The Vatican’s April 18 announcement of a reform to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious prompted strong reactions from secular and religious media alike.  

Sartain
Archbishop Sartain

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s call for renewal of the organization came after a doctrinal assessment of the group, which says it represents about 80 percent of the women religious in the United States. The assessment found “serious doctrinal problems which affect many in consecrated life,” including addresses at LCWR conferences that dissent from Church teaching. 

Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle was named archbishop delegate for the renewal initiative, while Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, who conducted the assessment, and Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., were named to assist in reform. 

Here is a roundup of reactions to the news of the reform, from supporters of the group and its critics:

Surprise, then open to dialogue  

Shortly after the announcement, the LCWR released a short statement: 

“The presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was stunned by the conclusions of the doctrinal assessment of LCWR by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Because the leadership of LCWR has the custom of meeting annually with the staff of CDF in Rome and because the conference follows canonically-approved statutes, we were taken by surprise.” 

In a later statement announcing a meeting of the organization’s national board to discuss the CDF’s assessment, the LCWR said, “The board will conduct its meeting in an atmosphere of prayer, contemplation and dialogue and will develop a plan to involve LCWR membership in similar processes. The conference plans to move slowly, not rushing to judgment. We will engage in dialogue where possible and be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. 

‘All in this together’

In the USCCB statement announcing the reform, Archbishop Sartain said, “In the four dioceses I have served, I have had the privilege of working with many women religious from a large number of congregations. For most of those congregations, the LCWR plays an important role of support, communication, and collaboration, a role valued by the sisters and their congregational leadership. I am honored that the CDF has entrusted this important and sensitive work to me, because the ministry of religious sisters, especially here in the United States, is deeply respected and paramount to the mission of the Church. Just as the LCWR can be a vital resource in many ways for its members, I hope to be of service to them and to the Holy See as we face areas of concern to all.” 

Furthermore, in an April 22 interview with Catholic News Service during his ‘ad limina’ visit to Rome, Archbishop Sartain said he hoped he could “help the sisters and the LCWR recognize that we are all in this together” and that “We’ll have ample opportunity for conversation and dialogue about all the issues.” 

‘Something had to be done’

Ann Carey, author of “Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities” (OSV, $15.95), who has reported extensively on women religious over the past several decades, told Kathryn Jean Lopez on National Review Online, “The LCWR says it was ‘stunned’ by the decision, but how stunned could they be when the CDF warned them in 2001 about doctrinal problems? That’s 11 years, for heaven’s sake! Instead of trying to work with the Vatican to correct those problems, they continued on the same path, probably thinking that they would just continue dialoguing with the Vatican. However, when vowed religious openly dissent from Church doctrine and encourage others to do the same, this causes scandal and confusion, and I think the CDF felt it was necessary to do something for the good of the Church and for the integrity of religious life. Vowed religious after all, are supposed to be public representatives of the Church, and when some of them disagree with basic Church teachings, something had to be done.” 

What sisters mean

Carey
Carey
Weigel
Weigel

Jesuit Father James Martin, contributing editor to America magazine, on his Twitter feed, sent the following message: “Catholic sisters teach me what it means to persevere without the benefit of institutional power” and added a hashtag, a tool that helps users search for subjects on Twitter, of “#WhatSistersMeantoMe.” 

In explaining why he posted the message and created the hashtag, Father Martin wrote in a Washington Post column, “In the wake of the Vatican document, my sister friends, some nearing the end of their lives, seemed to need a word of gratitude. The very least I could do was to show some support in a small way — on Twitter.” 

Action, finally

Commentator George Weigel, in a column about the LCWR decision in the National Review Online on April 23, wrote, “The shock in all this, therefore, is not the shock the LCWR unpersuasively confessed when the Vatican decision to take it into receivership was made public. The shock was that the Vatican had finally acted, decisively, after three decades of half-hearted (and failed) attempts to achieve some sort of serious conversation with the LCWR about its obvious and multiple breaches of the boundaries of orthodoxy.” 

Rooting out problems

In a post titled “Nuns Gone Wild: A Trip Down Memory Lane,” Father John Zuhlsdorf of the What Does the Prayer Really Say? blog wrote, “Those of you who wonder why the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the American Bishops initiated a reform of the leadership of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), should take a little trip down memory lane. Vast sectors of women religious in the USA have for decades been infested with a radical feminism so poisonous that many of them, especially in leadership, have even come to defend the killing of babies. The problems in many communities of some are deeply rooted and, like all weeds, are hard to extirpate.” 

To read the Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, go to http://osv.cm/KDl8kD