Clearing Up the Confusion Over the Reform of the LCWR

Bishop Thomas Paprocki discusses the recently completed process, which he called ‘highly successful.’

Bishop Thomas Paprocki
Bishop Thomas Paprocki (photo: CNA/Michelle Bauman)

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., was one of the three bishops appointed as delegates by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in 2012 to work with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) on reforming that superiors’ conference. Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain led the delegation, of which then-Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio (now archbishop of Hartford, Conn.), was also part.

Bishop Paprocki, a canon lawyer, recently spoke with Ann Carey about his perspective on the reform process.


Media stories have indicated that no major changes were required of the LCWR in the reform process. Yet the joint final report indicates that LCWR did agree to some significant reforms. How would you characterize the reforms outlined in the final report agreement?

We revised the statutes, which I think clarified and strengthened the relationship between the LCWR and the Holy See. That was a point of some discretion: There were some voices within the LCWR when the implementation of the doctrinal assessment was first announced, some who were urging that they just become an independent organization of sisters. We had a conversation about that, and the [LCWR] leadership made it clear they did not want to do that. I believe their own conversations with the vast majority of their membership showed they did not want LCWR to be somehow an independent organization. So that was clarified, in terms of the canonical relationship between LCWR and the Holy See, as articulated in Canons 708 and 709.


The New York Times quoted you as saying that most of the discussions with LCWR leaders centered on doctrinal matters. Many of the media accounts depict the Holy See’s doctrinal concerns as simply a misunderstanding, and once the sisters explained their position, all was well. Did the bishops discuss specific doctrinal errors with the LCWR leaders?

Yes. We talked about some of the statements that had been made at their annual assemblies and some of the papers they had disseminated. Yes, we specifically talked about things that touched on a doctrinal or theological nature, because that’s really key to what this was all about. I think that it’s very important whenever people try to understand what was going on here with this whole doctrinal assessment of the LCWR: that this not be confused with the apostolic visitation that was conducted by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

I think many minds have confused and conflated those two, because some people think that somehow we were looking at the internal life of religious institutions and how they live and what their apostolates are. That was the focus of the apostolic visitation. Our focus was much more specific and much narrower and was really focusing on the LCWR itself and the speakers and their papers, which contained some doctrinal statements.


Some LCWR members said in the media that it was unfair for the CDF to assume that something provocative said by a speaker invited to address the LCWR was actually a position of the organization. Yet the LCWR leaders often had knowledge of the content of the talks before an assembly so that discussion questions could be printed. Then, after the assemblies were over, the LCWR distributed those talks widely without any effort to distinguish between provocative remarks of a speaker and the position of LCWR. Did the LCWR leaders understand that these remarks did seem to be a position of the conference and that reasonable people might assume that when LCWR distributed those talks?

They did not understand that initially; that was my impression. We talked about that and the fact they had some speakers and papers that were taking positions contrary to the doctrines of the Church.

Probably the most conspicuous was the one cited in the mandate for implementation of the reform, when the speaker made reference that some sisters had moved beyond Jesus Christ. So we asked them about that, and they said that is clearly not the position of the LCWR.

After a speaker would say something like that, the sisters present would have table conversations, and, very often, it would be clear from those in attendance at the table conversations that they disagreed with viewpoints that were being expressed by a speaker. So the bishops tried to point out that we appreciated the fact that they were saying that they didn’t agree with some of those positions and that sisters in their table conversations also did not agree with those positions. The problem was: There was nothing ever posted on their website or published by them to that effect. In that regard, I think it was just a case of their simply being unaware that was how people perceived them. We made clear, as you were saying, that was the perception of some people. If there is nothing being stated that, in fact, this it is not the position of the LCWR or their members, that is going to lead to a misconception.


When a sister or sister’s organization openly questions the authority of the magisterium or publicly rejects a moral teaching of the Church, some laity are confused or scandalized, while others are encouraged to follow the lead of that religious sister. Did the LCWR leaders seem to realize that some of their positions and some of their speakers did confuse or mislead people regarding the authority and teachings of the Church?

Again, I think it was a question of their saying that was not the position of the LCWR. But they needed to make clearer that if a speaker said something that was contrary to the magisterium of the Church, they needed somehow to correct that. I think they were making a distinction between speakers who were not speaking on behalf of the LCWR and the official LCWR position.

We tried to clarify that if they were providing a forum for a speaker, even though that may not be the official position of the LCWR, the fact that they were providing a forum and that there was later no correction or contrary statement, then people would perceive that in fact that was the position of the LCWR.


LCWR leaders indicated for the first two years of the dialogue with you, Archbishop Sartain and then-Bishop Blair that they resented the mandate of reform and saw no reason for it. Was there a particular turning point during the third year that led to the agreement?

From my perspective, it was the election of Sister Sharon Holland as president-elect [2013-2014] and then the president [2014-2015]. When Sister Sharon Holland came on board, I think that made a perceptible difference, from my perspective. My chief role, as a canon lawyer of the three bishops, was working on the revision of the statutes. So we had a subcommittee set up consisting of myself, Sister Sharon Holland and Sister Carol Zinn [president 2013-2014, past-president 2014-2015].

Sister Janet Mock also was involved as the executive director, and the bishop delegates had asked for a staff member of the USCCB, Mrs. Siobhan Verbeek, a canon lawyer I worked with when I was chairman on the Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance. She is also the staff person who works for the Committee on Doctrine, so we asked her as a consultant to do some of the work in helping to draft revisions to the statutes, and the [LCWR} sisters were very agreeable to that. In fact, although I didn’t know this when I first talked to Mrs. Verbeek, apparently Sister Sharon Holland was one of her canon-law professors. They had a good relationship, and I think once the four of us sat down, Siobhan Verbeek, myself, Sister Sharon Holland and Sister Carol Zinn, things started to move much more quickly and more smoothly because Sister Sharon in particular had many years of experience working at the congregation for religious in Rome, and she is a canon lawyer. So I think we were speaking the same language, and she knew a lot of the issues. She knew, I think, the mindset of the Holy See and knew what we bishops — and what I in particular, as a canonist — would be looking for in the statutes; and I think our conversations went very smoothly from that point, and we got our task done.


The mandate of reform stated that formation programs for sisters did not have a sufficient doctrinal foundation. Do you expect any future changes in LCWR formation programs to make them focus more on the teachings of the Church?

Yes. The sisters agreed to have a panel of theologians review their materials to make sure they are consistent with the teaching of the Church, so I certainly am hopeful that there will be greater fidelity to the teaching of the Church in their documents in the future.


Do you know if those programs or the other reforms agreed upon by LCWR will be monitored by anyone outside the LCWR; for instance, will anyone from the Holy See follow that?

The ongoing relationship with the Holy See — as I mentioned, we clarified in the statutes — is that they are indeed an entity of the Holy See and that the ongoing relationship, then, is with the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. So the [three] bishop delegates don’t have any future role in this; our work is concluded, and I understand also that the work of the doctrinal assessment of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is concluded. So the ongoing relationship and oversight would come from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.


The mandate of reform directed that greater emphasis needs to be placed on the relationship of the LCWR with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Do you have any recommendations for how that relationship could be enhanced? What would be the benefits of a stronger relationship between the two organizations?

Yes. It is more than a recommendation. We actually included that in the statutes. In Canon 708, there is reference to conferences of major superiors; and according to canon law, one of the reasons you have a conference of major superiors is to help foster their relationship both with individual bishops as well as with the conference of bishops. So canon law mentions that, and we also included that in one of the LCWR statutes.


So what do you see as the benefit of an enhanced relationship between the LCWR and the bishops?

I think just to keep the line of communication open is very important. We found that in this process, over the last three years, that it was very helpful for us bishop delegates to hear where the sisters were coming from and what their perspective was; and, conversely, for the sisters to hear what the concerns were of the Holy See and of ourselves speaking as bishops. To have an ongoing relationship of that nature hopefully will provide a forum and a mechanism for addressing any issues that may arise more quickly and before they can develop into any major problems.


Did the dialogue with the LCWR leaders give you any insights that would be helpful for other bishops when it comes to relating to LCWR members?

The important thing was the working principle we had from the beginning: that we were talking to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. That was key and something not very well understood by the outside world, which saw, and unfortunately very often characterized, this as an adversarial relationship, that somehow it was the Holy See vs. the sisters. That was not our understanding: From the beginning, we articulated very clearly that we would treat each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. That really colored our conversations. We would talk about things not in arguments, but in very mannered and civil conversations. We certainly spoke very frankly; we talked about things that caused some difficulties and misunderstandings, and I think the sisters also spoke very frankly about some of their perceptions of this.

I think, in the course of that conversation of dealing with each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, that was the key to making this come out as successfully and positively as it did in the end.

Ann Carey’s specialty is women religious,

and in 2013, Ignatius Press published her latest book,

Sisters in Crisis Revisited: From Unraveling to Reform and Renewal.