Mollie Wilson O'Reilly

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

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The CDF vs. the LCWR: postgame analysis

Now that hostilities have ceased between the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, it is hard to resist the temptation to declare a winner. Certainly, the conclusion of the whole unfortunate episode, with this week’s release of a brief and anodyne “joint final report” and follow-up meeting between LCWR leadership and the pope, has been as positive an ending, from the sisters’ perspective, as anyone could have hoped for. Some credibility was salvaged for the CDF, as (and, I would argue, because) the sisters held their ground on their commitment to collaborative leadership and mutually respectful dialogue. But nobody really won—no one could have won a conflict that never should have happened this way to begin with, one that exposed real fault lines in the church relating to sex and power and the relationship between the two and ended without directly addressing, much less repairing them.

The first thing that strikes me about the “final report” released last week is that it is a “Joint Final Report.” The whole thing started with the CDF attempting to bring the allegedly out-of-line nuns to heel with an exercise of authority whose origins were muddled and unexplained. It was hard to imagine back when Cardinal Levada was charging the LCWR – a stand-in, it seemed, for various individuals and communities among its member organizations, who went mostly unnamed in the CDF’s complaints – with being soft on doctrine and derelict in supporting bishops’ initiatives and priorities that the whole episode would end with anything other than another authoritative “assessment” from the Vatican. One could only hope the CDF’s conclusion would be a little more informed about what the LCWR actually is and does and a little less hostile to the work sisters do and the faith that informs the choices they make. But enter Pope Francis – and Cardinal Gerhard Müller as the new head of the CDF, and Archbishop Peter Sartain to take charge of the CDF’s reform mandate – and, praise the Lord, we find ourselves ending with a collaborative statement signed by both bishops and nuns, as though they had been pleasantly investigating each other all along.

The statement, it seems clear to me, is designed to allow both sides to save face. It describes various measures being undertaken by the LCWR, but few radical changes – the revision of the LCWR’s statues was already underway before the investigation began, and the promises that speakers and publications will be responsibly vetted seem to address the CDF’s broad concerns while not necessarily requiring any departure from the LCWR’s current procedures. The most embarrassing parts of the CDF’s assessment, meanwhile, are ignored. There is no response to the expression of concern that “feminism” might be taking root among women religious. There is no reference to the accusation that the sisters have been “silent on the right to life” or have not spent enough time and effort on supporting their bishops’ priorities. And the whole thing concludes with a kind of mission statement that reads more like a commendation than an admission of fault or a concession of defeat:

"Listen & Other Stories" by Liam Callanan

Fiction fans, you may remember Liam Callanan's short story "Exhibit A," which we had the good fortune -- and good taste -- to publish in Commonweal last summer.

It's a boy!

Happy news from my post at large, here in the wilds of Westchester: our third son, Eamon Joseph, was born just after midnight on March 10, weighing nine pounds, five ounces -- a new family record. His older brothers welcomed him home with enthusiasm and much noise. We are all healthy and happy and grateful for your prayers and well-wishes.

At Large

Yesterday, the latest issue of Commonweal arrived at my door, and it startled me to realize that I hadn’t seen the cover before that moment. I was getting my first look at it like any other subscriber would. It was a reminder that I am now, officially and wistfully, an editor “at large.”

I’ve been working part-time in the Commonweal offices since my first child was born in 2011, and thriving on the balance of work and family I’m lucky enough to have carved out for myself thanks to a flexible employer and an extremely supportive husband (not to mention invaluable help from my in-laws and some other dedicated babysitters and friends). But—Pope Francis’s remarks about Catholics’ obligations vis-à-vis rabbits having come too late to be any help to me—I am due in a few weeks to give birth to my third child, and with three kids under four I have to admit I’ve met my match, at least for the short term.

So, I am now officially an associate editor “at large,” maintaining a foothold at the magazine I love while focusing on the family that, for now, demands the greater part of my attention and energy (and that, yes, I also love). I like the “at large” title because it makes my status sound exotic and mysterious. It suggests that I am hard to track down, when in fact on any given day I am almost certainly at home—especially these snowy, icy, late-third-trimester days—and that I am pursuing any number of exciting projects, when in reality I am most likely doing laundry. 

A Short Play About Thoughtfulness

Scene: 6:15 a.m. My bedroom. I am asleep. My three-year-old child enters from the bathroom.


CHILD (stage whisper): Mommy!

ME: ...What?

CHILD: Know why I didn't flush?

ME: ...Why?

CHILD: So it wouldn't wake you up.


He goes back to bed.


The New Republic positions itself for the future by looking at its past

It's still hard to know where the project will end up, or how much of the old New Republic will live on in it, but it must be said that the new New Republic has been having a very good week.

First there's the excellent cover story, by Jeet Heer, in the magazine's new issue -- its first since the December 2014 conflagration that was much discussed here and elsewhere.

The initial cries of outrage over owner Chris Hughes's determination to make the storied journal over into a "vertically integrated digital media company," which took the form of mournful (and well-deserved) encomia for the best of TNR's long history and the best work of its recently departed big names, were followed by more ambivalent reactions to the apparent death of the old TNR that focused on that magazine's spotty history of opining on matters of race and foreign policy as well as its occasional dramatic journalistic lapses (Stephen Glass, Betsy McCaughey...).

Now, the magazine relaunches, so to speak, with a cover story examining "The New Republic's Legacy on Race." It's a canny bit of public-relations positioning, to be sure; it lends some after-the-fact integrity to Hughes's decision to remake the magazine root and branch (if you're willing to assume the decimation of his staff was part of the plan all along). But it's also a very good article in its own right. Heer, a historian, does not simply recall the lowlights of the Peretz era or rehash the controversy over then-editor Andrew Sullivan's decision to publish an excerpt from Charles Murray's The Bell Curve. He goes back to the magazine's founding, in 1914, to trace its successes as well as its failures over the last century. "At its best moments," he writes, "the magazine has been a beacon of fact-based reporting and a forum for rich debate over racial issues. At its worst, the magazine has fallen under the sway of racial theorizing and crackpot racial lore."

A sister's witness to history

To mark Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the Journal News of the Lower Hudson Valley (my local paper) has a front-page story about Maryknoll sister Madeline Dorsey, who was in Selma for the events that became known as "Bloody Sunday." There's a powerful photo of Dorsey and other marchers -- sisters, priests, and white and black demonstrators -- with some background on how she ended up at the front of that group:

Cardinal Burke's vision of a manly church, and what it leaves out

When it comes to policing grammar and usage, as any editor must, there are shifts in what is considered acceptable that it is fruitless to fight against. Ending a sentence with a preposition, splitting infinitives, using "decimate" to mean "destroy almost completely"—there's no compelling reason to resist any of those things, aside from pedantry for its own sake. But I will always hold the line on the misuse of "beg the question" to mean "raise the question." I don't care if it gets past the copy-editors at the New Yorker; it must not win the day. And the reason I resist is that "begging the question" is an important concept, and when we want to talk about it, we ought to have a phrase that clearly points it out. I was glad to be able to call on it in the final paragraph of my most recent Commonweal column, where I wrote this: "Who knows: maybe my kids will grow up to be the ones who can explain the all-male priesthood to me in a way that makes sense—who can offer a theological justification that doesn’t sound like begging the question."

Now, in his recent eyebrow-raising interview with (yes) the New Emangelization, Cardinal Raymond Burke has given us all a perfect and dismayingly high-profile example of what I'm talking about. He says:

I think that [the introduction of female altar servers] has contributed to a loss of priestly vocations. It requires a certain manly discipline to serve as an altar boy in service at the side of [a] priest, and most priests have their first deep experiences of the liturgy as altar boys. If we are not training young men as altar boys, giving them an experience of serving God in the liturgy, we should not be surprised that vocations have fallen dramatically.

What is it about serving as an altar boy that is "manly"? Well, the fact that it is similar to what a priest does, and what a priest does is manly by virtue of the fact that only a man can be a priest. "It requires a certain manly discipline," Burke says, but then later he concedes that "girls were also very good at altar service" once they were allowed to try it. So maybe it doesn't require any distinctly manly aptitude after all. As we have seen, this is a familiar part of traditionalists' argument for restricting the role of altar server to boys: the notion that they won't be interested in doing it if it's not something only boys can do. Thus my impression that most common defenses of the all-male priesthood, and the choices we make to maintain it, are begging the question: Unless you take for granted that the priesthood is properly and necessarily reserved to men, a role only a man can fulfill, none of this stuff meant to support that idea—e.g., claims about altar servers needing to be "manly"—makes any sense.

It should be clear from my column that my cultural assumptions are basically the opposite of Burke's: he thinks young boys need to be raised with a strong sense that the roles open to them are open only to them because of their incipient manliness; I think it is bad to impose arbitrary gender-role boundaries on children before they've had any chance to develop a sense of self based on their individual gifts and inclinations. Burke, or his fellow traditionalists, would reply that the boundaries they value are not arbitrary. But if so, why do they require such effortful reinforcement? Burke points to the pernicious influence of "radical feminism," but he seems to mean just "feminism." I don't deny that there's any significance to gender or sex in personal development. But I have faith that the non-arbitrary boundaries that will guide my sons into their future lives as men will assert themselves without much help from me. It's the assumptions they will make about where women fit into the picture that I'm worried about.

In short, I don't want them to look at the world the way Cardinal Burke seems to, as though women were not worthy of much consideration at all. Oh, when he mentions women he knows enough to say positive things. "Women are wonderful, of course," he says, and later: "It is easier to engage women because our sisters tend to be very generous and talented." But he doesn't mention us much. And what he says about men—who are, after all, the subject of this interview—is most notable, to my mind, for the way it leaves women out of the picture altogether.

Not everyone was happy with the Vatican's thank-you note to U.S. sisters

The final report (.pdf here) on the "apostolic visitation" of U.S. sisters, after effusively praising them for their work and witness over the course of seven pages, concludes on a high note, fit for the Advent season:

Our times need the credible and attractive witness of consecrated religious who demonstrate the redemptive and transformative power of the Gospel. Convinced of the sublime dignity and beauty of consecrated life, may we all pray for and support our women religious and actively promote vocations to the religious life.

Indeed, the entire Church sings the Magnificat to celebrate the great things that God does for women religious and for his people through them.

Hear hear. But not everyone is joining the chorus. The mood at the National Catholic Register, for example, is rather somber. Ann Carey, who has dedicated herself for years to exposing the distasteful excesses of American nuns, is clearly disappointed that the visitation process did not result in the public scolding she feels is warranted. Still, the report is not just a "love letter," she points out in her "news analysis" for the Register: "A careful reading of the report reveals that, while some issues were ignored, there was an effort to point out that certain areas of religious life among U.S. sisters do need improvement."

The allusions in the report to areas that might need improvement are not that hard to suss out; determining that "some issues were ignored" on the basis of what's in that report requires more of an effort. Carey has her own ideas about what issues should have been addressed more forcefully:

For example, in discussing the lack of religious vocations, the report noted that vocation personnel find that candidates often prefer to live in community and wear religious garb. The report notes this is a “challenge” to orders that do not have that lifestyle, but it gives no counsel to orders to stop blurring the lines between religious life and secular life, something many orders of women religious freely admit they are doing.

They admit they're not wearing habits! We've got them dead to rights! Come on, CICLSAL, this was a gimme.

The report advises that private, individual reports will be sent to all the orders that were visited and those where problems were found. If directives are given by the congregation for religious for specific reforms in an order, that likely will not be known unless the order releases that information.

I did not mention that in my own response to the visitation report, and I probably should have, because it is important. This is from the report's introduction:

The Vatican's Thank-You Note to U.S. Sisters

To read the "Final Report on the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States of America," which was released this morning by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (or CICLSAL), you would think the aim of the whole project was to produce the world's wordiest (and most expensive) thank-you note.

CICLSAL is "sincerely grateful for the presence of women religious in the United States," and for the work that they have done "courageously" and "selflessly" for so many generations. That's on page 1 (click here and scroll down for links to the PDF of the report, and of the remarks at this morning's press conference). "The Dicastery expresses its gratitude to women religious" -- page 5. On p. 7, "this Congregation expresses its gratitude to the sisters who minister within their own communities for the precious service rendered to their institute and to the Church." And "once again," on p. 8, CICLSAL "wishes to express the profound gratitude of the Apostolic See and the Church in the United States for the dedicated and selfless service of women religious in all the essential areas of the life of the church and society."

Way back in 2008, when the visitation was first announced, it did not seem likely to end in a lengthy note of grateful recognition. That was partly because the news came alongside that of the CDF's doctrinal investigation of the LCWR, and partly because of the visitation's opaque origins and stated aims: "to look into the quality of life of religious women in the United States," in light of then-CICLSAL head Cardinal Franc Rodé's concerns about "a certain secularist mentality that has spread among these religious families, perhaps even a certain 'feminist' spirit."

It didn't take a cynical mind to feel pessimistic about a project aimed at exposing feminism among women's religious congregations. The whole point of that "Thank You, Sisters" campaign you may recall -- an outpouring of affection and support, in various media, from Catholic laypeople and priests -- was to counteract what looked like an uncalled-for attack on the lives of faithful U.S. sisters.

But that was years ago. CICLSAL has new leadership. We have a new pope, one who has troubled himself to say unambiguously positive things about women's contributions to the church (and the inadequacy of current provisions for same). The Year of Consecrated Life, the Vatican's tribute to vowed religious, has just begun. And the visitation itself -- which took three years and God knows how much money to complete -- was generally left to sisters themselves to conduct. The result, as Jim Martin has pointed out at America, is "a positive, sometimes adulatory" document that says nothing at all about feminism or any other supposed heresies, and communicates the challenges facing women's apostolic congregations in terms that the sisters themselves would recognize and affirm. That's a relief. It will go a long way toward repairing the strained relationship between the church's male hierarchy and its women religious -- though the ongoing LCWR investigation is obviously still a problem. As Sister X put it in Commonweal in 2009, "Any pastoral invitation to dialogue in the current visitation has largely been compromised by Cardinal Levada’s simultaneous investigation of the LCWR’s doctrinal orthodoxy."

But if the report is a relief and an affirmation, it also represents a huge waste of time, and of money.