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After years of failed reform, synod to bring nuns into line.

The Vatican is like an elephant that jumps on a stool when a mouse appears. It's balancing there now, on one leg. What it's afraid of is women.

Since the decree on the renewal of religious life opened Pandora's box almost 30 years ago, many things have happened to terrify Rome: individualism, consumerism, materialism, pluralism and, most frightening of all, feminism.

Pope John Paul II thinks it is about time to let the good Catholic sisters know he is their Holy Father. That is because the Vatican suspects that women religious, in the United States especially, are getting out of control. Time to put the lid back on; time to call a synod on "The Consecrated Life and Its Role in the Church and in the World."

And, above all, time not to let women have a voice in any of the deliberations. Men only - bishops' business.

For women religious who have experienced the pain of change - spirituality, life-style, dress, ministry, mission, governance - plus the joy of creative response to the emerging postmodern world, many of the questions posed in Rome's preliminary study document, Lineamenta, are couched in pre-Vatican II language. It!s almost as if the past two tumultuous decades never happened.

Margaret Brennan, an Immaculate Heart of Mary sister for more than 40 years, told the U.S. bishops at their June meeting in New Orleans that, while the synod document calls religious to make Christ's presence felt anew in these times, "I sense its summons still reflects an understanding of consecration and the meaning of vows that in a way continues to separate us from the world."

Women religious know such separation is no longer possible. Our eyes have been opened to a new world view, an appreciation of global partnership and spirituality. That has led to a sense of responsibility to people of many other cultures - and to the earth itself

We can no longer be observers. The church cannot standardize the charismatic. We have to adapt to diverse cultures. And as this insertion takes place, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious reminds Rome to be ready - religious congregations will vary widely.

But the issue that sets off the loudest hierarchical alarm is deftly stated by Brennan: For the first time in the history of Western civilization - and perhaps in any world culture - gender analysis of societal structures and mores has called into question the subordinate position of women." (How well the U.S. bishops know that after watching the 1992 demise of the pastoral on women.)

The Vatican is so fearful of feminism. Is this phobia linked to a threat to its power? A warning in the Lineamenta states that "in some cases a mistaken idea of feminism has laid claim to the right to participate in the life of the church in ways which are not in keeping with the hierachical structure willed by Christ."

The synod will not hold back the tide of feminism, which reclaims women's birthright as baptized Christians to be the church as women. Women want to speak for themselves at the 1994 synod and have a voice in decision-making that will determine the future of religious life for women.

They want a discipleship of equals in the church. Wasn't that what Jesus was calling for?

Come down off the stool, men. We're not mice, we're women. We didn't say, "Eek!"

We said, "Equality."

Sister of St. Joseph of Peace Dorothy Vidulich is on the staff of NCR's Washington bureau.
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Author:Vidulich, Dorothy
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Nov 5, 1993
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