VATICAN CITY — Despite renewed resistance from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the Vatican is sending a signal that it is standing firm in its quest to reform the group.
In an interview published in L’Osservatore Romano earlier this month, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, acknowledged that the CDF and the LCWR have different ideas about religious life, adding, “But we hope to help them rediscover their identity.”
He also observed that the LCWR does “not represent all U.S. women religious, but a group of North American sisters who have formed an association,” and revealed that the Vatican has heard from disaffected members of LCWR-affiliated communities.
In April 2012, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a doctrinal assessment of the LCWR, documenting a number of problems within the U.S. women’s religious organization and calling for its reform and renewal.
Based on the LCWR’s latest annual report, the group has 1,369 members said to represent more than 80% of U.S. sisters who, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, number 49,883.
By contrast, the smaller Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, an alternative group for leaders of orders considered more traditional, has 180 members representing 125 communities with an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 sisters.
Sister Dolores Liptak, an author, educator, historian and member of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, an LCWR-affiliated community, agrees with Cardinal Müller that the LCWR does not represent all sisters, although she said the group has successfully advanced the notion that it does. “They are in the minority in terms of numbers, but not in influence.”
She said the LCWR became the de facto leader of religious women in the 1970s at a turbulent time in American life and grew in power as it embraced the newly developing and more radically feminist theologies.
“In this environment, arguments about the ‘unequal status’ of women, especially vis-a-vis power within a church … strengthened and took hold firmly,” Sister Dolores said, bolstering the LCWR’s position, which was further reinforced by the sense of loyalty sisters had to their leaders. “This is the public-relations success of the LCWR … and no one in the Church has stopped them from exerting that power. Until now.”
The letters Cardinal Müller said the Vatican has received from sisters in LCWR-affiliated communities indicate that they do not view the group as speaking for them. Many expressed disagreement with LCWR’s views about religious life as reflected in their own communities.
“We have received many distressed letters from religious women belonging to the same congregations,” he told L’Osservatore Romano, “suffering deeply from the direction their sisters are taking as they steer away from their original mission.”
A former sister who left her LCWR-related community in 1994 after 31 years of religious life said she sees what has happened with the conference as emblematic of a deterioration that began in communities like hers in the 1970s.
After the Second Vatican Council, she said, she shared much of the enthusiasm for change, but little by little saw prayer and other aspects of community life break down.
“It was so gradual that you couldn’t really put a finger on it. It was one little thing, and another little thing, but before you knew it there had been so much change that with your prayer life you were pretty much on your own and community life had changed so radically.” Eventually, she said, community life became more like living in a boarding house.
The former sister, who asked not to be named out of respect for her community, said she left because she knew something was wrong and religious life was no longer what it was when she entered in 1962.
“I had gone through a lot of growth and was blessed by God with a real centeredness in the Holy Eucharist. I think if you have that intimacy with Christ, you’re more aware something is not right.”
She said the model of religious life being advanced by the LCWR is merely an expression of what happened in communities like hers.
The Social Justice Model
Sister Dolores, a religious for 60 years who has worked with several congregations doing archives and histories and researching other communities as editor of several books, describes this new and evolving view of religious life as the notion that to be a religious means to be for others in social justice work.
“That ended the idea that religious life is about the salvation of our souls and all souls. That got flipped: It was the salvation of others, which morphed into doing that through social justice and care of the poor.”
In the L’Osservatore Romano interview, Cardinal Müller suggested such an approach has led to a loss of vocations in communities that adopt it and could ultimately lead to their demise.
Indeed, preliminary findings from a CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) study on Population Trends Among Religious Institutes of Women showed that the larger group of LCWR-affiliated communities is getting the same number of vocations as the much smaller CMSWR group. CARA said the finding shows that, contrary to popular thinking, not all new sisters are going to traditionalist communities that are part of the CMSWR.
However, it is clear that those advancing a progressive model of religious life are getting far fewer vocations, proportionally speaking, than communities that are more traditional.
The LCWR-affiliated communities also are not attracting younger candidates. The CARA study has found that women drawn to LCWR communities are more likely to be over 40 and that those interested in CMSWR orders are younger. Candidates born in 1982 or later, according to the study, also place a higher degree of importance on daily Eucharist, Eucharistic adoration, community life, fidelity to the Church and wearing a habit, all of which they are more likely to find in traditional communities.
In an article last month in Time magazine, Jo Piazza, author of If Nuns Ruled the World, challenges that finding, saying young women who might consider becoming nuns today are mainly interested in social justice and doing good. She cited a conversation with a “young woman” who was discerning religious life, but decided instead to work for a nongovernmental organization because she wanted her employer to value what she did.
In an apparent reference to the Church restricting priestly ordination to men, Piazza asks why young women who have been raised to believe they can be anything would join an institution that tells them they can’t be one thing.
Sister Dolores said she, too, was raised to think she could be whatever she wanted to be, but that she did not feel limited by not being able to be a priest. She sees priesthood as an aspect of serving the Church that has been given to men for a specific reason in the eyes of God and asked, “Who are we to overturn God’s decisions?”
Furthermore, she said, priesthood is limited to being a cultic leader and preacher. “Why make so much of that role when women are asked to be the nurturers of all the members of the Church in a thousand different ways?”
Reluctant to Speak Out
Sister Dolores has spoken openly about her disagreement with the LCWR, but she understands why many other sisters who feel as she does are not willing to do so.
As with any institutional culture, she said, members of religious communities risk marginalization if they speak out and express opinions that their fellow sisters do not share. Many also have a strong sense of loyalty to their leaders that is connected to their vows, along with a need to feel accepted.
The sister who left her community said she also believes the training many sisters received in obedience fostered a habit of doing what they are told and going along with those in authority, even when it comes to advocating distorted theology. In that same spirit, these sisters have followed and embraced the leaders of the LCWR.
In addition, Ann Carey, author of Sisters in Crisis: From Unraveling to Reform and Renewal, said sisters who disagree with the LCWR and their own communities often do not express their concerns because of possible repercussions.
“In some orders, sisters have been told not to speak out, under the vow of obedience (even though this is certainly a misuse of the vows),” Carey said. “Some sisters have been threatened with eviction from the orders’ retirement facilities if they speak out.
“I know sisters who have been sent for psychiatric evaluation because they criticized the influence of the LCWR or objected to stands their superiors took that were contrary to what the U.S. bishops were saying, as happened with the debate over Obamacare. So, it is very risky for sisters to say anything publicly.”
LCWR’s Continued Defiance
LCWR has declined to respond to the cardinal’s latest comments, as well as to why it is resisting reform efforts. However, others are speaking for them. Among them is the NunJustice Project, a coalition of 15 groups, including Call to Action and FutureChurch, which recently announced delivery of 17,500 signatures on a letter demanding that Pope Francis remove the Vatican’s 2012 LCWR reform mandate.
The interview with Cardinal Müller comes in the wake of open defiance of the mandate displayed during the LCWR August assembly. At the meeting, the group gave Sister of St. Joseph Elizabeth Johnson, a theologian whose writings have been criticized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, its “Outstanding Leadership Award.”
This occurred after Cardinal Müller had warned in April that her selection would be seen as “an open provocation against the Holy See.” As part of the reform, the LCWR is to obtain approval of assembly presenters and speakers, but Sister Elizabeth’s name was not presented until after she had been chosen.
A statement by the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine in 2011 said that Sister Elizabeth’s book, Quest for the Living God, contained “misrepresentations, ambiguities and errors that bear upon the faith of the Catholic Church as found in sacred Scripture and as it is authentically taught by the Church’s universal magisterium.”
The author used her acceptance speech to criticize the CDF for its doctrinal assessment of the LCWR and for standing with the bishops concerning her book. Other assembly speakers also were critical of the CDF, although the group’s national board in its statement merely expressed a commitment to “ongoing conversation with church leadership” in hopes of resolving the situation and creating new ways to discuss differences.
The LCWR seems committed to continuing this resistance to the reform efforts of the Vatican, empowered by the silence of many of the opponents to their vision of religious life.
“They’re digging in because I think they think they can win it,” Sister Dolores said. “As a small minority, they think they’re a strong minority because they do think they have this huge membership following since they have heard no protests against it.”
She said she believes the LCWR operates on the belief that they have 40,000 people in agreement with them. “This is not true. No vote has been taken. There’s been no poll. Here is where Cardinal Müller is absolutely correct.”
Yet, in the face of the Vatican’s determination to see the reform through, Sister Dolores thinks the LCWR has few options. “They are not in a good place … God alone can help them and the Church find a way.”
Ultimately, she continued, “Religious life will outlast the next decade. New vocations will emerge. These will strengthen within congregations that love the Church founded by Jesus and want to bear witness to that love through service to God and His people. It will continue for those who do desire to prove that the Church is the way to ‘Love’ by their own witness of community life and community prayer in keeping with the Church they love. So we must pray.”
Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.