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Moving beyond the Church? The CDF and the LCWR

The CDF's "Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious" is, in my reading, rather short on evidence of the LCWR's urgent need for reform. One of the few concrete examples given is a keynote address (pdf) delivered by Laurie Brink, OP, at the 2007 LCWR assembly:

The Cardinal [William Levada] offered as an example specific passages of Sr. Laurie Brink's address about some Religious "moving beyond the Church" or even beyond Jesus. This is a challenge not only to core Catholic beliefs; such a rejection of faith is also a serious source of scandal and is incompatible with religious life. Such unacceptable positions routinely go unchallenged by the LCWR...

Was Sr. Brink rejecting core Catholic beliefs in her address? The Elizabeth Johnson affair has made me skeptical of such claims, so I decided I ought to read her talk for myself.The subject of Sr. Brink's address was the various ways congregations of women religious might confront their futures. After each section, there is an invitation for the sisters present to discuss the points raised among themselves, and I must say, reading it, I felt like I was eavesdropping. It wasn't addressed to me, and their discussions should not be constrained by what outside observers might take out of context. But now that the CDF has made it a matter of general interest, I'm glad I read it. I found that the section referred to above was not at all what the CDFs description led me to expect. I also found that the rest of the address was relevant to the CDF's concerns in a number of suprising ways.

What, Sr. Brink asked her listeners, can a congregation of women religious do with the difficult realities of shrinking membership, aging members, and so forth? She described four possible paths that congregations might take -- but first she laid out the goal any such congregation should have in mind:

We have lost our prophetic place on the margins, having gravitated toward the middle of society and fallen off the edge of the Church. The stories in Scripture can provide a compass by which we reorient ourselves so that we may more enthusiastically seek holiness, enliven our charisms, and pursue the Mission of Jesus.

That sounds an awful lot like what the CDF says the LCWR and its member congregations ought to do: "The work of any conference of major superiors of women Religious can and should be a fruitful means of addressing the contemporary situation and supporting religious life in its most 'radical' sense -- that is, the faith in which it is rooted."

Let's skip forward to the section of Brink's address the CDF quotes, very briefly, in its assessment. The third option Brink describes is "Sojourning," in which a congregation "moves away from the center." (She has just defined the center as "the Mission of Jesus" and "the Church as Tradition, the Church as Sacrament, the Church as Hierarchy and the Church as People of God"). "A sojourning congregation is no longer ecclesiastical," she says. "Religious titles, institutional limitations, ecclesiastical authorities no longer fit this congregation, which in most respects is Post-Christian." In other words, some groups of sisters might decide that their differences with the Catholic Church -- their distance from the "center" -- require them to cease to define themselves as operating within that Church. Brink doesn't recommend this option or say that she hopes anyone will embrace it. She says it's one of the four possible choices a congregation might make, something I don't think is in dispute (and something I don't think was news to any of her listeners). Remember that she was not talking to elementary school students, but to fellow members of religious congregations, whom she was inviting to frankly consider what sort of choices and commitments lay before them as communities.

The following, I grant you, is the sort of thing that justifiably makes orthodoxy antennas buzz: "Who's to say that the movement beyond Christ is not, in reality, a movement into the very heart of God?" The CDF's main beef with this talk and what it represents about the LCWR, as far as I can make out, is that, from the CDF's perspective, this is not a rhetorical question. Their answer is: "Who's to say it? You are, in your capacity as leaders, and if you don't say it, Rome will have to do it for you." They don't want the LCWR to be offering up topics for discussion and hoping that its member congregations will, in a spirit of prayerful discernment, arrive at a decision consistent with the heart and mind of the Church. They want the LCWR to clearly inform its members what such a decision would look like. These are competing notions of leadership, and which is the more appropriate is something the officers of the LCWR will have to work out with their new episcopal partners.

But don't stop reading there and come away with the idea that Sr. Brink thinks anything goes in the world of Catholic sisters. She goes on to clarify that such a movement beyond Christ would be "a movement the ecclesiastical system would not recognize...a whole new way that is also not Catholic Religious Life." Her example is "The Benedictine Women of Madison... They are certainly religious women, but they are no longer women religious as it is defined by the Roman Catholic Church. They [chose] as a congregation to step outside the Church in order to step into a greater sense of holiness. Theirs was a choice of integrity, insight and courage."

If that sounds to you like Sr. Brink is praising people for stepping away from Christ, ask yourself how it's any different from what critics of women religious (or any other progressive Catholics) have said all along: if you don't like it, why don't you leave? If you can't assent in obedience and faith to what the Church requires, shouldn't honesty motivate you to stop calling yourself "Catholic"? We've all heard it; some of you have said it. (Don't do it here at dotCommonweal, by the way.) But if you are tempted to quote from this address as evidence that the LCWR is leading souls astray, you'd better make sure you've never helpfully suggested that anyone "step outside the Church" rather than work out their discomfort from within it.

The final option Sr. Brink enumerates is the one she endorses personally: "Reconciliation is not the only choice," she says, "but it is my choice, because it is also my church."

If there is to be a future for women religious that upholds our dignity as reflections of the divine equal to that of our brothers, respects our baptismal promises, and honors our commitment to the Mission of Jesus, we must first be reconciled with the institutional Church. Such an effort will cost us dearly.

The address is from 2007, before the investigation of LCWR or the visitation of religious communities in the United States was announced. But what Sr. Brink says in this last section feels quite relevant, and I wonder whether it wasn't this part that really got the CDF'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, arent we the best ones to extend an invitation to be reconciled?...These words must first begin with the address, "My brother bishops..." Until we as congregations of women religious initiate a process of reconciliation with our ecclesiastical brothers, we cannot hope to have much of an impact elsewhere.

I don't see that the reconciliation process has gotten very far since then. But I sincerely wish the sisters and their brother bishops every success in seeing it through.

P.S. I am indebted to Bryan Cones at U.S. Catholic for the link to Sr. Brink's address, and his take on the CDF's brief against the LCWR is worth reading.

Update (4/24): Fr. Francis Clooney has done a careful reading of and response to Sr. Brink's talk at America's "In All Things" blog. Read it here.


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"But dont stop reading there and come away with the idea that Sr. Brink thinks anything goes in the world of Catholic sisters. She goes on to clarify that such a movement beyond Christ would be a movement the ecclesiastical system would not recognizea whole new way that is also not Catholic Religious Life. Her example is The Benedictine Women of Madison They are certainly religious women, but they are no longer women religious as it is defined by the Roman Catholic Church. They [chose] as a congregation to step outside the Church in order to step into a greater sense of holiness. Theirs was a choice of integrity, insight and courage.After reading this extra paragraph I come away with the idea that Sr. Brink thinks that stepping out of the Church is indeed a wonderful idea!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer towards reflected on the concept of a religionless Christianity which is similar in some respects to the reflections offered by the sisters on their experience within the Church (however that is defined) and however they live that definition out in their corporate and individual lives.I think the sisters should be applauded for having transparent and open dialogue and reflection on how to live out their consecrated lives in a way keeping with their vows and commitments.They are not skulking around like the cardinals in the Vatican and the myriad of ecclesiastical leaders who systematically and criminally frustrated the seeking of justice by victim of priest predators.If (and that is a big IF) they discerned that there was a need for some correction, the Vatican did not need to engage is this kind of melodramatic action to articulate it. They should have chosen the path of dialogue and more quiet engagement.

The second last paragraph of the Bryan Cones article referenced in the post gives a motive for the CDF's not choosing the path of dialogue and quiet engagement if they felt there was a need for correction."When you boil it all down, the CDFs complaints are trumped up, giving the U.S. bishops the excuse to act against a relatively independent Catholic voice that they dont likeand a warning to others (perhaps such as Sister Carol Keehan of the Catholic Health Association) not to offer an alternative Catholic voice in the national debate. Sister Simone Campbell of NETWORK said it best, I think: I think we scare them.

"the Vatican did not need to engage is this kind of melodramatic action to articulate it. They should have chosen the path of dialogue and more quiet engagement."George - perhaps they should. But I think what has played out is what almost inevitably plays out in an unequal power relationship characterized by deep mutual mistrust. Both parties, in my opinion, share responsibility for working to restore trust. Perhaps the new arrangement mandated by the CDF is actually an opportunity to lay some of this groundwork. Sisters and bishops will need to work together whether they want to or not.

Once again I am relying upon your tolerance of my ignorance. That's not humility. I have as much arrogance as most. It seems to me the jist of this entails a group of fellows picking a fight with a group of women. Remarkable wise fellows and remarkable tolerant women. OK. But, I gotta tell you, either this group of fellows have precious little experience in the all too often outcome of poorly conceived adventures or they are indeed following a voice awfully few of us unremarkable fellows hear. It is more than little likely this will not go well.

I think we scare them.They kinda scare me, because they yelled a lot in elementary school and it's not easy to completely let go of the old perceptions and relationships. But my generation will be the last who has that residue of memories and experience. My children, all of whom have attended church all of their lives and most of whom have a Catholic school background, probably have never met a single religious sister. My younger children, I'm almost certain, don't know what a nun is. The sisters' decline in numbers will render them irrelevant to most of the church. It's probably happening already.For my children's generation, the people from the institutional church with whom they've had personal contact will be really old white priests, younger foreign priests with poor to adequate fluency in English, and deacons. And a lot of lay women.

A few comments:1. Sr. Brink says explicitly that she asks her questions and says some things for the sake of discussion, but some are not consistent with the teaching of Rome nor are they all necessarily her own opinions either. 2. What Sr. Brink seems to think is the purpose of both the Church and religious congregations is the increase in the holiness of their members. For her both are essentially means to a personal end. I don't think that is the main value of Church membership. The Church is a complex of ends which includes individual holiness. In apparently putting personal holiness above other ends I think she is very much like some of the old-fashioned nuns who viewed the orders themselves (and the priesthood) as intrinsically better means to holiness than secular vocations. Vatican II, of course, rejects this notion.My point is not that Sr. Brink thinks orders are superior for developing holiness. My point is that for both her and some of the other nuns holiness is what is to be pursued, wherever it is to be found. I object because the end being a Christian is to love, and though love results in a personal state of holiness, one's own state is not the goal of love, it is a result of it. 3. Her premise -- that one should go where one's holiness is more likely to increase -- is the basis for her approving the nun of Madison, who, she says, went outside the Church to as a means to increase increased holiness. 4. I can see where the CDF does not find Sr. Brink's view of the Church entirely consistent with its view of the Church. The Church is not just for making individuals holy, though it is that among other things. (No, it's not entirely consistent with mine either.)

Ann, Sister Brink says"that we may seek ...holiness, enliven our charisms and pursue the Mission of Christ." It seems to me that she is talking about their work in the world, their mission and charism of their particular religious order. and not just personal holiness. Holiness and following Christ is foundational but does not exclude active work in the church (world).

Comparing Sister Brink's presentation with the case of the vapours it gave the CDF, I am really startled by how out of it our leaders are. Do the bishops, at their annual meetings, never sit around and discuss "what-if" propositions? Do they merely proceed serenely from Roman edict to Roman edict without ever discussing them, examining alternatives or blue-skying new propositions?I don't know of any successful organization that does not do such things. I am afraid now that I am in an organization that doesn't.

Tom Blackburn: For the sake of discussion, let's say that the bishops at their annual meetings do NOT ever engage in the kind of exploratory thought processes that you have described and that Sister Brink herself has engaged in in her presentation.For the sake of discussion, let's also say that the guys in CDF do NOT.Now, if the guys in charge do NOT engage in such exploratory thought processes, do you think that those guys will have problems understanding Sister Brink's thought processes in her presentation?

Stuart Buck, in light of your recent penchant for inviting fellow Catholics to "move beyond the Church," so to speak, I am afraid I must ask you to refrain from publishing your writing in this forum while I conduct a doctrinal investigation. Given your stated agreement with the CDF's censure of a few phrases from Sr. Brink's address, I know you will appreciate the necessity of this request.

Thomas Farrell: Yes, that is what I thought I said: That it looks as if our bishops and the CDF never do the exercise of thinking of hypotheticals, what-ifs, alternative approaches and the like. The CDF reacted to the kind of paper that typically is commissioned to get the discussion started and keep it going as if it not only had never conducted such an exercise but had never even heard of such a thing and couldn't believe anyone would have the temerity to do such a thing.In simpler terms, they reacted like a bunch of people who never took their eyballs off their navels.

"My children, all of whom have attended church all of their lives and most of whom have a Catholic school background, probably have never met a single religious sister."Hi Jim- My 12 year old daughter has become friendly with a couple of Sisters of Charity through the work they do in our community. I am really grateful my daughter knows these women, I think they make terrific female role models. (And regarding foreign priests, we have a visiting Nigerian studying here who my 8 year old adores; she keeps wanting to go to Confession to talk to him and I have to always try and figure out which Mass he's celebrating so I can take her to it). I think we're all touched and inspired by different people- that's why we need both the Mother Angelicas and the Sister Brinks and the Benedictine Women of Madison. We should be embracing of all of it, I think, not just the subset we personally identify with.

As a P.S. to my earlier comment (and I'll proofread this more carefully), I once spent a morning and part of an afternoon in an imaging-the-future session set up by a bishop who attended for the day. One of the presenters later became a cardinal, and I am pretty sure the other one eventually was a bishop. There were things said that day that probably would cause alarm bells to ring all over the modern CDF. The bishop has gone on to his reward in heaven, but I shall tightly seal his name behind my lips lest the modern CDF, with its usual excess of caution, order his body exhumed and condemned posthumously.

Re religious women being rendered irrelevant, there are still more sisters (~57,000) than priests (~ 41,000) in the U.S. A change in the constraints of married clergy and womens ordination would change both for the better.

Irene, I agree, and I think it's wonderful that your daughter has connected with the Sisters of Charity. There is an order of religious sisters who live in community in our area - they're great, and a couple of them used to work in our parish, but for whatever reason none of them do now. Now you've got me thinking that I should take my children to their next open house.

Tom Blackburn: I apologize if I misunderstood your first post. However, I would point out that you did say that you were "startled" (your word). So in effect, the point of my rejoinder was to say that you shouldn't be "startled."Nevertheless, I am happy for you that you did at one time know a Catholic bishop who evidently could think outside the box, as they say. Good for him! Good for you that you knew him!However, the current crop of Catholic bishops are not capable of thinking outside the box, as they say.In my estimate, the current bishops are not capable of thinking much at all.

I was disheartened while reading Sr. Brinkers speech. It started with her seeming acceptance of Sheldrakes post-modern theory that humans cannot find 'one obtainable Truth' which permeated her entire talk. That lead her to commend the choice of the Benedictine Women of Madison, who left the Church, as exhibiting 'integrity, insight and courage'. She lauded 'holiness' but 'faithfulness' to God was entirely lacking.If the Church, in all its manifestations including the religious life of nuns, does not exist to lead us to a faithfulness in a one true God, then it becomes just like any other human institution. No wonder the hierarchy acted; if anything, I wonder why it took so long.Btw, to me, 'beyond' connotes 'out'

Re Sister Simone Campbell of NETWORK's comment I think we scare them, it's much more than being scared because nuns used to yell at us. Let's reiterate a couple of the comments in this thread, like George D's one about the nuns "having transparent and open dialogue and reflection on how to live out their consecrated lives in a way keeping with their vows and commitments" and Thomas Farrell's idea that the bishops don't typically engage in "exploratory thought processes." The thing that threatens the bishops, I think, creatures of autocracy as they are, is that people would actually do this. An autocracy is a power structure. One is obsequious to one's superiors and demanding of obedience from one's subordinates. The thought of people actually having dialog, of letting the power of faith-based rational ideas shape the path forward, of admitting that the path forward might be unknown, of the process being trusted and the outcome not controlled, has got to send autocrats screaming into the night. I think this is the real reason the bishops are going after the nuns. It sends a frightening message by presenting a living model of how the Church could operate if it so desired. (And this doesn't even approach the idea that it's women creating the model.)We all know how much baloney we hear every week in sermons. In the last Christmas Day sermon I heard at my parish, the pastor told us that the meaning of Christmas was "surprise." Really. And yet no one from the CDF showed up despite the obvious heresy involved.Yet the CDF, this group of about sixty people and staff, charged with responsibility for the faith and morals of the entire Catholic world AND the sexual abuse crisis, focuses on some convention speeches and nunly whiffs of feminism? I don't think so. The motivation is other than that. Nuns, over the years and mostly under the radar, have created a means of organizing themselves at the community and national level in a way thats based on dialog. The bishops are thus about exterminating this very real threat - the existence of a living, Catholic, yet non-autocratic organizational model and voice. As Bugs Bunny used to say, You know, of course, this means war.

Regarding Sr. Laurie Brink's presentation - first of all, Mollie, thank you for your summary and analysis - it strikes me as quite even-handed and fair.If the content of her presentation really is the root of the problem, and if it was so egregious that it warranted a CDF investigation(!), then I would think that the CDF (or the congregation that is responsible for religious life) would deal with her as an individual and through her particular religious order, as we've seen happen a number of times with other religious who have fallen afoul of Rome over the years.Sr. Brink's presentation seems to be, not the problem itself, but rather the precipitator (perhaps one of several such precipitators) of the problem that the CDF is actually addressing. My take is that the CDF is faulting the LCWR in this instance, not Sr. Brink. The fault seems to be that LCWR let her presentation stand without any correction or comment. And so it is the LCWR that is the subject of investigation here.The Holy See seems to be telling the LCWR here, in effect, 'Among the many roles you need to play is to be the preserver and disseminator of a baseline of Catholic doctrine and truth for the religious congregations you serve. This is why canon law calls for us to approve your organization and its charter documents. We don't think you've been fulfilling this role as well as we'd like you to, and so we are going to help you.'Please note: this is my description of what I think is going on. I am not a full-throated supporter of the investigation nor this outcome. In fact, I think both are tragic. I would much rather see the bonds of communion between the LCWR and American women religious, and Rome, be so strong that open and trusting communication would address whatever problems arise. It seems to me that these bonds have been atrophying for many years now. I hope that American religious sisters are examining their own history and consciences, because in truth I think they do bear some responsibility for this atrophying. Cathleen Kaveny has made a number of salient comments in dotCom over the years about problems and dangers of engaging in prophetic discourse. I would suggest, as respectfully as I'm able, that these cautions would apply to American women religious as well as to the rest of us. I fear these women, or at least their national organization, are reaping the fruit of years of prophetic discourse. There are passages from Sr. Brink's speech that exemplify this type of discourse. Please note: I am not arguing that women religious, or any women, or anybody, should be silent, or much worse, silenced.

And re a warning on nuns exercising "a relatively independent Catholic voice" the bishops might not like, I couldn't help but notice the following. Sister Carol Keehan of the Catholic Health Association offered an alternative Catholic voice in the national debate on the health care bill. It passed in March of 2010. The Elizabeth Johnson smackdown on a book published in 2007 occurred in March 2011, after a "yearlong" investigation. This indicates it began, wow, right after Sister Carol Keehan spoke out. Very curious timing. As Chicago's first Mayor Daley used to say, don't get mad, get even.

Jim Pauwels has stated his description of what he thinks is going on.So I would like to offer my description of what I think is going on.Under the leadership of the Polish pope and now the German pope, the Catholic bishops are carrying on an omni-directional war against any and all perceived adversaries (i.e., persons) and any and all perceived adversarial positions (i.e., ideas). One of the centuries-old traditions that the Catholic bishops aim to maintain in the Roman Catholic Church and in its teachings is male patriarchy and male dominance. The Catholic bishops are not likely to give up their religious zealotry in their omni-directional war.

I think we should be grateful Rome is bothering to try to reform the group. This at least keeps it somewhat relevant, and possibly alive. Given its demographics, it seems it would have been much easier to let sleeping dogs lie, as they say, and let the group naturally die out.My curiousity was peeked by a quoted paragraph from a US Catholic article above, especially this sentence: "giving the U.S. bishops the excuse to act against a relatively independent Catholic voice that they dont like". What, pray tell, is a "relatively independent Catholic voice" mean, especially in the context of religious orders? That makes no sense to me.

Now I am getting really depressed. So many people commenting here are treating Sister Brink's presentation as if it were a learned paper thrown like pearls before a bunch of ignorant lay swine or something. She was stimulating, for heaven's sake, not explicating! You don't "correct" a stimulator. Everybody comments, and if there is a referee blowing whistles on any comment that goes "out of bounds" -- as some of you seem to think there should be -- the comments (and the whole project) will get stuck at the starting gate.

I'm glad that Jim and others recognize the wonderful work many nuns continue to do and notably iIwould add things like Network (which should raise hackles on the righ tand may have helped push this forward as a conclusion.)I think Bruce's(whoever he is) notion of faithfulness" really means absolute loyalty and as I've read his posts here and elsewhere, means if you don't like the marching orders, get out approach.Which makes me think Jim is right about this - in the future we'll see a very different Church with less nuns and more foreign priest here.But it strikes me that it wil be the smaller."purer" Church led by (cultic clericalistic)men who wil continue the traditions of keeping women in their place.As NCR's quoted canon lawyers noted yesterday, the deck is stacked against the nuns in this. (I could go on here about the governance evils canon law makes possible.)The voices of diminishing moderation will probably counsel the nuns to remember Teilhard and Courthney Murray and hunker down in silence for a better day to come.But that was then and this is now with a changed picture of the role of women.And consequently the dynamic in play here (as in "religious liberty") is about power.One can argue about how "reasonable" audits are, but it can and often is a power tool and going back to Rode et al -isn't how this got off the ground? -it's very much about power and its uses.Meanwhile in the doings in Phiully, Ireland, etc. the old boys network continues to lose credence even as they weild the tools of power - awful!

Jeff Landry: If, according to you, there can be no "relatively independent Catholic voice" (independent of the Catholic bishops), then it seems to me that COMMONWEAL should cease and desist. After all, the lay Catholics at COMMONWEAL should not, according to you, be acting as though they are a "relatively independent Catholic voice."

What would religious orders look like on an "organizational chart" of the Catholic Church? Do the heads of religious orders report to the pope?

Jeff, to answer your question "What, pray tell, is a relatively independent Catholic voice mean, especially in the context of religious orders? That makes no sense to me."Consider Sister Carol Keehan of the Catholic Health Association. Her organization came out in favor of passing the health care law because in her opinion it did not increase the opportunity for abortion. The USCCB came out against the health care law because they felt it did. The health care law passed. She and the Catholic Health Association are not under the direct control of the USCCB. They are a relatively independent Catholic voice.

PS the Catholic Health Association is not a religious order but I think the analogy holds.

I'm reminded of the words of Paul to the Galatians: "For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery....For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love." For Paul the zealous Jew to set aside the law in the name of "faith working through love" was an act of tremendous courage, working beyond the structures of religion as he'd known it. The best of the religious women I know (and I know a bunch of good ones,) are truly free in this Pauline sense. That inner freedom is what scares the CDF, istm. Faith, in its deepest sense, is about freedom to love and do the works love invites. In my time I've heard all kinds of people in the Church afraid to speak what they believe to be true--recently we've seen that no (active) bishops dare speak against the Republican wing of the USCCB, gay priests (30%? 50% of all priests?) are afraid to speak against Church teaching that makes them illegitimate in the eyes of Rome, teachers in schools are careful to rein in their thoughts lest someone report them to the bishop, lay people practice contraception but are afraid to openly challenge the teaching that they just ignore, women called to priesthood don't name their vocation so that they can at least minister in some way in the church."For freedom Christ set us free." Here's to the religious women who dare to speak. Like everybody, their utterances aren't the final word come down from heaven. (I suspect Sr. Brink might be mortified at her bold and thoughtful address being used as a cudgel against women religious.) They can be wrong, silly, short-sighted, or just off-base, like the rest of us, even our bishops. But at least there are some--Chittister, Schneiders leap to mind--who are free enough in Christ to stand up to those who think that following Christ is just a new yoke of slavery.

I'd like to add an HT to Fr, Jim Martin who thinks that at this time we should speak up about all the wonderful things our nuns do for us, our Church and our country.

"What would religious orders look like on an organizational chart of the Catholic Church? Do the heads of religious orders report to the pope?"David, I'm hoping someone else jumps in to answer your question. I don't completely understand all of the "church visible" stuff, but I think that "org chart" may not be the right metaphor in this case - I think it's like asking, "Where does Notre Dame appear on the org chart of the Catholic Church", or "Where does Catholic Charities appear". I think of religious orders as being entities unto themselves that exist in communion with the church. I'm sure there are provisions in canon law that formally attach them to the institutional church, although I can't speak to the specifics. The large, multi-diocese/multi-national orders do attach to the Holy See, but they also attach at the local level to individual bishops and dioceses for some matters, and to their own religious order management apparatus for other stuff. I believe there are a lot of religious orders that are pretty local - they may exist within the bounds of a single diocese. Whether they need to be 'certified' by the Holy See, or if the bishop's 'certification' suffices, I'm not sure. Here in Chicago, there is an order of priests that quite literally attaches to the boundaries of a single parish, St. John Cantius - I've read that members of this order can't leave the parish grounds without permission. Anyway, hopefully - I mean, I hope - someone can explain it all.

Tom B., Thomas F. -- Your hypotheses for discussion are right on in my view. Note that the kind of thinking you discuss is unnecessary if one confidently begins with conclusions firmly in hand. Furthermore, to some, it is repulsive and potentially frightening if it is seen as possibly leading to an idea that one should (or must) modify a valued existing view or practice to survive. A bit of courage and humility in the face of ignorance is required to try the exploration and assessment you mention. The episcopal ensemble is self-reproducing in its nature, reinforced by selection, formation, experience, esprit de corps, and authority. There is little evidence there of the capacity and courage to ask where are we now, where are we going, where do we want to go, and how do we get there in the world in which we expect to live tomorrow. Those who ask such questions about what the bishops see as solely their province can only be seen as threats to the proper order of things. To the extent this applies, the LCWR problem is less a matter of demonstrated malfeasance than of perspective, which may be more difficult to reform than programs and workbooks.

The discussion is even showing up on Facebook, in comments made by my daughter's twenty-something friends:"I heard an interview with their head nun on the radio last night. She's like, we're not straying from the Calling. If the vatican dudes were on the ground trying to help the poor and marginalized every day, they would see that we're doing exactly the right thing by helping. Also, that women are always the first ones to get it and the men only come around later to what's right. I was like snap! You're gonna get in trouble and it's awesome!"

Irene @ 9:55. Certainly you could find a more palatable example of a conservative woman religious than "Mother" Angelica! If she is their best example, it's Laurie Brink 100% of the way.I was educated through 8 grades by LB's congregation (Sinsinawa Dominicans) and have found them to be one of the least stereotypical groups of nuns around.

Jeanne, bearing in mind the hot water into which I may now be putting myself...I have two daughters myself. Both bright, pretty, outspoken, stubborn, good hearted and, from my long view of this world, young. I believe your daughter is very much on the mark except, perhaps, for the "always" part.If I may I suggest a significant bit of the challenge these fellows face is due largely to forgetfullness. Hopefully temporary in nature. As I understand it one of the extensive requirements of becoming a nun is the willingness to forgo forever, but for an occassional moment's contemplation, the option of bringing a child into this world. It may well be argued that not all but rather most of these women do so in some combination of choice and calling. Whatever the reasons I believe a wise fellow would be helped to seriously consider the signficant level of conviction and the stunning ability to stay focused living such a decision I suspect requires.

Jeanne:the question I have is whether being "on the ground trying to help the poor and marginalized every day" gives you the right to trash Catholic doctrine and reject the apostolic authority of the bishops (like those nuns in Madison, say). After all, philanthropy and spiritual pride are perfectly compatible, and in fact often go together.

"St. John Cantius Ive read that members of this order cant leave the parish grounds without permission."This is a joke, correct? Do tell us that this is a joke!

I anxiously await Commonweal's explanation of how this little speech is in perfect conformity with Catholic doctrine and is not worrisome at all.

I think Bruces(whoever he is) notion of faithfulness really means absolute loyalty and as Ive read his posts here and elsewhere, means if you dont like the marching orders, get out approach.Not get out Bob, get in line.The hierarchy may be a bunch of scoundrels, just like the rest of us followers, and I'm sure its been the same over the last 2000 years. But I believe Christ is somehow, someway herding all us sheep and goats in the right direction and has chosen and is guiding these scoundrel shepherds to accomplish that task. And the calling disciples have is to a love of Christ which expresses itself through a service to the poor, etc. To me, all the discussion about old boy network, power etc, is just a distraction.

Carlo, the LCRW are not the nuns in Madison. The LCRW are not trashing Catholic doctrine. My pastor was, by saying the Christmas, rather than being about the Incarnation, was about "surprise." The actions of the CDF strike me as bizarre for the very reason that in no way could they comb through every single utterance of every single Catholic priest and nun on the planet to "correct" it. Yet they managed to find a problem with some convention speech in 2007 and are making a spectacle of themselves as a result.

MightBe: Hmmm! Married priests with families, married nuns with families??? Married women priests with families??

Thank you, Jeanne @ 1:11 pm, for that refreshing perspective.One seldom-mentioned aspect of celibacy for those who truly practice it is that they never hear the hopes and fears, the enthusiasms, and the untested wisdom of their own children. Maybe a gain, maybe a loss.But they are the future of the Church as well as of everything else.

It is our destiny to extend our grasp, to reach beyond what is currently ours and to take from the other. The first paragraph of Sr Brink's 2007 speech contains the above description of the missionary impulse that once inspired many forms of the religious life. An issue for religious today is how that missionary impulse can be expressed in non domineering, humble language. IOW how can religious still "reach beyond" without stealing from others. This "reaching beyond" drove Catholics beyond Christendom into Africa, America, Asia, etc. Her comments on going beyond Christ and beyond Church need to be read in that context, which the CDF apparently did not understand. Religious have always gone beyond as an integral part of their vocation.More broadly, the CDF report seems not to understand the context of the LCWR. The leaders of religious communities oversee the discernment of vocations and their implementation. In that context, discovering someone does not have a vocation to religious life is as much a success as discovering that they do. So the decision by a group to leave religious life is a success, or at least not something that should be condemned. That is the type of decision faced by leaders of religious communities all of the time, and the open nonjudgmental attitude is the fruit of their experience.Finally, women religious have not been ordained. Dominicans like Laurie Brink may have a mandate to preach, but others do not. It would have been inappropriate for them to apply theology, as I am sure they were told repeatedly. So it seems spectacularly obtuse to condemn them for not teaching about women and ordination. If you want them to entrust them with the teaching of Church doctrine on that level, ordain them. That is what ordination is all about. If you will not entrust them with that leadership position, then do not condemn them for not exercising it.

I realize too late that my last paragraph above means that children who never come into existence because their parents are celibate are the future. Please do not take that as a prophetic statement.

The real issue isn't Sr. Brink's speech. That's a convenient smokescreen which provides comments--taken out of context--that can be twisted to seem scandalous. In my reading of the statement from the Vatican that was released yesterday, the real issue is that the LCWR and their members are not declaiming loudly enough against the "hot button" issues the U.S. bishops choose. Instead, the sisters are working steadily, faithfully every day with the actual people faced with these issues. I pray that all the women religious at this time hold in their hearts the passage from yesterday's reading from Acts, "We must obey God, rather than men." The CDF is acting more like the members of the Sanhedrin who feared for their power and their understanding of "the God of our ancestors" than the apostles.

Anonsters has a point. I haven't read the speech in question yet, but what kind of organization has Barbara Marx Hubbard as the keynote speaker at their Annual Assembly?

It's not just Sr. Brink. This is the headline speaker for their upcoming conference:

Jim McKay @ 3:05 pm says, "Finally, women religious have not been ordained. Dominicans [i.e., members of the Order of Preachers founded by Dominic] may have a mandate to preach, but others do not. It would have been inappropriate for them to apply theology, as I'm sure they were told repeatedly."It is correct women have not yet officially been allowed to be ordained priests in the Roman Catholic Church, including of course women religious.However, for a good number of years now, Catholic women have been allowed to earn doctoral degrees in theology and Master's degrees in theology, including lay women and women religious.As a matter of fact, women with doctorates in theology are allowed to teach theology courses taken by men who are studying for ordination to the priesthood.So if women religious have studied theology and earned graduate degrees in theology, why would "[i]t be inappropriate for them to apply theology" (whatever it means to "apply theology")?

The men who dislike old white-haired women in general and nuns in particular and Barbara Marx Hubbard VERY particularly should point out what it is in the speech (at Thomas's blog) that is so threatening. Is there anything they can counter? Anything they can disprove? Anything farther out than belief in invisible beings who follow rules set down by theologians? Ranting about "heresy" is worse than anything Barbara Marx Hubbard or Jamie Manson or Tom Fox could ever say. For pictures of the old white-haired woman who has the bishops shaking in their buskins, click here: