The story of my generation of religious women who were and are out of order is a journey story, a story of everywoman. The story of the Leadership Conference of Religious Women (LCWR) is also a journey story, a story of brave women of the current generation and older whose journey is being interrupted by an institutionalized patriarchy with unrestrained authority within the boundaries of a hierarchical church. I think it is time for LCWR to join us in being out of order.
Since 2009, when this indignity began, the LCWR has remained stalwart in the face of gross paternalism, enduring graciously the imposition of clergy supervision over them. LCWR has always publicly said that they want dialogue and discussion of the issues bothering the authorities in Rome. For the last two years, they have indeed been involved in these discussions, but Cardinal Gerhard Muller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in a meeting on April 30, 2014, wondered if the LCWR had "the ability to sentire cum Ecclesia" or "feel with the Church." Unfortunately, the good cardinal has not read Lumen Gentium, the signature document of Vatican II, which says the people are the Church, Populus Dei. He further accuses the LCWR of "positive errors of doctrine seen in light of LCWR's responsibility to support a vision of religious life in harmony with that of the church and to promote a solid doctrinal basis for religious." As is its custom, LCWR responded firmly and faithfully: "We do not recognize ourselves in the doctrinal assessment of the conference and realize that, despite that fact, our attempts to clarify misperceptions have led to deeper misunderstandings." In a gigantic understatement, they acknowledge: "Mistrust has developed." In spite of all that, LCWR promises to keep talking! They say: "Continuation of such conversations may be one of the most critical endeavors we, as leaders, can pursue for the sake of the world, the Church and religious life." (NCR, May 25-June 5, 2014).
LCWR is wonderful in its unyielding steadfastness, but why honor and maintain a system that is broken just because it is a system? If a system doesn't work anymore, why maintain it? We gave up the horse and buggy and soon may have to give up our cars because things change. The old gives way to the new and "though much is taken, much abides" (Tennyson,"Ulysses"). Religious women will always exist, but they are different today from what they were just a generation ago and they will be different in the future. The same is true of church and state and men and women and all things in this world.
If the good ol' boys want to keep their robes and mitres and rules and constrictions and money and their insistent antimony toward women, let them. Religious women can love God and others without the bureaucracy and the rules and the dictatorship.
The "talks" then are at a standstill, but there have never really been "talks," I suspect, because a talk implies talking and listening. It appears to me that one side has been talking only and not listening and the other side has been both talking and listening. Pope Francis thus far has maintained the status quo.
Will LCWR capitulate? What will they do? I cannot imagine that they will give in, but what are their choices? I see four options:
1. Give in and become religious women according to the Vatican model.
2. Remain and fight/work for the future within the Church and religious life as LCWR and others see it.
3. Disband LCWR and form a non-canonical conference of religious women.
4. Leave all organizations and structures within the Roman Catholic Church and follow the Spirit.
Those of us who are former nuns chose to leave rather than live in a misogynist culture. We were out of order, but we took the best of what we were into the world and have made the world a better place. We also provided a model for our sisters who might today be tired of the struggle and the continued lack of respect for their integrity and personhood within the church. There are fewer than approximately 50,000 nuns in the United States today, with a median age of over 70. In 1965, there were 179,000 nuns. It is clear that religious life as we knew it and as it is even today is over. The LCWR should choose option four above and lead the sisters toward independence, justice and freedom to follow the Spirit.