Vatican nun crackdown hits US group for 'radical feminist' ideas

Vatican nun crackdown: The largest group of American nuns was sanctioned for promoting 'certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.' The Vatican nun crackdown included the appointment of a bishop to reorganize the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

(AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito)
Roman Catholics gather in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican during the Easter Mass Sunday, April 8, 2012. Vatican officials have criticized the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for making some public statements that "disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops."

The Vatican orthodoxy watchdog announced Wednesday a full-scale overhaul of the largest umbrella group for nuns in the United States, accusing the group of taking positions that undermine Roman Catholic teaching on the priesthood and homosexuality while promoting "certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."

An American archbishop was appointed to oversee reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which will include rewriting the group's statutes, reviewing all its plans and programs -- including approving speakers -- and ensuring the organization properly follows Catholic prayer and ritual.

The Leadership Conference, based in Silver Spring, Md,, represents about 57,000 religious sisters and offers programs ranging from leadership training for women's religious orders to advocacy on social justice issues. Representatives of the Leadership Conference did not respond to requests for comment.

RECOMMENDED: Are you smarter than an atheist? Take the quiz

The report from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said the organization faced a "grave" doctrinal crisis, in which issues of "crucial importance" to the church, such as abortion and euthanasia, have been ignored. Vatican officials also castigated the group for making some public statements that "disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops," who are the church's authentic teachers of faith and morals."

Church officials did not cite a specific example of those public statements, but said the reform would include a review of ties between the Leadership Conference and NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby. NETWORK played a key role in supporting the Obama administration's health care overhaul despite the bishops' objections that the bill would provide government funding for abortion. The Leadership Conference disagreed with the bishops' analysis of the law and also supported President Barack Obama's plan.

Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, said in a phone interview that the timing of the report suggested a link between their health care stand and the Vatican crackdown. The review began in 2009 and ran through June 2010, a few months after the health care law was approved. The report does not cite Obama or the bill.

"I can only infer that there was strong feeling about the health care position that we had taken," Campbell said. "Our position on health care was application of the one faith to a political document that we read differently than the bishops."

When the Vatican-ordered inquiry was initially announced, many religious sisters and their supporters said the investigation reflected church officials' misogyny and was an insult to religious sisters, who run hospitals, teach, and play other vital service roles in the church. Conservative Catholics, however, have long complained that the majority of sisters in the U.S. have grown too liberal and flout church teaching.

Around the same time of the doctrinal review of the Leadership Conference, the Vatican ordered an Apostolic Visitation, or investigation, of all American congregations for religious sisters, looking at quality of life, the response to dissent and "the soundness of doctrine held and taught" by the women. The results of that inquiry have not been released.

The report released Wednesday paints a scathing portrait of the Leadership Conference of Women's Religious as consistently violating Catholic teaching.

Investigators cited a speech by Sister Laurie Brink at an annual assembly that argued that religious sisters were "'moving beyond the church' or even beyond Jesus." Brink is a professor at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She did not respond to an email request for comment.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said the Leadership Conference had submitted letters that suggest that sisters in leadership teams "collectively take a position not in agreement with the church's teaching on human sexuality."

In programs and presentations, investigators noted "a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."

"Some commentaries on 'patriarchy' distort the way in which Jesus has structured sacramental life in the church," the authors of the report wrote. The investigation also found that while the Leadership Conference has emphasized Catholic social justice doctrine, the group has been "silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States.

The reform will be managed by Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain and could stretch over five years.

Nick Cafardi, a canon lawyer and former dean of Duqesne Law School, said he has worked over the years with many nuns and that the description in the report does not reflect his experience with them. Cafardi is an Obama supporter.

"I don't know any more holy people," Cafardi said of American religious sisters. "I see a lot more holiness in the convents than I see in the chancery."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

RECOMMENDED: Are you smarter than an atheist? Take the quiz

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.