The Vatican is investigating a Silver Spring-based umbrella group for nuns for deviating from Catholic doctrine after the group failed to toe the church’s line on male priesthood, homosexuality and salvation being chiefly obtained through the Catholic Church.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), encompassing some 1,500 leaders of the nation’s 63,032 nuns, is undergoing a “doctrinal assessment” overseen by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which safeguards church teachings.
Its prefect, Cardinal William Levada, informed the group of his investigation in a Feb. 20 letter, according to the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), which broke the story last week. It apparently is not related to a separate “apostolic visitation” or study of America’s nuns the Vatican announced in January.
The Vatican has been monitoring the LCWR since a 2001 meeting in Rome between LCWR leaders and the CDF, which at the time was headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.
At that meeting, LCWR leaders were directed to promote a 1994 Vatican document “Ordinatio sacerdotalis,” Latin for “On the Ordination to the Priesthood,” which reiterated the church’s teaching that ordaining women is impossible; a 2000 document, “Dominus Jesus,” that talked of “defects” among non-Catholic Christians and held up the Catholic Church as the chief path to salvation; and the Catholic position on homosexuality as an “objective disorder,” a phrase which comes from the 1986 letter “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” written by then-Cardinal Ratzinger.
“Given both the tenor and the doctrinal content of various addresses given at the annual assemblies of the LCWR in the intervening years,” NCR quoted Cardinal Levada’s letter as saying, “this dicastery can only conclude that the problems which had motivated its request in 2001 continue to be present.”
Some Catholic bloggers have pinpointed a speech given by Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink at an LCWR assembly in Kansas City as an example of his concerns. Sister Brink seemed to endorse universalism, speaking of the need to go “beyond Jesus.”
“Jesus is not the only son of God,” she added. “Salvation is not limited to Christians.”
The LCWR informed its members of the investigation April 2 and has issued a short statement saying it knows “neither the process nor timeline for completion of this assessment.”
“LCWR faces this process with confidence,” it added, “believing that the conference has remained faithful to its mission of service to leaders of congregations of women religious as they seek to further the mission of Christ in today’s world.”
Bishop Leonard P. Blair of Toledo, Ohio, a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, will conduct the assessment.
Several LCWR leaders will be in Rome April 22 as part of an annual Vatican meeting, scheduled before the CDF letter arrived.
Founded in 1956, the LCWR made headlines on Oct. 7, 1979, when its president, Sister Theresa Kane, publicly begged Pope John Paul II to consider ordaining women. The pope did not hide his annoyance at the request, made during the nun’s welcoming statement for his visit to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
On both Oct. 7, 1984, and March 2, 1986, the LCWR took out full-page New York Times ads saying there is more than one legitimate Catholic position on abortion.
In 1992, a conservative group calling itself the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious split off as an alternative to the LCWR.
A spokeswoman, Sister Gabrielle Mary Braccio, said CMSWR members have retained the traditional nuns’ habits and veils in contrast to many LCWR members, who dress in modern clothes.
The CMSWR represents 119 leaders of nuns’ groups, or 20 percent of the nation’s 400 Catholic sisters’ communities, “but we do represent 80 percent of the vocations coming in,” she added.
The split greatly upset then-Washington Cardinal James A. Hickey, who unsuccessfully tried to reconcile the two, according to John Fialka, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who wrote the 2003 book “Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America.”
“The leadership has increasingly taken progressive attitudes over the years,” he said of the LCWR. “There was a lot of rampant feminism in their rhetoric at one time.”
But the LCWR drew back from emphasizing women’s ordination after the 1994 letter, said Aisha Taylor, executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference.
“Since 1994, they have had to be silent and not have any ties to us,” she said. “The Vatican has been getting more and more punitive. It seems they are grappling for something. The Leadership Conference used to be much more progressive, but they are not any more.”
She added, “They are working for justice, against poverty, sexism and racism; these women are doing the work of the Catholic Church. So now there are two investigations of women religious. Did they put that much work into investigating pedophile priests? I don’t think so.”