In a dramatic move, the Holy See has mandated the reform of the largest leadership body for women religious in the United States.
The mandate was issued with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI at the conclusion of a doctrinal investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which was conducted under the auspices of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).
The LCWR is an association of more than 1,500 leaders of U.S. congregations of women religious. Together they represent more than 80% of the 57,000 women religious in America.
In 2008, the Holy See initiated two simultaneous investigations of the state of women’s religious life in the U.S.
The first was a general survey of nearly 400 institutes conducted by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL). Its results have not been announced.
The second was a more focused doctrinal assessment of the LCWR. Details of the doctrinal assessment, as well as the mandate for the reform of the organization, were made public in an eight-page document issued by the CDF on April 18 and published on the U.S. bishops’ website (USCCB.org).
According to the document, during an April 2008 meeting in Rome, the CDF prefect, Cardinal William Levada, notified the LCWR presidency of an impending doctrinal assessment. He cited three principal reasons for the investigation.
The first was the content of talks given during the annual assemblies of the LCWR. An example cited was an address by Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink in which she spoke of some religious “moving beyond the Church” or even beyond Jesus.
The second was “policies of corporate dissent” that had been announced in letters issued by “leadership teams” of various congregations associated with the LCWR, some of which included LCWR officers. Topics of dissent included the Church’s teaching regarding the ordination of women and its teaching on homosexuality.
The third was themes of “radical feminism” that were expressed in programs and presentations sponsored by the LCWR.
Some of these included critiques of “patriarchy” that the document said threatened to “distort the way in which Jesus has structured sacramental life in the Church.” Others “even undermine the revealed doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ and the inspiration of sacred Scripture.”
Conducting the Assessment
In response to these concerns, the CDF appointed Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, as its delegate to conduct the assessment, which was carried out in 2009 and 2010.
While investigating the CDF’s concerns, Bishop Blair engaged in correspondence with the LCWR and reviewed publications prepared by the group as well as by other related organizations.
These organizations included Network — a social-justice lobby that was founded by nuns — and the Resource Center for Religious Institutes, which provides financial and legal advice to religious orders.
According to the CDF statement, the documentation provided by Bishop Blair showed that “there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine,” but “it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death.”
It also said that “issues of crucial importance to the life of Church and society,” including family life and human sexuality, “are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes Church teaching.”
The document also cited “occasional public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops.”
Reforming the LCWR
Following the assessment, the CDF concluded that “the current doctrinal and pastoral situation of the LCWR is grave and a matter of serious concern.”
It also concluded that the “Holy See should intervene with the prudent steps necessary to effect a reform of the LCWR” once the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life’s apostolic visitation was finished.
The final report of the visitation was submitted in December, and the CDF has now begun to implement the plans, which had been approved by Pope Benedict in January 2011.
To do this, it appointed Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle as its delegate to oversee the reform.
He is to be assisted by Bishop Blair and Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., as well as by other individuals and groups, including the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and the U.S. bishops.
The reform of the body, which is expected to take up to five years, is to include several elements: a revision of the LCWR’s statutes, a review of its plans and programs, including its general assemblies and publications, the creation of new programs to develop material that will foster a deeper understanding of the Church’s doctrine, a review of the way LCWR members apply liturgical norms and texts, and a review of organizations linked to the LCWR.
The LCWR made its initial reaction known in a statement published on its website, which said: “The presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was stunned by the conclusions of the doctrinal assessment of LCWR by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”
It also said, “Because the leadership of LCWR has the custom of meeting annually with the staff of CDF in Rome and because the conference follows canonically approved statutes, we were taken by surprise.”
Finally, it stated: “This is a moment of great import for religious life and the wider Church. We ask your prayers as we meet with the LCWR national board within the coming month to review the mandate and prepare a response.”
A Pastoral Tone
Despite the dramatic nature of the reform, those involved in implementing the mandate took a conciliatory, pastoral tone.
In the statement released on the U.S. bishops’ website, Cardinal Levada stressed that the findings of the doctrinal assessment “are aimed at fostering a patient and collaborative renewal of this conference of major superiors.”
He said that a first step in implementing the findings will be a meeting between the CDF and the LCWR presidency, explaining,
“Such a personal encounter allows for the opportunity to review the document together in a spirit of mutual respect and collaboration, hopefully thereby avoiding possible misunderstandings of the document’s intent and scope.”
He also expressed his gratitude “to the officers of the LCWR for their openness and participation in the doctrinal assessment since 2008.”
Archbishop Sartain also took a positive tone, saying in a press release from the bishops’ conference, “In the four dioceses I have served, I have had the privilege of working with many women religious from a large number of congregations. For most of those congregations, the LCWR plays an important role of support, communication and collaboration, a role valued by the sisters and their congregational leadership.”
He also stressed that the ministry of religious sisters in the U.S. “is deeply respected and paramount to the mission of the Church.”
Concerning the renewal he will be overseeing, Archbishop Sartain said, “Just as the LCWR can be a vital resource in many ways for its members, I hope to be of service to them and to the Holy See as we face areas of concern to all.”
Ann Carey, author of the book Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities, told the Register that she expects the positive tone to continue and that Church officials “will try to be very pastoral about the whole situation.”
She also said she thought that they “will probably give the LCWR some time to process this whole thing.”
Carey indicated that she expects there will be a vigorous internal discussion within the LCWR regarding its future path.
Although the group began in 1956 as an organization “to facilitate communication between the Vatican and religious,” Carey said, since the 1970s it has moved away from this role to “become more of an independent, professional organization that sets its own agenda.”
The best-case scenario, she said, would be for the LCWR “to recognize that they have moved too far afield” and return to their original mission.
This is not the only possible outcome, however.
Carey said that the organization could announce that it no longer wishes to be canonically recognized and intends to continue as an independent, professional organization of leaders of women’s religious orders and “go about their own agenda.”
Indeed, the same day that the results of the doctrinal assessment were announced, Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, who served as president of the LCWR in 1976, said in a published report, “Within the canonical framework, there is only one way I can see to deal with this. [This would be] to disband canonically and regroup as an unofficial interest group.”
Carey, however, warned that there would be consequences to such a move. Specifically, she said that the LCWR could lose “up to half of their membership,” because there are many leaders who are members of LCWR out of habit rather than supporting the kind of agenda that has prompted the action of the Holy See.
She suggested that some former members might join the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, which was erected by the Vatican in 1992 as an alternative to the LCWR.
The document issued by the CDF contained references to two organizations affiliated with the LCWR.
The first, Network, recently came to national attention when it broke with the U.S. bishops during the 2010 health-care-reform debate and wrote an open letter to Congress urging passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
This letter was signed by the leadership of more than 50 groups of women religious, including LCWR.
The second, the Resource Center for Religious Institutes, has also adopted initiatives that might draw Vatican attention.
Its 2009 national conference featured a workshop titled “Going Non-Canonical,” which described the civil and canonical processes that a group of Benedictine sisters in Madison, Wis., employed to seek release from their vows and to re-found their monastery as an ecumenical center.
This group currently operates as Holy Wisdom Monastery and offers worship services that involve “sharing the Bread of Life around a common table [to] respond to Jesus’ invitation, ‘Do this in memory of me.’”
A statement on the Diocese of Madison’s website warns that these services do not fulfill a Catholic’s Sunday obligation.
Business as Usual?
Two actions taken by LCWR during the period of the doctrinal assessment may be revealing of its attitude toward Church authority.
In 2011, LCWR honored Daughter of Charity Sister Carol Keehan, the CEO of the Catholic Health Association who broke with the U.S. bishops during the bruising legislative battle over passage of the Affordable Care Act.
More recently, she broke with the bishops again, this time in support of the Health and Human Services abortion drug and contraception mandate.
Last month, LCWR announced that Sister Sandra Schneiders, a Servant of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, will be honored with its 2012 Outstanding Leadership Award. Sister Sandra is a former professor at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif.
In 2009, Sister Sandra wrote an email — which later became public — stating that those formally charged with conducting the Vatican’s apostolic visitation of religious orders should be received “politely and kindly, for what they are: uninvited guests who should be received in the parlor, not given the run of the house.”
She also urged: “Non-violent resistance is what finally works, as we’ve found out in so many arenas.”
It is striking that LCWR would choose to honor Sister Carol and Sister Sandra during the period of the doctrinal assessment.
When asked by the Register what these selections might mean, Ann Carey said, “I think that they certainly were asserting their independence and making the statement that it’s business as usual.”
Jimmy Akin is senior apologist at Catholic Answers
and blogs at NCRegister.com.