In this article over at National Catholic Reporter, Jamie Manson expresses what she feels is the core clash between the sisters of LCWR and the pope:

Pope Francis believes women religious should continue to do the work of the church while remaining obedient to the voice of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The women religious of the LCWR, on the other hand, believe their work and their faith demand that they remain radically obedient first and foremost to the voice of God.

Manson’s article nails it. She acknowledges that certain Catholics were hoping that Pope Francis’ informal style also indicated a softening of the traditional doctrinal stance of the church, and the church’s demand for obedience and conformity in matters of doctrine and morals. She admits that it ain’t gonna happen.

The problem with Manson’s assessment is that she (and the dissenting sisters she supports) seem to misunderstand the essential nature and teaching of Catholicism. They have created a false dichotomy between “obeying God” and obeying “the Roman Catholic hierarchy.” There is no clash. Catholics are supposed to believe with their heart, soul, mind and strength, that God’s primary revelation came to humanity through his Son Jesus Christ and that Jesus bore the authority of God on earth.

They are also supposed to believe that Jesus Christ granted that teaching authority to his apostles and that they, in turn, handed that authority on to their successors. This means there is no clash between obeying God and obeying the Church. The voice of the Church is the voice of God on earth. I realize this is a hard sell, and not particularly attractive to modern Americans, but there we are. It’s Catholicism.

This is what we call “Apostolic Succession” and I was under the impression that this was sort of “Catholic Catechesis 101”. The sisters are professional Catholics. Surely they were supposed to understand this at a pretty early stage of their formation, or am I missing something?

Let’s widen this out. It’s  not simply a problem of the LCWR sisters. It is also a problem that threads right through the American Catholic Church. It is a problem with priests. It is a problem in the pew. It is a problem straight across the church at every level.

It was expressed by another Catholic in my combox recently, “The Second Vatican Council taught us that individual conscience was also to be obeyed, and that to obey the conscience was a higher and better thing than mere obedience to the church.”

This reveals a very faulty understanding of what the church is, what conscience is. For the Catholic conscience to be an effective voice it must be an informed conscience, and the only way the conscience can be informed is by the revelation of God through Jesus Christ and his body on earth–the Church. Therefore obedience to God cannot be separated from obedience to the Church.

Another difficulty is the idea enshrined in the phrase “We Are Church”. This is an incorrect working out of  the sensus fidelium.

Sensus fidelium is “the supernatural appreciation of faith on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals”. Quoting the document Lumen gentium of the Second Vatican Council, the Catechism of the Catholic Church adds: “By this appreciation of the faith, aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, the People of God, guided by the sacred teaching authority (Magisterium),… receives… the faith, once for all delivered to the saints… the People unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it more fully in daily life.”

The Popes have been very clear however, that sensus fidelium is not sensus laicorum — sense of the laity. Sensus fidelium is not a kind of democratization of the church–making faith and doctrine simply a matter of majority vote. Pope Benedict XVI taught,

In a speech to the International Theological Commission on 7 December 2012, Pope Benedict XVI distinguished between the authentic meaning of sensus fidei and a counterfeit understanding: “It is certainly not a kind of public ecclesial opinion, and invoking it in order to contest the teachings of the Magisterium would be unthinkable, since the sensus fidei cannot be authentically developed in believers, except to the extent in which they fully participate in the life of the Church, and this demands responsible adherence to the Magisterium, to the deposit of faith.

The National Catholic Reporter, the voice of the progressive Catholic movement takes the “We Are Church” line that the laity have spoken on certain issues like women’s ordination and the hierarchy must respond and change the church.

Even if their theory were true that somehow the majority opinion of the laity was the driving force in the church there are several predominant problems. First of all, the progressive faction in the church in the developed world by no means represents the majority of the church worldwide. The astonishing provincialism of progressives in Europe and the North America is incredible. Do they really think their radical views on contraception, women’s ordination and same sex marriage really are the majority view?  These people are wrapped up in their own little left wing world thinking that they are expressing the views of the majority. They are not. They remind me of the liberal goof in New York who said after George Bush was elected, “How could he have won? I don’t know anybody who voted for him.”

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that their small minded progressive views really were the views of the majority of Catholics around the world, does that mean the church must change doctrine or her teaching on morals as a consequence? No. That’s not how the Catholic Church works. If a thing is true it is true no matter how many people hold to it or no matter how many people think it is wrong. The Church does not determine matters of faith and morals according to majority vote.

Finally, I hear the stomping of adolescent feet when the progressives say, “We must obey God rather than man.” Uh huh.

What tickles me as a former Protestant is that this “we must obey God rather than men” was a rallying cry of the Protestant reformation. The verse, of course, is taken from Peter in the Acts of the Apostles. He led the apostles to break with the old Judaism and was led by the Holy Spirit to do so.

Peter’s break with the legalism of Judaism is a very different matter than the dissent of the American sisters and their supporters. Nevertheless, it seems they are putting themselves on the same level of Peter, Prince of the Apostles and are just as in touch with a direct line to the Holy Spirit as he was. When people speak to me about their direct line to God I usually take them with the proper pinch of salt.

This unlocks another problem at the core of the sisters’ dissent and similar dissent throughout the church. We hear continually that the sisters have a “prophetic voice” and that the “Roman Catholic hierarchy” should listen to that prophetic voice. This, of course, is not just a female-nun thing. We hear the same from plenty of progressive Catholics. They dispense with Catholic discipline on marriage, homosexuality, liturgy, etc. etc. by claiming that their dissent and disobedience is, in fact, them exercising a “prophetic ministry” in the church.

They like to paint themselves as the brave pioneers who boldly go where the rest of the Catholics (all hidebound legalists) fear to tread.

This is a great, big, steaming pile of male bovine fertilizer.They’re just doing what they want and then getting self righteous about it.

The fact of the matter is, the dissenting nuns and priests have all taken a sacred vow of obedience. It was part of the deal.

The fact that they make a career out of breaking that vow, flouting their promise of obedience and then being self righteous and playing the victim about it should be named and shamed for what it is.