LCWR’s Sr. Chittister’s evolving view of being a woman religious.

On the site of the National catholic Fishwrap there is a story about a meeting of the past presidents of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR – a subsidiary of the Magisterium of Nuns). The story, by their obedient acolyte Joshua McElwee, is too long to be of interest in toto. But this gem cannot be overlooked.

The ever-reliable Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB, hot from her hardball interview with Christiane Amanpour at CNN, shared this insight:

“It is only recently that I’ve come to the point where I can say that the function of a Religious is to be religious, not necessarily to be canonical.”

Here we have reason #3667 for the CDF’s doctrinal assessment of religious life.  They have a defective theology of religious life.  Statements like Chittister’s betray the LCWR nuns’ inadequate understanding of what religious are in the Church.

Apart from the question whether the nuns should disband the LCWR as the official liaison with the Holy See, religious in themselves cannot be but canonical, both individually and collectively in their religious institutes (or orders).

All Catholics belong to canonical structures whether they want to or not.  If you doubt me, try to get baptized or married and you will quickly find out what a parish is.  Groups of lay people who get together in an association must deal with canonical issues.  Bishops can remove the designation “Catholic” from organizations.  Lest Sr. Joan not believe this, it is impossible not to be in a canonical structure of some sort.  This is a fortiori the case for all nuns.

Just for kicks, lets have a look at what the (still) Sacred Congregation for Religious and for Secular Institutes wrote in the document  Essential Elements  in the Church’s Teaching on Religious Life as Applied to Institutes Dedicated to Works of the Apostolate back in 1983.  Paragraph 8 says:

When consecration by profession of the counsels is affirmed as a definitive response to God in a public commitment taken before the Church, it belongs to the life and holiness of the Church (cf. Lumen Gentium 44). It is the Church which authenticates the gift and which mediates the consecration.

Also, paragraph 16:

The religious is pledged to obey the directives of lawful superiors according to the constitutions of the institute and further accepts a particular obedience to the Holy Father in virtue of the vow of obedience.

Think about this:

Catholics, by virtue of baptism, participate in canonical structures in the Church.  If the Church mediates the consecration of women religious, then it follows – unavoidably – that religious women participate in canonical structures by virtue of their being religious.

So, Sister Joan, women religious cannot be religious except within canonical structures.  Period.

“But Father! But Father!” some will shout, “Sr. Joan is talking about the canonical structure of the LCWR, not about religious life in general.  You are mean and you hate nuns.”

Sed contra! On the contrary, I like nuns so much I want them to be lovingly embraced within canonical structures!

At one point Sr. Joan was at one point asked, according to the linked article, “whether women religious should live outside formal church structures.”

In summary, it looks to me as if these women really don’t want to be women religious in any sense that Holy Church recognizes.  However, they are afraid to quit because the instant they do, they will be irrelevant.

A case in point.

Consider if you will the group NCAN, an even more radical splinter group of the LCWR, which has fulfilled Sr. Joan’s dream of being without canonical structure.  Their site is HERE, though it has not been updated since 2009 when they gave their coveted Margaret Ellen Traxler Award to Sr. Louise Lears, SC, whom then-Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis placed under interdict for her support of the ordination of women and her attending a fake “ordination”. These days the NCAN types are reduced to holding chat sessions in gated communities for three cats and a tumbleweed rather than in hotels for hundreds of sisters. For example, HERE is the flyer for a May 2012 meeting with the pro-choice Sr. Donna Quinn.  (See my post NUNS GONE WILD!)

This is what Sr. Joan wants?

Whatever Sister wants she should have!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Magisterium of Nuns, Our Catholic Identity, The Drill, Throwing a Nutty, Women Religious and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Gaetano says:

    “It is only recently that I’ve come to the point where I can say that the function of a Religious is to be religious, not necessarily to be canonical.”

    This was the exact moment when my head exploded.

    I hate the smell of antinomianism in the morning.

  2. anilwang says:

    “Religious is to be religious, not necessarily to be canonical.”

    The first part is definitely true. However, religious comes from the Latin ‘religare’ meaning ‘to bind’, so to be religious implies one is bound to some canonical structure.

    Simple logic. What are they teaching nuns these days?

  3. AnnAsher says:

    If religion is to re-attach oneself to God and His pre-eminent means is the Church then doesn’t that logically conclude one must be canonical the canons being the rule of religion?
    Oh but she wasn’t being logical either was she?
    What was that OL of Fatima said about “false ‘doctrines’ “?

  4. Clo Mhuire says:

    “It is only recently that I’ve come to the point where I can say that the function of a Religious is to be religious, not necessarily to be canonical.” But is Sr. Joan religious or is she part of a New Age ‘religion’, planning behind a different kind of veil, where the modern mind escapes from the moral truths of Church teachings?

  5. wmeyer says:

    Sr. Joan was routinely the source for many teachings in my RCIA experience. Mention of her name was also, for me, a red flag.

  6. jarhead462 says:

    Father Z wrote: “These days the NCAN types are reduced to holding chat sessions in gated communities for three cats and a tumbleweed rather than in hotels for hundreds of sisters. For example, HERE is the flyer for a May 2012 meeting with the pro-choice Sr. Donna Quinn.”
    I LOVE that flyer. I would love to go to that snooze-fest.
    “Garcon, stewed prunes all around!”
    “OK ladies, lets take our walkers and meet in the parking area- we’re going to walk a labyrinth”
    Five people could not make it, because they died. so the remaining four carried on.
    OK I’ll stop being mean now…and pray for them.

    Semper Fi!

  7. TNCath says:

    Fr. Z. wrote, “In summary, it looks to me as if these women really don’t want to be women religious in any sense that Holy Church recognizes. However, they are afraid to quit because the instant they do, they will be irrelevant.”

    This is very true. However, there is also a financial reason as well: should religious orders declare themselves to no longer be a recognized Catholic religious organization, their members risk losing their tax exempt status. Even though most religious communities are already civilly incorporated as non-profit organizations, their members (who would, strictly speaking, now be “employees” rather than “members”) would also be subject to income tax and other obligations that the laity have as citizens.

  8. ilovethepope says:

    All these horror stories give me motivation to continue discerning life as a TRUE religious sister, completely obedient to the Holy Father! Keep it up Fr. Z!!!

  9. Banjo pickin girl says:

    This is old hat, at least that Hubbard woman is sort of interesting.

    Do the dissenting religious stay in the Church because of the job security and being taken care of for the rest of their lives? I don’t think any of these extremely disobedient people would actually be employable anywhere.

  10. servusfidelis says:

    I guess she could be called religious if it applies to the Heaven’s Gate crew. Maybe she and the keynote speaker at the LCWR conference will get the next mother ship; please.

  11. Supertradmum says:

    After I was single and my son had left home, I tried several religious orders to join one. If I walked in the library or looked at the required reading list and Sr. Joan’s books were highlighted, I was not surprised if the convents were less than orthodox. Sadly, so many Benedictine monasteries and convents make her writings required reading. As to being non-canonical, no Catholic is non-canonical. By baptism, we are made Catholics, children of God and heirs to heaven and under canon law.

    These statements show a lack of clear thinking. Very worrying…the mind and the soul are connected.

  12. TNCath says:

    Banjo pickin girl: The sisters (or religious brothers) would never publicly say that they remain in religious life for security, but many have and do. What would a 60-70 year old former sister do? How would she live on her meager Social Security check alone? I know several men and women religious who left religious life after the age of 50 and were shocked at how difficult it was to live on their own, even with decent paying jobs. Things like rent, utilities, food, and clothing–taken for granted formerly–became real issues for the first time in their lives.

  13. digdigby says:

    Banjo Pickin’ Asks:
    “Do the dissenting religious stay in the Church because of the job security and being taken care of for the rest of their lives? I don’t think any of these extremely disobedient people would actually be employable anywhere.”

    My ex wife’s aunt was a lifelong sister of a cloistered order. This is what she ‘signed on for’. Come VII she was shoved into the hell of East St. Louis for 20 years of nightmarish work with drug addicts, gangs, violence, gross immorality was everywhere and she served ‘above and beyond’. Her calling which was to be a contemplative but, under obedience, was made to be this. Afterwards? It was the 80’s when I met her and she was obviously suffering From Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder though she never said so herself. She didn’t leave the church. It left her. She drifted into channeling, new Age la-la land and made fun of the priests sent to ‘instruct’ them – mincing young ‘cake boys’ (as they call them in my neighborhood) preaching Enneagrams and Shirley MacClain and Teilhard. She stayed for the health benefits and the old-timers she knew (most had long ago left). Dying of cancer where else could she go?

    There is something to the argument of ‘making them do the dirty work’. I wonder how many other contemplatives were pushed into the ghetto, impersonally and with no respect for calling.
    So much evil. Devout Catholic families gave the church their daughters and they were deeply, deeply betrayed.

  14. Banjo pickin girl says:

    TNC, I have no doubt that you are right. I have seen cases of the opposite too.

    STMum, that is a hazard of being a Benedictine oblate. You have to be careful what you use or not. I zip past the Joan section at the bookstore to get to the good stuff. Interestingly, most of the oblates I know are more orthodox than the monks and wish the monks would get with it.

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  16. Midwest St. Michael says:

    TNCath and Banjo pg get it.

    If they formally leave the Church: Non Servium! “I AM Luther redux,” suddenly the donations to the “Mother House” are, for the most part, done.

    Think about it. If “Sister Joan” and all of the Benedictines who subscribe to their – well, “brand” of Catholicism then money becomes a huge issue! (no offense to those holy Benedicines loyal to their vows, the Holy Father and the Magisterium)

    Why do you think many (most?) Protestant ministers have to supplement their incomes (vocations?).

    I am sure most who post here receive tons of Catholic mailings looking for donations. I used to receive them from the Benedictine monastery – which promotes Sr. Joan’s “works” – nearest me.

    They finally quit mailing after I sent them a little – well, maybe not so charitable note, when they were using photos of their older sisters in wheel chairs and walkers – in full habit! – to play on one’s sympathies.

    I certainly feel for those older sisters trying to stay loyal – but that was the last straw for me.


  17. fvhale says:

    Many older religious do not qualify for Social Security because they spent their lives in communities with a “common purse” and thus they had no individual taxable earning from which to pay into the Social Security system. The question of how and how much to provide for religious that leave such communities (and their canonical structures) for whatever reason has always been a matter of justice.
    For other communities, especially since the 1970’s where some sisters “find a job” serving the poor, working as employees of dioceses or colleges, etc. and who receive a paycheck and pay payroll taxes (including Social Security), and perhaps even have personal 403(b) retirement accounts, the issues are different.
    These days, one size does not fit all.

  18. jflare says:

    Perhaps she and some of her friends ought to become followers of Bahai.
    That’s definitely NOT canonical, but would still be “religious”.

    No clue how they’d pay the bills though.

  19. Supertradmum says:

    My aunt who is 91 qualifies for SS as her order a long time ago figured out they needed personal pensions. She had to work six years longer than she wanted to when she was quite elderly, but she is still going strong. Sadly, she came out of habit, as did all her order about thirty years ago. God bless her, she taught six grade boys mathematics for years and has a terrific sense of humor, still.

  20. JacobWall says:

    This is purely off the top of my head, and may not be very useful, but here it goes:

    Perhaps part of the sisters’ problem is that they are confusing institutions and canonical structures; many people (rightly) complain about institutions, their limitations, bureaucracy, etc. Institutions can work well, or they can be a horrible mess; institutions can be created or eliminated. In themselves, they are not sacred or indispensable.

    Canonical structures give meaning to Church institutions; as well all know, Church institutions can be as disorganized and frustrating as any other. Yet, canonical structure gives these institutions meaning. Without the canonical structure, an institution becomes just another bureaucratic organization trying to justify its own existence (or in the case of NCAN, a sorry attempt at a bureaucratic organization, that has no hope of justifying its own existence.)

    Currently the nuns are trying to maintain a huge institution (with all the problems that go with it, like abuse!) while removing its meaning – canonical structure. I think the nuns would do much better to do things the other way around; strengthen themselves as a canonical structure and the items which give them canonical standing, and reduce the institution.

    Consider a hermit monk; he would be under the authority of some institution (a specific religious order), but he would be minimally “institutional.” At the same time, he would be entirely canonical.

    Of course, institutions can be very useful. But in themselves they are meaningless. Canonical structure gives religious institutions (with all there faults) meaning and purpose. Unfortunately, these sisters seem to be confused, and got the two mixed up; they think the institution (LCWR) has meaning in itself, and that the canonical structure is a limiting bureaucracy. It will be very, very unfortunate if they loose their canonical structure and hold on the faults, complications, bureaucracy, expenses, etc.

  21. JacobWall says:

    The last sentence should say:
    It will be very, very unfortunate if they loose their canonical structure and hold on to all the faults, complications, bureaucracy, expenses, etc. of an monstrous institution.

  22. jessicahoff says:

    Put simply, it seems they want to be self-governing autonomous communities supported by the Church. No point in having cake unless you eat it, seems to be the motto.

  23. dominicansoul says:

    When I was a novice with the Dominican Sisters of Mary, I was sent to a vocations retreat in Illinois. It was my first time out in public wearing the precious habit of St. Dominic. While I was making my way through the various community tables and exhibits, I came across those belonging to the LCWR communities. They were heavily influenced by New Age spirituality. There was one in particular that had a large pot filled with sand, with a rather long wick protruding from the middle of the pot. The exhibit explained that this was a “sacred space,” one that anyone can create in their own homes. The exhibit also displayed some environmental conservation awareness tips, and the respect and reverence that is due to Mother Earth. I felt like I was reading a science fair exhibit more than a religious life exhibit. These women have lost their identity. I am not the least bit shocked at reading what some of them believe defines being a religious. When I met a few of these ladies, I was very congenial towards them. They in turn hissed at me. One of them got into my face and boldy exclaimed, “We are Sisters, too!!!!” I figured I wasn’t a sight they wanted to see: a very young woman dressed in a habit, happy as can be. I hadn’t showed them any disrespect. All I said was “hello.” It was a little unnerving to face that kind of defensive attitude from those who call themselves “Sisters.” I thought about it later, that the more these women offer up prayers to gender-less gods and pay heed to new age spiritualities, they are opening up the door to demons. It won’t suprise me at all if all their faculties are being controlled by supernatural beings bent on destroying the Church from within. St. Paul said our battle is with the principalities of darkness, and not with one another. It’s easy to poke fun at them, but just remember, we’re not against these women, but more so the evil spirits that influence them.

  24. CarpeNoctem says:

    To be “acanonical” as a canonical person (self-identifying as a sister) is to be unmoored in the life of the Church… it is to lack roots of personal investment or personal commitment to the Church, vis. the person of Jesus Christ. It’s a meaningless life to be centered on nothing other than the self.

    It’s like saying that “I’m for Vatican II” without having read and understood the documents in their historical and theological context. It’s like saying that one is “spiritual” without necessarily being “religious”. It’s like being “American” without having citizenship. It’s like going to church on Sunday without putting anything in the basket. It’s like having a college degree after paying someone to write your term papers. It’s being married in a union that is contraceptive… if I may, nothing more than self-pleasure while using the other as an object… extend that metaphor now into one’s “acanonical” relationship with the Church(!)

    Oh, the white-washed tombs, with nothing but decay inside!

  25. JacobWall says:

    dominicansoul, very nicely put; what you say about “opening up the door to demons” and “being controlled by supernatural beings bent on destroying the Church from within” is very troublesome, and as you say, it’s not a laughing matter. It guess it’s simply the truth of what’s happening, and it’s much, much more relevant than my discussion on institutions above, which in comparison is a rather superficial point.

    It’s interesting that, as a Sister, you speak as though they are a minority – just one group among many. They like to say the opposite, with their claim of 80% of religious women in America. I hope and pray that the majority of nuns are not a part of their activities. The best antidote to the LCWR is the presence, prayers and work of nuns whose life focuses on God.

    Your last point is the most important; they are not the Enemy. Let’s pray for them.

  26. Suburbanbanshee says:

    dominicansoul — Actually, I think you fell afoul of their etiquette instincts! Back in the day, a young sister or nun (or indeed, any young Catholic) would have been taught to address all sisters or nuns as “Hello, sisters.” And you just said “Hello,” as to a normal non-religious; so their ancient engrained manners told them that you were saying they weren’t really sisters like yourself.

    Sooooo… we conclude that they do care about canonical structures and the etiquette of them.

  27. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Of course, if you did call them “Sisters,” they were just being really insecure.

  28. jameeka says:

    dominicansoul–you bring up a good point. Nowadays, if after some reflection and prayer, we are fairly sure something is diabolical, people just laugh and sneer–this type of discernment is not tolerated in any mainstream way–what to do when you are convinced that people’s actions and motivations are from Satan himself?
    More prayer and sacrifice? You certainly can’t talk to anybody living about it.

  29. ilovethepope says:

    supertradmom, I also looked for books by Richard Rohr and Joyce Rupp (to name just a couple). While discerning with one community, I noticed on a directory of rooms in the elevator that they had a Reiki room :(

  30. catholicmidwest says:

    That’s 100% correct, Fr Z. I don’t think a lot of people are completely getting the concept of what’s being bandied around as “non-canonical.” To be “non-canonical” isn’t just to lose your approval or be down-graded to diocesan rather than apostolic approval or something like that. To be “non-canonical” is to basically “leave the church and keep the deed. ”

    In other words, the idea is that you remove the organization away from the purview of the Church entirely, so that it’s solely a civil organization, in the hopes that you can get people to believe that the Church can’t control it or say anything about it. And then go on as you darned well please.

    Of course, since there were two investigations, the LCWR one and the one covering each individual congregation, they have a problem: How to make it possible for the LCWR to do whatever goony thing it wants to do by whatever means it deems necessary, and at the same time, explain how your congregation can subscribe to it and also be acceptable.

    The results of the investigation into the individual congregations have not yet been released. The Vatican knows what it’s doing. Now if they only have the nerve to stick to it!

    This is not a little minor thing like the silly little skirmishes of the past. Both sides are dead serious this time. There is a lot at stake.

  31. timelord says:

    Sister Joan should go back to BIZARRO WORLD which is in another dimension and on another planet than the one we and Holy Mother Church live in and on.

    If only Doctor Who could use his TARDIS and bring Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica back from the past and have them do an INTERVENTION with the good sister from Erie.

  32. suedusek says:

    Wow! So much sarcasm from my Catholic brothers and sisters. However, I do appreciate the balance of perspective brought to this discussion by dominicansoul. Thank you for recognizing the need to offer prayerful support.

    I have no comments to make for or against Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB. However, the following comment made by Fr. Z. interests me very much:

    “In summary, it looks to me as if these women really don’t want to be Women Religious in any
    sense Holy Church recognizes. However, they are afraid to quit because the instant they do,
    they will be irrelevant.”

    Irrelevant? By whom would they be considered irrelevant? Not me. Not Christ. He died on the cross for the likes of Sr. Joan, and Fr. Z. and me. I guess that lends relevance to all of us.

  33. Indulgentiam says:

    suedusek: “Irrelevant? By whom would they be considered irrelevant?”
    i think that Fr. means irrelevant to those in the world whose favor they are constantly courting.

  34. Friend Rob says:

    Fr. Z and others here refer to Sr. Joan and the rest of those female religious mostly now out of their old habits as “nuns.” They are, strictly speaking not nuns and never were such, but “sisters” who have taken simple perpetual vows and who engage in active apostolates of one kind or another. “Nuns,” especially those following the Rule of Benedict in some form of observance, always took and still take solemn vows. You will find such nuns in some form of the traditional habit, living in monasteries and engaged in far more limited external work.

    There is a lot of American Catholic church history behind these distinctions between the active sisters and their far more contemplative choir-nun counterparts. Much of it has to do with the identity of the 19th cen American Catholic church considered to be a missionary institution by Rome and even by itself. Sisters bound by simple perpetual vows were imported to do so much of the heavy lifting and even dirty work of Catholic enterprise. European notions and repeated requests for sisters to take solemn vows as proper nuns were just as repeatedly refused by the 19th and early 20th cen American Benedictine abbots, the American hierarchy and by Rome itself.

    Unfortunately in these latter days these simple perpetual chickens have come home to roost with advanced degrees, pant suits and permed hair and even honorary doctorates, wielding the cudgels of Womens Lib in the face of the church. And, oh my, how did all this happen? Unfortunately the 1983 Code of Canon Law has erased many of the distinctions for nuns v sisters that gave rise to the present situation. To understand this more clearly one must go back to provisions and distinctions for monks, nuns and other religious persons under vows contained in the 1917 Code, and even before that into the the canons and decrees issued following the Council of Trent.

    So you will find no real “nuns,” as such, living in the USA until the conclusion of World War II. Vera Duss, an American Doctor who had lived it France a long time, joined the Abbey of Jouarre where she was professed before the war, becoming Mother Benedicta Duss, OSB. It was she and a companion nun who finally founded a monastery of real “nuns” in 1947, at Bethlehem Ct. The monastic community of Benedictine nuns is called ‘Regina Laudis’. Following them in later years other communities of Benedictine nuns were established in the USA.

    So you can hardly blame Sr. Joan Chittester and all her many thousands of companions for their formation as Benedictine sisters, not only by the distinction of vows and status, but also by way their religious observance and external works were ordered. The very active life that they and so many other groups of American sisters were called upon to perform left little room for any kind of real monastic observance. Small wonder that the restrictive habits for the sisters were among the first externals to be shed. But that is not true of real nuns; Benedictines, Cistercian-Trappists or Camoldolese, properly speaking. They are still in their habits as a part of their monastic observance, not because they happen to have conservative views necessarily.

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