LCWR Head Responds To Vatican’s Criticism

Conflict between the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith over the reform of LCWR boils down to whether one can “be a Catholic and have a questioning mind,” the conference’s president said in an interview on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” program.

Franciscan Sister Pat Farrell also told “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross that she would like to see discussion about whether “freedom of conscience in the church (is) genuinely honored.”

“One of our deepest hopes is that in the way we manage the balancing beam of this position we’re in, if we can make any headway in helping to create a safe and respectful environment where church leaders, together with rank-and-file Catholics, can raise questions openly and search for truth freely with very complex and swiftly changing issues that we face in our day,” she said.

“That would be our hope,” she added. “But the climate is not there.”

Sister Farrell was discussing the Vatican-ordered doctrinal assessment of LCWR, which has about 1,500 leaders of U.S. women’s religious communities as members and represents about 80% of the country’s 57,000 women religious. Its canonical status is granted by the Vatican.

The assessment said reform was needed to ensure LCWR’s fidelity to Catholic teaching in areas that include abortion, euthanasia, women’s ordination and homosexuality.

Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle was named in April to provide “review, guidance and approval, where necessary, of the work” of the organization, with the assistance of Bishop Leonard P. Blair of Toledo, Ohio, and Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill.

In the “Fresh Air” interview, Sister Farrell said LCWR was in the “process of gathering the perspective of all our members” in anticipation of its Aug. 7-11 national assembly in St. Louis. “We’re hoping to come out of that assembly with a much clearer direction about where the national board and presidency can proceed.”

Asked about the organization’s options, she said “some of the options would be to just comply with the mandate that’s been given to us or to, you know, say we can’t comply with this and see what the Vatican does with that or to remove ourselves, form a separate organization or, hopefully, in my mind, to see if we can somehow, in a spirit of nonviolent strategizing, look for some maybe third way that refuses to just define the mandate and the issues in such black-and-white terms.”

Sister Farrell, whose term as president ends at the close of the assembly, said she thought the Vatican’s concerns focused more on “the issues we tend to be more silent about,” such as abortion and same-sex marriage, rather than on particular stands taken by the LCWR.

“We have been in good faith raising concerns about some of the church’s teaching on sexuality,” she said. “The teaching and interpretation of the faith can’t remain static and really needs to be reformulated, rethought in light of the world we live in and new questions, new realities as they arise.”

On the issue of abortion, she said the work of U.S. women religious is “very much pro-life.”

“We would question, however, any policy that is more pro-fetus than actually pro-life,” Sister Farrell said. “You know, if the rights of the unborn trump all the rights of all those who are already born, that is a distortion, too.”

“There’s so much being said about abortion that is often phrased in such extreme and such polarizing terms that (we) choose not to enter into a debate that is so widely covered by other sectors of the Catholic Church – and we have been giving voice to other issues that are less covered, but are equally important,” she added.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says church teaching on “the moral evil of every procured abortion” remains “unchangeable.” “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception…The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation,” it says.

Sister Farrell said the Vatican was critical of a stand taken by the LCWR on the ordination of women as priests, but the position it cited was taken in 1977, before Blessed John Paul II said in the 1988 apostolic letter “Ordinatio sacerdotalis” that “the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the church’s faithful.”