The increasing number of Catholics who have been calling for the Vatican to exert more influence on the Catholic Church in the U.S. are about to get their wish.
No sooner had the ink dried on our May 2009 New Oxford Note "Song of the Boo-Birds" about the now-underway apostolic visitation of U.S. women's religious orders that it was announced that the Holy See is preparing an additional investigation of consecrated women in the U.S.
As detailed in that New Oxford Note, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) was directed by Pope Benedict XVI to "look into the quality of life" at the general and provincial houses and centers of initial formation of women religious in the U.S. This visitation, led by the Rev. Mother Mary Claire Millea, will take an estimated two years to complete.
The new investigation, by contrast, has been placed under the purview of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which will make a "doctrinal assessment" of the tenor and content of various addresses given at the annual assemblies of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). The LCWR is the nation's largest organization of administrators of women's religious orders, claiming over 1,500 members, who together represent around 95 percent of the 58,000 women religious in the U.S. No small potatoes. The LCWR also happens to be the bastion of leftist feminism in the U.S. Catholic Church. The LCWR's mission statement includes this choice line: "Developing models for initiating and strengthening relationships with groups concerned with the needs of society, thereby maximizing the potential of the conference for effecting change." One of the LCWR's stated purposes is "collaborating in Catholic church and societal efforts that influence systemic change." Judging by this chirping about "change," one could easily conclude that the LCWR fancies itself the political body of the institutional revolution in religious life since Vatican II.
That a national leadership conference should be the subject of a doctrinal inquiry by the Holy See is "virtually unprecedented," says the always informative Vatican insider John L. Allen Jr. (National Catholic Reporter, May 1), because such tasks are commonly left to the competence of national bishops' conferences. Moreover, that the CDF, the highest doctrinal office in the Church, is spearheading the investigation — as opposed to the CICLSAL, which has jurisdiction over religious orders — suggests that Rome has grave concerns about the theological currents emanating from the LCWR's assemblies. Here is one instance in which Benedict's curious selection of William Cardinal Levada as prefect of the CDF will be of benefit: The American cardinal should have no trouble decoding "nuance" in the LCWR material to be scrutinized.
With three investigations concurrently underway — U.S. women's religious orders, the Legion of Christ (see the preceding New Oxford Note), and the LCWR — no one can say that the Vatican is sitting on its collective hands these days. Indeed, Rome has been a hotbed of activity of late.
The LCWR was apprised of the CDF's intent to investigate in a letter from Cardinal Levada dated February 20 and received March 10. He wrote that the investigation became necessary when, at their 2001 annual meeting, the CDF instructed the LCWR to "report on the initiatives taken or planned" to promote three areas of doctrinal concern: the CDF's 1986 "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons"; Pope John Paul II's 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which reiterated Church teaching on the all-male priesthood; and the CDF's 2001 declaration Dominus Iesus, which emphasized the uniqueness of the Catholic Church in the economy of salvation. Evidently, in the ensuing eight years, the report was never submitted. In his letter, Cardinal Levada wrote, "Given both the tenor and doctrinal content of various addresses given at the annual assemblies of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the intervening years, this Dicastery can only conclude that the problems which had motivated its request in 2001 continue to be present."
After consulting with Franc Cardinal Rodé, prefect of the CICLSAL, Cardinal Levada decided it was time to take action. He tapped Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, a member of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Doctrine, to lead the inquiry. Cardinal Rodé will assist Cardinal Levada in determining what measures will be necessary once Bishop Blair submits his completed report. (No timetable has been given.)
Donna Steichen, author of Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism, the groundbreaking 1991 exposé of U.S. women's religious orders, said in an interview with LifeSiteNews.com (Apr. 22) that she welcomes the CDF's inquiry, but that it's "at least 30 years behind the need." Steichen also pointed out that "the [religious] communities involved [in the LCWR] have almost completed their suicides, and they know it, and it gives them pause for thought."
The shaky future of women's religious orders in the U.S. was the theme of the keynote address at the LCWR's 2007 annual conference. Titled "A Marginal Life: Pursuing Holiness in the 21st Century" [PDF] and delivered by Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink, this talk "aroused particular concern" at the CDF, reports Jack Smith, editor of The Catholic Key, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. In her discussion of the decline of women's religious congregations in modern times, Sr. Brink identified four possible future paths for struggling congregations. The "dynamic option," she said, "involves moving beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus." This is the path chosen by what she termed the "sojourning" congregation. This type of congregation "is no longer ecclesiastical. It has grown beyond the bounds of institutional religion. Its search for the Holy may have begun rooted in Jesus as the Christ, but deep reflection, study and prayer have opened it up to the spirit of the Holy in all of creation." Sr. Brink continued, "Ecclesiastical authorities no longer fit this congregation, which in most respects is Post-Christian." Why post-Christian? Because "Jesus is not the only son of God. Salvation is not limited to Christians."
If this is the path women's congregations have chosen for themselves, it's no wonder they're dying off. Who's ever heard of a "post-Christian" vocation? Sojourning is the suicidal option.
But Sr. Brink seems to indicate that this indeed was the path chosen by a great many communities after Vatican II, and her description reads like a laundry list of heresies and errors:
- "When religious communities embraced the spirit of renewal in the 1970s, they took seriously that the world was no longer the enemy, that a sense of ecumenism required encountering the holy 'other,' and that the God of Jesus might well be the God of Moses and the God of Mohammed…." Here we have the error of restricted indifferentism, which Pope Gregory XVI called "rotten," a "base opinion," and "a prolific cause of evils."
- "The emergence of the women's movement with its concomitant critique of religion invited women everywhere to use a hermeneutical lens of suspicion when reading the androcentric Scriptures and the texts of the Tradition. With a new lens, women also began to see the divine within nature, the value and importance of the cosmos, and that the emerging new cosmology encouraged their spirituality and fed their souls." Here we have a warped feminist reading of the foundational aspects of the Church, as well as pantheism, which was condemned by Pope Pius IX in his "Syllabus of Errors."
- "Who's to say that the movement beyond Christ is not, in reality, a movement into the very heart of God? A movement the ecclesiastical system would not recognize…. But a whole new way that is also not Catholic Religious Life. The Benedictine Women of Madison are the most current example I can name. Their commitment to ecumenism leads them beyond the exclusivity of the Catholic Church into a new inclusivity, where all manner of seeking God is welcomed. They are certainly religious women, but they are no longer women religious as it is defined by the Roman Catholic Church. They choose as a congregation to step outside the Church in order to step into a greater sense of holiness." Here we have a clear-cut case of willful apostasy on the part of a religious congregation that has chosen to turn away from the light of the Catholic faith. This, surely, is the unhappy end of the "sojourning" congregation: the casting of oneself into outer darkness.
Are we witnessing the death throes of an ill-conceived revolution gone horribly awry? Hilary White reported for LifeSiteNews.com (Aug. 8, 2008) that the "ideologies of radical feminism that infiltrated the women's orders represented by LCWR have been shown to be instrumental in the collapse of women's vocations. While thousands left their orders in the 1960s and 1970s, the number of young women applying to enter the LCWR communities dropped to nearly nothing and has not significantly increased." Sr. Brink too recognizes that "death" is the "default mode" of religious congregations whose "self-image is stuck in the 1970s." These she calls "zombie congregations."
Ah, but the outlook isn't all doom and despair. Donna Steichen insists that the "future clearly lies with the new and reformed young orders of, one might say, 'primitive' observance" — i.e., congregations that practice a markedly more orthodox Catholic faith. Many of these new orders belong to a smaller, newer umbrella organization, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, which was given canonical status by the Vatican in 1995, and is viewed as the levelheaded "conservative" counterpart to the fatal liberal wackiness of the LCWR. As one would expect, the LCWR is openly hostile to these upstart congregations. Sr. Brink accuses them of "making choices that a generation ago would have been anathema to their members," such as putting the habit back on and catering to "seemingly conservative young adults." But, Sr. Brink admits, such congregations "are flourishing."
One of the reasons John Allen gives for the CDF's "unusual" sponsorship of the doctrinal inquiry is that since 1959 the LCWR has also had canonical status as an official entity of the Church. Therefore, the CDF has the capacity to issue "official recommendations or mandates" to the LCWR, whereas the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops can only offer "non-binding guidance." The CDF also has the ability to alter or revoke the LCWR's canonical status. "The implied threat," Allen suggests, is that the Vatican could leave the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious as "the lone official representative of women religious in the United States."
This outcome, however remote, would accord well with Pope Benedict XVI's concept of "evangelical pruning" of institutions in the Church whose Catholic identity has been compromised. When he was elected Pope, much was made of this quote from an interview published in the 1997 Ignatius title Salt of the Earth: "Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church's history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intense struggle against evil and bring good into the world — that let God in."
If something along the lines of the marginalization or the abolition of the LCWR were to come to pass, then we would be able to stand up and say we have witnessed the full blooming of the Ratzinger papacy.
[The foregoing article by New Oxford Review editor Peter Vree, "Surprise! Femi-nuns Find Themselves Under the Microscope?," was originally published as a New Oxford Note in New Oxford Review (June 2009), pp. 18-20, and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.]