Questions Answered

Why is the Vatican investigating some orders of women religious?
Why are so many Catholics, and some theologians, dissenting from Church teaching?

Archbishop Sartain will work with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)

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: ) 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.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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  2. Over the years, my ire at the LCWR has become more pity. SInce most of these women are my age, I have some understanding of what their life experiences have been & I can honestly say, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

    I understand that the ’60s didn’t happen in a vacuum. Much of the groundwork for that troubled decade was laid during the previous decades in which, not only the Church, but societal norms in general relegated women and their traditional roles to a status undeserving of any real attention. In retrospect, any thinking Catholic in the USA can easily see that, when the sisters who largely belong to the LCWR began to question these norms in the wake of the ’60s, the infrastructure of hospitals, schools etc in this country began to collapse. In that sense, the Catholic Church in this country at least was only reaping what it had sown.

    That said, these poor women seem to have built an altar to their pain and refuse to worship anywhere else. Instead of following the example of the great heritage of women saints in our Church, from Blessed Mother to Joan of Arc to Mother Cabrini, who have been misunderstood, not to say vilified, by pompous clerics through the centuries, the LCWR continues to labor for the bread that perishes: i.e., popular opinion and press coverage.

    In itself, this situation is sad enough because God calls us to spend our lives doing so much more than looking backward & licking our wounds. The horrible sidebar to this sad story that’s seldom reported, however, is the fact that, as Jesus said to the Pharisees (paraphrasing!), “It’s not enough that you won’t get into heaven yourselves but you block the way for everyone following you.” That is, sisters like the Dominican who has been an “escort” at an abortuary in Chicago or another sister who advised an older couple who were living together because of the difficulty of obtaining annulments for previous marriages that their “consciences knew better than the Church” that it was perfectly okay or the sister who, as the Parish Administrator, refused to relinquish her position to the pastor when he was eventually assigned— all these examples and many more cause confusion, pain and sin far beyond the ever-shrinking circles of the sisters of the LCWR. Sister Laurie Brink et al might want to carefully reconsider exactly what lies “beyond Jesus Christ” before they get too much older.