Leaders representing most American nuns pushed back on Friday against a stinging Vatican report that was issued in April and called for their “reform.”
After a special meeting this week in Washington, the 21-member board of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious issued a statement calling the Vatican report “unsubstantiated “ and saying it has “caused scandal and pain” and exacerbated polarization throughout the Catholic church community.
The board of the conference, whose members represent the vast majority of the 57,000 nuns in the United States, met for three days to consider how to respond to the Vatican report accusing the group of “radical feminism” and of publicly undermining the leadership of the bishops.
The full 1,500-member conference will meet in August to determine more specifically how to react, but Friday’s statement was an unusually bold reaction to the Vatican’s doctrine-enforcing arm and seemed to imply the women may choose to rebel.
“The sanctions imposed were disproportionate to the concerns raised and could compromise [the nuns’] ability to fulfill their mission,” Friday’s statement said.
The April report by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith assigned a Seattle archbishop to oversee the “reform” of the Leadership Conference, including possibly changing the group’s statutes and who speaks at events.
At issue in the Vatican report was whether the Leadership Conference has strayed too far from church norms and the priorities of the bishops, including opposition to same-sex marriage and how to minister to gays and lesbians. The Conference has focused far more on issues like poverty and immigration reform and personal spirituality. It has not emphasized some subjects the bishops are prioritizing, including fighting the White House’s mandate requiring employers to provide contraception in health-care packages.
Friday’s statement noted that dozens of vigils have been held around the country in support of the nuns in recent weeks.
The board, it said, “believes that the matters of faith and justice that capture the heart of Catholic sisters are clearly shared by many people around the world. As the church and society face tumultuous times, the board believes it is imperative that these matters be addressed by the entire church community in an atmosphere of openness, honesty and integrity.”
The statement said that Conference President Sister Pat Farrell and executive director Sister Janet Mock will return to Rome June 12 to meet with officials about the women’s concerns. Some people close to the Leadership Conference have said one option the women considered in their meeting this week was to break off from being an approved church body, but that that outcome seemed very unlikely.
Reaction to the Vatican report embodies tensions today among many American Catholics over how involved church officials should be in partisan politics and what the church’s priorities should be. Pope Benedict and his predecessor have focused on clarifying church teachings and demanding church institutions — such as hospitals and schools — fully promote official church positions, particularly on sexuality, traditional marriage and contraception.
While many Catholics have rallied to the support of the Leadership Conference, others — including some nuns — have celebrated what they see as the proper rebuke of women accused of harming the unity of the Catholic Church. Recent demographic reports show many American Catholics leaving the faith, which more traditional experts attribute to confusion over what the church really teaches and a descent in recent decades into relativism.
The spiritual lives of Leadership members’ “is more likely to be influenced by the Enneagram and Deepak Chopra than by Teresa of Avila and Edith Stein,” Catholic scholar George Weigel wrote last month. “Their notions of orthodoxy are, to put it gently, innovative; and their relationship to Church authority is best described as one of barely concealed contempt.”