Officers of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, whose 1,500 members represent about 95 percent of 59,000 sisters in the U.S., said that in addition to public events they will convene behind closed doors this week to gauge response to the ongoing “doctrinal assessment” of their group launched early this year by the Vatican.
The probe centers on a directive the conference got from Rome in 2001 to adhere more closely to church teachings that bar women from ordination, consider homosexuality an “objective disorder” and declare the Catholic Church the only path to salvation, according to portions of a letter from the American cardinal leading the inquiry that was posted at the LCWR’s Web site.
Also likely to stir discussion will be the ongoing Apostolic Visitation of U.S. women’s religious institutes. Begun late last year, the stated purpose of the initiative — to assess communities’ “quality of the life” — has drawn skepticism. The probe targets religious orders whose members work in schools, clinics, and other public settings, not nuns living in cloistered communities.
The LCWR’s national board has called the “purpose and implications” of the exercise “unclear,” though it also noted that the review could provide an “occasion for the celebration of achievements.”
Many sisters — the preferred term for order members serving in public, now typically without habits — are getting this week their first opportunity to see a 12-page working document, issued July 14 from Rome, describing in detail how the church will handle the remaining phases of the Apostolic Visitation. The process will include confidential visits of selected sites beginning next spring.
To date, the LCWR largely has demurred in publicly responding to the probe into its own activities.
But Sister J. Lora Dambroski, the LCWR’s president, said in an interview Aug. 12 that both inquiries will provoke considerable discussion among roughly 800 sisters gathered at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside Hotel for the four-day summit. “I think they are not feeling diminished by this,” said Dambroski, of the Pittsburgh-based Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God. “The energy is high, and I have to say, it’s positive.”
Dambroski said the sisters, drawn from every corner of the country, may well settle on an official rejoinder to the Vatican investigations. “This will be an opportunity to be who we are and to speak our truth, not to back away from that, and to understand what our common response will be,” she said. “It’s a good chance for the sisters to be honest and to tell the story of who we are without fear.”
Though some observers describe the probe into the LCWR as an attempt to squelch a liberal social agenda or to restrict the breadth of ministries undertaken by women religious, Dambroski said she hopes the week’s discussions simply will help the sisters confirm their vocations.
“We don’t want to be in a defensive posture, but we have to clearly be who we are,” she said. “In the United States, I think there is a cultural misunderstanding about how women religious participate in the church. That does not mean that we don’t respect the authority of the church.”
On the doctrinal inquiry, the LCWR has never made an official statement regarding the ordination of women, Dambroski said. As for the other matters, she pointed to a statement issued by the group’s officers in April that expressed disappointment over a published report stating that the doctrinal assessment may have originated with a request by a committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“I can’t say that in any organization, members all are of the same mindset,” Dambroski said Aug. 12. “But I would say these are all faithful women, all of them; I can say that without hesitation. We love this church. We gave our lives through this church to our brothers and sisters.”
(Michelle Krupa writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)