Early reports on this week’s meeting of the country’s largest group of Catholic nuns show the women are in for an intense few days.
Executives of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious reportedly believe most members — who make up 80 percent of U.S. nuns — do not want to submit to a proposed Vatican takeover of their group. Regional meetings around the country this summer seem to show most women “do not ‘necessarily’ need to be part of formal church structures,” said a report in the National Catholic Reporter Tuesday, as the meeting in St. Louis began.
The sisters this week are considering how to respond to a Vatican plan to “reform” the Silver Spring, Md.-based organization, which bishops say is straying too far from official doctrine on things like the possibility of women priests and not focusing enough on abortion and traditional marriage.
Multiple interviews with nun leaders this summer seem to show profound differences with the Vatican on the questions of authority and orthodoxy — who can question official teachings and how?
There is no polling of the tens of thousands of women whose leaders are at the Conference, and members are discouraged from speaking to the media about the issue. But even more traditional observers, like Catholic author Ann Carey, say the number of women who strongly dissent from leadership is likely small.
It’s also possible no clear answer will come out of the meeting, which ends Friday.
“The goal is not to come away from this assembly with a well-developed plan, or not even perhaps with a decision. Our only hope is that as we touch in to the collective wisdom that is here that we can at least discern whatever is the next best step. Maybe we will discover several next best steps, but at least we will try and find together one next step we can take,” Conference President Pat Farrell said in her opening remarks Tuesday.
The women participated in an exercise to start the meeting in which they were asked to write down their fears and hopes. NCR noted one sister wrote that said she was afraid she would be “too emotional” about the Vatican’s critique to discuss it thoughtfully. Another expressed a fear that no matter what the sisters say, “we won’t be listened to.”
The possibility that American nuns could take a symbolic move away from Rome by making the country’s largest nun organization independent — rather than an official part of the Vatican — seems historic. At issue are some core issues that divide American Catholics, and American religion in general — what aspects of organized religion are unchangeable? Who gets to decide when practices or beliefs shift? What is the role of women in traditional religious communities?
Meanwhile, a new report seems to raise questions about basic survival of nuns in America. The data compiled by two nun-sociologists shows the typical order has one to four women preparing to become sisters.
As of 2010, there were 55,944 sisters in the country, with an average ago of about 70.
The report argues that conservatives who have celebrated the decline of more liberal women (represented by the Leadership Conference) have overstated the growth of the more orthodox orders. The report says one-third of orders in the Conference have no women preparing to become sisters right now, and a quarter of the orders in the more orthodox Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious have no women preparing either.
“This, of course, does not preclude these institutes having new membership in the future,” the sociologist authors wrote in a piece published Tuesday for the Aug. 13 edition of America magazine.
The article argues that the decline in nuns can’t be separated from data showing younger Catholic women are drifting from the church