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Revisiting Laurie Brink's LCWR talk with Michael Sean Winters

Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter suggests that "the announcement Monday that Pope Francis had reaffirmed the doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious forces those on the left to reconsider their expectations." Winters thinks those who are dismayed should give the Vatican the benefit of the doubt: "Maybe there really are doctrinal difficulties at the LCWR. I gotta tell you, they lost me with that choice of a keynote speaker who wants to 'move beyond Jesus.'"

That line led to a flurry of "fraternal correction" from readers, according to Winters, who wrote a follow-up post today (though he forgot to include a link to the post that started the trouble). Winters now says he regrets his "inadequate characterization of Sr. Laurie Brinks keynote address at an LCWR conference" but, after reading the talk itself, has concluded that "it is even worse than my mischaracterization suggested."

I read Brink's talk (.pdf) last year, when the CDF's citation of it first surfaced, and I posted about it here at dotCommonweal. My judgment was that the CDF seemed to be badly mischaracterizing Brink's address, perhaps because they were misreading the purpose and character of the talk in general. I'd say Winters is making a similar error now.

I can't do much better in response to Winters's take on Brink's talk than to point to my own take all over again. And while I don't think her point of view, or her manner of expressing it, is beyond criticism, I do think that criticism ought to consider whom she was addressing and to what purpose. To be frank, I still feel somewhat uncomfortable picking over Brink's talk, given its original venue and purpose: to stimulate discussion among LCWR member congregations about the difficult choices facing them in an uncertain future. That Brink did not unequivocally denounce any life choice that would lead one away from Christ might be troubling to myself or Winters or the CDF, but this was not a catechetical lecture or a public statement of general belief or an address to pilgrims at World Youth Day. She wasn't addressing myself or Winters or Catholics in general, and she likely did not see the need to qualify her intentionally provocative remarks just in case someone looking for evidence of heterodoxy decided to examine them later. As I wrote last year, "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."I think how you read this talk says a lot about how you think about Catholic nuns. Brink was speaking to an audience of peers -- adult women who, let us remember, had all at some point gone through a serious process of spiritual discernment that led them to take vows dedicating their lives entirely to Christ and his church. That's what we mean, or what we should mean, when we refer in general to Catholic sisters, and when we think about their place in the church or the propriety of their speech we should remember that they are grownups and individuals with agency and complexity and not either obedient or errant children. Did Sr. Brink need to spell out explicitly for her audience that a renewed commitment to Christ and his church is the only orthodox path to holiness? I imagine she assumed her fellow LCWR members were aware of that basic premise of Catholicism.

One of the more pernicious trends in the intra-Catholic culture wars is the tendency to pit the "good" kinds of sisters against the "bad." This tendency cuts both ways, and either way it depends on a willingness to view nuns as symbols to be used to score points rather than as fellow adult disciples of Christ. Winters accuses Brink of making "condescending remarks about more traditional religious communities," but what he quotes reads to me as an entirely benign characterization of how such communities view themselves. "Are these more traditional women mere dupes of a pre-modern worldview?" Winters asks. He might have found his answer in the very section of Brink's talk to which he's responding: "They are not simply returning to a life before Vatican II, though outwardly it may appear to be so. They are retrieving structures, symbols and rituals that may have been discarded during renewal, because they feel that these will enable them to live their charism more faithfully in the 21st century." I see no condescension whatsoever in Brink's words and no reason to read them as other than sincere. In my experience, women religious of all kinds tend to be scrupulously respectful of other sisters, probably because they see them as they are: fellow women who have made the radical decision to devote their lives to being disciples of Christ in community. Sisters are on the whole much less invested than we laypeople are in scoring one order of nuns against another; they worry about fulfilling their own charisms, not disparaging others.

I'll tell you where I do see condescension: in the frequent commentary of not a small number of Catholics, almost always male, who see themselves as somehow qualified or even obliged to criticize, approve of, or sneer at the ministries, prayer lives, and of course the wardrobes of Catholic nuns in terms that (it seems to me) they would never apply to men. There are wise and foolish nuns; there are congregations I might like to spend time with and congregations I'd be more inclined to avoid. But what makes anyone think they can judge the depth of a woman's prayer life, her attitude toward the hierarchy, or her sincerity in following the will of Christ based on what she wears or how many people have joined her order lately? What makes any of us so comfortable in second-guessing the discernment of women religious when it comes to the governance of their orders and the vision and charism of their founders? Or, what makes some of us so uncomfortable with the spectacle of grown women having some autonomy to decide how they will live out their vows of service to the body of Christ? Catholics who have been inspired and challenged by the example of individual sisters, in education, ministry, or prayer, are rightly turned off by smug objectification of nuns even when it takes the form of praise. After all, it isn't just nasty remarks about radical women in pantsuits that carry this tinge of misogyny; it comes through in syrupy approval of the "good" kind of sisters, too. As if they're children to be patted on the head for the pleasing shape that their faithfulness takes.

Winters calls it "a damned shame" that the LCWR gave time to Brink's talk "because, as far as I can tell, the reason so many people love religious women, the reason our sisters touch the hearts of Catholics and non-Catholics so deeply is precisely because they have not moved beyond Christ but seek him out, day in and day out, among the poor, the afflicted, the aged, the ignorant, and the broken-hearted.... No amount of academic nonsense, spoken from someone wallowing in post-modern fads, should obstruct the Churchs hierarchy from recognizing the invaluable, Christ-centered work, that religious women do every day." Once again: Brink's talk was a challenge to member congregations to examine their approach to that invaluable work and to discuss how they can move forward in strength and integrity. Winters seems to think that the sisters' discussing such "academic" things is unseemly; they should keep doing that humble service work the rest of us like so much and, I guess, let someone else tell them how best to go about doing it. In which case, why have an LCWR at all?

But it can't be that Winters objects to the "leadership" part of the LCWR's mission, because -- after calling Brink's address "dreadful and alarming" (and just before calling it "faux-intellectual") -- he insists, "I believe with all my heart that women religious are just as much leaders of the Church as the bishops." This is not really a matter of belief: they're not. Not in the church in general, and not even in their own congregations. If the Vatican's investigation of the LCWR is at all valid, then it must be the case that Catholic sisters are not "leaders" on any kind of par with bishops. At best they are the kind of "leaders" whose internal discussions and deliberations must be policed by the church's actual leaders -- the bishops -- for their own good. They are leaders only until the real leaders remind them who's in charge. Even the sisters know that much.


Commenting Guidelines

Mark: no one has proposed that vowed religious women are beyond reproach. Go troll elsewhere.

THAT'S trolling, Mollie? I actually put a lot of thought into that comment. And, in fact, I think it can be fairly inferred from more than one of the comments that vowed religious women are above reproach.

"... if for this reason such Christians were to abandon the entire Christian thought-world, then they would be moving beyond Jesus."Thomas --An orthodox description would be that they "had moved AWAY FROM Jesus". As Jim P. noted, you have to watch those prepositions.Have you ever noticed that dictionaries don't really define prepositions. They don't give proper definitions but do give loads of examples of their uses? (How would you define the meaning of "of"?) Very weird words. (Weird because they're relations? Again, that mysterious category of relations.)

"I think it can be fairly inferred from more than one of the comments that vowed religious women are above reproach."I think it can be inferred, but the adjective "fairly" isn't correct. Maybe "poutily," to coin a word.It is the practice of modern illogic when the argument is perceived as being lost to begin throwing silly comments out there about the people who seem to have the better argument. In this instance, it's almost as if people are finally reading the context of the talk and not seeing where the CDF is on this. Is that a fair inference?I've read a lot of commentary the past five days on the CDF/LCWR, and even the sisters' own statements. People seem to be conceding that not every woman religious is well behaved. But that has no impact on the greater issue: the independence of religious orders from the hierarchy.Bishops and clergy have other options, though probably unpopular or unpleasant ones. They could eject women religious from diocesan and parish ministry. They could conduct particular investigations of individuals, like Laurie Brink or other speakers they deem inadequate. Cardinal Wuerl pumped up Elizabeth Johnson's book sales in that way. So maybe that's undesirable.Women religious have problems like any other group of Catholics. There: I said it. I mean it. But most of their problems are their own. As for the ones that are not, I've found them to be more than willing to collaborate with people who are interested in serious discernment. This issue doesn't really seem to have the legs it once had. Cardinal Rode has been ejected. The new kids in town seem to be talking reconciliation. Seems unlikely that the Temple Police will be crowing about the result. I vote we let the whole darned affair die out and let's get on with the real work of the Gospel.

" .. not every woman religious is well behaved .."Nor is every member of the hierarchy, the lower clergy or the male religious orders.Nor is every member of the non-religious laity.In other words: they are we and we are they.

It is the practice of modern illogic when the argument is perceived as being lost to begin throwing silly comments out there about the people who seem to have the better argument.ToddI agree!I vote we... get on with the real work of the Gospel.I agree again.BTW, I only pout when no Philadelphia sports teams reach the post-season.

Ann, Brink clearly said "beyond" not "away from." You might be able to make a case that the CDF understands this "beyond" as "away from," but you should ask Ms Brink if that is what she means before you put prepositions in her mouth.The sense of "beyond Christ" should be clear to educated or spiritually experienced people. Endo's Silence gives an example of it, the struggle to stay faithful to Christ when the only way to do that is to renounce Him. Game of thrones has Jon Snow confront a similar struggle. It is heart and soul of novels by Graham Greene, Flannery O'Connor, etc. Pope JP2 spent his papacy encouraging people to "put out into the deep", another version of going "beyond Christ." That is why the report on the LCWR is so vexing; the complaints are about things that the Vatican has been teaching but they don't like the consequences. (the ordination of women is the clearest example; they demanded an end to discussion, and now complain about the sisters' silence)

"Brink clearly said beyond not away from. You might be able to make a case that the CDF understands this beyond as away from, but you should ask Ms Brink if that is what she means before you put prepositions in her mouth."Jim McK --Sorry if I didn't make myself clear. My point was that Brink was *not* being orthodox. Yes, one might say with no breach of orthodoxy that sometimes one must move not beyond *Christ* but, rather, beyond *our understanding of* Christ. Surely that happens often. Maybe that's what Brink meant, but from her choice of words you wouldn't know it. In other words, it's difficult to see how she can plead ambiguity.

Ann, Do you think that is a charitable reading of her comments? It seems condescending to me, saying she meant "her understanding of Christ" and not "Christ to whom we have devoted our lives." One reason I mentioned the literature is to avoid that condescension; the choice in Silence is not simply about understanding.

Jim McK ==It seems to me that the charitable way to read a text is to assume that the writer is saying what he/she thinks, and when a context indicates that the text is meant literally, then I think it is fair to read it literally. It follows that it isn't fair to blame a reader for not getting the right meaning. So it's unfair to fault the Curia for its interpretation of this particular text. It's up to Brink to qualify it and revise it if necessary. Of course, the CDF didn't know they had misinterpreted it before it bashed her publicly, and that was totally reprehensible. But her lack of clarity and their lack of due process are two different issues.

Jim McK - I don't know how to interpret the word "beyond" without including some notion of "away from".

"Beyond" is a preposition, and as such is tricky to nail down. Sometimes even when the speaker is sure herself what she thinks she means.Jesus is attributed with saying "No one can come to the Father except through me."I don't know what the Greek original is, or what the Lord's preposition in the original langauge might have been. But it seems to me that "through" could be put to the same scrutiny as "beyond," and the adversary would still be in the same position: trying to ferret out the meaning, lacking any sort of dialogue with the original speaker.If we're dredging up the charge of apostasy, then it would seem to require an explicit announcement on the part of the people accused. We don't have that.Worst case, this is a seriously disputed point. Does it seem prudent that one puts a national organization into receivership because the investigators themselves seem to have no clear idea of what's going on here? It is more plausible that they have a pre-determined result in mind, and they will collect information (I wouldn't call it evidence) to satisfy that result.The CDF's problem here is that as defenders of the faith, they lack the credibility to actually conduct a just investigation. Either way this matter plays out, some Catholics will have significant doubts. Is that any way to run an institution? I don't think so.

"I dont know what the Greek original is, or what the Lords preposition in the original langauge might have been. But it seems to me that through could be put to the same scrutiny as beyond, and the adversary would still be in the same position: trying to ferret out the meaning, lacking any sort of dialogue with the original speaker."There is an underground bunker deep beneath the Canadian Rockies that houses for posterity the dissertations and articles on the subject of prepositions in the New Testament.

Todd - yes, I agree, "through" is another interesting one to consider.To expand my comment to the larger group: If I may, I'd like to call attention to this 2003 article that appeared in America Magazine. It was authored by Sr. Patricia McCann, RSM. I think it will be of interest to this group for several reasons: it covers some of the same territory that the paragraphs of Sr. Brink's presentation which we're considering here also covers: what it would mean to move "beyond Christ". Sr. McCann's article, entitled, "Catholic Identity, New Age and Women Religious" considers one possible destination of persons or orders who move "beyond Christ" - that is, New Age spirituality. I think it's likely that this movement from Catholic spirituality and institutional alignment to a New Age spirituality with a more ambiguous institutional alignment is one of the fears of the CDF and other church authorities. The article is written with a good deal of sympathy toward the sisters, their history of mistreatment by church authorities, and the call for a new discernment that came from Vatican II.The URL is here: found this article to be a helpful touchpoint in interpreting the "beyond Christ" passage from Sr. Brink's presentation. As Mollie has called out a couple of times now, Sr. Brink did note that moving "beyond Christ" cannot but mean that an order's ties to the Catholic church would be attenuated, perhaps even severed. I think it's fair to interpret Sr. Brink's words as a warning to her listeners that there are serious implications to moving "beyond Christ".

Abe --You can mock the discussion of prepositions, but if they don't have a lot of meaning then why do we use so many? How much meaning is left when you take the prepositions out of a sentence? The main problem with them, I think, is that so many of them had (and still have) original meanings rooted in space and time, e.g., "in", but they are used for non-spatial and temporal relations, e.g. "he's in love", "the right to religious freedom is in the Constitution". Even more than with other parts of speech, relational words seem to be determined by contexts, which complicates our search for their meanings.To add to the complexity, prepositions aren't the only relational words. Consider, "There was nothing left". "Left" seems to express some sort of relation, but I'd be hard put to define what that relation is, and it seems to me that it expresses a lot more than just a relation --it's very verbal. Still, I think we do know fairly clearly what its basic meaning is in that sentence.

This reminds me of the infamous paragraph 21 from Liturgiam Authenticam:21. Especially in the translations intended for peoples recently brought to the Christian Faith, fidelity and exactness with respect to the original texts may themselves sometimes require that words already in current usage be employed in new ways, that new words or expressions be coined, that terms in the original text be transliterated or adapted to the pronunciation of the vernacular language, or that figures of speech be used which convey in an integral manner the content of the Latin expression even while being verbally or syntactically different from it. Such measures, especially those of greater moment, are to be submitted to the discussion of all the Bishops involved before being inserted into the definitive draft. In particular, caution should be exercised in introducing words drawn from non-Christian religions.That viewpoint has justified declaring that "for many" encompasses everyone, and that "venerable" does not evoke "old". (We know that the opinions "of all the Bishops involved" were ignored, so that sentence is moot.) That is, words mean whatever the Vatican decides. If the CDF declares that the meaning of "beyond Christ" is unacceptable, then that's how it is: as we see with the new missal, they're the ones who get to decide what our words mean.

It's a gentle, knowing mockery, Ann, based on my own experience of studying and teaching the issue. (FWIW, in Todd's example, the preposition is "dia," used to express agency. The issue is that understanding the syntax doesn't necessarily explain the ins-and-outs of how the agency works).In your example, "left" is the passive participle of "leave," but it is for all intents and purposes serving as an adjective modifying "nothing."

I suppose that it sounds as though I have a one-track mind. Every time I hear the Mass in English, it renews my anger, and for the next couple of weeks I see everything that happens in the church through that lens. End of side note.

All this fuss about MSW getting his rigidly-male-Christology/magisterium panties in a bunch over a woman religious expressing a novel, feminine-perspective insight in a re-imaging of the Christ for a post-modern Church that has been led to ruin and ridicule in the rest of the world by an aging all-male feudal oligarchy?!? You'd think that the hierarchs [including hierarch-wannabe MSW] would welcome a little breath of fresh air thinking? What happened to all that "aggriornamento" Francis is trying to rekindle???Really??? You people have too much time on your hands.As my sainted sixth-grade teacher, Sister Mary Adelaide, would say: "Consider the source."I long ago have withdrawn from any debate in Roman circles about which requisite genitalia are required in order to hold legitimate theological and pastoral opinions.Please people, this is the 21st century. It's time to move-on.

Jesus said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."Beyond Christ?? Sure seems like a contradiction to me.

Meh. Not to me.

Note Jesus did not say "except through belief in me as spelled out in the Catechism of the Church".

Thanks to both Jim Jenkins and Jim Hohman for saying what many others think.

I have a question for anybody who would like to answer it:If Jesus came to the blog and asked: "Who do you say I am?", what would you answer?

Ann, I believe Jesus is God incarnate, by whose grace we are redeemed. Bruce is using "no one comes to the Father except through me" to seemingly assert that belief in Jesus and doctrine as interpreted by the CDF is required.My problem with this interpretation is that it seems to suggest a one-way engagement: the Father is a stationary object, Jesus is a stationary gateway, and we only get there by ensuring our beliefs and actions are consistent with Catholic teachings, as interpreted by the CDF.Isn't God reaching out to all of us, gifting us with grace? We are not saving ourselves, God is. Am I inconsistent with Christian thought if I believe that non-Christians are and always have been receiving that same grace, and that Christ is gathering all to the Father? In other words, our salvation is through Christ.

Bruce is using no one comes to the Father except through me to seemingly assert that belief in Jesus and doctrine as interpreted by the CDF is required.Actually Jim, you mischaracterize my statement. Rather, Jesus statement directly contradicts 'moving beyond Christ' as somehow equivalent to 'following Christ'. Further, observations about non-Christians are completely irrelevant since the audience is Catholic nuns. I imagine Christ judges differently those who have heard his word and those who have not, even if both are following the exact same path. While I certainly agree that God is giving us all grace and offers all salvation, we remain free to accept or reject his offer. But to some of us he has given us more knowledge and help in the form of the Church, and I would expect that he would judge us differently than those without such earthly aids. Maybe I'm wrong in that assumption, but I would prefer not to bet my salvation by taking the other side of that assumption.

"Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father."Beyond Christ? So much for John 14:12.

Sac Longchamp pas cher...I sympathetic your article.Your article is like a big tree, so that we can squat in your tree, feel yourself a real. I feel very moved, very empathy....