Friday, June 15, 2012

U.S. Nuns, the Vatican, and Emerging Christianity

Ongoing tension between the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and U.S. nuns (the Leadership Conference of Women Religious) has captured my attention. Refer to the following article for a summary of the controversy:

The manner in which the Vatican is censuring these nuns exposes—at least in part— the nature of the divide in many denominations. Divisions in Protestant denominations and Roman Catholicism appear to be along the lines of institutional maintenance vs. spiritual renewal, entrenched power vs. shared power and, in some cases, dictatorship vs. servant leadership.


Institutional protectionism, it seems to me, is a major factor driving large segments of the population to identify as “spiritual but not religious” (See Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening). Who wants to be identified with, let alone controlled by, institutional maintenance, entrenched hierarchy, and dictatorship?


I’m not picking on the Roman Catholic Church as such. In fact, I have the highest respect for many aspects of the Catholic Church, especially the historic concern for equality and social justice represented by the nuns. The Vatican’s contention with U.S. nuns is just one example of a dynamic I see in most Christian denominations. I find it hard to name any denomination, especially in Mainline Protestantism, that isn’t struggling with similar divisions (especially United Methodists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians). These divisions, as Bass implies in the aforementioned book, are largely about institutional protectionism vs. openness to change. Granted, institutional protectionism plays out differently in different denominations. Hierarchical powers, for instance, may seek progressive change (e.g. many of the Bishops in the United Methodist Church and in the Episcopal Church as well as some in the Roman Catholic Church). In other words, hierarchical power may or may not be the primary source of entrenchment. Nonetheless, every denomination has its share of unhealthy protectionism, regardless of the source. As Reinhold Niebuhr reminded us in Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), institutions, even those comprised of mostly good people, tend to corrupt themselves through their own pride and self-maintenance.

This tendency can be particularly destructive in the institutional church which, by the very nature of its calling, should be free to change under the leadership of the Spirit. Entrenched institutions lack the flexibility to follow the Spirit that, like the wind, “blows where it chooses” (John 3:8). Indeed, with the emergence of what retired Harvard theologian Harvey Cox calls the “age of the Spirit,” denominations that don’t “get the memo” about the freedom of the Spirit will, I suspect, continue a slow and painful death. (See Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith.)


Although I’m devoted to the church, I increasingly find myself identifying with those who say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” To the extent that “religion” means living-out our spirituality in community, with the mutual responsibility and accountability that genuine community requires, I am religious. But, to the extent that religion means maintaining an institution at all costs, I have to go with the “spiritual but not religious” folks. The “old white man at the top of a pyramid” and the “winner take all and write history” way of being church is going the way of the dinosaur. The head of the church said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). In this light, the message for the institutional church may be the words of Jesus filtered through the proclamation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “When Christ calls an institution, he bids it come and die.” 

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately, I think a major problem is actually viewing the history of Catholicism from a North-American egalitarian perspective that favors one set of "rights" over another set of "rights." Many US nuns have favored abortion and modern liberal feminism over Catholic teaching for some time, where in its essence, many of these nuns do not look Catholic. It would be more intellectual, and spiritually honest, for these nuns who favor abortion, homosexual marriage, and a female priesthood, to leave the Catholic Church. After all, there is a home for them in the Episcopal Church.

    I also would contend that it is the progressive
    "way of church" that has gone the "way of the dinosaur" before even stepping out of the primordial soup. Progressive churches lose membership as they continually offer a theological consumerism that does not ask for individual transformation, but instead seeks to justify every traditional sin on one hand, yet, on the other hand, they lift up as the height of virtue those things that destroy a society. They sacrifice holiness for happiness, and often achieve neither.

    Every movement becomes an institution, but what type of institution are we asking for? Bonhoeffer;s critique needs to be evaluated on the circumstances of his day. After all, he does not seem to assert that his Confessing Church is an institution being called to die.

    In addition, I think the US nuns would be better served adhering to Matt 16:25, by placing their often. but not always, theological and political leftist agenda last, so they can be first.

    Last, I assert, the winner take all and writing of history has lately been the leftist academics, I hope you will be just as critical of their - and possibly your own -version of history and Christianity as you are of the ancient Church's.