Vatican, U.S. sisters find common ground

After three years of terse public statements, colored at times by mutual frustration and apparent passive-aggressiveness, the Vatican’s doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has come to an end.

On April 16, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith accepted a joint report presented in Rome by LCWR officers and Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, the apostolic delegate who had been tasked with implementing the mandated reform of the LCWR.

The two-page report, while short on specific details, says the LCWR’s statutes have been revised and that its processes for choosing speakers and writers for its annual conferences and publications will reflect a “prayerful, thoughtful and discerning matter.”

Sister Sharon Holland, president of the LCWR, said in a prepared statement that completing the mandated reform process involved “long and challenging exchanges” regarding her conference’s understandings of and perspectives on religious life and its practice.

“Through these exchanges, conducted always in a spirit of prayer and mutual respect, we were brought to deeper understandings of one another’s experiences, roles, responsibilities and hopes for the Church and the people it serves. We learned that what we hold in common is much greater than any of our differences,” Sister Holland said.


Archbishop Sartain said his work with the LCWR was undertaken in an “atmosphere of love for the Church and profound respect for the critical place of religious life in the United States.” He also said the “substantive dialogue” between bishops and religious women had been “mutually beneficial and a blessing from the Lord.”

“The other two bishop delegates and I are grateful for the opportunity to be involved in such a fruitful dialogue,” Archbishop Sartain said, referring to Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, and Archbishop Leonard P. Blair of Hartford, Connecticut.

Even Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who last year publicly challenged the LCWR to show more substantive signs of collaboration, expressed gratitude. He also thanked the past officers and executive directors of the LCWR, which is comprised of the superiors and leaders of more than 57,000 religious sisters and nuns in the United States.

Said Cardinal Müller: “At the conclusion of this process, the congregation is confident that LCWR has made clear its mission to support its member institutes by fostering a vision of religious life that is centered on the person of Jesus Christ and is rooted in the Tradition of the Church. It is this vision that makes religious women and men radical witnesses to the Gospel and, therefore, is essential for the flourishing of religious life in the Church.”

Reasons for reform

The final report’s conciliatory tone stands in stark contrast to the doctrinal assessment and previous public statements from the bishops and LCWR leaders. In April 2012, the CDF called for the LCWR to be reformed over a five-year process after a Vatican assessment said it found “serious doctrinal problems,” including addresses at LCWR conferences that were said to dissent from Church teachings.

The LCWR defended its understandings of religious life. In its advocacy of social justice causes and engagement with the outside world, the LCWR and its allies saw the sisters exercising an authentic expression of spiritual renewal called for by the Second Vatican Council.

Previous public statements from the LCWR said its leaders were saddened by “deep misunderstandings” Vatican officials had displayed regarding the organization.

In May 2014, an LCWR statement said that despite “maximum efforts through the years,” communication between both sides had broken down and mistrust had developed.

The bishops also expressed frustrations. Archbishop Blair told National Public Radio in 2012 that the dialogue was difficult because the LCWR refused to concede that the bishops’ concerns had any merit. Cardinal Raymond Burke, then the prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, told EWTN in 2012 that if the LCWR “can’t be reformed, then it doesn’t have a right to continue.”

In May 2014, Cardinal Müller chided the LCWR for maintaining its position that the doctrinal assessment was flawed. He also accused the LCWR last year of provoking the bishops by honoring Sister Elizabeth Johnson, a Fordham University theology professor whose book the USCCB said contained “misrepresentations, ambiguities and errors” pertaining to the Catholic Faith. The LCWR still decided to honor Sister Elizabeth, and it did so without notifying Archbishop Sartain.

Plans for change

But during the April 16 meeting in Rome, the bishops and LCWR leaders outlined a reform process they said they had undertaken over the past three years with a spirit of cooperation.

The subcommittee drafted language that the LCWR’s role “as a public juridic person centered on Jesus Christ and faithful to the teachings of the Church” is to undertake services that develop the life and mission of women religious in responding to the Gospel in the contemporary world. The LCWR’s 2014 assembly approved the text, and the reviewed statutes were approved Feb. 6 by decree of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

Regarding the issue of LCWR publications, the report noted the publications have been intended to address spiritual matters to a large audience rather than to engage in formal theological inquiry. Still, citing the “vital link” between spirituality and theology, the report said “measures are being taken” to promote a scholarly rigor that will ensure theological accuracy and avoid ambiguous statements with regard to Church doctrine.

On the matter of selecting speakers and programs at general assemblies, the report says speakers will be “expected to employ the ecclesial language of faith” when addressing explicit matters of the Catholic Faith.

LCWR leaders also met with Pope Francis on April 16 and later released a statement saying they were deeply heartened by the pontiff’s appreciation for the witness given by Catholic sisters through their lives and ministry.

In their joint report, the sisters and bishops said their work in responding to the mandate “has borne much fruit, for which we give thanks to God and the gentle guidance of the Holy Spirit.” The “substantive dialogue,” the report said, “has been a blessing to be appreciated and further encouraged.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.

Key Reforms
According to a joint final report released by the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious April 16 following a three-year doctrinal assessment, the LCWR: