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.

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

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