The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) says that it “was stunned” by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's recent assessment of the group.
Voicing strong concerns over the conference’s commitment to Jesus Christ and Catholic teaching, the Vatican announced on April 18 that it was appointing Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle to head renewal efforts for the LCWR.
In an April 19 statement, the presidency of the conference said that it was “taken by surprise” by the announcement and would need time to prepare a thorough response. The group also asserted that it already “follows canonically-approved statutes.”
However, the Vatican document maintains that a multi-year assessment of the LCWR has revealed significant need for reform.
It referenced letters from LCWR officers suggesting “corporate dissent” from Church teaching on topics including the sacramental priesthood and homosexuality.
The group has also hosted regular presentations that demonstrated theological and doctrinal errors, as well as a “prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith,” it said.
In one presentation, a speaker discussed “moving beyond the Church” and even beyond Jesus.
By hosting conference speakers whose messages are “incompatible with religious life” and often show little regard for the Magisterium, the LCWR risks distorting crucial Church teaching on the Eucharist, Sacred Scripture and the divinity of Christ, the assessment document explained.
Further adding to the confusion on Church teaching is the lack of adequate doctrinal formation offered by the group.
The assessment pointed to a formation handbook prepared by the LCWR, which “presents a situation in which sisters differ over whether the Eucharist should be at the center of a special community celebration” because some sisters object to the fact that an ordained priest is required for the celebration of the Mass.
It also observed that although the organization strongly promotes social justice issues, it largely ignores issues of life, marriage and sexuality, which have played a prominent role in recent public debates over abortion, euthanasia and “gay marriage.”
The Vatican appointed Archbishop Sartain to work for up to five years to lead efforts to reform the conference.
Chosen as the secretary-elect of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last November, Archbishop Sartain has championed Church teaching on both a local and national level.
In January, he testified before a Washington state senate committee against a bill to recognize “gay marriage” in the state. When the legislation passed, he encouraged parishes in the archdiocese to collect signatures in favor of a referendum to repeal it.
He also served as the homilist at the 2011 Red Mass for public officials in Washington D.C., where he spoke about Christian service.
Archbishop Sartain will now be responsible for working with LCWR leadership to revise the conference’s statutes and create new formation programs for its members.
He will also be in charge of approving the group’s programs and presentations, as well as the ways in which it applies liturgical norms and texts, ensuring that proper priority is placed on the Eucharist.
In addition, he will review the conference’s connections with affiliated groups, such as Network and the Resources Center for Religious Life.
In working to implement these reform efforts, the archbishop will be aided by an advisory group of clergy, experts and women religious, as well as Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield and Bishop Leonard P. Blair of Toledo, Ohio, who was responsible for conducting the assessment of the LCWR.
Both a canon lawyer and a civil lawyer, Bishop Paprocki is the former chairman and a current member of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance.
A staunch defender of Church teaching on life and marriage, the bishop has spoken out against Illinois’ Catholic governor Pat Quinn for his decision to support same-sex civil unions, which ultimately forced the diocese to shut down its adoption and foster care programs.
He also criticized Quinn for presenting a “Pro-Choice Leadership Award” to an abortion advocacy group in Nov. 2011.
Bishop Blair, a member of the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, has also worked to defend the Church’s teaching on marriage.
In 2009, he banned a workshop offered by gay advocacy group New Ways Ministry because the organization failed to present authentic Church teaching on homosexuality.
Archbishop Sartain expressed a deep respect for the work of religious women in America, whose ministry is “paramount to the mission of the Church.”
“Just as the LCWR can be a vital resource in many ways for its members,” he said, “I hope to be of service to them and to the Holy See as we face areas of concern to all.”