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Style or Substance? One Data Point

A big question for me in assessing the new Pope's performance is whether the admittedly dramatic (and, in my opinion, hopeful) differences between Francis and Benedict are simply matters of style or whether they portend some substantive change in direction for the bureaucracy. One of the litmus tests I set for myself was Francis's treatment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious ("LCWR"). The first reports are now coming in on that front, and style seems to be edging ahead of substance. Today, the Vatican issued a statement that the leadership of the LCWR had met with Cardinal Muller (prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) and Archbishop Sartain (Seattle), the man appointed by the Vatican to keep the nuns in line. According to the Vatican's statement, "Archbishop Mller informed the Presidency [of the LCWR] that he had recently discussed the Doctrinal Assessment with Pope Francis, who reaffirmed the findings of the Assessment and the program of reform for this Conference of Major Superiors." It is admittedly still early, and the Vatican statement leaves a lot of room for a future change in direction. It is worth keeping an eye on this in coming months.

About the Author

Eduardo Moisés Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the subjects of property and land use law.



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My initial, impetuous response to the news the LCWR's leadership with Archbishops Muller andwas keen disappointment and, for a moment, the thought crossed my mind that perhaps those who say that new Pope's style is all form and no substance are correct. Then I re-read the press report. I noted that they (Muller and Sartain) "said" that they had met with the Pope, and that they "said" that he reaffirmed the "findings of the Assessment and the program of reform. They "said" ... how reliable is their word? Was the Pope told the truth about how the "assessment" was conducted -- in a manner that was at best insensitive and at worst hostile to the LCWR? It seems significant to me that the Franciscan the Pope has appointed to be Secretary of the Congregation for Consecrated Life is much more open to meeting with the Sisters and seeking concensus. Neither Muller nor Sartain have been appointed by this Pope, and for all we know, they may be on their way out! We have all learned the hard lesson that Roman careerists and bureaucrats are often less than honest. I don't believe that we're getting the whole story .,, yet!

It is still early. The process will show more than initial statements. Historically the Curia routinely state that the pope agrees or confirms what they did. It is not always so in actuality. The Curia tries to to run the pope while feigning obedience. Let's see what Francis actually says or not says. It is still a time where the pope is reassessing the Curia. The question may be whether Francis will affirm the Curia itself.

Agreed: still early. The LCWR may still decide to walk away, as is their right. And Pope Francis may not be the victim of a lie or careful falsehood. But if he does agree with Archbishops Muller and Sartain, then he is simply wrong about that issue. And everyone moves on. Simple.

This pope would be plain foolish to proceed with a witchhunt, and I suspect he knows it. Same with women's ordination and optional celibacy. If he's smart, he'll leave any controversial issues to a successor, and I suspect Francis is smart. I look for no major initiatives from the new papacy. "Steady as she goes", as they say.

The Rest of the Story:We dont know how this issue was presented to Pope Francis and if he is aware of these facts:Sr. Patricia Farrell, former head of the LCWR, is a FRANCISCAN, who spent more than two decades as a missionary in Latin America (Chile and El Salvador). She arrived in El Salvador just months after the brutal the four missionaries (Srs, Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and lay missionary, Jean Donovan) were tortured, raped and murdered by a Salvadoran military death squad in 1980. That happened just months after Ford had arrived in El Salvador from Chile.When asked about her life, she said: The best of what we do is not about high drama.Sr. Florence Deacon, present head of the LCWR, is also a FRANCISCAN, who among her accomplishments in academia, has spent five years advocating for the poor at the United Nations as director of the New York office of Franciscans International.

As I read the statement from the Vatican it was only Muller who met with the pope.I am more interested in who called the meeting and how long ago (before or after the election of the pope.)I have heard and read that some people think that the whole investigation may end up in the dustbin.The fact that the statement mentions specifically that the pope is reaffirming the reform makes me suspect that Sartain is concerned about his and the reforms status under the new pope and might have requested the meeting.

I like the title of the post: we have to relearn Vaticanese. It is only with time that we will know what this kind of statements means. For now I would assume that what the pope says is what he means, but that what others say the pope has said means nothing.

I know nothing about the ins and outs of "Vatican-ese." One thing that occurs to me as a possibility. If Pope Francis is pursuing a policy of decentralization, or collegiality, or whatever is the right term, and if the USCCB pressed for action against the LCWR, then could it be that the pope is deferring to the USCCB? Like every other form of government, collegiality has its price!But, as I say, I know nothing of the "inside baseball" game that is played in the Vatican, some version of which is to be found in every significant bureaucracy.

From one of the regulars awhile back. Let's hope that this is no longer applicable under Francis:VATICANESE relies on secrecy and obfuscation to try to avoid culpability and change. The chief rules are:1. For starters, do not apologize, do not explain.2. Divert attention: talk about something else even in answer to direct questions.3. Speak in generalizations rather than specifics if you can get away with it.4. When necessary to speak affirmatively, speak ambiguously so later you can say you didnt mean what everyone took you to mean.5. Say that words have unusual meanings in Canon Law and the bishops understand that if the New York Times doesnt.6, Say the CDF has the matter under advisement and that the CDF really isnt the Inquisition anymore.7. When the Vaticans position is obviously subject to criticism, suggest in darkly worded tones that the oppositions position leads to unnamed but inevitably immoral consequences.8. When you have been forced to reverse your position, begin your reversal with the phrase, As the Vatican said earlier . . . : or in extremis, As the Church has always taught.Ann Olivier

Ann .... your words live on in my archives!

A prefect of a congregation would never issue a public statement saying that the pope had "reaffirmed" the Doctrinal Assessment unless the pope had indeed done so. I believe Archbishop Mueller met with Pope Francis last week. Absent a denial from the pope, I think we have to accept the statement as it stands. Whether the LCWR has a right of appeal, I don't know. It's very likely, but at the same time it would probably be long and complex.I think Bernard Dauenhauer's interpretation makes sense. Since the pope has set up what some seem to think is an already operative "cabinet" style of governance, did he consult with the American member of the group, who is a religious?

I wonder what kind of relationship Bergoglio had with religious women in his diocese, especially if they are American.

I think "style" and "substance" are really inadequate categories on which to compare Benedict and Francis. Style can be so much more than fluff; we could speak of methodological differences, or differences in perspective, or a hundred other things. I guess I should say that I am not looking for a change in substance on this topic from Francis, but I think something more than "style" is called for.

A noteworthy comment from Steven Millies at : "I'll say, though, having spent the weekend meeting with a group of sisters at the college they sponsor--it seemed to me that they need a sign of hope from Pope Francis. What we're doing here is contextualizing, rationalizing, and explaining that this development may not be as bad as it seems. That's all well. It may not be that bad, in fact. But it's also not the hopeful sign that these beleaguered women were hoping for, and that is a sign that their need for hope has not been noted. That is the worrying thing."What did the report say again? Was it ever made public? I keep forgetting what's wrong with the religious sisters.

The Doctrinal Assessment is here: could I forget its complaint of Radical Feminism?

A prefect of a congregation would never issue a public statement saying that the pope had reaffirmed the Doctrinal Assessment unless the pope had indeed done so.I suppose it depends on how much Francis knew about the issue before the meeting with Muller. If the meeting was an first-time overview of everything the CDF is working on, I could imagine that the LCWR part might have taken up less than five minutes of the discussion, along the lines of "i have a meeting scheduled next week with a group of women religious who had some friction with the US conference of bishops. We had a bishop investigate and he reported that there were serious problems - so we issued a Doctrinal Assessment and appointed a US cardinal to supervise the group for five years. Shall I tell them that I have discussed this with you and you agree that we should continue as planned?"

JohnSartain isn't a cardinal - yet.

John, all the more discouraging to think that something like this was handled in five minutes. And without questions from the pope, especially if the agenda material had not been sent to him some days in advance. However it was done, it's done. If the Sisters are still in Rome, maybe Pope Francis will invite them to Mass at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, and to breakfast afterwards.Kindest wishes,John

The LCWR was instituted in 1956 to facilitate communication between the institutional Church and American women religious.I find it hard to believe that if the LCWR packs up and goes home, and sisters still continue to gather under that acronym or another, bishops will be able to do anything about it. I would also be surprised if Archbishop Sartain, Archbishop Muller, or Pope Francis came knocking at the door, any of them would be turned away.I'm satisfied with the sisters taking time for an honest discernment, then doing what they have to do. In that sense, I really don't care what people outside of women religious orders do, say, or think.

I think a lot of people are expecting too much too soon from Pope Francis. As for me, his start has been encouraging. If there is more style than substance at this stage, that is only to be expected. It was widely known that he is a doctrinal conservative. But it is his pastoral approach and eschewing of ostentation and the trappings of the office that a strike a happy note for us in the third world. Also, abortion, gay marriage and contraception may be hot button issues in the western world, but they hardly come up in our part of the world and people here would not judge the Pope by his stance on these issues.

I agree with John Hayes' supposition. I would add that this investigation, or whatever it is, is still moving forward with whatever momentum it achieved during the previous pontificate - it is sailing along via bureaucratic inertia. Also, most of the players who propelled it forward and whose roles were determined during the previous pontificate are still in place. We need to give Francis some time to get his own people in place, and give them time to establish their priorities and methods, before we can judge how his pontificate will handle this.But ... regardless of who is pope, if the rift between American religious women and church authorities is real, it needs to be addressed. Certainly, there is more than one way to address it.

Sorry, one more thought. While it is very early to judge these things, Francis does not strike me as the kind of guy who is going to wield the hammer on dissidents. He is an elderly man, and he may not be with us long. The next guy in Peter's chair may be more inclined to mete out discipline. But for now, we may have an interregnum period to establish some dialogue between American religious sisters and Roman church authorities. Let us hope that both sides seize the opportunity, as it may not come around again.

I would like to comment more broadly on Eduardo's "style/substance" categories. I think it is very poor framework. It would seem that Jesus in the Gospels did some of his most substantive work through the Linda of actions that Eduardo seems to characterize as "style" when done by Francis. Perhaps what you really mean to be saying is you are looking for signs that the institutions of the Vatican are changing consistent with the public words and actions of Francis and that in the case in question you don't see it. But I hope that these narrow, limiting categories that seem to set style up against substance don't catch on at Commonweal as I think it downplays the extraordinary impact of "style", or as the gospels sometimes put it, "signs", to reorient individuals and institutions.

Greg -- I think you make a very good point. I guess I was trying to get at the question whether the distinctive way in which Francis carries out his duties as pope -- which I agree is important and inspiring -- portend deeper institutional or perhaps even doctrinal changes. I agree that the two categories I used are not wholly separable. This cuts both ways, of course, with some of the institutional issues necessarily coloring how we understand the shift in tone. In any event, the style/substance distinction is not my own. I borrowed it from some conservative commentary I've been reading. Here, for example, is Bishop Paprocki:"This hope for new life does not mean abandoning or altering the true faith in favor of some mutated form of Catholicism. Already there are people wondering if the election of Pope Francis will mean that somehow things will be different. The answer is: in style, yes, in substance, no. Pope Francis may prefer black shoes over red slippers, but that is simply a matter of style, not substance. No pope ever has or ever will change the substance of the faith. The Holy Spirit protects the church against that."

I am bemused to find people bending over backwards to think that not Francis but some naughty underlings who are misinforming him are to blame. Francis would certainly take seriously the CDF view that American nuns are failing to hold the line against gay marriage, which he famously described as "a machination of the Evil One to deceive the children of God". Why should we expect a Pope to be something different from what he says he is?

Mr. Penalver--Last year, the LCWR came together at their annual conference to sit at the feet of keynote Barbara Marx Hubbard, a New Age pagan who was speaking on "the evolutionary now." This strikes me as akin to an annual conference of academic biologists inviting Ken Ham (the creationist) as a keynote speaker.In your opinion, how should Pope Francis deal with such a Catholic organization in terms of 1) style and 2) substance?

I was able to find online the bishop's doctrinal assessment of the LCWR ,but not the response from the LCWR addressing the charges. Is there such a response?

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