The annual assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in St. Louis next week is in a spotlight because the sisters will be discussing how to respond to a Vatican mandate to reform the organization. The 1,500-member LCWR is made up of superiors of 320 religious orders that have about 80% of the sisters in this country.

After a four-year study, done in April, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) ordered a renewal of the LCWR because of several doctrinal concerns. These concerns included LCWR assembly speeches, presentations and publications that contained errors about the Trinity, centrality of the Eucharist, divinity of Christ, inspiration of sacred Scripture, women’s ordination and Church teaching on human sexuality.

The Aug. 7-10 assembly will be the first opportunity for the entire LCWR membership to gather since the doctrinal assessment was released, and it is expected that the assembly body will reach a consensus about how to respond to the mandate. In a National Public Radio (NPR) interview on July 17, LCWR president, Franciscan Sister Pat Farrell, said there were three options: Comply with the mandate, not comply and possibly form a separate organization, or look for a way “that refuses to just define the mandate and the issues in such black-and-white terms.”

Because of the high interest, and because she will not do media interviews during the assembly, Sister Pat conducted a telephone press conference with media on Aug. 2 to discuss the upcoming assembly. She refused to speculate on the outcome of the LCWR members’ discussions about the mandate, which will be in executive sessions closed to the press.

Sister Pat stressed, “We don’t want to allow this doctrinal assessment to really take over the mission and the entire agenda of our organization because we do have other important things to be about.” Thus, normal assembly business will take place in the mornings of the assembly, with executive sessions occurring in the afternoons and evenings, if necessary.

The LCWR leader declined to say whether the individual doctrinal points raised in the CDF mandate would be discussed in those sessions, saying only that trained facilitators will guide the discussion. When asked if a democratic vote of the membership would determine which of the three options is taken, she said members would be given generous time for their input and “a sense of the membership” would be determined.

“Our process of discernment is typically not taking a vote,” she explained.

All of the LCWR past presidents and past executive directors have been invited to the assembly, and Sister Pat said they will provide insights and wisdom about how the LCWR should deal with the CDF mandate.

Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle was named to oversee the LCWR renewal, and he will be assisted by Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., and Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio. Bishop Blair, a member of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, had conducted the assessment for the Vatican.

The LCWR board responded to the mandate in a June 1 press release, complaining that the assessment “was based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency.”

Sister Pat said Archbishop Sartain will not attend the assembly, but the LCWR will inform him of any decision the assembly reaches before that information is released to the press.

According to Mercy Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the bishops’ conference, Archbishop Sartain offered to come to the assembly, but he was told his presence “would not be helpful.”

One reporter referred to a July 24 NPR interview with Bishop Blair that was a follow-up to the Sister Pat interview. In that interview, Bishop Blair was asked about Sister Pat’s wish to dialogue on the issues in the mandate. He had replied that if the LCWR wanted to negotiate the doctrines of the Church that was not the kind of discussion the Holy See envisioned. The reporter asked Sister Pat if that was an accurate representation of the LCWR position, and she replied:

“I would also say that there are very few doctrines in the Church that are not discussable, that are absolutely infallible. And I think those kinds of commentaries [the NPR interviews] are a reflection of a slightly different perspective that we have on obedience.

“And as I have stated in other interviews, one of our concerns is that questioning is seen as defiance, and that’s not healthy for our Church, nor is it our intention. And that our sense of our own fidelity means that we continue raising and responding to questions, according to our own consciences and according to new information and questions that arise in our day.”

Sister Pat told the press conference: “The one thing that I think we’ve constantly communicated is that we … in however we respond to this [CDF mandate], we want to help create a safe and respectful environment, where Church leaders and grassroots Catholics can raise questions openly and search together for truth freely to the very complex issues of our time.

“Anything that we can do in the way that we respond to this that could contribute to the climate of open and deeper dialogue in the Church is one of our greatest hopes.”

The Register will be reporting daily on next week’s LCWR assembly. 


Ann Carey is the author of Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities.