The Vatican called for reform amid a doctrinal “crisis” within the U.S.'s Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), appointing Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle to lead renewal efforts.
The appointment was made as the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith revealed the findings of its multi-year doctrinal assessment of the women's conference, which has more than 1,500 members throughout the country.
The assessment document explained, “it is clear that greater emphasis needs to be placed both on the relationship of the LCWR with the Conference of Bishops, and on the need to provide a sound doctrinal foundation in the faith of the Church.”
Initiated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2008, the assessment was carried out by Bishop Leonard P. Blair of Toledo, Ohio, a member of the U.S. bishops’ doctrine committee.
Among the key findings of the assessment were serious theological and doctrinal errors in presentations at the conference's annual assemblies in recent years.
Several of the addresses depicted a vision of religious life that is incompatible with the faith of the Church, the assessment said. Some attempted to justify dissent from Church doctrine and showed “scant regard for the role of the Magisterium.”
The document cited one address about religious sisters “moving beyond the Church” and even beyond Jesus. Such positions – which constitute “a rejection of faith” and “serious source of scandal” – often go unchallenged by the LCWR, it said.
It also noted a lack of sufficient doctrinal formation in material prepared for new superiors and formators, which may be reinforcing confusion on Church doctrine.
Furthermore, it voiced concerns about “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith” that were prevalent in some programs and presentations sponsored by the conference, and risked distorting Church teaching on the divinity of Christ, the Holy Trinity, the Eucharist and the inspiration of Sacred Scripture.
The assessment observed that letters from LCWR officers have suggested dissent from Church teaching on human sexuality and protested the Holy See’s actions on women’s ordination and ministry to homosexual persons.
It also said that while the women's religious group has been a strong advocate of social justice issues, it has remained silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a prominent topic in the U.S. public debate surrounding abortion and euthanasia.
To address these “serious doctrinal problems,” Archbishop Sartain has been mandated for up to five years to work with LCWR leadership in renewal efforts.
The archbishop will report regularly to the Holy See and will be aided by Bishop Blair and Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, along with an advisory group including clergy, religious women and other experts.
Archbishop Sartain will work with the LCWR to revise its statues, which will be submitted for approval by the Holy See, and to review its links to affiliated organizations.
Future speakers and presentations at major programs and assemblies will be subject to the approval of the archbishop, who will also work to create new formation programs to provide a deeper understanding of Church teaching.
In addition, Archbishop Sartain will “review and offer guidance” in the application of liturgical norms and texts,” ensuring, for example, that the Eucharist and Liturgy of the Hours are given proper priority in LCWR events.
Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said that the findings of the doctrinal assessment are aimed at “fostering a patient and collaborative renewal of this conference of major superiors.”
He expressed hope that the new measures will help “provide a stronger doctrinal foundation” for LCWR’s “many laudable initiatives and activities.”