Leadership Conference of Women Religious
Three Years After 'Radical Feminist' Charge, U.S. Catholic Sisters and Vatican Reach Peace Agreement
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.
The Vatican on April 16 officially ended a controversial investigation of American nuns with a face-saving compromise that allows Pope Francis to close the book on one of the more troubled episodes from the pontificate of his predecessor, Benedict XVI.
“We are pleased at the completion of the (investigation), which involved long and challenging exchanges of our understandings of and perspectives on critical matters of religious life and its practice,” Sister Sharon Holland, president of the leadership network of nuns that had been under investigation, said in a statement released following a meeting in Rome with the Vatican’s top doctrinal officials.
“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,” said Holland.
“We learned that what we hold in common is much greater than any of our differences.”
A brief statement from Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and leader of the effort to rein in the nuns, who were seen as too liberal, shed little light on what the long-running investigation achieved and seemed aimed at moving past the contentious saga.
Mueller said he was confident that the mission of the nuns “is rooted in the Tradition of the Church” and that they are “essential for the flourishing of religious life in the Church.” The original report had accused the nuns of promoting “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
In another indicator of the thaw in relations, the delegation of American nuns met later on April 16 with Francis for 50 minutes in a warm encounter that seemed to underscore the sisters’ affinity for the pope’s focus on social justice and on pastoral outreach to the world.
“Our conversation allowed us to personally thank Pope Francis for providing leadership and a vision that has captivated our hearts and emboldened us as in our own mission and service to the church,” the nuns said in a statement.
“We were also deeply heartened by Pope Francis’ expression of appreciation for the witness given by Catholic sisters through our lives and ministry and will bring that message back to our members.”
THE VATICAN REPORT on the three-year investigation of U.S. Catholic sisters landed softly in the national media in December, as major stories combined with Christmas to fill the news cycle. Good timing, if the intent was to bury it. But the story isn’t over.
Some years ago, two Vatican offices, under the leadership of Pope Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, launched separate investigations of U.S. women religious, first of the individual orders and later of their leaders’ membership organization.
Why? The general consensus seems to be that high-ranking conservative U.S. bishops were angry at sisters who had generally served as obedient poorly paid minions to do their bidding, but who now were infected with a certain “feminist” outlook on life.
A September 2008 conference on religious life, held at Massachusetts’ Stonehill College, gathered conservative voices critical of how U.S. sisters had “modernized” following the Second Vatican Council. Within a few months, a Vatican office (the “Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life”) announced it would survey every group of “active” (vs. contemplative) U.S. Catholic sisters.
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.
In November, Sister Maureen Fiedler hand-delivered a letter to Pope Francis’ ambassador in Washington, D.C., urging the pontiff to renounce a series of 15th-century church documents that justify the colonization and oppression of indigenous peoples.
She doesn’t know if the letter made it to the Vatican. But she’s hopeful a recent resolution by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious will spur the pope to repudiate the centuries-old concept known as the “Doctrine of Discovery.”
“When I learned about it, I was horrified,” said Fiedler. As a member of the Loretto Community, a congregation of religious women and lay people, Fiedler first heard of the doctrine when her order marked its 200th anniversary by challenging “the papal sanctioning of Christian enslavement and power over non-Christians.”
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.”
U.S. Catholic nuns — accused by Rome of “radical feminism” for advocating social justice at the expense of issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and euthanasia — responded to a Vatican knuckle rapping with a brief, conciliatory statement on Monday.
After its four-day annual assembly, the board of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80 percent of the nation’s 57,000 sisters, emphasized the positive, and remained tight-lipped about negotiations to resolve the investigation.
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).
Last month, Sister Pat Farrell, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, traveled to the Vatican to discuss the not-so-favorable assessment of her group.
If you’ll remember, the verdict was that the LCWR – which represents 80 percent of Catholic sisters in the U.S. – undermines Roman Catholic teaching on homosexuality and birth control, while promoting “radical feminist themes.”
Today on WHYY’s Fresh Air, Sister Farrell talks with Terry Gross about how to deal with conflict. She tells Gross that as the sisters prepare for the national assembly in August, they are busy dialoging and gathering perspectives, hoping to “somehow, in a spirited, nonviolent strategizing, look for maybe a third way that refuses to define the mandate and the issues in such black and white terms.”
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.”
Catholics around the U.S. are coming together for prayer vigils as a show of support for America's nuns, whom the Vatican accuses of having "serious doctrinal problems."
The Wednesday (May 30) vigil at St. Colman Catholic Church in Cleveland follows a Vatican move last month to intervene and reform the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella organization that represents the leaders of most U.S. nuns.
Similar rallies have already been held or are planned from Anchorage, Alaska to Boston, organized by the loose-knit Nun Justice Project, a coalition of lay reform groups.
The Vatican scolded the LCWR for making statements that "disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops, who are the church's authentic teachers of faith and morals."
The crackdown has caused an uproar among some Catholics, sparking dozens of vigils in cities across the country.
Two months ago, I went to the Maryknoll motherhouse, a massive stone building in Ossining, N.Y., to interview 93-year-old Sister Madeleine Dorsey for a book I am writing. This was a sister who had chosen to stay with the poor in El Salvador after the 1980 murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero. A few months later, she found the bodies of her murdered sisters buried in a shallow grave.
She was willing to risk her life, she said, "to help the poor rise up and know themselves as children of God."
So when I heard that the Vatican had ordered a crackdown on the largest umbrella group of U.S. sisters, accusing them of spending too much time "promoting issues of social justice," I was stunned. Perhaps I shouldn't have been, given Rome's historic failure to support its best and brightest.