A response from the three-member presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious to a call for institutional reform may be weeks away, said the L.C.W.R. communications director, Sister Anne Marie Sanders. L.C.W.R.’s leadership was still in Rome, Sister Sanders reported on April 20, but upon its return would consult with its members to formulate a response to a critical “doctrinal assessment” released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Sister Sanders said the conference’s leadership had been in Rome on a routine visit and were surprised to receive the C.D.F. assessment and stunned by its contents.
Citing “serious doctrinal problems which affect many in consecrated life,” the Vatican announced a major reform of the conference on April 18 aimed at ensuring the fidelity of women religious to Catholic teaching. In addition, the Vatican announced that Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle will provide “review, guidance and approval, where necessary, of the work” of the L.C.W.R.
“While there has been a great deal of work on the part of L.C.W.R. 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 cruc ial 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 L.C.W.R. agenda in a way that promotes church teaching.”
The Vatican also found that “public statements by the L.C.W.R. 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.”
The L.C.W.R., 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 a statement on April 19, the presidency of the L.C.W.R. described itself “stunned by the conclusions of the doctrinal assessment.… Because the leadership of L.C.W.R. has the custom of meeting annually with the staff of C.D.F. 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 L.C.W.R. National Board within the coming month to review the mandate and prepare a response,” the statement said.
The C.D.F. assessment was based on an investigation that began on behalf of the Vatican in April 2008. The C.D.F. concluded in January 2011 that “the current doctrinal and pastoral situation of L.C.W.R. is…a matter of serious concern.” One issue unexpectedly cited by the C.D.F. was the conference’s collaboration with a Catholic social justice lobby in Washington called Network.
“We are deeply puzzled by the findings in the Assessment,” Network responded. “Despite its references to Network, we were never asked to provide any information about our mission or activities. Since our founding by 47 Catholic Sisters, Network ’s mission of lobbying, organizing and educating for social and economic justice has been rooted in the Gospel and Catholic Social Teaching…. We are grateful for our close relationship with L.C.W.R. throughout our history.”