Thursday, October 08, 2009

Excellent Article on "Ministerial Religious Life" from Sister Who Is Professor at JSTB

The Master of Divinity that I earned before my Ph.D. was awarded by the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley (JSTB). So I am always delighted when scholars still affiliated with the school produce remarkable theological work. It doubles my pleasure when the work lends support to the methodology and conclusions of my Ph.D. dissertation, The Creativity of Church Teaching, which is at the top of the web sites listed on this blog.

So it is with great joy that I direct attention to "The past and future of ministerial religious life," an outstanding essay in the October 2, 2009, edition of the National Catholic Reporter by Sandra M. Schneiders, professor of New Testament Studies and Christian Spirituality at JSTB and a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Monroe, Michigan.

At a time when the Vatican is questioning if the way female religious orders evolved in the United States is valid, the essay is especially momentous. With painstaking historical accuracy, it documents how the female orders responded coherently and faithfully to the mandate first of Pope Pius XII and then the Second Vatican Council to return to the spirit of their founders--even though in many instances church officials had spent decades getting in the founders' way.

Professor Schneiders acknowledges that the earliest form of Christian religious life was monasticism, starting in the 4th century in Eastern Church and the 6th century in the Western Church, codified in the Rule of St. Benedict around 530 CE.

Although monasticism was predominant through 1500, the same period saw the rise of less successful efforts to introduce itinerancy into ministerial works: the nascent efforts by the military and Hospitaler orders and then various mendicant groups. Schneiders sees these as among the earliest seeds of a form of religious life that would eventually surpass monasticism in popularity. She dubs this counter-movement "ministerial religious life."

She then traces the 16th century rise of the Redemptorists and the Jesuits. From this standpoint, the Jesuits "made the sharpest and most substantial break from monasticism," by deciding that reciting the Liturgy of the Hours in common was not compatible with their apostolic vocation.

Women, however, had to wait several centuries longer to enjoy this form of religious life. It was not as though several women's religious order founders, male and female, didn't try. But a ruling by Pope Boniface VIII in 1298--absolutized by subsequent pontiffs and the Council of Trent--excommunicated religious women who did not observe monastic cloister.

Creative founders tried various ways around the ban, some declaring their sisters "not religious," others supporting cloister in theory but, in the name of effective ministry, violating it in practice. Some groups of women succeeded; some were drummed out of the church.

It was not until 1900 that Pope Leo XIII "formally recognized as an authentic form of religious life noncloistered apostolic congregations... It was the public recognition of a fait accompli, namely, that over the course of nearly 400 years a new form of women's religious life had emerged and its validity, long recognized by the people of God and by civil governments..., required acknowledgment by the institutional church." This culminated in the moves by Pius XII and Vatican II to have these women religious reform themselves according to the charism of their founders.

Professor Schneiders also makes an important contribution by tracing the communal, itinerant style of ministerial religious life directly to the preferences of Jesus himself for his own ministry and that of his closest disciples. She finds this style unique to Christianity: "Unlike monasticism, which is a feature of all literate religious/spiritual traditions, there is no analogue outside Christianity for ministerial religious life."

She is careful to stress that Jesus proposed several forms of discipleship, "none of which is superior to any other." Therefore, she writes: "Only a mutually appreciative complementarity of and collaboration among disciples called to follow Jesus in a wide variety of ways will allow the church to be and do what it must if the world God so loved is to be served and saved."

This emphasis, however, seems somewhat at odds with identifying ministerial religious life as Jesus own personal style of ministry, and the one he challenged his closest disciples to pursue. Professor Schneiders makes the case the religious ministerial life emulates how Jesus himself lived and ministered. But there is a danger of over-emphasizing the similarity or making it too exclusive--so that once again Catholics assign ministry by baptized Christians in general to some lesser status than ministry by vowed religious.

"Mutually appreciative complementarity...and collaboration" should be the dominant note. Singing the praises of one form of ministry too loudly creates a disharmony that ill-serves God or God's creation.

As I said at the outset, what especially pleases me about this analysis is its compatibility with my doctoral dissertation, both in methodology and conclusions.

The middle section of my effort tried to show instances of creativity in nine Christian teachings, first Christology, and then four of faith and four of morals. Professor Schneider's excellent scholarship could serve as a tenth example, documenting moments of creativity in the movement to establish ministerial religious life, from Jesus' own ministry, through two millenia of efforts by nonmonastic religious orders.

Thus the history of ministerial religious life provides additional evidence supporting a model of Whiteheadian creativity in church teaching, in which old affirmations are upheld but found to have new limits, luring forth new teachings and new models to include what the old affirmations left out. This is exactly how creativity worked in the other areas I researched, and exactly how we should expect to experience it on the road to the kingdom Jesus promised.

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