The Radio 4 programme Beyond Belief is one that I sometimes catch when I get home from school. It provides a more thoughtful reflection on questions of religion, and religious controversy.
Last night Zero phoned me as the programme was about to begin - to tip me off to a programme about nuns. As it happens, she could probably hear Radio 4 in the background ... There is a synopsis of the programme, and it can be listened to on the BBC i-player, from this page; a podcast can be downloaded from here.
I do think that this programme is worth listening to. There are one or two lively exchanges between Sr Myra Poole and Sr Roseanne Reddy, and, from the point of view of Catholic teaching, one can feel that some of Sr Myra's positions are not one's that are readily agreed with. A female Buddhist Lama also takes part in the programme, and it is interesting to see the dialogue between Catholicism and Buddhism. A range of issues relating to religious life in the Catholic Church are well debated in the programme, and the difference between the experience of the religious life before the Second Vatican Council and that after the Council is also well portrayed. Do listen to the whole programme, since my selective comments below are not going to give a complete picture of it.
I do think that Sr Myra gives a good witness to the place of prayer in the religious life, perhaps most markedly when she recognises that the younger sisters now joining her order do not benefit from the contemplative foundation that she was able to have. I think the question of obedience, raised by the programme presenter in the context of Sr Myra's advocacy for the ordination of women in the Catholic Church (the introduction to the programme gives the impression that this now constitutes Sr Myra' s work), could have an added element. The point is that Sr Myra's subjective sense that she is following the Holy Spirit in advocating women's ordination is, in obedience, subjected to an objective judgement by her religious superior, and that these two should not be in conflict.
Other questions - such as that of the place of celibacy/chastity in religious life, raised by the negative judgement on it offered by an inserted testimony by Marian Dante, who has left religious life, and then debated by Sr Roseanne - are well debated. What I did find interesting in Marian Dante's testimony was the account of the move from a Convent life with traditional style habit to life lived in small houses wearing a modern style habit that took place in the lady's religious order following the Second Vatican Council. Marian describes herself as moving from a "very institutionalised", isolated existence to one for which she was simply not prepared - deciding to leave as she found herself teaching alongside lay teachers in London with whom she seemed to have little in common. She talks about the "scaffolding of my life" falling away.
At a purely pragmatic level, one can ask whether it was really necessary for her order to so rapidly restructure the experience of its members in the interests of renewal. Might not the transition from Convent based to community based ministry have been more gradually introduced, perhaps with the younger generation leading the transition and the older generation being allowed to retain the previous form of life? But, at the level of principle and, admittedly with the benefit of hindsight, one can ask whether or not this movement "from the Convent" towards "the world" was the right "direction" for a religious order to be taking at all. The style of small community living to which it led is now typical of the communities of the new (lay) movements in the Church, for whom the "direction" it represents is the exact opposite. For these new movements, it represents a movement "from the world" towards "the Church". The styles of life resulting from these two quite opposite "directions" of movement may be very much the same in practical import; but which is the "direction" of movement that most authentically represents Christian living?
But do listen to the whole programme.