Many people have been upset by the Vatican’s doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). Understandably enough, most people haven’t actually read the assessment (after all, ecclesiastical documents tend not to be page-turners). Judging only from most media reports, we’d have to conclude that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is gathering sticks for the first auto-da-fè in centuries. Unfortunately, the actual content of Vatican documents and pronouncements is often quite different from what is assumed, reported, and judged. The doctrinal assessment of the LCWR, carried out in charitable, pastoral (dare I say paternal?) concern, is no exception.
Now, I can appreciate that censure–especially public censure–might sting a bit. Being corrected by a superior can be embarrassing, humbling, and vexing. But any correction performed in charity, as the Vatican's formal assessment clearly is, has as its goal the well-being of the one corrected.
The assessment, which arises out of “sincere concern for the life of faith,” is neither unequivocally condemnatory nor draconian. “The Holy See acknowledges with gratitude,” it says, “the great contribution of women Religious to the Church in the United States as seen particularly in the many schools, hospitals, and institutions of support for the poor.” The assessment “does not intend to offer judgment on the faith and life of Women Religious in the member Congregations which belong to that conference.” And as for His Holiness? “This act should be understood in virtue of the mandate given by the Lord to Simon Peter as the rock on which He founded his Church (cf. Luke 22:32): ‘I have prayed for you, Peter, that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned to me, you must strengthen the faith of your brothers and sisters.’”
Donum Veritatis describes the goal of the Magisterium as ‘preserving the People of God in the truth which sets free and thereby making them "a light to the nations.”’ When the Magisterium reacts to assemblies and speakers that “challenge core Catholic beliefs;” when it challenges “policies of corporate dissent” from the Church’s moral teaching; and when it questions a “radical feminism” which “distorts faith in Jesus and His loving Father,” the Church is not butting in where it doesn’t belong.
The Church exists to bring God to men in this life and men to God in the next. As the “living teaching office” which infallibly ensures the pure and authentic communication of Divine Revelation, the Magisterium deserves the confidence and firm trust of those in via, especially professed religious, who are in a privileged position to represent the Church and assist in handing on the faith.
The religious life is defined by the evangelical counsels, so-called because they are 1) from the Gospel, and 2) unlike the commandments, not strictly necessary, but propitious, for perfection in charity. In a sex-crazed culture, it is not a surprise that people assume the vow of chastity to be the most demanding. (I am very frequently assured by concerned laity that the Church will eventually come around and change “mandatory celibacy” for priests.)
It’s true, giving up marriage is a great sacrifice. But then again, so is being married–and faithful–to one’s spouse, decade after decade. And poverty pinches too, especially as one ages and the common impulse to hoard and build a nest egg worms its way further into one’s psyche. The tradition of the Church, however, gives the vow of obedience pride of place in the religious life. Why? “Because by the vow of obedience,” St. Thomas explains, “man offers God something greater, namely his own will; for this is of more account than his own body, which he offers God by continence, and than external things, which he offers God by the vow of poverty. Wherefore that which is done out of obedience is more acceptable to God than that which is done of one's own will . . . ”
These are difficult statements to appreciate. To obey is to follow another’s will, and we live in an age which does not highly prize the virtue of obedience (or many others besides). The Catholic understanding of conscience is far more robust and human than the “gut feeling” that most people feel obligated to follow. The Magisterium, an immeasurable gift to human conscience, aids the free pursuit of human excellence. To obey the Church is to obey Christ, whose words initiate every religious vocation—“Come, follow me.” By their vows, religious unite their wills all the more closely to that of the Church, and thus it is all the more saddening when they dissent. The sisters of the LCWR deserve gratitude and support for the work they have done and continue to do in the service of the Gospel. But we cannot, need not, ought not ignore institutional problems in the LCWR. The Church has the right and responsibility to correct, in charity, when Christological and theological errors threaten the purity of the faith. It doesn’t take an advanced degree in theology to realize that the Vatican’s concerns are eminently reasonable.
Consider, for example, the keynote speaker for the LCWR’s forthcoming annual assembly, Barbara Marx Hubbard. One of her books is described as follows: “These higher frequency Evolutionary Codes selected from the journals of Barbara Marx Hubbard along with the accompanying meditation CD, Contact With Your Universal Self, are offered as a step-by-step experiential guide to personal transformation. The purpose of the 52 Codes is to awaken us to the guidance of our own Universal Self, the highest frequency of our being, so we can integrate these higher frequencies within ourselves to become Whole Beings, Universal Humans.” Barbara Marx sounds a bit like L. Ron.
When the engine is smoking and rattling, one looks under the hood. When sparing the rod may have eternal consequences, superiors have a grave, moral obligation to act. As meetings between the LCWR and the Vatican begin this week in Rome, we might hope that the sisters recall the import of their sacred vows. Obedience and docility to the legitimate prescriptions of a superior–in this case, the ultimate authority of the Church–may feel constraining and unfair, but if it brings us into more secure union with Christ, it is liberating indeed.
Sebastian White, O.P., is a Dominican friar of the Province of St. Joseph and a summer fellow at First Things. He is studying for the priesthood.
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