Sister Pat Farrell, president of the LCWR, deflects, blames, and otherwise obfuscates

National Public Radio recently interviewed Sister Pat Farrell, the current president of the LCWR (Leadership Conference of Women Religious): 

Farrell tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross that the leadership organization is currently gathering the perspectives of all of its members in preparation for its national assembly in August.

“We’re hoping to come out of that assembly with a much clearer direction about [the Vatican’s decision], and that’s when the national board and presidency can proceed,” she says.

Among the options on the table, she says, are fully complying with the mandate, not complying with the mandate or seeing if the Vatican will negotiate with them.

“In my mind, [I want] to see if we can somehow, in a spirited, nonviolent strategizing, look for maybe a third way that refuses to define the mandate and the issues in such black and white terms,” she says.

In other words, let’s sit down and talk about having further dialogue that will point us in the direction of additional conversations, which in turn will open up new vistas of vague and non-distinct paths ushering in an even more rewarding round of discussions, etc., etc. Frankly, this is what it is like sometimes dealing with my seven-year-old son, who is verbally skilled, sometimes manipulative, very adept at deflection, and usually refuses to back down when caught breaking rules, telling lies, or stealing sweets. A “third way”? That’s simply grown-up talk for “one more chance”. Refusing to define issues in such “black and white terms” is a variation on “why do you always have to be so strict about X, Y, and Z?” The key to this approach is being willing to outlast—often through endless talk!—those in authority. It also helps to be able say one thing while claiming to say another.

But, first, how about a little dose of deflection?

“The question is, ‘Can you be Catholic and have a questioning mind?’ That’s what we’re asking. … I think one of our deepest hopes is that in the way we manage the balancing beam in the position we’re in, if we can make any headways in helping to create a safe and respectful environment where church leaders along with rank-and-file members can raise questions openly and search for truth freely, with very complex and swiftly changing issues in our day, that would be our hope. But the climate is not there. And this mandate coming from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith putting us in a position of being under the control of certain bishops, that is not a dialogue. If anything, it appears to be shutting down dialogue.”

First, begin with a nonsensical question (my son, caught watching a television channel he knows is off limits, says, “Why does my sister get to watch whatever shes wants to?” Well, she doesn’t. But he’s not interested in the answer, is he?) Does Sister Farrell really ponder, with all seriousness, the question, “Can I be a Catholic and have a questioning mind?” Uh, the fact that a Catholic can even ponder such a question indicates the obvious answer: “Yes!” Crack open the Summa Theologica, one of the seminal theological and philosophical texts in the Tradition, and what do you find? Questions! Hundreds of ’em! Because we were made to question, ponder, contemplate, and wonder. But what is really being asked is this: “Can I be a Catholic and reject certain Catholic teachings?” The giveaway is in the term “complex and swiftly shifting issues in our day”. The next part of deflection, of course, is blaming someone else. In this case, it’s the CDF and the bishops appointed by the CDF: “But the climate is not there.” Yes, that’s right: the forecast for the LCWR is stormy weather, not smooth sailing.

Another tactic employed by the wayward child is claiming he or she knows better than the backwards, mean-spiriited parent. If only Mom or Dad would see how smart and enlightened little Johnny really is! Then they would admit the error of their cruel and unfair ways. The adult variation is more sophisticated, of course, but not any more convincing:

We have been, in good faith, raising concerns about some of the church’s teachings on sexuality. The problem being that the teaching and interpretation of the faith can’t remain static and really needs to be reformulated, rethought in light of the world we live in. And new questions and new realities [need to be addressed] as they arise. And if those issues become points of conflict, it’s because Women Religious stand in very close proximity to people at the margins, to people with very painful, difficult situations in their lives. That is our gift to the church. Our gift to the church is to be with those who have been made poorer, with those on the margins. Questions there are much less black and white because human realities are much less black and white. That’s where we spend our days.

Because, you see, being around poor people makes you smarter than bishops, theologians, the Magisterium, and the Tradition! Why? Uh, well, it’s complicated. It’s complex. You wouldn’t understand. Take our word on it. I’m sure that one of the complex issues in question is the Church’s teachings about contraceptives. As Mary Eberstadt points out in Adam and Eve After the Pill, it’s one thing to have made the argument for how great contraceptives are in, say, 1968. But the results are in; the polls have closed; history has rendered judgment. And the widespread use of contraceptives has proven to be a social and spiritual (as well as physiological) disaster.

The telling statement by Sister Farrell is this: “The problem being that the teaching and interpretation of the faith can’t remain static and really needs to be reformulated, rethought in light of the world we live in.” She either doesn’t understand the relationship between the sacred deposit of faith and how it can be presented in various ways in differing circumstances, or she is throwing up a smokescreen. Ad Gentes, for example, stated, “Religious institutes, working to plant the Church, and thoroughly Imbued with mystic treasures with which the Church’s religious tradition is adorned, should strive to give expression to them and to hand them on, according to the nature and the genius of each nation” (par. 18). But her problem is not with trying to articulate Catholic moral doctrine, for example, but with the moral teaching itself, as her negative references to “black and white” beliefs make clear. Yet truth does not change because someone is poor, just as it doesn’t change because someone is rich. Besides, it’s not as if the LCWR has a monopoly on working among the poor, nor does it follow that those who work with the poor are somehow able to earn the right and ability to form their own magisterium.

Then, of course, there is the issue of women’s ordination. This response is a rather classic version of the child who insists, “Oh, no, I was not near the cookie jar! In fact, I didn’t see it there. I don’t even like cookies! Why do you think I like cookies? I never talk about cookies!” Here goes:

The position we took in favor of women’s ordination in 1977 was before there was a Vatican letter saying that there is a definitive church position against the ordination of women. So it’s interesting to me that the document [just released by the church] goes back 30 years to talk about our position on the ordination of women. There has, in fact, been an official opinion from the church that that topic should not be discussed. When that declaration came out, the response of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was to call for a nationwide time of prayer and fasting for all Women Religious in response to that. Because our deep desire for places of leadership of women in the church be open. It remains a desire. Since then, the Leadership Conference has not spoken publicly about the ordination of women. Imposing a silence doesn’t necessarily change people’s thinking, but we are in a position to continue to be very concerned that the position of women in the church be recognized.

Translation: When it was finally clear what the Church taught about women’s ordination, we knew it couldn’t be discussed. So, instead, we encouraged dialogue about it. And conversation. And prayer. And we still want to have women ordained; we haven’t changed our minds about it. It’s something we continue to be fixatd on. But we have no idea why it’s a point of concern. No idea at all.

Huh. As for the 1977 date, what to do with this statement, made by then-LCWR President Sister Theresa Kane on October 7, 1979, directly to Pope John Paul II at the National Shrine in Washington, D.C.?

As I share this privileged moment with you, Your Holiness, I urge you to be mindful of the intense suffering and pain which is part of the life of many women in these United States. I call upon you to listen with compassion and to hear the call of women who comprise half of humankind. As women we have heard the powerful messages of our Church addressing the dignity and reverence for all persons. As women we have pondered upon these words. Our contemplation leads us to state that the Church in its struggle to be faithful to its call for reverence and dignity for all persons must respond by providing the possibility of women as persons being included in all ministries of our Church. I urge you, Your Holiness, to be open to and respond to the voices coming from the women of this country who are desirous of serving in and through the Church as fully participating members.

So, almost three years after the CDF document, Inter Insigniores, was released (October 15, 1976), the head of LCWR publicly demanded that women be ordained. Yet Sister Farell claims, “Since then [that is, 1977], the Leadership Conference has not spoken publicly about the ordination of women.” Of course, the dates are rather black and white, and it’s obvious she doesn’t have any patience for such rigidity. Oh, and there is also the October 7, 1984, New York Times ad—“A Diversity of Opinions Regarding Abortion Exists Among Committed Catholics”—which was publicly supported by the LCWR. (See this timeline from Fr. Z for more details.)

Finally, her remarks about abortion are, predictably, both confused and frustrating. She says it is “unfair” that the LCWR is criticized for what “we’re not talking about” (that is, how abortion is murder and a grave sin), insisting, “Our works are very much pro-life”. Then there is this bizarre statement, which sounds like something Mario Cuomo, John Kerry, or Nancy Pelosi might toss out: “We would question, however, any policy that is more pro-fetus than actually pro-life. If the rights of the unborn trump all of the rights of all of those who are already born, that is a distortion, too — if there’s such an emphasis on that.” That is not just nonsensical, it is directly contrary to Catholic teaching as the very notion there is a conflict between the rights of the unborn and of the born is deeply confused: every human being has the right to life. Period.

Yes, it’s true that life issues more than abortion—but what serious Catholic would deny it? But what serious Catholic would deny that abortion is the life issue of our time? Do we really need to spell out why that is so? Are the murders of forty million innocent unborn not reason enough? How about the Catechism: “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception” (par 2270)? Or the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church:

The first right presented in this list [of essential rights] is the right to life, from conception to its natural end, which is the condition for the exercise of all other rights and, in particular, implies the illicitness of every form of procured abortion and of euthanasia. (par 155)

The Sister then says, “To single out one right-to-life issue and to say that that’s the only issue that defines Catholic identity, I think, is really a distortion.” Again, I don’t know of any good Catholics who say or believe abortion is the “only issue that defines Catholic identity”—this is itself a distortion, as well as a convenient way of avoiding the fact that the LCWR does nothing and says nothing about abortion!

In short, a less than impressive interview, one that suggests, again, that the LCWR and CDF will likely be entering some stormy waters in the near future.

[Some minor edits—for typos and grammar—where made to this post at 3:30 EST on July 18, 2012.]

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About Carl E. Olson 1207 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.