Prophetic idealism and institutional realism: Seeking a balance

In her 2012 book Prophets in Their Own Country, theologian Sandra M. Schneiders, IHM, articulates the ideal of prophecy in terms of the evolution of a “new form of Religious Life.” She writes: “Religious Life . . . is a charismatic lifeform, called into existence by the Holy Spirit, to live corporately the prophetic charism in the Church” (p. 100).

More recently, in Buying the Field: Catholic Religious Life in Mission to the World (2013), the final volume of her trilogy on Religious Life in a New Millennium, Schneiders describes religious communities as “prophecy embodied” and argues that the witness of such vowed communities is a gift to both the church and the world (p. 256). Here she links the vow of obedience with prophecy, suggesting that this vow should now be understood as “a prophetic commitment to moving our world away from the politics of Satan’s kingdom toward the politics of the Reign of God” (p. 364).

Instead of a politics of domination by the powerful over their subordinates, this new form of religious life seeks to incarnate “the discipleship of equals that the Gospel proposes and the collegial form of government that the early Church developed and that Vatican II reaffirmed” (p. 422). She goes on to declare that, “A vibrant theology of prophetic obedience might be the most urgent contribution Religious Life has to offer in our seriously dysfunctional Church and society, which swing between the anarchy of unrestrained individualism and the repression of totalitarian power structures” (p. 424).

For Schneiders, prophetic obedience rejects patriarchal, military and monarchical models of community and presumes the radical equality of all members, who together seek to discern God’s will.

The task of obedience remains the “appropriate response to genuine authority,” which always involves listening and “serious engagement,” and usually requires “cooperation and compliance,” but this involves an act of conscience, not of blind submission (p. 591). She draws a sharp distinction between the obedience that ordained clergy owe to the hierarchy and the religious vow of obedience, which “is made only to God according to the Constitutions of the Order” (p. 500). In imitation of the prophetic obedience of Jesus, religious aspire to “total obedience to God lived freely in the service of God’s people” (p. 471).

How do such aspirations come to fulfillment, for individuals and for communities? What is the best way to balance our idealism with institutional realism? Is it really true, as Schneiders has observed in Prophets in Their Own Country, that “Jesus, in prophetic word and work, not in institution maintenance, is the model of ministry for Religious”? (p. 92).

Or is there a need for something like “institution maintenance,” or better, “institution building and renewal” within groups aspiring to prophecy? My experience over many years in religious life has inclined me to think that there is, and the sociologists Mary Johnson, SNDdeN, Patricia Wittberg, SC, and Mary Gautier suggest as much in their 2014 study, New Generations of Catholic Sisters. They observe: “Prophetic words that are not undergirded by strong and life-giving structures with clear boundaries will exist only on the pages of documents. But structures that are not enveloped in the flesh of rich values, charisms, and visions will be like skeletons, just piles of dry bones” (p. 59).

At the same time as we affirm the generally prophetic dimension of religious life, then, it seems necessary also to recognize the variety of gifts that individuals bring to communities, and the very real need for social structures that support this life. Although Jesus did not emphasize institution maintenance, he did show respect for the Law and for his religious tradition, as Schneiders has stressed in her 2000 Madeleva Lecture, With Oil in Their Lamps: Faith, Feminism, and the Future. There she declares that Jesus “expressed his spirituality through his religious practice, even as he freely criticized the religious institution out of his own experience of union with God” (p. 101). I would add that disciples are expected to imitate Jesus not with slavish literalism, but with a creative form of fidelity that advances the values of God’s Realm in countless ways in different historical and cultural contexts.

The fact that so many holy founders have been celebrated by Catholics over the centuries suggests that some women religious who aspire to prophecy today may also be called to tasks of institutional creation and construction, tasks we might refer to “founding” and “re-founding,” and in some cases to institution maintenance as well. Whether the institutions are new ones organized around causes such as peacebuilding or environmental justice, or are more established ones involving education, health care or the religious congregations themselves, these sociological realities can usually do more than the most energetic individual alone, and they can certainly benefit from the contributions and leadership of those with a prophetic vision. Moreover, if the call to prophecy is now understood to be extended to groups as well as to individuals, it will be necessary to develop and refine models of decision-making and leadership that reflect the norms of charity and justice that and foster the welfare of the group and its members. Ministerial religious must somehow discern which situations call for corporate prophetic action and which call for supporting, or for challenging, individual members who feel called to prophecy in various contexts.

Perhaps all of this will seem easier when the goal of full equality for women in the Catholic church is realized, and all ministries are open to baptized females. But we are living before this reform, which is desired so passionately by many, and feared with equal intensity by others. In this meanwhile, then, are there other virtues beyond the “obedience to God lived freely in the service of God’s people” that Schneiders rightly commends to women religious?

Three such qualities come to mind, the first of which is humility. By humility I do not mean a false sense of unworthiness, much less internalized oppression on sexist or other grounds. Rather I mean being grounded in the knowledge of our human sinfulness and finitude, with the accompanying recognition that salvation is God’s gift, and not the result of our actions. When we experience criticism it is natural to go on the defensive, and especially to claim the moral high ground against those we regard as oppressors. The criticism may in fact be unjust and misguided, and humility does not rule out answering it with the fullest truth we can articulate. I am not advocating “mea culpa” as the default response to criticism, but I think we can all learn from the example of Pope Francis, who has publicly voiced his sense of identity as “a sinner” and who asked everyone to pray for him before he began his papal ministry.

At a minimum it seems wise to acknowledge that when serious matters are at issue for religious people, more than one side may feel called to prophecy. I also wonder whether humility might encourage feminists (that is, persons committed to recognizing the full equality of women and men) to be more discriminating in our critique of something called “hierarchy.” It seems to me, at any rate, that the term does not necessarily presume domination over subordinates by those who judge themselves as ontologically superior, but can simply denote an administrative system with clear lines of accountability.

How to design more instances of such administrative systems requires a virtue I have called “creative responsibility,” which involves the disposition to step back from a situation of difficulty, look at options imaginatively, and take reasonable risks for the sake of new and better possibilities. Any organization or system we design will have limitations, for under the conditions of finitude our choices may have ambiguous results and unforeseen consequences, but while we live we can make adjustments to improve the institutions.

Creative responsibility itself requires a third virtue, which also helps to keep humility in balance, namely the virtue of courage. Prophets are called to speak their sense of truth to power, and to speak it in love. There are risks involved in doing this, and courage is needed to face the suffering and loss that may come from taking such risks. Because living a prophetic vocation requires strength from beyond ourselves, perhaps courage is a virtue more to be prayed for than cultivated, and certainly community support will be needed to nurture this virtue when it is given.

How to structure these communities for the future seems a very pressing task for today. Many of the women who entered apostolic congregations before Vatican II experienced 10 or 15 years of a monastic form of apostolic life, which provided spiritual disciplines and common experiences that have sustained us though decades of change and many prophetic positions. Younger women, from various age cohorts, may have different expectations and needs regarding community and prayer life than our generation did. How should we elders respond when the prophets among them voice these needs?

In general, I find Schneiders quite persuasive in her claim that ministerial religious today are called to “live corporately the prophetic charism in the Church.” What I have tried to suggest here is that the ideal of “embodying prophecy” need not rule out concern for building and refining institutions to render them more capable of promoting the values of God’s realm, and that the prophetic vocation requires humility, creative responsibility and courage.

This article is based on an excerpt from Patrick's essay, "Prophecy and Contemporary Consecrated Life: Raising Some Ethical Questions," forthcoming in God Has Begun a Great Work in Us, Shannon Schrein, OS,F and Jason King, editors (Orbis 2015).

[Anne E. Patrick, SNJM, is William H. Laird Professor of Religion and the Liberal Arts, emerita, at Carleton College in Minnesota, and the author of Conscience and Calling: Ethical Reflections on Catholic Women's Church Vocations. A Sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, she is a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and the recipient of its 2013 John Courtney Murray Award for outstanding and distinguished achievement in theology.]