The Vatican, LCWR and dialogue

Clare Condon SGS

With Pope Paul VI and St Benedict, our Church leaders have two excellent examples of how to engage in true dialogue with the people of God and with society, writes Clare Condon SGS.

BY Clare Condon SGS*

At present I am in Nebraska, USA at a women’s Benedictine monastery where, as one of 30 Benedictine Sisters, I am engaged in a study program on the Rule of St Benedict with the internationally acclaimed scholar, Sister Aquinata Bockmann OSB. Coincidently, I am in the USA at a critical time for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).

This Leadership Conference, which represents over 80 per cent of women religious in America, has been admonished by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about some aspects of the Church’s teaching following a Doctrinal Assessment undertaken by Bishop Blair of Toledo, Ohio.

As I study, discuss and mingle with a group of American Benedictine Sisters and follow media reports, I am hearing sadness and disappointment from many, and a cry of “Why us who serve the Church faithfully and through our membership have done so for decades if not centuries?” “Why us?”, when the Church in the USA has so many real problems, among them, trying to address a history of clergy abuse and inadequate responses across a number of dioceses; and facing the fact that thousands of Church members are leaving the practice of their faith because of a disillusionment that comes from the official Church’s inability to engage in a productive dialogue about many issues, including scientific developments and philosophical ideas emerging in our time and our world.

I reflect as an outsider on this process of assessment of the LCWR. I am struck by what has appeared (up until the meeting between the Leadership of LCWR and the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on June 12) to be a lack of real dialogue from the Vatican authorities. A media statement from the LCWR President refers to “unsubstantiated accusations and flawed processes” within the Vatican report “and scandal and pain” within the broader Church.

In an interview, Pat Farrell OSF, the LCWR President also said, “We want to respond with integrity, for the good of religious life for ourselves and around the world, and for the good of the Church. We want to talk to [the Vatican representatives] in a climate of genuine dialogue”. With this hope and a determination in their hearts and minds, representatives of the LCWR travelled to Rome on June 12. Based on media statements, it appears that progress was made.

The scandal and pain of the women religious has deeply touched many of those men and women who have remained in the Church in these troubling times – people who have experienced the dedicated service of women religious in schools, hospitals, welfare institutions, pastoral settings and spirituality centres. Such is their concern they initiated nationwide rallies of support for the sisters on June 8 in many US cities.

The mention of dialogue by the LCWR President reminded me that for some years now I have kept a copy of a quote about dialogue from the first encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam, which he wrote in 1964. In it, Paul VI has much to say about the qualities of true dialogue. When I have needed to attend to difficult situations, I have referred to these words many times. I quote some of the characteristics of dialogue it mentions:

Dialogue is an example of the art of spiritual communication.

Its characteristics are: clarity above all… the dialogue supposes and demands comprehensibility… dialogue is not proud, it is not bitter, it is not offensive. Its authority is intrinsic to the truth it explains, to the charity it communicates, to the example it proposes; it is not a command, it is not an imposition. It is peaceful; it avoids violent methods; it is patient; it is generous.

Trust is not only in the power of one’s words, but also in an attitude of welcoming the trust of [the other]. Trust promotes confidence and friendship.

In the dialogue conducted in this manner, the union of truth and charity, of understanding and love is achieved.

(Extracts from Ecclesiam Suam, 80-82)

In the study program I am currently undertaking, we are examining the Rule of Benedict in detail. St Benedict, in chapter three, addresses the very reality of coming to decision-making in the community through dialogue. He exhorts the Abbot to present the facts, to gather the information, to seek the advice of ALL the community, to turn this advice over and over and to weigh it up in prayer and with Scripture. It is only after such a spiritual encounter between all those involved and affected that a decision can be forthcoming. Benedict finishes this chapter with the words: “Do everything with counsel and you will not be sorry afterward”.

With both Pope Paul VI and St Benedict, our Church leaders have two excellent examples of how to engage in true dialogue with the people of God and with society. The current challenge for our Church leaders is not to use blunt instruments through condemnation and censorship by force of power and authority. They need to engage with a society that is changing at a rapid rate with new scientific and medical discoveries and consequently new philosophies.

There has always been the prophetic role within the Church community and we need to listen to it; to acquire all the facts, to bring these facts to the Word of God and to prayer in a spirit of respectful dialogue, rather than condemnation.

In this current conflict with the LCWR, the challenge for our Church leaders is also to appreciate the competency and capacity of women religious to live with authenticity and within the tradition and charism of their founders.

I believe it is only in an environment of true dialogue that participants will find “the union of truth and charity, of understanding and love” that they seek, and then, as Benedict so wisely predicts, there will be no sorrow afterwards (cf Rule of Benedict, 3).

*Clare Condon SGS is the Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan of the Order of St Benedict.

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15 Responses to “The Vatican, LCWR and dialogue”

  1. Thank you! We’re a DC-area grassroots group, Solidarity with Sisters, who are working to support LCWR and Catholic Sisters. After our rally at the Vatican Embassy 5/29, we met with the Papal Nuncio (Vatican ambassador to the USA) and celebrated Mass with him on 6/12 as LCWR and CDF officials met in Rome. We continue to seek opportunities for dialog and are exploring that topic at our website, We’ve added a link to your rich reflection above.

  2. Kate Edwards says:

    Chapter 3 of St Benedict’s Rule is indeed the correct point to learn from.

    But St Benedict tells us in that Chapter that there comes a point when the dialogue is over: the abbot makes his decision and all must obey. The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith stands in the place of the abbot on this matter, and the continuing public debate on its ruling on the LCWR goes against everything St Benedict teaches on the virtue of obedience.

    The LCWR and their cheer squad look increasingly more like the monks of St Benedict’s first monastery, who tried to poison the master when he attempted to impose proper discipline, than his true disciples…

    • Diana Law says:

      St Benedict tells us that the Rule is for beginners. As we come to fullness of life in the Risen Christ, the Spirit will lead us to pour out our lives in love. Love is the essence of God’s Being. Such Love is kenotic; it is self emptying, pouring itself out in creative giving of Self. Jesus showed us this kenotic love in His way of life and taught us how to serve rather than be served, how to live compassionately rather than wielding power destructively.

  3. P Kennedy says:

    I would likely to meet at least one of these supposed “thousands of Church members are leaving the practice of their faith because of a disillusionment that comes from the official Church’s inability to engage in a productive dialogue about many issues, including scientific developments and philosophical ideas emerging in our time and our world.” This seems to be a figment of the sister’s imagination invented in a vain attempt to justify public dissent from the doctrines of the Church, which our Lord and God Jesus Christ assures us are true.

    • Diana Law says:

      Dissent is not about Gospel values, doctrine and fullness of life and love in the Risen Christ. Dissent is about authoritarianism, injustice, corruption, abuse and the pathological control syndrome. If Sisters do not oppose such issues and stand for justice and peace through the outpouring of their lives in compassion and love, they will fail the People of God and fail to live authentically.

  4. Diana Law says:

    You have outlined some of the essentials for dialogue from Ecclesiam Suam, Clare. It is often a long journey and the LCWR is walking in the shoes of so many within the Catholic Church as well as in the shoes of our Master.
    “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”…When Lord Acton spoke those words over a century ago, he perceived the reality through the attitudes and behavior of people afflicted with the addictive power-syndrome. Today, science can clarify such perception through processes of bio-chemical and hormonal factual precision. Such exercise of power increases testosterone and provides an effect in the brain similar to cocaine. Corruption is inherent within such addictive modes of operation. Unfortunately, hoping for dialogue with people afflicted with this addiction is ludicrous. It is usually safer to withdraw from the negative effects of the addiction and consequential corruption.
    The Roman Empire thrived on victory from violence. Law keeping and law breaking were raised to absolutes. The emperor was raised to the level of ‘son of the gods’.
    So much of the Roman Empire is immortalized In Rome. Is it able to change? Will it ever be able to dialogue or will it continue to be bogged in the mire of authoritarianism, control, power addiction and corruption, accentuated by violence in relational patterns with those who see the Church as the People of God and the Mystical Body of the Risen Christ, Kyrios?

  5. Clare thanks for the contribution this article makes to our support for LCWR.
    The responses demonstrate the firmly held positions of support and negative criticism.

  6. Patrick Wright says:

    I found this article to be helpful.
    Inter alia it refers to a culture of “grumbling patience” of the faithful for an errant church leadership.
    I think this grumbling patience may now need to be considered in the light of “evil occurs when good folk fail to act”.
    The LCWR seem to be good folk acting.

  7. Reggie says:

    We in Australia need look no further than St. Mary MacKillop to know the Church’s Authority can get it very wrong, Sisters of St Benedict keep up your good work,

    • Ozzie Dude says:

      Thanks Sr. Condon and good on ya Reggie..I was becoming disheartened with some of the Australian discussion boards…real flat-liners re their solidarity to the Gospel…I know and deeply feel that the Holy Spirit is alive and well within the LCWR and all peoples…


    • P Kennedy says:

      An individual bishop can “get it wrong”, in St Mary of the Cross MacKillop’s case, because he was mischievously given false information and mistakenly belived that she had disobeyed him. An error which he discovered 5 months later and promptly corrected.

      The Pope can never “get it wrong’ regarding formally procalimed matters of faith and morals, such as the absolute immorality of sexual activity outside of a married man and woman open to procreation, the absolute intrinsic immorality of abortion and contraception, and the absolute and permanent impossibility of ordaining a woman to the priesthood, and regarding calling dissenting organisations such as the LCWR (of which only a tiny minority of nuns are members) to affirm and cease denying these essential Catholic doctrines.

  8. Lionel Andrades says:

    Tuesday, June 19, 2012
    When the LCWR invites Curran, Hubbard and Schneiders they are saying the Catholic Church is not the one true Church (UR 3) and every one does not need faith and baptism for salvation (AG 7)
    The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) is rejecting Vatican Council II (AG 7) and the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus.They are saying that the Catholic Church is not the sole moral authority.

    Statutes are approved of a religious organization which does not believe in exclusive salvation in the Catholic Church and the literal interpretation of the dogma ? The LCWR is Catholic even when it says invincible ignorance and the baptism of desire are explicit exceptions to the dogma ? Are these ‘exceptions’ not always implicit for the SSPX?

    I have mentioned on a blog that if you invite Charles Curran to speak you are telling us all what you believe. If you openly promote New Age you are telling us what you believe. In the case of the LCWR, they represent the Church and so they are saying that this is what the Church teaches. They are also saying that there is no exclusive salvation in only the Catholic Church. When you invite Barbara Marx Hubbard your message is clear. You are saying that the Catholic Church is not the one true Church (UR 3, Vatican Council II) and all people do not need Catholic faith and the baptism of water for salvation (AG 7).Your also saying that there can be an interpretation of Vatican Council II which negates AG 7.

    If a Mother Superior of a community affiliated with the LCWR inquired if their community could hold the literal interpretation of the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus along with implicit baptism of desire and invincible ignorance etc in accord with Vatican Council II (AG 7), would the LCWR approve?

    They would be saying that all non Catholics in 2012 need to enter the Catholic Church for salvation and if there are any exceptions,’ who have not had the Gospel preached to them’ it would be known only to God.

    This is not the ecclesiology of the LCWR which is centered on Jesus and excludes the Church. So an LCWR member can believe in Jesus, according to the Jehovah Witnesses, distribute sacred pictures of Jesus as they do in Rome, and teach according to their religion and still consider oneself in the Catholic Church. This would be Jesus without the Catholic Church which the Bible tells us is His Mystical Body.The LCWR rejects exclusive ecclesiocentrism.
    The CDF could help the sisters by announcing that those saved in invincible ignorance and the baptisms of desire are implicit for us and only explicit for God.

    It is true that only those who know about Jesus and the Church and yet do not enter are oriented to Hell (LG 14) however we cannot judge that someone is really in invincible ignorance or someone is not. This judgement is left to God.The dogma and AG 7 says all need to convert into the Church for salvation.

    If anyone says Fr. Leonard Feeney was wrong for rejecting the baptism of desire they are making a mistake. The baptism of desire is not a known exception to the literal interpretation of the dogma.-Lionel Andrades

  9. B Kennedy says:

    Dear Clare
    I wish I could believe you. As with the assessment and the alleged “Facts” of the treatment of Bishop Bill Morris, I find it hard to believe the hierarchs any more. Where is Jesus considered in all this?

  10. Patrick Wright says:

    sorry Saint and not Pope!!!!
    Silly me

    Comment re Paul VI seems still valid

  11. Patrick Wright says:

    I found the quoted (in NCR) statement by the Cardinal Levada relating to obedience to be quite chilling. There seemed to be an assumption that all truth resides with the magisterium.

    I may be missing the irony or the hope in the introduction to this piece. It seems to me to be a nonsense.
    I think it important to honour and state the truth clearly.
    The dialogue of Paul VI with his commission and with the laity concerning birth control seemed to go nowhere helpful.
    The dialogue between Benedict and Bishop Morris also seemed to go nowhere useful

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