By Bob Gaydos
Spending a summer afternoon at Pacem in Terris, in Warwick, can be like being transported to another world. Which may well have been what Frederick Franck had in mind when he created his six-acre oasis/sanctuary/art museum/sculpture garden/spiritual retreat on the banks of the Wawayanda River (photo). On special Sundays, magnificent music, such as was performed last Sunday in a stone grotto by the Loma Linda String Quartet (playing Haydn and McCartney), heightens the feeling of beauty and tranquility that is palpable almost everywhere one looks.
Franck, who died in 2006, was a pacifist, agnostic, painter, sculptor, dental surgeon, author and student of Zen Buddhism. Put prolific in front of everyone of those. A seeker of peace on earth and among all religions, he was among a select group of artists who sketched all the sessions of Vatican II, presided over by Pope John XXIII, whom Franck greatly admired. Inspired by what he saw and heard, he came home to Warwick and created his “tranreligious” sanctuary.
“Pacem in Terris, of course, was the title of the encyclical issued by the pope in April of 1963, “on establishing universal peace in truth, justice, charity and liberty.” That remarkable doctrine, among other things, encouraged religious orders to modernize, to bring the Catholic Church actively into the life of the 20th century. For many orders, this meant opportunities for greater education and learning skills to advance the causes of justice, liberty, charity and truth within their communities, not just in churches. For many orders of nuns the encyclical was, in itself, a symbol of individual liberty and justice. Instead of simply repeating church doctrine, they could actively spread the pope’s message of peace in various community settings.
And they did. And they have continued to do so. And for that, with a succession of more conservative popes since John XXIII, thousands of American nuns now find themselves threatened by the Vatican. The same institution that encouraged them to become educated, to proclaim their individual rights and responsibilities, now wants them to cease and desist. The nuns, members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80 percent of American nuns, say this is not what Vatican II was about. Franck would likely agree. In fact, many lay Catholics agree with the nuns, staging demonstrations around the country to show their solidarity.
Last week, the nuns met in St. Louis to plan their response to a no-nonsense order issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The bishops said the sisters, through words and deeds had spread “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” The Vatican was particularly concerned with the nuns’ interest in sexuality, contraception, same-sex marriage and women in the priesthood. Although the group has taken no official stand on any of those issues, it has engaged in open discussion about them, arguing that they are vital issues of social liberty and justice of the times.
Which apparently everyone but the all-male Vatican can see.
The long-building ultimate confrontation has yet to occur as the sisters took a little detour after their conference, at which they took no official position. Instead, they met with Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, assigned by the Vatican to redraw the mission of the sisters to more accurately reflect what the men in Rome want. The nuns said they expressed their concerns about the Vatican report honestly and openly with Sartain, who, they said, was a respectful listener. The bishop has been mum since the meeting, but then he probably feels, as the Vatican’s point man, that he’s holding all the cards in this game.
For their part, the nuns do not seem ready to fold. In the spirit of respectful dialogue of Vatican II, more meetings with Sartain are scheduled for the fall. But they also said they “will reconsider if LCWR is forced to compromise the integrity of its mission.”
Perhaps more tellingly, the LCWR also issued a statement saying: “The expectation of the LCWR members is that open and honest dialogue may lead not only to increasing understanding between the church leadership and women religious, but also to creating more possibilities for the laity and — particularly for women — to have a voice in the church.”
One could says, in reading “Pacem In Terris,’ that a natural evolution of the church in light of a rapidly changing world, was what John XXIII had in mind. It would seem that any institution, even a religious one, must evolve with the people and society it professes to serve, else how can it continue to properly serve?
A voice for women in the Catholic Church? A radical idea? Maybe 50 years ago. Maybe not. Perhaps Sartain should spend a few hours in the gardens at Pacem in Terris reflecting on the spirit of “Pacem in Terris” before speaking to the sisters again.
Photo by Idrea Ramaci