Reforming the LCWR: Where Does It Stand?


Two years ago this month, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued a sweeping mandate for reform and renewal of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), on April 18, 2012. The LCWR is a superiors’ conference made up of about 1,100 sisters who are on leadership teams in about 80% of the U.S. women’s apostolic orders in the United States.

Yet, to date, there are no signs of any reforms taking place; rather, a just-released book by the LCWR repeats its criticism of the mandate and presents a defense of the organization. Spiritual Leadership for Challenging Times (Orbis Books, 2014) is the brainchild of Sister Sandra Schneiders, a Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who has frequently criticized Vatican actions. The book is promoted by the LCWR as a history of the organization told through the annual presidential addresses of 10 LCWR presidents from 1977 to 2012.

The selected addresses explain and defend various positions taken by the organization over the years, including its disputes with the Holy See. Most of the addresses call for reform of the Catholic Church and/or hierarchy and express a vision of religious life quite foreign to the Church’s understanding of religious life.

In the book’s preface, Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Annmarie Sanders, director of communications for the LCWR and editor of the book, repeated a charge the LCWR made when the mandate was released in 2012: that the assessment was “flawed and the findings based on unsubstantiated accusations” and that the “sanctions” were “disproportionate to the concerns raised and compromised the organization’s ability to fulfill its mission.”

Sister Annmarie claimed that, because of the CDF mandate, public interest was growing “in the work of the LCWR and the type of reconciling, dialogic leadership it has historically sought to foster and strengthen in its members.” Thus, she wrote, the 10 presidential addresses were chosen to provide “ideas and inspiration” for readers to “formulate their own understandings of the type of leadership that is needed in the world and Church today.”

Yet there is no mention in the book of the doctrinal problems in LCWR identified in the mandate, which followed a four-year in-depth assessment and was approved by Pope Benedict XVI and later confirmed by Pope Francis. The CDF originally informed the LCWR in 2001 that the organization needed to correct positions it had taken that were incompatible with Catholic doctrine on women’s ordination, ministry to homosexual persons and, most importantly, the role of Jesus as Savior of humankind.

When those problems were not corrected, the CDF started the assessment in 2008 and detailed the results in the 2012 mandate, which cited “serious doctrinal problems” found in addresses at LCWR annual assemblies; “policies of corporate dissent;” “commentaries” that “even undermine the revealed doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ and the inspiration of sacred Scripture" and “theological interpretations that risk distorting faith in Jesus and his loving Father, who sent his Son for the salvation of the world.”

The Holy See appointed Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle to oversee the reform, assisted by Archbishop Leonard Blair of Hartford, Conn., and Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill. The bishops were charged with directing revision of the LCWR statutes to make them clear about the conference’s mission and responsibilities; seeing that LCWR programs, assemblies and publications reflect Church teachings; seeing that new programs be created to help sisters better understand Church doctrine; and reviewing LCWR’s use of liturgical norms and texts.

In spite of the mandate’s specific concerns about addresses at LCWR annual assemblies and the need for oversight of its publications, the LCWR chose to publish a book of 10 of those addresses, some of which illustrate the specific doctrinal problems cited by the CDF.

Five of the LCWR presidential addresses included in the book are:

1980 — Sister Theresa Kane, a Sister of Mercy of the Americas, recounted LCWR disagreements with the Vatican and complained about “social injustices” that have been “imposed upon women of the Roman Catholic Church.” She said “the LCWR particularly has been a victim of the institutional Church’s sexism and paternalism,” and she expressed concern “for those among us, both sisters and laywomen, who can no longer enter into the sacramental life of the Church because of the sin of sexism.”

1989 — Adrian Dominican Sister Nadine Foley rejected charges that sisters were “radical feminists.” She said, “The Church is a patriarchy,” and the “challenge now to us and our Church is to have the courage to internalize the full message of the Gospel and to transform the Church so that it is a credible witness to that Gospel.”

2003 — Sister Mary Ann Zollmann, Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also spoke of “abuse of ecclesial power” and “our impasse with the hierarchical and patriarchal structures of our Church.” She related her own “homelessness in the Church that is my home” because the Church does not share her “alternative ethic of sexuality” that sees the “beauty” of committed same-sex relationships.

2010 — Sister Marlene Weisenbeck, Sister of the Third Order of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration, spoke about sisters “quavering with the continuing ecclesial inquiries,” but continued: “To focus on the person of Jesus while working for concrete reform in the functioning and organization of the Church (Roman Curia, exercise of Petrine ministry, appointment of bishops, place of women, inculturation, authentic liturgy, realistic ecumenism) is a rightful role of ours.”

2012 — Sister of St. Francis of Dubuque Pat Farrell presided over the LCWR assembly that was considering whether or not to cooperate with the CDF reform mandate. She discussed the changes in religious life, including some sisters’ defiant redefinition of obedience, and said, “A response of integrity to the mandate needs to come out of our own understanding of creative fidelity.”

The other addresses are by Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister (1977); the late Sister Margaret Cafferty of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1985); Sister of Mercy Doris Gottemoeller (1994); Sister of St. Francis of Dubuque Nancy Schreck (1996); and the late Sister Mary Whited, a Sister of the Most Precious Blood (2008).

A conference based on the LCWR book and featuring three former LCWR presidents is scheduled to take place at The Catholic University of America on June 7. Titled “Spiritual Leadership for Challenging Times: Leading From the Emerging Future,” the conference is co-sponsored by the university’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies and the group Solidarity With Sisters.

Solidarity With Sisters was formed to support LCWR after the CDF mandate was issued in 2012, and it organized demonstrations in support of LCWR. “Solidarity With Sisters exists to walk with LCWR, particularly during this difficult time,” its website explains, and “we seek and create specific ways to support LCWR.” Solidarity With Sisters created “Questions for Reflection and Discussion” on the LCWR book that are posted on the LCWR website.

The conference website promises “to expose participants to the spiritual leadership practices used by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and its member congregations, as a way of planting seeds or expanding awareness about a different way of leading, a way that is inclusive, community-centered, more democratic and wholly spiritual/contemplative.” The website also provides a  link to Sister Pat Farrell’s 2012 presidential address as a sample chapter from the book. It appears that this conference will seek to advance the LCWR’s approach to a systematic “policy of corporate dissent” that the Vatican warned of in the 2012 mandate.

The Register asked the LCWR and Archbishop Sartain to comment for this article on what progress has been made in the two years of dialogue. Archbishop Sartain declined to comment. The LCWR simply confirmed that the group’s executive director and “three-person presidency” (president-elect, president and past president) had met “several times” with the three bishop delegates to discuss the mandate, and LCWR had given the bishops background information on the development of U.S. women’s religious life and on LCWR.

That statement indicates no movement on the issues identified in the 2012 mandate and suggests that the LCWR leaders have been instructing the bishops. The book and planned conference both signal a defense and promulgation of LCWR’s own positions rather than any acceptance of the CDF mandate of reform.

Ironically, the book’s contents vividly illustrate the Vatican’s concerns about LCWR and may actually undermine the LCWR’s effort to gain support for its apparent resistance to reform.

Veteran journalist 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.