More than words – a response regarding the LCWR

Sadly no less vain than the next person, I am still gratified (if still a little amazed) when this blog gets noticed around and about. Mr Michael Mullins, over at Australia’s Cathnews, has often done me the honour of a mention on his weekly Blogwatcher. He has referenced the blog again this week, this time with regard to the situation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in the USA, on which I have written recently here and here.

However (and you saw the “h” word coming no doubt), the context in which Michael has made this reference is itself problematic. To give the context let me quote him:

In his Tablet blog, Salesian youth minister David O’Malley has this in mind when he writes that “we can appear to young people as aliens from the planet Zog. We wear different clothes, listen to strange music and use language they would never think of using … Salvation … Sin … Real presence … Infallibility.”

As adults we should see ourselves as missionaries into the present culture. … Missionaries have always had to learn new language. … Young people make us think and challenge us to change.

Attempts to find a language that speaks to young people and others at the edge or outside the Church could be what got the American nuns into trouble with the Vatican. Avoiding the language O’Malley calls alien is described by Fr Hugh OSB as

the descent of the LCWR into post-Christianity, dragging its subjects with it, as exemplified by Sr Laurie Brink OP who addressed the LCWR in 2007. She notes with apparent approval the movement of some congregations of women ”beyond the bounds of institutional religion” [ie the Church!]

To take the tangential point first, Mr O’Malley’s experience may well have been interpreted by him with reasonable accuracy, in that some young people find the language of Christianity unfamiliar. In large measure I suspect that this is due to our post-Christian society in which Christianity is marginalised and largely silenced, except for the grudging concession of a voice in matters of social justice. A large proportion of young people have not been exposed to the Christian vocabulary which until recently was mainstream in our society. Nevertheless, I am not convinced that its entire vocabulary is so unfamiliar: most youth would understand the ideas of sin and salvation, at least in rudimentary form.

There are two possible ways of dealing with this problem: either we abandon our language (as Mr O’Malley seems to suggest); or we can teach young people our language. No surprises – I am for the latter.

Words are not mere expendables or variables in Christianity. They are more than words. The words, limited though they are, carry a meaning that is important, and they do so in as accurate way as possible. Some words have been fought over (to the death at times) in the history of Christianity: filioque, theotokos, Trinity, transubstantiation. The words we have retained were decided upon because they best conveyed the mystery they referred to. The integrity of our imperfect apprehension of mystery is so delicate that it could be shattered by an unsound change in the words used to name and elaborate it.

So it is highly improbable that words such as sin, salvation, grace, Eucharist, and so many others, can be discarded on the basis of a misguided pragmatism. Christianity is a revealed mystery, and to appreciate it adequately one must learn its language. Certainly we can explain it and elaborate it in modern idiom. That is what catechesis is all about. Catechesis seeks to explain, say, sin in a way that is accessible to the modern mind; it does not do away with the word itself to achieve this. Babies and bathwater come to mind. There is a good reason why we have kept the word sin for 2000 years and more!

So to suggest that the LCWR controversy is merely a matter of these sisters having changed a few words is a gross misrepresentation of the reality. To advocate women’s ordination in the face of the explicit Church teaching that it is is impossible is not a matter of changing words. To advocate the homosexual lifestyle as morally justifiable, or abortion as a legitimate choice, or contraception as a valid option, or a Christinaity without a Church  – none of these are about changing words. What they involve is far beyond changing words: it is attempting to change the teaching entirely. This is why the tag recently gaining currency, the magisterium of nuns, is rather apt. The LCWR, in sponsoring and advocating such deformations of the faith as those just mentioned, has effectively set itself up as the authority in doctrine. It knows better… somehow. Maybe we have been reading the gospels wrong all this time, and Christ gave the power of the keys to the sisters, not to Peter and the apostles and their successors?

The LCWR affair is not one of a failure in language or linguistic tolerance. It is rather a case of consistent, active and long-standing disobedience to, and disregard of, the teachings of the Church and the authority that guarantees them. Calling it “dissent” is merely camouflage. This is what has got the LCWR into trouble with the Vatican. Truth is very often inconvenient, but we cannot for that reason ditch it. In fact when faced with a truth that bites, we find ourselves called by God to move forward towards Him, a move further into Truth. The average person may balk at this usually painful hurdle and seek to sidestep it, and the sisters are human like the rest of us. But that is no reason to encourage others to do the same.Woe to her who leads one of God’s little ones astray.

Mr Mullins goes continues in his Blogwatcher piece:

In this context, two theologians use the term “faith seeking understanding”, which originated with 12th century Benedictine philosopher St Anselm (pictured).dotCommonweal quotes Boston College theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill’s use of the term in her recent Guardian opinion piece on the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s (CDF) notification on Sr Margaret Farley’s Just Love.

Theology … is not the same as official doctrinal teaching. Medieval thinkers defined theology as fides quaerens intellectum – “faith seeking understanding”. Theology is rooted in faith and practical concerns. But the main purpose of theology, unlike pastoral teaching or the definition of doctrines, is the understanding of God and of humans in relation to God.

Ms Cahill overdoes the distinction between theology and doctrine. In fact, she separates them entirely, as if theology has nothing to do with “pastoral teaching” or “the definition of doctrines”. In doing so she dishonours the teaching of St Anselm, and betrays a most deficient understanding of theology. If theology is faith seeking understanding, then what is it seeking to understand? Surely God, Truth, the great Mystery of God’s love for us. The essentials of this are expressed in the Church’s doctrines. No theology can do away with them. They are the bedrock of our faith, the faith that seeks to understand them. Theology is not theology without faith. Without faith a scholar is actually pursuing religious studies, not theology. This may have some value in itself, but it has no valid or authoritative voice in the Church’s project of understanding God and his mystery.

Of course, there is a place for speculative theology. As new situations and circumstances arise, the truth about and from God must be examined in order to be applied to them. However, speculative theology belongs in the secluded, discreet corridors of the theological academy, not on the shelves of Amazon or the local bookstore. The majority of Catholics are not able to find their way through the more complex subtleties of theological discourse. Confusion is the inevitable result, and theology that confuses or misleads the ordinary Catholic is bad theology. Which is why the Vatican was right to censure Sr Farley’s book: it makes assertions contrary to the faith as it is defined now and shall ever be. The Vatican is not banning the book’s publication; rather, it is saying that Farley’s book is an unreliable guide to theological truth. The Church’s theology is too important to allow confusion to be sown under the banner of “Catholic”. Theology matters too much.

Like all human freedom, academic freedom is not unlimited. The theologian’s (as a theologian properly speaking, that is one who serves the Church through theological enquiry) freedom is not that of being able to advocate his or her own opinion of Christianity. Instead, it is the freedom to explore and elaborate the truth as contained in the Church’s body of doctrine, or deposit of faith, and to do so in fidelity to the Church, for the sake of the Church, without interference from outside the Church. No theology worth the name is done outside this context of the Church and of the saving faith which it seeks to foster.

Further on the LCWR

For some historical perspective on the situation of the LCWR today, and how it has come to pass that the Holy See as to investigate its actions and statements, indeed its whole ethos, then do go to Catholic World Report.

It is a fascinating account of the descent of the LCWR into post-Christianity, dragging its subjects with it, as exemplified by Sr Laurie Brink OP who addressed the LCWR in 2007. She notes with apparent approval the movement of some congregations of women “beyond the bounds of institutional religion” [ie the Church!], a movement she accurately, though unashamedly, describes as a “movement beyond Christ”. Some defend Sr Brink, arguing that was merely elaborating one of four currents in religious life, not advocating it. There is truth to this, but her failure to critique such a trend while describing it in some detail applies to it a patina of approval. Certainly no one argues that she is inaccurate in her description.

SSPX, LCWR and their common ground

On the two extreme and opposite fringes of the Church this appears to be a time of reckoning, initiated under the authority and by the will of Pope Benedict XVI.

On the liberal fringe we have the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in the United States – for decades a fertile and welcoming home for dissent from the official teaching of the Church on such issues as the impossibility of the ordination of women, the evil of abortion, the wrongfulness of artificial contraception, the immorality of homosexual intercourse, and such topical issues – has been made the object of a Vatican doctrinal assessment. It is long overdue. Some of us can remember many instances of religious sisters in the USA (and elsewhere) dabbling in such New Age trendiness as Wicca, which despite the feminist gloss put on it is still paganism pure and simple. Donna Steichen’s book, Ungodly Rage, documents this sad history in detail up to the early 1990s. The Vatican investigation aims to promote within the LCWR a “a vision of ecclesial communion founded on faith in Jesus Christ and the teachings of the church as faithfully taught through the ages under the guidance of the magisterium”. In recent months, as prominent sisters have defied their own bishops and the Church in general on matters of substantial moral significance, some (such as Father Zuhlsdorf)  have taken to referring to a “magisterium of nuns” which has set itself up as an equal, and rival, to the Church’s magisterium. So it is no surprise that the LCWR has attacked the assessment.

There have been some shrill attacks on the Church’s authorities for this apparent “inquisition” and “persecution” of women who have done so many good works. Indeed they have done much good across many decades. But this riposte avoids the substance of the problem. It is the many bad works done with the tacit approval, and sometimes explicit approval, of the LCWR that concern the Vatican. Moreover, it is the LCWR itself that is being assessed, not the totality of the religious sisterhood in the USA. That said, the assessment follows in the wake of an apostolic visitation of women religious in the USA. That there now comes this assessment of the LCWR, of which the leaders of most (but not all) the women’s congregations are members, suggests that tyhe Visitation exposed serious problems, and is seeking to find their cause. In other words, it is the leaders who are under scrutiny, and rightly, for with leadership comes responsibility for the actions of those whom one leads. And of course, any charitable work that is not informed by and conformed to truth is not really an expression of charity at all; it is usually an expression of self-will rather than God’s will.

On the traditionalist fringe we find that the Society of St Pius X (SSPX), founded in the 1970s by Archbishop Lefebvre for those who could not reconcile themselves to the Second Vatican Council and its fruits, has been forced to face up to the reality of its situation in the face of a determined attempt by the Pope to effect its reconciliation with the Church. The SSPX has moved beyond its initial critique of the post-conciliar Mass to reject it outright, as well as rejecting certain teachings of the Council such as those on religious liberty and episcopal collegiality, to the point of rejecting the Council entirely. The SSPX openly moved into effective schism when Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated four men as bishops in 1988 to succeed him and so perpetuate the SSPX. He did so without the permission of the Pope, an act which earned for him and the bishops an ipso facto excommunication. The seriousness of the Pope’s intent was signalled by his lifting the excommunication against these bishops in 2009, a move not well received in some quarters of the Church for reasons both more and less defensible.

The fundamental problem with the consecration of these bishops back in 1988, one which reveals the inherent tendency in the Society, is that it effectively created a separate church by establishing its own source of authority and governance without any reference to the papacy as the guardian of Tradition. This was highlighted most recently in a homily preached last week by Bishop Tissier (one of the four illicitly-ordained bishops of 1988) in which he declared the “New Mass” to be the “emblem” of a “false religion” which is marked by “heretical perversity”. Such words cannot be said by a person who conceives of himself being in any way a member of the Church founded on the Rock of Peter. Just a few days ago the SSPX superior in Guatemala (!) called on Bishop Fellay (another 1988-bishop, current head of the SSPX and leader of the rapprochement with Rome) to be removed at the July General Chapter of the SSPX for, inter alia, his alleged “disobedience to the founder” (ie Lefebvre).

It is not the intention here to go into the issues surrounding both the LCWR and the SSPX, which are complex, lengthy and historically entrenched. Instead, we might stop to take note that these two groups, at opposing ends of the ecclesial spectrum, have something essentially in common: they are used to doing what they want to do, without any real reference to the Church, its teachings and its legitimate authority. For the SSPX, Archbishop Lefebvre has become the authority against which his successors must be judged. With Lefebvre long dead, this in reality means that a member of the SSPX will assess any action or teaching according to his own understanding of the Archbishop’s position, bolstered no doubt by a tendentious reading of old manuals of theology and the occasional misuse of a sainted theologian. There is no reference to the current authorities (doctrinal and juridical) of the Church since they are rejected a priori. Some excellent analysis can be found here.

Likewise the LCWR has set itself up against the Church founded on Peter, though without formally leaving its communion. Whereas the SSPX sees itself as defender of Tradition, though one sadly divorced from the Church which is its proper home, the LCWR sees itself as the defender of Prophecy, again sadly divorced from the Church which is its proper home and context. Tradition divorced from the papacy is not tradition in the traditional (!) sense; prophecy divorced from the Church and its truth is not prophecy in the scriptural sense. Sr Sandra Schneiders is one of the more obvious articulators of this prophetic desire. Sr Margaret Farley is a recent example of it.

So the LCWR commits itself not to the Church but to a dis-institutionalised ‘prophetic’ witness all too often over and against the teachings of the Church, of which they seek to remain members and whose members fund their activity; and the SSPX commits itself not to the Church gathered around the papacy but to the defence of an ossified ‘tradition’, all too often at odds with the living Tradition of the authentic Church. On the one side, the sisters determine what is prophetic; on the other side, the Lefebvrists determine what is traditional. Each is its own own authority, and the logical result is disobedience, rupture and the wounding of the Body of Christ.

Moreover, both contain in themselves the seed of their own downfall. For the sisters it is the increasing irrelevance and secularisation of their activities, while their congregations age and dwindle in numbers, and as a younger generation of Catholics rediscover the beauty of the faith, the authority of papal teaching and the necessity of the Church. For the Lefebvrists it is the tendency to fragment into smaller, more fanatical sects, some of which even elect their own ‘popes’. It is the same tendency that weakens Protestantism. Whatever good the original Protestants had to offer was hugely diminished when they cut themselves from the Body of the Church; so too the SSPX lost any substantial audience within the Church when they cut themselves off from her, seeking, like Protestants, an invisible Church different from the visible. Severed from the vine, they will ultimately die.

All we can do is pray. We can only pray that the LCWR will realise that they cannot be faithful to Christ while disobeying the authority of his Body. We can only pray that the SSPX will realise the same. The remedy for them both is the same, for their basic problem is the same. They forget, or perhaps even refuse to see, that where the successor of Peter and the bishops are, there is the Body of Christ; and to be apart from the Body is to be apart from Christ, without whom we can do nothing (John 15:5). Of these to whom he has entrusted the Good News, Christ says,

“The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”
(Luke 10:16 ESV)