Focus on Faith: Director of nuns says church faces changes

As far as Sister Mary Anne Rodgers is concerned, it’s a wonderful time to be Catholic. Sure, there a

As far as Sister Mary Anne Rodgers is concerned, it’s a wonderful time to be Catholic.

Sure, there are a few issues among the flock, and the ongoing tug of war between the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the bishops) and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (the nuns) is an interesting sideshow for those not emotionally involved in the tussle. Still, Rodgers isn’t overly concerned about the infighting.

Working on consensus

“When I first joined this community 50 years ago, the church was at the cusp of change,” said Rodgers, the province director of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in Latham, “and here at St. Joseph’s, we work hard to get a consensus. But, if we all agreed on everything 100 percent, we’d probably be in heaven and not here. There are changes in the church and things going on within the leadership. I think it’s a very exciting time.”

Rodgers is one of about 57,000 Roman Catholic nuns represented by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organization founded in 1956 with the blessing of Pope Pius XII.

Designed to help members achieve their goals of public service and to further the mission of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the LCWR came under some scrutiny recently when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a group of select bishops who oversee Catholic doctrine, determined that the LCWR had strayed just a bit from its intended mission.

Doctrinal assessment

The bishops determined in their “doctrinal assessment” of the LCWR, begun in 2008 and released in April of this year that, among other items, “The messages at LCWR annual assemblies manifest problematic statements and serious, even doctrinal errors.”

According to Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, the CDF’s doctrinal assessment was an “appraisal” to help “remedy significant and long-standing doctrinal problems connected with the activities and programs of the LCWR.”

In the June 11 edition of the National Catholic Register, Blair wrote that the “LCWR constantly provides a one-sided platform — without challenge or any opposing view — to speakers who take a negative and critical position vis-a-vis church doctrine and discipline and the church’s teaching office.”

The bishops’ findings came just a few months after the completion in January of an Apostolic Visitation initiated in December of 2008, by former Cardinal Franc Rodé, C.M., to “look into the quality of the life” of apostolic institutes of women religious in the United States. Neither project received a hearty endorsement from Rodgers, who conceded that many people viewed the bishops’ findings as a “slap on the wrist” to the nuns.

“Some people might interpret it that way, and it also came on the heels of the Vatican Visitation, which called into question the lifestyle of religious women in the U.S.” she said. “We had just reached a sense of comfort with the Visitation, having voiced what we felt we needed to say, and then all of a sudden we have the leadership group having to deal with the doctrinal assessment.”

Rodgers felt the bishops’ work regarding the LCWR was not time well spent.

“I was very disappointed that there even was a doctrinal assessment,” she said. “Now we’re going to study further, pray and have a dialogue with our archbishop [J. Peter Sartain of Seattle], and I believe he is a fair and just man. I just think it’s unnecessary. It takes energy and effort away from so many other things, all the social issues, that are looming in front of us.”

Lifelong concerns

Rodgers has been concerned about social issues ever since she was a girl, growing up in Utica. She went to Utica College for one year before deciding to become a nun, but her vows didn’t stop her education. After moving to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet to begin her formation process, she began attending classes at The College of Saint Rose and earned her undergraduate degree in biology. She headed to SUNY-Oswego for her master’s in biology and then, after 10 years as a high-school science teacher, she went to Georgetown University to get a degree in philosophy and ethics.

“Most of our sisters here are highly educated,” said Rodgers. “Many of them have two master’s degrees, and many of them are educators. I love education, but I also wanted to do something really worthwhile with my life. Growing up, I went to Catholic school and I knew the sisters. I knew the work that they did, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet is an order of Catholic nuns created in the U.S. in St. Louis in 1836. The group opened the Albany Province in 1861 and was in Troy until building its current facility in 1963 on Watervliet-Shaker Road in Latham. Albany is one of four provinces (along with St. Louis; St. Paul, Minn.; and Los Angeles) and its building serves as home to more than 360 retired sisters. Between the nursing, maintenance and administrative staff, the place has about 100 employees.

“We call it, ‘caring for our sisters at home,’ ” said Rodgers. “We have doctors, and we have nurses who provide care around the clock. We have a beautiful chapel that can seat as many as 500 people, and we have a television camera set up so that sisters who can’t get out of their room can watch Mass.”

Rodgers is part of a leadership team of six sisters who share the responsibility of making major decisions about the facility. Her term as province director lasts five years and will conclude in 2013.

“We have around 360 sisters here, and we have around 150 to 175 that are still out working in the world somewhere,” said Rodgers. “In all four provinces we have around 1,200 sisters, and most of them work at schools and hospitals. There are different religious communities you can join, such as the Franciscan Sisters, the Daughters of Charity, and while each community is similar in its service to the church, each one might have a slightly different style or spirit. I always liked the Sisters of St. Joseph’s. It just seemed a good fit for me.”

She has also felt right at home as a member of the LCWR, as well as another group called Network, a National Catholic Social Justice Lobby. Sister Simone Campbell, Network’s executive director, spoke at the Democratic National Convention earlier this month and also spearheaded the movement “Nuns on the Bus,” which toured several U.S. cities speaking out against the Republican health care plan proposed by GOP vicepresidential candidate Paul Ryan.

“She’s a wonderful woman who keeps us abreast of all the social issues out there, and all the pros and cons,” Rodgers said of Campbell. “We talk about the Ryan budget, immigration reform. There’s a lot of networking that happens among religious women, and I would be in agreement with pretty much everything Sister Simone said during her convention speech. We would have loved to see the Dream Act pass, to help those immigrants who came here as children, and to give them some stability and help them get an education.”

Opinions on issues

There are no issues out there that Rodgers is not willing to talk about.

• On Health Care:

“I truly believe that Obamacare, or the Affordable Health Care Act, is the most pro-life legislation that the U.S. has seen,” she said. “It has done nothing to increase abortions. It’s abortion-neutral as far as we can tell, and it provides many other services for pregnant women. It will also insure 13 more million people — that’s pro-life — and it will provide coverage for pre-existing conditions, and that’s pro-life.”

• On ministering to homosexuals:

“The bishops have actually come up with a document on homosexuality that is very pastoral,” she said. “These people are our children, and all the sisters that I know in dealing with that kind of individual would just try to be present in a pastoral way, and to be there for them and their families, and not in a judgmental or pejorative way. It appears from what we’re hearing today from the social sciences that this is just how someone is. And if that’s how someone is, what we have to do is learn how to treat them with the dignity and the love they need. We have to look at this in a nuanced way, and I was very happy with what the bishops came up with. I think it is a wonderful document.”

• On the ordination of female priests:

“Well, believe it or not, there are statements that say I cannot talk about that,” said Rodgers. “Here I am, an educated woman who has served the church loyally for nearly 50 years. Isn’t that fascinating? So, I suppose I can’t talk to you about it. But, how can I not talk about it? There is no biblical or theological reason that I can see why women shouldn’t be ordained. It’s not a matter of human rights. No one has the right to be ordained. It’s a call. I believe that many people, male and female, have been called to the priesthood, but currently the church only recognizes males. Maybe in time . . . but I’ve been told not to talk about it.”

• On Mitt Romney’s candidacy for president:

“I have no difficulty at all with there being a Mormon president. I don’t care if he’s Protestant or Jewish or whatever, I want a man, or a woman, who will be concerned about the people. I want someone with integrity who can balance the two principles of human dignity and the common good. Sometimes they work together real well and sometimes they’re in conflict.”

• On speaking her mind:

“I feel comfortable; of course I do. I’m part of a community that does not separate itself. We are not cloistered. We have to have a dialogue. We may not agree, but I can tell you how I feel and you can tell me how you feel. There are other places in the world and maybe even in this country where a bishop might not appreciate someone expressing themselves with candor. Here, we have a wonderful bishop in Howard Hubbard, so I’m not worried about that. We are who we are, and nothing I’ve said could be called scandalous. The only thing I need to worry about at the end of the day is, ‘Am I living a gospel life?’ I want to be faithful to the gospel, and while I may not agree with everyone on everything, I hope no one doubts my integrity.”

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