After the CDF released a Doctrinal Assessment on April 18th focused on the renewal of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), various Catholics came out in support of the (supposedly) unfairly maligned sisters. Sure, the common line went, some problems exist here and there, but everyone knows women religious are almost uniformly selfless, dedicated, and orthodox. They are also, it was said, defenseless and stunned by the CDF’s document. Further, the “attacks” on these aging sisters by the Vatican (or “Rome”, or “the Pope”, or “tyrannical, white men who can’t jump”) are not only based on wildly exaggerated and politically-motivated accusations, they reflect the sort of ultra-conservative, hyper-controlling, mega-authoritarian approach so common among bishops since the Second Vatican Council.
Many disagreed, including myself (shocking, I know). More surprising is the disagreement of Catholic feminist and journalist Angela Bonavoglia, author of Good Catholic Girls: How Women Are Leading the Fight to Change the Church. In contrast to many of her progressive allies, Bonavoglia doesn’t think women religious have been wrongly accused. Instead, she thinks the CDF is mostly on the mark in identifying the actions and beliefs of the LCWR leadership (and others), but that the CDF is completely wrong to think those actions and beliefs are anything but good, wholesome, and necessary. She writes, in a May 21st piece for The Nation titled, American Nuns: Guilty As Charged?:
After giving an obligatory nod to the sisters’ good works in schools, hospitals and social service agencies, the CDF devoted the remainder of its Doctrinal Assessment to attacking the sisters for failing to provide “allegiance of mind and heart to the Magisterium of the Bishops”; focusing on the “exercise of charity” instead of lambasting lesbians, gays, and women who use birth control or have an abortion; refusing to accept the ban on women’s ordination; allowing “dialogue” on contentious subjects; and tampering with the notion of God the “Father” while promulgating other “radical feminist” theological interpretations. The CDF’s solution: send in three men, an archbishop and two other bishops, to take control of LCWR for five years.
This led to an enormous outpouring of support to the sisters. But to anyone who has been watching the nuns closely, an unsettling observation emerges: these charges appear, in some measure, to be true. But that is not because, as the Assessment insists, LCWR has rejected “communion” with the church. Instead, it is evidence of a theological conflict that is raging in the Catholic Church, a conflict that most of us only notice when it spills over into American politics.
Bonavoglia is, of course, correct in situating the wayward beliefs and actions of certain women religious within a larger context. And she is right to point to a “theological conflict that is raging in the Catholic Church”, even though I disagree with how she fleshes out that description—a description reliant on the same tired, and misleading “liberal vs. conservative” paradigm that has been in vogue since the time of the Council itself:
Liberal voices in the Church have been under attack ever since Vatican II. A number of vocal Catholic women, including nuns, have been among the most persistent and influential leaders of the fight to save the church from what they see as soul-crushing conservatism. This has galled the hierarchy, which has responded with silencings, firings, excommunications and public denunciations. Seeing that picking their targets off one by one wasn’t working, the Vatican, in taking on LCWR, decided to go for broke.
What is of interest to me here, however, is how Bonavoglia very openly and admiringly (and accurately, it seems to me) describes how, in the early 1970s, “feminism was seeping into the bones of American nuns.” She notes, for example, how by 1979
[the] LCWR had become so spirited that its president, Sister Theresa Kane, challenged Pope John Paul II from the podium at Washington, DC’s Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to include women “in all ministries of our Church.” She did this while nearly fifty sisters wearing blue armbands, symbolizing women’s ordination, stood in silent protest.
She then describes at length the feminist background and theologically subversive work of Sister Elizabeth Johnson, who supported women’s ordination in the 1970s and has challenged essential tenets of the Church’s beliefs about Christ and salvation over the past three decades. Johnson is depicted as the enlightened, brave heroine dueling with the nasty, powerful bishops intent on squishing her with their “absolute power”. Other heroic figures include Charles Curran and Sister Carol Keehan. And then there is this key passage:
Much work by Catholic feminist theologians has undermined the hierarchy’s claim to absolute authority in matters of faith and morals. Feminist theologians have re-envisioned God. They reject the one-time, one-place, men-only view of revelation. Like Johnson, they see Mary as assertive, autonomous, and strong, her decision to bear the Messiah between her and God. They claim Eve as human, not evil, and hold Adam responsible for his own Fall. They demand an inclusive church and liturgy. They work across faith lines toward a truly ecumenical world.
They claim women’s moral authority, clinging to the fundamental belief in the primacy of conscience. “God gave us free will,” explained the late Sister Margaret Ellen Traxler, a signer of Catholics for a Free Choice’s 1984 petition, published in the New York Times, calling for dialogue in the church on abortion. “Free will is guided by conscience…. A woman will answer to God for one thing: Has she followed her conscience?… It’s nobody’s right to tell her what her conscience said to her.”
Some of this is strange (the Church doesn’t think Mary was strong or that Eve was human?), but the problems are simply obvious. “How many of the women affiliated with LCWR, NETWORK or the Catholic Health Association accept these and other tenets of feminist theology is unknown”, Bonavoglia writes. “But the groups’ joint efforts to push policies that they believe represent Catholic social teaching, as well as their individual interactions, indicate mutual respect.” Further examples of affinity are given, including Johnson headlining a LCWR event in 2008. Bonavoglia highlights Sister Laurie Brink’s keynote address at the 2007 LCWR conference, which called into question the centrality of Christ, the nature of the Church, and the ordained priesthood (see my August 18, 2009, post, “Transparency, Creativity, and Heresy” on Insight Scoop). Bonavoglia approves, of course, and lets loose this ferocious swipe at Church leadership:
The CDF took those observations as a “cry for help”—specifically, from an all-male cadre of hierarchs who still cannot summon the leadership to condemn the real sinners in their midst and who failed miserably to protect the children in their care from sodomy, rape and their own indifference.
Never mind that the Church, in the past decade, has done more than any large institution to fight, expose, and eliminate child abuse and molestation—so much so that some non-Catholics are pointing to the Church as an example to emulate when it comes to the protection of youth in public schools. In any case, the narrative here is quite clear: feminist theologians and women religious under their influence are not only pro-woman, but are on the cutting edge of spiritual evolution and enlightenment, while orthodox Catholicism is all about power, coercion, fear, and suppression:
In the church today, those voices for social change are loud and unrelenting. And they are everywhere—in the pews, in the public square and deep in the hearts of the sojourners among us.
There is nothing the hierarchy can do about that: you can’t stop an echo.
The sad truth is that the echo has been coming from the empty halls of dying convents (or apartments, as the case often is), and from within the deep ravines of navel-gazing forms of feminist theology. Echoes indicate emptiness and distance; in this case, the distance between the LCWR leadership and the Church’s doctrine. Still, I appreciate Bonavoglia’s piece because it is honest about its premises and about the intentions of the radical feminism that has so infested the Church over the past half century. It also highlights the unsolvable problem faced by those who claim there are no real problems within the LCWR or many orders: the facts and the feminists say otherwise, loud and clear.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!