The Prophecy of Sister Laurie

Many observers have a hard time believing that the LCWR really was “stunned,” as it has claimed, by the results of the CDF’s recent doctrinal assessment. In the past, after all, women religious leaders made no bones about mistrusting Rome. Claiming Our Truth, published by the LCWR in 1988, predicted: “fidelity to society and church may, at times, mean loyal dissent.” In 2000, regarding the Vatican’s censure of New Ways Ministries founder Sr. Jeannine Gramick, LCRW president Sr. Camille d’Arienzo wrote: “There are times when we question the significance of supporting a structure that is so foreign to our commitment to right relationships, to our expression of a living faith and to our desire for an inclusive Church.”

So it’s been clear for many years that the LCWR and the Vatican were not, as they say, on the same page, and just as clear that the women religious knew the Vatican didn’t like it. But here’s something observers may have missed: some LCWR leaders not only foresaw the end of religious life as they knew it, but accepted its passing philosophically.

Sister Laurie Brink, O.P. then LCWR president, titled her 2008 address to the conference “A Marginal Life: Pursuing Holiness in the 21st Century.” In her introduction, she acknowledges that women religious “have lost our prophetic place on the margins, having gravitated toward the middle of society and fallen off the edge of the Church.” In other words, sisters aren’t doing enough to help the disenfranschised, which is what they want to do. Nor are they praying the Liturgy of the Hours or adoring the Eucharist, as the Church wants them to do. On both counts, it’s a powerful self-indictment.

One thing Brink adamantly refuses to do is dictate a single, simple solution; citing the postmodern critique of objective Truth, she warns: “I do not hold the answer to the question of the future of Religious Life.” Instead, she outlines four solutions she’s observed firsthand. Yes, one involves “moving beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus.” As an example, she cites the Benedictine Sisters of Madison. a group that withdrew itself, with all canon-legal correctness, from the Catholic hierarchy’s jurisdiction, and now carries out its monastic mission independently.

But among realistic options, Brink also names “acquiescence to others’ expectations.” The “others” she has in mind include the Magisterium. She recognizes that “some [religious congregations] have attended to their reality and are making choices that a generation ago would have been anathema to their members.” That is, some orders are putting on the habit, praying the Rosary, and in general, observing the template for religious life as Pope John Paul II defined it. Brink is a good enough sport to concede that these orders “are flourishing.” “Young adults are finding in these communities a living image of their romantic view of Religious Life,” she says. “They are entering. And they are staying.”

To those critics who said, “You can either get in line or get out,” Brink answered, “Well, yeah. We can.”

On her blog, the lovely and talented Joanne McPortland refers to friends of hers who suggested that the apostolic orders represented by the LCRW be allowed to die off naturally, and quietly. Well, Sr. Laurie went there first. In her address, she speaks admiringly of communities that “have made valiant choices to die with dignity and grace.” Closing their rolls to new candidates, they “recognize that they have served the Church well, and now leave room for a new movement of the Spirit.”

It’s for the aging apostolic orders that can’t or won’t see their own obsolescence that Brink reserves her impatience. “What’s the age of your youngest vowed member?” Brink asks. “Do your congregational newsletters read like an AARP magazine?” With the addition of a few smirking asides about Isis-worship or lesbian orgies, these questions would look perfectly at home in the most raucous combox in the Catholic blogosphere. Rather than continue to ply a charism rooted in a vanished reality, Brink would prefer these “zombie orders” take a cue from their sisters and mourn it.

The last option Brink recommends involves “reconciliation for the sake of the mission.” Even while continuing to believe that the institutional Church has treated them “oppressively,” sisters can recognize that “we are ecclesial women,” and attempt to reconcile themselves to their oppressors. “This less traveled path,” she warns, “will require a congregation-wide commitment, an appropriate attitude of openness, a deep and continual prayer life, and formal training in theology, scripture, and ecclesiology as well as methods of peace-making and reconciliation.” In other words, by alternating flexibility with firmness, compromise with confrontation, women’s orders might be able to remain in the Church without renouncing their vision completely.

The publication of the CDF’s conclusions marked one of the many times since joining the Church that I’ve felt like a drummer boy at the Alamo. I began my catechesis at a parish informed by what some theologians and pundits like to call the Spirit of Vatican II. That is, I sensed, or maybe even perceived, a relative openness to the world in general, and a general tolerance for outliers on hot-button issues. For that reason, I feel a natural sympathy for the sisters represented by the LCWR. When the sisters came under fire, that sympathy turned to a protective filial loyalty. On average, these women are just slightly older than my mother. As I’ve written, it was partly my mother’s sister-like qualities — her love of simplicity, her commitment to service — that beckoned me toward the Church in the first place.

Barely two years after my baptism, my parish came under new management, and that new management brought with it a change of spirit. In short order, Catholic identity and culture war claimed priority. Like many parishioners, I found the new atmosphere inhospitable. Leaving the parish was easy enough, but every six months or so, like clockwork, something has happened to make me wonder whether I could remain anywhere in the Church. Sometimes it’s a vague sense of vocation that’s kept me inside; at others, it’s an awareness that Catholicism has enriched my life in ways nothing else could. Finally, I’ve always found people who change religions more regularly than cars to be silly, and I’d hate to number myself among them.

In the past, whenever the Church hierarchy has done something to afflict my intellect and will with the equivalent of acid reflux, I’ve tried to understand my reaction through Kubler and Ross’s five-stage model. First comes denial, followed by anger, then bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance. The problem is that depression tends to spill over into acceptance; verbalized, the cocktail sounds something like, “Well, the bastards won. What else is new? Bleagh.” That kind of sour passivity might keep me in the pews, but it pretty much kills my appetite for donuts afterward.

Whether or not the Vatican will leave much room for sisters to choose from among Sr. Laurie’s four paths, her presentation has certainly helped me see my own predicament in a new light. Since all of her recommendations — including that of fading away, like MacArthur said old soldiers do — involve a conscious commitment, each one entails and requires a certain amount of empowerment. (If anyone’s looking for radical feminism, well, thar she blows.) Accomodating new and unwelcome realities is something you do, not just something that happens to you through time and force of circumstances.

More than the women who attended Sr. Laurie’s presentation, private individuals like me enjoy the luxury of mixing and matching. Whether we elect to acquiesce to others’ expectations wholeheartedly, to reconcile ourselves to authority for the sake of the mission, or to take our show on the road, we can also mourn to our hearts’ content the Church we wanted, or the Church we thought we had. There’s no time limit for mourning; look how long tradition-minded Catholics sat shiva for the Latin Mass. If we can manage, without actually living in the past, to hold memories close enough to re-visit, we can remind ourselves that whatever is, may be right for the moment, but it’s not all there ever was.

Or, as the red-staters like to say, Forget, hell.

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