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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

 July 29, 2003
   Vol. 1, No. 18

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sr. Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sr. Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

Justice and power are not synonyms

By Joan Chittister, OSB

(Editor's Note: This is Part Two of Sr. Chittister's reflection on Witness to Integrity: The Crisis of the Immaculate Heart Community of California by Anita Caspary, former IHM superior. In the late 1960s, the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters found themselves caught between the directives of the Second Vatican Council to renew religious life and the mandates of Los Angeles Cardinal Francis McIntyre to cease experimentation and change.

Eventually, 50 sisters decided to accept the cardinal's prescriptions; 132 sisters, weary of the struggle and disillusioned with the church, left religious life all together. More than 400 others committed themselves to the IHM community that remains to this day.

In Part One (See From Where I Stand July 22) Sr. Chittister called the book "a story about the prophetic dimension of religious life and the dignity of women a story about authority and vision.)

Witness to Integrity Witness to Integrity: The Crisis of the Immaculate Heart Community of California
By Anita M. Caspary, I.H.M.
The Liturgical Press, 312 pages, $21.95
"Justice and power must be brought together," Blaise Pascal wrote, "so that what is just may be powerful and whatever is powerful may be just." That insight may be the key to a lot of problems in the church, both present and past.

For Anita Caspary and the IHMs in California in 1968, justice and power were light years apart.

According to the decrees of the church itself, it was just for the community to embark on a program of experimentation and renewal. In fact, it was mandated. It was not just for the cardinal of Los Angeles to attempt to block those efforts at renewal or to assume power over the internal affairs of the community, because the community was not organized as a diocesan congregation but fell under pontifical jurisdiction.

Justice was on the side of the sisters but the cardinal's power to maneuver the system won out in the end. One visitation after another was conducted -- first by diocesan visitators, then at the insistence of the cardinal, by the Vatican. The power of the cardinal's office prevailed; the sisters' case went unrepresented in Rome. Internal authority and insight had no power to move the power of the system.

As a result, the Catholic school system in Los Angeles lost more than 250 teaching sisters overnight and a vital community was split into three parts: a few sisters who accepted the mandates of the cardinal and abandoned the renewal process, a large group who left religious life completely and the many who formed what is now known as the IHM Community of California. Better to lose a community of women than to irritate a cardinal, apparently. In the end Cardinal Mc Intyre himself lost the good reputation other works of his must surely have deserved. Instead, he is largely remembered for abusing justice by force.

Clearly, when the church operates as an institution made up of feudal monarchies, the results promise to be bad for both the church and the monarchs. Take note Boston and other dioceses that have used instutitional power to resist parents, police and prosecutors in their attempts to get justice for the children.

Witness to Integrity could be a seminary textbook in courses on pastoral administration. The IHM story reprises the struggle between the authority of experience and the neuralgic power of a system. The title of the course would be: "This is not the way to do it."

Authority and power are not the same thing. Authority comes from the respect people offer to someone who carries an office with loving integrity. John XXIII, for instance. Power lies only in the ability to enforce an order that may be wrong in the first place. Or if not wrong -- the Cardinal did have the authority to monitor the nature of the ministries being exercised in the diocese, after all -- at very least short sighted.

The cardinal, it can be argued, had every legal right to decree that religious who did not wear a habit could not teach in a diocesan school. But what kind of educational decision is that? What is its purpose? Was it better to lose 250 religious women to the Catholic school system in Los Angeles than to allow them follow their own insights and identify with the population they served. As Jesus did. He, too, incidentally was asked for a "sign" of his commitment. And, scripture records, he also refused to give anything but a sign like Jonah's: He was doing the will of God.

Did the fact that sisters either did or did not wear a uniform have anything whatsoever to do with the quality of their teaching or the total commitment of their lives? Or to use another example from history, did priesthood and religious life disappear when the Mexican government refused to allow religious dress in public. And if not there, why here?

Clearly, the criterion for the good use of church authority is not power, not "law," not custom. The criterion is Jesus, who went about doing good to everyone the system disdained. The criterion is only Jesus.

Much of history comes to us down the cold, dim corridors of time and is written by those with the power to have their own version of the distant story designated as reality. Witness to Integrity isn't a history like a book about the Middle Ages replaying the mistakes of a bygone era. It is a record of what happened in our own time; moreover, it is written not by those with institutional power but by the recipients of the abuse of power.

It reminds us to watch carefully the operational principles of our own time lest we miss the moment once again. It cautions us as a church to be careful that we do not once again barter moral authority for the use of power. It reminds us that, in the end, where the truly committed are concerned, it is the decisions of the heart that will prevail, not the mandates of an institution. As Jean Jacques Rousseau put it: "Nothing is less in our power than the heart, and far from commanding we are forced to obey it."

Now, 35 years after the cardinal and the community of IHMs struggled over these things, sisters routinely choose to identify with the populations they serve, driven by the theology of the incarnation and the needs of the people. They do not confine themselves to classrooms when the poor are hungry and women are still being beaten. They do not bar their doors against the world while children are being left in tenements alone while their single mothers try to work enough to feed them and the world is busy destroying itself. They make religious life out of other things.

Indeed, the IHM community itself is still together and still a religious community, even if not canonically recognized. They are, ironically, still there, still everywhere, doing everything. And they are still intent more on following Jesus than on not rocking the institutional boat. They are surely a contemporary sign to the institution that, in the end, commitment trumps corporate niceties every time.

And yet now, 35 years later, the church still resists the inclusion of women, the counsel of lay people and the coming of a new day in ecclesiastical structures. From where I stand, it seems to me that we have already seen what happens when power blocks vision. Disaster.

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to:

Preview the book:
Witness to Integrity The Crisis of the Immaculate Heart Community of California, by Anita M. Caspary, I.H.M., The Liturgical Press, 312 pages, $21.95

Past NCR stories about Immaculate Heart Community of California and Anita Caspary:

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