American nun group questions whether LCWR oversight is truly over

When the Leadership Conference of Women Religious broke its silence Friday regarding the end of the controversial Vatican oversight of the group, many Catholic sisters in the U.S. were, well, thrilled. They appreciated the LCWR leadership team’s written statement for its frank acknowledgement of how painful the doctrinal assessment had been, and they were genuinely proud of the team for their grace and humility.

But some sisters also still had lingering questions.

For the National Coalition of American Nuns, a progressive 300-member grassroots organization focused on church and social justice issues, the major question is this: At what price has this resolution been achieved?

“We sympathize with the sisters who were tired after six years of scrutiny since the assessment was announced,” the coalition said in a statement sent to Global Sisters Report. But, they wanted to know, what does it mean that the process for choosing LCWR’s Outstanding Leadership Award will be revised? What does it mean that LCWR publications will be reviewed by “competent theologians” as the group’s joint statement with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in April maintained?

“The potential bad news – and maybe I’m being a pessimist,” said Sr. Jeannine Gramick, a Sister of Loretto and one of the executive coordinators of the National Coalition of American Nuns, “is that while the oversight by the Vatican maybe has ceased, the self-silencing will continue.”

Self-silencing because, as Loretto Sr. Anna Koop, a member of the National Coalition of American Nuns and a Catholic Worker in Denver, puts it, the Vatican is not done watching LCWR. Koop was a member of the conference from 1996 to 2001, and while she commends the current LCWR leadership for the persistent dialogue that brought the mandate to an end, she says she’s under no illusion that anything is truly finished.

“In some ways, it does not feel like a reprieve,” she said. “While it has formally ended, I am of the opinion that LCWR will still be under surveillance by the American bishops and also by the Vatican.” We’re kidding ourselves, Koop said, if we think that the bishops will not be carefully watching LCWR’s response to hot-button issues like women’s ordination, contraception and homosexuality.

And that’s exactly what Gramick is afraid of.

For Gramick, LCWR’s self-censorship comes in two iterations, the first being the public silence they maintained throughout their discussions with the doctrinal congregation both during and after the doctrinal assessment. In their Friday statement, the LCWR leadership team said that privacy was integral to their process, that it allowed them to have honest conversations with bishops and Vatican officials. But Gramick said their silence was indicative of Rome’s tendency to clamp down on voices it doesn’t like.

“Those people who saw Vatican II slide back in the 35 years under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI saw this confrontation, you might say, between LCWR and the CDF as symbolic of the confrontation of the old methods and the new methods,” she said. “And, frankly, my reading of this statement is that the old methods have triumphed – the old methods of secrecy.”

The second-wave of self-censorship within LCWR, Gramick says, is perhaps yet to come. Based on the language of their joint statement with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and in the LCWR statement last week, Gramick is concerned that LCWR may begin stripping both its publications and annual assembly of anything that could be deemed too provocative by the Vatican.

Specifically, Gramick is worried that LCWR’s promise in April’s joint statement to avoid publishing anything “ambiguous with regard to church doctrine or could be read as contrary to it” bodes ill for the conference’s ability to help the church grow.

While the details of how this promise is to be kept have not been addressed in any of LCWR’s statements, in an interview with Global Sisters Report, LCWR president Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sharon Holland said all the reviews would be internal and spearheaded by LCWR itself.

Gramick says that’s not good enough. Even if LCWR heads the review process, she said, if the conference tailors that process to fit mandated standards, then it still basically amounts to Vatican overview.

“Does this mean we’re not going to have any questioning of the church’s current position about homosexuality? Are we not going to talk about contraception?” she said. “That’s what’s pivotal to me in that joint report – that they’re not going to challenge, in any way, the church’s traditional teaching. And how does the church grow unless there’s some kind of dissent?”

And it needs to grow, said Beth Rindler, a Franciscan Sister of the Poor and another National Coalition of American Nuns executive coordinator. What Rindler read in LCWR’s statement on Friday was the description of a church that could be but isn’t.

“The statement gave the impression that we’re working as equals or collaborators within the church when, in reality, I know that’s not so because of the very structure of the church,” she said. “I do think that LCWR sees us women as equal beings within the church, but I’m not so sure the clerical element in our church perceives us that way.”

Still, Loretto Sr. Mary Ann Cunningham, another member of the National Coalition of American Nuns, said LCWR worked out the best deal it could – even if it wasn’t a complete victory. At 81 years old, Cunningham is not afraid of confrontation (she recently sent Pope Francis about dozen copies of a women’s newsletter she used to edit, along with some advice on how to treat women in the church), and she says she would have been more “pushy” than LCWR seemed to be in its conversations with the Vatican.

However, she said she’s hopeful that things may still shake out better for LCWR.

“I think there’s great hope that things might loosen up,” she said, noting that the Vatican still doesn’t have the tight control over LCWR that she believes it wanted. “We can work together as long as they assume we are speaking our truth and we assume they are speaking their truth.”

LCWR declined to comment on the coalition’s statement.

[Dawn Cherie Araujo is staff reporter for Global Sisters Report based in Kansas City, Missouri. Follow her on Twitter @Dawn_Cherie.]