Day 2 of the LCWR Assembly: Contemplating a Response to the Vatican

(photo: Lisa Johnston for CNA)

On this second day of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious assembly here in St. Louis, the “elephant in the room” — the Vatican mandate for reform of the LCWR — was recognized just a bit more than yesterday.

The most dramatic incident occurred in a question-answer period after a panel discussion on the future of religious life. A sister asked the three panelists: “If you were in our shoes, what would you do?”

When panelist Tom Fox responded bluntly, “Just say, ‘No,’” audible groans could be heard from some of the 900 sisters. Fox, who is the publisher of National Catholic Reporter, seemed to be taken aback by this reaction, and he scrambled to recover.

“What I mean by that is that you are who you are, and you can’t say anything other than ‘Yes’ to who you are. You cannot,” Fox said. “So how that ‘Yes’ is made, or how you say ‘No’ to abuse and misunderstanding and misrepresentation is something left to determine.”

Fox and another panelist, Jamie Manson, who writes the column “Grace on the Margins” for the Reporter, both made it very clear in their presentations that they expect the LCWR sisters to lead the reform of the Catholic Church that they desire.

“It is very, very important for you to know that you are the most prayerful, most experienced, most professional, most loved and most creative women to sit under one roof at any time in history,” Fox said in his presentation. “And you must understand the obligations and responsibilities that that entails. … You are speaking for the future, and you are speaking to give us hope.”

Manson said that young people want to be “tied to the Catholic tradition, but not in the way the Vatican would have us: You know, in extreme orthodoxy and obedience.” So, if the sisters “give in” by accepting the reform, “only the most radically orthodox of young adults would be interested” in such a Church, she said.

The assembly’s keynote speaker, Barbara Marx Hubbard, struck the same note in responding to the panel. She told the sisters she could see a “synergistic democracy being born in your midst.” Though she espouses no particular religion, she told the assembly: “I really see you as pilgrims, as pioneers, as the future of humanity evolving our Church and our world into more that it has ever been before.”

The three sisters who presented at a press conference themed “Contemplation and Dialogue: Means of Moving Into the Future” sent mixed signals about how the LCWR might decide.

When asked to react to (former Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith prefect) Cardinal William Levada’s comment that the years-long dialogues with LCWR about doctrinal concerns had been like having a “dialogue with the deaf,” Dominican Sister Donna Markham, a psychologist, said that one must be careful about such rhetoric, for it tends to “rupture” conversations.

The sisters also were asked about how the LCWR sisters had dealt with the “hurt and pain” of the "Doctrinal Assessment," Sister Donna said she felt “extremely hurt” and “betrayed by my Church.” She said it took “everything” to go to Mass the following Sunday, but she went with the other sisters in her community. It was Good Shepherd Sunday, she recalled, and the priest paused in his homily to say that some of the best examples of the Good Shepherd were the sisters. The congregation stood up and clapped, she related, and it was the strength of the laity that made it possible for the sisters to walk through the crisis.

Another reporter wanted to know how the LCWR was dealing with the fact that the bishops have said that the LCWR is asking for dialogue on issues of doctrine that are not up for dialogue. Sister Donna replied that the LCWR needs to figure out how to work with the bishops charged with the mandate to see how they will get through the process together.

“The thing I don’t think we ought to be risking is further splitting our Church and getting into more and more fragmentation. … We have to figure out: How are we going to get through this together in a way that is respectful of the integrity of both parties?”

Thursday afternoon was devoted to an executive session, so that question should be answered late Friday afternoon at a scheduled press conference that I will blog about that evening.