Think of a conflict that’s painful to you. What do you do? How do you choose?
Imagine being publicly chastised by the Vatican. Now what?
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) spent three years in private conversations with the bishop-delegates of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which led to a joint final report in April 2015. A month later, LCWR issued a statement and spoke at length with National Catholic Reporter, Catholic News Service, the National Catholic Register, The New York Times and other media outlets.
Sister of Loretto Jeannine Gramick suffered more than a decade of Vatican investigation because of the ground-breaking, heroic ministry she co-founded. She chose to share her experiences publicly, believing that, “Through the media, we in the Catholic community can become informed and learn how to deal with conflict in an adult and Christian way.” She found that, “Openness about the discussions during my own investigative process gave me an immense sense of freedom and a loss of fear that have enabled me to be more honest than I have ever been.”
Comparing her experience with that of LCWR, Sister Jeannine states that she believes that LCWR “chose the path of secrecy and self-silencing” because they offer no details of their conversations about the CDF’s charges and because she believes the joint final report will constrain them.
I think Sister Jeannine and LCWR’s choices were each prophetic. LCWR was acting in circumstances that differed from hers with regard to Rome, the structure of LCWR itself and the nature of the Vatican conflict. I offer my observations and speculations about these circumstances.
Let’s start with Rome. Under Vatican investigation, few individuals experience the huge wave of public outrage and lasting international support that lifted up LCWR. Was the Vatican surprised, maybe uncomfortable? Did Pope Benedict’s resignation and the election of Pope Francis have other effects?
LCWR’s structure matters. It’s a large, collaborative, national organization whose voting members are the leaders of organizations with their own identities. LCWR officers followed the direction set by its members: “deep prayer;” “mutual respect, careful listening and open dialogue” with the bishops; and no compromises on LCWR’s integrity.
LCWR’s culture matters even more. Its foundation is contemplation, community and deep listening to God, to the needs of the time and to each other. Members are clear-eyed, well-educated and very experienced in many fields. International leadership expert Margaret Wheatley wrote in December 2014: "I’ve worked with a wide diversity of leaders on all continents for 40 years, and nowhere have I found better leadership than among women religious."
That culture creates "a safe space where [controversial] issues . . . could be discussed with openness and honesty in an environment free of fear," which Sister Jeannine thinks LCWR may lose in implementing the joint final report. But LCWR’s 2014 book Spiritual Leadership for Challenging Times: Presidential Addresses from LCWR offers 50 years of honest, intimate, timely reflections shared with hundreds of members at annual assemblies. Safe dialogue is deeply ingrained in LCWR. Some parts of the church (and society) have little or no experience with this kind of open, faith-fed reflection.
A key speculation: What was the CDF’s real problem with LCWR? To me, the CDF’s issues read like generalized impressions about LCWR. Did LCWR come to believe that, deeper than specific issues, the core was misunderstanding, a cultural disconnect on both sides?
The pivotal choice: How to act in a conflict based on misunderstanding? LCWR could have applied its expertise in public advocacy for people on the margins. Did LCWR decide instead to put its effort into creating a safe space for open and honest dialogue with the CDF’s bishop-delegates?
Did the focus on specific issues fade, in the light of a powerful experience? In conversations and at LCWR assembles, did the bishops see and become faithful Catholics able to “discuss [issues] with openness and honesty in an environment free of fear?” Is that why the final report doesn’t list issues? The final press release may imply this.
Will LCWR say more about what happened? LCWR’s first communications priority has consistently been with its members. In the Aug. 11-15, 2015 assembly, LCWR members and officers have their first opportunity to hear one another in person since the dramatic April 2015 visit to Rome. The officers themselves may still be absorbing their experiences.
I do hope for more illumination over time. Genuine dialogue creates sacred private spaces. But LCWR supporters would value more insight.
Those insights matter to the church as a whole. The mandate has been a very big deal. The call to prophecy arises often in the presidential addresses in LCWR’s Spiritual Leadership book, and is likely repeated in LCWR’s coming Transformational Leadership book (coming Sept. 1, 2015). LCWR now has a voice in the church even stronger than before the mandate. They raise their voice clearly for those in need. Can they also speak about the mandate, while respecting the quiet process?
I recognize the concern for self-silencing that Sister Jeannine and others have expressed. But I believe that LCWR means what it says in its bold 2015-2022 LCWR Call, issued by the 2014 Assembly:
We claim our prophetic role . . . .
We commit ourselves to work with others to nurture a church that is a more inclusive, welcoming community, one that encourages meaningful expressions of faith and spirituality. We seek to bring science, theology, and lived-experience into greater dialogue and desire to create safe, honest places for open exploration of the pressing questions of these times. We have been nourished and sustained by our faith tradition and stand in solidarity with others who long to pass on a vibrant faith and rich tradition to succeeding generations. We desire strengthened relationships between church leaders and the community of the faithful and pray for genuine forgiveness and healing within the Body of Christ.
LCWR wrote that in the midst of the mandate.
What have I learned from Sister Jeannine and from LCWR? There are different ways to be present to conflict, and each can be prophetic. Sister Jeannine’s advocacy is powerful. LCWR’s relationship-building is powerful. One is public, the other private. The charge to the whole church is Ephesians 4:1-7: many different gifts, one body, speaking the truth in love.
[Betty D. Thompson is a member of Solidarity with Sisters, a group of DC-area laypeople. She takes the lead for the group on Facebook, Twitter, and its website, where she also blogs.]