Conflict & Justice

American nuns face off with Vatican over crackdown


At a meeting this week America's largest group of nuns will decide how to proceed in the face of Vatican interference. The Catholic Church says the nuns have been promoting a "radical" feminist agenda.



The Vatican announced in April that it would be performing a full investigation into the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), a group of American nuns that represents some 57,000 people and 80 percent of American sisters, for what they called "certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."

Central powers in the Church admonished the group for not speaking out on homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, and for supporting President Obama's healthcare policy, which the Catholic Church believes provides government funding for abortions and birth control. The report by the Vatican, which was four years in the making, also took issue with American nuns' open discussions about Church misogyny and ordination of women as priests. 

Since then, a "reform" of the organization has included dispatching a Seattle bishop to oversee operations such as approving speakers, rewriting the group's statues, and approving partnering policy organizations. 

This week, the sisters meet in St. Louis to discuss the Church's actions and accusations, which they say has been a "disproportionate" response and has caused "scandal and pain," according to a June statement. 

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The LCWR and its officers have focused on social justice and advocacy for years, and it's in this vein that the Vatican takes issue, saying they focus too much on these things, and don't give enough attention to dogmatic teachings and scripture, bringing to light deep questions about the responsibility of the clergy in the face of heavy moral and gender-centric issues at the forefront of the national dialogue and a polarized country that has deep religious roots on both sides of the aisle. 

At the conference this week, which will run from Tuesday to Friday, the sisters will look to what to do next, a conversation that will surely fissure the already fragile group. That said, there has been no word at all about the sisters leaving the Church or throwing off Catholicism or Catholic ideology, which praises social justice and advocating for the voiceless.

The Washington Post reported that "Conference leaders have said the women can choose to accept the Vatican oversight, can look for what President Pat Farrell called 'some third way' or can become an independent organization."

No matter how the week goes, the nuns have support pouring in from a number of places. 

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In Ohio yesterday, 180 people gathered at Cleveland's Blessed Trinity Church for a vigil in support of the LCWR, according to Sister Diana Culbertson, of the Dominican order in Akron, said yesterday before the vigil. “This [action by the Vatican] hurts us deeply. But at the same time we have to be faithful to the Gospel.”

The controversial issue on the table is what the Second Vatican Council's findings mean in the 21st century. "Vatican II," as it's called by those in the know, was a conference of Catholic leaders focused on molding the faith to fit the modern world that spanned four years (1962-65) and two Popes (Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI). 

Many women leaders, however, feel Vatican II hasn't done much for them and that the controversy between the Church and LCWR was long coming. The nuns' motto is "We risk being agents of change within church and society," a stance many have taken over the centuries against the Church, with very mixed results, mostly negative. 

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Former LCWR president Sister Joan Chittister said in April to Reuters, "...difficult questions must be asked if the church is to remain vibrant, relevant and respected. When you begin to suppress that, it's immoral. It's a mistake for the church. And it's despair for its people."

Chittister spoke with Huffington Post Religion Editor Paul Raushenbush in June about this week's meeting and the big question that looms over it: can the Church change with the modern world and begin to accept the rights and opinions of the female clergy?

"There is no doubt about it; people may be destroyed here. And there may be people who want them destroyed. They either want thinking adults in the church who bring their own experience of the Holy Spirit to every question -- with great respect for the institution, ironically, or they don't."