The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recently publicly ordered the largest group of Catholic sisters (US women religious) in the US to reform its statutes, programs and affiliations. To reform what is referred to as the sisters’ “radical feminism” (due to the sisters’ controversial stance on many issues, including abortion and the ordination of women), the Pope has appointed Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain to oversee and guide this group of sisters, collectively known as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). The LCWR is currently planning a response to the Vatican’s recent order.
By expressing views contradictory to strict Catholic teachings, these nuns are essentially questioning strict Church doctrine. However, the doctrines of the Church have continually been in debate, continually questioned. Why is it that women who are so close to the root of the faith are removed, even forbidden, from this debate? The nuns, as integral and important members of the Catholic Church, should be allowed, and in fact, welcomed, to express and have heard their viewpoints and opinions.
The Vatican justifies its order of reform by claiming that the LCWR’s views run contrary to the Catholic doctrine. However, the issue here isn’t whether the ordination of women, for example, is an acceptable part of Church doctrine. The issue is that the Vatican’s complaint is really about these nuns thinking for themselves, rather than being “pawns” of Bishops.
“The leadership doesn’t know how to deal with strong women,” Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of an organization that works closely with the LCWR said in a National Public Radio broadcast. “And so their way is to try to shape us into whatever they think it should be, not realizing that we’ve been faithful to the call this whole time.”
CSJ and computer lab and silent study moderator Sister Joan Tolle agrees with Campbell that these women have been faithful to the call. Tolle denies that the LCWR ever even contradicted church doctrine, arguing that the Vatican simply took words out of context. Additionally, Tolle does view patriarchy within the church as an issue, at least for the LCWR.
“I don’t think the hierarchy [within the church] wants to have debate on those issues,” Tolle said. “They want submission.”
Of course it is fair to say that the Vatican has a right and even a duty to protect the institution of the Catholic faith and uphold its teachings. Yet, it is unfair that these women don’t have a voice in topics that have been and are still debated by men of the Church. Tolle believes that discussion within the church is acceptable and hopes that there is room for debate. LCWR member Sister Patty Clune, who sits on the board of directors at STA, said that one of the challenges is deciding where there is room for debate.
In formulating her thoughts about appropriate debate within the church, Clune cited a quote from Father Timothy Dolan, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York. The quote reads, “The public square in the United States is always enriched whenever people approach it when they’re inspired by their deepest convictions. And on the other hand…I think the public square is impoverished when people might be coerced to put a piece of duct tape over their mouth, keeping them from bringing their deepest held convictions to the conversation.”
“I like what the cardinal says but I don’t think it is lived out in the church,” Clune said.
The hierarchy within the church may be responsible for the discouraged debate and the recent tension between LCWR and the church. Whether or not it is an issue, the church is clearly a hierarchical structure. The LCWR, according to Clune, is, for the most part, not hierarchical.
“As women religious, we sit down at the table and talk,” Clune said. “We have a conversation and work things through…I would have tried to ask for more conversations than mandates from [the Vatican].”
In submitting themselves to a religious life, nuns vow to to serve God and His people for the rest of their lives. It seems that the nuns of the LCWR are really trying to examine the core mission of the church, serving others and attempting to “collaboratively carry out their service of leadership” (according to www.lcwr.org), while focusing less on strict adherence to doctrine.
Wasn’t Jesus himself in continual conflict with the Pharisees, whose strict adherence to the law blinded them to the need for social action? In Mt 15:12-14, Jesus refers to the Pharisees as “blind leaders of the blind.” According to Campbell, service to the less fortunate is at the heart of the faith. Tolle holds a similar belief.
“They don’t need to question when you are doing good works,” Tolle said.
The overly-strict subservience that the nuns are subjected to is a repeat of the patriarchal system of first-century Palestine. Jesus condemned the patriarchal system and chose even in resurrection to appear first to women.
With a mission to empower women, St. Teresa’s Academy strives to raise young women that can think for themselves. To get to the root of this issue, the Church needs to rid its system of anything that discourages women, or anyone else within the church, from questioning.
“If something is of God, it will move forward,” Clune said. “So if this whole doctrinal assessment is of God, I believe it will play out the way it needs to. If not, it won’t.”