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. seebs

    "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."

    ... He says this as though these are not the same thing. The essence of orthopraxy is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

    May 31, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  2. Traditionalist

    I hope the Vatican disbands all the radical feminist orders who are "demanding" the Church change its laws and rules. If you want to work for social justice and do not want to follow other Catholic teachings, just form your own "social justice" club and quit calling yourselves Catholic. Quit trying to get the Church to accept your personal agendas. Unfortunately many of these orders were overtaken by radical feminitsts in the 60's and ran all the good, traditional Catholic women out. I'm ready to see the ranks cleared out and a return to genuine Catholocism in religious orders.

    May 31, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • KMW

      To Traditionalist,

      You have my sentiments! They are a disgrace to the Roman Catholic Church. I hope they pack their bags and leave our religion once and for all.

      May 31, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  3. Vidyashanti

    A religion is not a religion when it promotes discrimination, hate against another religion and people of different orientation.
    At best, it is a social organization using GOD as it's instruments to promote their truncated understanding.

    May 31, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • just a human

      well said, well said.

      May 31, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  4. azhermit

    More main stream atheist media propaganda / yellow journalism against Holy Mother Church... get a life girlie boys.

    May 31, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • Judas Priest

      Go study your own religion and the history of your own church, you tool.

      May 31, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  5. 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 10:59 am |
    • Jan-Cincy

      This is silly. Christianity does not depend on the proven existence of Abraham or Moses or even, I would argue, Jesus Christ. The message is greater than the messengers, the total greater than its parts.

      May 31, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Judas Priest

      The discussion is about Catholic doctrine and the Catholic church's treatment of women, not the allmighty atheist agenda. Do try to keep up.

      May 31, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • Reality

      More on 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 5:41 pm |
  6. clubschadenfreude

    I have no idea why women would worship a being that is said to say that women are property at worst and at best are second class citizens not worthy of this god, which only can communicate with men. Time that the nuns leave the church that profits from their work, but does not respect them at all.

    May 31, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  7. jennygirl

    rogue nuns. haha.

    May 31, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  8. god

    I love nuns

    May 31, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  9. posy

    come on women its time to fight facism together. Fascist catholic popes and fascist muslim men who hurt their women.

    May 31, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • Judas Priest

      Unite in worship of the Goddess of your choice.

      May 31, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  10. nora

    I agree with the nuns 1000%. I went to Catholic School for 12 years and was taught by the nuns as well as a priest and several lay folks. As I am now a lapsed Catholic, i can no longer abide by their teachings. I ask myself "what would Jesus do" and he WOULD NOT treat the least amongst us as shabbily as the church does now. They are SUPPOSED to be for the weak in society but all they worry about now is hiding the truth. One of the commandments is "thou shall not lie" but they get caught in lies all the time at the Vatican.

    May 31, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  11. abc

    Ironically the nuns shown in the picture are the nuns least likely to be upset with the Vatican. It's the short-hair nuns who wear business suits and don't wear a habit (ie, the religious clothing displayed in the picture) who are bent out of shape.

    May 31, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • Judas Priest

      No, the wimple-and-long-hair nuns are also pretty upset as well.

      May 31, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  12. Thomas O'Hagan

    These nuns are the true church trying to follow the word of God. I was born and raised Catholic and still consider myself one but I stay as far away from the priests and hierarchy as possible. The old saying power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely was meant for the church. The curia is stuck in the middle ages. Just look at the current financial disclosures and the one in jail is the whistle blower not the guilty. The church does not spend any time dealing with social justice. It is to hung up on keeping priests out of jail and out of court, fighting abortion and at the same time fighting contraception. Divorce is illegal unless you are rich and have connections then you can buy an annulment. The church needs to get its act together, let priest marry and starting practicing the word of God instead of just taking about it Sunday mornings to an ever declining group of church goers.

    May 31, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • abc

      > The church does not spend any time dealing with social justice.

      I don't suppose you spend any time helping out or giving to your parish's St Vincent de Paul Society then? Or if your parish doesn't have one, I don't suppose you've given thought to starting it. Not to mention myriad other groups within parishes and dioceses that serve and advocate for the poor.

      > It is to hung up on keeping priests out of jail and out of court

      No more than your local school district on teachers or Boy Scout council or USA Swimming on coaches. Why do you see a human problem that plagues just about every organization of any size that involves people (sinners) in only one organization?

      > fighting abortion and at the same time fighting contraception.

      Clearly you need to do some more reading on what the contraceptive mentality is and how it distorts our views on babies, and how even the Supreme Court has described abortion as a fall-back when contraceptives fail (which they do).

      > Divorce is illegal

      Read your Gospels and what Jesus said on divorce.

      > unless you are rich and have connections then you can buy an annulment.

      Are you a volunteer with your Diocese's annulment tribunal to help people going through the process?

      > The church needs to get its act together


      > let priest marry

      Letting priests marry and ordaining married priests are two different questions. Priests have never married (once ordained) but married men have been ordained. Please read up on the Greek Orthodox disciplines for priests if you are confused on the distinction.

      May 31, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • nora

      Amen, brother!!

      May 31, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  13. just my 2 cents

    By 2100 – when all of us in this forum die – we will know if God exists or not so take your side.

    May 31, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  14. Jason B

    And by reform the Church means "the women will shut up and do what the old men tell them".

    May 31, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • Sunflower

      Bingo!! You hit that nail squarely on the head! When the church finally releases the proof that Jesus was indeed married, (priests who left the church have SEEN the proof in the Vatican Library) and stops this FARCE, I "may" consider going back to church... But not until they fully disclose the truth of many, many things.....

      May 31, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • abc

      Yeah... well either that or actually being faithful to the *entirety* of the Gospel (which obviously also implies fidelity to the teachings of the Church). If you want to start a social services organization that has nothing to do with the Church that Jesus founded upon Peter than by all means do so. These Nuns want the privilege and benefits of being called "Catholic" without actually being Catholic.

      May 31, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  15. Tina E

    I wish that the Church were more focused on removing pedophile priests than punishing women who often serve the most vulnerable segments of society.

    May 31, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  16. geez10

    I think its about time a nun became the next pope

    May 31, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  17. tony

    I am a jealous god, thou shalt not worship any other good.

    May 31, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  18. Mar

    I am so impressed with the nuns.. they are moving with grace and the Holy Spirit's leading – they are serving in a selfless manner and not cracking whips, abusing children and devastating lives. I support them 100%. The reason there are not many nuns in the waiting has NOTHING to do with their priorities…. it's a sign of the times and it is also a sign of how many people, not all, view the archaic and male dominated secret world of the Vatican. In time, that secrecy WILL be revealed more and more, as it should. I noticed that the mean age of nuns is 70 – is this horrendously disrespectful condemnation of the women to do with them having to pay retirement expenses and pensions? I don't see priests banning together to fight what they see as against the church. What I do see is that that nuns are truly doing God's work – serving with love for the poor and broken-hearted. I don't see the priests doing that – in fact, they are so widely responsible for so much damage to so many lives and have literally done NOTHING to be honest, loving towards their victims and have continued, in fact, to hide each others sins – wherever possible. Ladies – take your pensions, if you get them, and RUN….. let the world embrace you as a current and effective order!

    May 31, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • rstlne

      Well said!

      May 31, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  19. Roman Catholic

    Leave the Church if you do not like it, this american nuns are radical feminists, that have their own agenda that is to become priests, and run the Church like they own it.
    I attendend school , college as my parents and children , all Roman Catholics, I stop going for a while because the nuns in my church were like this rabid feminists.
    Now we go to a Latin Mass, we are practicing Catholics, our religion is not a buffet where one choses what to take or not.
    Nobody is forcing to stay, leave or please kick them out. Our Church is not a political party.

    May 31, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • J.C.

      When, at the end of your years, you fall into the Void that is The End of life, I do hope you have a moment to regret all the time you wasted on the hocus-pocus of religion.
      The nuns are hardly radical; they only seem radical in contrast to the orthodoxy of the Catholic Taliban. They're wasting time spent on their knees in prayer just as you are, but at least they're out trying to make the world a better place. I hope your priest washes up before he puts that wafer on your tongue, because there's no telling where those hands have been.

      May 31, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • Walker

      This is exactly what went wrong with the Catholic Church. You people who bow to whatever comes out of Rome without thinking, without conscience. You believe without questioning where the information is coming from. While the male religious of the Church continue their exploitation of children, the women have decided to fight back. I applaud them for their REAL faith.

      May 31, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • John Johns

      I have no idea who you are but from your use of words I assume you are not an English speaking person. Judge not that you be not judged............

      May 31, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • cnn reader

      ... I also went to catholic school & college... Let me ask u a question, would you leave any of your young sons alone with a priest? Whenever a reign starts to fall the men attack the women first.

      May 31, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • mms55

      oh but your church is sir and they need to abide by the laws of the land or disband.the nuns do all the work in the catholic church and i stand behind them 100%.

      May 31, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  20. Jules

    The Catholic Church treats women like second class Catholics.

    May 31, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • Roman Catholic

      Not true, women have very important jobs in the Church, we have doctors of the Church that are females, head of catholic organizations, do you know that the mayority of female CEO attended catholic schools? I was a girl and rund the Catholic Youth National Org.
      Feminists proclaim that lie.

      May 31, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • abc

      Because of the impossibility of a woman being ordained a priest? Right. Catholics who pay so much respect to Mary, the Mother of God (Theotokos) and honor so many female saints (eg, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Clare) not to mention those saints who stood up to Popes in a spirt of FAITHFULNESS (eg, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Brigid of Sweden, etc). Yes, you are right. Catholics abhor women. Right. Because of the impossibility of a woman being ordained priest.

      May 31, 2012 at 11:33 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.