Ever since the mandate to reform the 1,100-member Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) was concluded in April, speculation has swirled around what changes the LCWR would actually implement.
A joint statement prepared by LCWR leaders and the bishops who worked on the reform was very general and made little reference to specifics in the 2012 mandate issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).
Now that the major addresses from the Aug. 11-15 LCWR annual assembly are posted on the LCWR webpage, some clues are emerging that indicate the “reformed” LCWR has taken a more conciliatory tone toward Church authority.
However, serious questions still remain about the organization’s intention to make the substantial reforms on doctrinal issues and ecclesial relations that the CDF mandate required.
The theme of the assembly was “Springs of the Great Deep Burst Forth: Meeting the Thirsts of the World.” While the 2015 keynote speakers were a religious sister and a priest (rather than a futurist promoting “conscious evolution,” as in 2012 and a new cosmologist, as in 2013), some of the LCWR past themes and positions found their way into the program in a more discreet manner that indicated business as usual for the organization.
A nod to conscious evolution crept into a presentation on “Contemplation, Dialogue and Discernment” on a slide that showed a group of people sitting on a mountaintop and gazing into a misty valley. The accompanying text, from the writings of Sister of St. Joseph Liz Sweeney, read: “We need to evolve communally at the level of consciousness.”
Father Stephen Bevans, a priest of the Society of the Divine Word and professor emeritus at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, said his keynote would focus on the Holy Spirit, whom he referred to as “she” throughout the talk. Yet, he managed to work in criticism of the CDF doctrinal assessment as well as the 2009-2011 apostolic visitation of women religious by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
He spoke about “horrors and terrors of our time,” such as violence, roadside bombings and “waning polar ice” that “tempt us to real despair.” And, he continued: “If we add what has been going on in the Church, especially its leaders’ treatment of U.S. women religious in the last decade, that despair becomes even darker.”
One of the main ministries of consecrated persons, particularly of women, he asserted, “is ‘to make interventions in the life of the Church so that it will be reminded of its mission to live out the following of Christ.’ As such, this ministry is prophetic, a ministry ‘in obedience to the Holy Spirit,’ ‘invariably in tension with the prevailing institutional reality.’”
Father Bevans cited the quotations in that passage as coming from the writings of Sister of St. Joseph Marcia Allen, the incoming president of the LCWR. He did not explain why the ministry of vowed religious would be “in tension” with the institutional Church. Canon 675 §3 on the ministry of religious actually directs that “Apostolic action, to be exercised in the name and by the mandate of the Church, is to be carried out in its communion.”
Father Bevans went on to endorse as “contemporary prophets” Sister Sandra Schneiders of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, both outspoken critics of the apostolic visitation and the CDF doctrinal mandate to reform LCWR.
Outgoing LCWR president, Sister Sharon Holland of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, spoke specifically about the doctrinal assessment in her presidential address. She said that the differences between the CDF and the LCWR were due to a gap in understanding and a “cultural chasm.”
Describing the dialogue between LCWR leaders and the three U.S. bishops delegated to conduct the reform of LCWR (Archbishops J. Peter Sartain of Seattle and Leonard Blair of Hartford and Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill.), she said: “We somehow were looking at the same realities, but we were standing in different places. We didn’t realize that we were experiencing the incomprehension of two groups who did not know each other’s deeper assumptions.”
However, by “staying at the table,” Sister Sharon contended, LCWR was able to come to an agreement acceptable to the CDF. With the LCWR and the bishop delegates joining together to write the joint final report, she said that “Both the method and the content attest to a recognized sense of ecclesial communion.”
Whether that “sense” of ecclesial communion will be expressed by LCWR in specific, concrete actions is still very questionable. LCWR leaders continue to speak in terms of having enlightened church officials rather than admitting the organization had doctrinal problems that needed attention and then taking concrete steps to implement real reform.
The only perceivable step taken by LCWR in response to the mandate of reform thus far has been to remove the group’s Systems Thinking Handbook from its website, as directed in the mandate, but this was not done until 2014. In her presidential address, Sister Sharon said that the CDF had misunderstood the intent of the handbook, which was out of date anyway and had been replaced by newer programs.
The past LCWR executive director, Sister of St. Joseph Janet Mock, spoke about current challenges faced by LCWR members in her keynote address. These challenges included “declining numbers, the sale or reconfiguration of property, provincial and congregational mergers, covenant relationships, limited resources both temporal and human, a paucity of leadership.”
LCWR’s reluctance to accept reform, along with its shrinking relevance and dwindling membership, may be signs that the organization is in decline and will likely fade away, like T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men, “not with a bang, but a whimper.”