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Is the LCWR Reform Justified?

April 22, 2012

Following a lengthy investigation, the Vatican has mandated major reform to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an association representing more than 80% of US nuns. Investigation of LCWR began in 2009 due to concerns on the part of Cardinal William Levada about the association’s support for women’s ordination, homosexuality, and—more broadly—“radical feminism.”

Over at Commonweal, Mollie Wilson O’Reilly provides compelling evidence that at least one of reasons cited for the investigation—that a keynote address given at the 2007 LCWR assembly openly advocated “moving beyond the Church”—is false. After reading this piece by “Sister X,” written during the investigation, I am inclined to believe that Levada’s assessment was well founded. Sister X’s mistrust of the hierarchy is made apparent throughout the piece: she states that American women religious are “being bullied”; she characterizes the investigation as “secretive, unfriendly, and one-sided”; and she criticizes Rome for demanding submission to church teachings that “honestly perplex most Catholics.”

Moreover, it seems safe to suppose that Sister X is not alone in her negative view of the Church hierarchy—in fact, she explicitly says so:

. . . distrust has been present for a long time. In the late 1960s, after Los Angeles Cardinal James McIntyre ordered the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary to get back into their habits and classrooms or get out of the diocese, the LCWR tried to address issues of women’s ministerial equality. Later, in 1976, came Inter insigniores, the CDF’s “definitive” rejection of the possibility of ordination for women. It shut down any formal discussion of women’s equality in the church. For many women religious, the emphasis shifted then to social-justice concerns

Assuming this depiction of the distrust between LCWR and the Church hierarchy is accurate, the question remains as to whose side—if any—lay Catholics ought to take. To begin with, it seems important to acknowledge that we American Catholics tend to have a pretty strong cultural bias against authority. Freedom is America’s most cherished value and there is nothing Americans dislike more than being told what to do. While it is true that the Catholic Church has historically expected obedience from the laity on matters of faith and morals, in America “even the Catholics are Protestant,” as the saying goes. So naturally, the LCWR investigation is a tough pill for American Catholics (apart from staunch political conservatives) to swallow. This is especially true given that the only thing the investigation found LCWR guilty of was upholding another quintessential American value: equality.

At the same time, we Americans are very adept at making exceptions to our own individualism when core values seem to be compromised. Anti-authoritarianism has its limits, even in America. Thus, in the political sphere, despite the pervasiveness of libertarian rhetoric, conservatives defend domestic surveillance and torture of suspected terrorists as means of ensuring national security, while liberals favor government regulation as a means of protecting the environment and ensuring economic fairness. Authority—it turns out—is mainly a problem for us when someone else is exercising it for reasons that we do not acknowledge as valid. (I leave aside here the question of libertarianism, except to quote GK Chesterton: “Without authority there is no liberty. Freedom is doomed to destruction at every turn, unless there is a recognized right to freedom. And if there are rights, there is an authority to which we appeal for them.”)

It seems to me that the authority issue is a red herring.  Instead, I would argue that the Vatican is justified in reforming LWCR to the extent that its teachings on the relevant issues—women’s ordination, homosexuality, and feminism—have a sound basis in reason, tradition, and scripture.  The same principle applies here as applies in the HHS ruling: what matters is not primarily freedom, but truth (which, of course, includes the truth about freedom).  In the political arena, the Church’s case in the HHS ruling controversy does not ultimately rest upon some absolute right to religious liberty, but upon the Church’s ability to demonstrate that opposition to contraception is not incompatible with a basic respect for the dignity and flourishing of women.  With respect to the LWCR reforms, if support for homosexuality and women’s ordination really are fundamentally incompatible with the Gospels, then the Church has not only a right, but a responsibility, to reform the LCWR.

Sister X states that since the late 60s, “Rome been busy shoring up its doctrinal barricades, and in the process has seemed intent on casting feminism into the outer darkness.” Perhaps, but in casting feminism into the outer darkness, is it also casting women into the outer darkness? That is the key question. Likewise, can the Church provide a compelling rationale for its teaching that all non-procreative sex runs counter to natural law and is therefore harmful? I, for one, have been looking high and low for such a rationale and have nowhere been able to find it.

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