LCWR Assembly 2014: Sticking to a Dangerous Course

NEWS ANALYSIS: The leaders of the religious sisters’ organization seem content to remain more confrontational than conciliatory, at the expense of Church unity.

Logo of the 2014 assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious
Logo of the 2014 assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (photo:

NASHVILLE — For the third year in a row, the question of how the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) would respond to a Vatican mandate to reform the organization spiked high interest in the group’s annual assembly, held Aug. 12-15.

And for the third year in a row, the assembly ended not with a bang, but a whimper.

Some fireworks did ignite, as the main speakers spent most of their energy defending positions taken by the LCWR, even openly criticizing the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which had ordered the reform in April of 2012, after a three-year doctrinal assessment. Executive sessions that excluded non-members of LCWR also reportedly focused on the mandate.

In the end, however, the LCWR National Board issued a two-paragraph statement similar to those of 2012 and 2013: LCWR would stay in the “conversation” with the CDF delegate, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle, as long as LCWR’s “mission” and “integrity” were not compromised.

No signs of cooperation by LCWR have been apparent in the two and a half years since the mandate directed reforms to be completed in five years. Mandated reforms included revising LCWR statutes to clarify the conference’s mission and responsibilities, creating new programs to enable a deepened understanding of Church doctrine and making certain that LCWR programs, assemblies and publications reflect Church teachings. Major speakers were to be cleared with Archbishop Sartain.

Likewise, no indication of cooperation with the mandate surfaced during the assembly, and, in fact, the speakers were more confrontational than conciliatory, even though Archbishop Sartain was present for the open sessions. He did skip the last event of the assembly, a dinner and ceremony bestowing the LCWR "Outstanding Leadership Award" on Sister of St. Joseph Elizabeth Johnson.


‘An Open Provocation’

In their annual visit to the Vatican in April of this year, LCWR leaders were told by CDF prefect Cardinal Gerhard Müller that their selection of Sister Elizabeth for the award was “an open provocation against the Holy See and the doctrinal assessment” and would further alienate the U.S. bishops.

In 2011, the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine issued a statement of doctrinal concern about Sister Elizabeth’s book Quest for the Living God, saying:

“The committee has concluded that this book contains misrepresentations, ambiguities and errors that bear upon the faith of the Catholic Church as found in sacred Scripture and as it is authentically taught by the Church’s universal magisterium.”

In spite of Cardinal Müller’s warning, the LCWR went ahead with plans to honor Sister Elizabeth at the August assembly, and she turned her acceptance speech into a tirade against the CDF, not only for the doctrinal assessment, but also for having sided with the U.S. bishops in concern about her book. Her speech reportedly was lauded by the assembly with a “long-standing ovation.”


‘Channeled’ U.S. Bishops’ Judgment

Sister Elizabeth complained that the Committee on Doctrine that studied her book “reduced the rich Catholic Tradition to a set of neo-scholastic theses as narrow as baby ribbon and then criticized the book for not being in accord with them.”

Likewise, she charged that neither Cardinal Müller nor the staff advising him had read her book, but merely “channeled” the judgment of the U.S. bishops’ Doctrine Committee. And she went on to say that LCWR had gotten similar treatment from the CDF, contending that the doctrinal mandate was “an effort by certain ruling men to control committed, competent women, whose corporate religious discernment makes them adult believers of conscience, silent and invisible no longer.”

Sisters, she continued, had followed Vatican II and “vigorously renewed their lives in accord with the Gospel and the spirit of their founders. Consequently, they moved toward the periphery, away from a cramped ecclesiastical center.”

On the other hand, Sister Elizabeth continued, “a similarly vigorous process of post-conciliar renewal has not taken place at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a particular Curial office at the [ecclesiastical] center.”

“Until such reform happens,” Sister Elizabeth said, “criticism is almost inevitable, because the different pace of renewal has resulted in different ways of being church.”


Different Way of ‘Being Church’

A different way of “being church” was a theme that also permeated the keynote address at the assembly, given by Franciscan Sister Nancy Schreck, who was LCWR president in 1995.

“We have been so changed that we are no longer at home in the culture and church in which we find ourselves,” Sister Nancy declared.

In remarks that often were contradictory, Sister Nancy said that in the process of post-Vatican II renewal, “We have become more faithful, not less; more clear about who we are, not less; and more free to give expression to our call, not less.”

Yet she also spoke of “diminishment” and “exile,” with sisters finding themselves in a “middle place” that is a “place of both creativity and disorientation,” where “all of our theological categories are re-defined: Concepts like love, divine presence, incarnation and worldview are reshaped,” she said, adding, “Much of what was is gone, and what is coming is not yet clear.”

What is clear from the LCWR 2014 assembly is that LCWR sisters no longer identify with the Church’s classic understanding of religious life, which Pope John Paul II said is “at the heart of the Church.”

They seem to enjoy the persona of being sisters but have dismissed the obligations by moving to that “periphery” or “middle place,” some with an expressed disdain for Church doctrine and authority that are at the “ecclesiastical center” established by Jesus Christ.

While the LCWR board insisted in its post-assembly statement that the sisters want to continue the “conversation” with CDF delegate Archbishop Sartain, they seem totally unaware that their actions speak more loudly than their words. It is doubtful that openly insulting the other party in a dialogue will facilitate a “healthy discussion of differences” in the “atmosphere of freedom and respect” they claim to be seeking.

Indeed, time may be running out on the “conversation” with the CDF delegate anyway, for only two and a half years remain in the five-year window to complete the reform, which appears not to have even begun.

Even more pressing is the requirement recently reiterated by Cardinal Müller to get all future LCWR speakers approved by Archbishop Sartain.

If LCWR fails to observe that requirement in the next few months, the organization will be inviting disciplinary action by the Holy See. And, given the tone of the keynote speakers at its national conference and its track record with the Church to which the sisters took vows of obedience, that almost seems a given.

Writer 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.            

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