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.
Articles and columns about the Vatican-mandated reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) are popping up all over the media these days, even in secular outlets like Time, Huffington Post and U.S. News and World Report.
At first glance, one might wonder why these secular outlets are so interested in a group of 1,400 sisters and their differences with the institution they have pledged to serve and obey. One obvious answer is that the media loves criticism of the Catholic Church, especially when that criticism comes from the Church’s own members.
Another answer becomes very clear in reading this material, for most of these pieces seem to be cheerleading for the LCWR because of a desire to see Church doctrine challenged and/or changed to accommodate the prevailing culture.
For example, in an article entitled “Vatican Criticisms of U.S. Nuns Keep Coming,” Jo Piazza is quoted by U.S. News and World Report saying:
“The nuns have moved along with the sentiment of the times and the Vatican hasn’t really changed their doctrine to keep up.”
Piazza, a former political and celebrity reporter and self-described agnostic, apparently was consulted for the article because she authored a book released Sept. 2 entitled If Nuns Ruled the World: Ten Sisters on a Mission (Open Road Media). Piazza writes in the epilogue to that book: “That is the thing about nuns. They stopped believing in the old lies a long time ago and started living out their own truths.”
However, in her book, Piazza reveals a simplistic understanding of religious life as focused strictly on doing good works — though I strongly disagree that the work of all of the sisters she profiles is “good,” given that one sister supports abortion rights, one lobbies for “gay marriage” and one promotes women’s ordination.
Piazza obviously fails to understand that the primary motivation for choosing religious life is a desire to consecrate oneself to Jesus Christ through the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and sisters’ good works flow out of that consecration.
The “Nun Justice Project” petition, supposedly delivered to the Vatican on Sept. 15 makes that same error, objecting to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s mandate and focusing solely on the sisters’ “works of justice,” while completely ignoring the role of religious and their relationship to the Church.
Former longtime Boston Herald columnist Margery Eagan, now of Crux wrote that the LCWR sisters are “a proud symbol to disenchanted Catholics looking for examples of true spirituality and holiness within the church.” On the other hand, she characterized the CDF prefect, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, as a “divisive point man” who “seems to be operating in a different century.”
Eagan and many of these pseudo-experts on religious life seem to be shocked that the CDF prefect is actually doing his job of explaining and protecting the doctrines of the Church. Cardinal Müller is identified by David Gibson in an article for Religion News Service as “the force behind Rome’s investigation of American nuns,” as if the LCWR reform was simply his own idea.
In reality, the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR began in 2008 under Cardinal Müller’s predecessor at the CDF, Cardinal William Levada, and has been specifically approved by two popes, Benedict XVI and Francis.
Church critics also seem to be disappointed that Pope Francis can be progressive and pastoral, yet still uphold Church doctrine at the same time. Piazza penned a recent article herself for Time, entitled “The Great Nunquisition: Why the Vatican Is Cracking Down on Sisters,” in which she complained that “Pope Francis has been hailed as a progressive icon. Yet on the subject of women in the Church, he remains loyal to a long-held and antiquated stance: he doesn’t think women should become priests.”
In addition to promoting an agenda of adapting the Church to the culture, some of these commentaries fail to cite sources and they give incorrect information that makes the Vatican seem petty, insensitive and heavy-handed. For example:
1) The Sept. 9 article in U.S. News and World Report by Tierney Sneed claimed that “criticisms of the nuns now center on members’ relative silence ... on issues like abortion, divorce and homosexual activity — all opposed by the church.” While the mandate of reform did mention LCWR silence on the right to life and faulty LCWR positions on ministry to homosexual persons, the mandate clearly “centered” on additional serious doctrinal concerns that are never mentioned by the secular press:
“On the doctrinal level, this crisis is characterized by a diminution of the fundamental Christological center and focus of religious consecration which leads, in turn, to a loss of a ‘constant and lively sense of the Church’ among some Religious,” the mandate stated. Some of the specific problems cited in the mandate included LCWR programs and presentations “that risk distorting faith in Jesus and his loving Father who sent his Son for the salvation of the world,” as well as commentaries that “distort the way in which Jesus has structured sacramental life in the Church” and others that “even undermine the revealed doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the inspiration of Sacred Scripture.”
2) Sneed also claimed that the LCWR “has 1,500 member institutions.” That would be a neat trick, given that there are only about 400 orders of women religious in the United States. Furthermore, religious orders do not belong to LCWR; only sisters on leadership teams in their orders may be members. The 2013-2014 LCWR Annual Report shows 1,369 sisters belonging to LCWR from 312 “units.” The vast majority of this country’s 50,000 sisters have no voice or vote in the LCWR.
3) In a Sept. 2 article for RNS, Gibson wrote that that the CDF said the sisters “were too active in promoting health care reform,” but he did not cite his source. The CDF mandate mentioned sisters’ involvement in health care only once, and that was to praise them for the extensive health care systems sisters built. Gibson seems to be picking up on speculation that the CDF launched the doctrinal assessment in anger over the LCWR supporting Obamacare, in defiance of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who were concerned that the law did not protect conscience rights and would fund abortion. That argument fails because the CDF told LCWR leaders in April of 2008 about the assessment, eight months before Obama was elected president and nearly two years before Obamacare was even formulated.
4) Gibson also wrote that “behind-the-scenes efforts to rein in the sisters went public in April 2012 when the Vatican revealed that it had been investigating the LCWR.” Not so. The Vatican did not reveal the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR: The doctrinal assessment became public in an April 14, 2009, article in National Catholic Reporter after someone leaked a confidential letter from the CDF to the LCWR.
Furthermore, this disclosure came eight years after the CDF told LCWR leaders privately that they needed to clean up some doctrinal problems.
If the LCWR had complied from the beginning, there would have been no doctrinal assessment, no mandate of reform, no public knowledge of the CDF doctrinal concerns. Movement to reform the LCWR was in the works for 11 years and was hardly a rush to judgment by the Vatican.
How refreshing it would be for some members of the secular press to rein in its own rush to judgment and fairly and accurately present the facts of this tragic story.