Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Current Situation of LCWR

Sr. Patricia Farrell - President LCWR
An Overview
by Professor Margaret Susan Thompson
Syracuse University
Peggy Thompson is a scholar of the history of women religious in the United States. She was asked to give a homily at her parish church offering an over view of a thorny situation in our Church and to plumb the depths of scripture for application to this process of discernment. Many are aware of the controversy but few understand what has happened. Peggy has done a great service by synthesizing what has happened and stating the current situation. It is worth reading. Reprinted here with permission.

            When  Father Jim asked me to speak this weekend, I was both excited and nervous. I was excited because it’s been a long time since I’ve spoken here, and nervous because he asked me to address some of the controversy that has erupted recently between the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (or “LCWR”), a large organization that represents most of the Catholic sisters in the United States. The Syracuse Franciscans are part of LCWR; so are the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet  and most of the other sisters who minister in Syracuse. I’m not nervous because I am afraid to talk about this subject—though some people are—but because it’s a subject so important to me, and something I feel so strongly about, that I was afraid I couldn’t do the topic justice.

 Briefly, let me try to explain what the controversy is all about.  In December 2008, two separate offices in the Vatican initiated investigations into women’s religious life in the US.  The first—and the one that originally seemed to arouse the most attention and suspicion, was called a Visitation, and—as the name suggests, involved visits to large numbers of sisters’ communities by delegates (mostly other sisters) who took special oaths of fidelity to the Vatican and then made secret reports about their findings.  It was the oaths and the secrecy that caused a lot of concern, but this investigation ended up (at least so far as we know now—but who knows?) kind of fizzling out.

 Meanwhile, the second one—conducted by the “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” (what used to be called the “Inquisition”)—didn’t get a lot of attention at all.  Its focus was not on rank-and-file sisters but, rather,  on the organization to which their leaders belonged, and which was suspected of theological radicalism, mainly because of what some speakers at its assemblies had said, or because of some “working papers” that had been published for the benefit of their members.

 For three years, not only did this investigation receive almost no attention but, according to LCWR’s officers (who met regularly with various Vatican officials, who assured them there was no need to be concerned), the sense was that it, like the Visitation, was not going to amount to much.  Then, last April, without any warning and very shortly after another apparently uneventful meeting between LCWR’s officers and the relevant Vatican prelates, an edict was issued.  Stated simply, LCWR was judged to reflect a number of theological irregularities, including too much emphasis on social justice, and not enough emphasis on matters such as opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.  Also, speakers at LCWR assemblies, and LCWR leaders themselves, were found guilty of harboring  so-called “radical feminist ideas”  (ideas which were never defined).  So three bishops were appointed to oversee the “reform” of LCWR.  As of now, it is unclear what will happen. LCWR had its annual meeting in August, at which time those present said they would continue to dialogue with the Vatican and the 3 bishops, but might reconsider their cooperation if they were asked to compromise anything essential to what they are all about.

 Whew!  This is a story that, as of now, does not have an end.  Some observers think the timing too neatly coincided with the 2012 US election (keep in mind that all of this applies only to sisters in the US), in part because LCWR—as well as other organizations wholly or largely led by sisters, such as the NETWORK social justice lobby and the Catholic Health Association—had supported the Affordable Care Act, while the US Bishops had not.  It’s not my intention here to go into more detail about this, except to say that while it is a mess that seems confined to sisters at the moment, in fact it affects all of us, and that is what I want to reflect on in the rest of my remarks today.

 First, most of us know and love and have benefitted from the friendship, example, and ministry of countless Catholic sisters. Whether it’s Sister Pat and Sister Eileen in our parish—and others, such as Sister Margaret when she was with us and the many sister-teachers at St. Lucy’s School, as well as thousands of other schools around the country including our own Diocese, not to mention those at St. Joseph’s Hospital going back to the soon-to-be-canonized Mother Marianne Cope—most of  us regard the sisters as OUR sisters, who dedicate their lives to prayer and ministry and radical representation and incarnation of Jesus’s Gospel.  Indeed, in the months since the April edict from Rome, literally tens of thousands of American Catholics have expressed their support for their sisters.  We have done so here through special prayer vigils, the signing of petitions, and welcoming our own diocesan “Nuns on the Bus” just a couple of weeks ago.   When Sister Simone Campbell, director of NETWORK, spoke the other night at the Democratic National Convention, her strong call for social justice and reconciliation was greeted with applause in the hall and almost universal praise and gratitude from those commenting in the media and among the general public. I think those who called for the investigation and those in charge of it have been astonished by the widespread enthusiasm that American Catholics—and not just Catholics—have expressed in so many ways.

 Second, many people wonder: why the sisters? After a decade in which the sexual abuse scandal has rocked the church not just in the US but in so many parts of the world, and during which financial mismanagement (and worse) by too many prelates has made repeated headlines, why is it the sisters who are threatened with discipline, external supervision, and censure?  This is not a question I can answer—but it’s certainly one that has been asked a lot.

 Third, we know from experience, and through the examples of so many of those whose pictures line the walls of this parish, that an attack on one of us is an attack on us all.  Today it is the Sisters; who will it be tomorrow? We have to stand in solidarity with those who are under attack, both because we want people to stand with us if WE are attacked but, more importantly, because—as many of us learned from both the formal lessons and the selfless examples of the sisters—it is the right thing to do. As Pastor Martin Niemuller famously said, when the Nazis overran his native Germany:

 First they came for the socialists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a          socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.

          So often these days, we hear the phrase, “What would Jesus do?”  It seems particularly relevant under these circumstances.  Jesus stood firmly with those who were marginalized, abused, assaulted both verbally and physically, and those condemned by the contemporary powers-that-be.  If we read the Sermon on the Mount, we see not only what was at the core of Jesus’s life and ministry, but what is central to what the sisters are being condemned for doing—BY THE POWERS THAT BE IN THEIR OWN ARENA.  Indeed, two of the Beatitudes seem particularly important for us to remember today, and should give comfort to the sisters of LCWR: “Blessed are those persecuted for holiness’ sake; the reign of God is theirs.”  And, even more powerfully: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of slander against you because of me. Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is great in heaven.”

           A homily, of course, is supposed to reflect upon the Scriptures for today, and I haven’t really done that yet, have I?  So, if you’ll give me just a couple of more minutes, let me correct that—but in a somewhat indirect way.  Last week’s Gospel, from Chapter 7 of Mark, excited me, because I knew what came next in that chapter, and it seemed just PERFECT for what Father Jim asked me to discuss today. But then, when I looked at THIS week’s Gospel, I saw that the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman—known as the Canaanite woman when the same story is told in Matthew’s Gospel—was curiously (or not-so-curiously) skipped over.  Let me read the version from Matthew, and you’ll see what I mean:

 Jesus left the place where he was and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon.  It happened that a Canaanite woman living in that locality presented herself, crying out to him: “Lord, Son of David, have pity on me! My daughter is terribly troubled by a demon.”  He gave her no word of response.  His disciples came up and began to entreat him, “Get rid of her. She keeps shouting after us.”   “My mission is only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus replied.  She came forward then and did him homage with the plea, “Help me, Lord!”  But he answered, “It is not right to take the food of sons and daughters and throw it to the dogs.”  “Please, Lord,” she insisted, “even the dogs eat the leavings that fall from their masters’ tables.”  Jesus then said in reply, “Woman, you have great faith!  Your wish will come to pass.”  That very moment her daughter got better.

         The Syro-Phoenician or Canaanite woman—who, by rights, we should have celebrated in today’s Gospel reading—is  an alien and a woman: a marginalized, anonymous and seemingly powerless figure--and yet she dares to approach Jesus for help.  The disciples—institutional ancestors, we are told, of the hierarchy of today—beg Jesus to tell her to shut up and go away.  He ignores her, and then calls her a dog. And this beautiful woman, so marginal a figure that we are not even told her name, persists.  She pleads not for herself, but for her daughter.  And ultimately Jesus sees the light.  He calls her a "woman of great faith," and rids her daughter of the demon. The woman disappears; we never hear of her again.  But she remains the only person in scripture who does one extraordinary thing: she is the only one who changes Jesus' mind.

         This, it seems to me, is a revolutionary incident.  And, as for its omission from the Gospels we hear at Sunday Mass, who can blame the hierarchy from trying to keep us from hearing it? For if the bishops can see themselves in "apostolic succession" to the disciples, then maybe we should see the woman in this Gospel account as one of us—or, more specifically, as the “mother” of today’s religious Sisters—and OUR sisters!   Marked by faith, fearlessness in faith, persistence, and compassion, her determination changed not only Jesus's mind but salvation history.  She tells those of us with nothing that we have nothing to lose, so we may as well take risks and confront religious authority, even God.

 But she also holds out hope, not only for the sisters of LCWR, but for us all.  If even JESUS could change his mind, she holds out the possibility that truly radical change is both possible and legitimate.  Her prayer, after all, was answered; her daughter was healed.  And so the women of LCWR and we, also her daughters and sons, can pray TO her and WITH her—for persistence, for dialogue, for healing, and in anticipation of ongoing reconciliation, and transformation for us all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The LCWR did a few other things the Vatican called out as DOCTRINALLY, not stressingly, wrong. They have errors on the understanding of the Trinity, and the centrality of the Eucharist, and the divinity of Christ (They're "going beyond Jesus"), and the inspiration of sacred Scripture, and women’s ordination as priests and the Catholic Church's teaching on human sexuality.