Actions by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious at its latest annual assembly suggest that it may be closed to the possibility of reform, one writer on Catholic religious life has said.

"These are educated women, and certainly they have the intellectual ability to understand the doctrinal teachings of the church," Ann Carey told CNA Aug. 19.

"However, the LCWR leaders seem to be so convinced that they have taken the correct path that I think many of them have closed their minds to the possibility that they may have made some mistakes and need to rethink their positions."
"Rather than actually engaging some of the doctrinal issues involved, they tend to bring in speakers who reinforce their own views and even propose unproven theories such as 'conscious evolution' and 'new cosmology'," said Carey, the author of the 1997 book "Sisters in Crisis" and its 2013 edition "Sisters in Crisis Revisited."

Carey suggested that the conference leadership's mindset means it will be "very difficult" to have a dialogue with Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle, who is overseeing the conference's reform after the Vatican found a doctrinal crisis within the canonically-recognized group of U.S. women religious superiors.

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.

Among the assessment's key findings were serious theological and doctrinal errors in presentations at the conference's recent annual assemblies. Some presentations depicted a vision of religious life incompatible with the Catholic faith, or attempted to justify dissent from Church doctrine and showed "scant regard for the role of the Magisterium," the assessment found.

The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith granted Archbishop Sartain a mandate of up to five years to help lead reform efforts by working to review and revise the group's statues, formation materials, presentations, events and links with affiliated organizations.

The LCWR held its 2014 annual assembly in Nashville, Tenn., Aug. 12-16. After the assembly, the conference's 21-member national board met for three days. Their meeting included a one-hour session with Archbishop Sartain.

The national board then issued a statement voicing their "deepest hope to resolve the situation between LCWR and (the) CDF in a way that fully honors our commitment to fulfill the LCWR mission as well as protect the integrity of the organization."

The board members said they wanted to continue in conversation with Archbishop Sartain in order "that new ways may be created within the church for healthy discussion of differences."

"We know that thousands of persons throughout the country and around the world long for places where they can raise questions and explore ideas on matters of faith in an atmosphere of freedom and respect," the statement continued.

Carey said she was not surprised by the board's statement.

"LCWR leaders realize the organization would lose many of its members if its canonical status were revoked, so they don't want that to happen. On the other hand, they do not want to implement the mandate, either. So Plan A seems to be just to keep talking," she said.

However, she observed, this plan may have to change, given new requirements that assembly speakers be approved by the archbishop.

Carey said the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has a responsibility to protect the faith, especially when "a high profile entity" like the religious sisters' leadership conference "expresses doctrinal errors."

"Many ordinary Catholics do not follow news of the LCWR, but most ordinary Catholics do recognize the importance of adhering to the doctrines of the faith if one is to be a practicing Catholic," she said.

At the annual assembly, the LCWR presented the conference's Outstanding Leadership Award to Sister Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., a theologian whom the U.S. bishops have criticized for serious doctrinal errors, including misrepresentations of Church teaching on God.

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith head Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Muller said in an April 2014 speech that the selection of Sr. Johnson for the award would be seen "as a rather open provocation against the Holy See and the doctrinal assessment." The decision "further alienates the LCWR from the bishops as well," he added.

Sr. Johnson used her acceptance speech to strike back at her critics, claiming that the U.S. bishops' assessment of her book misrepresented it. She said Cardinal Muller and his staff appear not to have read her book or her response to the concerns about it.

She contended that both her book and the LCWR were the objects of "institutionalized negativity." She suggested that criticism of the LCWR was the product of several factors, including centuries-old historical tensions between religious orders and the bishops and an alleged "patriarchal structure where authority is exercised in a top-down fashion" which prioritizes "obedience and loyalty to the system."

Carey, however, did not agree. She said Sr. Johnson's remarks "easily could be seen as gratuitous defiance of church authority, particularly in the setting of a canonically-erected conference of women religious."

"I do not think the LCWR helped its cause by giving her that platform," she said.

Carey suggested that the criticisms of Sr. Johnson's book and of the leadership conference are examples not of "institutional negativity" but rather "institutional integrity."

"The U.S. bishops and the CDF are taking seriously their responsibility to safeguard the integrity of Catholic doctrine," she said.

In Carey's view, the LCWR has three options: implement the reform the Holy See requires of it and remain a canonical conference of religious superiors; "go its own way as a professional organization of women who are in leadership positions in religious orders without any canonical status"; or disband.

While Carey hoped the leadership conference would choose reform, she suggested the conference is instead seeking another option that would allow it to go "its own way on doctrinal matters" while keeping canonical status.

"I don't think the CDF will allow that fourth option, however."