Articles Related to the 8-Page Statement Issued by the Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) on the Doctrinal Assessment
of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)





·         Statement on the Doctrinal Assessment of the LCWR, by Cardinal William Levada,
Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, April 18, 2012

·         "Vatican Names Archbishop Sartain to Lead Renewal of LCWR", Statement
released by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops [USCCB],
April 18, 2012

·         "LCWR 'stunned' by Vatican's latest move", National Catholic Reporter, April 19, 2012

·         LCWR Statement from Presidency on CDF Doctrinal Assessment, April 19, 2012

·         "Canon lawyers say LCWR’s options stark; Group faces ouster as Vatican recognized
representative", By Joshua J. McElwee, National Catholic Reporter, April 19, 2012

·         "LCWR earthquake snaps tensions present since Vatican II", By Tom Roberts,
National Catholic Reporter, April 24, 2012

·         "LCWR to meet in May regarding Vatican order; Sisters Under Scrutiny", Joshua J.
McElwee, NCR Today, April 25, 2012

·         "LCWR annual assembly to go forward", By Joshua J. McElwee, National Catholic
Reporter, April 26, 2012


·         "Rome vs. the Sisters", A Perspective, By Marian Ronan,,
April 29, 2012


·         "Abusive ecclesial authority puts our bishops on the spot; Sisters Under Scrutiny",
Commentary by Thomas C. Fox,  National Catholic Reporter, May 1, 2012

·         “From Oregon to Ohio, a swell of support for Catholic sisters”, By Sharon
Abercrombie, National Catholic Reporter, May 3, 2012





Statement of Cardinal William Levada,

Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

on the doctrinal Assessment of the LCWR


[April 18, 2012]


The findings of the doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) released today by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are aimed at fostering a patient and collaborative renewal of this conference of major superiors in order to provide a stronger doctrinal foundation for its many laudable initiatives and activities.


The first step in the implementation of the findings of the doctrinal Assessment consists, therefore, in a personal meeting between the Superiors of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Officers of the LCWR. Such a personal encounter allows for the opportunity to review the document together in a spirit of mutual respect and collaboration, hopefully thereby avoiding possible misunderstandings of the document’s intent and scope. In this sense, I also express my gratitude to the Officers of the LCWR for their openness and participation in the doctrinal Assessment since 2008 when I first communicated to them the Congregation’s intention to undertake this project.


In his Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei announcing the Year of Faith which will begin in October, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that it is the Church’s faith that sustains and animates Christian life and witness: “The renewal of the Church is also achieved through the witness offered by the lives of believers: by their very existence in the world, Christians are called to radiate the word of truth that the Lord Jesus has left us.”1 This is all the more true for those who offer the Church and the world the most eloquent witness of religious consecration.


As the issues evidenced in the doctrinal Assessment involve essential questions of faith, the Holy Father has given the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith a special mandate to collaborate with the LCWR in a renewal of their work through a concentrated reflection on the doctrinal foundations of that work. This process will necessarily involve communication and coordination with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and the Congregation for Bishops.


The overarching aim of the doctrinal Assessment is, therefore, to assist the LCWR in the United States in implementing an ecclesiology of communion, confident that “the joyous rediscovery of faith can also contribute to consolidate the unity and communion among the different bodies that make up the wider family of the Church.”2


1 POPE BENEDIXT XVI, Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei, no. 6.

2 CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Note with pastoral recommendations for the Year of Faith.


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Vatican Names Archbishop Sartain to Lead Renewal of LCWR


Statement released by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops


April 18, 2012


     WASHINGTON—The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has called for reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and named Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle as its Archbishop Delegate for the initiative. Bishop Leonard Blair and Bishop Thomas John Paprocki also were also named to assist in this effort.


The CDF outlined the call in a “Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious” released April 18. It is available at:


The document outlines findings of the 2008 CDF-initiated doctrinal assessment of LCWR, conducted by Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, which included his findings and an LCWR response submitted at the end of 2009, as well as a subsequent report from Bishop Blair in 2010.


A statement by Cardinal William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is also available at


The 2010 report included “documentation on the content of LCWR’s Mentoring Leadership Manual and also on the organizations associated with the LCWR, namely Network and the Resource Center for Religious Institutes,” CDF said. Network is a social justice lobby founded by nuns. The Resource Center provides religious orders with legal and financial advice.


The Archbishop Delegate’s role is to provide “review, guidance and approval, where necessary, of the work of the LCWR,” the CDF document said.


The mandate for the Delegate “will be for a period of up to five years, as deemed necessary,” the document said. It calls for additional advisers – bishops, women religious and other experts – “to work with the leadership of the LCWR to achieve the goals necessary to address the problems outlined in this statement.” It also asked for a formal link between the Delegate and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).


“It will be the task of the Archbishop Delegate to work collaboratively with the officers of the LCWR to achieve the goals outlined in this document, and to report on the progress of this to the Holy See …. In this way, the Holy See hopes to offer an important contribution to the future of religious life in the Church in the United States,” the CDF document said.


CDF said Pope Benedict XVI approved CDF’s taking action January 14, 2011, two days after a regular session of the CDF decided 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 Congregations in other parts of the world.” CDF also recommend that after the Apostolic Visitation of Religious Communities of Women in the United States, the final report of which was submitted to the Holy See in December 2011, “The Holy See should intervene, with the prudent steps necessary to effect reform of the LCWR.” It also said CDF would “examine the various forms of canonical intervention for the resolution of the problematic aspects present in the LCWR.”


The mandate for the Delegate includes:



The doctrinal assessment criticized positions espoused at LCWR annual assemblies and in its literature as well as the absence of support from LCWR for Church teaching on women’s ordination and homosexuality.


CDF said that the documentation “reveals that, 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. 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. Moreover, occasional 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.”


The CDF document said “the Holy See acknowledges with gratitude 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.” It said CDF “does not intend to offer judgment on the faith and life of Women Religious in the member congregations which belong to the conference.”


Nevertheless, CDF said, “The Assessment reveals serious doctrinal problems which affect many in Consecrated life,” calling it a crisis “characterized by a diminution of the fundamental Christological center and focus of religious consecration.”


The document listed the principal findings of the LCWR doctrinal assessment.


On LCWR annual assemblies, it said, “The talks, while not scholarly theological discourses per se, do have significant doctrinal and moral content with implications which often contradict or ignore magisterial teaching.”


On formation of religious superiors and formators, the CDF said, “Many of the materials prepared by the LCWR for these purposes (Occasional Papers, Systems

Thinking Handbook) do not have a sufficient doctrinal foundation. These materials recommend strategies for dialogue, for example when sisters disagree about basic matters of Catholic faith or moral practice, but it is not clear whether this dialogue is directed towards reception of Church teaching.”


Archbishop Sartain acknowledged the significance of the CDF assignment.


“In the four dioceses I have served, I have had the privilege of working with many women religious from a large number of congregations. For most of those congregations, the LCWR plays an important role of support, communication, and collaboration, a role valued by the sisters and their congregational leadership. I am honored that the CDF has entrusted this important and sensitive work to me, because the ministry of religious sisters, especially here in the United States, is deeply respected and paramount to the mission of the Church. Just as the LCWR can be a vital resource in many ways for its members, I hope to be of service to them and to the Holy See as we face areas of concern to all.”


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LCWR 'stunned' by Vatican's latest move


National Catholic Reporter


April 19, 2012



The largest leadership organization for U.S. women religious says it was "stunned" by the announcement Wednesday that the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had ordered it [the LCWR] to reform its statutes and had appointed an archbishop to oversee its revision.


"The presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was stunned by the conclusions of the doctrinal assessment of LCWR by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith," the group said in a news release Thursday morning.


"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."


On Wednesday, the Vatican announced it had appointed Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain to oversee LCWR, which has been the subject of a doctrinal assessment by the Vatican congregation since 2009.


The group sent an email Thursday to the heads of each of the congregations it represents, explaining how the group became aware of the news.


That email, obtained by NCR, says LCWR leadership was in Rome to meet Wednesday with members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding the doctrinal assessment. When the leaders came to the meeting, the congregation had already communicated with the U.S. bishops' conference news of Sartain's appointment, the email states.


Additionally, the email says LCWR membership was told during the meeting that news of the appointment would only be shared Wednesday at the bishops' conference internally and not with the general public in order to give the group time to communicate with its leaders.


"When we met with Cardinal (William) Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on April 18, where we received the assessment results, CDF's communication had already been sent to the USCCB for release at noon," the email states.


"We understood that the documents would be put on USCCB's members-only web page," it continues. "Consequently, we had hoped to communicate the conclusions with you ourselves. That was not possible."


First announcement of Sartain's appointment came in a Wednesday press release from the U.S. bishops' conference, which was accompanied by an eight-page document of the doctrinal congregation and a one-page statement from Levada.


According to the document from the congregation, Sartain is to be given authority over the group in five areas, including:



According to the letter, Sartain's mandate runs for "up to five years, as deemed necessary." Sartain is also expected to set up an advisory team that includes clergy and women religious to "work collaboratively" with LCWR officers and to "report on the progress of this work to the Holy See."


"In this way, the Holy See hopes to offer an important contribution to the future of religious life in the Church in the United States," the letter states.


In an email to NCR on Thursday, Annmarie Sanders, LCWR's associate director for communications, said the group's officers have "decided not to do any interviews until they have had time to do a much wider consultation with our board and our members."


"We do not want to proceed with this until we have given this whole matter careful thought and prayer, and know the mind of our members," wrote Sanders, who also serves on NCR's board of directors.


According to the U.S. bishops' release, Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, and Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., will work with Sartain.


The Vatican congregation's doctrinal assessment of LCWR started shortly after the Vatican's Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life announced a separate apostolic visitation of U.S. women religious orders. The results of that study were submitted to Rome in January.


In his letter Wednesday, Levada writes that Sartain's appointment is "aimed at fostering a patient and collaborative renewal of this conference of major superiors in order to provide a stronger doctrinal foundation for its many laudable initiatives and activities."


The document from the congregation re-emphasizes the reason for the doctrinal assessment, writing that Levada told LCWR leadership in 2008 that the congregation had three major areas of concern with the group:



[Joshua J. McElwee is an NCR staff writer.]


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LCWR Statement from Presidency on CDF Doctrinal Assessment


April 19, 2012


Silver Spring, Maryland] The presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was stunned by the conclusion of the doctrinal assessment of LCWR by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. We had received a letter from the CDF prefect in early March informing us that we would hear the results of the doctrinal assessment at our annual meeting; however, we were taken by surprise by the gravity of the mandate.


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. For further information, contact:


Annmarie Sanders, IHM
LCWR Director of Communications
Work: 301-588-4955
Cell: 301-672-3043


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Canon lawyers say LCWR’s options stark


Group faces ouster as Vatican recognized representative


By Joshua J. McElwee


National Catholic Reporter

April 19, 2012



As the largest leadership organization for U.S. women religious begins to discern what steps to take following news Wednesday that the Vatican has ordered it to reform and to place itself under the authority of an archbishop, experts say the options available to the group are stark.


Ultimately, several canon lawyers told NCR, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has two choices: Either comply with the order or face ouster as a Vatican-recognized representative of sisters in the United States.


What’s more, the lawyers say, LCWR has no recourse for appeal of the decision, which the U.S. bishops' conference announced Wednesday in a press release. That release stated that, following a three-year "doctrinal assessment" by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain had been appointed to review and potentially revise the organization's policies.


One prominent canon lawyer, Oblate Fr. Frank Morrissey, summed up the situation facing LCWR in one sentence: “If they want to continue as a recognized conference, they’re going to have to work with this.”


Another, Jesuit Fr. Ladislas Orsy, also put it succinctly: “It’s not very complicated. The Vatican is taking control. They are taking control ... and they hope that in five years, they will put [LCWR] on a different track.”


While other canon lawyers contacted by NCR generally confirmed Orsy and Morrissey’s analysis, they declined to speak on the record, citing the sensitivity of the situation. A short press release from the LCWR on Thursday morning said the group was preparing to meet with its national board members “within the coming month to review the mandate and prepare a response.”


In its document explaining the move, the Vatican congregation said Sartain was to have authority over the LCWR in five areas, including:



That authority, the document said, is granted under two specific canons in the Code of Canon Law that deal with the establishment and work of conferences that represent major superiors of religious orders in different countries.


The language of one of those canons, said Morrissey, a professor of canon law at St. Paul University in Ottawa, Canada, is “particularly important” to consider when evaluating the options open to LCWR.


That canon, No. 708 in the code, states that “major superiors can be associated usefully in conferences or councils so that by common efforts they work to achieve more fully the purpose of the individual institutes.”


The key words there, Morrissey said, is the phrase “can be associated usefully.” Important to recognize, he said, is the fact that the canon does not say that major superiors “must” meet. That means the Vatican “can always, at any time, just remove the recognition of a conference. It certainly has the right to do that,” he said.


That power, Morrissey said, is also recognized in another section of the code that refers to the organization of “public associations of the Christian faithful.” In that section, canon 320 states tersely that “only the Holy See can suppress associations it has erected.”


That means, Morrissey said, that “the bishops in the States or any other country couldn’t suppress the conference themselves. They could ask the Holy See to do it, but they couldn’t force it.”


In terms of whether LCWR would have any ability to appeal the decision, Orsy said flatly: “There is no recourse here. None whatsoever.”


Orsy, who is currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University Law Center but has taught at five institutions, including the Gregorian University in Rome, compared the canon law allowing the move to U.S. civil laws, which grant the U.S. president authority to set up new federal agencies without approval from Congress.


In terms of how issues like the appointment of Sartain are addressed in practice at the Vatican, he said it’s considered “simply an administrative decision.”


Morrissey said part of the problem regarding the question of whether the sisters can appeal the decision is the fact that, when a decision comes from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “there’s no appeal except to the Doctrine of Faith itself.”


While Morrissey said the LCWR “could always ask” the congregation to reconsider its own decision, he doubted the congregation would be willing to re-evaluate, considering the number of the meetings that have already been held on the matter since announcement of the investigation in 2009.


The situation regarding the chances of appeal is so dim, Orsy said, that no canon lawyer would advise LCWR to spend time even trying to prepare a case to present.


“I have no doubt that [the congregation] checked out everything at the very highest level,” he said. “I think it would be incorrect to tell [LCWR] anything else and let them have an illusion ... [or] give them the idea that they can appeal and they begin to work on it and all that.


“It comes nowhere,” he said. “A responsible lawyer would not do that.”


According to Wednesday's letter from the congregation, Sartain's mandate runs for "up to five years, as deemed necessary." Sartain is also expected to set up an advisory team that includes clergy and women religious to "work collaboratively" with LCWR officers and to "report on the progress of this work to the Holy See."


According to the U.S. bishops' release, Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, and Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., will work with Sartain.


The Vatican congregation's doctrinal assessment of LCWR started shortly after the Vatican's Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life announced a separate apostolic visitation of U.S. women religious orders. The results of that study were submitted to Rome in January.


In his letter Wednesday, Levada writes that Sartain's appointment is "aimed at fostering a patient and collaborative renewal of this conference of major superiors in order to provide a stronger doctrinal foundation for its many laudable initiatives and activities."


The document from the congregation re-emphasizes the reason for the doctrinal assessment, writing that Levada told LCWR leadership in 2008 that the congregation had three major areas of concern with the group:



While Wednesday’s document referred to some specific concerns the congregation has with the group and referenced the meetings it has had with the sisters, it did not provide minutes of those meetings or release other documents.


Orsy said any further examination of the congregation’s decision is hampered by that fact.


“We are all handicapped because the evidence has not been published,” Orsy said. “And like any kind of decision, you measure the decision in relationship to the evidence. But the evidence has not been published, except in very general terms. Therefore, you cannot argue with a decision unless you get the evidence on which it was based.”


Morrissey said his hope in the coming days was that “nobody will take rash decisions.”


“This is something that needs to be thought out,” he said. “It might be a good moment for mid-course correction.”


[Joshua J. McElwee is an NCR staff writer. His email address is]


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LCWR earthquake snaps tensions present since Vatican II


By Tom Roberts


National Catholic Reporter

April 24, 2012





It is almost instinctively that one reaches, when attempting to explain what is going on today in the Catholic church, for metaphors out of the natural world -- storms, earthquakes, seismic shifts -- to get at the magnitude of events.


We search for the terms that explain what we're experiencing: phenomena beyond the ordinary disturbances we've learned to weather one season to the next. Just as seismologists or climatologists begin to put together patterns over time, to construct a mega-image of what is happening, so are we. Another piece of the puzzle has just fallen into place for us with the delivery last week from the Vatican of the "Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious."


The 5.8 earthquake that hit the East Coast in August was insignificant by West Coast standards, yet it was felt hundreds of miles from its epicenter in Virginia. Geologists explained that the earth's crust in this part of the world is more dense and less disturbed and fractured than that in the usual earthquake zones, allowing the seismic waves to travel further than they would, say, in Los Angeles or San Francisco.


In a similar way, the shockwaves emanating from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), a gathering unlike any that preceded it in tone, purpose and language, have reverberated through the relatively undisturbed crust of the institutional church's presumptions and leadership culture. The assessment of the nuns is the latest of the aftershocks. This council, popularly known as Vatican II, did not announce anathemas; did not condemn heresies, as was the case with others; did not dwell on dogma or establish new lines for who's in and who's out of the community.


Instead, to state the matter broadly, it asked that we all go to the roots of who we are as a people of God and to figure out what that means in the contemporary world. And while it is a far more complex story -- indeed, a universe of stories -- than can be done justice in the space of this essay, we can know some things about what's happened since we began to feel the rumblings beneath the ecclesiastical crust.


One of the realities shaping today's news is that the bishops and the nuns took very divergent paths in the wake of the council, and that has set up an unfortunate dynamic. Kenneth Briggs explains the growing tension between bishops and nuns in Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church's Betrayal of American Nuns. The sisters in the United States, he contends, were largely overlooked in historical accounts of the development of both church and nation because of their "exclusion from positions of power within the Church. Their subjugation to a male clerical order not only kept them out of the public eye but also ultimately crushed their efforts to refashion themselves boldly and creatively."


Many of the problems experienced by women religious in the last half-century, he argues, derive from "the hierarchy's refusal to make good on the promise of renewal" implicit in the council documents.


The rumblings that began to disturb the church's crust in the mid-'60s swelled to a giant heave at the end of that decade with the debate over Humanae Vitae. It may seem jarringly inappropriate to raise that old squabble anew and in this context. But it was important and remains relevant. The Catholic landscape was rearranged in a big and unique way. The laity, in this instance, led by their own experience and by prominent theologians, said no. They said they did not accept the church's ban on the use of artificial contraception. And that was that. Little has changed since. That decision, informal but widespread, created quite a rumble. The church stood, minus, perhaps, a gargoyle here and there. God remained in the heavens, and life went on, but a key new insight pervaded those in the pews. The fear of eternal damnation for disregarding a teaching that didn't make sense began to evaporate as a reason to obey.


Religion scholar Phyllis Tickle says global Christianity is going through one of its every-500-year upheavals, when old "carapaces" are cracked and encrustations of habit and practice and belief are jarred loose. In each of those cycles, she says, we're left asking, "Where's the authority?"


The birth control controversy forced that question in a bold and new way in the Catholic world. One senses that just as the United States is trying to find, post-Sept. 11, how power works in a world more shrunken, interconnected and broken by technology than ever before, so, too, are the bishops trying to figure out how their authority works in an increasingly fractured church where the trappings and presumptions of an all-male monarchy have little hold on the contemporary Catholic imagination. Power and authority no longer function as they once did.




In the church, no greater challenge exists to hierarchical power and the traditional way of doing things than the sisters. Following the council, the women did what they thought the gathering had mandated: They dug deep into their own histories, reviewed their founding documents, reflected long on the lives and examples of their founders. Many came out of that period of intense prayer and scrutiny with startling conclusions. One of them was that their mission was to be more than cheap labor for the hierarchy.


Another was that, having rediscovered their original "charisms," they saw their work taking them beyond the walls of cloisters and convents and into the wider world, particularly at its margins and among the poor.


An inevitable result of all of the introspection and meditation on their lives, their histories and their missions was a new discovery of themselves as women. In fact, Briggs speaks of them as a kind of pre-feminist movement. Nuns were performing tasks normally reserved for men long before many other women in society. They ran schools and hospitals and other institutions. They were, he writes, "distinguished leaders in charge of big, complex structures. They were, in short, the CEOs of institutions before women were CEOs of institutions."


Thousands were earning college degrees in the 1950s and carrying their new knowledge and skills into a wide range of new professions, says Briggs, who writes that the "total of doctorates awarded to sisters more than doubled" between the 1950s and 1970s.


Through the long arc of their history in the United States, it is a simple fact that women religious built the church. We wouldn't have the Catholic school system without them. We wouldn't have a hospital system without them. We wouldn't today have a Catholic presence in many of the worst parts of our cities without them. We wouldn't have ministry to the displaced, unwanted and hurting without them. In many cases we wouldn't have any ministries or education programs in our parishes and dioceses without them. And in some of the priest-poor sections of the country, we wouldn't have parishes without them.


We are, at the same time, Catholic, and bishops are an important part of our story. So it must be asked, “Who would want to be a bishop in today's church?” The ground is shifting beneath it in unprecedented ways. The old symbols of power are disappearing. The baronial bishop's residence in Boston has been sold off to pay for the sex abuse scandal; the one in Philadelphia is up for sale. Bishops' authority everywhere is compromised, their moral stature diminished as the world keeps hearing through trial testimony and released documentation how the leadership culture of the Catholic Church ignored the horror that was being done to children in order to protect their priests and the reputation of the clerical culture.


For the majority of ordained men alive today, it must seem at times as if nothing is as it was, that what they signed up for decades ago is gone.


And that includes the way nuns act today. It includes the way nuns think today, the fact that they would engage in re-imagining God in the multiple human manifestations that reflect his/her images. That they would entertain questions about women's place in the church, ordination of women, how the church treats homosexuals -- all fly in the face of good order and the community as men have constructed it.




The eight-page doctrinal assessment -- an indictment, really -- calls into question the lives, motives, spirituality, fidelity, theology and ways of approaching the church and the world of members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organization representing more than 80 percent of the nation's sisters.


The document is properly anchored in papal quotes about the need for "consecrated persons" to have total "allegiance of mind and heart to the magisterium of the bishops" as did their founders and foundresses. As is often the case, those at greatest risk from a breakdown in presumptions and the surfacing of questions paint church history in crisp, neat lines. But the reality of some of those founders and foundresses is far more jagged and involved a great deal more struggle with the institution and those in power than contemporary papal admonitions to obedience and allegiance would reference.


There's a consequence to the nuns having been the builders of the church, the ones on the ground, the representatives of the church where the hurt is, where people are actually living, being cared for and dying. They're known, they're trusted and they inspire an admiration and loyalty that will not be abandoned in this time of testing.


This should not be a contest between men and women. It shouldn't be a test of who is more important to the church. It shouldn't be a win-lose matter. But the men have forced it to this point.


Yesterday, nuns were approached by Catholics at Sunday liturgies across the country with a simple question: What can we do to help? I am told by one sister that nuns from other countries have sent messages of solidarity, asking if there's anything they can do.


In one parish on the East Coast, a sympathetic message of support for the sisters from the pulpit brought a loud and sustained round of applause. Certainly it wasn't a singular experience. Laypeople everywhere are looking for whatever way they can do to support the nuns. Petitions are circulating in the ether and attracting thousands of signatures.


I'd bet that most bishops really don't want this fight at this time. With all that needs fixing in the church today -- and with the amount of brokenness for which the leadership is responsible -- now is not the time to be casting aspersions on any other groups, and certainly not on the sisters.


The questions the nuns are asking, the topics they discuss, the views they dare express publicly that might be at variance with the bishops emanate from their lived experience as well as their education. Whether the bishops want to acknowledge the fact, they are the same questions and concerns that occupy the community at large, and they're not going to magically disappear.


Xavier Le Pichon, a French geophysicist, is known for constructing a comprehensive model of plate tectonics, but also for extracting from his knowledge of the activity of the earth's plates deep insights into human behavior and the dynamics of human community. In an essay, he writes: "As I knew from my own scientific experience, the weaknesses, the imperfections, faults facilitate the evolution of a system. A system which is too perfect is also too rigid because it does not need to evolve. This is true in politics; it is true within a society, within families, within nature." I think it can be inferred, without unduly stretching the point, that this holds true as well for the Catholic Church and its ecclesiology.


A perfect system, he writes, "is a closed system that can only evolve through a major commotion; the evolution occurs through revolutions." In one case, it's the cracking of rigid rocks; in the other, one might extrapolate, it is the slow crumbling of ecclesial systems that have become too rigid or that discover that their usefulness has been overrun by time, circumstance and new insights.


The Vatican assessment has, indeed, begun a "major commotion." In ways that no new evangelization campaign ever could, the critique of the sisters has unified Catholics to rally to a good cause as Catholics, because they are Catholics. They will do whatever they can to protect the nuns. Bishops should be ready for the onslaught of letters and petitions.


The U.S. hierarchy is aiming its rage at the sisters, but the temblors moving the earth beneath their feet have little to do with women who serve the poor and dare to ask unsettling questions.


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LCWR to meet in May regarding Vatican order


Sisters Under Scrutiny


Joshua J. McElwee


NCR Today

April 25, 2012



The leadership of the largest organization representing U.S. women religious announced this afternoon that the board of the group will meet in an "atmosphere of prayer, contemplation and dialogue" in May to discuss news that the Vatican has ordered it to revise its statutes and has appointed an archbishop to oversee the revision.


The announcement comes on the website of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which was the subject of the April 18 order from the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and is signed by the group's president, president-elect, and past-president.


The statement says the national board of the group will meet from May 29-June 1 to "begin its discussion" on the matter.


"The board will conduct its meeting in an atmosphere of prayer, contemplation and dialogue and will develop a plan to involve LCWR membership in similar processes," the statement continues.


"The conference plans to move slowly, not rushing to judgment. We will engage in dialogue where possible and be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. We ask your prayer for us and for the Church in this critical time."


News of the April 18 order from the Vatican first came in a press release that day from the U.S. bishops' conference, which was accompanied by an eight-page document of the doctrinal congregation and a one-page statement from its head, Cardinal William Levada.


The U.S. bishops' press release announced that Seattle archbishop Peter Sartain had been appointed archbishop delegate of LCWR. The Vatican document stated that in that role, Sartain was to be given wide authority over the group in five specific areas, including:



According to the Vatican letter, Sartain's mandate runs for "up to five years, as deemed necessary." Sartain is also expected to set up an advisory team that includes clergy and women religious to "work collaboratively" with LCWR officers and to "report on the progress of this work to the Holy See."


Today's statement from the LCWR is only the second time members of its leadership have publicly addressed the Vatican move. In a short statement April 19, the group said it was "stunned" by the order.


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LCWR annual assembly to go forward


By Joshua J. McElwee


National Catholic Reporter

April 26, 2012



When the Vatican put the largest organization representing U.S. women religious into church receivership, saying it needed to submit to the control of an archbishop and reform its statutes, a major criticism cited was the group’s annual assemblies, which were said to have presented viewpoints that were “a serious source of scandal.”


Despite that concern, this year’s assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, planned for August, is to go forward with Vatican acknowledgement, NCR has learned.


LCWR leadership and Cardinal William Levada, the head of the Vatican congregation that ordered the group’s reform, have “mutually agreed” the assembly will continue as planned, Sr. Annmarie Sanders, LCWR’s associate director for communications, said in a brief phone interview Tuesday.


That agreement, Sanders said, came at the April 18 meeting in Rome at which the sisters were first told of the move by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.


Given the congregation’s harsh criticism of LCWR assemblies and speakers, for many observers, the continuation of this year’s assembly at first seemed like an open question. And for those looking to find fault with the assemblies’ content, this year’s lineup of speakers could still raise eyebrows.


The keynote address at the Aug. 7-10 conference in St. Louis is to be given by Barbara Marx Hubbard, an author known for her advancement of a worldview called “conscious evolution.” The title of Hubbard’s keynote address is, “What does it mean for you to be a leader in these evolutionary times?”


According to the assembly’s registration materials, Hubbard’s presentation is to explore how women’s congregations can discern the future of religious life in a way “that remains open to the new levels of consciousness, even as that revelation exceeds the boundaries of present day understanding of one’s faith, as well as the charism and mission of one’s institute.”


Also on the agenda of the LCWR assembly are NCR publisher Tom Fox and NCR columnist Jamie Manson, who will share a panel discussion with Jennifer Gordon, a member of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kan., to discuss “Religious Life in the Future: What Might it Look Like?”


Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sandra Schneiders, who has taught at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley since 1976, is expected to receive an award for outstanding leadership at the conference.


Schneiders’ latest book, Prophets in Their Own Country: Women Religious Bearing Witness to the Gospel in a Troubled Church, is a collection of essays from women religious reflecting on their experiences during a separate Vatican investigation of individual congregations of U.S. women’s orders. Called an “apostolic visitation,” a report on that investigation, which was ordered by the Vatican’s Congregation for Religious, was submitted to Rome in January.


Schneiders told NCR on Wednesday that she had received earlier this week materials informing her that the LCWR assembly would go forward and that “there had been no change in plans” in the content following news of the Vatican’s move.


Announcement of the Vatican order first came in a press release April 18 from the U.S. bishops’ conference. The release was accompanied by an eight-page document of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and a one-page statement from Levada.


The U.S. bishops’ release said Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain had been appointed to oversee LCWR during its revision. According to the Vatican document, Sartain is to be given authority over the group in five separate areas, including reviewing “LCWR plans and programs, including General Assemblies and publications.”


While members of LCWR’s leadership were in Rome for meetings the same time Sartain is in the city for his ad limina visit to meet with Pope Benedict, Sanders told NCR she did not know whether Sartain and the LCWR leaders had met.


Sanders, a member of the Congregation of the Sister, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Scranton, Penn., serves on NCR's board of directors.


Last year’s LCWR assembly found the group openly addressing what some have viewed as a vocations crisis among women religious.


To consider those concerns, the 2011 assembly saw the group not focusing on routine matters of administration or finance but rather spending long periods of their time together in silence to contemplate where U.S. religious life may be moving.


Last year’s assembly also saw release of a report on the decline in numbers of women religious in the U.S. with membership in the LCWR, which seemed to indicate the decrease has been fairly rapid in the last few years, with numbers dropping from 60,642 sisters in 2007 to 46,451 in 2011.


At that time, LCWR projected there to be a loss of another 2,787 sisters from the group in 2012.


Titled “Mystery Unfolding: Leading in the Evolutionary Now,” this year’s assembly seems focused on expanding last year’s conversation about the future of U.S. religious life.


In the registration materials for the event, LCWR states that there is a “transformation of consciousness” before women religious today that is “dramatic and compelling and demands a reorientation of thinking and believing.”


Last year’s LCWR assembly came about partly as an outpouring of the work of the group’s Contemporary Religious Life Project, which was tasked in 2010 with spearheading a five-year contemplation process to discern what the future could look like for U.S. women religious.


Schneiders, a noted theologian known for her writings on women religious, said she thought LCWR’s focus on discerning its future is a response to the fact that “these are difficult times for the church and the world.”


“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,” she said.


A December 2011 CARA study on those choosing to enter religious life said the average age of women professing perpetual vows in religious orders that year was 39.


That study, called “New Sisters and Brothers in Perpetual Vows,” gathered responses from both superiors of orders affiliated with the LCWR and the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, a separate canonically recognized organization thought to represent up to 20 percent of U.S. women religious.


During the discernment sessions at last year’s assembly, LCWR's members were asked to spend time reflecting silently on a specific topic regarding the future of religious life, then were given time to share whatever insights they might have.


Sr. Pat Farrell, a vice president of the Sisters of St. Francis of Dubuque, Iowa, and LCWR’s president, said in an interview before last year’s assembly that it was time for women religious to re-examine their calling.


“We are fewer,” Farrell told NCR in August 2011. “It’s time to loosen our perceptions of who we are and listen attentively to what God is calling us to do now.”



Also expected at this year’s LCWR assembly is an annual transition of the group’s top leaders -- their president-elect, president and past-president -- who govern the LCWR collaboratively with the group’s secretary, treasurer and executive director.


In LCWR’s model, a president-elect is elected by the group’s membership at each year’s assembly. Following a year in the position, she automatically succeeds to the presidency, and then to the position of past-president the following year.


It is unknown whether the process will change following Sartain’s appointment.


According to precedents set by previous years’ assemblies, Farrell would be expected to move to the position of past-president at this year’s gathering, while Dominican Sr. Mary Hughes, prioress of the Sisters of St. Dominic of Amityville, New York, would be expected to move out of leadership with the group.


The April 18 Vatican document -- which also gave Sartain authority over the LCWR’s statutes, creation of new programs, application of liturgical texts and affiliations with other groups -- specifically cited an address by Dominican Sr. Laurie Brink at the 2007 LCWR assembly, saying certain passages in it addressing how some members of religious congregations view their vocations indicated a "serious source of scandal" that was “incompatible with religious life.”


Regarding LCWR’s emphasis on discerning the future of religious life, Schneiders, who is also a recipient of the John Courtney Murray Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Catholic Theological Society of America, said the group is also re-emphasizing its relationship with God.


“When you don’t have the resources you once had, you realize that where our strength really comes from is not material things,” Schneiders said. “It comes from our own union with God. And that’s what’s important to people.”


[Joshua J. McElwee is an NCR staff writer. His email address is]


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Rome vs. the Sisters

A Perspective


By Marian Ronan


April 29, 2012



Commentators offer a range of explanations for last week’s Vatican “assessment” charging a group that includes the largest number of US Catholic sisters, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) with “serious doctrinal problems” and “radical feminism.”


One frequent explanation is that the report was issued in retaliation for support given the 2009 Affordable Care Act (ACA) by Network, a Catholic social justice lobby with close ties to the LCWR. For example, in a BBC News interview several days after the release of the assessment, Sister Simone Campbell, Network’s executive director, acknowledged “a strong connection” between Network’s challenge to the US bishops over the ACA and the Vatican accusations.


No doubt there is some truth to this analysis. But it’s worth noting that the Vatican launched the investigation that culminated in this document in January 2009, more than a year before Congress passed the ACA. Given the speed with which Rome does things, it’s more than likely that while the sisters’ support for the ACA contributed to the harshness of the statement, it by no means caused it. Indeed, Pope John Paul II mandated a previous investigation of US religious in 1983, though the outcome of that process was less brutal than the current one has proven to be.


In point of fact, throughout the history of the Church, bishops and popes have struggled mightily to keep committed celibate Catholic women under control. Already in the early Christian centuries male church leaders forced virgins to describe themselves as “brides of Christ” rather than use the male martial imagery they had come to use during the Roman persecutions. The early equality between male and female desert monastics was likewise undercut when eighth century bishops began taking control of women’s monasteries and ordained monks to the priesthood for the first time (but not nuns, of course). And as, throughout the following centuries, groups of dedicated Christian women came together—canonesses, Beguines, beatas, recluses—popes, bishops, and male theologians went to great lengths to rein them in.


In the 12th century, Aelred of Rievaulx forbade women recluses to so much as talk alone with their confessors; Gregory IX imposed cloister on all Franciscan sisters except those in the house led by their foundress, Clare of Assisi; and in 1917, after a century marked by the foundation of innumerable active (that is, non-cloistered) congregations of sisters dedicated to serving the needs of the sick and the poor, the new Vatican Code of Canon Law cloistered them all, imposing rigid rules that undercut their ministries.


As the century moved on, however, relations between the Vatican and the sisters seemed to improve. In its effort to respond to the horrors of the twentieth century, the Vatican ordered the sisters to become better educated, to update their rules and habits, and to begin meeting together for the sake of greater effectiveness.


Already in 1929 Pope Pius XI had stressed the need for better prepared Catholic school teachers; in 1950, Pius XII called a meeting of the heads of all religious orders for the purpose of further advancing their collaboration; and in 1952 he called a meeting of women’s superiors, during which he urged the sisters to update and educate themselves for the purpose of attaining attain equal footing with their secular counterparts.


The Vatican also called for the formation of the US Conference of Major Superiors of Women, the group that eventually morphed into the currently-maligned LCWR. Ironically, the American women’s congregations at the time felt no need for the Conference, but organized it out of obedience to the Pope. Finally, the Second Vatican Council called the sisters to renew their congregations, return to the charism of their founders, and revise their constitutions, a call Pope Paul VI seconded. The sisters embraced Vatican II renewal immediately, with all their hearts, more so than any other group in the Church.


So how, you may wonder, did the sisters and the Vatican get into the current conundrum? In much the same way that the rest of the Catholic Church did in the decades after Vatican II.


Conservative commentators argue that the sisters misinterpreted the teachings of Vatican II, or didn’t study them at all, and abandoned the way of life to which they were vowed. More illuminating, I believe is a comment made in 2005 by Sister Mary Daniel Turner, an LCWR executive director who, in the 1970s, led the organization through some of its most significant transformations: “Each time the Church takes a step forward,” she said, “it takes a step back.” At Vatican II, the Church called its members to respond to the “signs of the times,” to recognize “the universal call to holiness” that made clergy, religious, and laypeople equal, to respond to the “joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties” of modern men and women.


But when the “People of God” began to do this, the Vatican and the bishops realized with a shock what it actually meant, and they didn’t like it.


In point of fact, according to papers released in 2011 by the moral theologian Germaine Grisez, papal buyers’ remorse had become evident even before the closing of the Council, when Pope Paul VI made clear that he would not reverse the Church’s earlier condemnation of artificial contraceptives under any circumstances. And in 1968 he was true to that promise, absolutely forbidding, in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, the use of artificial contraceptives. In so doing the pope overrode the recommendations of the birth control commission formed during Vatican II, a commission that included married lay people. So much for the equality that came with the “universal call to holiness.”


US sisters themselves began slamming into the buyers’ remorse of the institutional Church around the same time. Already in 1967, the rollback of the renewal the sisters had undertaken with such commitment began to come into focus. When the cardinal archbishop of Los Angeles forbade the Immaculate Heart Sisters there from implementing the changes agreed upon at their renewal chapter, including modernizing their habit and educating their young sisters before sending them out to teach, the Vatican backed the cardinal, although these were changes the Vatican itself had called for. Ultimately, a majority of IHMs abandoned their status as Catholic sisters under canon law.


When LCWR members proposed a motion protesting the treatment accorded the IHMs, the Vatican representative at their meeting prevented the motion from coming to a vote. In the years that followed, the LCWR protested to Rome repeatedly what appeared to them unjustifiable intrusions by the Vatican and the bishops in decisions over which the Council had given them discretion.


I could go on but you get the idea. The recent investigation of the LCWR and accusations of doctrinal infidelity and radical feminism against the group are one more sad chapter in the long history of popes and bishops attempting to bring Catholic sisters to heel.


There is one significant difference, however. In part because of the Vatican’s own demand that they become so, the sisters currently under attack are the most highly educated women in the history of the Church.


And because of the sisters’ hard, able, and for the most part financially uncompensated work, Catholic women in the U.S. today are also vastly more educated, competent, and professional than Catholic women of any previous generations. Think here, if you will, of Nancy Pelosi, recent occupant of the highest position of power a woman has held in the history of the US government. Think of Kathleen Sebelius. Think, for that matter, of me. We Catholic women understand the enormous debt we owe our sisters, and we are not pleased to have their faith denigrated in such a vile fashion even as they move into old age.


To paraphrase Sister Simone Campbell, I don’t think the boys have any idea what they’re in for.


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Abusive ecclesial authority puts our bishops on the spot


Sisters Under Scrutiny


Thomas C. Fox


National Catholic Reporter

May 1, 2012





Some of our bishops are acting like bullies, abusing the authority of their offices in the name of enforcing orthodoxy.


Dealing with U.S. women religious, these bishops' actions appear governed more by a desire to enforce obedience than to develop fidelity in our sisters.


Catholics see through this guise. They are upset, fed up with the likes of this behavior. They are speaking out. Soon they will be on the streets making their voices heard. You can count on it.


What the bully bishops claim to be matters of orthodoxy are really matters of pastoral style. They are the results of an unwillingness among our bishops to enter into sincere and mutually respectful dialogue with the women. None of the issues at hand has anything to do with the Creed. They stem from the actions of a small group of misdirected and fearful men determined to take catholic out of Catholic while judging, silencing and demeaning those who stand in their way.


Most of our bishops are not part of this clique. Most find themselves in near-impossible situations, part of a culture that demands they accede, at least publicly, to these abusive actions, knowing full well they are draining life and spirit out of the very women -- these exemplary, faithful women -- who sustain their diocesan and parish communities.


Against the best interests of their local churches, our bishops keep their silence, cognizant that if they speak up in support of the sisters, they will be removed from their positions, as have other bishops who have spoken out against the bullying.


This is an especially difficult time for Catholics who recognize the need and place for legitimate church authority in a world in need of Gospel guidance. Catholics and others cannot help but see the episcopal attacks on our sisters in the context of decades of sexual abuse cover-up. Why, they ask, point the finger at the women when the times demand deep critical self-introspection?


On April 18, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith "stunned" the women with a highly critical "doctrinal assessment" of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80 percent of more than 50,000 of our U.S. Catholic sisters, accusing them of focusing too much time on the poor and not enough on abortions and gay marriage.


One of the beauties of our Catholic faith is that we agree on the Gospels, the Creed and the Eucharist and often disagree on theologies and pastoral approaches. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, supporting a seamless pro-life ethic, used to say it was healthy that different elements in our Catholic communities would focus on varied aspects of the life garment and that no one person or group could effectively focus on all elements.


His approach to authority and building community within our church -- dialogue and moral persuasion -- has been rejected by bishops who now demand total assent of word and conscience "or else," an approach our sisters cannot accept while remaining true to their identities, methods and missions.


For decades now, our sisters have been agents of their own destinies, living and working faithfully, attending to the needs of the neediest among us. They have done it with the scarcest of resources, living out the charisms of the orders, charisms renewed at the wishes of the bishops following the Second Vatican Council a half-century ago. They have labored largely without the financial assistance of their bishops, but in concert with them.


These sisters are today’s objects of ecclesiastical abuse, but they will not in the end become its latest victims. This is because they will refuse to perpetuate the abuse. Products of years of prayerful discernment of purpose and mission, they know who they are and who they cannot become. They are at peace with themselves, a peace that draws from prayer, self-awareness, community and the gospels to which they have given their lives.


Yet there are worries. Mercy Sister Camille D’Arienzo, in an email this week, put it this way: “Because sisters work to help people who struggle on the margins on society, my concern is that, in the end, the attack on the LCWR becomes an attack on the poor.”


While the LCWR leadership is taking time before it responds to the Vatican edict, this, too, should be a special time for episcopal discernment. The bishops have become the Vatican doctrinal assessment's silent victims. This is because it is causing disruption and discouragement throughout local dioceses. The sisters upon whom the bishops heavily rely to keep their parishes functioning are now both dispirited and alienated.


The bishops need to speak out against this ill-conceived and ill-executed but very hurtful behavior. They need to speak out on behalf of the sisters whom they well know to be faithful servants of the church - no matter what the orthodox police might allege.


But so far the bishops are largely silent.


This is the same silence we found after the U.S. bishops' doctrine committee offered its devastating critique of theologian St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson's book, Quest for the Living God. The critique found every fault possible, but the worst part of that sad story was that during the one year the committee studied the Johnson text, it never once contacted her for comment or defense, nor did it take the time to enter into respectful dialogue with her after the fact.


This is the same silence that occurred after Vatican officials disregarded our bishops' efforts to represent the prayer lives of U.S. Catholics in the sacred words of the Mass, after our bishops passed a suitable translation.


It would have been so soul-lifting and empowering if our communities had a number of bishops step forward to publicly represent local Catholic sentiments in these most personal and communal matters. But that never happened.


Last week, Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., wrote a column on his diocesan website, addressing the women religious situation. We should commend him for saying something.


In his essay, he recognized what he found as dysfunctional behavior on the part of the Vatican, but did not speak out against it.


His instinct was for reconciliation, but he could not bring himself to say the Vatican had conducted itself in an unacceptable manner.


Lynch wrote that our sisters, the critical doctrinal assessment notwithstanding, are faithful women who "have played and continue to play an extremely important and vital role in the life of our church," holding "positions of trust, leadership, and competence." In a Pinocchio-nose-stretching moment, he adds that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's statement "did not and could not call into question the great work of these women."


Lynch went on: "I like many of you reading this, love the sisters," adding, as if an aside, that "from time to time, various offices of the Holy See have taken it upon themselves to investigate and attempt to change other bodies extant in the church."


He might have added they have done so at immense harm.


He recalled that in the mid-1980s, the Vatican had in its sight the national episcopal conferences (the most visible mechanisms of Second Vatican Council collegiality) "due in no small part to (Vatican) concern about the growing influence in the public square of the United States Catholic Conference, which was garnering worldwide attention and acclaim for the twin pastoral letters on war and peace and the economy."


In other words, the U.S. Catholic bishops were influencing the wider U.S. conversations on war and the economy. They were becoming an effective collective episcopal voice within the wider church. This should have been something to celebrate. Yes?


Lynch writes: "Not lost on certain people in Rome was the fact that a picture of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago (and chair of the committee which wrote the pastoral on war and peace) appeared on the cover of TIME magazine before that of Pope John Paul II."


With a sort of "If it can happen to us it can happen to you" explanation, Lynch says that episode ended in a document from the Holy Father "defining the limits of the teaching authority of episcopal conferences."


He adds that it seemed "like the sun was crashing down on post-conciliar collegiality but in the end, little changed." Little changed? We have had a toothless conference of almost toothless bishops since that time.


The Vatican under Pope John Paul II emasculated national episcopal conferences, the principle countervailing forces against Vatican centralization of authority. After a 1998 edict, the conferences could only speak out authoritatively on matters of faith and morals if they did so with unanimous consent, which is impossible to get.


The Vatican had taken aback what the Second Vatican Council offered the church in an attempt to help decentralize authority and move it into greater harmony with the modern world.


It takes little imagination to connect those actions with the April 18 CDF doctrinal assessment. With formal collegiality ended, with local voices expressing local faith experiences being extinguished, the quickly changing conditions of women, especially in the West, could more easily be overlooked. And the distance between U.S. sisters and Roman prelates would only grow, to the great peril of our church.


In his column, Lynch defended -- and tried to explain -- the Vatican, writing that if someone does not understand "the praxis of the Holy See, it would seem that the Holy Father dislikes American religious women." He admits that several actions would seem to reinforce this conclusion.


But he doesn't agree. The apostolic visitation, another recent Vatican initiative questioning the fidelity of U.S. women religious, seemed to many like "doomsday," yet that has not and is likely not to be the case, he wrote.


He did not explain that this doomsday scenario was avoided not because the Vatican changed its mind, but because the sisters refused to cooperate in their own execution.


They refused to be bullied.


Lynch then tried to share that inscrutable Vatican "praxis," which includes a pattern of poor communication and a pecking order in Rome that keeps outsiders at bay.


Referring to the Congregation for Religious, which is canonically the authority that is supposed to be overseeing the religious orders of the world, Lynch wrote: "I would bet a dollar to a donut that they knew little to nothing about last week's paper from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in advance. That is not the way things work over there -- there is 'turf' protection and a pecking order of significance and competencies among the various Congregations and Councils."


He did not write that if this is true, it is a disgrace -- little boys fighting over their tree houses while the church burns.


He does make some big admissions, which point to serious dysfunction at the top of the church.


And yet he does not side, even in matters of abusive process, with the sisters.


The concerns Lynch addressed are clear disabling elements of the highest order and should quickly draw widespread episcopal attention.


As you might expect of a good shepherd, Lynch has tried to attend to the sisters' sense of rejection: "So my words to my sisters in this diocese would be to relax somewhat. You are still loved and appreciated by your church. The appointment of an incredibly fair and compassionate man like Archbishop Peter Sartain (the Vatican-appointed overseer) to see this process through is a hopeful sign in itself."


No one disputes that Sartain is a compassionate man. The question is, Can he identify and speak out against injustices within the episcopal ranks? Can he address, identify and speak out against abusive behavior?


"American Catholics who read the secular media," Lynch writes, "are getting an introduction to how terribly the media understand the Church. Editorials have appeared all over the place supporting the sisters and condemning the Pope, Rome, bishops, men, etc., etc. The notion of a hierarchical Church is both foreign, inimical and anathema to current liberal, freethinking and secularist thought."


No, patriarchal tyranny is inimical to modern egalitarian fairness and honesty.


So it's the media's fault. Criticize the messenger. The media has almost universally sided with the sisters. They have tried to tell it like it is. If the Vatican comes off looking like a dictatorship, it might be because elements within it are acting like dictators.


For some reading this column, Lynch's heartfelt apologies and explanations seem to have a familiar ring. That is because they highlight the behavior of a victim living in an abusive relationship.


The syndrome associated with these relationships is often called "battered wives" or "battered women's syndrome." Sadly, many women know this syndrome only too well. Many have experienced battering at some point in their lives.


While it sometimes takes a Herculean effort, many spouses suffering such abuse manage to break away. They say "no more" to the unacceptable behavior and walk away.


According to those in the field of marriage counseling, the prime characteristics of the syndrome are these: The object of the abuse comes to believe it is somehow justified; the object of the abuse accepts it, fearing that to do otherwise would only make matters worse; the object of the abuse lives with an inflated sense of the power of the abuser, making it all the more difficult to take appropriate action.


I do not imagine Catholic prelates who have given their lives to our church see themselves as violent abusers. Similarly, I do not imagine that Lynch believes he is in any way an enabler of abuse.


But like other bishops he appears locked in, a prisoner of the system. It is a system currently characterized by male exclusiveness, dictatorial conduct and demeaning actions. At the moment it is causing much harm to the wider Catholic community and mission.


This abuse of authority will end only when our Catholic communities, led by caring bishops, stand up against it, and speak out on behalf of procedures and conduct more characteristic of Christian communities.


Until then, abusive authority will remain like an unwanted cancer, depleting life from the Body of Christ.


[Thomas C. Fox is NCR publisher. His email address is]


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From Oregon to Ohio, a swell of support for Catholic sisters


By Sharon Abercrombie


National Catholic Reporter

May 3, 2012



St. Andrew parishioners in Portland, Ore., are making no secret about it: They love the sisters.


They demonstrated their support during a parish liturgy April 22, when Fr. Leo Remington, the celebrant, opened the prayers of the faithful with the following: "For women religious in the U.S. and throughout the world, in thanksgiving for their service to the church and world, may we stand in solidarity with them during these turbulent times, we pray."


If the local sisters in attendance were touched by Remington's recognition at that juncture, they were soon to discover there was more to come. At the end of mass, Remington, a retired priest and parish member, invited women religious to come forward and asked all in the assembly to raise both hands in blessing over them.


His prayer: "As the community of St. Andrew, we are called to serve one another: to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, and to give the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord's year of favor. You and countless women religious who serve and have served the church have modeled this for a broken and fragile world."


Then the message became more specific, targeting the unfolding crisis of the Vatican crackdown on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the thousands of sisters they represent.


"Now in light of an often misguided and oppressive leadership in the church, we stand in solidarity with you and all women religious in the church. May you continue to 'love tenderly, act justly and walk humbly with God.'" Both prayers were crafted by a parishioner, who asked to remain anonymous.


The resulting applause for the three sisters who came forward -– two Holy Names sisters and one Dominican sister -– went on for five minutes, said Jackie Rossini and Sharon Bishop. There were tears and hugs.


"I am so proud to belong to St. Andrew parish," Bishop wrote in an email.

There are eight to 10 sisters who are members of St. Andrew, but their own ministries often take place on weekends, which means they cannot always attend Sunday liturgy.


In terms of the tribute to sisters, April 22 was only the beginning.


This past Sunday, when people walked through the church doors, they were greeted by a picture wall of support. The parish archivist had displayed 40 photographs of sisters who have served St. Andrew during its 102-year history. Pens and felt markers were available to write words of encouragement and, if possible, to identify the ones in older photographs.


Meanwhile, that night, One Spirit - One Call, a women's support organization that reaches out to the entire diocese, threw a potluck birthday party in the parish center to honor St. Catherine of Siena, a woman who spoke truth to papal power in her own day. Postcards of support were on hand to sign and send to sisters whose communities are members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, said Rossini, a founding member and secretary of One Spirit's board. The event drew 95 women and men, "25 more than we expected," Rossini said.


She and other parishioners organized One Spirit two years ago, after an Irish woman, Jennifer Sleeman, asked all women in Ireland to stay home from Mass on Sept. 26, 2010, the week of her 81st birthday, to raise awareness of the unjust and unfair treatment of women in the Catholic church. Sleeman's request had been prompted by the Vatican's decision to include ordination of women in a list of "grave offenses that also names such sins as pedophilia."


Many women at St. Andrew were moved by Sleeman's plea, and the result was One Spirit – One Call. The group's website says the organization "is a response to the Spirit moving in the Catholic Church today. We are women who embrace the vision of a Church that truly honors the gifts of all its members. We are not leaving: We choose to remain in the church, working to see our vision realized."


Their first event, held in September 2010 in downtown Portland, drew more than 600 people from 54 parishes. In July, they sponsored a celebration of Mary of Magdala, the first woman called by Jesus to serve the community, with a liturgy, followed by a "Hunting for Mary" celebration with prayer, music sharing and reflection. It drew 84 people from 24 area parishes.


Similar pockets of progressiveness and push-back to the Vatican move have surfaced elsewhere, as already reported by the National Catholic Reporter this week.


Irene Woodward, a retired philosophy professor at Holy Names University in Oakland, Calif., and a parishioner at Our Lady of Lourdes, said the push-backs are "really exciting."


"The whole world seems to be up in arms over the sisters," she said. "Even my niece, who converted to Judaism, wrote and said that the pope should go back and read the Bible."


On April 27, the guest homilist at Lourdes, a retired diocesan priest, characterized the sisters as "good shepherds" leading the church. He also read from a proposed petition supporting the sisters and said he would bring it this coming Sunday for people to sign.


Postcard writing to bishops and a scheduled movie spotlighting the sisters' work are on the minds of the Emmaus Faith Community, an intentional eucharistic group that meets at St. Patrick's Episcopal Church in Kenwood, Calif., near Santa Rosa.


Cindy Vrooman, a former sister and retired teacher, is the group's co-founder. She said Emmaus will sponsor a showing of "Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America," a documentary produced by the LCWR, at 7 p.m. May 11 at St. Patrick's Church. Vrooman asks people to bring their favorite stories of sisters who influenced them. She said, "I was a Catholic nun for 15 years and they will remain my heroes."


Vrooman said there will be holy cards on hand describing ways to support the sisters and bumper stickers proclaiming, "Catholic sisters are our heroes." Postcards designed by Catholics United will be available to send to all the bishops in California.


The Emmaus community has a worship community of 35 regular members with a mailing list of 100.


"We are an older church congregation, but we do not mind," Vroonan said. "We just pray, support each other and do good works." She said they have donated to 41 different organizations over the years.


Emmaus is made up of members who welcomed the ecumenical council in the 1960s for its hope and promise.


"It was an exciting adventure that was too abruptly abandoned," Vroonan said. "Now our church is moving to the right, to a more patriarchal structure, excluding many from governance positions, from the priesthood, and even from the communion line. Before the election of Pope Benedict XVI we felt like aliens in our own pews. After the election, we became pilgrims."


Another pilgrim group, Simply Catholic in Columbus, Ohio, will meet Sunday to discuss coming up with donations for the LCWR.


"They may need to hire canon lawyers or even civil lawyers through this process," said Marie Sweeney, a former sister who founded the group six years ago.


She suggested that "those of us who (also) worship in institutional settings might consider placing a note in the collection basket, simply stating that we are directing contributions to LCWR as a matter of justice."


Sweeney said it is important to remember that the LCWR represents "'sisters,' ministerial congregations, not 'nuns,'" who are cloistered. Misidentifying these sisters is a part of Rome's problem, she said.


The leader of Simply Catholic said she has been pulled to commitment amidst "this sacred chaos, because LCWR actually leads with authority. These women do the work of justice, know the women who have experienced or consider abortions, deal with budgets and car maintenance, like normal folks. When they speak with the authority of their own lives and their lived experience of Vatican II's spirit, Americans listen."


The bottom line, Sweeney said, is the specter of bishops and Rome floundering "because they have lost integrity and thus, authority. The only thing they have left is power. Certainly, they are threatened by women who gracefully lead, and lead with real authority, thus making the male institutions look small and petty by comparison."


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