Catholic Sisters Explore Their Role in the Church

[Dallas, TX] At a time when Vatican officials are conducting two investigations into the lives of Catholic sisters, approximately 750 members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) met in assembly where discussion of their identity and role in the Catholic church headed the agenda.

Gathered from August 10 to 13 under the theme, “Hope in the Midst of Darkness,” the leaders of US orders of Catholic sisters drew on the expertise of two theologians as they spoke about Catholic identity and the unique function of religious life in the church today.

Richard R. Gaillardetz, PhD of the University of Toledo, spoke on the fidelity of Catholic sisters to the vision of the Second Vatican Council, noting that the tensions sisters are experiencing with the church hierarchy have significance for those not in religious life as well. “The way you respond to the ecclesial tensions you are experiencing right now will be a witness to all Christians, instructing all of us in how to most fruitfully and productively respond to the inevitable ecclesial tensions that we undergo,” he stated.

M. Shawn Copeland, PhD of Boston College emphasized that the prophetic ministry of Catholic sisters is critical for the future of the church. Noting that the Catholic tradition is in crisis, she asked, “How are we to live in the presence of God in this time of disappointment and diminishment? What are we to do in a situation in which nothing seems to be moving forward, when life-giving possibilities for the future seem foreclosed or beyond immediate realization? In such a situation, prophetic ministry not only is needed, it is imperative.”

In her address to the assembly, LCWR president Sister Marlene Weisenbeck, FSPA urged the body to claim its role in the church. She said, “We do not have to mimic our founders to find the answer about how to articulate our ecclesial role. The Gospel will show us what to do, how we must act with the attitude of Jesus who emphasized an inclusive love of all in right relationships. We take our power from the Word of God.”

In light of the speakers’ words, the assembly discussed both the apostolic visitation of all US orders of Catholic sisters, as well as a separate inquiry being conducted by the Vatican on the position of LCWR in matters pertaining to Catholic church doctrine.

Throughout the past year, LCWR received letters from conferences of Catholic sisters throughout the world expressing support of US sisters as they undergo these investigations. In response, the LCWR assembly unanimously approved a resolution to actively seek to strengthen bonds with women religious globally.

During the assembly several hundred of the leaders participated in an outdoor public prayer service in downtown Dallas centered on the abolition of the death penalty.

At the conclusion of the assembly, Sister Mary Hughes of the Sisters of St. Dominic of Amityville, New York assumed the office of LCWR president for 2010-2011 after the members voted in Sister Patricia Farrell of the Sisters of Saint Francis of Dubuque, Iowa, as the conference president-elect; and reelected Sister Ellen Dauwer, a Sister of Charity of Saint Elizabeth of Convent Station, New Jersey as conference secretary.

The assembly closed with the conferring of LCWR’s highest honor, its Outstanding Leadership Award, on Margaret Brennan, IHM, a theologian and former LCWR president who played a key role in the renewal of religious life following the Second Vatican Council.

LCWR has approximately 1500 members who are elected leaders of their religious orders, representing approximately 59,000 Catholic sisters. The conference develops leadership, promotes collaboration within church and society, and serves as a voice for systemic change.