Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Does the Leadership Conference of Women Religious really need reform?

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) is a religious organization founded in 1956 by Catholic Church under Pope Pius XII. The purpose of the organization has been to support and give voice to Catholic nuns, or women religious, in the United States. Currently, about 80% of Catholic nuns are members.

After receiving complaints about the LCWR in 2008, the Vatican leadership began examining the organization's practices. This initial investigation revealed the LCWR's teachings had a "tenor and doctrinal content" that is potentially not aligned with the Church's values. Of particular concern was the keynote speaker at the 2007 annual assembly, Sister Laurie Brink.

During her keynote address, Sister Laurie spoke of the future of the LCWR and the possibility of following the lead of other successful new orders in moving "beyond the Church" and "beyond Jesus."
The Jesus narrative is not the only or the most important narrative for these women. They still hold up and reverence the values of the Gospel, but they also recognize that these same values are not solely the property of Christianity. Buddhism, Native American spirituality, Judaism, Islam and others hold similar tenets for right behavior within the community, right relationship with the earth and right relationship with the Divine. With these insights come a shattering or freeing realization—depending on where you stand. Jesus is not the only son of God. Salvation is not limited to Christians. Wisdom is found in the traditions of the Church as well as beyond it.
She also described congregations where inclusivity has led to a greater holiness and religious woman are not necessarily defined by the Roman Catholic Church. Read Sister Laurie's full keynote address here.

The outcome of the investigation prompted further action by the Church in 2009. The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) announced it would be conducting a formal "Doctrinal Assessment" of the LCWR. The Assessment was conducted from 2009 until January 2011, when it was then submitted to the Pope for review. The Assessment's final recommendations were made public in April 2012, with the key recommendation being that the Church completely reform the LCWR.

The final Assessment found three major areas of concern: Sister Laurie's comments during her keynote address at the 2007 annual conference; the LCWR's protest of the Vatican's stance on women’s ordination and homosexuals; and the prevalence of "radical feminist themes." The Assessment specifically criticized the group's focus on social justice issues, such as poverty. It seems the Church would prefer they instead focus on opposing issues like abortion and gay marriage.

To implement the suggested reforms, the Vatican appointed Archbishop J. Peter Sartain to oversee changes within LCWR's doctrine. He has the power to rewrite LCWR's statutes, texts, and meeting agendas. The reforms are currently on hold as the LCWR and the Vatican hold discussions to determine the future of the LCWR and its place within the Catholic Church.

After a close reading of the Assessment, it seems to be short on evidence that the LCWR is in dire need of this reform. Sister Laurie's speech is one of the few concrete examples cited in the Assessment and, if one reads her keynote address in its entirety, it becomes clear that she was not suggesting the LCWR defy the Vatican or "move beyond Jesus" as the Assessment frames it. Instead, she was describing the various ways the nuns could confront their future as an organization in the context of its aging members and shrinking membership.

Sister Laurie suggests four paths that the nuns could take with their congregations. She does this after confirming the LCWR's commitment to seeking holiness, enlivening their charisms, and pursuing the Mission of Jesus. This is clearly in line with the Vatican's mission for the organization: supporting religious life. One has to wonder then if it wasn't Sister Laurie's closing thoughts that really got the Vatican's attention.
Are we not victims of patriarchy within our society and church? Have we not—individually and corporately—felt the heavy hand of church politics? Has not the rigidity of the hierarchy set a poor example for its priests, who, formed in a spirit of domination and dogma, become not servants of Christ but stalwart soldiers of the Vatican? And therefore, as vocal victims, aren’t we the best ones to extend an invitation to be reconciled?
This blunt critique of the institution of the Church would not unsurprisingly catch the attention of the Vatican. It seems, however, that an out-of-context opinion of one Sister does not merit the full-scale reform that the Church has called for. The Vatican founded the LCWR, but should that give it the right to decertify the organization if it determines (right or wrong) that is no longer fulfilling the mission for which it was founded?

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

It is no surprise that the Catholic Church would once again try to limit the voice of its female members. The Church is an extreme patriarchal hierarchy of the highest order. They have built this structure with men on top at every level of the hierarchy over centuries. Built right into the structure is the idea that at each level, the men reign supreme over the women and can control their messages.

Being a nun is the only "official" position a woman can hold in the church. But even so, they still retain little power or authority over the political workings of the church. It does not surprise me at all that the Vatican would try to control the messages of these "radical feminist" nuns who preach things like actually following the word of Jesus instead of hating fellow human beings because of who they love or what they want to do with their bodies. Truly "radical" nuns were the ones who marched in the civil rights marches in the 60s and stood up to the bigots and the status quo. Espousing merely the most basic social justice agenda is nothing near radical.

I sincerely hope that these nuns can find a way to fight back. Or perhaps they should leave to the Episcopal Church where women can actually take part in the structure of the church, including serving as priests. The Catholic Church needs to learn that the times when you can just call a woman a witch and burn her for her heretical views were over centuries ago.