Nuns' leader seeks dialogue with Vatican to plead case
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Sister Janet Mock, a Pittsburgher at the center of the dispute between the Vatican and an umbrella group for nuns, is perplexed at the order for an archbishop to oversee her work.
She acknowledges that a few sisters have moved so far outside church tradition that it's difficult to recognize them as Catholic. But the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, of which she is the executive director, didn't encourage that, she said.
"I have been actively involved in LCWR for over 20 years and, for the life of me, I don't know what the myth is that makes it such an ogre in the church," said the Sister of St. Joseph of Baden.
On Tuesday she will meet in Rome with Cardinal William Levada of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle, who is slated to oversee a reform of the LCWR. They will discuss the sisters' concerns that the evaluation is unfair.
"Somebody, and we don't know who, is behind all of this questioning of our organization," she said. "If we could just sit down with whoever has a question, I think it would be easier. This comes close to maligning the organization, painting everybody in it with the same brush."
The Vatican chartered the LCWR in 1956. Its 1,500 members represent 80 percent of 57,000 sisters in the United States. Complaints of theological laxity date back decades. In 1992 the Vatican chartered an alternative group for more conservative orders.
In 2001 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- now Pope Benedict XVI -- issued a doctrinal warning about the LCWR. In 2008 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ordered an investigation. The findings were released April 18 and the Vatican ordered a five-year reform.
The assessment praised sisters' service to the needy. But it cited "serious doctrinal problems." It complained of dissent and radical feminism, accusing the sisters of silence on abortion and failing to promote church teaching on ordination and sexuality.
Sister J. Lora Dambroski, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God in Whitehall, a past president of the LCWR, said the group doesn't tell sisters what to do or believe, but offers guidance on how to lead a community and reach decisions.
"We have no authority over our members," she said.
She believes the assessment is based on fringe examples.
"Every population has its extremes. If it's a concern for the bishops ... then I think it bears conversation -- meaning listening and sharing," she said.
The assessment highlighted a 2007 keynote address by Sister Laurie Brink of Chicago, "A Marginal Life: Pursuing Holiness in the 21st Century." She spoke of "moving beyond the church" and "beyond Jesus."
Sister Laurie declined to comment, but her text is available on the LCWR's website (lcwr.org). She described four responses to aging, shrinking communities. They included conformity to more traditional practices, which she said often brought growth. When she spoke of sisters "moving beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus," she said that was "not Catholic religious life."
The response she endorsed was reconciliation with the hierarchy, which she bluntly said had abused its power. She was criticizing LCWR sisters when she said, "We have lost sight that we are ecclesial women. We have tired of the condescension and we have opted instead for ministry outside the Church. ... We are on the verge of extinction, not because of some cataclysmic event but because for the last 30 years or so we have slowly removed ourselves from Church circles."
Her conclusion echoed Vatican concerns:
"If our corporate identity is vague with some members opting out, some members acquiescing, some members leaving Christianity ... what are we together anyway? No wonder young, intelligent, God-seeking women do not find us attractive," she said. "If we do not make a decision about who we are and who we want to be, the decision will be made for us."
In Sister Janet's view, "Whoever wrote the actual mandate extracted out of context a line from Laurie Brink's talk."
Going beyond the church and Jesus "is by far, not the norm. So to raise it as if it is the norm, or as if it is something we are encouraging, is simply inaccurate."
Conservative critics point to the keynote speaker slated for August's assembly: Barbara Marx Hubbard, a New Age thinker who speaks of evolution toward post-human existence.
"We aren't inviting her as a theologian. She's not a theologian. ... We have been calling her a futurist because she's looking at trends," Sister Janet said.
Sister Mary Francis Fletcher, provincial superior of the Sisters of Divine Providence in McCandless, took issue with the accusation that the LCWR has a flawed understanding of Jesus and the church. They have taken vows to serve both, she said.
Sisters who reach out to gays and lesbians see in them the marginalized people whom Jesus welcomed, she said.
"We try and follow him. When people who have identified themselves as homosexual, religious communities have tried to offer pastoral care, pastoral responses. That doesn't say anything about our doctrinal belief. It says that we know that God loves every person," she said.
Claims that the LCWR dissents from the ban on women's ordination date to a welcome speech that then-president Sister Theresa Kane gave to Pope John Paul II on his 1979 visit. She asked him to open all ministries to women.
Sister Christine Schenk is executive director of FutureChurch, which makes canonical and historical arguments for women's ordination. She isn't a member of LCWR, but exhibits at their assemblies.
"It has never been my experience that they publicly in any way took on church teaching around women's ordination or gay and lesbian issues and certainly not on abortion," she said.
Many sisters thank her for not defying church law with ordination services that aren't recognized by the church, she said. After Pope John Paul II reinforced the ban on women's ordination in 1994, the LCWR urged that women be promoted to influential church posts that don't require ordination.
"Their public effort has been in conformity with church teaching around women's ordination. It's puzzling to me why they are being attacked when their [work] ... clearly respects the present teaching of the church," she said.
The reason that the LCWR doesn't have a major focus on abortion is that sisters traditionally respond to needs that others ignore, Sister Janet said. The anti-abortion movement, she said, is robust from the grassroots up.
"We focus on certain issues at any given time. Right now that focus is on immigration and human trafficking. but that doesn't mean we don't support the whole range of concern for human life."
But accusations of silence on abortion have a long history. One of the critics is Juli Loesch Wiley of Johnson City, Tenn., who came to faith as a young woman in 1972 through the ministry of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie. She became a lay associate, but left in 1983 after conflicts over abortion and theology. At the time the prioress was Sister Joan Chittister, the 1976 president of the LCWR.
Ms. Wiley said the sisters gave her room, board and an office to run Pro-lifers for Survival, which distributed anti-abortion literature at anti-nuclear rallies and vice versa.
But as she developed an appreciation for Catholic traditions, including an all-male priesthood, she was castigated by sisters who viewed them as expressions of oppressive patriarchy. All the sisters believed abortion was wrong but most disassociated themselves from anti-abortion advocacy because they feared it was part of a conspiracy to oppress women, she said. That hurt the movement, she said.
"A sisters connection might have saved the pro-life movement from a series of sad and disappointing marriages to dubious Republican suitors," she said.
Sister Anne McCarthy, a spokeswoman for the Erie Benedictines, said she didn't understand Ms. Wiley's criticism because they had always supported her work against abortion. Sister Anne is a former board member of Consistent Life, a multi-issue coalition that grew out of Pro-lifers for Survival. The community is a member, and Sister Joan has given her name to promote Consistent Life's work to end abortion, poverty, the death penalty and war.
"There is this story that Joan supports abortion and it's just not true," she said. "Our community positions have been consistent and clear, as has been our membership in the organizations Juli founded."
At least 30 LCWR-related communities belong to Consistent Life, although the LCWR does not. That coalition replaced Pro-lifers for Survival and links opposition to abortion to other social justice issues.
The McCandless-based Sisters of Divine Providence belong because one of their core commitments is to be consistently anti-abortion, said Sister Mary Francis, the Divine Providence superior.
"As a community we have a corporate commitment to propose a consistent ethic of life, which of course begins with birth," she said.
Sister Catherine Meinert, national president of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, was puzzled when asked if the LCWR discourages anti-abortion activism.
She spoke surrounded by shelves of baby blankets, diapers, infant food and car seats at Alternatives.Yes , an anti-abortion crisis pregnancy center in Connellsville, where she is chairman.
The Sisters of Charity, she said, have been preventing abortions and infanticide for centuries through care for vulnerable women and children. In 1891 they founded the Roselia Center in Pittsburgh as a safe place to leave unwanted newborns. It evolved into a home for unwed mothers and support system for new mothers.
The sisters still throw baby showers for women with crisis pregnancies.
"In the Sisters of Charity and I'm sure in all orders, women who have children have been a core of our apostolic endeavors. It has always been that way. And it's all pro-life," Sister Catherine said.
A dozen LCWR-affiliated communities run Sisters Place in Clairton, which they founded in 1993 to provide homes and mentoring for homeless single parents and children.
"For some of them, it is literally an alternative to abortion," said Sister Mary Parks, the executive director and a Sister of St. Joseph of Baden. She cited a pregnant teen who was living under a bridge before Sisters Place.
"I've lost track of how many babies have been born here."
John Allen, Vatican analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, has reported internal strife over the method and timing of the move against the LCWR. "Some senior Vatican officials ... worry that the LCWR overhaul feeds images of a clerical boys' club hostile to women," he wrote.
Perhaps that's why on May 29, when LCWR supporters protested at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C., the nuncio invited them in and gave them a tour.
Pittsburgh is among the cities where some Catholics held vigils for the LCWR. Network, a Catholic social justice lobby whose informal ties to LCWR were criticized in the assessment, plans a "Nuns on the Bus" tour.
It's primarily to oppose federal cuts in social programs but it calls attention to the LCWR.
It will be in Pittsburgh June 26-27.
Sister Janet believes the controversy stems from differing roles of bishops and sisters.
"For 2,000 years it has been the role of bishops to protect the doctrine of the church. That is what they do," she said.
Sisters "are in the trenches with the ordinary folks, seeing the complexity of life that they go through. Both of those worldviews are a gift to the church if there is dialogue. The teaching arm of the church can inform the culture and the culture can illuminate the teaching of the church."
First Published June 10, 2012 12:00 am