The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith situates the introduction of its doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the section of Pope John Paul II’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata entitled “Sentire Cum Ecclesia” (To Think With the Church).
The eight-page document, published April 18, summarizes the findings of a careful investigation of the LCWR begun in 2008 and has renewal as its primary purpose:
The renewal of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which is the goal of this doctrinal assessment, is in support of this essential charism of religious which has been so obvious in the life and growth of the Catholic Church in the United States.
Recent media coverage has displayed a variety of responses to the doctrinal assessment, and members of the LCWR have issued public responses.
A timely consideration in the midst of these diverse reactions is the perspective of why the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would even undertake such a serious look at the LCWR.
Why spend three years assessing the state of the LCWR and then subsequently mandate a five-year plan of change going forward? This intensive mandate seeking to initiate renewal within the LCWR reflects the Church’s love for consecrated life and is in continuity with the Church’s conciliar and post-conciliar call for renewal of religious life, according to the charism of her founders.
The CDF’s assessment states that it has a “sincere concern for the life of faith” in the various institutes represented by the LCWR. The document identifies that the doctrinal issues of the LCWR reflect a deeper crisis of identity among her members, both in terms of the very essentials of consecrated life and the inseparable communion of consecrated life with the Church.
Such an assessment reflects the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s proper regard and reverence for consecrated life as a gift to the Church and determination to rekindle in the members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious the “lively sense of the Church.”
The CDF, in both investigating and implementing a clear mandate for renewal of the LCWR, bears clear witness to the Church’s responsibility to safeguard religious life in its integrity — for the love of her members and the good of the whole Church. Various conciliar and post-conciliar documents on religious life echo this same ideal.
Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution on the Church, relates that religious life “belongs undeniably” to the Church’s life and holiness:
Being means to and instruments of love, the evangelical counsels unite those who practice them to the Church and her mystery in a special way. It follows that the spiritual life of such Christians should be dedicated also to the welfare of the entire Church (44).
Evangelica Testificatio, the apostolic exhortation on the renewal of religious life issued during the pontificate of Paul VI, highlights the value of religious life in the Church’s tradition and the danger that threats to the integrity of religious life would bear on the Church as a whole:
Without this concrete sign [religious life], there would be a danger that the charity which animates the entire Church would grow cold, that the salvific paradox of the Gospel would be blunted, and that the “salt” of faith would lose its favor in a world undergoing secularization (3).
Pope Paul VI underscores the indispensable relationship between religious life and the Church and how the vitality of religious life is essential to the Church’s mission.
Religious life is thus inseparable from the life of the Church. In continuity with the above conciliar and post-conciliar documents, Pope John Paul II related:
Its universal presence and the evangelical nature of its witness are clear evidence — if any were needed — that the consecrated life is not something isolated and marginal, but a reality which affects the whole Church. … In effect, the consecrated life is at the very heart of the Church as a decisive element for her mission (Vita Consecrata, 36).
Appreciating the Church’s affirmation, love and reverence for the gift of consecrated life is the proper framework for understanding the very purpose of the doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious undertaken by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
It is the Church’s responsibility, assumed in love, to safeguard the beauty and gift of consecrated life at all times. This responsibility is most acute when the integrity of consecrated life begins to diminish, evidenced in this case by clear examples of dissent from the hierarchy and lack of authentic ecclesial communion.
The CDF hopes that, through this mandate, members of the LCWR will awaken to once again “think with the Church.” In so doing, it is the sincere hope that these consecrated religious will rediscover and wholly embrace their vocation in its integrity at the heart of the Church.
Mother Mary Assumpta Long is superior of the
Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Michigan.