The Vatican wraps up its three-year investigation of U.S. nuns. What's next for women in the church?
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.
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."
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).
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."
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.
The crowd in an Atlanta church on Wednesday night was mostly Protestants, mostly preachers.
The speaker was a professor of preaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York City – one of the icons of the mainstream Protestant world.
Yet Barbara Lundblad’s message was a call for the 1,000 or so people gathered for the annual Festival of Homiletics to “stand with these courageous Roman Catholic sisters.” She was referring, of course, to the recent crackdown by the Vatican on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the organization that represents about 80 percent of the nuns in the U.S.
Lundblad drew on the famous story of Mary, having just learned she was pregnant with Jesus, visiting her cousin, Elizabeth, who was also improbably pregnant.
The Gospel of Luke says that Mary “entered the house of Zechariah and visited Elizabeth.” Lundblad pondered why Luke felt it necessary to put Zechariah in the story at this point. She let that hang unanswered.
Then she noted that when Elizabeth saw Mary, the baby leapt in her womb in recognition of Jesus – a sign that women often come to theology through the experiences of their bodies. Lundblad said wryly, “Surely Elizabeth would not have been allowed to testify before the Congressional committee on contraception” – an all-male committee with all male witnesses, all representing church groups that do not allow the ordination of women.
In the current controversy between the Vatican and U.S. religious women, a short history showing that it’s nothing new. Professor emerita of history Anne M. Butler tells the story:
In the 19th century, Catholic nuns literally built the church in the American West, braving hardship and grueling circumstances to establish missions, set up classrooms and lead lives of calm in a chaotic world marked by corruption, criminality and illness. Their determination in the face of a male hierarchy that, then as now, frequently exploited and disdained them was a demonstration of their resilient faith in a church struggling to adapt itself to change.
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