The announcement Monday that Pope Francis had reaffirmed the doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious forces those on the left to reconsider their expectations. Yes, yes, I know. The doctrinal assessment was handled badly. Yes, the assessment was hatched stateside by priests and prelates without the courage to do the task themselves. Yes, the relationship of power between the bishops and the sisters is a large one and, for the sisters, it is understandable that any investigation will be welcomed as an attack. But if you find yourself loving Pope Francis and you cannot dismiss him as many on the left dismissed Benedict XVI, and he is willing to see the process through, I think you have to ask yourself if it is time for you to reassess your own prejudices in this regard: Maybe there really are doctrinal difficulties at the LCWR. I gotta tell you, they lost me with that choice of a keynote speaker who wants to "move beyond Jesus." But the oversight proposed as a remedy by the Vatican was entrusted to Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, who is a very good man, and in this case it is perhaps more significant that he is a kind man. With or without a new pope, I suspect Sartain and the LCWR will find a way to move forward together.
This got him a lot of backlash in the NCR comboxes, some of it centered around his use of the phase they lost me with that choice of a keynote speaker who wants to "move beyond Jesus." when the speaker had in fact listed moving beyond Jesus as only one of four options for religious communities. However, Winters instead doubled down on his critique:
I was criticized, both in the comments and by emails from people I respect for my post which included an inadequate characterization of Sr. Laurie Brink’s keynote address at an LCWR conference which, in turn, became one of the items mentioned in the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR.I covered some other LCRW keynote speaker loopiness in these pages last year.
The key sentence I wrote, and regret, was this: “I gotta tell you. They lost me with that choice of a keynote speaker who wants to ‘move beyond Jesus.’” Sr. Brink did not, in fact, say she wants to “move beyond Jesus” and it was sloppy shorthand for me to say that she did.
I decided it was a good idea to go back and re-read Sr. Brink’s talk and, unfortunately, I must say that it is even worse than my mischaracterization suggested. It is true that she did not advocate moving beyond Jesus. It is also true that the speech, in its entirety, is not only the kind of theological talk that is likely to catch the attention of the CDF, it is the kind of theological talk that deserves to catch the attention of the CDF.
Sr. Brink begins her talk by expressing her enthusiasm for post-modernism. “One of the benefits of Post-Modernism—the wholesale critique of modernity and its reliance on objectivity and western assumptions that there is one obtainable ‘Truth’— is that we are more readily able to recognize the place of subjectivity. If you and I look at the same cluster of clouds, we will doubtlessly see something different. It might look like a giant hand to me, but a spreading tree to you. Post-modernism allows that both you and I are correct. We are simply viewing the same thing through a different lens.” Of course, I share Sr. Brink’s distaste for modernity’s over-reliance on the power of Cartesian reason, but I do not respond to this distaste by ordering an entrée of post-modernist drivel. I respond, as I think Christians must, by discerning a deeper understanding of reason, one that is open to revelation and, just so, to the Paschal Mystery in which objectivity and subjectivity are brought together in the person of Jesus Christ.
Sr. Brink writes this about the four possible directions in which religious life is moving in the U.S. “In light of my own experience, conversations with myriad other religious and critical reflection on the signs of the times, I can recognize four different general ‘directions’ in which religious congregations seem to be moving. Not one of the four is better or worse than the others. The difficulty lies not in the directions themselves but in getting the congregation as a whole to discern together the best approach and to commit together to that end.” The “moving beyond Jesus” theme is one of these “four different general directions.” So, while it is true that at the end of her talk, she advocates a different direction, here, in setting out the four general directions, she affirms that “Not one of the four is better or worse than the others. The difficulty lies not in the directions themselves…” So, yes, she does not say that “moving beyond Jesus” is for her, but, trapped in her post-modern paradigm, moving beyond Jesus is no better or worse than not moving beyond Jesus. My friends – this is the dictatorship of relativism.