What does obedience mean?
In A Question of Conscience (p.138/9) Tony Flannery contrasts the attitude of the Redemptorists superior, Michael Brehl, to that of Benedictine Prioress Christine Vladimiroff in 2001. The latter, unlike the former, successfully refused being bullied by the Vatican. As she says herself ‘There is a fundamental difference in the understanding of obedience in the monastic tradition and that which is being used by the Vatican to exert power and control and prompt a false sense of unity inspired by fear.”
I have a question: How do the Redemptorists (and other religious orders, and ourselves) understand obedience?…There is a lesson in all of that, in spiritual maturity, in prayerful dicernment, in fidelity to the Gospel, in courage, in solidarity.
For those interested, Sr Vladimiroff’s full statement is reproduced below. First the context:
Sr. Joan Chittister had been invited to be one of the main speakers at the international Conference in Dublin of Women’s Ordination Worldwide, 29-31 June 2001. However, the Vatican Congregation for Religious began to exert pressure on her Superior General to prevent her from taking part in this important event. Here is the Superior’s reply.
“For the past three months I have been in deliberations with Vatican officials regarding Sister Joan Chittister’s participation in the Women’s Ordination Worldwide Conference, June 29 to 31, Dublin, Ireland. The Vatican believed her participation to be in opposition to its decree (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis) that priestly ordination will never be conferred on women in the Roman Catholic Church and must therefore not be discussed. The Vatican ordered me to prohibit Sister Joan from attending the conference where she is a main speaker.
I spent many hours discussing the issue with Sister Joan and traveled to Rome to dialogue about it with Vatican officials. I sought the advice of bishops, religious leaders, canonists, other prioresses, and most importantly with my religious community, the Benedictine Sisters of Erie. I spent many hours in communal and personal prayer on this matter.
After much deliberation and prayer, I concluded that I would decline the request of the Vatican. It is out of the Benedictine, or monastic, tradition of obedience that I formed my decision. There is a fundamental difference in the understanding of obedience in the monastic tradition and that which is being used by the Vatican to exert power and control and prompt a false sense of unity inspired by fear. Benedictine authority and obedience are achieved through dialogue between a community member and her prioress in a spirit of co-responsibility. The role of the prioress in a Benedictine community is to be a guide in the seeking of God. While lived in community, it is the individual member who does the seeking.
Sister Joan Chittister, who has lived the monastic life with faith and fidelity for fifty years, must make her own decision based on her sense of Church, her monastic profession and her own personal integrity. I cannot be used by the Vatican to deliver an order of silencing.
I do not see her participation in this conference as a “source of scandal to the faithful” as the Vatican alleges. I think the faithful can be scandalized when honest attempts to discuss questions of import to the church are forbidden.
I presented my decision to the community and read the letter that I was sending to the Vatican. 127 members of the 128 eligible members of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie freely supported this decision by signing her name to that letter. Sister Joan addressed the Dublin conference with the blessing of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie.
My decision should in no way indicate a lack of communion with the Church. I am trying to remain faithful to the role of the 1500 -year-old monastic tradition within the larger Church. We trace our tradition to the early Desert Fathers and Mothers of the 4th century who lived on the margin of society in order to be a prayerful and questioning presence to both church and society. Benedictine communities of men and women were never intended to be part of the hierarchical or clerical status of the Church, but to stand apart from this structure and offer a different voice. Only if we do this can we live the gift that we are for the Church. Only in this way can we be faithful to the gift that women have within the Church.”
What is also noteworthy is the courageous sense of SOLIDARITY of the community of Benedictine sisters.
Sr Joan Chittister spoke at the Dublin conference, believing this would be her last speech as a Benedictine sister, believing she would be dismissed from her order, and with her all the sisters who had written to the Vatican that they would share in the penalty.
However the Vatican did back down as all this was made public and didn’t carry out its threats of punishment. In fact it even denied there had been any!