The Vatican's announcement of the reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has caused an uproar in the Catholic Church in the United States. Jack Thornton, Word on Fire Research Assistant, discusses the validity of the Vatican's move.
When Fr. Steve asked me to write about the USCCB and CDF’s announcement concerning the LCWR and the SSPX I LOLed into my S.O.U.P. JK.
But seriously. So many initials. My first move was to nod knowingly and pretend that I knew exactly what he was talking about. I then immediately Googled them all so I would actually know what the heck I was writing about. Turned out the SSPX has nothing to do with this. Fr. Steve just added them in to mess with me.
Anyways, once I sorted through the initials and did some research I realized, first of all, that I was familiar with all the organizations the initials stood for (whew!), and second that something very interesting is happening in the Catholic Church in America.
Last week’s announcement from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) about its reform mandate for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in the United States has caused a bit of a tizzy in the religious blogosphere. The eight-page document released by the CDF has sparked a gamut of reactions from loud protests from the religious left to viciously self-satisfied cheers of the ultra-conservative.
The perspective that has gotten, and will continue to get, the most attention is that which characterizes the move as an unprovoked, unprecedented attack by the mean old church on the rights of victimized women. You’re going to hear the words “patriarchal,” “archaic,” “controlling,” and “misogynistic” thrown around quite a bit. You’ll hear a lot about “old men in white lace” sitting around in their “ivory towers” sipping tea while they make their authoritative commands that are, like, totally “out of touch” with “reality.”
You’ll also hear vitriol spewing affirmations of the CDF’s announcement from the far right like this one from Catholic Answers Forums:
“They just need to clean out that rats nest of liberal nuns. Disorganize 'em. Break 'em up. Do a Bishop Bruskewitz on 'em. Give 'em 30 days to disassociate themselves from the heterodox organizations, or get excommunicated.”
Both of these attitudes towards the CDF’s document are evidence of the unfortunate tendency to ignore facts in place of emotion. Neither has much value as they both paint the document as something that it isn’t. Of course this is an emotional issue as many sisters who have devoted their lives to serving others are going to experience great changes to their way of life. We need to respect that. But we should also talk about the facts and see what the document really says.
On April 8, 2008, the CDF informed the LCWR that they would be conducting a doctrinal assessment of the LCWR as a result of several years worth of examinations of the “doctrinal content of statements from the LCWR and of their annual conferences.” The CDF appointed Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo as the Delegate for the Assessment and over the next couple years, in communication with the leadership of the LCWR, he examined the literature, assemblies and organizations associated with the LCWR. After two years of examinations the CDF announced that it would be instigating a reform of the LCWR directed by Archbishop Peter Sartain.
Our own Fr. Barron commented on the examination at the time and I find his commentary very helpful in understanding what happened and what didn’t happen.
As you can see from the video, protestors at the time objected to the mere fact that the Vatican was examining the LCWR at all. There was a lot of talk about the patriarchal Vatican trying to control women and restrict their rights, etc. etc.
But, as Fr. Barron points out, this really isn’t some kind of controlling, evil-mastermind conspiracy on the part of the Vatican. This is a case where the leadership of an institution wants to determine whether or not an organization within that institution is acting and teaching in opposition to its doctrine. The Vatican founded the LCWR, then as the Conference of Major Superiors, in 1956. It did not form independently of the Church’s hierarchy, which means it is a part of the institutional Church that the Vatican heads.
The CDF, the Vatican and the USCCB are perfectly within their rights to order an examination of organizations within the Church and, if necessary, to instigate reform. The Church has a responsibility to maintain its integrity and identity, and has every right to correct Catholic organizations that threaten that integrity and identity. To suggest that that the Vatican and the CDF are overstepping their bounds is as ridiculous as the suggestion that my bosses here at Word on Fire don’t have the authority to examine the quality of my work and to correct me if I am not performing well. The LCWR was formed by the Church within the Church, and can be reformed by the Church.
It is especially important to ensure that the LCWR is operating in accordance with Church doctrine given its prominent position in the public sphere of the United States and the role of many sisters as teachers and caretakers. Extreme doctrinal problems among these sisters can, and probably has, caused scandal and confusion among those who learn aspects of the faith from these sisters.
Based on the evidence presented in the CDF’s evaluation, the LCWR was doing just that. At one of its big assemblies the keynote speaker, Sr. Laurie Brink, spoke of the Catholic spirituality moving beyond the church and Jesus into a “post-Jesus” church, which is a complete denial of the foundation of all of Christianity: that Christ is the Word made flesh.
This year’s Assembly keynote speaker is Barbara Marx Hubbard, a futurist writer who preaches “conscious evolution” and eagerly looks forward to a pseudo spiritual, pseudo scientific, trans-human/post-human society populated by a newly evolved form of super-conscious humans that will supposedly commence at the end of the famous Mayan calendar on December 22, 2012. Obviously, these ideas directly contradict certain basic teachings of the Catholic Church. She is not a religious sister herself, but the LCWR is honoring her at one of their main events where she will be addressing and teaching many Catholic sisters.
That’s not OK. Positions like these represent “a challenge not only to core Catholic beliefs; such a rejection is also a serious source of scandal and are incompatible with religious life,” as the CDF's statement makes clear.
These are just two examples. Over the last 40 years some religious sisters in the United States have dismissed and ignored Church orthodoxy in preference of practices and ideas that deny certain basic teachings of Catholic tradition including priestly ordination, human sexuality, the sanctity of life, the Eucharist, the primacy of Christ and the authority of the magisterium. Not every religious sister is guilty of these “serious doctrinal problems” but some of the leaders of the LCWR are right in the thick of it and that’s why it is necessary for the CDF to step in and guide the sisters back to a more orthodox life.
This is not to say that all the sisters have been wrong in everything they do. Far from it. The CDF’s document starts by praising the sisters for all the good work they do and “acknowledges with gratitude the great contribution of women Religious of the Church of the United States as seen particularly in the many schools, hospitals, and institutions of support for the poor.” As this process plays out it is important to remember that the religious sisters in the United States have dedicated their lives to education, service and social justice, and that they deserve praise for their efforts. We all need to respect this and to be sensitive to the good sisters whose world is changing because of the CDF’s reform.
Many of the religious women are genuinely trying to live out their vocations as faithful sisters of the Church and we all should laud them for this. Attacks on the general population of sisters like the “rat’s nest” one I quoted above are harmful, uncharitable and totally inappropriate.
It is abundantly clear, however, that many of the sisters also need some doctrinal direction so that they can continue to do their good work according to the mission of the Church.
Here’s hoping that they accept it in the spirit it is offered.