Roman Catholicism

"Shocking" news for postmodern nuns

In the beginning there was the Conference of Major Religious Superiors of Women's Institutes, which was established with the Vatican's blessing in 1959 during an era of rapid growth for Catholic religious orders. Then along came two cultural earthquakes, the Second Vatican Council and the Sexual Revolution. In 1971 the women's conference changed its name -- this time without the Vatican's blessing -- to become the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Two leaders in this transformation later wrote that the goal was to become a "corporate force for systematic change in Church and society."

The rest is a long story, ultimately leading to a blunt April 18 missive (.pdf) from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This long-expected Vatican broadside noted "serious doctrinal problems" in LCWR proclamations, characterized by a "diminution of the fundamental Christological center" and the prevalence of "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."

Women's conference leaders offered a terse response, saying they were "stunned by the conclusions of the doctrinal assessment" from Rome.

"Stunned" was the key word for legions of headline writers, whose work resembled this Washington Post offering: "American nuns stunned by Vatican accusation of 'radical feminism,' crackdown." The Chicago Sun-Times went even further, proclaiming: "Vatican waging a war on nuns."

Truth is, tensions have been building for decades between the LCWR leadership and Vatican leaders. Thus, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith missive stressed that its call for reform was built on a lengthy study of materials created by "a particular conference of major superiors and therefore does not intend to offer judgment on the faith and life of Women Religious in the member congregations."

This particular investigation began in 2008 and Catholic leaders first discussed some of its findings two years later. The final "doctrinal assessment" document was completed in January of 2011. Some of the specific events criticized in the Vatican document took place during the 1970s and '80s.

"It certainly didn't help matters" that there has been so much publicity about liberal nuns supporting White House health-care policies and new Health and Human Services regulations that require most religious institutions to include free coverage of all FDA-approved contraceptives in their health-insurance plans, noted John L. Allen, Jr., of the National Catholic Reporter.

Nevertheless, "it doesn't withstand scrutiny for anyone to say that this conflict is about the bishops and Rome being upset about the sisters, Obama and birth control," said Allen, in a telephone interview from Rome. Also, "no one is upset about all the sisters have done to abolish the death penalty, stand up for immigrants, care for the sick and help the poor. Rome praised them for that. ...

"Frankly, his report could have been written 20 years ago. The real issues in this case are that old."

For example, the Vatican noted that in 1977 the LCWR leadership openly rejected Catholic teachings on the "reservation of priestly ordination to men." The women's conference later published a training book suggesting that it's legitimate for sisters to debate whether celebrations of the Mass should be central to events in their communities, since this would require the presence of a male priest. In the '80s, leaders in female orders backed the New Ways Ministry's work to oppose Catholic teachings on homosexuality.

A pivotal moment came in 2007, when Dominican Sister Laurie Brink delivered the keynote address (.pdf) at a national LCWR assembly stating that it was time for some religious orders to enter an era of "sojourning" that for some would require "moving beyond the church, even beyond Jesus."

With the emergence of the women's movement and related forms of spirituality, many sisters would see "the divine within nature" and embrace an "emerging new cosmology" that would feed their souls, said Brink. For these sisters, the "Jesus narrative is not the only or the most important narrative. ... Jesus is not the only son of God."

A year later, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith opened its investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

The Brink address, noted the resulting doctrinal assessment, "is a challenge not only to core Catholic beliefs; such a rejection of faith is also a serious source of scandal and is incompatible with religious life. ... Some might see in Sr. Brink's analysis a phenomenological snapshot of religious life today. But pastors of the Church should also see in it a cry for help."

St. Peter in Westminster Abbey

During his long exile in Normandy, the Saxon prince who would become known as Edward the Confessor vowed that he would make a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Peter once he returned to England. After his coronation as king, the pope released Edward from this vow -- if he built a monastery dedicated to the first bishop of Rome. Thus, St. Peter's Abbey was rebuilt in Westminster.

Pope Benedict XVI gently stressed this history in the first words of his address during his recent visit to Westminster Abbey, where he prayed with the archbishop of Canterbury.

"I thank the Lord for this opportunity to join you ... in this magnificent Abbey church dedicated to St. Peter, whose architecture and history speak so eloquently of our common heritage of faith," said Benedict. "Here we cannot help but be reminded of how greatly the Christian faith shaped the unity and culture of Europe and the heart and spirit of the English people. Here too, we are forcibly reminded that what we share, in Christ, is greater than what continues to divide us. ...

"I thank the Lord for allowing me, as the successor of St. Peter in the See of Rome, to make this pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Edward the Confessor."

Benedict's historic visit to England's national shrine received little coverage, in part because his remarks there were intensely spiritual. Meanwhile, journalists had to notice that his Westminster Hall address on the role of reason and faith in politics drew a secular flock that included, as an Associated Press report noted, "former Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, who recently converted to Catholicism."

Speaking in the hall in which the Catholic martyr Sir Thomas More was convicted of treason for his loyalty to Rome, Benedict warned that the modern world -- take Europe -- is increasingly hostile to those who try to act on their beliefs.

"There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere," he said. "There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none. And there are those who argue -- paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination -- that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience.

"These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square."

The abbey visit created no sparks, in part because earlier that day the pope told Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams that there was no need to "speak of the difficulties that the ecumenical path has encountered and continues to encounter. Those difficulties are well known." Thus, there were no clear references to tensions about female priests, gay bishops in America's Episcopal Church and the Vatican's controversial decision -- after many appeals by Anglican traditionalists -- to make it easier for members of the Church of England to enter the Church of Rome.

Instead, Benedict repeatedly stressed that unity must be found in scripture, creeds and moral doctrines that date back to the early church. These words, however, are controversial in an age in which the global Anglican Communion is divided over teachings as central as the resurrection of Jesus and claims that salvation is found through Christ, alone.

"Our commitment to Christian unity is born of nothing less than our faith in Christ, in this Christ, risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father, who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead," he said. "It is the reality of Christ's person, his saving work and above all the historical fact of his resurrection, which is the content of ... those creedal formulas. ... The church's unity, in a word, can never be other than a unity in the apostolic faith, in the faith entrusted to each new member of the Body of Christ."

Finally, Benedict stressed -- yet again -- that he was speaking and acting in "fidelity to my ministry as the bishop of Rome and the successor of St. Peter, charged with a particular care for the unity of Christ's flock."

A short test for Lent 2006

Now that Ash Wednesday has passed, the world's 1 billion or more Roman Catholics have entered the season of Lent. It's time for a short test.

During this holy season of penitence and reflection, America's 62 million Catholics are required to:

(a) Go to confession.

(b) Abstain from meat and fast by eating only one full meal on Fridays.

(c) Pray and meditate on biblical accounts of the suffering and death of Jesus, including attending weekly Stations of the Cross rites or an extra Mass.

(d) Increase their efforts to help the needy through volunteer work and donations.

(e) Make a unique personal sacrifice, such as giving up sweets, coffee, soap operas or SportsCenter on ESPN.

(e) All of the above or some combination of the above, depending on the conscience of the individual Catholic.

(f) None of the above.

Yes, this is a trick question and the key is the phrase "required to."

Modern Catholic leaders have steered away from dogmatic pronouncements about practical details in the spiritual lives of the faithful. The end result is that Catholics are gently encouraged to practice many spiritual disciplines during the Lenten season, including all of the above and more. However, they are required to do few things in particular and millions of Catholics ignore those regulations, as well.

"What is the reality? The reality is that most Catholics do not think much about the meaning of Lent," said Father William H. Stetson, director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., only a few blocks from the White House. "Most Catholics have little or no idea what they're supposed to be doing during this season, although they all want to go get ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday."

Lenten traditions have changed dramatically through the centuries, with some form of pre-Easter fast beginning in the early church. This evolved into a penitential season of 40 days, a number rich in biblical symbolism-- including the 40 days of prayer and fasting that Jesus spent in the wilderness.

For centuries, Roman Catholics observed a strict fast in which they ate only one meal a day, with no meat or fish allowed. Over time, regulations were softened to allow small amounts of food at two other times during the day.

Today, Catholics are asked to observe the strict fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent and Good Friday at the end. They are urged to avoid meat on Fridays in Lent, but the U.S. Catholic bishops now allow other acts of penance to substitute for this.

These Lenten regulations are usually published in parish newsletters and explained by priests during services.

According to canon law, noted Stetson, Catholics are supposed to take Holy Communion at least once a year, a tradition that millions of church members have grown up hearing described as their "Easter duty." The assumption is that this would require Catholics to go to confession during Lent before fulfilling that duty.

However, few priests and bishops would assume that to be true in American pews today. In the mid-1980s, a University of Notre Dame study found that 26 percent of active Catholics never go to confession at all and another 35 percent may go once a year. No one believes that those numbers are rising.

This points to a problem, said Stetson, a problem larger than any confusion that exists about the myriad layers of church laws, regulations and traditions that govern the holy season of Lent in America and the rest of the Catholic world.

The biggest problem, he said, is that so many Catholics no longer think of themselves as sinners.

"There are all kinds of actions that the church teaches are seriously sinful that the typical modern Catholic no longer believes are seriously sinful," said Stetson, who, as a 75-year-old priest, has seen many changes sweep through the Church of Rome. "Therefore, these typical Catholics walk up to the altar week after week to receive Communion without a single thought entering their minds about repentance or confession or anything like that.

"So you have to take that into account when you talk about Lent. In a penitential season you are supposed to feel real sorrow for your sins, which can be hard to do if you really do not think that you're sinning."