“We have been so changed that we are no longer at home in the culture and church in which we find ourselves.”
This quotation from the keynote address (PDF) of Franciscan Sister Nancy Schreck to the August 12-15 annual assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) is startling, considering that it comes from a vowed member of a religious order who is speaking for other sisters. While Catholics should not feel at home in this modern culture, not feeling at home in the Catholic Church is indeed another matter.
Yet that quotation and many of the other statements in Sister Schreck’s keynote do help explain why the LCWR has resisted the reform that was ordered two-and-a-half years ago by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and reaffirmed in April 2013 by Pope Francis.
The 2014 LCWR assembly was particularly significant, because the group chose to bestow its annual Outstanding Leadership Award on Sister of St. Joseph Elizabeth Johnson, whose book, Quest for the Living God was cited for doctrinal errors by the US bishops in 2011. And when LCWR leaders made their annual visit to the Vatican this past April, CDF Prefect Cardinal Gerhard Müller told them the decision to honor Sister Johnson was “a rather open provocation against the Holy See and the ‘Doctrinal Assessment’” that “further alienates the LCWR from the [United States] bishops as well.”
Cardinal Müller reminded the LCWR leaders that the 2012 mandate included a requirement for the LCWR to clear speakers and honorees with the apostolic delegate charged with implementing the reform, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle. The CDF prefect made clear that requirement must be followed subsequent to the August assembly. So LCWR members had some big decisions to make behind the closed doors of their executive sessions last week, and clues about what was discussed were found only in the public talks given at the assembly.
Rather than indicating any conciliation with the Holy See and the US bishops, the assembly keynote address by Sister Schreck, who was LCWR president in 1995, tried to explain why the LCWR was justified in taking the road it followed, implying that the Holy See had misjudged and misunderstood the LCWR.
Unfortunately, her reasoning was convoluted, confused, and unfounded in many respects, and she indicated that maintaining close ties to the Church was somehow incompatible with service to the poor and marginalized, the only ministry that she seems to believe is worthy of attention by today’s sisters.
Sister Schreck began by taking selected quotations from Perfectae Caritatis, the Vatican II document on the proper renewal of religious life. She summed up by saying that the document focused on four areas: the call to follow Christ; the return to the original spirit of religious institutes; adapting to changed conditions of our time; and promoting among members adequate knowledge of the social conditions of the times and the needs of the Church.
The sisters have faithfully implemented that document, Sister Schreck contended. “We have become more faithful not less, more clear about who we are, not less, and more free to give expression to our call, not less,” she said.
Sister Schreck neglected to mention some other crucial elements in that council document, including the close relationship to the Church that is to be maintained by religious: “All institutes should share in the life of the Church, adapting as their own and implementing in accordance with their own characteristics the Church’s undertakings and aims in matters biblical, liturgical, dogmatic, pastoral, ecumenical, missionary, and social” (PC 2c). And: “Since the Church has accepted their surrender of self they should realize they are also dedicated to its service” (PC 5).
Yet Sister Schreck indicated that implementing Perfectae Caritatis meant leaving long-established Catholic institutions and “habits, and convents, and schedules,” in order to minister to “margin dwellers.” She seems to have overlooked the directive of Perfectae Caritatis that “religious communities should continue to maintain and fulfill the ministries proper to them” (PC 20) while looking for new applications of those ministries in a changing world.
Sister Schreck also invoked Vita Consecrata, the 1996 apostolic exhortation on consecrated life by Pope John Paul II, quoting his call for “exploration of new ways to apply the Gospel.” She did not, however, mention a central theme of Vita Consecrata—that “the consecrated life is at the very heart of the Church as a decisive element for her mission.”
She also failed to mention that the Code of Canon Law—which was updated in 1983 to reflect the teachings of Vatican II—describes religious institutes as being “dedicated in a special way to the service of God and of the entire Church” and “subject to the supreme authority of this same Church in a special manner. Individual members are also bound to obey the Supreme Pontiff as their highest superior by reason of the sacred bond of obedience.”
Instead of reflecting this classic understanding of religious life, Sister Schreck spoke with disdain for the “institutional church” and “royal theological positions,” seeming to prefer instead the “underside” of theology:
We came to know Jesus from the underside of theology, in the inner cities and homeless shelters, from immigrants and prisoners, with a view from prostitutes and from the children of slaves, from the scarred places on the earth, the places of environmental racism. We are continuing to explore who Jesus is and the meaning of the incarnation in the new cosmology.
She claimed that “the authority of those who suffer has a special claim on the obedience of religious congregations,” as if fidelity to the Church is somehow incompatible with helping the suffering. She also seems to have forgotten that thousands of sisters who went before her ministered to the suffering precisely because they were motivated by the teachings of the Church.
Sister Schreck spoke also of sisters putting away the former concepts of religious institutions in order to journey into “Holy Mystery Time”—reflecting the theme of the LCWR 2014 assembly—and becoming “exiles.” “We will sell our souls if we stay in the place of wanting be part of the mainstream, thus becoming something other than we were intended to be,” she said.
The keynoter also claimed that LCWR sisters have a “clarity of identity and purpose which we cannot expect those who have not taken the journey and done the work ever to be able to understand.” Conversely, she spoke of sisters being in a “middle space,” a state of “both creativity and disorientation” in which “much of what was is gone, and what is coming is not yet clear.”
This does not sound like clarity of identity and purpose. Sister Schreck said in the “middle space” in which she locates religious life, “all of our theological categories are re-defined: concepts like love, divine presence, incarnation, and world view are reshaped.”
Yet, in spite of this confusion and lack of clarity, the sisters are determined to “use what we know from this mysterious middle place as wisdom for other organizations and institutions not because we are right but because we are faithful to the work of the middle space.”
It is as if Sister Schreck is claiming that in all the chaos and confusion sisters have experienced since they put their own interpretation on Vatican II renewal and completely changed the concept of vowed religious life, they have discovered rich truths unknown to anyone else in the previous 20 centuries of Christianity. “Many keepers of the great religious traditions now seem frightened by what we have come to know, they seem to find it difficult to converse with the complexities and hungers of our vision,” she claimed.
If Sister Schreck’s keynote address is any indication of what LCWR leaders are thinking, it explains why Cardinal Müller expressed concern in April about their ability to “sentire cum Ecclesia” (think with the Church and embrace its teachings).
That is the whole point of the CDF’s mandate of reform: it is an invitation to the LCWR to return home to the Catholic Church and once again feel comfortable in her warm embrace. What will be the sisters’ RSVP?