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Catholic Culture Podcasts

Final take on the LCWR: A time to plant, a time to uproot

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 24, 2015

Though I have little doubt that Phil Lawler is correct in the rationale he outlines in “With the LCWR, has the Vatican taken Gamaliel's advice?”, I cannot help recalling Ecclesiastes 3:2. Even if we can understand the Pope’s decision against disenfranchising the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, it is only fair to note that this decision comes at a cost.

My remarks here are based on the assumption that there is not something going on behind the scenes that we cannot see (refer to “What happened to the Vatican reform of the LCWR?”). In other words, the LCWR will continue to give grave scandal. It will continue, in fact, to lead souls away from that deep union with Christ in the Church that is the single most important factor in any brighter future, whether natural or supernatural.

This seems to be the case, and we have the same problem with most allegedly Catholic universities in the West, as well as some seriously scandalous orders of male religious, such as the Jesuits. The Vatican has offered ample instruction, and has even done some significant prodding here and there. But over the past fifty years, all popes have ultimately chosen not to engage any of these wayward institutions—the kinds of institutions which are emboldened by the secular spirit of the times—in a direct, serious and short-term fight.

Legitimate Prudential Arguments

To observe that the bad groups will die out and the good ones will flourish is absolutely correct, as both Phil and myself have pointed out. Not only is this the clear lesson of history, but we are observing the process at work even now in contemporary religious communities. This lesson is not as clear in the universities, since the vast majority of “Catholic” students are just as happy with a secular, career-oriented education, and too many parents are willing to subordinate the nobler purposes of education to a combination of student desires and worldly success. But the lesson is extraordinarily clear in religious life, where deeply-committed Catholics are simply not drawn—let alone called—to infidelity and mediocrity.

Moreover, I grant that stripping the LCWR of its pontifical approval, and of its Catholic identity altogether, would be widely misunderstood. I acknowledge the probability that the LCWR-machine would still have access to many wealthy donors, not to mention the American Federal trough. For the Church to be widely portrayed as an institution that elevates meaningless doctrines over genuine service to the poor might well do more harm than good, and I am certain that the Church would lose this publicity war. Prudence in such matters (as opposed to mere caution or pusillanimity) is always desirable.

But even if we can imagine that this decision of Pope Francis is the best of a series of bad options, we should not pretend that the resulting situation is desirable, or that this is the outcome committed Catholics would have preferred. It still represents a signal failure of discipline. And (as far as we can tell), it does not significantly address the continuing harm done to souls by those who misrepresent Christ and the Church under the Catholic name.

Grasping the Alternative

So let me be frank. In my relative ignorance of how best to run the Church, I would have followed a different course. My preference would be to base everything on the point made by Cardinal Gerhard Müller (head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) when he warned the LCWR that it depended for its legitimate existence on the sanction of the Holy See. Here, then, is my solution:

  1. Strip the LCWR of its pontifical status and deny it the use of the Catholic name.
  2. Among LCWR communities which desire to affiliate instead with the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, use the previous Apostolic Visitation of American women religious to determine which LCWR-affiliated orders should be allowed to do that, and which must demonstrate serious change before receiving that permission.
  3. Launch a coordinated publicity campaign to communicate that the CMSWR is Catholic and the LCWR is not, and to identify which orders are properly affiliated with the Catholic leadership group.
  4. Where numbers are sufficient, enable faithful Catholic sisters suffering in wayward communities to take over the leadership of new Catholic incarnations of their communities, under traditional ecclesiastical protectors (bishops or cardinals), and in affiliation with the CMSWR.
  5. Where numbers are insufficient, invite such sisters to transfer into the CMSWR-affiliated order closest in charism to their original commitment.
  6. Instruct the American bishops that collections for retired religious may be disbursed only to CMSWR-affiliated orders.

It is possible that I would be terribly imprudent, had I the power, to do any of this. The infrastructure required to sort things out might be impossible to develop. The resulting chaos might be too costly. The ultimate scandal (harm to souls) might be far greater. But it seems to me that religious communities are not as tough a nut to crack as the universities, and that we are at least on the verge of being able to either prune or uproot those that bear bad fruit.

Please do not misunderstand me. I remain completely willing to subordinate my judgment to that of Pope Francis, whom Our Lord has placed in charge. But decisions can confuse people in their faith if great care is not taken to differentiate the possible from the desirable. The faithful have the right to know when Rome is merely settling for what it can achieve at the moment. Therefore, it remains valuable to be frank about the drawbacks of a course of action, to remain aware of the alternatives, and to keep both in mind as events unfold.

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: Dlukenbill2151 - Apr. 27, 2015 10:13 AM ET USA

    Both you and Mr. Lawler are correct. You are correct in what should be done, he is correct in what will be done. I agree with both of you, but my deepest personal wish is that the Church would really stand firm, clear, and constant, on all issues of doctrine; and in this case, that means following your prescription.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Apr. 26, 2015 8:35 AM ET USA

    From the traditional rite of Baptism: "Ephpheta, that is to say, Be opened, for an odour of sweetness. Be thou, devil, begone; for the judgement of God shall draw near." Is it too much to wonder if one day these words might be presented to the baptized firmly and resolutely, publicly and universally for all to hear and to reflect upon in stark sobriety?

  • Posted by: kaypriddy6060 - Apr. 25, 2015 5:30 PM ET USA

    I absolutely agree with you, Jeff! I would implement that solution immediately.

  • Posted by: skall391825 - Apr. 24, 2015 11:35 PM ET USA

    Excellent take and suggested solution!

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Apr. 24, 2015 9:26 PM ET USA

    My wife has an 86 year old aunt who is in an LCWR order and she continually says "You wouldn't believe what some of these nuns believe." She is totally dependent on the "younger"nuns for her physical existence, and canon law makes it almost impossible for her to change her order. Please pray for her and others like her.

  • Posted by: LAR - Apr. 24, 2015 4:40 PM ET USA

    I am so glad that you wrote this. It was my question exactly "What about the souls that are led astray". I have a friend who was told by one of these "sisters" that some children are not meant to be born when she was seeking Catholic advice about an abortion. Unfortunately because of the "sister's" bad and not Catholic advice, she went through with it. I have an relative who has totally been led astray because of a different group of these "sisters". It is hard not to be discouraged. I truly prefer your plan of action!