Every day for years I’ve prayed the liturgy of the hours and attended daily Mass. I say a rosary each day, join my parish for a novena, participate in exposition and benediction, play the organ, and still have favorite Latin hymns. I’ve taught the documents of Vatican II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and encyclicals of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I’ve never worn full-length religious garb but do wear the modified habit of my congregation. I cooperated graciously with the apostolic visitation, as did all of the sisters in my community.
I was also a member of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) for several years, very recently. (I write anonymously because I work in a leadership position in my diocese, and wouldn’t want to put my bishop—or my community—in a difficult position.) Like many others, I am deeply distressed by the document produced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and the effect it is having on women religious around the country. And I must concur with the national board of the LCWR in its sense that accusations made against it are “unsubstantiated” and the “sanctions…disproportionate.”
Overall, the document I’ve read and reread does not square with my experience of the LCWR. True, there are some members I’d consider “out there” ecclesiologically and politically. They are, however, also deeply committed to the following of Christ and idealistic about the past, present, and future of religious life. Also true is the fact that a number of women religious, including their leaders, have not had the advantage of an extensive theological education. I’m reminded of the fact that in the mid-1970s Mother Kathryn Sullivan, RSCJ, a Scripture scholar who spent at least half her year in Rome at the Biblicum, reminded us that Catholic women had long been barred from doing doctoral work in Scripture and theology at Catholic institutions. Her doctorate, therefore, had been earned at the University of Pennsylvania.
In the years since, any number of sisters have earned masters degrees in biblical studies, pastoral ministry, and theology. Some few have also attained doctorates—PhD or DMin—in theological and ministerial specialties. Not all have been officers or board members of the LCWR. So perhaps there have been actions or statements of the LCWR leadership that have not been fine-tuned or given a good theological review.
However, a number of statements in the CDF document strike me as patently inaccurate, misleading, and unfair. I cannot attest to whether the LCWR featured or supported New Ways Ministry before the Vatican forced the resignation of Fr. Robert Nugent* and Sr. Jeannine Gramick from its leadership. I do know that when Sr. Jeannine had been counseled to be silent on issues pertaining to the church and homosexuals, she petitioned to be given a forum at one of the LCWR national assemblies—against the wishes not only of Rome but of her congregational leadership. After considerable discussion among the entire body of LCWR membership present, she was not given that platform. After that assembly, I did what one speaker had recommended we do individually: express to bishops we met our concern for compassionate care and outreach to gay and lesbian people on the part of the church. As I recall, no one argued in favor of marriage rights. I have not been privy to every meeting or every discussion or every draft of statements in the years since that assembly, but I bear an indelible memory of a painful and sometimes heated discussion that came to what seemed to me a very balanced and nuanced conclusion.
What’s more, many of us have signed vigorously prolife statements; participated in rosary rallies, forty-days-for-life observances, the annual marches in January; and have been scrupulously faithful to magisterial guidelines, including those set forth in John Paul II’s Evangelium vitae, in our health care facilities, in our teaching, and in decisions we have made as those bearing power of attorney for members facing extremely difficult end-of-life situations. I’m offended at being characterized by association as being insufficiently prolife.
What I have valued deeply in the LCWR is that its members have called attention to policies and practices that offend our Catholic life ethic or our Catholic social teaching in ways that have sometimes gone unnoticed. For example, the LCWR, along with the International Union of Superiors General, highlighted the problem of human trafficking long before others took notice. At LCWR meetings I learned what multinational corporations were doing to illiterate peasants and squatters, what was happening at detention centers in the aftermath of 9/11, and how immigration laws and crackdowns on undocumented people were affecting families. LCWR has served as a consciousness-raiser for those of us who are not on the mailing list of every justice group and aren’t among sisters who have participated in organized protests. Because of LCWR, my congregational leadership signed on to the Earth Charter and a number of other causes that otherwise would not have crossed our minds.
The liturgical controversy in the CDF document seems to be twofold. One issue is the content of public prayer and the celebration of Eucharistic liturgies. I’ve probably attended more regional than national gatherings, but I am one of those liturgically sensitive people. The opening and closing prayers at LCWR meetings have always been devotional, reverent, and creative. The Masses always seemed well within rubrical guidelines. There were locations for smaller daily liturgies as well as the large whole-convention liturgy. These daily liturgies were sometimes held at hotels, sometimes at nearby parishes, and were celebrated by priests of the dioceses where we met, or priests from the men’s group for major superiors.
The other liturgical issue—and one about which considerable ado is made in the CDF document—is the question of the ordination of women. References to actions taken and statements made harking back to 1977-79 highlight this discussion. When Sr. Teresa Kane, RSM, stood up in the basilica in Washington, D.C., and appealed to Pope John Paul II for the full equality of women in roles of ministry in the church, I thought her action was imprudent and ill-advised. Years later, she received a standing ovation at an LCWR meeting, and I joined the applause--not for what she said to the pope, but because I’d bumped into her several times in a small chapel in Pittsburgh and saw her faithfulness to prayer.
I had also learned of the heroism of her sisters who were advocating for poor women amid tremendous threat from the Shining Path in Peru. At the time, Sr. Kane was struggling with cancer, yet still strong in her sense of serving the voiceless. Admiration for a person does not imply endorsement of everything she has said or done.
The CDF document charges that LCWR never officially repudiated those early actions or statements regarding the ordination of women. With the presidency changing every year and membership shifting with every election held by the membership orders and congregations, that means that the makeup of the assembly changes from year to year. It seems strange to expect new membership to undertake a review of what past members have done and issue commendations or condemnations.
Strangely, the CDF document repeatedly refers to what “some members” are or are not doing. For example, the CDF objects that “some members” put greater emphasis on professional formation than doctrinal formation for those in initial formation and in offerings for the ongoing formation of their professed members. It is difficult to put that generalization in context. 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).
Finally, it’s helpful for any ecclesial group to have a bishop as a chaplain or liaison. But it seems strange for the Vatican to give Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, who is not a professed religious, authority over an organization whose members are religious. Having a Redemptorist in Rome overseeing the conclusion of the apostolic visitation is one thing. Having someone in charge who has not experienced consecrated life in community seems quite another.
As all of us try to digest the practical effects of the CDF’s action, I find myself simply hoping for clear water and a cabin in the woods in which to take shelter. Forty years ago I could have pursued the independent professional life I had already undertaken, married or not married the man of the hour, kept my car, bought a house, charted my career path, moved far from home, befriended many people, espoused many causes, and continued attending Mass at the Puerto Rican and Irish parish around the corner. While scores of my peers were leaving formation programs and being dispensed from their vows, I came to religious life and stayed. I wonder now why that choice has become so suspect.
Meanwhile, the convent supper I ate immediately before writing this article was prepared for us by a mother whose three children we watched and fed a few weeks ago while she was at a police station reporting that she’d been raped while alone at her job. She brought so much food that we resolved to share it with our neighbor and the three boys who wish their father was home for dinner rather than deployed in Afghanistan. Somehow these day-to-day realities seem worthy of my energy and perseverance.
At bottom, my life as “Sister” is about serving with Christ, in Christ, and to some extent as Christ for the sake of the people on my street, in my town, and within reach. My life as “Sister” is about translating the good news into a knock on a door, a meal for children, a listening ear, a word of comfort. I know that walking with people through their messy and complex lives is good reason not to head for the hills or to expend too much energy being vexed by a turn of events which will, in the long roll of history, likely be interpreted as one of many distractions of the early twenty-first-century church. When it comes to the impulse to flee and become a hermit, I have to admit that it isn’t what Jesus would do. And, as far as that clear water is concerned, I’ll just have to heed the lesson learned by the Samaritan woman—who, by the way, led others too.
* Correction: this article originally referred to "Br. Robert Nugent."
Related: Cross Examination, by Sister X