Those who read this blog regularly know that I avoid commenting on news stories. This is because things come and go quickly and we can rarely understand what these stories mean until after they are gone. However, I could not pass up the opportunity to comment on the Vatican’s recent announcement regarding the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). To be specific, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is responsible to make sure that the Catholic faith is being taught in the Catholic Church, published an eight page document, indicating a number of doctrinal errors promoted by speakers and papers sponsored by the LCWR. It had also found consistent themes of radical feminism, and pointed out that members of the LCWR and even officers of the conference have expressed dissent against Church teaching, especially promoting the ordination of women and protesting the Church’s position on homosexuality. The CDF has appointed an Archbishop to oversee the LCWR and, among other things, to rewrite the statutes of the organization to better reflect its mission.
The Holy See has the authority to do this because the Conference was founded with its support and approval. In fact, the LCWR was founded to be the official representative body between the Vatican and religious institutes of women in the United States. At the moment, there is a second organization, the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious, founded in 1992 as an alternative to the LCWR for institutes that did not like its doctrinal issues and feminists themes.
The popular media tends to see the Church in political categories, and the main narrative on this story is that courageous nuns who serve the poor are being unfairly treated by the men. Even in political terms, it is very hard to paint these nuns as simply innocent victims: certain nuns connected to the LCWR very publicly opposed the American bishops who were articulating the Church’s position and trying to shape public policy. Whether this can be called courageous or not depends on your point of view, but it was certainly a public challenge to bishops who were just doing their job.
The media has no love for sisters, but it is always willing to give a bullhorn to anyone who claims to be a good Catholic but who opposes Church teaching, especially on those key areas where the Catholic faith pushes against the current of popular society. The popular media would like to discover an alternate magisterium in the Catholic Church which is more accepting of contraception, abortion, the ordination of women, homosexuality, or divorce and remarriage. Today, that voice is the LCWR.
When you move past the political realm, however, the issue is not nearly as complex as it seems on the surface. Women have always had a privileged place in the Catholic Church, and they still do today. Religious women did and continue to do a huge amount of good for the Church and for the world. Commentators in the popular media argue that because members of the LCWR are devoted to social justice works, and this goodness should place them beyond reproach, while conservatives might want to argue that all the nuns in question are disobedient radicals.
The truth is that religious life in the United States is all across the board: nearly every possible opinion has found a nun to express it, and they are a very scattered flock. This scattering of the flock should not be a surprise. In another post (Hippies, self-sacrifice, and disappearing nuns), I commented on what I consider to be the pivotal shift which scattered the flock: starting in the 1960’s, many brothers, friars and nuns abandoned the idea of self-sacrifice because psychologists said it was demeaning and degrading. Self-sacrifice can be demeaning and degrading when it is imposed on us, but when it is a free response to the love of God, it elevates us and draws us closer to Heaven. Self-fulfillment ultimately makes a person to be self-serving, and the self is a false god and a lousy shepherd. It is self-sacrifice that silences the relentless dictator which is our own ego, and sets us free from this slavery so that we can be true servants of God.
It is not news that some sisters are wandering outside the Catholic faith, and it is not news that some sisters have been telling everyone how green these foreign pastures are. An informative conversation on NPR ironed out the main point of this event: religious sisters are seen as authorized representatives of the Catholic Church, and as such they need to represent the message which the Catholic Church teaches. Although there are constant attempts to “discover” some other authority in the Catholic Church, the truth is pretty simple: it is the pope and the bishops who have the responsibility of declaring the official Catholic position, both on faith issues such as who Jesus Christ is (which some nuns have challenged), and also on moral issues such as contraception, abortion, and homosexuality (which a number of sisters have refused to support).
All things considered this controversy is not very complicated. The LCWR was founded as the Vatican’s official representative to the superiors of American religious institutes of women, and the leadership of the LCWR has tolerated or even promoted opinions that wander outside the faith and that challenge the Church’s teaching on some key issues of faith and morals. In the final analysis, these sisters have to choose whether to serve God or themselves.
The same is true for each person, since we really only have two choices in life. Some theologian (I think maybe St. Augustine) said that the two choices are this: will it be love of God to the point of denying myself, or love of myself to the point of denying God?