On unregulated grace

I speak relatively little about policy. I speak about faith. But there is much happening in the Catholic Church today — much good, but very much strife as well, and the past couple of months my world has been fairly filled with the ongoing conflict between the Vatican and the, let’s say, “modern-thinking” elements of American Catholicism: the LCWR (an umbrella organization for most of the American women religious), a number of Catholic colleges, various activists, and a couple of censured Catholic theologians. The Church is boiling, and it’s about more than policy. Policy grows out of principle, out of conviction, out of primal fears, out of deepest hopes. Policy grows out of faith. This is why in any policy document a profound cosmic stand of its writers is evident. I stumbled upon one such stand in the Vatican’s Doctrinal Assessment of the LCWR, which overall found the American Sisters to be suffering from “radical feminism,” taking positions that differ from the Church’s teachings, “scant regard” for the teaching authority of the Magisterium, and more.

The Assessment is full of points, but the one aspect of it that speaks truly to faith, I think, is a paragraph on prophecy. You see, some of those accused of dissent (and not silencing those who dissent) cited, among other defenses, the “exercise of the prophetic office.”  Remember prophets? Elijah? Isaiah? John the Baptist? Jesus of Nazareth? Muhammad? Prophecy in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition is speaking the message of God – or, in other words, delivering an inspired truth. Not an absolute truth (God knows His prophets disagreed with each other plenty) – but a truth so profoundly deep that it comes from the very heart, from one’s nature, from where the Spirit whispers into the soul, and one cannot be silent. Ever since Elijah recognized the Lord in the still, small voice, the Lord’s people formulated God’s voice as the voice of conscience and prophecy as its inescapable cry. When Jeremiah tried to quit his office, the word of God burned him from inside. It is a compulsion. We must speak our truth.

The Vatican, however, did not accept this explanation from the Sisters because it is based, according to the Assessment, “upon a mistaken understanding of the dynamic of prophecy in the Church.” The mistake the authors are referring to is in thinking that prophecy can be directed at the Magisterium, that anyone can be inspired legitimately to challenge the Church’s teaching authority. Yet, according to them, “true prophecy is a grace which accompanies the exercise of the responsibilities of the Christian life and ministries within the Church, regulated and verified by the Church’s faith and teaching office,” which is “the guarantor of the authentic interpretation of the Church’s faith.”

This is when I stopped reading and sat there, stunned. When I got to that paragraph.

We can agree or disagree to greater or lesser degrees with the Curia, with one or another doctrine or its development. We can argue for or fight against reform in the Church’s hierarchy. We can battle over questions crucial both for our hearts and for the future of the Church: women’s ordination, same-sex marriage, birth control, priestly celibacy… And then someone picks up a piece of paper and writes on it that now, in the Christian Church, true prophecy is regulated. And verified. By an office. And we realize just how deep a trouble we are facing.

Just about three thousand years ago, a prophet named Nathan stood before his king, the great King David whose name would resound through millennia, the Lord’s favorite, the recipient of his own, personal and everlasting covenant. Nathan had seen the wrong his king had done, and he looked David in the face and told him he had sinned. Again and again, prophets called their kings to justice. Prophets stood before priests, governors, and royalty. Their truth burned them from inside, and they walked to the edges of the earth, and they died for it.

Prophecy cannot be regulated. It is the voice of conscience fighting its way out, pushed by the Spirit Herself. It cannot be reined in, checked and labeled, filed against the proper office doctrine, and verified. It is the passion of Him who still hasn’t given up on us. It is fire. If Jesus and the early followers of the Nazarene checked their prophecy against the ecclesial authorities of their day, there would be no Christianity.

I rarely use words like “blasphemy,” but it came to mind when I read in this sentence the claim that grace was being regulated. By our Church’s teaching office.

Still, there’s a bright side. I’m glad to say that I am sure we have a consolation: the authors of the Assessment are wrong. Grace cannot be regulated. Nor can prophecy. No teaching authority, whatever its claims, its real roots in tradition, its monumental theological foundation – no teaching authority can stifle prophecy for the same reason that it cannot circumscribe grace – nor, of course, would they wish to. And where there is grace, there is Spirit. And where there is Spirit, there will be prophets. Because it is conscience. It is passion. It is truth. Because it is fire, and fire spreads.

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  1. Conscience has to be at the heart of any religious belief that is lasting or meaningful, and to deny those who have dedicated their lives to the service of God the opportunity to speak their conscience is not just a denial of their humanity, but a denial of the spark of God-hood in all human hearts.

  2. Thank you!
    Years ago a friend said to me about Vatican II, “The Genie is out of the bottle. They won’t be able to stuff her back in.”

  3. I linked to these reflections on Facebook, and Nihal Fernando wrote the following comment: “I have said this a number of times at different forums but it is worth being repeated. The Church hierarchy consider themselves above God being a not so bright God’s advisers and consultants. So far no group with any clout has told them to go fly a kite though many individuals have. I sincerely hope that the nuns of US would do so and put an end to the hierarchy’s misery.”

    1. Ah. Like a sharp knife, passion can be a most necessary tool of progress or a cause of an irreparable tear. Usually, both. I feel that Nihal Fernando’s heart is in the right place, but the last statement in the comment bears problems practical and logical.
      In the case at hand — and I do not speak for the nuns — I believe that the LCWR’s goal is not dismissal or discarding of any part of the Church but reform that, ideally, preserves its unity. Even voicing their dissident corporate stands they were willing to do so quite within the structural channels of today as long as they were left in peace to do their works of mercy. We should keep in mind that, though still numerous, the numbers of women religious in the US are rapidly dwindling, and the median age in many progressive apostolic orders hovers in the 70s. They are not about to tell the Magisterium, with the idea of which they’ve lived their entire lives, to “fly a kite.” They want reform; they want respect — but they are giving it first.
      Now. Let’s say LCWR did decide to tell the Vatican “go fly a kite.” This would not put anyone out of misery. It would not result in an immediate change in the Church structure. My bet is, it would result in no Change. Cardinal Levada already threatened to effectively “decertify” LCWR as a Catholic organization and to put up a new, more obedient umbrella leadership organization for these American orders in its place. That this will happen is a possibility. I recently had a conversation with a Sister and dear friend in which I argued that LCWR should not disband itself but, if such should be its fate, go down fighting. Let the world see how the conflict proceeds. The point is, LCWR doesn’t have enough clout to disband the Vatican even if they wanted to. It’s the other way around, and they may end up flying kites.
      Besides, I am not at all sure that the Magisterium is miserable in this situation — or more miserable than we are.
      I suppose, what I am trying to say ultimately is this: We are the Church unhappy with the status quo. So is Joseph Ratzinger. We both are the Church, and we cannot discard each other. We had better find a way to keep saying that, because if we don’t… Well, I have a distinct feeling Jesus will be sad. 🙂

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