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Yes, Francis Is Right to Continue the Reform of the LCWR

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© Sid Hastings / CNS Photo

Daniel McInerny - published on 04/17/13

And it's in line with - not contrary to - Francis' renewal of the Church

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This week Pope Francis reaffirmed the findings of an April 2012 assessment by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that found serious doctrinal issues with policies, programs and presentations sponsored by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an association of leaders of congregations of Catholic women religious in the United States. 

And it didn’t take long for major organs in the secular media to decry Pope Francis’s affirmation.

One of these, Tina Brown’s The Daily Beast–which, without nod of homage or apparent sense of irony, takes its name from a farcically unscrupulous newspaper in Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 send-up of Fleet Street journalism, Scoopcomplained that “[f]or all the renewal that Francis promises, the cold, hard reality is still that the Catholic Church is still one of the most misogynistic organizations around, no matter how popular the new pope might be.”

For The Daily Beast, Pope Francis’s affirmation amounts to a “clampdown” on women religious in the U.S., and betrays a lack of recognition of “women’s value in the universal church.” 

But this framing of the conflict between the LCWR and the Vatican in the terms of gender politics is grossly misleading–which a closer look at the conflict makes evident.

The LCWR Conflict with the CDF

By its own account, the LCWR has 1,500 members. The LCWR claims that these 1,500 members “represent” more than 80% of the 57,000 women religious in the United States. That’s an ambiguous claim, at best. For it’s not at all clear that 80% of women religious in the U.S. actually share the views of those who “represent” them in the LCWR. Be that as it may, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its doctrinal assessment expressed concern about “this conference of major superiors to which the large majority of congregations of women Religious in the United States belong.”  

The LCWR has been charting heterodox waters for some time. It was Sr.  Theresa Kane, after all, former president of the LCWR, who notoriously urged Pope John Paul II during his 1979 visit to the U.S. to re-think the ordination of women. But in 2008 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) officially announced that it would be undertaking a doctrinal assessment of the LCWR, the results of which were published in the spring of 2012. 

What concerns about the LCWR were expressed in the CDF report?

The addresses at LCWR assemblies, such as Sr. Laurie Brink’s infamous 2007 keynote in which, contrary to how Ross Douthat describes it, she endorsed the view that communities of religious sisters should look “beyond the Church” and even “beyond Jesus” toward an acknowledgement that “Jesus is not the only son of God.”  

Policies of corporate dissent, in which, for example, the LCWR publicly calls into question the Church’s teaching on priestly ordination and its pastoral approach to the ministry of persons with homosexual tendencies. 

The prevalence of radical feminist themes, which, the CDF’s assessment warned, “risk distorting faith in Jesus and his loving Father who sent his son for the salvation of the world.”

As part of its assessment the CDF reviewed the LCWR’s Mentoring Leadership Manual and other documents of organizations associated with the LCWR. It concluded: “while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States.” 

The CDF also noted that issues of importance to the life of Church and society are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes the Church’s “Biblical view of family life and human sexuality.” The CDF also took issue with occasional public statements of the LCWR in which it challenges the bishops on matters of faith and morals.

Among the social justice issues around which, as announced on the its website, the LCWR “has taken recent action” are climate change, health care reform, relief for Haiti, immigration policy reform, and the U.S. military presence in Iran and Iraq. Elsewhere on its website the LCWR advocates the right to water, the Occupy movement, and just responses to hydrofracking and sex trafficking. 

There are many important issues on this list. But the CDF is certainly right that the lack of attention to the life issues and other issues impacting family life are conspicuously lacking among the LCWR’s concerns. In sardonic tones The Daily Beast addresses the CDF’s concern with this lack:

“The sisters, it seemed, were staying silent on the church’s pet issues of abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, and the ordination of women. Their silence was interpreted as endorsement—by not speaking out against such “evils,” the report said, the sisters were effectively showing their approval for the practices.”

But if LCWR silence on these major issues of Church doctrine is not to be interpreted as endorsement, then can someone point out an instance in which the LCWR speaks out loudly and confidently in defense of Church teaching on these matters? There is no evidence of such, at least, on their website. One might have hoped in light of the Gosnell atrocities for some statement of outrage from the nation’s largest association of women religious leaders. There’s a ringing defense of the right to water. Where’s the defense of the right to life itself? 

Abandoning Christ

What one takes away from the LCWR’s public presence is that this is a body far more concerned with a political agenda than with spiritual formation in light of the Church’s doctrine, and that even when it rightly fights for social justice it does so without full appreciation of the Church’s social teaching–of which life and family issues are the bedrock

In its assessment the CDF got to the nub of its conflict with the LCWR in this way: 

“On the doctrinal level, this crisis is characterized by a diminution of the fundamental Christological center and focus of religious consecration which leads, in turn, to a loss of a “constant and lively sense of the Church” among some Religious.” 

The CDF’s beef with the LCWR is therefore not a matter of gender politics; it’s a matter of Christ and his Church not being at the center of the association’s activities. 

In one passage of the LCWR’s Systems Thinking Handbook, a resource for “decision-making,” a scenario is imagined in which sisters argue over whether a Mass should be at the center of a communal celebration, since some sisters find the Mass “objectionable.” According to the CDF assessment, the Handbook identifies the source of this conflict in different cognitive models (the “Western mind” as opposed to an “Organic mental model”). One can almost hear the shocked tones as the CDF report continues: “These models, rather than the teaching of the Church, are offered as tools for the resolution of the controversy of whether or not to celebrate Mass.”

But such silliness–which Evelyn Waugh, though clearly not The Daily Beast, could well appreciate–is what the LCWR is substituting for a real life in Christ. 

About Sr. Laurie Brink’s call for women religious to go “beyond Christ,” the CDF assessment observed with welcome wit: “Some might see in Sr. Brink’s analysis a phenomenological snapshot of religious life today. But Pastors of the Church should also see in it a cry for help.”

The CDF is striving valiantly to answer that cry for help, to keep the LCWR from spinning completely out of the orbit of the Faith. Let us hope and pray that the association will be docile in adhering to the CDF’s mandate for implementation of its assessment. It might help them to keep in mind some statistics that John Allen pointed out in an article some years ago

“Just one percent of women’s communities belonging to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, known for having a more liberal outlook, currently have more than 10 new members in initial formation, whereas a robust 28 percent of communities belonging to the Conference of Major Superiors of Women, known for being more conservative, have 10 or more members in the early stages of membership.” 

Daniel McInerny is an author, journalist, philosopher, and member of Aleteia’s Editorial Board. You can contact him at and follow him on Twitter: @danielmcinerny

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