17 April 2009

LCWR: prophets of futility & New Age gnosticism

Again, waiting for my bowl of coffee to kick in, I did a little browsing on the website of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). They have posted information about their annual assemblies, including the texts of the presidential addresses and keynote speeches.

I read through several of the keynote speeches, and I noticed a couple of themes (that's what we Old Lit Teachers do--look for themes). Here's just a few in no particular order:

1. "Mission": all of the addresses I read (four of them) exhort the sisters to mission. But never the mission of the Church that we would recognize as evangelization, that is, the preaching and teaching of the gospel that Christ gave to the apostles. The mission the sisters are exhorted to take up is always, always some form of left-liberal social engineering disguised as caring for Earth or insuring access to adequate health for women.

2). Insularity: despite the exhortations to "mission," all of the addresses I read include broad descriptions of the history of women religious as a way of "situating" the experience of these women within their own "mission," in other words, they spend a lot of page space on talking to one another about one another's grand innovations after the VC2 and how these innovations are radically different from anything that's come before. There's quite a bit of self-congratulation here, along with laundry lists of excuses why their missions have failed to produce global results. The villian in their failures, by the way, is always the hierarchy. Big surprise.

3). "Prophetic": as a corollary to their mission and insularity, the addresses harp on how "prophetic" women religious are in these innovations. As far as I can tell, "prophetic" means whatever they want it to mean. It clearly does not mean what the Church means by the term. If the examples used are typical, "prophetic" means something like "doing what we please and then accusing the Church of being too traditional, oppressive, and isolated from the world for not following our lead." Beware self-anointed prophets!

4). "We missed out": probably the most interesting theme is what I will call the We Missed Out theme. This theme arises in several discussions of the scientific and technological revolutions of the 20th century. Apparently, this theme is meant to demonstrate the superiority of a modernist worldview over and against a wholly Christian worldview. But what arises is a kind of lament that these women have somehow missed out on the revolutions and long to stir one of their own so as to feel somehow prophetic. I've found a similar theme in recent court opinions allowing same-sex "marriage"--judges too young to have participated in the heady days of near absolute judicial power during the civil rights era of the 60's invent a place for themselves in legal history by making what laws they can from the bench. We want to shine. . .but a light we ourselves generate.

5). Futility: without exception the addresses I read painted depressing portraits of women religious as a tiny rebel band fighting the Sheriff of Rome. As part of the insularity painted by these addresses is a tragic sense of loss and the futility of their "mission" in the face of overwhelming authoritarian oppression by men. Apparently, we are to believe that women religious in the U.S. are guerrilla-fighters engaged in a war of attrition against the Church. Unfortunately for them, the attrition is all on their side. Rhetorically, these portraits serve an important purpose: by painting themselves as righteous rebels fighting a losing battle agaist the Man, the sisters are able to both continue their rebellion and justify their material failures all the while claiming moral victory. Neat, uh?

6). Jesus ain't the Way: also without exception the addresses forthrightly deny Jesus' own claim that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. As a way of undermining the Church's legitimate mission of evangelization, Jesus becomes just another good guy with a really cool message of pacificism, egalitarian communal life, and a feminist concern for eco-politics. In one address, delivered by Joan Chittister, the arrival of mosques in historically Christian lands is celebrated as a great advance for liberty and the pursuit of religious diversity. She argues that worrying about the decline in numbers of women religious is a "capitalist question" and holds that the the decimation of covents and monasteries after VC2 is a good sign for the Church! Apparently, the complete loss of a discernible Christian identity among some women religious is to be celebrated as a movement of the Holy Spirit and a great advance in human-spiritual evolution.

7). Monotonality: the addresses are uniformly written and delivered by women religious who tell the gathered sisters only what they wanted to hear. There were no addresses that seriously challenged any of the preconceived notions held dear by these women. Without exception. the meme's of "We Are the Future and Our Agenda is of God" is heard in terms of ecclesial revolution and theological dissent. Not one address challenged the sisters to rethink their assumptions along orthodox lines. Not one address asserted a theme, idea, theology, or political notion that would upset or stir the secular feminist pot these women are stewing in. Despite the constant harping on the need for a variety of voices to be heard in the Church and the desperate need for new ideas among God's people, these addresses repeated in predictable loops one stale feminist cliche after another. Ironically, the obstinate refusal to listen to different voices is routinely described as a failing characteristic of the male-dominated Church hierarchy!

8). New Stories: as a result of the We Missed Out theme, the addresses pull on recent developments in cosmology to construct "new stories" about creation, space-time, human evolution, and the role of consciousness in our pursuit of holiness. Of course, none of these new stories read like anything found in scripture, tradition, science, or Church teaching. In fact, the purpose of the new stories is to lay a narrative foundation for a particularly gnostic-feminist view of the human person that "frees" us from the confines of patriarchal thinking by re-situating the human race as just another evolved species living and dying in a vast cosmos. Routinely, the addresses privilege "new cosmologies" over and against our biblical narratives of creation and the end of space-time, and undermine God's Self-revelation in scripture. Rhetorically, the new cosmologies give the sisters a means of defying our Judeo-Christian tradition with the authority of modernist science. Unfortunately, their grasp of the scientific details of cosmology is woefully inadequate, leaving them to play with a pathetic parody of actual cosmological theories.

Let me point out here that the LCWR is a leadership conference. By no means am I attributing these themes or attitudes to all women religious in the congregations that participate in the LCWR. I know sisters in LCWR congregations who fret about the feminist turn of their communities and lament the loss of their Christian identity to trendy New Age gnosticism. Younger women religious aren't buy this anti-Church junk food, choosing instead to nourish themselves on the vast variety of legit Catholic traditions well within the generous range of orthodoxy. My fisking here is directed at the addresses themselves and what they tell us about what the LCWR is hearing and/or wants to hear. As anyone who's a member of a large organization knows: leadership is often way, way out in front of those they lead. . .sometimes too far out. I think this is certainly the case with the LCWR.

I could go on. . .but it's time for another bowl of coffee!


  1. You drink your coffee from a bowl? ;)

  2. Alan,

    That's how I roll...


    Yes, in the traditional Italian fashion...cafe latte.

  3. Anonymous7:29 PM

    What is the solution? If they were (hypothesis) to listen favorably to the Church's directives, what would it look like, play out?

    Also Fr. Phillip, why do you think they turned this way after V2? Anything in these communities pre-V2 that led to this?
    Thanks for insightful (and funny I believe) commentary.


    PS: I am entering the community of the Nashville Dominicans this summer!! Excited!

  4. So is there some particular penance you took on that caused you to read these speeches?

  5. Jeff, my Lent was more luxurious than usual...so, I read LCWR keynote addresses...

    Olivia, I think a sincere reconciliation with the Church for most of the more out-there sisters would be very difficult. They could probably arrive at some sort of agreement to tone down the public rhetoric, etc. without resorting to canonical sanctions...but to see the more radical women in these congregations reconciled to an orthodox faith...I don't know. It would take some doing for no other reason than that those who have most alienated themselves from the Church have done so for not only theological reasons but emotional ones as well. For them the Church come to be an evil archetype, a mythological monster to resisted at all costs. The depth of animosity toward the Church amongg SOME of these sisters is astonishing.

  6. Olivia,

    You asked if there was anything pre-VC2 to cause this dissent...yes, I believe so: a Pelagian notion of obedience and spiritual practice, along with a Jansenist notion of the body/soul relationship. This deadly combo resulted in repeated violations of the individual conscience. When VC2 came along, the documents were hijacked by theological libertines who defined conscience in purely secular terms, rendering reference to objective Good moot. When given the chance, the younger sisters tossed authority altogether, embraced nascent feminism and left-liberal politics (quite Catholic at the time!), and then started the inevitable decline into worshiping Earth.

    That's my 100 word diagnosis!

  7. Anonymous12:56 AM

    Thanks for your analysis Father Phil. I will try and study on these concepts because I find it quite astonishing that they turned like that after V2. The stories of sisters leaving and throwing traditional practices out so quickly puzzles me. Maybe lack of formation on religious life too?
    It seems like theologians were listened to more than anyone else and would it be safe to say that relativism became pervasive in the Church at that time?
    Maybe you have some book recommendations to go in depth on what happened. I wish to know the roots of this because it has been devastating.


  8. Olivia,

    The only book I'm aware of that deals with the question of what caused the decline among women religious is Donna Streichen's "Unholy Rage." Overall a good intro to the problem, she is clearly not objective or scientific in her approach...however, she does provide some insight into how radical feminism caused much of the decimation of the orders in the 70's and 80's.

  9. Father,

    I am curious (although I think I should already know the answer, and perhaps do) is this a problem unique to American religious orders?

    On a side note, I have love for and devotion to St. Philip Neri as I am blessed to know the Pittsburgh Oratorians.

  10. Fr. Phillip,
    Vatican II called for religious orders to restore the original charism of their founder, ressourcement. (This seems to me to be the central message of V2 to the religious)

    How do progressive OP sisters approach this in regards to St.Dominic, who they seem to have nothing in common with? He was a man, an evangelist, an ascetic, a promoter of traditional piety, etc... If they reject "ressourcement", which it seems impossible for them not to, why do they speak so approvingly of Vatican II?

    I can understand progressive Franciscans saying that their founder's true original charism was ecology and Gaia worship, as questionable as that is, but St.Dominic seems to lack the eccentricity of his Italian contemporary.

  11. Anonymous1:40 PM

    Curtis, Take it from one who knows (but is afraid to be known): it is called prooftexting or eisigesis. The wayward and unhabited Dominican Sisters totally ignore St. Dominic's directives and fill in the blanks as they wish. For example, they often describe Dominicanism as movement for serving the poor. Ignoring St. Dominic's passion for defending orthodoxy against heretics, and paying no attention at all to his preoccupation with getting a house of the Order established in the city of Rome as soon as possible or to his drive to seek papal approval for the Order and remain at the heart of the Church at every step. Rather, they spent enormous time creating interpretations that they desire for one little incident in Dominic's life when in his youthful enthusiasm he sold his schoolbooks to aid the poor. As truly laudable as this was, this did not place a particular mark or character upon the Order for all time, but the O.P. Sisters insist this makes them out to be an Order explicitly dedicated to serving the poor. In point of fact, if any Order ever came into existence precisely NOT to have the privilege of serving the poor, it is the Dominicans. The Order of Preachers was distinctly founded for the university lecture hall, for the pulpit and for the intellectual work of the Church, which is not at all where the poor are usually found. So while their Franciscan cousins, later the Vincentian communities and still later groups like Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity have the very great privilege of working directly with the poor, the obedient Dominican Sister belongs in her classroom! That classroom, of course, can be situated in a neighborhood of any and every economic background, and there is great consolation for Sister, indeed, when her assignment might take her to an economically disadvanategd parish or neighborhood, but it has no bearing on the authenticity of her mission. So it is with these concerns of today that have nothing to do with the apostolic initiatives of the Church. They find another way to judge Holy Mother Church wanting in her assessment of the best ways to serve suffering humanity today and create parallel initiatives that rarely reflect back on the Church as the source, teacher or moderator of their various activities.

  12. We want to shine. . .but a light we ourselves generate.

    isn't that the heresy that you illustrated with that pic of the lightbulb plugging itself in???

  13. Mom,

    Yes, this is basically gnosticism.

  14. Fr,
    Isn't the lightbulb thing more like pelagianism, salvation apart from grace?

    Gnosticism would mean they claim to possess some secret knowledge or power. I think if they were really gnostics, it would seem they would be more successful at attracting new members, like Scientology.

    On the other hand, the notion of transcending God is a bit gnostic, since it supposes God, Jesus and the Church to belong to the lower strata of symbology, which can be surpassed by those with special knowledge. How worrying!

  15. Curtis,

    I would say that Pelagianism is a moral form of Gnosticism. G. is a broader and more complex heresy than Pelagianism.

  16. Father,
    On another note, do you think the Apostolic Visitation will accomplish anything positive? There is such entrenched resistance to it already.

    These matters always seem set up to fail. It's like using a hammer to change the direction of the wind.

  17. Curtis,

    There will be no immediate change in the LCWR. The Church moves very, very slowly...except when it doesn't.

    My best guess is that the LCWR will tone down the public rhetoric for now and wait for a new pope.

    It is somewhat morbid to note, but...given the number and average age of the LCWR sisters, there's not a lot of time for them to change. Eventually, the CMSWR (see side link) will assume the leadership of women religious in the US. It's just a matter of time. I think the Vatican would love to see the CMSWR as the major conference for women religious but past attempts to meld it with the LCWR have failed.

  18. Father,
    Ah yes, the Darwinian solution. Or perhaps a case of cunctando regitur mundus.

    Their rebuttal to that, from what I've read, is that the CMSWR receive the support of the Church leadership, because of their obedience and fidelity, so naturally, the hierarchy returns the favour by sending all the recruits their way. And also, the women who enter traditional religious life are nostalgic, romantic, immature and unstable - "Stockholm Syndrome" sufferers who attach themselves to their oppressors - who could not make it in the brave new world, anyways. Very clever, really.

  19. Anonymous12:37 AM

    Are you sure the monotonality is not due to your system being mono instead of stereo?

  20. Anonymous12:43 AM

    Re last comment from Curtis: The LCWR-type nuns think that "...the women who enter traditional religious life are nostalgic, romantic, immature and unstable..." Amazing! The young women of the JP2 generation who are currently entering the classical religious communities, were born decades after the dismantling changes of America's convents. How can these post-Catholic Sisters claim these young women are being nostaligic for something they never knew in the first place. I am sixty, and I AM NOSTALGIC for those days, but I come by my nostalgia honestly; I was formed back then! What other faults can these post-Catholics imagine for today's young Sisters in veils and habits?

  21. Anon.,

    "Nostalgia" is defined as " a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition." No doubt the LCWR type sisters want the so-called "pre-Vatican Two" Church to be "irrecoverable." But I would argue that there is nothing sentimental about my own desire to see the Church return to a more solemn, more traditional sense of transcendence.

    The nostalgia charge against younger religious and priests is a red herring. By claiming that a desire for solemnity and seriousness is nostalgic, the progs hope to poison the orthodox well with a fear of the irrational. As you point out, this rarely works b/c to be truly nostalgic one must have experienced what one is nostalgic for. I was born in 1964 and didn't become Catholic until 1996...I have no memory of the "pre-VC2 Church" to mourn or yearn to return to.

    It's a stale and shameful poke at a serious expression of the faith.

  22. In fairness to the LCWR, the keynote speaker said this about the nostalgia bit:

    "Some would critique that they are the nostalgic portrait of a time now passed.... But they are not simply returning to a life before Vatican II, though outwardly it may appear to be so. They are retrieving structures, symbols and rituals that may have been discarded during renewal, because they feel that these will enable them to live their charism more faithfully in the 21st century."

    Which, I think, is quite charitable.

  23. Anonymous2:29 PM

    I posted this entry on another blog and presume it's all right to post it on a secong blog since I wrote it and I think the readership is different, isn't it?

    I believe it is unrealistic to think that anything short of direct Divine intervention can bring the "movement" of the liberal-minded Sisters back to the heart of Holy Mother Church. They are gone; they have said "non serviam" and that's that. Period.

    Having said that, I believe the Vatican Visitation as well as the CDF investigation into the LCWR will serve at least four very significant purposes. 1) These Vatican initiatives provide some sort of encouragement and protection, even if merely moral and not concrete in any way, for the faithful, holy and truly Catholic Sisters hidden in the ranks of these post-Catholic convents. The faithful Religious - especially thr elderly - trapped in heterodox congregations and Orders was always a concern of Pope John Paul the Great. Most faihtful nuns have quietly survived - without complaining and perhaps without really knowing what was going on, at least at first - as their communities drifted from the Church. We must remember that for a Sister, her very livelihood, access to health care, food, clothing, housing, her social network, her very home, all rely on remaining in her community today. She has nowhere else to go. The traditional Orders of nuns have no room for retired old Sisters from other groups, her parents are most likely deceased, etc. etc. At least these Vatican initiatives tell her the Church is aware of her and loves her for her fidelity. In reality, that's too little too late, but it is what it is.

    2) These initiatives put the regular Catholic-in-the-pew on the alert. Although the removal of the habit may have warned some of us, many of us would never have thought to question the wisdom or veracity behind anything served up by the nuns. The concern of the Vatican showing through these two projects alerts all of us to the possibility of heterodoxy among the secularized Sisters and thus begins to put some limits on the amount of damage these post-Catholic nuns can do to the faith of the faithful. Prior to this, one would be regarded as neanderthal to question anything the Sisters did or said. Now we realize the leftist ones (most American Sisters) made many, many mistakes, some of which probably can never be corrected.

    3) It informs today's young women, unambiguously, of the Church's negative regard for some of these practices and the Congregations engaging in those practices, thereby compromising the ability of these communities ro recruit new members from this JP2 generation. This is importasnt because when un-suspecting women join those change-oriented congregations and are not critical of their formation programs, they slowly become adherenets to the post-Catholic religion of these convents. Crippling their vocation efforts hastens the natural end to these harmful communities of so-called Sisters.

    4) Religious order men, priests and brothers, tend to see themselves as needing always to "catch up" with the Sisters, who have been quicker in the last 40 years to assimilate change. Whatever the Sisters have done (e.g. secular clothing, new age religion, preoccupation with peace and justice as the only authentic form for Christian spirituality; distaste for Catholic devotions, etc., etc.), the men have followed soon afterwards. Perhaps this time, the men will come to a halt, look at where the Sisters are leading them and say, "We don't want to go there." After all, the recent seminary investigation revealed that American religious men provide less orthodox training for their young men than the dioceses do in their seminaries, and so they need to start behaving better.

    I believe these two Vatican initiatives will serve the Church well in these four ways, at the very least, and probably in more ways that I have not yet envisioned.

  24. Anonymous7:51 PM

    Philip - your arrogance is offensive. Are you still under the influence of the Inquisition Dominicans?

  25. Anon.,

    You ask me: "Are you still under the influence of the Inquisition Dominicans?"

    Yes. Feel better?

    Thank you for proving my point in #5.

  26. Anonymous2:45 PM

    I don't exactly understand Anon's pojnt (two comments above) but I do understand this: we are fighting for the vitality of Holy Mother Church in the United States and so there is no room for politically-correct courtesy or any other form of weak courtesy when it comes to discussing these issues. Whereas the Church was earlier persecuted by Communists, French Revolutionaries; the Kulturkampf and any number of other godless initiatives, this time time Church is being attacked by people inside it, in my op-inion, always of the LCWR-type. Be courteous, yes; be honest, always. And by all means, dissuade young women from thinking about joining change-oriented orders.

  27. Anonymous1:01 PM

    A relevant quote that I felt would enhance this conversation, from your neighbor on the other side of the Priory.

    "Indeed, as far as Christians are concerned, the mysticism of
    other religions, though infinitely moving and venerable, can only
    stammer. Christ alone is the unique Word, and through the
    merits of his incarnation and redemption the believer lays hold
    on all the treasures for which non-Christians grope in the dark."
    Master Eckhart and the Rhineland Mystics
    Book by Jeanne Ancelet-Hustache, Hilda Graef; Harper Torchbooks, 1957