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Catholic Culture Resources

The LCWR: To Be or Not to Be?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 19, 2012

No one is happier than I am with the Vatican’s announcement of the need to reform the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the United States. The news is somewhat surprising, since the initial signals from Rome following the visitation of American women religious suggested an unwillingness to face the problem head-on. You may recall that the newest head of the Congregation for Religious began his tenure last year with digs at the harshness of his predecessor, expressing the need to rebuild trust.

Still, the LCWR was the target of a separate investigation, and it now appears that Pope Benedict is fully aware of how far gone the group is. We can expect the LCWR either to resist or to disaffiliate from the Church, becoming a secular interest group, as recommended by one of its past presidents, the notorious Sr. Joan Chittister. It will be interesting to see whether Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, who has been assigned to superintend the reform of the organization, will press the leaders hard enough to make them want to give up their official Catholic status.

Personally, I suspect the shortest distance between two points here would be to raise the bar high enough to make any but truly repentant sisters choose to disaffiliate the LCWR from the Church. This would make the LCWR a sort of limbo operation similar to Catholics for Free Choice. If the group itself breaks with the official Church, it would become easier for the Vatican to take disciplinary action against the individual sisters while making it very clear that the LCWR no longer has the authority to speak for Catholic religious or Catholic congregations.

Twenty years ago, John Paul II established the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) as an alternative leadership organization for those religious communities which felt betrayed by the LCWR. Some hoped that American religious would opt overwhelmingly to work through the new organization, and while the more orthodox orders have done exactly that, the number of groups which have not broken with the LCWR demonstrates that weakness of female religious life in the United States which led to the larger Apostolic Visitation over the past few years.

As of the present moment, however, the Vatican seems reluctant to attempt reform en masse. What appears to be on the agenda now is the decision to attack not the body but the head. The spirituality of the women who participate in the LCWR has long since generally ceased to be Catholic; they are more comfortable with the New Age, Wicca and Eco-Feminism. They dissent on key Catholic teachings, both moral and doctrinal, and they frequently speak out in opposition to both the American bishops and the Pope. But up until now they have retained their Catholic status, making it far more difficult for any remaining sound women in the affected orders to initiate a genuine reform.

There may not be enough left to work with for a genuine reform of the LCWR. But if that proves to be the case, the disappearance of the group as a recognized leadership force might just make true renewal more possible in the long run, and on a much broader scale. One must ask whether it is likely to do any good at all to drag this out It seems to me that, for the LCWR, “to be or not to be” really is the question.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Apr. 24, 2012 12:01 AM ET USA

    The Leadership Conference of Women Religious should not be surprised. They have been following their own watered down version of Catholicism for many years, and the Church is finally saying enough is enough. This action is long overdue and will hopefully put on notice other Catholics in leadership positions who have been undercutting the Church under the guise of an Americanized secular moral system which places social justice politics and political correctness ahead of fundamental Church teachings and morals.

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - Apr. 23, 2012 4:36 PM ET USA

    I listened to some back and forth on NPR between the chairman of the board (a woman)of Christendom College and a spokeswoman for the LCWR. What a difference in In understanding the Church as the Body of Christ. The nun perceived bishops as administrators,keeping things running. Not a word of their primary function as our shepherds. The woman from Christendom College knew her stuff. I heard part of this conversation, sadly,but enough to confirm my opinion on these nuns.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 21, 2012 3:12 PM ET USA

    This whole debacle saddens me. As a convert, I often wish I had been able to experience the special foundational grace of a Catholic education. Now, it appears that I may have been "spared" the very secular distraction from what I learned through Holy Scripture and the writings of the Saints and Doctors of the Church. I truly do not understand how our "religious" can question or contradict our Bishops and the Magisterium of our Church, the Bride of our Lord which He gave us!

  • Posted by: claire5327 - Apr. 20, 2012 3:51 PM ET USA

    Three elements are necessary to make one a Roman Catholic : Baptism, The Creed and the absolute Obedience to the Magisterium. anyone who can't follow that is like King Henry the VIII, or Martin Luther, Calvin.... all those who followed their steps up to the present day! Farewell to you all who are misleading our YOUNG! We want you gone or converted!

  • Posted by: - Apr. 20, 2012 3:48 PM ET USA

    Don't forget the Reiki.

  • Posted by: schndj2254 - Apr. 20, 2012 2:02 PM ET USA

    Amazing...the group is stunned, just stunned that after years of thumbing their noses at any legitimate authority, prominent members lobbying for everything from women's ordination to a relaxation of Church moral teaching, aqn obsession with eco-feminism (just left their website) and a speech impediment on abortion, now the Vatican has the audacity to call them on it. Hopefully, the next group to be challenged are those Bishop's who are more concerned with collegiality than truth.

  • Posted by: demark8616 - Apr. 20, 2012 1:11 PM ET USA

    'A tree identifies itself by it's fruit.' It appears Pope John Paul II already addressed the problem and provided a solution 20 years ago. If any religious communities remain affiliated to LCWR it is because they are like-minded, those who were not, are long gone. The word 'Catholic' does not appear in their organizations name, so why the fuss? All the Vatican needs to say, is that they are no longer representative. But, surely that is well known by now?

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Apr. 19, 2012 10:20 PM ET USA

    Very good...; So there are termites in the house and the house will collapse unless the problem is corrected. It is reassuring that the Vatican can still assess a problem. We who live in the "American house.." and will continue to live in the "American house" irregardless will just have to deal with the consequences of either the Vatican's "reform" or its negligence. Let the Vatican act, and then you will really have an article to write.

  • Posted by: Defender - Apr. 19, 2012 6:04 PM ET USA

    Also over 20 years ago, Pope John Paul II wrote Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the bishops took 10 years to set guidelines for Catholic colleges and here we are with colleges that ignore Catholic teachings and bishops and bishops who have ignored these schools. Isn't it ironic? Or is that coincidental?