Leadership Conference of Women Religious

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The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) is a canonically approved membership organization which serves as a support system and voice for nuns and sisters (Catholic women religious) in the United States.

As of 2013, the group is under investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith via Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller over heretical and doctrinal issues, a position disputed by its leaders. In addition, there is a possibility of either a withdrawal of canonical license by the Pope or schism from the group.[1][not in citation given]

Under the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop James Peter Sartain was officially tasked to oversee the doctrinal reform and its statutes for a limited five-year deadline.[2]

Pope Francis reaffirmed the canonical investigation formerly sanctioned by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith[3][4] to reform their charisms and organizational teachings. The organization's members were ordered to review their statutes and reassess their plans and programs.[5]

By contrast, members are not affiliated with the smaller Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious which passed an Apostolic Visitation from Rome in 2010.[6][note 1][7]


The organization was originally founded in 1956 by the Holy See under the pontificate of Pope Pius XII to assist its members carry out public services of leadership to further the mission of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.[8]

At the request of the Holy See through the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL), leaders of pontifical religious institutes of women in the United States founded the conference in 1956 and first named as the Conference of Major Superiors of Women. The name was later changed in 1971 to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. In 1995 CICLSAL established the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), an organization parallel to the LCWR, whose 168 members of the level of provincial or general superiors represent some 20% of the country's women religious.[9][10]

Mission and purpose[edit]

According to its official website and external data, the LCWR serves as a resource to its members and to others seeking information on leadership for religious life and living religious life. The Conference assists its members to do the following:.[11]

  • Assisting its members personally and communally to carry out more collaboratively their service of leadership in order to accomplish further the mission of Christ in today's world.
  • Fostering dialogue and collaboration among religious congregations within the church and in the larger society.
  • Developing models for initiating and strengthening relationships with groups concerned with the needs of society, thereby maximizing the potential of the conference for effecting change.

Membership statistics[edit]

The membership of LCWR is confined to the women who are the superiors, or leaders, of their respective congregations; it may be considered a consortium of executives rather than as an organization of representatives of religious women generally. In 2011, the approximately 1,500 members of LCWR constituted less than 3% of the 55,944 women religious in the United States. However, the congregations which the members of the LCWR led included 46,451 members,[12] or 83% of the women religious in the United States.

The membership of the congregations in the LCWR declined rapidly in the early 21st century, both through a lack of any new members in most member congregations and the increasing age of the women who remain. According to the Study on Recent Vocations, the average median age of women in LCWR institutes is 74. Among those who entered since 1994, 56% were over 30 by 2009.[13] For these reasons, the membership of the congregations in the LCWR declined from 60,642 in 2007, to 46,451 in 2011, to an estimated 43,664 in 2012.[14]

Doctrinal issues[edit]

Women’s ordination[edit]

On October 7, 1979, Sister Theresa Kane R.S.M., former president of the LCWR, issued a formal plea during Pope John Paul II's Apostolic visit to the United States at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for "providing the possibility of women as persons being included in all ministries of the church."[15][dead link][16] Since then, various similar sentiments were expressed by LCWR members which later drew conflict with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith who sought to maintain Catholic doctrinal orthodoxy, a position disputed by LCWR members as unfair and unjust to what they perceive as gender inequality in the Catholic Church. The LCWR were asked, ‘Please don’t talk about expanding ordination beyond celibate men.’ But the LCWR never withdrew a 1977 statement in favor of women’s ordination, which concerned those doing the doctrinal assessment.[17]

Moving beyond Jesus[edit]

On 2 August 2007, former president of LCWR Sister Laurie Brink O.P, during her keynote address cited the demand that an LCWR member had stated, "I was rooted in the story of Jesus, and it remains at my core, but I've also moved beyond Jesus," an endorsed public statement that garnered controversy regarding both its sentiment and meaning, especially among current LCWR members.[18][19] The controversial statement was later supplemented to the Archdiocese of Kansas City and later relayed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who forwarded the information to Pope Benedict XVI in 2008.[20][21]

Apostolic visitation[edit]

On December 22, 2008, the Holy See's CICLSA announced it would conduct an apostolic visitation of U.S. women religious to examine their quality of life, ministries, vocation efforts, and financial status,[22] which many saw as indictment against some of the less traditional communities within the LCWR.[23][24][25] In February 2009 the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) announced it would be conducting a Doctrinal Assessment of the LCWR because of the tenor and content of various addresses at the organization's annual assemblies since 2001.[26] LCWR said that Vatican had not fully disclosed the reasons behind the investigation.[27]

The Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura Cardinal Raymond Burke declared on a public televised interview that if the organization "cannot be reformed, then it does not have a right to exist."[28][29]

Investigation by the CDF[edit]

Leonard Paul Blair, Bishop of Toledo, was appointed as the CDF's Delegate to oversee the Assessment. Bishop Blair submitted reports to the CDF and engaged in correspondence with the LCWR during 2009 and 2010. The documentation collected during the Assessment was submitted to the CDF in January, 2011, and transmitted, together with the CDF's recommendation that steps be taken to reform the LCWR, by it to the Pope. The Pope approved the CDF's decision in this regard, and the CDF began its implementation after the submission of the Assessment's Final Report in December 2011.[30]

In April 2012, the CDF released the findings from the Doctrinal Assessment and announced that it was appointing Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of the Archdiocese of Seattle as an Archbishop Delegate with a mandate to oversee changes in the LCWR to reform its statutes, programs, and affiliations to conform more closely to "the teachings and discipline of the Church." [31][32] These findings announced that the Assessment begun in February 2009 was motivated by concerns that addresses at annual LCWR Assemblies were contradictory to teachings of the Catholic Church, that the CDF had received letters from LCWR Officers which indicated the LCWR collectively held positions differing from Catholic Church teachings on sexuality, and perception of "certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith". The findings by the CDF stated that these reasons for the Assessment had been communicated to the LCWR presidency in a meeting with Cardinal William Levada in Rome on April 8, 2008.[33]

The mandate of the Archbishop Delegate, Archbishop Sartain, includes the following:[33]

  1. To revise LCWR Statutes to ensure greater clarity about the scope of the mission and responsibilities of this conference of major superiors. The revised Statutes will be submitted to the Holy See for approval by the CICLSAL.
  2. To review LCWR plans and programs, including General Assemblies and publications, to ensure that the scope of the LCWR’s mission is fulfilled in accord with Church teachings and discipline. In particular:
    1. Systems Thinking Handbook will be withdrawn from circulation pending revision
    2. LCWR programs for (future) Superiors and Formators will be reformed
    3. Speakers/presenters at major programs will be subject to approval by Delegate
  3. To create new LCWR programs for member Congregations for the development of initial and ongoing formation material that provides a deepened understanding of the Church’s doctrine of the faith.
  4. To review and offer guidance in the application of liturgical norms and texts. For example:
    1. The Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours will have a place of priority in LCWR events and programs.
  5. To review LCWR links with affiliated organizations, e.g. Network and Resource Center for Religious Life.

Initial response by LCWR leaders[edit]

After a June 12, 2012 meeting with representatives of the LCWR, Cardinal Levada expressed his fear that the lack of response to Vatican concerns by the LCWR was becoming like a "dialogue of the deaf". He presented the possibility that if the LCWR did not accept the demanded reforms that they could be decertified to make way for a new organization that would take up their duties and be more responsive to the Vatican. He rejected claims that Vatican actions were based on "unsubstantiated accusations", saying "In reality, this is not a surprise," the demand for reforms are based on "what happens in their assemblies, what's on their website, what they do or don't do." Sister Pat Farrel, president of the LCWR, and Sister Janet Mock, LCWR executive director stated that the group would consider its response in an upcoming regional meeting and an August, 2012 national assembly and would make no further comment on the issue.[34][35]

On August 10, 2012, the former president of the organization, Sister Patricia Farrell gave a keynote address to the LCWR members to be "truthful and fearless" with regards to the doctrinal assessment issued by the Vatican. In addition, Farrell emphasized that the concern is a possible attempt to abuse and control the organization's vision and urged its members to not fall into become submissive if contrary to the idea of the Sensus fidelium. In conclusion, Sister Patricia Farrell noted, "They can crush a few flowers, but they cannot hold back the Springtime," a controversial statement derived from the military dictatorship of Chile; then interpreted as a suppression of the Spirit of Vatican II via the perceived dictatorship by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sanctioned by Pope Benedict XVI[36] in light of the ongoing investigations. The LCWR awarded Sister Pat Farrell its highest honor for leadership “through an exceptionally challenging time.” Farrell will formally receive the award in August 2013 and will make another speech then.[37]

On August 11, 2012, the group maintained a postponement to the official reform of its statutes and by-laws, with various leaders citing the need to have a further ecclesial dialogue with the Holy See with regard to the continuance of the organization as an official canonical entity of the Catholic Church.[38] In addition, its members added that the group refuses to compromise the "integrity of their mission" regardless of the present doctrinal teachings upheld by the Catholic Church, which members have since either rejected, questioned, or ignored altogether.[39]

Furthermore, a leading spokesperson for the group has maintained LCWR's preferential desire to remain canonically approved by the Holy See citing that the group is doctrinally "not a teaching arm of the Church" the members are not a type of "theological society".[40][41]

In October 2012, LCWR president Sister Florence Deacon stated the LCWR did not speak out over abortion, contraception, gay marriage and similar issues because all human beings have weaknesses and no one consistently acts well and Jesus welcomed sinners. According to Deacon the LCWR opposed tax cuts under Bush because everyone should have what they need and caring for the most vulnerable needs government assistance. The assessment may have happened because the sisters were for President Barack Obama's health policies while the bishops were against that reform. Deacon does not know one way or the other.

Deacon contests the claim that the LCWR are overzealous feminists, she said, "I was surprised by us being called radical feminists. I could introduce them to some real radical feminists."[42]

Pope Francis' reaffirmation[edit]

Gerhard Ludwig Müller expressed appreciation for the work the LCWR do for vulnerable people but stated Pope Francis also supported the critics.[43]

On April 15, 2013, Pope Francis reaffirmed the investigation formerly sanctioned by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith[3][4] to reform their charisms via structural programs and teachings. The organization's members were ordered to review their statutes and reassess their plans and programs.[5]

American sister, activist and radio host Maureen Fiedler cited doubts that the Pontiff had any concrete knowledge of the internal struggles of the LCWR, along with suspicions of male-dominated sexism perpetrated by the members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.[44][45] Later public developments indicated that Pope Francis knew of the LCWR situation, as officially released by several press statements released by the Vatican in response to Brazilian prefect, Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, surprising many who conspicuously speculated that the Pope was allegedly not fully aware of the LCWR disagreements.[46]

On 8 May 2013, during the General Wednesday Audience for the International Union of Superiors General given at Paul VI Audience Hall, Pope Francis delivered a public televised speech admonishing priests, sisters and nuns who use their religious titles and privileges to serve their careers and ambition. The Pope heavily chastised both men and women, in case of religious sisters calling them to a more maternal response to the Church's demands, urging each to be a spiritual mother to others, and not to be a spiritual "Zitella", an Italian term which may be roughly translated as spinsters.[47] Furthermore, the Pope stressed the demand for obedience to the Church and its doctrines, citing it as inseparable from the divinity of Jesus Christ.[48]

The LCWR position[edit]

Among publicised interviews given by some of the LCWR leaders, some cite that "they have been unjustly criticised" and question the Holy See's capability to reprimand the sisters and nuns in contrast to the Catholic Church in America that has suffered from the Pedophile scandal committed by some Catholic priests.[49]

In addition, some members also feel their direct experience with marginalized and homeless people is more relevant and claim that Catholic bishops who lack this experience should listen to them. Dissident members, most notably Sister Patricia Farrell also contend that prevailing Church teachings on morals, faith and sex "needs to be reformulated, rethought in light of the world we live in." while other members openly support New Age[50][51] Pantheistic beliefs, homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Some LCWR members openly endorse the ordination of women as part of the Roman Catholic priesthood. Similar to the Episcopal Church in the United States, LCWR members take a nuanced position on abortion,[52] further citing that the investigation launched by Holy See is "unjust" and "flawed".

The LCWR has support from progressive Catholics Church, particularly those who emphasize the Church's teachings on social justice.

On May 4, 2013, the organization's president Sister Florence Deacon gave a plenary speech revealing that the mandate became a surprise to its members due to the mass media's inaccurate interpretation that its members did not follow official Church discipline and teaching with regards to Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, abortion of fetuses and grave homosexual acts. In her speech, Deacon defended the controversial speech made in August 2007 in reference to "moving beyond Jesus" citing the context of dwindling religious members but maintains that it was misinterpreted by the secular media as Protestant and Anti-Catholic.

In addition, Sister Florence Deacon defended the group against being held liable among other individuals who did not share an orthodox Catholic view but were nevertheless allowed to participate in LCWR public activities and felt that the LCWR were singled out for criticism because they were women. Furthermore, Deacon reiterated that LCWR is not responsible for teaching and enforcing Church moral doctrine among its own religious congregants, a position she deems as solely reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.[17]

Haag Prize[edit]

In November 2012, the Haag Foundation awarded the LCWR with the 2013 Herbert Haag Prize for "recognition of its extensive efforts in helping the poor, the marginalized and people in difficult circumstances', noting that "their careful reflection of the signs of the times in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, making the nuns a pillar of the Catholic Church in the United States of America." The Foundation also held that their efforts resulted in a situation where "women religious, and especially their leaders, stand in the eye of an ecclesiastical storm."[54]

CBS: 60 Minutes interview[edit]

On March 2013, CBS News published a televised 60 Minutes episode on the group pertaining to its doctrinal assessment and critique. The show met with several prominent leaders of the LCWR organization who expressed their desire for the ordination of women in the Church along with the personal nature of their charitable works, along with an private interview with Archbishop James Peter Sartain discussing the key points of the doctrinal issues and his possible ruling on the outcome.

In addition, some criticism by viewers were expressed at the show's centerpiece graphic featuring a nun wearing a traditional religious habit while holding a dissident protest-picket sign, while in reality, LCWR members are known to have abandoned traditional religious clothing in public.[55]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ http://ncronline.org/news/editorial-vatican-lcwr-approaching-critical-crossroads
  2. ^ http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/archbishop-sartain-stresses-dedication-to-addressing-religious-sisters-issues/
  3. ^ a b http://www.news.va/en/news/meeting-of-congregation-for-the-doctrine-of-the-fa
  4. ^ a b http://ncronline.org/news/vatican/pope-francis-reaffirms-lcwr-critique-plan-reform
  5. ^ a b US Catholic nuns criticised in Vatican report on LCWR
  6. ^ a b http://www.apostolicvisitation.org/en/other/faqs.html
  7. ^ a b http://www.apostolicvisitation.org/en/materials/close.pdf
  8. ^ McElwee, Joshua L. (August 10, 2012). "At LCWR assembly, sisters contemplate surrender, discernment, authority". National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved April 10, 2013. 
  9. ^ "The Holy Office puts the American sisters in the corner". L'espresso. April 30, 2012. Retrieved 10 April 2013. 
  10. ^ Study on Recent Vocations to Religious Life
  11. ^ https://lcwr.org/about/mission
  12. ^ Clark, Monica (October 19, 2011). "Studies chart diminishment of US sisters' numbers". National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved April 10, 2013. 
  13. ^ Study on Recent Vocations to Religious Life (2009, available only to members - August 06, 2012)
  14. ^ McElwee, Joshua J. (April 26, 2012). "LCWR annual assembly to go forward". National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved April 10, 2013. 
  15. ^ Her 1979 request remains unanswered
  16. ^ Nun Who Confronted the Pope. Retrieved August 6, 2012. 
  17. ^ a b http://www.scribd.com/doc/139424426/Franciscan-Sr-Florence-Deacon-LCWR-president-speaks-at-the-International-Union-of-Superiors-General
  18. ^ https://lcwr.org/sites/default/files/calendar/attachments/2007_Keynote_Address-Laurie_Brink-OP.pdf
  19. ^ http://americamagazine.org/content/all-things/sister-laurie-brink-op-and-cdf
  20. ^ http://www.usccb.org/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&pageid=55544
  21. ^ http://lesbianconservative.com/2012/04/22/liberal-nuns-moving-beyond-jesus/
  22. ^ Goodstein, Laurie (July 1, 2009). "U.S. Nuns Facing Vatican Scrutiny". New York Times. Retrieved April 10, 2013. 
  23. ^ U.S. Catholic sisters probed
  24. ^ Religious on edge
  25. ^ Cardinal defends Visitation
  26. ^ "Women religious leadership conference faces investigation for continued ‘problems’". Catholic News Agency. April 18, 2009. Retrieved April 10, 2013. 
  27. ^ LCWR questions lack of full disclosure
  28. ^ http://www.lifesitenews.com/news/cardinal-burke-on-lcwr-if-it-cant-be-reformed-then-it-doesnt-have-a-right-t/
  29. ^ EWTN: The World Over show with Raymond Arroyo - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XPhl04MRB4g
  30. ^ "Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious". US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Retrieved 10 April 2013. 
  31. ^ http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/vatican-announces-reform-of-us-womens-religious-conference Vatican announces reform of US women's religious conference
  32. ^ Vatican orders LCWR to revise
  33. ^ a b Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious
  34. ^ John L Allen Jr (June 12, 2012). "Vatican official warns of 'dialogue of the deaf' with LCWR". National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved August 6, 2012. 
  35. ^ John L Allen Jr (June 15, 2012). "Exclusive interview: Levada talks LCWR, criticism in the States". National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved August 6, 2012. 
  36. ^ http://ncronline.org/news/lcwr-president-sisters-be-fearless-vatican-mandate
  37. ^ LCWR to honor former president Farrell’s leadership during ‘challenging time
  38. ^ Brinker, Jennifer (August 10, 2012). "LCWR agrees to enter into "conversation" with Vatican". St. Louis Review. Retrieved April 10, 2013. 
  39. ^ Grossman, Cathy Lynn (August 11, 2012). "Bishop to sisters: Let's clear up 'misunderstandings'". USA Today. Retrieved April 10, 2013. 
  40. ^ Eckstrom, Kevin (August 16, 2012). "Nuns group plans to stick with the church". Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved April 10, 2013. 
  41. ^ Donovan, John (August 16, 2012). "What Lies Ahead For America's Nuns". NPR. Retrieved April 10, 2013. 
  42. ^ Sister Florence Deacon, the Rebel Nun
  43. ^ Pope Francis maintains Vatican stance against US nuns' groupCommunique of The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Concerning a Meeting with the Presidency of The Leadership Conference of Women Religious in The USALCWR Statement on Meeting with CDF
  44. ^ http://solidaritywithsisters.weebly.com/in-the-news.html Pope Francis addresses international group of heads of sisters' congregations
  45. ^ Did Pope Francis get enough information on the LCWR mandate?
  46. ^ http://ncronline.org/blogs/grace-margins/lcwr-more-papacy-changes-more-it-stays-same
  47. ^ "She The People". The Washington Post. 
  48. ^ http://attualita.vatican.va/sala-stampa/bollettino/2013/05/08/news/30952.html
  49. ^ "US nuns won't 'compromise mission'". BBC News. August 10, 2012. Retrieved April 10, 2013. 
  50. ^ http://www.ncregister.com/blog/tim-drake/register-radio-new-age-influence-at-the-lcwr-assembly
  51. ^ http://stlouisreview.com/article/2012-08-08/lcwr-keynote-speakers
  52. ^ http://www.npr.org/2012/07/17/156858223/an-american-nun-responds-to-vatican-condemnation
  53. ^ Pope Francis to keep Vatican reins tight on U.S. nuns
  54. ^ Fabrizio Mastrofini (November 19, 2012). "The Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) has been awarded the prestigious Herbert Haag 2013 prize". Vatican Insider. 
  55. ^ CBS Online - American Nuns Struggle with the Vatican for change - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qcCgMvOvLo


  1. ^ The Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious officially began their Apostolic Visitation in 2008 and lasted for three years. Slovenian Cardinal Franc Rode first initiated the investigation and was concluded by Mother Mary Clare Millea of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
  2. ^ The Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious officially began their Apostolic Visitation in 2008 and lasted for three years. Slovenian Cardinal Franc Rode first initiated the investigation and was concluded by Mother Mary Clare Millea of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

External links[edit]