By What Shall You Know Them?


“By their trousers you shall know them”. So wrote Australian author Thomas Kenneally of priests-in-mufti in his novel, Three Cheers for the Paraclete . The above picture is from the banner of the website of the Leadership Conference of Religious Women in the United States. As you can see, despite there not being a habit in sight, there is still a certain “uniform” involved (“By their calf length floral skirts you shall know them”, perhaps?).

These ladies are, as many of you will know, currently under “visitation” from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

It just so happened that, via a certain blog commentator who will remain anonymous (pass the port bottle to the man in the corner behind the newspaper please), I have been directed to a document entitled “An Invitation to Systems Thinking”, a document described by the LCWR website as “developed by the LCWR Global Concerns Committee as a tool for using a systems approach to decision-making about issues both internal and external to the congregation, e.g., governance, mergers, formation, retirement, as well as justice issues.” Just the kind of thing that the CDF visitation would be interested in, I expect.

Part of this document is a section entitled “Case Study: Congregational Issue”. The case study opens with a description of a conflict within a particular (unnamed) congregation of women religious:

Description of the Situation

Recently our leadership team has received individual and group letters expressing concern over a Saturday afternoon prayer service to be held at our annual congregational gathering seven months away. The prayer is the highlight of a weekend of celebration honouring our founder. The planners of the event, a congregational committee of three elected delegates and a few volunteers, have designed a Rite of Celebration for Saturday afternoon that is not a Eucharistic celebration. Sunday morning everyone is invited to participate in the two regularly scheduled Eucharists at our Motherhouse complex.

Concerns expressed by the sisters include:

1) a belief that the most fitting way to honour our founder is with a Mass because “That’s what she would want;”
2) an assumption that our unity can best be celebrated if all of us are present at one event, and that event should be a Eucharist since it is the sign of our unity;
3) a fear that a small group (the Planning Committee) is thursting something on the whole group; and a deeper fear that a small number of those who object to priest-led liturgies is determining how we worship;
4) and a hope that such a decision could be voted on by the whole community.

The issue appears to be how we as a congregation can worship together in a satisfying way at a major congregational celebration.

Actually, the issue appears to be around some of the sisters (those on the planning committee) objecting to the Eucharist because it is a “priest-led liturgy”, and other sisters (the letter writers) not standing for this kind of nonsense.

Anyway, the case study goes on to analyse the source of the conflict. What is identified (using “Systems Thinking Resources”) is that some of the sisters (those who want the Eucharistic celebration) are thinking with the “Western Mind mental model”, while others (the planning committee) are thinking with an “Organic mental model”. Apparently the former “values ordiless, predictablity, continuity, productivity and a clear chain of authority” while the latter “values chaos, connectedness, process, inclusivity, relationship, and a non-linear expression of authority.” Apparently:

With regard to theology and spirituality, many sisters move back and forth between the “Western Mind” and “Organic” mental models. They value beliefs and practices flowing from a stable world of fixed relationships characteristic of an earlier time, as well as the insights of process, liberatioist and feminist theologies grounded in a more organic model. For them, cherished beliefs about Eucharist co-exist with a haunting awareness of patterns of ecclesial exclusion.


The next couple of pages are spent analysing the “systems” in which the sisters live and work, the place of entry into these systems, and how they might want to “disturb” these systems. Finally, we are told what the leaders of the congregation did to handle the concerns raised by the “Western Mind” sisters about the “Organic” planning committee sisters:

In responding we intentionally created our own ‘disturbance.’ We wrote and spoke with many of those who expressed concerns. In our response we

1) resisted the temptation to ‘fix’ the situation;
2) provided information by sharing our understanding of what the planners had in mind;
3) attempted to clarify both our own and the congregation’s identity at this time, by stating our belief that our current situation of differing understandings about the Eucharist and differing ways of celebrating Eucharist not only create uncertainty and frustration, but also offer new opportunities for the Spirit to lead us in life giving patterns of prayer;
4) attempted to strengthen relationships by thanking the writers and at the same time voicing our support for allowing the planning committee to do its work as it saw fit;
5) tried to honor all the voices by receiving without judgment each one’s uncertainty and frustration around the Eucharist question facing the Congregation; and by affirming the desire in each of us to have the best possible celebration of our founder.
6) invited a broader discussion of the Planning Committee’s proposal at our open representative Governing Board meeting a month later where the tensions around the issue were aired, and the authority of the Planning Committee was respected.

So. Without wanting to be too judgmental, I would say this amounts to a psychologising away of the objective truth of the Catholic Faith. In this “system”, the Eucharist has become an optional extra for the good sisters, and in fact they are no longer identifiably Catholic.

Now, it is one thing to get rid of their habits, but if the LCWR is encouraging its member congregations to feel free to dispense with the Eucharist as the “source and summit” of their religious vocation and life, it is hard to know exactly by what one is to “know them” as Catholic religious sisters at all.

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5 Responses to By What Shall You Know Them?

  1. Louise says:

    File under “News of the Weird.”

  2. Joshua says:

    How sad. No wonder such groups are truly sterile and dying out, whereas new, faithful groups are flourishing.

  3. PM says:

    You have got it exactly right: ‘this amounts to a psychologising away of the objective truth of the Catholic Faith’. I remember well as a victim the time when this percolated into Catholic schools and Our Lord became a dim, dark, distant, rarely-to-be-mentioned mythological precursor of Carl Rogers – and am forever grateful to those increasingly beleagured teachers who held out against it.

  4. Jeff Pinyan says:

    The pseudo-response said that the sisters “attempted to clarify both OUR OWN and THE CONGREGATION’s identity at this time, by stating OUR BELIEF that our current situation of differing understandings about the Eucharist…”

    It would appear the private belief of the few (I hope) sisters in the particular religious order is shaping those sisters’ identity, and it is poisoning the order’s identity.

    The pseudo-response said that “the authority of the Planning Committee was respected.” But I thought the Organic mind-model had “a non-linear expression of authority”!

    In other words, “we do not value a ‘clear chain of authority’ unless it’s our authority.”

    I’m afraid if I read the whole document, I’ll need an exorcism.

  5. Gere says:

    I hope you don’t mind, I have linked to and liberally quoted from your excellent post.

    (Save the Liturgy, Save the World)

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