LCWR 2013 Assembly: Little Evidence Yet of Any Reforms

NEWS ANALYSIS: More than a year after the Vatican-mandated changes, the U.S. women religious leaders’ group appears uninterested in complying.

When the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) met in its annual assembly Aug. 13-16 in Orlando, Fla., the main topic of business was how the sisters would respond to a 2012 mandate of reform from the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). The LCWR is a canonically erected superiors’ organization of nearly 1,400 sisters who are leaders of about 80% of the women religious in this country.

Interest in their 2013 assembly was heightened by the presence of the Vatican’s apostolic delegate charged with conducting the reform, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle. He had offered to attend the LCWR 2012 assembly to discuss the mandate that had come out April 18 of that year, but had been told then by LCWR leaders that his presence “would not be helpful.”

This year, Archbishop Sartain addressed the entire membership in a closed session and fielded questions about the mandate from LCWR members. He also met with the LCWR’s 21-member national board during the first of three days of board meetings after the assembly closed.

However, the only decision announced by LCWR in an Aug. 19 press release was simply to continue talking with Archbishop Sartain and Bishops Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., and Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, who the Vatican appointed to assist him.

Now the question is: How long is the CDF willing to have the apostolic delegates continue those conversations when the LCWR has not yet agreed to any of the reforms mandated in the doctrinal assessment?

That eight-page mandate is very explicit and readily available on the Internet, even though some LCWR members have claimed that they don’t know the details of the document. Among issues identified in the mandate are areas of “corporate dissent,” “serious theological, even doctrinal errors,” various “theological interpretations that risk distorting faith in Jesus and his loving Father” and commentaries that “undermine the revealed doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ and the inspiration of sacred Scripture.”

The mandate directs the bishop delegates to take no more than five years to direct a revision of the LCWR’s statutes; review and reform LCWR plans and programs; create LCWR programs to help member congregations receive deeper formation in Church doctrine; review and guide application of liturgical norms and texts; and review LCWR links with the affiliated organizations NETWORK and Resource Center for Religious Institutes.

Reportedly, several meetings and/or teleconferences between the bishop delegates and LCWR leaders took place over the past year, but no information has leaked out. From all indications, none of the mandated reforms have yet begun, even something as simple as taking the LCWR "Systems Thinking Handbook " off the LCWR website. The CDF mandate had directed that publication to be “withdrawn from circulation, pending revision.”

Rather, this sentence in the Aug. 19 LCWR press release indicates that the sisters continue to look for a “third way” to avoid reform of the LCWR while still retaining status as a canonically erected superiors’ organization:

“Although we remain uncertain as to how our work with the bishop delegates will proceed, we maintain hope that continued conversations of this depth will lead to a resolution of this situation that maintains the integrity of LCWR and is healthy for the whole Church.”

A similar message was issued at the end of the LCWR 2012 assembly: “The [LCWR] officers will proceed with these discussions [with the apostolic delegates] as long as possible, but will reconsider if LCWR is forced to compromise the integrity of its mission.”

In an interview a month before that 2012 assembly, then-LCWR president, Franciscan Sister Pat Farrell, said that the LCWR might not be able to comply with the mandate, and if that is the case, would remove itself from canonical status and form a separate organization. She said she hoped a “third way” could be found “that refuses to just define the mandate and the issues in such black-and-white terms.” 

The outgoing 2013 LCWR president, Franciscan Sister Florence Deacon, also revealed something about the mindset of the current LCWR leadership.

The press release for the 2013 assembly included an excerpt from her presidential address in which she said that, relative to the doctrinal assessment, the LCWR’s “situation reflects larger questions and concerns,” including “understandings of authority, faithful dissent and obedience and the need for spaces where honest, probing questions about faith and belief can be raised and discussed.”

It would seem that dialogue about doctrinal matters with the Vatican delegates will be very challenging when the sisters claim the right to “faithful dissent” and their own understandings of faith, ecclesial authority and religious obedience. 

Ann Carey is the author of
 Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities and of Sisters in Crisis Revisited: From Unraveling to Reform and Renewal.