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Secular commentators completely misunderstand the Vatican-LCWR conflict

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 02, 2012

When secular commentators turn their attention to the Catholic Church, they typically make two mistakes. First, they assume that religious questions can be understood in political terms. Second, they assume that the Catholic Church should be placed on the conservative end of the political spectrum. Both these assumptions are wrong, and both are very much in evidence in the secular commentary on the Vatican’s demand for reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).

The standard narrative, encapsulated in New York Times columns by Nicholas Kristof and Maureen Dowd, treats this story as a purely political conflict between the Vatican and the LCWR. The cold-hearted prelates in Rome, (wearing the black birettas) are exacting their revenge on the charitable American nuns (wearing the white veils) because the LCWR endorsed Obamacare. The problem with this analysis of the conflict is…everything. Few Vatican officials wear birettas, virtually no nuns belonging to the orders represented by the LCWR wear veils of any description, and the LCWR has not been a factor in debates about Obamacare. More to the point, the Vatican’s complaint about the LCWR leadership has nothing to do with politics.

In announcing the reform of the LCWR, the Vatican released a helpful summary of the reasons for the move. A careful study of that short document would have saved the liberal pundits from some foolish mistakes. Even a cursory reading might have done the trick.

The Vatican document traces the history of the investigation into the LCWR, and shows quite clearly that the Vatican’s concerns arose years ago, long before Obamacare loomed on the political horizon. The report makes it clear that Rome’s fundamental concerns are “serious doctrinal problems” rather than political activism. In fact, in its one brief mention of political involvement by American women religious, the Vatican report is generally positive, praising the “great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine…”

True, that very sentence goes on to lament that the LCWR “is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States.” But it is worth noticing that Vatican’s complaint in that case is not about the nuns’ political involvement, but about their lack of involvement in an area of critical need. Nowhere does the Vatican criticize the LCWR for statements on political issues; the report only questions the group’s silence regarding the culture of life.

The New York Times columnists (and dozens of other pundits who took their cues) created the impression that the Vatican has rebuked the LCWR for its service to the poor and needy. That charge is false in two respects. First, the Vatican praised American nuns for their service to the poor. Second, the LCWR is not directly engaged in that sort of service. The LCWR is an umbrella group, which coordinates affairs for scores of religious orders. Those religious orders, and their individual professed members, engage in many different forms of service to the poor. The LCWR as a group does not. The Vatican has not called for major changes in the congregations that provide these social services; the organization targeted for reform is the resource group that serves the religious orders.

If political activism is not the problem, then what is the source of the Vatican’s concern about the LCWR leadership? Again the report from the Holy See is quite clear; the problem is doctrinal:

The Assessment’s primary concern is the doctrine of the faith that has been revealed by God in Jesus Christ, presented in written form in the divinely inspired Scriptures, and handed on in the Apostolic Tradition under the guidance of the Church’s Magisterium.

The Vatican summary lists several points of contention, none of them remotely connected with current American political debates. Most prominent, perhaps, is the question of priestly ordination.

For example, the LCWR publicly expressed in 1977 its refusal to assent to the teaching of Inter insigniores on the reservation of priestly ordination to men. This public refusal has never been corrected.

Secular journalists may disapprove of the Church’s teaching on the impossibility of ordaining women, but they should understand that this is what the Church teaches, and insofar as women religious represent the Catholic Church it is a problem—to put it mildly—when they teach otherwise.

But the question of women’s ordination is by no means the only one on which the LCWR has promoted unorthodox ideas:

On the doctrinal level, this crisis is characterized by a diminution of the fundamental Christological center and focus of religious consecration which leads, in turn, to a loss of a “constant and lively sense of the Church” among some Religious.

The report notes that one LCWR resource examines difference among nuns “over whether the Eucharist should be at the center of a special community celebration.” Anyone reading this report, even from the most militantly secular perspective, should be able to grasp the problem here. The LCWR, the Vatican is saying, gives a voice to women religious who are uncertain about the nature of consecrated life, uncertain about whether Jesus Christ should be central to their spiritual lives, uncertain about the nature of the Catholic Church, uncertain about the importance of celebrating the Mass.

The LCWR, the report reminds us, is not merely an organization that represents the views of certain women religious. If they choose to resist the Vatican call for reform, the leaders of the LCWR could opt for independent existence. But as a recognized conference of religious superiors the LCWR has special status:

According to Canon Law, conferences of major superiors are an expression of the collaboration between the Holy See, Superiors General, and the local Conferences of Bishops in support of consecrated life.

If the LCWR should be an organization that cooperates with the hierarchy, it is not a trivial matter that the group seems thoroughly at odds with the formal teachings of the Church. The question naturally arises: Is this really a Catholic organization? And the Vatican has intervened to ensure a positive answer to that question.

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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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: TBNC2758729 - May. 06, 2012 8:50 PM ET USA

    True: Maureen Dowd and Nicholas Kristoff say what they say. But it wouldn't necessarily be because they haven't read the Vatican report or even understand the history of it. I surmise it's because they deliberately side step the research for obvious reasons.

  • Posted by: rdubin1661 - May. 04, 2012 11:18 AM ET USA

    Excellent article as always, Phil. I would take issue only with your charitable characterization that the secular press has "misunderstood" the action by the Vatican. These journalists are not stupid; it's just that their vision is colored by their white-hot hatred of the Church for standing in the way of their agenda. Their "mistakes" are thus not mistakes at all. They are willful, purposeful, and, sadly, utterly predictable.

  • Posted by: Defender - May. 02, 2012 7:06 PM ET USA

    A parallel to the military might help the press understand, as well. See how long a bunch of soldiers would stay in the service if they signed a petition for something that "interfered with the good order and discipline of the service" - a common catch-all reason. They would also be out of the service a lot faster than these women have been allowed to procrastinate and ignore the Magisterium.