Tuesday, November 24, 2009

More Backlash, The LCWR Politely Tells The Vatican, Thanks But No Thanks

This has been edited for length. The entire article can be read here.

Women religious not complying with Vatican study
"There's been almost universal resistance. We are saying 'enough!' "

Nov. 24, 2009 By Thomas C. Fox National Catholic Reporter

The vast majority of U.S. women religious are not complying with a Vatican request to answer questions in a document of inquiry that is part of a three-year study of the congregations. Leaders of congregations, instead, are leaving questions unanswered or sending in letters or copies of their communities' constitutions.

"There's been almost universal resistance," said one women religious familiar with the responses compiled by the congregation leaders. "We are saying 'enough!' In my 40 years in religious life I have never seen such unanimity."

The deadline for the questionnaires to be filled out and returned to the Vatican-appointed apostolic visitator, superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Mother Mary Clare Millea, was Nov. 20. On that day, according to an informed source, congregation leaders across the nation sent Millea letters and, in many cases, only partial answers to the questionnaire. Many women, instead of filling out the forms, replied by sending in copies of their Vatican -approved orders' religious constitutions. A religious order's constitution states its rationale, purpose and mission.

The Vatican initiated the study in January, saying its purpose is to determine the quality of life in religious communities, given the decline in vocations in recent decades. From the outset, the women have complained they were never consulted before Vatican officials announced the investigation and there is no transparency in the process. Some have called the effort demeaning and intrusive. (It would have been a lot more believable if it included all congregations of nuns and sisters. Instead it left out monastic communities while appointing a monastic nun to lead it.)

The decisions by congregation leaders not to comply follow nearly two months of intensive discussions both inside and across religious congregations. They follow consultations with civil and canon lawyers, and come in the wake of what some women religious see as widespread support by laity for their church missions.

With about half of the responses from the nation's 59,000 women religious accounted for, only about one percent answered, as directed, most or all of the questions contained in the study's working paper, officially called an Instrumentum Laboris, according to one informed source.

By contrast, according to the source, congregations representing, by far, the greater majority of women religious decided not to comply and answered only a few, or none, of the questions. Many of the 340 U.S. apostolic congregation heads instead sent letters to Millea stating that what they were sending was what the Vatican was looking for.

"Cover letters [to Millea] have been respectful and kind," one woman, familiar with the responses, told NCR. "Many of the letters have essentially said that what we have to say about ourselves has already been said in our religious constitutions."............

Several women religious said that, in discerning their responses to the questionnaire which they felt were intrusive, there emerged a new sense of identity and resolve. One said that for years women religious have focused on the needs of others. This time they had to focus on themselves.

She said women religious have been virtually unanimous in spirit that they have been living out their missions, as directed by the gospels and by the Second Vatican Council, which called upon religious communities to go out in the world to work among the poor and to build more just and peaceful structures.

She explained that in the process church prelates lost the control over women religious congregations they once had. She said many women religious believe the investigation is part of an effort to regain that control. (It's a little late in the day to try re establishing control over the one part of the Church that still has any independence. It's hardly the fault of the LCWR that they weren't perceived to be important enough or high profile enough for the men to bother with--until it was too late.)

"Vatican II took us out of the ghettos and into ecology, feminism and justice in the world," she said. "The Vatican still has a difficult time accepting that."

Some of the women interviewed by NCR cite an irony involved in the investigation. One said that it is "unlikely the Vatican wanted us to come out of this being more confident of our identity as self-defining religious agents, but that is exactly what has happened." (Good for you, now if only diocesan and religious priests would take the hint.)

Another said: "At first, many women were asking, 'How do we respond? Then we were asking, 'How do we respond faithfully in keeping with our identity?' And soon we were asking, 'What is that identity?' " (Seems to me the clerical priesthood needs to answer the same question.)

Still another said that at first when confronted with the questionnaire, many women religious congregation heads felt isolated. But after discussions within their communities and after regional meetings with other women religious and after consultations with their canon lawyers, they overcame the initial sense of isolation and grew in common resolve.

Several women said canon lawyers told the women they were not required to answer all the questions. Religious, unlike bishops, priests and deacons, who make up the clergy, are not officially part of the church's hierarchical structure. According to this reasoning, women religious are responsible to their congregation leadership and to their constitutions.

NCR contacted several canon lawyers consulted by women religious communities. These canon lawyers declined to be interviewed for this story.

All along, said one woman religious, the challenge has been to respond to the Vatican in a way that breaks a cycle of violence. She said that the women religious communities have attempted to respond by using a language "devoid of the violence" they found in the Vatican questionnaire and within the wider study. She characterized the congregation responses as "creative and affirming," and part of an effort to set a positive example in "nonviolent resistance."

"On the one hand we didn't want to roll over and play dead," she said. "So the question was, "How do you step outside a violent framework and do something new?' That was the challenge that emerged." One congregation, she said, cited a U.S. bishops' statement concerning domestic abuse in its response letter to Millea. "The point is, there have to be more than two choices: Take the abuse and offer it up, or kill the abuser." (A lot of us are trying to find this other way to deal with the heirarchy.)

Women religious, she said, are asking if there is a "Ghandian or Martin Luther King way" to deal with violence they felt is being done to them.

At issue, according to several women religious, is the role women religious are to play in the world today. As much as any other element in the church, women religious claim Vatican II's documents as a call go out in the world, loved and blessed by God, and to serve within it.


Three cheers for the LCWR and may this polite and non violent response reverberate through out the Vatican. This is real leadership and I am impressed beyond my wildest hopes. Thank you once again sisters for reminding us what it really means to respond with integrity and Christian charity in the face of inauthentic religious power and control.

What ever will Rode and Levada do now? Whatever they decide, I'm willing to bet it won't be in the form of an apology.


  1. Great news! Thank you. How I hope this is the beginning of the end of this repressive era and the crumbling of the Vatican's "empire".

  2. "Several women religious said that, in discerning their responses to the questionnaire which they felt were intrusive, there emerged a new sense of identity and resolve. One said that for years women religious have focused on the needs of others. This time they had to focus on themselves."

    The Church hierarchy's questionnaires, including the one for Church marriage annulments, are very intrusive. The response of many Catholics to that questionnaire is to not fill it out as well.

    A lot of us are saying 'enough' to abuse and absolute powers by finding ways to non-violent resistance.

    Cheers to the good Sisters from me too!!!!

  3. Hot Dog! Good for them!

    I think if push comes to shove we need to get out and demonstrate on their behalf! They do so much good! And honestly I think many Catholics know nothing of this investigation.

    From now on every time a hospital patient I see, in my volunteer status as Communion Minister, makes the mistake of thinking I'm a nun, I'll set them straight on the Vatican investigation. (I did that this past Sunday and the people right away said "It's THIS pope, right?" I gathered THIS pope was not a good thing!)

    Bravo for the nuns! I really like their idea of trying to guess what Ghandi would do here.

    This is so hopeful!

    And if the sisters don't have to do what the Vatican wants, then the laity don't either! And we need to spread that around!

  4. Now it is time for the heads of major Catholic Universities to follow the female religious leadership or degrade their institutions to catechetical centers or they will not be seen as institutions of major learning that search for truth. It is time for all the People of God to let the Bishops know that their supposed authority is, for many reasons, illegitimate. Leadership, to be true leadership, must be authoritative. It is time for legitimate Catholic leadership to leave this period of authoritarianism to history. This certainly begins with the selection of any leader or Bishop especially the one in Rome. I expect more ignorance and more attempts to ignore the hand writing on the wall by these Bishops. It is time for the Universities and the male clergy to have the courage to say the same things that their female counterparts are saying to these most inept leaders! It is time for all the people of God to respond to the ineptitude of RCC Leadership.

    Peace and understanding,
    R. Dennis Porch

  5. And the Catholic media! To also insist on freedom to publish the truth. To defy any efforts at censorship.

    I think these nuns may just be the vanguard of a wave of politely dismissing any efforts to interfere with the sacredness of individual conscience.

    God created us with free will. God has forbearance and mercy. And Christ is the head of the church. He himself demanded servant leaders. And we have every right to refuse allegiance to any who fail to exercise servant leadership in the church.

  6. It is a sure bet that the (blindly) OBEDIENT orders (the new ones created over the last 25 years) are going to get any criticism.

    Of course their members do little if anything to actually help people!

    I am starting to wonder if cloistered monastic communities were EVER coherent with the Gospel. Yes, it is good to have places of retreat & solace. As is daily contemplative prayer good for everybody!

    But - unless you are a homebound cripple with no other options - prayer alone without actually doing what Christ charged his followers to do (corporal works of mercy)is not enough.

    St. Francis of Assisi was one who found this out in the 1200s. That he must BE Christ to others, if he was to truly follow Christ.

    And that has nothing to do with any construct of 'doctrinal orthodoxy', much less to mindless obedience to a spiritually deceased ecclesial hierarchy who act as the spiritual descendents of the Scribes & Pharisees!

  7. Hard to remember a time when I have been this proud of my Church. Way to go!

  8. Anonymous:

    Maybe you need to carefully differentiate recent "(blindly) obedient" orders from centuries old contemplative orders, for it seems you are denigrating monastics, such as Benedictines and Cistercians, whom I, personally, hold in very high esteem and whom I credit with actually PRESERVING (far better than the non-monastic clergy) the Presence of God via an authentic spirituality, which is transformative.

    It distresses me that anyone would not understand and value the profound union of mystics, not only with Christ, but with his Mystical Body, indeed especially with the suffering, the poor, the outcast. (See Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander for just one example.) Jesus himself spent nights in prayer, weeks in the desert in prayer and fasting, for another.

    Believe me, the monks have ample opportunity for corporate works of mercy - to each other and to guests. Part of their asceticism is indeed the corporate life they have together. And it isn't easy for those vowed to a particular community, especially when the communities are small.

    Monastics and monasteries have been immensely helpful to me - in providing places and people carrying on the authentic life of the Spirit - at a time when the male church hierarchy has shown itself - all too often - to have strayed so far from the Gospel. Were it not for monks and monasteries I might have given up on the church long ago! Through my adult life, they have been a beacon to me - not to give up on the church!

    This is not, in any way, to detract from the authentic witness of active orders of nuns, who also have worked hard to show the face of Christ - at a time when this is so sorely needed.

  9. I have to agree wholeheartedly with TheraP about the monastics. Were it not for the monastics my own spiritual life was in jeopardy and chaos and confusion. Thomas Merton truly pulled me out of a very depressing darkness and into the light of Christ. He was able to think and aids one to think through things with Jesus.

    "Actions without contemplation lead to violence."

  10. I'm so proud of the LCWR I don't know what to write. It's been such a long time since there was any hope in this Church.

    Dennis, your observation about Catholic educational facilities and fellow clerics to stand up and demand their own independence would be so lovely to see.

    The irony here is that it would so free up the bishops to be truly pastorally Catholic in a Christian sense. It has to be a real 'drag' to keep defending the indefensible.

    Anon, I understand your take, but the very best of our comtemplative monastic communities will be one of the forces leading the way in the new Church. Notice I didn't say the most traditional.

    Read Richard Rohr, his contemplative center here in New Mexico is a fundamental source of education and theory in the drive for authentic Catholic spirituality. I see this authentic Catholic spirituality, authentic meaning it has real impact for others, as the foundation for an inclusive and transparent reform of what currently passes for Catholicism.

  11. Women religious are about the only truly prophetic voices left in the RCC.

  12. Such a nice way to say: Up yours, boyos! What are you going to do, sue us?"

    Jim McCrea

  13. Jim, maybe the Vatican's thought is running in the opposite direction, as in please don't sue us.

  14. The thinking in this article and comments reveal little understading of Catholic theology. I am scandalized beyond description by the harm these Sisters are doing the Church by their blatant, proud disobedience. The comments shown here are just a small example of the harm being done by them. We have heard the words "non serviam..." before in history.
    Signed: A Modern Middle-Aged Priest

  15. I seem to remember reading about more than one example of organized dissent with in the history of the Church and a number of those involved religious congregations.

    Mother Angelica herself had her run ins with hierarchical authority and her solutions also involved a bit of dissentm, which is why EWTN is now under the auspices of a lay board.

    Dissent runs in both directions. Maybe this all just means that women will not be automatically used, abused, and taken advantage of just because they happen to espouse a religious vocation.