.- The national board of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is arguing that the Vatican’s recent assessment of the organization was “based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency.”
Board members also said in a June 1 statement that “the sanctions imposed were disproportionate to the concerns raised” and might compromise the sisters’ “ability to fulfill their mission.”
The statement came after the LCWR’s board members held a special May 29-31 meeting in Washington, D.C. in order to review and plan a response to a report issued several weeks ago by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
On April 18, the Congregation revealed the findings of its multi-year doctrinal assessment of the women's conference, which noted “serious doctrinal problems” and significant need for reform.
The assessment document raised concerns over “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith” that were prevalent in some presentations sponsored by the conference.
One such address discussed religious sisters “moving beyond the Church” and beyond Jesus.
These positions risk distorting Church teaching and constitute “a rejection of faith” and a “serious source of scandal,” the report said.
It also pointed to a lack of adequate doctrinal formation offered by the group, as well as letters from LCWR officers suggesting “corporate dissent” from Church teaching on topics such as the sacramental male priesthood and homosexuality.
In addition, while the organization strongly promotes social justice issues, it largely ignores the topics of life, marriage and sexuality, which have played a significant role in recent public debates over abortion, euthanasia and “gay marriage,” it said.
To lead renewal efforts, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle has been mandated to work with LCWR leadership for up to five years.
He will be aided by an advisory group of clergy, experts and women religious, along with Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield and Bishop Leonard P. Blair of Toledo, Ohio, who was responsible for conducting the assessment of the LCWR.
Archbishop Sartain will work with the conference to revise its statues and review its links with affiliated organizations. He will also help create a new formation program offering a deeper understanding of Church teaching and will be responsible for approving future speakers and presentations at the organization’s assemblies.
Furthermore, the archbishop will review the application of liturgical norms and texts, offering guidance to help ensure that the Eucharist and Liturgy of the Hours are given proper priority in LCWR events.
In its June 1 statement, the LCWR’s national board criticized “both the content of the doctrinal assessment and the process by which it was prepared.”
The board members charged that the Vatican’s report on the organization has “caused scandal and pain throughout the church community, and created greater polarization.”
The LCWR announced that its president and executive director will travel to Rome on June 12 to discuss their concerns with Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Archbishop Sartain.
After that meeting, the organization’s members will gather in regional meetings and at an August assembly to develop a response to the Vatican’s report.
With some 1,500 members, the LCWR members make up about three percent of the 57,000 women religious in the United States. However, the group says it represents 80 percent of American sisters since its members are leaders of their respective religious communities. The average age for members is 74.
The group had initially said that it was “stunned” by the assessment.
However, Ann Carey, author of the 1997 book “Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities,” said that problems have existed between the LCWR and the Vatican since the group revised its statutes 40 years ago.
Carey told CNA that members of the LCWR have shown a clear intent to change “the nature of religious life” and abandon some of its essential elements, such as communal life and prayer, a corporate apostolate and distinctive religious garb.
She explained that the drastic changes led some women to leave the organization and form an alternative group, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, which adheres to the traditional elements of religious life and is attracting the bulk of young vocations today.
Archbishop Sartain spoke about his upcoming assignment with CNA on April 23.
He recognized the “great, great gift” of women religious and said that he hopes to “work in a positive way” that demonstrates “our continued love and support for their extraordinary contribution.”
The archbishop stressed that the role of women religious in the U.S. “has been important from the very beginning.”
“I think it is such a wonderful witness to the world and something I have had the benefit of seeing throughout my whole life and the four dioceses that I have served,” he said.