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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Dialogue, Discernment and Contemplative Engagement

Joan Steadman

Joan Steadman

Summary of a talk by Joan Steadman, CSC

Miriam Schulman

Dialogue, discernment, and contemplative engagement: These were three values and behaviors that gave shape and texture to the response of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) to the Doctrinal Assessment and Mandate promulgated by the Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).  

The period began when the CDF initiated a doctrinal assessment of LCWR in March 2009 and ended in April 2015 with a joint statement from both groups lauding the cooperative process they had engaged in and expressing their shared understanding that “the role of the Conference as a public juridic person centered on Jesus Christ and faithful to the teachings of the Church is to undertake through its membership and in collaboration with other sisters those services which develop the life and mission of women religious in responding to the Gospel in the contemporary world.”

Steadman described that challenging but ultimately positive process at a talk February 22 for the Ethics Center. LCWR represents approximately 1400 members who serve approximately 80 percent of women religious in the United States. When the CDF made public its conclusions of the doctrinal assessment of the conference in 2012, the leadership of LCWR issued a statement expressing “serious concerns about both the content of the assessment and the process by which it was prepared believing that the sanctions called for in the CDF mandate were disproportionate to the concerns raised.”

That LCWR and the CDF were able to come to mutual understanding despite such hurtful beginnings, Steadman credits to the values of dialogue, discernment, and contemplative engagement.


Steadman framed her discussion of dialogue with the words of Pope Francis:

Dialogue is born from an attitude of respect for the other person, from a conviction that the other person has something good to say. It assumes that there is room in the heart for the person’s point of view, opinion or proposal. To dialogue entails a cordial reception, not a prior condemnation. In order to dialogue, it is necessary to know how to lower the defenses, open the door of the house and offer human warmth. (On Heaven and Earth, Sudamericana 2011)

LCWR’s leadership met in that spirit with the three bishops whom CDF delegated to implement the Mandate: Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, Archbishop Leonard Blair, and Bishop Thomas Paprocki. Before the two groups considered the content of the Mandate they focused on using dialogue to forge relationships. “Ultimately it was the commitment to building a relationship that gave LCWR leadership the strength to persevere and discover the depth of those with whom they were in dialogue, even amidst their differences,” Steadman said.

Discussions covered faith and its practice, religious life and its mission, and the role of a leadership conference of religious. “We believed that because these exchanges were carried out in an atmosphere of mutual respect, we were brought to deeper understandings of one another,” Steadman said. “We gained insights into the experiences and perspectives of these church leaders, and felt that our experiences and perspectives were heard and valued.”


In the Catholic tradition, discernment is the effort to understand God’s will and to align the believer’s will with God’s. For the members of the LCWR leadership, Steadman said, it assumed that they would “pray, listen, speak and reflect in order to know God’s will and the path we were called to walk, to create as we went.”

Communal discernment meant letting go of preconceived ideas about where the process might lead, listening to the movement of the Spirit, and making decisions based on what was learned along the way. “In discerning together,” Steadman said, “a sacred space was created, a space where each person could share insights and questions, where there was a sense of openness as a common direction unfolded.”

Contemplation and Contemplative Engagement

LCWR describes itself as a group of ecclesial women who ground “all we are and all we do in a contemplative stance.” By this, Steadman says, the sisters mean that they are committed to a process that moves beyond just getting business done and problems resolved to a place of quiet that enables them to integrate prayer, reflection, and commitment. She elaborated:

Over the years our experience as LCWR has taught us that contemplation and contemplative engagement assisted us as a group in moving from “I” to “we.” Contemplation invited silence, which helped us to slow down, reflect and enter into deeper conversation. Aware of potential barriers to discernment such as pushing an agenda, dominating, debating, being adversarial rather than collaborative, we were attentive to our own behavior and responses. Creative possibilities, new options and peaceful resolution can be the surprising fruit of contemplation.

That was indeed the result of the LCWR contemplative engagement with the CDF.

For Steadman, the culmination of the entire process was a meeting between herself, Sisters Marcia Allen, CSJ, Carol Zinn, SSJ, and Janet Mock, CSJ, and Pope Francis, “We were deeply heartened by Pope Francis’ expression of appreciation for the witness given by Catholic sisters through our lives and ministry,” Steadman said.

Mar 9, 2016