The CDF vs. the LCWR: postgame analysis

Now that hostilities have ceased between the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, it is hard to resist the temptation to declare a winner. Certainly, the conclusion of the whole unfortunate episode, with this week’s release of a brief and anodyne “joint final report” and follow-up meeting between LCWR leadership and the pope, has been as positive an ending, from the sisters’ perspective, as anyone could have hoped for. Some credibility was salvaged for the CDF, as (and, I would argue, because) the sisters held their ground on their commitment to collaborative leadership and mutually respectful dialogue. But nobody really won—no one could have won a conflict that never should have happened this way to begin with, one that exposed real fault lines in the church relating to sex and power and the relationship between the two and ended without directly addressing, much less repairing them.

The first thing that strikes me about the “final report” released last week is that it is a “Joint Final Report.” The whole thing started with the CDF attempting to bring the allegedly out-of-line nuns to heel with an exercise of authority whose origins were muddled and unexplained. It was hard to imagine back when Cardinal Levada was charging the LCWR – a stand-in, it seemed, for various individuals and communities among its member organizations, who went mostly unnamed in the CDF’s complaints – with being soft on doctrine and derelict in supporting bishops’ initiatives and priorities that the whole episode would end with anything other than another authoritative “assessment” from the Vatican. One could only hope the CDF’s conclusion would be a little more informed about what the LCWR actually is and does and a little less hostile to the work sisters do and the faith that informs the choices they make. But enter Pope Francis – and Cardinal Gerhard Müller as the new head of the CDF, and Archbishop Peter Sartain to take charge of the CDF’s reform mandate – and, praise the Lord, we find ourselves ending with a collaborative statement signed by both bishops and nuns, as though they had been pleasantly investigating each other all along.

The statement, it seems clear to me, is designed to allow both sides to save face. It describes various measures being undertaken by the LCWR, but few radical changes – the revision of the LCWR’s statues was already underway before the investigation began, and the promises that speakers and publications will be responsibly vetted seem to address the CDF’s broad concerns while not necessarily requiring any departure from the LCWR’s current procedures. The most embarrassing parts of the CDF’s assessment, meanwhile, are ignored. There is no response to the expression of concern that “feminism” might be taking root among women religious. There is no reference to the accusation that the sisters have been “silent on the right to life” or have not spent enough time and effort on supporting their bishops’ priorities. And the whole thing concludes with a kind of mission statement that reads more like a commendation than an admission of fault or a concession of defeat:

The Commitment of LCWR leadership to its crucial role in service to the mission and membership of the Conference will continue to guide and strengthen LCWR’s witness to the great vocation of Religious Life, to its sure foundation in Christ, and to ecclesial communion.

Most commentators I’ve read have declared a win for the nuns, perceiving, correctly, that things could have come out much worse. The LCWR stood to lose a lot, and didn’t. An exception was Philip Pullella, who tweeted, “seems little doubt who prevailed”—by which he apparently meant that the clear victory went to the CDF. His report for Reuters began, “A six-year row between activist American nuns and Vatican officials who had branded them radical feminists ended on Thursday with the nuns conceding to demands that they keep within the doctrine of the Roman Catholic church.”

If only a statement declaring “We were wrong to try to boss you around; you can go ahead and do whatever you want” from the CDF would have counted as a win for the sisters, then yes, the Vatican “prevailed,” as it had to. But Pullella’s summary makes it sound like the LCWR admitted to apostasy and committed to radical reforms, neither of which is supported by the report.

In calling this one for the CDF, Pullella downplays the significance of the report’s tone: “While the final statement was at times conciliatory, speaking of ‘mutually beneficial’ and ‘fruitful’ conversations between the two sides, it included clear concessions.”

But the report is more than “at times” conciliatory. It is downright affectionate: “The very fact of such substantive dialogue between bishops and religious has been a blessing to be appreciated and further encouraged,” it says in its conclusion. And the concessions made by the LCWR are far from “clear” – what does it mean, for instance, when it says that “a publications Advisory Committee exists and manuscripts will be reviewed by competent theologians, as a means of safeguarding the theological integrity of the Conference”? Has the LCWR changed something in its approach to reviewing manuscripts, or are they just describing the process they already follow, which has been found to be adequate after all? It says the committee “exists,” not “has been/will be created.” It says the purpose is to “safeguard” the LCWR’s theological integrity—not to provide integrity where there previously was none. And as Laurie Goodstein, in her report for the New York Times, points out, “It did not specify who would select the theologians, and indeed, women’s religious orders are full of trained and competent theologians.”

Pullella also misreads the report when he says, “It said LCWR's publications should ‘address spiritual matters rather than engage in formal theological inquiry’ and be based on ‘sound doctrinal foundations.’” But what it actually says is that they are already spiritual, not theological, in nature:

The nature of LCWR publications is intended to address spiritual matters rather than engage in formal theological inquiry. Nevertheless, because of the vital link between spirituality and theology, and in order to inspire, help evaluate experience as Women Religious, and challenge to growth, publications need a sound doctrinal foundation.

That part of the report is a clarification of an error on the CDF’s part, not a concession from the nuns. 

The whole thing is very short on specifics, which I presume is by design. That very lack of specifics is a show of respect for the LCWR’s integrity on the part of the CDF’s delegates. At the same time, it allows those who supported the initial investigation to declare that the CDF’s mission has been accomplished. But not everyone is satisfied – and the same observers who were disappointed by the bloodless conclusion of the “Apostolic Visitation” of U.S. nuns last year are dissatisfied with this report as well. Rod Dreher, for example, just can’t tell what game this Pope Francis fellow is playing when it comes to those loathsome “radical nuns,” but he’s certain “no one can possibly believe that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious have been reformed.”

Ann Carey of the National Catholic Register has a fair accounting of the report’s contents and tone—she gets right what Pullella got wrong about the section on “publications,” and notes, as Goodstein did, that the promise to have “competent theologians” review LCWR manuscripts does not necessarily imply any oversight from outside the LCWR itself. But she plays up the degree to which the LCWR has been chastised, referring to “reforms designed to correct and prevent future instances of public dissent,” a term not present in the report. “Many questions remain,” she writes, “about how and to what extent the reform will be implemented and whether any structure is in place to monitor LCWR compliance.” I have to assume the absence of an answer to that last question is itself an answer, but I suppose there’s always the possibility the CDF could get tough again. (Francis won’t be pope forever!)

Carey seems annoyed that “comments from [LCWR president] Sister Sharon Holland struck a conciliatory note but implied that LCWR also had instructed the bishop delegates.” As if! In fact, it wasn’t just Holland’s remarks in the Vatican press release but the report itself that framed the reforms as “a collaborative process of mutual learning.” One of the biggest reasons the CDF’s initial “doctrinal assessment” of the LCWR provoked so much dismay from the sisters and their supporters was that it betrayed significant misconceptions about what the LCWR is and does. The anonymous “Sister Y” addressed some of those errors in a piece for Commonweal, “Missing the Mark: What the CDF Gets Wrong about the LCWR":

LCWR has no authority over the formation policies of member orders and congregations. Neither does LCWR have authority over any member group’s governance, communal living, prayer life, spirituality, mission, or ministry. For those matters, congregations are accountable either to their local bishops (if diocesan communities) or to the Vatican (if pontifical).

In short, it made no sense for the CDF to target the LCWR as a way of correcting shortcomings of individual religious orders, whatever those might be. Consider the full sentence in the final report that refers to a “mutual learning” process:

Through a collaborative process of mutual learning and of refining several drafts, it was agreed that "the role of the Conference as a public juridic person centered on Jesus Christ and faithful to the teachings of the Church is to undertake through its membership and in collaboration with other sisters those services which develop the life and mission of women religious in responding to the Gospel in the contemporary world" (Statutes, Section 2).

That agreed-on description of the LCWR’s role is not, as I read it, a concession to the CDF; it describes what the LCWR is in a way that makes it clear that, contrary to what the CDF seemed to believe when it issued its original “assessment,” backing up the bishops and promoting doctrine is not the LCWR’s job. This is repeated in the next section, on “Conference Publications and Programs” – the LCWR’s “mission is in service of its members,” not doctrinal instruction to the outside world.

Carey makes much of the pope’s supposed enthusiasm for the ongoing visitation (i.e., he didn’t shut it down before it could reach a resolution), and suggests that his not meeting with the LCWR heads till it was over shows he wasn’t really in their corner. By contrast, Laurie Goodstein’s report interprets that meeting as a significant show of support.

“He met with them himself for almost an hour, and that’s an extravagant amount of papal time,” said Eileen Burke-Sullivan, a theologian and consultant for women’s religious orders and vice provost for mission and ministry at Creighton University, a Jesuit school in Omaha. “It’s about as close to an apology, I would think, as the Catholic Church is officially going to render.”

That the mandate has concluded in a way that allows all sides to walk away with no mortal wounds is something to be happy about. But if these gentle reforms, so hard to distinguish from “Keep up the good work,” are what the CDF sought all along, who can defend the hostility of their initial assault on the conference? If a conversation held in an atmosphere of mutual respect with the goal of greater understanding was the desired outcome, then simply initiating such a conversation would have been a good way for the CDF to start. That the whole episode did not end with another polarizing show of authority is a good thing for everyone. It would have been much better, though, if it hadn’t started out that way.

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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