Father Z makes a request of Catholic bloggers to use his term “magisterium of nuns” in stories about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). It’s right to stand in solidarity on this issue, so I appreciate the suggestion. There is a problem of people failing to understand the authority of the Magisterium in Catholicism, so use of the term “magisterium of nuns” seems like a good way to call attention to that important word: Magisterium. It helps us to explain what the real issue should be in this division between “nuns” and “bishops.”
Father John Hardon’s definition of “Magisterium” is on the money:
The Church’s teaching authority, vested in the bishops, as successors of the Apostles, under the Roman Pontiff, as successor of St. Peter. Also vested in the Pope, as Vicar of Christ and visible head of the Catholic Church. (Etym. Latin magister, master.)
Father Z notes a claim in America Magazine that equates the authority of religious communities with the authority of the bishops. This claim appears to be based on a failure to understand the difference between doctrine and discipline. Certainly, religious superiors have authority in certain areas of discipline, but not in doctrine. In other words, religious superiors may impose disciplines upon members of their religious community, and in this they have authority, but they must not, in so doing, stray from the doctrines (official teachings) of the Church. Doctrine is defined by bishops, not religious superiors in religious communities. Neither do they have absolute authority in the area of discipline. If any disciplines lead one away from doctrine, then the bishop has authority to require that those disciplines be removed or altered. Charism approved by the Church is unalterable, but still, the charism must itself remain in keeping with Church teaching. There is a great amount of freedom in religious communities. I am a Passionist Oblate Associate, myself, and it has been made crystal clear to me that I have freedom and am under no requirement of discipline, because of my illness. I have freedom to live the Faith according to my own heart and conscience, but if I am living or speaking something that contradicts the Faith, then it would mean that my conscience is misinformed and my bishop and Mother Catherine would be doing me a great favor if either would point it out to me. Having said that, I am not a nun, and I am not bound in any way due to my illness.
People are individuals. We are treated as such in the Church. At the same time, Catholicism is what it is. If we stray from Catholic teaching, we are headed away from God, not to Him, and there is nothing worse than being on a path away from God. It’s a miserable existence. If we reject the authentic Magisterium, we’re headed away from God and into misery. Misery loves company, so misery of being away from God will find a perverse consolation in sharing the misery of others, but they will only always persist in misery if they are on the wrong path, going away from God.
This battle between LCWR leadership and “the bishops,” as they say, seems to have much less to do with who is right and who is wrong than it has to do with an unholy desire to launch rebellion against the notion that bishops define doctrine and have authority over the rest of us Catholics on matters of dogma, doctrine and discipline. In other words, the goal of LCWR leadership and their supporters has little, if anything, to do with the particular points of reform the Vatican would like to see happen and more to do with their desire to not have to answer to the Vatican. Because of this, it is best for we bloggers to remain consistent in pointing this out and not be distracted by other matters. We should do this because we love them and don’t want them to linger in this misery but know the true freedom and joy of obedience.
No one is forced to be Catholic. No one is forced to be a nun. No one, for that matter, is forced to be anything in the Church. We are what we are. Whether or not we are actually “Catholic” in the things we profess is ultimately up to the bishops. Our hearts (all hearts) are judged by God alone.
Note: The use of a shepherd’s crook by bishops is a discipline. The authority it represents is a doctrine.