During my childhood in India my father worked as Chief Engineer of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, with the consequence that we moved every six months from one state to another. I was educated in several different convents staffed by different orders of nuns: Carmelites, Loreto Sisters, Jesus and Mary Sisters, and others. They were all magnificent teachers and I was blessed to receive an education, religious and secular, not many in Australia are fortunate enough to receive. I owe those nuns a debt I can never repay.
It therefore saddened me that many orders of nuns in the US became infected with the militant feminism that I have opposed in the secular sphere in Australia since 1974. Feminist ideology involves denial that the roles of men and women are different, hostility to "patriarchal" structures in Church and society, and a focus on civil rights for homosexuals while ignoring the rights of the unborn. Some nuns strayed into heresy, questioning the divinity of Jesus.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) was founded in 1956 and approved by the Vatican as an umbrella organisation representing nuns in the US. Its 1500 members represent over 80% of the 59,000 Catholic women religious in the US. Since the 1960s, however, LCWR has become the de facto representative of the far left in the US Catholic Church, with its membership dedicated to radical feminist themes and policies of corporate dissent from Catholic teaching.
In 2008 the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith launched an investigation into the LCWR. Its hard-hitting report was published in April 2012, criticising the LCWR for its refusal to accept Catholic teaching on abortion, human sexuality and women's ordination, and for its association with NETWORK (a radical "social justice" lobby group founded in 1971). The document outlines the Vatican's plan over the next five years for reforming the LCWR.
Seattle's Archbishop Peter Sartain has been appointed to oversee the reform which involves revising LCWR's statutes, creating new programs, reviewing and offering guidance on liturgy and reviewing affiliations with other organisations, specifically NETWORK and the Resource Center for Religious Institutes.
An initial statement from the LCWR said that they were "stunned" by the CDF's critical comments. The leadership will meet shortly to consider a comprehensive response.
Individual members, however, have been prompt in condemning the Vatican's report. Sr Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, said: "It's painfully obvious the leadership of the Church is not used to having educated women form thoughtful opinions and engage in dialogue". Sr Joan Chittister, who has lectured in Australia several times, called the CDF's proposals an attempt "to control people for one thing and one thing only - and that is for thinking, for being willing to discuss the issues of the age."
Reform of religious life has been a feature of Pope Benedict's papacy. While some may consider this action against LCWR typical of an "ultra-conservative" Pope acting to suppress liberal factions, Benedict's first target was the Legion of Christ congregation and its leader, Fr Maciel, then the favourites of the Church's conservatives.
The CDF report comes at a critical time in the relations between the bishops and LCWR, with the latter endorsing Obama's health care and the bishops opposing his plans to impose birth control coverage on Catholic institutions, and funding for abortions. The CDF document noted that "occasional public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the Bishops, who are the Church's authentic teachers of faith and morals, are not compatible with its purpose."
The CDF report has resulted in much media comment in the US, both in the religious and secular press, including the New York Times. Most of it has been reasonably fair, which may be a first for the Times - usually in any controversy involving the Catholic Church, the Times commentary reads as if written by Planned Parenthood.
Off the deep end
The comments I liked best were from writer Omar Gutierrez of Nebraska. Under the heading, "Let's be Sober about the LCWR Assessment", he writes: "In essence, the CDF says ... leadership of women religious in this country has gone so far off the deep end of theological speculation that they are entertaining the possibility that Jesus isn't God, He didn't die for us ... equality for homosexuals is the new civil rights issue, and social justice means everything but abortion, embryonic destructive research and euthanasia ...
"Though many will be tempted to do so, I don't think anyone should be cheering about this assessment from the CDF because many of these religious women who are so far gone theologically are at the same time doing some of the very work for the poor, the imprisoned and the forgotten that wouldn't be done by the State and isn't or can't be done by lay Catholics ...
"We shouldn't be cheering because there is going to be a lot of hurt and pain in the coming years. One can understand some of the bitterness that these women feel towards the Church ... They associate obedience with oppression, and that can be very difficult ...
"I thank too the sisters within the LCWR who have ... decided to work with the US bishops and Rome ...
"Now let's get to the healing by praying for one another. Let's help these sisters understand that every time they deny the divinity of Christ, the meaning of Holy Orders, the effectiveness of Reconciliation and the true social justice teaching of the Church, every time they reject these they reject us who are part of the communion."