St-francis-by-giovanni-bellini2

A reader writes:

One thing to mention about the letter is that the Franciscans are a Mendicant Order: they survive on charity donations. They aren't tied into the massive wealth and prestige of the Catholic Church's "business/political" arm. Take away the power and wealth of the Catholic's cardinals and pope, and the political games that come with that power and wealth, and you might get … Christianity?

Well, there's a reason I turned to Saint Francis in my own attempt to explain Christianity's essence. Another adds:

The friars are not coming to the nuns' "rescue." They are not helpless damsels, and painting them as such plays right into the line of thinking that the Vatican wants people to perpetuate. "Defense" is fine and appropriate. "Rescue" is demeaning and counter to your good work on this issue thus far.

Point taken (see headline). Another writes:

Like you, I was heartened by the Franciscans' letter. But my eyebrows went up at this line (in italics):

"Finally, when there appears to be honest disagreement on the application of moral principles to public policy, it is not equivalent to questioning the authority of the Church’s magisterium. Although the Catholic moral tradition speaks of agreement regarding moral principles, it also – from the Middle Ages through today – speaks of appropriate disagreement regarding specific application of these principles. Unfortunately, the public communications media in the U.S. may not recognize this distinction."

The good friars should know, as well as anyone, that the issue isn't the "public communications media" not recognizing the distinction; it's the Vatican, and a 'Rome Has Spoken' policy that dates back to the start of John Paul II's pontificate.

As this excellent National Catholic Reporter article points out, the nuns are being condemned over two areas.

One is a speech given in 2007 by Sr. Laurie Brink, a Dominican, who made the statement during a presentation on different models of religious life that "the God of Jesus might well be the God of Moses and the God of Mohammed" for some religious women. That statement, as America magazine noted, was used to describe choices the religious face — in this case "sojourning to a land unknown" — choices that included letting congregations die or engaging in total obedience to the Church.

Brink said her preference was for a fourth model of "reconciliation" with the Church, in which religious women and bishops understand the choices before them and move together in the common purpose of their mission. It is not, as the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith alleged, "a challenge . . . to core Catholic beliefs," because she wasn't advocating nuns adopt Judaic or Islamic conceptions of God; Brink said it was one of many options religious women face as they grow closer in their relationship to God.

But that nuance doesn't seem to matter to the Vatican.

The second instance, according to the CDF, is that certain leaders of the religious orders (not stated in the letter) have written letters "protesting the Holy See's actions" in relation to the ordination of women and ministry to homosexuals. "The terms of the letters," the CDF statement says, "suggest that these sisters collectively take a position not in agreement with the Church's teaching on human sexuality. It is a serious matter when these Leadership Teams are not providing effective leadership and example to their communities, but place themselves outside the Church's teaching."

Got that? The mere act of writing a letter in protest — the act of disagreement — constitutes a break with the Church. There is no evidence the nuns have declared they can administer the Eucharist or bless a union of a loving gay couple; discussion alone brings the wrath of Rome. The letter goes on to say:

"Some speakers claim that dissent from the doctrine of the Church is justified as an exercise of the prophetic office. But this is based upon a mistaken understanding of the dynamic of prophecy in the Church: it justifies dissent by positing the possibility of divergence between the Church’s magisterium and a “legitimate” theological intuition of some of the faithful. “Prophecy,” as a methodological principle, is here directed at the Magisterium and the Church’s pastors, whereas true prophecy is a grace which accompanies the exercise of the responsibilities of the Christian life and ministries within the Church, regulated and verified by the Church’s faith and teaching office. Some of the addresses at LCWR-sponsored events perpetuate a distorted ecclesiological vision, and have scant regard for the role of the Magisterium as the guarantor of the authentic interpretation of the Church’s faith."

In other words: God speaks to us bishops. Your vision, formed from prayer and real-world experience? Just a hunch.

If the Catholic Church's leadership well and truly recognizes the value of appropriate disagreement, it has a narrow understanding of what disagreement entails. To them, it's reserved for bishops behind closed doors, and not a matter for those who go out into the world to fulfill the charge of Christ.

(Painting: St Francis In The Desert, by Giovanni Bellini, 1480. A wonderful appreciation of the masterpiece can be read here.)