The real reason for the Vatican's problem with LCWR

This story appears in the LCWR 2014 feature series. View the full series.

by Eugene Cullen Kennedy

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The Leadership Conference of Women Religious spent the first day of its annual assembly in Nashville, Tenn., exploring the group's "contemplative, collaborative process for making decisions," which we know the Vatican has found troublesome.

This is, in fact, but an example, much as patients use in their search to explain to doctors what is bothering them, of the fundamental conflict between Roman authorities and America's women religious.

The complaints made against these valiant women by Roman authorities are also illustrations of what bothers these officials about these women that they have not, cannot, or dare not express simply and directly.

That is why the indictments brought against American women religious appear to be a compilation of trivialities about problems, such as with the speakers they invite to their assemblies or those, theologian Sr. Elizabeth Johnson in particular, they honor for their work for the church.

These matters have been raised to an operatic level of complaint -- or perhaps we might better say, "irritation" -- by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who insisted that the offenses were so grave that he needed to use "blunt" rather than "flowery language" in questioning whether the LCWR leadership was promoting programs "opposed to Christian Revelation."

It might have been better -- and more expressive of his deepest reactions -- if Cardinal Müller had simply said, "We just don't like the way you decide things." And perhaps he could have added, "We never went along with you women thinking for yourselves, and I'm reasserting our male hierarchical control over you."

Beneath the Wagnerian manner of Cardinal Müller and the religious women's finely tempered explanation that in their way of making decisions -- "listening to others and reflecting on their thoughts can change your thinking from individualistic to what is best for the community," as NCR reports -- we find the basic conflict between diehard hierarchs who seem afraid of women religious who aren't afraid of anything, especially harried hierarchs, as they implement the collegiality of the Second Vatican Council in their bringing the church to the world.

Cardinal Müller may not realize it, but in appointing Archbishop J. Peter Sartain to be, in effect, a monitor to make sure that the leadership conference does not invite any speakers who know any theology beyond the catechism or anything about the ever-unfolding Mystery of Christian life except the creed, no questions allowed, he is infantilizing these women, trying to get them back behind their grammar-school desks, where they will do what they are told.  

Such offenses as the women religious commit, if they are offenses at all, are more on the scale of toothaches rather than a deeply rooted disease that demands radical surgery. The charges against these good women could have been settled in a friendly phone call instead of in the most dramatic display of disapproval since Martin Luther nailed his theses to the church door.

Cardinal Müller wonders if the women can "sentire cum ecclesia," that is, "feel with the church." In effect, that means yielding to domination by hierarchs. These remarkable women, as I have written before, are too busy feeling and helping humankind to bear its sorrows than to feel they need permission from Cardinal Müller or to have their papers marked by Archbishop Sartain, to bring the good news to the suffering world.

The LCWR stands for Vatican II and its principle of collegiality that they follow in their decision-making. Cardinal Müller is taking a stand in favor of the First Vatican Council and the hierarchical top-down, women-stay-in-your-place style. The LCWR is fighting for everybody who is committed to the Vatican II church. In this contest, Cardinal Müller has the authoritarianism, but the women clearly have the authority.

[Eugene Cullen Kennedy is emeritus professor of psychology at Loyola University Chicago.]

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