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Nuns' Group Targeted by Vatican Refuses to Back Down, But Won't Break Away

Members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious say they'll keep talking to prelates but will "reconsider" if "forced to compromise the integrity of [their] mission."
 
 
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The Vatican has a nun problem. But you won't find the prelates skipping around singing, " How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" They're certain of their solution: flex the hierarchy's magisterial muscle, and place those wayward sisters under the canonical thumb.
 
The nuns in question are members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group for most of the women's religious orders in the United States, which just concluded its annual conference in St. Louis. Faced with a decision on how to respond to a Vatican rebuke of LCWR -- which the Vatican is seeking to control, the members voted to have their officers maintain discussions with the Vatican, but to "reconsider if LCWR is forced to compromise the integrity of its mission."
 
It's not quite the dramatic break that some had hoped for; one avenue the sisters considered was to vote to dissolve their group and reconstitute it as a non-profit organization under the U.S. tax code, which would place it beyond the Vatican's reach. That would have been a giant kiss-off to the all-male hierarchy -- one that the membership was not quite willing to make. But that doesn't mean they're exactly kissing the pope's ring.
 
The tone of the sisters' decision remains defiant, and they have reserved the right to revisit their options. In the world beyond the church, that might seem like not such a big deal, but this is the Holy See we're talking about here, and these are women, the most visible women in the church, saying to Pope Benedict XVI, "Not so fast..."
 
In April, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith announced its plans to "reform" -- effectively take over -- the group, which it found to be insufficiently interested in opposing abortion or homosexuality, and guilty of advancing "radical feminist themes."
 
Three prelates were charged with oversight of the group, with Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle charged with direct supervision for the next five years. As I wrote in June, Sartain's mandate grants him "final say on every speaker at the group's conference and every public utterance made in its name." In addition:
He'll also revise LCWR's governing statues and oversee the revision of a handbook that, according to the [New York] Times, was "used to facilitate dialogue on matters that the Vatican said should be settled doctrine." Links between LCWR and two liberal Catholic groups will also be investigated.
Earlier in the week, Sister Pat Farrell, the outgoing president of LCWR, delivered a remarkable address to her fellow nuns as they set about deciding how to respond to the Vatican's fiat. From the National Catholic Reporter:
Taking the stage to a standing ovation, Farrell said that "some larger movement in the church ... has landed on LCWR."
 
A key question facing LCWR, she said, is, "What would a prophetic response to the doctrinal assessment look like?"
 
"I think it would be humble, but not submissive," she continued. "Rooted in a solid sense of ourselves, but not self-righteous; truthful, but gentle and absolutely fearless.
 
"It would ask probing questions. Are we being invited to some appropriate pruning and are we open to it? Is this doctrinal process an expression of concern or an attempt to control?
 
"Concern is based in love and invites unity. Control through fear and intimidation would be an abuse of power." 
 
In their press release [PDF], leaders of LCWR also took a mildly dismissive tone to the import of the Vatican's actions:
The members reiterated the importance and value of LCWR’s mission to its members and its 
role as a voice for justice in the world. They urged the officers not to allow the work with CDF
[Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] to absorb the time, energy, and resources of the conference nor to let it distract the conference from the work its mission requires.
Many of the nuns in attendance work directly with the poor. Sister Simone Campbell, who leads the advocacy group Network, attended the meeting as an observer, not as a voting member. Among the things that fueled the Vatican's ire is LCWR's links to Campbell's group. Campbell  explained to Michelle Boorstein of the Washington Post:
"They’re saying it’s only about doctrine. But for us, the dialogue is about reflecting on our lives out of Gospel. Theology in our view is about exploration and discovery. They think that’s wrong. It’s like cutting the heart out of who we are,” said Sister Simone Campbell, a lawyer and lobbyist in Washington who this summer led nuns on a well-publicized tour called "Nuns on the Bus," meant to respond to the Vatican report with more visibility.
Asked if the differences were more about free debate or if even hot-button issues such as contraception were on the table, Campbell said: "Absolutely. Theologies have evolved over two millennia. When Jesus died and rose, it wasn’t all settled."
Writing at Religion Dispatches, Anthea Butler, associate professor of religion at University of Pennsylvania, suggests that the sisters' commitment to ongoing "discussions" with the prelate could be a pretty crafty strategy:
As a Church Historian, I applaud this move. Anyone with an eye towards church history knows that sometimes groups can talk forever to the Vatican and hold them at bay, as long as no one is frog marched into a courtroom or prison.
 
Long-winded dialogue is what the Vatican does best. If the Sisters can keep the male clerics talking, chances are they may be so caught up in their desire to make perfect doctrine that the Sisters of the LCWR can continue their good work.
Interwoven in this drama between the bishops and the nuns is a subtext of politics. In the U.S., the bishops have gone all-out against President Barack Obama, accusing him of violating their "freedom of religion" by making their large institutions adhere to the mandate for no-copay birth control that is part of the administration's health-care reform. 
 
The bishops also opposed the Affordable Care Act because it included insurance policies that cover abortion (although women will have to pay for that coverage out of their own pockets). In opposition to the bishops' stance, some 55 prominent Catholic sisters signed a letter supporting the health-care law, which provided cover to Obama against charges that the Democrats' bill was anti-Catholic. Many of the signatories to that letter belong to orders that are members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
 
At their conference, the sisters attended to matters other than their travails with the Vatican. Among them was their vote to call for the passage of the president's DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship to immigrants who, when they were children, were brought into the U.S. illegally by their parents.
 
Since the Vatican launched its jihad against LCWR, the sisters have been winning the public relations war. Outside their meeting, lay Catholics held signs in support of the sisters, just as they had when word of the Vatican's assessment of LCWR came down, and LCWR leaders say they have received thousands of messages of support.

Adele M. Stan is a journalist based in Washington, D.C., who specializes in covering the intersection of religion and politics. She is RH Reality Check's senior Washington correspondent.

 
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