“The Biggest Distortion of All”

Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo responds to distortions about the CDF assessment of the LCWR.

Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo has issued a letter, “Reality check: The LCWR, CDF and the doctrinal assessment” (Catholic Chronicle, June 8, 2012), responding to public “distortions and misrepresentations of the facts” related to the doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Bishop Blair’s letter comes in response to an avalanche of highly critical and often grossly erroneous reports and articles about the assessment that have appeared in the mass media. 

Bishop Blair was appointed by the Vatican in 2008 as the apostolic delegate to conduct the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR for the CDF. This year he was appointed to assist Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle in overseeing the renewal of the LCWR.

“The biggest distortion of all is the claim that the CDF and the bishops are attacking or criticizing the life and work of our Catholic sisters in the United States,” Bishop Blair wrote. He went on to explain that the CDF action concerns only the LCWR, and while LCWR members lead most of the religious sisters in this country, “that does not mean that criticism of the LCWR is aimed at all the member religious communities, much less all sisters.”

The word “investigation” is often used to characterize the CDF assessment, Bishop Blair noted, but he explained that word implies an attempt to uncover unknown matters. In this case, he said, the doctrinal assessment was “an appraisal of materials which are readily available to anyone who cares to read them on the LCWR website and in other LCWR published resources. The assessment was carried out in dialogue with the LCWR leadership, both in writing and face-to-face, over several months.”

Bishop Blair went on to explain that the “fundamental question” posed by the CDF to the LCWR leaders was why the “LCWR constantly provides a one-sided platform—without challenge or any opposing view—to speakers who take a negative and critical position vis-a-vis Church doctrine and discipline and the Church’s teaching office.”

He cited these examples:

  • In the keynote address at the LCWR 1997 annual assembly, Sister Sandra Schneiders, IHM “proposed that the decisive issue for women religious is the issue of faith: ‘It can no longer be taken for granted that the members [of a given congregation] share the same faith.’”
  • In the keynote address at the 2004 joint annual assembly of the LCWR and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, Father Michael Crosby, OFMCap said, “We still have to worship a God that the Vatican says ‘wills that women not be ordained.’ That god is literally ‘unbelievable.’ It is a false god; it cannot be worshipped.”
  • In the keynote address at the LCWR 2007 annual assembly, Sister Laurie Brink, OP spoke about four “directions” religious congregations seemed to be moving, saying “not one of the four is better or worse than the others.” One of those models was “sojourning,” which she said “involves moving beyond the church, even beyond Jesus. A sojourning congregation is no longer ecclesiastical. It has grown beyond the bounds of institutional religion” and “in most respects is Post-Christian.” She also characterized as “courageous” the decision by one group of women religious to “step outside the church.”

Bishop Blair noted that “LCWR speakers also explore themes like global spirituality, the new cosmology, earth-justice and eco-feminism in ways that are frequently ambiguous, dubious or even erroneous with respect to Christian faith. And while the LCWR upholds Catholic social teaching in some areas, it is notably silent when it comes to two of the major moral challenges of our time: the right to life of the unborn, and the God-given meaning of marriage between one man and one woman.”

Also cited in his letter is a publication of the LCWR, the Systems Thinking Handbook, that proposed mental models—the “Western mind” and the “Organic model”—rather than Church doctrine for addressing the objections of some sisters to “priest-led liturgies.”

These examples are “certainly not” indicative of the thinking of all sisters whose communities belong to the LCWR, Bishop Blair emphasized. He asked the rhetorical question: “Is it the role of a pontifically recognized leadership group to criticize and undermine faith in Church teaching by what is said and unsaid, or rather to work to create greater understanding and acceptance of what the Church believes and teaches?”

People who do not hold the teachings of the Catholic Church, or Catholics who dissent from those teachings, have attacked the CDF and the bishops for the conclusions of the assessment, Bishop Blair noted. On the other hand, he continued, “a person who holds the reasonable view that a Catholic is someone who subscribes to the teachings of the Catholic Church will recognize that the Catholic bishops have a legitimate cause for doctrinal concern about the activities of the LCWR, as evidenced by a number of its speakers and some of its resource documents.”

Bishop Blair observed that a key question in whether the process moves forward in a positive way is: “Would the LCWR at least acknowledge the CDF’s doctrinal concerns and be willing to take steps to remedy the situation?” But he noted, “The response thus far is exemplified by the LCWR leadership’s choice of a New Age Futurist [Barbara Marx Hubbard] to address its 2012 assembly, and their decision to give an award this year to Sr. Sandra Schneiders, who has expressed the view that the hierarchical structure of the Church represents an institutionalized form of patriarchal domination that cannot be reconciled with the Gospel.”

Bishop Blair concluded on the positive note that in spite of the controversies, misunderstandings, and misrepresentations, he was confident that “if the serious concerns of the CDF are accurately represented and discussed among all the sisters of our country, there will indeed be an opening to a new and positive relationship between women religious and the Church’s pastors in doctrinal matters, as there already is in so many other areas where mutual respect and cooperation abound.”

The LCWR national board met May 29-31 to discuss the assessment and issued a statement June 1 charging that “the assessment was based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency.” The LCWR president, Sister Pat Farrell, OSF, and executive director, Sister Janet Mock, CSJ, are scheduled to meet in Rome on June 12 with Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the CDF, and Archbishop Sartain.

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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).