ROME — In an amicable end to what had been a deeply contentious process, the Vatican on Thursday announced the end of an investigation of America’s primary umbrella group for the leaders of women’s religious orders, paying tribute to the “crucial role” played by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).
Notably, the document did not contain any disciplinary measures or new oversight for the LCWR, nor did it express any admission of error on either side. For its part, the LCWR agreed to promote more scholarly rigor and theological accuracy in its writings and programs.
An accompanying press release quoted Sister Sharon Holland, president of the LCWR and a former Vatican official, saying that the process brought “deeper understandings of one another’s experiences, roles, responsibilities, and hopes for the church and the people it serves.”
The final report on the LCWR investigation comes roughly four months after another Vatican department, the Congregation for Institutes of Religious Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, issued its own concluding document on a separate probe of all women’s orders in the United States.
Then, too, a process that began in acrimony and suspicion ended on a largely positive note with no punitive measures and praise for the sisters for their selfless work with the poor.
After crossfire that saw the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith accusing LCWR of “serious theological errors” and the LCWR calling the charges “unsubstantiated,” both parties changed their tune Thursday, highlighting a “spirit of cooperation” during the process.
In the final joint report, the congregation and the LCWR said the group’s statutes had been revised to show its focus on Christ and being faithful to Church teaching. It said an advisory committee would be created to ensure manuscripts submitted for inclusion in LCWR publications are doctrinally sound. It said speakers at LCWR events must use the “ecclesial language of faith” in their remarks, and said there was a revised process for selecting award winners.
German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, president of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said his office is confident the LCWR has made its mission clear by fostering a vision of religious life “centered in Jesus and rooted in the tradition of the church.”
The formal ending of the investigation, which was announced in 2009, came in a meeting among LCWR officers; Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain, who oversaw the review, and officials of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation.
Saratain and the LCWR leadership presented a joint report to Müller’s office on Thursday morning, which was approved by the doctrinal congregation. Soon after, both parties were welcomed by Pope Francis.
“Our conversation allowed us to personally thank Pope Francis for providing leadership and a vision that has captivated our hearts and emboldened us in our own mission and service to the church,” the sisters said at the conclusion of the 50-minute meeting.
LCWR is a body recognized under Church law that brings together the heads of orders representing roughly 80 percent of the 50,000 nuns in the United States.
The review by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was focused largely on the organization’s adherence to Catholic doctrine. It led to the creation in 2012 of a commission of three US bishops, headed up by Sartain, to promote a reform of the organization.
A Vatican doctrinal assessment of LCWR had accused the group of “serious theological, even doctrinal errors” in talks at LCWR annual assemblies; “policies of corporate dissent,” and “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith in some of the programs and presentations.”
The original assessment, as well as the announcement of the three-bishop panel, caused an uproar among the LCWR’s national leadership and their supporters, who pointed out that nuns oversee the lions’ share of the Catholic Church’s social programs in the United States, running schools, hospitals, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens.
At the time, they released a statement saying the panel’s view was based on unsubstantiated accusations and was “the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency.” They also said that the mandate had “caused scandal and pain throughout the church community, and created greater polarization.”
Those accusations were absent in Thursday’s report, which came earlier than expected: Sartain had been given a five-year term to revise the group’s statutes, formation materials, presentations, and events.
In the statement, Holland said that through their exchanges, the nuns and bishops learned that “what we hold in common is much greater than any of our differences.”
“Our work together was undertaken in an atmosphere of love for the Church and profound respect for the critical place of religious life in the United States,” Sartain said in the Vatican statement. “The very fact of such substantive dialogue between bishops and religious women has been mutually beneficial.”
The final report presented by the LCWR and the bishops’ delegates, approved by the Vatican’s doctrinal office, says that both parties agree LCWR will take measures to promote scholarly rigor in its publications and programs to ensure theological accuracy and avoid statements that could be read as ambiguous with regard to Church doctrine.
However, it does not establish any system of prior review by the bishops or the Vatican for LCWR publications and activities.
The statement also pledges that the choice of speakers and topics by LCWR will have due regard for the Church’s faith.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.