Action Alert!

With the LCWR, has the Vatican taken Gamaliel's advice?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Apr 24, 2015

My colleague Jeff Mirus is puzzled by the Vatican’s decision to end a doctrinal investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), since there is very little evidence that the LCWR has embraced the reforms that a Vatican study found necessary. I think that I can explain.

Whatever else one can say about the dessicated feminism, social activism, and Gaia spirituality that have been featured at LCWR meetings, this much should be clear: The program does not sell. The speakers invited to address the LCWR may energize septagenarian women, but younger women are not signing up. The “mainstream” women’s religious orders—the communities represented by LCWR—are aging, shriveling, gradually disappearing.

So the Vatican had a choice: continue the tense struggle to rein in the LCWR, and face the wrath of radical sisters and their sympathizers in the media; or wait to see whether the group’s problems will resolve themselves. The Vatican is always inclined to wait.

Bear in mind that the Vatican intervention surely had some effect. If nothing else, it forced LCWR leaders to confront the absurdity of attempting to devise a form of Christianity that would go (as one keynote speaker at an LCWR conference suggested) “beyond Jesus.” There is a real chance that the religious orders will find their own way back toward orthodox Catholicism, without further pressure from Rome.

Just last Friday, the first reading at Mass retold the story of Gamaliel, who recommended that the Sanhedrin should wait and see whether the new Christian community would survive: “for if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.”

With the LCWR, the Vatican can apply that same logic in reverse. If some American women’s religious orders have drifted outside the gravitational field of the universal Church—a possibility hinted at in the original Vatican diagnosis of the LCWR-- they will spiral off into irrelevance and disappear. On the other hand, if religious orders truly want to survive as Catholic communities, they will willingly follow the Vatican’s suggestions and find their way back to orthodoxy. In the former case, disciplinary action by the Vatican would probably be futile; in the latter, it would be unnecessary.

In the long run, there are two possible outcomes for the Vatican’s intervention in the LCWR.

  1. The mainstream religious orders will continue to resist Church authority, becoming ever more eccentric, until eventually they die out completely. Then the Vatican will have no need to worry about them.
  2. The religious orders will make an honest effort to pursue the reforms ordered by the Vatican, will rediscover their roles within the Church, and will thrive. Then, too, the Vatican will have no need to worry about them.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: hitchs - Apr. 26, 2015 5:41 AM ET USA

    I've often thought Gamaliel's advice is overrated. I don't know why many people seem to think it is infallible. I can think of several religious groups that appear to have survived hundreds and even thousands of years without any sign of divine support (or at least none that I can see).

  • Posted by: Dlukenbill2151 - Apr. 25, 2015 12:05 PM ET USA

    I agree completely with this prescription. Time solves many things.