Battle Ecclesiale

After a long pause in the LCWR versus bishops + CDF tussle, we have some new upset. David Gibson at RNS details a few recent salvos.

The LCWR fired big, slating theologian Elizabeth Johnson for its Outstanding Leadership Award at their upcoming August conference. Referring to the head of the bishops’ committee responsible for the Rome/LCWR connection, the CDF head, Cardinal Gerhard Müller fired back:

The choice to honor Johnson without (Archbishop) Sartain’s approval, Mueller said, “will be seen as a rather open provocation against the Holy See. … Not only that, but it further alienates the LCWR from the bishops as well.”

I see a lot of sites trumpeting crackdown, but truly, the bishops are powerless on this front. The LCWR was formed in the 1950’s to facilitate communication between sisters and Rome. The organization can be shut down, or the sisters can walk away, and pretty much nobody can do anything about it. The sisters might continue to conference, to meet in various configurations, and the institution loses out. The impetus for dialogue is all with the men. They can push, and they might end up sidelined, and there will be no meetings, no discussion with them. Sisters and communities will interact with bishops in dioceses where they serve, women religious and pastors will still collaborate in faith communities, and these women will continue to serve with the laity in ministry. Which is probably how most of them would want it anyway.

If the lazy and anti-intellectual reading of Professor Johnson’s book is any indication, the bishops are sorely out of their element on the theological plane. I read the USCCB criticism. I read Johnson’s book. I don’t see we read the same thing. The sisters have too much to do to indulge in a dialogue of the deaf. They’ll walk away. They’re actually doing the men a favor by staying in the conversation.

To be clear, the LCWR is not a traditional structure in the sense of the governance of a religious order. It’s not Benedictine, Dominican, or anything. It strikes me as just a meeting of the minds. That meeting can take place in all sort of ways. It doesn’t need Rome. It doesn’t need bishops. It doesn’t need clergy. It doesn’t need the four letters, L, C, W, and R.

As for Cardinal Müller, he’s getting pushback from bishops in his own country on pastoral care for the remarried. The CDF seems to have no teeth. It has no law enforcement arm as it might have had centuries ago.

I have a few predictions:

– Pope Francis will do nothing. This is the realm of the bishops, the curia, and theologians. This is like leaving Bishops Finn, Myers, etc. in their dioceses to twist in the wind. This is about making a bed and sleeping in it. Archbishop Sartain, Cardinal Müller, and the other players are all adults. It’s up to them to work it out. There is no theological cavalry on the horizon, and the women aren’t backing down.

– This is a centuries-old battle that won’t end any time soon, barring the grace of God. Men in the clergy have often had great difficulty with women who served Christ and his Gospel outside of the cloister. Don’t be fooled: this argument isn’t about theology. It’s about administration and control. These men do not understand apostolic ministry outside of their own. Few understand lay people. Fewer understand women–they just aren’t part of that world in most any way.

– These new developments will blow over. If the men push too hard, they will be the only ones left at the table. I suspect that even still, there will be some face saved somewhere. This will get a quiet end. Eventually.

– Liberal Catholics will get upset. Really: there is nothing new going on here. Nothing worth spending spare cash on antacid, or spending time writing to the editor or to the pope or somebody. Send a sister a card of support? Fine.

– The sisters will continue to take the high road. They will not condemn bishops, cardinals, or most anyone trying to boss them around. They’re going to take their serenity and walk.

– Conservative Catholics will remain bitterly disappointed. The cardinal who was originally a mover on this is deposed. Bishops have come out everywhere in support of the sisters. Everybody knows where lay people stand. Archbishop Sartain has a nearly impossible task that just got a little bit tougher, thanks to his brother in Rome.

Is there a theological problem with the sisters? Who knows? Who can tell? The whole darn thing is so fatiguing. I read a book or two and a handful of articles. It looks to me like the confusion between catechesis and theology. The former is the well-defined and safe knowledge that is important for neophytes, children, and books with imprimaturs. The latter is the exploration of the margins of faith, of people seeking for God in a lot of places, and finding him in some of them.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Church News, women religious and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Battle Ecclesiale

  1. dvora072096 says:

    Reblogged this on Karmalight.

  2. dvora072096 says:

    Reblogged this on Karmalight.

  3. Wendell says:

    Here’s another prediction: the chronological-biological solution will be definitive. That is, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) will replace the LCWR because the aging and theologically tepid LCWR types are dying off and taking their liberal religion with them. Slowly, perhaps, but dying nonetheless. Whatever tiny remnant of the LCWR remains in seniors residential care will be just as irrelevant as they are now. The joyfully orthodox, vibrant and rapidly growing membership of the CMSWR will replace the dissenters soon enough.

    • Todd says:

      And yet, the “biological solution” isn’t happening. Cloistered orders and apostolic orders are each attracting women in the same numbers. There are four times as many women and (I believe) communities than in the CMSWR. The communities are totally different, with totally different charisms. Many LCWR communities have lay associates–and many of those groups are healthy and growing. And to be sure, the big orders will never die out.

      The Church has always seen religious communities come and go. Clearly, the CDF doesn’t take the biological solution seriously. They don’t seem to think the theology is tepid.

  4. Mack says:

    A centuries-old battle? I give it about ten years. The average age of most of the LCWR congregations is now about 77. Sure, there are more of them than the CMSWR communities right now, but the average age makes all the difference. If you really think the biological solution isn’t happening, you only need to open your eyes. The lay associates are not religious; they can’t keep a religious order going when all the members die out. And even if a few are left, as there will be, they will eventually start to realize the path of “renewal” these congregations followed was a failure.

  5. Mack says:

    Case in point: Sisters of St Joseph of Brentwood, NY — statistics as found in Catholic Directory (the community of Sr Elizabeth Johnson)
    1985: 1200 members
    2010: 627
    Current membership, about 540
    2010 average age: 77
    About 25 of their sisters die on average each year; in 10 years their membership will be roughly half of what it is now.
    I wish them well, but the stats show they are facing an institutional collapse. Even with lay associates they will not be able to maintain all their current works.
    Also, even if some of the LCWR communities do live on, they may very well have a change of heart and return to a more ecclesial understanding of the religious life. And, some communities that belong to the LCWR do not necessarily subscribe to all the radical ideas of the leadership. In their formation, they may be giving their novices a more well-grounded formation than “Conscious Evolution,” so even there, the stats alone don’t mean that the vision of religious life as formulated by the current LCWR leadership is going to endure.

    • Todd says:

      You mistakenly associate LCWR with some kind of super-major superior structure. It is not. It is a body formed at the suggestion of Rome, and one that gathers sisters, facilitates communications, and offers a convenient structure for everybody. It does not set policy or vision. That is determined by religious communities and their own sisters. It is far more democratic, say, than a curial congregation.

      LCWR communities dying? Fine. Let them. It’s part of the Roman Catholic evolution of religious orders. Most religious orders last a century or two, merge, fade, reconstitute, or die. Let discernment take its course. Or let the bad fruits be dealt with by the women themselves.

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