“The Holy See acknowledges with gratitude the great contribution of women religious to the Church in the United States as seen particularly in the many schools, hospitals and institutions of support for the poor which have been founded and staffed by Religious over the years.”  Those were the words which were used by the Vatican in calling for a renewal of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).  The Holy See went on to state that this project is being undertaken in support of that essential charism of Religious which is so obvious in the life and growth of the Catholic Church in the United States.

Does this introduction suggest that church leaders are unappreciative of the wonderful work women religious have performed in evangelizing this great nation of ours?  I don’t think so.  Yet for more than a month the secular media and other Catholic malcontents have seized this legitimate action of our Holy Father as an opportunity to bash church leadership and stir up the latent resentment of all those who struggle with authority both in the church and in society.  The New York Times and its media lackeys delight in ridiculing our Catholic Church. Their secular agenda is threatened by Catholic beliefs and values.  It’s the same old strategy; when you don’t like the message, attack the messenger.

These misrepresentations of legitimate activities within the church community are easily misunderstood by those who are not Catholics.  What troubles me is that so many of our Catholic people have been duped by such unfair and hostile attacks.  The sisters are being used to promote a crisis not of their making.  People have been gathering in prayer before our cathedral in support of religious women, as if the sisters here in the Archdiocese of Portland were somehow in conflict with church leadership here.  There may be a few who might feel that way, but I get the impression that the sisters like working here and that they look upon those of us in church leadership as their friends and coworkers.  I hope this review of the LCWR and the unfriendly reaction will not debilitate our partnership in the church’s evangelizing mission.  That would be heartbreaking for me as I draw near the end of my tenure as archbishop. After all, my own faith and priesthood have been supported, nurtured and encouraged more by religious women than by any other group of Catholic people.

Many readers probably do wonder what really is the LCWR and why is the Vatican deciding to review its activities?  These are fair questions that deserve an answer, if the current doctrinal assessment is to be understood properly.  The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) is a canonically approved membership organization which is used as a support system and corporate voice for religious institutes, or congregations, of women religious in the United States.  Its beginnings trace back to the request of the Vatican’s Congregation for Religious in 1956 that leaders of religious institutes of women organize themselves and come together in the spirit of collaboration for the sake of the church’s evangelizing mission.  The name was changed after the Second Vatican Council to the LCWR.  Even within LCWR there were some disagreements which led in 1995 to the establishment by the Vatican of another canonically approved membership organization of religious women entitled the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR).  The second group is much smaller.  Both groups are recognized and welcomed as observers at our semi-annual meetings of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Holy See legitimately oversees these canonically approved organizations.  It is the Holy Father’s responsibility to promote the unity and integrity of the church’s mission and message.  A bishop has the same responsibility within his own diocese.  Catholics independently often articulate points of view that differ from church policy and even the official creed of the church.  The Pope and the local bishop might express displeasure but they exercise no legal oversight for these individuals and their public views.  But when it comes to official church organizations, like those listed in the Official Catholic Directory, thereby acknowledged as truly Catholic by church leadership, they necessarily are subject to some supervision with respect to the unity and integrity of the church which they should be promoting.  

My Chancellor, Mary Jo Tully, likes to make a distinction between Catholic groups and groups of Catholics.  Catholic groups are those approved by a local bishop or the Holy See.  Groups of Catholics are folks who decide to gather in their own name or speak up about a certain issue on their own.  Sometimes people get annoyed with me when groups identify themselves as Catholic and promote or support activities that go against church teaching.  I can express my displeasure but I cannot insist that they must submit their activities or statements for approval from me before they carry them out.  The LCWR is an organization which is an official Catholic group and thereby is legitimately overseen by church leadership, in this case, the Holy See.

The unity of the church and the integrity of her message are essential for our Catholic community to be effective in carrying out its evangelizing mission.  Our own United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has been reviewed from time to time by the Holy See, particularly when there seemed to be matters that were inappropriate for the group as a whole to legislate or when individual bishops perceived the activities of the Conference as somehow diminishing their own ability to govern in their own dioceses.  Our United States seminaries have been reviewed three times in the last 30 years by the Holy See in order to assure the unity and integrity of the programs of priestly formation for us in the United States.  As I reported in an earlier column, every five years bishops the world over submit a report to the Holy See and visit the Holy Father and his colleagues as a means for providing some accountability for their pastoral leadership.

Have there been some concerns with respect to the public positions and activities of the LCWR?  As a result of a review undertaken four years ago by Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo Ohio, at the request of the Holy See, questions were raised.  Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle has been named the delegate of the Holy See to carry out this review with the hope of strengthening the LCWR and the important charism of religious women here in our own nation.  The initiative results from the church’s sincere concern about the life of faith among the various congregations of religious women in the United States.  The Vatican has stated that the renewal “arises as well from a conviction that the work of any conference of major superiors of women religious can and should be a fruitful means of addressing the contemporary situation and supporting religious life in its most ‘radical’ sense – that is, in the faith in which it is rooted.”

Let me assure you, my friends, that your archbishop values and treasures the presence and service of the women religious in this local church, just as I have valued and treasured the same in the previous churches where I have been privileged to serve.  As a parish priest, a seminary professor and rector, a bishop in three dioceses, I never ceased to marvel at the goodness, industry, commitment and love of the Lord and His church on the part of women religious.  

When I first heard of this study and the appointment of Archbishop Sartain, I had some concern that it could be misunderstood.  But when a good woman religious friend of mine called to tell me that Archbishop Sartain had approached her immediately to ask for her assistance, I knew that the right man was in charge and that sensible, caring and competent individuals would collaborate with him in this task.  I regret that some are trying to hijack this service of the Holy See on behalf of the vocation to the consecrated life in order to belittle leadership in our Catholic community and thereby debilitate our mission.  

I promise Archbishop Sartain my prayerful support and I encourage you to do the same.  One of the greatest losses the church has experienced over the last 40 years has been the decline in the numbers of women religious in the parishes and institutions of our local churches.  Whatever we can do to turn that tide will be a gift for a future of hope among Catholic people everywhere.