Over the course of two weeks, starting on Sept. 10 in St. Louis, Campbell and nearly a dozen nuns will travel some 2,000 miles through seven states — Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia — that are marked by sharp political divides.
“The route is not to our base,” she said, contrasting this trip with previous ones that often stopped in cities and towns with communities receptive to the Catholic social justice message.
“We’re going to places where there are differences of opinion, to nourish conversations about the serious work of governance.”
The controversial Vatican probe of American nuns that abruptly ended last month looked from the outside like a tense standoff between Rome and the U.S. sisters, punctuated by occasional public jousts that appeared to signal even tougher negotiations behind closed doors.
Not so, say the sisters, now freed to talk after both sides agreed to a month-long media blackout that ended May 15.
Those involved in the talks said that after a rocky start, the talks settled into a constructive dialogue that cleared up many misunderstandings that Vatican officials had about the sisters.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a quiet nun with a keen wit who led a very public life as a journalist and a longtime spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, died on April 28 after a tough battle with cancer.
She was 67 and passed away in a hospice in Albany next to the regional convent of the religious order she entered as a 17-year-old novice in 1964.
Walsh had moved to her native Albany from Washington last September after it was discovered that the cancer that had been in remission since 2010 had returned.
She was able to receive better care there and live out her days with other members of the Sisters of Mercy. She was transferred to the hospice on April 23 as her condition deteriorated.
“Sister Mary Ann,” as she was known to the many journalists she sparred and joked with and, with regularity, befriended, worked at the communications office of the American hierarchy for 20 years, retiring in the summer of 2014 just before she fell ill again.
She became director of media relations for the USCCB — the first woman to hold that position — after coordinating media for World Youth Day in Denver in 1993, which featured an enormously successful visit by then-Pope John Paul II.
The long and often contentious duel between the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious came to an abrupt end on April 16. The probe of the umbrella group that represents most of the nation’s 50,000 nuns concluded with an amicable resolution that avoided serious sanctions for the sisters.
Here’s how the dispute played out:
April 2008: The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith taps Bishop Leonard Blair, then head of the Diocese of Toledo in Ohio, to carry out a doctrinal assessment of the LCWR.
December 2008: The Vatican’s office that oversees religious orders — the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life — launches a parallel review of all women’s orders in the U.S. because of reports about “a certain secularist mentality that has spread among these religious families, perhaps even a certain ‘feminist spirit.’”
July 2010: Blair submits his eight-page initial assessment of the LCWR to the Vatican.
April 2012: The CDF announces a surprise crackdown on the LCWR, accusing the group of allowing views that have “serious theological, even doctrinal errors,” and conferences that featured “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
April 2012: The Vatican appoints Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, along with Blair and Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., to directly oversee an overhaul of the LCWR that would give the hierarchy the final say on the sisters’ statutes, speakers and published materials.
June 2012: After consulting the membership, the LCWR leadership responds by saying that the Vatican crackdown was based on “unsubstantiated” allegations and caused “scandal and pain” in the church. A week later, LCWR leaders meet with top Vatican doctrinal officials in Rome in what is called an atmosphere of “openness and cordiality.”
The conflicted and controversial three-year doctrinal investigation by the Vatican of U.S. Catholic sisters in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has formally come to an end, according to a press release from the Vatican this morning and reports in the National Catholic Reporter.
“We are pleased at the completion of the Mandate which involved long and challenging exchanges of our understandings of and perspectives on critical matters of Religious Life and its practice," said Sr. Sharon Holland, IHM, president of LCWR.
"Through these exchanges, conducted always in a spirit of prayer and mutual respect, we were brought to deeper understandings of one another’s experiences, roles, responsibilities, and hopes for the Church and the people it serves. We learned that what we hold in common is much greater than any of our differences.”
Conservative operators within the Vatican have been working for years to bring suspicion on communities of Catholic sisters in the U.S. In the past seven years, they succeeded in launching twin investigations into American nuns.
The first, launched in 2008, was a controversial and unprecedented "apostolic visitation" investigating the finances and communal practices of individual U.S.-based Catholic orders of women religious, representing tens of thousands of women. It ended in December 2014 with a formal backing down by the Vatican office from which it was launched. The final report, issued under Pope Francis, was released at a public press conference in Rome — also unprecedented — in which all those involved made clear statements about the process and emphasized a spirit of forbearance, mercy, and transparency.
The second, launched in April 2012, amounted to a hostile takeover of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80 percent of U.S. Catholic sisters and is the primary leadership governing body for U.S. Catholic women's orders. LCWR was accused by ultra-traditionalist Archbishop Levada of including "radical feminist themes" and fomenting "corporate dissent" from the church's teaching on human sexuality, among other things. Even though LCWR was founded in 1956 under the urging of Pope Pius XII, it was under Pope Benedict XVI that the doctrinal assessment took place.
Last week the Vatican released the final report on its unprecedented investigation of Roman Catholic sisters in the United States. Six years ago, when the Vatican announced the apostolic visitation (its formal name), many of the sisters whom the investigation affected responded with hurt and anger. Now, thanks largely to competent, spiritually grounded leadership on the part of American sisters, the spirit is conciliatory.
When the Vatican launched the investigation in 2008, under Pope Benedict, to “look into the quality of life of religious women in the United States,” the announcement was met with suspicion and apprehension. Since the Vatican had previously only ordered an apostolic visitation when a group had gone astray, sisters wondered what the Vatican wanted to investigate and why. Some congregations reported that their elder sisters felt that their whole lives had been judged and found wanting," remembers Sr. Sharon Holland, president of the Leadership Council of Women Religious, which represents about 80 percent of the 57,000 nuns in the U. S. When Sr. Sandra Schneiders, professor emerita of New Testament and spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., learned of the visitation, she warned sisters to be cautious, treating the visitors as “uninvited guests who should be received in the parlor, not given the run of the house.”
In a situation that could have escalated badly, American sisters rose to the occasion.
This time it’s the Catholic sisters versus the Koch brothers.
That’s one way to look at the upcoming “Nuns on the Bus” tour, which hits the road Sept. 17 for the third time in three years, a monthlong trip though 10 key U.S. Senate battleground states to campaign against the influence of outside money on politics.
The issue has come to be identified with the wealthy industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch, whose huge contributions to conservative political causes have raised concerns about the role of “dark money” on elections.
The spigot for such undisclosed donations, which can be made by unions as well as corporations, was opened by the controversial 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision. That was followed by another 5-4 ruling in April of this year, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission.
The American nuns who were publicly scolded by the Vatican’s top doctrinal official for disobedience and promoting unorthodox beliefs have rejected the criticisms, and say their “attempts to clarify misperceptions have led to deeper misunderstandings” between Rome and the organization representing most of the 50,000 sisters in the U.S.
“It was not an easy discussion, but its openness and spirit of inquiry created a space for authentic dialogue and discernment,” the four sisters representing the LCWR said late Thursday.
“This work is fraught with tension and misunderstanding,” they said. “Yet, this is the work of leaders in all walks of life in these times of massive change in the world.”
Catholic nuns in the U.S. have been thumbing their nose at Rome’s demands to toe the doctrinal line and they need to obey or face serious consequences, the Vatican’s enforcer of orthodoxy said in a surprisingly tough talk to women representing most American sisters.
Mueller said the LCWR — which represents about 80 percent of the more than 50,000 Catholic nuns in the U.S. – is dependent on the Vatican for its bona fides as a church body. He indicated that the group’s status, and the Catholic faith of the sisters, was at risk if they did not heed Rome’s directives.
Nearly a year after the Vatican announced a makeover of the largest umbrella group for American nuns, Pope Francis has directed that the overhaul of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious continue.
The decision, while not entirely unexpected, could nonetheless bring an end to Francis’ honeymoon with the many American Catholics who had viewed the crackdown on nuns as heavy-handed and unnecessary.
Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, met on Monday with the LCWR’s leadership for the first time since Francis’ election on March 13.
According to a Vatican statement, during a recent discussion of the case with Mueller, Francis “reaffirmed the findings” of the Vatican investigation and the “program of reform” for LCWR that was announced on April 18, 2012.
A leader of the group of Catholic nuns who are facing a crackdown from the Vatican said on Thursday that her members have no plans or desire to leave the church, or reconstitute their group beyond Vatican control.
Sister Mary Hughes, who ended a three-year term as president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious on Aug. 11, said there is little-to-no support to withdraw the LCWR from the church, where it could avoid a Vatican-order makeover.
"It is the deep desire of the membership to stay within the church and not move away from it," Hughes said at a luncheon at the National Press Club. "We derive our strength from the sacramental life of the church."
American nuns facing a Vatican takeover of their leadership organization on Aug. 10 rejected Rome’s plans to recast the group in a more conservative mold, but declined — for now — to respond with an ultimatum that could have created an unprecedented schism between the sisters and the hierarchy.
Instead, the nuns said they wanted to pursue a negotiated solution to the showdown that has galvanized American Catholics in recent months and prompted an outpouring of support for the sisters that left the Vatican with a black eye.
The statement from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious came at the end of the LCWR’s annual assembly here and was the first formal response to the Vatican from the entire organization, which represents most of the 56,000 nuns in the U.S.
The Vatican announced in April that it was assigning a team of bishops to take control of the LCWR in order to make the organization — and by extension, most U.S. nuns — hew more closely and publicly to orthodox teachings on sexuality and theology.
Sister Pat Farrell, the outgoing president of the LCWR, on Friday read the official response that expressed the organization’s “deep disappointment” with Rome’s verdict. But the statement also said the nuns wanted to keep talking with the hierarchy in hopes of “creating more possibilities for the laity and, particularly for women, to have a voice in the church.”
Catholic sisters gathered in St. Louis for their annual assembly on Thursday intensified discussions aimed at thwarting a Vatican takeover of their group, but hanging over the meeting was an even larger existential question: Do the nuns have a future?
The viability issue is central to the dispute between Rome and the nuns that has riveted Catholics and dominated this year's meeting of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The steering group represents most of the 56,000 nuns in religious orders in the United States.
The Vatican announced in April that a team of bishops would take control of the LCWR in order to make the nuns hew more closely and publicly to orthodox teachings on sexuality and theology. The sisters are expected to deliver their first formal reply to the takeover on Friday.
A key justification for Rome's action was the argument that vocations to more progressive women's religious communities are in free fall: In 1965 there were 180,000 sisters in religious life, more than three times today's number. The decline is especially acute in orders that belong to the LCWR.
As hundreds of nuns met in St. Louis on Wednesday to begin crafting an answer to Vatican demands that their leaders toe the line on orthodoxy, there was a pervasive sense that this week's discussions could lead to a fateful juncture in the history of Catholicism in America.
"As you know, this is an assembly like no other assembly we've had," said Sister Pat Farrell, a Franciscan from Iowa who heads the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents most of the 56,000 nuns in communities across the country.
"I suspect we're in for a lot of surprises," Farrell told the sisters as she opened the LCWR's annual meeting.
The options under consideration by the 900 nuns — several hundred more than have attended recent gatherings — range from asking the Vatican to continue the dialogue to shuttering the LCWR and reorganizing the leadership body of sisters into a group that would be beyond the Vatican's control.
But that would also signal a historic shift in a church in which the nuns for centuries simply did the work that the bishops preached about — serving the poor, caring for the sick, and educating the young.
Fifty years after Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council to modernize the Roman Catholic Church, the legacy of that watershed summit that revolutionized Catholic life is at the core of a dispute between the Vatican and American nuns.
In April, the Vatican accused the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the umbrella group that represents the majority of American nuns, of “doctrinal confusion.” As LCWR leaders meet this week (Aug. 7-11) to plot their response to the Vatican, many of the sisters say they are just following the spirit of Vatican II.
“This is not just about the Vatican versus the nuns. This really is about the future of how we interpret the message of the Second Vatican Council,” Sister Maureen Fiedler told the PBS program “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.”
Though she is at the center of one of the biggest crises in the Catholic Church today, Sister Pat Farrell is loath to talk about herself, and certainly not in any way that would make her a focus of the looming showdown between the Vatican and American nuns.
To be sure, Farrell has spoken publicly and with quiet clarity about why the organization she heads, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, rejects Rome’s plans to take control of the umbrella group that represents most of the 57,000 nuns in the U.S.
In announcing its proposed takeover last April, the Vatican accused the nuns of embracing a “radical feminism” that questions church teachings and focuses too much on social justice causes. Farrell says the American sisters are simply doing what the gospel requires, often speaking on behalf of so many in the church who have no one else to advocate for them.
The high-profile confrontation will reach another crucial pass next week (Aug. 7-10) when LCWR members gather in St. Louis to develop a formal response to the Vatican’s plans. Options run the gamut from complying with all of Rome’s directives (unlikely) to decertifying the group and re-establishing it outside of the pope’s control (a possibility).