Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“However Long the Night: Making Meaning in a Time of Crisis, A Spiritual Journey of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)” 

An hour-long teleconference with 

Annmarie Sanders

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

1 to 2 p.m. ET

Mary E. Hunt Introduction: Like all of WATER’s efforts, our purpose today is not simply theoretical. Rather, we are focused on changing the cultural and intellectual assumptions that ground discrimination, exclusion, and destruction both in religious and social contexts. Our choice of this book is a deliberate show of support for the many efforts of women, in this case especially Catholics women religious, to create more just and loving structures. We know we can learn from our history, and we can take inspiration from the efforts of other women, to remake the world.

I am delighted to welcome to our table Sister Annmarie Sanders, of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Scranton, PA, the Scranton IHMs as they are known. LCWR is just a few blocks from here where Annmarie serves as the director of communications. She has previously worked in communications for her IHM congregation, as well as for Marywood College, and in Lima, Peru for Latinamerica Press/Noticias Aliadas.

Annmarie has authored several articles and edited publications on religious life including the book she will talk about today, However Long the Night: Making Meaning in a Time of Crisis (LCWR, 2018). Sister Annmarie will discuss how the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) handled a six year public crisis when its judgement and means of operating were called into question by the Vatican’s most powerful office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.​

One of our WATER services is to blurb books so people can get a sense of what is important to read. Here is what we said about this book:

“Thoughtful reflections by LCWR leaders on their lengthy involvement with Vatican officials known as the Doctrinal Assessment. The women demonstrate how to deal prayerfully and skillfully in a situation of unfair power advantage. Canon lawyer Sharon Holland offers a particularly cogent analysis. As events have unfolded, it is clear that the women should have been investigating the men and not the other way around. A compelling read.”

I stand by our assessment and observe that it is a timely tale as so much is happening in church and society for which the insights and reflections of women religious are useful. We need new ideas about how to dialogue, how to “engage impasse” as Nancy Sylvester would have it, to talk with people with whom we disagree profoundly, to find the places where we overlap in interest and humanity, mostly to find ways forward so that we do not have to participate in or even watch the destruction of our country, our world, in this case, the church that some of us call home.

We are honored to have you with us, Annmarie, and look forward to your presentation. I hope you feel at home and enjoy your WATER time.

Annmarie Sanders: This book is the story of what was learned by a large national organization, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), during a six-year crisis (2009-2015). A very powerful Vatican office suddenly and very publicly confronted the organization with probing questions and some negative assumptions about the foundation of our lives as Catholic sisters. The conflict grew more intense midway through those years. The Vatican office threatened the autonomy and even the existence of our organization, an organization on which the great majority of US Catholic sisters rely for many kinds of resources, supports, and connections. The experience stunned LCWR’s officers, its hundreds of members, and the approximately 60,000 women religious who belonged to member congregations at that time. Yet the ultimate resolution of this six-year dilemma benefited everyone. The book tries to answer the question: How did that happen?

Background on LCWR and CDF: To better understand our experience, some information about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious may be helpful. LCWR is a member organization for those who lead communities of Catholic sisters throughout the United States. It has about 1300 members, all Catholic sisters (often referred to as women religious) who are serving as the leaders of approximately 300 communities of sisters.

The purpose of the organization is to provide education, resources, and networking opportunities for its members. It also uses its collective voice to advocate for social change and for justice.

The organization began in the 1950s at the initiative of the Vatican which wanted to assure that Catholic sisters were properly educated and prepared for the services they were providing – primarily as educators and nurses within Catholic institutions. The sisters took very seriously the call to become well educated – more seriously perhaps than even the Vatican expected! Then came the church’s Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The Council called sisters to find the places of greatest need in society and serve those needs. So over those years, the ministries, the lives, and the spirituality of sisters and their understandings of religious life evolved significantly. Communities of sisters gradually became much more proactive than they had been in the past about choosing the works they did and determining how they could best live their religious vocation.

Not surprisingly, some of those changes resulted in some conflict with Vatican authorities; people tend to listen to Catholic sisters, so they had an important voice. Over the decades, some of the church hierarchy noted their dissatisfaction with sisters re-identifying religious life, speaking out on national issues, and undertaking ministries that were not within church-sponsored institutions. Central to this tension was disagreement about religious life and its relationship to church authority.

LCWR has always been at the forefront of this evolution – always looking ahead to see how religious life could best serve the needs of the world – and what sisters needed to do to stay well-informed and prepared to meet those needs.

That’s LCWR. And then there is the Vatican. As we say in our book, the governance structure of the Catholic Church is often described as the last true monarchy on earth. The pope is the head of the Catholic Church with ultimate decision-making power. He is assisted in the administration of the church by offices within the Vatican called the curia. One of these offices is the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Its duty is to protect the patrimony of church doctrine, and it has the right to investigate individuals or institutions that bear the name Catholic to assure orthodoxy of its actions and teachings. Since LCWR is an organization within the church, it has a relationship with several offices within the curia, including CDF. LCWR’s officers make a trip each year to visit some of the Vatican offices to give a short report of what the organization has been doing so that it is accountable to the church, and LCWR has a history of taking this accountability seriously.

In 2001, the LCWR officers on their annual visit to CDF were asked questions during that meeting about some of LCWR’s speakers and public stances. The LCWR officers answered questions and left the meeting assuming that any concerns CDF had were put to rest. In retrospect, however, it was clear that LCWR remained under suspicion throughout the ensuing decade, despite being completely unaware at the time.

So, it was a great surprise in 2009 – eight years later — when LCWR received a letter from CDF announcing that CDF was beginning what they called a doctrinal assessment of LCWR. Some of us did not even know what that was. These assessments don’t happen very often, and they may question an individual theologian, but it was very unusual for an organization.

Over time, LCWR learned that CDF was concerned that some of the speakers at LCWR’s annual assemblies from 2003 to 2008 espoused erroneous theological positions. We were not sure what these were. While the LCWR officers met with a bishop in 2009 who had been delegated by CDF to conduct the assessment to talk about the situation, they were not able to reach a resolution. As the year proceeded, the assessment only grew larger and went far beyond concerns around the annual LCWR assemblies to concerns about all the publications, workshops, prayer services, and public statements LCWR had produced for the previous five years. CDF asked for copies of everything that LCWR had produced – anything that could be was sent off in boxes to the Vatican offices. After several months, LCWR was told by CDF that it had no new concerns. LCWR assumed that this meant the assessment was completed.

However, in 2012 when the LCWR officers went to Rome for the annual visit and met with CDF,  they were presented with what was called “a mandate of reform.” The mandate put LCWR under scrutiny by the church by appointing a US archbishop, who was assisted by two other bishops, to oversee LCWR for a period of up to five years. This was stunning news to us. Up until this time, LCWR had always been run by sisters who were among the most highly educated, wise, discerning, and well-respected professional women in the church and society. The thought of having three bishops – all quite busy administering their own dioceses and with no experience with religious life — now overseeing the organization was beyond comprehension.

The shock of receiving the mandate was compounded by the fact that the eight-page assessment report on LCWR detailing all its supposed faults was made public on the US bishops’ conference’s website – just minutes after the document had been handed to the LCWR leaders in Rome. The bishops also sent press releases about the document and mandate of reform to major media outlets throughout the US and beyond. The story went viral in a matter of hours; it was a very painful reality for us, and a very public and controversial matter. The issuance of the mandate, and the next three years of working through it were followed closely by the media and the general public. People seemed in general to be shocked by what was happening. I remember when a producer from CBS’s TV news program, 60 Minutes, first called, he said, “My Jewish mother said to me, ‘I just can’t figure out why the Vatican would be going after an organization of nuns of all people – especially when it has its own crisis going on with sexual abuse by its priests.’ So we want to pursue this story on 60 Minutes because it’s a fascinating conflict that people like my mother and most of the rest of us just don’t understand.”

So because of the players involved – a powerful Vatican office and a group of women known for their centuries of work serving in the places of greatest need in society – this became a well-watched and examined controversy for the public. And for those inside the church, who were familiar with how the church worked through conflicts like this, it appeared to be a conflict that would never be resolved in a positive way for either party. It was disheartening to hear these seasoned and experienced voices, person after person, saying “it’s not going to work for you.”

Why Write This Book?: We wrote this book to tell that story. Working through the conflict was a difficult process. We worked not only with the CDF officers but also a whole organization of more than 1000 members who have various personal opinions – representing another 60,000 women. So those leading LCWR had to work through this conflict with both the CDF officials and their own members. The members were highly concerned about the future of the organization and were feeling hurt and angry over the public humiliation the assessment brought about for them. Leaders had to work with all of them to be of one mind and go ahead on decisions as representatives of the members.

The LCWR officers had to work through explanations of how religious life had evolved over the years, why sisters have made the choices they have about their ways of educating themselves, praying, serving, and advocating for many justice matters. They had to give these explanations over and over. In the course of conversations between the two parties, they discovered that there were differences between the ways CDF and LCWR thought and operated that were real and big, but they also held much in common. Beyond differences, all human beings are on a common journey. And although the task of coming to understand and respect the differences often seemed daunting and impossible, the two parties did come to a resolution – and came to it in April 2014 – two years earlier than anticipated.

At that time the LCWR officers were hugely relieved and very happy to put this whole event behind them. Yet, people kept asking them – tell us how you really did this? How did you manage?

The officers felt a great deal of reticence about sharing their story publicly. This was a painful, difficult personal and professional experience for them and they did not care to revisit it. But for two years they went through a discernment process – listening to the request to share the story and seeing if they felt there was any value to writing it.

By the end of 2016, we felt that we had to make a decision. This was just weeks after the US elections – the first week of December. The whole country was talking about how deep the division and polarization had become in this nation. I joined their discernment process, and we began wondering: could what LCWR learned be of service to others? We started listing our insights about what had helped us work through a serious situation that had built on a series of unaddressed inaccuracies and misinterpretations that spanned decades. The officers recognized that they had learned a great deal that could be of benefit for people working through polarization.

The book is a collection of what LCWR learned and each learning is explained by one of the LCWR officers. I am going to mention seven of those learnings.

1. The roles of truth and conscience and a methodology for ethical decision-making. The book addresses what to do when your conscience urges you to respond differently in a situation than what authorities recommend as a solution.

2. Use of communal discernment, contemplation, and other dispositions and practices that grounded LCWR’s work.  It’s important to note that the LCWR leadership was not always of a single mind. They faced numerous questions at every juncture and sometimes were challenged to come to a position together. What approach should we take? What would be the best tone to strike, and the best timing of our responses? Our members asked us to protect the integrity of the organization, but what did integrity look like in specific terms? How were we to manage relationships? What should be made public and what should be held confidential? The book shows what processes and practices of prayer and reflection the leaders used to be able to speak and act together with one voice – as the group of leaders, and then as the body of 1300 members.

3. The challenges of building right relationships, especially in situations where misunderstanding and distrust have grown over time. LCWR members were stunned that their beliefs were being called into question. They said, “We didn’t recognize ourselves in CDF’s description of us as stated in the mandate.” How does one go about developing an authentic relationship with a group of people who, at least in the LCWR experience, took words out of context and acted against it based on that misrepresentation of truth? When there is no truth, there is no trust – and consequently, no authentic relationship. In the book we share some rules for engaging in genuine dialogue that the organization tried to follow.

4. The importance of defining an organization’s operational values in a time of crisis. LCWR’s values included nonviolence, dialogue, and acting with integrity. The temptation to lash out at our criticizers was an ever-present reality within LCWR. The very human inclination was ever present to defend ourselves and the conference, to protest wrong judgment, error, and misinterpretation on the part of our accusers, and to justify ourselves and the conference. Recognizing how easy it would be to make these kinds of responses, the LCWR officers made it a practice to respond to what was being said about the conference only after careful communal discernment. That was a radical act since they were also dealing with tremendous pressure from the media to publicly react.

5. How to work for a greater public good beyond the well-being of one’s own organization. LCWR was very aware that it was a well-respected organization and that people who were in situations where they also felt oppressed or abused were watching carefully to see how LCWR handled this situation. Thousands spoke to us about their own abusive situations and asked: “please show us a way through this.” Those who longed for a more open church placed great hope on LCWR that it could somehow bring about changes they wished for in the church. So LCWR continuously asked itself: How did the public nature of our conflict provide an opportunity to advocate for change on broader levels beyond LCWR? How could we allow the hopes of the wider public to impact our efforts with the Vatican? The book details how LCWR attempted to assure that others in similar situations of impasse could find hope.

6. How to work with untested perceptions and cultural gaps that can easily evolve into polarization? The book shows what can happen when judgments and concerns about another go unaddressed or are talked about with others in secrecy. While there is a great value in confidentiality and privacy, there is also great value in operating with transparency. Had there been some transparency about how and why the assessment was initiated it may have lowered the emotional impact the assessment had on thousands of people. So many people raised questions such as “What was behind this? Why investigate sisters now?” We never received an answer to these. Fear, hurt, and anger were evident and perhaps could have been lessened if perceptions were tested out early on.

How to stay spiritually grounded during a crisis that is draining and demanding. The LCWR leaders describe how vitally important their own lives of personal and communal prayer were throughout this long crisis. It was those practices and the work of continually examining their own attitudes and stances that seemed key to a successful resolution. The virtue of humility seemed particularly important. They wrote, “If humility was to be a way through the conversations and negotiations, we would need to guard against arrogance, righteousness, or pretense.”

The LCWR leaders describe how vitally important their own lives of personal and communal prayer were throughout this long crisis. It was those practices and the work of continually examining their own attitudes and stances that seemed key to a successful resolution. The virtue of humility seemed particularly important. They wrote, “If humility was to be a way through the conversations and negotiations, we would need to guard against arrogance, righteousness, or pretense.”

I also contributed a chapter on what an organization needs to do during a crisis to determine how, when and what to communicate and how an organization’s communicator can stay grounded as well.

The final chapter in the book offers a different and very important perspective. It’s written by a group of lay women and men in the DC area who were strangers to LCWR before 2012, but who then companioned the national office staff throughout those six years and to this day. They share what they learned throughout those years, and how they apply it to their lives. This is a really important chapter since it shows that these learnings are pertinent to situations at work, community settings, and families.


Q: What was the impact of this on LCWR’s other work continuing through those years and on taking work up again after the crisis ended?

A: In terms of impact, I can say proudly that I felt we were able to carry on the other work of the organization. There was no stoppage of services, which is amazing considering the crisis occupied so much time. We didn’t want to start self-policing. We didn’t let that stop us from having speakers we wanted, giving awards to people we felt worthy of being honored, and so forth. It was miraculous, and support came from a lot of people rallying and helping. Since then, after the crisis ended, we have freed some psychic energy that the crisis demanded of us. We carried on work but with more energy and sense of hope.

Q: Did the Vatican realize the impact of this investigation?

A: I want to first give a shout out to Archbishop Peter Sartain, one of the Archbishops assigned to the investigation. This was not a task this man wanted. He had a huge archdiocese of his own and other commitments. Still, he made time to come to several LCWR board meetings. He listened – to the emotional impact, spiritual impact on sisters’ lives, especially elderly sisters in their 80s and 90s who couldn’t imagine the church investigating them. He graciously received that and listened, which made a difference in how he responded. He would face 900 women on stage and their questions to him. A big part of how it got resolved was the character he brought to this.

Q: Do you have a sense that, now, this could happen again? Do you find yourselves warily looking over your shoulder? And did you feel like part of it was people from ground floor levels pushing against leadership?

A: If we have a situation in the Vatican now, we have a new Pope, and he did come in. I’m pretty sure he did a lot to bring the assessment to conclusion. I don’t think we wouldn’t look over our shoulders had that change not come about. When officers go to the Vatican now, it is a completely different experience. Their input is valued, and they’re asked for recommendations. The whole atmosphere has changed. Structurally probably not much has changed, but there were many untested perceptions and a need for conversations. Now when our officers go to the Vatican offices, conversation is much more honest and real. Structurally it is not that different, but now the Vatican office that oversees religious life (Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life) has just appointed six women religious to be full members now – they now have a vote on anything the office undertakes. This has never happened before. Part of Pope Francis’s movement is to bring women into power structures of the church.

Q: While LCWR was being investigated, there was a parallel apostolic visitation of women’s active religious congregations. In the eye of the public, it was hard to untangle the LCWR investigation with the investigation of individual congregations.

A: An organization being led by a different staff of people in 2009 also did an investigation of all orders of U.S. Catholic sisters, looking at quality of life. It was very painful. We wondered why would the Vatican be looking at our lives, properties, finances? Our congregations have always operated autonomously. The apostolic investigation started in January of 2009, and then in March came the investigation of just LCWR. [Participant who asked the question] is right; these two things were going on in a parallel way, which made it all the worse.

Q: How much of this was a smokescreen about the sex abuse scandal?

A: That is always what most people thought. We have no way of knowing. The timing didn’t help the church with that – the sex scandal was so public. That was hugely the question: why would the investigation be on sisters?

Mary: If we now look back with what we know in hindsight: Dominus Iesus? (Dominus Iesus is a CDF document proclaiming that only Catholic Christians are true Christians. It was one of the major theological concerns the CDF officials investigated in LCWR.) It’s an extraordinary reach to target women religious on that kind of thing. It’s not for us to tell for sure, but it raises important questions as we read history anew.

Q: It sounded like the CDF officials didn’t know who you were, and you had to build trust with certain individuals. How did that trust happen?

A: Most of the work was with US bishops. They would go to CDF on our behalf. LCWR always tells this story of one of the meetings: one of the CDF staff said “I finally get that there’s this institutionalized perception of LCWR that grew over the years, and no one tested it out.” It was a big “aha!” moment for everyone. If only we would test out our perceptions of one another.

Q: Was LCWR’s response perceived as radical or powerful?

A: LCWR is seen as kind of in the forefront; we’re looked to (as an association of Catholic women religious leaders). We are speaking publicly about justice issues.

Q: Betty Thompson, co-author of Chapter 11 on behalf of Solidarity with Sisters: I’ve recently, because of Sister Marie McCarthy, read an article by the Dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School, Bernard Loomer, that talks about two uses of power: unilateral power (normal top-down, “I’m going to have an impact on someone”) and relational power (potential for self-transformation, power to be affected by others, looking not towards my goal but to have as a goal as good of a relationship as possible). It clarified a lot of what we talked about throughout the years, which is in the book. Through the process, this was a powerful point: use of power, relational power, and practice of that kind of communal contemplative discernment that Annmarie spoke about. With a clear understanding that the only way we will be here is mutually.

We’re here for our relationship. I never got the impression that this was an attempt to be didactic. But it was a way of being so deep that it just was how everyone was in relation to them, and they eventually absorbed that same conflict.

Annmarie: What we learned at the heart of this is that relationship building was most transformative. The organization will try to work with that learning, and maybe the Vatican as well, we can hope.

WATER thanks Annmarie Sanders for a thoughtful and powerful conversation.