Skip to comments.The Vatican and the Sisters
Posted on 04/24/2012 8:22:47 AM PDT by Servant of the Cross
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.
Its 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 LCWRs activities, supervise the LCWRs adherence to the Churchs liturgical norms, review its links to affiliated organizations like the political advocacy group Network, and guide a revision of the LCWRs 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 LCWRs activities over the past decade shaped the decision to appoint Sartain as the Holy Sees 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 doesnt 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 womens health care in Africa and Asia; there, the Church also works to defend womens 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 Churchs 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 Crosbys parish school in The Bells of St. Marys were the Hollywood idealization of an actual reality.
No more. Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) and the other sisters at the fictional St. Marys 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 Crosbys Father Chuck OMalley, it was OMalley who made the final decisions for the parish and the school, and Bergman and the sisters who obeyed, even if they didnt like it. Yet the final scene in the movie has Sister Benedict teaching the somewhat-full-of-himself Father OMalley 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 its 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. Marys. 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 theyre 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 womens 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 action. 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 preVatican II decades were poorly educated, poorly formed, and badly overworked, Carey made clear that genuine reform was essential if the remarkable flourishing of womens 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 LCWRs 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 Blairs analysis of the LCWRs 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 LCWRs 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 teachings 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 embrace 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, its the pro-life cause, which they largely eschew, that is the real counterculture. And in religious life, its the dynamic orthodoxy of postVatican II, postJohn 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 administrations 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 LCWRs self-understanding as an evolutionary (or revolutionary) vanguard challenging the patriarchal evils embedded in the Catholic Churchs 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 organizations 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 Joans 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 Churchs legal boundaries, they nevertheless adhere to another God and seek another mountaintop. Sister Joans 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 Vaticans 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. Marys. It would aim at the further development of forms of womens 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.
This action was long overdue and impeccably timed as a part of the battle of the Church against this socialist Administration's (and it's useful idiots who dishonestly call themselves 'catholic') 0bamacare attack on religious freedoms.
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.)
If it comes down to selling the properties (if anyone will buy them) and giving the money to the sisters, then do. God will provide the resources for the work He wants done by His people.
Ping for later reading.
During the days of rebellion, starting with the Cultural Revolution around 1968, a lot of priests and nuns simply left the Church, joined the sexual revolution, got married, and so forth.
But many nuns simply removed their habits, moved from convents to apartments, and stayed in the Church. Their motive, they SAID, was to “reform” the Church, with women priests, plenty of free sex, and the rest of those hippie ideals. But the REAL MOTIVE was the money. Why leave the Church when you can live like a lay person, do whatever you like, corrupt those you are supposed to be teaching, and never have to work for a living? And you can salve your conscience by claiming that you are doing it all in the cause of Feminism and Mother Gaia.
All in the “Spirit of Vatican II.” You can thumb your noses at the Pope and the Bishops, because you have billions of dollars given to your orders in the past by hardworking Irish maids, Italian gardeners, Polish workers, and other generous donors, who skimped and saved and gave to your predecessors in the name of Christian charity.
I suspect that the money is gone from the Church. Some of it may be gotten back by legal action, but the heretic nuns will take most of it down with themselves. What CAN be done, however, is for the Church to cease paying these heretics salaries out of present income, for working on diocesan staffs, or publishing hippy hymnals out in Oregon, or misrunning hospitals, and all the rest of it. The billions that the dissidents stole would soon be gone, if the Church didn’t continue keeping these people on salaries, as they work to undermine everything the Church stands for.
Good luck to the Bishops charged with fixing this mess. I doubt whether many of these nuns can be reformed, especially at this late date. And certainly not under their current leadership.
Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist
Our foundation draws from the dynamism of the new, the vitality of the New Evangelization, and the rich heritage of the old, the cherished tradition of the Order of Preachers. While we espouse the impetus of Pope John Pauls exhortation, Vita Consecrata: the church needs the spiritual and apostolic contribution of a renewed and revitalized consecrated life... we hand down the Dominican charism.
Contrast this growing community with that of Sr. Joan Chittister, O.S.B.
2011 Oblate Initiates - Benedictine Sisters of Erie
Mercyhurst is observing April as Public and Environmental Health Month, uniting national observances of Public Health Week (April 2-6) and Earth Week (April 22-28). Several Mercyhurst groups, headlined by the universitys Green Team and Office of Sustainability in tandem with the Mercyhurst Institute for Public Health, are planning events under the theme of Our Communities, Our Health. Benedictine Sisters, Pat Lupo and Mary Lou Kownacki, are among the presenters.
Sister Pat, pictured at left, and Earth Actions JrPLEWA from Environment Erie will have an Information table on Personal Care Products and Our Water at the April 25th event (Film: Living Downstream, Mercyhurst University, D'Angelo Center, 2:15 p.m. and 7:15 p.m.).
Sister Mary Lou, on the right, will offer Ryokan Poetry Musings on April 26, 7:30 p.m. in the Mercy Heritage Room at Mercyhurst University. She will share her reflections on poems written by Ryokan, an 18th century Japanese Zen Buddist monk. Sister Mary Lou is the author of "Between Two Souls: Conversations with Ryokan."
Check out the Around Erie calendar in the left side bar of the homepage
That was the worst of it. Not that she chose a life of sin, moved to an apartment and experimented with sex and went off the rails in her personal life, but that she was allowed to remain in the infrastructure of the Church and undermine the educations of Catholic school children. And no doubt was paid a salary for doing it.
As a result, a lot of those kids were probably lost to the Church when they grew up. And most of the Catholic schools eventually closed down.
I’m so glad to see this happening. It happened to seminaries several years ago and those same seminaries are now overflowing with young men who desire to nuture a prieistly vocation.
God bless the Pope for getting around to the non-habited nuns.
Great post. Thanks for the pictures. They definitely tell the truth!
Important Background Information About the CDF-LCWR Situation
Nuns Gone Wild: A Trip Down Memory Lane
Exhibit A for Explaining the LCWR Report
Vatican Crackdown on U.S. Nuns a Long Time Brewing
LCWR: getting to the truth of the matter (the blogosphere response to CDF document)
Radical feminist nuns group stunned by Vatican criticisms, reform plan
Vatican announces reform of US women's religious conference (more details)
Citing doctrinal problems, Vatican announces reforms of US nuns' group
In hard-hitting document Vatican launches clean-up of feminist nuns in United States
LCWR Having a Bad Day. Vatican Names Archbishop Delegate to Continue Watching LCWR and Network
How old is the youngest of those liberal women? 50?
Does it matter? Even if a 20 something should apply, the order is dead. Not far from home, is the motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.
Like the Erie Sisters, these nuns doffed their habits and moved out of their motherhouse. It now serves as a residence for the aging nuns. One of the empty wings has been turned into a convention center, with all the amenities (I attended a mandatory day of retreat at the center ... no comment). Here is one of their guest speakers.
Dr. Alfredo Sfeir-Younis, founder of the Zambuling Institute for Human Transformation, talks with Sister Margaret Jean Murphy.
Among the mission objectives of the sisters is to serve the needs of the "dear neighbor." This has resulted in the acquisition of a decent sized tract of land directly across from their provincial house, on which they have constructed senior housing.
The public section of the commons building, The Pointe, will include a fitness and aquatic center, multiple recreational rooms, convenience store, hair and nail salon, barbershop, three distinctive dining venues and more. Shaker Pointe residents will be provided many services and amenities, including a 24-hour staff, concierge service, scheduled daily transportation, housekeeping service, indoor and outdoor maintenance and extensive activities and programs, among many other services.
FWIU, to live there is not cheap. It entails making the sisters the beneficiaries of the property at time of death, or something like that. Regardless of how it all works, these "sisters" have moved beyond worshiping our Lord and into the realm of high finances, to keep their community going.
I find it truly sad to watch this process evolve. And it is not limited to this community, it is found in other older groups, as well. Two years ago, I accepted a position as database administrator, at a local catholic school. Much like the Erie Benedictines and Carondelet Josephites, he Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary share the ranks of those who gave up the habit. The nun who initially provided some training came dressed in sweats. There were still a few nuns, dressed in lay garb, who taught at the school. Not surprisingly, they were well intentioned but grey haired and ready for retirement. They also found some very creative ways to support their community.
Last Sunday, Fr. Benedict Groeschel invited two "habited" Sisters of the Renewal on his program to discuss religious life. Fr. Benedict cited statistics to demonstrate how those who abandoned the habit are floundering. If you missed it, you can watch that discussion here.
It is most disheartening to watch these communities self implode. We need to pray that they will rediscover the path back to community life.
>>Does it matter?<<
Only in contrast to the growing habitted communities.
Here are the nuns that visit our parish.
We have a couple of our parish girls that are discerning there.
“publishing hippy hymnals”
Sorry, I meant hippie hymnals. Filled with hymns from the 1970s and 80s. Most of it is pure junk. I sang in our church choir when we were in Connecticut, with a great music director and an organist who was really splendid. Then I continued when we came to Vermont. But they got rid of the music director and brought in all those schlocky hymns, until I finally had to drop out.
Now they have a woman music director with a great voice and absolutely terrible taste. Piano and guitar, and a bearded guy who shows up once in a while with castanets.
Just about everyone else dropped out of the choir, too.
So what exactly is the difference between songs put out in the 70’s and 80’s compared to older hymnals? How were they in terms of music, lyrics and beat? Were they more like “christian Rock” or stuff the Nun’s used to sing?
Sort of watered-down rock music, and much of it infected with liberal “we are church” attitudes. But also, just not very good music.
As long as it’s really good music, I don’t much care what kind. Medieval, Renaissance, Bach, Hayden, some of the old Protestant hymns. But most of the stuff written in the modern period just doesn’t cut it.
There are a few exceptions. The hymn by Sister Suzanne Tulanne is a masterpiece, IMHO, although the politically correct hymnals insist on changing “he” to “you,” despite the persistent wishes of the composer, and despite the original wording of the gospel on which it is based. We can’t have “he” in a hymn, after all!
I am the bread of life,
He who comes to Me shall not hunger,
He who believes in Me shall not thirst,
No one can come to Me,
Unless the Father draw him.
And I will raise him up,
And I will raise him up,
And I will raise him up on the last day.
The music is splendid. But it is a rare exception.