Important background information about the CDF-LCWR situation

Author and journalist Ann Carey, who has for many years researched and covered the situation of women’s religious in the U.S., reacted yesterday to the news of the CDF statement about the LCWR and the response, so far, of the LCWR:

Ann Carey is author of the book Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities, so she’s not remotely surprised by the Vatican’s call for reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

“Some people have speculated that the CDF renewal of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was prompted by the LCWR and Network support of Obamacare in opposition to the bishops,” she observes. “That may have been the last straw, but the CDF move was a long time coming,” she tells me. 

Carey provides the background:

The LCWR has disagreed with the Vatican on major issues since the early 1970s. The renewal model promoted by LCWR was a misinterpretation of the Vatican II mandates, and the Vatican tried to issue guidelines to correct the situation several times over the years, only to be rebuffed by LCWR. The LCWR leadership has been open about its right to “loyal dissent” and its determination to re-make religious life, and has influenced many religious orders to follow its path.

Read the entire piece on National Review Online. Carey has written several pieces for Catholic World Report about the LCWR and related matters. They are helpful in dispelling the dominant media image of sweet, little nuns doing nothing more than helping the poor and fighting the forces of injustice. In one, “In Denial” (May 2011), readers are given a sense of how badly some orders have gone off the rails, failing to observe even the most basic doctrines of orthodox, “mere” Christianity, never mind robust, authentic Catholicism:

For example, a sister whose motherhouse is in New York reports that the elderly in her order are dispersed in secular nursing homes where access to the sacraments is limited. Many sisters say that it is common in their religious orders for sisters chosen by leadership to give a“reflection” in place of the homily. And they say that strange rituals often replace observances of the Church’s liturgical practices.

Sister Elizabeth McDonough, OP wrote in Review for Religious in 1992 what sisters in dozens of communities have told her: “They are repulsed by rituals that center on shells and stones, streams and twigs, windmills and waterfalls, and at which so fundamental a Christian symbol as the cross of Jesus Christ is often noticeable only by its absence.” And it is obvious this trend continues today, as anyone can see by looking at photos on the web pages of a variety of women’s orders, as well as photos from LCWR assemblies that are posted on

Even the doxology prayed in many of the women’s orders has been debased and neutered, with “Father” being replaced with “Source of all being,” and “Son” replaced with “Eternal word.” Liturgical books also have been corrupted, with many women’s orders replacing the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours with an inclusive-language, feminist version of the daily office. And routinely it is made quite clear to priests that they are not welcome to concelebrate at convent liturgies because the sight of multiple priests is upsetting or offensive to sisters who support the ordination of women.

Another essay, “Post-Christian Sisters”, provides helpful background information for those unfamiliar with the contentious history of the LCWR. Carey notes that “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.” And:

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 piece details how the CDF issued a doctrinal warning to the LCWR in 2001 but was continually put off by seemingly endless talk of talking—that is, “dialogue” and “conversation”, also known as “buying time” and “stonewalling” in the real world. And all at the service of continuing to reject Church teaching, ignore legitimate authority, and actively promote dissent:

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.’”

Read the entire piece. Ann Carey is writing a new piece for CWR about the current situation; it will appear on this site very soon.

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About Carl E. Olson 1207 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.