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. Phil in Oregon

    Since they are American nuns, they will probably go on strike. Then they will break away and form an organization that allows them to be more liberal.

    May 31, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  2. Mary

    They're just hell bent to put the women in their place, sop with the giant misogyny machine.

    May 31, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  3. Rob Lanken

    Another day, another CNN hit piece on Christianity. Your deep bias and hatred are showing, CNN. Curious that there is never a negative piece about islam or buddhism here.

    May 31, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • XxMacleodxX

      islam is the same as christianity....you two just can't see that....but you really have a problem with Buddhism? it is a religion of total peace ...you have issues ...like a rat you want to drag everyone down to your miserable level

      May 31, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  4. sbasler

    As a catholic I am so proud of these nuns for keeping the focus on love and helping the dissenfranchised. Time for U.S. Catholics to break away from Rome.

    May 31, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • Maccabeus24

      That mentality is called the heresy of Americanism, my friend, and its not Catholic for a reason. Maybe you should consider learning why the Church teaches what it teaches before you buy into the liberal rhetoric. The Church's teachings are tried and true for over 2000 years. What you want is only 100 years old at best. A society built on a 100-year-old "wisdom" is a society that frankly lacks wisdom. Learn your faith, man.

      May 31, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • tina

      @Maccabeus24...so followng your line of 'logic' this 200 year old country should shut up and learn something from older civilizations...like, say, Iran? democracy should give way to ancient totalitarianism, where women knew their place and were constantly threatened back into it. people like you are the ones who are most threatened by any societal improvements. I forgot...the sun revolves around the earth (which is flat, by the way) and science and medicine are witchcraft. progress? we don't need no stinkin' progress! just ask your master.

      May 31, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  5. Hot Legs

    Nuns are HOT!

    May 31, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  6. Chris

    This article reminds me of how much I don't like religious people

    May 31, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  7. Gordon Kamish

    I grew up Catholic. The "nuns" would always trick the kids out of ice cream money for "the missions". I now live in an apt above a nun. How can someone who took "a vow of poverty" afford an apartment, new furniture, etc. at age 65? My mission money??? This woman does NOT wear her "uniform", but rather dresses in men's sweatpants most of the time. Nuns are a scam. The Church isn't far behind.

    May 31, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • gatecrasher1

      Don't eat lunch today, instead hand over your money for "the missions" and "pagan babies".

      May 31, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  8. JCQueipo

    Girls is a tough job market out there !!

    May 31, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  9. WillB

    Obviously, the nuns should offer a bribe to the Vatican, that's the language they understand the best according to the latest revalations from insiders there.

    May 31, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  10. Davd

    The Catholic Church has the same problem that traditional Islam has. Both really wish it could still be the 12th century and keep trying to turn the clock back.

    May 31, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  11. Romeyn

    I think it is misleading of CNN to make it sound as if all American nuns are under scrutiny, they are not – rather one of the two main groups of nuns are being investigated for being unorthodox. This has nothing to do with unchecked "control" on the part of the Vatican, but has to do with reforming those orders in question so that they reflect the overall global mission and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church, of which they claim to belong. Furthermore, it is poor sport of CNN to post a picture of habited Dominicans (?), they are NOT under investigation by the Vatican and are irrelevant to this discussion. Most of the orders of religious sisters being investigated do not even wear habits – which may be part of the problem...

    May 31, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • PulTab

      blah,,,,blah,,,,,,religion,,,,,,,blah, blah, blah, religion,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

      May 31, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • sarahsaint

      @ PulTab

      blah, blah, blah...facts relevant to the article you're reading, blahblahblah

      May 31, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • MarkinFL

      it is misleading of CNN to make it sound as if all American nuns are under scrutiny, they are not "

      CNN made it VERY clear that only the vast majority are under scrutiny and that a small group that split off several years ago are not.

      May 31, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  12. sir_ken_g

    No don't resign. Impeach the pope. An agent of Satan.

    May 31, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • carter

      Amen. There are allegations that he himself shielded child molesting priests from retribution.

      May 31, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  13. PulTab

    This should free up some p u s s y.

    May 31, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • Catholic Girl

      "median age of 70." just wanted to remind you. 😉

      May 31, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  14. carter

    I'm with the nuns here. Keep up the good work sisters. The Catholic Church leadership is child molesting and thieving its way into extinction and they want to take you with them.

    May 31, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  15. Reality

    The issue goes way beyond petty disagreements between nuns and a out-of-touch Vatican.


    Putting the kibosh/”google” on religion:

    • There was probably no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • There was probably no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    Adverb: Almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    "The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother's womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. "

    May 31, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • Ekaterina Kaverina

      You claim you don't believe... Deny the existence of God so you can sin freely... Well, He believes in you. He was born as a (Jewish) man and died for you on the cross. Some day you'll stand in His presence.

      May 31, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • vbscript2

      Making unsupported claims for which you have no evidence doesn't put the kibosh on anything except your own credibility.

      May 31, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • Reality

      Only for the those interested in a religious update: (ONLY FOR THE NEW MEMBERS OF THIS BLOG)

      1. origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482

      “New Torah For Modern Minds

      Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

      Such startling propositions – the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years – have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity – until now.

      The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine docu-ment. “
      Adverb: Almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell.

      2. 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!!!!

      2 b., Luther, Calvin, Joe Smith, Henry VIII, Wesley, Roger Williams, the Great “Babs” et al, founders of Christian-based religions or combination religions also suffered from the belief in/hallucinations of "pretty wingie thingie" visits and "prophecies" for profits analogous to the myths of Catholicism (resurrections, apparitions, ascensions and immacu-late co-nceptions).

      Current problems:
      Adulterous preachers, pedophiliac clerics, "propheteering/ profiteering" evangelicals and atonement theology,

      3. Mohammed was an illiterate, womanizing, lust and greed-driven, warmongering, hallucinating Arab, who also had embellishing/hallucinating/plagiarizing scribal biographers who not only added "angels" and flying chariots to the koran but also a militaristic agenda to support the plundering and looting of the lands of non-believers.

      This agenda continues as shown by the ma-ssacre in Mumbai, the as-sas-sinations of Bhutto and Theo Van Gogh, the conduct of the seven Muslim doctors in the UK, the 9/11 terrorists, the 24/7 Sunni suicide/roadside/market/mosque bombers, the 24/7 Shiite suicide/roadside/market/mosque bombers, the Islamic bombers of the trains in the UK and Spain, the Bali crazies, the Kenya crazies, the Pakistani “koranics”, the Palestine suicide bombers/rocketeers, the Lebanese nutcases, the Taliban nut jobs, the Ft. Hood follower of the koran, and the Filipino “koranics”.

      And who funds this muck and stench of terror? The warmongering, Islamic, Shiite terror and torture theocracy of Iran aka the Third Axis of Evil and also the Sunni "Wannabees" of Saudi Arabia.

      Current crises:

      The Sunni-Shiite blood feud and the warmongering, womanizing (11 wives), hallucinating founder.

      4. Hinduism (from an online Hindu site) – "Hinduism cannot be described as an organized religion. It is not founded by any individual. Hinduism is God centered and therefore one can call Hinduism as founded by God, because the answer to the question ‘Who is behind the eternal principles and who makes them work?’ will have to be ‘Cosmic power, Divine power, God’."

      The caste/laborer system, reincarnation and cow worship/reverence are problems when saying a fair and rational God founded Hinduism."

      Current problems:

      The caste system, reincarnation and cow worship/reverence.

      5. Buddhism- "Buddhism began in India about 500 years before the birth of Christ. The people living at that time had become disillusioned with certain beliefs of Hinduism including the caste system, which had grown extremely complex. The number of outcasts (those who did not belong to any particular caste) was continuing to grow."

      "However, in Buddhism, like so many other religions, fanciful stories arose concerning events in the life of the founder, Siddhartha Gautama (fifth century B.C.):"

      Archaeological discoveries have proved, beyond a doubt, his historical character, but apart from the legends we know very little about the circu-mstances of his life. e.g. Buddha by one legend was supposedly talking when he came out of his mother's womb.

      Bottom line: There are many good ways of living but be aware of the hallucinations, embellishments, lies, and myths surrounding the founders and foundations of said rules of life.

      Then, apply the Five F rule: "First Find the Flaws, then Fix the Foundations". And finally there will be religious peace and religious awareness in the world!!!!!

      May 31, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  16. awasis

    It's all about control, it's all about control..............What is interesting though, is we are, after 2000 years, watching the decline of one of the largest brainwashing organizations in history. Due to its shear size it will take a while, but the writing is on the wall.

    May 31, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • galaxy101

      Agreed. The only question is: how long will "a while" take.

      May 31, 2012 at 9:35 am |
  17. Truth

    CHARLES TOWNES, Nobel Laureate in Physics.

    1. ¨ On May 24, 2002, Charles Townes wrote a letter to the compiler T. Dimitrov. To the inquiry, “What do you think about the existence of God?” Prof. Townes gave the following answer: “I strongly believe in the existence of God, based on intuition, observations, logic, and also scientific knowledge.” (Townes 2002a).

    May 31, 2012 at 6:12 am |
    • One one

      So far as religion of the day is concerned, it is a damned fake... Religion is all bunk. [Thomas Edison]

      I have never seen the slightest scientific proof of the religious theories of heaven and hell, of future life for individuals, or of a personal God. [Thomas Alva Edison, Columbian Magazine]

      I do not believe that any type of religion should ever be introduced into the public schools of the United States. [Thomas Edison]

      May 31, 2012 at 6:35 am |
    • Drew

      Did he say he believed in Jesus too? I thought not

      May 31, 2012 at 7:07 am |
    • MNTaxpayer

      So what? Think for yourself.

      May 31, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • allens

      i guess if townes says it, it must be true. by the way, what was the scientific proof?

      May 31, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  18. Alex

    It would be great to see the nuns take down this unholy pope

    May 31, 2012 at 3:15 am |
    • Jen

      Hear, hear! The best thing for Catholics is to get away from Rome altogether and form their own American Catholic Church. I am not Catholic, by the way.

      May 31, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • Ekaterina Kaverina

      The nuns are abiding by the rules, by God's word that is. It obviously makes more sense to serve and educate the poor which among other things will lower the rate of unwanted pregnancies, than to try and make abortion illegal, for instance. So let's imagine it is illegal – you'll have a statistics of illegal abortions, that is all. The nuns are working on abortion prevention much more effectively. And so it goes with all other issues. Women are simply more smart and efficient than men.

      May 31, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • sarahsaint

      @ Ekaterina Amen.

      May 31, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  19. BadDog91748

    The problem the nuns have is that they voluntarily enlisted and agreed to abide by the rules set by others, the male hierarchy. If they find the rules that unpalatable, the only recourse they have is to leave the organization, and that means the Church as well. BTW, I am a non-believer and think that adults arguing points of religion is akin to 6 year-olds arguing over whose invisible friend is best.

    May 31, 2012 at 3:13 am |
    • Alex

      My invisible friend is way better, he has a motorcycle

      May 31, 2012 at 3:15 am |
    • One one

      It is worth debating when people insist that everyone accepts the rules of their particular invisible friend.

      May 31, 2012 at 6:12 am |
    • Ekaterina Kaverina

      You seem not to know it, but in this case everybody's (and yours too, yes) Invisible Friend is the same Person. And He already died for you.

      May 31, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  20. kileo mushi


    May 31, 2012 at 3:09 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.