By Hilary White

ROME, April 22, 2009 ( – The leadership of a prominent left-leaning group of Catholic sisters is scheduled to meet today with Vatican officials to explain some “doctrinal content” of speeches given at its annual assemblies.

In February, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) launched a “doctrinal assessment” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the largest umbrella organisation for sisters in the US, after “concerns” were raised about the “tenor and doctrinal content” of some addresses at the group’s annual meetings since 2001.

As reported last week by the National Catholic Reporter, in his letter to LCWR dated February 20, William Cardinal Levada, Prefect of the CDF, said that among the issues of interest to the Vatican is the group’s understanding of Catholic teaching on homosexuality, as well as other central doctrinal issues.

The Vatican announced that it has appointed Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio to supervise the probe into what long-time observers have identified as one of the most prominent dissident and “liberal” Catholic organisations in the US.

Cardinal Levada noted that LCWR leaders had met with the CDF in 2001 to address members’ reception of Church teaching on the restriction of ordination to men, Catholic teaching on the nature of the Church, other religions and Christian denominations and “the problem of homosexuality.” Levada said it is clear that, given the content of recent meetings of LCWR, “the problems which had motivated its request in 2001 continue to be present.” 

One keynote address delivered at the LCWR 2007 meeting is representative of the problematic ideas embraced by many of the LCWR communities. In the address Dominican Sister Laurie Brink said that the more liberal or “sojourning” congregations were leaving behind “institutional religion” and “moving beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus.”

“A sojourning congregation is no longer ecclesiastical,” she said. “Religious titles, institutional limitations, ecclesiastical authorities no longer fit this congregation, which in most respects is Post-Christian.”

She added, “Jesus is not the only son of God. Salvation is not limited to Christians.”

Fr. Philip Powell, a priest of the Dominican order and an author and popular Catholic blogger, told LSN in an interview that he believes that the investigation is long overdue. He added, however, that he has doubts as to what it could accomplish after so many years. The LCWR “culture of opposition” is entrenched, he said. “From some of the things I’ve read about LCWR and from my own personal experiences as a seminarian and in religious life, there’s a real tendency of these women to form their identity around their opposition.”

“The LCWR has worked to undermine the Church’s ancient teachings,” he said, “particularly those about nature of Christ and the Church and sexuality.” Fr. Powell said that the group’s keynote addresses and speeches “have been uniformly anti-hierarchy, anti-clerical, anti-magisterium. They tend to push an eco-feminist ‘new cosmology’ ideology over and against basic Christian beliefs.

“They aren’t simply tinkering with the packaging here. They are gutting the gift.”

An umbrella organisation, LCWR, founded in 1956, has more than 1,500 members representing about 95 per cent of the 59,000 women religious in the U.S. While LCWR is the largest organisation for women religious in the US, its member communities are uniformly aging with few new recruits and an increasing amount of their resources devoted to caring for elderly sisters. Nevertheless, LCWR remains one of the leading voices in the US on the extreme left of “social justice” issues, such as immigration, the Iraq war and environmental concerns.

In 1991, author Donna Steichen published the landmark exposé study of US women’s religious orders, “Ungodly Rage: the hidden face of Catholic feminism,” in which she recounts her own first-hand experiences with groups of “progressive” Catholic sisters in the US, including LCWR.

The book is regarded as the definitive account of a movement that began in women’s religious orders in the 1960s that focused on their systemic revolt against the authority of the Church. It detailed the openly anti-Catholic preaching of “Catholic” feminist theologians, particularly the movement’s defence of abortion, homosexuality and its connections with witchcraft and New Age rituals.

Steichen told (LSN) in an interview that she welcomes the Vatican intervention, but added that “it is at least 30 years behind the need.”

Steichen pointed that in the last several decades, “The communities involved [in the LCWR] have almost completed their suicides, and they know it, and it gives them pause.”

She pointed out that, in her opinion, “The future clearly lies with the new and reformed young orders of, one might say, ‘primitive’ [traditional Catholic] observance.”

Many of these “new and reformed” orders belong to a smaller, counter-organisation to LCWR that was set up in the United States in 1992, for those religious orders who had rejected the revolt of the LCWR communities against the teachings of the Church. Its growing list of communities is characterised by the sisters’ youth, adherence to Catholic teaching and their retention of the traditional observances of the religious life such as the wearing of a habit.

Fr. Powell agreed with Streichen’s analysis of the current state of affairs, particularly concerning the dismal future for many of the LCWR communities. “Any kind of positive sense they [LCWR communities] have of themselves is a result of their opposition to the Church,” he said.

“In LCWR keynote speeches you’ll see they see themselves as persecuted, misunderstood and ignored prophets. It seems important to them to continue playing this role.”

The future, he said, is not bright for these communities, given the rising median ages of the sisters and the very few applicants. Fr. Powell said it is amazing that they continue so doggedly on the path of “dissent.”

“The prescriptions being offered in their addresses are only going to guarantee their continued decline,” he said. “It seems extraordinarily odd that they can’t see that no one wants to buy what they’re offering.” 

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