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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. Cowboy

    Yeeeehawwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!!!!!!

    Ain't nothin but a good ole mountain boy!!!!

    May 31, 2012 at 12:30 am |
  2. Roscoe Chait

    Have you ever heard of a nun being stupid enough to fool with poisonous snakes like that pastor did in West Virginia–who got bitten and died? I think nuns have more common sense and more common good and should be put in charge of the Catholic church. That would be the end of pedophile priests.

    May 31, 2012 at 12:30 am |
    • Woody Guthrie

      The problem would be solved by people realizing that their invisible friend of choice is nothing but imagination.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:40 am |
  3. Fr. John

    You know, the only thing really human about the Catholic Church are the nuns. They are the ones who do all the really "Christ-like" things. Nuns when I was growing up got involved in political protests, they taught school, and truth be told, represent a more "Liberal" element that this now "far right wing" church. The nuns have stayed true to their vows and beliefs. Really, how many scandals have been caused by nuns? honestly?

    May 31, 2012 at 12:14 am |
    • Paris Hilton For Pope! She couldn't do any worse!

      The nuns I knew at school were pretty freaking cruel in their corporal punishments. The only reason they don't have much of a history of atrocities is that the church kept them down. Had they been equals, they would have been equally bad.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:25 am |
  4. LouAZ

    Sieg Heil, your Eminemence ! Ve will get back in line !

    May 31, 2012 at 12:13 am |
  5. Catholic

    Excommunicate and move on.

    May 31, 2012 at 12:05 am |
    • Pope Bentdikk XVI

      Okay. You're ex-communicated.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:26 am |
  6. whozits

    I 'fell away' when diocese started liquidating convents to pay pedophile settlements. Why would I believe that old men in prada slippers and lace dresses have the ear of god, let alone speak for the creator?

    May 31, 2012 at 12:05 am |
  7. Cat

    more salt please – i have a wound.

    get up to speed folks.

    google st. tomas aquinas proof of the existance of god.

    May 30, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
    • Lol

      Regarding his Summa, bad premises cannot yield "proof" of anything, just a free tip for ya, moron.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:03 am |
  8. Colin in Florida

    "“These monasteries were not founded 100 or 200 years ago to picket and contradict church teaching or the bishops," he says. " Yep, that's right, keep those darn women second class citizens.

    May 30, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
  9. Reality

    Much to do about nothing as nuns and priests are near extinction.

    Number on nuns in the USA, 46,000. Number of priests, 41,000. Both groups continue to have rapid loss in members..

    May 30, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
    • DJR

      Untrue. The priesthood is experiencing an increase in numbers.

      The photo is also untrue, insofar as the nuns depicted there are not the type of nuns that the Vatican is clamping down on. The photo for the article should be a recent picture taken of a prominent nun escorting a woman into an abortion clinic. Those are the type of "nuns" that the crackdown aims to correct. They have lost the faith.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:06 am |
    • Reality

      References supporting your claim that the priesthood in the USA is increasing in numbers?

      May 31, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  10. guesswho22

    religion has just about outgrown its usefulness in progressive, educated societies. Hopefully America will become one soon

    May 30, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
    • Catholic and loving it

      Funny, that's the same thing Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao said.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:44 am |
  11. Alien Orifice

    These babes finally be fickin' ta get their freak on! Enuf bumpin' muffins. Take off the sheets and get IN the sheets.

    May 30, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
  12. reformed catholic

    I pray that some day the Catholic Church begins to appreciate civil rights, equality, and the best interests of mankind. That birth control is good for society and individuals. That women make absolutely excellent priests (I am now episcopal and think they rock!). That male priests should not be celibate – that forces them to go against nature and lie to themselves everyday. That unfounded, pervasive feelings of guilt are not healthy. Give these nuns the strength to stand up for what they believe in and to push for change within the Vatican. I miss John Paul II. He was truly compassionate and cared for us all.

    May 30, 2012 at 11:30 pm |
  13. Jim

    This is a typical religious dispute that may lead to a schism. These have been going on throughout history. Nuns are on their way to extinction because few young women today want to commiut to it. Do these women really need to be Catholic nuns. Could they not do their social work independently? Could they not join the Lutherans or Episcopalians? My guess is they will not change the Vatican. They have to decide if they want to co-exist with Rome or go their own way.

    May 30, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
  14. Margaret

    The Church does not value the contribution of women, unless it is in a subservient role. To say women who give their lives in service to the poor and unjustly treated, following the example of Jesus, is simply ridiculous. Certainly, they could say that if the male religious spent more time dealing with the predators in their midst and serving the poor, the Chruch would not be in such a mess today.

    May 30, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
    • pockets

      Its time that these women give up this way of life, its nonsense anyway.....there is no god..... RIP Hitch you were right.

      May 30, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
  15. Whattya Know

    I can't believe that happened!! How did the Jone's end up with the family treasure after they were all but sure it had been lost?? The archaeology of the incident is so fascinating!!!

    May 30, 2012 at 11:17 pm |
  16. Godoflunaticscreation

    Christianity is looking a lot like those muslims.

    May 30, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
    • Cowboy

      Howdy,

      Did you know that all humans look alike? It's quite interesting really, we all have heads, arm, and even toes!! Hope ya have a great day pahtnaaaaaa.

      May 30, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
  17. duce

    Hopefully they'll renounce the pastors next...

    May 30, 2012 at 11:14 pm |
  18. Jimmy G.

    If I had the resources I would make sure to give them a proper shove over the brink.

    May 30, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
    • Cowboy

      Howdy,

      Have you ever been on the brink of the edge?!?!? I know I have, one time I was riding a wild bull and he was kickin like no other. Needless to say that bull almost gave me the last ride of my life. That's on the brink of the edge pahtna.

      May 30, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
    • herbie tries to get creative

      and fails.
      still no funny.
      still no wit.
      still no intellect.
      poor herbie.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:08 am |
    • RoadRunner

      A brink is an edge, you poser dumbshit.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:43 am |
  19. Learnalittle

    I will listen to something from the church when they show that they are serious about dealing with the pedophilia problem. That would including coming clean and and excommunicating anyone involved in the acts, and retiring anyone involved in covering it up. Until this happens there is nothing I want to hear from the church. Then perhaps they could really do 'god's' work and cash out some of their wealth and try to solve some problems. Sadly in the end religion one of the biggest crutches we need to grow out of so we can move forward as a society. Treasure the life you have, and the time you have because it is all you will ever have.

    May 30, 2012 at 11:09 pm |
    • duce

      Well said.

      May 30, 2012 at 11:15 pm |
    • Colin in Florida

      Learnalittle, you said "retiring anyone involved in covering it up". This is not the answer. Anyone involved in covering it up is guilty of conspiracy, making him as guilty of the act as if he had done it himself. They should be jailed. Until some bishops or higher-ups go to jail, the church simply doesn't care.

      May 30, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
  20. Tom

    So the higher ups are going to go for a smaller church and then get bigger. I hope that they are wrong and the get smaller and keep on getting smaller, Until they face reality, that church is doomed.

    May 30, 2012 at 11:06 pm |
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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.