A 'Hostile Takeover' of Women Religious

AFTER THE VATICAN’S “hostile takeover” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in April, I was particularly struck by one joke I encountered: “Go Catholic ... and leave the thinking to us.”

I laughed—but not much. That one, it seems, is too close to the truth these days.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), a major educational center for superiors of Catholic women’s religious orders in the U.S., was launched in 1956 at the urging of the Vatican. For years, it has been a venue where officers of every congregation of women religious are invited to meet, study, and consider together the role and place of women religious in the resolution of the issues of the time. Now the LCWR has been put under the control of three bishops: Peter Sartain of Seattle; Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio; and Thomas John Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois.

The officers and body of the LCWR—all superiors, prioresses, or other officials of major, longstanding institutions—are no longer authorized to plan its programs, engage its speakers, or create and implement its structures. Instead, Sartain, Blair, and Paprocki have been appointed to oversee the group: to approve its programs, create its constitutions, determine its operational procedures, and define the content of its conferences. As in, “Leave the thinking to us.”

As in, women can’t do it themselves. Or, women aren’t moral agents. Or, women don’t know what they’re doing. Or, the girls need to be controlled. Or, father knows best.

To sap the LCWR’s vision and spirit, risktaking and courage—the same qualities that over the years have opened convents in the wastelands, the badlands, and the marginalized ethnic communities of the United States—will drain the church of both presence and impact. And it will do so in a period when we have never more needed compassion, care, presence, risk, and understanding.

The fact that there is a “magisterium,” a body of the church composed of the bishops and under the authority of the pope, is not the problem. The fact that the role of the magisterium is to teach and interpret the rules of the faith is not the problem either.

The problem is that the teaching and interpretation of the faith must not be static but must develop in the light of the world in which we live. But in order to grow with the times, it is necessary to be close to those times. And that is where the sisters become the strength of the church.

Instructed by Vatican II to adapt their lives to “the signs of the times,” they did it. They saw the new pain around them and headed straight into it: into peace centers, into women’s issues, into the new poverties, into interfaith work, into social justice centers, as well as more deeply into adult education and health care and residential institutions. It took them into advocacy for minorities as well as into charity for the needy.

The “signs of the times” raised many questions, demanded much study, and took them into many public discussions. It also taught them that to admit that there are unanswered questions is not infidelity; it is the foundation of discernment. It is the beginning of growth. It is often the beginning of doing things differently in order to achieve what we have always valued.

The sisters have listened to every side of every question in an attempt to discern their best role in the church, their best gift to these people at this time. This has apparently made them, in the minds of some, a danger to the faith. How sad.

Even more disturbing is the fact that not one bishop, let alone the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has been put into receivership by the Vatican, however many pedophile priests were protected. No official document says that the bishops need guidance in their decision-making, however bad their decisions have been.

Only women are faced with that—the very women whose work with the poor might well be able to give the church its best information about where the church ought to be and what it ought to be doing there.

Joan Chittister, OSB, a Sojourners contributing editor, is executive director of Benetvision and a former president of LCWR.

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