The national board of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious on June 1 said it feels the assessment that led to a Vatican order to reform the organization "was based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency."
The L.C.W.R. board called the sanctions "disproportionate to the concerns raised" and said they "could compromise" the organization's ability "to fulfill their mission."
"The report has furthermore caused scandal and pain throughout the church community and created greater polarization," the L.C.W.R. said in a statement released the morning after the board concluded a special meeting in Washington on May 29-31, held to respond to an eight-page doctrinal assessment issued to L.C.W.R. by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Citing "serious doctrinal problems which affect many in consecrated life," the doctrinal congregation April 18 announced a major reform of L.C.W.R. to ensure its fidelity to Catholic teaching in areas including abortion, euthanasia, women's ordination and homosexuality.
In response to the L.C.W.R. statement, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle, appointed by the Vatican to oversee the reform, said both he and the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith "are wholeheartedly committed to dealing with the important issues raised by the doctrinal assessment and the L.C.W.R. board in an atmosphere of openness, honesty, integrity and fidelity to the church's faith."
"I look forward to our next meeting in Rome in June as we continue to collaborate in promoting the important work of the L.C.W.R. for consecrated life in the United States," he said.
The L.C.W.R. board said the organization's president, Franciscan Sister Pat Farrell, and its executive director, Sister Janet Mock, a Sister of St. Joseph, will return to Rome June 12 to meet U.S. Cardinal William J. Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Archbishop Sartain "to raise and discuss the board's concerns."
The Vatican on April 18 appointed Archbishop Sartain to provide "review, guidance and approval, where necessary, of the work" of 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.
His appointment came the same day the congregation announced a major reform. The congregation issued an eight-page "doctrinal assessment," that cited "serious doctrinal problems which affect many in consecrated life." The problems, it said, were revealed in an assessment originally ordered in April 2008.
Sister Pat did not discuss specifics of the board's reaction to the Vatican's assessment, saying it was "a conversation we want to have first with the Vatican."
She said that when she and Sister Janet go to Rome they will continue the conversation they had when the eight-page document was first released to them, presenting their views after "prayerful reflection."
Sister Pat said the L.C.W.R. leadership had not given interviews about the document since its release more than a month ago because they did "not want to react in the moment."
"It was important not to respond immediately," she said, "so that whatever we would say would come from our best selves." She also noted that the L.C.W.R. leadership "couldn't respond with any substance individually" because the group is a collaborative organization that speaks with one voice.
"Until we could meet as a group we weren't in a position to respond," she added.
Sister Pat said the mood at the three-day board meeting was "pretty serious" and reflected a range of emotions. "There was a lot of sadness," she said, "but it was a comfort for all of us to be together and process some of our candid responses and feelings with one another."
Regarding future discussion of the Vatican report she said: "I think, first of all we have to move slowly, prayerfully and reflectively on this."
She said that as the process unfolds the L.C.W.R. leadership will have conversations with its members at the regional level and then at the national level.
"We need to walk through this one door at a time and to see how this process unfolds and to follow that path as long as we can respond with integrity," she said.
Sister Pat said the L.C.W.R. leadership was not surprised by the doctrinal congregation's report. "The great surprise was the severity of it," she said.
In the weeks since the Vatican order was issued, the Franciscan sister from Dubuque, Iowa, said she has found "a lot of strength and comfort in prayer and in other members of the L.C.W.R.."
"We have a deep and strong solidarity among us and we will move in a way that does not allow this to divide us." She also said she was encouraged by the "immense outpouring of support" for the sisters from around the country and the world.
In his statement, Archbishop Sartain added that Vatican and the U.S. bishops "are deeply proud of the historic and continuing contribution of women religious -- a pride that has been echoed by many in recent weeks.
"Dramatic examples of this can be witnessed in the school system and in the network of Catholic hospitals established by sisters across America which are lasting contributions to the well-being of our country," he added.
Before the L.C.W.R. board opened its meeting, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the papal nuncio, met with Sister Pat and Sister Janet. Later that day at the nunciature, when a group was demonstrating to show support for L.C.W.R., the archbishop invited some of its members inside and he accepted a petition they presented calling on the Vatican to stop the reform of L.C.W.R..
In an article he wrote for the June 18 issue of America magazine, Archbishop Sartain discussed the Vatican reform of L.C.W.R..
"No one expects that such a sensitive task will be accomplished quickly or effortlessly, but by God's grace and with mutual respect, patience and prayer it can be indeed accomplished for the good of all," he said. "Challenges larger than this have been met before, with renewal and even deeper faith the outcome."
"Through the years," Archbishop Sartain wrote in America magazine, "there have been inevitable conflicts and misunderstandings between religious congregations and their bishops, between one congregation and another and among the members of individual congregations. They exist today as well.
"Disagreements regarding mission, apostolate, discipline, doctrine, style of life and personality have often been at the core of such conflicts. Each situation was an opportunity to seek reconciliation and collaboration at the heart of the church, in the "communion" that is God's gift. Such a pivotal opportunity is now before us."