Nashville, Tenn. — Meeting here for their annual assembly, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious spent four days conducting the business any large organization requires -- despite the subtext of an ongoing Vatican investigation and orders to reform.
The Aug. 12-16 gathering for leaders of most of the congregations of women religious in the U.S. was prayerful and song-filled, marked by occasional blunt references to tensions between the group and the Vatican.
Sisters who attended the assembly said it renewed their commitment.
"I think it's an amazingly vibrant group of women, who are so steadfast in what they believe," said Holy Union Sr. Carol Regan, associate director of the Religious Formation Conference. "I'm going to go back to work more affirmed in my own vocation as a religious sister, eager to see others join us in this way of life."
In her keynote address, Franciscan Sr. Nancy Schreck, a past president of LCWR, said the decades that sisters have been living the radical call of Christ have led to a maturity that cannot be ignored or denied, even if that maturity is not understood by those on the outside.
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"We are coming through this night of mystery and can say with Alice Walker, 'We are no longer girls. And to continue to act as though we are robs the world and the coming generations of our insights,' " Schreck said, drawing sustained applause when she said, "We are no longer girls."
Sr. Mary Johnstone, vicaress of the Sinsinawa Dominicans in Wisconsin, said the messages were demanding.
"I'll certainly take back some of the challenges they gave us," she said. "The call to be leaders -- to really look at that from a contemplative stance -- to be presence to those that are marginalized."
LCWR has been undergoing a Vatican-ordered doctrinal assessment since 2009. Following the investigation, in 2012, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) ordered LCWR to reform its statutes and appointed Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain to oversee changes.
At a meeting with the doctrinal congregation this spring, prefect Cardinal Gerhard Müller chided LCWR leaders for dragging their feet on mandated reforms and ordered them to have Sartain approve speakers at the group's events.
The congregation was especially angered by LCWR's choice of St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson to receive its Outstanding Leadership Award. The U.S. bishops' Committee on Doctrine had said her 2007 book, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, is not in accordance with Catholic teaching. Johnson, considered one of the architects of feminist theology, denies the allegation.
In her talk to the group Aug. 15, Johnson paralleled the criticism of her book to the doctrinal assessment of LCWR, calling the investigation "unconscionable."
Sartain attended most of the public sessions LCWR held, but did not attend when Johnson addressed the group on the last night of the assembly.
Other than when speakers referred to the doctrinal assessment, it was only discussed in closed sessions. The public sessions focused on leadership, social justice issues, and understanding God's call.
Following the assembly, the group's board members met privately for three days, beginning with an hourlong session with Sartain. On Aug. 18, they issued a statement on the doctrinal assessment.
"Our study, discernment, and prayer led us to reaffirm our strong belief that ongoing conversation with church leadership is key to building effective working relationships that enable both women religious and church leaders to serve the world," the board said in the statement. "It is our deepest hope to resolve the situation between LCWR and CDF in a way that fully honors our commitment to fulfill the LCWR mission as well as protect the integrity of the organization."
The statement did not directly say whether LCWR will consent to the Vatican's mandate that Sartain approve future speakers for the group. LCWR's spokeswoman, Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Annmarie Sanders, said the group would not say anything beyond what was in the written statement. Both Sartain and LCWR have said they have an agreement to speak only to each other on the issue.
"We will continue in the conversation with Archbishop Sartain as an expression of hope that new ways may be created within the church for healthy discussion of differences," the statement continued. "We believe that the ongoing conversations between CDF and LCWR may model a way of relating that only deepens and strengthens our capacity to serve a world in desperate need of our care and service."
Jesuit Fr. Bruce Morrill* told NCR the statement is a pointed rejection of the congregation's demands.
A professor of Catholic studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, Morrill's research and writing concern questions of power as exercised in the ritual practices of the church. He said the sisters' leadership style is fundamentally different from the Vatican's, with sisters using leadership teams and elections, versus the Vatican's rigid, hierarchical chain of command.
"To my mind, this is a stellar example of how fundamentally different are the cultures the LCWR and Roman Catholic hierarchy practice," Morrill said. "The LCWR thus declares its willingness to continue 'to work with' Archbishop Sartain, but they do not describe any readiness to meet the CDF and the archbishop's command that they henceforth submit their conference agendas and selected speakers for the archbishop's approval."
Ann Carey, a Catholic journalist and author of the 1997 book Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women's Religious Communities, and its 2013 update, Sisters in Crisis, Revisited: From Unraveling to Reform and Renewal, said this year's assembly didn't appear to produce anything different than previous ones. Carey, a frequent critic of LCWR, did not attend this year's assembly, but followed it from news reports and LCWR press releases.
LCWR wants to "determine its own direction and destiny while it stays in conversation with Archbishop Sartain regarding the mandate. So, not much new, I would say," Carey said.
Mercy Sr. Helen Marie Burns said she was "underwhelmed" by the LCWR statement, "but perhaps that is the wisdom and brilliance of the release."
"In a world where so many refuse to join in conversation, refuse to attempt listening and sharing, refuse to sit at table long enough to learn and to understand, 'We will continue in the conversation' is good, if not dramatic, news," Burns told NCR in an email Aug. 20.
"This simple act of conversation holds power and promise -- someday there may be mutuality and substantive exchange," said Burns, who was LCWR president in 1989.
In her keynote address, Schreck said the tension with church authorities has come because women religious have heeded the call for reform in the Second Vatican Council.
"The council asked us to become more aware of social concerns, and we did so," she said.
Women religious have learned "that our truest historical role is responding to the unmet needs of our world and our church," she said.
That response has led to a deepening of faith, she told the nearly 800 sisters present.
"We have been in a process of maturing since the council's call to renewal, and I dare say that through the process we have become more faithful, not less, more clear about who we are, not less, and more free to give expression to our call, not less," Schreck said.Carey said statements like that are "unnecessarily confrontational."
"LCWR insists it wants to be in respectful conversation with the [doctrinal congregation's] delegate, Archbishop Sartain," Carey said. "Respectful conversation is a two-way street."
Focused on conducting business as usual, LCWR members passed a resolution committing its member congregations to the use and support of renewable energy sources, which went along with the LCWR host region's justice issue of choice: opposition to hydraulic fracturing -- known as "fracking" -- for oil and gas. They also called for an end to mountaintop-removal coal mining.
Members also approved a resolution calling on Pope Francis to repudiate the doctrine of discovery, a 15th-century policy justifying violence against indigenous peoples.
Morrill said this, too, is in contrast to what church leaders have called for.
"Nowhere are the U.S. bishops' nearly exclusive concerns about 'religious freedom' in the USA, in conjunction with abortion and contraception and keeping mortally ill bodies alive as long as possible by new technologies," he said. "This would seem only to promise further tension with the U.S. bishops."
Morrill said LCWR is setting its own agenda, according to its own beliefs.
"Again, in the bishops' view, they are the ones in the hierarchical chain who set the agenda; the sisters should receive it and then vigorously, publicly support it," Morrill said. "The perspective in the LCWR's press release, in contrast, is one of their coming to the table with Archbishop Sartain for a discussion from which he might receive their wisdom as well."
Johnson, in her address after accepting LCWR's award, also said church authorities need to work with women religious instead of just giving orders.
"It would be a blessing for the church if [Müller] could find a creative way to bring this investigation to an end in a productive manner," she said. "When the needs of the suffering world are so vast; when the moral authority of the hierarchy is hemorrhaging due to financial scandals and to many bishops' horrific dereliction of duty in covering up sexual abuse of children, a cover-up which continues in some quarters to this day; when thousands are drifting away from the church; when the liberating Gospel of God's abounding kindness needs to be heard and enacted everywhere, the waste of time and energy on this investigation is unconscionable. Wouldn't it be great if we could be partners, not adversaries, for the good of the church and the world?"
In the presidential address, a key part of every assembly because it sets the stage for much of the rest of the gathering, St. Joseph Sr. Carol Zinn, LCWR president, said the song in God's heart demands serving our brothers and sisters, especially the poor and outcast.
"Are we singing with full voice the ways in which God's creation and Christ's body cry out for justice, inclusivity, compassion?" she asked.
"Likely, we're only whispering that oneness from within and beyond the natural world to the most meaningful and sacred relationships, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, or belief system."
Sr. Joan Mumaw, an Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister from Monroe, Mich., said Zinn's and Schreck's addresses were among the highlights of the entire week, and they left her positive and hopeful. "I think we're standing together as religious women," she said, "and I think it's inspired."
Sr. Kathleen Phelan, a Sinsinawa Dominican, said the entire assembly drew the sisters closer together.
"The most energizing thing for me is to be with my sisters," Phelan said. "The bondedness that we are in ministry together, that we have a deep love of one another and that we're about the ministry of God's work in the world. It's the music, it's just the energy of being with one another."
Carey said LCWR's insistence on continuing its own way is at its own peril.
"LCWR has three choices: It can implement the reform required by the Holy See and remain a canonical superiors' conference; it can go its own way as a professional organization without any canonical status; or it can disband," Carey said. "LCWR seems to be searching for a fourth option that would allow it to keep its canonical status while going its own way on doctrinal matters. Time may run out on them for that fourth option, however, for the reform is supposed to be completed by April of 2017."
Carey said the real test of LCWR's path will come soon.
"I think we'll have a better clue about what will happen when it's time for LCWR to schedule future speakers: Will they clear them with Archbishop Sartain or not?"
*An earlier version of this story misidentified Morrill as attending the assembly.