By Dr. Jeff Mirus
No one is happier than I am with the Vatican’s announcement of the need to reform the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the United States. The news is somewhat surprising, since the initial signals from Rome following the visitation of American women religious suggested an unwillingness to face the problem head-on. You may recall that the newest head of the Congregation for Religious began his tenure last year with digs at the harshness of his predecessor, expressing the need to rebuild trust.
|Sr. Joan Chittister|
Personally, I suspect the shortest distance between two points here would be to raise the bar high enough to make any but truly repentant sisters choose to disaffiliate the LCWR from the Church. This would make the LCWR a sort of limbo operation similar to Catholics for Free Choice. If the group itself breaks with the official Church, it would become easier for the Vatican to take disciplinary action against the individual sisters while making it very clear that the LCWR no longer has the authority to speak for Catholic religious or Catholic congregations.
Twenty years ago, John Paul II established the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) as an alternative leadership organization for those religious communities which felt betrayed by the LCWR. Some hoped that American religious would opt overwhelmingly to work through the new organization, and while the more orthodox orders have done exactly that, the number of groups which have not broken with the LCWR demonstrates that weakness of female religious life in the United States which led to the larger Apostolic Visitation over the past few years.
As of the present moment, however, the Vatican seems reluctant to attempt reform en masse. What appears to be on the agenda now is the decision to attack not the body but the head. The spirituality of the women who participate in the LCWR has long since generally ceased to be Catholic; they are more comfortable with the New Age, Wicca and Eco-Feminism. They dissent on key Catholic teachings, both moral and doctrinal, and they frequently speak out in opposition to both the American bishops and the Pope. But up until now they have retained their Catholic status, making it far more difficult for any remaining sound women in the affected orders to initiate a genuine reform.
There may not be enough left to work with for a genuine reform of the LCWR. But if that proves to be the case, the disappearance of the group as a recognized leadership force might just make true renewal more possible in the long run, and on a much broader scale. One must ask whether it is likely to do any good at all to drag this out It seems to me that, for the LCWR, “to be or not to be” really is the question.