Going forward: LCWR after the 'doctrinal assessment'

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The whole sad Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “doctrinal assessment” and oversight “mandate” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is history. Alleluia!

We should all feel a sense of relief. There’s been reconciliation and this follows months of difficult and, as best we know, honest dialogue between the LCWR leadership and Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain. From what’s been made public, it appears there’s been some form of a meeting of minds, and, no doubt, this represents further evidence that Pope Francis is changing the overriding spirit and even, perhaps, the course of the church. Again, this is good news.

The end of the mandate, a Vatican release says, came in a meeting Thursday morning among LCWR officers, Sartain and officials of the Vatican's doctrinal congregation. Sartain and the LCWR officers presented a joint report on the implementation of the CDF mandate, which the doctrinal congregation approved during LCWR’s annual spring visit to Rome.

Afterward, LCWR leaders had their first meeting with Pope Francis. The group’s subsequent statement applauded the meeting, saying the opportunity “allowed us to personally thank Pope Francis for providing leadership and a vision that has captivated our hearts and emboldened us as in our own mission and service to the church."

“We were also deeply heartened by Pope Francis' expression of appreciation for the witness given by Catholic sisters through our lives and ministry,” the sisters said, “and will bring that message back to our members.”

If all of this is upbeat, the other side of the coin is that it’s been six years, one month, three weeks and six days since Feb. 20, 2009. That was the day Cardinal William Joseph Levada, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formally initiated the “doctrinal assessment.” Notice of that LCWR investigation took two weeks and four days, until March 10, 2009, to reach LCWR leadership, an inauspicious lapse that quickly came to characterize the separation between the prelates and the women, a gulf dating back to at least 2001, as well as the largely inoperative process that was to follow.

For the record: The CDF’s surprise 2009 announcement letter cited unresolved issues with LCWR, dating back to 2001, on questions dealing with LCWR statements on women's ordination and homosexuality. Forget the fact that the LCWR leadership had met with Vatican officials every year between 2001 and 2009 and had never been informed they had been lacking in any way in responding to Vatican doctrinal concerns. Among the women religious from the start, there was widespread concern the deeper hidden issues at play dealt with authority and obedience.

Frankly, to many observers, it appeared the women were guilty for thinking out loud, in their publications and at their general assemblies, for probing theological issues current in virtually all regions of the contemporary church.

As part of the eventual CDF doctrinal findings, the Vatican appointed Sartain in April 2012 to oversee LCWR, giving him sweeping powers to guide the organization in the revision of its statutes, programs, assemblies and publications. The mandate went into liturgical matters as well, requiring LCWR in its activities to focus more on Eucharistic celebrations and Liturgies of the Hours. It appeared to outsiders CDF wanted to remake LCWR assemblies, often aimed at stimulating ideas and responding to congregational challenges, into mini-monastic spiritual retreats.

The oversight program was set to run a minimum of five years. Two years of periodic discussions followed between the women and Sartain, with both parties maintaining public silence. Then, at the LCWR leaders’ annual meeting with CDF officials in 2014, prefect Cardinal Gerhard Müller lambasted them for dragging their feet on mandated reforms and ordered them to begin having Sartain approve speakers at the group's events.

Müller was especially angered by LCWR's choice of St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson to receive its Outstanding Leadership Award. The U.S. bishops' Committee on Doctrine had said her 2007 book, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, was not in accordance with Catholic teaching. Johnson is an esteemed U.S. theologian and a recipient of 14 honorary degrees.

The most successful negotiated settlement is one in which both sides can walk away feeling their integrity is intact, escaping the table being able to tout their gains to their constituents. This appears to be the case with the joint Sartain/LCWR report, accepted by the CDF, marking the conclusion of the assessment. Müller, LCWR President Sr. Sharon Holland and Sartain made positive statements.

On the surface, all the points of the CDF mandate have been dealt with. And LCWR has engaged enough to end the process. That the assessment and mandate process is finally over at seemingly little cost, excluding a history of exhaustion, appears to be LCWR’s greatest gain today.

Here’s a look at the key provisions of the CDF mandate and the final joint report:

Statute revision
LCWR has enacted a revision stressing that it sees itself carrying out its work “to develop the life and mission of women religious” while “centered on Jesus Christ and faithful to the teachings of the Church.” This statute revision was overwhelmingly approved at the 2014 LCWR national assembly and accepted by the CDF. Few would argue that being centered on Jesus Christ and his teachings was not the purpose of LCWR all along.  

Conference publications and programs oversight
The mandate called for a review of LCWR publications to ensure that its mission would be fulfilled in accord with Church teaching.

The agreement states that “because of the vital link between spirituality and theology, and in order to inspire, help evaluate experience as women religious, and challenge to growth, publications need a sound doctrinal foundation. To this end, 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. This exercise of theological responsibility is for the sake of both Conference Members and other readers. At the same time, it serves to protect the credibility of the Conference itself as a long-standing canonical entity of the Church. In addition, a publications Advisory Committee exists and manuscripts will be reviewed by competent theologians, as a means of safeguarding the theological integrity of the Conference.”

There is no indication here that anyone outside of LCWR-appointed theologians will be reviewing content. It would be surprising if this were ever to be the case.

Review of assembly speakers
The mandate addressed care in the selection of programs and speakers at general assemblies and other LCWR-sponsored events. The agreement reads: “The choice of topics and speakers appropriate to the Conference’s mission and service in a prayerful, thoughtful and discerning manner. As with written publications, LCWR expects speakers and presenters to speak with integrity and to further the aims and purposes of the Conference, which unfold within the wider context of the Church’s faith and mission. When a topic explicitly addresses matters of faith, speakers are expected to employ the ecclesial language of faith. When exploring contemporary issues, particularly those which, while not explicitly theological nevertheless touch upon faith and morals, LCWR expects speakers and presenters to have due regard for the Church’s faith and to pose questions for further reflection in a manner that suggests how faith might shed light on such issues. As with publications, this kind of professional integrity will serve the members well.”

LCWR, it appears, is ready to agree to some form of review in its selection of speakers and programs. This explicit apparently self-imposed internal review, no doubt, involves elements of trust and some mutual grounds of understanding as to what solid theology is all about. Arguably these common grounds would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, to establish in a pre-Francis environment. It seems that Pope Francis directly or indirectly changed the parameters of the LCWR investigation and the women’s involvement within it.

Outstanding leadership award
Finally, the agreement states that “a revised process for the selection of the Outstanding Leadership Award recipient has been articulated.” There is no explanation as to what this process involves. Like the agreement as a whole, this element, it appears, needs further ferretting out before the parameters of the agreement are fully understood.


And so, for the moment it looks like the agreement has enough air and wiggle room for both the CDF and LCWR to claim to hold to their integrity. Yet obvious questions remain.

It’s particularly troubling that the CDF has asked the LCWR leadership and its own officials to not publicly discuss the agreement for a period of one month. Why the blackout? It gives the leadership time to communicate with its membership, but given the silence and vacuum, it also prompts speculation, some of which could be intentionally harmful to the group or to the agreement itself.

Openness and honesty is a sign of health, spirit and self-confidence. Battered as the women have been through this whole unjust doctrinal orthodoxy hunt, it is understandable some of the former LCWR confidence, most visible before the assessment began, has been sacrificed along the way.

Our church can only hope and pray that going forward our women religious and their leaders will speak openly and courageously as the church tackles the many issues it faces in the wider world, a fundamental one being the second-class role of women in the church today, an issue highlighted by this sordid chapter in church history.

[Tom Fox is NCR publisher and director of Global Sisters Report. He can be reached at tfox@ncronline.org and on Twitter @NCRTomFox.]