The Vatican and the Sisters
The bells of St. Mary’s haven’t been ringing for some time now.


George Weigel

In Chariots of Fire, two of the elders of Cambridge University invite the young Jewish runner Harold Abrahams to a formal, black-tie luncheon, during which they try to dissuade the upstart undergraduate from using a professional trainer to prepare for the forthcoming Paris Olympics. Abrahams declines to follow Oxbridge athletic orthodoxy and leaves in something of a huff. The Master of Trinity (brilliantly played by John Gielgud) sighs and says to the Master of Caius, “Another God, another mountaintop.”

It’s a scene worth keeping in mind when parsing the recent Vatican decision to take into a form of ecclesiastical receivership the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the umbrella association that represents the majority of American orders of sisters. On April 18, after years of study, the Holy See appointed Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle to oversee the LCWR’s activities, supervise the LCWR’s adherence to the Church’s liturgical norms, review its links to affiliated organizations like the political advocacy group “Network,” and guide a revision of the LCWR’s statutes. Sartain will be assisted by Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill. (appropriately enough, a veteran ice-hockey goalie used to taking hard shots), and Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo (whose theological analysis of the LCWR’s activities over the past decade shaped the decision to appoint Sartain as the Holy See’s delegate in charge of the LCWR).

That imagery — three men, acting on behalf of a male-dominated Curia, assuming leadership of an organization of women religious — proved irresistible to Vatican critics, eager to drive home the point that the Catholic Church doesn’t care about one half of the human race (as the proprietor of a once-great American newspaper once told his new Rome bureau chief as she was leaving the U.S). Others were eager to use the Vatican action to prop up crumbling public support for Obamacare: The good sisters of the LCWR supported Obamacare; the aging misogynists at the Vatican whacked the LCWR; see, Obamacare must be right, just, proper, and helpful toward salvation! The problem with the former criticism, of course, is that the Catholic Church is the greatest educator of women throughout the Third World and the most generous provider of women’s health care in Africa and Asia; there, the Church also works to defend women’s rights within marriage, while its teaching on the dignity of the human person challenges the traditional social and cultural taboos that disempower women. As for the notion that the Church’s Roman leadership put the clamps on the LCWR because “the Vatican” objects to Obamacare, well, that would be the first European-style welfare-state initiative to which “the Vatican” has objected in living memory.

What both these lines of critique fail to grasp is that the problem posed by many of the sisters within the religious orders that make up the LCWR, and by the LCWR as an organization, is precisely the problem noted by the Master of Trinity: “Another God, another mountaintop.” The difference is that Harold Abrahams acknowledged his unorthodox views, while the LCWR leadership, to vary the cinematic metaphors, took on the role of Captain Renault, professing itself “shocked, shocked” that anyone could imagine anything doctrinally awry in the organization or its affiliated orders.

A few facts — not an abundant commodity in the early coverage of the controversy — might help clarify both the current situation and the likely next moves in this ecclesiastical drama.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious is a kind of trade association. Its membership is composed of orders (known in Catholic argot as “congregations”) of religious women who take perpetual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These women are often called “nuns,” although technically nuns live in cloisters and the LCWR congregations have active, public ministries in education, health care, and social service; thus their members are more properly called “sisters.” These congregations control billions of dollars of assets, given to them back in the day when the sisters who ran Bing Crosby’s parish school in The Bells of St. Mary’s were the Hollywood idealization of an actual reality.

No more. Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) and the other sisters at the fictional St. Mary’s wore religious habits, lived in a convent, led a rigorous prayer life, taught the catechism without question, eschewed the public eye — and while they may have jousted with male ecclesiastical authorities like Bing Crosby’s Father Chuck O’Malley, it was O’Malley who made the final decisions for the parish and the school, and Bergman and the sisters who obeyed, even if they didn’t like it. Yet the final scene in the movie has Sister Benedict teaching the somewhat-full-of-himself Father O’Malley a thing or two about faith — a resolution reached and a lesson taught, not by rebellion, but by obedience.