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. heyheyhey

    I think the females should run it anyhow. They do a much better job any way. All my grade school teachers pretty much were nuns. I have fallen away from the church though the older I get the more I realize that any organized religion freaks me out, but here is the thing there are lots of homeless shelters and hot food banks that run off churches so they do some good for the community. The gov has none of that , In college I did a study on it and in most major cities it's the churches that do for the most part feeding the homeless and giving cloths and stuff to the needy.

    May 31, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • al

      I think you hit the nail on the head for yourself when you said 'freak"

      May 31, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  2. Chutzpah

    Let the Vatican focus on its own criminality and scandals for awhile and let the nuns alone. People may say the pastor who advocates the government killing gays is an aberration – that's not religion. But then stories like this one drive home the point that the hate and desire for political and social demagogery go right to the top.

    May 31, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  3. Religion

    Anyone who believes in invisible men in the sky need to get their head examined.

    May 31, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • al

      You mean people that believe in aliens or unprovable alternate universes – wholeheartedly agree.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  4. Curtis Smith

    Lovely comments here, but one must remember two things, Jesus himself founded the Universal Church and he will not let it fade. Second, God does not change his mind. So no matter how much everyone on this comment list wants to modernize the church to their standards, they will still have to live up to God's in one way or another.

    May 31, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Religion

      Another Christian Taliban member speaks up.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Frogman

      Two things, Jesus would not want to be blamed for founding the Roman Catholic Church and god, apparently changes her mind all the time.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  5. mk045

    These few who actually live the life that Christ described are now being chastised by a church intoxicated by power, wealth, and control. As with many secular governments, individual members are often kind, well-meaning people, while the virtual organism of the whole is twisted and corrupt. If there is a god, this sort of absurdity surely brings him to tears.

    May 31, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • Crazyhorse

      mk – You miss the point of what the Vatican is to each Order. When you take vows of obedience you know FULLY what you are getting into. It takes years to get to that point. Many of these congregations are operating as if they had some autonomy -they don't! So when they are told what to do and focus on, they take it to the press??? Imagine that.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  6. Frogman

    As Girolam Savonarola, the Fifteenth Century Dominican Monk, said about the College of Cardinals, "They have sat for so long in their own stench that they don't realize that they stink".

    May 31, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  7. Angali Baseme

    Vatican, leave the nuns alone! In 10 years they will be history!

    May 31, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • Crazyhorse

      Don't hold your breath. I know of at least one order overflowing with postulates.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  8. camilla

    I applaud the nuns' work. Women represent >50 % of population, yet women's issues are minimized or just ignored. The nuns have the pulse of the average person's life. They know the daily problems people struggle with, not the "Church". Nuns continue to stand tall, your work is priceless. Thank you.

    May 31, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • Crazyhorse

      What is unclear about vows of obedience?

      May 31, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  9. Christian

    If the only thing anyone ever does is strictly conform to what has been taught, there will be no growth. The nuns, practicing their beliefs based on thier religious training, are truly acting in the spirit of the teachings of Jesus – defending the vulnerable from oppression and loving others with compassion. If the Catholic Church feels threatened by its members living according to the spirit of its teaching, then it is obviously not practicing the spiritual tenents it espouses. This is one reason I left the Catholic Church to practice Christianity in another church.

    There is a reason why groups of people organize – to collectively convey issues of importance to them separate from any representative roles they may otherwise have. Dissent is a healthy and needed form of expression – when the nuns speak, they are doing so as representatives of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, not the Catholic Church.

    Go nuns!!

    May 31, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  10. eleanor fitzgerald

    The time for the American Catholic Church not controlled by the Vatican is long overdue. The Episcopalian model is not likely to suffice.

    May 31, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • biggal195

      No, Eleanor, John Wesley figured that out over 200 years ago. He had come to America as an Anglican priest, but when the revolution started, he broke with Canterbury and started commissioning the first circuit riders.

      May 31, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  11. Claire Williams

    I have nothing but wonderful, loving feelings for these nuns. They are the truly committed workser in the church. They deserve to be appreciated and heard. Thank God they have awakened and want their voices to be heard. They are the worker bees, the bedrock of the good things the Catholic Church does. Without them, there would be nothing left but old men and doctrine.

    May 31, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • al

      In one massive isinformed statement you have minimized the contributions of millions upon millions of dedicated lay people and clergy throughout the world. This particular group of nuns forgot their vows long ago and are now stunned that the Church has called them on their antics.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  12. Frogman

    The Roman Catholic Church. The longest running, most corrupt drag show on Earth.

    May 31, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Crazyhorse

      Back off bigot.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • asdf

      Careful Frogman this one is a "CRAZY" horse – I don't think he is willing to turn the other cheek. Perhaps spread them for a priest but definitely not turn them.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  13. maggiemct

    Good grief, they were NOT blindsided. This review was going on for years. If you don't believe in and support the Church's teachings, you SHOULD resign.

    And BTW, nuns are cloisted, the no-habit, active apostolate ones are sisters. Too bad a major news service can't get their facts straight.

    May 31, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • Neeneko

      Resignation would be more effective if they could take church resources with them. That is the problem with the power imbalance here... the church, as a quasi-government, owns the buildings and other resources....

      May 31, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • Crazyhorse

      Calling them "Sisters" would not serve their purpose now would it?

      May 31, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • al

      Neenko, Bishops and priests don't take church resources when they resign either. You must live a lonely and bitter life.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  14. southernwonder

    this is no different than "no taxation without representation". what we did to the britain we gotta do to vatican and free ourselves from teh vatican oppression. actually we need to set ourselves free from this middle east god stuff totally and get ourselves an american god.

    May 31, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • fofo

      No more God please. Let's just free ourselves from the middle age mentality.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  15. ernestly

    I think its clear Christ would stand with the selfless nuns – not the powerful manipulative vatican.

    May 31, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • fofo

      Jesus, Who?

      May 31, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • abc

      The LCWR Nuns are selfless... Ha. A portion of American Nuns represented by the LCWR advocates for heterodoxy which is why they are in trouble. It's not for serving in a soup kitchen that they are in trouble. You are not going to find true selfless nuns like the Missionaries of Charity (the order previously led by Mother Teresa) in league with the LCWR.

      You are being played like a fiddle.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • Crazyhorse

      fo – JC is the Son of the Living God. So now you know. Repent and be saved!

      May 31, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • al

      The LCWR is a political nun's group tied with the 60's radical women's movement and SO out-of-touch with church teachings that they are, indeed, going extinct. The great news is that traditional conservative Catholic Christian orders not associated with this self-licking matriarchy of aging 'hippie nuns', are overflowing with young postulates. It's the same that is happening with traditional conservative men's orders.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  16. yourpalbob

    "All we do is work for love." – At least someone GETS IT.

    May 31, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • abc

      That can be said of true selfless orders of Nuns like the Missioniaries of Charity. The nuns "targeted" can hardly be described in such a manner.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • bob

      Good, ABC, feel the power of the dark side. Your training is almost complete.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • Crazyhorse

      abc, the proof is in the pudding. That tree will not produce much more fruit, unless they change. One only has to visit a gathering to see the high median age.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  17. Steve

    It surprises me every day that people still follow the Catholic Church.

    May 31, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • fofo

      Don't be surprised. There are still many unintelligent people in the world that are only borne to be the followers of the crooks.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • Crazyhorse

      Steve, many of us have studied our faith for decades. Many folks here have only CNN to go by. Which one are you?

      May 31, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • al

      It surprises me every day people follow Islam, or even stranger, that they blindly follow sciance as a new religion with scientists as their new priests and politicians as their prophets.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  18. Siara Delyn

    Boy, the church is really starting to function again (no thanks to the Pope). Wouldn't it be great if Christianity stated to be about treating people fairly, nurturing the poor, weak, and young, and compassion?

    May 31, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Crazyhorse

      Guess you never heard of Catholic Charities huh? Your problem is that you think the Catholic Church is a democracy. It's not.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  19. av667

    i hope they don't make a habit of this

    May 31, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • Siara Delyn

      LOL good one

      May 31, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Jim


      May 31, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  20. ShakesHead

    1. The photo is of course absurd: a traditional religious woman in her habit. The devout women in this photo likely wouldn't touch the LCWR with a ten-foot pole.

    2. Someone wrote "open up a church for people who've HAD IT with the Vatican and the church male hierarchy." Already done ... try the Episcopal Church. But no, that wouldn't generate media coverage like covering oneself in the Mantle of the Oppressed.

    May 31, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Bill Shepard

      The sisters wear conservative black shoes. The Pope wears scarlet pumps. That says it all. I wish American Catholics would exercise their gonads, and form an independant American Catholic Church: Married priests, women priests, transparent finances, each church governed by a board (vestry) and contraception is OK. Or they could join the Episcopal Church! It is not perfect, but ready made. The Pope picks the Cardinals...the Cardinals pick the Pope....The Pope picks the Cardinals...The Cardinals pick the Pope... You think anything is ever going to change... Bill in Philadelphia

      May 31, 2012 at 12:31 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.