Rome vs. the Sisters

Commentators offer a range of explanations for last week’s Vatican “assessment” charging a group that includes the largest number of US Catholic sisters, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) with “serious doctrinal problems” and “radical feminism.”

One frequent explanation is that the report was issued in retaliation for support given the 2009 Affordable Care Act (ACA) by Network, a Catholic social justice lobby with close ties to the LCWR. For example, in a BBC News interview several days after the release of the assessment, Sister Simone Campbell, Network’s executive director, acknowledged “a strong connection” between Network’s challenge to the US bishops over the ACA and the Vatican accusations.

No doubt there is some truth to this analysis. But it’s worth noting that the Vatican launched the investigation that culminated in this document in January 2009, more than a year before Congress passed the ACA. Given the speed with which Rome does things, it’s more than likely that while the sisters’ support for the ACA contributed to the harshness of the statement, it by no means caused it. Indeed, Pope John Paul II mandated a previous investigation of US religious in 1983, though the outcome of that process was less brutal than the current one has proven to be.

In point of fact, throughout the history of the Church, bishops and popes have struggled mightily to keep committed celibate Catholic women under control. Already in the early Christian centuries male church leaders forced virgins to describe themselves as “brides of Christ” rather than use the male martial imagery they had come to use during the Roman persecutions. The early equality between male and female desert monastics was likewise undercut when eighth century bishops began taking control of women’s monasteries and ordained monks to the priesthood for the first time (but not nuns, of course.) And as, throughout the following centuries, groups of dedicated Christian women came together—canonesses, Beguines, beatas, recluses—popes, bishops, and male theologians went to great lengths to rein them in.

In the 12th century, Aelred of Rievaulx forbade women recluses to so much as talk alone with their confessors; Gregory IX imposed cloister on all Franciscan sisters except those in the house led by their foundress, Clare of Assisi; and in 1917, after a century marked by the foundation of innumerable active (that is, non-cloistered) congregations of sisters dedicated to serving the needs of the sick and the poor, the new Vatican Code of Canon Law cloistered them all, imposing rigid rules that undercut their ministries.

As the century moved on, however, relations between the Vatican and the sisters seemed to improve. In its effort to respond to the horrors of the twentieth century, the Vatican ordered the sisters to become better educated, to update their rules and habits, and to begin meeting together for the sake of greater effectiveness.

Already in 1929 Pope Pius XI had stressed the need for better prepared Catholic school teachers; in 1950, Pius XII called a meeting of the heads of all religious orders for the purpose of further advancing their collaboration; and in 1952 he called a meeting of women’s superiors, during which he urged the sisters to update and educate themselves for the purpose of attaining attain equal footing with their secular counterparts.

The Vatican also called for the formation of the US Conference of Major Superiors of Women, the group that eventually morphed into the currently-maligned LCWR. Ironically, the American women’s congregations at the time felt no need for the Conference, but organized it out of obedience to the Pope. Finally, the Second Vatican Council called the sisters to renew their congregations, return to the charism of their founders, and revise their constitutions, a call Pope Paul VI seconded. The sisters embraced Vatican II renewal immediately, with all their hearts, more so than any other group in the church.

So how, you may wonder, did the sisters and the Vatican get into the current conundrum? In much the same way that the rest of the Catholic Church did in the decades after Vatican II.

Conservative commentators argue that the sisters misinterpreted the teachings of Vatican II, or didn’t study them at all, and abandoned the way of life to which they were vowed. More illuminating, I believe is a comment made in 2005 by Sister Mary Daniel Turner, an LCWR executive director who, in the 1970s, led the organization through some of its most significant transformations: “Each time the church takes a step forward,” she said, “it takes a step back.” At Vatican II, the church called its members to respond to the “signs of the times,” to recognize “the universal call to holiness” that made clergy, religious and laypeople equal, to respond to the “joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties” of modern men and women.

But when the “People of God” began to do this, the Vatican and the bishops realized with a shock what it actually meant, and they didn’t like it.

In point of fact, according to papers released in 2011 by the moral theologian Germaine Grisez, papal buyers’ remorse had become evident even before the closing of the Council, when Pope Paul VI made clear that he would not reverse the church’s earlier condemnation of artificial contraceptives under any circumstances. And in 1968 he was true to that promise, absolutely forbidding, in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, the use of artificial contraceptives. In so doing the pope overrode the recommendations of the birth control commission formed during Vatican II, a commission that included married lay people. So much for the equality that came with the “universal call to holiness.”

US sisters themselves began slamming into the buyers’ remorse of the institutional church around the same time. Already in 1967, the rollback of the renewal the sisters had undertaken with such commitment began to come into focus. When the cardinal archbishop of Los Angeles forbade the Immaculate Heart Sisters there from implementing the changes agreed upon at their renewal chapter, including modernizing their habit and educating their young sisters before sending them out to teach, the Vatican backed the cardinal, although these were changes the Vatican itself had called for. Ultimately, a majority of IHMs abandoned their status as Catholic sisters under canon law.

When LCWR members proposed a motion protesting the treatment accorded the IHMs, the Vatican representative at their meeting prevented the motion from coming to a vote. In the years that followed, the LCWR protested to Rome repeatedly what appeared to them unjustifiable intrusions by the Vatican and the bishops in decisions over which the Council had given them discretion.

I could go on but you get the idea. The recent investigation of the LCWR and accusations of doctrinal infidelity and radical feminism against the group are one more sad chapter in the long history of popes and bishops attempting to bring Catholic sisters to heel.

There is one significant difference, however. In part because of the Vatican’s own demand that they become so, the sisters currently under attack are the most highly educated women in the history of the church.

And because of the sisters’ hard, able, for the most part financially uncompensated work, Catholic women in the US today are also vastly more educated, competent, and professional than Catholic women of any previous generations. Think here, if you will, of Nancy Pelosi, recent occupant of the highest position of power a woman has held in the history of the US government. Think of Kathleen Sebelius. Think, for that matter, of me. We Catholic women understand the enormous debt we owe our sisters, and we are not pleased to have their faith denigrated in such a vile fashion even as they move into old age.

To paraphrase Sister Simone Campbell, I don’t think the boys have any idea what they’re in for.

Complete Article HERE!

Belleville priest may be out for good, with Burke unlikely to help

A priest in the Belleville diocese at odds with his bishop over the wording of the Catholic Mass said the former Archbishop of St. Louis – now head of the Vatican’s highest court – said he should have been removed from his parish long ago.

The Rev. William Rowe said Belleville Bishop Edward Braxton told him in a meeting Tuesday that if he refused to resign as pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Mount Carmel, Ill., the bishop would use canon – or church – law to remove him. Rowe said he asked Braxton if he could appeal a removal, if it came to that.

Rowe said Braxton told him that he could appeal an eventual removal to the Vatican’s version of the supreme court, called the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. But, Braxton said, he had already spoken to the head of that court – former St. Louis archbishop, Cardinal Raymond Burke – in February, and that Burke told Braxton that Rowe should have been removed “a long time ago,” according to the priest.
“The understanding there is that I’m done,” Rowe said.

Messages left with the offices of Braxton in Belleville and Burke in Rome were not returned Wednesday morning.

Rowe said Braxton told him that on two recent trips to Rome several bishops asked him about Rowe’s case, and encouraged him to remove the priest. The bishop told him the bishops had heard about two civil weddings outside the church Rowe had performed for couples whose previous marriages had not yet been annulled. Braxton “said Rome was aware of those weddings and upset about that before the liturgy thing,” Rowe said.

For decades, Rowe has deviated from the language of the Roman Catholic Mass, a highly prescribed liturgical rite, parts of which are as old as Christianity itself. In December, the Vatican introduced a new English-language translation of the Roman Missal – the book of prayers, chants and responses used during Mass. The new translation rendered some of the language in the Missal closer in spirit to the original Latin. Critics of the new translation have said the English is clunky and awkward for priests and laity.

Most of the prayers read by priests from the Missal during Mass cannot be changed. But there has never been an established penalty for improvising non-alterable prayers, and bishops have traditionally looked past an individual priest’s extemporizing. Last June, Braxton had sent a letter to all the priests in the Belleville Diocese warning that “it will not be acceptable for any priest or any parish to refrain from using the new prayers due to their personal preference.”

Rowe offered Braxton his resignation October 12, 2011, after a meeting during which the bishop barred the priest from improvising prayers during Mass. Braxton didn’t accept Rowe’s resignation until Jan. 30, 2012. Canon law says a bishop must accept a priest’s resignation within three months of the original offer. Rowe has since retracted his resignation offer.

Complete Article HERE!

Priest: Tweet if you love nuns, as sisters face critique

Have you tweeted at #WhatSistersMeanToMe about the nuns in your life?

Rev. James Martin, culture editor for America magazine, wrote an ode to the sisters and launched a the hashtag to rally praise for them after the major group of women religious (their proper title although nuns and sisters fit headlines and Twitter counts better) now that some are under fire.

The Vatican wants the powerful women’s voices to stress the Catholic vision for marriage and sexuality and to spend more time campaigning against abortion,gay marriage, and women’s ordination.

Subtext: Stop contradicting the bishops on public policy issues such as President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Reuter’s coverage spotted it in the Vatican report last week which…

found that the nuns promoted political views at odds with those expressed by U.S. Roman Catholic bishops, “who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.”

You may remember 2010 when the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the umbrella group representing 55,000 sister and nuns, determined that the Obama proposal did not provide funding for abortion and came out in support of its passage. Bishops were outraged.

Now the Vatican has cracked down on the LCWR. According to Religion News Service’s David Gibson last week,

One of the groups singled out in the criticism is Network, a social justice lobby created by Catholic sisters 40 years ago that continues to play a leading role in pushing progressive causes on Capitol Hill.

The Vatican announcement said that “while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death.”

… Increasingly, however, the hierarchy in Rome and the U.S. is focusing on promoting doctrinal orthodoxy and curbing dissent.

Internal Catholic church discipline is not a topic up for public polling.

The Catholic News Agency carried the Vatican and bishops’ side of the nuns story with not a single sister quoted. It concluded with Cardinal William Levada, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who:

“expressed hope that the new measures will help “provide a stronger doctrinal foundation” for LCWR’s “many laudable initiatives and activities.”

But many U.S. Catholics are outraged at an image of the social justice sisters getting rebuked.

American Catholics love their nuns. They may joke about the sisters and laugh at stereotypical ruler-slapping teachers. However, they know very well, says Martin. He wrote:

More often than not, it is women religious who precede the men in working with the poor, in giving voice to the powerless and in dying on the fields of martyrdom. It is the women who do, do, do, and have done so with little recognition and historically even less pay, and all in a church where women’s voices are often unheard, ignored or denied.

Martin told Melinda Henneberger,of the Washington Post, it was

… a good time to express gratitude for the unbelievably inspiring work that Catholic sisters do and have done: For God, for the church and for the poor…I couldn’t imagine my life or the church without these women.

Among the early tweets ad #WhatSistersMeanToMe:

“In my darkest hours of doubt, it was the sisters that brought me the light,” tweeted former Congressman Tom Perriello (D-Va.) in response.

Sister Joan Chittister, a former president of the nuns’ leadership conference, told Reuters:

… the nuns saw themselves as helping, not hurting, the church. Their difficult questions must be asked, she said, if the church is to remain vibrant, relevant and respected. “When you begin to suppress that, it’s immoral,” Chittister said. “It’s a mistake for the church. And it’s despair for its people.”

… The nuns’ motto, declared on their website: “We risk being agents of change within church and society.”

DO YOU THINK … nuns have overstepped — or sidestepped — their spiritual roles or is the Vatican missing the point? Even if you’re not Catholic, has your life been influenced by sisters’ activism?

Complete Article HERE!

The Vatican freezes out nuns and warms to traditionalists


Catholic liberals in the United States are making much of an interesting juxtaposition in Vatican initiatives. This week the Holy See lashed out at American nuns for insufficient fidelity to church teachings while making encouraging sounds about welcoming back a right-wing breakaway movement called the Society of St. Pius X.

As one commenter on the National Catholic Reporter website put it: “The timing of it all is nothing less than stunning! Just as the CDF/Vatican is rewarding of group of right-wing anti-Semites for ‘bad’ behavior, it’s punishing U.S. women religious for their faithful devotion. Oh well, would you expect anything less from a group of paternalistic elderly men who thrive on secrecy & cunning?”

The CDF is the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican agency once headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. This week the congregation criticized the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for “protesting the Holy See’s actions regarding the question of women’s ordination and of a correct pastoral approach to ministry to homosexual persons.” It also faulted the umbrella group for not speaking out enough in opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. The Vatican may also have noted that the Leadership Conference supported “Obamacare.”

The archbishop of Seattle has been assigned to oversee changes in the group, “in order to implement a process of review and conformity to the teachings and discipline of the church.”

Also this week, a Vatican spokesman called “encouraging” a communication from the SSPX, a schismatic ultra-traditionalist group formed by the late “rebel archbishop” Marcel Lefebvre. In 2009 Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunications of four bishops ordained by Lefebvre, including Richard Williamson, who has said the historical evidence is “hugely against” the deliberate gassing of 6 million Jews by the Nazis. (The Vatican said the pope wasn’t aware of Williamson’s views about the Holocaust when he lifted the bishop’s excommunication.)

You can ring any number of changes on these two developments and the reaction to them. One could argue that liberal Catholics, who are usually in favor of diversity and tolerance, aren’t very tolerant of traditionalist Catholics like SSPX. On the other hand, it’s somewhat disingenuous for traditionalist, Latin-Mass-loving Catholics to champion diversity in the church. If they had their druthers, every Mass would be in Latin.

What is most revealing about the two developments is the emphasis the Vatican places on issues related to sex, sexuality and reproduction. Opposition to abortion is now the defining issue for Catholicism internationally and in the United States. On that issue the SSPX is seen by Rome as more orthodox than liberal nuns who emphasize the social gospel and flirt with feminism. The SSPX also believes in an all-male priesthood. Those positions, it seems, cover a multitude of sins.

Complete Article HERE!

Vatican Reprimands U.S. Nuns Group

The Vatican has appointed an American bishop to rein in the largest and most influential group of Catholic nuns in the United States, saying that an investigation found that the group has “serious doctrinal problems.”

The Vatican’s assessment, issued on Wednesday, said that members of the group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, have 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, the American bishops came out in opposition to the health plan, but dozens of sisters, many who belong to the Conference, signed a statement supporting it — support that provided crucial cover for the Obama administration in the battle over health care.

The Conference is an umbrella organization of women’s religious communities, and claims 1,500 members who represent 80 percent of the Catholic sisters in the United States. It was formed in 1956 at the Vatican’s request, and answers to the Vatican, said Sister Annmarie Sanders, the group’s communications director.

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.

“I would imagine that it was our health care letter that made them mad,” Sister Campbell said. “We haven’t violated any teaching, we have just been raising questions and interpreting politics.”

The verdict on the nuns group was issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is now led by an American, Cardinal William Levada, formerly the archbishop of San Francisco. He appointed Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle to lead the process of reforming the sisters’ Conference, with assistance from Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki and Bishop Leonard Blair, who was in charge of the investigation of the Leadership Conference.

They have been given up to five years to revise the group’s statutes, approve of every speaker at the group’s public programs and replace a handbook the group used to facilitate dialogue on matters that the Vatican said should be settled doctrine. They are also supposed to review the Leadership Conference’s links with Network and another organization, the Resource Center for Religious Life.

Doctrinal issues have been in the forefront during the papacy of Benedict XVI, who was in charge of the Vatican’s doctrinal office before he became pope. American nuns have come under particular scrutiny. Last year, American bishops announced that a book by a popular theologian at Fordham University, Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson, should be removed from all Catholic schools and universities.

And while the Vatican was investigating the Leadership Conference, the Vatican was also conducting a separate, widespread investigation of all women’s religious orders and communities in the United States. That inquiry, known as a “visitation,” was concluded in December 2011, but the results of that process have not been made public.

Complete Article HERE!