Vatican vs. LCWR – The “crackdown” in context


June 19, 2012 by eneubauer

Sister Pat Farrell (right), president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and Sister Janet Mock, the executive director, met with Vatican officials on June 12.

It is time to speak out, enthusiastically, about the conversation in the media between the Vatican and the Leadership Council of Women Religious (LCWR).  I am motivated to write, to place this conversation in context, and shed light on the facts because of sensationalized headlines like that of CNN’s Religious Blog, “Vatican intensifying crackdown on American nuns.”  Headlines like these and misconceptions by others have distorted this process – one that has been going on for over 4 years.  These distortions encouraged me to read the documents in question, public statements and LCWR’s organizational history.  In light of what I have learned, regarding the facts, I write today to place this “crackdown” in context.

Frankly, I am tired of the constant assault by some on the Vatican.  It is not as if we haven’t sinned – we have.  The Church is being pruned and corrections are being made in hopes that our foundation will be firm for the future.  In addition, it must be stated and restated that the Vatican and Catholic Church have done and continue to do amazing works of mercy positively affecting millions throughout then world.  If one were to just gaze at these sensational headlines, one could conclude that the Church is in a downward spiral of decline and there is not much one can do to reform and restore.  This idea is buttressed by the fact that the Vatican apparatus is constantly being framed as bunch of oppressive men who seek only power and the ability to oppress or press others into blind obedience.  In framing the conversation with these ideas it easy for one to understand why some Catholics are disheartened, frustrated and lacking in trust.  Today, I seek to set the record straight in relation to the “battle” between the Vatican and the LCWR in hopes framing the conversation in a proper historical context.  It is within the full embrace of the facts that I am filled with hope for a bright future.

The first document I will reference comes directly from the LCWR website – a chronological history of the organization.  The LCWR of 2011 developed out of an organization called the Conference of Major Superiors of Women of 1956.  This organization was formed out of the vision of Pope Pius XII who, in 1950, called the First General Congress of the State of Perfection.  For this congress the Pope called religious superiors from throughout the world to Rome.  It was through the vision of Pope Pius XII and Rev. Arcadio Larran that religious communities were asked,

  • What their founders would do if confronted with the needs of the world today?

This question was asked for two reasons.  First, out of a desire to develop ideas on how the Church could respond properly to many of modern society’s most pressing problems.  In addition, this question reveals the positive position religious communities have always had within the context of the Church.  The Pope and his governing apparatus sought a significant role for women religious in the United States in combating some of the most difficult problems confronting the modern world.  Therefore, in 1956 the Vatican’s Congregation for Religious asked U.S. sisters to form a national conference.

In 1956 and by unanimous vote, the Conference of Major Superiors of Women (CMSW) was launched to:

  • Promote the spiritual welfare of the women religious of the USA
  • Insure increasing efficacy in their apostolate
  • foster closer, fraternal cooperation with all religious of the U.S., the hierarchy, the clergy and Catholic associations.

As I read the history the CMSW [& later the LCWR] it became clear that this organization wasn’t some external, international organization of superiors of women religious but an internal, Vatican-constructed organization to fulfill specific goals – goals agreed upon by unanimous consent.  In contrast, if one were to listen to the media reports alone, one might conclude that the Vatican is meddling in an organization over which it has no real authority.  However, from an historic and Canon Law perspective the Vatican has clear oversight authority.  Therefore, we can conclude that the Visitation which began in 2008 is lawful and appropriate.

In light of these facts let me debunk some other myths that are wildly circulating in the media and by some Catholics regarding the “oppressive spirit” of the Vatican’s hierarchy.  Let us see if the facts relating to the development of the LCWR support the idea(s) that our Church’s hierarchy seeks to marginalize women, restrict their academic / theological freedoms, and call them to blind obedience.

When the National Executive Committee of the LCWR sent a delegate to wander around Rome during the third session of the Second Vatican Council to “see what she could learn” the Vatican responded by inviting her sit in the council and be one of the handful of women observers.” Circa 1964

“The national assembly [of the CMSW], meeting in Atlanta, adopts new bylaws and changes the name of the organization to Leadership Conference of Women Religious.”  Although the new bylaws and name were seen as dissent by some women’s religious communities the Vatican did not step in to suppress – but allowed it to continue in freedom of thought and expression.  Circa 1971

“Marjorie Keenan, RSHM, of the LCWR staff, was appointed to the Peace and Justice Commission of the Vatican, a first for an American woman religious.” Circa 1977.  Since this time women have taken significant positions of leadership through the Vatican hierarchy including an appointment made by Pope Benedict XVI of Flaminia Giovanelli to the position of under-secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace [a senior post] at the Vatican.  Circa 2010

During the visit of Pope John Paul II to America this statement was made by the LCWR president, “I thought it appropriate to pledge our solidarity with the Pope as he called our attention to the serious responsibilities we have to our sisters and brothers who live in poverty and destitution.” Circa 1979  Although this statement of solidarity was rejected by some in the LCWR, it nevertheless reveals the appropriate relational connection between the Pope, Church hierarchy and the community of women religious.

Responding to the concern of the LCWR over the issue of women’s ordination this question was asked by the Bishops, “If ordination is closed to women, in what alternate ways can they exercise leadership in the Church?”  LCWR responds with a list of 15 recommendations.  Circa 1996  This question reveals the Bishops openness to dialogue and desire to see women in positions of influence within the Church.

“The Conference of Pastoral Planning and Council Development honors LCWR with its ‘Lumen Gentium Award’ as an effective vehicle for women religious in planning and process development.'” Circa 2001  This award affirms the positive vision leaders within the Church have of the LCWR even in the midst of a history of dissent and unorthodox theological leanings.

“On September 22 [even] the [male dominated] US House of Representatives unanimously approves a resolution honoring the historic contributions of Catholic women religious (HR 441).” Circa 2010

Finally, “The American Catholic Historical Society bestows its Service to Catholic Studies Award for Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America exhibit.” Circa 2011

These facts reveal a truth, left unstated, by many in the media.  Although the LCWR has had a history of progressive thought on many fronts by well educated women leaders – they were supported, listened to and encouraged by the Vatican, the Bishops, priests and others religious institutions.  Their history, as recorded on the LCWR website, is NOT one of Vatican or hierarchical marginalization.  It wasn’t until 2008, as reported in the National Catholic Reporter and restated in a Public Statement from the LCWR Officers that some American Bishops requested this review in light of ongoing problems relating to doctrinal issues.  It is interesting to me, in light of LCWR’s positive treatment, that they would react so forcefully against any kind of doctrinal review.  What are they concerned about?  Just taking a look at their history – it is one of positive relationships, honor and encouragement.

Now, for those who do not believe that the Doctrinal Assessment of the LCWR by the CONGREGATIO PRO DOCTRINA FIDEI (CDF) was done in honesty and transparently – let me shed some light.  Here are the facts.

Within the introduction of the official Doctrinal Assessment there are several positive statements relating to women religious.  “Because consecrated persons have a special place [affirmative position] in the Church, their attitude [relating to their specific relationship to the Bishop of Rome and Catholic Church] in this regard is of immense importance for the whole People of God (n. 46 – Vita consecrate ’96)”  In addition it was stated, “The history of the Church in [America] is in large measure your history at the service of God’s people.”

These statements are ones of affirmation and reveal the positive position the Vatican has towards women religious.  

Secondly, the Assessment is significant because the CDF concluded that the LCWR has departed from the “fundamental Christological center and focus of religious consecration which leads, in turn, to a loss of a constant and lively sense of the Church” among some religious.

The assessment is concerned that the LCWR is departing from the centrality of Christ which is the root and foundation of our Catholic Faith.  These and other concerns of a doctrinal nature are not insignificant and would be the norm in an organization NOT affiliated with Catholic Church.  However, since women religious are uniquely Catholic and profess solidarity with the Church and the Bishop of Rome, these and other doctrinal departures are significant and concerning.

In part II of the assessment there are several transparent accusations that should be of concern for any Catholic.  Assembly speakers are presenting theological viewpoints diverting from orthodox Christianity (i.e. moving beyond Christ).  Leaders within the LCWR were protesting the Church’s settled stance on women’s ordination, sexuality, and the centrality of the Eucharist to name a few.

Finally, brought into question by the assessment were radical feminist viewpoints “including theological interpretations that risk distorting faith in Jesus and his loving Father who sent his Son for the salvation of the world.”

These specific concerns, among others in the assessment, are not issues on the periphery of our faith but are all central issues to the whole of what it means to be authentically Christian.

The assessment also states that its conclusion on these issues comes after years of “examination.”  This was not a hatchet job in order to “crackdown” on these poor, defenseless nuns but bringing to light how years of theological exploration was actually leading the LCWR away from the Church in which they profess to belong and from whom they received their very charter.  The assessment also names areas where the LCWR has made significant impact (i.e. issues of social justice).

This assessment was affirmed by Pope Benedict XVI and the CDF.  In addition, the implementation of reform from within the LCWR will be assisted by Archbishop Delegate and a staff including “bishops, priests and women religious,” further debunking the idea of male oppression and domination.  The implementation will be a collaborative effort between male and female leaders within the Church structure.

In contrast to the specific details given through the assessment of the LCWR by the CDF is the public statement released by the LCWR.  Specifically, they said nothing.  Generally, under a shroud of unstated accusations, they stated:

“The board concluded that the assessment [by the CDF] was based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency.”

This political statement published to engender public support lacked its own specifics and did not rebut one of the many serious accusations relating to the departure from certain doctrinal issues.  It seems obvious, if all this is just a serious misunderstanding and overreach by the CDF, then a clear, specific response to the several serious accusations would be quite easy.  However, they were silent when speakers advocated positions in clear opposition of settled issues.  They were silent when publications produced by the LCWR for its member communities advocated for positions against Catholic teaching and practice.  They are still silent in the midst of these and other serious allegations.

We must remember, this controversy is not between the Vatican and the 57,000 religious women within the United States.  This controversy is between the leadership of the LCWR who represent 80% of the 57,000.  Of course the media would like all of us to believe that this is a battle between the men within the walls of the Vatican city state and a group of 57,000 women religious who are just trying to serve and survive.  What this controversy represents is a clear doctrinal disagreement of between a few leader [representatives] and those who are ordained to help the faithful remain true to the central tenants of our common faith.

2 thoughts on “Vatican vs. LCWR – The “crackdown” in context

  1. Ricardo McKay says:

    Excellent research! Thank you for taking the time, to develop your post. And thank you for bringing context and facts to the “crackdown”.

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