19 August 2009

The red-herrings of the LCWR

Meeting recently in New Orleans, the LCWR issued a statement on the upcoming theological assessment by the CDF. Among the predictable "pearl clutching" exclamations of indignation are two charges against the Vatican's probe that are meant to serve as red herrings. Both these charges are made under the general charge of "lack of transparency":

1). Why can't we see the report itself?

2). Who's paying for this investigation?

The first charge sets up an ominous specter of secretive Vatican-doings. You can almost hear the dark, foreboding music in the background as the sisters furrow their collective brow. The second charge plants the idea that the investigation is being bankrolled by some nefarious right-wing group, implying that the investigation would not be taking place if this group had not paid the Vatican to do it.

Why are these charges red-herrings? How do they attempt to distract readers? The LCWR is either teaching with the Catholic Church, or it isn't. They are either leading their associated nuns and sisters in the apostolic faith, or they aren't. The investigation is set to determine whether or not these women religious--vowed to serve the Church--are, in fact, serving the Church honestly or using their vast resources and influence to undermine the Catholic faith. Having access to the reports will not change nearly forty-years of public statements supporting women's ordination, same-sex marriage, feminist political ideology, etc. Knowing who (if anyone) is paying for the investigation will not change these public statements either. Basically, these charges by the LCWR are analogous to a reckless driver charging the police officer who stops him with reckless driving himself. How else did you catch me, Officer? You must have been speeding too! The officer's speeding in no way mitigates the recklessness of the indignate driver.

Here's what the LCWR is really afraid of:

From the Instrumentum Laboris (this is not the CDF document but the working instrument for the assessment of the quality of life for the sisters, a separate investigation: "If any sister wishes to express her opinion about some aspect of her religious institute, she may do so freely and briefly, in writing and with signature, specifically identifying her institute by title and location. In order to respect each sister’s freedom of conscience, any sister may send her written comments directly and confidentially to Mother Mary Clare Millea at the Apostolic Visitation Office (PO Box 4328, Hamden, CT, 06514); or by fax: (203-287-5467) by November 1, 2009."

Why is this scary? The LCWR knows what many of us know about the "sisters in the convents." They do not support the neo-pagan/eco-feminist agenda of their leadership conference, but often find themselves intimidated into silence. By allowing individual sisters to write to Mother Clare (the lead investigator for this assessment), the Vatican is encouraging sisters to express themselves outside the tightly controlled, ideologically pure agenda of the LCWR. In other words, this move undermines the power of the LCWR to manage the message. The last thing the leadership of any self-proclaimed revolutionary movement wants is public criticism from those they claim to represent. How often do "people's revolutions" end up in the hands of elitist demagogues?

My own experience with nuns and sisters with regard to both assessments is telling. I've yet to run across a "sister in the convent" who understands the reasons for these assessments. When I describe the stated reasons, they are often shocked and saddened to hear what the LCWR has been spewing against the Church in their name. All they hear about the assessments comes from the LCWR.

It it vitally important for Catholics to understand that the CDF's theological assessement of the LCWR is NOT an investigation into the theological opinions of individual sisters or congregations. The leadership conference itself is being assessed; that is, the focus of the assessement is on the public statements of conference speakers, conference resolutions, and projects funded by the conference to determine whether or not these adhere to basic Church teaching. In its forty-year history, the LCWR has publicly supported women's ordination; overturning the Church's teaching on same-sex morality; and seriously questioned the unique and final role of Christ in salvation history (i.e., Christ may not be the only way to God, leading some to hold that other religions can lead to salvation on their own terms). These three areas of dissent have been marked for special attention by the CDF.

This bears repeating: any negative conclusion made by the CDF with regard to its investigation accures to the LCWR itself. . .NOT to individual sisters or congregations; meaning, if the CDF concludes that the LCWR has been deficient in teaching the Catholic faith, this should not be understood as a condemnation of any one sister or congregation. Investigations into the work of individual theologians is an entirely different process that sometimes takes up to ten years or more.

I am being so adamant about this distinction b/c I fear that faithful Catholics may conclude that a negative evaluation of the LCWR by the CDF means that all (or even most) American religious women are involved in dissident activity. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am confident that the overwhelming majority of our sisters are doing exactly what they vowed to do: serve the Church. The "non serviam" that the LCWR often proclaims to the Church should not be extended to most sisters.

Please offer prayers and fasts for the LCWR, the CDF, Mother Clare, and especially for the innocent sisters and nuns who are being subjected to this investigation through no fault of their own. Also, encourage individual sisters to write to Mother Clare and express themselves freely.

H/T: Ignatius Insight


  1. The readers would do well to remember that the seminaries/schools of theology (geared obviously toward a mostly male student body, with mostly male religious orders), went through the same thing, with pretty much the same conditions.

    Goose and gander get the same sauce, and it's not even that "harshly" applied.

  2. Norah1:44 AM

    What were the results Fr Dismas? Is there any less dissent within male religious communities than there was before the visitation? Or was it a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing?

    Fr Powell I think you are viewing religious communities through rose coloured glasses if you say that the overwhelming majority of our sisters are doing exactly what they vowed to do: serve the Church. Some maybe but overwhelming majority, I don't think so. Remember that enclosed communities and the women's religous who are Faithful to the Magisterium are not being investigated.

  3. Norah,

    I can only relate my experience of our sisters. I have run across many LCWR-type sisters in my religious life. However, most of the sisters I know are not of this sort. For the most part, our sisters are faithful, if not always as exactingly orthodox as some Catholics would like. There's a large space within the tradition for lots of theological diversity. The LCWR-typee sisters have gone way beyond the limits of a generous orthodoxy...well into post-Christian ideologies.

    I should add that many of the congregations that associate with the LCWR are orthodox, so the Vatican is investigating them in so far as they are investigating the LCWR.

  4. Thomas G.10:24 AM

    Fr. Powell - I don't quite understand how you can say that the LCWR itself, and not any individual sister, is being investigated. While this is probably true in some sense, surely there exists some linkage between LCWR doctrinal positions and individual leaders of LCWR. If there isn't, then the LCWR becomes a mere abstraction, a Platonic Form, that can be blamed without implications for any sister(s). But it is PEOPLE, i.e., moral agents capable of imputability, that constitute LCWR and that make specific choices about the positions LCWR advocates.

  5. Norah: I'm not sure how to answer your question. I honestly don't know. The results are generally kept "in-house" with the people who were visitated, although I notice that my alma mater has excerpts published (proudly) in its development newsletter.

    If I remember right, the institutions visited, the local bishop, and the religious superior (if applicable) of the institution all received copies of the visitation. AFAIK, none had direct action steps.

  6. Dear Norah,

    I am a brother but my community was not visited. I assume this is because my religious order's seminary is in Rome and not in the US. That study Fr. Dismas mentions focused only on seminaries in the US, not on houses of formation (e.g., postulancies, novitiates, scholasticates) for the men's orders.

    To be honest, I think a study of the men's orders, not just their seminarians, would be helpful too.

  7. One thing I find comforting: the Orders that are faithful to the Church are growing and the ones that are dessenting are dwindling away. That bodes well for the Church for the faithful Religious will outnumber the dissidents and the dissidents will soon be heard no more; especially if their leadership platform is taken away from them

  8. Father, thanks for this good summary of the question and for making the distinction between the LCWR and ordinary sisters.
    I've read statements like "the LCWR represents 95% of American sisters." That may be true insofar as particular institutes might maintain an LCWR membership. But it is not true at all if it means the majority of sisters share their views. They don't!
    My own take on this is that the problem will be taken care of in time, because the more radical congregations and sisters are dying out. The numbers speak for themselves. Of the 59,000 sisters now in the US (down from 180,000 at the time of the Council), 90% are 60 or older. And the vocations now entering are going to more traditional orders.

  9. Anonymous2:56 PM

    Thank God!!! for the people who are seeing this asessment as it is!
    This is a good thing.

  10. Anonymous8:19 AM

    A couple of clarifications are in order. "Brother AJK," your comment is not entirely accurate. As the Superior of the religious formation house of my community during the time of the seminary visitations, I assure you that the formation communities were indeed visited as part of this dynamic. I was in a consortial situation where the men of several institutes all attended a theologate operated by one of the participating institutes. The various formation houses, therefore, had no official connection to the seminary itself, other than that we had chosen that theologate for our seminarians' academic seminary formation. Each formation house, to my knowledge, was visited. I believe that institutes of lay brothers were not involved in any way in this visitation, although one institute of lay brothers did have several junior brothers attending classes at the school.

    Sr. Lorraine, I tend to be in agreement with your comments and I believe you have described the Church's tactic in recent decades in dealing witg many of the dissident Sisters, "let nature take its course." Sadly, even one afternoon of listening to the strange teachings of one of these women who appears under the trusted category of Catholic Sister, has the potential for doing untold damage to the faith of her hearers, so action must be taken swiftly among those who will be shown to be in dissent from Church teaching. We have had quite enough of this nonsense.