A group of supporters of American nuns takes part in a vigil outside Seattle’s St. James Cathedral CNS photo/Stephen Brashear

Canadian sisters tight-lipped on U.S. counterparts

By 
  • June 22, 2012

Sisters, brothers and religious priests across Canada are praying for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, but they’re not talking about the organization that represents about 80 per cent of U.S. nuns.

“The LCWR has asked us not to comment at this point,” said Canadian Religious Conference spokesperson Louise Stafford. A number of religious communities across Canada contacted by The Catholic Register  also either declined comment or did not return calls.

The CRC stated at its annual meeting May 28 it was “shocked to learn about the canonical procedures adopted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” against the LCWR.

“We would like to assure this religious conference, which is so close to our own, that we are very attentive to what it is going through and that we will keep it in our prayers while waiting for its response to the Roman document,” said the CRC on its web site.

The LCWR said it has received thousands of statements of support and promises of prayers since the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a doctrinal assessment of the organization April 18.

“We lost count,” said LCWR spokeswoman Sr. Annmarie Sanders.

Included in those thousands of cards and letters have been statements from other religious conferences around the world, Sanders said.

The doctrinal assessment charged the main religious conference for American sisters with “serious doctrinal errors” and “doctrinal confusion.” It said a major reform of the LCWR is needed to ensure its fidelity to Church teaching in areas including abortion, euthanasia, women’s ordination and homosexuality.

The CDF appointed Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle to lead what the Vatican is calling a process of “renewal.”

“It can be renewal. There’s always an opportunity. But I think it’s more than just that,” said Stafford.

There’s no fearful, who’s-next feeling among Canadian religious, Stafford said.

“Are we fearful? I don’t think so,” she said. “I don’t sense that here in Canada.”

There are various reasons why the American organization would attract more attention than the Canadians, said University of New Brunswick historian Elizabeth McGahan. She has spent many years studying women religious in the Catholic Church.

“In this country we have a major language divide between the French-speaking communities and I would say all the rest,” McGahan said. “Right away, that internal division removes that one, national thrust you would have in the United States.”

It isn’t necessarily the case that Canadian sisters are more conservative than their sisters across the border. But they are less vocal.

“Sometimes Canadians do things behind the scenes and they’re not out there calling a press conference,” McGahan said. “That’s far more American. We’re just quieter.”

Perhaps the key difference between Canadian and American women religious has been Catholic women’s colleges in the United States founded by religious orders. After the Second World War American religious communities often expanded their old novitiates into undergraduate colleges, then eventually added on graduate schools. Those graduate programs in theology, philosophy, history and the social sciences produced hundreds of religious women with masters and PhD degrees who went on to teach and publish.

“Not that you want to blame the PhDs entirely, but these are the people who are your writers and thinkers and the kind of people who ask questions. It gets your attention,” said McGahan.

Not only did the Canadian orders lack the scale and resources to found their own universities, but the Canadian university system developed differently. It’s the kind of questions academic theologians ask that has Cardinal William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, concerned about sisters sowing confusion about what is and isn’t Catholic teaching.

“This is about the doctrinal strength and witness of the LCWR,” Levada told The National Catholic Reporter in the United States.

Levada insists no attack has been mounted against American nuns.

“No sister will lose her job in teaching or charitable work or hospital work as a result of this assessment, as far as I know,” said Levada. “This is about questions of doctrine, in response to God’s revelation, and Church tradition from the time of the Apostles. We take that seriously.”

For the LCWR the years of investigation leading up to the doctrinal assessment has pitted their traditions of scholarship, communal discernment and service to the poor against their communion with Rome.

“If questioning is interpreted as defiance that puts us in a very difficult position,” LCWR president Sr. Pat Farrell told The National Catholic Reporter.

“We need to get out of the polarizations out of which we’re speaking to one another.”

Polarization in the Church goes far beyond the differences between Rome and the American sisters, Farrell said.

There is substance to the disagreements between American sisters and the Vatican — and much of it comes down to the place of women, said McGahan.

“You cannot divorce it from the feminist movement and you cannot divorce it from the ordination question,” she said. “There is a decidedly stained glass ceiling in the Catholic Church and it’s sex based — and that’s the end of that story.”

Seen from the perspective of the origins of vowed life in the Western Church, the problem is one of obedience or listening, said Sr. Virginia Evard, prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

“In the way in which the Rule of St. Benedict is interpreted by us, the emphasis is on listening and actual collaboration and a relationship,” said Evard. “This has not been happening so far in this situation.”

She characterized the process so far as “one sided.”

As a Benedictine, Evard believes the tensions could be eased, maybe erased, if the Vatican and the LCWR were to return to the Rule of St. Benedict.

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