LCWR shakedown, Day 3: Defending the 'radical' social justice sisters

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There's been plenty of talk this week about the announcement from the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, by way of the USCCB, that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the U.S. will be undergoing a "renewal" under the watchful eye of the bishops. Here at U.S. Catholic, Meghan Murphy-Gill offered her reaction to the announcement on Wednesday, and Bryan Cones added an assessment of the CDF document's accusations yesterday.

I was struck by the document's comments about the work of women religious in the area of social justice, specifically calling out by name the Catholic social justice lobbyists NETWORK as a troubling group that is associated with the LCWR. The CDF document states: "while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States. Further, issues of crucial importance to the life of Church and society, such as the Church’s Biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes Church teaching."

I've had the pleasure on several occasions to interview NETWORK's executive director, Sister Simone Campbell. I've always found her to be extremely passionate about the work she does and tirelessly committed to helping the least among us. Most importantly, there is no mistaking the fact that her passion and inspiration are rooted in the Gospel and a deep desire to spread the love of Christ.

In an interview yesterday with NPR, Campbell sounded disheartened by the Vatican's words, but not deterred in her mission. "When you don't work everyday with people who live at the margins of our society, it's much easier to make easy statements about who's right and who's wrong," Campbell said. "It makes us mad; it makes us upset," she adds. "It may makes us wonder about where on God's green earth all this is going and why in God's green earth might this be necessary, but we're faithful."

She conceded that the issues the CDF named are important, but they're not the mission of NETWORK, they're the mission of the church leaders. But the two groups can have different missions and still serve one faith, she said.

Criticizing women religious for focusing on one aspect of the faith in their mission and not speaking out on others is an odd way of finding fault with Catholics who do good work in the name of the church. It would be akin to criticizing a doctor who specializes in a particular area of medicine for being out of step with the medical community because he or she doesn't speak about issues outside his or her own specialty.

Women religious in the United States have a long established history of caring for the poor and the marginalized, and having them serve as specialists on social justice can only help the church's mission. Yes, they may not be actively campaigning against abortion, but how many Catholic pro-life groups have made that issue their sole focus at the exclusion of all others? We need to do both, but there's no reason we can't have different groups each focusing on their own area of concern.

Sisters like Campbell are a shining example of the important role women religious play in our society. We should be proud of women who devote their lives to the church and who commit themselves to a particular issue rather than criticizing them for failure to take on other issues. We need committed Catholics to work in many different areas of ministry and to support all aspects of church teaching, and I for one am thankful for the role that many devoted women religious have played in that mission.