Like many feminists, I never thought I’d use the word “progressive” to describe Catholic nuns. However, after learning about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), I have to say that I’m amazed at the work of this group. While connected to the Catholic faith, LCWR works to promote women in the Catholic religion as leaders. The group also participates in humanitarian efforts. Another surprise is that this group expands the focus of “right to life” issues to include working toward the eradication of hunger, repealing of the death penalty where it exists, and stopping war. Additionally, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious believes that fetal rights are not the only consideration where abortion is concerned. And, the LCWR hopes to influence the Catholic Church in its acceptance of homosexuality to welcome all peoples rather then condemning them.
These stances are indeed radical for Catholicism and have placed the LCWR at odds with the Vatican. In fact, American bishops have been sent by the Vatican to oversee the organization to attempt to bring the group into line with what the Vatican considers the Church’s teachings. Specifically, the Vatican charges the LCWR with going against Church doctrine on issues related to homosexuality, birth control and what they consider radical feminist thought that stems from the organization. To their credit, the LCWR is more than willing to begin a dialogue with the Vatican about Catholic doctrine, yet (no surprise here) the Vatican would rather issue mandates versus discuss anything at all. This stance proves that the Vatican remains anti-woman, of course.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious believes the Church must evolve (pun intended—I couldn’t help myself!) to meet the society and culture in which we live today. The nuns who are part of the LCWR claim that their work at the front lines of humanitarian efforts put them in touch with the lives of people as they are lived, not as one might merely desire them to be. For over forty years, the LCWR has advocated for the ordination of women. Much of that time, the group has been relatively silent about their desire for leadership. Even while they are publicly silent, leaders with the LCWR continue to ask themselves and one another about what it means that the Vatican and church leadership seem to fear women and not value their leadership potential.
The most surprising aspect of what I learned about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is that while many in the group work toward asking women to choose to continue pregnancies over aborting them, there are a significant number of nuns who consider the rights of those already born as just as important and significant as those of the unborn. The LCWR claims that policies and positions that are pro-fetus versus pro-life need to be reconsidered. They consider hunger, war and the death penalty as just as important to the Catholic conversation about being pro-life as abortion.
Even as I remain an atheist feminist, I find it encouraging that women, who belong to what are considered anti-women faiths, still work toward empowering women within their faith. That the Leadership Conference for Women Religious continues to ask for not only power, but also a dialogue with the Church on issues related to their experience working with people directly is inspiring. I’m not sure I’d have the patience to work so tirelessly for decades, and I admire the faith of the nuns in the LCWR that allows them to remain committed to their religion even as they work to change it so that it reflects more of who they are rather than merely accepting the doctrines of Catholicism on blind faith.
Kate Robinson, M.A. adult learning and development, is a Master’s in Social Work candidate at Bridgewater State University. She lives south of Boston with her family.
Kate enjoys writing, reading, collage and felting. She also works in medical education and as a counselor at a women’s health clinic.