The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) represents over 80% of the 57,000 Catholic women religious in the United States. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has completed a doctrinal assessment of the organization, and found the LCWR lacking where the rubber meets the road, where church teaching and secular morality clash. According to the CDF, some of the activities and theology of the LCWR undermine the moral credibility of the Catholic Church.
In a video, posted on YouTube, entitled “Reality Check: the LCWR, CDF and the Doctrinal Assessment”, Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo presents the case against the LCWR. The video is a response to the overwhelming support for the LCWR and the criticism of the doctrinal assessment process. In the video, Blair discusses two areas of concern: what the LCWR says, and what it leaves unsaid.
"Reality Check" and what the LCWR says
Blair discusses problems with the theology of the LCWR, which is labelled as "radical feminist theology". He specifically mentions the content of several keynote addresses, going back to 1997, at the annual assembly of the LCWR. Among the objectionable examples are:
- Sister Sandra Schneider’s comments in 1997 on the issue of faith in religious congregations
- Sister Laurie Brink’s comments in 2007 about a post-Christian era
- Father Michael Crosby’s 2004 remarks supporting the ordination of women
- the choice of this year’s keynote speaker, Barbara Max Hubbard, a conscious evolution theorist. It remains to be seen in what ways her address will be offensive.
Schneider has two strikes against her in the “Reality Check”. The major objection to Schneider seems to be her critique of patriarchy as incompatible with the Gospel. The truth often offends, and Schneider seems to have a struck a nerve with her insights.
Theology - a tradition of faith seeking understanding
I find it hard to become anxious about the theological questions that the LCWR raises in its assemblies. They are voicing the questions that many Catholics, and people of good will, are asking, not only about morality, but also about the place of women in the Church. Theology is "faith seeking understanding"; it is not about checking your brain at the door to the church.
When I was watching the “Reality Check” video, I recalled an encounter my mother-in-law had with a priest over thirty years ago. She had found a theologian who was asking the kind of questions that she and others were discussing amongst themselves. She was reading with interest and excitement “On Being a Christian” by Hans Kung, a theologian whom the Vatican censured. She couldn’t wait to share this book with her parish priest. To her dismay, the priest instructed her to put the dangerous and heretical book aside. My mother-in-law kept right on reading.
This little vignette should remind us of the tension that has existed for centuries between theologians and the Magisterium. It is not surprising that the teaching authority of the Catholic Church continues to butt heads with 21st century theologians. The vignette also illustrates the futility of attempts to silence questioning and to circumscribe thought. Many thoughtful, faithful Catholics probe the depths of human existence and faith. Questioning traditional teachings does not scandalize them.
"Reality Check" and what the LCWR does not say
Apart from what the assessment considers the LCWR’s questionable theology, the video mentions the LCWR’s silence on two major moral challenges of our time: the right to life of the unborn, and the meaning of marriage as the exclusive and permanent union of one man and one woman.
While Church teaching is clear on these two moral issues, it also asserts the primacy of conscience. Even informed Catholic consciences face gut wrenching moral choices, and “good” Catholics sometimes do not abide by the moral teaching of the Church.
While the bishops may wish that the LCWR more vigorously promoted Church teaching on abortion and homosexuality, being present with people as they agonize over difficult choices is also a strong and persuasive witness to the Gospel. The sisters bring the love of our compassionate God, revealed to humanity in the person of Jesus, to the people on the streets.
A sad irony
There is a sad irony in the title of the video, “Reality Check”. Scandals, particularly those of clerical sexual abuse, have tarnished the image of the Catholic Church. These scandals have done more to undermine the moral credibility and teachings of the Church than the activities of the LCWR. The reality is that people in today’s world are less inclined to blindly accept pronouncements from an institution that, in its humanness, is full of its own sinful contradictions.
For a National Public Radio interview with the president of the LCWR, Sister Pat Farrell, go to: An American Nun responds to Vatican Criticism. The program "Fresh Air" will feature Bishop Blair next week.
The National Catholic Reporter has a section on the LCWR. The Prairie Messenger also has commentary; go to the link and enter "LCWR" in the search box to access a variety of articles.