There seems to have been a lot of “not Catholic” labeling happening in the past few months. Earlier this month, Margaret Farley’s 2006 book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics was criticized by The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Among its critiques of many of the issues Farley raised, including masturbation, homosexuality, and marriage, the CDF ultimately warned that the book does not conform with the teaching of the Church, and therefore cannot be used as a “valid expression of Catholic teaching.” Furthermore, the notification from the CDF also specifies that Just Love cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.
April of this year saw the beginning of the struggle between many American nuns and the Vatican, when the CDF released a verdict against the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The LCWR, which represents almost 80% of the Catholic sisters in the United States, was found by the CDF to have “serious doctrinal problems;” challenged the Church’s teachings on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood; and promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” After the national board of the LCWR met in May, they released a statement in June stating that they concluded that the CDF’s assessment to be “based on unsubstantiated accusations,” and that the sanctions imposed by the CDF “could compromise their ability to fulfill their mission.” Following a meeting in Rome, the LCWR has decided to continue their prayer and discernment regarding their response to the CDF report as their members meet in regional meetings over the next month and a half and in their annual assembly in August.
It almost goes without saying that this is a tough position for these women to be in. They have dedicated their lives to their faith, have been living out the teachings of Christ through engaging in ministry with so many people, have advocated for many different justice issues, and now face criticism and potential change from their denomination as they deal with charges of “serious doctrinal problems.” The women of the LCWR sum up one of the questions raised in this struggle when they write that many “are also concerned about how to live as people of faith in the complexities of these times.” It is an even trickier question to answer when issues of doctrine and doctrinal conformity are raised. Furthermore, this situation also raises questions regarding who speaks with authority in the Roman Catholic Church. I am not Catholic, and I do not know where the answers to these questions lay for the LCWR, the sisters they represent, or Margaret Farley. The LCWR has approached this situation thoughtfully, prayerfully, and with much grace as they try to answer these questions, stay faithful to their mission, and engage the CDF concerning the charges and changes laid out for them.
Fundamentally, though, this struggle highlights a difference of opinions between the sisters and the CDF. Yet the Christian tradition has a rich history of diverse denominations, understandings, doctrines, and interpretations of Scriptures. We are not of one mind on all issues within Christianity, and we have not been that way since the beginning of our religion. If we turn to the writings regarding the formation of the church in the book of Acts, even the apostles disagreed with one another. Over time, though, some of our interpretations and our teachings changed as our times, cultures, and societies changed as well. New reflections, given by faithful men and women, often led us in those directions.
These sisters may be another link in that chain as they faithfully apply their best understandings of Christ’s teachings and the writings of the Bible to our times today. I have not met all these sisters and had the pleasure of sitting down in conversation with them to hear their thoughts, theologies, and interpretations, but the sisters I have met have been faithful to the teachings of Christ and loved their Church. I spent time among some Benedictine sisters while in college, and they showed me in new ways what it meant to love God with all your heart and live that love in ways that help so many others. By learning from the wisdom these sisters had gained through their experience, I was able to grow in my Christian journey, even though we came from different denominations and backgrounds. When I read the CDF report, it seems as if the CDF is accusing the LCWR of diminishing the fundamental Christological center of Roman Catholic doctrine. However, it seems to me that Jesus is at the heart of all they do, and I suspect that these women would not have taken their vows if they did not think the Catholic Church had something to offer to the world or if it did not resonate within them.
While these women are raising different opinions and different voices, these voices should be heard and not quieted. Even as the CDF and the sisters work through how these different voices and opinions fit into following official Catholic doctrine, these women have much they say and offer to many Christians, whether Catholic or not. I think there is something to be said about these faithful Catholic women coming to such understandings, even if they may not be recognized by the CDF as official expressions of Catholic teachings. They have reached different interpretations, but what they have to offer is important.
I cannot anticipate what will happen between these women and the CDF, and I know my prayers and support are with them as they respond to what has been laid before them. I do know, however, that these sisters have been amazing advocates of justice, peace, and love in their communities. They care about the Church and Jesus is central to their work and life. These women, in my opinion, have much to offer to their communities, their Church, and to Christianity as well. So keep it up, sisters, and thank you for what you continue to share and do.