Pope Francis spent 50 minutes with a delegation from the Leadership Conference of American Women Religious (LCWR) today, after the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and the LCWR announced, in a joint report, that they had reached a positive conclusion to a three-year effort by the congregation to ensure that the LWCR carries out its work in harmony with the Catholic Church’s teaching.
This ended, on an amicable note, a highly controversial process involving the CDF and the leadership of the umbrella organization of over 80 percent of the 57,000 American sisters that had made international headlines. “We learned that what we hold in common is much greater than any of our differences,” Sister Sharon Holland, president of the LCWR, commented afterwards.
It had been known for some time in Rome that Pope Francis wanted to bring closure to this contentious and unhappy chapter in the relations between the Vatican (spurred on by some U.S. bishops) and the LCWR, and to open a new, positive and constructive relationship with the sisters. This has now happened.
An earlier positive conclusion in December 2014 to the investigation ordered by the Congregation for Consecrated Life, started under Cardinal Rode, into the different orders of American sisters, sent a clear signal that a similar constructive conclusion would also be reached in the not too distant future between the LCWR and the CDF.
The Vatican announced the conclusion, earlier than many had anticipated, in a press statement issued at midday on April 16, “on the Final Report regarding the implementation of the LCWR Doctrinal Assessment and Mandate of April 2012.”
It said Cardinal Gerhard Muller and other CDF officials together with US archbishop Peter Sartain (whom it had appointed to oversee the assessment) met today, April 16,with four officers of the LCWR—Sister Carol Zinn, S.S.J., Sister Marcia Allen, C.S.J., Sister Joan Marie Steadman, C.S.C., and Sister Janet Mock, C.S.J.
It said Archbishop Sartain and the LCWR officers presented a joint report (link below) which “outlines the manner in which the implementation of the Mandate has been accomplished.” It added that the CDF has “accepted the Joint report, marking the conclusion of the Doctrinal Assessment of the LCWR.”
The CDF directed mandate or "special administration" (as some called it) started in April 2012, following a doctrinal assessment of the LCWR. The Vatican congregation, then headed by the American Cardinal William Levada, concluded that the “the current doctrinal and pastoral situation of the LCWR is grave and a matter of serious concern.”
Cardinal Levada said the Assessment had found, among other things, that the LCWR had adopted certain unacceptable positions at its annual assemblies, including dissenting stances on such questions as the ordination of women priests, the pastoral approach to homosexuality, and the issuing of ‘radically feminist statements that are incompatible with Catholic teaching”. He said it had also identified a tendency among LCWR and American nuns “to take a position that is not in agreement with the Church’s teaching on human sexuality.” He concluded, “It is a serious matter when these Leadership Teams are not providing effective leadership and example to their communities, but place themselves outside the Church’s teaching.”
The Vatican appointed a kind of "special administration" for the LCWR, headed by US Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle. He was designated as “the delegate in charge of examining, guiding and approving, in necessary, the Association (LCWR)’s work.” He was charged to work with LCWR representatives “to fulfil the objectives outlined in the Assessment,” and to oversee the work of reform, including revision of the LCWR’s statutes, program planning and the revision of liturgical texts. His mandate was to last five years, and then he was to report back to the CDF and to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Sartain was to be assisted by two other US bishopsLeonard P. Blair and Thomas J. Paprocki.
The Joint Final Report addressed the outcome of the work done on the implementation of that CDF Mandate over the past three years. It provides the results in a surprisingly succinct and positive way. Zoning in on three areas, it presents what the CDF Mandate asked for and what is the final jointly agreed response in each area:
1. The LCWR Statutes: These had been first approved in 1962, and revised and approved in 1989. The Mandate requested “greater clarity in expressing the mission and responsibilities of the LCWR as a Conference of Major Superiors under the ultimate direction of the Apostolic See.”
The Joint Final Report stated that after “mutual learning” and “refining several drafts”, it was agreed that: “the role of the Conference as a public juridical person centered on Jesus Christ and faithful to the teachings of the Church is to undertake through its membership and in collaboration with other sisters those services which develop the life and mission of women religious in responding to the Gospel in the contemporary world” (Statutes, Section 2).
These revised Statutes, approved by the LCWR’s 2014 Assembly, have reviewed by the CDF and approved by the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
2. Conference Publications and Programs: The Mandate called for “a review of LCWR publications to ensure that the Conference’s mission would be fulfilled in accord with Church teaching.”
The Joint Final Report said: “Measures are being taken to promote a scholarly rigor that will ensure theological accuracy and help avoid statements that are ambiguous with regard to Church doctrine or could be read as contrary to it”. In addition, “a publications Advisory Committee exists and manuscripts will be reviewed by competent theologians, as a means of safeguarding the theological integrity of the Conference.”
The Mandate called for “care in the selection of programs and speakers at General Assemblies and other LCWR-sponsored events.”
The Joint Final Report said: “The choice of topics and speakers appropriate to the Conference’s mission and service will be carried out in a prayerful, thoughtful and discerning manner” and—as with written publications—"LCWR expects speakers and presenters to speak with integrity and to further the aims and purposes of the Conference, which unfold within the wider context of the Church’s faith and mission."
It said that “when a topic explicitly addresses matters of faith, speakers are expected to employ the ecclesial language of faith. When exploring contemporary issues, particularly those which, while not explicitly theological nevertheless touch upon faith and morals, LCWR expects speakers and presenters to have due regard for the Church’s faith and to pose questions for further reflection in a manner that suggests how faith might shed light on such issues.” It added that “a revised process for the selection of the Outstanding Leadership Award recipient has been articulated.”
3. Other Issues: The Mandate had raised “other matters,” such as “the importance of the celebration of the Eucharist; the place of the Liturgy of the Hours in religious communities; the centrality of a communal process of contemplative prayer practiced at LCWR Assemblies and other gatherings; the relationship between LCWR and other organizations; and the essential understanding of LCWR as an instrument of ecclesial communion.”
The Final Report states that “over the past three years, considerable time and attention were given to dialogue” regarding these matters and this “led to clarifying and fruitful conversation.”
Today’s press Vatican statement, which accompanied the Joint Final Report, said that during the meeting at the CDF Archbishop Sartain and the LCWR officers outlined the process undertaken by the Bishop Delegates and LCWR over the past three years and noted “the spirit of cooperation among participants throughout the sensitive process.”
It said Cardinal Müller offered his thoughts on the Doctrinal Assessment, the Mandate and its completion, and “expressed gratitude to those present for their willing participation in this important and delicate work."
After the meeting, it said the German cardinal stated: “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.”
Sister Sharon Holland, IHM, President of the LCWR, was unable to be present at today’s meeting, but in a comment published by the Vatican she said: “We are pleased at the completion of the Mandate, which involved long and challenging exchanges of our understandings of and perspectives on critical matters of 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.”
The Vatican statement also carried a comment from Archbishop Sartain who said he was honored to have worked with LCWR officers and members in work that included: “the revision of LCWR Statutes; review of LCWR publications, programs and speakers; and discussion of a wide range of issues raised by the Doctrinal Assessment, LCWR, and the Bishop Delegates.”
He asserted that the assistance of CDF officials had been “essential to the great progress made”, and noted that the work “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 added that such substantive dialogue between bishops and religious women “has been mutually beneficial and a blessing from the Lord.”
Quoting from the joint final report, he said, "'The commitment of LCWR leadership to its crucial role in service to the mission and membership of the Conference will continue to guide and strengthen LCWR’s witness to the great vocation of Religious Life, to its sure foundation in Christ, and to ecclesial communion.’”