The Fighting Leadership Conference of Women Religious

Following a four-year long investigation of the activities of Catholic nuns in the U.S., the Vatican released a now controversial assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The nuns will go down fighting.

By Stephanie Block

After a four-year “Apostolic Visitation,” during which the condition of female religious communities in the United States was assessed, the Vatican released a Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). LCWR is an “association of the leaders of congregations of Catholic women religious in the United States” – or, at least, of a good percentage of them.

For decades, US Catholics have been concerned about the direction many Catholic women religious have gone. Donna Steichen’s Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism was published in 1992; Ann Carey’s Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Orders came out five years later. It is no secret that new vocations to the older, established communities are rare, that many professed religious have abandoned those communities, and that among those who remain, there are a startling number who promote anything and everything except Catholicism. The newer, traditional communities, by contrast, are vital, growing, and passionately committed to Church teaching.

Shortly after Easter, the Vatican assessment of the LCWR confirmed what the laity have been averring for so long, namely that “the current doctrinal and pastoral situation of LCWR is grave and a matter of serious concern, also given the influence the LCWR exercises on religious congregation in other parts of the world.” The Vatican looked at three particular “areas of concern,” citing “problematic statements and serious theological, even doctrinal, errors” at LCWR assemblies, policies of dissent, and a prevalence of “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic Faith.”

Publicly, LCWR issued a statement saying it was “stunned by the conclusions” of the doctrinal assessment.

Privately, of course, there are some interesting conversations taking place. An April 19, 2012 email update to the Congregation of St. Joseph Sisters and their associates from Sister Jeanne Cmolik, CSJ, a member of the Congregation Leadership Team, reflected the Sisters’ anger and denial: “This morning we heard from the three women who serve in the Presidency of LCWR who are in Rome for their annual visit to the various Vatican dicasteries, secretariats and congregations. With no advance warning, when they went to their previously scheduled meeting with Cardinal Levada, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), they received the document, which was posted on the USCCB website before the completion of their meeting.

“Since they had no preparation for the reception of this document the Presidency of LCWR told Cardinal Levada that they needed time to read the document and talk about it with the LCWR Board. Therefore, it will take some time to learn how LCWR intends to respond to this assessment from CDF.

“Because of the complexity of this issue and the need for LCWR to have time to formulate its response, LCWR asks that no one speaks to the media on behalf of LCWR. Instead, they ask that any media inquiry be referred directly to Annmarie Sanders, the Communication Director of LCWR.

“With the leadership of LCWR, we are shocked and dismayed by the allegations the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has made against LCWR.”

The Congregation of St. Joseph, formed in 2007 from seven former congregations, is a good example of the problems to which the Vatican Assessment refers. Congregation members (Sisters) and lay associates make the following bizarre promises:

  • to surrender their lives and resources to work for specific systemic change in collaboration with others so that the hungers of the world might be fed.
  • to recognize the reality that Earth is dying, to claim oneness with Earth and to take steps now to strengthen, heal and renew the face of Earth.
  • to network with others across the world to bring about a shift in global culture from institutionalized power and privilege to a culture of inclusion and mutuality.
  • to be mutually responsible and accountable for leadership in the congregation.

An email to CSJ Sisters and associates written a few days later, on April 23, 2012, from Sister Nancy Conway, CSJ, shows the denial becoming deeper: “We want you to know that the Presidency and the Executive Director of LCWR (Janet Mock, SSJ) met today with the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (the office which initiated the Apostolic Visitation in 2009). It is our understanding that tomorrow, Janet and the LCWR Officers will return to the U.S.A.

“Perhaps like you, we are reading a lot about last week’s statement about LCWR by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). As CLT [Congregation Leadership Team], we are also receiving information from other sources. Speculation and guessing about the meaning of all of this information are plentiful. We continue to seek the most accurate interpretation of the meaning of these events for LCWR and for U.S. women religious.

“Because the Presidency and Executive Director have been in Rome, the Board of LCWR has not yet had an opportunity to meet. Therefore, there is nothing new for us to report to you today. We expect further news from LCWR after they meet with their board and we will share that information with you.

“As a team, we feel this to be both a scary moment as well as a threshold moment. From our shared experience of the Apostolic Visitation, we know that as a Congregation we have the collective and individual capacity to remain grounded in our charism and focused on the Gospel. As we did during the Apostolic Visitation, we will continue to be in collaboration with you and in solidarity with other women religious as this situation unfolds.”

Still two days later, April 25, Sister Cmolik writes again: “We received a message from the LCWR Presidency this morning. In their message, the officers describe their meeting with the Congregation of Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) as ‘sobering but gave us the opportunity to ask the questions we needed to ask’. They noted that the officials at CICLSAL rearranged their schedules to meet with the LCWR Presidency a second time.

“The officers also told us they intend to use the time between now and their May 29-June 1 National Board meeting to listen to ideas of LCWR members. At the Board meeting they intend to develop a plan of action and set a direction for the coming year.
“The officers said that LCWR will issue a press release (later today or tomorrow). This will no doubt be picked up by media sources such as ncronline. Please look for it on line.

“They ask that we continue our prayerful support for LCWR as well as for Bishops Sartain, Blair and Paprocki, and the advisory committee they will form.”

Sister Chris Schenk, Director of the dissident Call to Action affiliate organization, FutureChurch, emailed a link to her group’s statement of support for the LCWR the following day, and letting them know that “FutureChurch has also joined with a coalition of other groups circulating a petition in support of LCWR. It attracted over 14,000 signers in under a week.”

These ladies, well-trained in empowerment tactics and advocacy, plan to go down fighting.

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