sisters

End of an Inquisition?

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.

In addition, in January 2009, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s doctrinal watchdog, announced it would conduct a “doctrinal assessment” of the U.S. sisters’ major leadership organization, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious—claiming that LCWR diverged from church teaching on homosexuality, women’s ordination, and the centrality of Jesus in belief. The as-yet-unreported investigation of the 1,500-member LCWR entailed a review of publications and speakers’ texts and significant back-and-forth between LCWR and Vatican representatives.

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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.

Catholic Sisters Are Redefining Leadership

A new model of leadership that’s been refined in the fires of change and conflict is emerging from U.S. religious women.

In June, the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, along with Solidarity with Sisters, invited 150 people to Catholic University for an opportunity to discuss the model of leadership that has developed in Catholic women’s communities around the world over the last 50 years since Vatican II. The event coincided with the release of Spiritual Leadership for Challenging Times, an anthology of 10 addresses given by Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) presidents.

Catholic sisters are emerging as leaders ahead of their times. From Sister Simone Campbell, SSS, and Nuns on the Bus to Catholic Health Association CEO Sister Carol Keehan, DC, who helped pass the Affordable Care Act, to former LCWR president Sister Pat Farrell, OSF, who practiced authentic spiritual leadership in the face of the Vatican’s ongoing investigation of that organization (an investigation that Pope Francis should have laid quietly to rest, but has not), religious women are getting notice for their thoughtful, faithful leadership in the face of withering criticism and their own communities’ dramatic changes.

What are the marks of this new leadership?

1. Leadership must begin with facing oneself. Sister Marie McCarthy, SP, calls this taking “a long, loving look at what is.” Developing a prayerful, contemplative consciousness allows illusions and judgments to fall away. What changes are needed so that we can go “deeper into life, into service, into God,” as Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, writes? “The purpose of leadership is not to make the present bearable,” writes Sister Joan, but “to make the future possible.” This kind of leadership is measured and evaluated by the degree to which the people around the leaders are inspired to effective, resilient change.

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To the Women of Syria

I wish I could sit beside you on a cushion on the floor and have a cup of tea with you. I would like to snuggle your baby in my arms. I would like to hear your story. I know you have a sad story, and if I heard it, I would weep.

I know you are good and loving women. I’m sorry you have lost so much. I’m sorry you had to come to a country, a city, and a house that is not yours.

I can imagine you in your own country, strong women serving others. I can imagine you making beautiful food and sharing it with your family and friends. I can imagine you caring for your mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, sisters and brothers and friends. Just the way I do.

Because that’s what women do. We are compassionate. We give. We serve. We protect. We work hard to make the world better for the people we love.

Wherever I go in the world, I discover that we women are very much alike. We may have different clothes. Different languages. Different cultures. Maybe our skin is a different color. But in our hearts, we are the same.

That’s why we can look into each other’s eyes and feel connected. We can talk without using words. We can smile. We can hug. We can laugh.

And sometimes, we can feel each other’s pain. I have prayed that God would help me feel your pain. I wish I could remove your pain. I wish I could help you carry it.

Last night while I prayed for you, I remembered a story about Jesus Christ. In the story a woman who had been suffering for many years came to Jesus. She was sick, and nobody could heal her body or comfort her mind. People had given up on her. But she believed that Christ could heal her, if she could just touch his robe. So she pushed her way silently through the crowd that followed Jesus. And finally, she touched his robe.

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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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