The Vatican has called on Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo to help lead reform of an organization representing 80 percent of American nuns, saying the "doctrinal and pastoral situation" of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious "is grave and a matter of serious concern."
The appointment announced Wednesday follows Bishop Blair's lead role in a two-year "doctrinal assessment" of the nuns' group, which included reviewing a decade's worth of the nuns group's annual conferences, keynote speeches, and documents and publications. The assessment, released Wednesday, found the group's teachings to be "problematic" in certain areas, citing concerns over the organization's position on homosexuality and the ordination of women and its "silence" on some foundational Catholic doctrines such as the right to life.
The Vatican said Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle will lead the new reform initiative, assisted by Bishop Blair and Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., and working with nuns in the group's leadership.
The mandate, approved by Pope Benedict XVI and the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, calls for Archbishop Sartain's group to make sure the group follows the teachings and discipline of the Roman Catholic Church.
The bishops were ordered to "revise LCWR statutes to ensure greater clarity"; review LCWR plans and programs; approve all speakers and presenters at major programs, and review and offer guidance in the application of liturgical norms and text. The group also was told to pull its "Systems Thinking Handbook" from circulation, "pending revision."
In addition, the bishops and the nuns' group leaders were told to develop material "that provides a deepened understanding of the church's doctrine of the faith."
Most of the women's religious orders in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan belong to the nuns' group, which is based in Maryland and has 1,500 members representing 80 percent of the nation's 57,000 Catholic nuns. Sister Annemarie Sanders, the spokesman of the nuns' group, was out of the office and not available for comment Wednesday.
Sister Diana Lynn Eckel, congregational minister for the Sisters of St. Francis of Sylvania, said in a statement, "We understand that there has been a recent decision by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith determining a need for certain reforms of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. At this early juncture, we have not been contacted by LCWR so we do not have any additional information."
Teri Bockstahler, a spokesman for the Sisters of Notre Dame, said Wednesday that the Toledo-based order's provincial superior, Sister Delores Gatlif, had not yet seen the Vatican's doctrinal assessment and could not comment.
Bishop Blair said Wednesday that the assessment he led "was focused on LCWR materials that are readily available on the LCWR Web site or in other accessible formats from LCWR. The fundamental question raised … had to do with their doctrinal soundness and doctrinal completeness of these materials."
In the statement, Bishop Blair said: "Inasmuch as the assessment indicated a pattern over the years of doctrinal assertions that are problematic, as well as silence about certain teachings of faith and morals that need to be upheld, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is now intervening to work with the LCWR leadership to remedy this situation."
Sister Christine Schenk, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph and director of Cleveland-based FutureChurch, said, "I feel very sad about this since LCWR women are among the most faith-filled Catholics in the U.S. They have a truly Christ-like commitment to the poor and marginalized. Since women are also marginalized in Catholic governance, I suspect this may give us a different worldview compared to those in power. I truly hope something can be worked out since the Church needs all of us."
The Vatican gave Archbishop Sartain up to five years to complete the reform, working "collaboratively with the officers of the LCWR to achieve the goals outlined in this document, and to report on the progress of this work to the Holy See."
It said Pope Benedict's goal is "to offer an important contribution to the future of religious life in the church in the United States."
The nuns' group doctrinal assessment led by Bishop Blair was separate from another initiative ordered by the Vatican in 2008, the Apostolic Visitation of Women Religious, which sought to evaluate the quality of life of U.S. nuns.
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