The Sisters: Two Views

Published June 8, 2012

The Catholic Difference

After the April announcement that the Vatican was taking the Leadership Conference of Women Religious into a form of ecclesiastical receivership, appointing Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain to oversee the LCWR until its statutes and program are reformed, Tom Fox, a major figure at the National Catholic Reporter for decades, had this to say:

“Some of our bishops are acting like bullies, abusing the authority of their offices in the name of enforcing orthodoxy.

“Dealing with U.S. women religious, these bishops’ actions appear governed more by a desire to enforce obedience than to develop fidelity in our sisters…

“What the bully bishops claim to be matters of orthodoxy are really matters of pastoral style. They are the results of an unwillingness among our bishops to enter into sincere and mutually respectful dialogue with the women. None of the issues at hand has anything to do with the Creed. They stem from the actions of a small group of misdirected and fearful men determined to take catholic out of Catholic while judging, silencing, and demeaning those who stand in their way…”

Shortly after a correspondent sent me the link to this rather intemperate comment, another interlocutor passed along an interview with the late Walker Percy, one of American Catholicism’s greatest 20th century literary talents. Percy was asked what would have most surprised another major Catholic literary figure, Flannery O’Connor, about the post-conciliar Church she did not live to see:

“I think probably the disunity, the near-sundering of the American Church. I think she would be horrified, and probably most of all by the nuns, by what happened to the Georgia nuns, to the Louisiana nuns, and I guess to most of the others. They completely fell apart. They were seduced, not by feminism — which the pope approves of, in the sense of the right of women not to be discriminated against — but by radical feminism. Many of the nuns I know were completely seduced by it, to the point of rebelling against any sort of discipline. They began to mix up the magisterium with macho masculinism, as if the pope were Hemingway. I think that would horrify O’Connor more than anything.”

There’s not a whole lot of “common ground” to be found between these two readings of the post-conciliar history of women’s religious life in these United States. Either Tom Fox is right in his general view of the situation, or Walker Percy is right in his. Yet while Percy would almost certainly have agreed that there are many holy and devoted women doing great service to Church and society within the LCWR orders, Fox seems unlikely to make any such concession about the bishops who have, over three decades, raised concern about the spiritual life of those orders. If inflexibility and intellectual bullying are at work here, they’re far more prevalent on the port side of the Barque of Peter than on the starboard side.

There is also a question of demographics to be considered, in assessing these two views. Ann Carey’s 1997 book, Sisters in Crisis, reported a hard fact, thoroughly supported by the data: progressive orders of religious women don’t generate new vocations. LCWR-affiliated sisters responded that their job was “not to grow but to be.” How one could “be” without new recruits was not explained — a reflection, perhaps, of the same cast of mind that led a recent LCWR annual assembly speaker to praise the “post-Christian” stance of some religious orders. In any case, there can be no denying that the “renewal” of women’s religious life led by the LCWR and its affiliated orders has utterly failed to attract new vocations. The LCWR orders are dying, while several religious orders that disaffiliated from the LCWR are growing.

And this is the question that neither the LCWR nor its defenders, like Tom Fox, ever engage: If what you’ve been doing for about forty years is so right, why do young women not find it attractive?

Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor, however, would understand.

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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