O Sister, Where Art Thou?

After forty years of "faithful dissent", the LCWR needs to go away.

Franciscan Sister Florence Deacon (center)

Franciscan Sister Florence Deacon (center), newly installed president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, is joined by president-elect Sister Carol Zinn (left), a Sister of St. Joseph, and immediate past president Franciscan Sister Pat Farre ll during the closing Mass at the organization's assembly in St. Louis in August 2012 (CNS photo/Sid Hastings)The National Catholic Register recently published a piece, “LCWR 2013 Assembly: Little Evidence Yet of Any Reforms” (Aug. 20, 2013), by Ann Carey, a CWR contributor and author of the recently published Sisters in Crisis: Revisited—From Unraveling to Reform and Renewal (Ignatius Press, 2013). Remarking on the 2012 mandate of reform from the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which some LCWR leaders and members claim to have not yet read, Carey writes

The mandate directs the bishop delegates to take no more than five years to direct a revision of the LCWR’s statutes; review and reform LCWR plans and programs; create LCWR programs to help member congregations receive deeper formation in Church doctrine; review and guide application of liturgical norms and texts; and review LCWR links with the affiliated organizations NETWORK and Resource Center for Religious Institutes.

Reportedly, several meetings and/or teleconferences between the bishop delegates and LCWR leaders took place over the past year, but no information has leaked out. From all indications, none of the mandated reforms have yet begun, even something as simple as taking the LCWR “Systems Thinking Handbook ” off the LCWR website. The CDF mandate had directed that publication to be “withdrawn from circulation, pending revision.”

Rather, this sentence in the Aug. 19 LCWR press release indicates that the sisters continue to look for a “third way” to avoid reform of the LCWR while still retaining status as a canonically erected superiors’ organization:

“Although we remain uncertain as to how our work with the bishop delegates will proceed, we maintain hope that continued conversations of this depth will lead to a resolution of this situation that maintains the integrity of LCWR and is healthy for the whole Church.”

A similar message was issued at the end of the LCWR 2012 assembly: “The [LCWR] officers will proceed with these discussions [with the apostolic delegates] as long as possible, but will reconsider if LCWR is forced to compromise the integrity of its mission.”

The LCWR has long had an agenda of subverting Church authority and doctrine, and it has long used two simple tactics: ignore what Church leaders say and stall, stall, and stall. And, so far, it has worked. In addition, the leadership of the LCWR has long misused its authority and even misrepresented the positions of many of its members. In a June 2013 interview with CWR, Carey said:

CWR: How did a comparatively small cadre of sisters effect such an enormous change in women’s religious communities in a very short period of time?

Carey: The LCWR played a huge role in transforming most of the women’s religious orders in the US, and it continues to have a strong influence, even internationally, in spreading what the CDF called doctrinal errors and corporate dissent. As the Second Vatican Council was drawing to a close in 1965, some sisters put their own interpretation on Vatican II documents and subsequent Vatican teachings on the renewal of religious orders.

I describe in my book how change-oriented sisters worked their way into positions of authority in the LCWR and changed membership requirements from one superior to teams or entire councils being LCWR members. This allowed the change-oriented orders to have several voting members per order, maybe 8-12, compared to the classic orders that had maintained the one-superior model and thus had only one vote. So, it was easy for the change-oriented sisters to impose their own agenda on the LCWR, and through that organization, onto many orders of sisters. I write about how this caused a split in the LCWR, leading to establishment of the other superior’s conference, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.

Sisters have told me that similar voting irregularities occur in their own orders, often with the vote of the elderly diluted, or by intimidation or deception. Usually, sisters vote for their leaders and on policies through delegates to their “chapter” meetings. However, delegates are now allowed to be self-appointed, thus allowing for a large group of change-oriented sisters to be a part of decision making in the chapter.

So, what is likely to happen? If the CDF and Church leadership stays the course, the LCWR will almost certainly lose its canonical status, something that probably should have happened a long time ago:

CWR: One thing that doesn’t seem to be disputed by anyone—by the LCWR or the Vatican or anyone else—is that the Vatican and the sisters of the LCWR have very different views of the Church and of the role of religious in the Church. Given this divergence, what kind of outcome can be expected from the on-going “dialogue” between the Holy See—and the bishops representing it—and the sisters of the LCWR?

Carey: Both the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the LCWR have been very tight-lipped about their “dialogue.” The CDF mandate was for the three bishops overseeing the reform of the LCWR to finish their work in five years; it was not to wait five years to start reform. However, there is no evidence that any of the changes mandated in the CDF doctrinal assessment have taken place. For example, the assessment directed that the LCWR publication “Systems Thinking Handbook” be withdrawn from circulation, but it is still available for download on the LCWR website.

The 2012 mandate also directed the LCWR to clear all of its speakers and programs with the three bishops appointed as apostolic delegates to oversee the reform. Yet the theme for the 2013 LCWR August 13-17 annual assembly is “Leadership Evolving: Graced, Grounded & Free,” with the keynoter, Sister Ilia Delio, OSF, speaking on “Religious Life on the Edge of the Universe.” Somehow, this does not sound as if the apostolic delegates had any say in the program.

If the LCWR does not accept the changes mandated in the assessment, the Vatican has no choice but to withdraw the LCWR canonical status as an official superiors’ conference. The LCWR could continue as a secular, professional organization. However, without Church recognition, its influence and status certainly would decline, and I wonder if many orders could justify continuing to pay the dues that help support the LCWR’s $1.5 million annual budget.

It is important to say that if the LCWR loses its canonical recognition, it would affect only the LCWR and would not impact the canonical status of any of the women’s religious orders or the individual sisters themselves. However, some sisters have used that confusion as a scare tactic to garner support for the LCWR.

Carey reports that the 2013 LCWR president, Franciscan Sister Florence Deacon, recently spoke about “faithful dissent”. That is akin to married couples talking about “faithful adultery” or civic leaders lauding “faithful treason.” We’ve now witnessed over forty years of the rotten fruit of such nonsense, and the results are evident: a loss of faith, scandal among the faithful, and a drastic decline in the number of sisters and vocations. The experiment in double-speak and spiritual sterility is over, even if the leaders of the LCWR continue to stall, stall, and stall.

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About Carl E. Olson 1190 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.