ROME, April 25, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) – Despite few in the western world having seen any in the last four decades, the image of the nun as the sweet, selfless and courageous “bride of Christ” is remarkably enduring. And according to U.S. Catholic author, researcher and expert on Catholic religious life in the U.S. Donna Steichen, this “classic” and noble image is now being used knowingly by the LCWR sisters and their supporters as a means of generating public sympathy in their fight with the Vatican.

Last week the media and the “progressive” end of the Catholic Church reacted with outrage to the announcement by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) is to be reformed after a doctrinal investigation found that their focus had turned more towards radical feminist politics than their Catholic religious foundations.

The picture being manufactured by sympathetic media, including the Washington Post, Huffington Post, and Independent, closely following the lead of the National Catholic Reporter and America, the two main organs of the extreme Catholic left in the U.S., is that of an epic struggle between a tyrannical, overbearing, “out of touch,” Vatican, and a group of plucky, underdog sisters, fighting a guerilla battle for intellectual and moral liberty: a theme one Catholic blogging wag has described as an endless recap of the plot to Star Wars.

That this shopworn theme is a deliberate falsehood, Steichen says, is what Catholics should first understand when reading either the secular mainstream coverage of the affair or the sisters’ own comments.

“This spin,” she said, “is omnipresent, always interesting, and often unintentionally comic. But however maliciously intended, I think it contains an element of nostalgia. It proves the irresistible attraction of goodness. Not even the liberal mainstream media can fail to see its beauty.”

Dressed in a flowing habit and devoting her life to educating children and building hospitals, or gliding serenely down spotless convent hallways and singing Gregorian chant in Latin: the classic image of the nun is less stereotype than it is archetype, a cultural icon of everything good and holy and true, and it is as much beloved by media as it is by Catholics.

Steichen told LSN that the only trouble with this picture is that the “good sisters” made in the image of this archetype are mostly an artifact of U.S. history and are now nearly extinct. LCWR represents about 80 percent of the 57,000 religious sisters in the U.S., with an average age of 74 and climbing. With the exception of a handful of young, deliberately faithful, countercultural, and largely recently-founded communities, the LCWR nuns and sisters have abandoned not only the habit that symbolized their devotion, but the faith that defined it, she said.

Donna Steichen spent 10 years researching feminism in the Catholic Church, and particularly in the Catholic religious life since the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. The result was what many consider the definitive book on the political and philosophical origins of the collapse of the U.S. religious life, entitled Ungodly rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminisim,” published by Ignatius Press in 1991.

The religious core of Catholic sisterhoods was replaced decades ago, she told LSN, by an extreme left political ideology manifested in a feminism that has grown increasingly radical and bizarre, and in recent years, infused with New Age and occult practices that have nothing to do with Catholicism.

Starting in the 1960s and ‘70s the sisters leaped on the bandwagon of the broader social and sexual revolution, attending workshops in the Human Potential Movement and “alternative” spirituality, taking classes in Marxist theory, abandoning their customs as well as the habit, and taking up the mantras of the Esalen Institute and, most significantly, of academic feminism.

Even worse, the sisters then took these ideologies and practices and started feeding them through the conduits of their educational institutions to infect the mainstream of Catholic Church in the U.S. The result, Steichen said, has been “the suffering of innocent people, in injustice, lost faith, and collapsed institutions.”

The Vatican’s attempt at reform is 40 years overdue, but unlikely to rescue either LCWR or the communities it represents from impending extinction, she said. The good news is what sounds like bad news: “It is evident to all observers that the feminist contingent of women religious is indeed dying out, what with that mean age of 74.”

But just what is so bad about feminism? One lady commenting on last week’s LSN story about the Vatican’s doctrinal assessment accused Cardinal Levada of outright lies: “HOW could a nun be an extreme liberal feminist? It doesn’t seem likely.”

“The misunderstanding arises from failure to define the term ‘feminism,’” Steichen said. “Feminists themselves avoid clearly defining it, so the general public accepts the rosy impression cultivated by advocates in media and academia; that the term simply means recognition that women are full and equal members of the human race who can do anything men can do.”

But this is a bit of public relations sleight of hand, she said. “Feminism is an ideology, and it is designed to destroy the family as the basic unit of society.” That ideology, she said, encompasses an entire universal outlook that, once adopted by an individual, ultimately totally eclipses any religious notions about the nature of human life, sexuality, family, the purpose of the state and finally, the nature of God.

Anyone interested, Steichen said, in investigating the origins of academic and radical feminism have to look no further than the social writings of Freidrich Engels, colleague of Karl Marx, who wrote that ultimately, the communist view of the family as a sub-unit of the state, would overrule the traditional Judeo-Christian view. Its ugliest fruit, she said, is abortion, which the ideology regards as an absolute necessity to separate womanhood from motherhood.

Feminism, Steichen said, is “detestable” because it is “so demeaning of women.”

“It denies the value of their natural role, urging them to trade it for the shabby substitutes of paid participation in the work force.

“Religious feminism is worst of all, because it further demands that women cease to recognize God’s eternal order. Like [Planned Parenthood founder] Margaret Sanger, it commands women to serve ‘no Gods, no masters’. Which somehow comes to mean ‘except feminist ideology’.”

Steichen suggests that those who are outraged at the Vatican examine some of the speeches made by speakers at LCWR’s annual conferences, many of which are available on their website. These speakers were specifically cited in the CDF’s document as problematic. One, Sr. Laurie Brink, was particularly noted as flagrantly denying the Divinity of Christ when she gave the LCWR keynote address in 2007, telling the sisters that to maintain their “prophetic” place in society they needed to “go beyond” the Church and even “go beyond Jesus.”

The CDF, Steichen said, is echoing the long-deferred feelings of many U.S. Catholics when it noted that these types of statements, endorsed many times by LCWR, “is a challenge not only to core Catholic beliefs; such a rejection of faith is also a serious source of scandal and is incompatible with religious life.”

Set to offer the keynote address at this year’s assembly in August is Barbara Marx Hubbard, a New Age guru, who is scheduled to speak on the theme, “Mystery Unfolding: Leading in the Evolutionary Now”.

A sample of Marx Hubbard’s writing gives a flavour of what the LCWR is looking for in a speaker:

Although we may never know what really happened, we do know that the story told in the Gospels is that Jesus’ resurrection was a first demonstration of what I call the post-human universal person. We are told that he did not die. He made his transition, released his animal body, and reappeared in a new body at the next level of physicality to tell all of us that we would do what he did. The new person that he became had continuity of consciousness with his life as Jesus of Nazareth, an earthly life in which he had become fully human and fully divine. Jesus’ life stands as a model of the transition from Homo sapiens to Homo universalis.

Despite the evidence being available at the click of a mouse, Steichen said, a great many Catholics still refuse to believe that the nuns have gone so far off the deep end.

Asked whether the Vatican’s reform plans will have the desired effect, Steichen remains dubious. “Will this process ‘work’? As a matter of fact, I do not expect mass repentance and re-conversion. In my experience, repentance is rare among ideologues of religious feminism.

“And I would be more hopeful about the prospect of institutional reform if the implementation were to be directed from the Vatican, or if the bishops assigned to head the USCCB ‘reform’ were men with sterner reputations. We need to pray for everyone concerned.”

She noted, however, that the mere fact that the attempt is being made at last “serves important purposes.”

“After decades of leniency toward them, it puts the Church officially on record as condemning the errors of radical feminism, New Age monism, and general doctrinal defiance. It must succeed in warning Catholic educational and professional institutions and organizations to enforce doctrinal orthodoxy even from women in positions of power.

“If the attempt fails, their continued defiance will be so salient as to force the Vatican into further disciplinary action. In either case, it is another signal that the era of post-concilar upheaval is over.”

As for the prediction, made by the UK’s Independent, that Rome is facing a “PR disaster” with the reform attempt, Steichen said, “Hostile voices in media will do their best to make it so, but among faithful Catholics, it is more likely to be a PR triumph.