April 27, 2012


Vatican seeks to reform leadership group for women’s religious orders

The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has taken steps to reform the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an organization that represents 80 percent of the 57,000 religious women in the United States.

Following a formal “doctrinal assessment” of the group, the CDF concluded that “the current doctrinal and pastoral situation of LCWR is grave and a matter of serious concern.”

More than a year ago, Pope Benedict XVI approved the congregation’s recommendation that “the Holy See should intervene with the prudent steps necessary to affect reform of the LCWR.”

Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain has been named apostolic delegate by the Vatican. His assignment is “to work collaboratively with the officers of the LWCR” to achieve the reforms required by the Holy See. Archbishop Sartain has acknowledged the seriousness of this assignment saying, “the LWCR plays an important role of support, communication and collaboration, a role valued by the sisters and their congregational leadership.”

The newly appointed apostolic delegate, who will be assisted by Toledo Bishop Leonard P. Blair and Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., said that he hoped to be of service to both the LWCR and the Holy See “as we face areas of concern to all.”

Simply stated, the Vatican has come to the conclusion that in its written materials and in talks given at official gatherings the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has allowed, and in some cases encouraged, the presentation of ideas that are contrary to Church teaching.

Examples cited by the CDF include Church teaching on the ordination of women and on the correct pastoral approach to ministry to homosexual persons. The Vatican’s Doctrinal Assessment also points out that “while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States.”

According to Church law, conferences of major religious superiors are intended to serve as “an expression of the collaboration between the Holy See, Superiors General and the local conferences of Bishops in support of consecrated life.” As a result, LCWR is called to be united with the bishops “in mind and heart.”

When this is not the case, the result is “a diminution of the fundamental Christological center and the focus of religious consecration which leads, in turn, to a loss of a ‘constant and lively sense of the Church’ among some religious.”

We think it should go without saying that religious superiors of women—and men—should be united with the bishops who are the official teachers and pastors of our Catholic faith. Disagreements and misunderstanding will always occur among human beings, but the unity of mind and heart called for by the CDF must be the primary goal of all organizations that represent women and men religious.

We urge members of LCWR to resist the temptation to view this Vatican mandate as an unwarranted intrusion into their mission “to promote a developing understanding and living of religious life.” We hope LCWR will be open to the reforms called for by the Vatican, and will work closely with Archbishop Sartain, Bishop Blair and Bishop Paprocki to achieve a genuine unity of mind and heart.

In the same way, we urge the bishops to keep in mind the extraordinary contributions of women religious to the building up of the Church in the United States. What religious sisters accomplished here in the United States during the past two centuries—often with little or no resources and questionable support (even opposition) from bishops and priests—is nothing less than astonishing. Religious women and men deserve our respect, understanding and support. Unity of mind and heart cannot be forced.

As Archbishop Sartain acknowledged, this is “important and sensitive work” that must be undertaken with great care “because the ministry of religious sisters, especially here in the United States, is deeply respected and paramount to the mission of the Church.”

In the months and years ahead, great patience, sensitivity and openness will be required as the leaders of LCWR and the bishops who represent the Vatican are asked to work together for the good of women religious and the whole Church.

Let us pray that St. Theodora Guérin and all the founders of the religious orders that serve in the United States today, will inspire all concerned by their words and example.

—Daniel Conway

Local site Links: