American Nuns vs. the Vatican

Laurie Goodstein:

Dissent within the Catholic Church calls for some levels of nuance most of us non-Catholics don’t comprehend, such as obedience to superiors, and this recent dustup between the American nuns and the Pope has within the potential for significant problems. No doubt, many of the anti-institutional Christians of our day see this as yet one more example of institutional rot, the claim for authority, and the lack of recognizing the power of the people. How about you?

American nuns are preparing to assemble in St. Louis next week for a pivotal meeting at which they will try to decide how to respond to a scathing critique of their doctrinal loyalty issued this spring by the Vatican — a report that has prompted Roman Catholics across the country to rally to the nuns’ defense.

The nuns will be weighing whether to cooperate with the three bishops appointed by the Vatican to supervise the overhaul of their organization, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents about 80 percent of women’s Catholic religious orders in the United States.

The Leadership Conference says it is considering at least six options that range from submitting graciously to the takeover to forming a new organization independent of Vatican control, as well other possible courses of action that lie between those poles.

What is in essence a power struggle between the nuns and the church’s hierarchy had been building for decades, church scholars say. At issue are questions of obedience and autonomy, what it means to be a faithful Catholic and different understandings of the Second Vatican Council.

Sister Pat Farrell, the president of the Leadership Conference, said in an interview that the Vatican seems to regard questioning as defiance, while the sisters see it as a form of faithfulness.

“We have a differing perspective on obedience,” Sister Farrell said. “Our understanding is that we need to continue to respond to the signs of the times, and the new questions and issues that arise in the complexities of modern life are not something we see as a threat.”…

The Leadership Conference was a thorn in the Vatican’s side even before 1979, the year its president at the time, Sister Theresa Kane, welcomed John Paul to Washington with a public plea to ordain women in the priesthood. The group has remained unified despite pressure from the Vatican by making decisions only after consulting its membership. It is hardly the small splinter group that some conservative critics have recently tried to portray.

The disciplinary action against the nuns comes just as American bishops are struggling to reassert their authority with a wayward flock. The bishops are in the midst of a campaign to defend against what they see as serious threats to religious liberty — especially a government mandate to provide employees of Catholic institutions with health insurance that covers contraception. But the prelates are well aware of polls showing that about 95 percent of Catholic women have used birth control at some point in their lives, and 52 percent support same-sex marriage — little different from the public at large.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I understand that you have to be prepared to do the work of Ezra. But the larger issue here is, after you dealt with dissent, what do you have to offer? I’d like to see energy devoted to calls for Bible study in the churches. We are losing young people to the megachurches as described in by Fr. Reese here:
    Young people are not interested in these battles.

  • DRT

    As the grandson of a Catholic Nun that went up against the local Bishop and had to leave the order I can tell you that I am not a fan of lack of voice in the church. Grandma’s case was much more clear (the Bishop would beat the nuns), regardless I believe the institution stifles free speech to such an extent that it is harmful.

  • DRT

    BTW, there is a book being written by Grandma, and I understand that the authors have completed the research stage.

  • DRT

    Oops, about Grandma, she would have a difficult time writing one from the grave.

  • Mike M

    DRT: Let us know when it’s published.

  • pHil

    as a catholic, i don’t really see it as a problem. If i remember correctly, dissenting organizations like this are dying out. the future sisters and nuns have voted and by the communities they are joining, they don’t agree with these organizations. My whole problem with this is the way it is reported sometimes. These kinds of stories are usually accompanied by feel good stories of how much the nuns have helped people. No one is disagreeing on the good that they do…we’re just inviting you back into the fold. If you don’t want to come back that is your decision. You will just become even less relevant