A Vatican-ordered reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is not directed at women's religious orders or at any individual sisters, nor is it a statement on the general quality of religious life today, said Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of S eattle, who is overseeing the controversial measure. Archbishop Sartain is pictured celebrating Mass in 2011 in Rome. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — A Vatican-ordered reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is not directed at women’s religious orders or at any individual sisters, nor is it a statement on the general quality of religious life today, said the American archbishop overseeing the controversial measure.

“The impression is given that the Holy Father or anybody involved is saying something negative about religious women in the United States, which is not the case,” said Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle. “This particular task is not about making comments on any particular religious order or religious women in general.”

The archbishop spoke to Catholic News Service June 14 in Rome, two days after meeting with U.S. Cardinal William J. Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine for the Faith, and the LCWR’s top two officials, Franciscan Sister Pat Farrell, president, and St. Joseph Sister Janet Mock, executive director. None of the parties has revealed details of what they discussed.

In April, the doctrinal congregation appointed Archbishop Sartain to provide “review, guidance and approval, where necessary, of the work” of the LCWR, a Maryland-based umbrella group that claims about 1,500 leaders of U.S. women’s communities as members, representing about 80 percent of the country’s 57,000 women religious. His tenure in that role is to last “up to five years.”

The appointment came the same day the congregation released an eight-page “doctrinal assessment” of the LCWR, citing “serious doctrinal problems which affect many in consecrated life,” and announced a reform of the organization to ensure its fidelity to Catholic teaching in areas including abortion, euthanasia, women’s ordination and homosexuality.

On June 1, the LCWR’s national board criticized the Vatican’s action as “based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency,” saying it had “caused scandal and pain throughout the church community and created greater polarization.” The reform has also been the target of Internet-based protests and of generally unfavorable commentary in the press.

Archbishop Sartain told CNS that he regretted “distractions from the outside that include misinterpretations,” and that he was especially “saddened” by the perception “that this particular doctrinal assessment is about American religious life in general or about particular religious orders or about particular sisters.”

“The task that’s been given to me and my brother bishops and others who will eventually help us is specifically about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, that organization precisely,” he said, “because it has great importance for the relationships among the member religious communities and between those specific religious communities, the Holy See and the bishops’ conference of the United States.”

The archbishop dismissed a question as to whether the reform of the LCWR might be considered part of the larger process of clarifying the church’s understanding of religious life in the light of modernizing reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council.

“This is specifically about the LCWR,” he said.

Archbishop Sartain defended the Vatican’s emphasis on the conference’s approach to doctrine, saying that a proper appreciation of church teaching is vital even for communities focused on practical service.

“For the Christian life, we’re always trying to delve more deeply into the truth who is Christ, into the mystery of Christ,” he said. “Sound doctrine … helps us to understand that truth and then to delve into it more deeply in prayer, and to live it more fully in our life every day.”

The archbishop said that the need for sound doctrine “receives a particular focus for priests and religious,” because they have a “vocation in the church, and so therefore their witness, their teaching and their own life of prayer, all those things should be centered in what the church believes and then also be a reflection of what the church believes.”

Such a focus on sound doctrine applies to all clergy and religious, he said, “whether they are directly involved in catechetical work, in preaching or teaching, or whether they’re involved in hospital work or whatever it might be.”

— By Francis X. Rocca, Catholic News Service