18Sep 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!


11 Responses

  1. Nuala O"Driscoll

    The dogmatic and domineering attitude of the Catholic Church will drive women away so that the question of obedience and dis-obedience will not arise. Women have been deprived of their authentic autonomy for so long now that it makes the headlines when a strong group of women ‘disobey’ the Vatican’s commands. We, men and women, have been conditioned to think that men are spiritually more capable than women. This not the worst. The worst is laid out in Sean Fagan’s article ‘Spiritual Abuse’. Christian spiritually has been deprived of ‘wholeness’ by the exclusion of women from equal ministry. Male domination only exists because ‘might is right’. Women were made saints because they fulfilled men’s criteria. Soline has described the torment St. Teresa of Liseaux went through in conforming to male rules. The Vatican will not allow women priests because to do so would mean acceding it was wrong. ‘Why so much unconscious fear of women and the feminine in the church?’

  2. Sean (Derry)

    “127 members of the 128 eligible members of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie freely supported this decision by signing her name to that letter”.
    Good to see at least one Sister remained faithful to the Church.
    Now maybe Tony Flannery will be able to entice the ‘1000’ priest members of the ACP out of his ‘upper room’ and get them to publicly sign their allegiance to the aims of the ACP.

  3. John

    The priests who ruled the temple in Jesus day had been properly placed in authority as we are told in the Old Testament. As such they commanded obedience. However, Jesus did not obey them. Rather He opposed them and He criticised them because they were insisting on the letter of the law while having lost the spirit. This was a risky course as it threatened the power structure. This we are told led to His death.

  4. Mary O Vallely

    I think we are all stunned by the Pope’s recent interview in America magazine. There is no room for a pharisaical rigidity here,’sentire cum ecclesia’ does not mean thinking only according to the Magisterium. He encourages us to actually THINK, to question, to react with the heart. Compassion and love matter above all. The tone is always welcoming, open to the other. He talks about a Gospel that must be ‘more simple, profound and radiant.’ It is refreshing and so life and spirit affirming to read his words. No longer is blind obedience, unquestioning obedience to rules important. Doesn’t he also remind us to look at the context and not to judge? What is that saying, “What you are is God’s gift to you. What you become is your gift to God.” It is God to whom we owe obedience.

  5. Maire

    How wonderful these words would be Mary, if our great priests,Frs Tony, Sean, Brian to mention but a few, were treated with the compassion (treated justly) and love which Pope Francis deems so important. Their thinking,their questioning, their actions of the heart hasn’t brought them much compassion or love.
    We can only hope and pray that we are not hearing empty words from Pope Francis.

  6. Linda, Derry

    Why so much obsession with SELF? As a woman, I can say in all honesty that I neither want nor need a special ‘ego-pampering’ theology for women to feel totally secure in my relationship with Jesus Christ and Our Lady which is what it’s all meant to be about…rule no1: Love GOD with ALL your, heart, mind, soul and strength…is it not? Our Lady didn’t need silly ‘status’ stunts or ego- boosters during her life on earth to be Holy and, to be honest, she’s therefore the ONLY woman worth spending time contemplating….by saying her rosary, as she requested. Keep your theology, I want my mammy! Lol!:-)

  7. Sean (Belfast)

    I found the interpretation of the Benedictine understanding of obedience a rather novel one. It might be better to look at what St Benedict himself says in Chapter 5 of the Rule:

    “The first degree of humility is obedience without delay.
    This is the virtue of those
    who hold nothing dearer to them than Christ;
    who, because of the holy service they have professed,
    and the fear of hell,
    and the glory of life everlasting,
    as soon as anything has been ordered by the Superior,
    receive it as a divine command
    and cannot suffer any delay in executing it.
    Of these the Lord says,
    “As soon as he heard, he obeyed Me” (Ps. 17[18]:45).
    And again to teachers He says,
    “He who hears you, hears Me” (Luke 10:16).

    Such as these, therefore,
    immediately leaving their own affairs
    and forsaking their own will,
    dropping the work they were engaged on
    and leaving it unfinished,
    with the ready step of obedience
    follow up with their deeds the voice of him who commands.
    And so as it were at the same moment
    the master’s command is given
    and the disciple’s work is completed,
    the two things being speedily accomplished together
    in the swiftness of the fear of God
    by those who are moved
    with the desire of attaining life everlasting.
    That desire is their motive for choosing the narrow way,
    of which the Lord says,
    “Narrow is the way that leads to life” (Matt. 7:14),
    so that,
    not living according to their own choice
    nor obeying their own desires and pleasures
    but walking by another’s judgment and command,
    they dwell in monasteries and desire to have an Abbot over them.
    Assuredly such as these are living up to that maxim of the Lord
    in which He says,
    “I have come not to do My own will,
    but the will of Him who sent Me” (John 6:38).”

    I can’t find anything in this chapter to justify Sr Vladimiroff’s statement: “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”. This is reminiscent of the psycho-babble that infected religious life in the 1960s and 70s particularly in the United States when everything was up for grabs and that generation (my generation) succeeded in almost destroying religious life. This is also the context in which the sexual abuse scandals could flourish when priests and male and female religious reinterpreted that other vow they too: chastity. The Redemptorist superior Michael Brehl is, in my opinion, much closer to the truth in his understanding of obedience.

  8. Linda, Derry

    Uck! I really miss StBenedict…this new Pope is fairly difficult to get used to! 😀

  9. Sean (Derry)

    Joan Chittister should take note that Pope Francis has kept Archbishop Gerhard Mueller in the role of prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A role very necessary when we see that Chittister’s Superior General, Benedictine Prioress, Christine Vladimiroff has failed in her duty and responsibility to correct a dissident member of her order.

  10. Wanderer

    “rule no1: Love GOD with ALL your, heart, mind, soul and strength…is it not? ”

    Sure is Linda. And the second which is like it.

    “LOVE your neighbour as YOUR SELF.”

    I think and tis only my own opinion – that this is what might be wrong with a lot of what is supposed to be Christianity.

    It’s not about ‘pampering’ etc – no. And it’s because we have not learned to love our selves that we are at endless odds with each other.

    It would be laughable if not so tragic. Though for many we are a laughing stock anyway and not for that good which would/should be our ‘love of God’. As Ghandi would have suggested – Christ was/is not the problem but the Christians are very much so.

    Have not learned to ‘see’ and ‘love’ the image of God in which we are each as individuals made and so cannot see or love that same image in every other human being. This is what I think in part at least it means to become ‘holy’.

    If we were all as humble as you seem to suggest we maybe should be. We’d not even be here discussing any of this – and would willingly accept ‘God’s will’ as it is in each and every moment of life. We all have egos to crucify.

    Just one or two of the wee things Mother Mary helps me ponder when I contemplate Her silence.

    And Jesus did say, “Unless ye become as wan o’ them wee skitters you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven” 😉

  11. Linda, Derry

    Lol! Nice try “wanderer”…wouldn’t Satan just love Christians to be paralysed by false humility, go away, shut-up and make his, or her, job a lot easier…and by the way, speak for yourself on not loving others and the inferiority complex…I do love myself and others, thank God. Have a nice day:-)