Wednesday, April 18, 2012

For US Nuns, A Vatican Shake-Up -- LCWR Ordered to "Reform"

While no shortage of today's news-cycle has spent its energy on reports of a possible Vatican breakthrough in the long-sought return to the fold of the Society of St Pius X -- even if nothing definitive is expected to emerge for some weeks -- this noon hour sees an already concrete, and no less blockbuster, Roman move hitting the wires.

Citing "serious doctrinal problems" found over the course of a four-year study of the umbrella-group representing the majority of the US' communities of nuns, the Holy See has announced a thoroughgoing shake-up of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), naming Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle as its delegate to conduct an overhaul of the group.

Among other concerns raised in an eight-page summary of the doctrinal inquest released today, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith cited addresses at LCWR conferences that, it said, manifested a "rejection of faith," protests of church teaching on homosexuality and the ordination of women by officers of the group, and a "prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith" in some of the conference's events.

"The current doctrinal and pastoral situation of the LCWR is grave and a matter of serious concern," the dicastery said.

Chartered by the CDF and carried out by Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, the LCWR inquest is not directly related to the controversial apostolic visitation of the nation's womens' orders, whose final report was received in Rome at the turn of the year. The findings of that three-year process are still under review, with the Vatican's recommendations likely to be released before year's end.

After approval by the cardinals and bishops of the doctrinal congregation, the findings of the LCWR study were approved by Pope Benedict in early 2011, with an order that the CDF's recommended remedial measures be implemented following the wider visitation.

In its unsigned text, the CDF said of its motive that "the work of any conference of major superiors of women religious can and should be a fruitful means of addressing the contemporary situation and supporting religious life in its most 'radical' sense — that is, in the faith in which it is rooted" (emphases original).

Referring to LCWR manuals and statements obtained by the investigatory team, the assessment added that "while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the church’s social doctrine, 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. Further, issues of crucial importance to the life of church and society, such as the church’s Biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes church teaching.

"Moreover, occasional public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals, are not compatible with its purpose."

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His mandate set to include a "review" of -- and, likely, significant revisions for -- LCWR's statutes, liturgical practices, conference plans and institutional relationships (with its ties to the Catholic social-justice lobby Network specifically cited), the low-key, conciliatory Seattle prelate long viewed as a rising star in church circles will be assisted by two other prelates: Blair and Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield in Illinois, a canon and civil lawyer who recently completed a three-year term as the US bishops' lead hand on legal matters.

As an intriguing subtext, it's worth noting that Sartain's sister is a member of the Nashville-based Dominicans of St Cecilia, a booming, full-habited community widely seen as the vanguard order of a tradition-based reform from within of American religious life.

A native of Memphis trained as a liturgy scholar, the newly-named delegate has scored high marks since becoming head of the 900,000-member Seattle church in late 2010. Given the famously progressive ways of the Northwest's largest diocese -- which saw one of its prior heads, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, himself placed under Vatican investigation and temporarily stripped of much of his authority in the mid-1980s -- the regard and the spirit of collaboration Sartain's engendered by dint of personality is likely a key indicator behind Rome's selection of the 59 year-old to lead the LCWR revamp.

While LCWR was chartered as the sole leadership confederation of the US' womens orders in 1956, concerns over the group's stances on church teaching led to the Vatican-backed creation of an alternative body more receptive to Rome, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), in 1992. Though a handful of communities hold membership in both organizations -- the newer of which requires that its orders maintain a defined habit -- the US is the only country to have dueling superiors' conferences for religious of a single gender. All the nation's mens' orders are represented by the Conference of Major Superiors of Men.

Saying that the move was "aimed at fostering a patient and collaborative renewal of this conference of major superiors in order to provide a stronger doctrinal foundation for its many laudable initiatives and activities," in a separate statement, the CDF prefect Cardinal William Levada emphasized that "the issues evidenced in the doctrinal assessment involve essential questions of faith."

The LCWR's membership comprises the heads of some 95 percent of the nation's 60,000 women religious, their numbers fallen by two-thirds over the last five decades.

SVILUPPO: As of late Wednesday, LCWR had issued no formal public response to the day's developments. How much notice the group had, though, could well be a relevant issue -- the conference only learned of the Apostolic Visitation of the US' communities of women a few hours before the venture was publicly announced at a Washington press conference.

Despite the lack of official comment, a former LCWR president -- and quite possibly the body's most celebrated member -- Benedictine Sister of Erie Joan Chittister told the National Catholic Reporter that "When you set out to reform a people, a group, who have done nothing wrong, you have to have an intention, a motivation that is not only not morally based, but actually immoral.

Chittister said the Vatican move was an attempt "to control people for one thing and one thing only -- and that is for thinking, for being willing to discuss the issues of the age.

"If we stop thinking, if we stop demanding the divine right to think, and to see that as a Catholic gift, then we are betraying the church no matter what the powers of the church see as an inconvenient truth in their own times."