VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Citing "serious doctrinal problems which affect many in consecrated life," the Vatican announced a major reform of an association of women's religious congregations in the U.S. to ensure their fidelity to Catholic teaching in areas including abortion, euthanasia, women's ordination and homosexuality.
Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle will provide "review, guidance and approval, where necessary, of the work" of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the Vatican announced April 18. The archbishop will be assisted by Bishop Leonard P. Blair of Toledo, Ohio, and Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., and draw on the advice of fellow bishops, women religious and other experts.
The LCWR, a Maryland-based umbrella group that claims about 1,500 leaders of U.S. women's communities as members, represents about 80 percent of the country's 57,000 women religious.
In Silver Spring, Md., the presidency of the LCWR issued a statement saying it was "stunned by the conclusions of the doctrinal assessment of LCWR by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Because the leadership of LCWR has the custom of meeting annually with the staff of CDF in Rome and because the conference follows canonically approved statutes, we were taken by surprise.
"This is a moment of great import for religious life and the wider Church. We ask your prayers as we meet with the LCWR National Board within the coming month to review the mandate and prepare a response," the statement said.
A spokeswoman for the LCWR said its leadership would not be granting interviews until after a wider consultation with its members in May.
The Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, said the doctrinal congregation "appreciates that (the leaders of the conference) have so far limited themselves to a single official statement and have not expressed other specific complaints."
But Father Lombardi said the congregation believed that it had been treated "a bit unjustly" with the suggestion that the sisters had been taken entirely by surprise by the assessment.
The LCWR later revised its initial statement, adding that "we had received a letter from the CDF prefect in early March informing us that we would hear the results of the doctrinal assessment at our annual meeting; however, we were taken by surprise by the gravity of the mandate."
The announcement from the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith came in an eight-page "doctrinal assessment," based on an investigation that Bishop Blair began on behalf of the Vatican in April 2008. That investigation led the doctrinal congregation to conclude, in January 2011, that "the current doctrinal and pastoral situation of LCWR is grave and a matter of serious concern, also given the influence the LCWR exercises on religious congregation in other parts of the world."
Among the areas of concern were some of the most controversial issues of medical and sexual ethics in America today.
"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 doctrinal congregation said. "Further, issues of crucial importance in the life of the Church and society, such as the Church's biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes Church teaching."
The Vatican also found that "public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops, who are the Church's authentic teachers of faith and morals, are not compatible with its purpose."
According to the Vatican, such deviations from Catholic teaching have provoked a crisis "characterized by a diminution of the fundamental Christological center and focus of religious consecration."
But the congregation's document also praised the "great contributions of women religious to the Church in the United States as seen particularly in the many schools, hospitals, and institutions of support for the poor, which have been founded and staffed by religious over the years," and insisted that the Vatican "does not intend to offer judgment on the faith and life of women religious" in the LCWR's member congregations.
During his tenure as the Holy See's delegate, which is to last "up to five years, as deemed necessary," Archbishop Sartain's tasks will include overseeing revision of the LCWR's statutes, review of its liturgical practices, and the creation of formation programs for the conference's member congregations. The archbishop will also investigate the LCWR's links to two outside groups: Network, a Catholic social justice lobby; and the Resource Center for Religious Institutes, which offers legal and financial expertise to religious orders.
Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service who leads Network, told CNS in Washington in an April 19 phone interview from Rochester, N.Y., where she was giving talks, that like LCWR's leaders, she was "stunned and surprised" by the document.
CNS was unable to reach the executive director of the Resource Center for Religious Institutes for comment. The center is based in Silver Spring.
The doctrinal assessment was separate from the Vatican's "Apostolic Visitation of Religious Communities of Women in the United States," a study of the "quality of life" in some 400 congregations, which began in December 2008. The visitation's final report was submitted in December 2011 but has not yet been published.
LCWR was founded in 1956 as the Conference of Major Superiors of Woman after the Vatican's Congregation for Religious asked U.S. sisters to form a national conference. The organization changed its name in 1971 to the Leadership Conference for Women Religious.