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Nuns' fight with Vatican highlights Catholicism's global struggle
The nation’s largest group of nuns, LCWR, are under fire from the Vatican.
May 30th, 2012
04:23 PM ET

Nuns' fight with Vatican highlights Catholicism's global struggle

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Washington (CNN) - The charges ranged from promoting “radical feminism” to espousing religious teachings out of step with the Catholic Church. Now, six weeks after many American nuns said they were blindsided by a bruising Vatican assessment, a key nuns' leadership group is meeting to decide how to respond.

The board of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents the leadership of the vast majority of the nation’s nuns, began a four-day meeting in Washington on Tuesday, with church watchers dissecting the 22-member board's every move.

It's a fight that pits church men and against church women, and it could have broader implications for the global church.

One side is pushing the nuns to fight back against a church that they think has lost its way. The other is championing the Vatican against a group of aging nuns whom they say are on the verge of extinction unless they reform.

The powerful Vatican office, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, launched an investigation for several years. It issued a report in April charging that America's nuns had largely gone rogue, warning that the American nuns could be a negative global influence on the church.

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The Vatican report said that at an annual gathering of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, guest speakers who preached "radical feminism" went unchallenged. The report also alleged sins of omission, saying the nuns were too focused heavily on social justice and not enough on opposing abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.

Many nuns have publicly chafed at the report.

"For myself, the shock made me numb at first, and then I was profoundly sad that my life as a woman religious and my commitment to serving the poor would be so denigrated by the leadership of our church," says Sister Simone Campbell, who heads NETWORK, a liberal advocacy group in Washington. "All we do is work for love."

For the report to say "you don't do everything," Campbell says, is "ridiculous."

Some in the pews seemed to agree with that sentiment, even staging small protests across the country to support the nuns. During a recent stop at Campbell’s office, she showed CNN cards and letters of support.

The Vatican office that issued the assessment said it was a first step in reforming American nuns. “The renewal of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious," the report says, "… is the goal of this doctrinal Assessment."

Pope Benedict XVI, a theologian by training, was the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith for decades before he was elevated to papacy. In interviews conducted while he held that earlier post, he spoke often about growing the church by pruning - becoming smaller but more devout before expanding.

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“Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the church’s history where Christianity will be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world-that let God in,” he told Peter Seewald in an interview for the book, "Salt of the Earth: Christianity and the Catholic Church at the End of the Millenium."

That vision has support from ardent Catholics.

"Far from a crackdown, the Vatican is asking the LCWR to prayerfully return to their roots and to the reasons their religious institutes were founded,” says Raymond Arroyo, a host on the Catholic Cable Channel EWTN.

“These monasteries were not founded 100 or 200 years ago to picket and contradict church teaching or the bishops," he says. "They were founded to faithfully serve brothers and sisters throughout society in the spirit of Christ."

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious is a group of 1,500 nuns who lead over 300 religious orders. Together, its members represent 80% of the 57,000 nuns across the United States.

Church experts say that the nuns have a few options in responding to one of the most powerful offices in the church. They could accept the assessment, negotiate or resign en masse and form a new group outside the watchful eye of the Vatican.

In a statement, the group said it would conduct this week’s special meeting “in an atmosphere of prayer, contemplation and dialogue and will develop a plan to involve LCWR membership in similar processes.”

“The conference plans to move slowly, not rushing to judgment," the statement said. "We will engage in dialogue where possible and be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit."

Even before the controversy broke, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was already thinking seriously about its future with the church.

Nuns in the conference had long ago removed their habits and shifted away from the traditional roles within church structures, like working in parochial schools and hospitals. Today you are more likely to find a nun in contemporary dress at a soup kitchen than in a full habit cracking a ruler over a grade-schooler's knuckles.

But the leadership conference is shrinking as it ages.

“They’re certainly not getting new vocations, new members, at the rate they had been before the Second Vatican Council,” says Kathleen Cummings, associate director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. “Since the late 1960s, their numbers have declined dramatically.”

The median age of American nuns is 70, she says, noting that career opportunities once available only to nuns inside the structure of the church are now open to women outside the church.

“Changes for women in America have far outpaced changes for women inside the church,” Cummings says.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious once represented nearly 100% of the nation’s nuns. In the 1990s, though, a number of orders broke away and formed the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, returning to many of the older traditions of religious life, including wearing the habit.

The Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious is growing at a faster rate than the leadership conference, but Cummings said the numbers of new vocations there are “miniscule” as well.

Vatican scandals lift lid on secret power struggle

While leadership conference nuns viewed the evolving role of women to give them more of a social justice focus, Cummings says that "Vatican officials, and many Catholics, too, see those changes as startling and disturbing.

“What’s happening here with the doctrinal assessment is just the latest, and will have the most lasting effects, of a Vatican attempt to reassert the power they traditionally held over women’s religious life," Cummings says. "Power that they lost a lot of over the last 50 years.”

But conservative Catholics say the groups that are most beholden to that power are the ones that are growing.

“Some communities are clearly doing something right, others are moving to extinction,” says Arroyo. “Bottom line: a faithful witness is attractive and undeniably draws young people.

"The Vatican is throwing a life line to the leadership of female communities that are not thriving and attempting to facilitate a reform that will allow them to rediscover their initial calling and draw young vocations into the future," he says. "That's not a crackdown, it's a seek-and-rescue mission."

As the sisters debate and pray on how to respond, they realize they are in the center of a broader global power struggle.

“What’s really at stake here, in the larger significance, is the future of the church,” says Sister Maureen Fiedler of the order of Sisters of Loretto,  which is represented by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. “Whether we’re going to go back to the old church before the Second Vatican Council.”

The leadership conference plans to announce its next steps in responding to the Vatican on Friday.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church • Vatican

soundoff (848 Responses)
  1. Hot Carl

    Fresh meat!

    May 31, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  2. Kris

    It is the height of arrogance for this group of women to believe that a church that has existed for two thousand years should change to suit them. If they no longer believe the doctrine they shopuld simply leave the church.

    May 31, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • tony

      Then the next "impure" group, then the next. . . .

      May 31, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • bigdil

      Wrong. The height of arrogance, lierally, is to declare yourself "infallible."

      May 31, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  3. Kent

    Was this translated from Chinese or something?
    "It's a fight that pits church men and against church women,..." Church men AND WHO against church women? Children? Extraterrestrials?
    And when did we start trailing our adjectives after the noun: "woman religious"? This is supposed to be English, not Spanish! (Acceptable exclusion: Proper name of an organization. But you use this phrase elsewhere.)
    Come on, CNN! You're supposed to be professionals, not a middle school newspaper!

    May 31, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • Jan-Cincy

      Kent – the term religious is being used as a noun, not an adjective, and represents people who have taken orders (orders meaning having joined a specific religeous organization in order to live in that organization for the rest of their lives). Anybody of any faith can be religious (adj) but only someone who has joined an order an be a religious (noun).

      May 31, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  4. King

    After two "Sister Act" movies, I'm surprised the vatican didn't decide this sooner.....

    May 31, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  5. Mary Kuhn

    it's these sisters who are emulating Christ and not the hierarchy who are attempting to squeeze tighter to maintain control.
    Christ held loosely and with the most tender love.

    May 31, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • Cathe

      True! These nuns would not have been molesting children as their male counterparts have done and covered up probably from the beginning. The patriarchal hierarchy is corrupt and putrid and it these devoted women who are living the life of spirituality and love every single day with no respect or recognition from their own "leaders". I say, we have tried the whole patriarchy thing and now we should try a matriarchy. Women do not usually molest or send children to war or do any of the things that have become routine for those with the "curse of testosterone". Society would not be run with the current horrid corporate mentality (the ends justifies the means) if women were in charge. You go Sisters!!!

      May 31, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  6. Shadowflash1522

    Shame, I always liked American nuns for exactly that reason: they tend to deal with the existent realities like hunger and poverty rather than with mystical jargon. You're much more likely to find a nun in a soup kitchen than an ivory tower, doing things that any human with a shred of empathy, religious or otherwise, would approve of.

    May 31, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  7. Mark

    Wow this is the Lib's war on religion well i got news for you libs and CNN pupets the Catholic Church has stood up to a lot bigger enemies then you. But thanks you have awoke the sleeping Giant "the Catholic people" and they will vote.

    May 31, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • LouAz

      Vote ? VOTE ? Catholic people don't get no stinkin' vote !
      The Po_op votes for them. All of them . . . especially the little boys.

      May 31, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • bigdil

      They will vote and have been voting-but not in the way you suggest. The existing hierarchy is dying and the Church will be forced to reform. Contrary to what they think, the Pope and the Cardinals are not the owners of the Catholic Church. It looks like they will need to learn that lesson the hard way.

      May 31, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  8. mk

    People will say, "If the nuns don't like the rules, they can leave."

    Let's hope they're smart enough to do just that. En masse.

    May 31, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Brian Hartman

      They're free to do that, and if they want to, good riddance. The rules of the Catholic church weren't written down on a bar napkin two years ago. These traditions are hundreds, in some cases, thousands of years old. The rules aren't a surprise. If they really want to be Catholic, they'll toe the Catholic doctrine. If not, then they do more harm than good in the church.

      May 31, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • Leonard Agoawike

      Exactly, Let those who think the rule is restrictive leave. That is the church for you.

      May 31, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  9. Brian Hartman

    I broke away from Catholicism and Christianity long ago, but it seems to me that if you're a nun, following Catholic doctrine isn't merely a suggestion. It's what being a nun *means*. If you want to espouse and spread views contrary to Catholic teaching, go be something other than a nun.

    May 31, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • BioHzrd

      I didn't realize that feeding the poor and tending to the needy and sick were against Catholic doctrine.

      May 31, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • Leonard Agoawike

      Yeah, you make real good sense. Perhap, they should go and form their own religion where they are free to change the rules to please themselves.

      May 31, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • Rally43

      Brian, I left the Catholic church as well about 5-6 years ago. The church was becoming more vocal and almost demanding that we go out and fight abortion along with other dictated teachings. I had just gotten back into the church after years away. While there I witnessed 2 priests leave the church and one have a breakdown during his homily and tsart screaming at parishoners. The last straw was when the parish council precluded any children from attending Sunday mass as that is a quiet time and that children should only come to mass on Saturday nights. The church should be for everyone anytime day or night. Very sad to see the Vatican behave this way and fully support the nuns. You go girls 😉

      May 31, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  10. André

    People:

    God is imaginary.

    It's only in your head. It doesn't exist. It's a DELUSION.
    Got it ?

    May 31, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • Leonard Agoawike

      Good for you. That is your view but not mine.

      May 31, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • Jan-Cincy

      Gee, after 10,000+ years, modern man has discovered he does not need God. In fact, that there is no God. Apparently, modern technology has so insulated us from the enigmas of life, that we can now declare ourselves the ultimate beings. Hope that works for you, Andre.

      May 31, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  11. Obvious Guy

    Isn't religion a choice? If the women are being discriminated against, why don't they just choose another church? Or are these women too weak to do that?

    May 31, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • Brian Hartman

      That's what I was thinking. If Catholicism isn't for them, then they should go be something else.

      May 31, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Jan-Cincy

      They have the obvious alternative - the Episcopal church.

      May 31, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  12. It is all good and God is at the end

    Christ would have something to say about the Catholic corporation, " Come out of her." The Catholic Church should return to its roots and seek purity and be the rock,it was meant to be.

    May 31, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  13. gatecrasher1

    Good riddance.

    I was physically and emotionally abused by old-school Italian American nuns as a child 25+ years ago. Hit with books, pointers, slapped, choked by my Catholic school tie. Called all sorts of derogatory names, screamed at, to the point of going home with headaches. I have no love for them. What is scary is that I bet they are still 110 years old and kicking.

    And as for the other nuns, they can keep their radical politics and aggressive feminism to themselves. They knew what they were joining when they made their vows. Conform or leave.

    May 31, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Obvious Guy

      Clearly you prove how Catholicism has bettered the world

      May 31, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • Peter

      You got that right!

      May 31, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • Leonard Agoawike

      The abuse is deplorable and need to be condenmed. But like you said, the rules are clear before you joined. Perhaps, some had the idea of joining and destabilizing the system from inside.

      May 31, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  14. Cathy K

    Of course CNN show photos of nuns that are in a habit, clearly showing that you have no idea about nuns and have not done any homework. Nuns that wear a habit are rarely the type that the vatican has any issue with. They understand the value of their vocations "in this world, but set apart from this world".

    May 31, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  15. Kev

    Three people from different parts of the country passed away at the same time. All were met at the gates by St. Peter. The first was an architect from California. Peter said, "You've built beautiful buildings and served men on earth, but before you come in you have to pass one small test, spell 'God'".

    "G-O-D," replied the architect and St. Peter waved him through.

    The second person to approach was a rancher from Texas. Peter looked at him and said, "You've served man upon the earth by providing food through the cattle you've raised but before you come in there's just one small test, spell 'GOD'".

    "G-O-D", said the rancher and Peter waved him through.

    The third person was an attractive businesswoman from New York. Peter said, "You've served the world of commerce, but before you come in you'll have to pass one small test."

    At this the woman interrupted, "Oh come on now Saint," said the woman, "I've had to fight for every promotion I've ever gotten. I've had to take lower pay for the same job as a male colleague, and I've been continually harassed by bosses and peers for one reason, my gender. And now here I am and you're giving me a hard time too; what kind of test? Let's get it over with."

    Peter thought for a moment and said, "Spell Czechoslovakia"

    May 31, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • JLG

      And I bet she nailed it!

      May 31, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  16. CurtisRa

    "Seek & Rescue" mission...I see it as a "Seek & Destroy mission" with the Vatican's life-line tied to a huge sinking rock.

    May 31, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  17. Dave

    Religion – the root of all evil...

    May 31, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  18. Anon

    The catholic church is dying.. That's what the third Fatima message is, that the catholic church will be dissolved in this century. And that's why they locked the nun who saw it up and won't tell anyone what it is.

    May 31, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • Leonard Agoawike

      You are delusional!

      May 31, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  19. Do as I say, not as I do

    Organized religion is nothing more than an exercise in money, power, and control, not to mention issues of hypocrisy and abuse.

    May 31, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  20. angel

    someone very wise once said: "a house divided will not stand"

    May 31, 2012 at 9:57 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.