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James Martin, S.J.August 17, 2009

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, at their annual meeting, have requested that the Vatican "alter some of the methods being employed" for the Apostolic Visitation.   "Among the expressed concerns are a lack of full disclosure about the motivation and funding sources for the studies. The leaders also object to the fact that their orders will not be permitted to see the investigative reports about them that are being submitted directly to the Vatican."  The full press release is below

Leadership Conference of Women Religious Explores Critical Issues Against Backdrop of Vatican Studies

[New Orleans, LA]  Meeting in assembly in New Orleans from August 11 to 14, approximately 800 leaders of US orders of Catholic sisters engaged speakers and one another on some of the most critical issues facing Catholic orders, the Catholic Church, and the people they serve.

Aware of the devastation of New Orleans, the restoration of the coastal wetlands of Louisiana, and climate change, the members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) met under the theme “Women of Spirit: Creating in Chaos.” The assembly began with 250 members touring the work sites and housing of Catholic sisters that had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. LCWR had co-sponsored a recovery project that raised more than $7 million which enabled sisters to remain in New Orleans and restore their works in education, healthcare, and social services.

Several hundred of the leaders held an outdoor public prayer service on the banks of the Mississippi River where they learned more about the ruinous effects of coastal wetland erosion. They also unanimously affirmed a resolution to take measurable steps to reduce their orders’ carbon footprints.

ABC News and NPR analyst Cokie Roberts, a New Orleans native educated by Catholic sisters, addressed the assembly. She offered a historical perspective on the resiliency and creative contributions of Catholic sisters to the nation since they landed in this city in 1727. Roberts referenced the study being conducted on the quality of life of Catholic sisters by the Vatican saying that while she was not qualified to speak on the quality of life of these women, she could speak with authority to the quality of life of those changed by them and solidly endorsed the spirituality and mission of sisters today.

The assembly body also discussed the Vatican study, as well as a separate inquiry being conducted by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the position of LCWR in matters pertaining to Catholic Church doctrine. Following analysis of the experience of these studies thus far, the leaders noted that while their orders have always been fully accountable to the church and plan to collaborate with the Vatican in these studies, they request that those conducting the inquiries alter some of the methods being employed. Among the expressed concerns are a lack of full disclosure about the motivation and funding sources for the studies. The leaders also object to the fact that their orders will not be permitted to see the investigative reports about them that are being submitted directly to the Vatican.

Throughout the assembly, the leaders emphasized that their orders have remained faithful to the reform and renewal of their communities called for by the Second Vatican Council that urged women and men religious to adapt their lives, prayer and work so they may most effectively fulfill their mission. They reclaimed their commitment to what they believe is the unique and needed role of religious life which includes serving at and speaking from the margins of the Catholic Church.

 The leaders noted that this study of their lives has drawn national and international attention and provided them the opportunity to explain the substance and focus of religious life, not only to those conducting the probes, but also to the public. In a presentation on a recently conducted national study on vocations to religious life, Brother Paul Bednarczyk, CSC and Sister Mary Bendyna, RSM emphasized the need to increase public understanding of religious life. Bednarczyk, executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference, and Bendyna, executive director of the Center for Applied Research for the Apostolate (CARA), addressed the assembly on the findings of the national study their two organizations conducted over the period of two years on vocations to religious life.

As LCWR outgoing president Sister J Lora Dambroski, OSF called the assembly to move forward together, she also pointed out the potential inherent in the Vatican studies. In her address to the assembly she called the inquiries a “unique invitation to ongoing creativity in the living of Gospel commitment” and said they provide “another defining moment in our conference and our collective histories and future.”

President-elect Sister Marlene Weisenbeck, FSPA assumed the office of LCWR president for 2009-2010 after the members voted in Sister Mary Hughes, prioress of the Dominican Sisters of Amityville, New York, as the new conference president-elect; and reelected Sister Ellen Dauwer, a Sister of Charity of Saint Elizabeth of Convent Station, New Jersey as conference secretary. They also approved a five-year plan for future conference studies and planning.

In other assembly business, the conference heard findings from a study commissioned by LCWR and conducted by CARA on the policies and practices in place in orders of Catholic sisters for responding to allegations of sexual abuse and for prevention of abuse. The findings showed the vast majority of orders have appropriate policies in place.

The assembly closed with the conferring of LCWR’s highest honor, its Outstanding Leadership Award, on Sister Sharon Holland, IHM, who until June 2009 was one of the highest-ranking women at the Vatican, and Sister Helen Garvey, BVM, project coordinator of LCWR’s traveling museum exhibit “Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America.”

LCWR has approximately 1500 members who are elected leaders of their religious orders, representing approximately 59,000 Catholic sisters. The conference develops leadership, promotes collaboration within church and society, and serves as a voice for systemic change.

The addresses from this assembly will be available at www.lcwr.org.

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13 years 9 months ago
It is obvious that the number of religious in the U.S.(and Europe) has radically declined but, but the fact is often used without much analysis.  The swelling numbers of U.S. sisters in the fifties were drawn primarily from Italian, Irish, and Polish immigrant or first generation families.  As these ethnic groups became more assimilated, they were affected by the same movements that shaped the U.S. as a whole:  the sexual revolution, women's liberation, increased competitiveness and materialism.  Catholic parents have not been encouraging their daughters into religious life, or their sons to the priesthood.  The decline in religious life is due to many factors.
We also lacking analysis of the data on those vocations said to be flocking to more conservative orders.  Statistically, we know that mNY more of them come from predominantly Asian and Hispanic families that are more generally conservative and would be drawn to more conservative orders.  We lack analysis on how many of these new vocations stay.  This is not to disparage these vocations, but to resist using declining numbers as a cudgel in an anti-Vatican II agenda.
While one can identify extremes in any group, the sisters who are so disparaged by conservative groups are largely loyal to the church, open to criticism and desirous of renewal.  The blogger who claimed that the Vatican has little real interest in these aging religious is probably right. In this light the historically unprecedented move of the Vatican against women's religious order does appear to be an attempt to discredit their legacy in order in order to buttress those congregations that the religious right prefers.  In the meantime these aging religious women have had no quarrel with the more conservative orders.  They can look back on a quality of life more rewarding and joyful than ever before. They can seek to live out their lives according to the gospel with Christ as their judge. They may, for the first time in their lives, have the time to think about recruitment.
13 years 9 months ago
The whole affair is no doubt a "mixed bag", but it is good to see that some or many see this as a "teaching moment" for the very many good works and projects whole systems of health and education that Catholic Sisters have achieved. It is time to emphasize this aspect and to not be crying, "wolf" over the few "flacky" things that have occured in the midst of the many achievements.
13 years 9 months ago
It is clear to me that these LCWR meetings are an important source of support and analysis for religious women living in the United States at this time.  While we minister among God's people in a many different ways, our elected leadership takes seriously the Vatican's concerns and speaks together for our needs in the current situation.   This process will help all of us become more articulate about the call of God in our lives and the meaning of our ministry in contemporary society.  Thanks for covering these developments.
13 years 9 months ago
While many sisters continue to provide needed social services to the poor and needy, it seems clear the scoial gospel has replaced the Gospel in many American women's religious communities. One result is the catastrophic decline in vocations to this social gospel lifestyle in America. The Vatican cannot and should not ignore the
collapse of religious life in America. The only thriving communities are those which have returned to "spirituality first" not "social programs first" priorities.  But I think most Catholics recognize the older communities are finished - too old, too late to change. But the Vatican can help keep the newer ones on track, and encourage them, support them.  Thank goodness for this inquiry.
13 years 9 months ago
Transpsarency is a mark of Christian Faith. It is to accept the other as equal with respect and love. Hidden agenda is a mark of Hitler's tradition. Hidden agenda is a character of Terrorists.
Let us commit ourseives to our call of being a Religious and pay the price for it. May the Lord's prayer be on our lips. May the Lord gives the 59000 Sisters of the USA Courage and Wisdom.
13 years 9 months ago
Why doesn't the Leadership go about business as usual?If they are living according to Gospel values and obeying their vows what have they to worry about?
The delegation is led by a fellow sister? Her photos reveal a kindly amiable face.Why suspect the worst of her?
13 years 9 months ago
What is the Vatican so afraid of? The majority of our Religious in Australia (taking into consider the scandals of child abuse, prevalent world wide..shame shame shame) are challenging the staus quo. I am a baptised Christian (of the Catholic tradition). I too as a lay person question and challenge the male dominated Structure. Time to relflect on the Common priesthood. We are all the people of God! Property, wealth and status is naught.. Reflect upon the humiltity of Jesus - gentlemen!!!!!!!!!!
13 years 9 months ago

The Vatican doesn't have to worry about the thoughts and practices of these sisters.  In forty years nearly all of those orders will be virtually extinct.   That is the real problem that the Vatican wants to investigate.  Why has there been such a precipitous drop in their membership (and that of male religious, too)?

13 years 9 months ago
From Sister Schneiders' book Beyond Patching: Faith and Feminism in the Catholic Church
(Mahwah, NJ, Paulist Press, 1991, page 110.):
''When the first Women's Ordination Conference met in Detroit in 1975, the women who attended were focused on the admission of women to orders.Since 1978, women have come to realize that we are not talking about how to organize the institution. We are talking about whether the God of Judeo-Christian revelation is true God or just men-writ-large to legitimate their domination; whether Jesus, an historical male, is or can be messiah and saviour for those who are not male; whether what the church has called sacraments are really encounters with Christ, or tools of male ritual abuse of women; whether what we have called church is a community of salvation or simply a male power structure.''
This is the same Sister Schneiders who urged her fellow sisters to use restraint and caution with the visitation, saying the investigators should be treated as “uninvited guests who should be received in the parlour, not given the run of the house.” She wrote this in a private e-mail message to a few friends, but it became public on the National Catholic Reporter website and was widely circulated.
I am sorry but no matter how many degrees the good sister possesses or how impressively academic and detailed her prose she appears to have lost the plot altogether.
Nuns who are honouring their vows and orders that are loyal to the teachings of Christ have nothing to fear from the Vatican delegation; they have only to fear the hysteria and paranoia being deliberately fanned by the like of Sister Schneiders herself.
13 years 9 months ago
Avery where have aging religious been mentionned as the focus of the Visitation?When has there been any mention of attempts to discredit religious orders? If discredit does emerge from the final reports it will be because there is evidence of difficulties and problems that have not been recognised and tackled and constructive suggestions will be put forward to help.
As to this vistation being ''historically unprecedented'' you seem to have forgotten the reforms within and imposed from without of religious orders that began to have difficulties or problems.Teresa of Avila reformed the Carmelitesto name just one example.
You worry that the legacy of aging nuns will be discredited.This is nonsense.There is nothing as beautiful as the serenity and joy of an aged religious who has trusted Jesus and swerved him with love and fidelity.
However if some of our aging religous have ended up alone and in units deprived of the solidarity and companionship of a main house because of ''reforms'' that meant some sisters went off to pursue ''careers'' and there were sell offs of convents etcetera perhaps their abandonment will be brought to light and no sister will left to fend for herself but once again finds warmth and communion.
Oddly enough it may be those ''congregations of the religious right'' who will take care of these aged nuns who no longer receive the care and respect they deserve.
The hysteria and paranoia that has been nurtured by the LCWR over this issue does them no credit whatsoever .

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