ROME, June 22, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) – If they are not prepared to assert a more distinctly Catholic identity, the Vatican is prepared to oust the largest umbrella group of American nuns and sisters as the official representative and liaison with Rome, one of the pope’s closest advisors said in a rare interview.

If the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) refuses absolutely to cooperate with the Vatican’s attempt at reform, said William Levada, the cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, they will force Rome to reconsider their position in the Church.

“If you look at the church as a hierarchical structure—whether you see that as benign, or something else—ultimately, the pope is the superior,” Levada said.

“I suppose if the sisters said, ‘OK, we’re not cooperating with this,’ we can’t force them to cooperate. What we can do, and what we’d have to do, is say to them, ‘We will substitute a functioning group for yours,’ if it comes to that.”

Levada told US journalist John Allen that it is “premature” to imagine that the current LCWR leadership is to address the “substantive issues” brought up by a doctrinal assessment issued in April.

Allen stressed the point, asking, “So if the response is not satisfactory, the result could be decertification of LCWR?”

“It could be,” Levada responded.

LCWR is the organisation, founded in the 1950s, that officially represents about 80 percent of the 57,000 religious sisters in the U.S. Their membership is not growing, however, and the average age of most of the sisters in the US is about 74 with many of the LCWR-represented groups amalgamating or shutting down altogether.

Levada, an American prelate with decades of experience in US Catholic politics, knew that in addressing the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), the leading journalistic organ of the American Catholic left, he was directly addressing LCWR and their lay supporters.

Despite their claim to be “stunned” by it, the CDF’s doctrinal assessment, he said, was not sprung on them unawares. The CDF’s process started four years ago and LCWR’s leadership have been in close contact with Rome throughout.

In general, the assessment focused on what the CDF sees as LCWR’s conscious and determined movement away from the basics of Catholicism. The religious life in the US, it said, is in a state of crisis, facing “serious doctrinal problems”. Long before getting to doctrinal and disciplinary issues such as abortion, contraception and homosexual “marriage,” the CDF said the underlying problem is the group’s refusal to adhere to foundational dogmatic beliefs. These are the teachings like the existence of a personal, transcendent God, the divinity of Christ and the nature and place of the Catholic Church and its teaching authority in the economy of salvation.

The assessment particularly expressed concern that LCWR continued to stress “radical feminism” while remaining “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”.

“Issues of crucial importance in the life of the 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,” the assessment said.

The characterisation of the affair in the mainstream and leftist Catholic media – particularly in NCR  - of the Vatican “attacking” all the female religious in the US, is unjust, Levada said.

“For the record, let me say again this is not about a criticism of the sisters. No sister will lose her job in teaching or charitable work or hospital work as a result of this assessment, as far as I know This is about questions of doctrine, in response to God’s revelation, and church tradition from the time of the apostles. We take that seriously.”

“I admire religious life, and I admire religious men and women,” he said. “They’re a great grace in and for the Church. But if they aren’t people who believe and express the faith of the church, the doctrines of the church, then I think they’re misrepresenting who they are and who they ought to be.”

Following closed-door meetings with the CDF, LCWR issued a formal statement rejecting the assessment’s conclusions and indicating they have no intention of cooperating. The assessment, they said, is “based on unsubstantiated accusations” and used “a flawed process that lacked transparency”. They said it has “caused scandal and pain throughout the church community, and created greater polarization.” The Vatican has yet to publicly respond.

Asked by NCR what the cardinal thought a “functioning group” that could replace LCWR might look like, Levada said, “I hope it would look like a conference that focuses on the priorities of religious life, the life of holiness, which is the fundamental call of all of us in the church, and the good that can come through the apostolic works that many of these orders are committed to and the prayers that others are committed to.

“I would like to see religious as champions of the mission of Jesus Christ in the church and the world.”

A second group, whose constitutional documents closely mirror the cardinal’s description, already exists and has received formal recognition by the Vatican, a development that infuriated LCWR when it happened in the 1990s. One of the religious communities associated with the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), has publicly taken LCWR to task for misrepresenting their life.

The Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan (RSM), many of whom work directly in health care as doctors, said that LCWR has substituted an impoverished “language of politics” for “the language of faith”.

In a statement the RSM sisters said, “There is no basis for authentic dialogue between these two languages. The language of faith is rooted in Jesus Christ, His life and His mission, as well as the magisterial teaching of the Church.”

“The language of politics arises from the social marketplace,” they said. “The Sisters who use political language in their responses to the magisterial Church reflect the poverty of their education and formation in the faith.”

LCWR has “taken this into the public political arena” which has no regard for legitimate religious authority, they said. “It no longer stays in the dialogue of faith. Representation is always possible, dialogue is always possible, but it’s with the reverence towards the hierarchical Church.”