APRIL 25, 2012

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — A newly announced reform of an association of women’s religious congregations in the U.S. offers the sisters and their bishops an opportunity to communicate and work together more closely, said the archbishop named by the Vatican to oversee the reform process.

POPE JOHN PAUL II BLESSES MERCY SISTER THERESA KANE, PRESIDENT OF LCWR, IN 1979
Mercy Sister Theresa Kane, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, is blessed by Pope John Paul II at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington during the pope’s 1979 visit to the U.S. Sister Kane, earlier in the service, had challenged the pope to include women in all ministries of the church. (CNS photo) (April 26, 2012)

The Vatican announced April 18 that Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle will provide “review, guidance and approval, where necessary, of the work” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for a period of up to five years. His 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 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 an eight-page, “doctrinal assessment” based on an investigation that began in April 2008, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reported that the “current doctrinal and pastoral situation of LCWR is grave and a matter of serious concern.” The assessment cited deviations from Catholic teaching in areas including abortion, euthanasia, women’s ordination and homosexuality.

“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.”

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.

Archbishop Sartain told CNS his main role in the reform process would be to “facilitate relationships and understanding.”

Saying that he hoped he could “help the sisters and the LCWR recognize that we are all in this together,” the archbishop called the reform a “great opportunity” for women religious, U.S. bishops and the Vatican to “strengthen and improve all of our relationships on every level.”

Noting his extensive experience with religious communities in the four dioceses where he has served as a priest or bishop, the   archbishop expressed his “personal appreciation for the role of religious women in the United States” and “all the extraordinary things that they’ve done.”

Archbishop Sartain said he expected to meet with the LCWR “very soon,” and declined in the meantime to discuss the reform process in any detail. But he said that he and his two assistants, Bishop Leonard P. Blair of Toledo, Ohio, and Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., would be assembling an advisory committee to include women religious with expertise in theology and canon law, among other fields.

“We’ll have ample opportunity for conversation and dialogue about all the issues,” the archbishop said.