At the end of this month, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious will meet to formulate a response to a Vatican trap whose cunning is best appreciated within the long tradition of religious authorities who craft impossible dilemmas for those they perceive as threats.
Two millennia ago, the chief priests sent someone to ask Jesus, "Should we pay taxes?" If Jesus said yes, he would pit himself against Jewish resistance to Roman occupation and therefore, in Jewish eyes, against God. If he said no, the Romans could execute him for sedition. Instead, Jesus famously replied, "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's."
In the 15th century, Joan of Arc's ecclesiastical inquisitors asked her, "Do you know yourself to be in God's grace?" If Joan answered yes, she would commit heresy because the Church had long taught that no one could be certain of being in God's grace; if no, they could interpret her answer as an admission of guilt. Joan looked them in the eyes and replied, "If I am not in God's grace, may God put me there; if I am, may God so keep me."
Today, the Vatican tells the women of the LCWR, "Submit to our oversight and control of your every action for the next five years." The Vatican's official "or else" clause remains unstated but clear to all involved. "Submit to our authority, or call yourselves Catholic no longer."
The Vatican has cited the LCWR, which represents more than 80 percent of America's Catholic sisters, for what they call "policies of corporate dissent" on issues including the Church's teaching on human sexuality and women's ordination, and for "radical feminism." The Vatican has appointed Seattle archbishop Peter Sartain to revise LCWR's statutes and create new LCWR programs designed to seep sisters in Catholic dogma. Sartain has veto power over speakers at LCWR assemblies and will review LCWR's affiliations. In short, the Vatican has grounded the sisters and Sartain is the official babysitter.
Any reply the sisters choose to make will have consequences far beyond the keynote speaker at the next annual meeting.
In the 50 years following the Second Vatican Council, the American sisters represented by the LCWR have engaged in discernment and renewal, a process initiated by decree of the popes and bishops at the Council. Not without controversy from Catholics nostalgic for long habits and authoritarian discipline, LCWR Sisters have abandoned traditions that infantilized their members. They've educated themselves, many earning advanced degrees. Inspired by the examples of Jesus and the founders of their religious communities, they moved into ministries with people on the margins: prisoners, the homeless, women, gay and lesbian people, immigrants.
And yes, some of them have occasionally spoken to advocate for gay rights, for women's ordination, for a healthcare plan the bishops opposed. Throughout the process, the LCWR has sought "to develop leadership, promote collaboration within church and society, and serve as a voice for systemic change." The Vatican hasn't been happy to see women blossom as real leaders and they especially don't like that "systemic change" stuff.
Though today's sisters watched two-thirds of their companions in religious life leave the convent after Vatican II -- some unsettled by the changes, others impatient that change didn't happen fast enough -- the American sisters represented by the LCWR have clung to their religious vows and their life with each other in the Church. Baptized in Catholic parishes, raised in Catholic families, educated in Catholic schools, these women experienced what each of them believed to be a call from God to dedicate themselves to him in the Church. They've labored within the Church, often without significant financial compensation, rendering retirement difficult for many. These women have often served as missionaries and some of their companions have given their lives as martyrs. The median age of an LCWR sister today is 74.
Now the Vatican is telling these women they're not Catholic enough.
If the LCWR submits to Sartain's oversight, they assent to being treated as ecclesiastic children who don't know what's best for them; they relinquish the haven they've created to challenge and support each other. As Sister Jeannnine Grammick, founder of New Ways Ministry, a group that works with gay and lesbian Catholics and has been cited in the Vatican assessment, told The New Republic, "If we comply, if we submit to what is being asked by the Vatican, it would be a repudiation of all the renewal that we've done in religious life. I don't believe that nuns will say we can do that."
If they don't submit, if the sisters disband the LCWR and regroup in a configuration beyond Church control, then the official Church will claim that they aren't really Catholic any more. If the Vatican would declare any group of sisters to be outside the Catholic Church, then those sisters might risk losing anything their communities had accrued over the years -- housing, savings, medical care.
Even more significantly for many, sisters who have never considered themselves anything but Catholic would find themselves banished.
The sisters of the LCWR face two basic choices: submission or exile.
Like Jesus, like Joan of Arc, the sisters may find a way to reframe the discussion -- or they may choose not to respond at all. I'm afraid that ultimately it won't matter. The religious authorities of their days didn't really care how Jesus and Joan responded; in the end, they had Jesus crucified and Joan burned at the stake. In service of Vatican power and the moral authority the bishops claim is theirs alone, what harm is there in inconveniencing a few old nuns?
As the sisters gather to formulate their response, their years of prayer and discernment will serve them well. These are strong, centered women placed in an impossible position by powerful men who feel threatened. May Jesus and Joan show them the way.