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.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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.

Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter

“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. swohio

    I wonder if the Eastern Orthodox have these kinds of problems...?

    May 31, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Cat

      Please go to mass and ask.

      June 1, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
  2. Judy watson

    You have erroneously pictured the Nashville Dominicans who are NOT part of the conference which is the subject of your story. You owe them an apology and a public correction for your faulty reporting. Do better research for your story.

    May 31, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  3. Allen

    My issue with the Catholic Church (born and raised catholic, went to a catholic school, and church 3 times a week growing up) is that it has lost touch with our ever changing society. I believe that people want to love and be loved by God just as much now as ever before, but the church does everything in it's power not to change. I believe that change is part of life, and by that logic if the catholic church refuses to change... it will die. Jesus taught us to love, accept, and tolerate sinners. The catholic church taught me to judge, discriminate, and avoid sinners. I will always tell people that I'm catholic, as I believe it to be the only true version of christianity (the rest have spawned off of catholicism), but I will not go to mass again until the church changes many of their outdated polices and practices.

    Peace be with you.

    May 31, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Cat

      Try going to Latin Mass.

      June 1, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
  4. Recondo101

    The idea that Nuns of any religion, can act outside of the body politic of that religion is ridiculous and shows a total lack of understanding on the part of the reporter. As a Catholic Nun you comply with the Vatican or you leave. You have one decision to make and it better be quickly made.

    May 31, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  5. CP

    NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER take the journalism of a "Leftist / Liberal" media outlet as neutral reporting. NEVER! There is an agenda for more reaching than simply reporting the facts. WOW! Since when is CNN a reputable source of information regarding religion/christian beliefs? REALLY! We as a nation do not prosper because of information provided by outlets such as CNN, we prosper in spite of outlets such as CNN!

    May 31, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Danman

      Um, yeah... Time Warner owns CNN and is hardly "leftist". Maybe what you should do is form an actual opinion of your own instead of worrying about others.

      May 31, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • Les

      Why do you read CNN if it is so out in left field? Hypocrites and a dime a dozen.

      May 31, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  6. Wiseguy

    "Cracking a ruler over a grade-schoole's knucklers..." I love it. Sounds like this writer has been to parochial school and met Sister Mary Elephant,or the Penguin.

    May 31, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  7. dowdotica

    When the nuns form their own new church? I'll go back...

    May 31, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Danman

      Martin Luther did that, they called it Christianity.

      May 31, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • abc

      And what Lutheran today (or any other Protestant) believes now as Martin Luther did? You've got 32,000 Protestant denominations and "non-denominational" one-off denominations all teaching different doctrine from each other on various matters depending on the denomination. The spawn of Luther (and the 16th Century European nationalism that enabled it): 32,000 different faiths. That's not what Jesus intended when he founded one visible Church or when he prayed about the unity of the Church (John's Last Supper discourses) or what Paul envisioned when he spoke of agreeing on doctrine.

      May 31, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  8. rockysfan

    "Focusing too much on social justice..." Really? Isn't that what they are supposed to do? Or is it only an issue because they have breats instead of penises? I think that is the REAL issue here. Benedict is a horror to the Catholic church and it is just coming to the surface now. I've left and will NEVER go back. If you cannot recognize women as equals, we have nothing to discuss.

    May 31, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • The Contentious Otter

      I know if I had the chance to go to a church where Social Justice was the primary focus and where mass was spoken by an enlightened Mother Superior I would start going to church again.

      These nuns should take this as an opportunity and form their own church – one where the Social Justice and Charity aspects of the religion are stressed. I have no interest in going back to a church where a bunch of reactionary pedophiles try to convince people that we're still living in the 14th century.

      May 31, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • abc

      So I take it we can find you in a pew every Sunday at your local Episcopalian Church? No? What a surprise – you say "when this happens then I'll do it" but you already have an organization that does what you ask and you don't even bother to attend that.

      May 31, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • Les


      Such a church exists albeit not RC. It is called the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. It is an advocate of social justice and stands on the side of love, They are guided by 7 humanitarian principles. People from all faiths and religions are welcome to come and they don't have to give up their own spirituality. It's beginnings lie in the Deist movement which was embraced by the majority of the US founding fathers. They welcome all but do NOT proselytize. Hatred and intolerence of others is not welcomed because it is unnatural.

      May 31, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  9. Aerin

    support the nuns. damn the bishops.

    May 31, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • The Contentious Otter


      May 31, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • Cat

      A self-contradition.

      June 1, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
  10. Charles

    The person who wrote this article has no clue at all, from the picture showing sisters in habits (something most of the liberal orders of women do not even wear anymore) to describing the battle as Church Men against Church Women. Rather, this is a fight between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Men and women happen to be on both sides. CNN has shown it is on the heterodox side. Good luck!

    May 31, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Allen

      Chuck, You are wrong... the article is about the struggle between people who are in charge verse the people who work. This has nothing to do with men's and women's place in the catholic church. Granted there are some small portions of the article that shed light on the struggle of women in the catholic church and equality. But the writer would have to be ignorant to ignore that fact.

      May 31, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  11. spencer

    The Catholic church is run by a group of old men that run it like they want to.Do they care about anyone else , NO. What keeps me going is my personal relationship with God. I do respect my Pastor, but of course we disagree at times. We have many ministeries which I feel is the basis of my church. And for that it keeps me going. helping others is what it is all about.

    May 31, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Danman

      Martin Luther knew when to get out. If we let the church do what it wants they would still be burning women and left handed children as witches and demons. They would torture you and then take your property. This is why the church is still rich, it was the first Mafia. I'm sure Satans home on earth is the Vatican.

      May 31, 2012 at 1:37 pm |

    I'm not Catholic, nor am I a supporter of any particular religious group. I think the nuns are tired of getting shat upon by their 'superiors.' Also they are in a different country, with different ideals and see the need to work with the ever changing visions of religion, faith, God, etc. I think the 'superiors' need to listen to them.

    May 31, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Boo Dah


      May 31, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Charles

      You are correct that you are NOT a Catholic. In this matter, your opinion does NOT matter.

      May 31, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Sherri

      So ironic, your message starts out almost exactly the way I was going to start mine! I agree, to be told you are doing too MUCH for the poor and paying too much attention to social issues, when that is what you were hired to do and pledged to do, is just crazy. I hope they DO all resign en masse. That would show the Catholic church a thing or two. Who would do their dirty work then? They've been told they can't be priests, regardless of how devout they are. Yet, male pedophiles are OK. As long as they are men, it's OK. I know some Catholics who are very upset about this, they totally support the nuns. Interesting how this will turn out.

      May 31, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Rockwoods opinion does not matter to the CC in the same way the CC's opinion does not matter to American society as a whole. If the CC is going to meddle in non CC affairs they can expect the reverse.

      May 31, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • abc

      @Sherri – You are being played like a fiddle by LCWR. The problem is not their service to the poor but their heterodoxy. There are plenty of faithful orders of nuns and sisters who provide service to the poor that have NOTHING to do with the LCWR and are not in any danger of leaving the Faith.

      May 31, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  13. Child of (Project) Apollo

    Those nuns could be pretty tough back in the day, but in my years at a Catholic grade school they always had incredible integrity and dedication, so they earned my lasting respect. Shame on the Church for picking on them!

    May 31, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • abc

      It's a problem with a particular group - the LCWR - that is the problem. There are good nuns/sisters affiliated with orders that are affiliated with the LCWR. But certainly not all orders (especially the most vibrant and growing) are affiliated with the LCWR and have absolutely nothing to do with this fight - except showing the heterodox LCWR a better way: truly faithful and selfless service.

      May 31, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  14. carlyjanew6


    May 31, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  15. tradcatholic

    They should all put their habits back on and do what they're told. The Catholic Church is not a democracy and shouldn't be. If they want to do what they want to do, not what the Church wants them to do, let them leave. They can always become Protestants. Pretty much anything goes there.

    May 31, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Boo Dah

      Lay off the nuns. They're a cool bunch of chicks. Why should they take lip from anyone but Moses and Jezuz!

      May 31, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      I think that is a great idea. 57,000 less nuns would do the CC a world of good.

      May 31, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Andrew Protestant(Lutheran)

      Would you care to expand on that"pretty much anything goes" comment about Protestantism. Not all protestant doctrine is as you describe.

      May 31, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • abc

      I would assume he or she refers to the 32,000 different Protestant denominations that continuously splinter and divide over matters of doctrine and/or discipline.

      May 31, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  16. Master of All and Pope of none

    Church doctrine and policies change with each newly elected pope. From the time of the Spanish inquisition up unitl the present, the church has varied its stance on social issues. Since its a church of humans and humans are fallable, this movement reeks of desperation and the loss of control. Jesus hung with sinners and ministered to the poor. Perhaps the Catholic Church needs to look back upon his teachings and focus on helping others versus dictating edicts and limiting the roles of women in the church. This is not the 16th century. Women deserve a role and a voice in the church. It almost
    makes me want to join the protestants.

    May 31, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • CP

      You lack a fundamental understanding of the Catholic faith. The leadership can change anything they desire but cannot change rules established by GOD! Therefore, before you gerneralize that the Catholic church can change their position on rules, understand which ones were created by man and which rules were dictated by God!

      May 31, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • abc

      Doctrine doesn't change but doctrine does develop. An oak sapling is an oak tree and two hundred years later though it has fully developed and grown it is still an oak tree.

      Disciplines can change. Policies or emphases can change. There's nothing problematic about that unless you are confusing discipline with doctrine.

      The Church needs to focus on helping others? She doesn't? I take it you are a member of your local St. Vincent de Paul Society or volunteer with Catholic Charities or any of the other myriad organizations that serve the poor through the Church as you express such a concern for serving the poor.

      May 31, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  17. asdf

    "CRAZY" horse, if I brought up some bad childhood memories for you I do apologize.

    May 31, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Boo Dah

      These priests need to go back to the bath houses and chase naked little boys and leave the american nuns alone. I so love Whoopi in Sister Act. She's ok in my book!

      May 31, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  18. Mike Mazzla

    The Catholic Church ..and religion in general is a dying brand. The average age of a nun is 70 lol. look at the demographics of priests...the demos of those who actually go to church etc. Then you get the freaks you see on TV sunday mornings actually listening to Charlatans like "preachers" which shows a lack of intelligence of those that are attending. It may take some time but the writing on the wall is there..Religion is dying..at least in the traditional sense.

    May 31, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • ProfEmeritus

      Look more carefully, Mike. Religion happens to be growing in non-European areas. The rumors of the death of religion are greatly exaggerated.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  19. biggal195

    All I have to say is, "The butler did it." 🙂 LOL

    May 31, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  20. Crazyhorse

    Would it make a more compelling story to say that these 'nuns' are attempting to handle their disagreements through the news media? I mean, didn't they take a vow of obedience?

    May 31, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Master of All and Pope of none

      At least the nuns didn's shuffle pedophile priests from parish too parish. Then for decades hide misconduct and illegal activity which was fully known by the vatican. While thousands of parish members suffered the consequences of non action. Its the news media which brought pedophilia to the forefront and pointed out the Church's misconduct!!

      May 31, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • sam

      Vow of obedience to God. God is on the side of the nuns. God does not stand with a catholic church mired in human sin.

      May 31, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Realitycheck

      Nuns took a vow of obedience to serve a church doing the work of God, so to speak. If the church isn't doing the work of God anymore, then all bets are off. The vow is null and void. In the end, the truth will set you free, as the saying goes.

      May 31, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Les

      Master of no one:

      Drop it. You are a cad. If you are going to spout utter nonsense then it would be better to condemn the ev(il)angelicans that tell their congregations that murdering people is OK and demanding justice for the thousands of child brides and spousal ra-pe and abuse that conservative ev(il)angelicans seem to excel at. Time to get aclue or STFU.

      May 31, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
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.