When you are in a position of leadership or authority, it is a great cross sometimes to know firsthand the actual facts of a situation and then have to listen to all the distortions and misrepresentation of the facts that are made in the public domain.
Having conducted the doctrinal assessment of the entity known as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), I can only marvel at what is now being said, both within and outside the Church, regarding the process
and the recent steps taken by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to remedy significant and longstanding doctrinal problems connected with the activities and programs of the LCWR.
The biggest distortion of all is the claim that the CDF and the bishops are attacking or criticizing the life and work of our Catholic sisters in the United States. One report on the CBS Evening News showcased the work of a Mercy Sister who is a medical doctor in order to compare her to the attack that she and sisters like her are supposedly being subjected to by authoritarian bishops. The report concludes with a statement that the bishops impose the rules of the Church but the sisters carry on the work of the Church.
Unless the sister in question is espousing and/or promoting positions contrary to Catholic teaching — and there was no reason given to think that she is — then the Holy See’s doctrinal concerns are not directed at her or at the thousands of religious sisters in our country like her to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude for all that they do in witness to the Gospel.
What the CDF is concerned about, as I indicated, is the particular organization known as the LCWR. Its function, responsibilities and statutes were all originally approved by the Holy See, to which it remains accountable. While it is true that the member communities of the LCWR represent most of the religious sisters in the United States, that does not mean that criticism of the LCWR is aimed at all the member religious communities, much less all sisters.
The word “investigation” is often used to describe the work that I carried out on behalf of the CDF. “Investigation” suggests an attempt to uncover things that might not be known. In reality, what the CDF commissioned was a doctrinal “assessment,” an appraisal of materials which are readily available to anyone who cares to read them on the LCWR website and in other LCWR published resources. The assessment was carried out in dialogue with the LCWR leadership, both in writing and face-to-face, over several months.
The fundamental question posed to the LCWR leadership as part of the assessment was simply this: What are the Church’s pastors to make of the fact that the LCWR constantly provides a one-sided platform — without challenge or any opposing view — to speakers who take a negative and critical position vis-a-vis Church doctrine and discipline and the Church’s teaching office?
Let me cite just a few of the causes for concern.
In her LCWR keynote address in 1997, Sister Sandra Schneiders, IHM, proposed that the decisive issue for women religious is the issue of faith: “It can no longer be taken for granted that the members [of a given congregation]
share the same faith.”
Ten years later, in an LCWR keynote speech, Sister Laurie Brink, OP, spoke of “four different general directions’ in which religious congregations seem to be moving.” She said that “not one of the four is better or worse than the others.” One of the directions described is “sojourning,” which she says “involves moving beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus. A sojourning congregation is no longer ecclesiastical. It has grown beyond the bounds of institutional religion.” This kind of congregation “in most respects is Post-Christian.” She concludes by characterizing as “a choice of integrity, insight and courage” the decision to “step outside the Church” already made by one group of women religious.
Father Michael H. Crosby, OFMCap, a keynote speaker at the joint LCWR-CMSM assembly in 2004, lamented the fact that “we still have to worship a God that the Vatican says ‘wills that women not be ordained.’ That god is
literally ‘unbelievable.’ It is a false god; it cannot be worshiped. And the prophet must speak truth to that power and be willing to accept the consequence of calling for justice, stopping the violence and bringing about
the reign of God.”
The LCWR’s Systems Thinking Handbook describes a hypothetical case in which sisters differ over whether the Eucharist should be at the center of a special community celebration. The problem is that some of the sisters object to “priest-led liturgies.” The scenario, it seems, is not simply fictitious, for some LCWR speakers also mention the difficulty of finding ways to worship together as a faith community. According to the Systems Thinking Handbook this difficulty is rooted in differences at the level of belief, but also different mental models — the “Western mind” and the “Organic mental model.” These, rather than Church doctrine, are offered as tools for the resolution of the case.
LCWR speakers also explore themes like global spirituality, the new cosmology, earth-justice and eco-feminism in ways that are frequently ambiguous, dubious or even erroneous with respect to Christian faith. And while the LCWR upholds Catholic social teaching in some areas, it is notably silent when it comes to two of the major moral challenges of our time: the right to life of the unborn, and the God-given meaning of marriage between one man and one woman.
Are these examples indicative of the thinking of all religious sisters in the United States whose communities are members of the LCWR? Certainly not.
Serious questions of faith undoubtedly arise among some women religious, as the LCWR maintains. However, is it the role of a pontifically recognized leadership group to criticize and undermine faith in Church teaching by what is said and unsaid, or rather to work to create greater understanding and acceptance of what the Church believes and teaches?
Those who do not hold the teachings of the Catholic Church, or Catholics who dissent from those teachings, are quick to attack the CDF and bishops for taking the LCWR to task. However, a person who holds the reasonable view
that a Catholic is someone who subscribes to the teachings of the Catholic Church will recognize that the Catholic Bishops have a legitimate cause for doctrinal concern about the activities of the LCWR, as evidenced by a number
of its speakers and some of its resource documents.
A key question posed by the doctrinal assessment had to do with moving forward in a positive way. Would the LCWR at least acknowledge the CDF’s doctrinal concerns and be willing to take steps to remedy the situation?
The response thus far is exemplified by the LCWR leadership’s choice of a New Age Futurist to address its 2012 assembly, and their decision to give an award this year to Sister Sandra Schneiders, who has expressed the view that the hierarchical structure of the Church represents an institutionalized form of patriarchal domination that cannot be reconciled with the Gospel.
This situation is now a source of controversy and misunderstanding, as well as misrepresentation. I am confident, however, that if the serious concerns of the CDF are accurately represented and discussed among all the sisters of
our country, there will indeed be an opening to a new and positive relationship between women religious and the Church’s pastors in doctrinal matters, as there already is in so many other areas where mutual respect and
Bishop Leonard Blair is the bishop of the Diocese of Toledo, Ohio. He, along with Springfield, Ill., Bishop Thomas Paprocki and Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain comprise the committee formed by the Holy See to undertake the doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. This June 8 column was reprinted with permission from Catholic Chronicle. The video version of the column may be viewed here.