I had to smile this morning after reading two variant accounts of the conclusion of the Vatican investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Vatican’s office of doctrinal affairs. The National Catholic Register reported yesterday’s breakthrough as the LCWR’s capitulation to Church authority. The New York Times, however, described the end as Pope Francis’s official conclusion to an embarrassing episode and carried a photo of the pontiff with four very happy LCWR leaders after an unusually long hour-meeting.
Today is “Morality Friday” here at the blog, and I wondered—hopefully if cautiously—if there are moral lessons to be learned both for the Church and society as a whole. This Vatican-LCWR prolonged process has been followed closely by Americans of all stripes; indeed, I would go so far as to say that had this confrontation ended any other way, the New Evangelization itself in the U.S. might have been profoundly endangered, for as we now know, the works of the sisters enjoy immense respect in this country.
(1) The dangers of scape-goating. Bishops in the U.S. have had a tough time over the past half-century. Catholic schools have closed in significant numbers; preaching and activism to stem abortion have not borne significant reforms. Defections from the U.S. Catholic Church are currently numbering about a thousand daily. In times of fear and rage, the most natural and impulsive thing to do is to identify a highly visible target as the culprit. Vatican II and religious women became inviting targets. Scape-goating avoids the embarrassment of more honest reactions, such as outside evaluation of internal Church problems, which could uncover flaws further up the ecclesiastical food chain. Face the truth in all things.
(2) Due process. I wrote yesterday about the Enlightenment and its legacy of human rights. One of the enduring temptations of those in authority, particularly when that authority presumes to speak for God, is the abuse of power. Or, as Lord Acton put it in the nineteenth-century, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” All Catholics, clerics and lay, are entitled to due process in Church proceedings, which includes an assumption of innocence until proven guilty and preservation of the good name of the accused. See Canon Law, notably Canon 221. I might note here that very recent research indicates wholesale concern among U.S. priests about wholesale violations of due process in the Dallas Charter mandates regarding child abuse accusations. Use authority with wisdom and charity.
(3) Vendettas. This process has been marked by several personal conflicts between certain American bishops and U.S. women religious in general. The most common reporting trend has led since 2012 to, of all people, the disgraced Cardinal Law, who lobbied extensively from Rome after his demotion and who by some accounts solicited funds by the Knights of Columbus for the costly proceedings. However, Cardinal Law’s enthusiasm for the investigation of American sisters has a long history: The Cardinal was an outspoken force in promoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and from what I have read, resented the hesitations and opposition posed by many American religious educators, notably religious. These concerns of educators in the 1980’s about these proposals, as I recall, dealt with pedagogical concerns about the text’s usage, philosophy, sourcing, theological emphases, etc. In short, professional peer review. Nursing grudges destroys.
(4) Scandal. The timing of this investigation could not have come at a worse time in terms of negative impact upon “the simple faithful” as some churchmen are still wont to say. The initial visitation of American sisters began in 2008, a time when the sheer numbers of credible accusations of priestly child abuse as well as their financial costs (over $2.1 billion by some sources) became generally known and worse—the extent of Episcopal cover-up—was beginning to be investigated by civil authorities in criminal investigations. The logical question on the lips of most observers was why investigate the sisters, and not the clergy? The John Jay Study reported that 10% of all priests ordained in the U.S. in 1970 alone have credible allegations made against them. The grand total of all credibly accused sisters in the U.S. was about 60, the last time I checked a few years ago. This imbalance did not pass the moral smell test among the faithful, or common sense, for that matter. See how they love one another.
(5) Professional jealousy. One reason the investigation lost traction in the last few years has been the outrage of corporate America. A number of CEO’s in a variety of industries are the product of Catholic education and have a long history of providing grants to the very charitable causes of the sisters that the Vatican was critical of. The Conrad N. Hilton Corporation is a good example—it donates $2.5 million annually to sisters’ retirement alongside numerous individual grants to ministerial social outreach undertaken by Catholic women religious.( Ironically, the investigation was funded in part by generous assistance from the Knights of Columbus. I find that sad.)
Although decreasing in numbers in the United States—60,000 or thereabouts—religious sisters hold a disportionately high number of advanced degrees and hold significant positions in health care management, university administration, theological education in major universities, and social services. Sisters serve on the boards of many business, philanthropic, and educational foundations. Sister Mary Angela Shaughnessy is one of the country’s outstanding Church Canonists. Arguably the most inventive theologian/authors today are women religious (which was, in fact, a focus of the investigation.) That this would be troubling in Rome—which forbade the study and teaching of graduate theology by all women till the 1940’s—and that sisters would grow to positions of access and prominence in society equal to clerics, well, the only phrase that comes to mind is “culture shock.” Rejoice in the good works of others.
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