Reflections: The Catholic Church and LCWR

July 17, 2012

Since the founding of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, women religious have played a crucial role in the proclamation of and witnessing to our Catholic faith. Their heroism, sufferings, enthusiasm and accomplishments thread the history of this local Church. In the early days, schools, hospitals, orphanages, catechesis, places of prayer and outreach to the poor marked their superb work. In recent decades, the list of their many activities and ministries has expanded still further, whether in innovative ways of education or in championing the multiple dimensions of social justice and working for peace or in making available places for spiritual direction and prayer, especially for women.

Since I came here eight years ago, I have had the pleasure of meeting with the sisters of the many communities in the Archdiocese each year after Easter for a luncheon and discussion. I have also been privileged to celebrate the annual anniversaries of religious profession of those who minister here. On many occasions, I have met with the various superiors of congregations who have their provincial houses here or who have sisters who minister here. Along with the priests, deacons, pastoral ministers and the faithful in Galveston-Houston, I can say that we greatly appreciate the presence and work of our sisters who are attentive not only to their own community charisms, but also to our Archdiocesan needs and to the deep communion as members of the Church we all share. (If I have any complaint, it would be that we need more women religious in our local Church!)

I am writing all this to preface my remarks on a recent intervention by the Holy See into a particular association of women religious in the United States and my analysis of why this assessment was undertaken. As of the 1950s, the various Congregations of Women Religious in the USA came together to form an association that would have what we call “juridic status” in Canon Law; it is a “juridic person.” The association – which consists of the leadership of congregations that join the association – is called the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. 

Because of its status as a juridic person, LCWR has rights and responsibilities and takes its place with other juridic persons in the Church, even as it has responsibility to be in communion with the Church. The conference is to be a help to various religious congregations; to facilitate exchanges, information and best practices; to help deepen and intensify the meaning of religious consecration in the Church. 

At the same time, it should be noted that each religious congregation that joins LCWR still maintains its own charism, activities and juridical status; in that sense each congregation also maintains its autonomy. Like any canonical association, the LCWR elects officers and has a variety of standing committees. Currently 80% of the congregations of women religious in the United States are, through their superiors, a part of the LCWR. (It must also be mentioned that not all member superiors of LCWR are actively engaged in the association. There is another association of women religious in the United States that represents about 20% of women religious. There may well be a few congregations that belong to no national association of a juridic character.) It should also be noted that the LCWR also has a direct relationship with the Vatican and schedules regular meetings of its officers with representatives of the Vatican. 

After the Second Vatican Council, congregations of women religious were urged to review religious and community life by going back to the original charisms of their community and – in light of the Gospel, the documents of Vatican II, Catholic teaching and the meaning of the vows of religious consecration – to re-do their constitutions and reinvigorate their communal life and witness to the Church. 

A new dimension of this renewal was that of a particular attention to justice, to the needs of the poor and to peace: themes that were so importantly articulated in the famous Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) of the Second Vatican Council. Much enthusiasm accompanied this renewal and a number of experiments were tried in renewing religious life. Some of these were very good and some were not. With accomplishments also came mistakes. 

The LCWR encouraged the renewal of religious life in the USA and also became a catalyst for such renewal. It especially began to focus on issues of justice and matters of social concern, nationally and internationally. It must be noted that many other movements, both religious and secular, were also growing during these days, including various forms of feminism, and these also played some role in LCWR.

From the 1980’s on, the LCWR became more identified in tone and outlook with many socially progressive movements both in the Catholic Church and in the world more globally. Women religious had always been dedicated to education, and now, they entered fields beyond teaching in schools or in health care and entered many new realms. There was a deep commitment to various fields of the work for justice, for economic interests that would help the poor, for peace, for care of creation and a spirituality that would recognize the importance of our environment and our earth, a kind of global solidarity. Women religious have continued in these aspects of justice and have provided leadership on many issues of this kind and rightfully so. 

At the same time – and this was not always good – the theological grounding in faith, in ecclesiology and the meaning of communion with the Church and its Magisterium was being made vague or even being challenged in outright dissent by some leaders and some members of the LCWR. These difficulties center on a number of points of teaching in our Catholic faith: the doctrine of Christ as unique Mediator and Savior of the world; the mystery of the Church and its hierarchical structure; the meaning of Holy Orders and Sacraments; and moral life, especially the teachings of the faith on human sexuality. They also center on the very meaning of what consecrated religious life is.

In 2009, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asked Bishop Leonard Blair, Bishop of Toledo, to conduct an assessment of the LCWR. From his work of interviews and reading, he sent a report to Rome.

A few months ago the same Congregation issued its own analysis and charged Archbishop Peter Sartain, Archbishop of Seattle, to provide review, guidance and approval, where necessary, to the work of the LCWR. It will require patient collaboration between Archbishop Sartain and his team with the LCWR. Oversight and assessment can be painful, but they can also be productive. 

Some sisters have spoken to me of their being saddened by this turn of events. The appointment of an Archbishop Delegate to oversee LCWR is seen as a rebuke of the good work of women religious in this country. I can understand those sentiments, but the Holy See is not lessening its gratitude for the great contributions that women religious in the United States have made and are making to the Church. The issues that have been outlined deal with a particular “juridic person” in the United States, issues that concern the faith of the Church and the good of consecrated religious life in this country. Bishop Leonard Blair, cited above, emphasized that LCWR is an association whose function, responsibilities and statutes were all originally approved by the Holy See, to which it remains accountable. It is right to have an expectation that such an association subscribe to the teachings of the Church.

I have great hope that, once these issues are addressed patiently and seriously, there will be a good resolution of th