Saturday, April 21, 2012

The LCWR doctrinal assessment

People are buzzing about the recent announcement of the doctrinal assessment on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. Most of the reaction has only sought to distort the reason for the assessment, portraying it as a clichéd "Vatican War on Women". I find that reaction to be unfair, for the most part. For a more balanced, sober review, I would look to Elizabeth Scalia, Omar Gutierrez or even Mollie at

The doctrinal assessment is available online and should be read. The assessment is aimed at the LCWR itself, which is an association formed at the request of the Vatican in the 1950s. It is not so much aimed at individual religious congregations themselves. On the one hand, it is true that many sisters who do a great deal of good work around the nation and around the world do not often get a lot of respect. Let's not deny that. The assessment does not condemn their engagement in social justice and ministry with the poor. In fact, it praises it:
The Holy See acknowledges with gratitude the great contribution of women Religious to the Church in the United States as seen particularly in the many schools, hospitals, and institutions of support for the poor which have been founded and staffed by Religious over the years. Pope John Paul II expressed this gratitude well in his meeting with Religious from the United States in San Francisco on September 17, 1987, when he said:
I rejoice because of your deep love of the Church and your generous service to God’s people... The extensive Catholic educational and health care systems, the highly developed network of social services in the Church - none of this would exist today, were it not for your highly motivated dedication and the dedication of those who have gone before you. The spiritual vigor of so many Catholic people testifies to the efforts of generations of religious in this land. The history of the Church in this country is in large measure your history at the service of God’s people.
The renewal of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious which is the goal of this doctrinal Assessment is in support of this essential charism of Religious which has been so obvious in the life and growth of the Catholic Church in the United States.
However, if you've been following what has been coming out of the LCWR in recent years, it is clear that much of it is blatantly heretical. We're talking denial of core teaching, including denying the divinity of Christ and an embrace of a modalistic Trinitarian theology. Of particular interest was a keynote from the 2007 national conference of the LCWR in which Sr. Laurie Brink, O.P. (don't go there!), suggested that one possible future model for some sisters in a dying congregation would be to move beyond Jesus in religious life:
The dynamic option for Religious Life, which I am calling, Sojourning, is much more difficult to discuss, since it involves moving beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus. A sojourning congregation is no longer ecclesiastical. It has grown beyond the bounds of institutional religion. Its search for the Holy may have begun rooted in Jesus as the Christ, but deep reflection, study and prayer have opened it up to the spirit of the Holy in all of creation. Religious titles, institutional limitations, ecclesiastical authorities no longer fit this congregation, which in most respects is Post-Christian.
Post-Christian nuns? Hello, McFly? Anybody home? Elsewhere she speaks of women who came to see the "divine within nature" and for whom the "Jesus narrative" was no longer relevant, though she does acknowledge that this would no longer be considered Catholic religious life. Note that this is not to say that it isn't important to be ecumenical or inter-religious in one's ministry and outreach or even to study and appreciate other religious traditions. I learned a great deal when I served as convener for the Interfaith Council at UC Santa Barbara. But being ecumenical must not mean being indifferent to the truth of who Jesus Christ is. Our mission, our apostolate, begins and ends with Christ. The model about which Sr. Laurie Brink speaks is a confusion of ecumenism and indifferentism, and to suggest that it is to the benefit of Catholic ministry to remove ministry from the context of the mission of the Catholic Church and, in particular, the sacramental life of the Church, is, in my opinion, horribly misguided. And that is putting it mildly. For an association that is supposed to represent most of the nation's women's religious orders, this is troubling, and the CDF is right to call for renewal and reform to help the LCWR return to its original mission and purpose. Even if the secular media is unable to see it, this reform is a good and necessary thing.

In discussing this issue over the years with a few of my friends, occasionally I hear it suggested that the teaching espoused by the sisters was not heretical but rather prophetic. Not surprisingly, the assessment addresses this suggestion:
Some speakers claim that dissent from the doctrine of the Church is justified as an exercise of the prophetic office. But this is based upon a mistaken understanding of the dynamic of prophecy in the Church: it justifies dissent by positing the possibility of divergence between the Church’s magisterium and a “legitimate” theological intuition of some of the faithful. “Prophecy,” as a methodological principle, is here directed at the Magisterium and the Church’s pastors, whereas true prophecy is a grace which accompanies the exercise of the responsibilities of the Christian life and ministries within the Church, regulated and verified by the Church’s faith and teaching office. Some of the addresses at LCWR-sponsored events perpetuate a distorted ecclesiological vision, and have scant regard for the role of the Magisterium as the guarantor of the authentic interpretation of the Church’s faith.
The Magisterium as a teaching authority is an extraordinary gift to us, and true prophecy must call us back to our core principles and ultimately to the person of Jesus Christ.

I have known many religious sisters in my life as a Catholic, and I have worked with many of them in ministry. I think it is also important to realize that many of these sisters do a great deal of good and do not necessarily share the confused vision of the leadership of the LCWR. Nevertheless, I believe that this challenge to renewal and reform is sorely needed.


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