VATICAN CITY — Addressing the participants of a plenary assembly of the International Union of Superiors General — which included some members of the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) — on May 8, Pope Francis encouraged a strengthened focus on “the centrality of Christ and his Gospel, authority as a service of love and ‘feeling’ in and with the Mother Church.”
In his pointed remarks, which followed on the heels of complaints during the plenary assembly by the LCWR president, Sister of St. Francis Florence Deacon, that her organization had “serious misunderstandings” with the Vatican, the Holy Father affirmed that the leaders of women’s religious communities need to cultivate a “feeling with the Church that finds its filial expression in fidelity to the magisterium.”
The Pope’s comments were delivered amid continued discussion of a 2012 "Doctrinal Assessment" of the LCWR by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which found that the group had “serious doctrinal problems.” In light of that finding, the congregation mandated a five-year reform process of the organization, under the direction of Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle.
But during a May 4 speech to the plenary assembly, Sister Florence denied that the group was somehow “not in accord with Church teaching” on issues such as the right to life. According to the National Catholic Reporter, Sister Florence said the assessment “was very flawed and did not reflect our own lived experience.”
The following day, the same newspaper and a number of other media outlets began reporting that Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, told the plenary assembly that there had been a lack of dialogue in the process and that he had not had a chance to discuss the decision with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The doctrine congregation responded by saying that the cardinal’s words had been misreported.
An official within the congregation spoke with Catholic News Agency anonymously on May 7, stating that the office is “perplexed” over the remarks because thel assessment “is the exclusive responsibility of the congregation, and we aren’t stepping on anyone’s toes.”
The Holy See released a May 7 statement explaining that the two congregations work together closely and “have for some time been collaborating on a renewed theological vision of religious life in the Church.”
Noting that media commentaries had “suggested a divergence” between the congregations based on Cardinal Braz de Aviz’s comments, the statement asserted that this “interpretation of the cardinal’s remarks is not justified.”
It added that Archbishop Gerhard Müller, the doctrine congregation’s head, and Cardinal Braz de Aviz had met the previous day and “reaffirmed their common commitment to the renewal of religious life, and particularly to the 'Doctrinal Assessment' of the LCWR and the program of reform it requires.”
Why the Vatican Took Action
With some 1,500 members, the LCWR consists of about 3% of the 57,000 women religious in the United States. Because its members are leaders of their respective religious communities, the group says that it represents 80% of American sisters. The average age of its members is 74.
In April 2012, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith revealed the findings of a four-year assessment of the conference, which found “serious doctrinal problems” and the need for reform.
It pointed to letters from LCWR officers as well as presentations sponsored by the conference, which exhibited “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith” and dissent from Church teaching on topics including the sacramental male priesthood and homosexuality.
In one keynote address at a 2007 assembly, Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink discussed “moving beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus” as a possibility for the future of religious life and asked those present, “Are we not victims of patriarchy within our society and Church?”
The conference’s former president, Sister of St. Francis Pat Farrell, told NPR in July 2012 that the LCWR has been “raising concerns about some of the Church’s teaching on sexuality” because its members believe that “the teaching and interpretation of the faith can’t remain static and really needs to be reformulated, rethought, in light of the world we live in.”
The assessment also noted that, while the group adamantly promotes social-justice issues, it largely ignores matters of life, marriage and sexuality, which have played a large role in recent public debates.
Appointed by the Vatican to spearhead renewal efforts, Archbishop Sartain has been mandated for five years to help the LCWR review its statutes and application of liturgical norms, as well as to approve future speakers and help create a new formation program to offer a deeper understanding of Church teaching.
The leadership conference responded to the assessment last June, describing it as being “based on unsubstantiated accusations” and using “a flawed process that lacked transparency.”
Involved in Formation?
Recent debate over the assessment has included discussion of the role and purpose of the leadership conference. In her talk, Sister Florence dismissed the Vatican’s concerns over the lack of doctrinal formation as being complaints about “things that were beyond our purpose.”
Rather than being a doctrinal teaching group, she said that the LCWR “is a leadership conference where we share best practices, we mentor each other, and we try to help each other be servant leaders. We collaborate in Church and social efforts for systemic change.”
However, the conference’s former president, Sister Pat, previously called LCWR “an educational center for the superiors” in her NPR interview, describing it as “a place where leaders are formed and mentored for religious congregations.”
Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, who conducted the assessment of the LCWR and is now aiding Archbishop Sartain in implementing reform efforts, told NPR the following week that Church leaders do not expect the conference “to constantly be having programs devoted to Church teaching on contraception” and similar matters.
They do, however, expect that such issues would arise over the years and be explained in accordance with Church teaching, he said, “particularly since part of the organization’s role is to provide enrichment and theological formation for their members.”
Bishop Blair also responded to Sister Pat’s claims that religious obedience is due primarily to God and conscience. He stressed that 2,000 years of religious life in the Church have maintained a consistent understanding “that obedience means obedience to lawful superiors within the community, and it certainly means the obedience of faith to what the Church believes and teaches.”
He called for dialogue and continued efforts to “help the sisters to appreciate and accept Church teaching and to implement it in their discussions.”
Reform Process Affirmed
Author Ann Carey, who has studied the LCWR for more than two decades, said that, while some members of the conference “were shocked” that Pope Francis agreed with the need for its reform, they should not have been surprised.
She observed that the Pope’s comments at the recent assembly fit in with his broader emphasis of Christ-centered reform for the Church as a whole, along with all of its members.
“They follow a theme that he’s struck since the day he was elected,” she explained.
“I think they somehow thought that since Pope Francis is so charitable, so concerned for the poor and so diplomatic, the whole 'Doctrinal Assessment' might go away,” she remarked.
However, the Pope is “a very intelligent, well-educated man,” she explained, adding that he has “been very active” in paying attention to what is going on in the global Church during his years as the Jesuit provincial in Argentina before becoming archbishop.
Therefore, she said, it was not surprising when Archbishop Müller told leaders of the LCWR at an April 15 meeting that he had “recently discussed the 'Doctrinal Assessment' with Pope Francis, who reaffirmed the findings of the assessment and the program of reform,” according to a Vatican statement. The archbishop also reminded the women that religious leadership conferences “are constituted by and remain under the direction of the Holy See.”
Carey said that it is precisely because Pope Francis is so charitable that he wants to reach out to those who are having trouble accepting Church teaching.
“That would be the pastoral thing to do,” she stated, explaining that the Pope’s comments make it clear that the Vatican will not change its direction in dealing with the LCWR.
In his recent remarks to the women superiors general, Pope Francis reinforced the need for religious life to remain focused on Christ.
While voicing his gratitude for the work that sisters do, he also reaffirmed the Church’s authority and the need for obedience to the magisterium.
The Holy Father cited Pope Paul VI, who said, “It is an absurd dichotomy to think of living with Jesus but without the Church, of following Jesus outside of the Church, of loving Jesus without loving the Church.”
Register correspondent Michelle Bauman writes from Denver.