I hope they stay in the Church, even if they have caused it harm

The controversy about the American nuns, or more exactly the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, rumbles on, and this weekend it attracted coverage in the Observer. You can read the article here, and while it makes very interesting reading – it is always fascinating to see how non-Catholics see us – virtually every sentence will elicit a “yes, but” reaction from a Catholic.

It depends, as ever, on what you mean by Catholic. The article seems predicated on the supposition that anyone who claims to be a Catholic is one. But this is not so: being a Catholic is not a mere matter of feeling or personal conviction, it is about belief and communion. If one does not share the beliefs of he who sits on the Chair of Peter, then you are not a Catholic. Even Professor Dawkins understands this as he shows by his recent pronouncement that those who do not believe in transubstantiation are not Catholic. Quite so.

So we have to ask, are the Leadership Conference of Women Religious Catholic? Well, I will not answer that question, simply because I would have to investigate them first and that would take time and resources, the type of which I do not have. This is presumably why the Vatican undertook its investigation, to get to the truth; odd to note that the very fact of an investigation is somehow seen as causing – to quote the article – “pain and scandal”. It is as if Cardinal Levada had no right to do his job as prefect of the CDF, namely to ensure the purity of Catholic doctrine.

In fact the coverage given this matter by the Observer seems to indicate a feeling that the papacy ought to have no authority over the nuns, or indeed anyone else. That the Church has no right to self-government, or indeed to be itself. We have heard all this before.

The article contains one gem, and here it is:

Farrell will report back to the leadership conference assembly in August and has not ruled out severing ties between the group and Rome. “The option is always there,” said Farrell, who is a member of the Sisters of St Francis in Iowa, an order founded in Germany in 1864 to care for orphans and the elderly.

In other words, these Sisters can, if they choose, opt out and lose their canonical status as nuns. If they did that, they would be free to act exactly as they please and would have no oversight from the Vatican at all. But, and this is the catch, they would then cease to be Catholic women religious is any public sense; they would merely become private associations of lay women.

This may be the way forward for them. Many before them have left the shelter of the institutional Church to plough a lonely furrow of their own. However, I doubt the Vatican would be overjoyed at this result. One reason is because the LCWR represents the religious superiors of these religious orders. It may not reflect the rank and file of the Sisters’ communities, many, perhaps most of whom, are perfectly mainstream Catholics. These Sisters would then be removed from the Roman fold by their superiors, without their consent, which would distress the pastoral hearts of Cardinal Levada and the Holy Father.

The threat to relinquish canonical status may in fact be a piece of brinkmanship on behalf of Sister Farrell. What future would such a body of women, with vows not recognised by the Church, have?

The Observer is confident in predicting a “clash” between the cardinal and the nun this Wednesday. I hope they can have an intelligent conversation, and that the LCWR will do what all good Catholics should do – accept the authority of the Holy See. Some Catholics would, I suspect, like to see the LCWR effectively leave the Church. I, as a Catholic, want to see people join the Church, not leave it, so I want them to stay in. However, as one born Catholic who wants to live Catholic and die Catholic, I really do not want to see these ladies do further damage to the Church. We have heard enough from them about pain and scandal – it would be great if we could hear something more constructive from them: namely how wonderful it is to be part of the communion of the Church, how much they love and admire the Holy Father, and how joyfully they accept a life of obedience as vowed religious.