No real cooperation from women's religious group, author says

Sr Florence Deacon OSF President of the LCWR Credit Lisa Johnston for CNA CNA 8 23 13 Sr. Florence Deacon, OSF, outgoing president of the LCWR. | Lisa Johnston for CNA.

Despite a shift in tone, virtually no progress has been made toward the Vatican's goals for the reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, says an author who has closely followed the group.

Group members "are making an effort to be more conciliatory, at least verbally," said Ann Carey, author of the 1997 book "Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women's Religious Communities" and the newly-released "Sisters in Crisis Revisited: From Unraveling to Reform and Renewal."

But even with this change in tone, Carey told CNA, the conference has not signaled a willingness to work with the Vatican in bringing about renewal and reform.

With some 1,500 members, the LCWR constitutes 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.

In April 2012, the Vatican released the findings of a multi-year doctrinal assessment of the women's conference, which raised concerns of dissent from Church teaching on topics including homosexuality, the sacramental priesthood and the divinity of Christ.

The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith appointed Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle to lead reform efforts within the conference, giving him a mandate of up to five years to help review and revise the group's statues, formation materials, presentations, events and links with affiliated organizations.

The archbishop attended the LCWR's 2013 general assembly, held in Orlando Aug. 13-16. At the beginning of the assembly, he told the sisters that he came not only as a representative of the Pope but also "as your brother and friend."

According to the National Catholic Reporter, he said that he has developed a "wonderful respect" and "friendship" with the leaders of the organization, although one sister who was interviewed said the relationship was not close enough to be considered a friendship.

Archbishop Sartain met with the group for about an hour and a half in a closed door session during the assembly. Participants were asked not to discuss the meeting with members of the press, who were not permitted to be present at the talk.

After the assembly, the LCWR board released a statement saying that the "session with Archbishop Sartain allowed a profound and honest sharing of views," and that the archbishop "had been listening intently and heard the concerns voiced by the members."

Both board members and the archbishop have gained a mutual better understanding of each other, the statement added.

"Although we remain uncertain as to how our work with the bishop delegates will proceed, we maintain hope that continued conversations of this depth will lead to a resolution of this situation that maintains the integrity of LCWR and is healthy for the whole church."

Carey said that from what she has seen, "the Vatican is certainly trying its best to be very pastoral and very understanding in approaching the sisters."

Reports that Archbishop Sartain voiced strong support for the sisters' work with the poor and needy are consistent with the Vatican's approach all along, she added, noting that the doctrinal assessment begins by voicing gratitude for the many contributions of women religious to the Church in the U.S.

At the same time, she said, reports from the assembly gave her the impression that Archbishop Sartain "was not compromising on any doctrinal decisions, but rather trying to be very open and listen to the sisters and get their point of view."

And while the sisters have adopted a more conciliatory tone, she said, they have not publicly indicated that they are willing to move forward with the Vatican's requested reforms.

She noted that outgoing conference president Sr. Florence Deacon spoke in her address about the need to discuss larger questions about "understandings of authority, faithful dissent, and obedience."

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"I got the message from that that they are still pretty much sticking to their position of not cooperating with the reform," Carey said, while adding that they are taking a more "toned-down position with the Vatican, perhaps hoping to continue the dialogue with the apostolic delegates and hoping to avoid any direct reforms being enacted."

She questioned how productive the discussions on doctrine can be as long as the LCWR is insistent upon the idea of "faithful dissent," believing that they can reject Catholic teaching if they have thoroughly examined the issues and disagree with them.

"It seems to me an oxymoron," Carey said. "I don't know how one can be faithful and dissent at the same time."

This hinders the Vatican's goal of "reaching out in a pastoral way to help people who are struggling with some teachings of the Church, to help them learn more about those teachings so that they can accept them," she added.

In his homily during Mass on the feast of the Assumption – which occurred during the assembly – the archbishop highlighted the Blessed Virgin Mary's example of "handing herself over completely to the will of God."

"She's deeply troubled by what the angel says to her and yet she's docile to the command of God, even though she has questions," he observed.

Mary, the archbishop explained, "did not place any obstacles between herself and the grace of God" and shows us how the Lord can work through us when we are surrender ourselves to him.

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Carey categorized the homily as "a very not-so-subtle message to the sisters that they need to be more obedient to Church authority," delivered in "a very pastoral way and certainly in a very Catholic way."

Sr. Deacon also spoke in her talk of "a paradigm shift" and "new understandings of Church." In engaging with the Vatican, she said, there is a need for prayer, listening and honest dialogue in order to help bring about renewal "in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council."

Carey said that the term "spirit of Vatican II" is vague and has been invoked for decades to justify ideas that are not clearly present in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

"And some people have interpreted that 'spirit' to be anything they want it to be," she said, adding that "false interpretations of Vatican II" continue today.

Fortunately, she continued, Pope Benedict XVI talked during his papacy about the need to return to the actual texts from the conference and examine the documents in order to see the proper interpretation of them, shifting away from the "nebulous" idea of the "spirit of Vatican II."

Carey also commented on the assembly's keynote address, saying that while having a Catholic speaker this year is an improvement from the past, the content of the speech reminded her of previous talks, more closely resembling "a new age pantheism" than the teachings of the Catholic faith.

Keynote speaker Sr. Francis Ilia Delio – director of Catholic studies at Georgetown University – spoke in her address about a "rethink" of religion "in terms of cosmology," encouraging the sisters to adopt an "evolutionary spirit" and recognize that there is "no God without cosmos."

"We are on the cusp of an evolutionary breakthrough – one that requires our conscious participation as co-creative agents of love, midwives of the new creation," Sr. Delio said, suggesting that the "awesome" vocation of the sisters is "to give birth to God."

"This universe will have its future based on our decisions," she stated. "When the level of our awareness changes, we start attracting a new reality. Our challenge this day is to begin to name that new reality."

"For too long we have had a sense of Catholic as sameness," she said, encouraging the sisters "to live from a new center of love."

During the assembly, the LCWR also presented the annual Outstanding Leadership Award to Sr. Pat Farrell, OSF, who was head of the organization when the Vatican mandate was first announced.

A statement from the conference said that the award was given to Sr. Farrell "for the service she gave in her more than 20 years ministering to victims of violence and trauma in Latin America, and for her role in leading LCWR."

However, Carey observed that "they normally don't give leadership awards for ministry in poor countries," suggesting that the award may have been given for her work as LCWR president.

"I think it certainly tells us that they were happy with the way she led them last year," she said.

During Sr. Farrell's tenure as president, the LCWR board released a statement saying that it would proceed with discussions with Vatican representatives "as long as possible, but will reconsider if LCWR is forced to compromise the integrity of its mission."

Now, a year and a half after the Vatican mandate was initially released, Carey said that "there have been no indications that any reforms have even yet begun or that the sisters are even open to new reforms beginning."

She noted that even simple requirements in the mandate have not been carried out, such as the removal of a controversial formation handbook on the conference's website until it can be revised.

"I do wonder how long the CDF will continue to be patient when there have been no signs of progress for almost a year and a half now," she added.

Despite the continued challenges surrounding the LCWR, Carey is hopeful about the future of women's religious life in the U.S., which she discusses in the updated version of her book, "Sisters in Crisis Revisited."

She explained that the first version of the book came out in 1997, and a lot has happened in the last 16 years, including the doctrinal assessment and the apostolic visitation of U.S. women religious, each of which is given a chapter in the newest edition of the book.

Carey has also included updates throughout the book to reflect news and developments, as well as explanations of different events that were later referenced by the doctrinal assessment.

In addition, she said, the book ends on a more optimistic note. At the end of the first edition, "religious life for women seemed to be in such a state of disarray," she explained. But the last 16 years have seen the growth of orders – both new and already established – that adhere to a "classic model of religious life," incorporating life and prayer in community, a corporate apostolate and distinctive religious garb.

She pointed to a recent study of new vocations which found that young people are looking for orders that provide opportunities for spiritual growth, fidelity to the Church, and joyful life in community.

"The young people are finding their way to these orders, and I think that's going to be the future of religious life," she said. "So I rewrote the ending chapter to reflect this phenomenon."

Carrey suggested that the numbers of women religious in the U.S. will sharply decline for several years, due to a heavy concentration of sisters over the age of 70.

However, she predicted, the numbers "will eventually stabilize because of these newer vocations coming in to the orders" that live a classic style of religious life, renewed for the 21st century while maintaining a clear religious identity in communion with the Church.

"I think the future of religious life will be once again through this classic model," she said.

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