The Vatican’s recently issued "Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious" is a much-needed addition, in terms of instruction and correction, to the contemporary library of Magisterial documents relating to women religious (e.g., "Sisters") in the United States.
For the record, note carefully the full title of the Vatican "Assessment." It is not directed to "Sisters" in general, but rather to the association known as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. There is a world of difference.
The contributions of women religious to the American Church have unquestionably been enormous, as solid history manuals indicate. See, for examples, Marvels of Charity by George C. Stewart, Jr.; OSV, 1994; Immigrants and Their Church by (my sister) Dolores Liptak; Macmillan, 1989; Pioneer Healers by Ursula Stepsis and Dolores Liptak; Crossroad, 1989, etc. As Sister Dolores observes in her Foreword to West Point graduate George Stewart’s book cited above, "sisters today continue to comprise one of the most gifted corps ever to gather together on behalf of the Church’s mission enterprise."
Any human institution, however, even those originally built and structured on Transcendence, needs to be continually reviewed. Even the Church’s human dimensions require re-examination and self-study. Isn’t this the raison d’etre of Church Councils, or, on the local scene, diocesan synods?
Every religious community, to be specific, needs updating in accidentals. Certain questions must be raised with regularity, questions that begin and end with perennial truths always kept directly in mind, however. One cannot lay claim to religious life in the Church without focusing everything on Jesus Christ who is Lord. Nor can one ever begin to separate Christ from his Church; "love Christ; love the Church" is an ancient and unchangeable affirmation of the solid Christian.
Furthermore, no one can assert that he or she is above and beyond the Church’s moral teachings, and at the same time allege allegiance to the Church. A Churchperson is one who unreservedly embraces the moral doctrine to which the Church has irrevocably committed itself. A "nun" cannot possibly be an abortion advocate or a "gay-marriage" proponent. Indeed, such positions are self-contradictory. Abortion and same-sex "marriages" are over the threshold of being Catholic, let alone being a religious.
Choosing to affirm Christ’s call to religious life – a "vocation" to the convent, in other words – means choosing to live one’s life in the light of Sacred Scripture as read by the Church. Taking vows in a convent to serve the Lord in the Church means that one is willing and ready to (1) witness to the truth of the Gospel; (2) engage in suffering service in the footsteps of Christ, the Suffering Servant of God prophesied by the Second Isaiah; and (3) join in solidarity with a group of Sisters in following Christ as the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Most adult Catholics who were once "taught by the good Sisters" continue to admire, even revere, those remarkable women religious who presided over our early childhood education. I know that I have an unflagging respect for the Sisters of Mercy who led me through the early stages of the academic experience at St. Charles Borromeo School in Bridgeport’s Beardsley Park section; both my sisters (one of whom, now the professional historian and author cited above, became a Sister of Mercy), think the same. With so few resources, Sisters accomplished so much; the Church in America is deeply indebted to them. Surely, they must be mystified by some of the absurd proposals of the Leadership Conference of Sisters, to whom the CDF "Assessment" is primarily addressed.
When a woman in vows begins to speak against the Church, or against Church teaching, or even dismisses Christ, her words or overtures call for corrective measures – as they do for dissident theories voiced or defended by clergy.
When so-called "Leadership" does the same (or encourages the same), the dissidence is exascerbated.
Hence, I welcome what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has done in its recent communication to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (who really do not speak for all "Sisters," and thereby do a disservice to enlightened and loyal "Sisters"). Just imagine, for instance, a woman religious’s public defense of her "moving beyond the Church," or of homosexual behavior, or of misreading the Inspiration of Sacred Scripture, or of questioning the very Divinity of Christ, the reality of the Blessed Trinity, the evil of abortion or the right and obligation of the Church to prophesy regarding doctrinal and moral issues.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.