Professor-nun’s lecture explores privilege, purpose of consecrated life

Julie Filby

To live a life of perfect charity: that’s the goal of all Christians and of religious in particular.

So said seminary professor Sister Esther Mary Nickel, a Religious Sister of Mercy of Alma, Mich., speaking to a group of 20-plus religious and college mission students gathered for a talk and discussion on the Decree on the Renewal of Religious Life March 25.

The Vatican II document, also known as “Perfectae Caritatis” (Perfect Charity), and another, “Lumen Gentium,” the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, are marking 50 years during this Year of Consecrated Life called for by Pope Francis. The special year also coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council.

In promulgating the Year of Consecrated Life, which started Nov. 30 and runs through Feb. 2, 2016, the pope wants the Church to revisit the two documents so as to bring their implementation to fulfillment. Sister Nickel’s talk, hosted by the Little Sisters of the Poor at Mullen Home in northwest Denver, was the second in a three-part series to build awareness of what they say.

In the midst of the social and political revolution of the 1960s, the Catholic Church was experiencing her own transformation as she convened and began carrying out changes called for by the Second Vatican Council. The era played a significant role not only in how the 1962-1965 council was understood but also in how it was implemented, Sister Nickel said.

“A Church history professor (of mine) used to say, ‘It usually takes 50 years to implement a council … but we’ve made a few mistakes so it’s going to take us a little longer,” she said, drawing laughter from the crowd.

Misinterpretations by some in the Church and media misrepresentations contributed to the confusion that followed Vatican II as parishes grappled with the changes. She urged those in attendance to read “Lumen Gentium” and “Perfectae Caritatis,” which are vital for understanding the roles of religious and of laity in the Church.

“Lumen Gentium,” she noted, recovered Christ’s universal call to holiness.

“That was very different,” Sister Nickel said, adding that prior to Vatican II holiness was seen as the domain of clergy and religious but the document affirms that, “Everyone is called to holiness.”

Holiness, she said, is achieved in the perfection—or fullness—of charity (love), which every Christian is called to and which consecrated men and women are called to in a specific way.

“(Religious) are striving toward a fuller and more intense participation in the life of God, in the charity of God,” she said.

The role of religious, Sister Nickel said, is to be a sign and a reminder that Christians are mere pilgrims on earth.

“Our consecration, our fully giving our lives to the Lord,” she said, “gives witness to the truth that we’re not here to stay, we’re here to lead others to heaven.”

Religious have the privilege of being called to a stable life in which they are bound to practice the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience (some also take a fourth vow) and live a life in common that supports their efforts to do so.

“You’re more free than ever,” Sister Nickel said, “because you know you’re doing the Lord’s will.”

In keeping with God’s plan, over the centuries “a wonderful variety of religious communities has grown up,” she said quoting “Perfectae Caritatis.”

“That’s what we see in this room,” Sister Nickel said, acknowledging the Little Sisters of the Poor, Carmelite sisters, Capuchin Franciscans and Servite friar in attendance, “a wonderful variety … each blooming with it’s own beauty.”

What religious ultimately desire, she said, is to share the fulfillment expressed by Christ as he hung on the cross on Good Friday.

“We long for that moment when we will see the Lord … and be able to say, ‘It is finished.’ And Our Lord can say to us, ‘Well done good and faithful servant.

“That’s what’s at the heart of perfect charity.”


Decree on the Renewal of Religious Life

By Sister Esther Mary Nickel, R.S.M.

7 p.m. April 30, Mullen Home, 3629 W. 29th Ave., Denver

COMING UP: Catholic school teachers are ‘ministers’, SCOTUS rules

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The Supreme Court on Wednesday delivered a long-awaited religious liberty decision on the right of religious schools to hire and fire teachers. The court found in favor of two Catholic schools in California, ruling that a “ministerial exception” to government interference applies to teachers in religious schools.

The ruling came in the consolidated cases of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel. The justices ruled in a 7-2 decision that teachers at Catholic grade schools qualified for the “ministers exception” established by the court in the 2012 Hosana Tabor case.

“The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito for the majority.

“Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not tolerate.”

The two California Catholic schools did not renew the contracts of the teachers in 2014 and 2015. In separate cases combined by the Supreme Court, the teachers alleged that their dismissals were based on disability and age, not poor performance. The schools claimed they were exempt from employment discrimination laws under the ministerial exception, the legal doctrine under which government cannot interfere in the employment decisions of churches and religious institutions regarding the hiring and firing of ministers.

In both cases, the teachers’ suits were dismissed by federal courts, and then reinstated by the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeal.

When the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the combined case in May, lawyers for the schools argued that “for hours on end over the course of a week,” teachers in Catholic schools were the “primary agents” by which the faith was taught to students. Argument – and questions from the bench – focused on how broadly the ministerial exception could be applied to the employees of religious schools.

The decision comes just weeks after the court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, that employers cannot fire employees because of their sexual orientation or “gender identity.” Justice Neil Gorsuch, who authored the majority opinion in that case, acknowledged that religious freedom cases related to the decision would probably come before the Court in the future.

The decision about who qualifies as a minister could directly impact future cases in which teachers might be dismissed for failing to adhere to Church teachins on same-sex marriage or transgender issues, both of which have been subjects of controversy in recent months.

“Requiring the use of the title [minister] would constitute impermissible discrimination,” the court ruled. Referencing the previous decision in Hosana Tabor, Altio wrote that there must be “a recognition that educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith are responsibilities that lie at the very core of the mission of a private religious school.”

The verdict also explicitly referenced the policy of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, home to both of the schools designating all teachers in Catholic schools as being effectively ministers.

“Like all teachers in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Morrissey-Berru was “considered a catechist,” i.e., “a teacher of religion,” Alito noted in his decision for the majority.

“There is abundant record evidence that [both teachers] performed vital religious duties. Educating and forming students in the Catholic faith lay at the core of the mission of the schools where they taught, and their employment agreements and faculty handbooks specified in no uncertain terms that they were expected to help the schools carry out this mission and that their work would be evaluated to ensure that they were fulfilling that responsibility.”

The court concluded that “when a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow.”

Joining Alito in the majority decision were Justices Thomas, Breyer, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, as well as Chief Justice John Roberts. Justices Sotomayer and Ginsburg dissented.