(But it is, a little bit.)
I apparently fail at the “not my circus, not my monkey” attitude, because if there is one thing I won’t stand for it is the historically informed, culturally entrenched exclusion and derision of the countercultural service of religious women, and today’s wrath is brought to you by the opening remarks of Cardinal Müller at his meeting with the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR, what is more or less characterized as nonhabited liberal US nuns).
Listen, I come to this with good faith in Cardinal Müller as the guy to deal with any genuine theological and pastoral issues with the LCWR, if only because I know he’s hung around liberation theologians for decades so I know he has genuine context and the ability to distinguish between politically uncomfortable but theologically valid Catholicism and actual heresy. I know he’s pissed off for the right reasons. And yet his attitude, and the attitude of the larger Catholic hierarchy, toward the LCWR is disrespectful at best, to the point of the complete lack of credibility on the part of the institutional Church in dealing with any legitimate problems that exist here.
And by that I mean the exclusive and blatant focus of the institutional Church on fundamental theological problems in the LCWR, while overlooking equally fundamental problems in the CMSWR (Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, broadly speaking the LCWR’s habited, conservative counterpart). Müller’s remarks are filled with subtext (and sometimes just text, ctrl+F “new generations of young women”) about how the CMSWR are bringing in vocations and the LCWR aren’t, so clearly something is wrong with the LCWR. In short, high vocation numbers are seen as the default, rather than the grace of God, and low vocation numbers are seen as a failing on the part of the women religious.
To a limited extent, and I mean damn limited, that attitude may have a point. But if that’s the mindset you bring to the table, that prepares you to overlook pervasive abuse in CMSWR congregations, whether it is psychological abuse in recruitment or sexual abuse in retention. As if the challenge to the dignity of the human person presented by such issues were any less fundamental to the integrity and flourishing of religious life than the challenges brought by “Conscious Evolution” he goes on about. That attitude also places blame entirely on the leadership of the LCWR for widespread pastoral failures in the face of US social change. Where did the vocations go? Brother, where did the people in the pews go? Can we stop acting like those are separate phenomena, please?
And Müller’s rhetoric here is just condescending. I appreciate his bluntness when pointing out specific theological problems; that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about setting up the dialogue here as “discernment,” as if the hierarchy were acting as spiritual director to these women specifically. It has limited appropriateness as a strategy for improved relations when it is connected with the very power dynamic so often rightly protested by LCWR members. Müller is more likely than most to mean what he says about this being a genuine spiritual concern, but that doesn’t change the context of women being historically and currently excluded from Catholic positions of power and leadership, hierarchical or otherwise. So with that in mind, “these aren’t sanctions, they’re a spiritual director’s attempt to aid you” is absolutely going to come off as disingenuous when not applied equally to the CMSWR as well. The LCWR are right to use the language of US politics in employing the word “sanctions” to describe Church action, because I think we all understand that’s really the context this is playing out in. If it were anything other than culture wars we’d be able to talk about a coherent vision of religious life that involves investigation into both organizations’ spiritual health.
Müller’s remarks also display the same absurd disrespect for the witness and service of most LCWR nuns that I’ve heard from conservative Catholic parishes and communities my whole life. “Conscious evolution won’t bring ‘em in, selfless service will” – my God, people, who do you think runs your schools and hospitals? Who do you think started them? And this is the perennial problem when the LCWR issues come up; the theological and political issues of some women in leadership positions override what is actually at stake here, which are the thousands of Catholic religious women being completely shunted by their Church’s attitude toward them as a burden and an embarrassment. They aren’t even trying to handle this pastorally; the cultural shaming of LCWR nuns has been public policy in the Catholic Church for some time now.
I watched the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Sisters of the Holy Cross, both LCWR member congregations, who taught me for decades be outright called out as the wrong kind of religious woman by young loudmouthed charismatic seminarians who perpetually turned their communities against them. And in a shocking turn of events they said nothing denigrating about the male religious who worked alongside these women, in my case the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, who shared more or less the same exact things they found so “scandalous” in the LCWR nuns – no outward religious dress, liberal politics, liturgical flexibility (never sacrilege or anything actually worth decrying).
So can we stop skating around the blatant sexism at play?
Look, I think Müller comes by this honestly, and I do think the LCWR has serious leadership issues, but the context – the Catholic Church’s decades of scapegoating these women religious (and exclusively women) for its own pastoral failures, the seeming inability of these “investigations” to look into and publicize the findings of equally problematic conservative congregations, and the historical positioning of male clergy as more or less the boss of women religious – means I don’t think I give a damn what Müller thinks. Yeah, Müller’s talking to the leadership, but pretending like published remarks are not intended for a wider audience, or that they don’t fit into a larger cultural attitude within the Catholic Church and US society, is naïve. But when you get down to it, my problem is less with the remarks themselves and more with the context in which they are playing out, which remains incredibly ungrateful and spiteful toward the women that more or less raised this generation of American Catholics – and remains unwilling to face the problems plaguing that very generation because they are more politically convenient to ignore. My problem isn’t with the Church politics at play. That really is not my circus, not my monkey. My problem is with the sexism in painting LCWR nuns as heretical burdens (while similar male congregations are pardoned) and the sexism in ignoring CMSWR nuns’ problems because they are more in line with the male hierarchy’s vision for religious life. My problems are rooted in a concern for the reputation of my elders and the safety of my peers.
I am expressing this concern because it’s not really about the LCWR. They are smaller by the year, and the concerns they represent are fundamentally to be solved in the parishes anyway, where they are equally as pervasive. Because guess what? They’re American cultural struggles. We’ll all have to deal with them in their full complexity, conservative and liberal, Catholic and Orthodox and Protestant alike. Catholics shouldn’t use these women as your punching bag because being a pastor is hard, but all of our communities have iterations of this. No, I’m expressing this concern because this is a case study in women’s participation in the life of institutional Churches and we all right well know it, and I want to call people’s attention to the real problems of sexism and political infiltration while the LCWR are still around to illustrate them.
Because in, like, two hundred years, someone’s gonna get around to canonizing Sr. Helen Prejean, thereby ceasing to hold the Church accountable for this crap. Don’t you let anyone forget. I am now and always here for the women who were and are the backbone of my childhood parish, the saving grace of my formative years, the sisters with crosses pinned to their collars who welcomed my family into the community when they were already overburdened with work because they could not imagine turning away anyone who showed a desire to serve the Church.
They could not imagine turning away anyone who showed a desire to serve the Church.
God bless them all.