Vatican plays politics with American sisters and nuns


In this Monday, June 18, 2012, file photo, Sister Simone Campbell, right, executive director of Network, speaks in front of Renate Dellmann, of Ames, Iowa, left, during a stop on the first day of a 9-state Nuns on the Bus tour in Ames, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

I would be lying if I wrote that I was not hurt by the reaffirmation of the censure of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and by extension of NETWORK, the Catholic social justice lobby that I lead. I had hoped that the censure would quietly disappear in an Italian bureaucratic way. But this is not to be. Rather we are to continue to be caught in macro-church-politics of a group of Catholics at odds with the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

On April 6, the Vatican announced that Pope Frances had appointed Franciscan leader the Rev. José Rodriguez Carballo as a key leader in the department that works with religious men and women around the world. This was seen as a move toward healing of the relationship between the Vatican and American women religious. On Saturday, April 13, Pope Frances announced the formation of an advisory committee that represents the global church leadership and only one member of the Curia. Then on Monday, April 15, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) reaffirmed the 2012 censure of LCWR (and NETWORK) as undermining the faith in the United States.

From my vantage point (excluded from the halls of power and never consulted before being named as a problem by CDF) it appears to me that these actions continue to be about both church and U.S. politics. Women religious are a soccer ball between competing church departments. None of this is really about faith. The Vatican officials continue to say that they like our work when we do direct service, but they do not like our politics when they do not align with some U.S. bishops’ hard right views.

The censure of our organization NETWORK is rooted in the passage of the Affordable Care Act in March of 2010 and the fact that I wrote a letter signed by 59 leaders of women religious congregations. This letter is credited by President Obama as being a tipping point in the passage of the bill. The U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops opposed the bill because their staff claimed that there was federal funding for abortion in it. Since its passage, at least two federal courts have agreed with my lawyerly reading of the bill and found as a matter of law that there is no federal funding of abortion in the bill. We were correct in our interpretation, and the bishops’ staff was wrong. But we continue to be criticized by them because we disagreed in public.

In the United States, I think this struggle is about the enculturation of our faith into a democratic culture. In a democratic culture we know that diverse views lead to insight and deeper understandings. This is a good step forward in my view. The Vatican could benefit from such a cultural shift. But they remain in the European model of monarchy where the king is always correct and cannot accept diverse opinions.

It would seem that Pope Francis also thinks that some change is required. We do not yet know what he has in mind. But it is already a more open process than anything we have seen in quite a while. I doubt that in his first month as pope we have been at the top of his agenda or that he has delved deeply into the facts that have created this situation. I know we U.S. women religious are a very small part of this bigger struggle. So we will wait and pray for his perseverance in the face of the power struggles in the Curia.

So while we pray, we here at NETWORK will continue to speak out in favor of commonsense immigration reform and the needs of the 100 percent. This is where we must be to embody the mission of Jesus and we invite everyone in our nation (including the bishops) to join us on this journey. We will be faithful to Jesus’ call even though it is painful to be so misjudged by the leaders of our church.

Sister Simone Campbell is executive director of NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, and leader of NETWORK’s “Nuns on the Bus.”

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