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. cvbcvb

    They're just starting to see what Martin Luther saw?

    May 30, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  2. niknak

    Religion is so full of shi_t.
    But keep sending up, or down, all those softly spoken magic spells to your imaginary friend.
    I am sure it will make your life much better.

    May 30, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • Nah

      If it doesn't make their life any better or worse, but brings them peace of mind and happiness, how can you be against it?

      Pure bigotry?

      May 30, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • ןןɐq ʎʞɔnq

      Valium is cheaper

      May 30, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
    • Alex

      could not agree more.
      anyone who believes is a fool

      May 31, 2012 at 3:16 am |
  3. WachetAuf

    Pope Benedict: "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."

    The Pope's characterization of Christianity describes not merely what Christianity is becoming and it is not a prophecy of what it may become. It is a description of what the "true church" has always been. Jesus did not target the masses. His message was directed to a very small number of individuals. He was not an organizer nor a creator of the system of large powerful congregations. The politicians, like Paul, did that and Jesus' true message was lost. Only, ONLY, a small number of people who will never be heard of, and who will remain insignificant in the eyes of the politicians and self-righteous, are true followers of Jesus' message. The Pope should reflect on his words. He should pray a lot.

    May 30, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  4. LMD

    As a former catholic,I am happy to see the church falling apart. No more of the intimidation,the dominating men who have used the words of others to reign terror over its members for thousands of yrs. Any person who truly wants to follow the teachings of jesus,should leave the church and actually do what he preached,and equality was a big lesson he was preaching,unlike the church that has led too many to believe that women are lesser beings.

    May 30, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  5. givesuccess

    I was raised by Nuns and they did not try to molest me like the Priests would have. I would have had to learn karate to fight them off. Why don't the Pope work on pruning the "misguided" males who destroy the lives of kids and reputation of the Church instead of covering it up?

    May 30, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • niknak

      Because he would have to start with himself, and he likes his power and current station in life.
      Asking any religion, or dictatator for that matter, to "reform" is asking for something that will never happen.
      Religion is what they use to keep the dimwitted occupied while they run everything.
      The catholic church wants desperately to go back 1000 years to where nothing happend without their consent.
      Same as the taliban today.

      May 30, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
  6. Colin

    Oh please split with it. The more this corrupt and comical inst.itution crumble away the better.

    May 30, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  7. LouAZ

    Yea Nuns ! Make the men in dresses wash their own socks !
    Nuns should sue for back wages ! Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha ! !
    (All you apologists reading this – Do NOT start blathering about all the wondeful charity stuff you and your fellow apologists do. You have supported the world's greatest gold hoarding Corporation run by pedopriests in dresses too long !)

    May 30, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • abc

      The temporal wealth is mostly tied up in real estate, not gold.

      May 31, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  8. bilzod

    The Catholic Religion is like so many other Faiths....Based on a a story passed on by Nomands Thousands of years ago who treated women like dirt and wrote a book ...Guess what it is called ...So these Robe Wearing Jerks can keep up the story !!!

    May 30, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  9. ron

    The nuns have integrity. The Vatican? Almost none. These old men are into power while the nuns are into service.

    May 30, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • MyselfOfCourse


      May 30, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • Nancy


      May 30, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
    • orrigionalbettina

      Sending Holy Light of Love to the nuns, because the Vatican forgot to do so

      May 31, 2012 at 1:29 am |
  10. DD

    It's for its members to decide what they want their religion to be.

    May 30, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • abc

      An organization that does such a thing is worshipping themselves and not God

      May 31, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  11. Berman

    "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."

    Do you know what this office was called before they changed its name in the early 1900s? The Office of the Holy Inquisition. Yes, the Pope was the head of the "Inquisition". That should tell you everything you need to know right there.

    May 30, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • Bill

      The Inquistion, what a show
      The Inquistion, here we go
      We know you're wishing
      That we'd go away
      But the Inquistion's here and it's here to stayyyyy
      –Mel Brooks

      May 30, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • Nah

      And what, pray tell, does the word "Inquisition" mean in context?

      To "inquire"?

      Oh god. So evil. How horrible.

      May 30, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  12. Leucadia Bob


    May 30, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  13. harrisonhits2

    "warning that the American nuns could be a negative global influence on the church."

    Funny that the world's largest organization of pedophiles is worried about what the few of their members who most likely aren't molestors have to say.

    May 30, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
  14. thinquer

    There were no nuns or popes in the Bible. Rather than fighting the pope, get back to the original first century definition of being a disciple of Christ and this will all be a moot point.

    May 30, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • ןןɐq ʎʞɔnq

      Exactly. Become a Jew. You DO know they were Jews until after the Second Century, and the Second Revolt, right ?

      May 30, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • abc

      Right, it's not in the Bible. For example, the first Pope, Simon Peter - the Rock that Jesus said He would build his Church upon - is not in the Bible.

      May 31, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  15. Mr Chihuahua

    Nuns like it in the butt, I saw it on the internet lol!

    May 30, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • bilzod

      Mr Chihuahua........

      The Butt in fact is your Ass which you are Large at !!! .......What a dope on a serious situation !!!

      May 30, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  16. just sayin

    The Pope is losing control and hates it. Catholic Church always was and is about power.

    May 30, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  17. just sayin

    Do Nuns trim it down there? Like Brazilian wax kind of trimming? That would be hot if they did.

    May 30, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • Huebert

      According to a few of my favorite "movies", Most nuns sport a Brazilian or a landing strip.

      May 30, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • jay zee

      if you like that median age of 70 woman!

      May 30, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • J-Man

      Maybe you missed the part about the median (roughly translated as average, but slightly different) is 70 years old. If you want to tap that, you have serious issues.

      May 30, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  18. just sayin

    Blessed day seeing the Catholic Church crumbling as it should. It has no soul or integrity. In the future the Pope will be more of a clown or freak show act than anything.

    May 30, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • ןןɐq ʎʞɔnq

      pssst ....prease, glasshoppel prease to make change
      future to is


      May 30, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Valerie

      "The gates of Hell shall NOT prevail against it".

      You'll NEVER see the end of the Church. EVER.

      May 30, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • mike

      The Catholic Church is here until the end of time, no matter how hard popes and bishops try to destroy it. Get used to it.

      May 30, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • ןןɐq ʎʞɔnq

      prese to exprain...
      When Jeebus said that, there was no such thing as a church. How would they know what he was talking about ?
      "a what " ?

      May 30, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
  19. kjrussell

    In America the numbers of new priests and nuns is about to take a nose dive. FTA, the Median age of a nun is 70. In 10 years the number of nuns and priests will lead to a serious restructuring of the churck in America if the pope likes it or not. They better handle these issues carefully if they want to be relevant in the future.

    May 30, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • just sayin

      When was the last time they were relevant????????? 1700's??? At some point the Catholic Church will only be found in 3rd world countries of the less educated. The Pope Mobile will consist of a beat up old rusted pick up truck with wood panels around him. His septor will be made from a wooden stick, a can and maybe some glittery plastic. He might be sporting a used baseball cap as well.

      May 30, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  20. Denise

    Great to see a religion destroying itself.

    May 30, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • LC B

      Agreed – may 'they' all go this route, and take their followers with them! Can't happen too soon, either.

      May 30, 2012 at 5:42 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.