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. One one

    God wants our worship and love it seems.
    But he only appears to us in our dreams.
    You can pray for his help, but don’t hold your breath.
    For his plan for you is your inevitable death.
    They claim if you believe, you’re heaven bound.
    But a witness for this has never been found.
    No guarantees for this claim, now THAT’s a sin.
    So don’t take the bait and get hooked and reeled in.

    May 30, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
    • Colin

      cool post

      May 30, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
    • TC

      Baseless post with intent to cause chaos. Very sad the bigotry and hatred.

      May 30, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
    • Godzilla

      [stomps on TC with a smile]

      Great song! It almost sounds like the Beverly Hillbillies theme!

      May 30, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
  2. mac101

    The question isn't whether or not the nuns will leave the Catholic church – the question is why did they stay so long? And in terms of being obsolete, it is the priesthood, with its profound excesses of pedophilia and gross misuse of power, that needs reform, not the sisters.

    It isn't the ladies that have made a mess of things, fellas.

    May 30, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
  3. TC

    If you are not Catholic and have never studied Catholicism, your post here is probably either derogatory, offensive or not applicable. You should ask yourself why you are here – unless you obviously know you are here to cause chaos.

    May 30, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
    • Colin

      I can only speak for myself, but Ipost to expose young minds to the sheer absurdity of Catholicism and religion in general and help them rise above it. That is the beauty of the internet, priests etc. can no longer shield impressionable young minds from contrary views.

      May 30, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
    • TC

      So you are a self-professed know-it-all that cannot tolerate others' views and are compelled to spread chaos. You know nothing of catholicism, yet you spew bile. Even atheists can be compassionate and humane – you should consider where your motivation derives from.

      May 30, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
    • Godzilla

      TC, you are obviously here as a paid or unpaid lying catholic apologist....

      Since your god does not exist, it is humourous to think you would waste your time here defending a myth.

      May 30, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
    • LouAZ

      I have studied Catholism . . . it made me puke !

      May 30, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
  4. Bootyfunk

    how do you get a nun pregnant?

    dress her up like an altar boy.

    May 30, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  5. midogs2

    No, nuns are lesbians. It's a habit.

    May 30, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
  6. Bootyfunk

    women. how can you be a part of Catholicism? they hate you.

    May 30, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
  7. The One True God

    Paraphrasing one nun who had the right idea:

    American nuns are organized as a democracy; the Vatican is an absolute monarchy.

    May 30, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • Bob

      Let's be honest–dictatorship

      May 30, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
  8. Norma Williams

    Nuns are field workers, just as Christ was a field worker. I am sure they tell poor sinners the true Gospel behavior, but when we sin, the field workers are there to pick us up and mop up the mess. The nuns will probably pray on it and pass out more church literatrure, but in the end they will stay with the church and continue the hard field work of the church.

    May 30, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • ןןɐq ʎʞɔnq

      ^^^ like

      May 30, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      so such thing as sin.

      May 30, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • ןןɐq ʎʞɔnq

      let them clean. they don't care, or need, to fight over the details, unlike the ole guys. 🙂

      May 30, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
  9. Colin

    Ya gotta love it when a Catholic scorns you with the admonition that you will "go to hell" .

    The myth of hell is one of my favorite Catholic superst.itions. Think it through. I don't have to kill, I don't have to steal, hell, I don't even have to litter. All I have to do is have a reasonable, honest and rational disbelief in the Christian god and he will inflict a grotesque penalty upon me an infinite times worse than the death penalty. And he loves me.

    That is the problem with using the same deity to be both the carrot and the stick. It gets really silly really quickly.

    Let's subject this "cherished Catholic doctrine" to the probing light of say.......fifth grade mathematics.

    Approximately one hundred and ten thousand million (110,000,000,000) people have lived on Earth. Given all those who have, over the centuries, rejected the Christian god, or who have otherwise committed mortal sins, there must be literally thousands of millions of people burning for all eternity in the cosmic oven of hell set up by your all-loving god. Some must have been burning for thousands of years by now.

    About 100,000 people die every day. There must be a constant stream of thousands of forlorn souls every day into the one way pit of hell your all-merciful god set up and maintains.

    But, far, far worse than sheer overwhelming numbers is the extent of the punishment. There is no way out, no parole, no time off for good behavior. You don’t just burn, you burn for all eternity. Billions of people and thousands of daily new arrivals burning for all eternity!

    No criminal justice system in the history of the Human race, even those established by the most despotic of tyrants, comes close to matching the unfathomable barbarity of your “infinitely benevolent” god. I don’t have to kill, I don’t have to steal, hell I don’t even have to litter. All I have to do is have an reasonable, honest and rational disbelieve in the Christian god and it will impose a penalty on me an infinite times worse than the death penalty.

    Hitler murdered six million Jews in his concentration camps, but compared to your god, Hitler was a bleeding-hearted wimp. A goose-stepping girlie-man. Your all-caring god not only burns billions more than Hitler, Pol Pot and all other dictators and tyrants added up, he keeps doing so to them for all eternity! I would not wish a bad sunburn on a person simply because they have a different religion to me, let alone fry them for ever.

    It is also odd that your all-loving god is also all-knowing and knows which souls will go to hell before they do. He even knows it before they are born, and yet he still creates them. He is worse than a psychopathic teenager than breeds litter after litter of kittens so he can slowly roast them in ovens.

    How they believe this utter garbage in the 21st century eludes me.

    May 30, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • Nah

      First, you're resorting to ad hominems again. Tsk tsk, colin.

      Second, you're mischaracterizing religious doctrine, but that's fine because the validity of a particular religious belief has no bearing on the existence of a god, or on the validity of religion in general.

      Third, you're mistaking, again, what is considered "justice" (i.e., putting a murderer in prison) with wanton destruction (i.e., killing an innocent person). For religion, sending someone to hell is merely an exercise in just deserts. Hence, their views are internally consistent. The mere fact that you dislike their views says nothing about whether or not they're true.

      May 30, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
    • Colin

      For religion, sending someone to hell is merely an exercise in just deserts"

      And what possible action would justify doing this to billions of human beings for all eternity? I would not wish a bad sunburn upon a person for refsing to believe what I said.

      May 30, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
    • Colin

      it is also totally inconsistent with the idae of a loving god. No loving god could do this. A glaring inconsistency.

      May 30, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      you can be tortured in hell in ways you never could on earth. you can't die - where you gonna go? so while beheading would end torture on earth, it doesn't in hell. you feel it when your eyes are pulled out and your whole body burns. death is not a release in hell. you can feel a kind of pain you can't possibly feel on earth. all this because i don't believe in a deity.

      but don't forget, god loves you!

      May 30, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
    • Arrowsmith

      You are not describing Catholic theology, more like fundamentalst evangelicalism. You show very little knowledge of true Catholic theology.
      "There are less than one hundred people in this country that hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they incorrectly believe the Catholic Church to teach." - Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

      May 30, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • Colin

      Arrowsmith, you are not seriously going to tell me that the existence of hell is not a core Catholic belief??

      May 30, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • Peick

      Colin: Sounds like you believe in justice. Hmm. If there is justice, then there must be a code. If there is a code and it is not totally subjective to you, then someone must have given that code.

      Questions: Who gave the code? If the code is violated, should there be enforcement or not?

      Second question: You clearly have no interest in the Christian God. So why on earth would you want to spend eternity with him? If he is all there is, then where else have you to go by rejecting him? Hell is the state of being cut off from the God who gives all good things. So if you don't want any part of him, where else can you go?

      May 30, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • Fly Swatter

      Might have to put the swatter down and go for the spray bottle. Thinnk?

      May 30, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
  10. Lydia

    Thank you LizzieB that was well put!

    May 30, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
  11. jimmyc

    Hey yknow what else nuns don't do? F*** little boys

    May 30, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
  12. inewt

    Nuns should break from the Catholic church and start their own, take at least half the revenue away from the vatican and reinvent religion for the 21st century. Let the pope iron his own dresses.

    May 30, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
  13. madonfan

    Please listen. Peter was married. Mary called Jesus her "Savior" which makes her a sinner like everyone else. Peter was crucified on a cross and by no means established the Catholic Church. If everyone would open their eyes and see that if you just take a bible, open it, and read it, you will see that God called for no denominations. If you just read it, absorb it, and allow it to lead your life, that is what will bear fruit and lead you to a lasting relationship with Christ. Why would Jesus have died on a cross to pay the eternal penalty of sin if He was going to continue that we practice what Catholics call "penance" which no matter how you slice it, means "punishment". God says there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. REPENTANCE not PENANCE. It is a slap in the face to Christ to practice penance. It is saying His death wasn't good enough to atone for our sins. Now, are there amazing people serving in the Catholic Church? YES THERE IS! Do they belong there? NO THEY DON"T! They need to get out of the curtain of bondage pressed upon them by the Catholic Church. People seem to think the only way to the Father is through Catholicism. NOT TRUE TO ANY DEGREE.

    May 30, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • ןןɐq ʎʞɔnq

      Where exactly did Mary call him her savior ?

      May 30, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • madonfan

      Luke 1:47: And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. God and Jesus are one in the same. No where in the bible does it say to pray to Mary, and it also does not put her into any special form to be worshipped by Christians. Jesus also had siblings. Mary was not a perpetual virgin. The bible also does not mention purgatory. It says "To be absent with the body is to be present with the Lord". Jesus told the thief on the cross that he would be in paradise with Him that day. There are so many people leaving the Catholic faith because of it's inconsistency and just flat out false teachings.

      May 30, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • Squish

      Or, you can "open your eyes" and see that living your life based off an out-dated book of fish stories is utterly insane.
      "F" religion. Treat people how you want to be treated! You don't need a friggin book or church to live that.

      May 30, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • ןןɐq ʎʞɔnq


      They used it. Get over it.

      Hannah also prayed and said,

      "My heart exults in the LORD;
      my strength is exalted in the LORD.
      My mouth derides my enemies,
      because I rejoice in thy salvation.
      [2] "There is none holy like the LORD,
      there is none besides thee;
      there is no rock like our God.
      [3] Talk no more so very proudly,
      let not arrogance come from your mouth;
      for the LORD is a God of knowledge,
      and by him actions are weighed.
      [4] The bows of the mighty are broken,
      but the feeble gird on strength.
      [5] Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
      but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger.
      The barren has borne seven,
      but she who has many children is forlorn.
      [6] The LORD kills and brings to life;
      he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
      [7] The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
      he brings low, he also exalts.
      [8] He raises up the poor from the dust;
      he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
      to make them sit with princes
      and inherit a seat of honor.
      For the pillars of the earth are the LORD'S,
      and on them he has set the world.
      [9] "He will guard the feet of his faithful ones;
      but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;
      for not by might shall a man prevail.
      [10] The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces;
      against them he will thunder in heaven.
      The LORD will judge the ends of the earth;
      he will give strength to his king,
      and exalt the power of his anointed."

      May 30, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • Jack

      Blah, blah, blah.

      May 30, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
    • madonfan

      Squish. The whole rule about "treating others the way you want to be treated" came from biblical principles. Do you think we were all born inherently good and became evil? We got our basic precepts from somewhere. God that's who!

      May 30, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
  14. Paris

    "I converted to the catholic faith 18 years ago."

    I'm sorry for you.

    May 30, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
  15. Bad Religion

    I have a much higher regard for nuns than any male member of the clergy or any member directly in contact with the papacy. At least the nuns are out doing something and helping communities, unlike most priests. I happen to be a man btw.

    May 30, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • DeadGuy

      I guess I'm just curious how you know what most priests do?!?


      May 30, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
  16. Mighty Lizard Man


    May 30, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • Godzilla


      May 30, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
  17. Patiat

    In a few generations we'll all be Mormons anyway, believing in golden tablets from upstate New York as though there were no possible way the story couldn't be true. Things change, decay and die. And so it is with the Catholic Church.

    May 30, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • Layne

      History teaches us that yesterday's cults are today's mainstream religions, and yesterday's mainstream religions are today's mythologies. As weird as it sounds, you may be right.

      May 30, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
  18. YBP

    If any of the clergy is going to leave the church, they are first ging to have to muster up a bit of self-esteem, and a whole lot of courage to live in the real world (which includes paying for food and rent). I would mention education, but they are already highly educated. And they know quite well that the religion is a wholesale scam.

    May 30, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
  19. LizzieB

    I converted to the catholic faith 18 years ago.
    What i am sick and tired of is the rusted, rotten, hateful, wicked politics, backstabbing, financial mismanagement, infighting and every time you think the last priest has been caught in abuse, like bad mushrooms, another one raises to the surface.
    The faith police is not only on a global level, but all the way down to the parishes. Probably because humans are running them.
    Nuns have done their jobs without nearly the compensation of priests, the retirement benefits, the parish bought cars. Many Nuns keep civilian jobs in various professions to pay for their expenses such as housing, clothing and food.
    I am at a point where i feel like a defeatist for leaving the good people who have supported me in so many ways and have become good friends. I don't blame the Nuns if they walk out. They would make awesome pastors in other denominations any day,just have never been given the opportunity. They are the true faith keepers in our parishes while constantly turning the other cheek.
    Any takers? Fully trained cathechist, active in many non profits, somewhat liberal, loving person, free to good faith community...

    May 30, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • puckles

      Get a grip, lady! The entire Catholic church is an abomination on the face of the earth.

      May 30, 2012 at 7:14 pm |

      Lizzy Bordon got an axe
      And gave her Mother forty wacks
      And when the job was nicely done
      She gave her Father forty-one

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

      Yeah, I agree with you on the abuse... If only they wouldn't let gay men into the church as priests...


      May 30, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
    • perrrob

      All religions are an abomination.

      May 30, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  20. The Flamingo Kid

    Nuns are scary lezbos.

    May 30, 2012 at 7:07 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.