"...As the largest leadership organization for U.S. women religious begins to discern what steps to take following news Wednesday that the Vatican has ordered it to reform and to place itself under the authority of an archbishop, experts say the options available to the group are stark.
Ultimately, several canon lawyers told NCR, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has two choices: Either comply with the order or face ouster as a Vatican-recognized representative of sisters in the United States.
What’s more, the lawyers say, LCWR has no recourse for appeal of the decision, which the U.S. bishops' conference announced Wednesday in a press release. That release stated that, following a three-year "doctrinal assessment" by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain had been appointed to review and potentially revise the organization's policies.
One prominent canon lawyer, Oblate Fr. Frank Morrissey, summed up the situation facing LCWR in one sentence: “If they want to continue as a recognized conference, they’re going to have to work with this.”
Another, Jesuit Fr. Ladislas Orsy, also put it succinctly: “It’s not very complicated. The Vatican is taking control. They are taking control ... and they hope that in five years, they will put [LCWR] on a different track.”
While other canon lawyers contacted by NCR generally confirmed Orsy and Morrissey’s analysis, they declined to speak on the record, citing the sensitivity of the situation. A short press release from the LCWR on Thursday morning said the group was preparing to meet with its national board members “within the coming month to review the mandate and prepare a response.”
In its document explaining the move, the Vatican congregation said Sartain was to have authority over the LCWR in five areas, including:
- Revising LCWR statutes;
- Reviewing LCWR plans and programs;
- Creating new programs for the organization;
- Reviewing and offering guidance on the application of liturgical texts; and
- Reviewing LCWR's affiliations with other organizations, citing specifically NETWORK and the Resource Center for Religious Institutes.
The language of one of those canons, said Morrissey, a professor of canon law at St. Paul University in Ottawa, Canada, is “particularly important” to consider when evaluating the options open to LCWR.
That canon, No. 708 in the code, states that “major superiors can be associated usefully in conferences or councils so that by common efforts they work to achieve more fully the purpose of the individual institutes.”
The key words there, Morrissey said, is the phrase “can be associated usefully.” Important to recognize, he said, is the fact that the canon does not say that major superiors “must” meet. That means the Vatican “can always, at any time, just remove the recognition of a conference. It certainly has the right to do that,” he said.
That power, Morrissey said, is also recognized in another section of the code that refers to the organization of “public associations of the Christian faithful.” In that section, canon 320 states tersely that “only the Holy See can suppress associations it has erected.”
That means, Morrissey said, that “the bishops in the States or any other country couldn’t suppress the conference themselves. They could ask the Holy See to do it, but they couldn’t force it.”
In terms of whether LCWR would have any ability to appeal the decision, Orsy said flatly: “There is no recourse here. None whatsoever...”
[Joshua J. McElwee is an NCR staff writer. His email address is email@example.com.]
For the full copy of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's letter, click here . For the full copy of Levada's letter, click here .
Previous reporting from NCR on the Vatican's investigation of LCWR:
- Vatican investigates U.S. women religious leadership , April, 2009
- Women religious meet Vatican accusers in Rome , April, 2009
- LCWR seeks full disclosure of Vatican visitation , August, 2009
- LCWR leaders meet with Midwest bishops , May, 2010
- Vatican officials, US women religious meet , July, 2010
- Vatican orders LCWR to revise, appoints archbishop to oversee group , April 18, 2012
- LCWR 'stunned' by Vatican's latest move , April 19, 2012
- Options facing LCWR stark, say canon lawyers , April 19, 2012