On April 16 of this year, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) accepted a joint statement from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and the three bishops mandated by the CDF to help reform the LCWR: Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., and Archbishop Leonard Blair of Hartford, Conn.

That statement acknowledged the agreement of LCWR to make corrections defined in a 2012 CDF mandate that was based on a doctrinal assessment of the organization. When the agreement was accepted last month, the CDF asked all parties to wait at least 30 days before speaking to the press.

The LCWR officers issued a “Statement of the LCWR Officers on the CDF Doctrinal Assessment and Conclusion of the Mandate” on May 15. That same day, the Register spoke with the LCWR president, Sister Sharon Holland, vice president of her order, the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters of Monroe, Mich.


The LCWR statement indicates that the LCWR’s prayerful approach to dealing with the mandate helped to understand the concerns of the CDF and to clarify LCWR’s conviction about its mission. Could you articulate that mission?

The mission of the LCWR as a conference of major superiors is to assist its members in fulfilling the mission of their respective institutes, always respecting their autonomy, their distinctive charism, and to work in collaboration in the mission of the Church and also to facilitate collaboration with the bishops’ conference.


The statement also acknowledges there were difficulties in the discussions between LCWR leaders and the apostolic delegates, and in spite of the media blackout, that sense of difficulty was apparent to outsiders. The statement indicates that LCWR stayed in the conversation mainly because of Archbishop Sartain’s manner of respect and care.

Could you identify more specifics about a breakthrough that enabled a meeting of the minds? Some people, especially those of us in the media charged with writing about this topic, had the sense that your election as president of LCWR had a great deal to do with the change in climate and the eventual agreement. Is that the case?

Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that! Archbishop Sartain’s approach was enormously helpful because he listened and asked questions so that he could better understand how we had perceived the mandate of the [Second] Vatican Council to renew. But I don’t believe there was any single turning point in this. But there was a progression over the three years from 2012 to the present, a progression in mutual understanding and trust that gradually built through our dialogue, our times of prayer and reflection. It built toward the conclusion that seemed to some people to come abruptly, but for us came over a long, slow, careful process.


The LCWR statement says that dialogue between the bishops and LCWR gave a “clearer understanding of and appreciation for our differences.” Could you name some of the differences between LCWR and the CDF delegates that were discussed?

One thing that kept coming out was: We had been perceived as not being faithful to the Church, and we didn’t see ourselves that way at all. And gradually, I think, it became evident that we realized we were all working out of a space of love of the Church, concern for the mission that Christ entrusted to the Church, and that by our conversations we came to recognize that in each other.

Sometimes the opinions of individual religious were perceived as being an opinion or stance of the conference, which obviously is not fair, any more than the words of one bishop necessarily are what the entire [bishops’] conference says. So it was a growth in understanding.


Would you say that by the time you came to the agreement that those differences were pretty well resolved? Or was it more of a case of recognizing legitimate differences in both parties?

Probably some of each. As long as there are human beings, there will be differences of opinions. But we were satisfied that we had come to sufficient mutual understanding to make that joint final report. We arrived at that joint statement that we were all working out of a spirit of prayer, love for the Church, mutual respect and cooperation. These things grew, and we came to a point that the mandate had been fulfilled. Relationships and mutual understanding will have to be kept open by ongoing dialogue.


Speaking of the mandate, the LCWR statement reiterates the feeling of being “humiliated” by “false accusations” in the CDF mandate. Could you give a couple of specific examples of what LCWR considered to be the false accusation?

The same [CDF] document had the doctrinal assessment and the consequent mandate to the bishops. And in the assessment there are things like: the conference standing against the Church’s teaching on men’s ordination, on abortion, standing for radical feminism — some things like that, which are very generic and about which the conference has never taken a stand or made a public statement. Individuals may have said something sometime; it’s that kind of thing.

What is offensive to us was the suggestion that our life wasn’t based on Christ; that’s what we’re all about.


Regarding the theological review of the LCWR publications mentioned in the joint report, have you determined yet who will be the theologians who will be reviewing the publications and what the criteria will be used?

I don’t have details on that. The LCWR Publications Advisory Committee are the people who are responsible for the publications, and I don’t know that they necessarily would always use the same theologian — it might depend on what the topics were and their expertise in that area.

But we are anxious, as we said in various statements, that our publications really have high quality. Even though they are more about spirituality and leadership than strictly theological topics, we want them to be clear and accurate, quality publications for our members and for the other people who read them.


The mandate specifically pointed out the “Systems Thinking Handbook,” and I notice that has been removed from the LCWR website. Are there revisions being done on publications like that, which are long-standing publications?

I don’t know if that publication is being revised; I doubt that it is, for it was quite dated, and we have other programs now to assist members in the development of leadership skills, and there are various programs they can attend or work with online that help with leadership.


Did the bishops point out specific places in publications that had doctrinal errors? Are you aware of doctrinal errors in past publications?  

Not specifically. I run the same risk — I’m a canonist — and if I read something which has a vagueness in canon law, I react. So a professional theologian might read something in the area of contemporary spirituality and find it inadequate as a theological expression. So it’s a delicate balance.

I’m not really aware of specific theological errors, but I suspect a professional theologian might read with a different eye and be more sensitive to things that maybe if I were reading it I wouldn’t see as error. So we are trying to work on having things clear and understandable for people who are reading them, who, of course, mostly are not professional theologians, although some are.


You mentioned using different criteria for which theologians might look over a publication. The mandate also said there should be more care in selecting LCWR speakers. Do you have a committee set up for that? How will you go about deciding that in the future in a way that’s different from the past?

I probably can’t tell you clearly about the processes because a lot of work is done at the central offices by specific groups responsible. For example, in the planning of an assembly, planners look for a speaker who might be able to develop that theme.


Are those groups given specific oversight or guidance by the leadership as to when a speaker is appropriate or not?

I really don’t know exactly what goes into correspondence; we will all have seen what this [joint report] says about being in harmony with the faith, but we don’t actually do that kind of contact and correspondence. The planning for the assembly does come through the board and the executive, and I can tell you there is careful concern for who speaks, but I can’t tell you the details of the process because I don’t know; I’m not involved at that level. 


The statement says that LCWR is seen as “an organization that responsibly raises questions on matters of conscience, faith and justice.” The CDF mandate indicated that, in doing so, LCWR came into conflict with some moral teachings of the Church. Do you feel that LCWR did in fact question or misrepresent some Church teachings?

I would have to say No; I don’t feel that way. I think that could be a case again of an individual speaker having said something that would be understood in that way, but that doesn’t make it a stand of the conference. I’ve heard things where, in a question-and-answer period, someone makes a somewhat spontaneous remark that really wasn’t a part of the presentation that he or she made, and someone latches onto it and uses it as an example of infidelity to the Church. What a speaker says maybe inadvertently in a question-and-answer period can’t be taken as a stance of the conference.


The LCWR statement says, “The collective exploration of the meaning and application of key theological, spiritual, social, moral and ethical concepts must be an ongoing effort for all of us in the world today.” Some people would interpret this as an assertion that it is not solely the Pope and the bishops in communion with him who define doctrine, but that laity also have a role in doing so. Is that what this sentence means?

Entering into exploration of the meaning and application of theology and of doctrine is not a matter of defining doctrine. No, we know we don’t define doctrine, but the theologians explore the implications of doctrine. There has to be thinking and exploration, or the Church would remain in some other century.

We know we aren’t the ones [to define doctrine], but the whole argument of the development of doctrine has been going on for a very long time in the Church. And Blessed John Henry (Cardinal) Newman argued that doctrine has to develop, and laity are involved in thinking, but the hierarchy does the defining of doctrine. So I think we know our place there, but we have to keep thinking, too.


The CDF mandate directed “greater emphasis” on the relationship between LCWR and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. What steps will be taken to accomplish that?

The LCWR, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men all participate with representatives of the bishops’ conference in what is now called the Commission on Religious Life and Ministry that brings the four conferences together through their representatives annually in November in discussion of various topics. That is one piece with the four conferences, so it has to be applicable for all.


Will there be anything else over and above that commission in trying to strengthen the relationship between LCWR and the bishops’ conference?

That remains to be seen; there has been some suggestion somewhere that there might be a more adequate structure for conversation, but we’ll have to pursue that in further dialogue with the bishops’ conference. The more we can have good communication, the better the relationship will be.


When LCWR leaders had the audience with Pope Francis on April 16, did he specifically discuss the CDF mandate?

Let me say, first of all, I was not there; I wasn’t well at the time and was unable to make the trip. However, you may be sure I’ve heard about it. What I was told immediately: The majority of the time they were with the Holy Father was about the themes of [the Pope’s apostolic exhortation] Evangelium Gaudium, “The Gospel of Joy,” and about the importance of the witness of religious life. And I understand they had some fun over various and sundry congregations, including the Jesuits and the Sisters of St. Joseph being founded by a Jesuit, and all of that. So the majority of it was not about the CDF. There was some mention of it initiated by, I believe, one of the sisters, which made it clear that he knew about it, but it was not the main topic of their conversation.


What about the LCWR links to Network and Resource Center for Religious Institutes (RCRI) that the mandate said should be reviewed. Has any change been made to the relationship between LCWR and those organizations?

I don’t believe so, in terms of structural change. I think there have been some clarifications of what caused that to be a part of the mandate. So, in a sense, you could say the mandate is fulfilled because they were reviewed, but I think it became clear that there was some suspicion over particular instances or cases or comments or something.

Network is a Catholic social-justice lobby, and the RCRI provides enormous services to religious institutes in civil law, canon law and finances. There were moments in time when somebody said something that was noted, and they got on the list, but that issue has not returned at all during the dialogues I’ve been involved in.


Did LCWR lose any members because of the leaders’ approach to the mandate?

Not to my knowledge.