Why is the Vatican investigating some orders of women religious?
Why are so many Catholics, and some theologians, dissenting from Church teaching?
Question: I am very puzzled by the fact that the Vatican has established a commission to investigate doctrinal problems in the sisterhoods (orders of women religious) in the United States. Can you explain why they did that? Are not the vast majority of the sisters still as I remember them from Catholic school in the ‘50s: loyal, simple, and prayerful women? Is it just because they are interested in social justice?
Answer: Many of the Catholic laity seem very confused about why the Vatican has recently sought to call the American sisters—most are not “nuns” (please) who live in cloisters—to task for their doctrinal difficulties. These difficulties are prevalent in the leadership conference of the major superiors of orders known as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)—as opposed to the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) which represents a much smaller, but more orthodox, group. The secular media publish a lot of things about this issue which are shallow, to say the very least. One would think that the only problem with the LCWR is that the organization’s members do not wear long habits anymore, and practice social justice.
While dress is an issue for religious—as was witnessed in John Paul II’s address on “Essential Elements in the Church’s Teaching on Religious Life as Applied to Institutes Dedicated to Works of the Apostolate” which called on religious to wear habits—this is just the tip of the iceberg of the difficulties, as seen in this initial assessment. (Go to: www.usccb.org/upload/Doctrinal_Assessment_Leadership_Conference_Women_Religious.pdf ) The assessment of the LCWR calls attention to a radical social agenda which includes objectionable moral doctrine. A Catholic News Agency (CNA) article reported that at a keynote address of LCWR’s 2007 assembly, Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink spoke with apparent approval about religious congregations “moving beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus.” Saying some congregations have “grown beyond the bounds of institutional religion,” she described them as “post-Christian” in most respects.
In another instance, some sisters dissented from Church teaching on homosexuality and its morality. In their pursuit of radical feminism, some sisters have been led to question the traditional way of looking at many Church doctrines. To quote the document: “Moreover, some commentaries on ‘patriarchy’ distort the way in which Jesus has structured sacramental life in the Church; others even undermine the revealed doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the inspiration of Sacred Scripture.”
This is not the case with just a few isolated religious but seems to be true with the leadership teams of many congregations. There have been situations in which priests are forbidden to concelebrate profession or funeral masses because the sisters do not want so many men in front of them. Some sisters preach at Mass in defiance of the Code of Canon Law, which reserves such preaching to a priest or a deacon. Beleaguered pastors from all over the United States, seeking to change this, are veritably shunned and pressured to allow the sisters to preach.
If you read the document produced by the Vatican objectively, you will discover that it is not a slap on the wrist, or a condescending treatment of women religious. Instead, it arises from genuine concern for these truly adult, well-educated, and mature women who appear unwilling to address their situation effectively when it comes to the truths of the faith.
Many elderly sisters suffer greatly in silence because they are forced to participate in Masses, and other community activities, which compromise their consciences. They are dependent on their communities, and are normally very loyal persons. One sister wrote that physical martyrdom was kind in comparison to the mental anguish many of them have suffered in seeing all they believe in denied.
The Vatican doctrinal investigation was occasioned by many complaints, not least of which were sisters who escorted women going to have abortions. These women religious claimed that, in conscience, this was a way to support women’s rights. It is hoped that, in trying to get the superiors of these communities of sisters to address these issues, it will prove to be for the good of all; not least of all, for the sisters themselves.
Question: Why is it that in the political climate of the USA today, a huge number of Catholics are said to dissent from Church teaching on issues like birth control? Even Catholic college theology professors have come out in favor of same-sex marriage, teaching that it could be a sacrament.
Answer: The Church has always suffered from the tendency of some teachers to alter their doctrine fearing an appearance of being disrespectful towards various human dilemmas. Even in the controversy of Peter and Paul over circumcision, Paul clearly stated that Peter was bowing to pressure at a purely human level, contrary to what he really believed in a more spiritual sense.
This has become more pronounced today, owing to the ability of the media to publicly put pressure on people. Moreover, the media is not primarily interested in truth. They merely report. In England in the 1940s, C. S. Lewis observed that, due to the media, modern man really does not ask himself if arguments are “true” or “false.” In The Screwtape Letters, he has Satan saying to a junior tempter on earth:
Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together in his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as “true” or “false,” but as “academic” or “practical,” “outworn” or “contemporary,” “conventional” or “ruthless.” Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.
Pope Benedict decried the relativity of truth. This relativism had afflicted the Protestants for several centuries, coming into the Church with a vengeance following Vatican II. It was not the Council itself which caused this, but an attempt by a number of theologians to hijack Vatican II. They rejected the traditional metaphysics, affirming the truth of objective universal ideas, against the subjectivism of modern philosophy.
Immanuel Kant is the most influential philosopher on the subject of modern ideas concerning truth, even though he lived in the 18th century. He said he wanted to reform thinking. Truth has always been understood as the correspondence of the mind to the thing, thus making the reality outside ourselves the objective standard for truth. Kant, however, turned this upside down, maintaining that truth was the correspondence of the thing to the mind. Truth became completely subjective. No idea in the mind could fully represent the thing outside the mind. His universal proposition became an impoverished, sensory concept.
If the mind cannot know objective universal truth, and the individual subjectively creates truth, then truth must be the result of what the majority think truth is at this particular time. This could always change the next day. If this is true in reason, it must also be true in faith. Coupled with this, was a boundless confidence that human reason could resolve every difficulty—if not through reason, then through emotion. The heresy of modernism strongly entered into Catholic academic discourse. It taught that revealed truth is an elusive thing, reinterpreted in light of the values of each age and culture. The results are what we have in the Church today. Instead of looking to an interpretation of an objective revelation, based in Scripture, Tradition, and interpreted by the Magisterium, many people—especially nominal Catholics—now look to their own lived experience as the source of all truth. Why would one need a revelation from a superior being, if one’s lived experience is the source of truth? In this view, Catholic teaching becomes just one of many human expressions of need, creating the “truth of the moment.” In this view, democracy is not just a system of government, but a system for unveiling the truth. This has been the philosophy of many Catholic academic institutions for almost forty years. We are reaping the harvest today.