American Nuns Fight Back Against Vatican Crackdown

American sisters issue a blazing response to the Vatican crackdown.

AP Photo

American Catholic nuns issued a fiery response to recent Vatican claims that they are showing signs of “radical feminism” by failing to vigorously promote church teachings on issues such as abortion and homosexuality. The sisters said Friday that the Vatican’s assessment had “caused scandal and pain throughout the church community, and created greater polarization.”

In April, the Vatican released a highly critical report on the main umbrella group of U.S. nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, or the LCWR, a group that trains sisters and holds general assemblies. The study, conducted by a Vatican unit called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, acknowledged the “great contribution” of nuns in “schools, hospitals, and institutions for the poor,” but said nuns had “stayed silent on the right to life from conception to natural death.” Further, the study said, “the church’s biblical view of family life and human sexuality are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes church teaching.”

To remedy the situation, the Vatican appointed Seattle-based Archbishop Peter Sartain to oversee the nuns for as long as the next five years, providing guidance and reviewing plans and programs, including general assemblies and publications.

Board members of the nuns’ organization met in Washington, D.C., this week to discuss a response. In a statement Friday, they fought back. “The board members raised concerns about both the content of the doctrinal assessment and the process by which it was prepared," they said. "Board members concluded that the assessment was based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency. Moreover, the sanctions imposed were disproportionate to the concerns raised and could compromise their ability to fulfill their mission.”

The board said the next step will be for LCWR president Sister Pat Farrell and executive director Sister Janet Mock to meet in Rome on June 12 with Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Archbishop Sartain to discuss the board’s concerns. “Following the discussions in Rome,” the nuns said, “the conference will gather its members both in regional meetings and in its August assembly to determine its response to the CDF report.”

The matter “has deeply touched Catholics and non-Catholics throughout the world, as evidenced by the thousands of messages of support as well as the dozens of prayer vigils held in numerous parts of the country,” the sisters said. They added that “the matters of faith and justice that capture the hearts of Catholic sisters are clearly shared by many people around the world. As the church and society face tumultuous times, the board believes it is imperative that these matters be addressed by the entire church community in an atmosphere of openness, honesty, and integrity.”

Mary Johnson, a former Catholic nun who worked with Mother Teresa for 20 years and wrote a book about it called An Unquenchable Thirst, said she was heartened by the nuns’ response. “I love these sisters—so determined to dialogue with a Vatican that has continued to misunderstand and accuse them,” she said. “If anyone can move the Vatican toward more integrity, it will be the sisters of the LCWR.” Johnson pointed out that there are more nuns in the U.S. than priests, with 55,944 sisters and 39,466 priests. Most of the nuns are in their 60s, she said.

“What is clearly unusual—and much to be applauded—is the sisters’ determination to continue the dialogue in public, with clear words, calling the Vatican to transparency,” Johnson continued. “The LCWR was publicly hauled out on the mat by the Vatican. American sisters have broken a month of silence with four stunning paragraphs that identify the accusations as unsubstantiated, the process as flawed, and the sanctions as heavy-handed. I applaud the sisters’ call to honesty and integrity.”

Critics note that women don’t have to become nuns and take a vow of obedience to the church. Johnson counters that the church needs to modernize. “The Vatican works like a dictatorship. They want blind obedience, as opposed to thoughtful ideas,” she told The Daily Beast when the Vatican released its report. “The bishops insist that a faithful Catholic must submit to them. But people need to be able to think for themselves, and the church needs insight from all quarters if it’s going to grow.”

Archbishop Sartain, the new boss of the American nuns, responded to the nuns' statement Friday, saying: "Both the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and I are wholeheartedly committed to dealing with the important issues raised by the doctrinal assessment and the LCWR board in an atmosphere of openness, honesty, integrity, and fidelity to the church’s faith. I look forward to our next meeting in Rome in June as we continue to collaborate in promoting the important work of the LCWR for consecrated life in the United States."

In the Catholic weekly America Magazine, he recently said he sees the conflict as an opportunity. “Through the years, there have been inevitable conflicts and misunderstandings between religious congregations and their bishops ... They exist today as well," he said. "Disagreements regarding mission, apostolate, discipline, doctrine, style of life, and personality have often been at the core of such conflicts. Each situation was an opportunity to seek reconciliation and collaboration at the heart of the church ... Such a pivotal opportunity is now before us.”

In that article, he went on to criticize the nuns. In reference to the Vatican report, he said, “Given particular attention are LCWR General Assemblies, addresses, and occasional papers. Though not intended to serve as theological treatises per se, some of these addresses and documents have theological undertones or implications not consistent with church teaching. Others have directly contradicted church teaching ... Assembly presentations have at times proposed models of religious life that are not in sync with the very nature of religious life.”