Sister Act

American Nuns Hope For Sister-Friendly New Pope

Nuns in the U.S.—fiercely condemned under Pope Benedict for being too “radical”—are looking forward to a fresh start with a new pontiff.

Giorgio Cosulich/Getty,Giorgio Cosulich

Of all the scandals that have been pinned to Benedict XVI’s papacy, perhaps none has been more divisive than the so-called clampdown on American nuns last April. Its no wonder, then, that sisters across America are hoping that the next pope gives them a fairer shake. In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, the head of the largest group of American nuns shares what she is looking for in a new leader.

The American nun scandal came to a head last spring when the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued an eight-page doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an umbrella group with more than 1,500 members representing 80 percent of American nuns. In it, they chastised the American sisters for “pushing radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” They also accused the sisters of staying silent on a number of the church’s teachings on sensitive topics like euthanasia, women’s ordination, and same-sex marriage. A fierce backlash ensued when Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of several faith-based books, called on the Twitterverse to start tweeting support for nuns under #whatsistersmeantome. More than a million tweets supporting the sisters followed. “There is a danger of backlash because of the esteem [in which] so many Catholics hold nuns,” Martin told The Daily Beast at the height of the scandal. “For many Catholics, sisters are the glue that holds the church together.”

Now the leadership of the LCWR hopes to start fresh with a new pope. “There were two investigations of Catholic sisters undertaken during Pope Benedict’s era,” Sister Florence Deacon, the current president of the LCWR, told The Daily Beast after Pope Benedict’s resignation announcement. One damning report quoted Pope John Paul II’s gratitude for the sisters’ “deep love of the church and generous service to God’s people” but then lashed out at the sisters for not toeing the Vatican’s party line. “While we appreciate this expression of gratitude, we found the whole process of the investigation flawed and question the findings and the mandate given to LCWR,” Deacon says. “We hope a new pope would be open to dialogue with the U.S. Catholic sisters and work with us to support our mission.”

Deacon says she was not surprised by Benedict XVI’s resignation. She said there had been rumors swirling around recently that he was ailing quickly. “I had heard from people in Rome over the past few months that he was visibly slowing down and that he was only working a few hours a day,” she says. “Putting those two facts together I was not surprised by his decision to resign.”

Nuns have no voting power in any church matter, especially when it comes to electing the next pope. But Deacon does have her own hopes for the future of the Catholic Church under a new leader. “I would like a pope who has had direct experience working with a diversity of people and who understands the joys and challenges of ordinary Catholics trying to live the Gospel in the midst of chaotic family lives and stressful job situations,” she says. She would also like a pope with an open mind. “I’d like one who is able to integrate church teaching and advances in science, psychology, anthropology … and who strives for understanding and acceptance of all persons.”

She would also like to see a pope who understands how detrimental it is to the future of the Church that women are walking away. “I’d like someone attuned to the voices of young people, especially young women who are leaving the church in the U.S. in large numbers because they don’t feel valued.”

One of the greatest dividing lines between the male hierarchy in Rome and the American nuns has been the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council, which, 50 years ago, loosened the rules for religious women. It was then that some religious orders stopped making the habit a mandatory dress and let sisters have more individual freedom in their lives. That freedom has been a thorn in the side of many cardinals who feel the sisters should be more conservative. Sister Deacon wants the new pope to remember that those decisions that came out of the Second Vatican Council were made in the spirit of renewal. “On this 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council it is important that we have a leader who is imbued in the spirit of the council, who appreciates the roles of the laity and of women religious who have accepted its call to renewal and who are committed to building a more just and peaceful world,” she says.

Kenneth Briggs, author of Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns is doubtful that the Vatican will alter its official judgment against the nuns, but he says a new pope might change the church’s attempt to reform the nuns in light of that judgment.

“The Vatican and the LCWR are tiptoeing around each other for now; the sisters don’t acknowledge the charges, the three bishops don’t make preemptory efforts to enforce particular discipline,” he told The Daily Beast. “It’s shadow boxing of a sort. The reason for the bishops’ reluctance to be more aggressive, I believe, is that the groundswell of support for the sisters by the Catholic laity has provided a kind of political obstacle to Rome’s designs. Further alienating the laity during a time when the church in America is in crisis would likely deepen that tension.”

Sister Deacon won’t be in Rome when the conclave meets, but she does have a word of advice for the members of the College of Cardinals who will go into the Sistine Chapel in March to elect the next leader of the Catholic Church. “Recall the sense of excitement with which each session of the Second Vatican Council was received,” she says. “Vote for someone who can capture that spirit, who sees the church as being more than its leadership, but includes the whole body of its members.”