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Thank God for the nuns! Most of the canonized saints of this country have been women, and all of those were religious women, founders and pioneering leaders of their orders. The first American citizen to be canonized was St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, right after World War II. The first native-born American to be canonized was St. Elizabeth Anne Seton, in 1975. (Indeed, the two Americans who will be canonized this year were both religious women, soon-to-be St. Marianne Cope and soon-to-be St. Kateri Tekakwitha.)
They instilled and preserved the Catholic faith, serving the various human and spiritual needs of millions in schools, hospitals, orphanages, and various social-service agencies throughout our history, oftentimes with little recognition and support, oftentimes heroically. Sadly, sometimes even bishops and priests had misunderstandings and were not as solicitous of the welfare of their religious sisters as they should have been. Pope John Paul II in 1987, though, recognized in a meeting with Religious in San Francisco that "the spiritual vigor of so many Catholic people testifies to the efforts of generations of religious in this land. The history of the Church in this country is in large measure your history at the service of the service of God's people."
Beginning in the 1960s, though, because of the crisis in the Church and in the larger culture (the sexual revolution was one manifestation), many religious women left the convent, as a number of men left the priesthood. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious in this country was established to make common cause with each other and coordinate efforts with the bishops conference and individual bishops, always, as canon number 708 specified, "without prejudice to the autonomy, character, and proper spirit" (of each individual religious institute).
Last week the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a "Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious" (LCWR), pointing out some areas of concern "in support of this essential charism of Religious which has been so obvious in the life and growth of the Catholic Church in the United States."
"On the doctrinal level," the Assessment explained, "this crisis is characterized by a diminution of the fundamental Christological center and focus of religious consecration which leads, in turn, to a loss of a 'constant and lively sense of the Church' among some Religious." One speaker at the LCWR annual assembly, for instance, talked about some Religious "moving beyond the Church" or even beyond Jesus. "Such unacceptable positions routinely go unchallenged by the LCWR." "Some might see in [such talk] a phenomenological snapshot of religious life today. But Pastors of the Church should also see in it a cry for help." For the Church and, indeed, Christ himself, are the way to salvation and sanctification. Moving beyond them is to miss the mark.
There have also been letters from LCWR officers protesting the teaching of the Church regarding the inadmissibility of women's ordination, or the correct pastoral approach to ministry to homosexuals, suggesting "that these sisters collectively take a position not in agreement with the Church's teaching on human sexuality." Furthermore, sometimes "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith'' prevail in LCWR presentations and programs.
While the assessment notes that "while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church's social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States."
An Archbishop Delegate, Peter Sartain of Seattle, has been appointed to help the LCWR revise its statutes and programs to assure their adherence to Church teachings and discipline. "The Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours" should have a place of priority in LCWR events and programs.
Doubtless this is a challenging time for the women in the Leadership Conference for Women Religious in the United States. Given the rich tradition of holiness and service that preceded them, however, they might want to think about imitating our Divine Master, who came "not to be served but to serve," and for whom "to serve is to reign." What would Mother Seton do? For that matter, what would our Blessed Mother say? Perhaps she already said it: "Do whatever he tells you." "Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to your word."
Dwight G. Duncan is professor at UMass School of Law Dartmouth. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.