On the two extreme and opposite fringes of the Church this appears to be a time of reckoning, initiated under the authority and by the will of Pope Benedict XVI.
On the liberal fringe we have the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in the United States – for decades a fertile and welcoming home for dissent from the official teaching of the Church on such issues as the impossibility of the ordination of women, the evil of abortion, the wrongfulness of artificial contraception, the immorality of homosexual intercourse, and such topical issues – has been made the object of a Vatican doctrinal assessment. It is long overdue. Some of us can remember many instances of religious sisters in the USA (and elsewhere) dabbling in such New Age trendiness as Wicca, which despite the feminist gloss put on it is still paganism pure and simple. Donna Steichen’s book, Ungodly Rage, documents this sad history in detail up to the early 1990s. The Vatican investigation aims to promote within the LCWR a “a vision of ecclesial communion founded on faith in Jesus Christ and the teachings of the church as faithfully taught through the ages under the guidance of the magisterium”. In recent months, as prominent sisters have defied their own bishops and the Church in general on matters of substantial moral significance, some (such as Father Zuhlsdorf) have taken to referring to a “magisterium of nuns” which has set itself up as an equal, and rival, to the Church’s magisterium. So it is no surprise that the LCWR has attacked the assessment.
There have been some shrill attacks on the Church’s authorities for this apparent “inquisition” and “persecution” of women who have done so many good works. Indeed they have done much good across many decades. But this riposte avoids the substance of the problem. It is the many bad works done with the tacit approval, and sometimes explicit approval, of the LCWR that concern the Vatican. Moreover, it is the LCWR itself that is being assessed, not the totality of the religious sisterhood in the USA. That said, the assessment follows in the wake of an apostolic visitation of women religious in the USA. That there now comes this assessment of the LCWR, of which the leaders of most (but not all) the women’s congregations are members, suggests that tyhe Visitation exposed serious problems, and is seeking to find their cause. In other words, it is the leaders who are under scrutiny, and rightly, for with leadership comes responsibility for the actions of those whom one leads. And of course, any charitable work that is not informed by and conformed to truth is not really an expression of charity at all; it is usually an expression of self-will rather than God’s will.
On the traditionalist fringe we find that the Society of St Pius X (SSPX), founded in the 1970s by Archbishop Lefebvre for those who could not reconcile themselves to the Second Vatican Council and its fruits, has been forced to face up to the reality of its situation in the face of a determined attempt by the Pope to effect its reconciliation with the Church. The SSPX has moved beyond its initial critique of the post-conciliar Mass to reject it outright, as well as rejecting certain teachings of the Council such as those on religious liberty and episcopal collegiality, to the point of rejecting the Council entirely. The SSPX openly moved into effective schism when Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated four men as bishops in 1988 to succeed him and so perpetuate the SSPX. He did so without the permission of the Pope, an act which earned for him and the bishops an ipso facto excommunication. The seriousness of the Pope’s intent was signalled by his lifting the excommunication against these bishops in 2009, a move not well received in some quarters of the Church for reasons both more and less defensible.
The fundamental problem with the consecration of these bishops back in 1988, one which reveals the inherent tendency in the Society, is that it effectively created a separate church by establishing its own source of authority and governance without any reference to the papacy as the guardian of Tradition. This was highlighted most recently in a homily preached last week by Bishop Tissier (one of the four illicitly-ordained bishops of 1988) in which he declared the “New Mass” to be the “emblem” of a “false religion” which is marked by “heretical perversity”. Such words cannot be said by a person who conceives of himself being in any way a member of the Church founded on the Rock of Peter. Just a few days ago the SSPX superior in Guatemala (!) called on Bishop Fellay (another 1988-bishop, current head of the SSPX and leader of the rapprochement with Rome) to be removed at the July General Chapter of the SSPX for, inter alia, his alleged “disobedience to the founder” (ie Lefebvre).
It is not the intention here to go into the issues surrounding both the LCWR and the SSPX, which are complex, lengthy and historically entrenched. Instead, we might stop to take note that these two groups, at opposing ends of the ecclesial spectrum, have something essentially in common: they are used to doing what they want to do, without any real reference to the Church, its teachings and its legitimate authority. For the SSPX, Archbishop Lefebvre has become the authority against which his successors must be judged. With Lefebvre long dead, this in reality means that a member of the SSPX will assess any action or teaching according to his own understanding of the Archbishop’s position, bolstered no doubt by a tendentious reading of old manuals of theology and the occasional misuse of a sainted theologian. There is no reference to the current authorities (doctrinal and juridical) of the Church since they are rejected a priori. Some excellent analysis can be found here.
Likewise the LCWR has set itself up against the Church founded on Peter, though without formally leaving its communion. Whereas the SSPX sees itself as defender of Tradition, though one sadly divorced from the Church which is its proper home, the LCWR sees itself as the defender of Prophecy, again sadly divorced from the Church which is its proper home and context. Tradition divorced from the papacy is not tradition in the traditional (!) sense; prophecy divorced from the Church and its truth is not prophecy in the scriptural sense. Sr Sandra Schneiders is one of the more obvious articulators of this prophetic desire. Sr Margaret Farley is a recent example of it.
So the LCWR commits itself not to the Church but to a dis-institutionalised ‘prophetic’ witness all too often over and against the teachings of the Church, of which they seek to remain members and whose members fund their activity; and the SSPX commits itself not to the Church gathered around the papacy but to the defence of an ossified ‘tradition’, all too often at odds with the living Tradition of the authentic Church. On the one side, the sisters determine what is prophetic; on the other side, the Lefebvrists determine what is traditional. Each is its own own authority, and the logical result is disobedience, rupture and the wounding of the Body of Christ.
Moreover, both contain in themselves the seed of their own downfall. For the sisters it is the increasing irrelevance and secularisation of their activities, while their congregations age and dwindle in numbers, and as a younger generation of Catholics rediscover the beauty of the faith, the authority of papal teaching and the necessity of the Church. For the Lefebvrists it is the tendency to fragment into smaller, more fanatical sects, some of which even elect their own ‘popes’. It is the same tendency that weakens Protestantism. Whatever good the original Protestants had to offer was hugely diminished when they cut themselves from the Body of the Church; so too the SSPX lost any substantial audience within the Church when they cut themselves off from her, seeking, like Protestants, an invisible Church different from the visible. Severed from the vine, they will ultimately die.
All we can do is pray. We can only pray that the LCWR will realise that they cannot be faithful to Christ while disobeying the authority of his Body. We can only pray that the SSPX will realise the same. The remedy for them both is the same, for their basic problem is the same. They forget, or perhaps even refuse to see, that where the successor of Peter and the bishops are, there is the Body of Christ; and to be apart from the Body is to be apart from Christ, without whom we can do nothing (John 15:5). Of these to whom he has entrusted the Good News, Christ says,
“The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”
(Luke 10:16 ESV)