Vatican Asks Reforms of Nuns’ Leadership Group

by Francis X. Rocca

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Citing “serious doctrinal problems which affect many in consecrated life,” the Vatican announced a major reform of an association of women’s religious congregations in the U.S. to ensure their fidelity to Catholic teaching in areas including abortion, euthanasia, women’s ordination and homosexuality.

Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle will provide “review, guidance and approval, where necessary, of the work” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the Vatican announced April 18. The archbishop will be assisted by Bishop Leonard P. Blair of Toledo, Ohio, and Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., and draw on the advice of fellow bishops, women religious and other experts.

The LCWR, a Maryland-based umbrella group that claims about 1,500 leaders of U.S. women’s communities as members, represents about 80 percent of the country’s 57,000 women religious.

In Silver Spring, Md., the presidency of the LCWR issued a statement saying it was “stunned by the conclusions of the doctrinal assessment of LCWR by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Because the leadership of LCWR has the custom of meeting annually with the staff of CDF in Rome and because the conference follows canonically approved statutes, we were taken by surprise.

“This is a moment of great import for religious life and the wider church. We ask your prayers as we meet with the LCWR National Board within the coming month to review the mandate and prepare a response,” the statement said.

The announcement from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith came in an eight-page “doctrinal assessment,” based on an investigation that Bishop Blair began on behalf of the Vatican in April 2008. That investigation led the doctrinal congregation to conclude, in January 2011, 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.”

Among the areas of concern were some of the most controversial issues of medical and sexual ethics in America today.

“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,” the doctrinal congregation said. “Further, issues of crucial importance in the life of the church and society, such as the church’s biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes church teaching.”

The Vatican also found that “public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals, are not compatible with its purpose.”

According to the Vatican, such deviations from Catholic teaching have provoked a crisis “characterized by a diminution of the fundamental Christological center and focus of religious consecration.”

But the congregation’s document also praised the “great contributions of women religious to the church in the United States as seen particularly in the many schools, hospitals, and institutions of support for the poor, which have been founded and staffed by religious over the years,” and insisted that the Vatican “does not intend to offer judgment on the faith and life of women religious” in the LCWR’s member congregations.

During his tenure as the Holy See’s delegate, which is to last “up to five years, as deemed necessary,” Archbishop Sartain’s tasks will include overseeing revision of the LCWR’s statutes, review of its liturgical practices, and the creation of formation programs for the conference’s member congregations. The archbishop will also investigate the LCWR’s links to two outside groups: Network, a Catholic social justice lobby; and the Resource Center for Religious Institutes, which offers legal and financial expertise to religious orders.

The doctrinal assessment was separate from the Vatican’s “Apostolic Visitation of Religious Communities of Women in the United States,” a study of the “quality of life” in some 400 congregations, which began in December 2008. The visitation’s final report was submitted in December 2011 but has not yet been published.
[hr] Editor’s Note: The text of the Vatican’s doctrinal assessment of the LCWR will be available in Origins, Vol. 41, No. 46, dated April 26, 2012.

2 thoughts on “Vatican Asks Reforms of Nuns’ Leadership Group

  1. I think part of the reason the Vatican felt able to take this disciplinary action against the LCWR is, as Ann Carey points out in her book “Sisters in Crisis”, is the fact that the LCWR religious congregations, besides lobbying against traditional Catholic faith and morals, have lost their numerical strength and resultant influence as they’ve largely withdrawn from their apostolates.


    “We have fewer numbers, we have less resources, we have more problems, there are more people suffering, so this is really the time to make best possible use of person power and intelligence and theological smarts,” Sister Sandra Schneiders said.

    If you carefully read the Vatican documents regarding the LCWR, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith accusations were based on current LCWR conferences and meetings that rejected Catholic moral teaching on issues such as abortion and homosexuality.

    One LCWR member nun, Laurie Brink, stated in a LCWR speech that they’ve gone beyond Jesus which sounded to the Vatican like New Age syncretism — as it does to me.

    The LCWR assembly in 1972 featured a canon lawyer who spoke on “Religious Communities as Providential Gift for the Liberation of Women” and suggested that women bring lawsuits against the Church in both civil and Church courts and stage economic boycotts of parish churches.

    When the first Women’s Ordination Conference was being organized in 1975, the LCWR president appointed a sister as liaison to the group planning the event. The Vatican curial office overseeing religious subsequently directed the LCWR to dissociate itself from the ordination conference, but the LCWR officers refused, and the sister went on to become coordinator of the organizing task force for the event.

    The LCWR national board agreed in 2002 to write letters of support to New Ways Gay Ministry and chose as the theme for that year’s assembly “Leadership in Dynamic Tension.”

    Officials from the LCWR had met with the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (“CDR”) as far back as 2001.

    In 2009 the CDR wrote to the LCWR:

    “Given both the tenor and the doctrinal content of various addresses given at the annual assemblies of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the intervening years, this Dicastery can only conclude that the problems which had motivated its request in 2001 (i.e., homosexuality, women priests) continue to be present.”

    The keynote address at the LCWR 2007 annual assembly has aroused “particular concern and discussion.”


    At this late stage, I would think any involvement of the CDF/USSB in “reforming” the LCWR could only have symbolic value and Sister Annmarie Sanders comment that the LCWR would “dialogue” with the Vatican/Bishops “where possible” doesn’t augur well for any kind of meaningful “reform”.

    I’d wager the Vatican-friendly Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, the alternative organization to the LCWR, which has an average age of 35 is in the ascendancy as the offical liaison between the Vatican and canonically recognized relgious communities.