Vatican picks a side in the nun wars?

As the media fallout continues from the Vatican’s decision to rein in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (see the full document here), I have been especially interested in the degree to which journalists are certain that this action was rooted in tensions caused by recent debates over health care, abortion and homosexuality.

The key word that interests me is “recent.”

I say this because, long ago, during my days in Denver, I covered quite a few events related to the work of liberal nuns, events that had to be creating files of complaints in somebody’s Vatican file cabinets. Nuns and feminism? Sure. Nuns and watered down forms of Wicca and neopaganism? Sure. Nuns and abortion rights? Sure.

In one memorable event, the famous duo of Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent came to town for a New Ways Ministry mini-conference on fighting homophobia in the church. I registered as a reporter and took my tape recorder to the main sessions.

Big idea No. 1: Homophobia is a sin because it believes x, y and z. Big idea No. 2: Pope John Paul II needed to repent — the word “repent” was used — because he was clearly teaching doctrines x, y and z.

Thus, I wrote a story for the Rocky Mountain News stating that the conference leaders had said the pope was a homophobic sinner who needed to repent of teaching x, y and z. I backed this with lots of direct quotes.

The sister and the priest flipped out and told my editor they wanted a correction. They had not, you see, called the pope a “sinner.”

I played my tape for my editor who, in more colorful language, said something like this: That’s nuts. Of course they called the pope a sinner. Why did they say all that in public if they didn’t want to be quoted saying it?

To some degree, this anecdote captures what I think this whole breaking story is about (click here for MZ’s major post on the topic). For several decades now, all kinds of progressive nuns have been standing at podiums saying all kinds of interesting and/or unorthodox things and complaints have been stacking up in file cabinets at the Vatican. The key is that these events received very little attention in the mainstream press.

You see, this hot news story is roughly 25 years old. Nevertheless, many journalists are acting like this is a bizarre Vatican canon shot out of the blue and, thus, this has to be about President Barack Obama and health care.

When I started reading a new Los Angeles Times report on this subject, for several paragraphs I actually thought it was going to beat the odds and cover the obvious. Here’s the start:

A group that represents the majority of Roman Catholic nuns in the United States has been chastised by the Vatican for deviating from church doctrine and promoting what the Holy See called “radical feminist themes.”

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious said Thursday it would consult with its members to decide on a course of action after the church’s three-year investigation resulted in the harsh assessment of its activities and a call for reform.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the enforcer of orthodoxy — criticized the group 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.”

All the Times had to do was flesh out the phrase “radical feminist themes” with some hard comments, perhaps even quoting critics of the nuns to offer the other side, and the larger picture would have come into focus.

But no, instead we get this:

The conference, based in Silver Spring, Md., is an umbrella organization for other groups composed of Catholic nuns. The conference says it has more than 1,500 members representing more than 80% of the 57,000 women religious in the United States. The group represents the majority of nuns who work in education, healthcare, religious education and social services.

Network gained notoriety in recent years when it supported the Obama administration’s sweeping healthcare bill. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops vehemently opposed it.

So what are the doctrinal issues that are at the heart of this dispute, other than issues linked to sexual ethics? The Times does not have a clue, in large part because no one interviewed (a) any critics of the liberal nuns or, specifically, (b) any conservative sisters from the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious — a group formed for those who have opposed the doctrinal innovations of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

That’s a rather important hole in the story.

Here’s another one, as captured in the “Recent Vocations to Religious Life” study from Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research. Religion writer Julia Duin wrote about some of its key stats in a piece for The Washington Times.

Several years ago, Duin wrote:

Compared to the 1960s, when there were 23,000 priests, 12,500 brothers (monks) and about 180,000 sisters (nuns), the religious population has decreased by 65 percent. … Today there are about 13,000 priests in religious orders, 5,000 brothers and 59,000 sisters. Seventy-five percent of men and more than 90 percent of the women are at least 60 years old. Of those who are younger than 60, the majority are in their 50s, with only 1 percent younger than 40.

(That 1 percent, I am guessing, belongs to the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, now numbering more than 250 women, who limit their candidate pool to women 30 and younger. They’ve got 23 postulants this year alone; the largest number of new nuns in training in the country. Which may be why I’m getting fundraising letters from them asking for money to feed, house and train these women.)

So there is a demographics battle going on behind the scenes, with the progressive orders graying and fading, while smaller and younger orders are offering a more traditional approach to religious life.

Consider this passage in the famous speech on moving “beyond Jesus,” delivered by Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink at the 2007 national gathering of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. This is from a Scripps Howard column I drew from her transcribed text.

Sister Laurie said that struggling and aging orders faced several tough options as they looked to the future.

The first option, she said, is “death with dignity and grace,” as opposed to becoming a “zombie congregation” that staggers on with no purpose. This option must be taken seriously since the average age of the 67,000 sisters and nuns in the United States is 69. Many retreat ministries are closing and large “mother houses” are struggling with finances, while some congregations no longer invite or accept new candidates.

Meanwhile, Brink noted with sadness, some orders have chosen to turn back the clock — thus winning the favor of Rome. “They are putting on the habit, or continuing to wear the habit with zest. … Some would critique that they are the nostalgic portrait of a time now passed. But they are flourishing. Young adults are finding in these communities a living image of their romantic view of Religious Life. They are entering. And they are staying,” she said.

In other words, has the Vatican cast its lot with these small, yet growing orders, the ones with the young women who want to practice a more traditionalist approach to religious life? Might that be a part of this story worth covering?

This would, of course, require journalists to break down and talk to some of these young romantic sisters and their leaders.

SECOND IMAGE: Young nuns in Nashville, incoming.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    tmatt. The photos you used tell the whole story in a graphic, simple way. The older sister without habit agitating against life emblematic of the dieing religious orders and the crowd of younger nuns in habit with 3 bishops.
    I have seen a number of stories in the media about the growing religious orders of sisters who are orthodox and traditional in their use of habits.
    However, none of the articles mentioned the dynamic of liberal, frequently unorthodox, and against tradition sisters and religious orders being replaced by younger, more vibrant sisters and religious orders who are orthodox and embrace tradition.

  • Crude

    By recognizing what love is, to begin with. And ‘a voice’ for that matter.

    Great coverage always. I’ve noticed a pattern in these postings, and I wonder if tmatt has noticed the same. If a reporter wants to hear the more liberal-religious side of the story, they go to the liberal religious. If they want an orthodox, conservative or traditionalist side of the story… they go to the liberal religious and ask them to summarize the objections they’ve heard.

  • Julia

    A reporte could look to the beginnings of the encounter group experiments (aka therapy for normals) of psychologists Rogers and Coulson with the IHM sisters in California in 1966.

  • Jeff
  • John Pack Lambert

    It seems intriguing to me that the “vast majority of nuns in x things” language is used, without pointing out that over the last 50 years or so the percentage of teaching positions in Catholic schools filled by nuns has drastically decreased, and the same is probably true of the other positions they mention.

    One of the big reasons so many Catholic schools have closed is that without having nuns to fill the ranks of teachers they have to recruit teachers who generally expect larger salaries. It seems that the way these nuns functions are worded ignores these changes.

    On the other hand, it remains uncler to what extent the member organizations subscribe to the deviant teachings of the central body. To what extent have the complaints about this organization come from its member organizations? To what extent have they come from individual nuns in the member organizations who disagree with the break with Catholic teaching and the calls on Popes to “repent”? These seem to be big journalistic questions that are largely ignored by the coverage of this development.

    In fact, at an even more basic level once an order of nuns joins this council, how hard is it for the order to leave? Related to that, what does being a member of the council mean? Do the member organizations pay dues? Put more basically if an order of nuns comes to the view that they disagree with this council, is their any real advantage to removing themselves from it?

  • Stan

    Deacon John M Bresnahan writes:

    It simply is not true that liberal and nontraditional sisters are being replaced by younger, more vibrant sisters. The numbers of the apparently newly orthodox orders are very small indeed. They certainly are not replacing the older orders who are fast dying off. One can play with all sorts of numbers. If an order consists of only three people and a fourth joins, one can trumpet a 33% increase, but it doesn’t change the fact that only one new nun has joined while several hundred old ones have either left the order or died.

  • AuthenticBioethics

    “Casting its lot”? No, I don’t think so, at least not insofar as the phrase implies a kind of speculation as to who would win or a strategic choice. The Vatican, I believe, is simply standing up for Catholic doctrine and insisting that people who call themselves Catholic and claim to represent the Church in some way to be faithful to that doctrine. In other words, I believe the Vatican report would have been the same even if there were no small group of orthodox nuns with which to cast its lot.

    I also think that there’s an unwritten story about the 20% of congregations not represented by LCWR, which is related to this issue of orthodox nuns. These orthodox communities may or may not also be members of LCWR, a minority voice if so. But of the non-members: Why are they not members? Do they have their own rival organization or are they independent? How do they deal with set-backs from Church hierarchy? After all, many of these orthodox communities undoubtedly find themselves in a diocese run by a bishop who would greatly prefer an aging LCWR member community to a young vibrant orthodox one.

  • Dave

    All of this is wholly consistent with the sermon Cardinal Ratzinger gave the conclave that eventually elected him pope. He laid out his vision of a renewed, albeit possibly small numerically, church. A cynic might call it a campaign speech; if so, all he’s doing is keeping his campaign promises.

  • Cathy

    To say that Cardinal Ratzinger was advocating a smaller church is silly. What he was saying, and continues to say, is that by observation, one can see two things: a large chunk who call themselves Catholic and a smaller slice who believe, live and worship as Catholics.

    And he’s saying, basically, let’s call those who believe, live and worship as Catholics, “Catholic” and build from there.

    As a parent said to me once, “You’re trying to impose your values on my child!” Uh, yeah. I was tempted to put a sign out front that said, ‘The Catholic church: Imposing its values since 33 AD’ But, I resisted.

  • Jerry

    I have the sense that at least one false dichotomy is in play here. I’ve heard it said that many nuns are more interested in serving the poor and suffering than focusing on doctrinal issues and that this is what the Pope is objecting to. This might or might not be true for the majority of nuns. And that majority might not be overly focused on what the LCWR leadership is saying and doing. Thus, to me, there’s a fog of assumptions, projections, rationalizations or justifications covering this situation. And it will take time for the dust to settle and the facts to become clearer.

    The media is not helping, of course. And the two sides you framed the issue on, Terry, the devout and the heretics, is also not what I would do to try to understand what is going on.

  • Julia

    It’s not just more traditional Catholics who have complaints againt LCWR. Turns out that SNAP and Francis Kissling (former head of Catholics for a Choice) also have had difficulties with LCWR and are puzzled. Here’s a piece by Ms Kissling from 2009 explaining the situation.

    We — feminists and progressive Catholics — love them. And so we were surprised when the LCWR leadership refused to allow survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic sisters to address the past few annual meetings. The survivors want to share their stories of abuse as well as suggest processes to prevent such abuse in the future, including recommending that the sisters adopt the bishops’ anti-sex-abuse guidelines. To date, the nuns have just said no. Even the bishops allowed the survivors time on the agenda of their annual meeting some five years ago when the clergy sex abuse scandal was at its peak.

    What was wrong with these sisters who have worked for democracy in the church, the rights of the poor and marginalized, and just about every social justice issue you could think of? Were they in denial? Afraid of the publicity?

    Barbara Blaine, co-director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, told me that she couldn’t understand LCWR’s unwillingness to listen to survivors. “It’s such a bad move. Even if they weren’t sincere it would make more sense to invite us, listen politely and then ignore us. Stonewalling just makes them look bad.” Blaine, a survivor of sexual abuse by a priest, organized two demonstrations calling on LCWR to hear the survivors. One was on Aug. 10 at the LCWR headquarters outside D.C., and the other was Aug. 11 in New Orleans, where the group was meeting.

    Fr. Tom Doyle, one of the most respected experts on the Catholic sex abuse situation, and no conservative, also has a beef with LCWR.

    In light of the highly visible and vocal support of most contemporary nuns, including their leadership in LCWR for victims of social injustice both inside and outside the Church, we would certainly expect that they would quickly respond openly, honestly and with compassion to victims of religious women. The opposite has been true. The religious congregations of women who have been sued have fought the victims with a viciousness that was equal to or exceeded that of many bishops. The LCWR has treated the victims who have tried to communicate with them in a disgraceful and downright unchristian manner. They have been as cold, as clerical, as arrogant and as dishonest as the bishops.

    They have refused to even consider cleaning the mess in their own house. They have treated those who have brought the mess to their attention with cruelty and disdain.

  • AuthenticBioethics

    Jerry @11: People can do objectively good acts but for the wrong motivations. Perhaps the pope, to the media’s puzzlement, is simply asking that the good works be backed up by motivations consistent with Catholic faith. It could also be that while the works might be good, the advocacy of issues beyond the works might not be. After all, Planned Parenthood claims to be helping the poor, too.

    Ken Aubrey @10: My wife went to a high school run by nuns. Many of her classmates and an increasing proportion of graduates from subsequent years over the past couple of decades have lost their faith after graduation and quite often before. So they’re teaching — but what is it that they’re teaching and why is it such a brouhaha for the media that the Vatican wants it to be Catholic?

    Seriously, if someone in the Democratic party was against a national health plan, Social Security, taxing the rich, budget deficits, and abortion, would he be portrayed as a hero by the media, or as something less complimentary? Just asking.

    Cathy @9: Don’t let them fool you! Everyone who says, “It’s wrong to impose your values on others” is guilty of the very thing they say is wrong to do. What they really mean is, “I have a right to push my values on others, but others do not have the right to push theirs on me.”

  • Father Joseph LeBlanc, SJ

    One of the basic mistakes made by a large number of religious orders both men and women and that includes us Jesuits is that we began to think that everything before Vatican II was bad.

    We did not integrate very well after 1962. Some religious orders of active Sisters went to the extreme after Vatican II. A large portion left our elementary and high schools for other ministries primarily involved in Social Justice. As we know now that today that includes many areas.

    The Sisters know the teachings of the Church on abortion, homosexuality, same sex marriage and ordination of women.
    They knew the teaching with emphasis on the “knew”. They made a conscience choice to “go against’ those teachings both privately within community and publicly.

    At the present time, the choice for the Sisters is rather stark. They can easily lose their canonical status within the Church. That can be their choice and will have to be left to the decisions of the Administrative Board and Voting.

    Our cloistered Nuns are doing very well and have remained within the orthodoxy of their founders and the teaching Gospel and the Church. There are some great active Sisters who are growing immensely. .ie the Dominican of Mary of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, MI; and the Nashville Dominicans.

    As one who was taught by nuns before being taught by Jesuits in high school, it saddens me to hear some of the dialogue going on at the present time about the Vatican’s decision to reign in the LCWR. No, the Vatican is not afraid of you, dear Sisters. It was a decision that is some 25 plus years in coming. You created the problem through your conscience choices, now, sit down and “talk” with spewing anger. Archbishop Sartain is a fair man.

    I pray all of this can come to a reasonable and sound conclusion.

  • Br. Louis

    Fr. LeBlanc, I am Jesuit-trained! And you are saying it all perfectly! God Bless. Trappist Monk

  • Richard M

    Hello Stan,

    You’re right: It’s certainly true that the numbers of new, young nuns in traditional orders are not replacing those of the dying LCWR orders at anything like a one to one ratio.

    But the traditional orders *are* growing. Replacement is beside the point: These old orders effectively died decades ago; all they have been living on is the remainder of their existing membership, at least those that did not leave altogether.

    The average LCWR nun is in her 80′s. The average CMSWR nun is in her early 30′s. Therein lies a tale.

  • ebt

    A “Vatican canon shot out of the blue”. That’s subtle. I like it.

  • MJBubba

    Here is a Reuters article that I found at HuffingtonPost, it seems to be better journalism. Though you can easily tell whose side they are on (not the Vatican) from their loaded language, and they have the obligatory quote from Reverend Thomas Reese, they also give good background info and have quotes from a pretty good variety of sources:

  • MJBubba

    The Google News spotlight contains a link to “Sisters of mercy, devotion — and dismay” at the LA Times. It turned out to be an opinion column. I was a third of the way into the column before realizing that it is an opinion piece, since the header says it ran in the “Local” section rather than the “Opinion” section.,0,7617042.column

  • Horatio

    The first thing that struck me reading this is: why is it wrong to call the Pope a “sinner”? Of course the Pope is a sinner; everybody is.

    And – as I am a Catholic who came out of the Episcopal Church – the packaging of traditional forms and conservative ideas is strange to me. The Episcs can be so radical they fall off a cliff, but they love vestments and incense and bells and chant. The most Anglo-Catholic church in the US (St. Mary the Virgin in Times Square) is EXTREMELY liberal. How come Catholics seem to think traditional worship must go along with traditional ideas? …

  • Tom B

    Horatio, I had the same thought, of course the Pope IS a sinner, saying so isn’t the problem. The problem is when people claim to represent the Church( ie as priests or religious and then proclaim that Church teaching on, in this case homosexuality, is wrong, homophobic (neurotic?), and even ‘sinful’. The priest or nun’s job is to express, explain and even defend such teaching, and leave the pontificating to the Pontiff.
    As to whether traditional worship and belief necessarily go hand in hand, that’a a big topic, requiring alot o thought and nuance. personally i could argue it either way to some extent.

  • Mary

    @ authentic bioethics: someone in the Democratic party did object to (and vote against) national health plan and deficits, and his party just spent over $570,000 putting him out of office. A twenty year congress veteran, Holden from Pa. Can’t have dissension in the ranks.