Sister Pat Farrell

Kevin Eckstrom 08-17-2012
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."

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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