When I studied theology in seminary I had a number of professors impart the same advice, “Go to the primary source.”  In other words, do not just read another person’s interpretation of a document.  Do not just accept what another person says that a document states; rather, go to the document and read it for yourself and then form your own opinion.

This advice, which has held me in good stead since the day I first heard it, has been running through my mind as I peruse the different editorials and interpretations of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s recently issued, “Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)” in the United States.  What I hear most people saying that the document states and is about is not what I find when I read the document for myself.  Here are some examples.

From many commentaries one would think that this Assessment came out of the blue and sucker punched the sisters.  This is not the case.  The document demonstrates that there has been an ongoing dialogue between the LCWR and the Congregation since 2008.  There is a paper trail to prove it.

Another common misconception is that the Vatican disregards the social justice work of the religious sisters in the United States.  Again, this is not the case.  Here I share a quote which begins the second chapter of the Assessment, “The Holy See acknowledges with gratitude the great contribution of women Religious to the Church in the United States as seen particularly in the many schools, hospitals, and institutions of support for the poor which have been founded and staffed by Religious over the years.”  Throughout the document the Congregation praises the work and witness of religious sisters.

Another misconception running rampant in the editorials that I have come across is that the Vatican is out to punish the sisters.  Another quote from the Assessment, “The renewal of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious which is the goal of this doctrinal assessment is in support of this essential charism (i.e. social justice and service to the poor) of Religious which has been so obvious in the life and growth of the Catholic Church in the United States … The overarching concern of the doctrinal Assessment is, therefore, to assist the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the United States in implementing an ecclesiology of communion founded on faith in Jesus Christ and the Church as the essential foundation for its important service to religious Communities and to all those in consecrated life.” 

“Renewal … concern … assist” these do not sound like the words of punishment to me.

There are two ecclesiological considerations that are at play here that are worthy of note I believe.

The first is that the Christian Church (at least in the Catholic Church’s perspective) is not just a social service agency.  Many contemporary viewpoints and commentators would like to limit the Church’s role specifically to this and only this.  “Yes, the Church has a part to play in the larger society when it feeds the poor and helps the needy but don’t you dare bring your doctrine into the public square.  There is no space for that and doctrine really is not all that important anyway.”  Well, the Church disagrees and it has been around long enough to see such ideologies come and go and one thing that it has learned in its two thousand year history is that witness divorced from doctrine soon crumbles.  The Congregation’s call to the LCWR to reassess its doctrinal foundations is not a punishment but rather a call to renewal in order to strengthen the witness of Religious in our society and world.

The second consideration is that the Catholic Church in its ecclesiology has a mechanism for dealing with such issues.  This cannot be said of all Christian faith traditions.  I am not naive.  I know that authority has been misused and heavy-handed at different points throughout Church history yet this is not the sole purview of the Catholic Church.  Every government, every religious group and every secular institution also shares in this sin.  Yes, authority has been misused throughout history but that does not mean that every exercise of legitimate authority is an injustice.  Some might wonder how this exercise of authority furthers the kingdom of God but it can also be wondered how the absence of any authority furthers God’s Kingdom.  How often must the Body of Christ be splintered because there seems to be no other way to solve a conflict or discuss a concern?  The Catholic Church has a mechanism.  It may not always be pretty.  It may not always run perfectly.  It must continually be held up to and renewed by the light of the Gospel but at least the Catholic Church has one.

This dialogue and process between the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious did not just come out of the blue and it will not be solved overnight.  The dialogue and process will continue.  As this occurs, I hope that all of us will take to heart the common sense advice of my professors, “Go to the primary source.” and I also hope that media commentators will exercise their role responsibly and respect what the Church is about (even if they disagree) and reflect on the facts rather than their own biases and opinions.