The CDF and women Religious
A very public rebuke
The Vatican has confronted women Religious of the United States head-on with the demand that their leadership organisation conform and reform. The row, which has caused deep unease about Vatican intervention, exposes major divides in the Church
By publicly announcing the conclusions of one of its two scrutinies of US women Religious, the Vatican kicked a sleeping tiger. The general public reaction to the “Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious” is: are they kidding? Editorials, petitions, even a Twitter campaign chide the Vatican’s perceived attack.
The social-network campaigns and public support for the women Religious indicate both the esteem in which they are held by American Catholics and the influential role they play in Catholic life in the US, working in health care, education and social services, and giving voice to the voiceless. In fact, the doctrinal assessment reinforces the themes of the visitation of US women’s institutes carried out by the Congregation for the Institutes of Sacred Life and focuses on the major leadership organisation, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), and its officials, who were investigated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).
In a tensely worded statement, the CDF criticised the 1,500-member LCWR that represents the majority of the 57,000 US women Religious, charging it to cooperate with three Vatican-appointed assessors or lose its official status as an officially recognised organisation. It has taken four years since CDF prefect Cardinal William Levada first said he was sufficiently concerned about the LCWR for the report to appear, and it’s apparent that the Church’s usual neuralgic issues – feminism, contraception, abortion, homosexuality, women priests, dissent, authority – have all played their part in this rebuke being meted out to the leaders of most of America’s women Religious.
Three areas of concern motivated the assessment: the content of addresses at LCWR annual assemblies, its policies of “corporate dissent”, and what the CDF terms “radical feminism”. Underlying these three general areas were the assumed LCWR stances on homosexuality, women’s ordination as priests, as well as “certain radical feminist themes” and “commentaries on ‘patriarchy’”.
The reforms that the CDF wants include revising LCWR’s statutes; reviewing its plans and programmes; creating new programmes; reviewing and offering guidance on liturgical texts; and reviewing affiliations with other organisations, especially Network, a socialjustice lobby, and the Resource Center for
Sr Simone Campbell, executive director of Network. The Vatican has said it will look at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious’ relationship with Network. Photo: CNS
Religious Institutes, an advisory group on civil and canon law.
According to the Vatican document, the LCWR presidency first learned of an investigation in April 2008. Then nearly a year later in March 2009, the conference received a letter announcing a “doctrinal assessment” to be conducted by Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio. Shortly afterwards, Bishop Blair and the American Mgr Charles Brown of the CDF met conference officers in the US. Among the documents examined was LCWR’s “mentoring leadership manual”– the conference sponsors training sessions for new leaders – along with information about Network and the Resource Center for Religious Institutes.
By January 2011, a meeting of bishopmembers of the CDF and Cardinal William Levada had determined that the “doctrinal and pastoral situation of the LCWR is grave and a matter of serious concern”, especially given the conference’s international influence; that the Holy See should intercede to reform it; and that the CDF should investigate possible canonical interventions.
Among the evidence particularly cited by the CDF document as deeply problematic was an address by the Dominican sister Laurie Brink, made to the LCWR assembly in 2007, in which she suggested that some Religious were “moving beyond the Church” or “even beyond Jesus”. Taken out of context by the CDF, Brink’s comment was “a serious source of scandal”, said the document, a challenge … to core Catholic beliefs … and is incompatible with religious life”. Brink said this option (of four) was “not Catholic Religious Life”.
In March this year, the conference officers learned they would receive the results of the assessment during their annual April trip to the Vatican. When it happened, the three members of the LCWR presidency – Pat Farrell OSF, Florence Deacon OSF and Mary Hughes OP – and LCWR executive director Janet Mock CSJ had five hours’ notice before the US Conference of Catholic Bishops released the report, which names Seattle, Washington, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, with Bishop Thomas J. Paproki (Springfield, Illinois) and Bishop Blair as the Vatican’s representatives to reform the conference.
The Vatican intervention falls well within canon law, as LCWR is one of two approved groups representing women Religious to the Vatican. The other, the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) is a smaller (168-member) and more conservative group representing approximately 8,000 women Religious. A few religious institutes belong both to LCWR, founded at the Vatican’s request in 1956, and CMSWR, approved in 1995. It is not inconceivable that if LCWR does not cooperate, the Vatican could order it to disband or, at the very least, revoke its official status.
The evident tension between the CDF and LCWR reflects the distinctions between the ways in which men and women perform ministry in the Catholic Church. The assessors – male clerics who are not members of religious orders or institutes – are in collision with the women Religious in a very fundamental way. The women are chided in the document as too devoted to social service and not devoted to matters of interest to the CDF – specifically questions regarding women priests, homosexuality and abortion. It notes specifically, for example, “the absence of initiatives” by LCWR members to promote the reception of the Church’s teaching, specifically mentioning John Paul II’s apostolic letter rejecting the ordination of women. But LCWR members see women Religious, like themselves, as answering a different call to ministry from priests and bishops who understand their work as more generally doctrinal.
It can be interpreted as a collision between what the Church says and what the Church does. Apostolic, or active, women Religious, while not clerics, can be seen to continue the
4 | THE TABLET | 28 April 2012 ancient ministry of the diaconate. The different charisms of their orders distinguish their corporate emphasis – some are involved in education, some in hospitals, others in general social and pastoral work – but they all live lives dedicated to the Word of God in Scripture, to the liturgy, and to charity. The works they undertake colour their corporate statements, which often focus on the plight of the poor. As Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, put it, such social service is not simply social service, but is understood as an extension of the ministry of Jesus in the Church. Their lives reflect the simplicity of their call to live the Gospel.
At issue is the way in which the CDF and LCWR view the function and purpose of the conference, initially founded at the Vatican’s request to “promote the spiritual welfare of the women Religious of the USA; ensure increasing efficacy in their apostolate; foster closer fraternal cooperation with all Religious of the United States, the hierarchy, the clergy, and Catholic associations.”
But the CDF document argues that the “LCWR also has a positive responsibility for the promotion of the faith”, unarguably the primary responsibility of the bishops. This suggests that women Religious are responsible to bishops in much the same way as priests and deacons. But religious institutes of women are canonically approved organisations of lay women consecrated to a life of gospel values and service who do not, and cannot, preach except by their works.
The LCWR often speaks on their behalf. It is not a lobby group, but it has inserted itself into the national conversation about immigration, health care and similar issues. It did, for example, join Network in asking for a revision of the Affordable Health Care for America Act to address issues of religious liberty more broadly, although it has not joined the US bishops in pressing for further revision. It has not become involved in issues surrounding abortion or same-sex marriage, leaving those discussions to individual bishops and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Neither does it seem to have felt it necessary to present Catholic teaching on these issues to its leader-members.
The general public – Catholic and nonCatholic alike – will view this latest foray as an attempt by a hierarchy whose influence is waning to silence women and to bar them from the halls of power more permanently. That the halls of power have moved to social media seems both the cause and the promise of the Vatican’s actions. Overall, popular opinion clearly favours the women Religious, whose ministry is better known and more widely accepted than the pronouncements of a hierarchy apparently blind to the moral shortcomings of too many of its own.
(See The Church in the World, page 27
and Letter from Rome, page 30.)
■ Dr Phyllis Zagano is the senior research associate-in-residence in the department of religion at Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York.
‘The future depends on the possibility of dialogue between the old and new orders’
Religious life is like the wheel: people keep on reinventing it. This is good in so far as it shows the Lord reinvigorating this important part of the Church’s life. What’s problematic is that new religious orders soon make the sorts of mistakes from which experience could save them while the old orders quietly fade away for lack of new life.
New religious congregations are a sign that religious life is an essential part of the Church, a part that is always enlivened by the Holy Spirit to be bold and creative. Yet even these orders are prey to the demons of human nature, as are we all. While the Holy See regularly sends apostolic visitations to religious orders to sort out a problem, the number of visitations to new congregations is surprising; while there are no published figures, my hunch is that the ratio is higher among new congregations.
The most dramatic example of this is the Legionaries of Christ, where the Holy See has taken direct control for the time being. This was a highly “successful” new order whose founder, we now know, was deeply corrupt. Fr Maciel fathered children, abused seminarians and took illegal drugs. This is not a case of plus ça change. Whatever the current state of the older orders, their founders and foundresses were almost without exception holy people who gave of their substance in the service of Our Lord and his Church.
Standing back, let me offer a broad-brush analysis of the pros and cons of the new and old religious congregations. The old orders have great liberty of spirit; their members are rooted in the essence of the Gospel, in traditions of deep prayer and in the service of the Church. The problem is that this liberty of spirit can easily become libertarianism, with the Gospel redesigned and the Church marginalised. Religious in older orders often suffer from the vice of pride. They believe that their longevity means they know what the spirit of the religious life is and entitles them to sit lightly to the letter of their order’s tradition – and, in some cases, sit lightly to the Catholic tradition. We know best.
Something of this attitude appears to be what has provoked the Holy See’s criticism of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the US. They want to be liberal Catholics, which is pastorally commendable, but some Religious then use this pastoral generosity to justify credal and canonical dissent.
Turning to the newer orders, their distinguishing virtue is their dynamic fervour and their complete trust. They are living examples of Our Lord’s insight that “unless you become like little children you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven”. However, being childlike can easily tip into being childish, with an excessive reliance on rules and externals. In this way, gifted founders can keep people in subservience and damage well intentioned new members.
New orders can fall into vanity and self-satisfaction. To an outsider, it looks as if they believe that the influx of new members indicates God’s blessing. We may not be old, they seem to say, but we are good.
So how can the old and the new come together with the humility and magnanimity that are the antidotes to pride? Both need to recognise that an order’s charism is not something given at one point in time by a single founder; it emerges. First, the foundational charism emerges from a process of discernment over a period of years; in the case of my own order, Benedict took the existing monastic life and distilled it into his Rule, a rule which he recognises is built on the insights of others. Secondly, the charism is never a done deal never to be revisited. Turning again to Benedict, he says his is a little rule for beginners; he implies that there are other ways of living this life.
This week sees the publication of A Future Full of Hope?, edited by Gemma Simmonds, the first British study of religious life in many years. The future can be full of hope, but whether it is will depend on the possibility of dialogue between the old and the new. Many older orders are now looking extinction in the face and some are determined to survive; many new ones are facing problems that in their enthusiasm they believed would never happen to them but now wish to confront. Both need to help each other develop their charisms so that they combine liberty of spirit with fervent discipline in the service of the Catholic Church.
■ Fr Christopher Jamison OSB is director of the National Office for Vocation of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.
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