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. RUBY

    the great harlot is going down!

    May 31, 2012 at 2:37 am |
  2. chosen2

    Humble yourself under the mighty hand of God and He will exalt you in due time = every thing is His will, He rules over the kingdom of man. Jesus Christ = The power and wisdom of God.
    Get some free water @ http://www.chosen2salvation.net

    May 31, 2012 at 2:31 am |
    • sam stone

      spend your life on your knees and you will get a reward....eventually......maybe

      May 31, 2012 at 5:06 am |
  3. raforrester

    I suggest the nuns investigate the White Robed Monks of St. Benedict for an example of what they seem to be trying to do. That order is made up of priests who have left the Catholic Church behind and now live ordinary lives just ministering to the people without judgment and without inflicting fear upon them. As an ex-Catholic, I believe that the primary tool the Church uses to keep Catholics in line is fear.

    May 31, 2012 at 2:17 am |
    • HeavenSent

      The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Proverbs 1:7)


      May 31, 2012 at 2:58 am |
    • sam stone

      petty punks find comfort in a petty punk god – sam stone 1:1

      May 31, 2012 at 5:10 am |
    • Primewonk

      @HeavenSent – tît-for-tat – Szilard 88:16 I'm all in favor of the democratic principle that one idiot is as good as one genius, but I draw the line when someone takes the next step and concludes that two idiots are better than one genius.

      The Holy Word of the Primewonk Bible.

      May 31, 2012 at 8:47 am |
  4. Martin

    Catholic dogma says that priesthood is only for men. But if we go past that, there is so much more at stake. Dogma doesn't say that women shouldn't have higher positions in the hierarchy, or that decision-making in the church should not be shared with female religious. Or that women cannot give homilies at mass, or that they cannot be in the Congregation of the Protection of Faith. Or that they cannot become Presidents of Catholic universities. Etc. And yet none of these are possible even today. Maybe it's time for Vatican III.

    May 31, 2012 at 2:15 am |
  5. Greenspam

    Even the nuns see through the charade of the male-dominated Catholic Church... why can't Republicans do the same?

    May 31, 2012 at 2:11 am |
    • HeavenSent

      There will be no “gender”in Heaven. In the 3rd earth age (When Jesus returns), it will not be necessary for “mankind” to have a womb to be birthed through. That was only necessary for this 2nd (flesh) earth age (currently where we live today).

      In Heaven, all souls that were not blotted out in the Lake of Fire will reside with the Lord (Revelation 21:3), there will be no one to birth.

      Mark 12:18-27 (Jesus speaking to the Sadducees)

      18 Then come unto him the Sadducees, which say there is no resurrection; and they asked him, saying,
      19 Master, Moses wrote unto us, If a man's brother die, and leave his wife behind him, and leave no children, that his brother should take his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother.
      20 Now there were seven brethren: and the first took a wife, and dying left no seed.
      21 And the second took her, and died, neither left he any seed: and the third likewise.
      22 And the seven had her, and left no seed: last of all the woman died also.
      23 In the resurrection therefore, when they shall rise, whose wife shall she be of them? for the seven had her to wife.
      24 And Jesus answering said unto them, Do ye not therefore err, because ye know not the scriptures, neither the power of God?
      25 For when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven.
      26 And as touching the dead, that they rise: have ye not read in the book of Moses, how in the bush God spake unto him, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?
      27 He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living: ye therefore do greatly err.


      May 31, 2012 at 3:18 am |
  6. CA Liberal

    Ratzi the Nazi strikes again. Leftover mid-evil Pope.

    May 31, 2012 at 2:04 am |
  7. Christopher Hitchens

    Let them resign. It will save the Pope the paperwork for having all the dumb broads excommunicated.

    Nuns went away 40 years ago. A fembot in a habit is not a nun.

    May 31, 2012 at 1:51 am |
    • bp

      You may hide behind the name of a great critic, thinker and wit but through your posts, no one will mistake you for him.

      May 31, 2012 at 1:56 am |
    • RG

      Even though you hide behind the name of a nasty Brit with a huge backside and the brain of a housefly, I must agree. After suffering through the torture of catholic school I do admit there is nothing more terrifying than a bunch of chanting nuns. I'm with the Pope. Kick these Flying Nuns Gone Wild the hell out. Sometimes females forget that Jesus was a MAN. Women exist to serve the MAN. Baloney with cheese and I said NOW! THAT'S RIGHT! Time to take off the dress and let it hang! The Pope is back and he's angry! Run for your lives feminist she-devils! There's party in hell waiting for YOU!

      May 31, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  8. Fritz Hohenheim

    II Timothy clearly states women should shut the frack up and bear children because that is the only way they can redeem themselves and go to heaven, so all you nuns are HEADED FOR HELL!!!!!

    May 31, 2012 at 1:49 am |
  9. Tizimo

    Somewhat perplexing to me about the rebuke is the inclusion of feminism as a problem. Admittedly, the Church is not alone in disliking feminism, and yet it never ceases to astound me when someone, male or female, says "I'm not a feminist..." For some people, feminism is only about promoting "sticking it to the man," man-hate/female supremacy, burning bras, and "pro-abortion." Do certain schools of feminist thought strong proponents of choice? Yes. But that doesn't mean that that's all the movement stands for. The Church can speak out against abortion without denouncing an entire movement. At its core, feminism is about recognizing the equal dignity inherent in men and women and the belief that equal dignity should mean equal worth and treatment. This means that women should have the same opportunities in life, economically, politically, and socially. So really, why isn't the Church, which strongly values the human dignity of both men and women, a supporter of feminism? For that matter, why isn't everyone a feminist?

    May 31, 2012 at 1:43 am |
  10. SoPoJim

    Catholic nuns have to be among the most stupid people of the world because they willingly serve for a private men's club,otherwise known as the Catholic Church. That really is what that religion is,much like the Masters' in golf. The men will make their rules and everyone else can go screw themselves. Women will not EVER be ordained because the men won't give up their power...wake up already!

    May 31, 2012 at 1:33 am |
  11. Dorothy

    The church hierarchy is afraid they won't resign. There is nothing more scary for corruption than reformation from within.

    May 31, 2012 at 1:33 am |
  12. Meh

    Nuns going rogue. Now there's an adult film I'd like to see...

    May 31, 2012 at 1:27 am |
    • The Dude

      It's called "The Sacred Flesh" and is available through Netflix.... I, um, hear.

      May 31, 2012 at 2:03 am |
  13. Dorothy

    Leave it to the hierarchy to scrutinize the one section of the church actually doing good work and living Christ-like lives.

    May 31, 2012 at 1:15 am |
  14. Bazoing

    If the nuns resign the Rome will be able to avoid its obligations to care for a lot of old ladies. They are like a Wall St. business and people are meaningless, as is God, to them.

    May 31, 2012 at 1:09 am |
  15. Derek

    Let me preface this by saying I'm agnostic, so my words might not carry as much weight in the matter. I did grow up christian, however, in Sunday School they never taught much more than "Love Jesus" and told us some of the stories without really explaining the significance. It's only as an adult, long after I've abandoned my religion, that I started reading the Bible and really had the capacity to grasp it. There were many problems I found, yet I had a very strong reaction to it. What Jesus was teaching is amazing.

    It is not, however, convenient. And that is the problem with nearly every christian I've met: they use the Bible at their convenience. They latch on to certain parts, usually to parts the church tells them are important, but forget other parts. Some preach to love and fear God, and then hold contempt for their fellow man because he is a sinner. Some give generously to the church, and then flaunt the status they achieve for it. There are a million examples.

    The catholic church isn't the worst offender, but maybe it is the most wide-spread and obvious. That is not to say catholic's are bad people. It is the structure of the church I'm calling attention to. The higher ranking the official in the church, the more money they make and the more power they have. Jesus denounced both power and money. If a person threatened the pope with a gun, certainly they would be killed. Surely, this is resisting evil, when Jesus told us to turn the other cheek. The pope, has a host of people waiting on him hand and foot. Jesus didn't have servants, he was a servant; he gave to others and kept nothing, not even his own life, for himself. (The apostles were not his servants. As their teacher, he served them)

    So to these nuns who do not wear habits and work in soup kitchens, who serve man as Jesus did and in doing so serve God, I would say this: Cast off the inane hierarchy, the exaltation of men, the pompous tradition, and continue serving God by serving man as Jesus did.

    All this being said: nothing I said comes from a place of hate or contempt. It is merely an observation. I wholly believe in allowing all persons to worship whatever God or gods as they see fit, and if that means adherence to structure, so be it. I would only suggest that Christians, and even non-Christians, read the Bible with their minds cleared of predispositions and see it through their own eyes as though it is completely new.

    May 31, 2012 at 1:01 am |
    • Hazel

      Very well said. Great insight Derek.

      May 31, 2012 at 1:23 am |
    • buckcameron


      May 31, 2012 at 1:53 am |
  16. Chrisitans hate gays

    All religions are shams.

    May 31, 2012 at 12:59 am |
    • truthseeker

      spoken like a true expert

      May 31, 2012 at 1:25 am |
  17. crowing

    The men of the Church have definitely gone astray. To discriminate against women to maintain their power and control, is sinful. To protect priests who abuse anyone, is sinful. To act arrogant and greedy about money in all forms, is sinful. The men in the church are on their way to hell to join the lawyers and judges. Christ said there would be challenges and the men have demonstrated they cannot meet or reconcile any of these challenges.

    May 31, 2012 at 12:49 am |
  18. Alice Cooper

    The Catholic Church is what the Mafia would look like if it were run by total dingbats.

    May 31, 2012 at 12:47 am |
  19. howart Dao

    religious dogma shall trump all !!!!

    May 31, 2012 at 12:38 am |
    • Ivana Humpalot

      Donald shall trump all.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:45 am |
  20. emintey

    If the church heirarchy spent more time purging itself of child molestors and more time supporting these wonderful nuns they bwould not only elevate their status in the world but grow closer to God. Shame on them.

    May 31, 2012 at 12:35 am |
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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.