In 1956, membership in Catholic religious orders was soaring to historic heights. The sheer number of young women who felt called to the mission of the American church led to the creation, at the Vatican’s behest, of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group answerable to Rome.
Flash forward 56 years, and the landscape for religious vocations is very different. Growth that once seemed unstoppable has gone into reverse. Many women left religious life for a world full of revolution and new ideas. Those who remained within the Leadership Conference also changedâ€”so much so that the church sent them a corrective last week.
After a three-year investigation into the state of non-cloistered religious life in the United States, the church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith produced an eight-page doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference, and its member communities, that identifies areas of keen concern. It cites theological and doctrinal errors; dissenting positions on the “pastoral approach to ministry of homosexual persons”; and the “prevalence of certain radical feminist themes” incompatible with church teaching, including female ordination.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s first duty is to assure that the doctrines of the church are being accurately reflected and communicated to the church body by those canonically representing the faith. Yet its criticisms could not have surprised the sisters, many of whom acknowledge that their communities are “out of step” with Rome.
On the eve of the Vatican’s doctrinal investigation in 2009, Sister Sandra M. Schneiders published a letter to her Leadership Conference associates in which she sounded loaded for bear. Declaring that her community and others had “birthed a new form of religious life,” she referred to the Vatican’s attempt at assessment as “a hostile move” and one that would do “violence” to all that newness.
Not all sisters have been as combative. Two years earlier, in a thoughtful presentation that some believe spurred the investigation, then-Leadership Conference president Sister Laurie Brink had acknowledged that while many sisters walked unevenly with Rome, some had moved “beyond the church, even beyond Jesus.” She called that a post-Christian mind-set that might ethically require those who held it to leave the church.
That assessment by Sister Brink was quoted in the Congregation’s findings, but the document says nothing ill of Sister Brink. Rather, it worries that post-Christian mind-sets too often “go unchallenged” by the Leadership Conferenceâ€”that it is falling down on the job of bringing Christian witness to its own members. While Sister Brink’s work provides “a phenomenological snapshot of religious life today,” says the document, “pastors should also see in it a cry for help.” [More]