Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Vatican and the Sisters

Published in National Review Online on April 23, 2012



In Chariots of Fire, two of the elders of Cambridge University invite the young Jewish runner Harold Abrahams to a formal, black-tie luncheon, during which they try to dissuade the upstart undergraduate from using a professional trainer to prepare for the forthcoming Paris Olympics. Abrahams declines to follow Oxbridge athletic orthodoxy and leaves in something of a huff. The Master of Trinity (brilliantly played by John Gielgud) sighs and says to the Master of Caius, “Another God, another mountaintop.”

It’s a scene worth keeping in mind when parsing the recent Vatican decision to take into a form of ecclesiastical receivership the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the umbrella association that represents the majority of American orders of sisters. On April 18, after years of study, the Holy See appointed Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle to oversee the LCWR’s activities, supervise the LCWR’s adherence to the Church’s liturgical norms, review its links to affiliated organizations like the political advocacy group “Network,” and guide a revision of the LCWR’s statutes. Sartain will be assisted by Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill. (appropriately enough, a veteran ice-hockey goalie used to taking hard shots), and Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo (whose theological analysis of the LCWR’s activities over the past decade shaped the decision to appoint Sartain as the Holy See’s delegate in charge of the LCWR).

That imagery — three men, acting on behalf of a male-dominated Curia, assuming leadership of an organization of women religious — proved irresistible to Vatican critics, eager to drive home the point that the Catholic Church doesn’t care about one half of the human race (as the proprietor of a once-great American newspaper once told his new Rome bureau chief as she was leaving the U.S). Others were eager to use the Vatican action to prop up crumbling public support for Obamacare: The good sisters of the LCWR supported Obamacare; the aging misogynists at the Vatican whacked the LCWR; see, Obamacare must be right, just, proper, and helpful toward salvation! The problem with the former criticism, of course, is that the Catholic Church is the greatest educator of women throughout the Third World and the most generous provider of women’s health care in Africa and Asia; there, the Church also works to defend women’s rights within marriage, while its teaching on the dignity of the human person challenges the traditional social and cultural taboos that disempower women. As for the notion that the Church’s Roman leadership put the clamps on the LCWR because “the Vatican” objects to Obamacare, well, that would be the first European-style welfare-state initiative to which “the Vatican” has objected in living memory.

What both these lines of critique fail to grasp is that the problem posed by many of the sisters within the religious orders that make up the LCWR, and by the LCWR as an organization, is precisely the problem noted by the Master of Trinity: “Another God, another mountaintop.” The difference is that Harold Abrahams acknowledged his unorthodox views, while the LCWR leadership, to vary the cinematic metaphors, took on the role of Captain Renault, professing itself “shocked, shocked” that anyone could imagine anything doctrinally awry in the organization or its affiliated orders.

A few facts — not an abundant commodity in the early coverage of the controversy — might help clarify both the current situation and the likely next moves in this ecclesiastical drama.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious is a kind of trade association. Its membership is composed of orders (known in Catholic argot as “congregations”) of religious women who take perpetual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These women are often called “nuns,” although technically nuns live in cloisters and the LCWR congregations have active, public ministries in education, health care, and social service; thus their members are more properly called “sisters.” These congregations control billions of dollars of assets, given to them back in the day when the sisters who ran Bing Crosby’s parish school in The Bells of St. Mary’s were the Hollywood idealization of an actual reality.

No more. Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) and the other sisters at the fictional St. Mary’s wore religious habits, lived in a convent, led a rigorous prayer life, taught the catechism without question, eschewed the public eye — and while they may have jousted with male ecclesiastical authorities like Bing Crosby’s Father Chuck O’Malley, it was O’Malley who made the final decisions for the parish and the school, and Bergman and the sisters who obeyed, even if they didn’t like it. Yet the final scene in the movie has Sister Benedict teaching the somewhat-full-of-himself Father O’Malley a thing or two about faith — a resolution reached and a lesson taught, not by rebellion, but by obedience.

Those days are long gone, and it’s both absurd and dishonest for the media and the Catholic Left to propagate the myth that the 21st-century life of those religious women whose orders are LCWR members is just a modernized version of The Bells of St. Mary’s. Yes, many sisters continue to do many good works. On the other hand, almost none of the sisters in LCWR congregations wear religious habits; most have long since abandoned convent life for apartments and other domestic arrangements; their spiritual life is more likely to be influenced by the Enneagram and Deepak Chopra than by Teresa of Avila and Edith Stein; their notions of orthodoxy are, to put it gently, innovative; and their relationship to Church authority is best described as one of barely concealed contempt.

Some communities of LWCR sisters no longer participate regularly in the Eucharist, because they cannot abide the “patriarchy” of a male priest-celebrant presiding at Mass. Thus faux Eucharists celebrated by a circle of women are not unknown in these communities. Even those LCWR-affiliated communities that hold, tenuously, to the normal sacramental life of the Church regularly bend the liturgical norms to the breaking point in order to radically minimize the role of the priest-celebrant; at one such Mass I attended years ago, the priest did virtually nothing except pronounce the words of consecration.

The other fact to be noted about the LCWR congregations — largely unremarked in the Gadarene rush to pit plucky nuns against Neanderthal prelates — is that they’re dying. The years immediately following the Second Vatican Council saw a mass exodus from American convents; and in the four and a half decades since the Council concluded, American Catholic women’s religious life in the LCWR congregations has suffered various forms of theological, spiritual, and behavioral meltdown. In the face of those two large truths, young Catholic women have quite sensibly decided that, if they wish to do good works or be political activists while dressing like middle-class professionals and living in apartments, there is little reason to bind themselves, even in an attenuated way, to the classic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience — each of which has undergone a radical reinterpretation in the LCWR congregations. So the LCWR orders are becoming greyer and greyer, to the point where their demise is, from a demographic point of view, merely a matter of time: perhaps a few decades down the road, absent truly radical renewal. (Meanwhile, the congregations of religious women that have retained the habit, a regular prayer life, and a commitment to Catholic orthodoxy are growing.)

There are more than a few ironies in this particular fire. One of them was pointed out by author Ann Carey in her 1997 book, Sisters in Crisis, which, while based on research in the LCWR archives and authorized by the LCWR, was subsequently denounced by the Conference — a preview of its “shocked, shocked” reaction to the recent Vatican acti
on. Carey was under no romantic illusions about mid-20th century American religious life when she began her work; by showing that many sisters of the pre-Vatican II decades were poorly educated, poorly formed, and badly overworked, Carey made clear that genuine reform was essential if the remarkable flourishing of women’s religious life in the United States — something quite without parallel in the world, in terms of numbers — was going to be sustained. Yet Carey also showed how the “reform” undertaken before, during, and after the Council pulled so hard on the central threads of religious life (and especially on the understanding of the vows) that the entire tapestry unraveled.

Moreover, Carey discovered that the beginnings of this “reform” were largely designed by men: priest-consultants brought in to advise the LCWR’s predecessor organization, address its annual conferences, and help redesign sister-formation programs. Ironically enough, it was men, not liberated women, who charted the path to the radical feminism that eventually led too many LCWR sisters and the LCWR itself into a mental universe unmoored from even the minimal requisites of Christian orthodoxy.

“Minimal requisites” is no exaggeration. As Bishop Blair’s analysis of the LCWR’s assemblies makes unmistakably clear — and from materials readily available from the LCWR — there is very little in the Creed and the Catechism of the Catholic Church that is not up for grabs in the LCWR’s world: the Trinity; the divinity of Christ; the sacraments; the constitution of the Church as episcopally ordered and governed; the very idea of “doctrine”; the notion of moral absolutes; the nature of marriage; the inalienability of the right to life — Catholic teaching on all of these is not infrequently regarded in the LCWR and among its affiliated orders as impossibly old hat because of that teaching’s alleged linkage to “patriarchy.” That doctrinal implosion, further influenced by feminist leadership theory of the woolliest sort, set the stage for the tortured re-readings of poverty, chastity, and obedience to be found in the extensive literature that shapes the theological imagination of many of the sisters in LCWR congregations, those congregations’ leadership, and the LCWR itself.

And here is the next, great irony: In their determination to be countercultural, many LCWR-affiliated sisters have become precisely the opposite, parodies of political correctness who embraced every imaginable New Age “spirituality” and march in lockstep with American political progressivism as it has defined itself since the Sixties. Thus the sisters formed in the LCWR cast of mind are not at all countercultural. In public life, it’s the pro-life cause, which they largely eschew, that is the real counterculture. And in religious life, it’s the dynamic orthodoxy of post-Vatican II, post-John Paul II Catholicism — the Church of the “New Evangelization” — that poses a dramatic and demanding challenge to the soggy “spirituality” of postmodern America; many LCWR sisters, for their part, regarded John Paul the Great as a hopeless misogynist and never forgave his 1994 apostolic letter reaffirming that the Church is authorized to ordain only men to the ministerial priesthood. The Catholic Church that has stood fast against the Obama administration’s encroachments on religious freedom is the real counterculture; the LCWR, for its part, has become very much part of the progressive establishment.

The shock in all this, therefore, is not the shock the LCWR unpersuasively confessed when the Vatican decision to take it into receivership was made public. The shock was that the Vatican had finally acted, decisively, after three decades of half-hearted (and failed) attempts to achieve some sort of serious conversation with the LCWR about its obvious and multiple breaches of the boundaries of orthodoxy.

Acts two, three, and four in this drama are not likely to be pacific. Given the LCWR’s self-understanding as an evolutionary (or revolutionary) vanguard challenging the patriarchal evils embedded in the Catholic Church’s forms of governance, it is not easy to see how the LCWR can accept a situation in which a man — Archbishop Sartain — will guide the revision of the organization’s statutes while making the final decisions about the topics to be discussed and the speakers to be chosen for LCWR annual assemblies. Immediately after the public announcement of the Vatican action, Sister Joan Chittister, O.S.B., a leading exponent of the LCWR worldview, said flatly that “there is only one way to deal with this . . . they [the LCWR] would have to disband canonically and regroup as an unofficial interest group.” Whatever else it may have conveyed about her ecclesiastical sensibility, Sister Joan’s reaction had the virtue of honesty. The LCWR and many of the sisters in its affiliated congregations have been living for decades in what I have come to call “psychological schism”: While they remain canonically inside the Church’s legal boundaries, they nevertheless adhere to “another God” and seek “another mountaintop.” Sister Joan’s immediate reaction honestly recognized that and drew the curtain on a long-running charade.

To be sure, a self-dissolution of the LCWR would create any number of problems. It might well provoke payback in the form of congregations of women religious taking their health-care systems even farther out of the orbit of Catholic life and practice. That, in turn, might lead to all sorts of legal unpleasantness. But that is almost certain to happen in any event, for the dying of the LCWR orders is going to lead to an endless series of legal battles over property originally given to the sisters on the understanding that they were an integral part of the Catholic Church.

Thus, if the LCWR refuses to accept the Vatican’s decision and dissolves itself, the realities of the situation will be clarified. And that would be an improvement over the muddle — created in part by the resistance of the sisters and in part by the fecklessness of Church authorities — that has gone on for decades. A clear delineation of who stands on which side of the boundaries of Catholic orthodoxy and orthopraxis, which are not infinitely elastic, would have a cleansing effect.

And that cleansing might, just might, be the beginning of authentic reform among the once-great orders of women religious in the United States that are members of the LCWR. That reform would not aim to re-create the lost world of The Bells of St. Mary’s. It would aim at the further development of forms of women’s religious life — already being lived in orders that are not members of the LCWR — that make their own unique contribution to the culture-forming counterculture that is the Catholicism of the New Evangelization.

- George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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