I was privileged to attend the annual LCWR national conference in Houston, Texas, from Aug. 11-15. Before going, I told many people that I was most interested in hearing the perspective of the LCWR leadership on the final settlement of the Vatican mandate which had plagued the leadership of women's religious communities for years.
Before the conference, many friends of mine were convinced that LCWR had "sold out" to the Vatican. They seemed sure that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) or the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life would continue to oversee the publications of LCWR, as well as the speakers and awardees at LCWR conferences for years to come. In short, they believed that LCWR had sold its prophetic soul to the Vatican.
Much to my relief, I learned that that is simply not true. CDF did indeed suggest a professional theological review of LCWR publications. But the theologians will be chosen by LCWR, which is mainly interested in theological accuracy. There is no "pre-clearance" for speakers or awardees, and there was no concern expressed by Vatican officials about recent awardees.
In short, LCWR remains in the same position -- ecclesiastically speaking -- as it was before the mandate. It is accountable to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL), as are all the conferences of religious women and men around the world. The leaders will continue to visit CDF annually -- but that has been a long-standing practice which predates the mandate (one can hope that this system will also be changed in time, but that is a subject for another time).
But this raises the question: why did the Vatican settle? Why did CDF back off of its demands to LCWR? No one knows for sure except the officials at the Vatican.
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But I suspect there are two reasons. The first is the extraordinary support expressed by the laity of the United States as the contents of the mandate became known. There were demonstrations, public expressions of support of all kinds by people in parishes and in the church reform movement. This led to very positive press coverage and editorials praising the work that sisters do in the United States -- and that positive coverage went far beyond NCR!
Put all of this together, and I suspect that Pope Francis judged that this whole mandate was a major political embarrassment, and he wanted it out of sight by the time of his September visit to the United States. The very fact that he met with LCWR leadership at the Vatican for 50 minutes (an extraordinary amount of time on a papal schedule) gives some credence to that theory.
That said, it was extraordinary to hear the heart-rending stories of the LCWR leaders at the Houston conference who talked about suffering through meetings with Vatican officials over the years, as they tried to bridge the deep "cultural chasm" between them and U.S. women religious. Perhaps … maybe … some of that chasm has been healed. The women also shared "graced" moments. And the leaders of LCWR give some of the credit for bridge building to Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle.
In short, this whole mandate caused needless suffering, but in a strange way, it may have led to a breakthrough in understanding. Only time will tell.