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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

409 Never be a dictator over anyone that is put in your charge. Be an example the flock can follow.

Day 409: Thursday April 29th 2021:

Never be a dictator over any group that is put in your charge, but be an example that the whole flock can follow

Bringing attention to exploited obedience, spiritual abuse in religious communities

My sisters and I attended daily mass for years. There we all were, 8 - 10 Carlsons (imagine) in a pew for Mass just before school started at Queen of Heaven school in Albuquerque. There would be the last minute crisis to find something, anything to cover at least a few strands of their hair. Bobby pins and paper – sometimes a napkin… They learned early that women had to cover their heads and wear their uniforms so knees and arms were covered. “Girls be pure!” was an often repeated phrase. As was Girls please understand. Boys will supply the WILL power. You need to supply the WON’T power.”

On the opposite side of life was Mary, who was modeled for us in so many statues: A perfect holy mother, pure and chaste, submissive, dedicated to serving others. Somehow we lost the Mary of the Magnificat – the young woman filled with independence, courage, questioning, strength and authority.

In so many ways we have asked women in the Church – Wives, Sisters, Divorced Women, to be that submissive person, pure and chaste, and always obedient. Obedient mainly to the men in their lives. And in the religious context we see that so clearly. The most obvious example may be that of the Cardinal McIntyre who attacked the IHM Sisters in Los Angeles – or the trumped up investigation of women religious in the US several years ago. But there are also so many examples of priests lording their authority over women religious and lay women in the parishes across the world.

This is called spiritual/religious abuse. Although the term is new,the stories from women who have experienced it are not new. It was — and is — experienced in the context of obedience to church leaders, church teachings and projected images of women that tend to shame them.

So, what is it? Spiritual/religious abuse is a dynamic of power and control where Scripture, religious prescriptions and/or spiritual language is used by someone in a position of authority or perceived authority, to manipulate others into specific behaviors or attitudes.

Doris Reisinger is a former sister who experienced abuse from religious superiors and rape and assault by priests, so has first-hand experience of this horror. She is now a well-known philosopher, theologian and activist. She writes:

In conversations with other women, we've discussed how Mary the mother of Jesus is often used as a model for us, but in what we consider a caricature — as only mother, pure and chaste, asexual, dedicated to serving others and submissive, and leaving out her need for support, her independence, courage, questioning, strength and authority. Believing that the authority is describing Mary on behalf of God, women or girls can be convinced that if they do not cultivate this caricature of her in their lives, the consequence would be God's displeasure and even punishment.

Spiritual abuse is prevalent across nearly every religion.

Memories flooded my mind of my own relatives suffering from Church practices that engendered shame, such as having to marry a non-Catholic in the church sacristy rather than inside the church. (Or to be refused communion because of divorce).

Children also are often spiritually abused, even if unknowingly, by being told that they could go to hell for certain behaviors.

And as I reflected further, I realized there were many instances in my life where I felt coerced into behaviors that I did not believe in, related to religious practices before and after I entered the convent.

I had experienced too many times how women were judged and portrayed in the church, especially during my teen years. We were not to wear sleeveless blouses to church as that might cause temptation to the men present. There seemed to be many rules that programmed women's behaviors for submission. One that I questioned as a girl was why women had to cover their heads in church and men did not. Later, intensive study of the origins of veils led me to understand that the veil is in many cultures a symbol of submission. Consequently, this was one of my motivations for giving up the veil after Vatican II.

In my later ministry with adults, I realized the magnitude of spiritual abuse women have suffered from religious and spiritual expectations because of gender. Listening to their stories, I was often reminded of the novel Trinity by Leon Uris in which a woman confesses her unwillingness to submit to demands of her drunken husband.

The priest promptly tells her that she must submit, because it was her duty as a wife, quoting “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:22-24).

Even today, this passage is still read in church accompanied by homilies that perpetuate submission of women.

Patriarchal cultures, whether religious or secular, promote dominance/submission ideologies that can traumatize:

belief in hell, purity culture, complementarity between sexes or distinct but separate gender roles, and beliefs about sexuality wherein men are assumed to be lustful by nature, and women's role is to avoid tempting them. Such beliefs when internalized can have a deep impact on women and even influence them to stay in abusive relationships, believing it is God who created these systems.

Patriarchal ideologies are found in religious life structures as well. A young woman I met recently told me that after eight years, she is still plagued with fear and guilt for deciding to leave the convent. As a new entrant she had been told that because she had entered believing it was God's will, leaving would only bring her unhappiness. She interpreted her lingering unhappiness of guilt and fear as punishment for disappointing God. Soon after leaving, she was sexually abused by a priest, which only exacerbated this belief and the trauma she already experienced.

(Bishop accused of raping nuns in India)

Authority figures in religious life who internalize patriarchal systems of dominance and submission can deliberately or unconsciously exercise dominance through the vow of obedience. Traditional terminology of "superiors and subjects," or "mothers and daughters," perpetuates this system of power in which the implicit response to advice or command by an authority is expected to be unquestioned.

(Indian nuns refuse to submit and are seeking justice)

I have heard many stories of this internalization in my global travels, particularly related to mission assignments. A sister suddenly receives a letter or message from the leader that she is reassigned. Without any prior dialog or stated reasons by that leader, her expected response is, "God has spoken."

Those of us who entered convents before Vatican II are very familiar with this system. In my congregation, a communal list of annual assignments would be posted in early August, and in a day or two we were sent out. There was no thought of questioning, if one were truly obedient. This changed in the 1970s as personal and communal discernment gradually became part of our practice.

Vatican II shifted this interpretation of obedience dramatically.

Obedience must be a free choice or it is not obedience.

It goes on, quoting Perfectae Caritas: " 'Superiors are to exercise their power in the spirit of service […] govern their subjects as sons and daughters of God, and promoting the voluntary obedience with reverence for the human person. …' "

Although not easy for leaders to balance the good of the institution and that of individual members, it does require taking care to consider the needs of both, through mutual dialogue and genuine discernment.

Jesus is the model for the use of power for everyone. He says to the disciples in Matthew 20:25-26,

"You know that among the gentiles the rulers lord it over them, and great men make their authority felt. Among you this is not to happen. No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant ..." (New Jerusalem Bible.)

Later, St. Peter says: "Be the shepherds of the flock of God that is entrusted to you: watch over it, not simply as a duty but gladly, because God wants it. ... Never be a dictator over any group that is put in your charge, but be an example that the whole flock can follow" (1 Peter 5:2-3).

This is straightforward, leaving no room for spiritual manipulation of any kind.

Joyce Meyer

Joyce Meyer is a member of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. and has served as international liaison to women religious for Global Sisters Report since January 2014.

Read the full report using this link:


𝐅𝐈𝐑𝐄 𝐛𝐲𝐍𝐢𝐤𝐢𝐭𝐚𝐆𝐢𝐥𝐥

𝑅𝑒𝑚𝑒𝑚𝑏𝑒𝑟 𝑤ℎ𝑎𝑡 𝑦𝑜𝑢 𝑚𝑢𝑠𝑡 𝑑𝑜

𝑤ℎ𝑒𝑛 𝑡ℎ𝑒𝑦 𝑢𝑛𝑑𝑒𝑟𝑣𝑎𝑙𝑢𝑒 𝑦𝑜𝑢,

𝑤ℎ𝑒𝑛 𝑡ℎ𝑒𝑦 𝑡ℎ𝑖𝑛𝑘

𝑦𝑜𝑢𝑟 𝑠𝑜𝑓𝑡𝑛𝑒𝑠𝑠 𝑖𝑠 𝑦𝑜𝑢𝑟 𝑤𝑒𝑎𝑘𝑛𝑒𝑠𝑠,

𝑤ℎ𝑒𝑛 𝑡ℎ𝑒𝑦 𝑡𝑟𝑒𝑎𝑡 𝑦𝑜𝑢𝑟 𝑘𝑖𝑛𝑑𝑛𝑒𝑠𝑠

𝑙𝑖𝑘𝑒 𝑖𝑡 𝑖𝑠 𝑡ℎ𝑒𝑖𝑟 𝑎𝑑𝑣𝑎𝑛𝑡𝑎𝑔𝑒.

𝑌𝑜𝑢 𝑎𝑤𝑎𝑘𝑒𝑛

𝑒𝑣𝑒𝑟𝑦 𝑑𝑟𝑎𝑔𝑜𝑛,

𝑒𝑣𝑒𝑟𝑦 𝑤𝑜𝑙𝑓,

𝑒𝑣𝑒𝑟𝑦 𝑚𝑜𝑛𝑠𝑡𝑒𝑟

𝑡ℎ𝑎𝑡 𝑠𝑙𝑒𝑒𝑝𝑠 𝑖𝑛𝑠𝑖𝑑𝑒 𝑦𝑜u

𝑎𝑛𝑑 𝑦𝑜𝑢 𝑟𝑒𝑚𝑖𝑛𝑑 𝑡ℎ𝑒𝑚

𝑤ℎ𝑎𝑡 ℎ𝑒𝑙𝑙 𝑙𝑜𝑜𝑘𝑠 𝑙𝑖𝑘𝑒

𝑤ℎ𝑒𝑛 𝑖𝑡 𝑤𝑒𝑎𝑟𝑠 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑠𝑘𝑖n

𝑜𝑓 𝑎 𝑔𝑒𝑛𝑡𝑙𝑒 ℎ𝑢𝑚𝑎𝑛.


Sancta Maria Choir - Ental basmi

You are the smile in moments of fear

You are the strength in times of weaknesses

You are the light in the darkness of time

You Are the joy you are the tenderness

You alone are inhabiting my heart

I give you my life and my love

I'M A SURVIVOR - Reba McEntire

Aretha Franklin Ft. Lauryn Hill - A Rose Is Still A Rose

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