Catholic Sisters Group Releases Statement on the CDF Doctrinal Assessment and Conclusion of Vatican Investigation

Issued by Sister Sharon Holland, IHM (LCWR President); Sister Marcia Allen, CSJ (LCWR President-Elect); Sister Carol Zinn, SSJ (LCWR Past President); and Sister Joan Marie Steadman, CSC (LCWR Executive Director)

We have been asked by our members and the public for our thoughts and reflections regarding the completion of the mandate of implementation issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) after its doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). We do so here, but emphasize that these are only preliminary personal observations and reflections. We will not have the opportunity to reflect on the experience in its entirety with the members of the conference and hear their insights until the LCWR assembly in August 2015.

From the time of the 2012 public issuance of the findings of the doctrinal assessment of LCWR, we had serious concerns about both the content of the assessment and the process by which it was prepared. We believed that the sanctions called for in the CDF mandate were disproportionate to the concerns raised and we feared the sanctions could compromise the ability of the LCWR officers and members to fulfill the mission of the conference.  Furthermore, we were deeply saddened that the report caused scandal and pain throughout the Catholic community. We, along with our members, felt publicly humiliated as the false accusations were re-published repeatedly in the press.

Beginning with our first meeting with LCWR’s board of directors in May 2012 shortly after the issuance of the mandate, we situated all discussions of the assessment and mandate in a context of communal contemplative prayer. This involved acknowledging the depth of our feelings about the actions of CDF; careful listening to all perspectives on the matter; engaging in honest conversations with one another about not only LCWR and its work, but our own faith journeys; communally sitting in silence to ponder all we heard; and bringing our insights to God in prayer. We continued to utilize contemplative processes each time we gathered as the executive officers of the conference, as a board, and as an assembly to discuss the mandate. We believe this approach strengthened our capacity to hear and better understand the concerns of CDF as well as clarify and strengthen our own convictions about the mission and purpose of LCWR. The processes in which we engaged as a conference became a profound source of personal growth for each of us and deepened and strengthened the bonds that exist among us as women religious.

We brought this desire for deep listening and respectful dialogue to our work with the CDF officials and found they held a similar desire. Our interactions with the CDF officers and the three bishops whom CDF delegated to implement its mandate — Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, Archbishop Leonard Blair, and Bishop Thomas Paprocki — were always conducted in a spirit of prayer and openness. We engaged in long and challenging exchanges with these officials about our understandings of and perspectives on critical matters of faith and its practice, religious life and its mission, and the role of a leadership conference of religious. We believe that because these exchanges were carried out in an atmosphere of mutual respect, we were brought to deeper understandings of one another. We gained insights into the experiences and perspectives of these church leaders, and felt that our experiences and perspectives were heard and valued.

Preparation for and participation in such rigorous dialogue and exchange of ideas was time-consuming and, at times, difficult. The choice to stay at the table and continue dialogue around issues of profound importance to us as US women religious had its costs. The process was made more difficult because of the ambiguity over the origin of the concerns raised in the doctrinal assessment report that seemed not to have basis in the reality of LCWR’s work. The journey in this uncharted territory at times was dark and a positive outcome seemed remote.

We were encouraged, however, to remain in the process by the manner in which Archbishop Sartain journeyed with us. His presence to us as the LCWR officers, as well as to our members at the LCWR assemblies and board of director meetings he attended, spoke clearly of his sincerity and integrity. His capacity to listen to us from a stance of respect and genuine care strengthened our confidence that honest dialogue would eventually help us all to recognize our commonalities and gain clearer understanding of and appreciation for our differences.

LCWR has a long history of conducting evaluations and assessments of its work and has always welcomed new ideas that could strengthen its mission. We appreciate what we learned through our work with Archbishop Sartain and the other CDF officers and delegates about how LCWR is perceived by others and are integrating these new insights into the work and life of the conference. One example is the recommendation of theological reviews of LCWR periodicals. We accepted and already implemented this suggestion because we believe such a review will fortify LCWR’s publications.

From the beginning of LCWR’s work with the bishop delegates in 2012, we agreed that we would speak honestly and directly with one another and not through the media. We recognize that this decision frustrated some of our own members, as well as the public and the media. We were highly aware that many people throughout the world were concerned about LCWR and were supporting and praying for us. While at times we too wished we could have shared more along the way with all who cared about this matter, we believe that by keeping our conversations private, we were able to speak with one another at a level of honesty that we believe contributed to the mandate coming to its conclusion as it did. Of utmost importance to us throughout this process was the directive we had received from our own members not to compromise the integrity of LCWR. We believe that integrity was not only kept intact, but perhaps deepened and strengthened through the process.

We acknowledge as well that the doctrinal assessment and mandate deeply disturbed many Catholics and non-Catholics throughout the world. Thousands of people communicated to us their concern not only for LCWR and Catholic sisters, but for the ramifications these two actions could have for the wider world and church. Many perceived the assessment and mandate as an attempt to suppress the voice of LCWR which was seen as an organization that responsibly raises questions on matters of conscience, faith, and justice. Repeatedly, we heard that people were praying that the manner in which LCWR and the bishop delegates engaged in this process would lead to the creation of safe spaces where matters of such importance could be discussed with openness and honesty, and in an environment freed of fear.

Our hope is that the positive outcome of the assessment and mandate will lead to the creation of additional spaces within the Catholic Church where the church leadership and membership can speak together regularly about the critical matters before all of us. The collective exploration of the meaning and application of key theological, spiritual, social, moral, and ethical concepts must be an ongoing effort for all of us in the world today. Admittedly, entering into a commitment to regular and consistent dialogue about core matters that have the potential to divide us can be arduous, demanding work, but work that is ultimately transformative. However challenging these efforts are, in a world marked by polarities and intolerance of difference, perhaps no work is more important. In an epoch of massive change in the world, we believe such efforts towards ongoing dialogue are fundamental and essential for the sake of our future as a global community. We hope that our years of working through this difficult mandate made some small contribution to this end.