Radical feminists and activist nuns in New Zealand continue to nibble away at those structures and teaching of the Catholic Church which have to do with religious life, the role of women in the life of the Church and, in particular, with the reservation of the priesthood to men only.
Two recent developments show this clearly. The first is the decision of the Federation of the Sisters of Mercy, to invite to New Zealand an American nun who challenges Church teaching in important areas. Sr. Sandra Schneiders is to lecture on the topics, "Is Religious Life still Relevant?", "The Spirituality of Being Catholic Women and Religious in a Changing Society," "Our Changing Church" and "Religious in a Lay-Centred Church."
The second involves a move by an employee of the Bishops' Conference, Sr. Patricia Hannan, O.P., which presses the case for preaching at Mass by nuns and laity. She has written an article which was supposed to be for Dominican Sisters only, but which is now circulating at large. The link with women's ordination comes out in the use of such phrases in the article as "preaching and Eucharist are closely linked." Sister Hannan's conclusion is that no matter what it may seem to say, "Canon Law does not prevent women from preaching at Mass, including on Sunday."
Let us look at the implications of these two matters, one by one. The announcement which has been circulated regarding the Schneiders visit reveals that whereas she will be giving public talks in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin, there will be none in Christchurch. Her time there is listed as a private visit." There has been no announcement about that, but it is generally felt that Bishop Basil Meeking has refused her permission to speak publicly in his diocese.
If that is indeed the case, then he can be hardly blamed. Indeed, it is hard to see how any bishop who takes his pastoral responsibilities seriously and remembers his episcopal ordination pledges to uphold the faith, could let the lady loose among his faithful. Her views are widely known and were set out at some length earlier this year in Donna Steichen's Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism (Ignatius Press).
Sandra Schneiders, I.H.M., is associate professor of New Testament and Christian Spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology in the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. She insists that women religious should be free of Vatican control. For her, nuns are lay persons, not "clergy," and have the right to "enjoy the same freedom as the rest of the laity to participate freely in the activities of the world." Like many of her ilk, she is strong on the jargon; she says there has been, since Vatican II, a "gradual espousal of a pneumatological ecclesiology which is not really compatible with the reigning ecclesiology of the Vatican."
On the evidence of her own books, New Wineskins and Beyond Patching, Sr. Sandra is concerned with using Scripture to serve the feminist cause. She scoffs at the notion that the Bible "contains revelation," that it is "God telling us things, a collection of otherwise unavailable information."
She believes that Scripture is "overwhelmingly patriarchal, androcentric, sexist and oppressive of women." Feminists, she says, should seek new interpretations. For her the Church is part of an historical conspiracy against women. She is willing to concede that "Jesus is an expression of the divine. But is he the only one?"
This much is certain: Religious life in New Zealand, now in a very sad state, will be even more shaky by the time her audiences, who will probably be mostly nuns, have absorbed what she has to say. It is an ironic thought that the Sisters of Mercy, who have not had an entry in their joint novitiate for years, should be bringing in someone whose views are so far removed from the Church's view of the Religious life.
The Hannan article will not have the same impact as Schneiders, but it will command some attention because of her position as a canon lawyer employed by the Bishops. The note attached to her article says:
"This article is for New Zealand Dominican Sisters only. Please do not photocopy it for anyone else. You may use the information contained in your own name, but not in mine. Reason: Canon Law is given by some Church officials as their reason for a stance taken. This is often incorrect, but is effective as a means of control. The Episcopal Conference which employs me would not be overjoyed by what I have written."
The general intent of the article emerges from this passage: "Canon 767, among other things, says that the homily, which is part of the liturgy itself, is reserved to a priest or deacon. One major reason for this is that the Mass consists of Word and Eucharist. Any change in the role of the ordained minister is inevitably going to support the question of the ordination of women, and nothing that might assist this is tolerated at the moment."
And further on, she notes that in this matter of preaching, as with many other pastoral questions, some Bishops do not have the theological or canonical knowledge to know what they can do. Some are afraid of higher authority. Some are naturally conservative. Some don't like any changes if they can avoid them. Canon Law is a very limited science. There is almost nothing it can do in resolving such attitudes. Moreover, in all canonical matters, it is essential to remember that law may be necessary, but Christian freedom has a very real priority over ecclesiastical jurisdiction."
I suppose the kindest thing which could be said of Sr. Patricia's effusion is that at least it tells her employers (a) what she thinks of them as bishops; and (b) leaves them in no doubt that if there is to be an eventual showdown on these issues, then the bishops can take their Canon Law and go jump in the lake for all the notice some nuns will take of them.
John Kennedy is a former editor of 'The New Zealand Tablet' and 'AD2000' correspondent for New Zealand.