Women’s Equality in the Church is No Longer Negotiable

Champagne corks did not pop on either side of the Atlantic on April 16, 2015 when the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious announced the end of the Doctrinal Assessment of LCWR, but there was certainly shared relief that this sorry chapter in church history is closed.

The Vatican insisted, and the women agreed, to a thirty-day moratorium on discussing the final document so it will be some time before concrete information emerges. Even this small matter demonstrates what I think is the most important takeaway: pushing back against unjust authority can work, but it does not change the fundamental power equation.

Without structural changes to a top heavy, patriarchal institution, there is little to prevent a repeat of this kind of abuse, waste of resources, or worse.

Catholics can do better and we deserve better.

The background: In 2012, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a Doctrinal Assessment in which it found the LCWR, the organization of leaders of U.S. Catholic women’s religious congregations, guilty of “serious doctrinal problems which affect many in Consecrated Life.”

Evidence cited included certain lectures given at LCWR Assemblies in which speakers engaged in contemporary theological discussion inconsistent with the Vatican party line; statements from some religious community leaders on same-sex love and women’s ordination that do not conform with the Vatican’s condemnation of both matters; “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith,” (largely unspecified), and “some commentaries on ‘patriarchy’ [that] distort the way in which Jesus has structured sacramental life in the Church.”

Passing over the fact that Jesus did not structure anything, these complaints all boiled down to whether the women could think, teach, write, and invite on their own terms. The substance of the complaints was less important than the demand by the Vatican that the women conform to the institutional church’s views, and promote them in the public arena.

Since LCWR is a Vatican-chartered entity, the men expected the women to carry their water. Instead, they learned that those days are largely behind them.

As I put it delicately at the time: “If you can spell Catholic, you are probably asking: how dare they go after 57,000 dedicated women whose median age is well over 70 and who work tirelessly for a more just world? How dare the very men who preside over a Church [church?] in utter disgrace due to sexual misconduct and cover-ups by bishops try to distract from their own problems by creating new ones for women religious?”

Well, they dared, and as in many a dare better ignored, they found out that the women will push back, gently, consistently, prayerfully, and successfully.

The Vatican named Archbishop J. Peter Sartain and two assistants to carry out the Mandate—to oversee LCWR’s programs, meetings, awards, and publications with the goal of achieving the aforementioned conformity. They had up to five years to treat LCWR as if it were in receivership. Instead, the women, albeit not as aggressively as some members would have liked, demonstrated how to carry on adult, civil, even contemplative dialogue over differences—as they have been doing in their communities for decades. It was obviously a new experience for the gentlemen.

Resolution was aided by the change in papal leadership, and propelled by public outrage and economic pressure. Some would say the Holy Spirit had a role as well.

The recent end of the Mandate was foreshadowed on December 16, 2014 at the release of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life’s “Final Report on the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States of America.” Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Sharon Holland, a canon lawyer and then president of LCWR, was asked about the LCWR investigation:

“The doctrinal assessment and the mandate were given a five-year window…I think we’re in year three. And I would say we’re working very well in close collaboration with the delegates, especially Archbishop Sartain who is sort of the lead person in that…I’m very hopeful that we’re going to move forward to a good resolution to that…I feel like we’re working together well and that we’ll be moving toward a conclusion on this. Obviously, I can’t say when or exactly how” (Global Sisters Report).

Four months later we know.

When the details of the negotiations leak out, I suspect that she will be credited in large measure, for better or for worse, with a conclusion that was the fruit of contemplative prayer and old-fashioned diplomacy. The situation is resolved, and one can only hope, but not assume, that it represents a step toward substantive structural change in the direction of equality for Catholics in a steeply skewed church.

Process Theology, but Not That Kind

A close reading of the new public document reveals the give and take typical of such a process. In fact, “process” is the operative word, used twice in one sentence of the press release—but probably taken with different meanings by the two groups.

For the women, “process” is the means by which all voices are heard with respect, all opinions are welcome, silence is observed together, and its fruits are discussed with care. For the men, I suspect that this kind of “process” was challenging, a sharp contrast to their usual “deal with it” approach.

Regardless, the process has mercifully come to an end, and sooner than expected—probably a sign that the Vatican has bigger problems to deal with than the theo-political proclivities of some of its staunchest members. What remains scandalous is that the women’s integrity was impugned to begin with, and that no one in the Vatican has taken public responsibility for that.

Diplomacy takes place in the middle, not on the fringes. It was no accident that longtime Roman hand Sister Holland was pressed into service with a similarly traditional centrist like the Rev. Sartain. Her gracious observation in the press release, “We learned that what we hold in common is much greater than any of our differences” demonstrates her diplomatic bona fides. After all, the future of the LCWR as a canonically chartered organization was at stake. That she and her colleagues prevailed, at least to their satisfaction, is no small matter and is cause for celebration.

That said, I still have very serious questions about the content of the solution and what it portends. Here, expressed as “he said/she said,” are a few specifics that illustrate my worry about the text:

First, LCWR is defined as a ‘public juridic person,’ not to be confused with a ‘physical’ or ‘moral’ person, and not to be called a ‘corporation.’ Such canon law-speak means a group that is part of the institutional church and therefore exists under the final authority of the hierarchy (he said). The role of LCWR is to “undertake…those services which develop the life and mission of women religious in responding to the Gospel in the contemporary world” (she said). One begins to see the pattern.

We see the same seesaw dynamic in the conference programs and speakers. We hear the women say that their choices “will be carried out in a prayerful, thoughtful and discerning manner.” The men’s rejoinder, that such choices must “unfold within the wider context of the Church’s faith and mission” reminds us that Goliath still wants David to notice him.

And so it goes, that “these discussions had their origin in the Mandate and led to clarifying and fruitful conversation,” (men happy) concluding with “the very fact of such substantive dialogue between bishops and religious has been a blessing to be appreciated and further encouraged” (women happy).

On publications, “measures are being taken to promote a scholarly rigor that will ensure theological accuracy and help avoid statements that are ambiguous with regard to Church doctrine or could be read as contrary to it.” Anybody happy? Perhaps it is better not to ask.

Also, the passive voice always troubles me. Who is taking the measures, whose theological accuracy? Another quasi-mystery leaps from the text: “A publications Advisory Committee exists.” Members are not named; criteria for membership are not spelled out. Again, not to be impolitic, but someone has to ask how big the elephant is and what her friends call her.

“Manuscripts will be reviewed by competent theologians.” Once more it may be better to leave it aside, but curiosity alone compels me to inquire “competent” according to whom? “A revised process for the selection of the Outstanding Leadership Award recipient has been articulated.” May I ask by whom and where?

My questions show why some of us were made more for theology than diplomacy, but such vagaries make me very uncomfortable. Even if the LCWR does all of its own vetting, these kinds of statements leave me with more questions than answers. The tyranny of self-censorship might creep in, however inadvertently, and/or the next pope might wipe this whole slate clean.

This document is what contemplative prayer and diplomacy achieved. It is better than many progressives hoped for at the outset. But this solution to an egregious encroachment is not to be confused with structural changes that would prevent a recurrence, especially under a less accommodating pontiff.

This is not a time to say that anyone won or lost, nor to claim, as in the well-intentioned but naïve and patronizing editorial in the New York Times, that “Pope Stops Investigating the Good Sisters.” No, if anything the women religious and their colleagues stopped the pope’s men. I have every confidence in the integrity of the LCWR women and their commitment to function on their own terms but I think the whole church needs to set the bar higher on what equality, a “discipleship of equals,” looks like.

We should not confuse an episodic fix with an on-going structural problem. It is not the nuns’ problem but everyone’s.

No Longer Negotiable

Public outrage at the Congregation’s mistreatment of the LCWR and the nuns in general was vehement. While large numbers of people signing petitions and writing letters helped, Jason Berry is correct when he follows the money on this one. Major Catholic philanthropists, for whom women religious were at least as important in their faith formation as priests and bishops, took umbrage at the notion that nuns, whom they associated with corporal and spiritual works of mercy including education and health care, were indicted, while priest pedophiles and their episcopal enablers were ignored. They let this be known where it counts, literally in dollars and euros. I believe such pressure worked in this instance.

Similar public pressure is playing out in San Francisco where wealthy and well-connected Catholics took out a newspaper ad calling for the replacement of Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone. His efforts to frontload a Catholic high school handbook with anti-gay rhetoric have punctuated his unpopular stint in San Francisco. The smart money is on him being promoted and relocated, as happened with Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law and other clerics who have contributed so actively to the rapid exodus of members from Catholic parishes. At some point, these sorts of executive employees become too expensive to maintain. It becomes cost effective to put a golden parachute on their mitres and wish them well.

The obviously forced resignation of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph Missouri three years after his conviction of failing to report the strong suspicion of child sexual abuse is some evidence that public outcry matters. But in an age of instantaneous communication, three years is practically a generation and that generation is out the door.

Moreover, the newly named Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno, Chile is alleged to have covered up for one of his priest pals and even been in the room when abuse happened. The Vatican did not even have the courtesy to slow down the process, despite hundreds of people in Chile signing petitions against the bishop-elect and near fisticuffs at his episcopal ordination. It may be time to alert a few deep-pocketed Chilean vineyard owners and see if there might be a little desk in Rome for Mr. Barros.

But what can the rest of us who are neither deep-pocketed nor inclined to leave glean from this scene of church power run amok? I offer three things I have learned, and hope that others will follow suit, as together we raise the bar.

It is not enough to stop injustice. It is necessary to change once and for all the conditions that give rise to it, in this case a church, even with an admittedly pleasant pontiff, that is structured for inequality and run exclusively by clerics who have restricted understandings of relationships among people.

First, women’s equality in the church is no longer negotiable. Two insulting engagements with women religious are two too many. It is simply intolerable that women are not equal partners in decisions that affect our lives. Without in any way blaming LCWR, let me stipulate that it was not they who investigated the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; it was not the women who vetted the men’s awardees (read: bishops) or had any input into choosing the speakers for their synods. Mutuality is a two-way street. Self-respecting women and women-respecting men will not tolerate the kyriarchal structure of Catholicism any longer.

Coming to a new understanding of women as full human beings is the sine qua non of church change. Moreover,  the current pope’s recent reiteration of the virtues of gender complementarity showed that he is not tuned in to contemporary scholarship, both scientific and humanistic, on gender, its fluidity, and variety. No one can be certain how constructed our gender identities are, or what grounds them biologically. Being “created in the image of God” is a better bet.

We are all learning together about this, some of us more willing to admit what we do not know than others. But we can certainly agree in the meantime that persons trump genitals, that competence and willingness to serve are far more relevant than gender identity when it comes to Christian life. This means ordination and decision making for women on a par with men, or a complete change in sacramental ministry and governance for all (my preferred future). But it does not mean that women can continue to be treated as second-class citizens in any way whatsoever.

Second, if money is the language the Vatican understands best, I suggest that those who have it use it to make change. It pains me to see people pay tens of thousands of dollars to take out ads in newspapers just to get the Pope’s attention. It galls me to think of the money, not to mention the time and talent, used to deal with the LCWR debacle.

Of course, these sums pale before the $2 billion plus spent by the institutional church on payouts for priest sexual abuse cases. Still, the cries of those who are made poor should haunt us into getting this house in order so that we can focus our resources on economic justice, ecological sanity, and global community.

In a just structure, the nuns would send the Vatican receipts for the expenses they incurred during the investigations. And the Congregation would pay them as restitution for the violence they caused.

One effective way to use money for leverage is to encourage people, especially regular churchgoers, to redirect their giving. There are untold numbers of religious/spiritual non-profits, including women’s religious orders that are good alternatives to the local parish for providing services in the community. If one is conscience stricken about worshipping in a building one does not pay to heat, I suggest either worshipping elsewhere for a while and/or placing a check in the collection made out to the power company. This is simple non-violent social change strategy and it works.

Third, new models of church are not rocket science but the stuff of many people’s contemporary experience, including many people in religious communities. We learned in this instance from women religious that they operate out of egalitarian power models, that they are deeply reliant on prayer and sacraments (some of which they celebrate themselves but let’s not go there), and when left alone by patriarchs, go about their world-changing work of love and justice because of their faith.

Replicating that way of being church in many and varied circumstances, including families, base communities, and parishes, will bring Catholics into line with other Christians, with other spiritual people of good will, and with the authentic mission of the church. It is not that hard and it is already going on.

Here’s hoping that the end of an unwarranted investigation might be the beginning of a new kind of Catholicism. There is no excuse for anything less.