This morning I was humbled to discover that almost everything I have been trying to learn about non-coercive power (or what I’ve been calling The Power of Asking) Sister Mary Lou Wirtz appears already to know. Or so it seems from an interview with Sister Wirtz in the National Catholic Reporter.
Wirtz belongs to the Franciscan order, but she also serves as President of the International Union of Superiors General and is a recognized leader of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The Leadership Conference, which represents about 600,000 nuns and sisters around the world, has been at loggerheads with the Vatican for some time now. After an assessment that found “serious doctrinal problems” with the LCWR (a finding Pope Francis recently reaffirmed), the Vatican in April of 2012 ordered the LCWR to place itself under the authority of three bishops. Now about 800 leaders from LCWR have gathered in Rome to meet and, presumably, respond.
Wirtz characterizes the meeting as an opportunity for reflection.
The concept of power of this world, as Jesus refers to it, of our governments and all that, is so often the power of oppression or putting down people or abusing power in many different ways. What we’re trying to reflect on is ‘What is the good aspect of power?’
…when we use power in the right sense, we can influence others and that influence itself is power. We’re sometimes afraid as religious to use that word, and yet I think in the very communal way in which we go about our ministries and service, that is a power.
We have the power to influence many, many people — through what we do and through our service, without us focusing on that as an end in itself, but as through that service.
…we need to continually look at how do we use our power. Because it is something that others will view, others will see, and it’s a model for them also.
She goes on to talk about the “prayerful dialogic manner” in which the sisters are approaching their upcoming session with the representative of the Vatican. She hopes that their manner will set the tone and example.
If LCWR can truly open a dialogic stance with CDF [the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] for instance and bring clarity because of openness on both sides of the dialogue, I think that would be wonderful. I think that’s what they’re hoping for.
I hope…we can model what true dialogue is, that we can model that in such a way that it helps those on the other side — in other words, the Vatican side — to understand what we mean by dialogue.
That it is a mutual sharing by both sides of information, of whatever is on their minds — that there can be that kind of mutual openness to hear one another. That isn’t always felt at this time.
They’re [LCWR] being slow in the process, hoping that through taking the time and patience that the possibility for better dialogue can truly unfold.
Where have they found patience and, even, hope? According to Sister Wirtz, it comes from dialogue among themselves, “struggling with questions,” and “a deep inner struggle.” That struggle is generative, to borrow a word Sister Wirtz uses when talking about the biblical story of Esther. Esther is “a very rich image” for the women leaders gathered in Rome, says Wirtz, “even though we do not bear children.” In trying to model the practice, the behavior, the attitudes that they want to see and inspire in others, they are exercising and sharing their own power and creating new possibilites for others, a new order, a new model of power itself. “We bear life,” she says, “through what we pass on to others and how we serve others.”
Postscript: According to my WordPress stats, this post gets a lot of traffic, much more than I ever imagined it would when I wrote it. The search terms that bring people here almost sound like something out of a classroom assignment — “discuss non-coercive power” “what is non-coercive power?” and so on — and I suspect some of these visitors are trying to crib an answer to an incredibly complex and difficult question. There is much more to the subject than this one example suggests. Those who are looking for more than a quick hit might want to read the posts I’ve written on asking.