Fr. Roger J. Landry
June 15, 2012
There’s a famous Latin aphorism corruptio optimi pessima, “The corruption of the best is the worst of all.” This is true not only because falls from grace are more severe the higher the position from which one tumbles, but also because when one topples from a prominent position there is a greater possibility of harming others by the fall. This could be said to constitute the dual background for two recent actions of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF): the April 18 publication of the doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and the June 4 Notification about the grave doctrinal problems found in Mercy Sister Margaret Farley’s 2006 book “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Social Ethics.” In both cases, there is an attempt to lift the religious women in question up from an obvious fall from the teaching of the Catholic faith and an effort to remedy the damage to other Catholics caused by the scandal of their failure to give witness to authentic Catholic doctrine. Sadly, in neither case have the Sisters responded faithfully and humbly to the Church’s fraternal correction given in charity.
On June 1, the LCWR board released a statement after a three-day meeting convoked to respond to the CDF’s assessment and pathway for reform (which was described in the May 4 editorial). “The board members raised concerns about both the content of the doctrinal assessment and the process by which it was prepared,” the statement said. “Board members concluded that the assessment was based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency.”
If the assessment were truly based on unsubstantiated accusations and a secretive and flawed process, the Sisters would have legitimate grounds to complain, but as Toledo Bishop Leonard Blair, who was appointed by the CDF in 2008 to carry out the assessment, said in a June 8 statement: “What the CDF commissioned was a doctrinal ‘assessment,’ an appraisal of materials that are readily available to anyone who cares to read them on the LCWR website and in other LCWR published resources. The assessment was carried out in dialogue with the LCWR leadership, both in writing and face-to-face, over several months. The fundamental question posed to the LCWR leadership as part of the assessment was simply this: What are the Church’s pastors to make of the fact that the LCWR constantly provides a one-sided platform — without challenge or any opposing view — to speakers who take a negative and critical position vis-a-vis Church doctrine and discipline and the Church’s teaching office?”
The accusations weren’t unsubstantiated; they were grounded in LCWR materials and conferences, which questioned and challenged Church teaching not on peripheral, perhaps debatable areas, but, as the CDF assessment declared, on the “revealed doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ and the inspiration of Sacred Scripture,” not to mention women’s ordination, same-sex activity, abortion and euthanasia, the papacy and the importance of the Eucharist. The process didn’t lack transparency: it gave the LCWR leadership the opportunity to respond face-to-face and in writing to the questions given. The Toledo bishop indicated that a “key question posed by the doctrinal assessment had to do with moving forward in a positive way. Would the LCWR at least acknowledge the CDF’s doctrinal concerns and be willing to take steps to remedy the situation?” It was only when the LCWR submitted unsatisfactory responses and refused to reform itself that the CDF announced its action.
The June 1 response of the LCWR board suggested that the LCWR is still, unfortunately, not interested in moving forward in a positive way. Bishop Blair lamented, “The response thus far is exemplified by the LCWR leadership’s choice of a new age futurist to address its 2012 assembly, and their decision to give an award this year to Sister Sandra Schneiders, who has expressed the view that the hierarchical structure of the Church represents an institutionalized form of patriarchal domination that cannot be reconciled with the Gospel.” Bishop Blair wasn’t the only one to express disappointment at the LCWR’s continued recalcitrance.
The Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., a thriving community of women religious that numbers among them many doctors and multiple medical establishments and is not part of the LCWR, released a June 2 statement ruing how the LCWR has been responding with the “language of politics” rather than the “language of faith.” While affirming that they “see great hope for the future of religious life within the Church and for a continuation of its health care mission in the service of all people,” the Alma Mercy Sisters said that this hope would be fulfilled only by “remaining within the deposit of faith and the hierarchical structure of the Church. We cannot separate ourselves from sacred tradition or claim to advance beyond the Church.” The last phrase seemed to be an allusion to then-LCWR president Sister Laurie Brink’s 2007 matter-of-fact acknowledgement that some Sisters had moved “beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus.”
While the CDF process regarding Sister Margaret Farley’s “Just Love” is independent of the LCWR intervention, it is responding to similar concerns about a certain woman religious leading people not deeper into the understanding of the Catholic faith but away from it. Beginning in March 2010, the CDF wrote to Sister Farley indicating the doctrinal problems they discovered in a preliminary evaluation of “Just Love” and engaging her in a two-year process asking her first to clarify and then to correct the unacceptable theses in her book. In response to the CDF’s charge that she contradicted Church teaching on the immorality of masturbation and homosexual acts, on same-sex marriage, the indissolubility of marriage and divorce and remarriage, she said in a June 4 statement that she did “not dispute the judgment that some of the positions contained within [“Just Love”] are not in accord with current official teaching,” but said her work was “not intended to be an expression of current official Catholic teaching, nor was it aimed specifically against this teaching,” but was a series of “historical explorations of … Christian sexual ethical principles and its consideration of similar principles across many religious traditions … designed to help people, especially Christians but also others, to think through their questions about human sexuality.”
Regardless of what her intentions were, Sister Farley, an emerita professor of Christian Ethics at Yale Divinity School and a member of the Religious Sisters of Mercy, didn’t just present a survey. She wrote, “It could be said that masturbation actually serves relationships rather than hindering them”; “same-sex relationships and activities can be justified according to the same sexual ethic as heterosexual relationships and activities”; argued in favor of “gay marriage”; and taught that “a marriage commitment is subject to release” and there’s nothing that would “disallow a second marriage.” When she refused to correct these statements over the course of a two-year process, the CDF finally published its Notification, affirming that her positions are in “direct contradiction with Catholic teaching in the field of sexual morality” and warning the faithful that “Just Love” is “not in conformity with the teaching of the Church.”
The chief issue in the LCWR and the Sister Farley interventions is not a bunch of aged, authoritarian chauvinists using Church power to bully innocent Sisters into conformity, as some defenders of the LCWR and Sister Farley are alleging. It’s about the Church’s desire to help Sisters who are veering from the understanding and teaching of the Catholic faith to come back into doctrinal communion and to prevent their wounding the understanding of faith among others who look up to them. Theological abuse — passing on to others erroneous understandings of the Christian faith and moral life, whether intentional or not — may be the greatest spiritual sadism of all. If people are led by Sister Farley to believe masturbation, same-sex activity and the adultery of remarriage are good rather than sinful activities, the damage done may not be limited just to this world.
Likewise, if people are led to believe by some of the actions, materials and conferences of the LCWR to doubt the Trinity, the importance of the Mass, the immorality of abortion and other defined aspects of Christian faith and life, the relationship of many with God and the Church He founded may be impacted. The consequences of this type of falsity being given instead of truth is likely one of the reasons why Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 5:19). The Church wants religious women to be great in the Kingdom so that they in turn may inspire the whole Church to greater fidelity, not less. That’s why the Church is now intervening, why we should be grateful she is, and why we should be praying that the Sisters in question will respond, not with the language of power, but with true Catholic faith.