The Vatican vs. the “Good Sisters”?

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Much of the so-called “analysis” of the Vatican’s hostile takeover of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) focuses upon how “evil bureaucrats” in the Vatican have unilaterally imposed their will upon all of the “good sisters” whose selfless acts of charity personalize the Church in a way that those evil bureaucrats could never personalize it.

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Using what The Motley Monk calls the Vatican’s “hostile takeover” of the LCWR as a case in point, the National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen has written a good article taking to task the first assumption calling it a “classic case in point”:

Insiders have long realized there’s no such animal as “the Vatican” in the sense of an organism that thinks only one thought at a time. The Vatican is instead a complex bureaucracy encompassing a variety of outlooks and instincts, which means it rarely speaks with just one voice on anything.

If Allen’s assessment is correct—and The Motley Monk thinks in this instance that he’s spot on—most people opining about the hostile takeover don’t know what they’re talking about.  Instead, they’re making a political point by constructing a pinata caricaturing what doesn’t exist in reality.  In ethics, this is called the “agentic shift” which seeks to locate responsibility in an organization rather than in the persons making a decision.

Allen is correct in this regard.   “The Vatican” does nothing.  People working for the Vatican do things.  He concludes:

Framing this issue as “the Vatican vs. the nuns,” therefore, is sexy but ultimately misleading.  As always, the question is which Vatican officials, not to mention which nuns, we’re talking about.

Many of those who understand the point Allen is making have reported the long history that has led certain individuals in the Vatican to make a decision to intervene directly in the LCWR.  Allen’s article provides a good summary as does Sandro Magister in his Vatican Diary.  In sum, Allen writes:

The doctrinal assessment of the LCWR and its demands for reforms in LCWR’s statutes, plans, and programs was issued April 18 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, led by American Cardinal William Levada.  The other Vatican department that’s part of the picture is the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, popularly known as the “Congregation for Religious.”  Under church law, primary responsibility for overseeing religious life, including organizations such as LCWR, belongs to the Congregation for Religious [under the aegis of Brazilian Cardinal João Bráz de Aviz and American Archbishop Joseph Tobin].

What interests The Motley Monk about all of this are the charges that led those responsible agents to engage in the business equivalent of a hostile takeover of the LCWR.
As Sandro Magister reports:

Among the accusations that the Holy See makes against the conference of American women religious superiors is the de facto approval of the tendency to go “beyond the Church” and even “beyond Christ,” as theorized in a 2007 talk by Dominican sister Laurie Brink.

Another accusation concerns the resistance of some groups of sisters against accepting the Mass, celebrated by a male priest, as the center of their communal life.

Yet another recalls the opposition of the LCWR, in 1977, to the declaration “Inter Insigniores” approved the previous year by Paul VI, which reiterated the reservation of priestly ordination to men.  A “public refusal”—remarks the document from the congregation for the doctrine of the faith—that subsequently “has never been corrected.”

Assuming the veracity of the charges—and The Motley Monk has no reason to believe they are inaccurate—this is not the stuff of “good sisters” performing important charitable works on behalf of the Church but of a group of like-minded, vowed religious women actively working to remake the Church in their collective image.

There is some talk that the hostile takeover of the LCWR initiated by Pope Benedict XVI will cause its leadership and their sympathetic followers to form a new organization that has no canonical status, thus leaving LCWR—or its successor organization—behind to be run by “the Vatican” and its sycophants.

Since their agenda is basically political in nature to achieve theological objectives, The Motley Monk thinks forming a new organization independent of the Church would be the equivalent of committing “political suicide.”


Withdrawing from the LCWR as the official U.S. representative organization for women religious and forming a distinct, non-canonical organization free of Vatican control would represent a self-inflicted death sentence.  Looking at the ages of these women, the new group will not survive very long and “the Vatican” will prevail.  All the dissenters will have accomplished is to “get up and die.”



To read John Allen’s article in the National Catholic Reporter, click on the following link:

To read Sandro Magister’s article in his “Vatican Diary,” click on the following link:

To read The Motley Monk’s daily blog, click on the following link:

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  1. MM – This is a fair analysis. I’m just not crazy about your use of the term “hostile takeover”. I know you meant it in a business sense, not a “hostile” sense, but a takeover isn’t the right analogy. Vatican officials have always had jurisdiction over organizations of religious. It’s more a reassertion of control.

  2. TMM must disagree, Pinky.

    It’s not a reassertion of control. The “Vatican” never had control of the LCWR, not in anything near the sense that they do now.

    Remember, one of the early presidents of LCWR was Sr Theresa Kane?

    Did JP II look like he was in control of that?



  3. The first question the “good” sisters of the LCWR should be asking themselves is why their Religious Orders are dying out and they have so few new vocations. The second question they should ask themselves is why a Religious Order like Mother Angelica’s Poor Clares in Irondale, Alabama has so many young ladies wanting to enter they have to turn them away. The answer should be simple even for them. One of their most noble purposes is to remind us, not only by their works, but by their habits, that there is an amazing God out there in our world who loves us like a Father and is watching over us. Their habits are supposed to be symbols of His Presence in our world. Because they blend in so well with the rest of us, for me, they are “out of sight, out of mind”. May God forgive them.

  4. ” a group of like-minded, vowed religious women actively working to remake the Church in their collective image”.
    Is this really any different to a ‘group of like-minded men’ who have been doing this for centuries?
    And I really do fail to see how the wearing of a habit is any stronger a symbol of God’s presence in our world than the loving service performed. Did the wearing of a clerical collar by some priests make any difference to how they dishonoured the Church or did it make them better men? No.

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