Posted by: L. E. Barnes | August 18, 2012

Where Did They Go Wrong?

How did the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) end up so far off the mark? Our Sunday Visitor discusses the ongoing tensions between the LCWR and the Vatican:

There was a call for more dialogue, but no apparent breakthrough is on the horizon in the ongoing clash between the Church hierarchy and the leaders of the nation’s largest group of nuns and religious sisters. 

The Aug. 7-10 annual assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious concluded with resolutions calling upon the organization’s leadership to start a “conversation” with Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, the archbishop delegate appointed by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to help implement a reform of the LCWR. 

The CDF released a doctrinal statement on April 18 calling for reform after a Vatican assessment of the LCWR said it found “serious doctrinal problems,” including addresses at LCWR conferences that dissented from Church teachings. 

However, statements from the LCWR’s leadership and guest speakers at the recent assembly in St. Louis defended the organization, which represents 57,000 Catholic sisters in the United States, and its understanding of religious life in the 21st century. 

In her presidential address, Sister Pat Farrell, the outgoing head of the LCWR, told the estimated 900 assembly participants that it would be a “mistake to make too much of the doctrinal assessment.” 

“It is not the first time that a form of religious life has collided with the institutional church, nor will it be the last,” said Sister Farrell, who subsequently added that it would also be a mistake to not take it seriously. 

Sister Farrell went on to tell the audience that the LCWR’s model of religious life is an authentic expression of the renewal called for 50 years ago by the Second Vatican Council. She added that the doctrinal assessment was an opportunity to “explain to Church leaders LCWR’s mission, values and operating principles.” 

That statement would seem to indicate that it may not be easy for the LCWR to find common ground with the Vatican and its stated concerns that the LCWR leadership fails to affirm Church teachings on faith and morals — particularly life issues and the all-male priesthood. 

The doctrinal assessment also accused the LCWR of allowing radical feminist themes, heresy and dissent from Church teachings to be promoted in its programs and presentations. One problematic address cited was that of Sister Laurie Brink, a Dominican nun who in 2008 told the LCWR about some religious needing to “move beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus.” 

Growing conflict

Nevertheless, Archbishop Sartain released a statement on Aug. 11 after the LCWR’s annual assembly in which he affirmed the Catholic religious sisters’ contributions to society and added his hopes for a fruitful collaboration. 

“I remain committed to working with leaders of the LCWR to address the issues raised by the Doctrinal Assessment in an atmosphere of prayer and respectful dialogue,” Archbishop Sartain said. “I look forward to our meeting and our future discussions as we continue to collaborate in promoting consecrated life in the United States.” 

Cardinal Burke even suggested that the Vatican could dismantle the LCWR, adding: “If it can’t be reformed, then it can’t have a right to continue.” 

Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, who conducted the Vatican assessment and is also charged to assist with the reform, told National Public Radio in a July 25 interview on “Fresh Air” that the dialogue was difficult because the LCWR refuses to concede that the bishops’ concerns have merit. 

“In all candor, up to now, there’s been a lot of just denial, a refusal to at least, until now, recognize that there are any problems, that the bishops and the Holy See should even be concerned about these things,” Bishop Blair said. 

The perspective from the LCWR general assembly was that the nuns, in practicing their ministries and engaging the modern world, are being caught between the tensions of old understandings of truth and reality and an emerging paradigm marked by equality, communion, collaboration and “wholeness.” 

“Some larger movements in the Church, in the world, has landed on LCWR. We are in a time of crisis and that is a very hopeful place to be,” Sister Farrell said. 

Different visions

The LCWR assembly’s main speaker, Barbara Marx Hubbard, a futurist and writer lauded by some New Age practitioners such as Deepak Chopra, spoke on consciousness evolution, and said that humanity is facing a crisis on a global scale that requires an exercise of “a higher level of ethical, shared commitment and social synergy to realize positive change.” 

On the first day of the assembly, Hubbard was escorted to the podium by seven religious sisters who waved pink-colored scarves and danced around her, singing and sounding chimes. 

Inviting Hubbard to be its guest speaker and surrounding her with liturgical dancers prompted criticism from some corners. Father Mitch Pacwa, an EWTN personality and author of “Catholics and the New Age,” (St. Anthony Messenger Press, $12.99) told the St. Louis Review, the newspaper for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, that Hubbard’s writings about humans becoming “cocreators” within the universe were problematic. 

The LCWR assembly also featured remarks from Thomas C. Fox, publisher of the liberal National Catholic Reporter, and Jamie Manson, a columnist for the same newspaper, who offered ideas for how religious life might evolve in the future. 

Writing on his blog, Fox said that the LCWR’s membership presented an “alternative vision” of religious life that is anchored in the Second Vatican Council and emblematic of the Church’s future. 

“It is a vision that proclaims that Christian communities are intrinsically hopeful, that they believe in the goodness of all people, and that these communities must never stop being living examples of the full embrace and acceptance, which Jesus taught,” Fox wrote. 

The LCWR assembly also passed a resolution calling on Congress to pass the so-called DREAM Act to provide conditional permanent residency to some undocumented immigrants. The assembly also passed a second resolution committing the sisters to work for the abolition of human trafficking. 

Sister Farrell said it was her hope that an “open and honest dialogue” with the bishops will not only lead to understanding, but also create more opportunities for the laity, particularly for women, to have a greater voice in the Church. 

Sister Farrell ended her presidential address by quoting a proverb popular during Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile. 

“They can crush a few flowers but they can’t hold back the springtime,” she said. 


“Springtime”? These people consider such rebellion against the Church a “springtime”? God help them.

Instead of offering comments on this issue, I’m asking–as a relative newcomer to the Church–for insight: can someone please, PLEASE explain to me how in the name of heaven so many religious in the United States came to embrace elements of radical feminism, New Age thinking, and other egregious departures from the faith? Seriously, when I read about this sad state of affairs, I’m left totally dumbfounded. Where did they go wrong?

You can read the “Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious” here. Bishop Leonard P. Blair offers clarification of this issue in the following video. (It’s over eleven minutes, and the bishop’s presentation is a tad dull, but it’s clear and informative):



  1. I don’t have time to watch the video right now. I”ve been hearing things from both sides of this dispute; those who are angry with the establishment seem to feel like the Vatican is berating all religious women, but the other side of the debate says it’s about a particular organization. As such, my guess is that this is getting more air play than it deserves…but that’s not, let me repeat, NOT, an educated guess–only a gut feeling.

    This one statement stuck out at me from the article: ““It is not the first time that a form of religious life has collided with the institutional church, nor will it be the last.” It stuck out because I know it’s true. This summer I was reading letters and background on Clare of Assisi, who, with Agnes of Prague, butted heads with the Pope repeatedly. They wanted to be Franciscans, and the Pope didn’t want them to have a vow of poverty. He had good reasons for his wish, but so did they. I don’t know how (or even if) that has any bearing on what’s going on now–only a few decades’ hindsight will reveal that, I suspect–but it did strike me as an interesting perspective, and quite revealing of how the organization is approaching things.

    • I agree that this is probably getting more attention than it deserves (we can thank the media for that!).

      Granted, there have been prominent figures in the Church’s history that “collided with the institutional church”. However, it seems that some of these women religious have gone well beyond that and are in open rebellion in many respects, embracing religious and political positions that fly in the face of magisterial teaching. Anyway, we need to pray for all those involved in this matter, regardless of which side they are on.

      • Definitely.

  2. Of course butting heads with the Vatican doesn’t mean someone is right; not that I blame the LCWR for wanting to don the mantle of St. Clare; or St. Francis; or Teresa of Calcutta, assuming they can make it fit.

    I remember when V2 began to change the Church around 1966; and to a kid it looked like people could call their own shots if you said the words “Vatican Two” often enough.

  3. I think it has to do with a poor understanding of Vactican II and what it was trying to do. Blessed Pope JOhn XXIII wanted to let in some ‘fresh air’ into the Church and everything came in and became okay. As far as collision with the instituational Church, off the top of my head these saints were in trouble: Ignatius Loyola, Teresa of Avila, Dominic, Anthony of Padua.
    As far as the sisters go, there is right and wrong on both sides, but there needs to be mutaul respect and dialogue. Sometimes it seems like it is a huge political campaign, with all the finger-pointing and blaming.

    • Since I wasn’t raised Catholic, a lot of these issues are still pretty new to me. What you said seems to lie at the heart of the problem: misunderstandings/confusion regarding Vatican II. And the mainstream media, displaying their all too typical poor understanding of the Catholic Church, aren’t helping matters by stepping in and distorting the story.

      • I don’t think people misunderstood. They just figured they could drive a busload of their own druthers through that opening and the Church wouldn’t crack down on them. And they were right.

  4. Obedience to and respect for the Church’s Magisterial Authority wouldn’t hurt either.

    • Exactly! This should never be forgotten when disagreements arise among Catholics.

  5. “how in the name of heaven so many religious in the United States came to embrace elements of radical feminism, New Age thinking, and other egregious departures from the faith?” This give a hint:

    • Thanks for the link!

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