The U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious, meeting for the first time since the Vatican put an end to an investigation of the organization, had much to celebrate. It had survived intact, apparently free for the time being from further Vatican interference. The women expressed warm feelings toward those who helped them work through the crisis, particularly Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain, who received high marks for integrity and skill at mediating the controversy.
In our community of faith, there is no planning or accounting for grace or the movement of the Spirit, just an expectation that both infuse our lives and actions in abundance. At the same time, the tension in the serpent and dove analogy is also always with us.
So we dare to note, amid the celebration and despite the salutary outcome of the LCWR investigation and the earlier investigation of U.S. women religious generally, that a number of institutional realities regarding the Vatican's attitudes toward women remain unchanged.
LCWR president Sr. Sharon Holland, that rare example of a woman who has spent a significant career working in the Curia, made mention of a "clash of cultures" that the sisters encountered.
"We risked slipping into talking about each other instead of talking more deeply with each other," said Holland, an Immaculate Heart of Mary sister. Some in that curial/hierarchical culture "honestly believed we were off track on certain doctrinal matters; some simply were convinced that we were disrespectful of the ecclesiastical authority."
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A canon lawyer, Holland has helped various individual U.S. sisters and congregations to navigate the dangerous and often hidden currents of Vatican bureaucracy. She was undoubtedly invaluable in translating that alien culture to the women leaders who stood accused of distorting faith in Jesus Christ and undermining church teaching.
Another moment was candidly recalled by St. Joseph Sr. Janet Mock, who served as executive director of LCWR from April 2012 to December 2014. She revealed that while she was able to maintain hope during the difficult years of dealing with the investigation by making an effort to see the good in people, she also looked at the culture of corruption from which the Vatican action had proceeded.
"I really did not want to look at that," Mock said. "And it wasn't straight across the board, but there was a culture of corruption at work at larger levels, and we felt the impact of it."
The candid moments at the recent meeting were rare. The executive session discussions, which more than a few of the sisters wished had been public, gave vent to the complexities of the situation they face despite the recent settlement. Do women religious continue to do what they perceive is their vocation, even if it could again land them in trouble with the male leadership culture? What is the long-term significance of the resolution and what language is appropriate in describing it?
A few points fleshing out the context seem in order:
- Although the formal mandate came from the Vatican, we know that the content of the complaint originated in long-standing complaints that conservative forces in the United States, some bishops included, had long voiced about the sisters. The brief advanced to make their case was, on its face, ridiculous, gossamer-thin in its arguments and with documentation that would not have passed the requirements of a high school term paper. Beyond the inanity of the charges was the gall required for the male clerical culture to initiate sweeping investigations into the lives of women. The men have yet to delve deeply into their own lives to determine what about their culture saw nothing wrong, until public pressure took hold, with hundreds of bishops protecting thousands of priests that they knew to be sexually abusing tens of thousands of the community's children. The nuns were and are the least of their problems.
- The negotiations and meetings between the nuns and church authorities were all conducted on the men's terms, on their turf, with their representatives given full authority and power over the women's organization. All of it was conducted behind closed doors. We recognize that some matters of family, if that is an apt analogy, must be conducted in secret, that negotiations are rarely successfully conducted in public. But this began as an appalling abuse of power in a relationship in which the participants were hardly equals. It is essential to understand that they still are not equals.
- The resolution, it is safe to conclude, would not have occurred in this manner, if indeed at all, during the papacies of John Paul II or Benedict XVI. The investigation was a product of the kind of thinking and episcopal power play that was a product of those two administrations. It is no secret that changes in tone and personnel in curial positions — especially after the election of Francis — had a great deal to do with the way things turned out. Neither should one underestimate the influence represented by the 100,000 letters of support received by LCWR. What the Vatican came to realize soon after it began the investigation of religious orders was that millions of Catholics knew and loved the nuns.
- Finally, and perhaps most important, is the language used to characterize the rapprochement that occurred as these intrusions into the lives of women religious in the United States wound down. Much has been said of the "relationships," "trust" and dialogue that developed over the course of five years. Relationships come in many forms and the way this one unfolded appeared, by all reasonable standards, to shade toward abusive.
In the instance of LCWR, the women leaders were smart, steely, determined and did what they needed to do, aided by the support from people and the change in papacy, to bring the crisis to a suitable end.
The ultimate reality, however, is that the church is still a monarchy, a universe and culture devised by men exclusively for men. Unless there was a conversion in that culture of Pentecost dimensions, that has not changed. What was accomplished is properly called a fix. A crisis has been managed. It was not transformative. Keeping half the church's population away from consequential decision-making councils is unlikely to change anytime soon.
The women religious from the United States undoubtedly made a distinct impression on some men in that hierarchical/curial culture and narrowed the chasm a bit between some male and female leaders in the church. The question ahead involves what degree of wisdom and savvy must accompany the gentleness of the dove.
The women benefited from the outpouring of lay support because they represented a far different expression of church than we normally encounter in the male clerical culture. We hope the spirit of adventure essential to that model is not lost.
For the moment, the monarchy worked to the nuns' advantage. Francis, however, won't be around forever. But there are lots of men who feel threatened by the changes he is attempting to put in place and who will long remember that the nuns won this round. Those men will be in place for quite some time, grace and the Spirit notwithstanding.