Monday, 26 August 2013

LCWR "systems thinking" - the good, the bad and the ugly

Good bad ugly

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) is an umbrella organization founded in 1956 by the Vatican and counting the leaders of 1500 congregations of women religious in the US as its members (spanning over 80% of all nuns and sisters in the country). Between April 2008 and July 2011 it has been under investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which has found “serious doctrinal problems” and “a diminution of the fundamental Christological center and focus of religious consecration which leads, in turn, to a loss of a “constant and lively sense of the Church” among some Religious.” In other words, the CDF are saying that the LCWR are taking Christ out of Christianity …

Among the multiple changes mandated by the CDF, the withdrawal of the LCWR’s “Systems Thinking Handbook” was one that particularly caught my eye, also because there are multiple references to it in the CDF’s doctrinal assessment and because its title alone makes me nervous. And as soon as I started reading it, my expectations were not only met but, sadly, exceeded and I very soon came to reading the text not with a question about whether the CDF were hounding the poor LCWR, but about why they haven’t enforced changes already. Roundabout the same point on my way through the “handbook,” I remembered my Aristotle professor and his admonition to apply the principle of charity when faced with another’s thoughts and it is that alone, which resulted in my take including a “the good” section.1

So, let me start with the slimmest slice from the pie that is this Handbook - the good. Here what I am taking away from having read the 26-page publication is that its motives are good and that the intention behind the methods and attitudes presented in it is to bring about change that goes to the root causes of suffering and injustice:
“This is why it is necessary not only to feed the hungry or house the homeless but also to address the systemic relationships that result in social ills like poverty, homelessness, and hunger.”
Next, let’s move on to the bad (yes, that was it as far as the good is concerned), where the text unfortunately offers far richer pickings.

First, there is a ideologization already of the basic concept of “system” that is at the heart of this Handbook (an odd fact by itself, given the prominence of this text in an organization with canonical status):
“A ‘system’ is an entity that maintains its existence and functions as a whole through the interaction of its parts. The behavior of a system depends on the total structure. The interrelationship among the parts of a system, therefore, must be continually sustained for the system to exist. Systems are purposeful, open, counterintuitive, multidimensional, and have emergent properties not found in any of the parts by themselves. … systems thinking will prevent us from unconsciously employing the same mental models that are causing the problems we want to solve.”
While the first three sentences are pretty vanilla, and essentially paraphrase the opening paragraph of the Wikipedia definition, there is an immediate investment of the term with adjectives like “open” (what about closed systems) and “counterintuitive” (what about a simple system, like that of tea brewing: tea leaves + boiling water --> tea). The paragraph then concludes with an oxymoronic flourish: “systems thinking will prevent us from unconsciously employing the same mental models that are causing the problems we want to solve,” which Freud would have had a lot of fun with.2

Second, there are frequent counterpositions of “Western thought” on the one hand and “Organic thought” on the other, where the former is introduced thus:
“The limits of a short article do not allow for an adequate overview of the development of Western thought. We can safely say, however, that for almost a thousand years, Western thought has interpreted reality from the perspective of a worldview characterized by dualism and hierarchy. […] The ultimate result was a learned inability to think in any other than linear, dualistic, and hierarchical ways when dealing with problems, organizing ideas or work, and in structuring society, church, or our religious congregations. […] This way of seeing reality thus became an unconscious filter for the Western mind, a filter that made it easy to judge immediately what fit or did not fit a particular situation […] The world was stable and sure, a machine-like structure of predetermined and fixed relationships. The human mind could comprehend the universe in its entirety.”
The fault for the above blinkered and recalcitrant nature of “Western thought” is laid at the feet of Plato and Aristotle and all who followed them until the 1960s. The solution put forward by the LCWR is “Organic thought”:
“Th[e] “Organic” mental model prefers to look at wholes instead of parts, at processes instead of substances. [… T]he “Organic” mental model values chaos, connectedness, process, inclusivity, relationship, and a non-linear expression of authority.”
Commenting on the above is quite a stress test for my desire to apply the principle of charity, as a result of which I’d like to suggest that it is dramatically ill-informed and epically naïve. To suggest that Plato (i.e., mostly Plato’s Socrates; not to mention over two millennia of thinkers following him) had a sense of certainty, of the universe being “machine-like” and of “comprehend[ing] the universe in its entirety” is a claim that can only be made in the absence of any direct experience of his and his successors’ thought. In his Apology, Plato’s Socrates famously says “I do not believe that I know anything,” and even the concept of “system,” so central to the LCWR handbook, is extensively dealt with already by Aristotle.3 This is not to mention the importance attributed to the whole and its interrelationships in Christian sources, starting from St. Paul (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:12-26), via St. Hildegard (“God has arranged all things in the world in consideration of everything else.”) and St. Francis (who sings of fraternal relationships with creation) to Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere. To argue that pre-late-20th-century thought was linear, deterministic and endowed with a sense of its own omniscience is simply false and divorced from facts.

Third, there is an attempt to anchor the Hadbook’s approach to Vatican II and specifically to it’s Lumen Gentium, which - it is claimed - “consciously grounded ecclesiology in the holistic image of the “People of God,” rather than in the “top down” definitions of the past […] defined by dualism and hierarchy.” With the principle of charity at breaking point, I can at best see this statement as being an ultra-selective reading of Lumen Gentium that essentially omits its extensive third chapter (“On Hierarchical Structure”) and all of its numerous references to the role of the Church’s hierarchy not only in Lumen Gentium but also in all of the other Vatican II documents. No matter how hard I try, I cannot even chalk this up to the authors of the Handbook having missed some subtle in-between-the-lines content, as Lumen Gentium states quite directly that: “Bishops […] presid[e] in place of God over the flock, whose shepherds they are, as teachers for doctrine, priests for sacred worship, and ministers for governing. […] In the bishops, therefore [… Jesus], is present in the midst of those who believe.” Pretty hard to read this as a “holistic,” a-hierarchical twist versus the preceding 2000 years of the Church’s nature.

Finally, let’s turn to the “ugly,” where, I’m afraid, my threadbare principle–of–charity gloves may not be too effective anymore. While the above is confused and both theologically and philosophically lacking both in breadth and comprehension, the most serious issue with the Handbook is the following passage:
“[Sisters g]rounded in [“Western mind”] theology […] believe that the celebration of Eucharist is the summit of worship and at the core of what holds us together as a group. [… Sisters] situated within [an “Organic” mental model] believe that the celebration of Eucharist is so bound up with a church structure caught in negative aspects of the Western mind they can no longer participate with a sense of integrity [… and] believe that as long as men control women’s lives, there will be no justice. […]

Since so much of our identity is bound up with shared theological assumptions manifested in group behaviors and practices, who we are as a group can be called into question if we do not believe the same things. The function of ritual is to bring to visibility our deepest beliefs through symbolic word and action. Tension over which symbolic acts and words to use reveals differences at the level of belief. Such differences call into question our identity at the core of who we are. They push us to ask, “Is there something at the heart of who we are which is beyond a common Eucharistic theology and which holds us together?””
Err … No! For a Catholic to suggest that there may be something beyond the Eucharist as a means of bringing about unity is simply nonsensical. The Church is (as in identity) the Mystical Body of Christ and “[r]eally partaking of the body of the Lord in the breaking of the Eucharistic bread, we are taken up into communion with Him and with one another. “Because the bread is one, we though many, are one body, all of us who partake of the one bread”. In this way all of us are made members of His Body, “but severally members one of another”.” At least that is how Lumen Gentium (the only magisterial document referred to by the LCWR) puts it. And, no, it doesn’t then go on to say “or whatever else you might like to do instead” …

The above passage does another, worrying thing - i.e., it suggests that a problem with the Eucharist is that it is an instance of “men control[ling] women’s lives.” Would the authors of the Handbook have objected to receiving the Eucharist out of Jesus’ hands at the Last Supper? Would they have turned to him and said: “Sorry, mate, we won’t let you control us and deprive us of justice!” Maybe …

The ugly thing here, to my mind, is not so much that the LCWR leadership publishes a text like this Handbook, but that it considers their views to be consistent with “the Gospel of Jesus,” justified by Vatican II teaching and acceptable in the context of a Vatican-incorporated body. While their intentions are good, their reasoning is deeply flawed and their beliefs about the Eucharist are categorically not Catholic. This is unquestionably not a case of the CDF oppressing nuns, but instead a crystal clear case of an institution with canonical status having gone off the rails and placed their beliefs outside the Church (and done so with some margin). I sincerely hope that the women religious they claim to represent either leave the LCWR (if they don’t share its beliefs) or openly declare their loss of Catholic orthodoxy.

1 In what follows, I will only reflect on the content of this publication and I have no intention to make inferences about the work of women religious in the US, about the doctrinal positions of the congregations whose leaders are members of the LCWR or about how the CDF have managed their investigation.
2 The rest of the Handbook is peppered with plentiful displays of naïveté, such as a section entitled “The Need to See Things as They Really Are” or the list of the “Laws of Systems Thinking” of which I’d just pick out these three: “6. Faster is slower,” “9. Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants,” and “10. There is no blame” :|.
3 E.g., see the following quote from his Politics: “the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand, except in an equivocal sense, as we might speak of a stone hand; for when destroyed the hand will be no better than that.”