The recent Vatican decree that put a bishop in charge of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) ought to be viewed as a radical measure -- because it is. Critics might allege that this is episcopal revenge for how these and other Catholic organizations undercut the effort of the bishops to prevent the passage of the Affordable Care Act. The official decree has a jumble of assertions alluding to heresy, including one that says the LCWR had been taken over by “radical feminists.” Whether or not such claims are true, we can be certain that the takeover is based on the totalitarian conception of episcopal power.
Persons of my generation may remember that when the Communists still ruled Poland, the political scholar, the Polish-born Zbigniew Brzezinski (“Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy,” 1956) noted the similarity in the claims to totalitarian power of both the Catholic Church hierarchy and the Communist Party. Under the inspiration of the saintly Blessed John XXIII, the council, however, set about the recasting of power within the church so as to reject the authoritarian claims derived from history when absolute monarchy held sway. It adopted collaboration and democracy as new models for church power. Permission was given for self-governance for the religious women (“sisters” are canonically different from “nuns”), and the LCWR was a result. Rather than be “under” the bishops and priests, sisters and nuns were now to be co-workers, each bringing a special and different gift, or charism, to ministry in Catholic America. The new structure did not emasculate the hierarchy; it only redefined how bishops and sisters came to decisions.