The Vatican recently accused U. S. nuns, specifically Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), of “radical feminism” because they focus more on the human rights and the poor, rather than pushing Church doctrine against contraception and homosexuals. One of the men behind this push to control U. S. nuns is Bernard Law, who hid pedophiles, and former archbishop of St. Louis, Cardinal Raymond Burke, who allegedly was “kicked upstairs” for his “hard right views”, among others, given refuge by the Vatican after sex abuse scandals.
The fact that prelates like Burke and Law, who was given a Roman refuge in 2002 after the sexual abuse scandal exploded in Boston, played such a key role in the investigation of the American women has been like salt in the wound for those who support the nuns.
NCR has learned that during a meeting of Vatican personnel in early 2012 to discuss the LCWR assessment, a senior Vatican diplomat warned that launching a crackdown now might be a bad idea in light of domestic American politics, especially an increasingly nasty campaign season featuring rhetoric about a "war on women."
On June 1, the LCWR made a public statement about the Vatican crackdown, in which they stated that the eight-page assessment, by the Vatican, based on unsubstantiated accusations due to a flawed process and lack of transparency. Moreover, they believe that the sanctions imposed on the LCWR were disproportionate to the concerns raised and could compromise their abilities to fulfil their mission, which is to help the poor, homeless, and underprivileged. They stated the report caused more scandal and pain throughout the church community, creating greater polarization.
“Board members concluded that the assessment was based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency,” the conference’s statement said.
It added: “The report has furthermore caused scandal and pain throughout the church community, and created greater polarization.”
The Vatican conducted the assessment with minimal contact and by written communication between them and the nuns, which concerns the nuns.
The LCWR also recognizes that this matter has touched both Catholics and non-Catholics throughout the world, as evident by the thousands of messages received by the LCWR. Some people even gathered to protest the Vatican’s assessment and statements concerning the U. S. nuns. It also shows that matters of “faith and justice, which captured the hearts of many Catholic sisters, are shared by many people around the world.”
Eileen Sammon, a protester in New York said, concerning the Vatican, “The sisters are wonderful people who work very hard, and yes, they do care about the poor, and they do care about social concerns, and the congregation of the dogma of the faith has come down on them really hard. It is unfair, unjust, unconscionable, and I'm here to support them.”
Sheila Peiffer, with The Nun Justice Project, said, “I would like to see the Vatican rescind the mandate, but I think that would be doubtful judging from past actions, but we always believe in the power of the Holy Spirit and peace. Peace and reconciliation is everyone's goal."
One of the groups that the Vatican singled out was “Network”, a group that works on social justice, which a group of Catholic sisters created over 40 years ago. The Vatican announcement admitted that the LCWR did a great deal of work promoting social justice, it failed in pushing the “right to life from conception to natural death”.
The Vatican announcement said that “while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death.”
It added that “crucial” issues like “the church’s biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes church teaching. Moreover, occasional public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals, are not compatible with its purpose.”
The Vatican not only accused the group of 57,000 members and dwindling of not supporting the Church’s position on abortion and homosexuality, but many bishops were angry when the LCWR and Network supported Obama’s health care plan and endorsed Obama’s compromised concerning contraceptive provision in health insurance.
Many bishops were angered when LCWR and Network, along with the Catholic Health Association, endorsed President Obama's health care reform over the bishops' objections. LCWR and Network recently endorsed Obama's compromise with the bishop over a mandate to provide insurance coverage for birth control for employees at religious institutions, even as the bishops continue to fight it.
Sister Simone Campbell, Network’s executive director was stunned when she saw that the Vatican singled out her group in its report. Concerning the accusations made, she said, “It concerns me that political differences in a democratic country would result in such a censure and investigation.”
The LCWR, which met last week in Washington D. C., represents 80% of Catholic nuns in the U. S. concerning the Vatican’s accusations of the group supporting "certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith in some of the programs and presentations."
According to a CNN Wire on KCENTV, “the Vatican report, made public by the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the doctrinal assessment began in part because of the group's dissent on the Holy See's teaching on the ordination of women and human sexuality. The Catholic Church ordains only men to be priests and says sex is to be between a man and woman who are married in the eyes of the church,” as well as remaining silent on abortion and euthanasia. Sister Campbell believes the media will find the outcome of the Vatican crackdown anticlimactic.
Simone Campbell, a nun who's executive director of Network, a national Catholic social justice lobby in Washington, said her "hunch" is that the LCWR will put together an outline response this week to be presented to the group's full assembly during its August meeting.
"I think the results for the media will be very anticlimactic because we as Catholic sisters do things with a lot of prayer and very slowly," Campbell about this week's meeting.
"It's going to be like watching paint dry," she added in a CNN interview.
However, various groups of Catholic nuns are reading the report from the Vatican. Many were shocked by it and feeling accused of not doing enough to serve the Catholic Church.
She said the report left her feeling "as being suspect."
"For myself, the shock made me numb at first, and then I was profoundly sad that my life as a woman religious and my commitment to serving the poor would be so denigrated by the leadership of our church," Campbell said. "All we do is work for love."
For the report to say "you don't do everything," Campbell said, is "ridiculous."
"They're saying we're silent on some issues. It's not our issue. Other people do those works," Campbell said.
Sister Pat Farrell believes, after working with others, that not everything is in “black and white” concerning sexuality and women. Bill Donahue believes that if the nuns cannot follow Church doctrine and do not see things concerning sexuality as “black and white”, then they should “check out”.
According to Catholic reporter, John Allen agrees with the Vatican’s report on stating that the LCWR needs an overhaul and a tighter relationship with the bishops. He also believes that the Sisters could do one of three things in response to the Vatican’s demand “for obedience”.
"Basically, it needs to be more obedient," said Allen, who's also a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, based in Kansas City, Missouri.
The American nuns' group could do one of three options this week: it could go along with everything the Vatican is saying; it could offer to work and negotiate with the Vatican but say "let's talk"; or it could say "we're not going to play ball and we're going to walk away," Allen said.
The last option would essentially mean "we'll disband the LCWR and let it die on the vine and go off and do our own thing," Allen said.
"That's what on the table here: How do the nuns want to respond to the crackdown that they received from the Vatican," Allen added.
According to NPR, over the next five years, at least, a man, called an archbishop, will come in and take over all the groups of nuns, especially the LCWR and rewrite their statutes, approve speakers, and control every aspects of the social work they do. The archbishop will come in and force the Sisters to push the Church’s agenda concerning homosexuality, contraception, and abortion, giving less attention to the poor, homeless, and disadvantaged.
SIMON: And this battle's been brewing for a while.
HAGERTY: Yeah, that's right. About four years ago, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith – that's the division of the Vatican that deals with theological purity – they launched an investigation into the Leadership Conference. And the Vatican was really unhappy that, among other things, the sisters have challenged church teachings on things like homosexuality and the male-only priesthood. So, they investigated and they decided that, yes, the group had what it called serious doctrinal problems. According to the Vatican assessment that came out a few weeks ago, the sisters have focused too much on poverty and economic issues and kept, quote, "silent" on things like abortion and same-sex marriage. The report also said that the group promotes, quote, "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."
SIMON: The Vatican appointed an archbishop, I gather, to oversee the group.
HAGERTY: That's right. It's appointed Archbishop Peter Sartin of Seattle to reform the Leadership Conference. Now, over the next five years, Sartin will rewrite the group's statutes. He will approve or reject every single speaker that the women invite to their meetings. He's going to have control over their publications. He's going to review their connections with outside groups, like a social justice group called Network, and decide whether those connections are appropriate. You know, one sister told me it's like a hostile takeover. Sartin says it's a great opportunity for collaboration.
Sister Donna Bethell agreed with the Vatican’s decision and said that the Vatican has a responsibility to ensure the LCWR is doing its job. She stated that the LCWR put out information that contradicted the Church’s position.
Jeannine Hill Fletcher thinks that the Vatican wants the LCWR to advance the Church’s views concerning life and death, not just social justice. She also said that the document appears to criticize what they are thinking, not just what they are not doing.
While the Church and Allen see the issues with U. S. nuns as a “crisis of conscious”, Sister Campbell does not see it that way.
"It's not affecting my conscience. It affects my sadness and heart. This life is profound and deep," Campbell said. "When politics interferes, it doesn't change the depth of the spiritual. It's annoyance. It's not an issue of conscience. We're faithful."
However, Sister Maureen Fiedler, host of Public Radio’s Interfaith Voices program and an activist for social justice and equality for three decades, said that when she hears the Vatican mandate, she hears the voice of the Church in the 19th century, which was dictatorial, and not the Second Vatican Counsel when it felt refreshing to be Catholic. Concerning an archbishop controlling and overhauling what the nuns do or do not do, she said, “If this were the corporate world, I think we’d call it a hostile take over.”
One of the options that the LCWR may chose, in dealing with the Vatican, she stated, is starting a non-profit. In her opinion, radical feminism is part of being Catholic. She wants to see more decision made in a democratic way, but feels that would take a Vatican III. She would like to see a real collaborative effort between the laity and the Vatican.
According to KXLY, this is a fight between Churchmen and Churchwomen, which could mean broad implications for the global church. According to the report, the U. S. nuns went rogue and are potentially a negative global influence on the Church.
One side is pushing the nuns to fight back against a church that they think has lost its way. The other is championing the Vatican against a group of aging nuns whom they say are on the verge of extinction unless they reform.
Sister Campbell felt shocked and numb by the accusations from the Vatican at first, especially with the report stating that the nuns “don’t do everything”, which she said “is ridiculous”.
"For myself, the shock made me numb at first, and then I was profoundly sad that my life as a woman religious and my commitment to serving the poor would be so denigrated by the leadership of our church," says Sister Simone Campbell, who heads NETWORK, a liberal advocacy group in Washington. "All we do is work for love."
Others feel this is an epoch in the Church’s history, where smaller groups of devote Catholics, “the size of a mustard seed”, will “spread the good news” to the larger society.
"Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the church's history where Christianity will be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world-that let God in," he told Peter Seewald in an interview for the book, "Salt of the Earth: Christianity and the Catholic Church at the End of the Millenium."
Currently the median age of nuns is 70, due to a sharp decline, much like the one before Vatican II. The career opportunities once open to only nuns, the Church opened to laity outside the Church.
"They're certainly not getting new vocations, new members, at the rate they had been before the Second Vatican Council," says Kathleen Cummings, associate director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. "Since the late 1960s, their numbers have declined dramatically."
The LCWR use to represent 100% of the U. S. nuns in the Catholic Church, but in the 1990s, some orders broke away and formed the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, which returned to older religious traditions, including the habit.
However, Cummings feels that the Vatican is attempting to regain control of women by asserting the power they had years ago.
"What's happening here with the doctrinal assessment is just the latest, and will have the most lasting effects, of a Vatican attempt to reassert the power they traditionally held over women's religious life," Cummings says. "Power that they lost a lot of over the last 50 years."
However, another views the Vatican crackdown as a “seek and rescue” of dying groups, such as the LCWR, with the belief that the more devout groups thrive by sticking with traditional values and doctrines of the Church.
"Some communities are clearly doing something right, others are moving to extinction," says Arroyo. "Bottom line: a faithful witness is attractive and undeniably draws young people.
"The Vatican is throwing a life line to the leadership of female communities that are not thriving and attempting to facilitate a reform that will allow them to rediscover their initial calling and draw young vocations into the future," he says. "That's not a crackdown, it's a seek-and-rescue mission."
Pat Farrell and Janet Mock stated that the LCWR plans to fly out to Rome and discuss this matter with Archbishop Peter Sartain, assigned to oversee the changes, and Cardinal William Levada. Following that meeting, the nuns will convene in St. Louis in August for their national convention to discuss and further shape their response to the Vatican. Sartain was assigned to oversee the reform of the nuns “in order to implement a process of review and conformity to the teachings and discipline of the church.”
Farrell intended to convey their objections of the assessment to the Vatican in private while in Rome, but the Sisters also noted the outpouring of support and affection. Catholics in over 50 cities held vigils and even created an online petition, with the help of Nun Justice Project, in support of the Sisters. The Project told Catholics to withhold donations to Peter’s Pence, a special collection sent to the Vatican, and give the money instead to local nuns’ groups.
Sister Christine Schenk, executive director of FutureChurch, a Church liberal reform group in Cleveland, stated that the Vatican’s assessment outraged the laity, especially because it did not consult with the Sisters before making the final assessment.
However, John Gehring, does not see the nuns backing down from their social justice mission, handling the situation with dignity.
"This response shows Catholic sisters are not backing down from their social justice mission and are handling a troubling situation with great dignity," said John Gehring, the Catholic program director for Faith in Public Life, a liberal advocacy group.
But Russell Shaw, former spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said a decline in women's religious communities in the United States shows there has been a serious problem under the Leadership Conference's watch. "Does it occur to them that they might need some help?" he asked.
A Catholic priest, called Fr. Doug, wrote in favour of the nuns, according to Faith in Public Life. The site pulled some quotes from Fr. Doug’s article, including his mention that the crackdown on the nuns is about making one last grasp for control over them and others:
The Vatican sounded like the Pharisees of the New Testament;—legalistic, paternalistic and orthodox— while “the good sisters” were the ones who were feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, educating the immigrant, and so on. Nuns also learned that Catholics are intuitively smart about their faith. They prefer dialogue over diatribe, freedom of thought over mind control, biblical study over fundamentalism, development of doctrine over isolated mandates.
Far from being radical feminists or supporters of far-out ideas, religious women realized that the philosophical underpinnings of Catholic teaching are no longer valid. Women are not subservient to men, the natural law is much broader than once thought, the OT is not as important as the NT, love is more powerful than fear. They realized that you can have a conversation with someone on your campus who thinks differently than the church without compromising what the church teaches.
The Vatican is hypocritical and duplicitous. Their belief is always that someone else needs to clean up their act; the divorced, the gays, the media, the US nuns, the Americans who were using the wrong words to pray, the seminaries, etc. It never occurs to the powers that be that the source of the problem is the structure itself.
US nuns work side by side with the person on the street. They are involved in their everyday lives. Most cardinals spent less than five years in a parish, were never pastors, are frequently career diplomats. Religious women in the US refuse to be controlled by abusive authority that seeks to control out of fear. They realize that Jesus taught no doctrines, but that the church, over time, developed what Jesus taught in a systematic way.
This investigation is not about wayward US nuns. It is the last gasp for control by a dying breed, wrapped in its own self-importance. It is a struggle for the very nature of the church; who we are, how we pray, where we live, who belongs, why we believe. The early church endured a similar struggle. The old order died. The Holy Spirit won.
Democracy Now interviewed Sister Campbell and brought out the many issues and problems with the Catholic Church, including showed a video recording of a priest speaking out concerning the various problems within the Church. Campbell thinks that the priest had some good points in his video statement. She also believes that the Vatican is criticizing the nuns for interacting in the U. S. culture. The Vatican still believes people should not question them and will not listen to women.
When asked whether more women in the Church might have changed the situation concerning sexual abuse in the Church, she stated that she was an attorney in California, before becoming a nun, and the cases that caused her to “rise up like a mama lion”, were the case that involved abuse. She believes that the Church, both men and women, need to weep and mourn concerning the censor of women and sexual abuse.
However, she thinks that the Vatican’s reprimand probably does concern the Networks support of Obama’s health care program and issues over abortion. She said, “They named us, I think, because we took a different position from the bishops.” She also said that she read the bill and as a lawyer, she knows what it said. Accordingly, she stated that they like the nuns’ service and work, but “don’t have thoughts, don’t have questions, don’t have criticisms.”