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


George Weigel

Those days are long gone, and it’s both absurd and dishonest for the media and the Catholic Left to propagate the myth that the 21st-century life of those religious women whose orders are LCWR members is just a modernized version of The Bells of St. Mary’s. Yes, many sisters continue to do many good works. On the other hand, almost none of the sisters in LCWR congregations wear religious habits; most have long since abandoned convent life for apartments and other domestic arrangements; their spiritual life is more likely to be influenced by the Enneagram and Deepak Chopra than by Teresa of Avila and Edith Stein; their notions of orthodoxy are, to put it gently, innovative; and their relationship to Church authority is best described as one of barely concealed contempt. 

Some communities of LWCR sisters no longer participate regularly in the Eucharist, because they cannot abide the “patriarchy” of a male priest-celebrant presiding at Mass. Thus faux Eucharists celebrated by a circle of women are not unknown in these communities. Even those LCWR-affiliated communities that hold, tenuously, to the normal sacramental life of the Church regularly bend the liturgical norms to the breaking point in order to radically minimize the role of the priest-celebrant; at one such Mass I attended years ago, the priest did virtually nothing except pronounce the words of consecration.

The other fact to be noted about the LCWR congregations — largely unremarked in the Gadarene rush to pit plucky nuns against Neanderthal prelates — is that they’re dying. The years immediately following the Second Vatican Council saw a mass exodus from American convents; and in the four and a half decades since the Council concluded, American Catholic women’s religious life in the LCWR congregations has suffered various forms of theological, spiritual, and behavioral meltdown. In the face of those two large truths, young Catholic women have quite sensibly decided that, if they wish to do good works or be political activists while dressing like middle-class professionals and living in apartments, there is little reason to bind themselves, even in an attenuated way, to the classic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience — each of which has undergone a radical reinterpretation in the LCWR congregations. So the LCWR orders are becoming greyer and greyer, to the point where their demise is, from a demographic point of view, merely a matter of time: perhaps a few decades down the road, absent truly radical renewal. (Meanwhile, the congregations of religious women that have retained the habit, a regular prayer life, and a commitment to Catholic orthodoxy are growing.)

There are more than a few ironies in this particular fire. One of them was pointed out by author Ann Carey in her 1997 book, Sisters in Crisis, which, while based on research in the LCWR archives and authorized by the LCWR, was subsequently denounced by the Conference — a preview of its “shocked, shocked” reaction to the recent Vatican action. Carey was under no romantic illusions about mid-20th century American religious life when she began her work; by showing that many sisters of the pre–Vatican II decades were poorly educated, poorly formed, and badly overworked, Carey made clear that genuine reform was essential if the remarkable flourishing of women’s religious life in the United States — something quite without parallel in the world, in terms of numbers — was going to be sustained. Yet Carey also showed how the “reform” undertaken before, during, and after the Council pulled so hard on the central threads of religious life (and especially on the understanding of the vows) that the entire tapestry unraveled.

Moreover, Carey discovered that the beginnings of this “reform” were largely designed by men: priest-consultants brought in to advise the LCWR’s predecessor organization, address its annual conferences, and help redesign sister-formation programs. Ironically enough, it was men, not liberated women, who charted the path to the radical feminism that eventually led too many LCWR sisters and the LCWR itself into a mental universe unmoored from even the minimal requisites of Christian orthodoxy.