The more something changes, the more it stays the same. It’s a cliché, yes, but it seems to be an increasingly apt one to apply to the situation between women religious and the Vatican.
For those watching the situation unfold since April 2012, when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith mandated that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) be reformed by three U.S. bishops, this week promised to offer some explanations about where the new pope stands on the issue. Pope Francis even met with members of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), a group of nearly 2,000 leaders of women religious throughout the world who have been meeting in Rome all week.
There have been high hopes for Pope Francis among those left spiritually bruised by the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI. Francis paid his own hotel bill after the conclave, took the bus with the rest of the bishops, refused to move into the papal apartment, claimed to want a “poor church,” and celebrated Holy Thursday at a juvenile detention facility where he washed the feet of 10 men and two women.
But a month after his election, a fly got caught in the balm Francis was pouring over the church’s body. LCWR leaders were informed in a meeting with the doctrinal congregation’s lead cleric, Archbishop Gerhard Müller, that the new pope had reaffirmed the mandated reform of the their organization.
Many Catholics who support both the LCWR and the new pope were at a loss to understand the news. Some imagined Francis simply wasn’t up to speed about the injustices behind the mandate. Speculation ran high that Müller hadn’t even spoken to Francis about the issue in any depth and that, somehow, Müller was speaking on behalf of Francis without the new pope’s approval.
Stay up to date throughout the day: Sign up for NCR email alerts to receive the latest news and your favorite columns.
There was hope this week that all this conjecture was accurate when Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Religious, told the sisters at the UISG meeting that the doctrinal congregation made its fateful decision without his knowledge and that it caused him “much pain.”
Less than a day later after his stunning admission, Cardinal Braz de Aviz was apparently taken to the doctrinal congregation’s woodshed. The Vatican quickly released a statement claiming that the media (namely, the report in NCR) had misinterpreted Braz de Aviz’s words and that Braz de Aviz and Müller “reaffirmed their common commitment to the renewal of Religious Life, and particularly to the Doctrinal Assessment of the LCWR and the program of reform it requires, in accordance with the wishes of the Holy Father.”
The statement made two realities clear. First, as has typically been the case throughout the church’s history, the doctrinal congregation wields more power than any other congregation in the Curia. Second, Francis is more familiar with the saga between the doctrinal congregation and LCWR than some had hoped.
In a press conference the following day, Braz de Aviz claimed not to have seen this statement from the Vatican and affirmed NCR‘s report as “precise.” He said the only idea that got lost in translation was his explanation of authority.
Braz de Aviz went on to reassert what Pope Francis had said earlier in the day about authority and obedience during his speech to the UISG.
“Christ and the church. The two have to be together. For some people, Christ is fine, but the church isn’t. You can’t separate the two,” the cardinal told the press.
Braz de Aviz was echoing Francis’ statement to women religious: “It is an absurd dichotomy to think of living with Jesus but without the church, of following Jesus outside of the church, of loving Jesus without loving the church.”
Francis has offered this idea more than once over the last few weeks, but when directed at women religious, as it was on Wednesday, it takes on a particular weight.
At the UISG meeting the previous day, Congregation of Jesus Sr. Martha Zechmeister, an Austrian professor of systematic theology, told the gathering of 800 women superiors, “Religious obedience ultimately can only respond to God’s authority. In the traditional language, fulfilling the will of God is the only legitimate reason for religious obedience.”
It is a sentiment we’ve heard often since the doctrinal congregation’s crackdown on LCWR, and one for which the new pope apparently has little sympathy. Francis makes it clear that it is impossible to follow Jesus and not follow the church. In Francis’ eyes, it seems, to love and obey God is to love and obey the church.
Though Francis was the first pope to meet with the UISG, those who expected a dialogue with the new pontiff were likely disappointed. Francis offered a 15-minute reflection on religious life, then shook hands and exchanged brief pleasantries with the UISG’s executive board and staff.
As NCR‘s Joshua J. McElwee reported from Rome, Francis’ speech “focused on three themes, telling the sister leaders to keep their lives centered on Christ, to think of authority in terms of service, and that they must hold a ‘feeling with the church that finds its filial expression in fidelity to the magisterium.’ “
In other words, the way to be a true daughter of the church is to be faithful and obedient to the teachings of the pope and bishops.
With ideas that are no different from those of Pope John Paul II and Benedict, Francis told the sisters they should accept a “fertile chastity” because women religious are “mothers” who “generate spiritual children in the church.”
The new pope maintained his and his predecessors’ belief in the “special” (but not equal) role of women in the church, telling the sisters that without them, the church “would be missing maternity, affection, tenderness.” He went on to tell them to put themselves “in an attitude of adoration and service.”
If there is a point on which both Francis and the sisters agree, it is the importance of “touching the flesh of the poor Christ in the humble, the poor, the sick, and in children.”
But Francis does not seem to understand that it is precisely because women religious regularly touch that wounded body of Christ that they have such rich theological imaginations and a longing to delve into the spiritual questions of our time. Their intensely sacramental lives of service help clarify their priorities in their pursuits of justice and mercy.
All that women religious have done — the work they have committed to, the leadership style they have developed and the theologians they invite to their meetings — has been inspired by their ministry to the broken body of Christ. What Francis and the doctrinal congregation may interpret as a “deviation from doctrine” or a “failure to obey” are really just the fruits of women religious fulfilling their vocation as a prophetic life form.
Perhaps the greatest irony is that the Vatican is punishing women religious for failing to strictly adhere to doctrines that they have had no voice in developing and no role in shaping — precisely because they are women.
The look and feel of the papacy may be changing under Francis, but the fundamental understanding magisterium’s authority and the requirement that the women obey the men, I’m afraid, will continue to stay the same.
[Jamie L. Manson received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School, where she studied Catholic theology and sexual ethics. Her NCR columns have won numerous awards, most recently second prize for Commentary of the Year from Religion Newswriters (RNA).]
Editor’s note: We can send you an email alert every time Jamie Manson’s column, “Grace on the Margins,” is posted to NCRonline.org. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.
In the six weeks since Pope Francis’ election, those who have followed him in the media have been treated to a series of tantalizing headlines about his promising views on women.
The wave of excitement began during Holy Week, when Francis washed the feet of two women (and 10 men) and followed this tradition-breaking act a week later with a sermon that stressed the “special role” of women in the church.
And earlier this week, the Francis-induced spiritual high continued to soar with the rumor that Francis would be handing women a record number of positions in the Holy See.
But there has been sobering news, too. Last week, we learned that the new pope will move forward with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s mandate on Leadership Conference of Women Religious. As many will remember, last year, the doctrinal congregation accused LCWR of “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes” and doing little to further the hierarchy’s teachings against contraception, marriage equality and abortion.
So where does Francis really stand on women? Last week’s publication of the English translation of On Heaven and Earth offers some illuminating clues. Originally published in 2010, On Heaven and Earth is essentially a series of conversations between then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio and Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka on issues both contemporary (like globalization and same-sex marriage) and eternal (like the devil and death).
Support NCR’s Webathon.
Each topic is given its own chapter. Chapter 13 is titled simply, “On Women.”
Since Francis’ comments on women in this chapter run just shy of 400 words, I have included the full text below in block quotes. (In the interest of space and focus, I am not including Rabbi Skorka’s ideas.) Although I have broken up his statement to offer commentary on specific ideas, Francis’ words are presented in the same order in which they appear in the book.
In Catholicism, for example, many women lead the liturgy of the word, but do not exercise the priesthood, because in Christianity the High Priest is Jesus, a male. In the theologically grounded tradition the priesthood passes through man.
Women can’t be priests, Francis argues, because their anatomies do not match that of Jesus. In this quote and throughout his comments on women, Francis echoes an ancient idea that was thoroughly developed and articulated by Pope John Paul II in his 1988 apostolic letter* “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women” (Mulieris Dignitatem).
John Paul II believed that while women were of equal worth and dignity to men, the differences in the physical makeup of male and female bodies were reflections of the different roles, purposes, strengths and weaknesses God intended for us. Men and women were designed to complement each other, which is why their genders must dictate their distinct roles in both church and society. Ultimately, to paraphrase Sigmund Freud, John Paul II believed anatomy is destiny. And Francis seems to agree.
The woman has another function in Christianity, reflected in the figure of Mary. It is the figure that embraces society, the figure that contains it, the mother of the community. The woman has the gift of maternity, of tenderness; if all these riches are not integrated, a religious community not only transforms into a chauvinist society, but also into one that is austere, hard and hardly sacred. The fact that a woman cannot exercise the priesthood does not make her less than the male.
Here Francis is evoking John Paul II’s notion of the “feminine genius,” which argues that women have a natural, unique capacity to offer tenderness and nurture to the community. This is the reason Francis, in his highly touted post-Holy Week sermon, spoke about women’s “special role” in the church. But special is not equal, which is why women cannot be priests.
It seems outside the imaginations of Francis and John Paul II that a male could offer nurture or tenderness or women could bring strength and leadership to the church. Our anatomies decide the nature of the gifts we can and cannot provide to the community.
Moreover, in our understanding, the Virgin Mary is greater than the apostles. According to a monk from the second century, there are three feminine dimensions among Christians: Mary as Mother of the Lord, the Church and the Soul. The feminine presence in the Church has not been emphasized much, because the temptation of chauvinism has not allowed for the place that belongs to the women of the community to be made very visible.
For a second and third time, Francis invokes Mary, the mother of Jesus, who according to Catholic doctrine remained a virgin until her death. Again we see the influence of John Paul II, who believed there are two dimensions to a woman’s vocation: physical and spiritual motherhood and virginity for the sake of the kingdom.
It is somewhat telling that Francis reaches back to the ideas of a second-century monk to explain the three feminine dimensions of Christianity rather than lifting up the rich images of the sacred feminine that have emerged in Catholic scholarship and spirituality in more recent centuries. He does recognize that chauvinistic tendencies have obscured women’s rightful place in the church. Of course, women’s rightful place in the church seems limited to some variation of mother or perpetual virgin.
Catholics, when we speak of the Church, we do so in feminine terms. Christ is betrothed to the Church, a woman. The place where it receives the most attacks, where it receives the most punches, is always the most important. The enemy of human nature — Satan — hits hardest where there is more salvation, more transmission of life, and the woman — as an existential place — has proven to be the most attacked in history. She has been the object of use, of profit, of slavery, and was relegated to the background; but in the Scriptures we have cases of heroic women that have transmitted to us what God thinks about them, like Ruth, Judith …
Here, Francis seems to be exploring the deeper meanings behind the traditional practice of symbolically identifying the church as a woman. Women and the church have endured similar experiences of power and victimhood throughout history, Francis argues: Both are great givers of life, and both have been violated and misused.
I wonder if Francis understands the negative effects the limits placed on women’s roles in the church have had on the dignity of women both inside and outside the walls of the church? Although the magisterium insists women have a “special role,” the sad truth is that they still have no decision-making authority in the institutional church and no power to lead the community in sacramental celebrations. Women didn’t even have a voice in the creation of notion of “feminine genius” that John Paul II and his two successors have promulgated.
Women may be valued for their maternal instincts, but ultimately it is the male hierarchy who defines and controls their role in the church. Like his predecessors, Francis doesn’t seem to understand how the strict limits the hierarchy has placed on women’s power inside the church has helped reinforce the powerlessness that women suffer in society.
What I would like to add is that feminism, as a unique philosophy, does not do any favors to those that it claims to represent, for it puts women on the level of a vindictive battle, and a woman is much more than that. The feminist campaign of the ’20s achieved what they wanted and it is over, but a constant feminist philosophy does not give women the dignity that they deserve. As a caricature, I would say that it runs the risk of becoming chauvinism with skirts.
Francis, like John Paul II and countless critics of feminism from the past century, employs the same old misrepresentation of feminism as a belligerent imitation of male domination. (“Chauvinism” is the translation of Francis’ word machismo.) Apparently Francis believes feminists should have been satisfied when they achieved the right to vote in the 1920s. (Is he aware of the irony that women, by virtue of their anatomies, still have yet to achieve any approximation of voting rights in the Roman Catholic church?)
In a world where women account for 70 percent of the global poor, half of all pregnant women lack adequate prenatal care, and two-thirds of the world’s illiterate population is made up of women, Pope Francis wants to insist that any further fight for equal treatment under the law and equal standing in society should be understood as women trying — like vindictive macho men in female drag — to insist on their superiority over men.
If feminism is such a failure, what will, at long last, defeat all of the injustices that ail women in our world? Given all he has said in this interview, I’m sure Pope Francis would agree with John Paul II, who wrote, “the true genius of women,” that innate, unending female drive toward care-giving and mothering, will “overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation.”
And, after all, who are chauvinists in skirts to challenge the opinions of men in long, flowing robes?
*An earlier version of this column misidentified the type of document.
[Jamie L. Manson received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School, where she studied Catholic theology and sexual ethics. Her NCR columns have won numerous awards, most recently second prize for Commentary of the Year from Religion Newswriters (RNA).]
Editor’s note: We can send you an email alert every time Jamie Manson’s column, “Grace on the Margins,” is posted to NCRonline.org. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.
“Sharing the Vision” of Vatican II with a Latin American bishop, a Franciscan nun who led American Catholic Sisters during the Vatican investigation of their leadership organization, and a young, feminist theologian whose nationally published columns challenge the “Vatican II generation” to speak to what today’s young people need to know about what is called the most significant event in modern Church history is all in store at the closing session of the “Celebrating Vatican II” lecture series.
The Catholic Sisters of the Upper Mississippi River Valley will conclude the four-part lecture series they have sponsored in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church on April 21, beginning at 2 p.m. at Prince of Peace Church, Clinton.
“Celebrating Vatican II: Sharing the Vision” has offered lectures by a variety of expert commentators at venues throughout the region since October 2012. The lecture series, which explores four key themes of the Council, coincides with the “Year of Faith” being observed by the Catholic Church, and is free and open to the public.
“We developed this four-part event as a gift to the Church and the people of God in celebration of the Council. We felt a responsibility to bring a renewed awareness of the great gifts of Vatican II to the people with whom we minister throughout the Upper Mississippi River Valley,” explained Anne Martin Phelan, OSF, president of the Sisters of St. Francis, Clinton, and chairwoman of the organizing committee.
“It is providential that a Latin American Bishop should be with us in these days, following the election of the first Latin American Pope. We are all looking forward to his perspective on how Pope Francis might approach Vatican II heritage during his papacy.”
At the program, Dr. Marlene Weisenbeck, FSPA, former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, will describe Vatican II’s invitation to read the signs of the times and respond in dedicated service; Most Rev. Daniel Turley, Bishop of Chulucanas, Peru, will reflect on ways the Church is called to solidarity with the people of God throughout the world; and Jamie Manson, columnist with the National Catholic Reporter, will speak to what young people in today’s Church need from the Vatican II generation.
Sister Weisenbeck is a member and former president (2002-2010) of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, La Crosse, Wis., as well as former president of LCWR, a canonically approved membership organization that exists as a support system and corporate voice for leaders of religious institutes of Catholic Sisters in the United States. She also serves as chairwoman of the Catholic Health Association’s Sponsorship/Canon Law Committee and is a consultant in religious law. She is past president of the National Conference of Vicars for Religious and chancellor for the Diocese of La Crosse.
Sister Weisenbeck holds a B.M. Ed. degree from Viterbo University, an M.M. from George Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, a J.C.L. in Canon Law from Saint Paul University-Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Bishop Turley, an Augustinian priest and a native of Chicago, is the second Bishop of Chulucanas where he has served since 1996. He was elected to the Permanent Council of the Peruvian Bishops’ Conference and has been awarded an honorary doctor of Humane Letters by Villanova University, Philadelphia. In 2011 he was awarded the Peace Prize by the Peruvian government’s Ministry for Women’s Rights and Social Development in recognition of his outstanding work in defense of farmers in the Upper Piura region of the Diocese of Chulucanas. Bishop Turley insisted that farmers’ concerns about environmental degradation, which would destroy their livelihood, be heard as part of the discussion about opening a large mining operation in the area. In the process he received death threats. The Ministry called Bishop Turley “a tireless promoter of a culture of peace.”
Jamie L. Manson writes a monthly column for the National Catholic Reporter, addressing the plight of the poor, the future of the Church, issues of gender and sexual orientation, and ways of finding God’s presence in our everyday lives. She received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School, where she studied Catholic theology and sexual ethics. Her NCR columns have won numerous awards, most recently second prize for Commentary of the Year from Religion Newswriters.
There is no registration for the lecture series and no admission charge. Follow-up sessions to the lectures are offered in the cities where the sponsoring Sisters congregations minister.
“Celebrating Vatican II: Sharing the Vision” is sponsored by Carmelite Nuns, Eldridge; Congregation of the Humility of Mary, Davenport; Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, La Crosse; Sinsinawa Dominicans, Sinsinawa, Wis.; Sisters of Mercy, West-Midwest Region, Omaha; Benedictine Sisters, Rock Island, Ill.; Sisters of St. Francis, Clinton; and Sisters of Charity BVM, Sisters of the Presentation, Sisters of St. Francis, Sisters of the Visitation and Trappistine Nuns, all of Dubuque.
For details, see www.facebook.com/catholicsisters or call Sisters of St. Francis, Clinton at 242-7611.
Catholic and Mormon feminists are not the only ones to face opposition from all-male leadership in their respective faiths. Russian Orthodox woman do, too.
Last week, Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, called feminism “a very dangerous phenomenon,” which could lead to the downfall of the “family and, if you wish, the homeland,” according a Reuters report.
Join the Discussion
Post a Comment
“Man turns his sight outward, he should work, make money, while a woman is always focused inwards towards her children, her home,” Kirill told a group of Orthodox women. “If this exceptionally important role of a woman is destroyed, everything will be destroyed as a consequence.”
Meanwhile, Catholic Pope Francis has given the go-ahead to continue reforming the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group of American nuns.
Last year, the Vatican committee on doctrine criticized the LCWR “for not speaking out strongly enough against gay marriage, abortion and women’s ordination,” Religion News Service reported, and for promoting “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
On Monday, Francis “reaffirmed the findings” of the Vatican investigation, RNS said, as well as allowing the “program of reform” for LCWR to go forward.
In Mormondom, writer, scholar and blogger Joanna Brooks is exploring the notion of priesthood: What is it? And do Mormon women already hold it?
“I’m convening a study hall. Let’s study on it,” Brooks writes at Feminist Mormon Housewives. “I’ll bring data. You bring data. We [can] reflect, think, discuss, and learn together.”
Earlier this month, a group of devout Latter-day Saints launched a drive to ordain women to the all-male Mormon priesthood. It was met by speeches from LDS leaders emphasizing that men and women have different but equally vital roles.
Peggy Fletcher Stack
The Weather Channel certainly influenced television meteorologist Marcus Baileyâ€™s life. He admits he watched the network â€œway too muchâ€� as a child growing up in Indiana.
But the major guide in his life? That would be Baileyâ€™s passionate, outspoken, faith-filled grandmother.
â€œWe always liked to make her proud,â€� said WMBD-TVâ€™s chief weather forecaster at the fourth annual Faith-Based Leadership Conference Seminar sponsored March 23 by the Diocese of Peoriaâ€™s Office of Evangelization. Bailey credits his grandmother for many influences, including keeping him rooted in the Catholic faith.
Likewise, Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis quoted former presidents, including Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy, during his presentation to the dayâ€™s 70 participants. But a favorite saying of his father has been a key touchstone in the mayorâ€™s life, and is even inscribed on a plaque in his office: â€œNever judge a man until you walk a mile in his moccasins.â€�
While the meteorologist and the mayor have high-profile positions, their presentations reinforced that everyone is called to leadership. Within our families and circle of friends, at workplaces or schools and outside activities, there are daily opportunities to model behavior for others, make decisions, and take stands.
â€œEverybodyâ€™s a leader,â€� said Jack Desatnick, host of the day, in opening remarks at the Spalding Pastoral Center in Peoria. The annual event is designed to help integrate Catholic faith into our leadership, especially at the workplace. Desatnick defined faith-based leadership as â€œnothing more than empathy for everyone you come in contact with, and giving back to society.â€�
â€œWe need more and more of that on every level,â€� said Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, who celebrated the eventâ€™s opening Mass. He added that Holy Week is a perfect time to â€œsavor and studyâ€� the â€œmind-bogglingâ€� example of loving, servant leadership set by Jesus.
Throughout the morning, faith-based leaders were described as both compassionate and courageous.
Mayor Ardis said we all experience moments when our faith is challenged, or something that someone says or does doesnâ€™t seem right.
â€œWe ask â€˜Is this the time I should say something?â€™ If you are asking yourself that questions, the answer is â€˜Yes.â€™ Say it. Make a stand,â€� said Ardis. â€œGod will put the words in your mouth, I promise you,â€� he added. â€œYouâ€™ll say what needs to be said.â€�
Ardis stressed the importance of prayer, and thanked those who regularly pray for him. He also recalled the interdenominational â€œ40 Days of Prayerâ€� campaign he encouraged throughout the city at the start of 2008 to combat violent crime. Ardis acknowledged he â€œtook a lot of criticismâ€� for promoting the power of prayer, but said the campaign was effective on many levels, including that homicides dropped significantly that year.
The mayor applauded all who attended the seminar — including his own mother, Sue, whom he credited for laying the foundations of faith in his family of nine children. Others taking part were business, community, and parish leaders, as well as a group of students from the John Paul II Newman Center at Illinois State University.
Noting how government and cultural forces are â€œcoming down on those of us in the Catholic faith on a daily basis,â€� Ardis said it is important that Catholic leaders unite and act â€œno matter what piece of the puzzle weâ€™re in.â€�
â€œIâ€™m an eternal optimist, but I think weâ€™ve got some really rough times coming,â€� said Mayor Ardis, who especially thanked Bishop Jenky for his strong leadership.
WHEN THE DOOR OPENS
Both Ardis and Bailey said it was humbling and â€œout of their comfort zoneâ€� to address a crowd on the subject of faith.
â€œIâ€™m used to talking to fourth-graders and telling them to go to the basement when there is severe weather,â€� said Bailey.
Bailey said he is the only Catholic among his stationâ€™s on-air personalities. But even though he said his station is fair in its religious reporting, Bailey acknowledged it can be difficult to be in a newsroom when there are negative stories on the church. He voices his opinion when necessary.
â€œWhen our faith is attacked or questioned, itâ€™s an open door to teach what we strongly believe,â€� said Bailey. â€œThey opened the door, and Iâ€™m going to walk through it. I canâ€™t win everyone, but there are many willing to listen. You can eliminate some of the fog.â€�
Bailey said he tries to lead in a compassionate way â€œwhen I feel things are not right.â€�
â€œI lead by being an active participant in my church,â€� said Bailey, who is a lector, extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, and Annual Diocesan Appeal representative at Sacred Heart Parish in Peoria. His priorities have also changed now that he is married and has a 6-month-old daughter.
While he is on the air for three minutes at a time, â€œwhat I do for the other 24 hours is what should define me,â€� he said.
Still, Bailey couldnâ€™t resist opening his talk by showing a map image of the following dayâ€™s predicted snowfall.
â€œLetâ€™s get this out of the way,â€� he said to laughter. â€œThis speech can only go up from here.â€�
The day also included table discussions guided by Dodie Gomer and a rosary led by Deacon Gregory Serangeli. Desatnick invited participants to continue the discussion at quarterly, informal get-togethers now being planned.
Karlo Leonor is looking forward to those. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he recently moved to the area and is now employed at State Farm in Bloomington.
â€œHow I integrate faith and work is very important to me,â€� said the new member of Epiphany Parish in Normal.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles, a joint reporting project by NCR and GlobalPost.com, examining the background and the principle players in the Vatican’s investigations of U.S. women religious.
VATICAN CITY — Franciscan Sr. Pat Farrell and three other sisters crossed St. Peter’s Square through the fabled white columns, paused for a security check and entered the rust-colored Palace of the Holy Office.
It was April 18, 2012, and on entering the palazzo, they were aware of its history, that in this same building nearly 400 years earlier Galileo had been condemned as a heretic by the Roman Inquisition for arguing that the Earth orbits around the sun.
Today, the palazzo houses the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that enforces adherence to church teaching. As president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Farrell and her executive colleagues had an appointment with the prefect, Cardinal William Levada, about the congregation’s investigation of their group.
They were walking into what Fr. Hans Küng, the internationally renowned theologian who has had his own battles in the palazzo, calls “a new Inquisition.” (See related story.)
The sisters were accused of undermining church moral teaching by promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” To many sisters, the congregation’s action is a turn toward the past, causing a climate of fear and a chill wind reaching into their lives.
The Vatican wants control of LCWR, an association of 1,500 superiors, representing 80 percent of American sisters, most long active in the front lines of social justice.
The main leadership council of American sisters embraced the Second Vatican Council’s social justice Gospel, which has taken sisters to some of the poorest corners of the world to work with politically oppressed people, particularly in Latin America. But a stark drama of attrition has unfolded as the Vatican II generation reaches an eclipse. Since 1965, the number of American sisters has dropped by more than two-thirds, from 181,241 to 54,000 today.
In contrast, the rate of women joining religious orders has surged in Korea, South Vietnam, sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Caribbean. Nowhere has the increase been more pronounced than in India. Five of the 10 largest religious institutes of women have headquarters in India, where only 1.6 percent of the population is Catholic.
“While India has nearly 50 million fewer Catholics than the United States does, it has over 30,000 more women religious,” wrote Jeff Ziegler in Catholic World Report.
The Vatican crackdown of LCWR has exposed a schizophrenic church. Interviews with missionary sisters in Rome, from India and other countries, register a deep fault line between cardinals immune from punishment, and sisters who work in poor regions with some of the world’s most beleaguered people. Religious sisters from other parts of the world view LCWR’s conflict with foreboding. How far Pope Benedict XVI goes in imposing a disciplinary culture, policing obedience over sisters, is an urgent issue to many of these women — and one sure to color this pope’s place in history.
The doctrinal assessment delivered by Levada was an intervention plan; he appointed Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle to approve speakers for LCWR gatherings and overhaul its statutes. “You can impose silence, but that doesn’t change anyone’s thinking,” Farrell reflected several months later at the convent in Dubuque, Iowa, where she lives.
“This is about the Vatican II church, how we have come to live collegially with participatory decision-making,” Farrell explained. “When I entered in 1965 we studied and prayed with [the Vatican II] documents, implementing new charters. … We’re in a line of continuity with the early history of our communities, assessing unmet needs, going to the margins to help the homeless, people with AIDS, victims of torture and sexual trafficking.”
“When Vatican II requested nuns to search their history, Rome believed in a mythology of plaster statue women,” said Syracuse University Professor Margaret Susan Thompson, a historian of women religious. “They found instead nuns who took the job literally, and became controversial for doing so.”
The leadership conference endorsed women’s ordination in 1977 — 17 years before Pope John Paul II reinforced the church’s ban on it with the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. Farrell says LCWR has not campaigned for women’s ordination. Nor has it endorsed abortion. The doctrinal congregation’s demand that the leaders speak out against abortion and gay rights is a battle over conscience, forcing words into superiors’ mouths.
“These women are really rooted in Christ and committed to the poor,” said Sr. Nzenzili Lucie Mboma, executive director of Service of Documentation and Study on Global Mission in Rome. A Congolese member of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, Mboma had two friends murdered in political violence in the 1960s, during her novice years. “It is painful to see the Vatican carrying on these kinds of things,” she said.
“In certain parts of the church we have an us-versus-them mentality,” said Fr. Míceál O’Neill, an Irish Carmelite prior in Rome with background as a missionary in Peru. “ ‘Us’ is religious, and ‘them’ is officers of the Holy See.”
“We have a church that is doctrinally conservative and pastorally liberal,” O’Neill said. “The Vatican is trying to assert control, ‘we are in charge.’ … Many people are saying the two churches are not coming together.”
“There is a fundamental problem of honesty.”
Farrell, 65, came of age in Iowa in the heady years of Vatican II. She joined the Franciscans at 18, and in her 30s worked with Mexicans in San Antonio. She moved to Chile in 1980 during the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Disappearances were common. “It was routine for police to torture people in the first 72 hours,” she said. Demonstrations were banned, yet protests were the only way to put a spotlight on abductions when lives were at stake.
She joined “lightning demonstrations,” unfurling banners of the anti-torture protest movement in congested traffic, spreading leaflets that gave people information on the missing, who were airbrushed out of news reports. At one point she was arrested, with 100 other people, but coverage in a growing clandestine media saw them released the same day.
In 1986 she moved to El Salvador with a handful of sisters to help people reeling from a grisly civil war with U.S. military support of the Salvadoran government. Farrell spent her first weeks sleeping at night in a church sacristy, getting to know people, and eventually moving into a sprawling refugee camp, living with villagers displaced by military bombings. American sisters were a nonviolent presence, giving thin cover to locals.
“We learned never to leave the road because any area off defined footpaths could have land mines,” she explained. “I remember walking down one long hill with trembling knees to meet a group of soldiers who entered the camp. Part of our role as internationals in the camp was to keep the military out and I was on my way down to ask them to leave. That time they did, thank God.”
Religious processions common to Latin America took on heightened meaning. For a newly repopulated community to show up en masse, with banners of saints and the Virgin Mary, conveyed “a political statement,” Farrell said: “We are not afraid. We have a right to be here. Our faith continues to be a source of strength to us.”
In 2005 Farrell returned to her Dubuque convent. Elected to the LCWR board several years later, she was midway through her one-year term as president when LCWR leaders made their annual trip to Rome in 2012 to update church officials on their work. With Farrell were Dominican Sr. Mary Hughes, past president; president-elect Franciscan Sr. Florence Deacon, and Janet Mock, the executive director and a Sister of St. Joseph of Baden, Pa.
Before their appointment in the Palace of the Holy Office, they held an hour of silent prayer in a Carmelite center.
The sisters had met once with the doctrinal congregation’s investigator, Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, but had not seen his report. The sisters were expecting some conclusion to Blair’s inquiry but had no indication about what it would entail. Blair was not in the meeting that day. They were to meet with Levada, who was about to turn 76 and retire to his native California.
After a cordial greeting, Levada read aloud an eight-page, single-spaced assessment that his office was just posting to the Internet. The assessment accused the sisters of “corporate dissent” on homosexuality and failure to speak out on abortion. The assessment also castigated LCWR for ties to NETWORK, a Washington-based Catholic lobbying group that supported the Affordable Care Act, and the Resource Center for Religious Institutes, a group in Silver Spring, Md., that gives religious orders canon law guidance on property issues.
Leaving the Holy Office, Farrell felt numb. “It was in the press before we had time to brief our members,” she recalled.
“The reaction of rank-and-file sisters was anger. Now there is a stage of deep sadness and concern for the climate in the church and the misrepresentation of religious life,” she said.
A darkly ironic twist involves the doctrinal congregation’s handling of the clerical sexual abuse crisis. The congregation has processed 3,000 cases of priests who have been laicized for abusing youngsters. Several hundred are reportedly pending.
Yet those procedures, which Benedict, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, put in place as prefect in 2001, have a large loophole. The office has not judged bishops and cardinals whose negligence in recycling abusers caused the crisis.
The most glaring example is Cardinal Bernard Law, whose soft-glove treatment of pedophiles ignited the Boston scandal. He resigned as archbishop in 2002 and in 2004 he was named pastor of a great Roman basilica, Santa Maria Maggiore, with a $10,000 per month salary and a highly influential role in choosing new American bishops.
Law was a driving force behind a preliminary investigation of all American religious orders of women, according to several sources interviewed here, and a May 15 report by Robert Mickens, the respected Vatican correspondent for the British Catholic weekly, The Tablet. Law, who has not spoken to the media in a decade, refused an interview request. But Cardinal Franc Rodé, 78, retired prefect of the congregation that oversees religious orders, confirmed Law’s role. In a wide-ranging interview at his residence in the Palace of the Holy Office, Rodé said, “It was the American milieu in the Roman Curia that suggested it.”
The “apostolic visitation” of all but the cloistered communities of U.S. women religious was the initial phase. The doctrinal congregation’s aggressive investigation of the main leadership group soon followed.
“Some people say this is an attempt to divert attention from the abuse crisis, like politicians do,” a missionary sister from a developing country with her order in Rome, said of the doctrinal congregation’s investigation. She asked that her name not be used because the order depends on donations from U.S. Catholics channeled through dioceses.
“The Vatican is trying to assert control, to say, ‘We are in charge,’ “ she continued. “This envisions a different church from Vatican II. Many people are saying that the two churches are not coming together.”
LCWR has indeed pushed the envelope by giving forums to theologians who have questioned celibacy and the evolution of religious life. As liberal theologians clamor for change, LCWR has collided with the doctrinal office over freedom of conscience, a core principle of Vatican II.
Rodé, as prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, ordered the 2009 visitation of American sister communities. He told Vatican Radio of his concern for “a certain secular mentality … in these religious families and perhaps also a certain ‘feminist’ spirit.”
Rodé was also prompted by a 2008 conference he attended on religious life at Stonehill College near Boston. Dominican Sr. Elizabeth McDonough, a canon lawyer, accused LCWR of creating “global-feminist-operated business corporations” and “controlling all structures and resources.”
“I’m unaware of any such facts that would back up that claim. It sounds like a sweeping indictment of the direction many orders have taken which the hierarchy found offensive or disloyal, summed up in the ‘radical feminism’ catch phrase,” said Kenneth A. Briggs, author of Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns.
“Most orders were scrounging to come up with funds to support retired sisters, often selling off property that belonged to them to do so. It seems clear to me that the aim of the Stonehill meeting was to paint a picture of disobedience as a pretext for a crackdown,” Briggs said.
Rodé in an interview brushed off suggestions that the apostolic visitation was unfair.
Rodé had requested $1.3 million from religious communities and bishops to cover travel and other expenses for the visitation, which he appointed Mother Mary Clare Millea, superior general of Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to carry out.
The funding request raised eyebrows among many missionary orders.
“Why would you want to pay them to investigate you?” asked one of the missionary sisters in Rome.
The study by Millea has not been made public.
“Vatican II was the most important event that changed the Catholic church,” said Sr. Nzenzili Lucie Mboma. “Jesus was a carpenter. He didn’t build cells, but windows to see every culture.”
She paused. “Why is this investigation happening?”
Also in this series: German theologian Hans Küng still resists the ‘Roman Inquisition’
Coming in this series: Next: The bishops and cardinals who are investigating the sisters have poor records on sex abuse cases.
[Jason Berry, author of Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, writes from New Orleans. Research for this series has been funded by a Knight Grant for Reporting on Religion and American Public Life at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism; the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting; and the Fund for Investigative Journalism. ]
Mark Oppenheimer explores the two worlds of American religious sistersÂ onÂ Religion PoliticsÂ today. Though he lets the women speak for themselves and is sympathetic to them all—the nuns were “among the best people [he] had met in a long time,” and “smart, cheerful, and authentic”—the pieceÂ contains a couple false dichotomies.
Oppenheimer visited two religious orders, one a member ofÂ the older, more liberal Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the other part of the younger, more conservative Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.
I’ve had relatives in both LCWR and CMSWR orders, and I know impressive and generous women in each.Â Oppenheimer, though, struggles to understand the young nuns who, heÂ tells us, are “more interested in purity” than “messy intellectual complexity.” This description is odd on a couple levels: Is he really saying traditional Catholic theology isÂ lessÂ intellectually complex than rival theological systems, or that a life of purity is somehow opposed to the life of the mind? An elementary familiarity with Church history should disabuse you of those notions pretty quickly. And anyway, when the complex intellectual exploration of the LCWR ends inÂ Barbara Marx Hubbard, can we really call it intellectual?
Much more significant is this scene in his discussion with the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville:
After lunch I sat in a living room and talked with about a dozen young sisters. They resisted my insinuation that they cared only about the churchâ€™s “conservative” positions. “If you donâ€™t care about the dignity of the human person, it makes no sense to talk about education or war in Iraq,” said Sister Hannah, an African-American woman who majored in philosophy at Notre Dame. “So pro-life is foundational that way. But we do care about other issues.”
It appears here and throughout the piece that Oppenheimer (unlike the Dominicans he interviews) buys into the politicized version of Catholic social teaching, in which caring about abortion is at best a rival of, and at worst incompatible with, caring about the poor, or social justice, or war and peace. That some Catholics seem to buy into the same version makes it all the more worth refuting.
Perhaps I should say first that I understand pro-life Catholics’ leeriness of “seamless garment” theory, which (as William Doino has written on this site) can easily be misusedÂ to imply that specific political goals are every bit as foundational to Catholic moral theology as opposition to abortion. It can also become an excuse for devoting one’s energy solely to whatever aspects of Catholic teaching are popular or politically expedient at the time.
Yet it’s very much the case that our efforts to protect the unborn and our efforts to help the poor spring from the same teachings about the dignity of every human being and the duties entailed in upholding that dignity. The unborn and the poor do not compete for our attention; they each deserve our attention because they are all human beings whose lives should be as sacred to us as our own.
Moreover, in my experience (contra Oppenheimer’s perception), nowhere is this consistent ethic of life more deeply recognized—in a way that defies conventional political categories—than in religious orders. Thus the very nuns who fight abortion do so by helping the poor.
A Franciscan priest whom any journalist would describe as “conservative” says things that sound very un-conservative indeed, like “A culture of selfishness, individualism, looking out for number one is not good for the common good. Itâ€™s not good for the (market) economyÂ andÂ not good for the economy of love. . . . Greed isolates us. Selfishness becomes loneliness.”
And a Benedictine priest I know—also one who could be called conservative—has remarked that it’s a pity the U.S. spends billions of dollars on wars overseas when there’s so much poverty on our shores.
It should be obvious that to understand how religious orders live out Catholic social teaching, one must go beyond America’s political divides. Which is awfully hard for journalists to do.
Nearly 900 Roman Catholic nuns are gathering in St. Louis this week to discuss their future relationship with the Vatican.
Ordinarily, this annual assembly of the country’s largest umbrella group for women’s religious communities wouldn’t draw the attention of the world’s press. But in the spring, the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog office issued a report that questioned the organization’s fidelity to some church teachings, accused it of “serious doctrinal problems” and announced that three U.S. bishops would temporarily take the group’s reins in order to reform it.
This week, the members of the Leadership Conference for Women Religious – which represents 80 percent of the country’s 57,000 Catholic nuns – will discuss their options, which could range from accepting the reforms to severing their official connection to the Vatican.
“We’re hopeful it will be a time of dialogue and increased understanding,” said Sister Louise Gallahue, leader of the Daughters of Charity in the Province of St. Louise. “Everyone involved wants to see this as communication with church authorities and not in conflict with them.”
Since the Vatican report was released in April, the rift has resonated with some American Catholics who feel bishops have become too focused on gay marriage and abortion. Many took issue with the Vatican report that denounced the sisters’ group – which represents nuns who work with the poor and sick – for being “silent on the right to life from conception to natural death” and for leaving “the Church’s biblical view of family life and human sexuality” off its “agenda.”
“You see a difference in the theology of the sisters who are on the margins, who live with the people, whose theology is informed by the work they do,” said Jennifer Reyes Lay, program coordinator for the St. Louis-based Catholic Action Network. “And then the theology of people who hold positions in the hierarchy who aren’t as connected to people and who can maintain black-and-white guidelines. It gets messier when you’re on the ground.”
Reyes Lay said her group, working with a national organization called the Nun Justice Project, had held weekly vigils in support of the nuns outside the Cathedral Basilica in the spring. The group plans to welcome the St. Louis-bound nuns today at five locations inside Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and outside the conference hotel.
One of the main problems the Vatican had with the Leadership Conference for Women Religious is its choice of speakers at their annual assemblies. Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, who conducted the Vatican’s assessment of the group, wrote in his diocesan newspaper in June that the group’s speakers often “explore themes like global spirituality, the new cosmology, earth-justice and eco-feminism in ways that are frequently ambiguous, dubious or even erroneous with respect to Christian faith.”
The Vatican’s April report said the speakers “manifest problematic statements and serious theological, even doctrinal errors.”
This year’s keynote speaker is Barbara Marx Hubbard, whom spiritual wellness author Deepak Chopra called “the voice for conscious evolution of our time,” according to her website.
Hubbard defines conscious evolution as “a spiritually motivated endeavor,” whose “precepts reside at the heart of every great faith, affirming that humans have the potential of being co-creators with Spirit, with the deeper patterns of nature and universal design.”
“The promise of Conscious Evolution is nothing less than the emergence of a universal humanity capable of guiding its own evolution into a future of unimaginable co-creativity,” according to Hubbard’s website.
The Vatican’s April report also noted “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith in some of the programs and presentations sponsored by the LCWR … .”
The nuns and their supporters say the act of questioning and debating church teaching is not the same as disobeying it.
St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson is scheduled to address the group today. He stressed his support for the Vatican’s position in a statement this week and said he “played no role in the planning of this assembly, the selection of speakers, or its honorees.”
His presence at the assembly, Carlson said, “only indicates my love for the Church … my memory of the wonderful religious who helped me in my earliest days as a child” and his “gratitude for the extraordinary work of Sisters today, especially in the Archdiocese of St. Louis… .”
There are 1,425 sisters, in 53 orders – not all of them members of LCWR – in the St. Louis archdiocese.
Carlson is the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, which includes contact with religious communities in the U.S.
Carlson told the archdiocese’s newspaper, the St. Louis Review, that while he supports the Vatican’s concerns about the LCWR, his “style for 42 years as a priest and 28 years as a bishop has been one of dialogue. I find that an effective way to be a man of the Church and to live out the Gospel.”
The archbishop has a warm relationship with religious sisters. In his previous diocese of Saginaw, Mich., the members of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., helped nurse Carlson back to health after a cancer scare.
The leader of the Alma Sisters of Mercy, Mother Mary Quentin Sheridan, is close with Carlson and a founding board member of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. That organization, which received formal recognition from the Vatican in 1992, is a more traditionalist version of the LCWR and adheres closely to official church teaching and obedience to the bishops.
On its website, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious has written of the LCWR debate: “The Sisters who use political language in their responses to the magisterial Church reflect the poverty of their education and formation in the faith.”
This summer, St. Louis has become something of a rendezvous for Catholic dissent. In June, members of the Catholic Theological Society of America held their annual meeting downtown and rallied around one of their own.
Days before the theologians’ meeting, the same Vatican office that issued the report on the Leadership Conference for Women Religious released a five-page “notification” about a book by Sister Margaret Farley, a professor emeritus at Yale Divinity School, saying her writing on sexual ethics did not conform to church teachings.
ST. LOUIS (RNS) As hundreds of nuns met here on Wednesday (Aug. 8) to begin crafting an answer to Vatican demands that their leaders toe the line on orthodoxy, there was a pervasive sense that this week’s discussions could lead to a fateful juncture in the history of Catholicism in America.
“As you know, this is an assembly like no other assembly we’ve had,” said Sister Pat Farrell, a Franciscan from Iowa who heads the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents most of the 56,000 nuns in communities across the country.
“I suspect we’re in for a lot of surprises,” Farrell told the sisters as she opened the LCWR’s annual meeting.
The options under consideration by the 900 nuns — several hundred more than have attended recent gatherings — range from asking the Vatican to continue the dialogue to shuttering the LCWR and reorganizing the leadership body of sisters into a group that would be beyond the Vatican’s control.
But that would also signal a historic shift in a church in which the nuns for centuries simply did the work that the bishops preached about — serving the poor, caring for the sick, and educating the young.
If the showdown reaches such a pass, it would be the latest in a series of dramatic developments since last April, when the Vatican announced that an investigation of the LCWR, authorized by Pope Benedict XVI, had concluded that the group was infected with strains of “radical feminism” and was focusing on social justice issues at the expense of promoting Rome-sanctioned doctrine on issues like abortion and gay marriage.
The Vatican appointed a team of three U.S. bishops, led by Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain, to take control of the LCWR by reforming its statutes and overseeing its activities.
But the move prompted such widespread outrage at the Vatican and such an outpouring of support for the nuns that it may have changed the political dynamics of a relationship in which the sisters have no canonical power.
In fact, a number of leading bishops have privately assured the nuns of their support while others have increasingly praised them publicly.
“We Catholics love the Sisters!” New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote in a blog post on the eve of the LCWR meeting that effusively praised the nuns and voiced confidence that they would survive the “examination by Rome.”
Similarly, in a welcoming address to the LCWR on Tuesday, St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson went out of his way to praise the work of the sisters and their influence on his own life. In referring briefly to the LCWR’s standoff with Rome, Carlson cited as a model the conflicts between Apostles Peter and Paul in the early days of the church.
“They managed to work things out then, and I pray that you will work things out now,” he said.
Sister Sandra Schneiders, a leading New Testament scholar and spiritual writer, admitted that the sisters were surprised and gratified by the surge of support for their efforts to raise questions within the church that apparently many other Catholics are also asking.
“We thought we were doing our little bit,” Schneiders said. “We didn’t realize how much was riding on our experience.”
On each table in the hotel meeting room where the sisters are gathered in downtown St. Louis the LCWR staff had scattered a dozen or so of the thousands of letters of support they have received and testimonials to the role of the nuns in many lives.
More than just a psychological shot in the arm, that support also seems to have emboldened the sisters to compose a forceful response that would let Rome know that the nuns are tired of decades of criticism and that they are not going to blindly comply with the hierarchy’s demands.
What form that response will take remains unclear.
“I don’t think they’re seriously saying ‘Let’s walk away,’ but they’re raising those questions,” Sister Theresa Kane, a former LCWR president, told the National Catholic Reporter on Tuesday.
What was apparent from the opening day’s session — the assembly concludes on Friday — is that the nuns are committed to moving ahead with the kind of changes that they have embraced since the reforms following the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The sisters believe those changes better reflect the imperatives of the gospel, while the hierarchy often sees them as innovations that heedlessly upend tradition.
The very title of the assembly summed up the difference in approach: “Mystery Unfolding: Leading in the Evolutionary Now.” And the keynote speaker was Barbara Marx Hubbard, a futurist and promoter of “conscious evolution” who is hailed by New Age gurus like Deepak Chopra even as she channels many Christian thinkers.
Indeed, Hubbard’s address on Wednesday was replete with what some would consider standard bromides of pop spirituality and what others would value as eternal spiritual profundities. Either way, the sisters of the LCWR welcomed her sweeping panorama of impending change, and in particular their place in it.
“You are the best seedbed I know for evolving the church in the 21st century,” Hubbard told them. “That may be a surprise to the world.”
Also on HuffPost:
This week marks an important moment in the history of the Catholic Church in the U.S., with potentially significant repercussions on the Vatican. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the group that represents 80% of the nuns in America, is holding its annual meeting. Yet this year’s conference is starkly different from previous ones, as members of LCWR will be debating the notion of severing their ties with Vatican. To be clear, leaving the Church is not an option for the women at the conference, nor is disaffiliating their orders. Rather, the attendees are considering making their main industry organization independent of the Vatican.
The LCWR is a member organization that aims to be an educational centre for the leaders of Catholic women’s religious orders. Ironically, it was founded at the encouragement of the Vatican and was seen as an invitation for women leaders of women’s congregations over the years to consider together the role and the place of women religious – another word for nuns – in the church, in their congregations and in the issues of the times.
The St. Louis gathering is the first time the organization has assembled since the release of a doctrinal assessment by the Vatican back in April, which concluded reform was needed to ensure the organization’s fidelity to Catholic teaching in areas that include euthanasia and homosexuality. The report also complained that the Conference wasn’t focusing enough on abortion and traditional marriage and was dabbling dangerously in “radical feminist” ideas such as female consecration. The report said the group needed to be “reformed” and argued for what amounts to a takeover and monitoring of the Conference. Understandably, the doctrinal assessment came as a shock to the nuns’ leadership.
“We have never considered ourselves in any way unfaithful to the Church, but if questioning is interpreted as defiance, that puts us in a very difficult position,” Sister Pat Farrell said in an interview with the National Catholic Reporter on Monday. “Together with people around the country who have been supportive of us, our desire is to do what we can, for their sake and for ours, to help create a safe and respectful environment, where together with church leaders we can raise questions openly and search for truth freely, addressing some of the complex issues of our times.” As a caveat, Sister Farrell added that such questioning “can only take place in a climate of mutual trust.”
The conference leaders have received significant support from both inside and outside of the Church, as many perceive the assessment by the college of bishops as an attempt to keep the Church’s male-dominated hierarchy intact, to the detriment of the entire Catholic institution. Huffington Post blogger James Zogby wrote in April that “with each new outrageous act of control, the bishops are looking more like desperate old men, obsessed with their narrow interpretation of one of God’s Commandments, attempting to hold on to the last vestiges of their fading authority by defending their power over the institution while ignoring the gospel.”
But the perseverance displayed by the nuns in contesting the bishops’ report gives hope that significant changes are to come within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Because they are often tasked with community service work, such as running hospitals and schools, nuns are often much more in touch with the needs of the communities served compared to bishops. Their practical experience and views on issues such as abortion, contraception and gay rights should be invaluable to the Church and would be put to significantly better use if women were allowed to hold leadership positions.
Unfortunately, it is painfully obvious that the Church’s male leadership is not prepared to accept this new wave of educated women, because it would threaten the stranglehold bishops have always had on the Vatican’s power. This is a fundamental issue. As Sister Julie Vieira, a member of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, told the Washington Post: “Our vow of obedience applies to God [. . .] it doesn’t reside in a bishop, a body of bishops or even the pope. For us, that sense of obedience has to do with listening deeply to the call of the spirit.” The female members of the Church have already understood that the gift of religious teaching and service is oblivious to sex. All eyes are on the college of bishops now.
- a catholic prayer
- belief of catholics
- bible and catholic
- bible of the catholic church
- catechism of catholic
- catechism of catholic church
- catechism of the catholic
- catechism of the catholic church
- catholic beliefs
- catholic bible study
- catholic books
- catholic christmas cards
- catholic church
- catholic church bible
- catholic church catechism
- catholic church history
- catholic church online
- catholic doctrine
- catholic faith
- catholic first communion
- catholic guide
- catholic hymns
- catholic information
- catholic mass
- catholic missal
- catholic news
- catholic prayer book
- catholic prayers
- catholic source
- catholic sources
- catholic theology
- catholic topics
- catholics and the bible
- confirmation gifts
- doctrine catholic
- holy cards
- holy spirit catholic
- liturgical calendar
- prayers for children
- prayers for the catholic church
- resources catholic
- roman catholic doctrine
- roman catholic faith
- roman catholic teaching
- roman missal
- spiritual catholic
- st charles borromeo
- st francis de sales
- st john the evangelist
- st rose of lima
- sunday homilies
- the catechism of the catholic church
- the catholic catechism
- the catholic prayer
- the catholic saints
- the roman catholic faith