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.
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.”