The mandate is over. LCWR and CDF have a foundation for continuing conversations. There are still no structural changes but, from the LCWR statement and the warmth in Vatican photos and video of the April 16, 2015 meeting with Pope Francis, it looks as if he enjoys and appreciates LCWR and its leaders. As reported by John L. Allen, Jr., Francis' work on financial reform indicates that Francis understands the fundamental importance and difficulty of structural change.
In Global Sisters Report on July 29, 2015, Sister of Loretto Jeannine Gramick wrote that in the years since the April 2012 CDF mandate, LCWR "chose the path of secrecy and self-silencing." In the CDF process and resolution, she believes that:
LCWR missed a golden opportunity to help move the church hierarchy toward transparency.... LCWR and the doctrinal congregation followed the old model of a closed and secret system — a process that the Vatican has used for centuries to rule and intimidate.
What was said, and who said it, during the three years of discussing the mandate? What was said about the charge of radical feminism or the charge of questioning the hierarchy’s position on women’s ordination and homosexuality? What was said about the charge of silence on the issues of abortion and euthanasia or the charge that some of LCWR’s public statements challenge positions taken by the bishops? How did LCWR handle the congregation’s claim that dissent from the doctrine of the church is not justified as an exercise of the prophetic office because prophecy cannot be directed at the magisterium?
We know nothing that could help us in addressing such accusations in the future. The old system of concealment remains intact.
I believe we find different, important truths in the different experiences of Sister Jeannine and LCWR. From the painful experience of being under Vatican investigation for more than a decade, Sister Jeannine tells us that openness gives freedom and opposes an institutional culture of concealment and self-silencing. In public statements, observations, and my speculations about the CDF-LCWR investigations, I learn that quiet dialogue can also transform. In both cases, depending on many circumstances, process can become prophecy.
LCWR worked with a particular set of circumstances – in Rome, in LCWR itself, and in the nature of the Vatican’s concerns about LCWR. I think all had important effects in this situation. The same circumstances don’t apply to all Vatican accusations. But it’s worth our effort to learn from this situation even if some aspects are unique – just as it’s worth learning from Sister Jeannine’s experience.
So I wonder –
Could factors external to both LCWR and the CDF have significantly affected the outcome?
- Was the CDF surprised by the instant, unsolicited tidal wave of public outrage and international support for LCWR that followed the mandate? Probably.
- Did the CDF catch the nuance that this wasn’t simply “Don’t be mean to the good sisters!” but also “Many of us also ask questions, and we still know ourselves to be faithful Catholics”? I’m not so sure the CDF saw this.
- Did Pope Benedict’s illness, his resignation, and the election of Pope Francis make a difference? The CDF may have noticed that its new leader’s way of being and speaking are close kin to LCWR's.
What was the impact of LCWR’s organizational and governance structure?
- LCWR officials clearly feel a primary responsibility to the 300 congregations that have a voting voice in setting LCWR’s course. Before choosing their path after the April 2012 mandate, LCWR officials went to the August 2012 Assembly and listened to their members. Similar consultations surely occurred during the closed sessions of the 2013 and 2014 Assemblies. This way of operating – a leadership team that profoundly serves and seeks to reflect the desires of its members – is itself radical grace.
- Is consultation a slow process for a large, collaborative, national organization like LCWR, composed of the leaders of organizations with their own identities, with assemblies that happen only once a year? I’m guessing yes.
What was the impact of LCWR’s culture and its accustomed ways of acting?
- Did the CDF underestimate LCWR's capacity for communal, spiritual, transforming leadership? LCWR's members include theologians, Biblical scholars, canon lawyers, leaders of large organizations, and experts in many areas including organizational dynamics. International organizational-leadership expert Margaret Wheatley wrote in December 2014: "I’ve worked with a wide diversity of leaders on all continents for 40 years, and nowhere have I found better leadership than among women religious." Sister Jeannine shares that quality of extraordinary leadership, as Jo Piazza highlighted in her 2014 book If Nuns Ruled the World: Ten Sisters on a Mission.
- As Sister Jeannine notes, LCWR has long been "a safe space where issues, such as women’s priestly ordination and the difficulties of same-sex couples, could be discussed with openness and honesty in an environment free of fear." I agree wholeheartedly. For example, I’ve been startled to read the intimacy, immediacy, and candor of addresses spoken to hundreds of members at LCWR annual assemblies – and this has been happening for 50 years, as in LCWR’s 2014 book Spiritual Leadership for Challenging Times: Presidential Addresses from LCWR. If LCWR speakers are this open in formal addresses, the assemblies’ closed-session conversations surely follow suit in seeking God’s truth through clear-eyed attentiveness.
- The Spiritual Leadership book and a wealth of other material demonstrate that contemplation, community, and deep listening (to God, to the needs of the time, and to each other) are fundamental to LCWR identity, culture and decisions.
- Some parts of the church have little or no experience with this kind of open conversation and communal discernment. Did the CDF doubt that people could do this in a faithful way? Did the fact that LCWR is female, and so even more outside their experience, make it harder for them to imagine?
Again, Margaret Wheatley:
One of the key predictors of an organization's future fate is how it deals with crises. What do we do when something goes wrong or we're under attack? It is these moments when our true values become startlingly visible. Do leaders panic and scramble to get out of a tough situation, forgetting principles and values? Or do they take the time to work with the crisis, relying on their history, values and principles, engaging their members fully? Only in the latter case is it possible to create the strong social fabric that enables an institution to move confidently into its desired future.
- LCWR characterized the problem as “misunderstanding.”
- The CDF highlighted some topical issues, as Sister Jeannine noted. But the CDF never seemed to offer much documentation about them. If the bishop-delegates and the CDF ultimately took time with Sister Laurie Brink’s maligned 2009 speech, for instance, they could have seen it as valuable in the LCWR Assembly’s accustomed honest, open conversation about reality and God’s call.
- Did LCWR somehow consider and apply its long, deep experience with intercultural communication among LCWR communities as well as in ministries?
- Did LCWR believe that, deeper than specific issues, the foundational challenge was authentic (mutual?) misunderstanding?
- With that belief, did LCWR apply lessons it had learned in its internal processes, rather than lessons it had learned in public advocacy for people on the margins? Did LCWR hope that inviting the bishop-delegates into deep listening and dialogue might open channels for grace? I can’t imagine a single individual doing this successfully. But LCWR went as a group to meet with the bishops as a group. “When two are three are gathered in my name…”?
- Could we possibly hope that Marshall McLuhan was right, all those years ago, that “the medium is the message”? Could it be possible that something unexpected emerged – not specific resolution of CDF concerns about “issues, such as women’s priestly ordination and the difficulties of same-sex couples,” but rather growing awareness that LCWR was indeed able to “discuss [these issues] with openness and honesty in an environment free of fear" and with fidelity to God’s call? So maybe that’s why the Joint Final Report has few specifics? And maybe a litany of specifics will never emerge – maybe it stopped being the main point of the oversight? Maybe LCWR and the bishop-delegates together planted a few seeds for more open conversation in the church? I can’t convince myself to write those questions as statements. But they are hopes.
Back in the beginning, in the LCWR public statement following its 2012 Assembly, the directions that the 900 members present gave to LCWR leaders were prophetic and absolutely clear.
- "The assembly instructed the LCWR officers to conduct their conversation with Archbishop Sartain from a stance of deep prayer that values mutual respect, careful listening and open dialogue."
- "The officers will proceed with these discussions as long as possible, but will reconsider if LCWR is forced to compromise the integrity of its mission."
- The assembly "urged the officers not to allow the work with CDF to absorb the time, energy, and resources of the conference nor to let it distract the conference from the work its mission requires."
Despite the spotlight shining on them and microphones eager for their voices, LCWR chose to honor the 2012 Assembly’s directions and its own longstanding practices of quiet, patient, time-consuming dialogue instead of public disclosures.
I do hope for more illumination over time. The mandate has been a powerful, difficult experience for the church. In its books, LCWR recognizes its own call to prophecy – both the addresses in Spiritual Leadership for Challenging Times (2014) and the conversations in Transformational Leadership (2015). As the sisters themselves absorb what happened, I hope they will share their experiences and insights.
Sister Jeannine is concerned that self-silencing will quell both conversation and truth-telling for LCWR. But the 2015-2022 LCWR Call that came out of the 2014 Assembly – deep into the mandate process – states unequivocally:
"We claim our prophetic role…. We commit ourselves to work with others to nurture a church that is a more inclusive, welcoming community, one that encourages meaningful expressions of faith and spirituality. We seek to bring science, theology, and lived-experience into greater dialogue and desire to create safe, honest places for open exploration of the pressing questions of these times. We have been nourished and sustained by our faith tradition and stand in solidarity with others who long to pass on a vibrant faith and rich tradition to succeeding generations. We desire strengthened relationships between church leaders and the community of the faithful and pray for genuine forgiveness and healing within the Body of Christ.”
LCWR has decades of extraordinary creativity and prayerful discernment to help them figure out how to do these things well, while being mindfully responsible toward the diversity in the newly widened audience for their insights and materials.
LCWR and Sister Jeannine have a lot in common.
- Both want transparency. LCWR emphasized transparency to its 1500 members. Sister Jeanine emphasizes transparency to the public and the media. I think both want church systems and structures to change.
- Both want the church (not only the hierarchy) to be ready, willing, and able to hold respectful and illuminating conversations that enable the church to listen to God's Spirit in all its incarnations.
- Their actions show that both want the church (not only the hierarchy) to live fully the charge of Ephesians 4:1-7: many different gifts, one body, speaking the truth in love.
- Both forged prophetic paths in terrible situations.
Sister Jeannine was freed by speaking out. LCWR was freed by quietly building relationships. The big question for all of us is how to interweave these ways of being. Sister Jeannine's eloquent article keeps that question vivid.
Note: original post on 7/30/15. Revised 8/1 and 8/2/15.