ND Expert: Assessing the assessment of Catholic female religious

by Michael O. Garvey

Kathleen Sprows Cummings

Last week, the Vatican charged the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an organization that represents most of America’s Catholic nuns, with “serious doctrinal problems” and announced plans to place LCWR into a sort of receivership overseen by three American bishops.

Kathleen Sprows Cummings, associate professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame, said she understands why so many American Catholics have been “flabbergasted” by the decision.

“Considering the many problems facing the American church, especially the legal, moral and financial consequences of a devastating clergy sex-abuse crisis, it does seem curious that the Vatican leaders would single out Women Religious as a group in need of reform,” Cummings said. “In other respects, though, this latest news is sadly unsurprising.”

A historian of the Catholic Church in America and particularly of women in American religion, Cummings is the author of “New Women of the Old Faith: Gender and American Catholic Identity in the Progressive Era” and is at work on a new book, “Citizen Saints: Catholics and Canonization in American Culture.”

“The doctrinal assessment is merely the most public, and likely the most cataclysmic, collision between a group of women who have grown progressively more outspoken and more powerful over the last five decades and a church hierarchy who have difficulty understanding or accepting women who don’t behave in traditionally feminine ways,” Cummings said.

According to Cummings, “as Catholic sisters have grown more educated and more professional, they have also become more inclined to challenge those in authority. A telling statement in the doctrinal assessment refers to the LCWR’s considerable influence over religious congregations throughout the world. Arrest this nonsense here, in other words, before it can no longer be contained.”

Cummings acknowledged the difficulty of predicting how the nuns in the LCWR would respond to the doctrinal assessment, but added, “Here is what I do know. First, they will not respond until they have considered the matter carefully, through individual and corporate prayer, discernment, discussion and introspection. Second, Catholic sisters are, hands down, the bravest and most creative people I know, and their response is certain to reflect that. My fear is not for them, but for the many other lay Catholics who will not want to be part of a church that responds to sisters with anything other than a sincere and profound ‘thank you,’ for all they have done to build the church in this country, for responding to the greatest needs in our society, and for being the face, hands and loving presence of Jesus Christ in this world.”

Contact: Kathleen Cummings, 574-631-8749, cummings.23@nd.edu