The course of the clash between the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) was probably set four years ago when Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, began the study that led to the critical doctrinal assessment from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).
In a series of exchanges, Bishop Blair requested information on educational materials prepared by the LCWR and speakers at its annual assemblies.
Areas of concern included the formation of religious, the role of religious in the Church, abortion, ordination of women, homosexual activity and contraception. It was apparent that the LCWR and its invited speakers were generally either not comfortable with or not interested in what the Church actually teaches in these areas.
The LCWR seemed to view religious life as a process involving group dynamics and conflict resolution, rather than consecration to Christ in order to grow in His life within the Church.
The members of the LCWR are the leaders of congregations comprising about 80% of the women religious in the U.S. If they were faithful Catholics, one expects that they would have hastened to correct errors. Well, actually, one expects that they would not have wandered into the swamp to begin with.
Instead, they offered excuses to the CDF, such as the rather incredible claim that they didn’t know what their annual assembly speakers were going to say. But speakers have reputations; that’s why they are invited. And if a speaker goes beyond the pale, the host organization can always issue a disclaimer.
When the doctrinal assessment was published in April, the LCWR professed to be shocked that there was any problem. Its president, Franciscan Sister Pat Farrell, hastened to Rome to tell Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the CDF, that the process had been unfair. The LCWR announced that it would spend the summer conferring among its members before making a formal response. Perhaps they are consulting their conflict resolution manuals.
Where Sister Pat was evasive and equivocating, Bishop Blair was responsive and even concise. He could afford to be, because his purpose was only to state clearly what the Catholic Church teaches, not what he might wish the Catholic Church to teach.
The host of the program, Terry Gross, methodically ran through the topics raised in the assessment, on all of which Sister Pat had found the need for questions, reconsideration and discussion. On the evil of abortion, Bishop Blair did not mince words:
“The Church has been so strong in defending that right to life, you know, it seems that one would expect the Leadership Conference of Women Religious to stand up and be counted in upholding this right and working for its defense.
“And the reality is that there’s nothing really said by the Leadership Conference on this issue. They have had statements on things like human trafficking and immigration. ... Those kind of things should be addressed. They’ve had statements on ecology and climate change, militarization of space, nuclear weapons, but nothing on the issue of abortion and the importance of upholding the right to life.”
Gross pointed out that Sister Pat had defended the LCWR by presenting the many charitable activities of the sisters as more pro-life than just opposing abortion. To which Bishop Blair said:
“No one is questioning or criticizing the fact that they take care — that many sisters are involved in the care of the elderly or the infirmed, the needy, the troubled. “But I recall something that Pope John Paul II said. He said that all other human rights are false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right, is not defended with maximum determination. You know, we also hear a lot about the Second Vatican Council. The Second Vatican Council said that life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception, and said abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.
“So to kind of relativize or say, well, you know, the right to life of an unborn child is a preoccupation with fetuses, or it’s relative in its importance, I can’t agree with that. And I don’t think that represents the Church’s teaching and the focus of our energies in trying to deal with this great moral issue.”
The NPR host recalled that Sister Pat had criticized Catholic doctrine on human sexuality, saying that it should be reconsidered in the light of new realities and that many people were being hurt and marginalized by it. Bishop Blair was not intimidated:
“Well, you bring up a very important point, that yes, there are a lot of people who don’t agree with the Catholic Church about these moral teachings and moral issues, but we would expect that a group of religious sisters who are Catholic nuns would accept the teaching of their Church.
“And I might add that this is not a teaching that we just dreamt up in recent years. It’s been the … from time immemorial, the God-given nature of human sexuality and marriage.”
“The bishops in the United States have written a guide for pastoral care of people with a homosexual inclination. So we want to extend that care to everyone, and we want to treat everyone with dignity and respect. But that’s very different than insisting, then, on the claims of a gay lifestyle or gay culture and trying to undermine the institution of marriage.
“And that’s something where I think Catholics would reasonably expect that a leadership group of women religious would, you know, subscribe to that and want to be part of that effort.”
Gross tried to be the peacemaker: “I know Sister Pat’s feelings were that it is not — that she would like to be in dialogue. She would like to be able to question and think and dialogue and talk it through, but what the assessment is asking for isn’t dialogue. It’s conformity — conform to the teachings. This isn’t the time to be dialoguing. It’s the time to just say follow these rules.”
But Bishop Blair was having none of it: “Well, I think we have to give a nuance about dialogue, because if by dialogue they mean that the doctrines of the Church are negotiable and that the bishops represent one position and the LCWR presents another position, and somehow we find a middle ground about basic Church teaching on faith and morals, then no. That’s — I don’t think that’s the kind of dialogue that the Holy See would envision.
“But if it’s a dialogue about how to have the LCWR really educate and help the sisters to appreciate and accept Church teaching and to implement it in their discussions and try to heal some of the questions or concerns they have about these issues, then that would be the dialogue.
“I think that the fundamental faith of the Catholic Church is that there are objective truths and there are teachings of the faith that really do come from revelation and that are interpreted authentically through the teaching office of the Church, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and that are expected to be believed with the obedience of faith.
“And those are things that are not negotiable. You can have dialogue about understanding these things, but it is faith seeking understanding. It’s not new understandings that then change the faith. And I think that’s what really gets to the heart of all that we find in this assessment, that they are promoting, unilaterally, new understandings, a new kind of theology that is not in accordance with the faith of the Church.”
Sister Pat had told Terry Gross that her vow of obedience was first to God and described the process by which she arrived at an understanding of God’s will for her. There was little room in it for either her superiors in her religious community or authorities in the Church. Bishop Blair did not hesitate to point out the problem with Sister Pat’s approach:
“My reaction is that it sounds very beautiful and appealing, and no one can argue that we have to be obedient to God and that we have to follow conscience. But on the other hand, it flies in the face of 2,000 years of the notion of religious life, that obedience means obedience to lawful superiors within the community, and it certainly means the obedience of faith to what the Church believes and teaches.
“Again, Catholicism understands Christianity to be a revealed religion, in which truths of faith, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, are authentically taught. So St. Paul talks about the obedience of faith. So it’s not just about a kind of vague sense of obedience, but it really comes to a very specific obedience in some cases, particularly for religious women or religious men.
“And it also applies to me as a bishop. I have to be obedient as a bishop. I cannot go out and say that I’m going to do my own thing or that I’m going to teach something contrary to the Catholic faith.”
Bishop Blair provided some intriguing new information about the process leading to the Doctrinal Assessment. He said that it began with the Pope, not the American bishops, directing the CDF to examine the LCWR. Well, thank God for the Pope. But this points up the problem for the Church in America, as elsewhere. The aberrations in the LCWR are not peculiar to them. They are found among many, self-identified Catholics. Two generations of poor catechesis, vapid sermons, irreverent liturgy and a prevailing culture drifting into moral chaos have taken their toll on Catholic identity.
Recently Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York acknowledged that the bishops have not been diligent in teaching the fullness of Catholic faith. He was speaking in particular about artificial contraception, but he might as well have been talking about most fundamental doctrines, especially a proper understanding of liturgical worship. If polls are to be believed, only 30% of Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Perhaps that is the 30% that regularly show up for Mass on Sunday. But why should they believe? For more than 40 years they have heard in great part either a distorted interpretation of Catholicism or silence on important issues, such as artificial contraception. The LCWR is not alone in the strategy of confuse or ignore.
Now that the Pope has moved to correct one of the more glaring examples of free-lancing in the Church in America, we can hope that the bishops will begin to recognize the same pattern among the faithful generally. If they can follow the Pope’s example in frankly recognizing error and Bishop Blair’s example in teaching clearly, we can begin the long process of rebuilding a Catholic culture and regaining souls for Christ.
Will the LCWR be part of that rebuilding? Here’s how Bishop Blair described their attitude so far:
“Now, you know, we want to do this collaboratively. We want to do it in dialogue with the LCWR, but I have to, you know, as they say in all candor, I have to say that up till now there’s been a lot of just denial. The refusal to — at least up till now — to recognize that there are any problems that the bishops — or the Holy See should even be concerned about the things that we’ve talked about on this program and that appear in the documentation.
“And if someone will not even acknowledge that this is a problem, then of course that creates a grave difficulty. So Archbishop [J. Peter] Sartain from Seattle, who’s responsible for this next phase of working with them, I think, you know, he’s going to have to, with the leadership, find some way forward.”
It doesn’t look good. But the sisters of the LCWR have given themselves the summer to talk about what to do. They can choose to cooperate in their own reform or they can persist in denial. If they won’t accept reform, the Vatican might decide that they will no longer be recognized as representing their congregations. They could continue as a kind of private club, but they would have no official standing. It would be a sad denouement, but given the steady erosion in the membership of the member communities, there is an air of inevitability about it.
Rome famously takes the long view. The average age of religious communities in the Church is only about 200 years, so hundreds have come and gone over the centuries. As some recede, others arise to meet new needs with fresh charism. And so it is happening in America, as new communities and older, authentically renewed communities rise and flourish. They are young and growing, enthusiastically faithful to the Church, attracting those who want to follow Christ in mutual support and common faith.
Let us pray that all religious women in America will find their way to such generous self-giving.
Donna F. Bethell is chairman of the board of directors of Christendom College.