Bad Religion

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.

What concerns?

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.” And 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 distanced itself from the Church.

            Sister Joan Chittister hugs the Dalai Lama

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 evidence of a 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

Stephen P. White

Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

  • Randall

    From what I’ve seen and heard, a great many of the dissenting religious orders under the LCWR umbrella are dying out anyway. There are orders of Dominicans and recently created orders that are faithful and dynamic that are growing. Their greatest problem seems to be outgrowing their facilities.

    The Vatican is doing its duty to take on the heresies prevalent in the LCWR. I pray that God continues to give the Church strength to remain faithful in Her proclamation of the Truth. If the gates of hell will not prevail against Her, then neither will some aging heretical sisters and their witless cheerleaders in the media.

  • Randall

    There’s some irony in the photo of Sister Joan Chittister embracing the Dalai Lama in that the Dalai Lama’s position on homosexuality is closer to the Catholic Magisterium than Sister Joan’s position.

  • DS

    Re the picture: Sr. Joan keeps good company. She is embracing the same Dalai Lama who was embraced by and prayed with Blessed John Paul II in Assisi, and who was permitted by Blessed John Paul II to place a statue of the Buddha on the tabernacle of St. Peter’s Church there.

    What strikes me as unfortunate about this whole episode is that the only headlines and concerns seem to be about doctrinal purity. The vast majority of women under the LCWR umbrella actually spend their time serving Jesus and the Church: educating children, caring for the sick, praying, visiting prisoners, working with the poor, distributing communion when there is no priest to say Mass, etc.

    Perhaps we should spend at least some time reflecting on what most of the good nuns do with their lives.

  • Martinkus

    The Vatican needs to do the same with men religious.

  • Manfred

    Thank you for an excellent article putting this history, complete with quotations, in one column. Cdl. Dolan recently confessed that the bishops had seriously neglected catechesis for forty years on subjects including CONTRACEPTION. Aberrosexuality in the priesthood/episcopacy for decades, these Sisters functioning for decades without oversight, can only lead the intelligent Catholic to one conclusion: the Church has not existed in the United States for at least forty-five years, How many Catholic children have been exposed to these ideas in “Catholic” schools taught by these nuns?

  • Dave

    The congregations that these sisters represent are dying out, because they offer no life or hope to aspirants to religious life, just a steady diet of shrill, predictably leftist cant that reduces spirituality, theology and doctrine to politics or immanentalism. That the CDF is stepping in shows real pastoral solicitude for the good of their souls. It would have been easier to assign them condign neglect, but that would be the way of the world and not after the heart of the Good Shepherd. It also shows — however — real pastoral concern for the noxious effects of these opinions not only upon their only lives, but upon the lives of the people whom the sisters serve, who receive from them a vitiated Gospel. We should write the Nuncio, the CDF, and the Holy Father to thank them for stepping in.

  • Bill

    Such ridiculous confrontations point to the ever-growing need for the New Evangelization.

  • Graham Combs

    Some years ago a small convent of Episcopalian (Anglican) nuns in Baltimore, MD entered the Catholic Church. Perhaps it’s time to complete the exchange. How does the CDF compel these women to to believe what they do not believe or want to believe? I find that my fidelity to the Church is challenged more by distracted clergy and their efforts to reconcile leftist ideology with the teachings of the Church than nuns who are completely forthcoming in their illogical and incoherent beliefs (to borrow from James Joyce). I suspect that what many in the Church are upset about with this HHS affair is that it was a tactical alliance gone very bad very publically…

  • will manley

    This is where the Church ran off the rails in the late 60s and has never quite gotten back on them. I attended Notre Dame in that time period and the highly publicized opposition of some of the most prominent ND theologians over the issue of Humanae Vitae left a strong impression on my young mind that the magisterium was simply a series of suggestions always up for individual reinterpretation. It took me a few years to realize the destructiveness of this point of view to the Church and to appreciate the long term importance of orthodoxy. My guess is that the leaders of this women’s religious movement will not be moved one iota from pressure from the Vatican to conform to doctrinal truths. I also know that their views on the variety of causes they champion are also not going to have any impact on the church with regards to doctrinal change. What they need to know is that they are creating the impression for the laity that the Church magisterium is
    a matter not of obedience but of personal interpretation. At Notre Dame in those days there was one bright light – a lay philosophy professor named Dr. McInerny (I had him for the philosophy of Newman) – who went on to write a book about what went wrong with Vatican II. His conclusion is apropos here. He wrote that the dissent against the Magisterium during that time period led to the weakening of the Church. This LCWR seems like an unfortunate remnant from that period. One hopes that their members understand that while their doctrinal views are not a threat to Church stability, their acts of dissent clearly are.

  • Achilles

    Your defense of these dissenting women is uncharitable. Do you really suggest that we focus more on the fact that many sisters do kind things for people and that we ignore the plight of their immortal souls? Suffering outside of the narrow gates is in vain. Do we glorify these kind women? Or do we honor and glorify God?

  • Mouse

    “dubious theological provenance” is being generous indeed. They are clearly promoting heresy and on at least one occasion for certain have even had a witch come in to their conferences to teach them… Anyone who knows what goes on theologically in these communities or has witnessed it directly knows that the troubles are serious indeed. Can the LSWR really be serious that they were surprised at the gravity of it? That would almost be more frightening that intentional denial of what cannot have really surprised them. But as for their claim that the Vatican is scared for them…no, we are all scared FOR them, for their immortal souls and those whom they mislead by leading them into faulty theological teaching and false prayer practices. We must pray for these women, because if they really believe their own denials, they are in worse shape than we even thought. Jesus died for them too, and we don’t want anyone to abandon Him and the Faith He handed onto us through the Apostles and their successors…

  • bethany

    I think it is essential to point out that the LCWR is a professional association. It is not a governing body and it has no “say” over the religious orders or superiors of the religious orders that have membership in the association. There has been a gross distortion by the secular media on this point and I certainly expect more out of The Catholic Thing and other Roman Catholic media outlets.

  • Tony Esolen


    But they don’t do a whole lot of good, either. They know full well that their orders are dying, yet they persist in their obstinate ways. They long ago rejected the charism, in some of the orders, of teaching young people, when they insisted that they be paid salaries that were often higher than what lay people would receive. Thus their apostasy and their worldliness have combined to devastate Catholic education in this country, and probably also a lot of other Catholic initiatives for the poor. Their treatment of older and more faithful sisters has been abominable; they sent them off in a corner, and now they bring pictures of them out of the nursing homes so as to appeal to the gratitude of their former students, for their money. It isn’t true that they went bad in one way only.

  • DS

    To Tony/Achilles, what is truly uncharitable is the implication that every one of the 80% of the nuns in the US who are under the LSWR umbrella are heretical and “don’t do a whole lot of good.” Yes, there are bad apples. But my unscientific sample suggests they are distinct minority. They just have the loudest voices and get the headlines.

    I can speak from personal experience about the Gospel I received from some of these women. Nuns (without veils or habits!) taught me to read and write in school, oversaw our altar boys, and prepared me for my first Communion. My great aunt was in one fo the “dying orders” and embraced the attitude and ministry of her younger sisters until her death and they, in return, cared for her. One nun manages (as CEO) the hospital that cared for friends and relatives and it still turns a profit. The four Maryknoll nuns martyred in El Salvador didn’t surf online daily for orthodoxy; they lived their faith and died for it.

    Reform is necessary — Vatican II indeed calls the whole church to continual reform. Heresy must be addressed. But I thank God for all of these women that have served the Church and us and our families.

  • Tony Esolen

    DS: A general statement isn’t a universal statement, and I was referring principally to the leaders of the orders. Yet more than the leaders have done harm; the Sisters of Mercy have, for instance, been a disaster for the Church in Australia, and the order of nuns that taught me and my siblings, the IHM, caught a virulent strain of feminism and collapsed forthwith.

  • James

    Who gets their real estate when they die out in 20 years?

  • Chris in Maryland

    DS: Any man or woman who is a member of a group whose members support or condone those who call for “moving beyond Christ” has no claim on the Catholic Church, and has betrayed Jesus, and his or her own Catholic and Christian identity.

    Tony Esolen: My siblings and I were also taught by wonderful IHM sisters, and I mourn the collapse of their order. I believe that a small portion of them have kept the faith, and still serve The Church.

  • Michael B Rooke

    Cardinal Henry Edward Manning (1808–1892) wrote

    The belief in the unity of God, before the Incarnation, was broken up into, the polytheisms of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Since the Incarnation this cannot be. The illumination of the Word made flesh renders impossible all polytheism and idolatry.

    The unity and the spirituality of the eternal God are now axioms of the human reason.

    But, as St. Augustine profoundly observes, the analogy still holds between the errors of the old creation and of the new. Satan, as he says, ‘ can no longer divide the true God, nor bring in among us false gods, therefore he has sent strifes among Christians. Because he could not fabricate many gods, therefore he has multiplied sects, and sowed errors, and set up heresies.’

    The Temporal Mission of the Holy Ghost Pages 41-42
    is available online from the openlibrary.

  • Barbara, OP

    Some of the Church is “for”, some of the Church is “against” – my question is: “What would Jesus do?” There is a post on Nun’s Life blog about seeking to understand each other and be respectful as we are all Children of God.

  • Chris in Maryland

    Barbara OP: I believe that the question before us is a much higher one: “Who do you say that I am?” A man or a woman is either for Christ…or he or she is not Christian. Truly, all we men and women are Children of God. But who are the followers of The Lord? Respectfully…