Post-Christian Sisters

The Vatican’s investigation of women religious in the US was a long time coming.

The unprecedented decision by the Vatican to undertake an apostolic visitation to assess the quality of religious life in orders of sisters in the United States came as a big surprise to many people when it was announced in January. That surprise was doubled with the news two months later that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) will be conducting a doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which represents most of the leaders of US women religious.

But people who have been closely watching the deterioration of many of the women’s religious orders in this country were not at all surprised that the Vatican initiated these assessments. Indeed, many sisters themselves have asked and prayed for Vatican attention to the condition of women’s religious communities. Certainly there is concern that the numbers of sisters are plunging and ecclesial properties are being converted to secular use, but even more critical problems are evident: many sisters no longer work in apostolates related to the Church and no longer live or pray in community, and sometimes sisters even openly dissent from Church teaching on matters such as women’s ordination, homosexuality, the centrality of the Eucharist, and the hierarchal nature of the Church.

Likewise, the LCWR has had a stormy relationship with the Vatican for the past 40 years, and the LCWR has been very clear about its determination to “transform” religious life as well as the Church itself.

The Vatican has said very little about the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR by the CDF, but an April 2 letter from the LCWR to its members informing them of the CDF notification was obtained by the National Catholic Reporter. That newspaper reported that the CDF was undertaking the assessment because doctrinal problems that were discussed with LCWR leadership in 2001 still remain.

Specific issues identified were acceptance of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality and women’s ordination, as well as acceptance of the doctrines reiterated in the CDF document Dominus Jesus that Christ is the savior of all humanity and that the fullness of his Church is found in the Catholic Church. The February 20, 2009, Vatican letter also reportedly said that talks given at the LCWR annual assemblies since 2001 were evidence that the doctrinal problems continue to be present.


The doctrinal assessment of the LCWR is said to be unrelated to the apostolic visitation of the women’s orders, but in fact, much of the disorder in women’s communities today can be traced directly to the influence of the LCWR. The leaders of about 90 percent of the women’s religious communities in the US belong to the LCWR, which has a powerful influence on its members and their religious orders through its workshops, publications, and affiliated organizations.

Lora Ann Quinonez and Mary Daniel Turner, two sisters who were executive directors of the LCWR between 1972 and 1986, related in their 1992 tell-all book, The Transformation of American Catholic Sisters, that, “The 30-plus years of the Conference’s existence coincide with a major transitional period in society, church, and religious communities. Whether one celebrates or deplores the fact, it is widely acknowledged that the LCWR has been a force in the transformation process.” 

Thus, the back-to-back occurrence of the two assessments is not just a coincidence, and a look at the record of the LCWR sheds significant light on the Vatican decision to undertake both of these initiatives at this time.

Church-recognized organizations for heads of religious orders began in the early 1950s, when the Vatican encouraged superiors to form national conferences. At that pre-Internet time, the idea was to help superiors exchange information, support each other in building up religious life, and coordinate and cooperate with bishops and the Holy See. Canon law says that the Holy See alone has the power to erect superiors’ conferences and that the conferences are under the “supreme governance” of the Holy See, which must approve their statutes. Members of religious orders do not belong to these conferences or have any voting rights; only those in positions of “leadership” in religious orders belong.

In 1959, the Conference of Major Religious Superiors of Women’s Institutes was canonically established, but within 10 years, varying interpretations of documents issued by the Second Vatican Council encouraged activist sisters to transform the conference from an ecclesial body into an independent organization of like-minded professionals focused on women’s liberation issues.  


In 1970, new by-laws were written by conference leaders and implemented before the membership could vote on them and before the Vatican approved them. These new by-laws drastically altered the nature of the conference by extending membership to entire “leadership teams,” not just the superior of an order. More progressive orders had already adopted team leadership, and thus acquired many more votes than orders maintaining the traditional, canonical model of one major superior. And this paved the way for the 1970 election of officers who were determined to re-make the conference.

Controversy over the direction of the conference, as well as the expansion and implementation of membership criteria not yet approved by the membership, caused an open rift within the LCWR. Some members complained to the leadership that the new version of statutes eliminated the ecclesial character of the organization and replaced it with a sociological and civil character, and they expressed concern about sweeping new powers given to those in charge of the LCWR.

As the leadership prepared for the September 1971 national assembly where a vote on the new statutes would occur, the Vatican asked that “particular consideration” at the assembly be given to Pope Paul VI’s new apostolic exhortation Evangelica Testificatio, which was his reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of renewal in religious orders. That request was ignored, as were concerns of members who thought the assembly program lacked a spiritual dimension. Some members also objected to the theology expressed by scheduled assembly speakers, including Father Richard McBrien and (former) Father Gregory Baum. Some superiors even boycotted the assembly because of these concerns. 

The new statutes were approved at the assembly, which again allowed voting by members admitted under the expanded definition of membership that had not yet been approved by the members or the Vatican. A last-minute amendment changed the name of the organization to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, reportedly because the former name had “militaristic and hierarchic connotations.”

In a pattern that would be repeated over the years, the LCWR leadership neglected to inform its membership immediately about a critical issue: the Vatican was not happy about the new statutes. The LCWR president finally wrote members seven months later to inform them that the officers had been negotiating with the Vatican over their differences but thought it best to keep the matter quiet. The Holy See eventually insisted that the new statutes be amended to include acknowledgment of the authority of the bishops and the Vatican. Only after three years of negotiation did the Vatican agree to the new name, provided that the new title be followed by the sentence: “This title is to be interpreted as: the Conference of Leaders of Congregations of Women Religious of the United States of America.”

In the US bishops’ conference, some bishops suggested that they discontinue their liaison committee with the LCWR because the conference had changed its name, nature, membership, and statutes. One bishop even noted that the superiors’ conference was now defunct because it had dissolved itself and morphed into a different entity, but some sympathetic hierarchy smoothed over the differences. Many more disagreements with the Vatican and the bishops would occur over the years, some of which followed the pattern of a leadership that did not consult its members before taking controversial stands.


The LCWR assembly in 1972 featured a canon lawyer who spoke on “Religious Communities as Providential Gift for the Liberation of Women” and suggested that women bring lawsuits against the Church in both civil and Church courts and stage economic boycotts of parish churches.

At the LCWR 1974 annual assembly, the membership approved a resolution calling for “all ministries in the church [to] be open to women and men as the Spirit calls them.”  Also in 1974, the LCWR published the book Widening the Dialogue, a response to Evangelica Testificatio, the Pope’s exhortation on renewal of religious life. The LCWR book was highly critical of the Pope’s teachings and was used by the LCWR in workshops for sisters.  

When the first Women’s Ordination Conference was being organized in 1975, the LCWR president appointed a sister as liaison to the group planning the event. The Vatican curial office overseeing religious subsequently directed the LCWR to dissociate itself from the ordination conference, but the LCWR officers refused, and the sister went on to become coordinator of the organizing task force for the event.  

At the 1977 assembly, the new LCWR president, Sister Joan Doyle, BVM, related that sisters were moving into “socio-political ministries” in or out of Church institutions, and she called for women’s involvement in decision-making at every level of the Church, as well as “active participation in all aspects of the church’s ministry.” It was during the 1970s that the LCWR board voted to join the National Organization for Women’s boycott of convention sites in states that had not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, and the board obtained NGO status for the LCWR at the United Nations.

The 1978 LCWR publication Patterns in Obedience and Authority reported tensions both within religious congregations and between congregations and the US hierarchy:  “US women religious and bishops often appear to have significantly different awarenesses, interpretations, and acceptance of new insights deriving from recent church teaching and the human sciences. There are differing concepts and expectations of authority, of the structures and processes of decision-making; differing images of religious life; differing ideas of ministry and minister.”

As president of the LCWR in 1979, Sister Theresa Kane, RSM, was selected to represent US women religious in greeting Pope John Paul II on his first visit to this country. Even though the Pope had recently reiterated the Church teaching that ordination is reserved to men, Sister Theresa included in her public greeting a demand for including women in all ministries in the Church. Her action caused a further rift within the LCWR, and even more members quit the conference.

As Pope John Paul II became increasingly concerned about religious life in the US, in 1983 he appointed a commission to evaluate American religious life, and he approved a document of guidelines titled Essential Elements in Church Teaching on Religious Life. It broke no new ground, but simply summarized some key elements of religious life. Nevertheless, the LCWR was very vocal in repudiating the document.

For the 1985 LCWR assembly, Mercy Sister Margaret Farley, RSM, was invited to be a featured speaker. She was one of 40 religious who had signed a 1984 statement published in the New York Times that claimed more than one legitimate Catholic position on abortion, and she had not yet resolved her situation with the Vatican, which had directed the religious signers to recant. The US bishops’ conference and the Vatican asked the LCWR to withdraw the invitation to Sister Margaret, but the leaders refused to do so. Consequently, both Archbishop John Quinn and the apostolic delegate, Archbishop Pio Laghi, also scheduled to speak at the assembly, cancelled their appearances.


The 1988 LCWR publication Claiming Our Truth further revealed the LCWR’s socio/political agenda and highlighted the LCWR concept of religious life, declaring that sisters are “moving from maintaining existing structures to creating alternatives,” are seeking “new patterns of relating to church hierarchy,” including working for “patterns of mutual accountability with structures for responsible dissent,” and laboring for “the ongoing conversion and continual transformation of our society and our church.” This activity, the book states, may often put sisters “in conflict with established centers of power in society and church,” and “fidelity to society and church may, at times, mean loyal dissent.”

This view of religious life was reflected in the five-year goals and objectives of the LCWR for 1989-1994, which included the goal, “To develop structures of solidarity with women in order to work for the liberation of women through the transformation of social and ecclesial structures and relationships.”  

Further transformation was urged in a document developed at the joint LCWR-Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM) assembly in 1989 and published in a brochure titled “Transformative Elements for Religious Life in the Future.” The elements were never voted on by the membership, but the LCWR has continued to encourage their discussion within religious communities. Among the more startling “elements” is one predicting that by 2010, religious communities will be ecumenical and open to married couples and people of different genders and sexual orientation, and vows will be optional.     

In an unprecedented move, in 1992 the Vatican canonically erected an alternate superiors’ conference for US women superiors who were increasingly reluctant to maintain any formal connection with the LCWR. The LCWR was quite unhappy about approval of the new Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, and complained to the Vatican that approving the alternate conference was “contrary to a primary function of leadership—to promote unity and understanding.” (Superiors from about 10 percent of the women’s orders now belong to the alternate conference.)

Speakers at the 1993 LCWR assembly continued to distance women religious from the Church. Sister Mary Ann Donovan, SC, noted that “women find their efforts to live the varying forms of religious life complicated both by the view of women proper to a given society, and by the conservative nature of ecclesiastical law and custom.” Sister Margaret Brennan, IHM, a former LCWR president, said in her address that “Religious are a global movement, not just a religious phenomenon; they have a message and mission from and for the world and not merely an agenda from or for any one church.”


Also in 1993, the national board of the LCWR issued a statement, “Concerning the Rights of Gay and Lesbian Persons.” That statement charged, “Recent Church documents invoke religious principles to justify discrimination against homosexual persons.” This no doubt referred to a 1992 background paper from the CDF intended for bishops but leaked to the press and misinterpreted. Also ongoing at the time was a Vatican-commissioned evaluation of public statements and activities of Father Robert Nugent, SDS, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, SND, co-founders of New Ways Ministry, an outreach to homosexual persons that had been banned in some dioceses because of its flawed philosophies.

After an 11-year study of the work of these two religious, the Vatican in 1999 permanently prohibited them from any further pastoral work involving homosexuals because: “The ambiguities and errors of the approach of Father Nugent and Sister Gramick have caused confusion among the Catholic people and have harmed the community of the Church.” Father Nugent accepted this disciplinary decision, but Sister Jeannine did not, and the LCWR rushed to her defense.  

At the 1999 assembly, where the theme was “Change at the heart of it all,” the LCWR passed a special resolution regarding the Gramick case, complaining about “a pattern in the exercise of ecclesiastical authority experienced as a source of suffering and division by many within the Catholic community.” The LCWR leadership then laid out a one-year plan to engage the bishops and the Vatican on the issue.

LCWR past president Sister Camille D’Arienzo, RSM wrote in the LCWR 2000 annual report that, in speaking to Vatican officials, the LCWR leadership found it necessary to interpret cultural differences in their discussion about Sister Jeannine’s notification. “Homosexuality is often a subject of conversation in the US, but not necessarily in other countries or the Vatican,” she explained. Similarly, “questioning and disagreement are acceptable interactions in our society, but in other settings they may be seen as disloyalty.” And referring to the visit to the Vatican, she further opined: “There are times when we question the significance of supporting a structure that is so foreign to our commitment to right relationships, to our expression of a living faith and to our desire for an inclusive Church.”

The year of lobbying and “dialogue” with the hierarchy about the Vatican’s discipline of Sister Jeannine Gramick culminated in the LCWR August 2000 assembly. In her presidential address, Sister Nancy Sylvester talked about LCWR’s “tension and conflict” with the Vatican, stating, “We believe in the power to change unjust structures and laws. We respect loyal dissent.” She continued that the sisters had been “disappointed, frustrated, angered, and deeply saddened by official responses that seem authoritarian, punitive, disrespectful of our legitimate authority as elected leaders, and disrespectful of our capacity to be moral agents.” She then presented what she called a “casualty list” sustained from dealings with Church officials. That list of injuries included: sisters who had signed the New York Times 1984 abortion statement; the 1995 Vatican letter on the ordination of women; theologians and scholars who had been silenced by the Church; the canonical approval of the alternate superiors’ conference; and the CDF discipline of Sister Jeannine Gramick. In conclusion, Sister Nancy observed: “I do believe that we are at an impasse with the official church that we love,” and she speculated about whether the Vatican would de-legitimize the LCWR.  


The events of the previous few years no doubt set the stage for the CDF to give the LCWR leadership a doctrinal warning in 2001. No public indication was given then that the CDF met with LCWR leaders about doctrinal concerns, but the LCWR leaders’ determination to reform the institutional Church through “loyal dissent” remained very public. In fact, the 2009 CDF notification reportedly indicated that the tenor and doctrinal content of addresses given at LCWR annual assemblies since the 2001 CDF-LCWR meeting were evidence that the doctrinal problems continue. 

In the LCWR 2001 annual report, Sister Mary Mollisson, CSA, LCWR president, reiterated the long-held conference strategy to keep “dialoging” with Church authorities to keep the issues open. She wrote: “In keeping with our desire for right relationships among church officials and members of the Conference, the Presidency continues a dialogue with bishops and Vatican officials. We approach this dialogue with a sense of urgency and with a passion to stay in conversations that will decrease the tension between doctrinal adherence and the pastoral needs of marginalized people. We also continue to express our desire for women to be involved in more decision-making within church structures. The risk of this part of our journey is being misunderstood and being perceived as unfaithful to the Magisterium of the church.” And she characterized Church officials as just not comprehending the sisters’ message: “Understanding of authority, obedience, communal discernment, and the prophetic nature of religious need further conversations.”

The LCWR national board agreed in 2002 to write letters of support to New Ways Ministry and chose as the theme for that year’s assembly “Leadership in Dynamic Tension.” In her presidential address to the assembly, Sister Kathleen Pruitt, CSJP continued the LCWR mantra that the Church needed to be reformed, and that LCWR sisters were the very people to do it: “The challenge to us, how best to speak clearly, to act effectively to bring about necessary change, reform, renewal, and healing within our wounded world, our nation, among ourselves, and particularly in our church.… Call for change or reform of structures, modes, and methods of acting that perpetuate exclusivity, secrecy, lack of honesty and openness, all of which foster inappropriate exercise of power, is tension-filled.” 

A LCWR press release after the 2003 assembly reported that “LCWR president Sister Mary Ann Zollmann, BVM challenged the [LCWR] leaders to maximize the potential to create change that is inherent in religious life. ‘We have uncovered within ourselves the power most necessary for the creation, salvation, and resurrection of our church, our world, and our earth. It is the power of relationship, of our sisterhood with all that is. This power is prophetic; it is the most radical act of dissent.’”

In 2004, the LCWR assembly was held jointly with the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. At that event, Father Michael H. Crosby, OFMCap. spoke on “Religious: A Prophetic Voice in the Midst of a Violent World.” He expanded the definition of violence to include “the sinful, structural, and systemic violence that has come to be canonized in a certain understanding of holiness that is increasingly promoted by the highest clerics and their house prophets in our own church.” And he noted that many of the religious at the assembly consider some of the teachings of the Magisterium to be “unjust, violent, and sinful.” He told the group: “We have not been public enough in our protest of patriarchy,” and he accused the “‘official’ patriarchal” Church of “unjustifiable violence against women, and, I would also say, against gays.”

Also in 2004, the LCWR published An Invitation to Systems Thinking: An Opportunity to Act for Systemic Change, a handbook for religious orders. One of the issues addressed in that booklet is the fact that some sisters, schooled in “a holistic, organic view of the world” and in “process, liberationist, and feminist theologies…believe that the celebration of Eucharist is so bound up with a church structure caught in negative aspects of the Western mind they can no longer participate with a sense of integrity.” The views of these sisters, the booklet advises, must be respected.

At the 2005 assembly, LCWR President Sister Christine Vladimiroff, OSB declared:  “The future of religious life is in our hands to shape for those who will follow us.” Sister Christine showed similar independence from the Church in 2001 when, as prioress of her order, she refused a directive from the Vatican to tell one of her sisters, Sister Joan Chittister, to decline an invitation to give a talk at the Women’s Ordination Worldwide conference in Dublin, Ireland.

The same Sister Joan Chittister, a former president of the LCWR, gave the keynote address at the 2006 LCWR assembly, telling the sisters: “If we proclaim ourselves to be ecclesial women we must ask if what we mean by that is that we will do what the men of the church tell us to do or that we will do what the people of the church need to have us do.” 

The presidential address at that 2006 meeting was given by LCWR president Sister Beatrice Eichten, OSF, who noted: “We religious have shifted from being ‘obedient daughters’ and a religious work force to being adult educated women with a mature identity who believe we have something to say about our church, its teaching and its practice. This shift has strained our relationship with the hierarchical church, where we experience the pain of often being invisible, relegated to third class status, and absent at the table of decision. 

“…We are challenged to keep open the door of dialogue with the hierarchical church, as we continue to ‘claim responsibility for determining [our] own identity and the meaning of religious life.’”

In accepting the LCWR 2007 Outstanding Leadership Award, Sister Joan Chittister again repeated her complaint that “women leaders have been kept out of leadership in church and state for no good reason for far too long.” And she repeated the LCWR goal of transforming religious life:  “…we ourselves are now the new small groups of women leaders who must come from one kind of religious life to begin another kind in a new and different world.”


Perhaps the most startling talk at that 2007 LCWR assembly was the keynote address by Sister Laurie Brink, OP. Sister Laurie said that some religious communities were “sojourning,” and such a group is “no longer ecclesiastical,” having “grown beyond the bounds of institutional religion.… Religious titles, institutional limitations, ecclesiastical authorities no longer fit this congregation, which in most respects is Post-Christian.” And she went on to observe about this kind of community: “Who’s to say that the movement beyond Christ is not, in reality, a movement into the very heart of God?”  

Sister Laurie also predicted a “coming conflagration” for the American Catholic Church because of a hierarchy out of touch with the faithful: “Lay ecclesial ministers are feeling disenfranchised. Catholic theologians are denied academic freedom. Religious and lay women feel scrutinized simply because of their biology. Gays and lesbians desire to participate as fully human, fully sexual Catholics within their parishes.”

A keynote speaker for the joint LCWR-CMSM 2008 assembly was Sister Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, who complained about “patriarchal values that, by any objective measure, relegate women to second-class status governed by male-dominated structures, law, and ritual.” And she went on to compare the Church hierarchy to the prodigal son, saying that Church officials should apologize to dissident members who reject the teachings and authority of the Catholic Church.

In her presidential address at that assembly, LCWR President Sister Mary Whited, CPPS compared the institutional Church to the Old Testament Pharaoh who enslaved the people and led an oppressive regime. And she compared the LCWR to Old Testament midwives, who refused to act on Pharaoh’s orders so that they could bring new life and hope to the people.

The Vatican obviously took note of these public declarations, and the LCWR leadership reportedly received the letter from the CDF notifying them of the doctrinal assessment on March 10, 2009. Yet the LCWR leadership did not inform their members until April 2. In a public statement later in April, the leadership indicated surprise and disappointment with the Vatican decision, and insisted they want to continue to “dialogue.”

However, with sisters openly saying that some religious orders are post-Christian, with some sisters boycotting the Eucharist, and with LCWR leaders insisting that they have a role in determining Church teaching, the marathon dialogue may be reaching the finish line.  


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About Ann Carey 17 Articles
Ann Carey is the author of Sisters in Crisis: Revisited—From Unraveling to Reform and Renewal (Ignatius Press, 2013).