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Law, Ministry and Women Religious by Barbara Thomas,</H4> <P ALIGN="CENTER">from 'Women in Ministry: A Sisters' View', National Assembly of Women Religious, Chicago, 1972

Law, Ministry and Women Religious

by Barbara Thomas,

from Women in Ministry: A Sisters' View, National Assembly of Women Religious, Chicago, 1972, pp. 111-117.

THOMAS, S. Barbara SCN. MA, Education, Xavier University. Newly elected Superior General of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth (KY); member, Canon Law Society of America; chairman, LCWR Church Law Committee.

The attitudes of women religious toward Church Law are not essentially different from those of other groups. Among them can be found the full range of attitudes toward law which exists among others in the Church. However, it is evident that often women religious are involved on a level of intensity in regard to Church Law. This intensity is marked by attitudes which, in a sense, might be said to distinguish women religious from some other groups. Undoubtedly various reasons are responsible for this, but three seem to be more significant than others; namely,

  1. women religious as a group have undertaken more change in response to Vatican II than most other groups in the Church, including dioceses and religious men
  2. the change undertaken by women religious has often resulted in conflict with authority in the person of some bishops and at times with the Congregation for Religious
  3. as a group women religious have worked more consistently on the reform of law for religious than have others.

In tracing attitudes toward law it is important to consider the significant changes in the Church which were initiated by Vatican II. The Council Fathers in their deliberations both developed a model and called the Church to a participative reflection and dialog which was and which continues to be far-reaching. This religious dialog with the world demands that we dialog within our hearts, with our communities in light of their history (religious, parish, diocesan), with our bishops, and with Rome.

In terms of law this dialog has profound importance for the whole Church. The Second Vatican Council projected that the new law for religious would rise out of mature religious dialog. To provide for this dialog all religious communities were mandated to have a truly participative Special Chapter, not only involving the entire community but embracing corporate religious dialog in relation to the history of the community and the signs of the times, and in turn extending out to mature religious dialog with other groups. It was presupposed that these groups would include the hierarchy and the Congregation for Religious and that the dialog would center on questions concerned with points of the common law which, according to the ruling of the Special Chapter, might call for exception in order to provide for experimentation in particular areas.

Out of such dialog, experimentation, and communication is expected to evolve the new role of law for religious, as well as an appropriate expression of it. This long and complex process was initiated by the Council; and in reaction to the process, four clear and often competing attitudes toward Church Law are discernible among women religious, as well as among other groups in the Church.

There is what might be called the NO MORE LAW attitude, common among those who isolate the dialog within their hearts or dialog within their communities from history and from other Christians, including the hierarchy. Personal freedom, sincerity, adult Christian maturity and trust, for example, are stressed, all of which are good and true, but all of which are equally distorting if exclusively emphasized.

Then there are those who place all their hope in law. Frustrated and impatient with the dialog within their hearts and within communities, they continually ask when “the new code” will be published or when “the new constitutions” will be approved. A definition of the essence of religious life is frequently demanded by those who place such hope in the law, and generally they look to a group, such as the General Chapter, the Code Commission, or the Sacred Congregation to “put the answer in print,” thus eliminating further participation and confusion born of too much dialog. They expect ambiguity and tension to evaporate with the appearance of The New Code for Religious. Such a group is typified by what might be entitled the ALL LAW attitude.

Another group equally impatient with the initial and indispensable phases of dialog within their hearts and within communities, place their hope in some particular authority, whether a major superior, a bishop, or the Congregation for Religious. Some of the hierarchy fall into this group, but they are indeed a minority, and they might be fewer if there were less pressure placed on them to resolve the questions by an authoritative statement. Higher authority is an essential component of the dialog initiated and called for by Vatican II but not at the expense of the other indispensable components. This third attitude could well be termed ALL AUTHORITY or TOP DOWN attitude.

The fourth attitude marks those involved in the complex and developmental process of the Council, beginning with dialog within their hearts and within their communities and then extending out to other communities, to the hierarchy, and finally to Rome . Such a process embraces many stages, much going back and forth, great ability to give and take, and continual new beginnings. Most religious women are characterized by this fourth attitude: CORPORATE DIALOG or an open and honest search by all concerned. This attitude certainly embraces the broad center of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, even though sharp expressions of the other three attitudes are exemplified within the Conference membership by those who advocate either the NO LAW, the ALL LAW, or the ALL AUTHORITY approach.

The Leadership Conference itself has exerted unusual efforts to centralize attitudes toward Church Law for religious. Most notable among its accomplishments is the 1968 publication: Proposed Norms for Consideration in the Revision of the Canons Concerning Religious. This work was submitted to the Pontifical Commission on Revision of the Code of Canon Law with the hope that they were representative of the hopes and aspirations of American Sisters regarding the revision of the canons concerning them. The Proposed Norms have not only been accepted by women religious in this country, but have been translated into other languages and have proved to be most helpful to many European sisters. The publication has undoubtedly influenced the attitudes of women religious generally and is indicative of the leadership potential among this group of women in the area of Church Law.

The LCWR Church Law Committee continues to concern itself with those matters which pertain to the ecclesial character of religious life. It grapples with current questions concerning law for religious and is at the service of the membership of the Leadership Conference. Presently this committee is engaged in a study of Due Process in its relation to the problems of the religious life and to the difficulties encountered at times between major superiors or individual religious and the diocese. As a result of its study the committee will provide a model for Due Process which will be available for congregations of women religious. The purpose of the process will be to aid communities in this time of change by use of a structure which will lead to creative reconciliation rather than a mere balancing of rights.

A second project of the Church Law Committee is to research problems of a legal nature which arise in religious communities. Despite the negative dimensions surrounding such issues as transfer, enforced exclaustration, leave of absence, and dismissal, each has a religious significance. The task of the committee is to seek clear juridical form for such questions and at the same time emphasize the religious significance of the event. This effort to bring about a deeper understanding of the law and the religious nature of the events related to it will undoubtedly effect an attitudinal change on the part of many.

Women religious have taken seriously the call of the Church to exercise responsibility in the direction of their life. Until Vatican II there was little possibility of self-determination, but with the opportunity provided by the Council they have studied their needs, focused on their own goals, and formulated laws which will best help them to realize their goals in the service of the Church. They seek to move and live in the spirit, rather than by the letter of the law. They see their ministry in the church as an integral part of the corporate action of the church. Rather than viewing new forms of ministry for women as a fragmenting element, they see their unique response to the needs of mankind as an integrating force in the church’s mission and as an exercise of their own responsibility toward the realization of this mission.

The attitudes of individuals and of groups toward church law will necessarily influence the direction of the ministry of women in the church. Sensitive to the important role of law in their lives and in the life of the Church, women religious tend to seek and shape those forms in the ministry which best testify to the belief that the law is an expression of life in that it rises out of life.

Fully aware of their mission as women to give life and to preserve it they move forward in an attitude of hope into the Church of the future. This Church, themselves and all others, they call to be at peace with the law...in the peace of Jesus Christ:

For he is the peace between us, and has made the two into one and broken down the barrier which used to keep them apart, actually destroying in his own person the hostility caused by the rules and decrees of the Law. This was to create one single New Man in himself out of the two of them and by restoring peace through the cross, to unite them both in a single Body and reconcile them with God. In his own person he killed the hostility. Later he came to bring the good news of peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near at hand. Through him, both of us have in the one Spirit our way to come to the Father.

(Ephesians 2: 14-18)

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