A case of secrecy and self-silencing

April 16 was a momentous day for U.S. women religious, and indeed for all Catholics. The Vatican and other Catholics on both sides of the Atlantic breathed a collective sigh of relief when the doctrinal assessment of the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the congregation’s mandate for implementation came to a conclusion.

In a May 15 statement, the LCWR officers said that the process was conducted in a spirit of prayer and openness, but it was “time-consuming,” “difficult” and “had its costs.” The officers were “deeply saddened that the report caused scandal and pain,” and said they “felt publicly humiliated” by false accusations.

I surely sympathize with all the heartache, frustration and anger these leaders must have felt in the years of dealing with the assessment and the mandate because I was engaged in a Vatican investigation of my ministry to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from the mid-1980s to 1999. It was a time of great anxiety and distress for me, but I remember the caution that former LCWR officers urged me to keep in mind: “Do not confuse the personal with the structural.”

So while I feel deep sympathy for the personal toll suffered by these leaders, I also feel deeply troubled by the structural implications of the settlement. I believe the two main pillars of the church’s bureaucracy have been maintained. There is still secrecy and there is still self-silencing.

The LCWR officers spoke honestly and directly with the Vatican representatives, but they did not share these conversations with the media. I believe the matters they discussed affected the whole church, so what was spoken should not have been treated as confidential matter between two parties. Through the media, we in the Catholic community can become informed and learn how to deal with conflict in an adult and Christian way.

LCWR missed a golden opportunity to help move the church hierarchy toward transparency, which is increasingly being called for in civil and ecclesial arenas. Transparency is a means of accountability to the faith community. Instead, LCWR and the doctrinal congregation followed the old model of a closed and secret system — a process that the Vatican has used for centuries to rule and intimidate.

What was said, and who said it, during the three years of discussing the mandate? What was said about the charge of radical feminism or the charge of questioning the hierarchy’s position on women’s ordination and homosexuality? What was said about the charge of silence on the issues of abortion and euthanasia or the charge that some of LCWR’s public statements challenge positions taken by the bishops? How did LCWR handle the congregation’s claim that dissent from the doctrine of the church is not justified as an exercise of the prophetic office because prophecy cannot be directed at the magisterium?

We know nothing that could help us in addressing such accusations in the future. The old system of concealment remains intact.

We know only that the joint final report states that “measures are being taken to . . . avoid statements that are ambiguous with regard to Church doctrine or could be read as contrary to it.”

By putting the mandate and the final report side by side, it seems that the congregation achieved its purpose of bringing LCWR in line with traditional church doctrine.

Even though the oversight process was shortened by two years, I can’t help thinking that LCWR has traded hierarchical oversight for self-silencing. Before the mandate, LCWR was viewed as a safe space where issues, such as women’s priestly ordination and the difficulties of same-sex couples, could be discussed with openness and honesty in an environment free of fear. LCWR now states that it will avoid statements that are ambiguous with regard to church doctrine.

From the Vatican’s perspective, there is no need for oversight. LCWR has silenced itself. The question posed by the National Coalition of American Nuns is one to ponder: “Has LCWR’s mantle of prophecy been exchanged for a Good Housekeeping seal of approval?”

I am grateful for all the time, prayer and energy that the sisters exerted, but I am pained by the outcome. The sisters are good, holy and dedicated women, but I hoped that they would have engaged the old patriarchal structures so that a Second Vatican Council model of church would emerge.

In my encounter with the Vatican, I found much support and encouragement from friends, colleagues, and people to whom and with whom I ministered. They helped me to receive the grace to stop silencing myself. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in sharing my struggles openly, I was able to benefit from the wisdom of the people of God. With so much support from the grassroots and middle management of the church, I think LCWR would have benefited similarly if it had not chosen the path of secrecy and self-silencing.

Openness about the discussions during my own investigative process gave me an immense sense of freedom and a loss of fear that have enabled me to be more honest than I have ever been. I pray that each person will find their own freedom and, in doing so, help the entire church to grow.

[Jeannine Gramick is a Sister of Loretto who has been involved in a pastoral ministry for lesbian and gay Catholics since 1971. She co-founded New Ways Ministry and has been an Executive Coordinator of the National Coalition of American Nuns since 2003.]