LCWR assembly Day 3: High Expectations

Sister Pat Farrell, president of the LCWR addresses the annual assembly in St. Louis, Mo.
Sister Pat Farrell, president of the LCWR addresses the annual assembly in St. Louis, Mo. (photo: Lisa Johnston for CNA)

Day three of the LCWR assembly brought high expectations here, for most people thought we would hear how the membership had decided to respond to the "Doctrinal Assessment" issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

As I wrote yesterday, the LCWR leaders had been sending mixed messages about which way they were leaning all week. By this morning, however, we media folks had concluded that there probably would be no dramatic announcement at this afternoon’s press conference. We were right.

LCWR's president, Sister Pat Farrell, read a prepared statement to the press conference: “The members charged the LCWR officers with beginning a conversation with Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, the apostolic delegate appointed by CDF to oversee LCWR. Their expectation is that open and honest dialogue may lead not only to increasing understanding between the Church leadership and women religious, but also to creating more possibilities for the laity and, particularly for women, to have a voice in the Church.”

Archbishop Sartain meets with the national board of LCWR for two hours on Saturday, we were told, and then the board will meet for two more days. However, there was no indication that any more announcements were imminent.

The LCWR statement also reported that the LCWR members wanted to maintain the LCWR official role in the Church, and “while acknowledging deep disappointments with the CDF report, the members proclaimed their intention to use this opportunity to explain to Church leaders LCWR’s mission values and operating principles.”

I asked Sister Pat if LCWR's expected dialogue with Archbishop Sartain would be different than the several years of dialogue the sisters had with the CDF already. And I noted that Cardinal William Levada, who was prefect of the CDF during that dialogue, had characterized the experience as a “dialogue with the deaf.”

Sister Pat said that the LCWR had not yet had substantial dialogue with Archbishop Sartain, who is charged with implementing the assessment. She said that the sisters would not begin by talking about doctrine, but, rather, they would start by talking about the nature of dialogue and about their own lives and their understanding of religious life, as well as how the CDF document is “a misrepresentation of that.”

One reporter asked Sister Pat what the LCWR wanted out of the process. She said, “What we want is to finally, at some end stage of the process, be recognized and understood as equals in the Church, that our form of religious life can be respected and affirmed. Really, we do want to come to the point of having an environment not just for us, but for the entire Catholic Church: of the ability to … search for truth together, to talk about issues that are very complicated.”

Sister Pat also was asked to share her perception of the bishops and if they were being fair. She said that “there is a power differential between the bishops and ourselves, and there is not right now a climate of openness and dialogue in general in the Church,” but the LCWR hoped to contribute to moving the Church in that direction.

In her presidential address earlier in the day, Sister Pat had said that she thought a “prophetic response” to the assessment would be “humble, but not submissive; rooted in a solid sense of ourselves, but not self-righteous; truthful but gentle and absolutely fearless.”

Further, “it would ask probing questions. Are we being invited to some appropriate pruning, and would we open to it? Is this doctrinal-assessment process an expression of concern, or an attempt to control? Concern is based in love and invites unity. Control through fear and intimidation would be an abuse of power. Does the institutional legitimacy of canonical recognition empower us to live prophetically? Does it allow us the freedom to question with informed consciences? Does it really welcome feedback in a Church that claims to honor the sensus fidelium, the sense of the faithful?”

She said that there had been an “immense groundswell of support” from men religious and from laity: “Clearly, they share our concern at the intolerance of dissent, even from those with informed consciences, the continued curtailing of the role of women.”

So, as you can see, the saga continues.

This has been an intense but fascinating three days, and on my train ride home tomorrow, I will have a chance to think more about the assembly as a whole and will share those impressions in another blog post.



UPDATE: Archbishop Sartain made the following statement Aug. 10:

The Holy See and the bishops of the United States are deeply proud of the historic and continuing contribution of women religious to our country through social, pastoral and spiritual ministries; Catholic health care; Catholic education; and many other areas where they reach out to those on the margins of society. 

As an association of women religious, the LCWR brings unique gifts to its members and to the Church at large. This uniqueness includes sensitivity to suffering, whether in Latin America or the inner city; whether in the life of an unborn child or the victim of human trafficking.

Religious women have made a lasting contribution to the well-being of our country and continue to do so today. For that, they deserve our respect, our support, our thanks and our prayers.

Along with the members of the LCWR, I remain committed to working to address the issues raised by the "Doctrinal Assessment" in an atmosphere of prayer and respectful dialogue.  We must also work toward clearing up any misunderstandings, and I remain truly hopeful that we will work together without compromising Church teaching or the important role of the LCWR.  I look forward to our continued discussions as we collaborate in promoting consecrated life in the United States.