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Florence Deacon, LCWR president, at the plenary assembly of the International Union of Superiors General May 4, 2013. As transcribed by NCR. We at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious find ourselves in a very difficult place right now. One that became public a year ago after Easter when we made our annual visit to the Holy See dicasteries and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith gave us the results of a three-year doctrinal assessment, which we believed was very flawed and did not reflect our own lived experience.” The scriptures sustained us at that time, as we read about the little community after the resurrection, hidden behind closed doors, fearful, trying to make sense of what had just happened to them. Our emotions paralleled that of the Easter liturgical cycle as we read about death and resurrection, persecution, and a strengthened faith community living the Gospel of Jesus. And we took heart by Jesus’ words, ‘Fear not, I bring you peace.’ As we have reflected on how to respond as faithful women of the church, we have been supported by hundreds of thousand of letters from Catholics around the world who shared with us their own love of the church and some of their own poignant stories about the church. LCWR, as the name suggests, is a leadership conference where we share best practices, we mentor each other, and we try to help each other be servant leaders. We collaborate in church and social efforts for systemic change. We study the significant trends and issues within the church and society. We use our corporate voice for people who are experiencing any kind of violence. And we create skills and resources for materials on religious leadership skills. Every year, the presidency goes to the Vatican, goes to Rome and meets with various dicasteries of the Holy See. Sometimes we were, in the past, we were not able to get an invitation to speak with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. So in the year 2001, the presidency wrote and said, ‘We haven’t been able to meet you for a while, could we please come?’ And the dicastery said, ‘Yes, and we’d like to talk to you about three things. We want to know about your initiatives to promote church teaching on the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, the CDF declaration Dominus Iesus, and on the problem of homosexuality.’ The sisters were prepared to discuss these topics, but they were never brought up. Year after year, the sisters went to meet with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the issues were never returned to. In March of 2009, when they went to their annual visit, the sisters were told that a formal doctrinal assessment was being initiated. Bishop Blair was to do this assessment, so Bishop Blair wrote a letter of some of his concerns to the leadership conference and they
met with him in May of that year, in 2009 when it was first started. So they met with him in May, they were told of his concerns. They decided that they would need another meeting. So they consulted with theologians, canon lawyers and responded to his concerns. When the bishop received the letter, he canceled the scheduled face-to-face meeting that was to take place in November 2009. He continued to ask for more materials from the sisters and LCWR cooperated fully. When they made their formal appointment in 2011, the presidency asked if there were any new concerns and they were told no, there were no new concerns. Last year in April, I was one of the three-member presidency that went on our traditional visit and was given the results of the doctrinal assessment. We were shocked by the results and by the severity of the mandate that accompanied it, particularly because we had cooperated fully and had answered their questions. The assessment started with an acknowledgement that the church had for all of the work for women religious in the United States … They clearly stated that their concern was over the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and they were not implying anything about the faith and lived experience of our membership. They noted that there had been a great deal of work promoting social justice, in harmony with the church’s structure and doctrine. And then came the but. But, they were concerned about what we didn’t do. And I quote: ‘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.’ They were saying we simply haven’t talked about it. The media took it to mean we were not in accord with church teaching. That’s not true. Many, many sisters in the United States actively work in these areas. The doctrinal assessment also was concerned about what it called a diminution of the Christological center among some religious. They were concerned about what it called “radical feminist themes.” And it was concerned about a statement made in 1977 regarding women’s ordination and never rescinded. Now, that was a statement made 35 years ago, and it was made way before we were told ‘Please don’t talk about expanding ordination beyond celibate men.’ The report also acknowledged that we don’t approve texts in advance of our speakers, but they were particularly concerned about one presentation. This was a presentation made by a young theologian. She was new to religious life and she had been invited as a new member to reflect to reflect on what she saw as a possible future for us. She created three scenarios. She said, ‘There are a lot more ways we could move into the future, but let me suggest three ways that it might happen.’
One of the ways that she suggested was based on the experience of a small Benedictine congregation in Wisconsin who was down to two members. All the rest had died. And because there were only two members, they had to disband because you can’t have a congregation of two. They worked through the Congregation for Religious, everything was legally done, according to church law. But they still wanted to live in community, so they invited other faith traditions to join them. In this sense, they were beyond the church. In this sense, they were beyond Jesus Christ -- because they invited non-Christians to join them. However, the speaker said, ‘This is not Catholic religious life, it’s one way to move into the future, but it’s not Catholic religious life.’ She went on then to describe her own preferred option. She acknowledged that there was tension sometimes between the church leaders and women religious and she called for reconciliation with the established church, starting with the hierarchy. She said all these other options are possible … but this would be my choice, because it’s my church. The doctrinal assessment called her speech a “scandal” and noted that it went unchallenged by LCWR. Statements made by other speakers were mentioned not by us and not in the assessment, but were mentioned by bishops who wrote about this situation later. And a couple of the statements were actually made at joint conferences with the women religious and the men religious leaders. I thought that the bishops might have noted that it was rather strange that although we were sitting alongside each other, hearing the same speeches the women were the ones that got censored for them. We were also held accountable for other individuals and for areas beyond our authority. They were concerned about letters written by individual leadership teams in their own capacity as leaders of the congregation that were written to members of the Vatican, questioning church teaching. They also were concerned about things that were beyond our purpose. For example, they noted the absence of initiatives to promote the church’s teaching on difficult issues such as homosexuality. They were concerned about the formation program of individual congregations. LCWR has no authority over the formation programs of an individual congregation. That is their responsibility. And in general they were concerned that we do not teach doctrine. Many of our members have doctorates themselves in theology. We are a leadership development organization, a networking organization. Our goal is not set up as an organization to teach church teaching.
As a result of this, a mandate was given to an archbishop of Seattle, Archbishop Sartain, for ‘review, guidance, and approval where necessary of the work of the LCWR.’ They were mandated to revise our statutes, even though our statutes have been approved by the Congregation for Religious …. They also are to review all our plans and programs, including our general assemblies and our publications, and the speakers will be subject to their approval. They also want to reform our programs for our future leaders and formaters. They want us to create new program for initial and ongoing formation. We already have a national organization in the U.S. [where] that is indeed their full mandate, it’s the formation conference. They are also to review and offer guidance in the application of liturgical norms and texts, including giving a place of priority to the Eucharist and the liturgy of the hours at our conference. We always have the Eucharist daily at our conference. By putting in here that we must do it, people thought we weren’t and thought we had to be told to be prayerful women. They specifically mandate the liturgy of the hours, even though that is not the prayer of many of the religious congregations. They made the distinction that they were concerned about the leadership conference and not about sisters. But we are elected by our sisters. And out sisters and the laity and the People of God took it not as a censoring of a particular leadership group, but of United States Catholic sisters. And the sisters saw it as criticism of themselves and were deeply hurt by it. What this assessment shows is that there is serious misunderstanding between officials of the Vatican and women religious, and the need for prayer, discernment, and deep listening. We determined that we would do this negotiation outside of the glare of the media and we turned down thousands of requests. We could have been on every news program on every major channel in every part of the world if we would have said yes. We questioned the process the Vatican used to draw its conclusion and we wondered if the outcome might have been different if there really had been regular dialogue between church leaders. What we did was, in response to this, 900 of us gathered last year in a three-day meeting in an atmosphere of prayer and discernment to determine how we would respond. The members asked us for open and honest dialogue to increase understanding between leaders and us, to create more possibilities for the laity, especially women, to have a voice in the church, and to interact with the bishops from a stance of deep prayer that values mutual respect, carefully listening, and open dialogue.
We have continued to do this over the course of the past year, meeting with the bishops to try and get to know each other and build trust. We will be meeting with them again later, at the end of this month. We’ve invited both Archbishop Sartain and the papal nuncio to our assembly this year. We met with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith again two weeks ago in our annual visit to them. And at that time, they began again by affirming our works. They understand that we do education, social justice, social work very, very well. However, they said that the new pope is committed to continuing the renewal of LCWR. What we found interesting was CDF, when they met with Pope Francis, put out a press release after that time and there was no mention of LCWR being discussed in that press release. It mentioned two other issues that were discussed. This makes us wonder how much actually was brought up to the pope. I doubt if he followed us very closely when he was in Argentina. We wonder if he was told much at all, and we assume he would have, if told anything, it would have been as written in the report of the assessment. So we’re not really sure what it meant that he’s reaffirmed the continued renewal. In the first appearance after his election, he spoke of a journey of fraternity, of love, of trust among us, bishop and people together. And that’s specifically what we are asking for and hoping for. We pray that the election of Pope Francis will mark a new relationship between Roman Catholic sisters and the Vatican hierarchy in this journey of fraternity, trust, and love, bishops and people together as we try to live the Gospel as faithful Christians in our day.
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