There has been some discussion among bloggers about Fr Richard McBrien's latest article, in which he discusses the apostolic visitation of women religious in the United States, mostly debating his theology and errors therein. I have discussed some of McBrien's articles in the past using my training in deconstruction and rhetoric to examine how he creates himself to be the one true point of view. I don't do so very often, because, quite frankly, fisking McBrien is like hunting cows. His bag of tricks is rather limited, as I have shown in the past, and he shows an unwillingness to discuss or even engage with his opponents, even as he condemns them for being unwilling to discuss or engage his point of view.
This new article has an interesting twist to it. This time McBrien's argument hinges on absolutely nothing at all. His article is in blue, my comments black.
In a letter written on Feb. 20, the prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal William Levada, informed the officers of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious that the Congregation would be conducting a "doctrinal assessment" of the organization.
The Leadership Conference is an association of the leaders of congregations of Catholic women religious in the United States, with more than 1,500 members representing about 95 percent of the 68,000 U.S. women religious.
As is typical with McBrien, he begins with a few truths. He is an observer, presenting simple facts. He continues in this line for the next few paragraphs.
In a statement released soon thereafter, the officers acknowledged receipt of the letter and pointed out that the conference "faces this process with confidence, believing that the conference has remained faithful to its mission of service to leaders of congregations of women religious as they seek to further the mission of Christ in today's world."
The Vatican assessment became necessary, according to Cardinal Levada, because the three issues that were surfaced at a 2001 meeting in Rome between the officers of the conference and the Congregation remain in his mind unresolved.
Still true, but the facts are being canted slightly in their presentation. "According to Cardinal Levada" and "in his mind" are phrases that begin to shift the presentation. McBrien is still presenting facts, but his facts are the facts of someone's opinion- they exist in that person's mind. Pay attention to the "mind" in this one.
Those three areas of doctrinal concern are the 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis on the ordination of women to the priesthood, the Congregation's 2000 declaration Dominus Iesus on the unique role of Christ in salvation, and "the problem of homosexuality."
Levada informed the officers of the conference that "Given the tenor and the doctrinal content of various addresses given at the annual assemblies of the conference in the intervening years, this dicastery can only conclude that the problems which had motivated its request in 2001 continue to be present."
Levada also acknowledged that his decision to conduct this "doctrinal assessment" was reached in concert with Cardinal Franc Rodé, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, which had announced last December that it was initiating a "visitation" of communities of women religious in the United States, to examine the "quality of life" among their members and to determine why their numbers have declined in recent decades.
Still quoting, still citing facts, although the use of scare quotes- a common McBrien technique- begins to call to question and insert a kind of ironic observation on what are otherwise objective facts. McBrien is both establishing himself as a neutral observer- his favoured position- while at the same time setting up his perceived opponents for dismissal. And here it comes.
Not having at hand copies of the talks given at conference assemblies since 2001, I am not in a position to evaluate Levada's expressed concern about these addresses nor how the three issues (women's ordination, salvation, and homosexuality) were treated in these presentations.
Here's where people's jaws start dropping. This is the hinge point of the article. For the first time in this article, McBrien inserts himself. He moves from being an objective impersonal observer to a personal subjective one, and the first thing he does is admit a lack. The very thing he needs to address the concerns of Levada is something he lacks. As a former academic addressing an article written by someone who always, always touts their own academic credentials, this is a shocking omission. You always, always research the topic you address. If a potential academic were to sit before a board of examiners and admit they knew nothing of a critical piece of information, he would be flunked immediately with contempt. Yet McBrien flaunts his lack, and continues on. How then can he address the Cardinal's concerns?
However, I do know enough about the nature and history of the Leadership Conference to express amazement that there could be any "doctrinal" concerns about the organization and its leadership.
He addresses it by using his own personal experience. Once again, "trust me, for I know," is the unwritten underpinning of McBrien's article. Although, in conjunction with the last paragraph, he seems to be saying "Trust me, for I don't know." Also, note the return of the scare quotes. Irony and dismissal of Levada instead of addressing and dealing with Levada's concerns. After all, how can he address Levada's concerns when he doesn't even have the documents to which Levada referred? His ignorance becomes the enabling condition for McBrien's defence of the Leadership Conference. It reminds me of the old Matlock series: "Your honour, I don't know spit about law, but I remember when I was a boy catching crawdads up on crackleberry creek..." I believe the Latin phrase is "non sequitor."
Some of the finest women religious in the United States, and worldwide, have headed the Leadership Conference. By identifying only a sample, I do not mean to imply that those sisters who remain unmentioned are (or were) of lesser quality and achievement.
So he knows the women to be fine, and therefore the cardinal can have no objection.
The list of past national chairpersons and presidents of the Leadership Conference reads like a Hall of Fame of religious life: Mary Luke Tobin, Thomas Aquinas (Elizabeth) Carroll, Margaret Brennan, Francis Borgia Rothleubber, Joan Chittister, Mary Dooley, Theresa Kane, Nadine Foley, Doris Gottemoeller, Camille D'Arienzo, and so many others.
Moreover, the Leadership Conference's mission statement is as straightforward in its pastoral and doctrinal purposes as it could possibly be: "to promote a developing understanding and living of religious life by: assisting its members personally and communally to carry out more collabora-tively their service of leadership in order to accomplish further the mission of Christ in today's world; fostering dialogue and collaboration among religious congregations within the church and in the larger society; [and] developing models for initiating and strengthening relationships with groups concerned with the needs of society, thereby maximizing the potential of the conference for effecting change."
This is the only document from the Leadership conference which he cites, since he does not cite the documents to which Cardinal Levada referred in his letter. How, then, can this be a defence against the Cardinal's concerns? Because of the ethical proof upon which McBrien so often depends. "Trust me, for I know." He uses that proof to make two thrusts. First, note the positive terms with which he introduced the above quotation. Then look at the negative terms which frame the next paragraph, which is most emphatically not a quotation. But McBrien knows. McBrien even knows the Cardinal's "mind".
But there are certain key words and phrases, like "developing," "dialogue," "collaboration," "change," and "today's world," that are red flags for some church officials and a minority of women religious who are locked into the religious culture of the 1940s and 1950s, when nuns wore elaborate habits, remained for the most part confined to their convents and religious houses, took the names assigned to them, often those of male saints, and limited their apostolic activity principally to teaching children, and ministering to the sick, orphans, and unmarried pregnant girls.
After dismissing the concerns of the Cardinal, he now presents what he sees as the Cardinal's real motives. He has once again raised a straw man to be bashed about, even though there is no trace- none- of this in the first part of his article, nor is it to be found in Cardinal Levada's letter by McBrien's own admission. Had these concerns been presented in Levada's letter, it would have made sense for McBrien to have cited it rather than create this out of whole cloth. Again, McBrien is dismissive and contemptuous of those with whom he disagrees. McBrien now launches into his peroration, his final act of rhetoric to convince everyone of his truth, leading up to a final statement.
It was unthinkable in those pre-conciliar years for a nun to appear in secular clothes, however simple, to engage in apostolic activities outside the convent or religious house, to reclaim their baptismal names, and to become engaged in ministries of social justice, human rights, and peace.
It was even more unthinkable that these now highly educated women would begin to think for themselves and to speak and act accordingly.
That is what seems to bother their critics the most.
McBrien has dismissed everything he started with in the beginning of this article, a typical McBrien move, everything about the Cardinal's letter asking for an examination of certain specific doctrinal issues stemming from certain specific presentations at certain specific conferences, as being dishonest in order to present his own view of what this visitation is really about. Breathtakingly, he does this not despite the fact that he doesn't know what the Cardinal was speaking about in his concerns, but because he doesn't know what the Cardinal was speaking about. Not having those conference notes in front of him is not a hindrance to this article, it is the article's enabling condition. Ignorance is not only bliss, it is a virtue to be trumpeted. I don't know anything about that, says McBrien. But I do know something else. His entire article makes about as much sense as a conversation that runs like this:
1: How you feeling today?
2: Not so good.
1: That can't be true, because I feel fine.
"I have concerns," says Levada. "That can't be true," says McBrien, "because I don't know what you're talking about. It must be something else." Judging from this article, this is McBrien's idea of proof.