In the beginning, there was the Conference of Major Religious Superiors of Women's Institutes, which was established with the Vatican's blessing in 1959 during an era of rapid growth for Catholic religious orders.
Then along came two cultural earthquakes: the Second Vatican Council and the Sexual Revolution. In 1971, the women's conference changed its name -- this time without the Vatican's blessing -- to become the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Two leaders in this transformation later wrote that the goal was to become a "corporate force for systematic change in Church and society."
The rest is a long story, ultimately leading to a blunt April 18 missive from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This long-expected Vatican broadside noted "serious doctrinal problems" in LCWR proclamations, characterized by a "diminution of the fundamental Christological center" and the prevalence of "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."
Women's conference leaders offered a terse response, saying they were "stunned by the conclusions of the doctrinal assessment" from Rome.
"Stunned" was the key word for legions of headline writers, whose work resembled this Washington Post offering: "American nuns stunned by Vatican accusation of 'radical feminism,' crackdown." The Chicago Sun-Times went even further, proclaiming: "Vatican waging a war on nuns."
Truth is, tensions have been building for decades between the LCWR leadership and Vatican leaders. Thus, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith missive stressed that its call for reform was built on a lengthy study of materials created by "a particular conference of major superiors and therefore does not intend to offer judgment on the faith and life of Women Religious in the member congregations."
This particular investigation began in 2008 and Catholic leaders first discussed some of its findings two years later. The final "doctrinal assessment" document was completed in January of 2011. Some of the specific events criticized in the Vatican document took place during the 1970s and '80s.