LCWR v. CMWS: Which Really Represents Progress?

Continuing the theme that the “progressives” in American Catholicism are those restoring those things which were good and vital which were was tossed out or ignored after Vatican II, I thought I’d turn towards the nuns again. Orders of women’s religious that opt for the habit are booming; those who decline the habit are frequently dying. “Liberal” Catholic Ken Briggs at National Catholic Reporter laments:

The seeds of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious subversion were sewn in 1971 when opponents organized a separate group called Consortium Perfectae Caritatis. By 1992, the group had won official recognition from Rome and renamed itself the Council of Major Superiors of Women.

The alternative conference portrayed itself as strictly traditional and sharply opposed to the liberal direction of LCWR. The United States thus became the only country in the world with two recognized sister organizations. Only one of them, of course, found favor at the Vatican. The liberal group was suspected of promoting “radical feminism,” selling out to secular culture and questioning authority.

So LCWR is the generally understood to be the liberal (read: heretical) group, pushing for radical feminism, women’s ordination, and the like. They stopped wearing the habit, often stopped living in convents together (!), and started taking on new professions. Many LCWR orders stopped looking like Catholic religious orders, and started looking like feminist communes run amok. Certainly, this hasn’t been the case universally, but it’s worth noting that it was the LCWR president, Sr. Theresa Kane, who attacked Pope John Paul II to his face over the issue of women’s ordination, an issue he has no control over as servant to Jesus Christ, who set up the all-male Apostolate. LCWR still boasts of this issue in its own account of the organization’s history. Like the Jesuits, this is a group gone bad with some amazing members here and there, rather than the converse. After a 2007 LCWR keynote speech in which Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink seemed to suggest that it would be okay for the women to move “beyond” Christ and the Catholic Church to open up to new spiritualities, the Vatican finally launched an investigation to figure out what the heck was going on.

The (much smaller) Council of Major Superiors of Women (CMSW) is the orthodox Catholic contrast, as Briggs suggests, and these women still embrace authentic Catholicism, the traditional life of the nun (in whichever form that takes), and the religious habit. Church liberals hate them as traditionalists, but in actually, it was the CMSW women who fought against what was quickly becoming the mainstream for American women’s religious. The average age of nuns in the CMSW is under 35; in contrast, the average age for women’s religious is 69, and it’s even higher for LCWR members.

It’s worth mentioning that CMSW is still dwarfed by the LCWR, but while the latter was dying quickly even before the Vatican began its investigation, the former is rapidly growing. It makes sense, if you think about it. If all you want to do is live in a commune with an emphasis on vague spirituality and a commitment to social justice, and you positively do not want to be bound by Church rules and norms, or “subservient” to an all-male hierarchy, it’s not rocket science to see that perhaps swearing oaths of celibacy and poverty, and committing yourself to obedience to the Catholic Church isn’t the way to go.

I heard it described really well a while ago. I don’t remember the exact context, but someone said about the older heretical priests, “people our age (in their twenties) who hold to the belief system he holds to don’t bother becoming priests, or coming to Church, or calling themselves Catholic.” And I suspect that’s exactly right (and equally true for nuns): the heretics who wanted to tear down the Church’s walls have fallen victim to their own success.

Another element is the one I’ve mentioned before. It’s as plain as day to anyone who’s open to hearing the news that the Catholic Church will never have priestesses. Ever. Period. End of discussion. Doesn’t matter whether you think this is brilliant news or terrible news, it’s an increasingly obvious fact. So why dedicate your life to a group which seems to define itself as a group of celibate women living together bemoaning this fact which they’ve not changed an inch? Women’s ordination was never going to happen, but it’s more obviously a failure now than before: who wants to dedicate their life to a losing cause?

Ultimately, the women’s religious are simply the most extreme manifestation of what’s been going on elsewhere. Because they often keep to themselves and are seemingly less monitored than priests (likely because the image of male clerics ‘cracking down’ on a group of nuns isn’t something that any bishop wants to create), heresy has been able to undermine a number of wonderful orders for far too long, and that’s an unspeakable tragedy.

Back to the original question, though: which is the real progressive? My vote’s for the young, vibrant, small-but-growing-quickly countercultural voice for positive change within the Church, the orthodox CMWS. Sure, many of the things they’d like to see are restorations of lost treasures, but lots of progressive movements are like that: the People Power movement in the Philippines, for example, was about restoring democracy, when it became clear that Marco’s twenty-year dictatorial rule had been a change, but not for the better.

But this isn’t a “left” or “right” issue, particularly in how those terms are used politically, or even as those terms are used religiously. This is an “up” or “down” issue, as in Heaven or Hell. There are thousands upon thousands of souls treading dangerously close to the edge of Hell, because of this fanatical obsession with turning the Church into another chattering political voice to fit the modern American liberal zeitgeist.

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