The CDF and women Religious
A very public rebuke
The Vatican has confronted women Religious of the United States head-on with the demand that their leadership organisation conform and reform. The row, which has caused deep unease about Vatican intervention, exposes major divides in the Church
By publicly announcing the conclusions of one of its two scrutinies of US women Religious, the Vatican kicked a sleeping tiger. The general public reaction to the “Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious” is: are they kidding? Editorials, petitions, even a Twitter campaign chide the Vatican’s perceived attack.
The social-network campaigns and public support for the women Religious indicate both the esteem in which they are held by American Catholics and the influential role they play in Catholic life in the US, working in health care, education and social services, and giving voice to the voiceless. In fact, the doctrinal assessment reinforces the themes of the visitation of US women’s institutes carried out by the Congregation for the Institutes of Sacred Life and focuses on the major leadership organisation, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), and its officials, who were investigated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).
In a tensely worded statement, the CDF criticised the 1,500-member LCWR that represents the majority of the 57,000 US women Religious, charging it to cooperate with three Vatican-appointed assessors or lose its official status as an officially recognised organisation. It has taken four years since CDF prefect Cardinal William Levada first said he was sufficiently concerned about the LCWR for the report to appear, and it’s apparent that the Church’s usual neuralgic issues – feminism, contraception, abortion, homosexuality, women priests, dissent, authority – have all played their part in this rebuke being meted out to the leaders of most of America’s women Religious.
Three areas of concern motivated the assessment: the content of addresses at LCWR annual assemblies, its policies of “corporate dissent”, and what the CDF terms “radical feminism”. Underlying these three general areas were the assumed LCWR stances on homosexuality, women’s ordination as priests, as well as “certain radical feminist themes” and “commentaries on ‘patriarchy’”.
The reforms that the CDF wants include revising LCWR’s statutes; reviewing its plans and programmes; creating new programmes; reviewing and offering guidance on liturgical texts; and reviewing affiliations with other organisations, especially Network, a socialjustice lobby, and the Resource Center for
Sr Simone Campbell, executive director of Network. The Vatican has said it will look at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious’ relationship with Network. Photo: CNS
Religious Institutes, an advisory group on civil and canon law.
According to the Vatican document, the LCWR presidency first learned of an investigation in April 2008. Then nearly a year later in March 2009, the conference received a letter announcing a “doctrinal assessment” to be conducted by Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio. Shortly afterwards, Bishop Blair and the American Mgr Charles Brown of the CDF met conference officers in the US. Among the documents examined was LCWR’s “mentoring leadership manual”– the conference sponsors training sessions for new leaders – along with information about Network and the Resource Center for Religious Institutes.
By January 2011, a meeting of bishopmembers of the CDF and Cardinal William Levada had determined that the “doctrinal and pastoral situation of the LCWR is grave and a matter of serious concern”, especially given the conference’s international influence; that the Holy See should intercede to reform it; and that the CDF should investigate possible canonical interventions.
Among the evidence particularly cited by the CDF document as deeply problematic was an address by the Dominican sister Laurie Brink, made to the LCWR assembly in 2007, in which she suggested that some Religious were “moving beyond the Church” or “even beyond Jesus”. Taken out of context by the CDF, Brink’s comment was “a serious source of scandal”, said the document, a challenge … to core Catholic beliefs … and is incompatible with religious life”. Brink said this option (of four) was “not Catholic Religious Life”.
In March this year, the conference officers learned they would receive the results of the assessment during their annual April trip to the Vatican. When it happened, the three members of the LCWR presidency – Pat Farrell OSF, Florence Deacon OSF and Mary Hughes OP – and LCWR executive director Janet Mock CSJ had five hours’ notice before the US Conference of Catholic Bishops released the report, which names Seattle, Washington, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, with Bishop Thomas J. Paproki (Springfield, Illinois) and Bishop Blair as the Vatican’s representatives to reform the conference.
The Vatican intervention falls well within canon law, as LCWR is one of two approved groups representing women Religious to the Vatican. The other, the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) is a smaller (168-member) and more conservative group representing approximately 8,000 women Religious. A few religious institutes belong both to LCWR, founded at the Vatican’s request in 1956, and CMSWR, approved in 1995. It is not inconceivable that if LCWR does not cooperate, the Vatican could order it to disband or, at the very least, revoke its official status.
The evident tension between the CDF and LCWR reflects the distinctions between the ways in which men and women perform ministry in the Catholic Church. The assessors – male clerics who are not members of religious orders or institutes – are in collision with the women Religious in a very fundamental way. The women are chided in the document as too devoted to social service and not devoted to matters of interest to the CDF – specifically questions regarding women priests, homosexuality and abortion. It notes specifically, for example, “the absence of initiatives” by LCWR members to promote the reception of the Church’s teaching, specifically mentioning John Paul II’s apostolic letter rejecting the ordination of women. But LCWR members see women Religious, like themselves, as answering a different call to ministry from priests and bishops who understand their work as more generally doctrinal.
It can be interpreted as a collision between what the Church says and what the Church does. Apostolic, or active, women Religious, while not clerics, can be seen to continue the
4 | THE TABLET | 28 April 2012