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Saying ‘no’ to the Vatican: Obedience is a complex matter

NCR Staff

It’s not an everyday occurrence when a nun gets a directive from the Vatican, and it’s certainly not an everyday occurrence when she declines to follow it.

Recently, Benedictine Sr. Christine Vladimiroff, prioress of Mount St. Benedict Monastery in Erie, Pa., did just that, however, with a letter sent to her by the Congregation for Institutes for the Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life. The letter asked Vladimoff to persuade Sr. Joan Chittister, a member of her community and a well-known author and speaker, to forego attending an international conference on the ordination of women where Chittister was scheduled to speak (NCR, July 13).

Failing persuasion, Vladimiroff was to hand Chittister the congregation’s prohibition of her going. But after lengthy discussions with Chittister about her attendance at the June 29-July 1 conference in Dublin, Ireland, as well as a trip to Rome to meet with the congregation and conversations with the entire Erie community, Vladimiroff chose not to deliver Rome’s prohibition to Chittister. In making her decision, Vladimiroff said she was guided by her feeling that to do so would violate both Chittister’s conscience and her own.

The face-off between Vladimiroff and the Vatican, which has attracted attention in both the religious and secular press, has sparked discussion about the nature and understanding of obedience in religious life today as well as a closer look at a community of nuns that has established itself as a bold, independent voice within the American church. Vladimiroff’s action was widely supported by her community, with all but one member of the 128-member community in Erie signing the letter Vladimiroff sent to Rome.

Pope John Paul II has said the church has no authority to ordain women as priests. Since November 1995, the Vatican has banned discussion of women’s ordination. The issue remains alive, however -- witness the conference in Dublin -- and Chittister is one of the leading voices calling for open discussion of it. After the conference, the Vatican said Chittister as well as conference organizer Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Myra Poole would not be penalized for their participation in it.

Still unclear is whether Vladimiroff might be subject to disciplinary action for her refusal to deliver Rome’s missive to Chittister. The press office of the Holy See has not responded to inquiries. James Coriden, a canon lawyer at the Washington Theological Union, said any penalties would be at Rome’s discretion and would depend on the content of the letter given Vladimiroff. “I don’t know if what she considered discretionary judgment, they would consider disobedience,” he said.

Fr. Tom Green, a canon lawyer at The Catholic University of America, said Vladimiroff’s decision might be seen as failure to obey a legitimate precept and subject to a “just penalty,” which is the mildest form of punishment. A just penalty is an unspecified penalty and can be described more in the negative than in the positive. It would exclude excommunication or removal from office, Green said.

Vladimiroff called the decision she reached “extremely difficult” and rooted in the Benedictine, or monastic, tradition of obedience. In a recent letter sent to Rome, Vladimiroff said that her action in no way reflected a lack of communion with the church.

“I simply explained to the congregation that I had spent many hours discussing with Joan her participation in the Dublin conference and I tried to point out to her the concerns that the Congregation for Religious had about her participation. I established the fact that she was a mature person who had lived a monastic life of faith and fidelity for 50 years, and her decision had to come out of her sense of church and her monastic identity and her own personal integrity. My role as prioress is really to be a spiritual guide to her and to help her with the journey of seeking God,” Vladimiroff told NCR.

If Vladimiroff’s non-compliance with the Vatican directive has made her a hero to some and a rebel to others, most Benedictines would agree that obedience is not a simple or automatic action.

“The rule of Benedict talks about how we have departed from God by disobedience and so we return to God by obedience. The Latin word for obedience means ‘listening.’ The whole concept of the rule of obedience centers around listening with the ear of the heart,” said Sr. Esther Fangman, president of the Federation of St. Scholastica, a federation of 22 Benedictine communities in North America.

“A Benedictine type of obedience differs from a top-down kind of model,” Fangman said. “It’s not militaristic. It’s not like a boss and subject. The prioress is a center of unity, not a point of power in the community. She’s a spiritual leader. The point is to draw the community to openness to hearing God’s will.”

Benedictine life involves a constant process of discernment, Fangman said, with each individual decision taking place within this context.

Vladimiroff’s stand contrasts with how the School Sisters of Notre Dame chose to handle a similar directive silencing Sr. Jeannine Gramick. In that case, the superior of the order delivered Gramick a letter from the Vatican in 1999 and a year later issued her own formal precept of obedience. The first directive from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ordered Gramick to discontinue her ministry with gays and lesbians; the second directive ordered Gramick to refrain from speaking about the ministry she’d pursued for 20 years.

“Of course, I would love it if the SSND had responded the way the Benedictines did, but there are reasons that explain why they did not,” Gramick said of the difference in how the two communities handled the orders from the Vatican.

A congregation with 128 members like the Erie community is more able to debate issues and develop solidarity than a congregation of more than 5,000 members such as the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Gramick said. Her own case preceded the Vatican’s effort to silence Chittister by more than a year and prompted a number of U.S. congregations to sponsor forums on silencing and consider what they would do in similar circumstances. In addition to such factors as size and timing, Gramick said the two religious congregations draw on different perceptions of authority.

“An attitude of following authority is more ingrained in the religious experience of an international congregation with roots in Europe [such as the School Sisters of Notre Dame] than in a U.S. congregation [such as the Benedictines] where notions of pluralism, questioning, and individual rights are endemic to the religious as well as secular culture,” Gramick said.

In both instances, Gramick called the religious superiors involved, Sr. Rosemary Howarth and Vladimiroff, “good and holy women who were faithful to their own integrity. Each decision was the result of much reflection, consultation and prayer. Each woman was obedient to the will of God as she understood it.”

Unlike many religious orders, Benedictines do not have a superior general in Rome. Each Benedictine community is autonomous with its own elected head. According to Benedictine Fr. Joel Rippinger, formation director at Marmion Abbey in Illinois and the author of History of the Benedictine Order in the United States, Benedictines come from a tradition of independence and autonomy and have historically seen themselves as operating within the church but on the margins. Indeed, in a public statement Vladimiroff later released she spoke of her desire to be faithful to the “early Desert Fathers and Mothers of the 4th century who lived on the margins of society in order to be a prayerful and questioning presence to both church and society.”

“To try to speak of a unifocal Benedictine tradition either in the past or today is very difficult because the very nature is one of diversity,” said Rippinger. While the Erie community can legitimately claim to be standing in the Benedictine tradition, Rippinger said Vladimiroff’s decision in this instance to reject the Vatican’s demand would probably not elicit widespread support among Benedictines.

“What you can find is that there will be any number of other Benedictine communities who think they’re coming from the same tradition and who would really see a deeper tradition to adhere to any directives coming from the church authorities. You can certainly find historical precedents of historically significant persons such as Hildegard of Bingen or medieval religious women superiors who did take a strong and independent stand at variance with members of the ordinance or local hierarchy. I would think if you would really do a dispassionate examination of the entire tradition that this autonomy usually does not conflict with directives from church authorities,” said Rippinger. “When it does, you come up against what you re seeing now.”

Rippinger views the independent, assertive character of the Erie Benedictine community within an American context in which Benedictine women have had to fight for their autonomy from church authorities.

“When the Benedictine sisters came to the United States in the 19th century, they were given a status that did not recognize them as full nuns. They were not able to take solemn vows. They did not take papal cloister. Bishops had full control over most of these communities. They were really seen as active apostolic orders of women rather than as a monastic community,” Rippinger said.

Serving an immigrant church even more starved for priests than it is today, Benedictine monks in 19th-century America commonly became priests and as such possessed greater clout than Benedictine sisters. From the beginning, Benedictine abbots were able to maintain an independence that Benedictine nuns had to struggle to acquire and which today they see as vital to their spiritual health, said Rippinger, who sees the negative historical experience of Benedictine women in this country as well as the influence of feminism as the background to Erie’s answer to the Vatican.

Rippinger said the community at Erie has emerged as a unique voice on the American scene. It speaks to a new collaborative, consensual paradigm within the church that reserves wide latitude to the individual conscience and which would not be characteristic of Benedictine communities around the world, he said.

Chittister talk on Web 07/27/2001 The full text of Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister's talk at the Women's Ordination Worldwide conference in Dublin, Ireland, June 30 can be found on the documents page of NCR Online: http://www.natcath.com/NCR_Online/documents/index.htm

National Catholic Reporter, July 27, 2001