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Read Them and Weep

In its recent statement regarding the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith noted that its principal means of assessing the doctrinal fidelity of the LCWR was a review of keynote and leadership addresses at the LCWR annual assembly. Many of the documents in question are publicly available on the LCWR web site. Given the controversy, I wanted to read some of these documents myself.

What I found was not what I expected. With all the concerns the CDF raised about radical feminism, I assumed I would encounter many stirring denunciations of patriarchy and criticisms of the Church's teaching that the sacrament of Holy Orders be restricted to men.

Intimations of those positions find their way into the documents here and there. At most, however, they are a minor concern. The core struggle revealed in these addresses is an emotional and spiritual one: how to live out a religious life in communities whose vision of Church -- a vision that once seemed a real possibility -- is increasingly a road not taken.

It would be one thing if these communities were attracting new entrants who shared that vision. But they are not and the authors of these addresses know it. For the most part, they are dying. There is much talk of hope. But it is clearly not the hope of Isaiah 40, where the Jews in Babylon are assured that their exile is at an end. It is, at best, an eschatological hope.

Reading these addresses reminded me of a conversation I had with a sister a few years ago. Formed in the self-confident Church of the 1950s, she was ill-prepared for the wrenching changes that came with Vatican II. By the early 1970s, many of the women who had been part of her novice class had left. Her own congregation was in turmoil and sisters often struggled to work out the meaning of their vows without much support from their community. There was real pain in her voice as she recounted this story and I remember thinking that I knew few marriages that would have been able to withstand this kind of strain. Her ability to persevere, to heal, and to continue to minister to others humbled me. It humbles me still.

Which is why I have little patience with younger Catholics whose response to the CDF statement was a more or less venomous form of I told you so! You cannot understand the meaning of vows until you have lived them through a major crisis. Those that have lived them in this manner are generally humble about judging the decisions of others who have faced a similar challenge, for they know how close to precipice they themselves have walked.

I do not argue that the LCWR and its member communities are beyond criticism. I have sometimes found documents and resources prepared by the Conference and its member communities to be intellectually and theologically shallow. The same, though, can be said of many documents prepared by Vatican congregations, to say nothing of the statements of some individual bishops. The intellectual crisis of contemporary Catholicism is a generalized phenomenon.In the end, the Doctrinal Assessment may be the least of the challenges the LCWR faces. Nevertheless, it is hard to see how it will really contribute to the organizations renewal. Discipline can be imposed from above, but renewal cannot be. It must come from within or it will not come at all.