Religious Visitators, Round 2

The Holy See has announced an apostolic visitation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

ROME — The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has decided to conduct an investigation of the 1,500-member Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).

Reportedly, the assessment involves concerns about three areas of doctrine: the ordination of priests, the centrality of salvation through Christ, and Church teaching on homosexuality.

LCWR officers met April 22 with Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The decision to investigate the LCWR comes on the heels of the decision of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life to conduct an apostolic visitation of women’s religious communities in the United States (see “Visitation Rights,” page 7).

The 53-year-old Leadership Conference consists of leaders of about 95% of the 68,000 women religious in the United States.

Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, who is to conduct the assessment, has declined to comment on it beyond saying in a statement that he has been in contact with the leadership of the conference and that he will be reviewing “the work of the LCWR in supporting its membership as communities of faith and witness to Christ in today’s Church.”

The Leadership Conference, which also is declining interviews, said in a statement that they are facing the process with confidence in the belief that “the conference has remained faithful to its mission of service to leaders of congregations of women religious.”

However, a letter to the Leadership Conference from Cardinal William Levada, the Vatican’s point man on doctrine, quoted in the National Catholic Reporter, cites a 2001 meeting with the congregation at which the conference was told to report on any initiatives it had undertaken or planned concerning reception of the 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis about reserving priestly ordination for men; the 2000 document Dominus Jesus, which focused on Christ as humanity’s only savior; and “the problem of homosexuality.”

It went on to say that, given the tone and content of talks presented at the Leadership Conference’s annual assemblies, problems related to the 2001 request remain.

The Leadership Conference has a long history of inviting dissenting speakers who have sometimes questioned Church authority and teaching, according to Ann Carey, who spent six months researching the conference’s archives in writing the 1996 book Sisters in Crisis (Our Sunday Visitor).

As recently as 2006, Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, an outspoken advocate of women’s ordination, gave the keynote address, and in 2007, she was presented the Leadership Conference’s outstanding leadership award.

In accepting the award, she said, “If we proclaim ourselves to be ecclesial women, we must ask if what we mean by that is that we will do what the men of the Church tell us to do or that we will do what the people of the Church need to have us do.”

Name Change

In the keynote address to the assembly in 2007, Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink proposed several options for religious life, one of which called for “moving beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus.” She included a disclaimer at the beginning of her talk saying her opinions did not reflect those of the Leadership Conference, the Church or her community.

Mercy Sister Doris Gottemoeller, a former Leadership Conference member who served as president of her community from 1991-99, said she thinks it is important to distinguish between what the conference says and what individual major superiors or members might say. “This is a service organization to its members,” she said. “It doesn’t oversee or have an opportunity to vet or censor what individual sisters, or even its members, say.”

However, the Leadership Conference’s own leaders have not been reticent about using the forum of the annual assemblies to question Church authority.

In the 2000 president’s address, for instance, Sister Nancy Sylvester of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary complained about Vatican officials who “see consecrated religious life as a more static life-form.”

“In their view,” Sister Nancy said, “members of religious congregations pursue holiness through the three vows, committing themselves to a corporate and institutional apostolate under the guidance of the hierarchy and in support of the magisterium. From this more static stance, religious are to hold a clear and unequivocal position in support of the authority of the hierarchy and its right to regulate religious life. To be sure, this understanding of authentic religious life does fit securely into the prevailing worldview operative in a patriarchal clerical culture. But we dare to say that we beg to differ with it.”

Sister Nancy also told of a meeting with the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life in which representatives of the Leadership Conference and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men attempted to share their “understanding of loyal dissent.”

“The meeting was difficult,” she said. “The major spokespersons for the congregation gave voice to their understanding of religious life as one in which both members and major superiors give unequivocal support to the directives of the Holy See speaking through the Vatican congregations.”

Carey said her research revealed that the relationship between the Leadership Conference and the Vatican has been a contentious one since the canonically recognized group, formerly known as the Conference of Major Religious Superiors of Women’s Institutes, changed its name in 1971 without seeking permission. It was 1974, she added, before official approval of the change was granted.

According to Carey’s book, those supporting the name change felt that the former name communicated “militaristic and hierarchical connotations.”

‘Long-Term Agenda’

In a presentation last September to the Symposium on Apostolic Religious Life at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., Dominican Sister Elizabeth McDonough suggested that “liberal-feminist influences” co-opted the Leadership Conference at the time of the name change and that “Vatican officials noticed the difference, but failed to recognize or to address the political agenda and underlying methodology of its radical transformation.”

In turn, she said, the Leadership Conference was able to bring women’s religious communities under the control of progressive leaders, co-opting the entire course of renewal “with a liberal-feminist-ecological-social justice-oriented agenda.”

It has only been recently, Sister Elizabeth said, that more of the faithful, other religious and members of the hierarchy are recognizing “this long-term agenda is very much amiss and also harmful.”

In another presentation at the same symposium, Cardinal Franc Rodé, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, made special mention of feminism in talking about the future of women’s religious communities in North America.

Although he said men and women religious have in common such problems as “the engineering of language, the slant toward relativism, the fading of a sense of the supernatural, in some cases doubt about the relevance and centrality of Christ,” he continued, “women religious especially need to engage critically a certain strain of feminism by now outmoded, but which still nevertheless continues to exert much influence in certain circles.”

The apostolic visitation of women’s religious communities was announced shortly after the symposium. Carey, who also spoke at the event, said Cardinal Rodé was asked during the conference about the possibility of apostolic visitations to women’s communities in the United States but gave no indication they would be forthcoming.

“I think his being there certainly had to have somewhat of an effect, although Rome doesn’t do anything fast,” she said. “There must have been some concern brewing, and maybe this was the little increase in heat that made the pot boil. I can’t say it was the impetus.”

Judy Roberts writes

from Graytown, Ohio.