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Keeping sisters in their place at synod on religious.

OXFORD, England -- In October 1994, a synod will be held in Rome on "The Consecrated life and its Role in the Church and in the World." There is a certain logic in considering the place of religious in the church after previous synods looked at the laity (1987) and the priestly ministry (1991).

However, these precedents do not bode well for anyone who imagines that the synod will be an invitation to reflect on the renewal of religious life today.

The preliminary document (known as Lineamenta) does nothing to dispel the impression that the synod's main purpose will be the ever-tighter control of religious life. Belgian Archbishop Jan Schotte, secretary general of the permanent Synod Council, does not admit this. In his preface he says that the draft "is intended to prompt an in-depth reflection on the topic by the pastors of the church and by all other interested parties."

"Interested parties" is a curious way of describing religious and the whole people of God.

Schotte further declares that the draft text "should not be seen as anticipating any possible conclusions of the synod." That suggests an openness that is belied by the text itself. Comments are indeed invited, but they must be in by Nov. 1, 1993, and they must be sent either to Schotte or to the Roman Councils of Major Superiors (USIG), male and female. They will then be "processed." It is a reasonable guess that anything critical will be screened out.

Once again, it seems that the bishops will be talking about the absent -- particularly the religious women who still outnumber religious men.

True, USIG has secured a concession from the synod secretariat. After a series of exchanges, including a letter to Pope John Paul II, 20 religious women will be present at the synod (10 men will be there as general superiors). But they won't have a vote, for this is, after all, a synod of bishops.

Sr. Pia Buxton of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, president of Britain's Conference of Major Superiors, welcomed this concession but remarked: "The clerical male structure is beginning to look paranoid, and nowhere more than at the synod on religious life. Religious women increasingly cannot listen to directives that ignore their experience, their voice."

But the synod will not be based on experience. It starts from the definition of religious life found in canon law (canon 573). If one must start from a definition, it would have been much better to accept the conciliar statement in Perfectae Caritatis: "Since the fundamental norm of religious life is a following of Christ as proposed by the gospel, such is to be regarded by all communities as their supreme law."

This, in fact, combined with the "charism" of the founder, was the principle of the postconciliar renewal of religious life. It left some room for openness and experimentation. That period is now over.

Anyone who questions the wisdom of this course can be labeled a "dissident." The draft text has an advance warning 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 hierarchical structure willed by Christ" (29d).

"In some cases": There is no indication about where this is supposed to be going on. But under the heading of "geographical diversity" there is talk of "the promising revival of religious life in some nations of Eastern Europe which have emerged from totalitarian communism" (30b).

No doubt they have influenced the remark about religious garb: "Public witness to being consecrated persons and acting as such includes the sign of religious dress according to the prescriptions of the church and each individual institute" (31b).

The "option for the poor" is handled with some suspicion. The treatment begins with a wonderfully droll remark: "Obviously the consecrated life is not incongruous with a choice of the Lord's poor" (44c). But it puts the religious in "dangerous situations." The danger is not, as one might have thought, of martyrdom, which so many religious have undergone since the council.

In a clear reference to the disputes with CLAR, the Latin American conference of religious, the draft warns: "The choice of the poor ought not to become a separate determining ideology, leading to internal divisions and causing disputes over doctrines and the norms of the pastors of the church" (44c).

Religious life has "an ecclesial dimension." This means that religious should participate in all the biblical, liturgical, pastoral, ecumenical, social and missionary activities of the local church. So far, so obvious.

But the "ecclesial dimension" also implies, says the draft, a pope-centeredness that is novel in its emphasis: "Dependence on the Roman pontiff by those living the consecrated life -- which clearly manifests the universal dimension of consecrated life -- their necessary submission to bishops ... give a concrete testimony to the character and apostolic service which they render in the midst of the People of God" (39).

The draft document asks a series of questions to help discussion. To call them loaded would be an understatement. Question 18 is an invitation to "describe the situation existing between the consecrated life and the Holy Father and his magisterium." Question 19 asks the same question in relation to the bishops and their magisterium. Perhaps question 25 should receive most attention: "What other important aspects of consecrated life should receive attention during the synod?"

It is a Roman maxim that "he who controls the agenda controls the meeting." However much one tries to be fair to this document, it is hard to avoid the impression that it starts in the wrong place. It recalls the Irish answer to the question about how to get to Billericay: "I wouldn't start from here."

The danger is that religious women will dismiss it as irrelevant to their concerns. Buxton has not yet given up hope. Sisters should campaign for a greater role in the church. "We live at the baseline of the hierarchical church," she says, "and those who, like us, are at the bottom have nothing to lose."
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Title Annotation:document outlines more restrictions to be discussed at synod
Author:Hebblethwaite, Peter
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jul 30, 1993
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