Back in 2009, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) initiated an investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), a canonically approved organization with 1,500 members, whose congregations in 2011 represented 46,451 (or 83%) of the nearly 56,000 women religious in the United States.
This week the Vatican, via the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, released its "Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious" and appointed Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle as its Archbishop Delegate to help implement the initiatives contained in the document. It also named Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio and Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of Springfield, IL to assist in the effort. Bishop Blair conducted the assessment of LCWR that underlies the CDF report.
It is worth noting that there is a certain conflict of interest here in the appointment of Archbishop Sartain. His sister, Sr. Marian Sartain, O.P., is the Secretary-General of the Nashville Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, an order that favors wearing traditional habits and is a member of the smaller competing -- and far more conservative -- Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. Outside observers could be forgiven if they question how much objectivity the Archbishop might bring to his appointed task under the circumstances.
The doctrinal assessment critiques LCWR in the following areas:
Addresses at the LCWR Assemblies: The CDF deems these to "manifest problematic statements and serious theological, even doctrinal errors." Specifically, Cardinal William Levada of the CDF criticized Sr. Laurie Brink, O.P.'s keynote address to the 2007 LCWR Assembly on A Marginal Life: Pursuing Holiness in the 21st Century. Sr. Brink speaks of women religious who have moved "beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus", a concept that the CDF calls "a serious source of scandal" and "incompatible with religious life", though, if one reads further in the address, it's clear that Sr. Brink is simply talking about an ecumenical mindset that many of the more progressive women's communities have embraced since Vatican II.
Policies of Corporate Dissent: Here the concern is about letters LCWR sent to heads of congregations on issues such as women's ordination and ministry to homosexuals, specifically the banned New Ways Ministry. "For example, the LCWR publicly expressed in 1977 its refusal to assent to the teaching of Inter insigniores on the reservation of priestly ordination to men. This public refusal has never been corrected." And so the CDF concludes: "With this Assessment, the CDF intends to assist the LCWR in placing its activity into a wider context of religious life in the universal Church in order to foster a vision of consecrated life consistent with the Church’s teaching. In this wider context, the CDF notes the absence of initiatives by the LCWR aimed at promoting the reception of the Church’s teaching, especially on difficult issues such as Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis and Church teaching about homosexuality."
The Assessment also criticizes LCWR of spending too much time on social justice and not addressing the biological "life" and sexual issues that the male hierarchy thinks are more important:
"...Bishop Blair presented further documentation on the content of the LCWR’s Mentoring Leadership Manual and also on the organizations associated with the LCWR, namely Network and The Resource Center for Religious Institutes. The documentation reveals that, while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States. Further, issues of crucial importance to the life of Church and society, such as the Church’s Biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes Church teaching. Moreover, occasional public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the Bishops, who are the Church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals, are not compatible with its purpose."
Radical Feminism: "The Cardinal noted a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith in some of the programs and presentations sponsored by the LCWR, including theological interpretations that risk distorting faith in Jesus and his loving Father who sent his Son for the salvation of the world. Moreover, some commentaries on 'patriarchy' distort the way in which Jesus has structured sacramental life in the Church; others even undermine the revealed doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the inspiration of Sacred Scripture."
And so the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has appointed Archbishop Sartain and his team to, in effect, have administratorship over LCWR. His mandate for the next five years is to:
1) To revise LCWR Statutes to ensure greater clarity about the scope of the mission and responsibilities of this conference of major superiors. The revised Statutes will be submitted to the Holy See for approval by the CICLSAL.
2) To review LCWR plans and programs, including General Assemblies and
publications, to ensure that the scope of the LCWR’s mission is fulfilled in accord
with Church teachings and discipline. In particular:
- Systems Thinking Handbook will be withdrawn from circulation pending revision [I've downloaded a copy to my hard drive just in case and I would suggest that all readers who oppose Vatican censorship do likewise]
- LCWR programs for (future) Superiors and Formators will be reformed
- Speakers/presenters at major programs will be subject to approval by Delegate
3) To create new LCWR programs for member Congregations for the development of initial and ongoing formation material that provides a deepened understanding of the Church’s doctrine of the faith.
4) To review and offer guidance in the application of liturgical norms and texts. For
-The Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours will have a place of priority in LCWR events and programs.
5) To review LCWR links with affiliated organizations, e.g. Network and Resource Center for Religious Life.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious issued a response on to the CDF's assessment:
"The presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was stunned by the conclusion of the doctrinal assessment of LCWR by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. We had received a letter from the CDF prefect in early March informing us that we would hear the results of the doctrinal assessment at our annual meeting; however, we were taken by surprise by the gravity of the mandate.
This is a moment of great import for religious life and the wider church. We ask your prayers as we meet with the LCWR National Board within the coming month to review the mandate and prepare a response."
Network, which was also mentioned in the CDF Assessment, also responded:
"We are deeply puzzled by the findings in the Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which were just released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Despite its references to NETWORK, we were never asked to provide any information about our mission or activities...[W]e are grateful for our close relationship with LCWR throughout our history. We honor LCWR for its service and faith commitment, and because it nurtures women religious in their commitment to their faith and religious life."
Sr. Joan Chittister, the well-known Benedictine nun, speaker, and writer who is a past president of LCWR, suggested to National Catholic Reporter that the only solution might be for LCWR to disband as a canonical organizational entity: "Within the canonical framework, there is only one way I can see to deal with this..They would have to disband canonically and regroup as an unofficial interest group...That would be the only way to maintain growth and nourish their congregational charisms and the charism of the LCWR, which is to help religious communities assess the signs of the time. If everything you do has to be approved by somebody outside, then you’re giving your charism away, and you’re certainly demeaning the ability of women to make distinctions."
Meanwhile an online petition to Archbishop Sartain has been organized in support of the sisters. The petition says: "We, the undersigned, stand in solidarity with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). We are shocked by the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s recent crackdown on nuns in the United States. The mandate forced upon LCWR, which threatens their works of justice, is a prime example of how the hierarchy in the Roman Catholic Church misuses its power to diminish the voice of women. We value the prophetic witness of women religious and appreciate their commitment to social justice." As of this writing, the organizers have already gathered 3,801 of the 5,000 signatures they are seeking and the petition has only been up two days.