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Catholic Culture Podcasts

Bishop Blair pounds the facts; LCWR pounds the table

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 12, 2012

You know the old lawyer’s advice to a new practitioner? “If the law is on your side, pound the law. If the facts are on your side, pound the facts. If neither the law nor the facts are on your side, pound the table.”

Liberal Catholics have been pounding the table recently in their defense of radical women religious. Today the Vatican pounded the law. Bishop Leonard Blair pounded the facts.

Two separate cases have set the liberal media to howling about a supposed Vatican crackdown on defenseless American nuns. First the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) ordered a reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), citing “serious doctrinal problems which affect many in consecrated life.” Then the CDF issued a warning that a book by Sister Margaret Farley contains arguments that are “in direct contradiction with Catholic teaching in the field of sexual morality.”

The case of Sister Farley’s book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, can be assessed fairly quickly. Supporters of Sister Farley, including the board of the Catholic Theological Society of America have complained that the CDF misunderstood the goal of her book, that the Vatican is ignoring the value of theological dissent, that many Catholics raise the same arguments, and that the Vatican is stifling Farley’s freedom of speech. (Actually sales of Just Love have soared since the release of the Vatican’s Notification—as anyone could have predicted.) All these arguments are beside the point: table-pounding. In that book, either Farley does, or she does not, advance positions contrary to Church teaching. This is a question of fact.

In fact, Farley writes that marriage need not be permanent, that masturbation is not a moral issue, that divorced people may remarry, and that “same-sex relationships and activities can be justified according to the same sexual ethic as heterosexual relationships and activities.” In each of these particulars, listed in the June 4 Vatican statement on her case, Sister Farley’s views are clearly at odds with Church teachings. Viewed dispassionately, the Notification from the CDF should be seen as a rather humdrum statement of a painfully obvious fact.

Let’s move on, then, to the slightly more complex case of the LCWR. Here the Vatican had called for an “assessment” of the group, which was done by Bishop Leonard Blair. On the basis of his report, the CDF concluded that the “current doctrinal and pastoral situation of the LCWR is grave and a matter of serious concern.” That judgment cannot be easily reduced to the same sort of simple True/False test as the CDF’s statement about Sister Farley’s book. Still it is possible to examine the evidence in Bishop Blair’s report.

Instead the LCWR defenders pounded the table. The Vatican was showing its contempt for all American nuns, they charged. The Vatican was attacking the LCWR because of the sisters’ involvement in liberal social causes. The Vatican was trying to force the LCWR into accord with the US bishops’ campaign against the Obama health-care mandate. Anyone who read the “Doctrinal Assessment” carefully should have realized immediately that these charges were off the mark. But most reporters in the mainstream media did not read the document, and sympathetic opinion columnists helped shape the argument to serve the LCWR’s purposes.

In fact, the demand for reform of the LCWR is not a negative judgment on all American nuns. It is a judgment on the work of one umbrella organization, which represents—but does not govern—a number of religious orders. In fact, the Doctrinal Assessment said very little about the social activism of women religious, and what it did say was generally favorable. The CDF document only lamented that the LCWR materials were not as strong in support of the right to life as they were of other political causes.

Today, after leaders of the LCWR met with CDF officials, the Vatican issued a short statement, affirming the “cordiality” of the conversation. This is the sort of measured, understated treatment we have all come to expect from Church leaders: a statement that speaks confidently about the prospects for achieving consensus, and glosses over the obvious conflict. Yet even this quiet Vatican statement contained a clear statement of the problem, for anyone alert enough to notice it:

According to Canon Law, a conference of major superiors such as the LCWR is constituted by and remains under the supreme direction of the Holy See in order to promote common efforts among the individual member institutes and cooperation with the Holy See and the local conference of bishops.

So there it is. A group like the LCWR should promote accord with the Holy See. If it does not promote such accord—and nobody watching the actions of the LCWR in recent years could truly believe that it does—then the group does not deserve its canonical status. The law is clear.

Still, sometimes an argument from the facts is much more satisfying, and in that respect Bishop Blair’s newspaper column on the controversy was a revelation.

All too often, in their public statements bishops pretend that there is no serious conflict, when we all know better. Bishop Blair did not fall into that trap. Clearly annoyed that he had been depicted as a nun-basher, the bishop reminded his readers about the facts of the case: the facts that he had outlined in his original assessment of the LCWR; the facts that were repeated in the CDF announcement.

These facts, Bishop Blair reminded us all, are not ambiguous. This is not a case in which theologians argue about abstract theories, or moralists question marginal decisions. This is a case in which the LCWR has, year after year, encouraged direct assaults on the Vatican. Does it promote unity with the Vatican when a keynote speaker at an LCWR assembly charges that the Holy See has set up a “false god” by claiming divine sanction for the male-only priesthood? Does it strengthen the universal Church when another keynoter applauds the congregations that are “moving beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus”?

Yet another LCWR keynote speaker made an observation could serve to encapsulate the Vatican’s worries about the American group. Speaking about the congregations that compose the LWCR, she said: “It can no longer be taken for granted that members share the same faith.”

So the Vatican is no longer taking it for granted. The CDF is working to reform the LCWR, to achieve some level of certainty that the group will promote one faith: the Catholic faith. Those are the facts of the case.

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Jun. 13, 2012 8:01 AM ET USA

    As it should be. Ultimately, as it must be- promoting the one Catholic Faith. Sadly the statement that "it can no longer be taken for granted that members share the same faith" ought not be limited to the LWCR. A significant problem with the liberal mindset with regard to the Faith is that it in some way departs from "the real world" and thus impedes human happiness. On the contrary, it is the Faith properly understood and lived that grounds us properly in reality and leads us to true happiness.

  • Posted by: - Jun. 12, 2012 11:30 PM ET USA

    Good to see Bishop Blaire standing his ground, and rightly so. The LCWR leaders are clearly out of step with the Church and at odds on a number of fundamental Catholic teachings. If they can not or will not concede their errors then the Church should take decisive action and replace them with new leaderhip who agree with the Church and her teachings.