Pope Francis acknowledges women religious as allies not adversaries

This story appears in the LCWR feature series. View the full series.

The members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) are now gathering for their annual August meeting. It will be the organization’s first since the Vatican abruptly ended its mandated episcopal oversight this past spring. Given Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s (prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith) severe criticism of the LCWR less than a year prior to the Vatican reversal, it seems likely that the reversal owes more to Pope Francis than a curial policy change. The upcoming meeting offers an occasion for considering the significance of this abrupt end to the disciplinary measures that had been imposed on the LCWR.

Timothy Radcliffe, the former Master General of the Dominican Order, once observed that crisis is the Catholic church’s spécialité de la maison. The history of Catholicism recounts a church proceeding from crisis to crisis. Pope John XXIII, in his opening speech at Vatican II, warned of the need for the church to exercise a more pastoral authority in the world today. The failure to heed his call has instigated a far-reaching crisis regarding the credibility of church authority. Reflecting on that authority crisis may shed some light on the LCWR case.

The origin of the current authority crisis has commonly been traced to Pope Paul VI’s controversial 1968 encyclical on artificial birth regulation, Humanae Vitae. The pope had expanded a special commission first established by Pope John XXIII to pursue the topic. Paul VI explicitly asked the bishops at Vatican II not to address the question, preferring to assign the topic to a papal commission and, ultimately, a papal judgment. As is well known, the commission issued a report recommending a modest change in the church’s teaching in the light of new theological reflection on the concrete testimony of married couples. A few disgruntled members of the commission then issued their own report, warning the pope that any change in church teaching would undermine the credibility of church authority, since pastors had long been warning Catholics in the confessional that they were using artificial birth control in peril of their salvation. No one knows whether it was the fear of undermining church authority that persuaded the pope to reaffirm church teaching. After all, the pope did more in this encyclical than simply reaffirm past teaching. His encyclical advanced Catholic teaching in many ways, refusing, as did the council, to prioritize the procreative over the unitive dimension of marital life. For him married life was not governed by contract but by the demands of self-giving love. Many Catholics have experienced their marriages flourish in faithful conformity to this teaching. But not all.

Regardless of the enduring value of the pope’s encyclical, it would appear that a pattern for the exercise of authority had been established. If forced to choose between a humble reconsideration of a church teaching in the light of new pastoral experience, new theological arguments or new empirical studies, or the vigorous reassertion of the certitude of a given teaching, church leadership will choose the latter. This pattern would reappear in the face of later challenges to controverted teachings such as the prohibition against the ordination of women and the intrinsically disordered nature of a same-sex orientation. The difficulty many had with these exercises of church authority lay not so much with a refusal to reverse such teachings — the arguments in support of current teaching must not be dismissed out of hand — as with a refusal to even consider new pastoral experience, new theological insight, new empirical data.

There is a sad irony here. The very concern for preserving the credibility of the church’s authority, a concern that has led church leadership to resist open conversation on controverted matters, may have brought about the very crisis of credibility this approach was meant to forestall. In our contemporary world, authorities gain credibility when they humbly admit their mistakes and demonstrate a willingness to learn from others. They lose credibility when their exercise of authority appears to be immune to critique and disinclined to engage the testimony of human experience and/or relevant empirical data.

This crisis of authority may shed some light on both the apostolic visitation and the LCWR case. Women religious in the United States have often led the way in calling for a more open conversation regarding controverted teaching, but they have done so not out of a disregard of the great tradition, but based on their wealth of pastoral experience. The move of women religious to the margins of society came long before Pope Francis made this pastoral option a central feature of his papal program. Over the past five decades it has been women religious, often far more than our bishops, who have had “the smell of the sheep on them.” It has been women religious who have embodied a church as “field hospital” that goes out to meet the wounded and broken of this world. The distinctive voices of the many women religious theologians emerged, at least in part, out of the crucible of their communities’ pastoral commitments. The authority of women religious is an authority earned, in the eyes of many, from “walking the walk” of Christian discipleship.

In their determined move to the margins, women religious have eagerly embraced authentic episcopal leadership where possible. They have readily stood with the bishops to oppose the death penalty and to advocate for meaningful healthcare reform. They have joined the bishops in insisting on the rights of immigrants and refugees and in calling for a care for creation. They have lent their own voice to episcopal calls for peace and reconciliation in the many war-torn regions of our world. The vast majority of women religious have stood with the bishops in opposition to abortion (even when too few bishops joined them in reaching out to women who, tragically, felt that ending the life they carried was their only option).

Conflicts between some women religious and church authorities arose not out of a disregard for episcopal authority but because it has been women religious and not the bishops (with significant exceptions) who have gone to the peripheries to listen to the concerns of the divorced and remarried, to the beleaguered LGBT community, and to the faithful women who do not wish to be defined exclusively by their capacity for motherhood or who feel called to forms of church leadership and ministry currently closed to them. Women religious have patiently listened to the voices heard on the margins in ways that our bishops often have not. The abrupt decision to end the special episcopal oversight of the LCWR suggests that Pope Francis may disagree with the LCWR and many U.S. women religious on controverted issues but that he is well aware of their remarkable pastoral record. Francis knows real pastoral authority when he sees it, and he is smart enough to realize that if he is to succeed in getting Christians to “go out into the streets” to spread a Gospel of mercy and compassion, women religious continue to be his most enthusiastic allies.

[Richard R. Gaillardetz is the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College.]