ROME, April 22, 2015 (LifeSiteNews.com) – In a surprise announcement that has been called “highly symbolic,” the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said last week that the intervention into the US Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) has come to an end two years early. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the CDF, told a press conference that the highly controverted investigation and attempt at reform had been concluded after meetings April 16 with LCWR leaders.
Müller said that measures will now be taken, with LCWR’s cooperation, “to promote a scholarly rigor that will ensure theological accuracy and help avoid statements that are ambiguous with regard to Church doctrine or could be read as contrary to it.” These include a publications advisory committee that will review manuscripts to “safeguard the theological integrity of the Conference.”
LCWR, founded in the 1950s as a liaison between US sisters and the Vatican, has for decades been the embodiment of anti-Catholic radicalism and ultra-progressivism in the US context. This has included embracing radical feminism, New Age ideology, and positive rejection of core concepts of Christianity as well as the moral teachings on sexuality.
In the document concluding the Vatican’s original investigation into the doctrinal divergences of LCWR, the CDF was unusually forthright. “While there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine, it is 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.”
The document continued, saying that “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.”
“Moreover, occasional public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the Bishops, who are the Church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals, are not compatible with its purpose.”
Since the publication of that document, there has been no public recanting of such positions or statements by any official of LCWR. Nonetheless, Müller said last week, “At the conclusion of this process… the congregation is confident that LCWR has made clear its mission to support its member Institutes 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.”
“It is this vision that makes religious women and men radical witnesses to the Gospel, and, therefore, is essential for the flourishing of religious life in the Church.”
LCWR president, Sister Sharon Holland, who did not attend the Vatican meeting, said the group was happy with the “completion” of the intervention.
“We are pleased at the completion of the Mandate,” Holland said in a statement, “which involved long and challenging exchanges of our understandings of and perspectives on critical matters of Religious Life and its practice.”
“Through these exchanges, conducted always in a spirit of prayer and mutual respect, we were brought to deeper understandings of one another’s experiences, roles, responsibilities, and hopes for the Church and the people it serves,” Sister Holland said. “We learned that what we hold in common is much greater than any of our differences.”
Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, who had been tasked with overseeing the reform of the organization, said, “The very fact of such substantive dialogue between bishops and religious women has been mutually beneficial and a blessing from the Lord.”
“As we state in our joint final report, ‘The commitment of LCWR leadership to its crucial role in service to the mission and membership of the Conference will continue to guide and strengthen LCWR’s witness to the great vocation of Religious Life, to its sure foundation in Christ, and to ecclesial communion.’”
The Vatican’s turn-around on the intervention is the more shocking since until recently, Cardinal Müller had been forthright about the organization’s commitment to an orientation totally opposed to Catholic beliefs. Only last year, Müller warned the group that they must give up their adherence to New Age ideas, or risk losing their recognition as a Catholic organization. He apologized for sounding “blunt” or “harsh,” but the issue, he said is “too important to dress up in flowery language.”
The intervention, started in 2012 under orders from Pope Benedict XVI, was originally intended to last five years. It followed a doctrinal investigation that found the group had adopted “an intense focus” on New Age ideas that may have “robbed religious of the ability truly to ‘sentire cum Ecclesia’ [think with the Church].”
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These trends in the American Catholic Church have largely subsided at the parish level, but they were maintained and protected by LCWR in the religious orders that embraced them in the period following the Second Vatican Council. The organization figured prominently in the 1991 exposé book “Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism”, which tracked the history of the collapse of the US religious orders of women – the loss of vocations and the exodus of many sisters – due to their embrace of feminism, extreme left politics, and neo-paganism in the 1970s and 1980s.
When the Vatican intervention was launched, the reaction of some LCWR representatives was close to hysteria. The far-left dissident Catholic newspaper, National Catholic Reporter, with which the group had always been closely associated, launched a campaign, including a portion of their website and a budget of $2.3 million, to host articles and interviews accusing the Vatican of “attacking” and “persecuting” the sisters.
LCWR represents roughly 80 percent of the 57,000 women religious (nuns and sisters) in the country, but the average age of sisters in LCWR communities is in the low 70s, and there are few new vocations. Many LCWR-affiliated communities are in the process of an orderly shutting down and selling off of their properties and institutions, and much of their fundraising efforts focus on retirement funds.
Christopher Ferrara, an author, pro-life advocate and president of the American Catholic Lawyers Association, said that the “message here is clear,” that it is just one more indication that upholding and defending the doctrinal tenets of Catholicism is no longer a priority in Rome.
Ferrara flatly refuted the polite phrases of reconciliation, saying the move was simply more politicking. Indeed, despite decades of overt campaigning by LCWR members to overthrow Catholic teachings on a wide array of subjects – including the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, the nature of the Church, the Eucharist or the Church’s other sacraments – there has been no positive statement of doctrinal adherence from the group, either in the joint statement with the Vatican or in any media release.
“What we’re seeing here is the continuing spectacle of the politicization of the Catholic Church,” Ferrara said. The Vatican’s sudden rapprochement with LCWR is “highly symbolic,” and “another sign of the confluence of all things towards the Synod,” he added.
Michael Hichborn, a veteran pro-life advocate and now founder of the Lepanto Institute, told LifeSiteNews that his concern is that it is another indication of the current pontificate sidelining the importance of doctrine, and the priorities of the CDF.
“Cardinal Muller and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith altogether are both clearly being marginalized,” he said.
Hichborn added that this is just “par for the course” in the current Vatican, with Cardinal Robert Sarah having been removed from his watchdog position over Caritas Internationalis and other social justice agencies and Cardinal Raymond Burke removed as head of the Vatican’s highest tribunal.
With regards to the signaling towards the Synod, Hichborn added, “It seems pretty clear that the agenda has been set, which is to pave the way for the practice of heterodoxy while simultaneously holding that the teachings remain intact.”
He said it is a “clear signal to the dissidents from Germany” who will attend the Synod, “that they will face minimal opposition.”