The course of the clash between the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) was probably set four years ago, when Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, began the study that led to the critical doctrinal assessment from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).
Bishop Blair reviewed educational materials prepared by the LCWR and speakers at its annual assemblies on topics such as the formation of religious, the role of religious in the Church, abortion, ordination of women, homosexual activity and contraception. It was apparent that the LCWR and its invited speakers were generally either not comfortable with or not interested in what the Church actually teaches in these areas.
The members of the LCWR are the leaders of congregations comprising about 80% of the women religious in the U.S. If they were faithful Catholics, one expects that they would have hastened to correct errors. Instead, they offered excuses to the CDF, such as the rather incredible claim that they didn’t know what their annual assembly speakers were going to say.
When the doctrinal assessment was published in April, the LCWR professed to be shocked that there was any problem. The LCWR complained the process had been unfair and announced that it would spend the summer conferring among its members before making a formal response.
On July 17, National Public Radio’s Fresh Air program interviewed the LCWR’s president, Franciscan Sister Pat Farrell. The Register reported on that interview online July 22. On July 24, Fresh Air interviewed Bishop Blair.
Where Sister Pat was evasive and equivocating, Bishop Blair was responsive and even concise. He could afford to be because his purpose was only to state clearly what the Catholic Church teaches, not what he might wish the Catholic Church to teach.
The program host, Terry Gross, methodically ran through the topics raised in the assessment, all of which Sister Pat had found the need for questions, reconsideration and discussion. On the evil of abortion, Bishop Blair did not mince words:
“The Church has been so strong in defending that right to life. … It seems that one would expect the Leadership Conference of Women Religious to stand up and be counted in upholding this right and working for its defense.
“They have had statements on things like human trafficking and immigration. ... Those kinds of things should be addressed. They’ve had statements on ecology and climate change, militarization of space, nuclear weapons — but nothing on the issue of abortion and the importance of upholding the right to life.”
Gross pointed out that Sister Pat had defended the LCWR by presenting the many charitable activities of the sisters as more pro-life than just opposing abortion. To which Bishop Blair said:
“No one is questioning or criticizing the fact that … many sisters are involved in the care of the elderly or the infirmed, the needy, the troubled.
“But … Pope John Paul II said … that all other human rights are false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right, is not defended with maximum determination.
“To say … the right to life of an unborn child is a preoccupation with fetuses, or it’s relative in its importance — … I don’t think that represents the Church’s teaching.”
The NPR host recalled that Sister Pat had criticized Catholic doctrine on human sexuality, saying that it should be reconsidered in the light of new realities and that many people were being hurt and marginalized by it. Bishop Blair was not intimidated:
“Yes, there are a lot of people who don’t agree with the Catholic Church about these moral teachings and moral issues. But we would expect that a group of religious sisters who are Catholic nuns would accept the teaching of their Church.
“The bishops in the United States have written a guide for pastoral care of people with a homosexual inclination. So we want to extend that care to everyone, and we want to treat everyone with dignity and respect. But that’s very different than insisting, then, on the claims of a ‘gay lifestyle’ or ‘gay culture’ and trying to undermine the institution of marriage.”
Gross tried to be the peacemaker: “I know Sister Pat’s feelings were … that she … would like to be able to question and think and dialogue and talk it through, but what the assessment is asking for isn’t dialogue. It’s conformity — conform to the teachings.”
But Bishop Blair countered: “If by dialogue they mean that the doctrines of the Church are negotiable and that the bishops represent one position and the LCWR presents another position, and somehow we find a middle ground about basic Church teaching on faith and morals, then No. … I don’t think that’s the kind of dialogue that the Holy See would envision.
“I think that the fundamental faith of the Catholic Church is that there are objective truths, and there are teachings of the faith that really do come from Revelation and that are interpreted authentically through the teaching office of the Church, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and that are expected to be believed with the obedience of faith.
“And those are things that are not negotiable. You can have dialogue about understanding these things, but it is faith seeking understanding. It’s not new understandings that then change the faith. And I think that’s what really gets to the heart of all that we find in this assessment: that they are promoting, unilaterally, new understandings, a new kind of theology that is not in accordance with the faith of the Church.”
Bishop Blair provided some intriguing new information about the process leading to the “Doctrinal Assessment.” He said that it began with the Pope, not the American bishops. Well, thank God for the Pope. But this points to the problem for the Church in America, as elsewhere. The aberrations in the LCWR are not peculiar to them. They are found among many self-identified Catholics. Two generations of poor catechesis, vapid sermons, irreverent liturgy and a prevailing culture drifting into moral chaos have taken their toll on Catholic identity.
If polls are to be believed, only 30% of Catholics believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Perhaps that is the 30% who regularly show up for Mass on Sunday. But why should they believe? For more than 40 years, they have heard in great part either a distorted interpretation of Catholicism or silence on important issues, such as artificial contraception. The LCWR is not alone in the strategy of “confuse or ignore.”
Now that the Pope has moved to correct one of the more glaring examples of freelancing in the Church in America, we can hope that the bishops will begin to recognize the same pattern among the faithful generally. If they can follow the Pope’s example in frankly recognizing error and Bishop Blair’s example in teaching clearly, we can begin the long process of rebuilding a Catholic culture and regaining souls for Christ.
Will the LCWR be part of that rebuilding?
Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle is responsible for working with the LCWR to find a way forward.
It doesn’t look good. The sisters of the LCWR can choose to cooperate in their own reform or they can persist in denial. If they won’t accept reform, the Vatican might decide that they will no longer be recognized as representing their congregations. They could continue as a kind of private club, but they would have no official standing. It would be a sad denouement, but, given the steady erosion in the membership of the member communities, there is an air of inevitability about it.
Rome famously takes the long view. The average age of religious communities in the Church is only about 200 years. As some recede, others arise to meet new needs with fresh charisma. And so it is happening in America, as new communities and older, authentically renewed communities rise and flourish. They are young and growing, and enthusiastically faithful to the Church.
Let us pray that all religious women in America will find their way to such generous self-giving.
Donna Bethell is chairman of the board of directors of