Sisters’ Summit Convenes

The annual meeting of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious concluded with no clear indication of the sisters' response to calls for reform.

ST. LOUIS — When the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) met Aug. 7-10, anticipation was high that the sisters would announce whether or not they would cooperate with reform of their organization mandated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

Throughout the annual four-day assembly in St. Louis, LCWR leaders sent mixed signals, but, in the end, they made no decision and opted instead to keep “dialoguing” with Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle.

Archbishop Sartain had been appointed by the CDF to oversee the reform of the LCWR that was announced April 18. He was given the mandate to revise LCWR statutes, review its plans and programs, create materials to provide sisters with “a deepened understanding of the Church’s doctrine of the faith,” review and guide application of liturgical norms and texts, and review LCWR links with affiliated organizations.

The four-year “Doctrinal Assessment” of LCWR had identified several concerns, including “serious theological, even doctrinal errors” in talks at LCWR annual assemblies, “policies of corporate dissent” and “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith in some of the programs and presentations.”

The LCWR had reacted with surprise and indignation to the CDF mandate for reform.

A June 1 statement from the LCWR national board said that “the assessment was based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency,” “the sanctions imposed were disproportionate to the concerns raised,” and the mandate had “caused scandal and pain throughout the Church community and created greater polarization.”

Yet Cardinal William Levada, the former prefect of the CDF, who had talked to LCWR leaders for years about the doctrinal problems, told John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter on June 12 that the process had been fair and transparent.

That interview occurred on the same day that the cardinal had met with LCWR officers to address their concerns about the assessment. He said that in those four years of discussions there had been no progress.

“In some ways, and I used this phrase today, it seems to me like a dialogue of the deaf. Sometimes people have different images of dialogue. For some, dialogue is an end in itself, while for some of us it’s a means to an end,” Cardinal Levada said.

In a July 17 interview on National Public Radio, Franciscan Sister Pat Farrell, LCWR president, had said that the LCWR may not be able to comply with the mandate, and she explained: “We have been, in good faith, raising concerns about some of the Church’s teaching on sexuality, human sexuality, the problem being that the teaching and interpretation of the faith can’t remain static and really needs to be reformulated, rethought, in light of the world we live in and new questions, new realities as they arise.”

The following week, Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, was interviewed on NPR. A member of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, he had conducted the assessment for the CDF and has been appointed to assist Archbishop Sartain in conducting the LCWR reform.

When asked about “dialogue” with the LCWR, he replied, “If by dialogue they mean that the doctrines of the Church are negotiable and that the bishops represent one position and the LCWR presents another position, and somehow we find a middle ground about basic Church teaching on faith and morals, then No. That’s — I don’t think that’s the kind of dialogue that the Holy See would envision.”

No Fireworks
So, the stage was set for fireworks at the LCWR assembly, but the fireworks did not ignite.
Indeed, the Aug. 10 statement issued by the LCWR assembly said, “The officers will proceed with these discussions [with Archbishop Sartain] as long as possible, but will reconsider if LCWR is forced to compromise the integrity of its mission.” That mission had been defined by Sister Pat in her presidential address to the assembly as “to give ourselves away in love, particularly to those in greatest need.”

Though Archbishop Sartain had offered to attend the assembly, he was told by LCWR that his presence “would not be helpful.”

After the LCWR said it would continue dialogue with him, Archbishop Sartain issued a statement the same day in which he praised the accomplishments and dedication of women religious, saying: “Religious women have made a lasting contribution to the well-being of our country and continue to do so today. For that they deserve our respect, our support, our thanks and our prayers.”

Then he addressed the assessment: “Along with the members of the LCWR, I remain committed to working to address the issues raised by the ‘Doctrinal Assessment’ in an atmosphere of prayer and respectful dialogue. We must also work toward clearing up any misunderstandings, and I remain truly hopeful that we will work together without compromising Church teaching or the important role of the LCWR. I look forward to our continued discussions as we collaborate in promoting consecrated life in the United States.”

The day after the assembly adjourned, Archbishop Sartain came to St. Louis for a two-hour meeting with the LCWR national board. 

That meeting went well, according to an Aug. 13 LCWR press release that reported Archbishop Sartain “listened carefully” as LCWR board members expressed their concerns and feelings about the CDF report “with great openness and honesty.”

According to the press release, the archbishop said he wanted to learn more about LCWR members’ experiences and understandings of religious life, and LCWR agreed to provide him with helpful resources.

Archbishop Sartain did not make any public comment about that meeting and was not available for interview, according to Mercy Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Some speculation has circulated that the new prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, German Archbishop Gerhard Müller, will not be as interested in pursuing the assessment as was the American Cardinal William Levada, who retired from the CDF in July at age 76.

In a July 20 interview with Catholic News Agency, Archbishop Müller was conciliatory when he said he wanted to work with the LCWR as “sisters and brothers of Christ … not like a political party or a human organization.”

However, he continued, “We cannot have negotiations about revealed truth. …  We are in communion with the Church only insofar as we accept the whole and the complete revelation of Jesus Christ, all the doctrine of the Church.”

The press release added that the LCWR officers plan to meet with Archbishop Sartain again “later in the fall.”

Ann Carey is the author of
Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic
Unraveling of Women’s
Religious Communities.