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Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious: Initial Ramblings by a Feminist Catholic Reader

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) is an association of the leaders of congregations of Catholic women religious in the United States. Their mission statement succinctly describes their work:

The purpose of the conference shall be to promote a developing understanding and living of religious life by:

  • assisting its members personally and communally to carry out more collaboratively their service of leadership in order to accomplish further the mission of Christ in today’s world.
  • fostering dialogue and collaboration among religious congregations within the church and in the larger society.
  • developing models for initiating and strengthening relationships with groups concerned with the needs of society, thereby maximizing the potential of the conference for effecting change.

On April 18, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an eight-page document explaining the conclusions of their four-year investigation, claiming that the “goal of the doctrinal Assessment” is “the renewal of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.” Further, the Assessment notes that its “overarching concern” is to assist LCWR “in implementing an ecclesiology of communion founded on faith in Jesus Christ and the Church as the essential foundation for its important service.” The implication seems to be that (1) the LCWR is in need of renewal; (2) the LCWR is not in communion with the faith of Jesus Christ and the Church. These are serious claims indeed. But are they accurate?

The Doctrinal Assessment makes many more serious claims, and yet even though the Assessment has been made public, I was not able to find all of the documentary evidence alluded to or cited within the Assessment. Thus, it is difficult at this point to understand all of the claims. For example, the Introduction of the Assessment says that there are “serious doctrinal problems” “characterized by a diminution of the fundamental Christological center and focus of religious consecration which leads, in turn, to a loss of a “constant and lively sense of the Church” among some Religious (2). But the LCWR mission statement commits the LCWR to “further the mission of Christ in today’s world” and to foster dialogue among women religious and their partners in society. It seems that what is at stake are different interpretations of the mission of Christ and the nature of ecclesial communion. This becomes more evident as one reads on.

Three major areas of concern are (1) Addresses at LCWR Assemblies; (2) Policies of Corporate Dissent; and (3) Radical Feminism. With regard to the first, the Assessment explains that Sister Laurie Brink’s 2007 address contains “a rejection of faith” which is a “serious source of scandal” and “incompatible with religious life.” I assume the Assessment is referring to pages 17-19 of Sister Brink’s published address, the section of Sojourning. In this section of her talk, Sister Brink invites the participants to consider a theological worldview that is not exclusivist in its interpretation of Christology. One might describe it as Theo-centric instead of Christo-centric or Ecclesio-centric. Sister Brink writes:

Its search for the Holy may have begun rooted in Jesus as the Christ, but deep reflection, study and prayer have opened it up to the spirit of the Holy in all of creation… The Jesus narrative is not the only or the most important narrative for these women. They still hold up and reverence the values of the Gospel, but they also recognize that these same values are not solely the property of Christianity… Wisdom is found in the traditions of the Church as well as beyond it.

The Assessment explains that Pastors of the Church should see Sister Brink’s plenary as “a cry for help” (2). But to say that Sister Brink’s address contains a rejection of the faith is not convincing. It is not clear from the published address whether Sister Brink’s own worldview aligns with the description quoted above, or if she has described the worldview of scholars of spirituality and theology as part of her invitation to the participants to further examine their own theological worldview. (There are reflection questions throughout the address intended as conversation starters for break-out sessions). Interestingly, in later sections of her plenary address, Sister Brink examines the need for “reconciliation and healing” between women religious and their “ecclesiastical brothers,” affirming that “charity begins at home” (25).  One is left to wonder if the Assessment will in fact be a vehicle for this reconciliation and healing.

A second area of concern is that some sisters have collectively taken “a position not in agreement with the Church’s teaching on human sexuality.” In particular, two issues are noted: the questions of women’s ordination and of a correct pastoral approach to ministry to homosexual persons (2). The third area of concern is “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith in some of the programs and presentations sponsored by the LCWR.” No citation is given for these programs and presentations, and yet the Assessment asserts that they “risk distorting faith in Jesus and his loving Father who sent his Son for the salvation of the world.” It goes on to say that “some commentaries on ‘patriarchy’ distort the way in which Jesus has structured sacramental life in the Church; others even undermine the revealed doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the inspiration of Sacred Scripture” (3). Without access to the content under question it is difficult to assess whether this summary accurately explains the content of the feminist presentations sponsored by the LCWR. I hope that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is not asserting that feminism and Catholicism are incompatible. But without further elaboration on the nature of the “radical feminist themes” found in the problematic programs and presentations, one is left to wonder. As a feminist reading this section, I noted with some concern the claim that “Jesus has structured sacramental life in the Church” as if the historical Jesus set up the institutional church as we know it today in the beginning of his earthly ministry. I find it frustrating that “radical feminism” is flagged as problematic without substantive analysis, citations of documents, or further clarification.

One of the issues at stake here is the long debated question of what “religious submission of intellect and will” means. The Assessment refers to this on page 5, in reference to Inter Insigniores and the decision of some women religious to refuse “to assent” to the teaching. The Assessment says that dissent from magisterial teaching can never be considered “prophetic” since “true prophecy is a grace which accompanies the exercise of the responsibilities of the Christian life and ministries within the Church, regulated and verified by the Church’s faith and teaching office” (5).

The mandate for implementation describes the appointment of an Archbishop Delegate and two Bishops who will review the work of the LCWR. According to the USCCB website:

Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle [is appointed] as its Archbishop Delegate for the initiative.Bishop Leonard Blair and Bishop Thomas John Paprocki also were also named to assist in this effort.

Since some of the problems of the LCWR to date include “the absence of initiatives by the LCWR aimed at promoting the reception of the Church’s teaching” (noting again women’s ordination and homosexuality as two major concerns), these three men are tasked to collaborate with the leaders of LCWR so that the sisters may be led “into a greater appreciation or integration of the truth of the Catholic faith” (6). One can’t help but get the impression that an underlying issue–though not explicitly named in the Assessment–is power and control. Of course the first paragraph alerts the reader to this theme, since a major focus of the quotation from John Paul II is obedience: “A distinctive aspect of ecclesial communion is allegiance of mind and heart to the Magisterium of the Bishops” (1). Are the bishops threatened by the power of women religious? Is it possible that obedience to God would ever be in tension with obedience to male bishops? The Assessment does not seem to acknowledge this as a possibility. But for me, the Assessment raises very fundamental questions about methods of theological inquiry, the nature of the Church, anthropological assumptions at stake, the nature of fidelity, the possibility of dialogue between feminist theologians and bishops, and the heart of the gospel. In other words, what exactly does it mean to be a follower of Christ in today’s world and in today’s Church? Who decides? Whose experiences count? Which methods of theological inquiry are considered legitimate, and why?

The following was posted on the LCWR webpage in response to the Assessment:

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. 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.

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.

Sisters, my prayers are with you tonight and in the coming months.

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3 Comments

  1. THANKS for posting this, Emily! I join you in your prayers. This is alarming for certain.

  2. I am glad to see some other feedback regarding this issue aside from the national newspapers. Personally, I am very troubled by the “reprimanding” of the U.S. sisters by the bishops. I think you pointed out very well that these women are perceived as a threat, but they are merely expressing their right to theological inquiry.

    My heart goes out to them, because the phrase “radical feminist,” in my opinion, is a particularly hurtful thing to say. It conjures of images in my head of jaded women who will no longer associate with men because of sexist issues. However, these nuns are women of God, who see inherent worth in all people. They are married to Christ. They took vows to devote their lives to the Church and its mission. Why would they try to harm that mission?

    Even if they are not entirely correct in their views, I think their experiences DO count.

    These women will be in my prayers!

  3. “It seems that what is at stake are different interpretations of the mission of Christ and the nature of ecclesial communion.”

    I completely agree with this statement. The CDF has provided so little evidence for these accusations that it’s hard not to side with the Sisters who simply seem to be living out the life of Christ in their mission. The Catholic Church has always been full of varied philosophies and ways of worship that showed how diverse and inclusive God’s Church could be. To investigate these women seems to be an attempt to silence and control women religious, especially those that are feminists. This greatly distresses me. The voice and experience of religious women who are also feminist should be a voice the Church would want to hear so that they could better address the concerns of many Catholic women who still feel left out and out of place in their Catholic. Feminism should not be incompatible with Catholicism for the very reason that promotes equality that these women are so desperately craving.

    I can only hope that through dialogue and prayer the LCWR and CDF can find a mutual understanding that will uplift the Church and women religious.

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