Very few people pause to consider the role of women religious in the Catholic Church today. However, that has changed since the Vatican has come down hard on the Leadership Council of Women Religious (LCWR) and demanded they reform the organization and fall into lockstep with issues that dominate the Vatican agenda. The role of nuns, and the larger role of women in the church, has been placed into a focus not seen since Vatican II.
The LCWR represents 80% of the 57,000 religious sisters that live in the United States. In April, the Vatican accused these nuns of “doctrinal confusion” and requested that this organization either implement reforms administered by a Vatican-appointed Archbishop or lose official Vatican recognition as an umbrella religious organization. Specifically, the Vatican claimed that the LCWR and religious sisters who belong to this organization were not vocal enough regarding right to life and reproductive issues as well as homosexuality. The Vatican fails to realize, however, that the daily toil of these nuns - in classrooms, hospitals, soup kitchens, prisons, and shelters - does not preclude or obstruct traditional Catholic dogma, but instead enhances and strengthens the community of faith. Every day women religious improve thousands of lives and truly continue the ministry of Jesus by working with those who are cast out and marginalized by society. These women ensure that the message of Christ reaches those who will not hear the homily from the pulpit on Sunday. The doctrine of the Vatican and actions of the women religious are not mutually exclusive; instead, they are complementary and reflect the diversity of the modern Church.
Monday, the LCWR convened for their annual conference in Saint Louis. This three-day conference will not only discuss important matters within the church community and our nation at large, but will also formulate a response to the calls from the Vatican to comply with the suggested reforms, disband entirely, or reorganize outside of the Vatican’s control. Although the LCWR and the women religious it represents were blindsided by the lack of transparency and cooperation that went into the Vatican report, the LCWR has been extremely measured and nuanced in its approach to resolving this issue. These women have neither been intimidated by the Vatican’s crackdown, nor have they brazenly defied the Vatican’s requests. In contrast to the Vatican’s review process, these sisters have gone to speak with members of the Vatican in June and now will discuss solutions to this crisis at today’s conference.
As a practicing Catholic millennial, I feel that this confrontation between the LCWR and the Vatican highlights what has become an increasingly problematic dynamic within the Church. The pews in my once vibrant parish, as well as the churches I frequent within my neighborhood, are devoid of youth and are never at capacity except on Christmas or Easter. Many Catholics have “fallen away” or have left the Church for another denomination that they feel is less “antiquated” and more in touch with their everyday trials.
It has occurred to me, though, that perhaps this imbroglio between these nuns and the Vatican hierarchy may actually be beneficial for the Church in the end. The backlash against the Vatican's decision has been as overwhelming as the vocal support these nuns have received from everyday parishioners. In my own experience, it was these nuns - in my family and in my school - that provided me with the foundation I need not only to be a Christian but also to become a better citizen.
Many priests have defended the nuns, calling this confrontation an “undeserved slap in the face”, and have warned that this crisis could cause even more people to leave the church. A recent poll showed that the second largest religious denomination in the United States, behind practicing Catholics, was non-practicing Catholics. I believe that the way the LCWR and its members have handled this crisis - through careful consideration and metered response - has called attention to the desperate need for an open dialogue within the Church.
There is no telling what the LCWR will decide after their conference this week. I do know, however, that the attention this incident has brought to the role that women religious play in our lives as Catholics and as citizens of the United States has been a somewhat positive experience. Most nuns I have spoken to since the Vatican review was issued have been extremely optimistic - it seems to have energized them and provided a spark they haven’t experienced since Vatican II.
One can only hope this positivity will spread to the congregation and eventually the Vatican itself. If this happens, the LCWR and the women it represents will continue the true work of Christ on this earth - feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned, giving shelter to the homeless, and educating the youth of America to become citizens who value human life at all its stages and who wish to make a lasting, moral impact on our world.