What Is the LCWR Good For?

In her column “The U.S. Sisters & the Holy See” (June 13), Mollie Wilson O’Reilly asks many questions of Pope Francis, the Vatican, and others concerning the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. But she asks no questions of the LCWR or its officials. Let me suggest a few.

What is the LCWR? What service does it provide? Does it really represent 83 percent of American women religious?

The LCWR is a conference of and for the women who lead most of the religious orders for women in this country. As far as anyone can tell from its statement of purpose, it is a service organization that, in its own bureaucratic language, includes “assisting its members personally and communally to carry out more collaboratively their service of leadership in order to accomplish further the mission of Christ in today’s world.”

So, no, the LCWR does not in any way represent the members of religious orders, and therefore, contrary to the fearful rhetoric of some of its outside supporters, criticism of the LCWR is not criticism of American nuns. In fact, outside of the conference itself I doubt that 2 percent of the forty thousand women religious it often claims to represent know or care what the LCWR does.

The LCWR would have some value if it helped its member-leaders grapple with their own greatest threat, which is not the pope or the Vatican or the bishops but their own inability to attract new members. So far as I know, the LCWR has never studied why religious orders can’t even keep the novices they do attract. What good is a conference of leaders when most of the followers are well past seventy years of age and more may in fact be receivers of services—as patients in their own hospitals and assisted living facilities—than providers of services to others? As near as I can tell, the LCWR is a collection of about a thousand women who head their respective religious communities, meet once a year to listen to speakers, and, over the past decade or so, issue passive-aggressive responses to legitimate questions from various church authorities whom they obviously don’t respect, in part because they are male, and in part because they are authorities.

The weirdest part of these gatherings is the speakers. Back in the 1980s, when “the consciousness revolution” had already begun to fade, the LCWR was regularly inviting New Age flakes to address them. And so again this year. Just what did these leaders of women hope to learn from Barbara Marx Hubbard, an eighty-four-year-old Jewish agnostic who is still expounding on “evolutionary consciousness”?

I think it is worth asking whether the conference serves any useful purpose. And worth weighing what would be gained and what lost if it were to disappear.

Kenneth Woodward
Chicago, Ill.


The Author Responds

Confusion about the nature and role of the LCWR has certainly contributed to its problems with the bishops. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith seems to expect the LCWR to function as its proxy in policing orthodoxy among American women religious, and faults the LCWR for its failure to “promote a solid doctrinal basis for religious life.” The sisters have responded, quite reasonably, that the LCWR is not meant to be a central authority or governing body that dictates to and speaks on behalf of its individual members. There is a fundamental conflict between how the sisters envision “leadership” and the bishops’ idea of what it should entail. The details of that conflict are something both groups now have an opportunity to address.

Given the limits of the LCWR’s purview as an organization designed to support the leadership of women’s congregations, it seems presumptuous for an outsider to pronounce on its usefulness. It is impossible to respect the work that sisters do without also respecting their right to self-determination. Categorizing them as either “providers” or “receivers of services” ignores their identity as women whose primary service to the church is their witness to Christ through vowed religious life in community. Their work grows out of their commitment to live according to a particular charism, and when they retire to the ministry of prayer, their witness is no less valuable or worthy of respect. As for the conference’s guest speakers: I don’t know what LCWR members hoped to learn from Barbara Marx Hubbard, and it hadn’t occurred to me to demand an answer. Now that the CDF has inquired, I am inclined to let the sisters answer for themselves—something they have done with remarkable grace, and always with much more respect than they have been granted.

Although the LCWR does not speak for or have authority over the congregations its members belong to, it is hardly paranoid to see the criticism of its work as directed at U.S. sisters more broadly. The CDF’s investigation coincided with the 2010 “apostolic visitation” of American women’s orders overseen by the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. The (unpublished) final report on that visitation is cited in the CDF’s assessment of the LCWR, which expresses concern about formation programs for “several communities that belong to the LCWR” that “reportedly stressed their own charism and history, and/or the church’s social teaching or social justice in general, with little attention to basic Catholic doctrine, such as that contained in the authoritative text of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.” The LCWR is not responsible for such programs, but the CDF thinks it ought to be: “It may nevertheless be concluded that confusion about the church’s authentic doctrine of the faith is reinforced, rather than corrected, by the lack of doctrinal content in the resources provided by the LCWR for Superiors and Formators.” Far from making a distinction between the mass of obedient nuns and their wayward leaders, the assessment makes clear that the CDF’s goal in reforming the LCWR is to nudge it to address what it calls “serious doctrinal errors” among its member congregations, reinforcing doctrines about the church and the sisters’ (subordinate) role in it.

The CDF hopes that its reform of the LCWR will help renew religious life in the United States. I don’t doubt the bishops’ sincerity, but I do question the prescription. The dropoff in vocations to women’s orders is not simply a result of lax standards of orthodoxy, and I suspect the heavy-handed exercise of authority is likely to do more harm than good. The notion that the LCWR and its member congregations are not constantly thinking about and adjusting to their own dwindling numbers strikes me as preposterous. Do they deserve to be dismissed because so few women have joined them in recent years? Given how often the sisters’ faithfulness has been rewarded with contempt, it is remarkable to me that so many remain.

Mollie Wilson O’Reilly


Christmas in July

In my many years as a subscriber, this is my first letter to the editor. I had to write because I was so deeply moved by Anthony Domestico’s interview with Christian Wiman (“Being Prepared for Joy,” May 2). After rereading it three times, I bought Wiman’s My Bright Abyss for myself and sent copies to two friends—a wonderful read!

Myles T. McDonald
Philadelphia, Pa.

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Published in the July 11, 2014 issue: View Contents
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