G. K. Chesterton on the LCWR: The Geriatric Hippie Nuns Meet Their Match

There was a great deal wrong with the world in 1905, so much so that G. K. Chesterton felt compelled to write a collection of essays titled aptly enough What’s Wrong With the World? Fans of Chesterton who have the good fortune to peruse this volume will likely experience repeated bouts of déjà vu as they recall the most recent headlines from around the globe. Although the Apostle of Common Sense would undoubtedly find plenty of things gone amiss in our world were he alive today, none, I am convinced, would he find as disconcerting as the trend among some religious orders and organizations to socialize the gospel. Among the worst offenders is the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), a group whose orthodoxy has become so questionable that the Vatican has intervened by requesting a doctrinal assessment of the organization.

So what would Chesterton find wrong with the LCWR?

In its quest to socialize the gospel, the LCWR has committed what Chesterton dubbed “the first great blunder of sociology,” which is “the habit of exhaustively describing a social sickness, and then propounding a social drug.” Hence, visitors to the LCWR’s Web site will find no shortage of articles calling for action on an array of socio-political issues ranging from clean energy to corporate corruption. Members of the LCWR are encouraged, among other things, to protect the earth’s fragile wetlands, to promote clean energy, to support the Occupy Wall Street movement, even to boycott Walmart because of the company’s association with sweatshop labor. Notably absent, however, are admonitions to proclaim repentance or to defend the life of the unborn or to protect the sanctity of marriage.

Now, I think Chesterton would have been more than happy to befriend the wetlands had he known they needed befriending; I also believe that, notwithstanding his fondness for cigars, he would have endorsed reasonable measures to promote clean and sustainable energy. What the Curmudgeon of Catholicism would have vehemently denounced, however, is the LCWR’s conflation of sin and sociology such that the gospel becomes essentially a clarion call to social action, and sin is redefined to encompass only those perceived injustices committed by the collectives in power. This is not the gospel Chesterton embraced, nor is it the gospel Christ entrusted to his apostles.

When St. Peter delivered his first sermon on the day of Pentecost, he preached neither to governments nor to corporations, but to individuals. “Repent,” he boldly proclaimed, “and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ…. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:38-39). Peter’s message was intensely spiritual, focusing on the unique role of Christ in God’s plan of salvation. Absent is any mention of the oppressive taxation to which he and his audience were subjected. Absent is any reference to the brutal Roman occupation of the Palestinian land that he and his fellow Jews held dear. Absent is any talk of slavery or of war or of political corruption, all of which had reached proportions that would make the concerns of our current world pale in comparison. The slavery with which Peter was most concerned was slavery to sin. The corruption he and the other apostles cared about most was corruption of the heart.

The apostles had been entrusted with proclaiming the good news of salvation, and while they certainly were not indifferent to the socio-political turmoil around them and the human suffering it inevitably produced, they realized their great commission was not to reform society but to reconcile man with God. Once that occurred, society would reform itself.

In addition to being spiritual, St. Peter’s Pentecost sermon was both personal and familial in that it was directed to individuals and their offspring (“For the promise is to you and to your children…”). Addressed neither to empires nor to municipalities, the apostle’s message targeted that most humble of institutions—the family. As the Catechism reminds us, the family constitutes a singularly privileged unit of society, one that is rightly called a “domestic church” (2204). Sadly, however, proponents of the modern social gospel have neglected to honor this sacred institution, thereby undermining its importance as well as its utility, for indeed, as Chesterton lamented, “Socialists are specially engaged in mending (that is, strengthening and renewing) the state; [but] they are not specially engaged in strengthening and renewing the family.”

Unfortunately, judging from its public statements, the LCWR doesn’t appear to be all that concerned with directly strengthening and renewing the family either, except in a roundabout way, to the extent that a big government, a clean environment, a peaceful globe, and the demise of Walmart might lead to stronger families. To its credit, the LCWR has voiced support for a balanced immigration policy that would reunite the families of undocumented immigrants. Other than this commendable support, the LCWR has been notably silent in advocating the traditional family as a privileged community foundational to our larger society and essential to the preservation and transmission of the gospel.

According to its own statement of purpose, the LCWR’s Global Concerns Committee “initiates resolutions and activities that forward a social justice and peace agenda, especially on issues that impact women and children.” What, however, could the LCWR possibly believe to be more important for a child than to grow up in a stable family with both a mother and a father who have entered into a sacramental covenant and made Christ the head of their household? What social justice or peace agenda is served when our nation’s largest organization of women religious remains completely silent about the holocaust that has claimed the lives of tens of millions of unborn children and psychologically scarred an equal number of women?

Not only has the LCWR failed to advocate on behalf of the unborn, it has shown a reluctance even to acknowledge an unborn child’s absolute right to life. When asked in an NPR interview about the LCWR’s stance on abortion, Sister Pat Farrell, president of the conference, replied: “Our works are very much pro-life. We would question, however, any policy that is more pro-fetus than actually pro-life. If the rights of the unborn trump all of the rights of all of those who are already born, that is a distortion, too—if there’s such an emphasis on that.” I’m not sure exactly what that is supposed to mean, but as best I can tell, the import is this: We’re not really pro-life in the conventional sense of the term, but we oppose war and poverty, and we support universal healthcare, so in a reinvented sense we can call ourselves pro-life.

Herein lies another problem with the LCWR that Chesterton had the prescience to see more than a century ago: the tendency of modern Socialist groups to obfuscate language in a way that conceals their real agenda. As Chesterton remarks in a chapter titled “The New Hypocrite:”  “It is not merely true that a creed unites men. Nay, a difference of creed unites men—so long as it is a clear difference. A boundary unites.” He then adds, “Our political vagueness divides men, it does not fuse them. Men will walk along the edge of a chasm in clear weather, but they will edge miles away from it in a fog. So a Tory can walk up to the very edge of Socialism, if he knows what is Socialism. But if he is told that Socialism is a spirit, a sublime atmosphere, a noble, indefinable tendency, why, then he keeps out of its way; and quite right too.”

Such gobbledygook resembles the sort of doublespeak that the LCWR routinely generates in an effort to question the magisterium while attempting to maintain a safe harbor from critics within the church who themselves question the group’s orthodoxy. Rather than risk an outright confrontation with the Vatican by questioning the church’s teaching on human sexuality, for example, the LCWR tells the public that “the teaching and interpretation of the faith can’t remain static and really needs to be reformulated, rethought in light of the world we live in.” And instead of forthrightly admitting that their obedience to the pope has limits, the group’s leadership tells us that they will continue discussions with Archbishop Sartain “as long as possible, but will reconsider if LCWR is forced to compromise the integrity of its mission.”  Exactly how they believe the Vatican might compromise their integrity I am not sure. One thing seems clear, however, despite the opaque rhetoric: the LCWR is drawing a line in the sand (though precisely where that line is, it either doesn’t know or won’t say) and is letting it be known that it can be pushed around only so far (though just how far, it either doesn’t know or will not say).

As a man of unparalleled common sense, G. K. Chesterton valued honest, straightforward debate, regardless of how lively it might become. Moreover, as one who regarded dogma as man’s chief intellectual pursuit, he was willing to show respect even for the opinion of his most vociferous opponent—provided, that is, his opponent was straightforward and equally dogmatic. “I am quite ready,” Chesterton said, “to respect another man’s faith; but it is too much to ask that I should respect his doubt, his worldly hesitations and fictions, his political bargain and make-believe.”

Those controlling the LCWR apparently have doubts about the faith of the church and, in as much as they sincerely believe that saving the wetlands and occupying Wall Street are authentic expressions of the gospel, have inadvertently fallen victim to their own game of pretend. Chesterton once said, “I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.”

For decades the LCWR has been assimilating some of the worst elements of our postmodern culture and has been heeding the advice of those who urge it to question church teaching and to cloak its dissent behind a cryptic doublespeak. For the sake of Christ’s kingdom, may the LCWR have the courage to follow Chesterton’s lead: listen respectfully but then go do the exact opposite.

Frank W. Hermann


Frank W. Hermann is an associate professor of English at Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he teaches writing and rhetoric.

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  • Matt

    The LCWR fill an important niche in Catholic teaching by focusing on issues of social justice, including environmental justice. The RCC’s position on global warming and resulting climate change makes the Obama administration look like reactionary conservatives. The LCWR and the USCCB are on the same page in terms of social justice. It was the USCCB that roundly condemned Paul Ryan’s budget plan. Sophomoric name calling (I mean “geriatrics”?) does not minimize the nobility of their very Catholic ideas about social justice. The complaint seems to be that they should focus more on abortion and sexual issues. I agree with Sister Farrell when she suggests that being pro-life encompasses a greater range of responses than being pro-fetus. I think we’re all pro-fetus. The question becomes, “How do we prevent abortion?” Criminalizing it is unlikely to be effective anymore. Technology has advanced to the point where it’s very easy for women to abort if they so choose — with or without the help of planned parenthood. Women can take a couple of easily available pills, and it’s over. We need to be looking to address the root causes of abortion through such measures as the Ryan-DeLauro bill (proposed by Tim Ryan and Claudia DeLauro). George W. Bush’s CDC actually determined that this bill would reduce abortion rates by 50%. Other studies have suggested that overturning Roe v. Wade would likely only reduce abortion rates by 10%. The LCWR’s proposals would very likely do more to reduce abortion rates than draconian pro-rich measures that hurt the poor.

    • T.S.

      Matt, Two reactionary thoughts:

      1: There is a pedagogical aspect to law. To legally allow abortions is to say
      abortions are okay, that they are morally permissible. You clearly agree that it is not okay, that
      abortions are not good actions. Our nation’s
      legal stance, as well as our cultural stance, on abortion is wrong.

      2: Presenting percentages in arguments about abortion
      prevention is misleading. The great
      crime here is in the murder of the uniquely created individual child, who
      possesses the dignity of God. It is the
      tragedy of this holocaust that countless numbers of individuals have fallen
      victim to it without a voice under the protection of our legal code. Our laws in this regard ought to at least
      attempt to protect the lives of the silenced millions for the dignity of each
      one of them, not simply because there are so many.

      • PaulBot 1138

        I would take exception to the first:
        To allow something does not give any endorsement of its moral permissibility. There are a great many things the law allows, and rightly should, that are morally impermissible. To allow legally what is not allowed morally is simply an outgrowth of the humility of the lawgivers in acknowledging that they, too, are fallen men, and that men must be permitted to take real responsibility for their moral decisions.
        Where the allowance of legal abortion fails is in the lawgivers’ refusal to fulfill this aspect of their proper role – the protection of the innocent. Along with theft and fraud, violence is one of the few human behaviors governments are legitimately established to protect its people from. By legally allowing the wholesale slaughter – for sheer convenience of others – of the most innocent and defenseless among us, those in power are betraying their duty to their constituents.
        Making equivocation on the opposition to abortion is nothing less than a refusal to protect the innocent by someone in whom this very responsibility is invested.

    • MarkRutledge

      Matt, the “pro-fetus” argument is absurdly false and you know that. Spend a modicum of time around a Catholic diocese and you will find immense resources available by the donation of time and resources for young mothers. I can only conclude that those who don’t see the billboards, bumper stickers, ads, articles, etc. are wilfully ignorant.

    • DDPGH

      Matt, there is a time for triage, a time to save the weakest first. For the thousands of women walking into, or most often, being frog-walked into (read: multifaceted pressure), the death chamber of her unborn child, societal fixes are in the distant past for her, impotent to save them or their children in the next critical hour. What could save a woman’s child, and herself, and the father of her child, is a memory and educative effect of loud voices, from every enlightened individual and group, a ubiquitous, clearly audible, life-giving message, that abortion is the only violent solution to a very real crisis, and that nonviolently choosing life is exactly that: life! For any social justice group to not join in making that life-giving message audible and ubiquitious is a moral failure to fight for the very lives of the poorest of the poor – the literally voiceless unborn, and for their mothers who themselves wlll continually suffer the consequences of this moral failure of social justice groups.
      Triage – the majority and most urgent effort to save human beings being killed even at this moment. Other efforts on other social justice fronts must and do continue, but this effort first, and most faithfully, fought.

  • joannespetrus

    GKC would probably have assumed the LCWR to have been a railway company.

  • Adam_Baum

    I find myself in general agreement with this essay, however it misses an important point.

    One of the outstanding characteristics of these women is that they are relentless at using vacant and evasive euphemisms and neologisms to cloak their visceral political indignations in spiritual terms that are clever, right and right with God, no matter how at odds they are with reality and God.

    Unfortunately, we all self serenade. I noticed the author uses the phrase “undocumented immigrant”, because it suggests a deficiency rather than criminality, and “immigrant” makes entry a foregone conclusion. He also uses the nebulous phrase “balanced immigration policy” as if those three words were self-defining,

    • Adam_Baum

      CORRECTION: that they think are clever, right..

  • Bob Foley

    Well said Mr. Hermann, well said. In a very real sense, Chesterton, now part of the Church Triumphant no doubt, still lends to us his brilliance and guidance.

  • Clare

    There’s no question mark at the end of “What’s Wrong With The World.” It’s not a question.

    • Augustus

      On my Sheed and Ward copy from 1942, there is, in fact, a question mark.


    Bottom line: ” Notably absent, however, are admonitions to proclaim repentance or to defend the life of the unborn or to protect the sanctity of marriage.” However, the post is poorly titled – “geriatric….” as though that is significant. Sanctity and stupidity come at all ages. If you want to observe that this ill-formed generation is dying out, you could just say that.

    • PaulBot 1138

      Copy editors are often responsible for headlines rather than the article writers themselves. I have no specific knowledge about this individual case, but it is likely that Mr. Hermann was not the one who used the term ‘geriatric.’

      • DDPGH

        No one has claimed that Mr Hermann was responsible for the post title. Crises, however, is.

        • PaulBot 1138

          Apologies, I did not intend to accuse you of anything. I have written for a paper before, so I know what it is to be tied to a headline I had nothing to do with. I meant only to point out that any offensive terminology used in the headline, which did not appear in the body of the article itself, was likely unintentional, and should not be held against the author.

    • Augustus

      If the editor intended to convey that the generation of nuns that run the LCWR are, in fact, living in the past and are not the future of the Church, what ONE word would you choose if “Geriatric” is so offensive to you? Remember, this is a subtitle, not an academic treatise. The Catholic Left always accuses Orthodox Catholics of living in the Dark Ages. But it is they who are, in many respects, the reactionaries.

      • DDPGH

        Headlines reveal alotabout underlying assumptions, and also too often form public opinion. Specifying age adds nothing to the qualitative evaluation of a subset of the Church whose outlook on social and moral realities is inadequately informed. But specifying age does add to the general societal sense that ‘old’ is somehow causative of stupidity. There is no one word regarding age that could work in this title. Two would suffice: “dying out.”

  • Rebecca

    What an utterly loathsome, dishonest and obfuscating article. Well, dearheart, your circle has the neocons, and a very bad reputation outside of cozy little enclaves like this. Someday we’ll all find out who has Jesus right – the nuns or the old white men who like to own them. And the last shall be first.

    • Mike in KC, MO

      Ah yes, because seeking first the Kingdom of God before seeking Greenpeace or Occupy Wallstreet is TOTALLY a ‘neocon’ thing to do.

      “the old white men who like to own them”
      Your mask slips, and we see the hatred and bigotry hiding beneath it.

      • MarkRutledge

        It is that hatred, Mike, which drives the LCWR as it drives folks like Rebecca.

    • DDPGH

      So how is it just or moral to paint with such a broad brush re ‘old’ ‘white’ ‘men’ and to assume knowledge of what they ‘like’, and finally to accuse them of liking to ‘own’ nuns? How is it moral or just?

    • Captain DG

      “Loathsome” defines itself, but to write “dishonest and obfuscating” begs for some example. What is the author trying to obfuscate? Rebecca, I think you have something to say but you must try to say it. Being angry is not the same as being clear.

    • PMMR Coia

      Thank you, Rebecca. There’s so much verbiage and negativity in this article and the responses. Incredible. Allow the Nuns (intelligent, educated, faithful women) to do their work as they follow their consciences and practice the Gospel. What fine models they are and what good examples they provide. Worry more about the “Institution” Church which so sorely needs love, maintenance, and repair—big-time repair—no need to get into the multitude of sordid details unless you live in a vacuum and are oblivious to it all. As many have said, “Faith is caught much more than it is taught.”

      • fiatlux

        The Church teaches that we must inform our consciences according to the dogmas, doctrines, and magisterial teachings of same Church. Following a badly formed conscience is no excuse for bad behavior. Too often the wholez I am following my conscience” line is simply a self-justification for “I am doing what pleases me.”

        • PMMR Coia

          When you act, do you follow your conscience? Does it please you? Are you sure your conscience is not badly formed? Are you sure you’re not self-justifyig and rationalizing your own behavior? Are you so smug and arrogant that you would judge when another person’s conscience is “badly formed”? Are you really what your words imply– a complete idiot?

          • Truth can be objectively known outside of how we feel. When we identify areas where our personal beliefs seem to contradict what the Church teaches, we are bound to reconcile those differences to form our consciences. A fair question is “what sources is a person using to reconcile those differences?” in the case of the LWCR, they don’t appear to be reconciling with the bishops, instead, it seems they believe they are some kind of alternate authority. To say as much would bring down wrath – and they know it – so they conceal and obsfucate. An example is not cooperating fully with the interviews. The bishops are viewed adversarily. It isn’t a healthy situation.

            • PMMR Coia

              No one likes abortion. Outlawing abortion completely, in all situations, will not prevent abortion. Women and men have free will, and we live in a society that gives them the right to make personal decisions concerning their own bodies. I think that with education, prayer and the help of the Holy Spirit these personal, and difficult, decisions will be the right ones. The use of birth control and Gay rights are separate issues, by the way. The abortion issue is so highly charged, so polarized in our country. Maybe the LWCR (to avoid that polarized quandary) chooses to focus on other very important causes (poverty, education, health care, immigration, the death penalty) for the time being so as to remain engaged and effective. I believe the Nuns, after much discernment, are doing what they believe is right. It may be an unhealthy situation, but it’s also a very interesting one.

  • Always glad to have someone tell me what a noted Christian meant to say or at least what you think he meant to say.

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  • GrahamCombs

    There really isn’t anyting to be done. Anyone who has had any dealings with the Left inside or outside the Church knows that leftists will do exactly as they please and heaven help you if you get in the way. You know what I do about it? I go to mass. It isn’t going to change. And nobody really cares.

    • Some Guy

      Oh yes, and the right is sooo different. Do you really
      think the right has everything figured out? The tea party, and Steubenville and
      Fox News have all lost the sense of Christian charity and have waded into the
      waters of Paul Ryan. There is a reason that Romney and Ryan are losing the
      Catholic vote and the election, in spite of Obama’s views on abortion. If you
      guys would just realize that poor people are poor because of injustice not
      because they are lazy, you might have a chance to win the election. But now,
      with the hate directed at the poor that the right is spewing, you are all sunk.
      Real Catholics what to help the poor, not blame them for being poor.

      • GrahamCombs

        After being on unemployment for a year my benefits ran out three weeks ago. I have enough money for October’s rent. I live three miles from Detroit. A city whose pampered and indulged leadership has led its working class and working poor down a road of desitution, despair, and this summer over 100 murders. They have devasted the schools and looked away from a corrupt police department and unions with all the responsibility of a five year old. Meanwhile in the suburbs of Birmingham, Pleasant Ridge, Ferndale, Grosse Pointe, and Hungtington Wds among others the upper middle classes have spent decades looking the other way. They voted for the right people, declared the right views, and uttered the right phrases of the politically virtuous. And were part of the obstructionist class that gutted the economic value of South East Michigan while they planned their retirement to right-to-work states that don’t collect income tax. Charity with other people’s money.
        And by the way, my parents grew up in Appalachia during the Depression — they were poor, hungry poor, shoeless poor. And in my experience in the eyes of the virtuous left, white trash.

        • Some Guy

          And what is your point?

  • Frank Hermann

    While I fully stand by my claim that the LCWR has attempted to socialize the gospel, I feel, with hindsight, that I went a bit too far in suggesting that the LCWR does not care about families. That was uncharitable of me, and I apologize. On another point, were it not for length constraints, I would have made clear that Chesterton’s opposition to a socialized gospel in no way implies that he would have been any happier with a capitalized gospel. As a firm believer in the principle of subsidiarity, Chesterton opposed both ideologies and even felt that, despite their overt antagonism toward each other, they were actually in cahoots. (And yes, PaulBot is correct about the subtitle. All authors know this.) Peace.
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    • Some Guy

      Subsidiarity must always be set beside solidarity.

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  • Dear Professor Hermann: No need to apologize. Such organizations as the LCWR don’t give a damn about the family you describe. I’m not talking about individual sisters, of course; thank God for muddleheadedness, which allows some of the sisters to blunder into common sense once in a while. When was the last time you caught somebody at the LCWR say one thing, just one thing, about fatherlessness? About the evils of divorce? They will have a lot to answer for, even according to worldly criteria. They have made the worst possible bargain. I mean, it’s one thing to betray the Church in order to become emperor of Rome. But to betray the Church so as to preside over the complete dilapidation of the poor and lower middle class family which you so pretend to favor …

  • Some Guy

    Steubenville is
    not a real school. Hopefully it won’t be long before they lose their accreditation.

  • Gabriel

    Please refrain from attacking our own sisters who are living the gospel in 3D, i.e. with deeds. They work at hospitals, at schools, without discriminating people, assisting people in crisis. Living the gospel not only with words but with good acts of mercy. I admire the work of many sisters. Today my best homily doesn’t come from beautiful empty words, but from acts of love. If you want to control your life do it, but please don-t mess with our sisters, otherwise another exodus of Catholics will leave our temples and collection baskets empty.