Is the Catholic Leadership Trying to Silence Nuns?

Over the past year, the Vatican has initiated two chilling investigations of American nuns’ communities. Nuns are not singing “hallelujah.”


“The planned visitation comes as a surprise,” was the polite public reaction from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) to “apostolic visitations” launched in late 2008. The nuns’ community leaders are being sent questionnaires about their practices, followed in some cases by on-site visits in 2010. The second is a “doctrinal” investigation, launched in early 2009, looking at the adherence of nuns in leadership posts to selected church doctrines. But why these investigations, and why American nuns?

The Vatican cites as an excuse the sharp decline in membership in U.S. communities of nuns, from about 180,000 in the 1970s to about 59,000 today, and the lack of young women joining the sisterhood. But that decline has been trending for 40 years, and in Europe—where there have been no investigations—communities of nuns have shown even greater decline. Some conservative sisters take the investigations at face value as a benign attempt to rebuild membership. But most progressive nuns suspect a desire  by the church hierarchy to rein in the independent lifestyles and ministries of active, often outspoken, feminist women, and to push them back into highly scheduled convent living and recognizable religious garb (habits).

Other nuns see the investigations as an attempt to silence their cries against injustices in the church. Fueling such suspicions are the three targets of the doctrinal investigation: It will assess whether nuns’ leaders accept the all-male priesthood, adhere to church teaching that homosexual activity is “intrinsically disordered,” and believe that only the Catholic Church provides salvation, while other Christian churches have “defects.”

Those teachings have been challenged for years by prominent theologians. Many nuns have been active for decades in the movement for women’s ordination to the priesthood. Some nuns have questioned teachings on contraception and abortion. Others have defended the rights of gays and lesbians, and still others work for interfaith understanding and collaboration. Perhaps the Vatican is most afraid of how public American nuns have become. Although nuns are not clergy, they are often seen by laypeople as a kind of pseudo-clergy: “publicly Catholic.” Feminist theologian Mary Hunt puts it this way: “The power to be ‘publicly’ Catholic [is] something the men have long reserved for themselves. Now that Catholic women, including nuns, are saying, ‘This is what Catholic looks like,’ there is trouble in Vatican City.”

The investigations are shrouded in secrecy. In August, LCWR publicly complained about the lack of transparency in the process, and asked bluntly who is funding the project. “They haven’t given us a reason for the investigation of nuns in this coun- try that makes sense,” says Sr. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, a fem- inist and author of many books on spirituality. “It has simply deleted the whole notion of woman as a partici- pating moral agent in her own life and the evaluation of it.”  

Pick up a copy of the Fall 2009 issue of Ms. on newsstands Nov 3, or have a copy sent to  your door by joining the Ms. community at www.msmagazine.com  .

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