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. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    They should just nail their resignations to the Vatican's door and, in true Martin Luther fashion, start the Lilithian church.

    May 30, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
    • Jimmy G.

      If they do, I certainly hope they will have better taste than to use your suggestion for a name, CS.

      It would be fun to think up names for them, but I doubt they will leave.

      "Rogue Nuns of the Apocalypse"!!! There's a good one!
      "Hippie Chicks of Jesus"!!
      "Sisters of Holy Apostacy for Jesus"!
      "Sister-wife Heretics of Jesus the Massaginist"!
      oh i give up

      May 30, 2012 at 10:38 pm |
  2. frann

    This article speaks of the 'American Nun' when it only describes and quotes the most liberal segment of them. Those orders are dying out, as the should. It is particularly rediculous that the accompaning picture shows an orthodox dominican sister, whose order is exploding with new vocations. Not impressive CNN!

    May 30, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
    • Puzzled in Peoria

      Large numbers of new vocations for women today come from Africa, where young women choose becoming a nun as a way to escape crushing poverty and to get an education. Most American young women have decided that they can have a secular career and still serve God well, without the authoritarianism of the Vatican.

      May 30, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
  3. Nala

    The reproductive doctrines of this church promote overpopulation and, and as a result, famine and disease, in some of the most desperate areas of the world. And they do it in the name of god, and to pump up their membership rolls.

    I doubt the nuns will prevail against the mysogynist monolith that is the Vatican, but it would be nice to see them make at least a small dent before their kind goes the way of the dinosaur.

    May 30, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
  4. Rodger Crowe

    I hope the nuns will do whatever feels right for them...especially standing up to the evil and mean men who have ruled and corrupted the Catholic Church for centuries.

    May 30, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
  5. Ken Margo

    Even Nuns are getting tired of the catholic church's crap about roles for women. The world is evolving and leaving religion behind is a wonderful thing. The best thing to do now is to vote out the the religious whack jobs (democrat or republican) and get people in there who want to solve the problems the world is facing.

    May 30, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
  6. Lol

    If the Catholic church had to give back everything it has stolen, the Pope and his cronies would be living in cardboard boxes in some alley.

    May 30, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
  7. steve

    I say let the Feminist Nuns go! The Pope is right. Its better to have a smaller and purer Church than to have to suffer the contamination of vocations lacking in loyalty to the Church! Heck, there are thousands of Protestant Cults and Sects out there willing to accept anyone who disagrees with the only Church that Jesus Christ ever started, The Most Holy Roman and Apostolic Church.

    May 30, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
  8. minhajarifin

    The image accompanying this news item is beautiful. I like the way the long lean shadows are falling creating stripes of dark and light on the floor.

    Minhaj Arifin
    Author of
    How Desis Became The Greatest Nation On Earth

    May 30, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
  9. costarika

    Where's the report and investigation on all the Pedophile Priests?? How many have been reported in total? What
    was done? Is there discrimination here? Don't you think harming children for life is a little more serious than Nouns
    being too involved with social justice!!?? Behaviors like these continue to make the Catholic Church look bad.
    A good start is to allow Priests and Nuns to marry.

    May 30, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
  10. Joe Gila

    Faithful Catholics would LOVE to see the heterodox nuns resign en masse but they have been living on the gravy train too long. They are long in the tooth and NO new women are joining them. However the ORTHODOX orders (those that wear habits and LOVE the Church) are THRIVING !!!

    May 30, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
    • Jimmy G.

      They only appear to be thriving because they are closing so many convents and consolidating the nuns.
      They are doing this with universities too. All the money is probably going into a Swiss bank account.
      Swiss mercenary guards have been guarding the Vatican for centuries. I'm sure they've got plenty of money and don't really need to liquidate unless they have a plan to use the money somehow...and, no, it would not be used to help people.

      May 30, 2012 at 10:44 pm |
  11. JC

    Brides of Christ? You know, I'm not positive, but I don't remember that poor bugger asking to be married to any women at all. I mean, given what his mom pulled, he probably had his reasons. The only thing these poor mind-washed women demonstrate is the degree to which people who fail at life are drawn to extremes. The whole thing smacks of cult behavior. You want a real revolution for women in religious vocations? Heed God's last certain message to his creation: Try using your damned brains once in a while.

    May 30, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      Jesus hung out with 12 dudes, never got with a woman, had wash board abs and long hair...

      g.ay much?

      May 30, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
  12. NotSoHumblePie

    I used to be Catholic, then I awoke from my parents' dream. I'm okay now, thanks.

    May 30, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      I think you meant your parents' nightmare.

      May 30, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
  13. Diane

    This saddens me in so very many ways. How can a debate about how a nun should serve God turn into a debate about the validity of Christianity or religion in general? I'll admit that I did not read every comment but the ones I did read seemed to miss the point. Maybe that's more a comment on society as a whole and less a comment on religion.

    The Catholic Church may be at the center of the story but this story reflects so much of what I see around me. We would rather yell about abortion and gay rights that face the pain of hunger, homelessness, and need. How many choose to quietly face the needs of others? Even in a recession, we have forgotten those less fortunate. Their voices have nearly been lost in the screaming about gay rights and abortion. Even our politicians would rather get elected on arguements over these issues rather than proving themselves to be compassionate human beings concerned about their fellow humans. Social justice is losing ground to more 'interesting' political issues in all areas. The Catholic Church is just the face of this problem at this time.

    Personally, if a nun would rather serve in a soup kitchen that lead a protest against abortion, I'm thrilled. God love you Sister. You are more Christ-like that many I know and I wish I were able to love as well as you. You are truly my hero.

    May 30, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
  14. Ahahahahaha!!!

    Ahahahaha the Catholic church is dying hahahahahaha!

    May 30, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
    • Joe Gila

      Looks like CNN is dying ! "
      CNN's ratings problems just keep getting worse.The network had its lowest-rated month in over a decade in April. That prompted stern warnings from the top that CNN has to improve its numbers.
      Yet Tuesday brought the dispiriting news that CNN had its lowest-rated week in primetime in a staggering 20 years last week. Just 395,000 people tuned in to watch Anderson Cooper and Piers Morgan. The total day numbers were not much better: CNN had its third-worst week since 1997."

      May 31, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
  15. A Sepent's Thought

    Change is the pretense of wants and decisions summonized leavening. The average age of nuns is quite high and not many new young converts as late. Who will be left of USA's nunneries in say 20 or so yeas down the oad?

    May 30, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
    • A Sepent's Thought

      years down the road

      May 30, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
  16. JWDT

    The question these Religious Women really need to answer is do they really believe in What the Catholic Church Teaches, Affirms and Asks of them as Religious Nuns. I am certain a lot of this dissent began in the 1940's & 50's, and became evident in the 1960's especially after Vatican II. I for one am ashamed these Nuns are acting like disobedient children, yes they have right to be heard, just like the rest of the Laity. They do NOT have the Right to go and do as they please and still call themselves Roman Catholics'. This goes for dissenting Politicians, Prelates, Priests, male or female religious or even Laity. The Purging that will hopefully come during Benedicts' Reign is long anticipated and prayed for, because I as a Practicing Roman Catholic am disgusted and sick of these misguided people running around calling themselves Roman Catholics.

    May 30, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
    • begreen3850

      So you are saying its ok to abandoned the poor, the sick, the weak. The mission Jesus tasked his Church to perform.

      You are not a Christian. You don't believe in Jesus Christ.

      May 30, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
    • Jen

      Right, but it is okay for priests who r-pe children to call themselves Roman Catholic, all the while receiving full support from Benedict.

      May 30, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
    • Joe Gila

      AMEN !!!! Not too many orthodox Catholics on this site but then again CNN is at it's LOWEST ratings in 20 years......Most of the venal comments indicate what kind of people CNN caters to.

      May 30, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
  17. Descarado

    Is Mr. Marrapod sharing a crack pipe with Obama?

    May 30, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
  18. Clyde Burgoon-Clark

    The fourth Konservative Kristianist Krazy (KKK) "preacher" has called for the killing of gay people ... that's in Leviticus. Problem is, there are people out there dumb enough to take the preachers up on their advice.

    May 30, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
  19. MandoZink

    I was taught by nuns in the 60's. They were terrifying. They were totally out of touch and full of paranoid misinformation. I was threatened and punished for things I did not do. You eventually realize that they became nuns because they were totally unfit to face the real world, so they find the rationale to join the monastic community and become the punishing hand of god.

    They actually helped me out a great deal. I am now an empathetic and compassionate atheist, who understands the irrationality and danger of inherited religious belief.

    May 30, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
    • Frank

      Congratulations. There are so many more who are still imprisoned by this cult.

      May 30, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
    • NotSoHumblePie

      I believe in God, I merely lost faith in the Holy Roman Catholic Church. No regrets, not a one. I was Saved.

      May 30, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
    • Howard Feinski

      A 'cult' is not what you think it is. Cult:
      1. a particular system of religious worship, especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies.
      2. an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, especially as manifested by a body of admirers: the physical fitness cult.
      3. the object of such devotion.
      4. a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.
      5. Sociology . a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols.

      May 30, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
    • Gerry

      I'm grateful to nuns also because they made me read the bible. I went to Catholic School for my entire schooling. Statistically, more atheists have actually read the bible than people who claim to believe in the bible. Well I'm another. I read the bible cover to cover and realized that it is the biggest load of total garbage imaginable. It freed me from the mind numbing, irrational hypocritical nonsense that is Catholicism and all organized religion. Thank you nuns.

      May 30, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
  20. Moe Smith

    If they were to follow the bible as blindly as they preach, then the nuns would do nothing more than accept the treatment because nuns, like all women as the bible teaches, are chattel... they are property. the bible says so. property does not argue with its owner. property does as it is told. the bible declares it.

    oh wait... we are talking about the church that only pays attention to the parts that benefits it most in the moment.... nevermind.

    May 30, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
    • Jo Gordon

      Check book please?

      May 30, 2012 at 9:23 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.