The recent Vatican decree that put a bishop in charge of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) ought to be viewed as a radical measure -- because it is. Critics might allege that this is episcopal revenge for how these and other Catholic organizations undercut the effort of the bishops to prevent the passage of the Affordable Care Act. The official decree has a jumble of assertions alluding to heresy, including one that says the LCWR had been taken over by “radical feminists.” Whether or not such claims are true, we can be certain that the takeover is based on the totalitarian conception of episcopal power.
Persons of my generation may remember that when the Communists still ruled Poland, the political scholar, the Polish-born Zbigniew Brzezinski (“Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy,” 1956) noted the similarity in the claims to totalitarian power of both the Catholic Church hierarchy and the Communist Party. Under the inspiration of the saintly Blessed John XXIII, the council, however, set about the recasting of power within the church so as to reject the authoritarian claims derived from history when absolute monarchy held sway. It adopted collaboration and democracy as new models for church power. Permission was given for self-governance for the religious women (“sisters” are canonically different from “nuns”), and the LCWR was a result. Rather than be “under” the bishops and priests, sisters and nuns were now to be co-workers, each bringing a special and different gift, or charism, to ministry in Catholic America. The new structure did not emasculate the hierarchy; it only redefined how bishops and sisters came to decisions.
This spirit of the II Vatican Council has been in retreat over past decades, however, as bishops appointed by a Pope John Paul II began reasserting the top-down, no dissent model of imposed Catholic obedience to the Ordinary Magisterium. By substituting obedience to the Magisterium for obedience to papal infallibility, some hierarchs could claim religious women had to obey their every order to remain Catholic.
The two visions of church fought over the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010 by Obama and Democrats. The bishops rejected the law because of provisions they held to be irreconcilable to Catholic teaching; religious women, on the other hand, disputed the bishops’ opinion, claimed Catholic freedom of conscience and embraced the act.
Shortly afterwards, Rome began a planned investigation of all congregations of American religious women. However, this was a self-study of reform, while the new decree comes from the U.S. bishops’ ally in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal William Levada. I consider it a coup delivered on April 18, 2012 to replace the women’s self-governance with submission to the orders of Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle. This is a clear step backward to pre-conciliar episcopal absolutism. If the bishops get their way, the party line of the USCCB will be echoed perfectly by a submissive LCRW that will never dare to deviate from the words they are ordered to repeat.
I would remind the bishops, however, that we Catholics in the pews love our sisters and turn to them more often than to the hierarchs. In our Catholic American nostalgia, the old black-and-white films like “The Bells of Saint Mary” show religious women to be our closest allies. We laugh as the old-fashioned “Nunsense” of pre-Vatican Catholic schools. But the point is we laugh; while bishops are greeted with far less affection.
There is virtue in holy obedience, certainly, and male leadership is ordained while female leadership is not. What bothers me is the symbolism of issuing this decree on the 100th anniversary - almost to the day - of the sinking of the Titanic. Perhaps unintentionally, we have the captains steering the church seemingly ignoring the huge problems of clerical corruption and are busy “rearranging the deck chairs” while “the band plays on.” The American church needs every hand on deck right now and sending nuns “to the brig” is nonsense.
Remember the “Honeymooners “rerun where Ralph (Jackie Gleason) says to Alice (Audrey Meadows): “I’m king and you’re nothing!”? Alice replied, “Then you’re king of nothing.” It’s happening again with bishops and nuns.