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. Seenthisbefore

    Oh God, is the Catholic Church gonna have to admit that the world is round again? Yeah they will admit women have equal rights. About 300 years from now.

    May 30, 2012 at 11:05 pm |
    • Cowboy


      Did you know that in 300 years our technology will be insane?1?1? For instance, my mechanical bull right now will probably be completely different in 300 years! I highly doubt you'll see what it's like 300 years from now but good luck pahtna!!

      May 30, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
  2. Joe

    Time for all the gays and fundies (mostly both) to go Catholic bashing while pretending they're enlightened scientists.

    May 30, 2012 at 10:53 pm |
  3. SmartPotato

    The Vatican is trying to control their women? This is news?

    May 30, 2012 at 10:51 pm |
  4. JimT

    "Babylon The Great" aka one of the world religions that have been misleaing the nations is in its death throws. Bring on armageon!

    May 30, 2012 at 10:42 pm |
    • duce

      'armageon?' Yes, let's all listen to this guy!!!

      May 30, 2012 at 11:17 pm |
  5. Witness

    The Catholic Church is a fraud. They call into question whether people are diverted from God by religious establishments. The Church does not add value to worship. Rather, it is a vulgar distraction.

    May 30, 2012 at 10:33 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      there was a typo in that, but i got you, should read:

      "All religion is a vulgar distraction."

      May 30, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
    • ChicagoLoop

      The biggest fraud to ever hit mankind on a global scale! Just think of the horrific damage it has done to cultures throughout the world. The Vatican is disgusting – bilking poor people for money, while the lazy sloths dress-up in their Batman robes and walk about in grandiose, dramatic fashion in their cathedrals and churches. Unfortunately, the joke is on the people who follow these low-lifes. The good news is that the church membership continues to dwindle globally.

      May 30, 2012 at 10:59 pm |
  6. Descarado

    Is CNN where all the evangelical atheists congregate?

    May 30, 2012 at 10:31 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      christians hate facts. fact.

      May 30, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
    • zach bundy

      no, it's just that atheists are the loudest. the everyday christian american just wants to read the news and mind their own business. They don't want to make very broad and insane statements about anything, they just live life the way the want to.

      May 30, 2012 at 10:59 pm |
    • duce

      Zach Bundy must live in one of the few places where proselytizing doesn't occur...

      May 30, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
  7. msadr

    If they broke free of the Vatican, I would join them myself.

    May 30, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      i would join them too, but perhaps for different reasons...

      May 30, 2012 at 10:28 pm |
  8. Alan

    Good riddance......not adhering to the laws of the church would make it irrelevant......Whether a priest, nun or layperson a
    Catholics first duty is to uphold it's dogma.

    May 30, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      especially in the face of facts and evidence! long live ignorance!!!

      May 30, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
    • Joe

      @Bootyfunk LOL, Bootyfunk the scientist. I might fall out of my chair, I haven't laughed so hard all day.

      May 30, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
    • LouAZ

      Did the catholic pedopriest create doggie style dogma for little boys ?

      May 31, 2012 at 12:07 am |
  9. srichey321

    Religion is merely a political tool invented by men to benefit men and to keep women in their place. Common sense and science left religion behind over a century ago.

    May 30, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
    • ChicagoLoop

      I agree.

      May 30, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
  10. f. carter

    to the US Nuns: love it or leave it........................or join and other church, or formed your own church, that iswhat the protestants did?....you ever heard of Martin Luther mother?

    May 30, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      Martin Luther? the guy who's writings were used to justify the slaughter of Jews by Hitler? yeah, i remember that guy. he really, really hated Jews.

      May 30, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
  11. steve

    Here we go again...CNN picking on the docile Catholic Church. They love to dig up dirt about the Church. Hey, I've got an idea about a topic for this worthless news station...How about doing a negative story about the muslim religion. They could say something against the Qur'an. Or would that have too much of a back-lash? Nah, maybe a story about the Amish is more in line for CNN...

    May 30, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
    • fail

      you fail

      May 30, 2012 at 10:23 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      "CNN picking on the docile Catholic Church."

      LOL at 'docile'.

      May 30, 2012 at 10:24 pm |
    • srichey321

      I never thought I would read the words "docile" and "Catholic Church" in the same sentence. Congratulations for helping to achieve the impossible.

      May 30, 2012 at 10:28 pm |
    • mandarax

      "docile" – ha, at first I thought steve was being sarcastic.

      May 30, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
  12. catholic engineer

    That photo is very misleading. I guess for CNN, any nun will do. After Vatican II, many nuns became feminists, ditched the habit, and started wearing knee length dresses. You couldn't tell them from any other woma; zeitgiest nuns.

    May 30, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      LOL @ 'feminists". yeah, they really became feminists. instead of living in the dark ages as the church demands, the nuns want to live in the 1700's. talk about radical feminists!

      May 30, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
    • Matthew Spencer

      You are correct: that picture is very misleading.

      The picture above the article is displaying a group of Catholic sisters (Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist) that never belonged to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, but instead started the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious because they disagreed with the values of the LCWR.

      May 30, 2012 at 10:38 pm |
    • ChicagoLoop

      LOL I agree with BootyFunk! The Catholic church has always been and will always be about controlling people, oppressing women, and advocating a patriarchal society. It's time for the Catholic church to be dismantled in order for the human race to prosper, grow, and reach its true pinnacle where all people are held in equal regard. Good riddance to Catholicism.

      May 30, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
  13. Charles

    Fine. Then let the Church leave America. Forever.

    May 30, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
    • Jimmy G.

      Please do! That would be such a blessing to America that I can hardly put it into words! The RCC needs to get out of the USA!

      May 30, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
    • lilyq


      May 30, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
    • ChicagoLoop

      @Charles: An EXCELLENT IDEA!

      May 30, 2012 at 10:51 pm |
  14. John in Snyrna

    Will America's nuns resign en masse? Will anybody else notice or care?

    May 30, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
    • missmusic98

      The people they serve every day will notice and care. Who in the Church is out there carrying out the actual message of service, especially to the poor, everyday if not the nuns? Priests aren't, the Pope isn't, Catholic school teacher's don't. The people who will suffer are the people already suffering.

      May 30, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
  15. Reggie

    Abandoning wearing the habit is a slippery slope. If it were only a matter of clothing, then it wouldn't matter at all. But the reality is that wearing the habit is itself a ritual.

    May 30, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
    • Jimmy G.

      Just like the magic underwear of the Mormons. Yes.

      They are a cult of Pharisees! They worship tradition, dress up in gaudy expensive clothes and march around, making arbitrary rules and regulations about every little thing, thinking if they do these things and make magical gestures that this somehow "cleanses" the outside of the cup, yet Jesus already knew of their type of priest in the old days, speaking against Pharisees for doing the exact same things the Catholics have been doing for centuries.
      They are filled with filth, yet continue to polish the outside and outward seemings of their religion for all to see!
      They make loud prayers with as much pomp and pageantry as they can devise, choosing always to avoid dealing with the truth of what they do.

      Pharisees. They are nothing more than criminals in white crinkly clothes, always ready to cover up their crimes no matter how grossly heinous or outrageous...all for the sake of appearances.

      It's all in their decrees, pontifications, rules, advisories, catechisms and all the rest of it. There is proof a-plenty that they are more concerned with appearances than in fighting evil or righting wrongs.

      Give me the resources and I'll have them all garroted and their heads decorating the outer walls as soon as humanly possible! They do not deserve to live, much less continue to get away with their horrific crimes against humanity and all those millions, even billions, of defenseless children throughout their history!!

      May 30, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      have you seen nun's beach wear? man, saw this hawt nun in a 2 piece with a habit that barely covered her hair!

      May 30, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
  16. RZ70

    The idea of a smaller more focused church is probably the right move. It's not that many of the 'modern' views have no place in church, they just came on faster than the church could assimilate them.
    It's interesting that the Catholic Church always clings to the idea that God's word is always the same as it ever was, but ignored the idea that humanity is not. Maybe some of the original notions about "a woman's place" don't belong in the modern world. It doesn't mean that God was wrong. Maybe it just means than humankind is starting to get it right. God may be a constant, but from the day the apple was bitten, we have not been.

    May 30, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
    • InnerState

      Yours is the most intelligent comment I've read all evening. Thank you for saying that aloud.

      May 30, 2012 at 10:58 pm |
  17. Ima Mused

    You go, girls! Most of the nuns I know are treated like second-class citizens. I applaud their decision to stay true to their vows when the Church they have dedicated their life to serve treats them in such an unchristian manner.

    May 30, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
  18. mickey1313

    What is the easiest way to get a nun pregnant? Dress them up like an alter boy.

    May 30, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
    • really

      What's the easiest way to find pathetic bigots? Post a story about Catholics.

      May 30, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
  19. catholic engineer

    All priests take vows of obedience. One bishop is supposed to have said ' sure let's ordain women, but let's reject the first thousand applicants'. These of course would have been the prestige seeking feminists whose vows of obedience would be worthless.

    May 30, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Prestige seeking Priests rejecting prestige seeking feminists. Don't Priests take a vow of celebacy? Just curious ..

      May 30, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
    • ןןɐq ʎʞɔnq

      Diocesan priests take no vows. Catholics don't know sh1t about their cult.

      May 30, 2012 at 11:08 pm |
  20. Out of the kitchen, into the driver's seat

    "The Vatican office that issued the assessment said it was a first step in reforming American nuns... "

    In other words, putting them back in lockstep with outdated and archaic church policy controlled by the men.

    May 30, 2012 at 9:54 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.