Vatican Censures Nuns; Sisters Strike Back

The membership of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious comprises about 80% of the 57,000 nuns in the United States, and they're sticking it to the Vatican.

It didn't have to be this way. Until April, America's nuns were minding their own business, feeding the poor, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless; all of the good things that nuns are wont to do while their male counterparts are misbehaving. Then the Vatican labeled them "radical feminists" and accused them of "serious doctrinal" malfeasance, and announced it would send a team of high-powered, manly bishops to put the little ladies in their place.

As the New York Times explained it at the time:

The Vatican’s assessment … said that members of the group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, had challenged church teaching on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood, and promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

The sisters were also reprimanded for making public statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.” During the debate over the health care overhaul in 2010, American bishops came out in opposition to the health plan, but dozens of sisters, many of whom belong to the Leadership Conference, signed a statement supporting it — support that provided crucial cover for the Obama administration in the battle over health care.

Battlenuns… Word of the Vatican’s action took the group completely by surprise, Sister Sanders said. She said that the group’s leaders were in Rome on Wednesday for what they thought was a routine annual visit to the Vatican when they were informed of the outcome of the investigation, which began in 2008.

“I’m stunned,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby founded by sisters. Her group was also cited in the Vatican document, along with the Leadership Conference, for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage.

Too much charity, in other words, and not enough sanctimony. To rectify the imbalance, the Vatican announced it would send three doctrinally secure bishops to overhaul the nuns' policies, rejigger their hierarchy, approve speakers at their meetings, and generally dictate their behavior for a period of up to five years.

Now, after a month of silence, the nuns have said: No.

From Friday's Times:

After three days of discussion and prayer in Washington this week, the 21 national board members of the group decided they could not accept the Vatican’s verdict, and would send their president and executive director to Rome on June 12 to open a dialogue with Vatican officials.

Sister Pat Farrell, president of the leadership conference, said in a telephone interview on Friday, “We do want to go and speak the truth as we understand it about our lives.” She said the sisters had been “stunned by the severity” of the Vatican’s pronouncement, which accused them of transgressions that included promoting radical feminism and contradicting the bishops. The sisters were also concerned that the assessment was conducted almost entirely by written communication, she said, with only “minimal contact” with officials at the Vatican office that issued the conclusions, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Among the accusations the nuns considered “unsubstantiated” was the Vatican’s charge of promoting “radical feminist themes,” Sister Farrell said.

“Even large sectors of the church itself have legitimate concern and want to continue to talk about the place of women in the church, and rightful equality between men and women,” said Sister Farrell, who is a member of the leadership team of the Sisters of St. Francis, of Dubuque, Iowa. “So if that is called radical feminism, then a lot of men and women in the church, far beyond us, are guilty of that.”