When publicly reprimanded by some of the most powerful men in the Vatican, one is expected to respond, "Yes, Your Excellencies. Very sorry, your Excellencies.” American nuns are trying something different.
Respectfully and clearly, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is calling the recent Vatican indictment against them “unsubstantiated” and “flawed.”
The Vatican, as everyone knows by now, was troubled that U.S. sisters have failed to give a loud enough voice against abortion and gay marriage while giving too much voice to left-of-center social justice causes. Rome is now proposing to remake LCWR in its own image, and the sisters object.
After four days of meetings, the LCWR board — which represents 80 percent of American Catholic sisters — on June 1 issued a four-paragraph statement that, in stunningly clear language, called the Vatican to “openness, honesty, and integrity.”
The same day, Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain took 26 lengthy paragraphs to reflect in America magazine on the history of sisters in the United States and on his role as the Vatican’s point man to oversee the LCWR for the next five years: “No one expects that such a sensitive task will be accomplished quickly or effortlessly, but by God’s grace and with mutual respect, patience and prayer it can be indeed accomplished for the good of all. Challenges larger than this have been met before, with renewal and even deeper faith the outcome.”
The LCWR has a long history of standing with those on the margins of power, and now they find themselves in much the same spot. As Pax Christi noted when honoring the sisters in 2010, the LCWR is composed of “strong, prophetic, and compassionate women … always on the front lines where the weak and most vulnerable suffer at the hands of violent and unjust power.”
Since 2008, the Vatican has undertaken two extensive investigations of American sisters. The sisters first learned of the most invasive of these investigations through press reports, not direct communication with the Vatican. More recently, during a scheduled visit of LCWR representatives to Rome in April, the Vatican informed the sisters that the assessment of the LCWR had already been delivered — directly to American bishops.
While the Vatican favors indirect communication, the sisters speak with clarity. Leaders of the LCWR will travel to Rome within two weeks to discuss their concerns directly with Vatican officials. It's not the first time the sisters have spoken truth to power: In 1979, the LCWR president, Sister Theresa Kane, publicly and directly asked Pope John Paul II to consider opening all ministries in the church to women.
In a recent article in the National Catholic Reporter, Kane said Vatican officials should come to the LCWR national assembly this August so that the conversation may continue.
“I think our members need to see them, hear from them, and they need to hear from our members," she said. "We can't do this in a vacuum. ... My big concern is that there is great hostility toward the LCWR … woven among the American bishops as well as the men in the Vatican, and I don't know how we get through that kind of a blockage. ... It's almost as if they really do not like us.”
According to Kane, “It is a matter of the men in the Vatican still thinking they can control the women. ... They don't realize that we have moved to another whole point of tremendous equality and mutuality. And that we have much to say about our future and what's going on.”
That’s the kind of clear talk we need to help end this standoff. When the Vatican initiated its apostolic visitation of American sisters, it would initially say only that it was concerned for the sisters’ “quality of life.” After nearly two years, Cardinal Franc Rode, who initiated the investigation, admitted that he was concerned about American sisters’ “feminist spirit.” The current assessment repeats the accusation of “radical feminism,” without ever detailing the charge.
The Vatican might do well to read its own document, Gaudium et Spes, released by the Second Vatican Council in 1965 and still relevant today: “With respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God's intent.”
Many of the bishops received their first training in formal communication from the sisters who graded their essays in Catholic schools. Maybe they can still learn openness and honesty and conscience from the nuns.
Mary Johnson spent 20 years as Sister Donata in Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charities. She left the order in 1997 and is the author of "An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life." She lives in New Hampshire.