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Why Is Pope Francis Throwing Nuns Who Share His Beliefs Under the Bus?

Not a peep from the Pope as nuns are censured for not focusing on abortion and gay marriage.

Photo Credit: Elnur/


In the earliest days of his tenure, Pope Francis became one of the world's most admired religious figures, due in large part to his vocal support and actions on behalf of social justice. So, to many Catholics, there is more than a little disappointment that he is  turning a blind eye to the Vatican's ongoing crackdown on America's nuns.

The really disheartening thing about the pope's unwillingness to end the nuns' censure – indeed, about his unwillingness to openly support them – is that his stated values are no different from the ones the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) is being punished for carrying out. 

Instead, the church has scolded a group of highly educated, highly accomplished and forward-thinking women like a bunch of errant schoolgirls.

The first time was in 2012, when the nuns were accused of undermining the church's hierarchy by "promoting radical feminist ideology." Yes, the Vatican officially  censured the LCWR for spending too much time on poverty and social justice concerns, and not enough time condemning abortion and gay marriage.

A year later, when the more liberal Pope Francis took over, the nuns and their many supporters were hopeful the censure would be lifted. But last week's  rebuke by Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, the head of the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, dampened those hopes.

In this latest knuckle-rapping, Mueller took issue with LCRW's plans to honor a  feminist theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, whose writings on conscious evolution and other matters have been criticized by US bishops. He went on to remind the "misbehaving" nuns in the strongest possible terms that their organization held its status within the church only through Vatican approval, and that if they wished to retain that status, they would have to toe the church line and focus more of their work on issues like abortion and less on social justice.

I spoke this week with Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of Network (a Catholic social justice lobby) and the driving force behind the Nuns on the Bus tour. Sister Campbell's group was singled out as one of the troublemakers in the Vatican's 2012 assessment, mostly because  it came out in support of the Affordable Care Act, which the US Catholic bishops opposed.

"The Catholic sisters in the United States keep getting caught in the middle of the Vatican's infighting over political resistance to reforms," she told me. "Calming the concerns of conservatives is still a priority for the church."

Still, Campbell says she believes the pope does support the sisters' goals, even if he can't (or won't) come out and say it directly. She pointed out that Cardinal Kasper, who is generally known as the pope's theologian, came out in support of LCRW's work during a speech at Fordham University in New York this week. Kasper told the crowd that he highly esteemed the work of Elizabeth Johnson, and joked that he, too, is considered "suspect" by the Vatican. Given Kasper's close relationship with the pope, it's not unreasonable to assume that he spoke with the Pontiff's knowledge, if not approval. But is this indirect endorsement really the most that women in the church can hope for from a pope who's supposed to speak their language?

At the very least, women in the church—and women everywhere—should not have to question whether a pope who can speak so eloquently about the scourge of inequality is incapable of recognizing the very unequal treatment of women and men by his own church. Last year, "60 Minutes" compiled a comprehensive report on the Vatican's standoff with the nuns. Among the many issues raised in the segment, the program noted the incongruity of the women's alleged doctrinal misdemeanors being treated as a "crisis" that required swift action, while it took decades for the church to seriously address the infinitely more serious crimes of pedophile priests—about which the Vatican only this week  began issuing comprehensive data. For example, in 2007, when the church finally faced up to the sex-abuse scandal and began making reparation payments to victims, some archdioceses tried to evict nuns from their convents to fund the out-of-court settlements.