Obviously, the popular narrative is that the nuns are too liberal for Ratzinger's church. That's a nice, easy-to-grasp story of the sort that the press likes, and which conforms to a wide range of preconceived notions. It has, we regret to say, the added virtue of being true. Or at least true-ish, because these things are always more complicated than they seem.
A couple of points need to be clarified. The supposed crackdown is in fact a "Doctrinal Assessment" delivered by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, after more than two years of study. You can read it here. The DA emphatically not directed toward all women religious, nor even all women religious in America, but rather toward "a particular conference of major superiors," meaning the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the United States. Meaning it is the LCWR which has been examined and the LCWR -- not any particular house or order -- which is to be restructured.
So what are the particular problems revealed by the DA? It's a little hard to sort through the Vatican-speak, but here are a couple of the most notable ones.
1. Genital theology. Easily the most quoted passage in the DA is this one, which we will break up a little for easier reading:
The documentation [provided in 2010 by Bishop Blair to the CDF] reveals that, 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.
Further, issues of crucial importance to the life of 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.
Moreover, occasional 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.Let's think this through.
First, let's be fair: the sisters are praised for "promoting ... social justice." So we can ditch the canard about feeding the poor. The Roman church -- like any other church worthy of the name -- is serious about feeding the poor and housing the homeless. That's as true of the CDF as of the LCWR.
We are shocked, however, by the continuation of that sentence: the CDF complains that the LCWR is "silent" about abortion and euthanasia. So what? Silence is not dissent. Silence on the part of a large umbrella organization may indeed indicate that opinions differ, suggesting that some elements of the LCWR can't in conscience articulate their church's teaching. But so long as they do not publicly contradict it, we think this is silly. Let them keep silent and move on.
The bit about "family life and sexuality" brings us closer to "hating the gays." Again, if the LCWR is actively trying to undermine the official teachings of its church, then the sisters are in trouble; they should consider joining a different church (and we have one to offer, incidentally). But if the objection is simply that they aren't doing enough to promote the wildly unpopular and widely ignored Roman Catholic teachings about birth control and homosexuality, then -- as we used to say in the third grade -- tough noogies. Becoming a nun does not mean becoming a publicity agent for the Curia. Let them keep silent and move on.
2. Leadership Training. The DA offers a critique of the LCWR which is far too complex for the press to cover; unfortunately it also looks a little too complex for the CDF. Basically, the DA suggests that the LCWR produces training materials which fail to "[lead] sisters into a greater appreciation or integration of the truth of the Catholic faith." Clear as mud, right?
The underlying objection seems to be that the LCWR promotes a "neutral" model of leadership, meaning one that isn't as top-down as, say, the Curia. The example to which the DA points is document entitled An Invitation to Systems Thinking: An Opportunity to Act for Systemic Change, and which the DA calls The Systems Thinking Handbook.
You can read it here; we did, and weren't especially impressed. It's a none-too-clear restatement of the ideas that stretch from Gregory Bateson to Murray Bowen to Edwin Friedman, with applications to the lives of the religious orders. (For the record, we admire those three guys, and think that the handbook would have been greatly improved by a deeper acquaintance with their work, especially Friedman's Generation to Generation. Also for the record, this sort of thinking has become a mainstream tool used to understand and manage many organizations, ranging from large corporations to small parishes.)
The DA, however, singles out one particular example to support its claim:
As a case in point, the Systems Thinking Handbook presents a situation in which sisters differ over whether the Eucharist should be at the center of a special community celebration since the celebration of Mass requires an ordained priest, something which some sisters find “objectionable.” According to the Systems Thinking Handbook this difficulty is rooted in differences at the level of belief, but also in different cognitive models (the “Western mind” as opposed to an “Organic mental model”). These models, rather than the teaching of the Church, are offered as tools for the resolution of the controversy of whether or not to celebrate Mass.
Well, okay. Most of that is in there, especially the phony "Western mind/Organic mind" stuff. But the DA offers a superficial and misleading glimpse at a rather long case study.
The DA is superficial because it misses the real point of the case study, which is not intended as a discussion of the Eucharist, but of collective decision-making.
It also glides over the significant detail that one of the principal anxieties expressed by the sisters is that "a small number of those who object to priest led liturgies is determining how we worship." In other words, the case study is occasioned in part by the resistance of many level-headed sisters to the demands of an over-anxious few.
Much worse, though, is that the DA seems to be intentionally misleading, in that it picks out an especially provocative example. Nuns who don't want the Eucharist! Nuns who don't like priests-led liturgies! All of which, to many readers, equals: Blasted radical feminist nuns who say that if they can't be priests, nobody can! And we expect that there are some of those in the ranks; but that's not the point, either of the case study or (ostensibly) of the DA. If the CDF wants to argue that church doctrine is being flouted, let it do so; if it wants to argue that there is something inherently un-Christian about systems thinking, let it try. But let it not attempt to suggest, without offering a proper argument, that the use of a widespread analytical tool for understanding organizational conflict is ipso facto a declaration of doctrinal dissent. Because that's nonsense.
3. Christology. There are hints, especially in the opening of the DAS, that the LCWR has lent its support to the various forms of radical feminism which are "characterized by a diminution of the fundamental Christological center and focus of religious consecration which leads, in turn, to a loss of a 'constant and lively sense of the Church' among some Religious." This would be a pretty serious charge, if it were supported by any evidence. Weak Christology is pretty typical of a lot of theological liberalism, certainly of Tillich, and feminist theologies have a special interest in separating "Christ" from the physical person of Jesus, as well as in finding novel ways to speak of the Trinity.
But, really, so what? If the nuns are also teaching theology, or re-writing the church's liturgies, there are ways to deal with that on a case-by-case basis. But if they are just talking ... even if this sort of talk becomes a distinctive feature of one house's spirituality ... well, how bad is that, really? We're not sure.
So what's really going on here?
The fact is that there are, surely, a fair number of American nuns who aren't solidly behind the public teaching of their church. We'll wager that a lot of them are older, and probably have found their way into leadership positions in the LCWR and similar organizations. Up to that point, the visitation by the CDF makes sense, and the remedies it proposes are at least ... comprehensible.
However -- and it's a big however -- the DA is a foolish document. It fails to make the case that the LCWR is doctrinally off-base in any meaningful way. Worse yet, its release is yet another tone-deaf Vatican PR disaster. It looks heavy-handedly authoritarian, not least because one of its key complaints is that the sisters aren't authoritarian enough. From the perspective of propagating the faith -- which is, we grant you, another department's brief -- it would surely have been better to let sleeping dogs lie, or at least to handle any necessary discipline cases more discreetly.
Most serious of all, though, is what looks to us like a fundamental misunderstanding of how the lives of religious sisters are lived. Even in the middle ages, monastic communities offered very nearly the only forms of self-determination available to women; it no wonder that they have been so historically resistant to taking orders from outside. Picking a fight with them is rarely a winning proposition.
Deeper still, though, is the question of whether and to what degree nuns -- or any other laypeople -- ought to be required to promote the teachings of the church, even when they privately disagree with those teachings. To expect this of a priest or, especially, a bishop is one thing; to demand it from the laity is another. They disagree? Let them disagree. Or at least, let them disagree so long as they do not actively undermine the bishops' magisterium. And if they have been doing that, the document at hand doesn't show how.