Fr. Roger J. Landry
May 4, 2012
If one were to take seriously articles and columns in various news outlets, it would appear that a group of wicked misogynists in the Vatican are waging all-out war on religious women in the United States, attempting to bully Sisters into unholy subservience, not only ignorant but downright scornful of the immense good Sisters have done for generations. It’s a story line of crepuscular, authoritarian chauvinists supposedly slapping Sisters back into straight-jacketing full-length habits, muzzling their ministries, killing their charisms and making them scapegoats for all the problems facing the Church.
Those assessments, however, are as true as the ancient story that Jesus’ tomb was empty because His disciples stole His body.
The April 18 action of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) with regard to the Leadership Council of Women Religious (LCWR) was not directed toward religious Sisters as a whole or even toward their religious communities but only toward a Church-recognized association of female religious superiors that has without question lost its Christian mooring to such an extent it has led to enormous embarrassment for many religious women in the United States, scandal for those in the Church who have been on the receiving end of the pseudo-Christian craziness, and deep divisions among Sisters across the United States. After nearly four decades of dialogue in which the Vatican patiently tried to persuade the LCWR to reform itself, the Vatican in 2008 appointed Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo to carry out a formal “doctrinal assessment” of the LCWR’s “activities and initiatives,” a study that took two years and discovered, as the CDF report documented, “serious doctrinal problems that affect many in consecrated life.”
Most American Catholics — especially those who have been taught by Sisters in Catholic schools, cared for by them in hospitals, and served by them in various ministries — readily, respectably and reflexively rise up in defense of their “spiritual mothers” when they seem to be under attack. To many, it seems unthinkable that the religious women who taught them the faith growing up would ever be subject to a “doctrinal assessment,” not to mention suspected of “serious doctrinal problems.” Even if over the past few decades some Sisters they knew did things that they found perplexing and disappointing — like abandoning religious habits, living in apartments alone rather than in convents as a community, involving themselves in less traditional “ministries,” and occasionally saying things kids in Catholic elementary schools would recognize to be incompatible with the faith — most Catholics tended to view these things the same way they would treat innocuous idiosyncrasies of beloved family members: with benign condescension as the quirky compensations of dedicated women who had generously given up a lot in order to follow God and serve others.
The reality of what has been happening in the LCWR, however, would shock most Catholics, many of whom retain idealized expectations that even if some Sisters’ habits have changed — both dress and behavioral — underneath the Sisters were still basically the same Christian heroines they’ve always been. The CDF doctrinal assessment detailed what some religious Sisters in America have themselves been complaining to the Vatican about for many years, that the LCWR is abetting practices that have been leading to the destruction of women’s religious life in many communities in the United States. The report documented grave concerns about whether some of the Sisters who comprise the LCWR even share the basics of the Catholic faith. Even the “revealed doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the Divinity of Christ and the inspiration of Sacred Scripture” are being called into question under the principles of radical feminism; the Trinity is problematic because of the mention of God the Father and God the Son; the Incarnation is troublesome because Christ was conceived as a male; the inspiration of sacred Scripture was thorny because various of the truths of Sacred Scripture are anathema to radical feminist anthropology. Serious issues have also surfaced with regard to women’s ordination, same-sex activity, abortion and euthanasia. At meetings and within certain communities in the LCWR, the Mass is no longer regularly celebrated because of opposition to the patriarchy of the all-male priesthood. In 2007, LCWR president Sister Laurie Brink candidly acknowledged that some Sisters had moved “beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus.”
Various Sisters within LCWR communities have been complaining and lamenting for years that their leadership was leading them in a direction other than in the footsteps of Jesus. Sisters who had dedicated themselves to a eucharistic life, to teaching the faith, to faithful union with the Church were now having their religious lives transvalued by those dissenting from essential questions of “The Catechism,” replacing the Eucharist with the Enneagram, supplanting traditional anthropology with patriarchy-smashing feminism and weren’t teaching or following Church faith and morals with regard to life and human sexuality. How could the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has the mission to defend and protect the faith, not respond to these disturbing trends?
It’s unsurprising that those who have issues with Church teaching have been trying to take advantage of the controversy to attack the Church. Renegade Sisters, after all, are useful pawns in a larger cultural battle over who speaks for the Church. Those who believe that all Church teaching should be up for grabs are very happy to be able to show that not even Sisters under vows of obedience agree with what the hierarchy describes as Catholic teaching. If even they don’t acknowledge the pope’s and the bishops’ teaching authority, then everyone becomes emancipated.
Catholics justly esteem religious Sisters and are grateful for all they have done over the history of the Church in our country to pass on the teachings and love of Jesus Christ. But we need to love the Sisters enough to give them help to get back on the narrow path when they’ve lost their way. The reality is that many of the communities that have followed the direction of the more radical elements of the LCWR are not only causing scandal and division but are dying through a dearth of vocations. Jesus had said that apart from Him we would bear no fruit, and the vocational sterility of LCWR communities is an illustration of this point. Separating oneself from the faith, practice and hierarchy of the Christ’s Body the Church — moving “beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus” — unsurprisingly has brought with it a vocational meltdown. This is in marked contrast to what has been happening within the communities that left the LCWR in 1992 after having judged that the radical feminism of many of its leaders was incompatible with traditional women’s religious life. Many of the communities belonging to the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) — which explicitly affirms its adhesion to the Church faith and morals and continues to live according to the vows, habits and customs most Catholics expect of religious women — are experiencing a true vocational boom.
By its intervention, the CDF isn’t “punishing” the LCWR but seeking to reform it. Some have asked whether the bishops should be spending their time on other scandals, notably the clergy sex abuse scandal. In the cases of other scandals, however, notable reforms have already been taking place, from seminary and national visitations, to new, much stricter codes and binding norms, to boards ensuring compliance and more. Unlike these other institutions of the Church, however, the LCWR has refused to reform itself, and so the Church finally had to intervene. Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle has been appointed to lead the reforms. Some of the more radical, former leaders of the LCWR are saying that rather than heed the call to conversion, the LCWR should just sever its connection with the Church altogether — a proposal that illustrates just how corroded the Catholic sensibility of communion has become among some elements of the LCWR. On the other hand, many religious Sisters belonging to communities that form part of the LCWR are hoping that these reforms will help to save the LCWR from self-destruction. The LCWR board will meet May 29 to June 1 to discuss the CDF action and determine whether it will cooperate. Out of love for our Sisters, whose love and work is of immense importance for the whole people of God, we should pray for them, their communities and LCWR leaders, that they will decide to respond with humility and Catholic faith to this call for reform and plan of authentic renewal.