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American Nuns: Grounded Leadership in Conflict

Diego Cervo/ Shutterstock.com

Diego Cervo/ Shutterstock.com

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.

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."

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).

A Happy Homecoming: Nuns on the Bus End Their Journey in D.C. (PHOTOS)

Photo by Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

Sister Simone Campbell and Sister Mary Ellen Lacy step off the bus on Monday. Photo by Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

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."

U.S. Nuns Rip Vatican Over 'Unsubstantiated Accusations'

Nun kicks a heavy bag in a gym. Photo by Martin San/Getty Images.

Nun kicks a heavy bag in a gym. Photo by Martin San/Getty Images.

Leaders representing most of the nation’s 57,000 Catholic nuns on Friday (June 1) answered a Vatican crackdown on their group by charging that Rome’s criticisms of the sisters were “unsubstantiated,” caused “scandal and pain” and “greater polarization” in the church.

“Moreover, the sanctions imposed were disproportionate to the concerns raised and could compromise their ability to fulfill their mission,” the 22-member board of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious warned in a statement issued after a special four-day meeting in Washington.

The LCWR board meeting followed the surprise announcement in April that Pope Benedict XVI wanted a Vatican-led makeover of the group on the grounds that it was not speaking out strongly enough against gay marriage, abortion and women’s ordination.

Rome also chided the LCWR for doctrinal ambiguity and sponsoring conferences that featured “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

The unexpectedly strong pushback to the Vatican may be an indication of how much backlash the campaign has sparked among Catholics, who value the sisters’ longstanding ministry in education, health care and social services, and who bristle at Rome's demands to focus instead on sexual morality and enforcing orthodoxy.

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