Ann Carey is a veteran journalist who has written hundreds of articles for many prestigious Catholic publications. She is a member of the Catholic Press Association and has won awards for news and feature writing, as well as investigative reporting. Her specialty is women religious, and she is the author of two books: Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities, published by Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., in 1997; and Sisters in Crisis Revisited: From Unraveling to Reform and Renewal, an updated version of her first book and published by Ignatius Press in 2013. She and her husband live in Indiana and are the parents of three grown children.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) is holding its annual assembly in Nashville this week, and the event has sparked a glut of blogs, articles and commentary filled with misinformation, propaganda and near-hysteria that paints the sisters as victims of an oppressive male hierarchy.
Most of these pieces are produced by folks who want a democratized Church that diminishes the teaching authority of the hierarchy and the Holy See. Thus, they are urging LCWR members to ignore a 2012 mandate from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to reform the organization because of serious doctrinal problems.
Among the most outrageous musings is a blog by Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister — a former LCWR president (1976) and winner of the LCWR’s 2007 Outstanding Leadership Award. Sister Joan wrote her blog just a few days before the LCWR assembly convened.
I’ve read a lot of Sister Joan’s work and even debated her on a radio program once. What strikes me about this particular piece is that it demonstrates the radical new concept of religious life that has evolved since the Second Vatican Council and has heavily influenced the LCWR. This concept defines sisters primarily as social workers whose connection to the Catholic Church is tenuous and determined only by themselves.
Sister Joan’s blog also is useful in depicting the wide gulf between sisters, for thousands of them would disagree heartily with her.
She starts out by claiming that “Not too long ago, the world barely noticed nuns, and then only in some anonymous or stereotypical way. Now there is hardly an instance when the world does not notice them.”
I don’t know where Sister Joan comes from, but I grew up in Kansas City, Mo., a city that is not heavily Catholic. Nevertheless, sisters were all over the place — in all the social service agencies, schools, hospitals, homes for babies and children, etc. And most people noticed them, because we knew it was they who enabled our immigrant grandparents to survive in this country by educating them and their offspring tuition-free, nursing them even when they could not pay, caring for orphans and unmarried pregnant women — all the while embracing the teaching authority of the Church and catechizing the unchurched.
Their religious habits told us who they were and what motivated them to give of themselves so unselfishly.
By contrast, most of my young grandchildren have never even seen a religious sister, even though they attend Catholic schools. One reason is because there were 180,000 sisters in the U.S. in 1965, while in 2014, there are only 49,800, with most retired. Another reason is that many sisters today simply are unrecognizable as sisters. This diminishment has many causes, chief among them the radical transformation of religious life championed by Sister Joan.
I wonder if Sister Joan thinks the world notices sisters more today because a handful of them are engaging in politics like “Nuns on the Bus,” or garnering headlines because they are publicly disagreeing with positions our bishops take on different moral issues like the HHS “reproductive services” mandate, or openly refusing to comply with CDF mandates.
In journalism class, we learned that normal events — like sisters supporting Church authority and teaching — don’t make news, whereas it is the unusual people and events that do make the headlines.
Sister Joan goes on to say that modern sisters “have given clear witness to contemplation, equality, and justice these last years,” implying that those qualities were missing in previous generations of sisters.
Try telling that to the sisters I knew who marched from Selma with Martin Luther King Jr. Try telling that to the tens of thousands of sisters — both contemplative and apostolic — who have given their lives to pray for this wounded world and to lift up the poorest of the poor.
Also, try telling that to the young women entering non-LCWR religious orders because they want the classic model of religious life where sisters live and pray in community, exercise their apostolate in the name of the Church, embrace Church authority, and wear religious garb — while also service those in need.
A perfect example of this is right there in Nashville, at the motherhouse of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, who had to construct new buildings to accommodate their growing number of young sisters.
As she so often does, Sister Joan wrote that the LCWR-CDF situation boils down to “the question of the agency of women in a man’s church,” and she quotes at length fellow Benedictine Sister Mary Lou Kownacki, who strangely enough calls herself the “Old Monk” in her own blog.
Sister Mary Lou’s advice to LCWR is: “Go to the microphone and say: We believe in feminist theology and in women’s ordination; we believe in the rights of gay, lesbian and transgender population and we will continue to speak aloud on these issues. Respectfully, we will not comply with the order to submit names of speakers to our annual assembly to Vatican representatives for approval. If this means that the LCWR is no longer recognized by church authorities, so be it. Though we have given our lives to the church, we have not given our consciences to anyone but God. Though we recognize the legitimacy of church law, we believe it sometimes conflicts with the Gospel.”
I asked a sister I know who is in an LCWR-affiliated order what she thought of Sister Mary Lou’s advice.
“Who interprets the Gospel? LCWR?” she asked. “I don’t think so.
“Christ chose apostles, and Peter was invested with sacred power to lead. The gift of Church continues through time with the bishops worldwide in communion with the bishop of Rome, the successor of St. Peter.
“Unity of faith includes adhering to the Gospel as understood and taught by the Church. As religious, we collaborate with the bishops and give full assent in following Christ to bring about the Kingdom of God,” she concluded.
The question now is: Will LCWR members take Sisters Joan and Mary Lou’s advice to defy the Vatican? Or will they embrace and support the teaching authority of the church, as did the sisters who went before them? Perhaps we will know by the time the LCWR meeting concludes this weekend.