Toward a Balanced Assessment of the Recent CDF Kerfuffle

We’ve all heard about it by now: the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has done it again, issuing a hotly contested critique of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the United States.  Hopefully, we’ve all cooled down enough after the initial explosion to begin a more nuanced discussion of the matter (although my frequent frustrations with ecclesial polemics lead me to fear that this may be hoping for too much).  Nathan O’Halloran has given us a helpful starting point in his discussion of the role of prophecy and the interdependence of “charismatic” and “hierarchic” gifts within the church.  This reminds me of a recurring talking point of a professor of mine about the role of theologians as being on the cutting edge of the church’s thinking, with the role of the magisterium being to go slow and be the voice of caution.  As much as I appreciate this interplay as a large-scale paradigm for the development of church teaching, I have wondered how many Catholics – whether maverick theologians, magisterial authorities, or laypeople taking sides between them – are really seeing the big picture in this way.  With this latest bombshell, my suspicions of widespread short-sightedness are unfortunately proving true.

Case in point: the always amiable Jesuit James Martin, God bless him, tried to simply give his “sister friends” a needed morale boost by expressing his gratitude to Catholic sisters via Twitter and inviting others to do the same, with the idea “that people could show their gratitude for sisters, and read other messages of support, without being in any way negative. No need to be anti-Vatican or anti-bishop or anti-anything. Just pro-sister.”  The Huffington Post promptly missed the point, calling Martin’s expression of support a “Twitter drive” (changed from “campaign” at Martin’s request, although that word slips in at the end of the HuffPo story), and drawing a stark line in the sand (complete with predictably unnuanced good-guys-and-bad-guys language, including a conjecture about the motives of “the U.S. bishops and the Vatican” that, oddly, contains the unfounded suggestion that “the nuns” support abortion).  Reactionaries on the other side just as predictably rose to the occasion, raining vitriol on what was intended as a simple gesture of good will.

Before getting into my own evaluation of the “doctrinal assessment,” as it is officially named, let me first clarify that by “balanced” I do not mean “neutral.”  My intention is not to avoid evaluative judgments, or even to make them come out even on both sides.  I do, however, hope to make them in a way that does not merely add to the cacophony or even make it about “sides” in the first place.

Largely because it has been so polarizing, the reprimand was a mistake.  The CDF should have been more circumspect in anticipating how it would be perceived.  Putting the accuracy of the perceptions aside for a moment, by provoking a popular reaction that sees the U.S. nuns as being “under attack” by the Vatican, the CDF (along with every other element of church structure and leadership that it gets conflated with as the more hard-lined face of the Vatican) is simply making itself look bad, even indefensible.  This is not a wise move, either politically or, more important, pastorally, which makes it hard to escape the conclusion that the CDF is thinking neither of its own public image nor of pastoral concern for the faithful but is simply thinking ideologically.  Perhaps that goes with the territory as the doctrinal arm of church leadership, but on the other hand, pastoral and doctrinal concerns can’t be neatly dichotomized, which means the CDF can’t be completely absolved of its responsibility to consider the former.  It could at least put itself more clearly in perspective as complementary to the church’s other magisterial offices.

That said, the actual content of the document has sometimes been distorted in the ensuing reactions.  By the time I actually sat down to read it, I was bracing myself for a scathing condemnation, along the lines of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof‘s summary that “the Vatican accused the nuns of worrying too much about the poor and not enough about abortion and gay marriage.”  But the document was considerably less inflammatory than I had been led to expect, and nowhere in it did I see any criticism of a focus on caring for the poor.  On the contrary, it praises both the LCWR and women religious in general for their social justice work, though these commendations have gone basically unnoticed.  The accusation is of being “silent” on abortion and euthanasia, and of publicly dissenting from official church teachings on issues of sexuality and women’s ordination.  The uncomfortably authoritarian tone of this, and of the document as a whole, makes it easy for the praise to be missed in the sting of the critique.  Moreover, it reflects a certain naïveté regarding how authority is received.  Automatic assent can no longer be taken for granted (if indeed it ever could), and the CDF, along with the rest of the magisterium, needs to come to terms with this and find a way to voice its concerns such that they might actually be listened to.  Critiques such as this might perhaps be better received if they were better explained: for example, if there are concerns that public dissent on ordination and sexuality may jeopardize the ecumenical progress being made with the Eastern Orthodox churches, it would be better to say so rather than to simply say, “Don’t go against church teachings.”  My having to resort to a speculative example here further illustrates my point on the need to be honest about what the underlying concerns are.  Appealing to magisterial authority in and by itself can only backfire, further entrenching the self-appointed crusaders for the magisterium and alienating everyone else.

Whatever position we take on all this, we do well to take a Catholic long view and remember that on numerous occasions the church has been known to admit to previous mistakes.  (Even Kristof, after his carelessly misleading references to the CDF document’s source and content, recognizes this.)  If we can keep this in mind, then perhaps we can have faith that the church (laity and magisterium and whatever – nobody is off the hook here), under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, will continue to learn from its mistakes.  And perhaps we (laity and magisterium and whatever) can take a few lessons on pastoral and charitable approaches to ecclesial controversies from the Acts of the Apostles, which we’ve been hearing through the Easter season – so that, as in today’s reading, there may be “joy in the exhortation.”

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  • Melody

    “….if there are concerns that public dissent on ordination and sexuality may jeopardize the ecumenical progress being made with the Eastern Orthodox churches, it would be better to say so rather than to simply say, “Don’t go against church teachings.” My having to resort to a speculative example here further illustrates my point on the need to be honest about what the underlying concerns are.” I agree with you 100%. Thank you for presenting a balanced viewpoint, there are few enough of them on this subject.
    I read Kristoff’s colum; his viewpoint is a bit more understandable when one considers the background of where he is coming from. He is a Protestant, I believe of the Reformed tradition. He and his wife, Cheryl, are founders of the “Half the Sky” foundation, and he is the author of the book by the same name. The organization’s focus is education and empowerment of women, in areas of the world where women are not empowered. I read part of the book, couldn’t finish the whole thing; many if not most of the situations he described were very heartbreaking and depressing. Humanitarian efforts can only do so much against culturally entrenched mysogyny.
    Which brings me to another point. I don’t believe that the Church is mysogynistic. But when people try to insist that the Church doesn’t have a women problem; it’s not passing the “duck test”. The awkwardness of the CDF’s critique only underscores the quacking noise that many women are hearing.

  • Kurt

    Let’s see. In recent weeks, we have Bishop Lori and the other boys testifying on the right of bosses to decide about contraception in employee’s health care policies, the attack on American nuns and now the Catholic charges against the Girl Scouts.

    Setting aside for now the questions of the merit of the Church’s action on these three matters, what would a respectable and competent communications professional tell you about a male led organization raising these three issues in quick sequence?

    • Ronald King

      Well, Kurt, I don’t know if I am a competent communications expert but I did survive 30 plus years as a psychotherapist attempting to do no harm and was taught by many women and was fortunate to be in a position to receive advanced training in the field of interpersonal neurobiology. In brief, I can tell you that the development of empathy or lack of is critical in healthy human relatiohships and generally speaking empathy develops more readily within a brain which has a balanced influence from both hemispheres. This is achieved through a network of neurocircuitry called the corpus collosum. Women generally have a larger CC than men due to the influence of testosterone inhibiting the growth of this area once males reach puberty. This will then affect the development of the area known as the prefrontal cortex which is involved in planning and modulating emotions. What is generally known is that the amygdala-primitive area associated with emotional social learning and fight or flight response-is larger in men than in women and that along with delayed growth in the PFC and the smaller CC, will influence men to be more aggressive and defensive in positions of perceived threat. Also, with the males propensity to be more influenced by the left brain their focus will be more devoted to details of a situation rather than to a global assessment of consequences related to a particular problem.
      Empathy is the ability to put oneself in the other’s shoes and to have a compassionate understanding of the history of the other’s life. Without a fully developed empathic perception control becomes the method of problem-solving.
      I could also explain the influence of mirror neurons and the difference in neurochemistry along with social conditioning but I hope this makes sense and adds something.

  • Anne

    If the CDF doesn’t wish to appear misogynistic, it has failed miserably. This has definitely been many bad months for US bishops and women, beginning with the scolding of a female theologian, hitting a zenith with the fuss and continuing hostility of the USCCB over government-mandated insurance coverage of preventive health care for women, including contraceptives, and continuing with this general scolding of American nuns for not leading the opposition to abortion and women’s ordination. Oh, yes, and now, a to-do over the Girl Scouts for, presumably, contributing to the raising of young women to be as unsupportive of bishops and their positions as their female elders. Sigh.

    I don’t know that the CDF really cares. Neo-traditionalists have been pushing for years to get the Vatican to crack down on America’s religious orders, esp. women, and neo-traditionalists appear to be taking over both here and at the Vatican. As in centuries past, the more progressive and moderate churchmen seem to be simply shaking their heads and shutting up, at least on the episcopal level. But I can’t see how that can ultimately work the way it did in the past, given the revolution in communications of the past century. Vatican II happened for a reason, and no matter how much some in the Church wish both modernity and Vatican II had never happened, both did. As did the sexual abuse scandal that reflected so badly on the bishops themselves. Something’s got to give, and I doubt it will be women…in the end.

    • grega

      Bravo – you made my day – thank you for your wise words

    • Jimmy Mac

      Sometime in the 1970s this little ditty appeared in the National Catholic Reporter – and it seems to be as relevant today as back then:

      “Ladies, Ladies, soon you’ll agree
      This altar girl crumb from the Holy See
      Gives truth to the adage that you’ll always be,
      Rarely the dog, but most often the tree.”

  • Joshua B


    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I think it is an incredibly complex issue, and you navigated it well. As is often the case, the main issues have been overblown and distorted by the media and other respondents.

    I agree that pastorally speaking the CDF could have and should have done a better job on this. However, while I don’t have a great deal of knowledge of the LCWR or its workings, based on what I do know I suspect many if not all of the criticisms are accurate for a good percentage of the nuns implicated. In his most recent post on feminism, Nathan puts his finger on what I perceive to be the core of the problem on the nun’s side of things.

    That being said, while I, for one, have no problem asserting that in spite of all this, the Church is quite pro-woman, it is clear there are office holders and offices whose words and actions make refuting charges of sexism quite difficult. Culture change is slow, and must work remains to be done.

    I know for a fact that the presence of women in Vatican offices is growing. It needs to continue to grow. And, hopefully, by the time the next council rolls around, we’ll be ready to invite abbesses and other women to participate and make positive contributions.

  • Julia Smucker

    Melody and Joshua, I particularly appreciate the balance that you are adding to the discussion. One particular critique raised by the CDF that I think is a valid one, which I forgot to mention, is on the language of “moving beyond the Church” and/or “moving beyond Jesus.” Challenging and helping the Church to move beyond where it is may at times be called for, but this needs to be done from within, by speaking truth in love and listening to each other on all sides and at all levels. This takes a lot of patience, but it’s how the Church grows and develops.

    • Chris Sullivan

      I do think it is important to read Sr Laurie Brink OP’s comments about “moving beyond the church” / “moving beyond Jesus” in the full context of the address in which she gave them. Much of the concern about this appears to me to be considerably overstated.

      A good place to start would be

      It’s CommonWeal link is well worth following.

      And the address in full can be found at

      The talk was designed to promote small group discussion of the 4 options Sr Brink presents and she stopped at various points throughout to allow just that discussion to take place at the LCWR meeting.

      I think there is scope for a very helpful discussion between the Bishops/CDF and LCWR to come out of all this and both have something helpful to contribute, and much to be gained by listening to the other.

      God Bless

  • Julia Smucker

    Here is a Daughter of St. Paul who has said it better than me. Excellent analysis.

    • Kurt

      I’m looking forward to the LCWR letter on how well the male leaders of the Church handled the child abuse scandal.

      • Kimberley

        Kurt, Ah, the priests rape boys argument. This adds much to the discourse, Seriously if you hate Catholicism so much, why do you continuously troll a Catholic blog?

        • Kurt


          What the Church has suffered from is the proposition than raising the issue of child protection means one hates the Church.

        • Jimmy Mac

          Kimberley: what you fail to see is that the people who bring up this disgusting shameful part of the church’s recent past (and possibly present?) are those who actually do love the RCC a lot and are fully and justifiably ashamed of what has happened.

          Those who hate the church are those who refuse to or are unwilling to recognize the fragile humanity of what they would like to believe is something of a divine infusion into reality that denies reality.

      • Robert Lennon

        I’m looking forward to the LCWR letter on how well the female leaders of the LCWR handled the child abuse scandal.

        (Hint: They haven’t been doing too well.)