Social Mood Conference  |  Socionomics Foundation

By Robert Folsom | June 13, 2012

I have no wish to rush in where angels fear to tread, though I am obliged to call socionomics as I see it. And at the moment, what I see is socionomic analysis as the best way to explain the otherwise vexing chapter of discord today in the Roman Catholic Church.

Specifically: News of the Vatican and Pope Benedict XVI in conflict with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which is the “largest and most influential group of Catholic nuns in the United States.”

The origin of the conflict dates to early 2009, when the Vatican said it would conduct a “Doctrinal Assessment” of the LCWR. That assessment published this past April; it found that certain LCWR activities “present a vision or description of religious life that does not conform to the faith and practice of the church.” It also said the Vatican will impose a five-year plan to oversee the work of the LCWR, to ensure “conformity to the teachings and discipline of the church.”

Since then all heck has been breaking loose. Nuns and Catholic laity across the U.S. appear shocked and inflamed by the Vatican’s action. The LCWR’s reply said the assessment was “based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency.”

Other stories have followed which suggest the conflict is escalating. In what The New York Times called a “spirited retort to the Vatican,” the nuns have organized a nine-state bus tour to “highlight their work with the nation’s poor and disenfranchised.” Last week the Vatican issued a formal censure of a book written by an American nun who taught Christian ethics at Yale’s Divinity School, because her text presented a “theological framework for same-sex marriage…”

These are but a few of the facts that outline a complex story. If my sentiment was with the Vatican, I’d say the nuns have allowed a political point of view to influence the way their carry out their mission. Were my sentiment with the nuns, I’d argue that the Vatican has compromised its moral authority by mishandling the far more grievous sex-abuse scandals.

I could even be just downright confused by this conflict, and wonder why people dedicated to monastic lives of service are in a very public feud.

Yet my personal sentiment can only get in the way of seeing the larger context — and what I can glean by looking for the role of mood. In a time when social mood is in decline, we know that even groups which share a common purpose can become highly polarized. A large body of evidence also tells us that this is when women rise to roles of greater leadership and authority. Then there’s the conspicuous bear-mood struggle between authoritarians and anti-authoritarians…

That book by the nun on Yale’s faculty published back in 2006. Why did the Vatican denounce it now? The LCWR has taken positions that the Vatican disagrees with for decades. Why has the Vatican responded now?

Socionomics offers uniquely insightful answers to these questions, and to many others like them. Learn more by reading Alan Hall’s February 2010 study on polarization, which you’ll find in the all-access archives that are open via a subscription to The Socionomist. Follow this link to begin.

Andrea Dibben contributed research.