American Nuns deal with “power-over” Vatican hierarchy in a productive way

I was impressed while reading a story on the response of the American Catholic Nuns to an investigation and subsequent rebuke by the (all male) leadership of the Church.  If you don’t know the background to this story, the short version is that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (representing most of the American Sisters) were accused of “undermining the Church” and instructed to reform their ways in order to come in line with the accepted teaching of the Roman Catholic Church as determined by Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (which interestingly was established in 1542 as the Congregation for Universal Inquisition).

The U.S. Sisters were accused of radical feminist themes that were deemed “incompatible with the Catholic faith” because they pointed out that the Church works according to patriarchal values which relegate women to second class citizens.  Yes…. and?
It is an interesting story and partially explained in the video below.

But even more interesting was the response of the U.S. Sisters!

A story in the National Catholic Reporter, described the Sister’s response to the Vatican crackdown as “productive resistance“.   Sister Jean Bartunek, a professor of organizational theory at Boston College, reviewed the investigation by the Vatican and the response by the Sisters through her academic lens.  The result was a scholarly article in the journal Research in the Sociology of Organizations.

I was interested in the Sisters response to what appears to me to be a “power-over” hierarchy (the Vatican) trying to keep their members under control. Power-over hierarchy is most apparent in the military, but is also found in corporations, universities, and many religious organizations (that is, just about every major human organization ever known) and particularly in the Roman Catholic Church.

As a practicing Catholic, I have a life-long “love/hate” relationship with my Church and a deeply rooted suspicion of paternalistic hierarchies.  I wrote in an earlier blog that investigated hierarchy… I do not believe the Catholic Church will ever be fully successful sharing the message of peace, justice, forgiveness and love attributed to Jesus as long as it is organized as a command and control patriarchal hierarchy.   If power-over is the dominant relationship in an organization, it will ALWAYS result in domination (at best) and oppression or abuse (at worst).

So, when I read about the Sisters response of “productive resistance” to being investigated and rebuked by the Vatican…. well, I paid attention.

According to Dr. Bartunek, productive resistance is an organizational process “…that is more than a mere refusal to change.  It refers to a situation in which those with less power are active and engaged in the process of change demanded by those with more power.” 

In the case of the Sisters, they did not respond to the investigation by the Vatican (called an Apostolic Visitation) with anger, nor did they blindly comply to the demands of the Vatican committee.  Rather, “with prayerful contemplation and robust communication, they were able to manage negative emotions and ultimately, according to the report, subvert in some ways the initial goals of the Visitation, altering its course and moving beyond the motives of those who originally set it in motion.”

To me, it looks like the Sisters acted like grownups. 

On the other hand, a Vatican spokesperson angrily accused the U.S. women religious leaders of not abiding by the reforms the Vatican had imposed on them following the investigation.  (Looks like power-over to me!)  For example, the Sisters were instructed that speakers at their national conference had to be approved by Vatican authorities.

According to an article in the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) “Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told the leadership group they were ignoring procedures for choosing speakers for their annual conferences and questioned if their programs were promoting heresy.”  

According to the NCR, “Müller specifically challenged the LCWR leaders for deciding to bestow its 2014 Outstanding Leadership Award to ‘a theologian criticized by the Bishops of the United States because of the gravity of the doctrinal errors in that theologian’s writings.’  Although he does not name her, Cardinal Müller is referencing St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, a theologian at Fordham University.”  Again, I took notice as Sister Elizabeth Johnson is one of my favorite Catholic thinkers and authors.  Her book Quest for a Living God is brilliant.

Sister Jean Bartunek reported in her scholarly review of the situation that what the leadership of the Conference of of Women Religious “...have done is basically give a model that can be helpful for a lot of people when somebody with a lot of power is telling you that you have to do something that doesn’t feel right.”

These Sisters are Shambhala Workers (but don’t tell the Vatican)!

The response of the Sisters reminded me of an approach I described in another of my blog posts “Changing bureaucratic institutions from the inside.”  This one was written after one of my students asked me “how do you work to change a bureaucratic institution without getting angry?“  My blog focused on my own experience working within bureaucracy; from local government to large universities.   I know that getting angry rarely helps.  The approach, called “the Shambhala Worker” was adapted with permission from  eco-philosopher and Buddhist scholar, Joanna Macy.

The U.S. Sisters know and love their Church and seem to be willing to be patient as they work for the change that must happen if the Church is to thrive in a modern world. The Roman Catholic Church has been around for long time and changes VERY slowly…. but it does change.  Rather than abandoning their Church because of its discriminatory stance on women in leadership, the Sisters have employed “productive resistance” to try to change the Church from the inside.  In fact, this is the only way it will be able to change.  I suspect Pope Francis is quietly cheering them on from inside the Vatican!


This topic is a bit of a departure from my usual themes, but it is one that is important to me.  Please feel free to explore of my posts or my personal web page.

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