Sisters Mean a Lot

Sisters Mean a Lot

The Catholic Church in the U.S. is gearing up for a difficult chapter, what some are calling a showdown between the Vatican and U.S. Sisters.  As the blogosphere has erupted in the past few days into a flurry of opinion–some informed, some not; some colored with U.S. political positions related to presidential campaigning–it might make sense at least to understand what actually is happening. Below, I’ll use a reliable news story from the U.S. bishops’ Catholic News Service to provide some background.

But first, we ought to acknowledge that Catholics in the United States owe a tremendous debt to our women religious! It’s not a bad idea for each of  us to reflect on the tremendous positive effect–whether it be in schools, hospitals, or any number of ministries–that women religious have had on our lives.  I did a beginning count today and wrote down the names of 29 Sisters who have helped me to deepen my faith, and have made my life immensely better. The photo above, for example,  is of my very good friend Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, and me at a recent religious education event. Sister Helen is one of many of the Sisters who  has changed the way I think and pray–for the better. Jim Martin’s Twitter stream  lists a lot of others’ experiences.  Now, the background.

In a nutshell, an area of grave concern has emerged between the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and the Leadership Conference of  Women Religious (LCWR). The CDF, of course, is the principal watchdog for the Holy See on matters of doctrine. Once led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who now is Pope Benedict XVI),  it now is headed by Cardinal William Levada, formerly archbishop of San Francisco.  The LCWR is a Washington D.C.-area-based umbrella group that claims about 1,500 leaders of U.S. women’s communities as members. It represents about 80 percent of the country’s 57,000 women religious. It is by no means in decline, though members’ communities are  shrinking due to the passing of so many elderly Sisters.

The announcement from the CDF came in an eight-page “doctrinal assessment,” based on an investigation that Bishop Leonard Blair, of  Toledo, Ohio, began on behalf of the Vatican in April 2008. That investigation led the doctrinal congregation to conclude, in January 2011, that “the current doctrinal and pastoral situation of LCWR is grave and a matter of serious concern, also given the influence the LCWR exercises on religious congregation in other parts of the world.”

By the way, this is not a report of the Visitation of U.S. Sisters conducted by the Holy See’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. That report, of a completely different process, will come later from this different Vatican office. In fact, the CDF investigation has not gained much attention at all until now (though it was reported by news services years ago). The LCWR  (a conference initiated by the Vatican in 1956) leadership was at the congregation’s Vatican offices for a routine annual meeting last Wednesday and was informed of the investigation and the problems it found. The gravity of the resulting mandate stunned LCWR’s leadership, they say. That this investigation had taken such a serious turn was indeed  surprising.

Among the areas of concern were some of the most controversial issues of medical and sexual ethics in America today.

“While there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States,” the doctrinal congregation said. “Further, issues of crucial importance in the life of the church and society, such as the church’s biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes church teaching” (Catholic News Service).

CDF also found that “public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals, are not compatible with its purpose.”

CDF appointed Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle to provide “review, guidance and approval, where necessary, of the work” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. A spokeswoman for the LCWR said its leadership would not be granting interviews until after a wider consultation with its members in May.

There’s much more detail that could be added here, but that’s a quick look. There’s another good factual overview by Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times from April 19.

On day 3 of a story that will be unfolding over the next few years, it would be most appropriate to take a breath, folks! Don’t climb onto any bandwagons! Rather, let’s allow the parties involved to begin a conversation that might help to resolve the areas of concern. This will take some time. It’s not a soundbite situation.


Feature photo courtesy of John Feister


About the Author

John Feister is editor in chief of St. Anthony Messenger magazine. He has a B.A. in American Studies from University of Dayton, and master's degrees in Humanities and in Theology from Xavier University. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada, and was previously an adviser to the Communications Committee of the U.S. Catholic bishops (2000-2006). His latest book, Thank You, Sisters: Stories of Women Religious and How They Enrich Our Lives is available from the Franciscan Media catalog. He has cauthored four books with Richard Rohr (Franciscan Media), and coauthored, with Charlene Smith, the biography of Thea Bowman (Orbis books).
  • Patrick Ocaining

    I wen’t to Catholic school half my life, and every grade held a Sister that influenced my life in a positive way. I know many more (including my aunt), and they are still influencing me in the same positive way today.

    Some of the Sisters I know today and knew back then were very kind. Others were not so kind, but they all shared the same thing: They were all firm like steel in their faith. I have never met a Sister that would waiver in the face of the most fearful of situations, and I held the absolute highest respect for each and every one of them. They are the unsung heroes of the Roman Catholic Church, and they’ve been that way for over 1,000 years. That’s an amazing thing.

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  • Vicpatjim

    Informative article, but I am surprised that there are few comments, possibly just one? Was there really only this, or were the rest rejected because they were not mild and neutral?

  • Smartuckus

    I too went to Catholic School.  My best teachers were nuns.  But that was a long time ago when nuns AND priests taught the Catholic religion; not dissent from it.  A lot of attention has been focused on the sexual deviancy of some in the priesthood, and rightly so.  But hardly any attention has been given to some of these radical nuns.  I am not climbing on any bandwagon – I am reading from the pages of their own publications and finding that what they are teaching and what they stand for isn’t the Catholic Faith.  Shame on them.