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. Cleide

    Dear Mary: I was just thinking this monring, a propos of yesterday's post on Mundabor (which I recommend to you, that is, the site in general) that the Bishops are really the weakest link in the Church militant. Consiider the Arian troubles: the majority of the Bishops became Arians, Athanasius had very few allies. Then look at England. If I remember right, there were two other Bishops besides Fisher who didn't go along with Henry's lust-driven heresy–all the rest were just happy to keep their jobs and palaces. And poor France: for the whole of the post-Trent period through 1789, those Bishops allied themselves with the several dissolute, war mongering monarchs. If, instead, they had made themselves the guardians of the Church's real treasure–the poor–there would not have been a Revolution and the consequent free-fall into liberalism and modernity–the sum of all heresies. And now, in all the western nations, they are spiritually aligned with the liberals. Thanks be to God, there are witnesses in every station and in every age. Cardinal Burke comes to mind. There's probably about one per state, on average. It's hard to think what should be done. Patience and prayer are all that seem to be there.

    July 31, 2012 at 11:12 pm |
  2. higgs boson

    is that a phallic symbol the guy is wearing on his head ?

    June 6, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  3. Gus Who

    The Catholic Church is misleading the flock with it's annulments of marriage, as one could commit adultery and get an annulment pretty easy in the U.S. as it is common practice to look the other way, but according to cannon law no one can get a divorce. I tried to sue to bring it to the light.. but they keep it these kind of things in the darkness.

    June 4, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  4. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    June 1, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
    • Jesus

      Prayer doesn’t not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!

      June 4, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  5. gary

    RCC is dangerous sick cult ... the sooner it's gone the better. It keeps too many in the dark ages.

    June 1, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • Cat

      Wow! You have a strange ethic. Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot ect ect ect murdered more folks this century than all religions combined since 0 A.D.

      June 1, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
  6. Reality

    The nun problem is minor compared to the following synopsis of Catholic doctrine:

    Jesus was an illiterate Jewish peasant/carpenter/simple preacher man who suffered from hallucinations (or “mythicizing” from P, M, M, L and J) and who has been characterized anywhere from the Messiah from Nazareth to a mythical character from mythical Nazareth to a ma-mzer from Nazareth (Professor Bruce Chilton, in his book Rabbi Jesus). An-alyses of Jesus’ life by many contemporary NT scholars (e.g. Professors Ludemann, Crossan, Borg and Fredriksen, ) via the NT and related doc-uments have concluded that only about 30% of Jesus' sayings and ways noted in the NT were authentic. The rest being embellishments (e.g. miracles)/hallucinations made/had by the NT authors to impress various Christian, Jewish and Pagan sects.

    The 30% of the NT that is "authentic Jesus" like everything in life was borrowed/plagiarized and/or improved from those who came before. In Jesus' case, it was the ways and sayings of the Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Hitt-ites, Canaanites, OT, John the Baptizer and possibly the ways and sayings of traveling Greek Cynics.


    For added "pizzazz", Catholic theologians divided god the singularity into three persons and invented atonement as an added guilt trip for the "pew people" to go along with this trinity of overseers. By doing so, they made god the padre into god the "filicider".

    Current RCC problems:

    Pedophiliac priests, an all-male, mostly white hierarchy, atonement theology and original sin!!!!

    May 31, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • gary

      Hazahh! Someone knows the facts! Besides, god is pretend, just ancient silly myth

      June 1, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • Cat

      Please read Plato for starters.

      June 1, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
  7. JL

    I'm pretty sure the sisters pictured are from the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecelia. These sisters are affiliated with the CMSWR, not the LCWR.
    Though I can understand CNN's use of that photo, because if they used a picture of members of the LCWR, no one would be able to tell that they are sisters.

    May 31, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  8. biggal195

    There are "advantages and benefits" that come with being Catholic? Gee, you could have fooled me, both now and when I was Catholic! I repeat what I said earlier: "The butler did it!" Scandal, scandal, scandal, scandal! LOLOLOL

    May 31, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • Cat

      The Catholic faith was not made to serve you. Please help.

      June 1, 2012 at 9:08 pm |

    Let's be clear folks! These are NOT the Sisters the Vatican is invesigating so stop the propaganda! WE ALL KNOW the Sisters who have rejected their vocation to be Brides of Christ and Daughters of the Church. They are carrying their rainbow banners and chaining themselves to trees shouting angry slogans about "Church reform". Reform starts with self–when Sisters brag about being "beyond Jesus" they have rejected their vocations and are no longer "Sisters". I don't know what they are but they are NOT Sisters. And for heck sure these Sisters that you keep putting on the news are the BEST ever.

    May 31, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  10. joanallegretti

    The Sisters in the above picture are not part of the LCWR. CNN, do your homework.

    May 31, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  11. Jim

    Male leaders of the church have not known how to handle strong and faithful women who listen and obey the WILL of GOD, since the Virgin Mary!

    Recall it was the women decipoles of Jesus who stayed at the foot of the cross and not his male desciples. Nor, did they believe these women when Jesus,having choosen them as the first witnesses of the resurrection, told them to proclaim the Good News to his frightened-male followers locked behind a door in the upper room.

    Interesting how the more things change the more they stay the same: Men have been afraid of woment who listen to God and speak there truth.

    May 31, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • abc

      Strong and FAITHFUL women have challenged wrong behavior. See St. Catherine of Siena or St. Bridget of Sweden or St. Catherine of Sweden, for instance. See St. Teresa of Avila and her reforms. The problem with the LCWR (*NOT* with all Nuns and Sisters but a particular subset) is that they are not FAITHFUL. They may be doing some good things, but they are heterodox and like the advantages and benefits that comes with being Catholic but aren't particularly interested in actually being Catholic. THAT is the problem.

      There are plenty of women religious, nuns and sisters, that pray and serve the poor AND are actually faithful. It's not those orders that are being dealt with; it's the LCWR only.

      May 31, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • glennrobert

      We should welcome "The Church" to the year 2012. Women now delight in thinking. What a scary thought! Should we be surprised that they see the world and their faith differently. FAITH, that word has gotten millions killed in the name of God. The three great religions of Abraham delight in killing each other. When we run out of Muslims to kill there are the true non-believers.

      June 1, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • Cat

      Your first sentence is absurd.

      June 1, 2012 at 9:12 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.