Since the trendier than thou “Leadership Conference of Religious Women” organization got a very deserved correction from the Vatican, they have been twisting the problem in the media to the media’s favorite meme: good nuns who love the poor and love President Obama versus evil rich bishops who are evil Republicans (who probably shtupp young boys in their spare time too).

One voice even said it was payback for their support of Obamacare against the bishops refusal to pay for contraception/abortion insurance.

Hold it a second.Anyone who ever worked for the federal government or military knows that it takes years for things to get done. Well, for the Vatican, make that decades. The Vatican started hinting that there were problems in 2001, and many conservative Catholics think that was 20 years  overdue.

Why is the Vatican so slow? Well, one pious theologian once commented that maybe the church was a bit too fast in condemning Martin Luther: if they had given him a few more years, they might have settled the problem, since his criticisms on indulgences had merit, and the theological differences with church doctrine were minimal and only got more extreme after the split.

Similarly, the reform of religious orders was long overdue.

I know a lot of conservative Catholics will jump on me for this, but wearing the dress of a 13th century European widow doesn’t make one holy, and much of the rigidity of the rules didn’t fit the lifestyle of modern women, who needed to be flexible, to analyze problems, to learn to think and chose God, not automatically obey like the US Marine Corps.

However, they overdid things: in the words of one leader, they “grew beyond Christ”.  New age meditation instead of prayer, “therapeutic touch” instead of studying nursing to help people who are sick, and those with a BA in “pastoral counseling” thinking they are theologians,, or (worse) the equivalent of a PhD or MD in psychology.

Oy veh. Could I tell you stories of run ins I had with nuns who told me about how they could cure my patients with some new age fad, when the patients really needed old fashioned spiritual comfort, or maybe even a shot of morphine to relieve their terminal cancer pain instead of new age snake oil.

The “face palm” moment for many  might be this one: Guess who will be the keynote speaker at their next convention?

From FatherZ’s blog:

In the meantime, I found this on the site of the LCWR about their upcoming 2012 Assembly to be held in St. Louis…
Mystery Unfolding: Leading in the Evolutionary Now [?]
Keynote speaker: Barbara Marx Hubbard
Barbara Marx Hubbard has been called “the voice for conscious evolution of our time” by Deepak Chopra… A prolific author, visionary, social innovator, evolutionary thinker and educator, she is co-founder and chairperson of the Foundation for Conscious Evolution…

Along with Stephen Dinan, she has launched the “Agents of Conscious Evolution” training and is forming a global team to co-produce a global multi-media event entitled, “Birth 2012: Co-Creating a Planetary Shift in Time” on Dec. 22, 2012 ( — a historic, turning-point event; awakening the social, spiritual, scientific, and technological potential of humanity.

Hubbard is preaching a different gospel, and you won’t see her on EWTN. However, this type of magical thinking would be familiar to any late night radio listener of Coast to Coast. Yes, the dear sisters are now into X files territory…

Ergo the Vatican decided it was time to step in and nudge them back to the church.

But here I need to make a clarification on who is “them”, the ones that the Vatican is correcting.

The press is full of “our sisters are hard working and love people so why is the Vatican picking on them” stories, but the dirty little secret is that it is the small group that belong to the “Leadership council”, not the orders that they belong to, or the ordinary sisters, who are being admonished.

From Catholic World Report:

the CDF document emphasizes that the initiative is addressed only to the LCWR, a 1,500-member organization to which many leaders of women’s religious orders belong. The initiative is not directed to the other 54,000 sisters in the United States who do not belong to the LCWR, (italics mine) though press reports have tended to confuse this point and characterize all sisters as members of the LCWR.

This is quite incorrect, and many sisters who are in LCWR-related orders have contacted this writer to emphasize that they have neither membership, voice or vote in the LCWR, and they do not appreciate being associated with the organization.

So they aren’t attacking the nuns, or the orders: Just those who belong to this organization.  And maybe not all of them.

So why is the press getting it wrong? Manipulation of the story, of course:

The LCWR also adopted the technique of deflecting criticism of its activities and philosophy by reminding critics of all the good works sisters have done, and many in the media have looked no further than noting the sisters’ accomplishments. What is often missed is the fact that sisters were able to accomplish all they did because the traditional way of religious life—daily prayer and life in common, a corporate apostolate, strong adherence to the teachings of the Church, and close cooperation with bishops—enabled their ministries.

The correction of orders is nothing new in the church, which has periodic reforms of it’s institutions which get too rich, too lax, too smug, heretical, too small due to lack of new members, or (like the US religious orders) all of the above.

Such investigations are fairly routine, and in recent years have been done on organizations as diverse as  EWTN (which resulted in removing the TV station from the sisters to a lay board), the Intercessors of the Lamb (dissolving the order) and the large Legionaries of Christ order (which is being rebuilt from the top down due to a major financial and sexual scandal in it’s leadership)…

The church usually tries to nudge people back to the fold, not excommunicate them or punish them, and in cases of straying orders, they recognize that many good people are involved in the group.

In the Legionaries, for example, the corrupt leadership was removed, and others put in their place while their work continued. As the church slowly tried to save the order, many priests left for other orders or to work as diocesan priests, but others stayed. Whether or not the order can be salvaged is still in question, but like a gardener pruning a tree  the church is hoping to salvage what is good and work toward a slow reformation of the entire order.

One suspects a similar slow pruning will be tried with the LCRW, reforming those willing to reform, and removing those who won’t, but trying to keep the members of the orders from being harmed spiritually or financially from the turmoil that could result.

Then there is the question about the institutions run and legally owned by the orders?

IF some of the leaders refuse correction of the Vatican and leave the church, they could change the order into a legal lay group who would still control the institutions of the order.

At this point I get cynical and say: Follow the money. Who benefits if all those Catholic hospitals merge and secularize? Remember, in Boston, Catholic hospitals were sold to a non Catholic and profit making group, with the agreement that they could become become secularized if they decided that not doing abortions and sterilizations caused a hardship as long as they gave money to “charity”.

The price of going secular? not 30 pieces of silver, but a mere 3 percent of the sale price for the institutions. Not bad. Here in the Philippines they will only sin if you give them a bribe of 20 percent of the contract.

But the most important question is: what about the faithful nuns who want to remain in the church, and have spent a lifetime actually serving people, and now find their leadership is in revolt against what they believe? What happens to them if the order becomes a secular group, but the nuns want to stay in the church?

This is what happened with the Omaha group the Intercessors of the Lamb, who started as a religious order of hermits but started to morph into a cult as the founder aged and got more bossy. The bishop dissolved the order, released the members of their vows, but legally could not touch the buildings of the monastery. The founder went on to work in an “ecumenical” ministry outside the church, but the sister and others who wanted to stay in the church were left high and dry ended up being taken in by the bishop until they could decide what to do. (Most became lay people,  but some are planning to  start another order together).

In the IOTL scandal, most of the membership was young enough to start over. But that might not be true for other orders.

The dirty little secret is that these “religious” leaders promoted policies that have decimated their orders: Their orders are dying off because few laywomen see that joining them will help them serve God, and many of their members left because they didn’t agree with the changes. As a result, the orders whose leaders form the LCRW are approaching retirement age.

As for the future: many small but growing orders left the LCRW years ago, and thier leaders formed a different group. Again, from Catholic World Report:

The transformation of the superiors’ conference, which moved the organization away from Church authority and the traditional models of religious life to emphasize political, justice, and liberation issues, caused some sisters to leave the conference in the early 1970s and form their own small group of superiors… (in 1992), the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR)…

Currently, the superiors in the CMSWR lead orders with about 8,000 members, and the LCWR members lead orders with about 48,000 sisters. (A few superiors of women belong to neither group, and some belong to both).  Even though CMSWR members represent fewer sisters, CMSWR communities are receiving the majority of new vocations and have an average age in the 30s, whereas the average age in LCWR-related communities is in the 70s.

So this kerfuffle is not about American politics, or Obamacare. It is about pride, theology, and the eternal questions of who we serve.

Reform and renewal is nothing new to a church that has been around for 2000 years and has survived Judas, Diocletian, the Borgia popes, and the imprisonment of the pope by Napoleon. For as the good book says:

 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician who lives in the Philippines. She is not nor has ever been a nun, but has worked with them, the good, the bad, and the ditzy, for 50 years.

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