The Leadership Conference of Women Religious is holding its annual meeting this week in St. Louis. The LCWR represents about 80 percent of women’s Catholic religious orders in the United States and is the group that the Vatican has recently expressed concern about on account of how far it has strayed from a clear profession of Catholic teaching on any number of subjects. It's a problem that has been going on for decades, but one that only recently was dealt with by the Vatican.
The media love the LCWR. (Here's my look at the latest New York Times puff piece on the group.) They're the group that provided cover for Catholic Democrats to vote for Obamacare over the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' objections. Their conferences are known for pushing the outer edge of the envelope when it comes to orthodox teaching. Or busting through the envelope, actually.
There was the year the speaker said it was time to move "beyond Jesus." This week they're hearing from Barbara Marx Hubbard, described by the National Catholic Reporter as an "evolutionary thinker" who is "not Catholic or part of any mainstream religion." Rather, she has "faith in the future":
She will bring this message of hope to LCWR when she delivers the keynote address at the organization’s annual meeting Tuesday through Friday in St. Louis. The audience is likely to still be reeling from the criticism in a Vatican assessment that has shaken communities of sisters throughout the country.
“It’s a message of hope, of cooperation and alignment,” Hubbard said of the ideas she will explore in her speech. “How can we align that impulse to the deeper impulse of Christ in evolution, of God in evolution?”
Hubbard, who spoke recently in front of a couple of congregations of Catholic sisters, said she felt that her impulse to look toward the future and toward evolution was aligned with the “spiritual impulse of faith and trust and love” that she sees in the sisters, who are always working to meet society’s needs.
I actually have no idea what any of that means. And I'm shocked -- shocked! -- that the Vatican might not be pleased with decades of conferences hosting speakers such as this.
Anyway, over at America, there's a report of something very surprising. I mentioned above that the LCWR represents leaders from roughly 80% of American Catholic women's religious orders. One of the issues that has been raised about this group is that it is aging rapidly while the smaller and more traditional religious orders -- ones that wear traditional religious dress as opposed to the attire you might see above -- are experiencing some growth.
Or are they? America claims explosive evidence to the contrary. The authors of the study introduce their explosive evidence here:
The announcement last April of the results of the doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has provoked strong reactions inside and outside the Catholic Church in the United States. In the process, some commentators have made assertions about the demographics of religious life in the United States that are not based in fact. Regrettably, such misinformed statements create dichotomies that not only mask the complexity of religious reality, but are patently false. In an article entitled “The Sisters: Two Views,” published in June on the Ethics and Public Policy Center Web site, for example, George Weigel wrote: “In any case, there can be no denying that the ‘renewal’ of women’s religious life led by the L.C.W.R. and its affiliated orders has utterly failed to attract new vocations. The L.C.W.R. orders are dying, while several religious orders that disaffiliated from the L.C.W.R. are growing.”
We believe that the church and the U.S. public deserve an accurate picture, devoid of distortions, ideology and fatalism, of the complex demographics of religious institutes.
And to substantiate their charge, they show that the traditional orders -- which represent about 14% of the women religious -- currently have the same number of new applicants as the LCWR behemoth.
Now, if a really large group is attracting the same number of people as a really small group, that is fascinating. But it's not fascinating in the way the authors seem to think.
Is this a problem of just not understanding how math works? Or trying to advance an agenda at all costs? As one commenter to the piece says:
The numbers, at first blush, are impressive and surprising.
But on closer examination, shouldn't the LCWR figures be a lot higher? The fact that they aren't indicates that CMSWR, despite its relative small size, is astonishingly robust.
What does that say about vocations to the religious life today?
And what does it say about where young women today are drawn to serve Christ?
What's particularly disappointing about this is that I saw various journalists on social media link to this study as proof against claims about the aging non-habit-wearing orders being in decline.