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.



  • Geraldine Walsh

    Support the Sisters
    The Vatican proclamation regarding the LCWR (Leadership Conference of Women Religious) is a shameful attack on our Catholic Sisters. The same sisters who live the Gospel every day, applying the teachings of Jesus Christ by ceaselessly serving the Church and ALL the people of God.

    The sisters’ average age hovers above 70; they don’t willingly retire.
    Learned in Catholic Theology and steeped in the teachings of Vatican II, the 57,000 nuns take their leadership role seriously. They pray, think, act and speak.

    This five year “review” of women religious is a powerful bullying tactic by the bishops who seek to control the compassionate voices of our faith filled sisters.

    Surely it is clear to any fair minded person that it is certain priests and their bishops who require more supervision … NOT the good sisters!

    Please write to the Bishop regarding this matter; donate to the Sisters and show your support for the Sisters by signing the following petition:

    Joseph & Geraldine Walsh

  • Pingback: LCWR NY Times Maureen O'Dowd | The Pulpit


    Dear Tom: Just a comment on the causes of the vocations crisis in women’s religious orders. About ten years ago a friend of ours was widowed at age 58. She was in good health, a CPA, devout Catholic and had almost joined the CSJ’s after high school. She wrote to several orders and was rejected by all on the basis of her age. One of the nuns from the Little Sisters of the Poor (a great order) spoke to us about vocations and I learned they won’t consider a woman over 35. I’ve seen some orders that put the bar at 40. The other obstacle is that they require women to be debt free. Thus there are obstacles at both ends of the spectrum. We want educated sisters but all except a few graduate with heavy student loans and once they pay them off they have a very narrow (or no) window to join an order. Too bad! – Pax, Greg

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

      Greg— Religious orders in general have a cut-off age, but I’m not sure how that helps the case for the LCWR communities, especially when I’m comparing them to the communities that are seeing an influx of young women WANTING to join up. On the debt issue, yes, that’s a challenge, but I know personally of a number of cases where young women have found, or been connected with, benefactors who want to retire the debt for young women looking to enter religious life and specifically direct their philanthropy in this direction. And on education, one of the communities I cited, the Franciscan Sisters, TOR, have sisters taking classes here at Franciscan—we actually have a number of communities who send their sisters here for classes—so the education aspect can happen already entering the order. Cheers!



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