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The Complexity of Reforming Religious Communities

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 17, 2014

Like many readers, I am disappointed that Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have not taken a harder line with American women religious, following the Apostolic Visitation which began in 2009. On the other hand, as Phil Lawler noted yesterday, there is an ongoing effort to reform the Leadership Conference for Women Religious—which can be considered a more easily manageable target (see In showdown with American sisters, the Vatican blinked). So what can we say about this?

First, let me clarify why I think the LCWR is a “more easily manageable target”. I don’t mean it is more responsive to the authority of the successor of Peter, for the LCWR generally consists of the least faithful women religious in leadership positions in the United States—women whose beliefs are seldom recognizably Catholic at all. But the LCWR is a single organization, so in a sense it puts the many-headed hydra all in one place. It makes a good test case for a direct effort at reform—and by all reports, it is not going well.

Now this “not going well” ties in closely to a second critical point, which I will introduce in terms of a personal complaint. I am sick and tired of hearing how the Vatican gives a free pass to “liberal” orders while deliberately punishing those who are “really Catholic such as the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate”. We need to realize that being “conservative” or “traditional” does not tell us anything about the internal spiritual and administrative problems which might need correction in any group. We also need to realize that the vast majority of orders which prize fidelity to both the Church and their founding charisms are most definitely not experiencing any problems with Rome.

Most importantly, in this context, we need to realize that one of the critical differences among religious communities consists in whether or not they will obey the reform prescriptions of the proper ecclesiastical authority. The Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, and even the Legion of Christ, have accepted the Pope’s decisions about their future; the LCWR appears to have no willingness to do so, although the struggle is ongoing. There is every reason to believe the communities represented exclusively by the LCWR would present the same problem.

So what should Rome do? If you are like me, you have long yearned for heads to roll. And if the heads refuse to roll, you have yearned for excommunication or even a declaration that this or that group is no longer considered Catholic, and should not be supported. I suppose many of them survive on Federal grants, anyway. Still, that would be your most likely position if you are at all like me.

But presumably you would not reach this judgment in a vacuum. You would ask whether the gradual, behind-the-scenes efforts at renewal over the past thirty years have borne any fruit in religious orders (the answer is “yes” for those not too far gone, and of course for many new foundations). And you would ask whether the suppression of dissident groups (which always have a public profile of human service) would be universally interpreted in the world as another reason to distrust the Church. And again you would ask whether, having waited so long, the best policy might not be to let the worst groups die while others continue a slow renewal.

There is only one thing more. Above all, you would read Genesis 18:20-33, and wonder what it means when applied to religious communities which have only a few good members. You might still reach for your axe. All in all, I probably would. But this is at least a cautionary tale against our own temptation to denounce a different decision in a hard case.

That’s Genesis 18:20-33. Look it up.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 18, 2014 7:23 AM ET USA

    The sinners of Sodom and Gomorrha had made no vows. They had no grace of baptism, no confirmation, no grace of the sacraments, no mark of the priesthood on their souls. They had no duty to bear witness to the cross of Christ. Recently our pastor spoke on the Sun. Epistle from Phil 3:18 "For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ." Our Lord is merciful and He is patient, but to whom much is given much is also expected.

  • Posted by: Don Vicente - Dec. 17, 2014 11:32 PM ET USA

    I have always thought that time would be the solution to many of these problems. Time marches on, and vocations to some groups do not seem to be happening. Many will simply die out.