by Ann Carey
The annual assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), held in St. Louis August 7-10, got a lot of attention because it was the first time the members of the organization had gathered since the Vatican mandated reform of the group.
In April, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had issued the results of a four-year doctrinal assessment of the LCWR, citing “serious theological, even doctrinal errors” in assembly addresses; “policies of corporate dissent;” and “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith in some of the programs and presentations.”
The Vatican appointed Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle to oversee the reform, with the assistance of Bishops Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, a civil and canon lawyer; and Leonard Blair of Toledo, a member of the US Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, who had conducted the assessment.
LCWR leaders had responded in late May that the national board found the assessment to be “based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency.” Thus, many people expected fireworks at the assembly, so secular media came from far and wide to cover the meeting and the August 10 press conference that was to announce the sisters’ decision about whether they would cooperate with the reform, or would continue their agenda as a non-canonical organization.
At the end, the outgoing LCWR president, Sister Pat Farrell, announced simply that the assembly had instructed LCWR officers to continue the “conversation” with Archbishop Sartain for “as long as possible,” but the officers would “reconsider if LCWR is forced to compromise the integrity of its mission.” So the expected fireworks did not ignite, though the assembly itself offered many insights into the LCWR. Below is my experience of covering the assembly for the National Catholic Register. It is in the present tense, as I wrote the blog at the end of each day.
A late Amtrak train kept me away from the opening of the LCWR assembly, but I am told that Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis gave a warm welcome to the 900 sisters who are at the event. Archbishop Carlson said he realized the importance of the meeting for the LCWR, and prayed that the LCWR dialogue with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) would not be politicized, but rather “worked out within a community of faith.”
That question about how LCWR members will respond to the reform of their organization mandated by the CDF is on the minds of everybody here, but that burning issue is the “elephant in the room” that we all know about, but nobody is supposed to talk about.
We media folks were specifically told not to approach any LCWR members about the decision, and the members have been told more than once not to discuss the topic with the media. The members were even warned this afternoon before the first executive session about the need for confidentiality. The LCWR’s president, Franciscan Sister Pat Farrell, told the assembly that the LCWR style was “transparent,” but since this was a “critical moment” for the organization, confidentiality was necessary:
If in your own conscience you cannot understand or perceive confidentiality as anything other than total transparency, we ask you to think about not coming to the executive sessions, not in the interest of ever excluding anyone, but in creating the kind of environment we need to really discern with each other in freedom and openness.
In the first open session, the featured speaker, futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard, was led through the assembly hall at the Millennium Hotel by several sisters who were waving orange scarves draped over their arms. Once on the stage, the sisters moved in a circle around Hubbard as they raised and lowered the scarves and the assembly was asked to extend their hands in blessing while singing “Spirit of vision, Spirit of life! Spirit of courage, be with her now! Wisdom and Truth be on her lips!
Hubbard is an engaging speaker, and she knew how to connect with her audience, though the futurist terminology she used left this journalist reaching for a dictionary to look up “noosphere,” “cosmogenesis,” “synergistic convergence,” and “Christification.” Hubbard believes that we are at a critical time in humanity, a “tipping point” that will lead to either breakdown or evolutionary breakthrough. She made vague references throughout her talk to the “crisis” the LCWR was facing and encouraged the members by saying that breakthroughs often happen only after chaos or crisis. Furthermore, she proclaimed, the LCWR members were just the kind of people to lead humanity to this breakthrough because of their “evolutionary capacities” that had guided the organization over the past 40 years.
“So my conclusion is that you are the best seedbed I know for evolving the Church and the world in the 21st century,” Hubbard said. “Almost all structures are top-down,” she continued, giving the examples of nations, states, organized religions, and corporations. “So what is needed today,” she continued, “is a radical reform of existing institutions from their top-down version.”
I might be wrong, but I believe she was talking about that elephant in the room, and if so, I have to think that is not what Jesus had in mind when He said “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my Church.”
On the second day of the assembly the “elephant in the room” the Vatican mandate for reform of the LCWR was recognized just a bit more. The most dramatic incident occurred in a question-answer period after a panel discussion on the future of religious life. A sister asked the three panelists “If you were in our shoes, what would you do?”
When panelist Tom Fox responded bluntly, “Just say ‘no,’” audible groans could be heard from some of the 900 sisters. Fox, who is the publisher of the National Catholic Reporter, seemed to be taken aback by this reaction, and he scrambled to recover.
“What I mean by that is that you are who you are, and you can’t say anything other than ‘yes’ to who you are. You cannot,” Fox said. “So how that ‘yes’ is made, or how you say ‘no’ to abuse and misunderstanding and misrepresentation is something left to determine.”
Fox and another panelist, Jamie Manson, who writes the column “Grace on the Margins” for the National Catholic Reporter, both made it very clear in their presentations that they expect the LCWR sisters to lead reform of the Catholic Church. “It is very, very important for you to know that you are the most prayerful, most experienced, most professional, most loved, and most creative women to sit under one roof at any time in history,” Fox said in his presentation. “And you must understand the obligations and responsibilities that that entails … You are speaking for the future, and you are speaking to give us hope.”
Manson said that young people want to be “tied to the Catholic tradition, but not in the way the Vatican would have us: You know, in extreme orthodoxy and obedience.” So, if the sisters “give in” by accepting the reform, “only the most radically orthodox of young adults would be interested” in such a Church, she said.
The assembly’s keynote speaker, Barbara Marx Hubbard, struck the same note responding to the panel. She told the sisters she could see a “synergistic democracy being born in your midst.” Though she espouses no particular religion, she told the assembly: “I really see you as pilgrims, as pioneers, as the future of humanity evolving our Church and our world into more than it has ever been before.”
The three sisters who presented in a press conference themed “Contemplation and Dialogue: Means of Moving into the Future” sent mixed signals about how the LCWR might decide. When asked to react to Cardinal William Levada’s comment that the years-long dialogues with LCWR about doctrinal concerns had been like having a “dialogue with the deaf,” Dominican Sister Donna Markham, a psychologist, said that one must be careful about such rhetoric, for it tends to “rupture” conversations.
The sisters were asked about how the LCWR members had dealt with the “hurt and pain” of the doctrinal assessment. Sister Donna said she felt “extremely hurt” and “betrayed by my church.” She said it took “everything” to go to Mass the following Sunday, but she went with the other sisters in her community. It was Good Shepherd Sunday, she recalled, and the priest paused in his homily to say that some of the best examples of the Good Shepherd were the sisters. The congregation stood up and clapped, she related, and it was the strength of the laity that made it possible for the sisters to walk through the crisis.
Another reporter wanted to know how the LCWR was dealing with the fact that the bishops have said that the LCWR is asking for dialogue on issues of doctrine that are not up for dialogue. Sister Donna replied that the LCWR needs to figure out how to work with the bishops charged with the mandate to see how they will get through the process together.
“The thing I don’t think we ought to be risking is further splitting our Church and getting into more and more fragmentation.… We have to figure out how are we going to get through this together in a way that is respectful of the integrity of both parties.”
Day three of the LCWR assembly brought high expectations, as most people thought we would hear how the membership had decided to respond to the doctrinal assessment issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The LCWR leaders had been sending mixed messages about which way they were leaning all week. By this morning, however, we media folks had concluded that there probably would be no dramatic announcement at this afternoon’s press conference. We were right.
LCWR president Sister Pat Farrell read a prepared statement to the press conference that stated the sisters’ “expectation is that open and honest dialogue may lead not only to increasing understanding between the Church leadership and women religious, but also to creating more possibilities for the laity and, particularly for women, to have a voice in the Church.”
The LCWR statement also reported that the members wanted to maintain the LCWR official role in the Church and, “While acknowledging deep disappointments with the CDF report, the members proclaimed their intention to use this opportunity to explain to Church leaders LCWR’s mission values, and operating principles.”
I asked Sister Pat if the LCWR expected dialogue with Archbishop Sartain would be different than the several years of dialogue the sisters had with the CDF already. Sister Pat said that the LCWR had not yet had substantial dialogue with Archbishop Sartain, and they would not begin by talking about doctrine. Rather, they would start by talking about the nature of dialogue, and about their own lives and their understanding of religious life, and how the CDF document is “a misrepresentation of that.”
One reporter asked Sister Pat what the LCWR wanted out of the process. She said, “What we want is to finally at some end stage of the process to be recognized and understood as equals in the Church, that our form of religious life can be respected and affirmed. Really we do want to come to the point of having an environment not just for us, but for the entire Catholic Church, of the ability to … search for truth together, to talk about issues that are very complicated.”
Sister Pat also was asked to share her perception of the bishops and if they were being fair. She said that “There is a power differential between the bishops and ourselves, and there is not right now a climate of openness and dialogue in general in the Church,” but the LCWR hoped to contribute to moving the Church in that direction.
In her presidential address earlier in the day, Sister Pat had said that she thought a “prophetic response” to the doctrinal assessment would be: “humble, but not submissive; rooted in a solid sense of ourselves, but not self-righteous; truthful, but gentle and absolutely fearless.” Further, she said,
It would ask probing questions. Are we being invited to some appropriate pruning, and would we open to it? Is this doctrinal assessment process an expression of concern or an attempt to control? Concern is based in love and invites unity. Control through fear and intimidation would be an abuse of power. Does the institutional legitimacy of canonical recognition empower us to live prophetically? Does it allow us the freedom to question with informed consciences? Does it really welcome feedback in a Church that claims to honor the sensus fidelium, the sense of the faithful?
She said that there had been an “immense groundswell of support” from men religious and from laity. “Clearly they share our concern at the intolerance of dissent even from those with informed consciences, the continued curtailing of the role of women.”
Archbishop Sartain met with the national board of the LCWR for two hours on August 11, and then the board met for two more days. However, there was no indication that any more announcements were imminent.
What strikes me as a veteran journalist who has covered dozens of such meetings is just how different this assembly was from that of other Catholic entities. There were no informational sessions on topics relevant to the Catholic faith. Mass was celebrated every day and was well attended, but that was the only Catholic worship event on the schedule.
The prayer service at 9:00 each morning had been composed for the assembly. Its content was not worship or praise, but seemed intended to motivate sisters to let go of their opinions and judgments. The prayer services included “table sharing,” meditations on discerning truth, a ritual with a wine glass, and generic songs like “Invoking Spirit.” These prayer services demonstrated why the CDF mandate included the requirement that the Liturgy of the Hours should have a “place of priority in LCWR events and programs.”
On Wednesday and Thursday of the assembly, the LCWR provided for the media what were billed as “press conferences,” but really were informational sessions on specific topics: “Contemporary Religious Life,” “Contemplation and Dialogue,” and on the LCWR’s history and vision for the future. Each day three sisters who were either present or past LCWR leaders or consultants gave a brief presentation and then fielded questions that were supposed to focus only on the topic of the day.
We media were frustrated that we couldn’t pry any information out of the sisters about how the decision process was progressing, even by creatively framing our questions. But I did gain some insights into the philosophy of the LCWR and how its members perceive their role in the Church and the world in these sessions.
Dominican Sister Rebecca Ann Gemma explained that Religious Catholic women are being asked to help set the context in which all people can speak for themselves. In our traditions we have been more the mediators between the clergy and the Body of Christ. What we recognize now is that true sense we are all united. And so how then can we enable others to speak with their own voice of where God is in their lives, how God speaks to them, how the spirit moves them in their day-to-day choices?
Sister Rebecca Ann told us that when she attended the LCWR board meeting in May, members were shown thousands of letters of support from all over the world. She said that those affirmations were wonderful, but most “amazing” was “the solidarity” that the letter writers understood “a tension that came in recognizing the voice of God within themselves and within their life context and how that is put next to regulations, policy, worldviews that may not necessarily speak to them in that context.”
Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Sandra Schneiders, a theologian and frequent consultant for LCWR who received the LCWR’s outstanding leadership award at this assembly, was asked in the media session on modern consecrated life if the LCWR has a conflict with the Vatican over some Catholic doctrine. She replied:
If you look at the whole Church, if you look for example at statistics of what Catholics hold, you will find that LCWR is not a whole lot different from what Catholics in general hold. Are there conflicts within the Church between some people in authority and most of the Church? Yes. I think that’s pretty clear; you can’t deny that. But it’s not that LCWR is on a bandwagon to do something; we’re probably much more in touch with the people of the Church simply because of where we live and where we work.
I had the very real sense that some sisters feel that the Church can address problems in the modern world only by reconsidering some of its doctrine. Thus, I developed a better understanding of the Vatican’s concern that the LCWR seems to want to negotiate doctrine. Attending the LCWR assembly also made clear to me that the LCWR sisters and the Vatican have a divergent ecclesiology and even a different language. One gets the sense that many LCWR sisters feel that the “marginalized people” they serve find it too difficult to adhere to certain Church doctrines because of the difficult situations in which they find themselves.
So, the gulf between the two parties is wide, and they both need our prayers that God will be with them as this process continues to unfold.
I like to think of the beautiful image of the Holy Spirit evoked by the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: “ … the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
Ann Carey, a veteran Catholic journalist, is working on an updated edition of her book Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities, to be published by Ignatius Press. She and her husband live in Indiana and are the parents of three and the grandparents of ten. The contents of this article originally appeared as a guest blog for National Catholic Register August 8-11 (ncregister.com). This version is published in Voices with permission.
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