08/20/2014 03:35 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2014

Open Letter to the LCWR: Refuse the Abuse

Sister Elizabeth Johnson, a Fordham University theologian and recipient of the 2014 Outstanding Leadership Award of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), told the LCWR that "Your willingness to stay at the table and offer meaningful, honest dialogue is a powerful witness."

She was referring to the ongoing crisis at the annual assembly of leaders of women's religious communities where 800 women gathered from August 13-15 to renew their commitments, discuss issues, and find out how they would respond to a now year-old Vatican edict that they be supervised by a bishop. The LCWR represents 80 percent of the 51,600 nuns in the United States today. To most of us outsiders, this power move is an egregious insult and grievous denigration of good women of God. To insiders, it is a challenge that must be met and overcome, as well as an unprovoked insult.

The LCWR met on August 18 to decide how to respond to the oversight scheduled to begin immediately after their 2014 conference ended. Henceforth, they must get approval from their bishop overseer to invite speakers to their meetings and God knows what else. Perhaps they must pay homage in other ways, kneeling when they talk to their Master Bishop or paying a fee every time they say something the Master Bishop doesn't like or perhaps giving up their privately-owned community property to the local diocesan bishop. Perhaps every speaker will have to submit her paper to the Master Bishop in advance for approval. Perhaps there will be doctrinal tests to determine whether or not the sisters are obeying the rules properly. There is no end to how far this could go.

"Meaningful, honest dialogue" may be possible no longer if only one side of the table is trying to engage in the dialogue and the other is delivering a monologue.

Dr. Elizabeth Johnson describes the conflict between the LCWR and the Vatican as a tension with historical, sociological, and ecclesiastical roots. She says that historically, religious communities are based on radical living of the Gospel and the hierarchy is based on administration and order. The sociological roots are that the hierarchy evolved into a patriarchal structure where obedience and loyalty are the greatest virtues and women religious have not. Ecclesiastically women religious responded to the renewal asked for by Vatican II and the hierarchy did not. She says the sisters "have got the smell of the sheep on them."

Women do not want the sisters and the women of the church to be abused any longer. After a certain time, no amount of talk, reconciliation, discussion, research, anger, presenting of opinions and options works with an abuser. The abused cannot give in or enable the abuser forever. The abused must stand fast.

I think in some cases the assumption is that an abused person or group must stay in the abuse situation and fix it. This way of thinking believes it to be admirable to stick it out, fight, and win over the opponent. But when does one's commitment to a marriage, a relationship, or a vow need to cede to the realization that fixing it will not help, that talking and reconciling and playing nice means only that the abused is further and forever abused?

Institutions are necessary and useful in human society, but institutions are not to be placed over the human beings that inhabit them. When it is time to die, the institution must die. It will live again in another form if it is worthwhile for it to do so.

The LCWR Board promises a statement of action after this week's meeting. I hope that the LCWR will be willing to "die" in order for women religious and women who are religious to live more authentically.