Sister Schneiders’s Vow of Disobedience
Buying the Field: Catholic Religious Life in Mission to the World
By Sandra M. Schneiders
Publisher: Paulist Press
Pages: 763 pages
Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner
Now that much of the Western world has embraced the culture of death, the battle lines are being drawn inside the Catholic Church. On one side are faithful, obedient Catholics, and on the other, dissenters who call themselves Catholics but who willfully disobey the authoritative teachings of the Church in the name of private “discernment.” A case in point is Sr. Sandra M. Schneiders, I.H.M., who claims that nuns like herself are “true prophets” in the line of Jeremiah and Jesus, and make vows of obedience to God alone. They are not “agents of the institutional Church,” she says, any more than Jesus was an agent of “institutional Judaism.”
In her recently published book Buying the Field, Sr. Schneiders declares that nuns like her “do not believe in the Church; they believe in the Church” (italics in originab~ In other words, the Church is the “context,” not the “object,” of their faith. Huh? Do they not profess each Sunday in the Nicene Creed to “believe in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”? Surely they do not deny the Creed, which presents the Church as an “object” of the Catholic faith. Or do they?
What Sr. Schneiders resents about the Church is the hierarchy, which she calls “sacralized patriarchy.” She wants to replace it with what she claims was the original Church: a discipleship of equals. She contends that at some point the male leaders of the Church “set aside the liberating message of Jesus” and “perverted the Gospel.” Sound familiar? This was the old Protestant cry of the sixteenth century, that the Church had been corrupted. And yet, Christ promised that the Gates of Hell would not prevail against His Church. Since He is God, He is able to fulfill His promise. The hierarchical government of the Church was instituted by Christ Himself when He placed Peter above the Apostles, and the Apostles above the disciples. The Logos did not leave His Church in a state of anarchy. He designed a government that would last until the end of time.
Sr. Schneiders says that Vatican II taught her to distinguish sharply between “divine and ecclesiastical authority.” She brands it idolatry to say that someone can stand in “God’s place among his or her fellow human beings,” and she approves of Sr. Anne Patrick saying that Veritatis Splendor had a “serious limitation” because it conflated “the transcendent Truth associated with the Deity with the pronouncements of the hierarchical magisterium.” Here both Srs. Schneiders and Patrick deny that the pope is the vicar of Christ and can teach transcendent truth infallibly when speaking authoritatively on doctrine and morals.
Such denial and discord flows from the ideology of feminism, which for dissenting nuns is the ultimate reality — the rule by which all other things are measured. In Women and the Word Sr. Schneiders accuses the Church of heresy: The “theological fact” that women share the identity of Christ in their baptism shows the “heretical character” of Inter Insigniores, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1977 declaration against the ordination of women. She thinks the sacraments, as a result, are experienced by women as “instruments for a sacralized subjugation,” in which a “forced spiritual stripping of women’s consciences” occurs during confession, and in which women are rendered “totally dependent upon men” for Communion.
In Prophets in Their Own Country (hereafter Prophets) Sr. Schneiders speaks of the Vatican’s methods in its 2009 apostolic visitation of women’s religious orders as “totalitarian if not fascist.” The “closest parallel” she can find is the Inquisition, but she also sees an “instructive parallel” in the execution of Christ, who opposed “the satanic domination systems in power.” Here she hints that the Church’s hierarchy is part of the Satanic kingdom, a point she makes numerous times in Buying the Field. She asserts that, since Jesus was executed for liberating the oppressed, “especially those oppressed by religious power,” dissenting nuns must be ready for persecution and “even crucifixion.” The “existential anger” they feel in their struggle with the hierarchy is “not only justified but mandatory, just as was Jesus’ anger at the oppressive hypocrisy of the clergy of his day.”
According to Sr. Schneiders, it is a “non-negotiable” belief that the “hierarchy is the root of sinful structures” and must be eradicated to make way for an “egalitarian vision and praxis.” She calls it an “abuse of power” that under canon law (can. 590) nuns are supposed to obey the pope as their “highest superior.” This she calls “creeping primacy,” analogous to the “creeping infallibility” that tries to make “ordinary Church teaching binding in conscience.” While the hierarchy has the “coercive power” to demand obedience by threatening nuns with expulsion from their congregations or even with excommunication, it does not have the “moral right” to do so. Its coercive power makes it “the Babylon of ecclesiastical violence.”
Sr. Schneiders thinks that a majority vote should determine morality when the Church cannot present her case “persuasively enough to evoke reception.” In 1968, when Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, Catholics “by a very large majority” refused to accept it, and among them were theologians who found the encyclical “incoherent and indefensible.” She hails this disobedience as having brought about a “moral maturation” of Catholics, who learned to follow their own conscience “even when it opposed Church doctrine and law,” and who stopped equating what the pope said with what was “morally good.” In Prophets she writes, “The vast majority of faithful Catholic couples use contraception according to their well-formed consciences.” She notes a similar “non-reception” of the impossibility of women priests and the intrinsically disordered nature of homosexuality.
For the past forty years, says Sr. Schneiders, dissenting nuns have been on the “front lines” regarding marriage and procreation, homosexuality, women’s ordination, and “other issues the Vatican would like to declare ‘settled,’ or ‘closed,’ or ‘forbidden.'” Where the hierarchy has been unable to persuade “the majority of the Church’s members” of traditional teachings, “there is genuine (even if forbidden and condemned) pluralism of belief and behavior, and even actual valid and legitimate (even if forbidden and condemned) dissent in the Church.” Here Sr. Schneiders takes pride in her fellow nuns’ disregard of Church teaching. She tells them to resist attempts to “co-opt” their prophetic ministry “against their own theologically well-grounded judgment, mature experience, and pastoral sensibilities.” Alas, what she calls mature and well-grounded is a damnable complicity in the decadence of Western culture.
Sr. Schneiders explains that dissenting nuns “discern” (her favorite word) what God is asking of them, and this “often enough cannot be fully identified with official teaching or policy” and may even be “opposed to what is ‘on the books’ of the official Church.” She defines discernment as listening to “all relevant voices,” reading the “signs of the times,” and then acting “for the good of real people in concrete situations.” It may end in “dissent,” but this is not “sinful disobedience.” Rather, she claims, it is “mature critical engagement.”
Once God’s will is discerned, says Sr. Schneiders, it — and not “human authority” — must be followed. Here she reduces the voice of the vicar of Christ to a “human authority” while she elevates private judgment to divine status. For centuries, she claims, Catholics held an “erroneous understanding of authority and obedience,” but now the faithful realize that “no human authority, including that of the pope, is absolute,” and that what the pope says is not “necessarily the will of God.” Ah, but she contradicts herself. She immediately concedes that whatever decision we reach after “discernment” will be fallible, and she warns us not to think that God stamps our decision with “infallible approval.” Our choice may not reflect “objectively and substantially ‘what God wants done,'” but is only a “sincere effort” to reach the “best decision.” The takeaway, then, is that we are to abandon an infallible guide in spiritual matters and use a fallible guide — our biased, limited judgment. That was the advice Protestant leaders gave in the sixteenth century — and look where it led. Sr. Schneiders even admits that “discernment” may cause us to commit what, according to the teaching of the Church, is an intrinsically evil act. To discern is a process, she says, by which I must decide “what I am called to do here and now, in response to the concrete situation in which I find myself,” such as whether to “procure an abortion.”
In Buying the Field Sr. Schneiders heaps praise on the “highly visible” dissenters who have defended “gay people, women called to ordained ministry, married priests, the divorced and remarried, or other victims of ecclesiastical repression.” Her list of heroes includes Teresa Kane, R.S.M.; Joan Chittister, O.S.B.; Roy Bourgeois, M.M.; Roger Haight, S.J.; Ivone Gebara, O.S.A.; and Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J. She credits these individuals with the kind of courage Jesus showed when He faced “the oppressive Temple hierarchy.” Moreover, she praises officially condemned groups like Dignity and Catholics for Choice for being “willing to suffer for the good of the Church.” By Church she must mean her utopian discipleship of equals. She marvels too at the “stunning courage of the LCWR” in supporting the “health care reform legislation.”
If a bishop should try to forbid Sr. Schneiders’s fellow nuns from inviting a particular speaker, she advises them to resist his demand; but, just as Jesus was executed for having reached out to the “oppressed,” they must be ready “to remain faithful to God, as Jesus did, no matter what the cost.” Buying the Field is filled with this sort of prideful comparison of the “suffering” of dissenters with the suffering of Christ. Yet one looks in vain for a single dissenter locked in an iron maiden! Far from being afflicted, dissenters have seized control of most Catholic colleges and seminaries, having networked for a long time to bring in like-minded faculty members and to persecute those loyal to the Church. Only the most egregious dissenters have ever been disciplined — and even then, not very many. After thirty years of dissenting, Sr. Schneiders herself has retired voluntarily from teaching in a seminary. Was she silenced? No. She has just published a book of 763 pages!
In Prophets Sr. Schneiders warns that the hierarchy defines obedience as “total, blind, and absolute submission,” and points to the Holocaust to show how “profoundly immoral” it is to “follow orders” just because they come from “someone in authority.” The implied comparison of Nazism and the Magisterium is typical of her repeated demonization of Church government, whose continuous existence is actually a standing miracle, if she would only open her eyes to see it. It has lasted longer than any other government on earth. She urges us to regard the Church’s authority merely as a claim to be “heeded,” and then, after “heeding responsibly,” as one with which we can refuse to comply. After all, she says, Catholics should take the Church’s official positions as the “starting point of conscience formation,” not the end. Has anyone ever spoken of Church authority with more contempt?
Sr. Schneiders measures God and the Bible with the same rule she uses to measure the Church. She calls the Fatherhood of God a metaphor, which, if taken literally, “traps” the mind in an “untrue” idea of God and “an idolatrous divinizing of human maleness.” She then scoffs at the Bible as “a male-centered account of male experience” that can be called “the word of God” only as a metaphor. Since it is “biased” and “even erroneous” at times, the Bible must not be “invested with the inerrancy of divinity.” In the end, there is only one thing Sr. Schneiders holds inviolably sacred: her ideology of feminism, a heresy if there ever was one.
“It is sad enough when people lose their faith and leave the Church; but it is much worse when those who in reality have lost their faith remain within the Church and try — like termites — to undermine Christian faith with their claim that they are giving to Christian revelation the interpretation that suits ‘modern man.'”— Dietrich von Hildebrand
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