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

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Esther

    Speaking of sentimentalism…

    It’s unfortunate that you have fallen into the trap laid out by LCWR and its defenders like Martin, in which “The Vatican” is judging *all* women religious, whose contributions must now be defended.

    Of course, this simply isn’t the case, and it is quite unfortunate that you won’t bring your analytical skills to bear on this point.

    The problems are with the leadership of one organization of *American* religious women. Not with the Sisters of Life. Or the Nashville Dominicans. Or the Missionaries of Charity. Or religious women in , say, Uganda, the Philippines or Mexico.

    It would be most helpful if you, of all people, could keep that straight and help keep the discussion on point.

  • Joanne K McPortland

    Oh dear heaven. This is as unsentimental as it gets, Esther, and falls into no traps whatsoever. Please read. Elizabeth makes very clear that the CDF’s directive is addressed to the LCWR—one leadership organization representing some American communities of religious women—but the flap, the opera (and I know, because I have been part of the chorus until clearer heads helped me off the stage) has drawn in spear-carriers from everywhere, condemning or praising all sisters of one faction or another with a broad brush, and slipping right over the edge into girls rule, boys drool, or vice versa. With this post and her commentary in today’s WSJ, Elizabeth has kept the facts straighter and the discussion more on point than anyone else this week. But clear heads don’t make for good opera, so if you want to order your season tickets for Agita Furiosa you’ll have to turn to another box office.

  • Sr. Mary Kay McDonald

    Dear Ms. Scalia,
    Unfortunately, I am writing a week too late. I wanted to write you last week to point out some facts. Perhaps by now others have written you. The Apostolic Visitation is unrelated to the Doctrinal Investigation. Cardinal Franc Rodé, C.M., Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, in a December 22, 2008 decree, initiated the Visitation of apostolic institutes of women religious in the United States and appointed Mother Clare Millea, A.S.C.J., Superior General of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to serve as the Apostolic Visitator.
    The decision of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to undertake a
    doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) was
    communicated to the LCWR Presidency during their meeting with Cardinal William Levada
    in Rome on April 8, 2008. So you can see the decision for the Doctrinal Assessment predates the decision for the Apostolic Visitation. Also, Sr. Laurie Brink was never president of the LCWR. As a young religious since 1998 she has been trying to bring to the attention leaders of womens’ relgious communities, particularly those in the LCWR the reality of religious life in their congregations. I personally believe that she was very troubled by this reality. I hope this information is a help.
    If there is any way I can help to clarify some of this information I’ll be most happy to do so.
    If you publish this comment please don’t use my name.
    Thank you.
    Sr. Mary Kay

    [Sr. Mary Kay, thanks for the clarification (and no, I have not been contacted by anyone since last week -- as closely as I have been following the story I must have missed some of the details on beginnings, and I can only claim honest confusion, there). I think I was not alone in believing that Sr. Laurie was president of the LCWR at that time and will make that correction. I too took Sr. Laurie's remarks as being troubled the four resolutions she laid out. Thanks -admin]

  • terry nelson

    “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.”

    And that is THE point – I’m happy you pointed it out so well. Thanks.

  • Marilyn H

    The one refrain that seems to be required before commenting on the LCWR brouhaha is that “the sisters have done such good work in the past.” While that is true for many sisters, it is not true for all of them. I do feel a little queasy saying that, but only because it puts me outside of the acceptable “good sisters – bad organization” meme.

    Growing up on Long Island in the 60′s and ’70s, I went to CCD led by Dominican sisters. My siblings and I were fed pure pap about Jesus being a good guy and our friend. We had no clue about the Real Presence, never heard about adoration of the Blessed Sacrament or praying a Rosary. We were all told we were great and would be happy in heaven one day without having to go to confession.

    While I can’t blame this all on the sisters, the priests were in on it, too, I can say that I didn’t experience a lot of the courage, hard work and self sacrifice that seems to be a required acknowledgment of the sisterhood back then. I have spent a good part of my adult life trying to get over some of the bitterness that I have for malformed catechesis. My mother was Protestant. My father sweated out a blue collar job to take care of all of us. They brought us to CCD thinking we would be learning the faith. Wrong! Again, I can’t blame it all on the sisters, but I am getting a little tired of all the apologia and kudos that seem to be required before even hinting at the malfeasance and borderline heresy perpetrated by the LCWR and some of its members.
    Thank the sisters? I can’t right now. I know I should be more charitable…I’m working on it.

  • Bill M.

    Operatic, yes. And then there’s Sally Quinn’s analysis of the situation, which makes the Sunday funnies look Shakespearean.

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  • HermitofBardstown

    It should have come through the Congregation for Religious. I see power plays in Rome.

    [You see no doctrinal relevance? -admin]

  • Jane Hartman

    Sniping and squabbling – isn’t that an understatement. As a disenfranchised former Anglican coming into Catholicland only 5 years ago, I’m disheartened and shocked at how awful Catholics are to one another. I’m at the point where I’m almost ready to disenfranchise myself with the One True Catholic and Apostolic because they treat each other like dirt. All you cradle and long term Catholics out there who want more liberal teaching and women religious who want feminist agendas – stop it. Get in line with the pope, shut up or get out. You’re making your new converts sick.

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  • Joseph Moore

    I must largely recuse myself from this discussion,at least for now, because of something I explain on my blog – that one of my older sisters was a Sister, and so I had a front-row seat to the whole self-imposed dissolution that afflicted a number of orders. I can’t count on being completely rational here.

    However, I’ll chime in on the dishonesty or maybe just laziness of trying to paint the Church’s current efforts to correct or guide or whatever the right word is one small group of American sisters as some sort of general attack on women everywhere. And it’s not even so much about their views as about voicing their views within the context of an official Church organization – one of the chief points missed by critics is that the Church has very different responsibilities regarding what I, or any other private person and member of the Church might say on our own behalf, and what an organization with a certain canonical status says.

    Throw in the slooooow and clunky way the hierarchy tends to do these sorts of things and the 10-second or less attention span presumed by the news, and, well, even apart from any malice, any efforts by the Church to say anything less than flattering about any group of women is going to come off poorly.

  • Sister Mary Margaret

    This is my favorite quote, thus far:

    The pope said the nuns were dabbling in “radical feminist themes,” and sent Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain after them like some kind of flying monkey to investigate what sort of Yellow Brick Road they were following.

    [The Seattle writer, yes. Eye-rollingly over the top -admin]

  • Todd Flowerday

    “our age needs their unity”

    Indeed. It needs a whole set of lowered voices and calmed tempers for unity to have a prayer of taking hold. Too much glee from the Temple Police. They get the dunce caps of the week, for my view.

  • daisy

    The sisters did good work in the past but so what? That was long, long past. I grew up in the 80s and it wasn’t until I was grown that I really learned about my faith. They messed up a lot of kids and deserve a far more critcism than what they got.

  • Manny

    George Weigle is right on. The absolutely best assessment I’ve read so far. As I reflect on some of the opinion pieces out there, as I reflect on that NPR discussion, as I reflect on the PBS interview, as I reflect on the one pro-abortion nun that I know, I move further and further into the position that the LCWR must be radically reoriented or completely disbanded. This is an organization that has gone rogue, evolved to something that does not reflect Catholic teaching, and is incompatible with the Church. To be even handed in criticizing LCWR is to project a sense of credibility to their efforts. I don’t care that they have done good work. Many, many, many Catholic organizations have done good works, and if they are gone many, many, many Catholic organizations will continue to do good works. What distinguishes the LCWR is their radical feminism. Contemporary, radical feminism is incompatible with the Magisterium. We shouldn’t beat around the bush.

  • Mark Greta

    In our long walk with the Catholic Church starting in a Catholic school during WWII, I have had the pleasure of dealing with a whole lot of nuns. My dad worked in a all girl parochial high school as the janitor custodian and all around fix everything guy under the nuns which also included their convent. The nuns in that convent also taught the nearby next door Catholic elementary school. I had the nuns during the day and after school went over to dad to stay with him until he got off work often going from room to room doing chores such as emptying the waste bins. I had nuns around me all day and they were some very powerful women. My grandmother worked in this same environment as the school nurse and none were more powerful than grandma. They contributed a lot. Growing up in business, I worked with nuns providing products and services to hospitals often led by Catholic nuns. But these nuns were nothing like those that followed. They would have been appalled by many of the nuns today and frankly would have been on the side of the Vatican only calling for action about 20 years ago or more. So the whining about all the good they have done has nothing to do with those who did all the work and built all the wonderful organizations. These nuns have been not only riding on the habits of those who came before, but have abandoned the habits, abandoned the teaching of the Church, and have been many times in your face open dissenters from the Catholic Church. It would be good to put 90% of them away in a cloistered convent so they might have the opportunity to find God once again rather than do their dance of the seven veils on the wide highway leading fools who follow them away from God.

    All I can say is that as usual, the Church takes way too long to act and when they do, they do not act decisively. This has been years long investigation and they are now assigning someone to keep up the battle. Seems like at least some of the old girls preaching for women priests and not supporting church teaching should be shown the door. Many have bashed the Bishops for not acting faster in the abuse scandal and for allowing accused priest to remain. The abuse to Catholic teaching and leading some away from the Church and thus away from Christ that could have eternal life consequences is abuse of a high order as well. Father Z had it right and so did George Weigel. Now we have Bishops assigned the task of trying to work around the problem and they will be under the full bore attack of the left and the media in trying to work around with tweezers what needed intensive surgery with a scalpel.

  • Manny

    @Mark Greta

    You are absolutely right in that last paragraph.

  • Andy s

    I think the other meme popping up here and elsewhere that I can’t buy into is in regard to the Vatican’s slowness to act. I don’t believe the Church hierarchy has ever acted swiftly in regard to major issues like this, and rightfully so. If it was me…I would have excommunicated every LCWR sister long ago. Mercifully, that’s why God called me to a simple and rewarding life as husband and father. The heavy lifting for issues like this finds its way into the right hands by God’s providence. Thank God for the slow and deliberate processes of the Vatican. We don’t want to be like these Mars Hill Church self-appointed demi-gods that cut loose and shun people at the first sign of disagreement or perceived threat to the leadership.

  • Dan C

    George Weigel is a flame-thrower who has become an embarassment. Linking to him is linking to a man who is paid by conservatives to co-opt Catholic narratives.

    [Funny, and when I link to Michael Sean Winters I get exactly the same sort of comments, only about Democrats and liberals. You know what I say? Everyone is welcome to run screaming from this site, hands over ears to the safety of their echo chambers and their intellectual ghettos. I'll link to whom I please. -admin]

  • Sister Terese Peter, OSB

    The LCWR and sisters’ congregations associated with it, I have to say that they just don’t get it. I have first-hand experience with both LCWR and various congregations of women religious. With the exception of a few, almost all of them have lost the Faith. They are into paganism, blatant homosexuality, secular humanism, and anti-Church. I don’t know how they got to this place. I don’t understand why they can’t see the reason that they are literally dying out. It is a terrible sadness. But, the fact remains that communities which retain the essentials of religious life (community life, Divine Office, wearing a habit, and living the vows) are flourishing.

  • Mark Greta

    Dan C, what does it mean to “co-opt Catholic narratives?” Is this some language one uses when the actual words do not fit like those who spoke of the “spirit of vatican II” when the words did not fit their desired result? I note there was not attack that he had distorted authentic Catholic teaching, but “narratives.” strange phrase.

    If I have a problem with someone on Catholic issues, it is not with some sort of narrative, but with someone who will not accept Magesteriam teaching or who wants to try to argue that a teaching where we have the need and authroity to hear the church view, but we are given the full right in Church law to form our own view is in any way the same as those that have been taught as being non negotiable. It is like saying a minor white lie is equal to a grave moral sin. But I suppose it depends on the meaning of the word “is” or the narrative of the person.

    Weigel has done some excellent work on the Catholic Church and its leadership and I now of no where that he has distorted authentic teaching in any way. That is sadly not true of many on the liberal end who still debate women priests or the authority of the Pope as outlined in solid Catholic teaching. Many have the same issue with the actual wording of the Constitution. They want it to be a narrative than can be changed at will with a new narrative rather than the hard work of getting an amendment to the constitution as outlined.