Since his election on March 13, Pope Francis has done wonders to renew the faith of many lost Catholics around the world and cast a positive light on the troubled church. His vow that the world needs a “poor church for the poor” has been welcomed by many disenfranchised Catholics who felt their church was out of touch with reality. Whispers that he is a reformer were proved to be true on Friday when he appointed an eight-member group of independent-minded cardinals to advise him on how to clean up corruption and streamline the burgeoning Holy See. But on Monday, it felt like it was back to business as usual when word got out that Francis is standing by his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI’s clampdown on American nuns for their “radical feminism.” For all the renewal that Francis promises, the cold, hard reality is still that the Catholic Church is still one of the most misogynistic organizations around, no matter how popular the new pope might be.
No one was anticipating a major change for women in the church, and no one expects Francis to start handing out condoms in St. Peter’s square or suddenly ordaining women. But a positive gesture toward recognizing women’s value in the universal church could have started with softening the strict stance on American nuns. Last April the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a harsh doctrinal assessment against the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, or LCWR, an umbrella group that represents more than 80 percent of American nuns. In it they claimed that the vast majority of American nuns were pushing “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” The sisters, it seemed, were staying silent on the church’s pet issues of abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, and the ordination of women. Their silence was interpreted as endorsement—by not speaking out against such “evils,” the report said, the sisters were effectively showing their approval for the practices. The clampdown was met with outrage across the United States, leading to a massive Twitter frenzy under the hashtag #whatsistersmeantome, started by James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large of America, a magazine on Catholic issues. “There is a danger of backlash because of the esteem [in which] so many Catholics hold nuns,” Father Martin told The Daily Beast at the height of the scandal. “For many Catholics, sisters are the glue that holds the church together.”
On Monday, Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Muller, prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, met with LCWR leaders who had traveled to Rome in hopes of good news. Instead, according to a statement made by the Vatican press office, Muller “informed the Presidency that he had recently discussed the Doctrinal Assessment with Pope Francis, who reaffirmed the findings of the Assessment and the program of reform for this Conference of Major Superiors.” That’s not exactly what the nuns were hoping for.
LCWR leaders had been particularly disappointed that the Vatican under Benedict was so tough on them, given the myriad other problems the church faces, from the sex-abuse scandals to allegations of financial corruption. Last June, when the LCWR leadership met with Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith officials in Vatican City for the first time, they issued a statement condemning the Vatican’s criticism. “Board members concluded that the assessment was based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency,” they said at the time. “Moreover, the sanctions imposed were disproportionate to the concerns raised and could compromise their ability to fulfill their mission. The report has furthermore caused scandal and pain throughout the church community, and created greater polarization.”
Prior to the election of Pope Francis, LCWR president Sister Florence Deacon outlined for The Daily Beast her idea of a perfect pope and her great hope that the Church could adopt a more open mind toward the American nuns under fire. “We hope a new pope would be open to dialogue with the U.S. Catholic sisters and work with us to support our mission,” she told The Daily Beast in February after Benedict resigned. Now the sisters must wait until the investigation concludes to see if they will have to disband their organization to continue their work or whether the Vatican will accept them as a vital component of the Catholic Church after all.
Not everyone agrees that the American nuns are down for the count. Father Martin says he believes that Francis just needs more time on the job. "Frankly, it would have been surprising had Pope Francis halted the long investigation of the LCWR, since he's brand-new in his job,” Martin told The Daily Beast. “Also, the appointment of the head of the Franciscans to a high post in the Congregation for Religious, which oversees religious orders, and the fact that the pope is a member of a religious order, makes me confident the Catholic sisters in this country, who have made inestimable contributions to the life of the church, will get a fair hearing." The American nuns certainly hope he’s right.