“Who really won? The sisters or the Vatican?”

The various "LCWR vs. The Vatican" news stories have misunderstood or misrepresented many of the basic facts

A French journalist I know called me for help on an article she was writing about the reform plan for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) accepted April 16 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

She said she was confused by all the articles on the topic in the U.S. press and wanted to ask me “Who really won? The sisters or the Vatican?”

At first I was stunned by this win-lose terminology, and I wondered why she would have considered the doctrinal reform of a canonically-erected entity to be a conflict of some kind, with the outcome producing a winner and a loser.

My own impression of the outcome was that everyone won because the CDF had helped the LCWR to be a better organization for sisters by refocusing its role to be “centered on Jesus Christ and faithful to the teachings of the Church,” according to the final report.

Then I took time to read several media stories on the topic and discovered that some of the articles made it sound as if the CDF’s reform of the LCWR indeed was adversarial, akin to “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” or a new “Star Wars” sequel.

Consider, for example, this headline from the April 16 New York Times: “Vatican Ends Battle With U.S. Catholic Nuns’ Group.” Writer Laurie Goodstein then went on to use such inflammatory language as “confrontation,” “vexing and unjust inquisition” and “standoff.”

Several other articles used similar language, saying the reform effort was a “takeover” of the group, and some simply declared that the sisters had won a battle with the Vatican. Miriam Krule writing for Slate called the reform agreement a “victory and vindication for LCWR.”

Religion News Service even assigned a score to the CDF reform of LCWR in its headline “Nuns 1, Cardinal Müller 0.”
 
It seems as if some writers simply shaped the outcome to reflect their own hopes and expectations. No wonder my French friend was confused.

Adding to her confusion were articles that contained downright incorrect information on the topic, making me wonder if the writers had actually read the CDF-LCWR joint final report. Perhaps accurate research is just not their thing.

For example, several articles reported that the reform was ended “abruptly” or “early,” an indication that the Holy See just wanted to be done with the matter. “The review was supposed to run until 2017,” declared the April 16 International Business Times. The Associated Press and Jesuit Father James Martin writing at America made the same claim, while St. Louis Public Radio insisted the reform “was set up as a four-year investigation.”

Had those writers done their homework and actually read the CDF 2012 mandate, they would have seen this sentence: “The mandate of the Delegate will be for a period of up to five years, as deemed necessary” (emphasis added). Thus, if the LCWR had accepted the reforms readily, the process could have been concluded in weeks instead of years. The five-year time frame was set to avoid endless dialogue, a method of dealing with church officials that LCWR officials have used for years.

It should be noted that most of the articles criticizing the reform never bothered to quote at length the joint CDF-LCWR final report or accompanying press release. To do so would have disproven many of their claims, so some writers simply cherry-picked or distorted passages or used partial quotes to convey a meaning quite opposite the speaker’s intention.

For example, Elizabeth Whitman writing for the International Business Times glibly reported that CDF Prefect, Cardinal Gerhard Müller said his office was “confident that LCWR has made clear its mission to support its member institutes.” The writer left off the rest of the prefect’s sentence and paragraph, which continued: “by fostering a vision of religious life that is centered on the Person of Jesus Christ and is rooted in the Tradition of the Church. It is this vision that makes religious women and men radical witnesses to the Gospel, and, therefore, is essential for the flourishing of religious life in the Church.”

Over at Religion News Service, writer David Gibson creatively selected the prefect’s above words to praise the LCWR: “Mueller said he was confident that the mission of the nuns ‘is rooted in the Tradition of the Church’ and that they are ‘essential for the flourishing of religious life in the Church.’”

If I were still an English teacher, I would have Gibson diagram the prefect’s sentences so that he could see the cardinal said it is the proper vision of religious life that is rooted in the tradition of the church—not the LCWR mission—and it is that proper vision which is essential for the flourishing of religious life—not the LCWR sisters.

Adding to the misinformation is the creative speculation about the role of Pope Francis in bringing the LCWR reform to a conclusion, with several writers proclaiming that his emphasis on mercy precludes any correction of dissent. The New York Times article declared that “Francis has shown in his two-year papacy that he is less interested in having the church police doctrinal boundaries than in demonstrating mercy and love for the poor and vulnerable.”

I didn’t know that doctrinal integrity was incompatible with mercy and love, and I don’t think Pope Francis believes this either, for he has stood strong on doctrinal matters while modeling mercy and love.

It also is amusing to read the speculation about the LCWR audience with Pope Francis, for the Vatican has issued no information about what was discussed, and the LCWR news release about the meeting does not even mention the CDF reform of the organization. Rather, the LCWR reported that the papal audience “centered on Evangelii gaudium, the pope’s apostolic exhortation.”

Yet, some writers speculated that the pope had apologized to the LCWR at the audience. The New York Times quoted theologian Eileen Burke-Sullivan saying the papal audience was “about as close to an apology, I would think, as the Catholic Church is officially going to render.”

If Ms. Burke-Sullivan had been paying attention, she would have known that the LCWR had asked Pope Francis for an audience during the reform process, and some sisters had not been shy about expressing their hope the new pope would reverse the decision of his predecessor to approve the CDF reform.

Mark Silk, also writing for Religion News Service in a blog strangely titled “Spiritual Politics” got the quote right, but characterized it this way: “Müller purred his approval.” Silk went on to write it is “perhaps significant” that the cardinal’s address from last year telling the LCWR leaders to heed the reform “is no longer to be found on the CDF website,” and he provided an erroneous link to prove his point.

I hope Prof. Silk won’t be too embarrassed to learn that Cardinal Müller’s full address is still on the Vatican website here, and there is no evidence that he has backed away from what he told the LCWR in 2014: “The LCWR, as a canonical entity dependent on the Holy See, has a profound obligation to the promotion of that faith as the essential foundation of religious life.”

However, Francis had told the CDF to continue the reform, and he did not grant an audience with LCWR until an hour or so after the CDF accepted the terms of the LCWR reform. If Pope Francis had not approved the LCWR reform, he could have stopped it the day he was elected.

I think the confusion of my French journalist friend can be cleared up simply by carefully reading the primary documents involved—the CDF-LCWR joint final report and its accompanying press release, and the 2012 CDF mandate of reform.

It’s too bad so many journalists in this country did not do so before writing their articles.

About Ann Carey 16 Articles
Ann Carey is the author of Sisters in Crisis: Revisited—From Unraveling to Reform and Renewal (Ignatius Press, 2013).