Hundreds of supporters were on hand to welcome home the Nuns on the Bus on Monday at the United Methodist Building in Washington, D.C. The sisters completed their nine-state, two-week journey for faith, family, and fairness in the federal budget.
"Some Catholic politicians are pushing budget cuts that violate Catholic social teaching," said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director for the Catholic lobbying group NETWORK. "And they jeopardize the Catholic sisters' effort to really help struggling families, to practice the values of the Gospel by serving the poor and vulnerable."
When the Nuns on the Bus pulled up in front of Rep. Paul Ryan’s home office in Janesville, Wis., earlier this week, they were challenging the theological rationale he has been using for his budget plan that has become the economic banner for the Republican Party.
But they were also showing how people can hold strong opinions, get those opinions into the public arena and still engage adversaries in respectful ways.
In the process, they called on citizens to get engaged in the same way.
“I urge you, urge you, I beg you, Janesville, in this election cycle, please, don’t be a spectator,” Sr. Simone Campbell pleaded with a crowd in the courthouse park as their visit to the southern Wisconsin city came to an end.
Relations between the Vatican and the American nuns who are under investigation seem to be worsening after the sisters said on June 18 that initial discussions with Rome about a resolution to their standoff were “difficult” and that comments by several U.S. bishops have not made negotiations easier.
The statement by the board of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, as well as subsequent remarks by the nun who heads the LCWR, may herald a longer and broader struggle inside the church.
“We have never considered ourselves in any way unfaithful to the church, but if questioning is interpreted as defiance, that puts us in a very difficult position,” Sister Pat Farrell, head of the LCWR, said in an interview with the National Catholic Reporter on Monday.
Leaders of an umbrella group that represents the majority of U.S. nuns met with top Vatican doctrinal officials on June 12 in an atmosphere of “openness and cordiality,” according to a Vatican statement.
Still, the Vatican made clear that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious — which represents most of America's 57,000 nuns — "remains under the supreme direction of the Holy See" and appeared to offer little wiggle room in its crackdown on the nuns' leaders.
The meeting was called after the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a "doctrinal assessment" this spring that criticized the LCWR for not speaking out strongly enough against gay marriage, women priests and abortion.
The brothers have come to the sisters’ defense.
Leaders from the seven Franciscan provinces in the U.S. publicly backed a group of American nuns on Thursday (June 7), calling a Vatican crackdown on the women “excessive.”
The Franciscan friars are believed to be the first Catholic religious order to voice support for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious since the Vatican announced a full-scale makeover of the group in April.
The Vatican’s “doctrinal assessment” also faulted the sisters for sponsoring conferences that featured “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
Noting that many members of LCWR belong to female Franciscan orders, the friars pledged solidarity with the sisters and called the Vatican assessment “excessive, given the evidence raised.”
It seems the Sisters of North America are calling the Vatican out. When criticized by Vatican officials for taking a position too far left of center on a number of social issues, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious responded by calling the Vatican’s criticisms unsubstantiated and flawed.
But the rhetoric didn’t stay at the topical level. LCWR president Theresa Kane said (according to a Huffington Post report), "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.”
The Catholic Church, and the Pope in particular, embrace a number of socially redeeming virtues; equality and mutuality between the genders are not two of them.
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.”
Have you ever given someone a gift they really needed? A gift that made them cry and laugh at the same time?
When the Vatican last month announced a doctrinal crackdown on the leadership organization representing most of the 57,000 nuns in the U.S., the sisters said they were “stunned” by the move. Many American Catholics, meanwhile, were angry at what they saw as Rome bullying women whose lives of service have endeared them to the public.
Vatican watchers also were perplexed since a broader, parallel investigation of women’s religious orders in the U.S. was resolved amicably after an initial clash. That seemed to augur a more diplomatic approach by the Vatican to concerns that American nuns were not sufficiently orthodox.
Now it turns out that conservative American churchmen living in Rome—including disgraced former Boston Cardinal Bernard Law—were key players in pushing the hostile takeover of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, or LCWR, which they have long viewed with suspicion for emphasizing social justice work over loyalty to the hierarchy and issues like abortion and gay marriage.