Pope Nicholas VI, LCWR, dying communities, and the hope that springs eternal

Would-be Pope Nicholas VI, Nick Kristof let us know that “we are all nuns,” and certain Church doctrines don’t matter if you do some charity work.

His first three graphs are nearly stellar.

CATHOLIC nuns are not the prissy traditionalists of caricature. No, nuns rock!

They were the first feminists, earning Ph.D.’s or working as surgeons long before it was fashionable for women to hold jobs. As managers of hospitals, schools and complex bureaucracies, they were the first female C.E.O.’s.

They are also among the bravest, toughest and most admirable people in the world. In my travels, I’ve seen heroic nuns defy warlords, pimps and bandits. Even as bishops have disgraced the church by covering up the rape of children, nuns have redeemed it with their humble work on behalf of the neediest.

See? With the exception of the too-broad of a brush with which he tars bishops, pretty spot on. (Even the “first feminists” thing I agree with, though I think those ladies would be appalled by what passes for feminism today.)

But then the next line: “So, Pope Benedict, all I can say is: You are crazy to mess with nuns.”


Kristof’s beef with Benedict is that the latter had the temerity to tell the Leadership Conference of Women’s Religious that they should be, well, Catholic, really.

Benedict is not saying “stop feeding the poor, clothing the naked, teaching the children, providing shelter for the homeless, or doing any of the other corporal or spiritual works of mercy.” He’s *not* saying that. Not.

He’s saying while you’re doing those amazing and necessary and laudable and Godly things under the auspices of a Catholic community, be fully Catholic! How radical! He’s being a good father here: affirming the good, while redirecting away from the bad. Teaching with gentleness and patience (he got the report about the problems a year ago), inviting the ladies to work with the delegate, Bishop Sartain of Seattle, to come to an acceptable resolution. And a resolution is really needed based on these problems.

The article from the USCCB (linked above) lists some of the doctrinal problems:

  • “absence of support from LCWR for Church teaching on women’s ordination and homosexuality;”
  • “silent on the right to life from conception to natural death;”
  • “occasional public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the Bishops, who are the Church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.”

Nothing radical there, just plain, basic Catholicism.

Would-be Pope Nicholas VI, of course, boils it down to this: “In effect, the Vatican accused the nuns of worrying too much about the poor and not enough about abortion and gay marriage.”

Because there is a strict dichotomy between the two, or something.

Caring for the poor, the wealthy, the somewhere-in-between, or anyone else means caring for the whole person all the time, not just this need while ignoring that need. If we’re caring for a person precisely because we are Catholic then part of our caring must include caring for their soul in whatever way we are able to in the moment. So while overt proselytization doesn’t happen with every bowl of soup ladeled out or every bandage applied, all Catholics—not just nuns, here—are responsible for being prepared to give an account of their Catholic faith and the great good of the Catholic faith. The best caring we can give a person is heal their soul—it’s the essence of why Christ tied every physical healing to an affirmation of faith and sometimes a forgiveness of sins. While salvation is possible for people who are not baptized, card-carrying Catholics, charity compels us not to leave people in darkness to fend for themselves if we can dispel that darkness. You do not help a person struggling with sexual addiction by giving them a box of condoms—that encourages them. You do not help a person struggling with their sexuality by telling them there is nothing at all wrong with their inclinations—that confuses them further. You help them by pastorally helping them see the problems with their inclinations or actions, helping them realize these problems do not define them, and helping them move beyond these problems in God’s love.

I’ve not seen anyone live this the way Blessed Theresa of Calcutta and her Missionaries of Charity do. If you’ve not read Mother Teresa’s Prescription, Dr. Paul Wright’s account of spending time at the MoC mother house in Calcutta, you should. Dr. Wright’s ordeal, watching the love and care that those sisters gave the dying and dejected was unmatched. They knew they could do precious little to save many of the people of their physical pain or prevent their impending death, but they knew that what was far more important was to make sure the people knew that God loves them—even if only by seeing that these sisters loved them for no apparent reason. They don’t busily and pushily proselytize, but they affirm the value of life and hold to Catholic teaching, while loving each person profoundly.

And the Missionaries of Charity, who have a number of houses in this country, are not the only ones. Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Francis Xavier Cabrini, St. Katharine Drexel, St. Rose Duchesne, St. Mother Theodore Guerin, and so many other strong women who made our country what it is by their love, but also by their strength of character and dedication to their mission.

Today we see this in women like:

The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, in Nashville, just built a new convent with this beautiful chapel, and they're already bursting at the seams while running schools in other parts of the country.

Or these beautiful women of God:

The Franciscan Sisters, T.O.R., of Penance of the Sorrowful Mother, who also just built a new convent, and who help out with many ministries in the Steubenville, Ohio, area and on campus here at Franciscan University.

And so many others. Young, growing, vibrant, happy communities of women faithful to the Church.

In stark, unsurprising contrast, as Kristof points out, the LCWR represents “57,000 dedicated women whose median age is well over 70.”

70?! They’re dying out. They are infertile as communities. For some of them their mother houses are becoming little more than retirement centers for the aging sisters who can’t work in the field any longer, and the jobs at the mother houses are frequently performed by hired help because there aren’t enough new vocations.

Unsurprising, really: if a young woman wants to be a social worker she can, by golly, be a social worker—a Catholic one at that—without the hassle of whatever still passes as mandatory for “religious life” in an LCWR “community.”

But if a young woman wants to be a nun, well, those pictures up above show where that young woman is turning these days.

This, of course, isn’t to say all is lost for the LCWR. The whole point of the Vatican intervention is to rescue it from going completely off the rails. The point is to help the ladies who run the show to see where their problems lie, and return to the former ways that inspired their foundresses to do big, bold work for the Lord and led so many young women to join their communities back in the day. Things will have to change, some number of the ladies probably will not want to remain with the community, some may be asked to leave, who knows. But it is necessary if these communities wish still to be considered “Catholic.”

After all, Catholic nuns can only continue to call themselves Catholic nuns so long as the Church continues to approve their founding. Catholic religious communities only exist because the Church gives them permission. Should that permission be rescinded, they cease to be Catholic religious communities. So if the Pope determines to “mess with” any religious community he can end them with the stroke of the pen. His reasons don’t even have to be particularly good—religious obedience is most virtuous when it is in obedience of an obviously less-than-wise decision (provided, of course, the action ordered is not sinful). In this case the pope has seen fit not to end them at all, but to help them mend their ways.

Really, it was a loving, fatherly thing for Benedict to do.



  • Joen

    Oh please . . .spare me the paternalism.

  • erica

    Great article. I’m a Nashvillian and we love the Dominicans!

  • Brian C

    I’m sure I could look for this info. online, but none of the other stories seem to have it and I thought you might know: approximately what percentage of US nuns are LCWR? That would give me some perspective as to the scope being affected by this.


      I believe it’s something like 70%

      • DTR

        Greg, I know that a high percentage of orders have at least one member who belongs to LCWR, but it does not mean that all members of that order belong to it, nor does it mean that all nuns who are actual members agree with all of its policies.

  • DTR

    A fine article, but it did not include some of the more shocking examples of how some nuns (certainly not the majority) have strayed. In her recent column, Maureen Dowd quoted extensively from Simone Campbell of the group NETWORK. This same Simone Campbell has written how “touched” she was by Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s beliefs, and did not even question his call for the destruction of Israel and his claim that the Holocaust never happened.


  • robbie

    I always stick to this point—God created all of us with a role to play on this earth. Do these nuns think that their work here is less important than men’s? Christ instituted the priesthood with men as the first priests & bishops–there’s a tradition here. God gave the most important role of any human being I.e. giving flesh to His Son, to a woman–you may say well how could it have been any different–that is true–but Who gave us an example of perfect obedience? He was obedient to His parents–recall the Wedding Feast of Cana where his Mother in her compassion did not want her hosts to suffer embarassment so told her Son to help them in a way she knew He could. Even ignoring His protests that His time had not yet come–She insisted on His aid–God obeyed His Mother–a mere human. Who holds the position of highest honor in Heaven? A woman…. Why do I want to be like a man??

  • Marsha

    LCWR, you rock! Hold your ground women. Don’t cave in. You hold the key to the salvation of the Catholic Church. Don’t let these men tell you what’s best for women. Bravo LCWR!

    • http://twitter.com/tomcrowe Tom Crowe

      Marsha— Due to their demographic implosion (median age at 70) they won’t be around to save anything. That’s the point. But you can keep clinging to sterile heterodoxy and watch as it dries up like mainstream Protestantism and protestant-esque religious life.

    • Randall

      LOL, liberal “Catholycs” are a dying breed… and we will not mourn them when they pass from this earth for good. Pity them, and pray for their misguided souls, yes. But we sure won’t miss them – though Protestants might!

      • Grandma Flaherty

        Mighty kindly of you, Randall. But if we’re a dying breed, how did President Obama get elected? Wasn’t it with something like 57% of the Catholic vote? Have fun keeping Catholic institutions funded if you keep chasing us out. Oh and the commentary about us old folks is ageist, so shape up you young whippersnappers or face the wrath of grannies.

        • Randall

          LOL Granny, not only are you aging lib Catholycs a dying breed, you’re speeding the process along by voting for Obama… ever hear of a little thing called DEATH PANELS? Yep, they’re coming, and you voted for it. When it happens, can’t say we didn’t warn you.

          • Brian C

            Talking past each other.
            Catholyc nuns are a dying breed.
            Lay Catholycs, unfortunately, are not (yet).

          • Grandma Flaherty

            Randy, it sounds like you’re the one who wants to do away with us. You scare me, not President Obama. And it seems to me that early graves are pretty much guaranteed if that legislation passed in the House pushed by that Ryan guy goes any further.

          • http://twitter.com/tomcrowe Tom Crowe

            Grandma Flaherty— But I’m confused: Ryan didn’t vote for the legislation with the unassailable Independent Payment Advisory Board, a board whose decisions cannot be appealed or taken to court, and who decides what treatments will get payment approval and which won’t… Ryan didn’t vote for that: it’s part of Obamacare. It’s the board that will say, “yeah, that procedure might keep grandma alive a little longer, but it’s too expensive, so no.” And then, unlike insurance companies and other entities, YOU CANNOT APPEAL! That decision is final. You die. Ryan didn’t push that: Obama, Pelosi, and Reid did.

          • Grandma Flaherty

            Take away “Obamacare” and us old folks won’t even have a chance. And the working poor and the unemployed won’t even have much of a chance to get old. You are starting to sound like a terrorist, Tommy, trying to scare people. But I bet you’re all bark and no bite. You seem like a nice boy at heart.

          • http://twitter.com/tomcrowe Tom Crowe

            Funny thing is, Granny, you managed to become an “old folk” in an Obamacare-free world. As have millions, billions, even trillions before you, which means it *is* possible. Inherent contradiction in your own position, there. And if you are terrorized by my words I promise you: I am only telling you what Obamacare is and does. So my weapons are the truth, and Obamacare. Who is the terrorist: the one who made this thing law, or the one who told you about it?

        • Marsha

          Way to go Grandma Flaherty. 70 year old women are far from dead. They have wonderful wisdom and lifestyles and their actions inspire other women (and men.) LCWR women, stand your ground. Many applaud you. Don’t let a bunch of 70 year men tell you how to live your life and don’t let them pretend to know women better than women do.

          • http://twitter.com/tomcrowe Tom Crowe

            That’s funny, Marsha: the other day you said I was 8 and today I’m 70. Or perhaps you meant the 59-year old Bishop Sartain and the 63-year old Bishop Blair. Either way, you did your typical twisting of words. I said the communities are dying since the median age is 70, which means they aren’t getting many, if any, young women to join their community, and anyone who is at 70 is nearer to death than they are to birth, so as the course of nature moves along and more of those ladies in the community die (which they will, hopefully in God’s grace), the communities will cease to be. Ergo, the communities are dying.

          • Marsha

            The Catholic Church isn’t getting many young women to join. LCWR has a much better chance of attracting young women because they live in the present and they are run by women and not aged men who are out of touch. As to your age, I was referring to your mental maturity age and not your physical age.

          • http://twitter.com/tomcrowe Tom Crowe

            Oh, thanks for clearing that up. But I am glad to know that I matured 62 years in a few short days. Especially since 70 is apparently an age of wisdom and enlightenment in your estimation. As for the rest of your comment, if LCWR “has a better chance” of “attracting young women,” then why are they utterly failing so to do, while the evidence shows that the communities who are, as you would likely put it, “living in the past” (i.e., wearing the habit of their own free will, remaining orthodox and true to the Magisterium, not questioning the divinity of Christ, you know: small things), getting new vocations by the bushel and have a median age in the 30s? Hoist on your own petard there, Marsha.

    • anon

      Marsha- are you Catholic?

      • Curious

        anon, Marsha is a paid troll that comes here to TRY to turn people away from God. She/he shares no understanding of the Trinity, the Bible, or that the New Testament is a fullfillment of the Old Testament. She/he comes here to oppose any Catholic teaching. She/he places herself above God. When I and others respond to Marsha, we are trying our best to speak TRUTH, meaning God, and not the propaganda that she/he spews and uses to try to turn others away from God. You never know though. If we continue to speak TRUTH as we are planting seeds, she/he may actually turn to God and accept His Love on His terms. She/he may grow to respect God’s Word and His Authority. She/he may come to understand that Jesus has always existed (the Trinity), and God’s Word in the Old Testament is Jesus’s Word because they are One in the same. I refer to Marsha as she/he because many of these paid (Soros) trolls use female names so that people may be “less strong” with responses than they might address a man. Again, who knows though? God bless



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