WASHINGTON — In the 1950s, the Vatican established the Conference of Major Superiors of Women in the United States to provide a forum for women religious to develop educational, spiritual and apostolic resources and discuss their common interests. Its name was changed in 1971 to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). The LCWR would serve as a communications channel between the Vatican and women religious in the United States. Its purpose, responsibilities and statutes were approved by the Vatican.
Since the early years of Christianity, religious women in the Catholic Church have been consecrated to the love of Christ, brides of Christ, whose primary calling was to remind all Christians of the ultimate goal of life on earth: union with God in heaven. Apostolic works are secondary to the sign value of consecration to Christ in the Church and can be fruitful only to the extent that the consecration is lived faithfully within the Church. As Blessed John Paul II noted in 1996, the Church expects its publicly consecrated religious to be distinctive in their “allegiance of mind and heart to the magisterium of the bishops …which must be lived honestly and clearly testified to before the people of God by all consecrated persons” (Vita Consecrata, 46).
Now, six decades after the LCWR was formed, its officers and the Vatican are engaged in an increasingly public dispute about whether the organization has adhered to its mission and statutes.
The recent headlines were prompted by the release of the Holy See’s doctrinal assessment of the organization, followed by the LCWR’s statement in response. The LCWR complained that the process had not been transparent, the allegations had not been substantiated, and the remedies were out of proportion to the problems. It said that the doctrinal assessment had “caused scandal and pain throughout the Church community and created greater polarization.”
The controversy has left some Catholics puzzled about why the Vatican would be issuing a doctrinal assessment of such a group, but the concerns outlined by the Holy See are not new.
In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, some religious women took the call for renewal as a summons to feminism and an emphasis on social work, and there was a loss of the Christological focus necessary to the consecrated life and a drift toward a secular and political viewpoint. Over the years, the LCWR has shown a marked trend toward fringe — and even decidedly un-Catholic — positions and interests, such as ordaining women and encouraging the homosexual lifestyle, while neglecting the legitimate development of Catholic spirituality among the members of the congregations belonging to the LCWR.
Speakers at LCWR annual assemblies have espoused New Age fads, politics reflective of our morally relative culture and “feminist theology,” but scarcely anyone could be found to speak out against the primary injustice of abortion, offer an enriched understanding of religious life, or affirm the Church’s teaching on family life and human sexuality.
It is important to note that not all members of the religious communities that are members of the LCWR agree with the leadership. There are many accounts of the acute suffering of those who have not agreed. Ann Carey’s book Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities explains what happened to many communities as the leadership abandoned such elements of community life as communal prayer, common apostolates and religious habits. These elements of religious life were meant to promote and protect the consecration of religious as “in the world but not of it.”
The situation got so bad that in the 1980s those religious communities that did not share the political and religious views of the LCWR petitioned the Holy See to allow them to form their own association. This was finally done when the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) was established in 1992.
Just the name tells you they are different from the LCWR. They have superiors, whereas the communities belonging to the LCWR tend to have “leadership teams.” The statutes for the CMSWR were approved by Rome in 1995. The council has about 100 member communities.
As the Holy See is ultimately responsible for the activities of organizations like the LCWR, it is not surprising that it should eventually evaluate what they are doing. Now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has issued a “Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.” The document includes an account of the events leading to its publication. It fully acknowledges the good works accomplished by the women religious of the LCWR communities, but finds that there are serious problems with the LCWR activities.
Four years ago, the CDF notified the LCWR that it was concerned about the speakers at the annual assemblies, corporate statements issued by the LCWR and its member congregations, materials provided for the formation of novices, and “the diminution of the fundamental Christological center and focus of religious consecration.” Themes of radical feminism were prominent “in some of the programs and presentations sponsored by the LCWR, including theological interpretations that risk distorting faith in Jesus and his loving Father who sent his Son for the salvation of the world.” Statements by LCWR officers advocated women’s ordination and protested Church teaching about the pastoral care of homosexual persons.
In February 2009, the CDF appointed Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, to conduct a doctrinal assessment of the LCWR and its programs. Several exchanges of documentation and responses occurred during 2009, ending in Bishop Blair’s reports to the CDF in December 2009 and June 2010.
The documentation showed much activity for social justice in harmony with Church teaching and praised and thanked the sisters for their contributions and dedication in education, health care and aid to the poor. But despite the sisters’ emphasis on social justice, the assessment found silence on the right to life from conception to natural death, an issue of huge public importance in the United States.
The LCWR agenda differed from the authentic teaching of the bishops in matters of family life and human sexuality, and there were even public statements by the LCWR disagreeing with or challenging positions taken by the bishops on faith and morals.
The doctrinal assessment provides specific examples of the problems. It also reports the responses received from the LCWR. For example, the LCWR said that it does not preview the speeches given at its annual assemblies, so it does not know that speakers are going to take positions contrary to Church teaching.
That explanation seems disingenuous: Speakers are preceded by their reputations, and what they say can hardly be surprising. In any case, the LCWR has not repudiated such speeches after they were given, leaving the clear impression that the views expressed were acceptable to it.
Another issue concerns the materials provided by the LCWR for the doctrinal formation of superiors and those charged with the formation of new religious. These materials are focused on process and group dynamics: how to discuss differences, rather than how to seek understanding of Catholic doctrine and life. In general, the CDF concluded that the materials lacked doctrinal content on which to build a life of faith and consecration in harmony with the sacramental and mystical life of the Church.
The CDF considered all of the documentation and the responses from the LCWR at a meeting in January 2011. It found that the doctrinal and pastoral activities of the LCWR were a matter of serious concern, not only because of the potential negative impact on the women who are members of LCWR communities, but also for their influence on religious communities around the world. Consequently, the CDF recommended to Pope Benedict XVI and the Pope agreed that the Holy See should intervene to reform the LCWR.
The Holy See will now carry out a five-part process, directed by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle:
- revising the LCWR statutes to provide greater clarity about its mission and responsibilities;
- reviewing LCWR plans and programs, including speakers invited to the annual assembly;
- creating new materials for initial and ongoing formation that provide deeper understanding of Catholic faith;
- reviewing and offering guidance on liturgical texts and practices, putting the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours at the center of LCWR events and programs; and
- reviewing affiliated organizations, namely Network and The Resource Center for Religious Institutes.
On June 1, the LCWR issued a statement in response to the doctrinal assessment. It complained that the process had not been transparent, the allegations had not been substantiated, and the remedies were out of proportion to the problems. It said that the doctrinal assessment had “caused scandal and pain throughout the Church community and created greater polarization.”
The statement said that LCWR officers will be meeting with Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the CDF, and Archbishop Sartain in Rome on June 12 to discuss the concerns of the LCWR board. During the summer, members of the LCWR will hold meetings around the country to determine the response to the CDF.
Judging from the statement, that response will not be conciliatory. The LCWR statement contains no hint that the CDF might have any reason at all for concern. Instead, it attacks the CDF for causing scandal, drawing unjustified conclusions and overreacting.
Yet there is no factual refutation of the matters cited in the doctrinal assessment. Rather than acknowledging the authority and responsibility of the bishops and the CDF, the statement appeals to the support of “many people around the world,” as if they were the source of authority in the Church or the competent finders of fact. For all of their talk about listening and sharing, the LCWR is not listening to the CDF or sharing its legitimate views.
In other words, the statement could serve as the next exhibit in the CDF’s portfolio of what is wrong with the LCWR.
This sad tale might not end soon, but it will end. The average age of the members of LCWR communities is 73 and increasing, while their numbers fall. Meanwhile, what of the CMSWR? They represent 20% of all the women religious in the U.S., more than 11,000 sisters, but they are young, with an average age of 35 and falling, and they are growing fast. They are happy to state their fidelity to the magisterium of the Church, to pray together as the central focus of their lives, to work together in community apostolates, to wear recognizable religious habits and, above all, to promote and protect their consecration to Christ as the source and goal of the Church’s life.
Donna F. Bethell is chairman of the board of directors
at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia.