Six-year ‘assessment’ ends with collaborative joint report

May 15, 2015 by

Sister Marcia Allen, fourth from left, and other LCWR representatives, meet with Pope Francis April 16 at the Vatican.

Sister Marcia Allen, fourth from left, and other LCWR representatives, meet with Pope Francis April 16 at the Vatican.

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 The “joint final report” that ended the Vatican’s investigation of the main leadership group for American Catholic sisters was a collaborative effort that began with a draft written by the women being investigated.

Work on the report – which was released at the Vatican on April 16 with the understanding that the parties involved could not discuss it publicly for 30 days — began last November “at the request of Archbishop (J. Peter) Sartain,” explained Sister Marcia Allen, president elect of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and one of the four LCWR representatives in Rome for the announcement.

“This was the first time in the history of the Church that people being investigated were asked to draft a report on their own investigation,” Sister Marcia said. “It was the first time that the (Vatican) investigators worked with the people being investigated to arrive at a mutual agreement.”

The report brings to an end the “doctrinal assessment” of LCWR that began in February 2009, and which led to formal and mandated oversight of the group, beginning in April 2012. At that time, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith appointed Sartain as its archbishop-delegate and gave him a five-year mandate to oversee reforms of the sisters’ group.

LCWR represents about 80 percent of the some 50,000 Catholic sisters in the United States. It traces its beginnings to the papacy of Pope Pius XII and first formally organized as a conference in 1956. Its members are the leaders of the various orders of women religious around the country.

Its delegation in Rome included Sister Marcia as president-elect; Sister Carol Zinn as past president, Sister Joan Marie Steadman as executive director and Sister Janet Mock, the former executive director. LCWR President Sister Sharon Holland was not able to attend the Rome meetings.

When LCWR finished the first draft of what would become the final report, they sent the document to Sartain and the two bishops assigned to assist him — Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, and Thomas John Paprocki of Springfield, Ill. — and to Msgr. Steven Lopes, a San Francisco priest on staff at the doctrinal congregation. There was “more dialogue on several points,” Sister Marcia said, before a final draft went to Cardinal Gerhard Müller, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“We were amazed that Cardinal Müller accepted it,” Sister Marcia said. But, she added, in their meetings in Rome, “He couldn’t have been more gracious and complimentary.”

Müller has on several occasions harshly criticized LCWR, including exactly a year ago during the leaders annual meeting with the CDF. At that time, the cardinal said they were ignoring procedures for choosing speakers for their annual conferences, and he questioned if their programs were promoting heresy.

But this April, as the joint LCWR/CDF report was issued, Müller said in a prepared statement that he is “confident that LCWR has made clear its mission … by fostering a vision of religious life that is centered on the Person of Jesus Christ and is rooted in the tradition of the Church.”

Sister Marcia said it’s important to note that the final report “is just that: A report, not a mandate. It’s not what we must do; it’s what we are doing.”

The two-page document addresses two main issues: updating LCWR’s statutes and the process of selecting writers and speakers for the organization’s publications and conferences.

The report notes that LCWR “overwhelmingly approved” updated statutes during its 2014 Assembly, and those who subsequently forwarded to the Vatican. With a positive review from the CDF, the revised statutes were approved in early February 2015 by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

The section on LCWR writers and speakers is more nuanced and goes into more depth.

Referring specifically to publications, the report says that LCWR’s “mission is in service to its members and their positive role of collaboration in the Church’s mission.” But, the report notes that not just LCWR members are reading its publications: They, in fact, “serve a larger audience in the Church. Many persons desiring spiritual growth have become readers of various (LCWR) publications.”

To serve that wider audience, LCWR needs to avoid the kind of “in-house language” that internal publications often use, Sister Marcia said, as well as making more of an effort to explain the role of LCWR and leaders among women religious.

The report also notes that “measures are being taken to promote scholarly rigor (in LCWR publications)… to help avoid statements that are ambiguous with regard to Church doctrine or could be read as contrary to it.”

Conference programs should also be considered with the same scrutiny, the report says: “The choice of topics and speakers … will be carried out in a prayerful, thoughtful and discerning manner. … LCWR expects speakers and presenters to speak with integrity and to further the aims and purposes of (LCWR), which unfold within the wider context of the Church’s faith and mission.”

The same “prayer, thoughtful and discerning manner” will be brought to LCWR’s selection of the Outstanding Leadership Award recipient.

One important lesson for the entire Church, she believes, is that “parties who do disagree can come together if they are willing to put in the time and talk together with patience and persistence; they can find a solution that serves everyone, if they have the willingness to do that.”

A key player for allowing that to happen in this process was Archbishop Sartain.

“He was the glue that held this together,” Sister Marcia said. “He was a translator, and his translation of what each of us said enabled us all to stay at the table.”

As she returned from Rome, Sister Marcia seemed mostly just relieved that it was over. The “doctrinal assessment” that began in February 2009, and intensified in April 2012 with Sartain’s appointment as overseer, was finally behind her and the other members of the LCWR leadership team.

Also behind them was the broader “apostolic visitation” of American Catholic sisters that was virtually concurrent; it had begun in January 2009 and was finally dismissed in December 2014.

Then there was this: The release of the joint report was immediately followed by an extraordinary meeting with Pope Francis. The symbolism was not lost on Sister Marcia: “The fact that he wanted to see us and not talk about the doctrinal assessment by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was crucial. LCWR was completely exonerated. And he wanted to talk about what was important to him — and to us: The joy of the Gospel.”

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