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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 - updated on 06/07/17

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

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.

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