Religious vow of obedience needs to be redefined, says theologian

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ROME – Earlier this week, Pope Francis released a new prayer video in which he told nuns and consecrated women to push back when they are mistreated, including by the Church, in reference to raising awareness growing abuses that nuns have often faced in their lives. Services.

In the video, posted Feb. 1, the pope urged religious and consecrated women “to fight back when, in some cases, they are being treated unfairly, even within the church; when they serve so much that they are reduced to bondage, sometimes, by clergymen.

“Let us pray for religious and consecrated women, thanking them for their mission and their courage; may they continue to find new answers to the challenges of our time,” he said.

For Peruvian theologian Rocio Figueroa, the challenges that nuns face are not only inflicted by male clerics who treat them as servants, but there are also glaring internal challenges within religious communities that need to be addressed.

One of them, according to Figueroa, is the Church’s concept of the vow of obedience.

When priests, consecrated persons or religious enter their communities, they adhere to the three traditional “evangelical counsels”, which are the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

While poverty and chastity are simpler, Figueroa said she believes the vow of obedience, while necessary, is ill-defined and because of this has enabled the abuse and mistreatment of women. nuns for decades.

Talk to NodeFigueroa said that to understand the problem of the vow, one must look at “how obedience has been understood in religious life.”

“In the beginning, it started with the life of the monks: obedience to the superior, and obedience there began as obedience to authority, that the superior represented God, so by obeying your superior, you were obeying God.”

“I think that kind of obedience, that definition of obedience, is problematic, and that kind of obedience has continued until today,” she said.

A lecturer in systematic theology at Good Shepherd College in Auckland, New Zealand, and an external researcher at the Center for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago, Figueroa is a former member of the Marian Community of Reconciliation ( MCR), which is one of the two female branches of Peru Soldalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV).

In 2017, SCV founder, Peruvian layman Luis Fernando Figari, was sanctioned by the Vatican after accusations emerged that he sexually abused several minors and physically and psychologically abused members of his community.

Similar complaints of psychological and spiritual abuse and abuse of authority have been made by former members of the MCR, and in recent months scandals have emerged from the second female branch of the SCV, the Servants of God’s Plan , called by their Spanish Name, the Servas.

Former members of the Servas told horror stories of a toxic, militant internal culture where authority was blindly obeyed and members were routinely criticized, humiliated, and pushed to their physical and mental limits to meet the challenges of “spreading the gospel.”

RELATED: Peruvian Ex-Nuns Report Abuse of Power, Inner Conscience

And the Servas are not alone. Many members of religious orders endured similar abuses, all in accordance with their vow of obedience.

Many women, when they enter religious life, learn that “if I want to be a religious, I must obey God, therefore I must obey my superior. My superior commands me, humiliates me, but they do it because it’s God’s will, God’s plan, and I shouldn’t question it,” Figueroa said.

Basically, Figueroa said his concerns with the vow of obedience as it is currently understood are that “it’s not a problem of an abusive leader, it’s a problem of how the system actually allows abuse, in a way”.

Go to the roots

Figueroa said the vow of obedience should be modeled on the very example of Jesus in the gospels, in which Jesus always said he was obeying his Father’s will.

“Obedience in the gospel is an act of trust, an act of following the commandments of God and following his love, so it is loving, trusting obedience in a relationship between Jesus and God the Father. “, said Figureroa.

“This is the heart of obedience,” she said, adding, “Jesus’ obedience was always to the Father, and the obedience required of us is obedience to God, not to Human being”.

Where things started to get problematic, she says, was at the beginning of the monastic practice of obedience.

“The monks wanted to go to the desert to live a very rough life, so they considered nullifying their own will or desires to be a way of being holy,” giving rise, she says, to a neo-influenced spirituality. -Platonism” in which your own faculties are considered dangerous to follow God.

This concept of obedience was further reinforced by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, who was a soldier before his religious life, and who described “a blind obedience” in which, as a member of the community , “you had to obey, no matter what you thought, no matter how willing you were.

Despite St. Ignatius’ deep spirituality, “it was a very militaristic way of defining obedience,” and it’s also hierarchical, Figueroa said. “It’s a definition in which I command, and you obey, it’s a very vertical type of relationship.”

There is also a patriarchal element, she said, noting that all of the people who have contributed to the Catholic Church’s concept of religious obedience “have been men.”

Even the use of the word “higher” in religious life is troubling, she said, saying the term implies that “authority is ‘higher’ than those not in authority.”

While there are “perverts” and “narcissists” who intentionally abuse, the misdefinition of obedience has also caused problems and opened the door to various, possibly unintentional, abuses, she said. declared.

“We have filled the obedience value with a lot of content that I consider very unhealthy, which does not belong to the Gospel”, but which is part of a tradition rooted in a patriarchal culture in which hierarchical obedience and authoritarian was the norm, Figueroa said.

Redefining Obedience

For Figueroa, the heart of the problem “is the sacralization of obedience, of authority… it can be unhealthy”.

The reason for this, she says, is that although superiors are supposed to represent God, not all of them do so, because “if you have an abusive superior, he doesn’t represent God. The authorities do not represent God, they represent God if they are good.

“Why don’t we say that every parent represents God? Because it depends on your parents. It is the same as authority, not all authorities represent God,” she said, insisting that is why “the vow of obedience must be to God, not to superior “.

While authorities and leaders are needed in communities, and members must adhere to the charism of their order and abide by the rules, the vow of obedience must always be to God, she said.

“I’m not saying that we don’t need an authority who coordinates community life, of course we need someone to coordinate, but it’s not that I obey him thinking it’s because they represent God. It’s just because it’s necessary. In a job you have to obey your boss not because you think his decision is from God, you have to obey for the organization and welfare of a group,” she said.

Obedience, according to Figueroa, should have a more cooperative connotation, where members should feel free to voice concern if they have questions about an instruction they are receiving.

“It may be more messy, there will be more discussions, but it’s human society, it’s a family. You talk things out,” she said.

One thing that needs to be clarified, she said, is that obedience “cannot be the submission of your will and your mind.”

“To me, any comment that you have to let go of your thoughts, your critical spirit and your will is unhealthy,” Figueroa said, expressing his belief that this is one of the issues contributing to the current crisis in religious life. .

“What young woman will say, I have to cancel myself? The path of religious life should be a path of fulfillment, fullness, richness in which you feel strong in your personality,” she said.

The voice of women

Since the vast majority of religious and consecrated persons are women, and priests, while swearing obedience to their bishop, do not have to live with a superior 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, this means those most affected by problems with obedience vows are women, Figueroa said.

For her, it is troubling that women represent the essence of consecrated life in the Church and yet have little to do with the theological and spiritual reflections leading to modern definitions of the vows they take.

“The majority of religious people are women,” so those who must find a new definition of obedience “are women,” she said. “The problem is that those who write the documents are always men.”

Obedience and the Church’s fundamental understanding of it “will not change until women have a say in the definitions, in the teachings of the Church,” she said.

That’s why, Figueroa said, what’s needed is more than just policy change, but systemic change, because “those who define power or obedience are those who have the power: masculine, and who do so in a man. path.”

“It would be important to have more women, to exercise authority in a woman’s way, because the problem now is that we have a lot of women who exercise authority in a patriarchal way”, and it caused problems, she said.

“Until we have another way to exercise authority, it will be very difficult,” she said. “We need to create a new model for exercising authority.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen



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