LCWR leader: End of Vatican mandate result of growth in understanding

This story appears in the LCWR feature series. View the full series.

by Joshua J. McElwee

News Editor

View Author Profile

The end of the controversial Vatican oversight of the main leadership group of U.S. Catholic sisters was not the result of a particular change in discussions between the women and church prelates but of a three-year growth of "mutual understanding and communion," the leader of the sisters' group has said.

Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sharon Holland, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, also said she hopes the process concluding the oversight builds up the ability of the two groups to discuss future issues with a mentality that both are part of the church's ecclesial communion.

"What I have always wanted was the dialogue, the growth in mutual understanding across cultures and experiences and nationalities, that builds up ecclesial communion," Holland said, outlining what she was looking for in the end of the Vatican oversight of her group.

Defining the term ecclesial communion, the leader said: "It means being able to discuss any differences that occur, having the fundamental notion that we all are a part of the church and we work together in the mission of Christ."

"We can discuss difficulties as they may arise as they do in any organization so that we – to the extent possible – can eliminate the kind of mentality of a 'we/they,'" she continued "But that there's a 'we.' That we work through things."

Holland, who has led LCWR since August, was speaking in a lengthy GSR interview on the end of the Vatican oversight of her group.

That process saw the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issue in 2012 what the sisters called unsubstantiated sharp critiques of their work and life while appointing Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain to oversee a program of revisions for LCWR.

The program came to an end on April 16, when the Vatican released a curt statement saying that the goal of the oversight "has been accomplished." LCWR and the Vatican doctrinal congregation also released a final joint report on the matter that day.

At the announcement of the completion of the oversight in April, LCWR and Vatican officials said they would wait to speak on the issue for 30 days, at the request of the CDF. Marking the end of that period of silence Friday, LCWR leaders issued a statement.

Speaking with GSR, Holland said the three years of Vatican oversight for her group had been a "very grace-filled process."

"It's not a moment in time when something changed," she said. "It's a three-year process that grew and grew in mutual understanding and communion."

The sister leader also said she did not think the Vatican oversight had come to an abrupt end, but that it was the fruit of a "very intensive three years of work and dialogue in coming to the conclusion."

"There was no need to go on," she said. "We had arrived at this point."

Holland, a respected canon lawyer who served as a staff member of the Vatican religious congregation from 1988 to 2009, also clarified that references in the final joint report to new processes for editing LCWR publications and choosing who LCWR grants awards to would be controlled by the sisters' group and not the Vatican.

Stating that LCWR publications "need a sound doctrinal foundation," the report stated that "measures are being taken to promote a scholarly rigor that will ensure theological accuracy and help avoid statements that are ambiguous with regard to Church doctrine or could be read as contrary to it."

"Some of that language is ours," said Holland. "Because we want that quality in our publications, for our members and for many people who read our publication.”

"Our publications are not theological treatises, but we want them to be correct," she said. "And we've been working on that and we will continue to work on that."

Holland also spoke at length in the interview about what she called the "healthy creative tension" between those in religious life and those in governance of the church.

Holland also addressed how she plans to address women religious who are still upset about the process of the Vatican oversight, saying: "The most important thing is to listen to them."

Following is the full interview with Holland, edited only lightly for clarity.

GSR: We're now 30 days from the conclusion of the doctrinal mandate. In the time since that conclusion, what sentiment have you heard most in your discussions with LCWR leaders and members? What has the mood been like?

Holland: We haven't had a great deal of time to talk to each other yet, which is part of the problem of talking with the media. But they were very happy for bringing this to conclusion and very happy for the opportunity to meet with Pope Francis.

You don't feel you've had the time yet to hear sentiments?

I was thinking sentiment was their happiness. Even as we said in the press release, we're very pleased. People are happy with having come to a conclusion of the mandate, having had a good meeting with the CDF. That's essentially what I hear from people, from sisters, from people in general.

They appreciate how the process was carried forth and are pleased that we're at this point of conclusion.

I know that things are still sensitive, but what can you say about how this conclusion came about now? Obviously, it was a five-year mandate. It concluded in three. For some people, that was a bit unexpected. What changed? Who changed? Why did it change?

I have to say that the first time I saw in a paper that this had come to an abrupt or sudden or premature end, I laughed. Because for us it’s been a very intensive three years of work and dialogue in coming to the conclusion. The mandate said that there could be five years, but it didn't say that there would be five years. We were able to come to this conclusion in three years.

There was no need to go on. We had arrived at this point. And it was not mandated that there had to be five years. It was available if needed.

We had remembered the meeting last year with LCWR leaders in Rome, after which there was a statement from Cardinal Müller talking about the mandate. Was there something that happened between that time when Cardinal Müller made that statement and what happened now? Was there something in the conversation that shifted?

Well, that would be difficult to pinpoint. Even the fact that Cardinal Müller's statement was published created a certain difficulty because we had a very good conversation with him after his statement, which is normal. A statement from the prefect is normal curial protocol. The head of the dicastery speaks first, makes a statement.

And then the meeting continued with lengthy conversation, which we found very helpful and positive and cordial. But of course, all that was made public was his statement – so it seemed like it ended there and it didn't. It went on for some length.

And we've had another year of work with the delegates, because our coming to a conclusion is really working through the delegates who were asked on behalf of CDF to work with us.

If you don't mind, I'm going to ask a barometer question. On a scale of 1 to 10, how close was this conclusion to what you might have hoped? How? Why?

No, I really can't. I'm not good at barometers and I didn't have a preconceived vision of how it would end. I'm very happy with where we arrived, but I was in the dialogue for the time we would need and I didn't have preconceived notions of what would happen next.

Is that something that was helpful in this process, to not have preconceived notions but to kind of see where the dialogue or discussion went?

Probably, in terms of specific preconceived notions. What I have always wanted was the dialogue, the growth in mutual understanding across cultures and experiences and nationalities, that builds up ecclesial communion. My vision for an end was very broad, in terms of mutual understanding and communion, but it didn't have specifics attached.

Can you expand on the idea of ecclesial communion? What does that mean to you?

We don't have that long! I suppose it means being able to discuss any differences that occur, having the fundamental notion that we all are a part of the church and we work together in the mission of Christ.

And we can discuss difficulties as they may arise as they do in any organization so that that we – to the extent possible – can eliminate the kind of mentality of a 'we/they.' But that there's a 'we.' That we work through things.

That's, broadly speaking, being in communion. That's deeper than particular issues that have to be worked through.

I'm curious what you think might result from this process with the Vatican, with this mandate, that might affect LCWR in coming years in unexpected but positive ways. I'm also curious, on the other hand, what you're looking ahead seeing that might affect LCWR in ways that you might be concerned about.

Well, I'm not concerned about the future as a result of this. I think we've taken a positive step together, in greater understanding. And the challenge is always to build on that.

You mention the challenge to build on greater understanding. Is there anything that resulted from this that makes that more institutional? In the future will there be ways to build on that understanding? Are there structures that are resulting from this? How does that work going forward?

I don't think it's a question of structures. All of us involved in it have had the experience of being able to enter into constructive dialogue. Others have watched the procedure of conversation, of dialogue, of seeking deeper understanding of one another.

And it's one example saying this is possible, and it's a better way to resolve difficulties than a lot of what we see in our world that's resulting in hatred and war and terrorism, instead of people being able to work things through. It's really complex on the world scene, but we see the constant negative.

So, it's an example of what's possible and probably more possible in the church than in the international world, as such. It's positive and our experience working with the bishop delegates, because mainly we worked with them, was extremely positive.

Archbishop Sartain, in particular, as the lead delegate, was extremely helpful to us in his own ability to listen, ask questions, communicate with us, and with the CDF. It's been a positive experience. It shows a possibility, but it's not a structure. It's a process; it's a way of being.

Is there something in this process that resulted in a new understanding, or a new way of going forward so that this wouldn't happen again?

I don't think you can guarantee that something won't happen again. In these days we read the Acts of the Apostles in the liturgy, and there have been differences since the church began. It's more a question of knowing how to proceed when differences arise, rather than having a guarantee that nothing will arise again.

We've learned more about listening, about asking questions, about a contemplative process that takes time to consider and understand the other person, trying to understand ourselves, and see the implications of certain ways of acting. You can't guarantee, but we've learned tools for dealing with difficulty.

It's not unlike what happened in what they call the first council, when the earliest Christians were coming together to decide what to do as Gentiles came into Christianity.

I wanted to ask about two specifics, and I know that there might be things that you can't talk about. But there a couple of things that caught us, in reading the final joint report.

The one was the mention that LCWR publications "need a sound doctrinal foundation" and that "measures are being taken to promote a scholarly rigor that will ensure theological accuracy and help avoid statements that are ambiguous."

To your understanding, what can you say about what those measures will be? Was there some discussion of what those measures would be to promote that rigor or to provide that theological accuracy?

Actually, some of that language is ours – of desiring the doctrinal and theological rigor and accuracy. Because we want that quality in our publications, for our members and for many people who read our publication.

It's mentioned I believe in the report that there is, and there already was, a publications advisory committee that reviews things. And there is the provision for having theological review by theologians whom we will ask to review things, to make sure that there's not unintentional language or things that could cause theological problems.

Our publications are not theological treatises, but we want them to be correct. And we've been working on that and we will continue to work on that.

Is that review of theological accuracy something that will be undertaken by LCWR, or from the outside?

It's LCWR.

We also noticed the mention for some sort of revised process regarding the selection of the leadership award each year.

Actually, that revision of the process was already underway. Not because there was a problem with the people who were getting awards, but we have hundreds of members all over the United States. We come together once a year in assembly, and there's 7-8-900, and we don't know each other that well.

So we've worked out a process that will have a little more potential of getting information out among the membership for the nominees for this so that we can have a more participative and well-informed process.

It's about the quality of the process and our member's participation. It's not about having chosen bad people.

Again, is that something that was decided or developed by LCWR?

Yes, that's right. LCWR developed the process.

If you don't mind, I wanted to ask more deeply about the interplay of the roles of religious life and church hierarchy. I was reading past LCWR presidents' speeches, and something struck me from what Sr. Pat Farrell said in 2012. She said:

‘There is an inherent existential tension between the complementary roles of hierarchy and religious which is not likely to change. In an ideal ecclesial world, the different roles are held in creative tension, with mutual respect and appreciation, in an environment of open dialogue, for the building up of the whole Church. The doctrinal assessment suggests that we are not currently living in an ideal ecclesial world.’

Do you think that assessment is still right? Are we getting closer to that complementarity between the roles with this resolution?

This is a thing that will always have to be worked on. At the present moment, perhaps we're a little closer because this is fresh in our minds, this experience that ended very positively. But it's a long-standing piece of church history that there are the co-essential elements of hierarchical charism, or grace, and the charismatic element in the church that is not – the gift of the spirit for the founding of religious institutes – a structure.

The hierarchical element in the church is structural. And historically there's lot of ink spilled over the relationship, the working out – sometimes attempting legal solutions, or this that and the other thing.

But I think Pat Farrell's statements are very accurate in terms of this is a part of the church that needs to be lived, where there's tension, in a healthy creative tension. This happens as there's new developments in religious life, new developments in mission, and it's part of who we are as the church. I think Pat's expression of it is very helpful.

Was there any moment in this process when you were taking part where you sensed a resolution or some sort of coming together in this tension? Was there a special moment of grace in the process, where you might have felt the movement of the Spirit?

There were many of them. Some of them were in our assemblies, when it was evident that the Spirit was sustaining us to go forward in the process. There were the moments of our quite intense working together to articulate revisions in the statutes, which really were not huge but you have to go through the process of discussing them.

There were many moments in the work of collaboration with Archbishop Sartain. It really has been a very grace-filled process. It's not a moment in time when something changed. It's a three-year process that grew and grew in mutual understanding and communion.

I wanted to ask in the framework of this tension, or the growth of understanding – I was really struck by what Sr. Elizabeth Johnson said accepting her award last year. She called for a framework of ‘reconciled diversity’ between the different parts of the church.

But she also said that in the current church framework, ‘The CDF investigation appears to be an effort by certain ruling men to control committed, competent women whose corporate religious discernment makes them adult believers of conscience, silent and invisible no longer.’

Was that on target? How does that kind of language rest with you?

I really can't comment on an excerpt from Elizabeth Johnson's talk. She's a theologian; she frames her words carefully. I can't really comment on that. The process that I've been in is what I've explained in terms of growth and development in understanding and communion.

When the LCWR leadership made its first joint response to the announcement of the mandate in June 2012, the LCWR board said: ‘The report has . . . caused scandal and pain throughout the church community, and created greater polarization.’

Has the conclusion of the mandate unfolded in some way that addresses that scandal and pain that LCWR identified three years ago?

I believe what I've described as my experience of the process and the ending of it suggests that we're all at a different place than we were in 2012.

I know that it's still a few months away, but in August you'll have the opportunity to speak to the LCWR membership about this during your assembly with your presidential address. Have you thought about yet what might be a theme or two that you really want to talk to your members about?

To be honest, I haven't been able to give serious thought to that address at this point. I'm waiting for some inspiration to come.

We hear a lot about LCWR's use of collaborative decision-making, that women religious took on the work of Vatican II renewal and make their decisions collaboratively. How does that kind of process fit in with these questions about the different roles of religious and hierarchy?

It's interesting because I'm so aware of our using the language of a contemplative process that I wasn't thinking in terms of the language of collaborative process. I guess they're not too far removed. No one person makes all the decisions.

We've entered into a contemplative stance that allows time to be quiet and pray and think, and then talk together. I'm not sure [of] the reference to collaborative process.

We work very collaboratively among ourselves, in terms of our various structures working through decisions. I guess they're closely related, the collaborative and the contemplative. We work things through together, and in that spirit of a respectful dialogue when it involves others beyond the LCWR itself.

During the release the apostolic visitation, I asked how you would respond to sisters who still felt anger or didn't quite understand what had happened in that process. I wanted to ask that again, but in this context. In 2012, Sr. Farrell put forth the image of the lightning rod. She said:

‘A lightning rod draws the charge to itself, channels and grounds it, providing protection. A lightning rod doesn’t hold onto the destructive energy but allows it to flow into the earth to be transformed.’

How do you think that language applies in that context? How do you address women who still don't understand, or are still angry, or confused, or have a lot of feeling about what happened with the mandate?

I believe the most important thing is to listen to them. Sometimes there are questions or statements that can be clarified because sometimes people have heard or understood something that isn't true.

But when people are hurt and angry, I think the first thing is that they need to be listened to, to try to understand where they're coming from. It's different words for Pat's expression of the lightning rod. It's a little more scary to talk about a lightning rod. The process is the same. You listen and take in and try to understand what's happening.

Is there anything you wanted to say or talk about that we haven't discussed?

Ending on a note of hope, going forward. That's our aim: to go forward.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican Correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]