Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The question stated simply: Has the LCWR gone off the reservation?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 15, 2012

Earlier this week I commented on the refreshing candor and clarity of comments by Bishop Leonard Blair, defending the Vatican’s call for reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). Today there is even more candor and clarity, this time coming in an interview with Cardinal William Levada, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The key question can be stated quite clearly: Are the leaders of the LCWR still on the reservation? These prelates raise the matter more delicately, but it is clear enough that they are driving at that question. Is the LCWR working cooperatively with the Vatican, in service to the universal Church?

This should be an easy question to answer. If the LCWR cannot answer affirmatively—quickly, emphatically, without reservations—then we already have the answer. But the LCWR is not accustomed to giving simple answers to simple questions, largely because the American bishops are not accustomed to asking them.

Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, when asked to comment on the controversy, took great pains to emphasize his support for American women religious and his confidence that a serious conflict will be avoided. The language that he used was measured, sympathetic, and quite evidently chosen to avoid rousing further emotional reactions. But unfortunately that irenic approach—so typical of the way the American bishops have handled conflicts with the LCWR over the years—can create a misleading impression. The LCWR leaders claim that they are merely emphasizing different aspects of Catholic teaching. When the bishops portray the conflict as a matter of tone, to be resolved by clearing up misunderstandings, are actually giving the public a false impression. Some much more serious conflicts are at issue here.

Specifically, do the leaders of the LCWR hold and teach what the Catholic Church authoritatively holds and teaches? Even in his best efforts to avoid appearing confrontational, Cardinal O’Malley could not avoid stating the problem. There are core Catholic beliefs, which are not up for discussion. “To simply contradict them or dismiss them, and to embrace the values of the secular culture over what the church has taught for 2,000 years, is not acceptable,’’ he said.

If the LCWR is contradicting or dismissing Catholic doctrines, then the group must be reformed. So there is that question again: Have the LCWR leaders wandered off the Catholic reservation? If they have, the bishops—as good shepherds—should do their utmost to bring them back into the fold. But they won’t accomplish that by pretending the problem doesn’t exist.

There is ample room for difference of opinion within the Catholic Church. But there are limits. Years ago, a Jewish friend introduced me to the useful concept of Halachic Judaism. He explained that Conservative and Orthodox Jews might disagree on the interpretation of the Law (Halacha), but at least they agree that there is a law and it ought to be followed. So too with Catholicism. We may disagree on the interpretation of certain Catholic doctrines, but we must at least assent to the fact that there are doctrines, and they are definitively taught by the Catholic magisterium.

Thus, you and I might have different views on the scope of papal authority, the meaning of religious liberty, the practical value of ecumenical work, or the application of moral laws. We can debate our differences—with the understanding that our disagreements might never be resolved, and possibly neither of us is right. But if you disagree with me about the existence of the Trinity, or the physical reality of the Resurrection, then we can no longer claim to share the same faith.

Similarly, you and I might have very different liturgical preferences. But if you do not believe that the Eucharist is the source and summit of Catholic spirituality, then you and I are not members of the same religious community.

And here we come right to the nub of the problem. In his assessment of the LCWR, Bishop Blair encountered the astonishing fact that in their Systems Thinking Handbook, provided as a resource for the heads of religious congregations, the the LCWR addresses “a situation in which sisters differ over whether the Eucharist should be at the center of a special community celebration since the celebration of Mass requires an ordained priest, something which some sisters find ‘objectionable.’”

If the leaders of the LCWR resent the Church’s definitive teaching that women cannot be ordained to the Catholic priesthood, we have a problem. But if their resentment takes them so far as to question whether they should celebrate the Eucharist, the problem may be insurmountable.

So once again, the question can be stated simply. Are the LCWR leaders still on the reservation?

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: sparch - Jun. 18, 2012 10:02 AM ET USA

    The sad matter of fact is that from I have read, the good sisters are not only in conflict with Church teaching, when confronted, will deny that they are, say it is an isolated incident or not even be aware that they are in conflict (and argue to the death they are not). This has always been caused by and still the Bishops' probelem. Bring them in line.

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - Jun. 16, 2012 3:00 PM ET USA

    These women are off the rails. If they so resent priests,they will do without the Presence of the Eucharist,they are no longer in the Church. Their approval of abortion is chilling but they are the darlings of the secular media. I'm sick of them.