Catholic Sisters and the Church – first thoughts on the CDF report on LCWR

St Scholastica
St Scholastica (Photo credit: Edith OSB)

The Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Council of Women Religious (LCWR) from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was received by the media with predictable headlines which variously said that the Vatican has cracked down, blasted, slammed, condemned, or, more mildly, “Reprimanded U.S. Nuns Group.”  Just as predictably, the Sister (not nun) who heads Network, an agency specifically criticized in the report, rejected the report in an NPR interview, while the leadership of LCWR simply expresses their current state: “stunned by the conclusion of the doctrinal assessment of LCWR … We [were informed] that we would hear the results of the doctrinal assessment at our annual meeting; however, we were taken by surprise by the gravity of the mandate.”

Many sprang to defend what they saw as an attack on the good work of women religious (aka Sisters) in education, caring for the poor, and spiritual ministries. Fr. James Martin SJ began a Twitter drive #WhatSistersMeanToMe.

There is an assumption in these reports that all Sisters have similar views within and across their religious communities.  That is not the case. When the CDF investigation into the LCWR began – also with a lot of negative press – Jesuit Fr. Robert Araujo of Loyola University in Chicago spoke of the Sisters who entered religious life not only to live the Gospel in a deep way but to live it in, through, and with the Church … and the quandary they feel with the leadership of their congregations and of umbrella organizations like LCWR:

[Fr. Araujo wrote: ] “Let me begin with a narrative: last September there was convened at Stonehill College a symposium entitled “Apostolic Religious Life since Vatican II…Reclaiming the Treasure: Bishops, Theologians, and Religious in Conversation.” I attended… I spoke with a good number of religious … more women than men … all from apostolic orders. … It is American women religious who have asked for, petitioned for, and begged for this visitation.

The women with whom I spoke [raised] their concerns about two important issues: the first, the quality of life in their respective communities; the second, the fidelity of some of their community to the Church and her teachings. They did, however, respect anonymity not from Rome, not from the Vatican, but from their own sisters who have decided, it seems unilaterally, to take the congregations into new and questionable directions. This symposium was an eye-opener.

These were women who entered their congregations with zeal for the apostolates of teaching, of nursing, and of other works so vital to the Church. What they have seen and experienced is that their orders have undergone dangerous radical transformation—or, as some said, an abandonment—of their raison d’être and the charism of their founder or foundress.  After hearing their narratives, I, like Sr. X, also want to believe in the good will of the “institutional church” better known as the Church. But I would also like to believe in the good will of the women religious who have been making it increasingly difficult for these good women religious who publicly appeared at this symposium to live out their vocation to Christ and the Church. This is something that Sr. X does not address.

Looking at many of the statements contained on the LCWR website of past annual conferences of this organization, I can see why these good and holy women whom I met at Stonehill are worried. They are not worried about Rome or the “Vatican.” They are worried about their own community members who have chartered a course that dramatically departs from the Church and her teachings.”

When those of us who are centrists come to religious life – it is now 14 years since I knocked on the door and asked to enter the monastery – we are stunned, just as the LCWR leadership is today, by a steady negative commentary on the Vatican, the Pope or the USCCB.  We are surprised when we have to gather together informally to study papal encyclicals – just to find out what they really say, beyond the New York Times version – while the study of feminist theology is promoted and sometimes required of us.

We expected that there would be a variety of views about liturgy, theology, spirituality.  Those of us who have spent time in the theological center are aware of the Church’s challenges but even more so of her spiritual treasures – and we know that the very conservative and liberal poles are much more populated than the nuanced space in between.

Nonetheless, for many like me, the widespread acceptance of feminist theology  and a presentation of religious life as “prophetic” or “on the border” of the Church is painful. The meager interest or support for collectively exploring  the Church’s teaching, for bringing energy to be part of the creative renewal that the Church needs – whether we call it the New Evangelization or anything else – is discouraging and lonely.

My fear about this action from the CDF is that a number of cut-and-dried requirements will be imposed quickly, leading either to obedience with passive aggression or to increased active distancing from participation in the local and institutional Church.  This does not have to happen, but it will if adversarial stances are taken by Bishop Sartain, by the the Vatican or by LCWR and its member congregations.

My hope for this action from the CDF is that the space open up within congregations of religious life for a dialogue in which the Church – all of us – can move past the buzzwords that are used to wall-off another perspective – “liberal” or “institutional” are just two of the most common.  This is not so likely to happen, but it could – if it is possible for all concerned to begin with the belief that others might have viewpoints and ideas that are needed to make the Church whole and holy.

May it be so.

©Sister Edith Bogue, 2012
This blog post does not represent any views other than my own.

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