“Well,” Curtis said, her tone curt for the first time in more than an hour of talking, “We are the church, we are the church. We are the church as much as the bishops are, as much as our lay colleagues are, as much as people who raise their children in the tradition are. That’s the church. We are all the church.”
But what exactly does it mean to be Catholic?
It’s come down to that core question in this angry year for the nation’s Catholics, with political debates about health care and the size of government jumbled up with religious ones about whether people can be good, faithful Catholics and totally ignore their bishop when he tells them to vote or pray or believe a certain way. The two sides represent seemingly incompatible visions of Catholicism, the country’s largest denomination, with one camp prizing openness and collaboration and the other championing unity of belief.
Standing in for those visions Tuesday in a Vatican meeting room were two prominent American nuns and two prominent American bishops charged with “reforming” the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents about 80 percent of the country’s 56,000 nuns.
Media across the globe have been riveted by the meeting, as are sisters who in recent weeks have been streaming to a new site, sisternews.net, launched this spring amid a crush of news about them. After the meeting, the Vatican issued a statement that the conference “remains under the supreme direction of the Holy See” and that the goal is to channel the women toward “promoting a vision of ecclesial communion founded on faith in Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Church as faithfully taught through the ages under the guidance of the Magisterium.”
The conference said the women wouldn’t comment in detail until August, when their full membership has its annual meeting. Some close to the conference in recent months have said one option for the nuns is to form an unofficial organization that’s not directly under the Vatican.
The Vatican’s doctrine-enforcing arm released a report in April laying out the need to review, guide, and, “where necessary,” approve the work of the LCWR, which has hosted speakers who advocate against official church teachings on subjects including women’s ordination and the possibility of nondenominationalism, or “moving beyond the church.” The report also called the conference “notably silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage.
The conference’s 1,500 members represent orders including Curtis’s — the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, which has 3,600 members. Conference leaders pushed back hard June 1, saying the report caused “scandal,” and asking for a meeting in Rome.