Yesterday, the Vatican reprimanded the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)—with over 1,500 members, they’re the largest and probably the most influential group of Catholic nuns in the country—because they have challenged the church’s teaching on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood, and promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
The sisters were also reprimanded for making public statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.” (This last was mainly over their support of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010—that is, the big health care overhaul that everyone has been arguing about for years—because they supported it and a bunch of bishops opposed it for political and religious reasons.)
The group was formed in 1956 at the Vatican’s request, but of course this was during the period of significant church reform that led to the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965).
Another group of Catholic nuns—Network, a social justice lobby—was also reprimanded by the Vatican for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage. I know a number of these nuns, and worked with them on several issues in the past; I would agree with the Vatican’s assessment that they are indeed passionate about poverty and economic injustice, though while they may not have made public statements about abortion and gay marriage, in private many of them are less than happy about the Vatican’s heavy-handed suppression of social justice issues.
Certainly health care reform was one of those issues, since they feel that poor people will always receive the dregs when it comes to health care. Sister Simone Campbell, Network’s executive director, said, “I would imagine that it was our health care letter that made them mad. We haven’t violated any teaching; we have just been raising questions and interpreting politics.”
So the Vatican appointed an archbishop and two other bishops to “reform” LCWR: they have five years to revise LCWR’s statutes, approve every speaker at the group’s public programs, and replace a handbook the group used to facilitate dialogue on matters that the Vatican said should be settled doctrine. The trio of bishops will also review LCWR’s links with Network and another organization, the Resource Center for Religious Institutes—a particularly dangerous nonprofit because it gives its members financial and legal resources.
You may recall that Pope Benedict XVI was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Roman Inquisition) back when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, but long after he was a member of the Hitler Youth and the Luftwaffenhelfer. (I’m sorry if that sounds like an ad hominem attack on the pope. If anyone would like to discuss his doctrinal positions instead of his personal history, I’d be happy to do that, too.)
In 2009, when the Vatican’s investigation of the LCWR was being conducted, the New York Times ran a story that suggested it was indeed a doctrinal inquisition:
Some sisters surmise that the Vatican and even some American bishops are trying to shift them back into living in convents, wearing habits or at least identifiable religious garb, ordering their schedules around daily prayers and working primarily in Roman Catholic institutions, like schools and hospitals.
“They think of us as an ecclesiastical work force,” said Sister Sandra M. Schneiders, professor emerita of New Testament and spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, in California. “Whereas we are religious, we’re living the life of total dedication to Christ, and out of that flows a profound concern for the good of all humanity. So our vision of our lives, and their vision of us as a work force, are just not on the same planet.”
One last tidbit: while the Vatican was investigating the LCWR, it was also conducting a separate, widespread investigation of all women’s religious orders and communities in the United States. That inquiry, known as a “visitation,” was concluded last December, but the results of that process have not been made public. I’m thinking the nuns’ observations from 2009 will prove prophetic.