The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s newly released doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has provoked an explosion of outrage. Media commentators and ordinary Catholics are accusing a male hierarchy of waging war on women religious, who, it is said, do all the heavy lifting in Catholic hospitals, schools and social agencies.
In fact, the once dominant role of women religious in cherished Catholic institutions has drastically contracted in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and the subsequent departure of tens of thousands of women from their religious orders. It is not uncommon for Catholic children in parochial schools to never experience the special gravitas and distinct joy of a bride of Christ.
The absence of women religious has been filled by many dedicated lay teachers, nurses and social workers, but a vacuum remains for those who knew another time when such women defined the transformative ethos of Catholic institutions.
The rapid exodus of women religious amid an era of chaotic social change inflicted deep wounds on the communities they left behind. The necessity for the Vatican’s apostolic visitation of religious orders of women and research conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University point to the stubborn presence of festering internal conflicts regarding the proper place of common prayer and apostolic work, religious dress, adherence to the magisterium and obedience to religious superiors and Church leaders.
CARA researchers note that the median age for new arrivals in struggling LCWR-affiliated orders is 40, a full decade older than women who entered orders affiliated with the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, which celebrates members’ common life and unapologetic obedience to the magisterium — but stays out of the media spotlight.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious was established by the Church expressly to aid members and foster their religious vocations. The problems noted above cry out for solutions and energetic leadership from the LCWR. Instead, the Vatican has concluded that the group is too preoccupied with issues like women’s ordination and same-sex attraction, even as it articulates a narrow understanding of social justice that ignores the fundamental right to life and emerging needs that demand the special gifts of women religious.
Ultimately, an individualistic conception of religious life repudiates the call to radical discipleship to follow the path of Jesus Christ, who sacrificed himself unconditionally for the salvation of the world. But individualistic practices also ignore the practical value of a stable apostolic presence in a chosen field, whether education, health care or social outreach.
The Church — young Catholics, families, single people and the elderly — requires the ministry of religious women.
It is time for the LCWR to retrace its departure from authentic reform and humbly accept the guidance of the Vatican.