Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, reported that Pope Francis has re-affirmed the need for a reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (the organization representing 70% of US women religious) and approved the critical “evaluation” that was published last year by the CDF, including the demand that the Sisters cooperate with individual bishops and the US Episcopal Conference.
The initial assessment and subsequent demands issued to the LCWR resulted in a massive outpouring of support for the social justice work done by American women religious. Many believed that the assessment was another example of heavy-handed control by the hierarchy. The nuns were being treated more harshly than child abusing clergy and the bishops who actively covered their tracks. The more skeptical believed that the bishops, whose dioceses face financial ruin due to the sexual crises, were trying to get their hands on the property owned by some of these religious congregations.
Critics of the LCWR were happy with the crack-down, believing that the women had become too progressive and should embrace the growing trend of more traditional orders back to convents, habits and strict obedience.
Support or critique for the LCWR is clearly divided along the usual ideological camps.
The initial response from more progressive Catholics to the papacy of Pope Francis has been almost unanimously positive. His calls for a more simple church with a preferential option for the poor has resonated with all who have been discouraged with the increased focus on liturgical and doctrinal purity and clericalism of recent years. His words and actions gave reason to hope that change will come.
The news that Francis is supporting the LCWR crack-down has shattered this hope for many. It has been likened to post-honeymoon blues; that it was all too good to be true. This pope will be like the one before him. Nothing has changed.
Others are encouraging a more optimistic, cautious approach. I put myself squarely in this camp.
These are the early days of a new papacy. It is impossible for Francis to know the intricacies of each issue that he has inherited. It is impossible to fix each mess overnight. Perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into Müller’s words. Saying the pope has allowed the work of the LCWR assessment to continue is not the same as giving the content of the work his stamp of approval.
Pope Francis has granted only provisional approval to all the Congregational heads. None of the prefects are guaranteed their positions at this point. Francis needs time to catch up on all the issues he inherited, to discern where the weaknesses lie and their root causes. He needs to identify and vet persons who have the gifts and back-bone to move forward with all that is good, and reform all that isn’t. With all that is on his plate, it is probable that he has not had enough time to study the nuances of the LCWR issue, or to dialogue with the parties involved.
As with politics and life, many in the church have a personal issue that becomes a focal point of their energies and passion. This is good and needed. The value of lobby groups is that they invest time and energy into researching and keeping on top of developments with a specific issue. They also ensure that an important issue is not forgotten or swept aside.
The dark side of becoming too focused on an issue is that we expect everyone to share our passion, and give it prioritized attention. We judge the effectiveness of a political party, ruling government, or leader by how they have responded to our demands. Their general success or failure depends on their success or failure in promoting and defending our agenda.
Of course, the future of the LCWR is more than an “agenda” for the religious women involved. At the core of the issue is one of heavy handed power and a deep lack of respect given to women who have given their lives for the service of God and God’s people. Justice is demanded for them, and hopefully it will come.
I am not ready to write Pope Francis off yet based on this one news story. Swift judgments are easy to make. I, and many others have made many swift judgments about our new pope based on the integrity of his words; words that are reflected in many simple gestures.
I’m going to hold on to those first, swift and positive judgments. I’m still enjoying the newness of the feeling; a feeling of hope for our church. I’m not ready to let go of the honeymoon yet.