Leadership Conference of Women Religious

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The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) is the association of the leaders of congregations of Catholic women religious in the United States. Founded in 1956, the conference includes over 1500 members, encompassing approximately 80 percent of the 57,000 women religious in the United States as of 2015. The conference describes its charter as assisting its members "collaboratively carry out their service of leadership to further the mission of the Gospel in today's world." The canonically-approved organization collaborates in the Catholic church and in society to "influence systemic change, studying significant trends and issues within the church and society, utilizing our corporate voice in solidarity with people who experience any form of violence or oppression, and creating and offering resource materials on religious leadership skills." The conference serves as a resource both to its members and to public seeking resources on leadership for religious life.[1]

In April 2015 the Vatican closed a controversial, multi-year investigation initiated by Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Archbishop James Peter Sartain was appointed to work with the conference.[2]The investigation embittered many American Catholics "against what they perceive as heavy-handed tactics by Rome against U.S. sisters who provide critical health care, education and other services for the poor."[3]While Pope Francis reaffirmed the canonical investigation and the organization's members were ordered to review their statutes and reassess their plans and programs,[4] the Vatican in its conclusion was effusive in its praise of the nuns' work. When the conclusion was announced in April 2015, Christopher Belitto, a church historian at Kean University, noted, "Anything coming out of the Vatican this morning is nothing other than a fig leaf because they can't say 'oops' in Latin."[5]


In April 1956 The Vatican's Congregation for Religious requested that nuns in the U.S. form a national conference. In November of that year, the committee of nuns in the U.S. called a meeting in Chicago of general and provincial superiors of pontifical communities consider the formation of a national conference. They voted unanimously to establish the Conference of Major Superiors of Women (CMSW) to promote the spiritual welfare of country's women religious; insure increasing effectiveness of their apostolate; and foster cooperation with related organizations.[6][7]The name was later changed in 1971 to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious; as of 2015 the LCWR's membership organizations represent approximately 80% of women religious in the United States. In 1995 CICLSAL also established the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR),an organization parallel to the LCWR,and with overlapping membership, whose 168 members of the level of provincial or general superiors represent some 20% of the country's women religious.[8][9]

Mission and purpose[edit]

According to its official website, 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:[10]

  • 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 composed of women who are the superiors, or leaders, of their respective congregations. The congregations which the members of the LCWR led as of 2011 included 46,451 members out of approximately 56,000 women religious in the U.S.,[11] 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.[12] 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.[13]

According to Mary Gautier, Senior Research Associate at Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), and author of New Generations of Catholic Sisters: The Challenge of Diversity:

Some commentators, for ideological purposes, attempt to create generalized typologies that mask the complexity of the religious reality, arguing that all new entrants go to traditionalist (CMSWR [Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious]) institutes and few or none go to LCWR [Leadership Conference of Women Religious] institutes. The reality of the situation is that almost an equal percentage of LCWR and CMSWR institutes have no one at all in formation at the present time (32 percent and 27 percent, respectively). One of the most striking findings regarding new entrants is that almost equal numbers of women have been attracted to institutes in both conferences in recent years.”[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] According to Franciscan Sr. Florence Deacon, those doing the doctrinal assessment in 2012 were apparently concerned with a statement made 35 years earlier in 1977 which was in favor of women’s ordination, which the LCWR had never withdrawn.[16]

"Moved beyond Jesus"[edit]

On 2 August 2007, a former president of LCWR, Sister Laurie Brink O.P, during her keynote address quoted another sister's comment that stated, "I was rooted in the story of Jesus, and it remains at my core, but I've also moved beyond Jesus", a statement that stirred controversy regarding both its sentiment and meaning, particularly among LCWR members.[17][18]

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,[19] which many saw as indictment against some of the less traditional communities within the LCWR.[20][21][22] 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 what it perceived as the tenor and content of various addresses at the organization's annual assemblies since 2001.[23] LCWR said that Vatican had not fully disclosed the reasons behind the investigation, nor its funding.[24]

The Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura at the time Cardinal Raymond Burke declared on a televised interview that if the organization "cannot be reformed, then it does not have a right to exist."[25]

CDF Investigation[edit]

Under the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican initiated an investigation of the LCWS that became controversial, "created an uproar among American Catholics," and was ultimately closed in 2015 in meeting with Pope Francis.[26]

At the beginning of the investigation, 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 to the Pope that steps be taken to reform the LCWR. 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.[27]

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." [28][29] 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.[27]

The mandate of the Archbishop Delegate, Archbishop Sartain, includes the following:[27]

  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 suppressed 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.[30][31]

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. Farrell said that "some larger movement in the church ... has landed on LCWR." In addition, Farrell distinguished between an expression of concern vs. an attempt to control. "Concern is based in love and invites unity. Control through fear and intimidation would be an abuse of power." In conclusion, Sister Patricia noted, "They can crush a few flowers, but they cannot hold back the springtime," a saying derived from her service in Chile during its military dictatorship.[32] The LCWR awarded Sister Pat Farrell its highest honor for leadership “through an exceptionally challenging time.” Farrell received the award in August 2013 and made another speech at that time.[33]

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.[34] According to Cathy Lynn Grossman, reporting for USA Today, "The assembly instructed the LCWR officers to conduct their conversation with Archbishop Sartain from a stance of deep prayer that values mutual respect, careful listening and open dialogue. The officers will proceed with these discussions as long as possible, but will reconsider if LCWR is forced to compromise the integrity of its mission."[35]

Sister Mary Hughes, past president of the LCWR's indicated the group's preference is to remain canonically approved by the Holy See. Hughes noted that the group is a leadership support group, not a "theological society".[36][37]

In October 2012, when it was said in an interview that the LCWR did not speak out on abortion, contraception, and gay marriage, Sister Florence Deacon responded that "Jesus welcomed sinners with the idea that they would be drawn to change their lives". According to Deacon, the LCWR opposed tax cuts because the Gospel encourages Catholics to create a world in which everyone has what they need so they can live as full human beings and develop their faith. To the suggestion that the assessment may have occurred because the sisters supported the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act while the bishops were against that reform, Deacon said that the review began prior to that.[38]

The LCWR position[edit]

The sisters say that "they have been unjustly criticised".[39]

Sister Simone Campbell, of the Catholic social justice lobbying group NETWORK, said "The censure (of the LCWR) has always been about politics. And politics are shifting in the church right now. We know when politics shift, there are opportunities and there are risks ... But we are concerned that Catholic sisters below the decision-making level are caught in the bigger picture of Vatican politics. We're sort of the soccer ball here."[40]

Citing the group's choice of futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard as the 2012 keynote speaker, Father Mitch Pacwa said that the LCWR has had a New Age approach for some time.[41]

In August 2014 the LCWR gave its yearly award to Sister Elizabeth Johnson, Ph.D., a theologian who has written for general audiences. Her popular book on God was criticized by a committee of U.S. bishops. When Johnson slammed the Vatican investigation, saying "the waste of time on this investigation is unconscionable," the sisters in attendance gave her a standing ovation.[42]


On April 16, 2015, The Vatican concluded the seven-year investigation. A delegation of American nuns met for almost an hour with Pope Francis. "He met with them himself for almost an hour, and that's an extravagant amount of papal time," said Eileen Burke-Sullivan, a theologian, consultant and vice provost for mission and ministry at Creighton University, a Jesuit institution. "It's about as close to an apology, I would think, as the Catholic Church is officially going to render." Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times said that the pope's handling of the matter appeared to reflect that "he is less interested in having the church police doctrinal boundaries than in demonstrating mercy and love for the poor and vulnerable — the very work that most of the women's religious orders under investigation have long been engaged in."[43] Cardinal Franc Rode, who initiated the investigation, had been replaced by Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz of Brazil.[44]

Sister Sharon Holland said "We learned that what we hold in common is much greater than any of our differences."[45] Cardinal Gerhard Müller of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that the Vatican is certain that the LCWR is "fostering a vision of religious life that is centered on the Person of Jesus Christ and is rooted in the Tradition of the Church." Phil Lawler of Catholic Culture said that while Catholics should be able to take these things for granted, a Vatican intervention had been necessary in this case. He said that their statements do not guarantee that the Vatican intervention will prove successful, but that they do demonstrate that the process was necessary.[46]

The New York Times said the closure allowed Pope Francis settle a confrontation started by his predecessor that "created an uproar among American Catholics," who energetically defended the nuns in the face of Vatican interference, signing petitions and sending letters to the Vatican. Rev. James Martin, who wrote frequently about the conflict in his role as an editor of the Jesuit magazine America, said: "What you see with the sisters is true courage, which is being faithful to the church authority and also to who they are."[47]

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."[48]

CBS: 60 Minutes interview[edit]

On March 2013, CBS News broadcast a segment on 60 Minutes episode pertaining to the group's doctrinal assessment and critique. The segment interviewed Sister Pat Farrel and also Archbishop James Peter Sartain.[49]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ About LCWR LCRW.org, accessed 17 April 2015
  2. ^ Bauman, Michelle. "Archbishop Sartain stresses dedication to addressing religious sisters' issues", Catholic News Agency, June 1, 2012
  3. ^ Gerhard Ludwig Mueller Tapped By Pope To Head Congregation for the Doctrine of The Faith The Huffington Post, 2 July 2015
  4. ^ "US Catholic nuns criticised in Vatican report on LCWR", BBC News, April 15, 2013
  5. ^ Vatican ends crackdown on 'radical' US nuns BBC, 16 April 2015
  6. ^ LCWR History LCWR.org, accessed 17 April 2015
  7. ^ McElwee, Joshua L. (August 10, 2012). "At LCWR assembly, sisters contemplate surrender, discernment, authority". National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved April 10, 2013. 
  8. ^ "The Holy Office puts the American sisters in the corner". L'espresso. April 30, 2012. Retrieved 10 April 2013. 
  9. ^ "Study on Recent Vocations to Religious Life", National Religious Vocation Conference
  10. ^ "Mission Statement", LCWR
  11. ^ Clark, Monica (October 19, 2011). "Studies chart diminishment of US sisters' numbers". National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved April 10, 2013. 
  12. ^ Study on Recent Vocations to Religious Life (2009, available only to members - August 06, 2012)
  13. ^ McElwee, Joshua J. (April 26, 2012). "LCWR annual assembly to go forward". National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved April 10, 2013. 
  14. ^ "Sister Statistics: What Is Happening?", Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Georgetown University
  15. ^ Nun Who Confronted the Pope. Retrieved August 6, 2012. 
  16. ^ Deacon, Florence. "Speech at the plenary assembly of the International Union of Superiors General" May 4, 2013, NCR
  17. ^ Brink O.P., Laurie. "A Marginal Life: Pursuing Holiness in the 21st Century"
  18. ^ Clooney S.J., Francis X., "Sister Laurie Brink OP and the CDF", America
  19. ^ Goodstein, Laurie (July 1, 2009). "U.S. Nuns Facing Vatican Scrutiny". New York Times. Retrieved April 10, 2013. 
  20. ^ U.S. Catholic sisters probed
  21. ^ Schmalz, Valerie. "Religious on edge", OSV Weekly, November 11, 2009
  22. ^ Wooden, Cindy. "Cardinal Rode defends apostolic visitation of US nuns", Catholic News Service, November 5, 2009
  23. ^ "Women religious leadership conference faces investigation for continued ‘problems’". Catholic News Agency. April 18, 2009. Retrieved April 10, 2013. 
  24. ^ Sadowsky, Dennis. "LCWR questions lack of full disclosure", Catholic News Service, August 18, 2009
  25. ^ "Vatican Cardinal Burke on women religious group's right to exist", The World Over show with Raymond Arroyo, EWTN
  26. ^ Vatican Ends Battle With U.S. Catholic Nuns’ Group The New York Times, 16 April 2015
  27. ^ a b c "Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious" (PDF). US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Retrieved 10 April 2013. 
  28. ^ Bauman, Michelle. "Vatican announces reform of US women's religious conference", Catholic News Agency. April 18, 2012
  29. ^ Vatican orders LCWR to revise[dead link]
  30. ^ John L Allen Jr (June 12, 2012). "Vatican official warns of 'dialogue of the deaf' with LCWR". National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved August 6, 2012. 
  31. ^ John L Allen Jr (June 15, 2012). "Exclusive interview: Levada talks LCWR, criticism in the States". National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved August 6, 2012. 
  32. ^ McElwee, Joshua J., "LCWR president to sisters: Be 'fearless' on Vatican mandate", National Catholic Reporter, August 10, 2012
  33. ^ McElwee, Joshua J., "LCWR to honor former president Farrell’s leadership during ‘challenging time", April 5, 2013
  34. ^ Brinker, Jennifer (August 10, 2012). "LCWR agrees to enter into "conversation" with Vatican". St. Louis Review. Retrieved April 10, 2013. 
  35. ^ Grossman, Cathy Lynn (August 11, 2012). "Bishop to sisters: Let's clear up 'misunderstandings'". USA Today. Retrieved April 10, 2013. 
  36. ^ Eckstrom, Kevin (August 16, 2012). "Nuns group plans to stick with the church". Religion News Service. Retrieved April 10, 2013. 
  37. ^ Donovan, John (August 16, 2012). "What Lies Ahead For America's Nuns". NPR. Retrieved April 10, 2013. 
  38. ^ Calhoun, Ada. "Sister Florence Deacon, the Rebel Nun", New York Times Magazine, October 26, 2012
  39. ^ "US nuns won't 'compromise mission'". BBC News. August 10, 2012. Retrieved April 10, 2013. 
  40. ^ Grossman, Cathy Lee. "Pope Francis to keep Vatican reins tight on U.S. nuns", USA Today, April 15, 2013
  41. ^ Drake, Tim. "Register Radio: New Age Influence at the LCWR Assembly", National Catholic Register, August 17, 2012
  42. ^ Timeline: The Heated Battle Between The Vatican And American Nuns the Huffington Post, 17 April 2015
  43. ^ Vatican Ends Battle With U.S. Catholic Nuns' GroupThe New York Times, 16 April 2015
  44. ^ Vatican ends controversial investigation of US nuns with olive branch Religions News, 16 April 2015
  45. ^ http://www.catholicculture.org/news/headlines/index.cfm?storyid=24640
  46. ^ http://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/the-city-gates.cfm?id=1027
  47. ^ Vatican Ends Battle With U.S. Catholic Nuns’ Group The New York Times, 16 April 2015
  48. ^ Fabrizio Mastrofini (November 19, 2012). "The Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) has been awarded the prestigious Herbert Haag 2013 prize". Vatican Insider. 
  49. ^ CBS Online - American Nuns Struggle with the Vatican for change - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qcCgMvOvLo

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]