THE NUNS’ STORY
Last week it was revealed that the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had released an action taken against the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a canonically recognized organization consisting as the title says, of heads of women’s religious orders and communities. The report from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (“CDF” hereinafter) was quite critical of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (“LCWR” hereinafter) and took several steps widely perceived to be against them. For me it is important to say several things:
1. Religious women (nuns) in the United States have played and continue to play an extremely important and vital role in the life of our Church. Sadly while their number is drastically declining those remaining hold positions of trust, leadership, and competence throughout the Church in the US. The CDF statement did not and could not call into question the great work of these women.
I like many of you reading this, love the sisters and that fact is no where more visible than in the reality that the annual collection for retired religious has been from inception and continues to be the largest second collection in the Church in the United States – triple what is given for Peter’s Pence and double what is given for Catholic Relief Services, to use two examples.
2. From time to time, various offices of the Holy See have taken it upon themselves to investigate and attempt to change other bodies extant in the Church. In the mid-eighties, the Congregation of Bishops in Rome had national episcopal conferences in their sight, due in no small part to their concern about the growing influence in the public square of the United States Catholic Conference which was garnering worldwide attention and acclaim for the twin pastoral letters on war and peace and the economy.Not lost on certain people in Rome was the fact that a picture of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago (and chair of the committee which wrote the pastoral on war and peace) appeared on the cover of TIME magazine before that of Pope John Paul II. The end result was a document from the Holy Father defining the limits of the teaching authority of episcopal conferences and who could vote and not vote among the bishops on matters. At the time it seemed like the sun was crashing down on post-conciliar collegiality but in the end, little changed.
I mention that because to someone who does not understand the praxis of the Holy See, it would seem that the Holy Father dislikes American religious women. Several actions would seem to reinforce this conclusion which I do not believe to be true. A few years ago when the visitation and evaluation of religious communities in the US was announced it also seemed like doomsday yet that has not and is likely not to be the case. The Holy Father actually has appointed a Prefect and Secretary of the Congregation for Religious (it has a much longer title) who are strongly supportive of religious sisters and especially the situation in the U.S. American religious sisters began to experience relief when these two bishops began their work. I would bet a dollar to a donut that they knew little to nothing about last week’s paper from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in advance. That is not the way things work over there – there is “turf” protection and a pecking order of significance and competencies among the various Congregations and Councils.
3. So my words to my sisters in this diocese would be to relax somewhat. You are still loved and appreciated by your Church. The appointment of an incredibly fair and compassionate man like Archbishop Peter Sartain to see this process through is a hopeful sign in itself and I am not simply trying to apply “a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.” There have been other bishops appointed over the last few decades to “study American religious life and make appropriate changes” such as the one in the eighties chaired by Archbishop John R. Quinn. Disaster has never struck.
4. American Catholics who read the secular media are getting an introduction to how terribly the media understand the Church. Editorials have appeared all over the place supporting the sisters and condemning the Pope, Rome, bishops, men, etc., etc. The notion of a hierarchical Church is both foreign, inimical and anathema to current liberal, freethinking and secularist thought. I laud the media for their support of religious women in the United States but I also find something almost comical about how they visualize Church structure. They will not be around in a few years when the leadership of LCWR and Archbishop Sartain ascertain a way in which both can peacefully co-exist because there will be no story there. Yet that is precisely the story. From moments like this, monumental change rarely results and sometimes a deeper relationship replaces something which is frayed, tattered and/or torn. I have great faith that as in the past, both sides will make this work. Sisters love the Church which they have served because they love its founder, Jesus, who at times called all of us to live a radical ethic. The current seeming tempest at sea can and will be calmed and we will continue to love and support our sisters.