A case study review of LCWR-CDF encounter could benefit whole church

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by Carol Stanton


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The Catholic church has much to learn from the recent encounter between the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which recently concluded an investigation into the sisters’ theology, procedures and program choices. How to learn from such an event, the details of which remain somewhat shrouded, is a challenge.

A case study approach, a teaching and research tool used by many universities, could be helpful. In this case, it would take the form of a post-hoc review available to the public of the step-by-step critical decision-making used by all parties to the encounter. Thinking this way about what we do know of the LCWR encounter leads to many questions — and the answers would be of great benefit for the future for all dimensions of the institutional church.

I attended the 2013 LCWR annual assembly, the first after the doctrinal assessment was announced in 2012, in Orlando, Florida, where a level of fear mixed with anger and some paranoia seemed apparent. Was it the residual anger from the earlier apostolic visitation of non-cloistered sisters in the United States? Was there so much fear around this Vatican intervention that LCWR instructed its members not to discuss any aspect of the investigation with the credentialed reporters present? Was it this fear that prompted them to hire a private security company to guard each door of the hotel ballroom during the closed plenary session with Seattle's Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, the lead Vatican-appointed overseer of the investigation?

Rome had charged Sartain to carry out what many in the U.S. church saw as an unpopular and unfair process. What were his feelings about this responsibility? What was the nature of the concern that led to the joint decision by the archbishop and LCWR not to hold even a press conference to update the mostly sympathetic Catholic press in attendance?

This emotional climate seemed to intensify what was from its inception a secretive process. Why did Vatican officials choose, despite regular meetings, to surprise LCWR leadership when they announced that they had launched an investigation without telling them? Why did LCWR leadership and Sartain feel it was necessary to prolong this culture of secrecy as the conversations proceeded?

There have been other recent examples of this culture of secrecy at work. St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, a Fordham University professor, was surprised by the theological condemnation of her book Quest for the Living God, but she faced it head-on and in the public arena. She wrote and published a step-by-step reply to her accusers, the USCCB doctrinal committee headed by Cardinal Donald Wuerl. She also made public the fact that she had been left out of the conversation about her book and would have been happy to discuss the disputed areas with the committee. By keeping the confrontation in the public eye, both she and the USCCB committee gained a clarity about both the process and the content in question, as well as about how to proceed with future concerns.

Did LCWR and the Vatican jointly agree to opacity when it came to the public? Now that the investigation is officially finished and there is an agreed statement, what were the drawbacks of the secrecy? Could there have been gains by being more public from the beginning?

LCWR chose to be faithful to its well-honed contemplative dialogue process, both within its membership and with Vatican representatives. LCWR maintains that it worked. But what did it look like in action, and why did it work? Did it hit any snags? What kind of resistance was present? How did the two groups work through it — or not? What were the breakthrough moments, and what contributed to them? What did they do well? What would they do differently? What was the power differential? Did it shift? What happened with inner communication? What were the points of common ground? What ended up being the non-negotiables?

The LCWR leadership changed over the course of the investigation. Did the introduction of different leaders with different skills make any difference? What was the role of Sartain and the other two bishop overseers? Who took the lead at the Vatican? What leadership skills came into play as agreement was reached? What was gained and what was lost in the agreement?

Did the fear lift? If so, when and why? If not, what are the lingering fears? How has the experience affected LCWR’s vision for the future? How has the experience affected how Sartain and the Vatican view their role in the church?

LCWR is an organization devoted to supporting the growth in leadership of its member congregations. The sisters’ recent experience is a ready-made case study to help them further hone their contemplative dialogue approach in the interest of ongoing communication with not only the Vatican, but also U.S. bishops.

Imagine the power of a meeting in which all the partners to the encounter, the archbishop and the Vatican included, came together to honestly review the details of what happened with the goal of learning from it. What a gift, and what a model, that would be for the rest of the church!

[Carol Stanton is a former television news anchor and reporter and has served the Diocese of Orlando, Florida, as communications director and director of lay ministry formation.]