The National Catholic Review

Today the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a statement about the ongoing oversight and “reform” (to use their word) of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the main umbrella organization of women religious in the United States, which represents roughly 80% of American Catholic sisters and nuns.  In their statement, the Congregation noted that the new prefect of the Congregation, Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, as well as Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, the Holy See’s Delegate for the Doctrinal Assessment of the LCWR, met with the Presidency of the LCWR.  Archbishop Müller also noted that he had spoken with Pope Francis, who “reaffirmed” the findings of the Assessment, and the “program of reform.”  The LCWR issued a statement, which listed the participants in the meeting in full, and said that the meeting was “open and frank.”

Several things need to be kept in mind before people jump to conclusions about what this may or may not portend.

First, Pope Francis is brand new to his job, and it would have been odd for him, as some may have expected, to essentially undo a process that has been in the works for several years.  (The “Doctrinal Assessment” of the LCWR followed the “Apostolic Visitation” of women’s religious communities in the United States, and eventually led to the institution of an oversight panel for the reform of the LCWR, headed by Archbishop Sartain of Seattle.) 

Second, it’s difficult to imagine that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was following this investigation all that closely from his post as Archbishop of Buenos Aires.  On the other hand, perhaps he was; but still, probably not in the level of detail that would give him the confidence to undo, or even alter, a process that was currently under way. 

Third, Pope Francis, in one of his first moves, appointed Jose Rodriguez Carballo, OFM, head of the Franciscan Order (OFMs), to a key post in the Congregation for Religious (technically the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated life and the Societies of Apostolic Life ) which, to me, indicates an overall sympathetic approach to religious orders of both men and women.  Indeed, at the time, Vatican Insider wrote, “Informed sources in Rome now say that by choosing Carballo, Pope Francis has clearly opted for a different, more Gospel-inspired approach to consecrated life in general and, also, to help overcome the ongoing, painful tensions with the American religious women.”  

Fourth, as a member of a religious order (the Jesuits) the pope is naturally going to be sympathetic to many of the challenges of men and women in religious life.  The LCWR will, I'm convinced, get a fair hearing from Pope Francis.

Finally, and more for the record, the LCWR meets annually in April with various Vatican dicasteries, including CDF, so this meeting was apparently planned for some time

Overall, I’m not surprised that a new pope would not undo an ongoing process, nor do I think this spells doom for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Let’s join the LCWR in prayer, who wrote today, “We pray that these conversations may bear fruit for the good of the Church.” 


John Fitzgerald | 10/27/2014 - 10:41am

LOL. This article reminds me of the way mothers leap to the defense of their child in the face of any real or perceived criticism. Even worse, grandparents and their grandchildren. Only time will tell how things come out with the LCWR. For now, Fr. Jim should cool the apologia.

Leo Cleary | 10/26/2014 - 11:50pm

Pope Francis is an astute and prayerful man. Two of the pillars of his pontificate (there are more) are the cleaning up of the Vatican Bank so its standards and practices reflect those of respected financial institutions in the free world, and the repair of the Roman Curia. He seems to do almost everything only after consultation with those he trusts. He also has to walk a tight balance between those who are considered to be of the left and those to the right. Raising to sainthood of John 23 and John Paul 2 on the same day is a case in point.

Francis is not out to embarrass people but to right wrongs. We do not know what is happening behind the scenes between the LCWR, the CDC and others Francis might be asking to enter the conversation. Time will tell. In the meantime, I join the LCWR in their prayer: “We pray that these conversations may bear fruit for the good of the Church.” Sadly, I do not see any prayers coming from the CDC seeking the same ends.

Tim O'Leary | 10/28/2014 - 11:22pm

Leo - the CDC has its hands full dealing with the Ebola virus. Perhaps you meant the CDF? Or, maybe, the LCWR are infected by more than just disobedience.

Catherine Kelly | 4/17/2013 - 4:19pm

Thanks, Jim. I'm not willing to lose hope, either in Pope Francis or LCWR. Right now, the goal of cleaning up the Curia seems far more challenging and important.

Tim O'Leary | 4/17/2013 - 7:05am

The idea that the LCWR controversy boils down to a disagreement on the role of women is completely off the point. It is about 1) Jesus Christ as the exclusive savior of mankind (This is Jesus' claim "No one comes to the Father except through me" John 14:6), 2), the full humanity of the unborn child (a child of God from conception with an eternal destiny), and 3) the power given by Jesus to the Apostles and their successor Bishops, to "bind and loose" doctrine. Adhering to Jesus' decision to confine the priesthood to males is secondary. A 'Gospel-inspired approach" must start by accepting the Gospel. Pope Francis will be pastoral but cannot deny the Gospel.

Claire Mathieu | 4/17/2013 - 10:03am

To be more specific, the doctrinal assessment is here:
On pages 2 and 3 it specifies that the controversy is about
1) Theological problems at addresses at LCWR assemblies ("moving beyond the Church")
2) Policies of corporate dissent, specifically on women's ordination and ministry to homosexual persons
3) Radical feminism, specifically along the lines of "patriarchy" discussed in some programs sponsored by the LCWR.
Those are the three major areas of concern.

Later it says that the LCWR "is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death", but that is not one of the three major ares of concern: it is secondary. Confining the priesthood to males, on the other hand, is mentioned in the major areas of concern: it is not secondary.

Tim O'Leary | 4/17/2013 - 11:02am

Thanks for the correction, Claire. I agree now that the pro-life issue is more one of omission (and therefore secondary) and that your second point is of greater (primary) concern. The rest of the sentence on your (and my) first point is "'moving beyond the Church' and even beyond Jesus." But, your third point does refer to apostolic authority. The doctrinal assessment goes further into the apparent rejection of core Catholic teaching: “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." The LCWR should also be distinguished from the actual sisters in the member orders, who are unlikely to have the same doctrinal deviations.

Beth Cioffoletti | 4/16/2013 - 2:52pm

I suspect that Pope Francis and those who are engaged in this conversation will come around as they come to know the women of the LCWR better. All will be changed in the process. That's the way the Spirit works.

Fran Rossi Szpylczyn | 4/16/2013 - 9:19pm

Beth, that is so beautifully put. Thank you.

KEVIN DOYLE | 4/16/2013 - 12:31pm

In response to Kevin Murphy’s concerns, one need not look far for reason to view the Vatican’s investigation with extreme skepticism.

Go to the USCCB web site and pull up the CDF’s April 2012 Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Scroll to page 6 and read: “the CDF notes the absences 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 . . . .”

To be sure, the exclusion of women from the priesthood is “difficult.” But it is difficult mainly because our Church’s (all-male) leadership has relied on twenty centuries of men interpreting Christ’s will, a will which Church authorities admit is not immediately obvious from Scripture.

One need not join with those who reduce Catholicism to the world’s longest-running misogynist conspiracy to recognize that a twisted view of women has prevailed in our faith throughout those centuries. An explicit belief in women’s rightful subordination to men has marred the work of the greatest and most influential Catholic theologians, has skewed canon law, has infected our liturgical practices, and has, until very recently, had the Church teaching that husbands wield authority over their wives. (This latter point is now so soft-soaped by the Church as to be unintelligible.)

Still, rather than seriously consider whether a sinful, self-serving view of women has animated the exclusion of women from Holy Orders and decision-making, John Paul II simply declared that an all-male priesthood represented a judgment “to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

Then the Vatican turns around and trains it scopes on the LCWR for not rallying behind this fiat!

You do not know to laugh or to cry. You only know to prayerfully support the LCWR and trust in the Holy Spirit.

John Mack | 4/16/2013 - 10:48am

The investigation will be put to rest. The nuns will be asked to make a public statement against abortion and pre-marital sex. They will do so.

CAROL STANTON | 4/16/2013 - 9:43am

In the DNA of so many congregations of women, especially those dedicated to the "new world" of active apostolic missions (as distinct from the cloister) there is this dance with hierarchical resistance/control. There was usually a persistent founding personality who clung to the call of the Spirit to discern and then respond to the signs and needs of the time. Many of the U.S.'s most fruitful groups emerged from this initial resistance to go on to do all the good works so many have recognized in their support of our U.S. Sisters. The women represented by the LCWR have this genealogical charism in their bone marrow. They are navigating the current of this latest challenge with a great deal of wisdom, the result, I think, of focusing on their true north--the well-being of all of us in the church. These are the same women who have run entire educational, health and social justice systems for our U.S. church. They have their well-honed practice of process and dialogue with one another as they struggle to respond to the changing needs of our time. These are some of the good practices we desperately need in the institutional dimensions of our church. Perhaps, as so often in the past, the sisters are being called by the Holy Spirit to blaze this path. We can help them by continuing to encourage all the players to engage in this process with openness and respect. For starters, communiques from any source should include the names of all the participants. It is much easier to distance others when we lump them into a category rather than engage them individually.

Fran Rossi Szpylczyn | 4/16/2013 - 7:00am

I appreciate your point of view here, with the reminder to orient ourselves towards charity first. That may sound like a lame platitude, but cynicism ushers us to such platitudes. I believe that you have faith in what is happening, and that reminds me to keep my own faith afloat.

As ever, I remain concerned that so many unrealistic expectations exist for Pope Francis. What do we think he will do? Can do, with such immediacy? His actions have spoken very loudly; yes it may be hard to trust, but trust requires patience and endurance. I don't say this lightly, it is a challenge, a big, big challenge.

Justice may come slowly and true justice is not one sided. If we remain mired in the us versus them paradigm, personal expectations may be met, depending on whose "side" you are on. If we are called to unity in Christ, no matter how persecuted we have been, that demands we take a radical step to a different place, even if our patience is exhausted.

My prayers continue for one and all, for all of us who are church, for all of us called to be church, that we may be one.

Kevin Murphy | 4/16/2013 - 12:38am

Why is Father Martin unable to accept that the Vatican's criticism's of the LCWR have some validity? From the beginning of this affair he's adopted the view that the LCWR were being unfairly maligned by the Hierarchy. Portraying this situation in such simplistic terms serves no good purpose.

Sara Damewood | 4/15/2013 - 10:02pm

Thanks for these good points. I hope they help your readers not "jump to conclusions!" I think conversation is always a good thing. LCWR and the Vatican dicasteries can learn from each other.

Helen Smith | 4/15/2013 - 3:53pm

"Finally, and more for the record, the LCWR meets annually in April with various Vatican dicasteries, including CDF, so this meeting was apparently planned for some time."

If that be so, why was Sartain there? And why specifically does the statement mention that the pope reaffirmed the assessment.

G Miller | 4/24/2013 - 2:00pm

Sartain has been the lead inquisitor with the nuns. It's not clear if he is intellectually capable of understanding what the nuns are doing but that is another story.

James Martin | 4/15/2013 - 3:57pm

Archbishop Sartain was there as part of this planned meeting, apparently.

Bruce Snowden | 4/15/2013 - 6:15pm

Accolades to the good Sisters for the wonderful work they have been doing! May it continue. One thing, however is lacking - Daily Mass and prayer together and Community life. One young girl asked about joining a Sisterhood said, "Why should I? They look and live just like me!" A message there? Young people want challenges, not as it seems to many, at least to that one girl mention, "more of the same old thing" God bless our Sisters! May they prosper - Brothers and Priests too!

STEVEN MILLIES | 4/15/2013 - 2:35pm

I'll say, though, having spent the weekend meeting with a group of sisters at the college they sponsor--it seemed to me that they need a sign of hope from Pope Francis. What we're doing here is contextualizing, rationalizing, and explaining that this development may not be as bad as it seems. That's all well. It may not be that bad, in fact. But it's also not the hopeful sign that these beleaguered women were hoping for, and that is a sign that their need for hope has not been noted. That is the worrying thing.

Rosemary McHugh | 4/15/2013 - 2:20pm

This is very disappointing that Pope Francis has not investigated the background of the LCWR criticisms before giving it his full backing. To my understanding, Cardinal Rode stated that Cardinal Law was the instigator of the review of the nuns. Why is Pope Francis trusting anything from Cardinal Law and the Vatican and the Curia? Archbishop Sartain had been the bishop in my diocese of Joliet, Illinois until recently. The Vatican pulled him out of Illinois and elevated him to be the Archbishop of Seattle when the young man who Bishop Sartain ordained, with known sexual problems, was jailed for sexual abuse of little boys in his new parish. As a Catholic physician, I ask myself how can Archbishop Sartain, who lacks such wisdom and discernment to ordain a predator be elevated to a higher office and be allowed to sit in judgement of nuns? This is so wrong! How can Pope Francis, a Jesuit who stands for social justice, be a party to this injustice against the nuns? I hope and pray that Pope Francis will reassess and remove Archbishop Sartain from the position of sitting in judgement of the nuns.
Sincerely, Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, Wheaton, Illinois

Rachel DeBruin | 4/15/2013 - 1:19pm

Thank you for saying this. For some, it would be hurtful to hear that the Pope will be continuing this process for review and reform. Your arguments help me continue the hope that I have had since Pope Francis was named as our leader. Just like any president does not overturn a process the moment (or within a month) of his stepping into office. It takes time, prayer, and courage to be sure he is leading his flock in a way that emulates Jesus and Jesus' Holy Spirit.

Michael Perigo | 4/15/2013 - 1:09pm

The process won't be the end of the LCWR, but it will result in changes that will strengthen the organization's institutional ties to the Church and to some additional oversight of its activities. There were legitimate concerns about the direction the LCWR, as a Vatican-sponsored organization, was taking. If the LCWR membership cannot accept the changes (whatever they are), they can always create their own secular umbrella organization, independent of the Church; however, that would almost certainly speed their estrangement from the Church, isolate themselves from Church-sponsored ministries and resrouces, and marginalize their future impact.

Michael Surufka Ofm | 4/15/2013 - 1:04pm

In Italian political style, it seems like CDF had to do something, and LCWR had to say something -- and each did a little bit of something without much of anything. All will be well.

John Mack | 4/16/2013 - 10:51am

Excellent comment.

Alan Mitchell | 4/16/2013 - 7:04am

I agree. The statement is minimalist, including a second hand report from Cdl. Müller about Pope Francis' "reaffirmation", whatever that means. We do not know what the Pope actually said. We have only the cardinal's interpretation of what he may have heard. The statement strikes me as posturing on the part of CDF, which is only one party in the discussion. The Congregation for Religious seems to have a different view of the matter. If it comes down to Müller vs. Carballo, my money is on the Franciscan.

Cody Serra | 4/15/2013 - 1:02pm

And so we pray for the Sisters, the Pope and fairness in the process, and at the end.

Patience is sometimes a difficult virtue to practice. Faith tested more difficult yet. Fr. Martin's suggestions about Francis decision to continue the process sounds reasonable, though speculative at this point, and based of what we know about the new Pope and his spirituality.
At the moment, let's join the sisters in prayer that "the conversations may bear fruit for the good of the Church".