The Spoiled Victory of the LCWR

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

Commentary

The virtual treaty that called an end to the Vatican's supervision of the LCWR has been generally hailed as a victory of the sisters' wisdom and perseverance over bad judgment and worse politics. I'd prefer to agree with that but don't. While it doesn't please me one bit to see this outcome as strengthening the status quo, I believe that's what it amounts to.

I can understand the hunger for victory and the yearning to make the long siege against the sisters seem worthwhile. The protracted campaign against them must have taken a toll on the leaders and supporters who protested the sudden assault against them. They stood their ground as women of integrity and adopted a strategy of quietly asserting their faith and values and refusing to engage in public debate regarding charges that they harbored radical feminism. They were in many ways exemplary passive resisters in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. with one big exception. Civil rights campaigners insisted that peace was possible only through change and that the insults and charges against them were false. Instead, LCWR consented to secrecy, one of the oldest tools in the Old Boy bag of domination tricks.

Because of my respect for the sisters, I can respect their choice of strategy and can only imagine the relief that comes with having the immediate ordeal over. I simply point out that the tactics might have been different and the goal something I believe would be longer lasting.

Suppose that the sisters had said in the face of the first salvo from Rome, "yes we have through our experience in American society become dedicated to the equal treatment of women at every level of society and church, in contrast to the current teaching of the church. Although there are differences among us, we clearly see our future as a mission to fulfill that vision of equality as a purpose to which God calls all of us. We claim no perfection in how to go about this, and can be sure that we are in constant need of correction, but also recognize that criticisms of us can arise from misunderstandings of what we undertake and from motives that are unworthy of the subject. With that in mind, we do not believe the direction of the investigation against us begins with a proper view of what we have done or the depth of conviction in our advocacy of women's equality which we take as God's will for us."

If they had openly acknowledged that the movement for change in women's status was powerful among them and did, indeed, extend to their deliberations and programming, could the conclusion have been different? Nobody knows, of course, but it would have been a sincere, candid admission that the Vatican was partially right probably for the wrong reasons and a more honest discussion might have taken place. The ball would have been back in the Vatican's court because Rome would be put in the position of ramping up its disastrous attack on a cause that was defended by a substantial majority of American Catholics. If there ever was a time for pressuring for an end to the discrimination against women, how much better could it get than grumpy Vatican prelates running against a favorable cause at a time when the initial news had already rallied Americans to the sisters' cause? Never had they enjoyed so much potential leverage.

The sisters contended that they felt it best to continue living in the light of a better church to come rather than fight on the bishops' turf, and perhaps they were right. The settlement doesn't seem to confirm or deny it. The sisters kept asking for more talks, more listening, more prayer, and maybe that accomplished enough attrition by Rome to hasten its retreat from the field. Assuming that Rome has been scared off from ever doing it again is at best undocumented speculation and at worst wishful thinking. The cardinals haven't conceded a thing and they reserve their unilateral power to do as they will. Who says they didn't get everything they wanted?

Whatever it was, however, the surface appearance is that the old power asserted itself and got a lot of what it wanted. The damage was done by the attack itself, it seems to me, and the fact that no real issues came to the fore as the result of the sisters keeping quiet. So the "radical feminism" charge still hangs out there for exploitation by those who remain as opposed to the image of the sister they presume to go with it, uppity, disobedient women, while the unfounded, incendiary nature of the term goes unexplored. How is "radical" equality un-Christian anyway?

As I see it, I'm sure the sisters walked away without feeling overmatched by their Vatican case managers on any level of capability or intellect. The same cannot be said confidently about the other side. But apart from talk, the authority structure remains untouched. The much vaunted "Francis effect" is widely assumed to have cut the period of parole by two years, but any sensible administrator could see no advantage of dragging it out at an expense borne mostly by itself.

Within the hierarhical style, the Vatican got to flex its muscle, the LCWR was forced into a degree of reflexive submission, the LCWR got to keep its views on feminism largely to itself by substituting the admittedly good work of sisters in place of advocacy of women's rights. Talented negotiators knew when to call it quits. Many accounts say the sisters won; I'd say the sisters got leniency within a losing system that had already exercised its judgment. It was emblematic of the centuries of Vatican governance, not diplomacy. Diplomacy worthy of its name yields concessions and changes on both sides before ending in a treaty.

[Ken Briggs reported on religion for Newsday and The New York Times, has contributed articles to many publications, written four books and is an instructor at Lafayette College, Easton, Pennsylvania.]