VATICAN CITY — In a joint report marking the conclusion of a multiyear mandate for reform, members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) have agreed to corrections called for by the Vatican and said they will continue on the path of dialogue.
“We are pleased at the completion of the mandate, which involved long and challenging exchanges of our understandings of and perspectives on critical matters of religious life and its practice,” Sister Sharon Holland, of the Sisters Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, president of LCWR, said in an April 16 press release.
Officials of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle and officers of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious met at the Vatican April 16.
Although she was unable to attend the Vatican meeting, Sister Sharon said that “we learned that what we hold in common is much greater than any of our differences.”
Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said in the press release, “The congregation is confident that LCWR has made clear its mission to support its member institutes by fostering a vision of religious life that is centered on the Person of Jesus Christ and is rooted in the Tradition of the Church.”
This vision, he said, “makes religious women and men radical witnesses to the Gospel and, therefore, is essential for the flourishing of religious life in the Church.”
Archbishop Sartain, who in 2012 was charged with leading the reform, presented a joint report with members of the LCWR on the implementation of the congregation’s doctrinal assessment and mandate, which was issued in April 2012.
The joint report outlines the process in which the implementation of the mandate has been carried out. With the congregation’s acceptance of the joint report, the Vatican’s doctrinal assessment of the LCWR has come to a close.
Members of the LCWR leadership met with Pope Francis today at 12:15pm, following the official publication of the final report.
With some 1,500 members, the LCWR constitutes about 3% of the 57,000 women religious in the United States. However, the group says it represents 80% of American sisters, since its members are leaders of their respective religious communities.
In April 2012, the Vatican released the findings of a four-year doctrinal assessment of the women’s conference, which found a state of doctrinal crisis within the organization and raised concerns of dissent from Church teaching on topics including homosexuality, the sacramental priesthood and the divinity of Christ.
Among the assessment’s key findings were serious theological and doctrinal errors in presentations at the conference’s recent annual assemblies. Some presentations depicted a vision of religious life incompatible with the Catholic faith or attempted to justify dissent from Church doctrine and showed “scant regard for the role of the magisterium,” the assessment found.
At the same time, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith assigned Archbishop Sartain to oversee the conference’s reform, and he was given a mandate of up to five years to help the LCWR review and revise their statues, formation materials, presentations, events and links with affiliated organizations.
A key topic the report addressed was the mandate’s call for a careful review of the LCWR’s publications and programs to ensure that they are faithful to Church teachings.
The conference said that the nature of their publications is intended to address spiritual matters rather than engage in formal theological inquiry, since their audience extends beyond members of the Catholic Church.
However, because of the “vital link between spirituality and theology” as well as the goal to both inspire and grow as women religious, the report consented that all of their publications “need a sound doctrinal foundation.”
“To this end, measures are being taken to promote a scholarly rigor that will ensure theological accuracy and help avoid statements that are ambiguous with regard to Church doctrine or could be read as contrary to it,” the report stated.
It was also noted that a publications advisory committee has been put into place and that all manuscripts will be reviewed by “competent theologians, as a means of safeguarding the theological integrity of the conference.”
The choice of assembly topics and speakers, which has been one of the most contested points of the LCWR’s reform mandate, was also addressed in the report.
In order to stay faithful to their mission and service in the Church, the selection of discussion topics and speakers will be carried out in “a prayerful, thoughtful and discerning manner,” according to the report.
In 2012, the same year the original assessment was released, the conference hosted philosopher Barbara Marx Hubbard, an author and promoter of New Age spirituality, such as “conscious evolution,” as the keynote speaker for the LCWR annual general assembly.
Since then, the concept — which Cardinal Müller cautioned opposes Christian revelation — has been featured heavily in LCWR materials.
“When taken unreflectively,” the cardinal said, the fundamentals of conscious evolution “lead almost necessarily to fundamental errors regarding the omnipotence of God, the incarnation of Christ, the reality of original sin, the necessity of salvation and the definitive nature of the salvific action of Christ in the paschal mystery.”
However, the joint report assures that the LCWR will select speakers and presenters who speak “with integrity and to further the aims and purposes of the conference, which unfold within the wider context of the Church’s faith and mission.”
“When a topic explicitly addresses matters of faith, speakers are expected to employ the ecclesial language of faith,” the report reads.
“When exploring contemporary issues, particularly those which, while not explicitly theological nevertheless touch upon faith and morals, LCWR expects speakers and presenters to have due regard for the Church’s faith and to pose questions for further reflection in a manner that suggests how faith might shed light on such issues.”
The report also announced that LCWR has revised the process for selecting the recipient of its Outstanding Leadership Award, which in 2014 was given to Sister of St. Joseph Elizabeth Johnson — a theologian whom the U.S. bishops have criticized for serious doctrinal errors, including misrepresentations of Church teaching on God.
The joint report also recognized the revision of the LCWR’s statues, which have been changed to clarify the conference’s role as “a public juridic person centered on Jesus Christ and faithful to the teachings of the Church.”
The revised statutes were approved Feb. 6, 2015, with an official decree from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
Other topics emphasized in the report were the importance of celebrating the Eucharist and the need to pray the traditional Liturgy of the Hours prayer in religious communities.
The centrality of a communal process of contemplative prayer practiced at LCWR assemblies and other gatherings, the relationship between LCWR and other organizations and the essential understanding of LCWR as an instrument of ecclesial communion were also discussed.
The report closes with an expression of gratitude for the “clarifying and fruitful conversation” that has taken place throughout the mandate process.
“The very fact of such substantive dialogue between bishops and religious has been a blessing to be appreciated and further encouraged,” it read, and it highlighted the commitment of the LCWR leadership to its “crucial role” in serving the conference, as well as bearing witness to the vocation of religious life.