There are roughly 57,000 Catholic women religious in the United States, some 80 percent of whom belong to communities whose superiors hold membership in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the largest association of its kind in the country.
So it was no small thing when, in 2008, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith informed LCWR leaders that they would be undertaking a “Doctrinal Assessment” of the conference in order to address some areas of concern going back at least as far as the late 1970s.
First, LCWR's Annual Assemblies frequently sponsor lectures of dubious theological provenance. One lecturer – a past LCWR president — discussed the possibility of “moving beyond the Church, and even beyond Jesus.” The lecturer scheduled for the 2012 Assembly specializes in “conscious evolution”:
[Jesus] did not die. He made his transition, released his animal body, and reappeared in a new body at the next level of physicality to tell all of us that we would do what he did. The new person that he became had continuity of consciousness with his life as Jesus of Nazareth, an earthly life in which he had become fully human and fully divine. Jesus' life stands as a model of the transition from Homo sapiens to Homo universalis.
“Conscious evolution” is apparently a euphemism for the kind of pseudo-scientific New Age drivel formerly known as heresy.
Then there are what CDF calls “policies of corporate dissent” with regard to settled teachings on women's ordination and human sexuality, and the all-too-predictable “prevalence of radical feminist themes,” all of which leads inexorably to “commentaries on ‘patriarchy' [that] distort the way in which Jesus has structured sacramental life in the Church.”
Last week, the CDF published the results of its assessment. Their concern is, shall we say, rather far-reaching:
The Assessment's primary concern is the doctrine of the faith that has been revealed by God in Jesus Christ, presented in written form in the divinely inspired Scriptures, and handed on in the Apostolic Tradition under the guidance of the Church's Magisterium.
To paraphrase our current vice-president, that's kind of a big deal.
Accordingly, the Holy See announced that Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain would act as its delegate to help “implement a process of review and conformity to the teachings and discipline of the Church.” Rome is taking the reins.
The leadership of LCWR professes to be “stunned,” and many news outlets took this declaration at face value, without looking into the many and papable ways LCWR had distance itself from the Church.
Sister Joan Chittister, a past president of LCWR, told the National Catholic Reporter, “When you set out to reform a people, a group, who have done nothing wrong, you have to have an intention, a motivation that is not only not morally based, but actually immoral.”
Sister Simone Campbell, whose social-justice lobbying shop, NETWORK, was singled out by the CDF for its particular deficiencies, thinks the old patriarchs in the Vatican are “scared.”
Professor Scott Appleby from Notre Dame suggested to an interviewer that the Vatican scrutiny “seems to be motivated more by fear and anxiety and insecurity, not by the confidence and the courage that would come with Christ.”
“To the uninitiated,” declared the Washington Post's very obviously uninitiated Melinda Henneberger, “the exercise looks a lot like a common garden power play by a bunch of guys whose control is slipping, their authority undermined by their own failures.”
The L.A. Times ran a piece contrasting the Vatican's treatment of LCWR to its handling of the Society of St. Pius X, the main conclusion of which was (no joke) that the Vatican is obsessed with “issues related to sex, sexuality and reproduction.”
Jamie L. Manson wrote that, “The Vatican is telling these women, as it has told many ground breaking theologians, ministers, and saints before, that a prophet is not welcome in her own native place.”
You see, when LCWR publicly dissents from settled Church teaching it is being “prophetic.” But when the Vatican has the temerity to suggest that dissent from Church teaching is. . .well. . .inconsistent with Church teaching, the Vatican is immediately cast in the role of authoritarian scold — insecure, misogynistic, and probably homophobic, too.
The tendency to judge by this double standard — commonplace among the Church's worldly antagonists but troublingly widespread within the Church as well — is failure to conceive of the Church's commitment to the truth of its doctrines in anything but the usual cynical categories of modern life: power, sex, gender, politics, and so on.
If one believes, for example, that “patriarchy distort[s] the way in which Jesus structured sacramental life in the Church,” then one might easily conclude that the Vatican – patriarchy incarnate – holds a distorted, self-serving understanding of the way Jesus structured the sacramental life of the Church. And if one concludes that the Vatican holds a distorted view of sacramental life of the Church, then one is likely to have reservations about the Vatican's fitness to judge one's own preferred account of the life of the Church.
Insofar as LCWR has bought into such bogus understandings — and it has to a large degree — attempts to reform it will be hindered by a sort of ecclesiological “Catch-22.” In order to open itself to true reform, LCWR would have to first recognize that its vision of the Church is flawed; but so long as it remains unreformed, it is unlikely to recognize those very flaws.
Given the nature of the doctrinal gulf between LCWR and the Vatican, achieving meaningful and faithful reform is likely to prove doubly difficult. But give Rome credit for having the courage to face a significant problem in a way that it knew in advance would bring it little other than public condemnation.
Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society.
This article first appeared on “The Catholic Thing” (www.thecatholicthing.org), copyright 2012, all rights reserved.