Why you made such a long trip to our home here in tell your story and ask for Justice….My home is your home…I am only here as a Care-Taker for a few years.  The Vatican belongs to the People of God.  Welcome my Friends   I see in each of you the Face of God…”

Call to Action is a group founded on the idea that people should decide Catholic doctrine democratically. Their typical platform includes every kind of dissent issue, especially of a feminist and sexual liberation nature, such as “women’s ordination,” acceptance of homosexual behavior, contraception and abortion, etc. These are things the Church cannot change, but Call to Action does not seem to believe the Catholic Church is what it says it is, or that it teaches infallibly with authority from God. Call to Action is not at all a Catholic organization.

Unfortunately, Sinsinawa Domincans very much support Call to Action. In 1999, Sister Kaye Ashe wrote on the mailing list SinsinOP, “Dear Milwaukee folks, I’m on the program at the CTA meeting in Milwaukee in November. I’m wondering if any of you will be attending, and if I might stay with you and go back and forth to the hotel with you??”

In 2001 a sister says, “Those of us on the West coast were the first to experience the Call To Action Conference which was held in LA this past weekend. In honor of their 25th anniversary the conference includes three major city sites this year and it is WELL WORTH YOUR WHILE.”

In 2002, the congregation’s Promoter of Preaching wrote about a congregation-wide distribution of some materials opposed to canon law and liturgical law in regards who can preach the homily at Mass: “When you receive your Spectrum packet of inserts this month, you will find a brochure entitled ‘What’s the Good Word on Lay Preaching?’ It comes from Future Church, a ministry of Call to Action.”

In 2003, a sister attending the annual civil-disobedience protest of the School of the Americas in Georgia wrote that it was about 75% young people at the protest, and “Having attended the annual Call to Action national meeting two weeks earlier and seeing a predominance of gray-hairs, it was very encouraging to see all the young people.”

And in 2004, the congregation secretary posted to SinsinOP on behalf of the prioress: “Greetings! Toni [Harris] asked me to send the following message for her: If anyone is attending the Call to Action (November 5-7 in Milwaukee) and would like to represent the congregation at a few events, please contact Toni by phone or by e-mail.”

In 2006 the coordinator for the Sinsinawa lay Associates felt it necessary to schedule around the next year’s Call to Action Conference, for the Associates’ annual gathering: “We hope to see a large gathering next year because we are avoiding the Call to Action weekend.  Our gathering will be held October 12-14, 2007 – mark your calendars now!”

There is simply no stigma in this congregation in regards to attending these events. “I attended the annual Call to Action national conference this past weekend,” writes a sister in 2007.

In 2008 a group of sisters wondered together [and about this there is much more up above], “Should we send the Community Days questions from the Institutional Church group to NCR or should we join with other groups like Network, Call to Action, LCWR, NCAN, etc. to unify our voice?”

In 2009, Sister Clare Wagner wrote about a fellow Madison, WI Call to Action member who was let go from a parish Pastoral Associate job because of her beliefs on “women priests” and “same sex marriage”: “I have known Ruth Kopak for about four years. We both belong to a local CALL TO ACTION group. She in a competent and dedicated minister and a gracious and lovely woman. If you are moved to act or to pray concerning her unjust firing, that would be a blessing for Ruth and for the church.”

In 2011, a sister writes: “Dear Sisters, Associates, Friends: For any of you attending Call To Action this weekend in Milwaukee I urge you to be sure and attend any session that Naim Ateek is giving.  He is an Episcopal priest from Palestine, co-founder of Sabeel.  This is an organization that focuses on Palestinian Liberation Theology.”

While the Apostolic Visitation of the sisters was wrapping up in 2011, a sister passed on to SinsinOP a message the congregation had received from one of the former sisters who said: “I am the leader of SW Florida Call to Action and we are dedicating our annual Magdala celebration on July 21st to you religious women. We are hoping to fill the church for liturgy in your honor.” I looked this up and it was led by a so-called “womanpriest,” a former Benedictine sister.  Pictures show that attendees were few and aged.

Sometimes Call to Action email mailings were forwarded to SinsinOP, such as this one advertising the 2012 Nuns on the Bus stops in Sinsinawa and in Janesville, WI. I myself attended this, but to bring pro-life and religious freedom concerns to the NETWORK Lobby sisters, rather than as a supporter.

And in September of 2012, prioress Sister Mary Ellen Gevelinger told pleased SinsinOP’ers: “At our Council meeting last week, we considered a donation to Call to Action, and decided instead to offer the donation to you to attend the Annual Call to Action Conference in Louisville, Novemter 9-11.  We will pay transportation, hotel and conference registration for 2 sisters to attend the Conference, and choose names by lottery. ” The next day she was “delighted to announce the winners of our Call to Action lottery,” and stated their names. “Congratulations to both of you, as you make plans to attend Call to Action later this Fall, with the financial support of the Congregation.  Thanks to all who submitted your names for the drawing, and others who expressed the wish that you were able to attend this year.”

When they were safely home from the dissident conference, the Prioress General reported: “They all returned with a renewed hope and confidence that we are all Church.” She passed along two quotes they wanted to share, one from a “woman bishop” who is a former Dominican sister, and one from a particularly over-the-top post-Catholic ex-priest dissident theologian: “‘Signs of the times call us to focus on hope and resistance, justice and empowerment. We need the courage to listen to our conscience and then move to ACTION.’ Patricia Fresen RCWP ‘Courage and silence are the first signs of hope and spiritual growth. In silence the mud settles and as it settles, we see clearer.’ Matt Fox.”

“The Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of Truth”

Jesus is mercy and love. He suffered and died for love of sinners and through His Sacraments wills to heal every broken relationship with the Church and with God. "Ecce Homo" painting at the center of Father Samuel Mazzuchelli's historic altar at Saint Patrick Church in Benton, Wisconsin.

Jesus is mercy and love. He suffered and died for love of us, and, particularly through His Sacraments, wills to heal every broken relationship with the Church and with God. “Ecce Homo” painting at the center of Father Samuel Mazzuchelli’s historic altar at Saint Patrick Church in Benton, Wisconsin.

It is right and just that Father Mazzuchelli should have his say (and let us understand calmly that by “men” is meant both men and women):

But of what are not men capable outside of the Catholic Church ? Will they be able to find the Truth without it? Will they be able to hold fast to any belief? Will they find any foundation whereon to build ? The great apostle of the Gentiles answers us in his letter to Timothy, that they are “ever learning, and never attaining to the knowledge of Truth” (II, III, 7), and writing to the Ephesians he calls them children tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine by the wickedness of men, by cunning craftiness whereby they lie in wait to deceive (IV, 14); lastly, he denies that there is any foundation of true doctrine outside the House of God, which he declares “is the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of Truth” (I Tim. Ill, 15).

Father Mazzuchelli teaches that “Ecclesiastical Hierarchy is a Divine Institution” and understands the “Apostolical authority to which the Catholic owes the perfect and uninterrupted organization of [her] Church” to be absolutely indispensable, in order that the Church’s members might be truly fruitful for the Gospel.

The Sinsinawa Dominicans are a congregation of Pontifical Right, meaning they are under the Holy See rather than simply a diocesan institution. According to Vatican II’s document on Bishops, if I understand it correctly, this is partly so “that the Supreme Pontiff may make use of them for the good of the Universal Church.” I have daydreamed: what if Pope Francis went to Sinsinawa Mound and was very kind and good to them, and through reason, gentleness and Holy Preaching won their hearts away from feminist “liberation theology” and back to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, healed their poor hearts and gave them the Lord’s peace, and spoke with them personally of how they can be part of the New Evangelization?

Pope Francis told sisters "Be mothers, not old maids."

Pope Francis called on sisters to live “a fruitful chastity, a chastity that generates sons and daughters in the church. The consecrated woman is a mother, must be a mother and not a spinster.”

He really has spoken to them, though. Sister Mary Ellen Gevelinger, the prioress of the Sinsinawa Dominicans was present at the Vatican for a meeting of the International Union of Superiors General, which Pope Francis addressed, earlier this year. One wonders if the Holy Father may have even had in mind Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink’s memorable words to an LCWR Annual Assembly about some sisters “moving beyond the Church,” that were quoted in the Doctrinal Assessment for the LCWR.

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Francis told 800 superiors of women’s orders from around the world that the Catholic Church needs religious women and that religious women need to be in harmony with the faith and teachings of the church.

“What would the church be without you?” the pope told the women May 8. “It would be missing maternity, affection, tenderness and a mother’s intuition.”

Religious superiors, Pope Francis said, need to ensure their members are educated in the doctrine of the church, “in love for the church and in an ecclesial spirit.”

Quoting Pope Paul VI, he said: “It’s an absurd dichotomy to think one can live with Jesus, but without the church, to follow Jesus outside the church, to love Jesus and not the church.”

Please, Sisters, please listen to him.