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Nuns on the run

Why is the Vatican cracking down on dissident American nuns?

Two nuns walk towards Ground Zero in New York.
Two nuns walk towards Ground Zero in New York. Photograph: Getty Images

Nuns aren't what they used to be.  Go to the website of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella organisation that represents around 80 per cent of American convents and religious sisterhoods, and there isn't a wimple or a rosary in sight.  Instead you'll find a group of women who could be members of the WI: greying, wearing sensible sweaters, full of purpose.  

Probe further and you may detect a whiff of New Agery along with the calls to social activism.  The organisation hosts conferences with titles like "Women of spirit: creating in chaos", "Embracing the dream" and "Religious life on the edge of tomorrow".   "We welcome new ideas and new ways of living religious life into the future," proclaims the LCWR mission statement.  

A section entitled "Resolutions to Action" gives some insight into where they think their priorities lie.  The latest is entitled "We are the 99 per cent -- the Occupy Movement".  The one before that proclaims "Economic Justice Advocacy Critically Needed." There are calls to reduce the world's carbon footprint and to eliminate global hunger.  One is highly critical of WalMart.  There's a resolution calling for an end to capital punishment in the USA , but you look in vain for the kind of campaigns most closely associated with organised Catholicism; against abortion, contraception or gay marriage.

While no-one would claim that campaigns against global poverty are contrary to Catholic teaching -- Pope Benedict's major encyclical Caritas in Veritate was after all devoted to the subject -- the LCWR's emphasis stands in stark contrast to that of the male church leadership in the United States, currently waging war on the Obama administration's contraception mandate in the name of religious freedom.  Their campaign has won significant political concessions (though not enough to satisfy them), but left many ordinary Catholics cold. (It's no coincidence, surely, that most of Rick Santorum's support during his recently aborted campaign for the Republican nomination came from Protestant Evangelicals rather than from his fellow Roman Catholics.)

The LCWR, which recently infuriated the US bishops by publicly supporting the health reforms, has long been seen by conservative American Catholics as a swamp of unreconstructed liberalism stuck in a 1970s timewarp.  For the past few years it has been under investigation by the Vatican 's theological watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Cardinal Ratzinger's fiefdom for more than twenty years) and on Wednesday they dropped their bombshell. The LCWR is to be put under the control of the Archbishop of Seattle for the next five years, its constitution rewritten, its activities scrutinised, its liturgies reformed, its erroneous thought-processes set right. The report didn't quite demand that these nuns put their wimples back on; but it might as well have done.

The CDF describes the situation as "grave and a matter of serious concern". Among the theological and institutional errors it identified are "radical feminism", "corporate dissent" (for example, questioning official church positions on women's ordination and homosexuality) and  being "silent on the right to life from conception to natural death."  Heretical opinions, it complained, have been expressed at CLWR conferences and gone uncensured.

The organisation's leadership professed themselves "stunned" by the findings, asking supporters for prayers while they considered their response.  Sister Joan Chittister, a former LCWR president, was more outspoken, calling the report's conclusions "immoral" and the prospect of oversight "demeaning the ability of women to make distinctions." She accused the Vatican of "attempting to control people for one thing and one thing only -- and that is for thinking, for being willing to discuss the issues of the age."

Church sources have stressed that the move against LCWR is motivated by doctrinal concerns rather than politics.  But in Benedict's Vatican the theological is political.  Take for example a speech delivered at the LCWR conference in 2007 by Sister Laurie Brink, which was singled out for criticism in the report.  The authors complain that she had spoken of some nuns "moving beyond the church" or even beyond Jesus, words that CDF chief Cardinal Levada interpreted as "a challenge not only to core Catholic beliefs" but "a serious source of scandal [which] is incompatible with religious life."  Such "unacceptable positions routinely go unchallenged by the LCWR," the report continued.

Sister Laurie did indeed appear to praise progressive nuns whose views she described as  "post-Christian", who went beyond the institutional church to find "a wholly new way of being holy that is integrative, non-dominating, and inclusive."  But even more explosive may have been her comments about the institutional church, which she accused of "reneging on the promises of Vatican II".  

For Brink it was "painfully clear" that there was a rift between the leadership of the Catholic Church in the USA and ordinary Catholics, and that "the more theologically educated the laity become, the more edgy the hierarchy".  She mentioned "theologians denied academic freedom", women who felt "scrutinized simply because of their biology", gays and lesbians who desired  "to participate as fully human, fully sexual Catholics within their parishes" and young people who felt increasingly alienated.  She accused the church of "abuse, oppression, neglect and domination."

In its present mindset, the Vatican is unable to hear such complaints, let alone act on them.  It's no doubt convenient that Brink spoke warmly of groups who had given up on the church entirely and embraced religious pluralism.  Such language enables the CDF to present the crackdown as little more than a defence of core Catholic beliefs such as the divinity of Christ.  

The reality may be subtly different.  Must LCRW-affiliated nuns are not "post-Christian", but the organisation as a whole has developed a tone that doesn't fit well with the Vatican 's current  highly traditionalist agenda, which sees efforts to embrace change as a sell-out to secular modernity.  They're not singing from the same hymn-sheet, so to speak.  Without being reductive, it may partly be that a group of women, meeting together without male supervision, comes up with a different set of priorities than the US Bishops Conference.  Let alone the Vatican.