Church authority: where do religious orders stand?

Church authority: where do religious orders stand?


If further evidence were needed of the Catholic Church's administrative paralysis, it was provided in the contrasting roles of two speakers at last July's National Assembly of the Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes (ACLRI): Archbishop Franco Brambilla, the Apostolic Pro Nuncio to Australia, and the Assembly’s keynote speaker, American nun, Sr Barbara Fiand.

During his address to the ACLRI Assembly, published in full in The Record (Perth), Archbishop Brambilla reminded his audience about certain doctrinal realities. Given that three years previously the ACLRI Executive had released a letter challenging the central points of the Pope’s Apostolic Letter on priestly ordination, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (August 1994 AD2000, p.3), the Pro-Nuncio's remarks related to an existing, visible and fundamental problem: the disobedience of large sections of the religious orders to Papal authority, and to major Catholic doctrinal positions.

That the religious order leaders were continuing along the same path, apparently undeterred by any official admonitions (if such had been given), could be deduced from their choice of Sr Fiand as a suitable keynote speaker, given the drift of her recently published writings, notably in Living the Vision: Religious Vows in an Age of Change (Crossroads, New York, 1990).

Catholic teachings denied

In Living the Vision, among other things, Sr Fiand denies the Eucharist is the offering of a sacrifice, claiming it is only a repetition of the Last Supper - a simple meal of friendship; Christ’s passion and death were not a sacrifice in atonement for sin, but simply a struggle to maintain his personal integrity; Christ did not intend his Church to be hierarchical, but a "community of equals"; Original Sin was not inherited from our First Parents, but is based on a refusal to engage in "creative activity." And so on.

In the meantime, the problem was further underlined by the West Australian Council of Religious Insti- tutes’ invitation to Sr Joan Chittister OSB to speak at public meetings and meetings of religious in Perth on the weekend of 5-7 September. Sr Chittister is a prominent member of Call to Action, the US organisation most actively engaged in attacks on Catholic teachings and on Papal authority.

During his address, Archbishop Brambilla reminded his audience that Vatican II (in Lumen Gentium) had headed one chapter "The Church is Hierarchical." The Church, he said, was not merely spiritual, but a visible, organic community "with due order ... As a structured organisation, the Church needs laws, and authority which safeguards and applies such laws." It was "absolutely improper to speak in the Church context about power in the same way as one often speaks about power in civil society."

Jesus, the founder of the Church, said the Archbishop, did in fact teach and act with power and authority which were, in turn, to reside also in the Apostles whom he commissioned to spread the Gospel throughout the world. "To attack or deny this institutional mould of the Church and this apostolic authority, whether of sanctifying, teaching or governing" is to go "against the word of Christ, the plan of Christ and the love of Christ."

Vatican II, said the Archbishop, taught that Jesus "willed that (the Apostles’] successors, the Bishops namely, should be the shepherds in his Church until the end of the world." In order that the episcopate should be "one and undivided", Vatican II adds that Jesus "put Peter at the head of the other Apostles" as a "lasting and visible source and foundation of the unity both of faith and communion."

"Individual members of Institutes of Consecrated Life," the Archbishop continued, "are bound to obey the Supreme Pontiff, by reason also of their sacred bond of obedience." Yet, "unfortunately in certain sectors and among some categories of Catholics (including, it must be said, among a number of members of some (religious institutes) a certain intolerance, a spirit of indiscipline and of mistaken emancipation flourishes."

During an interview published in Sydney’s Catholic Weekly at the time of the Assembly, Sr Fiand, as if confirming the necessity for the Arch-bishop’s remarks, declared that "The people of God are not children run by or supervised by some adults. We are a Church of adults who have the right as well as the responsibility to ask why, when decisions are made for us or declarations are pronounced."

Which goalposts?

The Church, she said, should learn from the business sector’s leadership which tapped its employees’ "creativity", "empowered them" and discerned "their gifts, resulting in good, effective management."

(Sr Fiand’s knowledge of business practices is unfortunately limited. Only recently Australia’s largest company sacked its most successful divisional head and company director when he publicly dissented from the Board’s decisions.)

Sr Fiand observed that "the laity are gradually assuming responsibility and taking ownership of the Church" which, she said, "was never meant to be elitist - we all share the same vocation through our baptism."

The logical consequences of this situation are perfectly clear. The religious orders - or many of them through their leaders - are openly defiant of the Church’s doctrines and Papal authority. The bishops are generally silent, although some are obviously in agreement with them. Those who defend orthodox doctrines and authority are 'marginalised' as right-wingers. As a result, what is heretical and what is orthodox operate de facto on a basis of equality.

Hardly a formula for victory, or even for defining which sets of goalposts we are kicking for!

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