The Holy See has called into question the leadership of the American Catholic sisters and hence their generous, intelligent, compassionate contributions, and their prophetic voice within the church. Many are shocked, even scandalized, by this intervention.

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In the seven years I have been writing this column, I have rarely dealt with issues specific to the Catholic Church. Rather I have tried to focus on contemplative walks in the Arboretum, the spirituality of gardening, the gift of family, strengthening Christian unity through ecumenical relationships, the importance of prayer, the wealth of spiritual resources in Catholic tradition and so forth. Two exceptions would be the sexual-abuse crisis, “Jesuits reflect on abuse scandal” (Seattle Times, April 30, 2010), and the election of the new pope in April 2005.

But now the Catholic faithful have been rocked by another incredible initiative from the Holy See, and I cannot pass over in silence. (Note of explanation: “Holy See” refers to the central church leadership. “Vatican” refers to the city-state or political entity.)

In this instance, the Holy See through the Congregation on Doctrine and Faith has mandated a reining in of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).

It calls into question the leadership of the American Catholic sisters and hence their generous, intelligent, compassionate contributions, and their prophetic voice within the church. Many are shocked, even scandalized, by this intervention. The reasons given are even more problematic.

The ones that leap out are that Women Religious has been silent on issues of sexual ethics, such as contraception and gay marriage, and that some of their invited keynote speakers at their national conferences have raised up significant issues the church still needs to deal with.

By implication, they have focused too much on social-justice issues such as homelessness, oppressive political structures, capital punishment, and so forth without sufficient attention to the doctrinal teaching of the church. And they should never have raised questions about the ordination of women.

Being called on the carpet for maintaining a respectful silence on controversial issues related to sexual ethics seems particularly inquisitional.

In the official document, the Congregation on Faith and Doctrine (CDF — Congregatio Doctrina Fidei) begins by acknowledging “with gratitude the great contribution of Women Religious to the church in the United States as seen particularly in the many schools, hospitals and institutions of support for the poor.”

Now here was a great starting point. Wouldn’t it have made a whole lot more sense to celebrate the magnificent contribution of Women Religious in the United States over the past 200 years and especially in the past 50?

How they embraced the mandates of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) to return to the charism of their founders (the founding grace inspired by the Holy Spirit) and to renew their institutes in the light of contemporary needs by discerning the signs of the times?

In this regard, Women Religious has been outstanding. Precisely because of their identification with the poor and with women oppressed, they have grasped what the church most needs in contemporary society.

In addition, the spirituality of these women, honed, developed, and lived over many centuries, has now become a spiritual resource for so many lay companions, both women and men.

In accepting the rather impossible mandate asked of him by the Holy See as the appointed Apostolic Delegate, Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain generously said, “In the four dioceses I have served, I have had the privilege of working with many Women Religious from a large number of congregations. For most of those congregations, the LCWR plays an important role of support, communication, and collaboration, a role valued by the sisters and their congregational leadership.

“I am honored that the CDF has entrusted this important and sensitive work to me, because the ministry of religious sisters, especially here in the United States, is deeply respected and paramount to the mission of the Church.”

But the wound has been made. Let us hope Archbishop Sartain can help with the healing. Let us hope, most of all, the people of God, the faithful, who have benefited so much throughout their lives from the nuns, might, with profound gratitude, support these valiant women.

Fr. Patrick Howell SJ is the rector (religious superior) of the Jesuit Community at Seattle University and professor of pastoral theology. Readers may send feedback to faithcolumns@seattletimes.com