LCWR Agrees to Abide by Vatican’s Corrections

NEWS ANALYSIS: Six years after the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith initiated a doctrinal assessment, the organization of U.S. religious sisters has committed to institute reforms.

Pope Francis talks with a delegation of The Leadership Conference of Women Religious during an audience at the Vatican on April 16.
Pope Francis talks with a delegation of The Leadership Conference of Women Religious during an audience at the Vatican on April 16. (photo: L’Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)

VATICAN CITY — The reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) mandated three years ago by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has been concluded, according to an April 16 bulletin from the Holy See Press Office.

The organization of U.S. religious sisters has agreed to make corrections cited by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

According to a Holy See press release, LCWR’s president, Sister Sharon Holland, of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, said, “We are pleased at the completion of the mandate, which involved long and challenging exchanges of our understandings of and perspectives on critical matters of religious life and its practice.”

A doctrinal assessment of the LCWR began in 2009, after the organization failed to respond to ongoing Vatican concerns about some of its programs, publications and public positions. In 2012, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle was named apostolic delegate to work with LCWR officials reforming the organization, which is a canonically erected entity. He was assisted by Archbishop Leonard Blair of Hartford, Conn. (then-bishop of Toledo, Ohio), who had conducted the assessment for the CDF, and by Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., a civil and canon lawyer.

The morning of April 16, Archbishop Sartain and LCWR officials presented the CDF with a joint report detailing agreed-upon reforms designed to correct and prevent future instances of public dissent, and the CDF accepted that report.

The parties involved in the reform had an audience with Pope Francis after the joint statement was announced, but the only public comment on that audience came from LCWR and did not even mention the CDF reform. However, the Pope had encouraged the CDF to continue with the mandate of reform, so it is certain that he gave his approval to the agreement before the deal was consummated.


The Key Reforms

According to the joint report, the key reforms are:

1. LCWR statutes have been rewritten and approved by the membership and the Vatican to stress that the conference is “centered on Christ and faithful to the teachings of the Church.” This was probably the central issue in the three years of discussions, for the 2012 CDF mandate had cited “a diminution of the fundamental Christological center and focus of religious consecration, which leads, in turn, to a loss of a ‘constant and lively sense of the Church’ among some religious.”

The joint report concludes: “The commitment of LCWR leadership to its crucial role in service to the mission and membership of the conference will continue to guide and strengthen LCWR’s witness to the great vocation of religious life, to its sure foundation in Christ and to ecclesial communion.”

2. Since LCWR publications need a “sound doctrinal foundation,” the report states, “Measures are being taken to promote a scholarly rigor that will ensure theological accuracy and help avoid statements that are ambiguous with regard to Church doctrine or could be read as contrary to it.”

This reform reflects the CDF’s concerns about doctrinal errors in LCWR publications, such as its quarterly Occasional Papers. Thus, an LCWR publications advisory committee will oversee the organization’s publications and manuscripts, which are to be “reviewed by competent theologians, as a means of safeguarding the theological integrity of the conference.” The report did not clarify whether those theologians would be LCWR members or outside experts.

3. The choice of topics and speakers for LCWR programs and assemblies is to be done in a “thoughtful and discerning manner,” the report states. “When a topic explicitly addresses matters of faith, speakers are expected to employ the ecclesial language of faith.” When exploring contemporary issues, particularly those that touch upon faith and morals, “LCWR expects speakers and presenters to have due regard for the Church’s faith and to pose questions for further reflection in a manner that suggests how faith might shed light on such issues.”

This reform refers to findings pointed out in the 2012 CDF mandate about “doctrinally problematic statements or formal refutation of Church teaching found in talks given at LCWR-sponsored conferences or general assemblies.” Adding to that problem, the mandate continued, was “the silence and inaction of the LCWR in the face of such error, given its responsibility to support a vision of religious life in harmony with that of the Church and to promote a solid doctrinal basis for religious life.”

4. “A revised process for the selection of the Outstanding Leadership Award recipient has been articulated.”

This reform responds to recent controversial choices for the award, such as Sister of St. Joseph Elizabeth Johnson in 2014, even though the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine had issued a statement of doctrinal concern about her book Quest for the Living God; and the 2012 selection of Sister Sandra Schneiders, of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who had led resistance to the 2009-2011 apostolic visitation of women religious conducted by the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

Other reforms mandated by the CDF — reviewing liturgical norms and texts, giving a place of priority to the Eucharist and Liturgy of the Hours at LCWR events, reviewing LCWR’s links with affiliated organizations Network and the Resource Center for Religious Institutes, and creating strong formation programs — were mentioned only briefly in the joint report. Discussions on those matters “had their origin in the mandate and led to clarifying and fruitful conversation,” the report stated, somewhat vaguely.

Thus, many questions remain about how and to what extent the reform will be implemented and whether any structure is in place to monitor LCWR compliance.



The Vatican press release that accompanied the final report contained upbeat and optimistic reactions from Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, from Archbishop Sartain and from the LCWR’s president, a remarkable change in climate from the storm clouds that hovered over the reform discussions for most of their duration.

In the press release, Cardinal Müller observed: “At the conclusion of this process, the congregation is confident that LCWR has made clear its mission to support its member institutes by fostering a vision of religious life that is centered on the Person of Jesus Christ and is rooted in the Tradition of the Church. It is this vision that makes religious women and men radical witnesses to the Gospel and, therefore, is essential for the flourishing of religious life in the Church.”

At last year’s meeting with the LCWR leaders, Cardinal Müller had made a similar observation, saying that “the charismatic vitality of religious life can only flourish within the ecclesial faith of the Church,” but added that the CDF was looking for LCWR to convey “a clearer expression of that ecclesial vision and more substantive signs of collaboration.”

Those comments seemed to reflect the May 8, 2013, address of Pope Francis to sisters participating in a plenary assembly of the International Union of Superiors General, when he said it was “an absurd dichotomy to think of living with Christ without the Church.”

In his statement, Archbishop Sartain noted that his work with LCWR “was undertaken in an atmosphere of love for the Church and profound respect for the critical place of religious life in the United States” and had been beneficial to all parties.

Similarly, comments from Sister Sharon Holland struck a conciliatory note but implied that LCWR also had instructed the bishop delegates: “Through these exchanges, conducted always in a spirit of prayer and mutual respect, we were brought to deeper understandings of one another’s experiences, roles, responsibilities and hopes for the Church and the people it serves.”


Sister Sharon’s Role

Sister Sharon seems to have been instrumental in guiding the “challenging” resolution between LCWR and the CDF. A canon lawyer, she worked at the Vatican from 1988 to 2009. LCWR no doubt recognized the value of her connections and experience, and in spite of being past retirement age, she was chosen as LCWR president-elect in 2013 and installed as president in August 2014. By December, she was indicating that she expected a resolution of the LCWR doctrinal reform within the next few months.

No doubt Sister Sharon’s expertise in canon law helped her convince LCWR sisters that retaining the organization’s canonical status was essential for the LCWR’s integrity and survival, so the members ultimately voted to accept the necessary reforms it had resisted for nearly three years.

The sisters also probably came to realize that Pope Francis was not going to intervene because they never were granted the audience with him they had repeatedly requested during the reform effort.

Only time will tell how effectively the LCWR will implement the reform, but, for now, all parties involved seem satisfied with the outcome.

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.