An expert on religious women in America believes that renewal within the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) will require “very strong self-evaluation” and cooperation with the Vatican's recent call for reform.
“After having studied this for many years, I think it was 40 years in the making,” said Ann Carey, author of the 1997 book “Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities.”
Carey told CNA on April 20 that ever since the LCWR revised its statutes in 1971, it has had a rocky relationship with the Vatican.
“The Vatican was patient, trying to give the sisters some guidelines to modify the direction they were taking, and they resisted that,” she said.
On April 18, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith announced that it had appointed Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle to lead reform efforts within the conference.
The announcement came as the findings of a multi-year doctrinal assessment of the women's conference were released, raising concerns of dissent from Church teaching on topics including homosexuality, the sacramental priesthood and the divinity of Christ.
Carey said that members of the LCWR have “definitely” exhibited doctrinal problems and have also “made it quite clear that they are intent on changing the nature of religious life.”
They have also spoken of “loyal dissent,” as if to suggest that “it is permissible for one to disagree with Church teaching as long as one professes loyalty to the Church,” she added.
Carey explained that many of the problems illuminated in the Vatican’s assessment are the result of a “misinterpretation of Vatican II documents.”
In the early 1960s, the Second Vatican Council called on religious orders to renew and update themselves, removing “outdated” rules and customs so as to engage the modern world.
For example, many religious orders were continuing the custom of waking up at dawn and going to bed at twilight, she said. This rule was left over from a time before electricity was in use, and it is now unnecessary and outdated.
But while the council called for renewal by returning to the orders’ original founding ideas and adapting them to modern times, many people misinterpreted this call and instead proceeded to “totally throw off some of the essentials of religious life,” she said.
The result was an abandonment of central elements of religious life, such as living and praying in community, serving in a corporate apostolate and wearing some type of distinctive religious garb, she explained.
Carey said that after Vatican II, members of many religious orders began to live in apartments and find their own jobs, separate from a corporate apostolate such as teaching or care for the sick.
In addition, they threw off the “loyalty and faithfulness to the Church” as well as the “deference to the hierarchy” that had previously characterized religious life.
The changes were so drastic that they caused some women to leave the LCWR, Carey said. These women formed another group, which eventually became an alternative superiors’ conference known as the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.
This more traditional group, which requires its members to adhere to the essentials of religious life as understood by the Church, is attracting the bulk of young vocations today, she noted.
If the conference is to undergo a true renewal, Carey said, its members must re-examine the Church’s understanding of religious life and make a firm commitment to live as “representatives of the Church,” in union with the local bishop.
She emphasized that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is not trying to return to the pre-Vatican II days but is instead promoting an “accurate interpretation of those documents” and the life they portray.
Carey said it will be “very interesting to watch” as the situation progresses. While she does not know what will happen, she said there are ultimately only two possible outcomes.
It is possible that the LCWR will cooperate with the Vatican’s reform efforts and see that they have gotten away from Church teaching, she explained.
However, she is unsure whether that will happen, because some of the group’s members are “very convicted that what they’re doing is the right thing.”
The other option is for the conference to relinquish its canonical status and simply continue as a professional group, which Carey believes will cause them to “lose a lot of their members.”
She said that some of the group’s members value their canonical standing and have simply continued their membership with the conference over the years because they had always done so.
No matter what the organization decides, “there will be dissenting voices,” predicted Carey.
She explained that the LCWR consists of the leaders of various religious orders, so it is actually only made up of about three percent of the religious women in America. She said that she knows many individual sisters with no say in decisions of the conference who are “very unhappy” with the organization and “welcome this move” by the Vatican.
Carey also commented on the possibility of the group asking the Vatican to establish a new category of consecrated life that would better fit them.
While other types of consecrated life – such as hermits and consecrated virgins – do exist, she said, there would still be a pressing need to address the theological problems exhibited by the conference.
“For vowed religious to be embracing teachings that are dramatically opposed to the official Church teaching is very scandalous and damaging,” she said.