LCWR

Vatican's Doctrine Chief Blasts U.S. Nuns for Disobedience

Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, head of Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Photo:Paul Haring/Catholic News Service.

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.

“The Holy See believes that the charismatic vitality of religious life can only flourish within the ecclesial faith of the church,” Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told four members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

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.

What About the Women?

POPE FRANCIS HAS created a new environment in the church. Beginning with asking all the people in St. Peter’s Square to bless him, living in a humble apartment and not the papal palace, placing his own phone calls, paying his own bills, giving simple daily homilies, having conversations with many people, and joyfully mingling with people: These all characterize an incredibly different pope. What has been even more attractive about Pope Francis than his style has been what he has said.

Pope Francis is clearly not on a mission to preserve the status quo. He’s been outspoken about the need for change in the world and in the church. In this he has not been a “professional denouncer.” Rather, he always contrasts what needs to change with the opportunity to be so much more than we are now. Whether it is oppressive global economic policy or clerical ambition, Pope Francis points out that we are called to something more noble and satisfying. The call of Christ is to be our best self. Francis reminds us, “God always forgives. Don’t forget this. God always forgives.”

Another striking aspect of Pope Francis is his constant and passionate concern for people who are poor and vulnerable and his reminder of our responsibilities to them. Whether he is talking to world leaders, bishops, or general audiences, his love of poor people and his firsthand knowledge of their challenges and how we should respond is profound.

HOW THIS PAPACY will handle what are generally labeled “women’s issues” and the ability of women to fully utilize their talents in the church has yet to unfold. Many are prayerfully watching how he will deal with issues such as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious investigation, the role of women in the church, both lay and religious, and women in leadership.

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The Pope We've Been Waiting For?

I WAS 15 when Pope Paul VI died in 1978. He’d been pope my whole life. Elated at the election of John Paul, I followed his papacy with all the obsessive focus of a teenager. When he died 33 days later, I simply didn’t know what to think. (His book Illustrissimi, a collection of letters written to saints, novelists, and artists, is one I return to for insight on Catholic imagination.)

During John Paul II’s 27 years as pope (the second longest reign in papal history), a dangerous nostalgia for a pre-Vatican II church was encouraged to flourish.

Under Pope Benedict XVI, that nostalgia came to fruition. The Latin Mass was re-established in many parishes. Amid a worldwide sex abuse scandal, liturgical correctness and “fancy dress” were too often elevated over children’s protection, victims’ needs, and institutional transparency. Women and girls were pushed further off the altar. To be gay, female, divorced, or a single mother—all these pushed one further from the table of the Lord, rather than drawing one nearer.

And now we have Pope Francis. When Jorge Mario Bergoglio announced he would take the name Francis, after Francis of Assisi, I wept. To have the Poverello (the “poor one”) at the center of our Catholic faith is right and just—whether that poor one is a 13th century itinerant preacher or a child in the villas miseria around Buenos Aires.

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Pope Francis Orders Overhaul of U.S. Nuns to Continue

RNS photo by Sally Morrow
Rally to honor American nunsin Kansas City, Mo. last year. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

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.

Nuns Group: We Are Not Leaving the Church

RNS photo by Sally Morrow
Banner supporting the sisters at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in St. Louis. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

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."

Nuns Reject Vatican Takeover But Seek Dialogue on Differences

RNS photo by Sally Morrow
From left, Sister Helen Garvey, Sister Marlene Weisenbeck, Sister Nancy Schreck and Sister Annmarie Sanders. Photo: Sally Morrow

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.”

Do the American Nuns Have a Future?

RNS photo by Sally Morrow
Anna O'Connor holds a sign "Honk for Nuns" in Kansas City, Mo. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

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.

Nuns Gather to Plot Response to Vatican Crackdown

St. Peter's Basilica, r.nagy  / Shutterstock.com
St. Peter's Basilica, r.nagy / Shutterstock.com

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.

Legacy of Vatican II at Heart of Dispute Between Vatican, U.S. Nuns

A Rally in support of nuns. RNS photo courtesy Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly
A Rally in support of nuns. RNS photo courtesy Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly

 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.”

Vatican Showdown Just Latest Chapter in Sister Pat Farrell’s Dramatic Life

Sr. Pat Farrell in December 2011. Photo by John Donaghy, Flickr
Sr. Pat Farrell in December 2011. Photo by John Donaghy, Flickr

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).

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