Three years have passed since the conclusion of the Vatican mandate for reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) that called for correction of doctrinal problems found in LCWR assemblies, workshops and publications.
During those three years, LCWR leaders remained uncharacteristically quiet, but that silence was broken this spring with the LCWR’s self-published book However Long the Night: Making Meaning in a Time of Crisis.
The book contains 10 essays by LCWR leaders past and present, and one essay by laity who formed Solidarity With Sisters, a grassroots organization. The chapters recount how the organization reacted to the mandate and negotiated an agreement with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).
While the book never clearly states that LCWR simply stayed at the table until the Vatican backed down, that conclusion is implied throughout the chapters; and it is reinforced by the heady claim that the LCWR method of dealing with the Vatican brings “hope” to others in the Church who have conflicts with Church authorities.
The Introduction notes that because of multiple authors, some chapters are repetitive. Indeed, this is the case, and some judicious editing could have solved that problem. However, the repetition is instructive, for it reveals that LCWR leaders agreed that the CDF mandate was undeserved and unfounded.
“So many of the charges were egregious misrepresentations of facts,” according to the chapter co-authored by Sister of St. Joseph Marcia Allen, the 2015 LCWR president, and Order of St. Francis Sister Florence Deacon, LCWR the president in 2012. (Note: LCWR presidents are elected in the August annual assembly and serve a one-year term.)
The book does not present facts to prove this argument, nor does it attempt to address doctrinal issues. Rather, it is defensive, articulating LCWR’s outrage and hurt over the mandate and focusing on the successful process LCWR developed to engage the Vatican.
As Sister of St. Joseph Janet Mock, the LCWR’s executive director 2011-2014, writes: “We reached a consensus to write about what we had learned through the experience in order to honor the sacredness of the journey. ... This book attempts to articulate some learnings and skills that could move a group toward civil discourse about diverse beliefs, worldviews and values.”
The book demonstrates that LCWR leaders took a position of defense, not openness to reform. They also seized upon the “crisis” with the CDF as an opportunity to act as agents for wider change in the Church.
Order of St. Francis Sister Pat Farrell, the LCWR president in 2011, explains: “LCWR was embroiled in a clash with Church authorities which touched into the deep concerns of a much broader public. ... The prevailing ecclesial environment was one in which expression of valid differences often carried judgment concerning loyalty, orthodoxy, legitimacy.”
The new LCWR executive director, Sister of St. Joseph Carol Zinn, who was president in 2013, observes: “In the voices spoken by women’s groups and justice groups we heard and felt their ache of discrimination, oppression, and inequality as they found themselves reflected in the content of the mandate.”
Throughout the book, the authors describe the divergences between the LCWR leaders and the Vatican as a “cultural chasm.” Some authors claim this chasm is a result of LCWR embracing and practicing the “vision” of Vatican II, and they charge that the institutional Church is slow and/or unwilling to accept Vatican II.
Sister Pat writes: “US women religious had gradually lived into a post-Vatican II revisioning and understanding of authority and obedience, favoring a decentralized, participative model not mirrored in the institutional church’s exercise of leadership.”
Sister Marlene Weisenbeck, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration of LaCrosse, the LCWR’s president in 2009, explains: “As the doctrinal assessment transpired, it became more and more evident that CDF was operating out of a hierarchial (sic) model of the Church where unquestioning obedience to Church authority is called for, while at the same time LCWR was acting and living out of the Church model conceived as communion where dialogue and consensus would be the norm.”
Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Mary Hughes, the LCWR president in 2010, notes that “[R]eligious congregations in the United States have grown up in a country that prizes individualism and democracy. ... Although it has been said that religious life is countercultural, one must acknowledge that these cultural norms have seeped into the very bones of US sisters.”
While some of the book’s authors accept the fact that the Vatican has the authority to oversee superiors’ conferences, as well as the authority to revoke their canonical standing, they write that the Vatican intruded into their “space” and that “censorship isn’t part of the American culture.” They also assert a right to “legitimate dissent.”
The real value of this book is that it clearly demonstrates that the LCWR’s effort to resist the mandate was a determination to transform religious life on a secular model of democratization and individualism. This model is quite divergent from the classic form of religious life set out in canon law and other ecclesial documents, including the actual documents of Vatican II — not someone’s “vision” of those documents.
The book also is instructive in revealing the LCWR’s intention to set a precedent and offer a blueprint for facilitating challenges to Church authority and doctrine by other groups. And it gives credence to speculation that the conclusion of the CDF mandate resulted in no meaningful reform to the LCWR, speculation based on a very vague Joint Final Report.
While the LCWR celebrates itself in this book, the organization’s leaders will not, or perhaps cannot, recognize that their nearly 50-year effort to “transform” religious life while ignoring interventions by Church authorities has resulted in a great tragedy: the ongoing demise of many of the once-great orders of women religious in this country.