Imagine you are a reasonably knowledgeable, faithful Catholic, comfortable in your own skin. How long would it take you to answer a few questions, such as: Can a woman be ordained a priest? Is homosexual activity wrong? Is abortion wrong? Is artificial contraception wrong? No. Yes. Yes. Yes. That was easy. Of course, much more can be said to explain these answers, but they are correct answers.
Unless you are Sister Pat Farrell, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which represents religious congregations comprising some 80% of the women religious in the United States. In April, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a doctrinal assessment of the LCWR. The assessment, the result of exchanges with the LCWR over four years, found that the LCWR was not fully supportive and representative of Catholic doctrine. Examining the presentations made at LCWR assemblies and the materials prepared for the formation of leaders within the congregations, the assessment found either conflict with Catholic faith, confusion or a disturbing silence. The issues included ordination of women, homosexuality, contraception and abortion.
Before addressing its doctrinal concerns, the assessment praised the good works carried out by the women religious represented by the LCWR. Their contributions to the life of the Church and the welfare of the poor and needy are well known and rightly honored. Yet, as publicly consecrated religious, they are expected to give full support to the Catholic faith in their life and works. These aims — the works of charity and the mission to teach the faith — are not in conflict. Indeed, the works must be guided and inspired by sound faith and doctrine.
Interviewed for 40 minutes recently by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air program, Sister Pat found it hard to give a straight answer to questions about the issues raised in the assessment. She made some fair points about the need for discussion and communication within the Church and the valuable experience that women can bring to deliberations. But that can never mean that settled doctrine can be put up for reconsideration because it turns out to be demanding or not in accord with current fashion. Here’s how she responded when asked about Catholic doctrine on human sexuality:
“And I would say that we are — we have been, in good faith, raising concerns about some of the Church’s teaching on sexuality, human sexuality: the problem being that the teaching and interpretation of the faith can’t remain static and really needs to be reformulated, rethought, in light of the world we live in and new questions, new realities, as they arise. And if those issues become points of conflict, it’s because women religious stand in very close proximity to people at the margins, to people with very painful, difficult situations in their lives. That is our gift to the Church. Our gift to the Church is to be with those who have been made poorer, with those on the margins. And questions there are much less black and white because human realities are much less black and white. So that’s — that’s where we spend our days. And so the questions we bring to the Church, the questions that come to us, are from the real-life situations of real-life people.”
How does the Church’s doctrine on human sexuality prevent the sisters from showing compassion and helping people in painful situations? Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in speaking of homosexuality, insists on the dignity and human rights of all and requires charity and compassion. What “new realities” have changed human nature and the law of God? How can the sisters really help people without calling them to the love of God and acceptance of God’s will for them? There is no conflict between helping people dealing with sexual issues and supporting Catholic teaching; the best help will be fully informed by Catholic faith.
What about abortion? The doctrinal assessment criticized the LCWR for not supporting Catholic teaching on abortion; the LCWR has been silent on the issue and has not addressed it in the many speakers it offers at its assemblies or in the materials it provides for the formation of religious, many of whom are counseling women and couples or teaching young people.
The LCWR and its members talk incessantly about social justice, yet they have nothing to say about this most fundamental violation of social justice. When asked for her comment, here’s what Sister Pat said:
“So I think the criticism of what we’re not talking about seems to me, again, unfair, because religious have clearly given our lives to supporting life, to supporting the dignity of human persons. Our works are very much pro-life. We would question, however, any policy that is more pro-fetus than actually pro-life. You know, if the rights of the unborn trump all of the rights of all of those who are already born; that is a distortion, too, if there’s such an emphasis on that.
“However, we have sisters who work — all of our congregations have sisters who work in right-to-life issues. We also have many, many ministries that support life, who — we dedicate our efforts to those on the margins of society, many of whom are considered kind of throwaway people: the cognitively impaired, the chronically mentally ill, the elderly, the incarcerated, the people on death row. We have strongly spoken out against the death penalty, against war, hunger. All of those are right-to-life issues.
“And there’s so much being said about abortion that is often phrased in such extreme and such polarizing terms that to choose not to enter into a debate that is so widely covered by other sectors of the Catholic Church — and we have been giving voice to other issues that are less covered but are equally as important.”
Is Sister Pat saying that the Church’s position on abortion is distorted, that it is “pro-fetus” rather than truly pro-life? Is she claiming that the right to life for the innocent unborn child is no more important than the rights of the hungry or prisoners or the mentally disabled? The right to life is the fundamental right. There are no other rights if you are dead. Further, there is a false dichotomy being claimed here, as if the rights of the unborn somehow conflict with the rights of those already born. An unborn child’s right to life might conflict with the wishes and convenience of those already born, but not with any rights they have. The very rare cases in which a pregnancy endangers the life of the mother are recognized and dealt with in Catholic doctrine.
And so it went. There was no topic raised by the interviewer for which Sister Pat could simply say, “Of course, we fully support the teaching of the Catholic Church.” Instead, everything needs more discussion, the sisters have a different perspective more in touch with the real world than other “elements in the Church” (like bishops, presumably), and the sisters have their own priorities, so don’t expect them to support (or even acknowledge) the bishops’ priorities.
Lurking in all this is what might be called an ecclesiological divide, a gap between what the Church understands and teaches about herself and what Sister Pat and her colleagues in the LCWR understand and act on. Here is how she put it:
“I think that the Church has been structured with all-male leadership, which I think has serious disadvantages, and that the Church has been structured with a hierarchical, unquestioned structure that has little mechanism for accountability.
“That’s so different from our reality within women’s congregations, because, for one thing, we elect all our own leaderships, and we have forever — in the history of women’s religious life — have experienced the leadership of strong women. Women have been leaders in our ministries. We’re a very educated group of women within the Catholic Church. We have women who are CEOs of hospitals, of hospital systems, who are presidents of colleges, principals of schools. So as women religious, our lifetime experience has been of expecting strong leadership from women; and that’s been our daily experience. So our experience of the leadership of women in the Church is our daily bread. It’s very different from that at the hierarchy [level].”
Apparently, Sister Pat thinks that the model for the Church should be a democratic discussion group, preferably led by women. What she describes may well be appropriate for some groups within the Church, but it cannot be the structure of the whole Church. The Church is not free to change the structure instituted by Christ, and that structure is hierarchical, with Christ as the head and bishops as the successors of the apostles. “He who hears you hears me.” “Whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.” No doubt there are problems and failings, but that is the structure we are given to receive the faith and work out the life of Christ in time.
This doesn’t mean that the sisters have nothing to say that the bishops need to hear. Like all laity, they have the right and even the duty to make representations to the bishops and to be heard respectfully. But the bishops also have the right to expect that clear teachings on matters of faith and morals will be fully accepted and supported, not continually questioned, contested or ignored. There is a duty of obedience owed by all Catholics to the legitimate exercise of teaching authority in the Church.
And speaking of obedience, how did Sister Pat describe her vow of obedience, always a hallmark of consecrated religious?
“Well, first of all, obedience to God. But the word ‘obedience’ comes from the Latin root meaning ‘to hear; to listen.’ And so, as I have come to understand that vow, what it means to me is that we listen to what God is calling us to in the signs of our times. We listen to the voice of God in legitimate Church authority, in the pain and the hopes and the aspirations of the people of our time. We listen to the voice of God in the depths of our own hearts and in our consciences, and that, all of that together, is what we listen to in trying to discern: What is God really calling me to? And it’s to that that I must be obedient.”
The interviewer then asked, “So, in your mind, the obedience isn’t directly to the Church hierarchy — it’s to God.”
Sister Pat: “It’s first to God. First to God.”
Well, at least she mentioned legitimate Church authority.
But it was quickly lost in the consideration of circumstances and personal perceptions, ending in a very subjective discernment of the will of God. To what, then, has Sister Pat vowed obedience? Why did she take a vow within a constituted religious community within the structure of the Church? What does she need all that for? She reminds me of someone who is said to have struggled with his conscience. It seems he always wins.
In the coming week, Fresh Air will interview Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, who led the study that resulted in the LCWR’s doctrinal assessment.
Donna F. Bethell is chairman of the board of directors of Christendom College.