Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

What happened to the Vatican reform of the LCWR?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 23, 2015

The recent positive conclusion to the Vatican’s investigation into the Leadership Conference of Women Religious raises more questions than it answers. The kind words that LCWR leaders are now heaping on the Pope and curial officials do nothing to reassure.

Questions arise because these latest developments are so clearly at odds with the internal LCWR resistance to the Vatican’s doctrinal assessment while it was in progress. This includes a repeated failure to meet the expectations of Archbishop James Sartain of Seattle, the Vatican delegate placed in charge of LCWR reform. Such resistance has been continuously manifested not only in the negative comments of LCWR leadership but in their insistence on continuing to sponsor dissident speakers and honor religious women who reject key portions of the Catholic Faith.

Phil Lawler has already expressed his own doubts about the outcome, which he categorized as “news” because what is now being said contradicts, well, life as we know it. We have, after all, been hearing horror stories about the LCWR for decades.

The effort to establish an alternative leadership organization in 1992, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, provided needed relief to the communities which had petitioned Rome to escape the LCWR, but the LCWR, which was founded in 1956, continues to represent some eighty percent of women religious in the United States. The following news stories indicate that the LCWR did not even try to make a good impression during the period of the investigation itself:

You will find even more damning evidence in the commentary I wrote last year, It is time to revoke the Catholic status of the LCWR—including the affirmation of the 2007 keynote speaker, Sr. Laurie Banks, that it was time for women religious to move “beyond Jesus”.

Rhetoric and Reality

So now everything is just great? Suddenly, it is all peaches and cream? Obviously that’s not very likely. There is a certain logic to the Vatican concluding its intervention on a positive note, while hoping the required reforms will actually bear fruit over time. There is also a certain logic to the positive comments of LCWR leaders about the Curia. We might call this “playing Church”, the way children “play house”. It is hard to escape the impression that this is all politics—by which I mean adult make-believe. (OK, if you’re sanguine, call it diplomacy.)

From the first, the Vatican has acknowledged the good works that many of the LCWR member communities do. Certainly the Vatican has its own deep concern for the poor and marginalized. Hence the recent comment by Sr. Marcia Allen about Vatican officials: “I was impressed just at the universality of their concern as well as some of the things they were focused on” (namely migration and human trafficking, that is, contemporary social issues). This fits. Similarly, Sr. Carol Zinn said of Pope Francis: “You can tell that at a feeling level, that he is heartbroken about the suffering in the world. Truly, truly heartbroken. He suffers. You can just feel that.”

Aw gee, isn’t that sweet? But the problem with the LCWR has never been that these women lack social concern. The problem is that they have adopted the secular myth that everything will be just fine if we can only address human problems in fashionable ways through well-funded secular programs. The pitfall is that such programs are inescapably based on a fundamentally false view of the human person. Thus the LCWR has come to see authentic Christianity not as a blueprint for success but as an obstacle to be overcome.

Seeing much of Catholic moral teaching as a useless distraction, the LCWR simply doesn’t recognize that only Christ and the grace He offers through the Church can bring about the radical change in values and the deep interior commitments necessary for genuine human development. This is true whether we are referring to those at the center of power or those on the margins. Instead, you will find the LCWR attempting to empower all kinds of disadvantaged people, but without ever addressing the unfashionable moral and spiritual issues at the root of so much that is wrong.

By this I mean all those issues on which the larger secular culture rejects Catholic teaching, resulting in an aimless pursuit of personal pleasure, an isolated individualism, and the near-total destruction of the family—which is the sine qua non of social health. Yes of course: We are talking in large part about the sexual issues, and the mistaken image of the person on which the whole modern secular edifice is built. The LCWR thinks the wave of the future is a benign secular tide which lifts all boats. The LCWR fails to understand this is really a tidal wave of destruction. And the LCWR simply cannot fathom why things keep getting worse.

The Test of Time

Only time will tell whether the Vatican has planted enough positive seeds among American women religious in general and the LCWR in particular to bring about true renewal. One is reminded of the apostolic visitation of American seminaries in the mid-1980s. It seemed ineffectual at the time, but when it was repeated twenty years later, there had been remarkable improvements across the board—except in the houses of formation of some religious orders. The same could happen here.

But the salvation of our seminaries can be explained by the rapid improvement of the episcopate under John Paul II, an improvement which has had very little impact on either religious life or Catholic universities, which the bishops do not control. To me it seems more likely that the positive blather now surrounding the LCWR is a result of a failure to implement an effective reform. Very likely face is being saved on both sides, while Rome awaits a better opportunity for success.

In that case, the dead communities happily represented by the LCWR (and not all are happy) will continue to decline until they disappear; and the living communities represented by the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious will continue to grow. That has been the trend, on the whole, for a long time. The reason? Nominal, secularized, dissident Catholics rapidly become irrelevant as agents of positive change. They are part of the world that is passing away (1 Jn 2:17; 1 Cor 7:31). They do not measure well against the test of time.

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: Geno190 - Apr. 26, 2015 12:42 AM ET USA

    The heart of the Constitutions of most Apostolic Religious Congregations can best be summed up in the words "Christ is the Rule of our lives." Mt. 25:32-46 summarizes where Christ in need is found: in the hungry, naked, stranger, etc. The structures best supporting the responses depend on the specific needs, times and places of the reality. Not the other way round. Pope Francis and the Vatican's final evaluation honor the reality of the LCWR life. Give Praise to the Spirit's Presence.

  • Posted by: nix898049 - Apr. 26, 2015 12:26 AM ET USA

    I'd like to think they will die out on their own but this situation seems to me to echo another with the SSPX. Still not resolved. Still costing souls.

  • Posted by: Dlukenbill2151 - Apr. 24, 2015 10:35 AM ET USA

    To me, the entire situation was shown in the picture of the LCWR leaders meeting with the Holy Father. He and the priest with him were in holy garb, while the sisters were dressed secularly. I think the Vatican has decided that the LCWR is unredeemable—though miracles do occur—and letting them continue to shrink to nothingness, rather than publicly removing them from the Church, is the preferred method; kind of like life in prison rather than capital punishment, though I, as Dr. Mirus puts it in the August 18, 2014 post, support the latter.

  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Apr. 24, 2015 1:12 AM ET USA

    The bishops and CDF were first of all in this for the sake of souls, keeping as many as possible in saving union with the Church. You have to understand how many sisters have been saying they DO NOT want to be part of "the institutional church" to appreciate the affirmation of LCWR as an instrument of communion. Having examined closely what is going on at ground level, I think this is successful, at a level that is realistic for right now. Continuing faithful choices are needed now.

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Apr. 23, 2015 6:27 PM ET USA

    The Church's media capital account is down to its last nickels, so don't waste those beating up some old ladies who will all be dead in 20 years.

  • Posted by: shrink - Apr. 23, 2015 1:54 PM ET USA

    "Thus the LCWR has come to see authentic Christianity not as a blueprint for success but as an obstacle to be overcome." Nicely put. Why the LCWR sees it this way requires some Freudian analysis along with a meditation on Mathew 4:11 .

  • Posted by: koinonia - Apr. 23, 2015 1:50 PM ET USA

    "Phil Lawler has already expressed his own doubts...which he categorized as “news” because what is now being said contradicts, well, life as we know it." A vital point. In fact another way to describe this phenomenon (again in a general sense) for the Catholic holding on to his catechism, his piety etc - indeed his sanity- in the post-conciliar age is that he must no longer know. The intellect is made to be informed. We must know. And knowing takes courage. Quite courageous, Dr. Mirus.