Rochester’ Dissenter Sr. Patricia Schoelles, CSJ

Sr. Patricia Schoelles is a well known Sister of St. Joseph and one of the leading dissenters in the Diocese of Rochester, NY. Her column used to appear regularly in the diocesan paper until she became the recipient of criticism for various manifestations of the moral theology of “proportionalism” used to justify contraception and fundamental option in the Diocese. Nevertheless, she continues to exercise influence in the Diocese in her capacity as president of St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry which serves as a center of liberalism and modernism for the training of deacons and especially those laity being prepared to serve as employed pastoral assistants to run lay-dominated parishes with priests reduced to being “sacramental ministers” in clustered parishes with their diminishing parishioners.

On May 17, 2005, Sr. Patricia Schoelles, president of St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry, gave an interesting Lecture “WHAT’S SO GREAT ABOUT BEING CATHOLIC?” at St. Catherine of Siena’s church, Ithaca, NY.  St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry was established by Rochester Bishop Matthew H. Clark (it is clearly his “pride and joy”). Interestingly, the School is not authorized by any Vatican Congregation to offer Catholic degrees in Theology. Its Graduate Program degrees and “Certificates for Designated Ministry” have civil accreditation. Also, St. Bernard’s has an extension site with similar programs in the Diocese of Albany.

As regards two other bastions of secularized Catholic education in the Diocese of Rochester, John Fisher College and Nazareth College (both had recent showings of the filthy “Vagina Monologues”), Catholics have only now discovered that there are no longer academic institutions recognized as Catholic by the Diocese. Public announcements to this effect were not issued by the Diocese to inform tuition-paying parents of the present status of those Colleges (which once sported a clear Catholic identity).

Short, stocky, and in lay clothes, Sr. “Pat” noted that she had taught earlier in a Baltimore Seminary which was known as a liberal Seminary in contrast to the conservative one in Emmetsburg. In speaking on the subject: “What’s so Great About Being Catholic?”, she assured those in attendance (amidst their laughter) that she was not there to advocate a change regarding birth control, ordaining women and a married priesthood, but “in my own little heretical way” to explain what she regarded as the distinguishing characteristics of the “Catholic configuration”.

Sprinkling her talk with bits of humor, she spoke of seven points representing a “particular configuration of characteristics found nowhere else” that make being Catholic distinctive:

  1. Openness to development of Doctrine;
  2. Possession of a Creed and a Core-belief system;
  3. Communal liturgical and sacramental life;
  4. Variety of spiritualities;
  5. Taking social justice seriously;
  6. The various proclamations of Popes and bishops; and
  7. “Seeing the divine in the human”.

She emphasized that for Catholics God is present in all our experiences, in “the stuff of life”, for “all reality is sacred”. Our lives are already graced, already supernatural, and it is in human progress that “God encounters us”. Declaring the Church is “the sacrament of our encounter with God”, she proceeded to distinguish the Catholic configuration from that of the Protestant theologian Karl Barth and Evangelicals for whom the world is fallen, human nature totally corrupted, "God Totally Other", and Who “cannot be experienced in the stuff of life”. Moreover, Protestants separate faith and reason, betray a fear of matter, hold that all reality is not sacred, constantly accuse Catholics of “adoring the material” and making an idol of the Pope and the Church. She remarked that contrary to Barth and the Evangelicals, Creation is very good, our minds are not totally corrupt, and the human intellect operates after the Fall to seek the truth about God. For Catholics philosophy and human reasoning remain important. To the amusement of her listeners, she said, “I will not sing ‘Amazing Grace’” because it was so Protestant. She did not feel she was “a wretch” like the person in the hymn, for, being created and redeemed, she would not be “guilt-ridden”:

“We [Catholics] don’t take sin seriously... We don’t see ourselves steeped in sin... We’re light on sin... For us Catholics human beings are created good, thus the dignity of the human person... For Protestants, sin permeates their lives, whereas the worry of Catholics is to make the world better, to transform the whole of culture, to engage in the ‘shaping of society’”.

She observed that Catholics are always struggling with devotions. She drew laughter noting that Methodists she knew had “connected” to the Rosary while Catholics had increasingly distanced themselves from it. She went on to observe the role of Scripture and Tradition, and noted the import of the Communion of Saints: “Every prayer I say is with the Church... It is a Connecting religion... such a cool religion”. She caricatured the centuries of the use of Latin in the Mass: “People didn’t know what was being said”. Protestant individualism is very strong in the U.S. whereas “the communal for us is huge” and “Our God is a communal God”. She continued, “In the Mystery of Church... we are sowed together”, but there is a danger of sacraments and sacramentals being treated as “magic” (she poked fun at the Catholics who say Novenas and fall into despair if they miss a day). We can be only too often caught up in a “big anonymous Church” and regretted that the communal spirit is still not realized in parishes. She criticized congregations which uncommunally preferred quiet, disliked the handshake of peace, and ignored their neighbors. She also expressed the opinion that “sacramental confession needs to be more communal... There are other ways to ritualize sin and forgiveness”. She did not elaborate.

It was during the Question and Answer period that she became explicit concerning that “openness” which was a characteristic part of her “Catholic configuration”. She expressed her regret that the “left-wing but scholarly” Jesuit editor Thomas Reese had been sacked. [To her] it was a “troubling incident in the Church”. She felt “conservative bishops had put pressure on the Vatican... We’re very polarized now”. With a sigh and disapproving look, she expressed the lament of those who felt like her: “What’s Rome DONE NOW?” A number of questioners (including two priests in civilian clothes) expressed great unhappiness with the election of Cardinal Ratzinger. One of the priests said, “My good friend, Fr. Charlie Curran” was treated shamefully by Rome. Another person expressed criticism of the treatment received by Gays and Lesbians in the archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis. Sr. Pat agreed, observing that: “It is in essentials that there must be unity, while in non-essentials there must be freedom and love. There can be freedom in non-essentials”. It was clear that she held the Church’s present discipline prohibiting active Gays and Lesbian from receiving Holy Communion to be a non-essential, and not a matter of “the Creed or the Church’s Core-belief” or a matter of Faith. She urged: “We can all continue to think about these issues to see what the truth is”.

Earlier she had noted that “Reason about the Tradition” was part of the Catholic configuration, thereby obviously permitting the opportunity for “change” and more “openness”. The issues troubling the Church, she stated, should be resolved in the American democratic context of freedom. She avowed that she favored both women priests and the ordination of more married men and said she saw no convincing proof from Scripture why women should be denied ordination. It was unfortunate, she said, that in the 1950’s Church authority had been too authoritarian, resulting in the loss of jobs for biblical exegetes and systematic theologians while today’s theological problems involve issues of Christology. Her own “openness” to dissent in the Church was clearly revealed by her comments noting (favorably) how the majority of Paul VI’s study commission on birth control had supported change in the Church’s teaching on birth control. She also made known to her hearers how the American bishops had made rules for dissent, distinguishing moreover between public dissent and private dissent. In her classes she took pains to inform her theology students of the “Bishops’ rules for dissent”. She went on to mock the Bishops’ rules: “You are not allowed to dissent, but here are the rules!

At the end of the meeting, various people went to speak to her privately. One Pro-lifer approached her to find out her position on Pro-abortionist politicians being refused Holy Communion. When he affirmed what Cardinal Ratzinger had stated on the matter, she replied:

But he was a member of Hitler Youth!


Referring to herself as a nun and “a faithful Catholic woman”, Sr. Pat Schoelles typifies the doctrinal orientations evident in the diocese of Rochester. At heart she is a dissenter from Magisterial teaching and from her position as president of St. Bernard’s Institute’s School of Theology and Ministry she helps spread, as a speaker in the parishes, the poison of dissent. Her efforts, in her own words, are to “form churches that are not monuments to past ages”. She clearly adheres to a liberal-radical vision of Church that has embraced Dissent from Magisterial teachings and seeks a New Church that:

  • is feminist and “inclusivist” with women priestesses;
  • is contraception-friendly;
  • makes priestly celibacy optional for the Roman rite with the ordination of married men;
  • and no longer accepts the Church’s traditional doctrine of Original Sin with its emphasis on a fallen world’s needing redemption.

Though she correctly criticized Protestant-Evangelical shortcomings which falsely allege the “total corruption of human nature”, she revealed her own simplistic and over-optimistic view of being able to discern “God’s presence in all our experiences” and “seeing the divine in the human”. Ignoring the difficulties in discerning authentic religious experiences of the Presence of God from one’s own illusions, errors, or unpurified imagination. Her remarks smacked of a real confusion of the natural and supernatural orders and a consequent Pelagian heresy resulting in the diminishing of the sense of the malice of Sin, both Original and personal.

As to her “Catholic configuration of characteristics found nowhere else”, her presentation marked by rather vague and ambiguous language could have been delivered by any sincere High-Church Anglican or Episcopalian. It may be said that her Lecture on “What’s Good about Being Catholic?” only witnessed further to the alarming secularization of Catholic theology that has transpired in the Rochester diocese. There, one witnesses again and again the widespread loss of any emphasis on the overriding theme of salvation and an authentic Christ-centered spirituality. The spiritual life of grace suffers substitution by a pronounced worldly Social Horizontalism relegating personal conversion to the Church and evangelization of others to the periphery of Catholic interest. As Cardinal Henri De Lubac once stated:

“The Kingdom which has Christ as its King establishes us in a special kind of existence, beyond our natural existence... To confound the Kingdom of God with the advent of a better social order is to misunderstand totally the originality and value of the Kingdom... Secularizers in the Church overlook the divine laws of the Church because they no longer understand her divine mission.”

What was additionally missing from her "Lecture" was the notion that the Papal Magisterium in our time had settled any doctrinal matter — DEFINITIVELY!

About James Likoudis
James Likoudis is an expert in Catholic apologetics. He is the author of several books dealing with Catholic-Eastern Orthodox relations, including his most recent "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church." He has written many articles published by various religious papers and magazines.
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Dissent from the Magisterium.... is not compatible with being a "good Catholic".
- Pope John Paul II -