Moving beyond the Church? The CDF and the LCWR

The CDF's "Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious" is, in my reading, rather short on evidence of the LCWR's urgent need for reform. One of the few concrete examples given is a keynote address (pdf) delivered by Laurie Brink, OP, at the 2007 LCWR assembly:

The Cardinal [William Levada] offered as an example specific passages of Sr. Laurie Brink's address about some Religious "moving beyond the Church" or even beyond Jesus. This is a challenge not only to core Catholic beliefs; such a rejection of faith is also a serious source of scandal and is incompatible with religious life. Such unacceptable positions routinely go unchallenged by the LCWR...

Was Sr. Brink rejecting core Catholic beliefs in her address? The Elizabeth Johnson affair has made me skeptical of such claims, so I decided I ought to read her talk for myself.

The subject of Sr. Brink's address was the various ways congregations of women religious might confront their futures. After each section, there is an invitation for the sisters present to discuss the points raised among themselves, and I must say, reading it, I felt like I was eavesdropping. It wasn't addressed to me, and their discussions should not be constrained by what outside observers might take out of context. But now that the CDF has made it a matter of general interest, I'm glad I read it. I found that the section referred to above was not at all what the CDFs description led me to expect. I also found that the rest of the address was relevant to the CDF's concerns in a number of suprising ways.

What, Sr. Brink asked her listeners, can a congregation of women religious do with the difficult realities of shrinking membership, aging members, and so forth? She described four possible paths that congregations might take -- but first she laid out the goal any such congregation should have in mind:

We have lost our prophetic place on the margins, having gravitated toward the middle of society and fallen off the edge of the Church. The stories in Scripture can provide a compass by which we reorient ourselves so that we may more enthusiastically seek holiness, enliven our charisms, and pursue the Mission of Jesus.

That sounds an awful lot like what the CDF says the LCWR and its member congregations ought to do: "The work of any conference of major superiors of women Religious can and should be a fruitful means of addressing the contemporary situation and supporting religious life in its most 'radical' sense -- that is, the faith in which it is rooted."

Let's skip forward to the section of Brink's address the CDF quotes, very briefly, in its assessment. The third option Brink describes is "Sojourning," in which a congregation "moves away from the center." (She has just defined the center as "the Mission of Jesus" and "the Church as Tradition, the Church as Sacrament, the Church as Hierarchy and the Church as People of God"). "A sojourning congregation is no longer ecclesiastical," she says. "Religious titles, institutional limitations, ecclesiastical authorities no longer fit this congregation, which in most respects is Post-Christian." In other words, some groups of sisters might decide that their differences with the Catholic Church -- their distance from the "center" -- require them to cease to define themselves as operating within that Church. Brink doesn't recommend this option or say that she hopes anyone will embrace it. She says it's one of the four possible choices a congregation might make, something I don't think is in dispute (and something I don't think was news to any of her listeners). 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.

The following, I grant you, is the sort of thing that justifiably makes orthodoxy antennas buzz: "Who's to say that the movement beyond Christ is not, in reality, a movement into the very heart of God?" The CDF's main beef with this talk and what it represents about the LCWR, as far as I can make out, is that, from the CDF's perspective, this is not a rhetorical question. Their answer is: "Who's to say it? You are, in your capacity as leaders, and if you don't say it, Rome will have to do it for you." They don't want the LCWR to be offering up topics for discussion and hoping that its member congregations will, in a spirit of prayerful discernment, arrive at a decision consistent with the heart and mind of the Church. They want the LCWR to clearly inform its members what such a decision would look like. These are competing notions of leadership, and which is the more appropriate is something the officers of the LCWR will have to work out with their new episcopal partners.

But don't stop reading there and come away with the idea that Sr. Brink thinks anything goes in the world of Catholic sisters. She goes on to clarify that such a movement beyond Christ would be "a movement the ecclesiastical system would not recognize...a whole new way that is also not Catholic Religious Life." Her example is "The Benedictine Women of Madison... They are certainly religious women, but they are no longer women religious as it is defined by the Roman Catholic Church. They [chose] as a congregation to step outside the Church in order to step into a greater sense of holiness. Theirs was a choice of integrity, insight and courage."

If that sounds to you like Sr. Brink is praising people for stepping away from Christ, ask yourself how it's any different from what critics of women religious (or any other progressive Catholics) have said all along: if you don't like it, why don't you leave? If you can't assent in obedience and faith to what the Church requires, shouldn't honesty motivate you to stop calling yourself "Catholic"? We've all heard it; some of you have said it. (Don't do it here at dotCommonweal, by the way.) But if you are tempted to quote from this address as evidence that the LCWR is leading souls astray, you'd better make sure you've never helpfully suggested that anyone "step outside the Church" rather than work out their discomfort from within it.

The final option Sr. Brink enumerates is the one she endorses personally: "Reconciliation is not the only choice," she says, "but it is my choice, because it is also my church."

If there is to be a future for women religious that upholds our dignity as reflections of the divine equal to that of our brothers, respects our baptismal promises, and honors our commitment to the Mission of Jesus, we must first be reconciled with the institutional Church. Such an effort will cost us dearly.

The address is from 2007, before the investigation of LCWR or the visitation of religious communities in the United States was announced. But what Sr. Brink says in this last section feels quite relevant, and I wonder whether it wasn't this part that really got the CDF's attention.

Are we not victims of patriarchy within our society and church? Have we not -- individually and corporately -- felt the heavy hand of church politics? Has not the rigidity of the hierarchy set a poor example for its priests, who, formed in a spirit of domination and dogma, become not servants of Christ but stalwart soldiers of the Vatican? And therefore, as vocal victims, arent we the best ones to extend an invitation to be reconciled?...These words must first begin with the address, "My brother bishops..." Until we as congregations of women religious initiate a process of reconciliation with our ecclesiastical brothers, we cannot hope to have much of an impact elsewhere.

I don't see that the reconciliation process has gotten very far since then. But I sincerely wish the sisters and their brother bishops every success in seeing it through.

P.S. I am indebted to Bryan Cones at U.S. Catholic for the link to Sr. Brink's address, and his take on the CDF's brief against the LCWR is worth reading.

Update (4/24): Fr. Francis Clooney has done a careful reading of and response to Sr. Brink's talk at America's "In All Things" blog. Read it here.

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

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