LCWR and Rome: the Opera of Catholicism – UPDATED

Recently, while watching some Catholic sniping and squabbling amid these internet comboxes wherein I dwell and make my living, I noted a particularly dramatic note of victimhood being voiced in one channel and fervent, mustachio-twirling glee emanating from another, and I suddenly realized why opera is an art-form created and first-sustained in Catholic cultures. We do love our arias and our grand, sweeping themes.

The issue I had been monitoring was the sort of simple doctrinal rumpus that has become so depressingly common to Catholic engagement online, but like backstage tra-la’s, it was a fine warm-up for the sustained noise that crescendoed last week, when — as the preferred but sentimentalized and intellectually lazy narrative goes — some bubble-wrapped Vaticanistas went bullying on humble women religious who they perceived as being uppity. Depending on the agenda of the narrative-spinners — some of whom seem not to have even bothered reading the brief assessment (pdf) before commencing their seethe — the villainous Romans were either seeking vengeance on the women for their support of the Affordable Care Act, demonstrating fear of unconstrained ministry, expressing the church’s historic disdain for women, or all of the above.

As with most media narratives, particularly when they concern the Catholic church, if one deletes half the verbs and all the adjectives, one begins to approach reality, which is this: narrative spin is purposely disorienting. In an institutional church, correctives happen, and with the Roman church, they happen slowly and often clumsily.

An examination of the Leadership Conference of Religious Women (LCRW) was ordered well before the present administration came to power; even before that, in 2007, the Conferences then-president, Sister Laurie Brink, OP — in a thoughtful, prophetic and intelligent presentation — acknowledged that many sisters had long-since grown begun to walk unevenly with Rome, and that some had moved “beyond the church, even beyond Jesus” into a post-Christian mindset that might end in a departure from the church.

As Max Lindenman writes:

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.”

The doctrinal assessment worries* that post-Christian mindsets too often “go unchallenged” by the LCRW leadership — that the leadership, in other words, is falling down on the job of bringing Christian witness to its own sojourning members — and that while Brink’s work provides “a phenomenological snapshot of religious life today . . . pastors should also see in it a cry for help.”

Undoubtedly, that last bit might rub many the wrong way, but concern and condescension are not the same things and to assume misogyny here is to willfully neglect the pastoral tone that permeates the entire assessment; it is to allow no benefit of a doubt, which is where mercy resides.

It is significant that this correction is coming not from the Congregation for Religious (at whose behest the LCWR was founded in 1956) as might logically be assumed, but from the CDF, whose concern is doctrine, doctrine, doctrine. Whether these sisters are habited or not is not Rome’s concern; whether some of them are still on the same page as their Catholic brothers and sisters on essentials like the Creed, the Eucharist, and liturgical prayer — and others are fully comprehending so-called “life” issues as being part of our commitment to social justice and human dignity — is what has Rome concerned.

Father James Martin is right to promote expressions of gratitude to the Catholic sisters who were often the bricklayers putting Catholic social thought into action. The historic contributions of Catholic women in apostolic orders, to the church, and the world, are obvious, and rightly lauded by people of sense. Seeing need, they addressed it, pragmatically, selflessly and often with little more to build on than a blessing and a five dollar banknote.

Less obvious to many is the consideration that throughout centuries of oppression, wherein women enjoyed few freedoms, Catholic bishops respected these women and their callings enough to give them their heads, encouraging them to build schools and hospitals, and to shelter and feed the poor — all according to their own lights, and with an unusual-for-the-times autonomy. The assurance and regard demonstrated by hierarchs for these women belies the reflexive charges of institutional sexism that too-often expose an unwillingness to assume good faith.

Recalling the power and witness of their past collaborations, then, one hopes an assumption of good faith can prevail between the LCWR and the Vatican to which they, like many other religious entities, both male and female, are bound to answer; our age needs their unity, and perhaps that may be formed in mutual gratitude. The sisters deserve great thanks for all they have given to the church and her people, but the mean old men deserve some recognition, too, for saying “be all you can be” through centuries in which the world thought women couldn’t be anything; for declaring an Elizabeth Ann Seton as holy and theologically profound as a John Bosco.

Together these churchwomen and churchmen have, in fact, performed a duet of lasting beauty. Could a simple acknowledgement of that fact create an opening for renewal? For Christians, nothing alive in Christ is irretrievably broken.

The corrections prescribed to the LCWR are few, and in fact would not be extraordinary to the life of any committed Catholic layperson: they include liturgical prayer; Eucharist devotion and focus; the rejection putting away of “other” minds and ideas in closer conformity to Christ’s, and most challengingly, obedience to primary understandings — our shared stumbling-block since Eden. Even Jesus struggled with it once.

Complexities abound; it is impossible to predict how all of this will play out. It is another act in a long opera, for which the Holy Spirit is a creative, often confounding conductor.

*Edited for clarity

UPDATE: Joanne McPortland says “Stop killing da wabbit!” in piece that had me laughing out loud . . . until it broke my heart.

Related Stories:
Get Religion: Vatican Picks a Side in Nun Wars?
George Weigel: The Vatican and the Sisters
Why Shouldn’t It?: LCWR’s Annual Assembly Will Go Forward
Fr. Philip Powell: 8 Themes of the LCWR worldview
NPR: An excellent interview with John Allen, Sr. Simone Campbell and Donna Bethell
Kathy Schiffer: How Esalen training affected religious life
Joanne McPortland: Fleeing Babylon: The Old Order Changeth
Mother Mary Assumpta Long: On the integrity of Religious Life
Illustions of Equality

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About Elizabeth Scalia