Document 24: Sisters of Mercy of the Union Tenth General Chapter, "Our Relationship Within the Church," April 1977, A 702.51 Church/Institution Correspondence February 1979-December 1980, Sisters of Mercy Institutional Archives, Silver Springs, Maryland. 3 pp.
At the Sisters of Mercy of the Union's Tenth General Chapter, a gathering of sisters for corporate decision-making, the order produced this astonishing document. The Sisters of Mercy declared that, as mature individuals, they had the right to develop their consciences, participate in the church's mission and development, and most importantly, to dissent from church teaching when called to do so. The order enumerated strict guidelines for such dissent, and argued that dissent was a challenge to, not a break from, the church. The Sisters of Mercy's statement of conscience helped cement the order's reputation as the foremost feminist congregation in the United States, although by no means were all Sisters of Mercy feminist.
OUR RELATIONSHIP WITHIN THE CHURCH
Tenth General Chapter
Sisters of Mercy of the Union
Our efforts as Sisters of Mercy to ponder our relationship with the Church took spirit from Vatican II: "The people of God believe that they are led by the Spirit. . .Moved by that faith they try to discern in the events, the needs, and the longing which they share with other people of our time, what may be genuine signs of the. . .purpose of God." More recently influenced by the U.S. Bishops' Conference on Liberty and Justice for All, we are aware that "the effort to renew the Church in changing circumstances is at the heart of Christian life. . .Always the Christian faith, carried to. . .new times, required of its adherents bold, creative action to preserve the ancient truths and embody them in communities capable of transforming their world."[A]
Since Vatican II there have been many efforts to understand the Church in richer ways. It is variously spoken of as "community," as "institution," as "servant," etc. We intend here to focus on two of these ways of describing the reality of the Church--the Church as "community" and the Church as "institution." We understand the Church as community to be all those persons who are bonded together in the life of Jesus Christ. This is actualized in many forms within the one Church. We understand the Church as institution to be its structures, rules, and delineated roles. Both of these ways of understanding the Church are important and they are interrelated. The institutionalization of the Church is precisely for the sake of the continued existence of the Church as community and as servant in the world.
We as Sisters of Mercy experience the Church under its aspect of community in many ways: we are baptized into a worshipping community; we live in a religious community; we participate in parish community; we form communities of service. From the beginning the Sisters of Mercy have also had an important relationship with the Church as institution: we have canonical status with the Church; our vows are received by the Church; our charism of mercy is publicly recognized within the Church; we relate to parish and diocesan structures; we sponsor institutions in the name of the Church.
At this historical moment in the development of the Church there are two aspects of the institutional Church that present special concerns. The first concern relates to the way in which institutional structures facilitate and express the Church as community. Since Vatican II important changes have taken place in traditional structures, e.g. the parish. These changes have furthered the growth of Church as community. However, there is still an urgent need to discover new and creative forms of community to complement traditional Church structures.
The second area of concern relates to the complex questions about the nature of authority within the Church. In the Church's role as teacher and healer, often authority and power are perceived to be solely placed in the hierarchy and clergy. Nonetheless, the Church's tradition has always affirmed that there are many ways in which the truth and life of Jesus empower each person as a thinker and doer in His name. The contemporary
challenge is to understand more clearly that the empowerment of the individual is actualized in relation to the Church as community and as institution.
As Sisters of Mercy we can neither escape the anguish of experiencing the above concerns nor the responsibility of addressing them. We experience them among ourselves and encounter them in our ministry.
The question of new models of community raises itself for us as for the Church. The question of relating to many communities simultaneously and of discerning fidelity to sometimes conflicting commitments is our question as well as that of each person in the Church. Precisely as members of a religious community we have today the special responsibility to witness to the viability of new forms of faithful, worshipping communities and actively to foster their growth. It is possible for us to take leadership in stimulating change in existing structures and in creating alternate models of community. We can do this by providing meaningful liturgical experiences within our local communities and community institutions, participating in the formation of Church communities other than the traditional parish, actively working toward adopting new models of Church structure. Our efforts to be faithful members of local communities, parish communities, ministry communities, etc. can serve to add insight to the efforts of others to live with similar demands.
The question of authority in the Church also raises itself for us in a special way. We are identified with the institutional Church as teachers and healers, yet we have often thought of ourselves as without authority and power, as only transmitters of the truth formulated by the Church hierarchy. We have, consequently, seldom if ever allowed ourselves to question corporately Church teaching or to develop policies in ministry which depart from Church discipline. Perhaps more importantly, we have also not accustomed ourselves to take responsibility for assisting in the Church's search for truth.
Now, however, we are sharing more and more in the whole Church's growing understanding of the dignity and responsibility of each person to think and to do. As a community of women we are growing in self-under-standing of our role as women, as persons, and as a Christian community. This includes an Increasing urgency to form our consciences, and to recognize ourselves as moral agents in our teaching and healing. We experience, then, a call to greater relationship with and in the Church. Even when we find ourselves in disagreement/conflict with some teachings of some Church authorities, our desire to challenge is never a desire to break with the institutional Church. When we are faced with structures which do not allow fully creative collaboration and reflective disagreement with Church authorities, we experience ourselves as responsible to help generate alternative structures.
While affirming the official Church teaching, there are areas, particularly in the moral realm, in which we as a community have a responsibility to participate in the evolution of Church teachings:
- An important aspect of our current ministries can be to support the Church in its development of new teachings or new emphases within traditional teachings, in response to evolving moral contexts in the Church and in society.
- In some areas we have a special responsibility to help change Church teaching and practice where that teaching and practice have become obsolete, inhibitive of Christian life, or injurious to individuals, the Church or society.
- In extreme circumstances the community, and/or individuals within the community, may find it a matter of conscience not only to work actively for change in a specific Church teaching, but at the same time, to dissent from the teaching.
Corporate public dissent in the form of official statements and/or institutional policies which depart from such Church teaching may be justified when continued implementation of Church teaching and policy proves seriously harmful to persons. Minimal criteria for justifying corporate public dissent include:
- Continued implementation of the teaching entails grave harm done to persons.
- Strong theological or ethical reasons support a position in opposition to the teaching.
- Corporate public dissent is seen to serve the overall good of the Church in this instance.
- The public has the right to know about the dissent in order to take it into account in conscience formation.
- Public dissent is a last resort after all other avenues of dialogue have been exhausted.
- The dissent is authorized by the appropriate authority in the community.
As we work toward a more responsible posture in relation to the Church, we recognize that it is necessary to explore every avenue of dialogue. We shall do this in continuity with our tradition as Sisters of Mercy. We do it also in continuity with the authentic tradition of the Church wherein new life has always demanded ongoing reform and renewal, ongoing humble but courageous love.
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