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Bishop Blair Sets Record Straight on LCWR

Commentary by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS

The bishop who led the doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Council of Women Religious (LCWR) has published a revealing op-ed explaining exactly why the Vatican took the position it did and sets the record straight about the many misrepresentations of the facts in this case.

In a column appearing in the Catholic Chronicle,  Bishop Leonard P. Blair, the man in charge of the investigation of the LCWR, says one of the heaviest crosses to bear is to know firsthand the actual facts of a situation, then listen to them being distorted and misrepresented in the public domain.

Bishop Blair was most adamant about what he calls the "biggest distortion of all" which is the claim that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) are attacking or criticizing the life of nuns. He cites as an example a report by CBS News that showcased the work of a Mercy Sister, saying that sisters like her are being subjected to "authoritarian bishops."

"Unless the sister in question is espousing and/or promoting positions contrary to Catholic teaching—and there was no reason given to think that she is—then the Holy See’s doctrinal concerns are not directed at her or at the thousands of religious sisters in our country like her to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude for all that they do in witness to the Gospel," Blair writes.

What is not being reported is what the CDF is concerned about -  the very public dissent within the ranks of the LCWR leadership - not necessarily its members. These facts are "readily available to anyone who cares to read them on the LCWR website and in other LCWR published resources," he says.

According to Blair, the fundamental question posed to the LCWR leadership as part of the assessment was this: "What are the Church’s pastors to make of the fact that the LCWR constantly provides a one-sided platform—without challenge or any opposing view—to speakers who take a negative and critical position vis-a-vis Church doctrine and discipline and the Church’s teaching office?"

He cites a few examples, such as a 1997 keynote address to the LCWR in which Sr. Sandra Schneiders, IHM proposed that the decisive issue for women religious is the issue of faith: “It can no longer be taken for granted that the members [of a given congregation] share the same faith.”

Ten years later, in an LCWR keynote speech, Sr. Laurie Brink, O.P. spoke of “four different general ‘directions’ in which religious congregations seem to be moving.” She said that “not one of the four is better or worse than the others.” One of the directions described is “sojourning,” which she says “involves moving beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus. A sojourning congregation is no longer ecclesiastical. It has grown beyond the bounds of institutional religion.” This kind of congregation “in most respects is Post-Christian.” She concludes by characterizing as “a choice of integrity, insight and courage” the decision to “step outside the Church” already made by one group of women religious.

Another example is that of Fr. Michael H. Crosby, OFMCap, a keynote speaker at the joint LCWR-CMSM assembly in 2004 who lamented the fact that “we still have to worship a God that the Vatican says ‘wills that women not be ordained.’ That god is literally ‘unbelievable.’ It is a false god; it cannot be worshiped. And the prophet must speak truth to that power and be willing to accept the consequence of calling for justice, stopping the violence and bringing about the reign of God.”

Bishop Blair also cites LCWR speakers who explore themes such as global spirituality, the new cosmology, earth-justice and eco-feminism "in ways that are frequently ambiguous, dubious or even erroneous with respect to Christian faith."

Additionally, even though the LCWR upholds Catholic social teaching in some areas, "it is notably silent when it comes to two of the major moral challenges of our time: the right to life of the unborn, and the God-given meaning of marriage between one man and one woman."

The CDF has good reason to take the LCWR to task, he writes, adding that a key question posed by the doctrinal assessment had to do with moving forward in a positive way.

"Would the LCWR at least acknowledge the CDF’s doctrinal concerns and be willing to take steps to remedy the situation?  The response thus far is exemplified by the LCWR leadership’s choice of a New Age Futurist to address its 2012 assembly, and their decision to give an award this year to Sr. Sandra Schneiders, who has expressed the view that the hierarchical structure of the church represents an institutionalized form of patriarchal domination that cannot be reconciled with the Gospel."

The errant sisters have been disingenuous in more ways than one, however, such as how shocked they acted when the assessment was made public. According to Blair, the "assessment was carried out in dialogue with the LCWR leadership, both in writing and face-to-face, over several months" so they must have been fully aware of what was coming. 

In spite of the matter between the CDF and the LCWR being orchestrated into a "source of controversy and misunderstanding, as well as misrepresentation," he remains confident of a good conclusion.

If the serious concerns of the CDF are accurately represented and discussed among all the sisters in the U.S., "there will indeed be an opening to a new and positive relationship between women religious and the Church’s pastors in doctrinal matters, as there already is in so many other areas where mutual respect and cooperation abound."

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