Sisters of Perpetual Victimhood

July-August 2014By Harriet Murphy

Harriet Murphy is the author of The Spiritual Writings of Raphael Cardinal Merry del Val and The Decline and Fall of Female Religious: The Story So Far, to appear in 2015. She taught modern languages and literature at the National University of Ireland and the University of Warwick in England.

Spiritual Leadership for Challenging Times: Presidential Addresses from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Edited by Annmarie Sanders, I.H.M. Orbis Books. 160 pages. $20.



Roger Kimball, editor of The New Criterion, argued in 1990 that politics had corrupted higher education. His book Tenured Radicals describes how professional academics are for the most part untouchable. Prof. Daphne Patai argued from within the academy in 1994 that professing feminism on campus was about indoctrination rather than scholarship. Prof. John M. Ellis pointed out in 1997 that literature was being lost as social agendas started corrupting the proper teaching of the humanities. While it is a stretch for some to think of Catholic nuns as agents of destruction, corruption, or politically correct jargon about class, sex, and race, many religious sisters too are “tenured radicals,” not in universities but in modern convents.

One picks up Spiritual Leadership for Challenging Times, a collection of addresses delivered between 1977 and 2012 by past Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) leaders, with a certain amount of trepidation. Annmarie Sanders, I.H.M., states in the preface that after the Vatican’s doctrinal assessment of her group, one hundred thousand “Catholics and persons of other faiths expressed through letters, emails, petitions, and phone calls, as well as through prayer vigils around the country, a profound resonance” with the LCWR’s “vision, mission, and works,” and “declared their hunger for a strong spiritual leadership” that is “keenly attuned to the signs of the times and willing to adapt to new knowledge and insights.” The book’s introduction describes the sisters as “evolving their leadership into a process of inclusion, contemplation, and decision. Vision and mission driven, this leadership encourages the art of listening, sharing, disagreeing, searching, praying, navigating the tension between consensus and prophecy, and finding common ground.” While the terminology is often vague, the content of the speeches comes across loud and clear.

The addresses are presented as a courageous testimony to the sisters’ open-ended struggle. Nadine Foley, O.P., gives us insight into the adaptation of religious life to the modern world. In her 1989 address she acknowledges confusions about the tension between consecration and mission. The mission is easy: It is to work in soup kitchens, daycare centers, dispensaries, prison ministries; to work with prostitutes, with the destitute, victims of earthquakes, floods, and epidemics — all of which make the sisters “practitioners of the Gospel.” She does not illustrate where the tension registers, but we infer that the sisters have compromised prayer, penance, Mass, the sacraments, and life in community for the sake of “outreach.” St. John Paul II long ago declared that there are indeed “essentials” to religious life that are not to be compromised: “Religious are not merely clerical or lay persons dedicated to good works.” Misunderstandings about and an overemphasis on “mission” continue despite historical evidence that limitations on mobility outside of community life protect against the spread of error and make it possible for sisters to live their consecration as a close union with the Bridegroom, Christ.

Doris Gottemoeller, R.S.M., throws a dramatic spotlight on one long-standing error about what Vatican II meant for sisters. In her 1994 address she claims that the Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, delegitimizes sisters and the religious life per se, subsuming religious into “the laity.” This is a plea for victim status, a cry that the religious state fared badly at the Council. Lumen Gentium (no. 31) defines “all the faithful except those in holy orders and those in the religious state” as laymen. The sisters reason in an irrational fashion that because that sentence positively groups priests and religious together against the lay faithful, and because the laity had previously been defined as non-clerical, and because priests are clerical, religious become “stateless” and absorbed into the lay state by default as non-clerical. Sr. Gottemoeller asks the anguished question: “Are we laity or not?”

The sisters seem convinced that the Council’s “universal call to holiness” was part of the same covert war against the religious state as such. The “universal call” allegedly ended the supremacy or superiority of choosing the religious state. If everyone is called to holiness, and even in the lay state one can achieve it, the sisters argue, the religious state has been robbed of its objective reason to exist. Such equivocation allows for playing down the Council’s decree on the renewal of religious life, Perfectae Caritatis, which clarified that the three evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience are uniquely ordered to achieving perfection in the religious state. At the same time, the sisters are aware that they’ve been criticized for naturalizing religious life so that it’s no different from philanthropy with Catholic flourishes.

Theresa Kane, R.S.M., told her LCWR audience in 1980 of their mandate to take the Church into the world, to address social, economic, and political injustice. She misreads Gaudium et Spes (no. 29), which states that “forms of social or cultural discrimination in basic personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language or religion, must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design,” as an invitation to dismantle sacramental theology and Tradition, to fight the “injustice” of a priesthood reserved to men. She asks the sisters to unite as a pressure group in order to urge “the institutional church” to undertake “a serious, critical examination of its mode of acting toward women,” and to “confront and eradicate the systemic evils of sexism, clericalism and paternalism.” She states, “For two thousand years women have been systematically excluded from the church as institution.” Women are “victims of the church’s structure.” She has nothing to say about the female saints and martyrs or the millions of women who have lived within the bounds of Church teaching, which also imposes constraints on men.

Sr. Kane alludes to “those among us, both sisters and laywomen, who can no longer enter into the sacramental life of the church because of the sin of sexism.” Imagine the folly of starving oneself of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament — alienation from the sacraments necessary for salvation — just to make a point! Pope Francis pointed out in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (no. 104) that the priesthood is not “about power” or oppression because priests administer Christ. Sr. Kane’s speech helps us to find the Marxist component in feminist resistance to a Church born of the sisters’ imaginations.

The sisters come across as fairly opposed to the middle classes. No longer seeing merit in administering to the backbone of Catholic life in the U.S., they locate the Gospel injunction only among those who are materially poor. Rather than administering to the spiritually poor — all of us — they resent established institutions. Sisters are called to “de-institutionalize” themselves, to become “missionaries once again.” This call to “real work with the real Jesus” aims to recapture the spirit of the early American settlers who built up schools and hospitals from scratch. When the bishops asked the sisters to administer in Latin America, their enthusiastic response shone against a background of growing dissatisfaction with traditional U.S. apostolates in education and nursing.

LCWR speeches make copious references to martyrs in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Mexico. Their political analysis is strong on accusing American foreign policy of collusion with Latin American dictatorships. Nowhere do the sisters recognize that turbulence in the region was inflamed by Marxist ideology, which benefitted from the tacit support of liberation theologians. Nowhere in the speeches is it recognized that Latin America fell as a Catholic territory in these years, despite the success of some Christian communities and the martyrdom of so many priests and religious, not least Archbishop Oscar Romero.

Pentecostal sects are the fastest-growing force in civil and political life in the region, partly a result of Catholic resistance to Rome’s instructions against liberation theology. Leftist priests and sisters weakened the Catholic body by sowing dissent among the vulnerable, furnishing them with resentment of the West, capitalism, and authority. The poor went outside the Church for spiritual sustenance because dissent breeds either militancy, passivity, or prevarication, and none of these is life-giving.

The annual LCWR conference occurs each August. This year, we await further reaction to the Vatican rebuke, as well as the acceptance speech by Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J. — a theologian whom the U.S. bishops have criticized for serious doctrinal errors — for her “Outstanding Leadership Award.” While stating, in reference to the notification from Rome, that “criticism clarifies and humbles,” Janet Mock, C.S.J., says the LCWR is a “microcosm of women in the church.” Really? Does their heterodoxy serve people, the Church, or her mission to save souls? Or does it cause implosion? Many orders represented by the LCWR are dying for lack of vocations.

Mother Assumpta Long, O.P., foundress of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on the other hand, attracts droves of young women who take up veils and long habits and are committed to traditional apostolates like teaching and nursing. Meanwhile, Sr. Joan Chittister, O.S.B., proudly announced on CNN in 2012 that highly educated, modern sisters no longer do such antiquated things. Tenured radicals, indeed!



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