Vatican Moves To Rein In Nuns

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the Vatican agency (and distant descendant of the Roman Inquisition) once led by Pope Benedict XVI, has issued a document rebuking the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the umbrella groups that often speaks on matters of public policy for America’s 55,000 nuns. Its alleged sins include association with “radical feminists,” an unwillingness to speak out on behalf of “the church’s biblical view on family life and human sexuality” (code for opposing same-sex marriage, contraception and abortion), and most of all, its failure to follow the lead of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on controversial issues. A smaller but closely associated group founded by nuns to promote social justice, Network, was also reprimanded by CDF.

The timing of the action is interesting indeed. According to David Gibson of the Religion News Service, the investigation of LCWR was apparently initiated in 2008 and concluded in 2010, with the pope signing off on sanctions early in 2011. Hard to believe it’s a coincidence that the Vatican moved to curb the nuns for implicit insubordination against the Bishops just as the USCCB announced a big summer series of protests for “religious liberty” keyed to categorical opposition to the Obama administration’s efforts to implement a contraception coverage mandate, particularly since LCWR has been notably willing to support compromise efforts and earlier supported the health reform legislation that authorized the mandate.

Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times quotes Sr. Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, as acknowledging the political intent of the rebuke:

“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.”

It’s noteworthy that an American, former San Franciso archbishop William Cardinal Levada, now heads the CDF and issued the rebuke. And he’s clearly putting his former colleagues from the USCCB in charge of the nuns’ “rehabilitation,” reports Goodstein:

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 group.

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.

There’s a separate investigation, dubbed a “visitation,” also underway under Vatican auspices to examine the overall situation of “women religious” in the U.S., that could lead to other sanctions and “reforms.”

And I’d bet it’s just a matter of time until other conscientious objecters against the Bishops’ declaration of culture war, such as the Catholic Health Association (itself led by a nun, Sr. Carol Keehan) and various Catholic colleges and universities, get a taste of the lash and some sternly worded advice and direction.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.