Nuns on the run

Why is the Vatican cracking down on dissident American nuns?

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.

Two nuns walk towards Ground Zero in New York. Photograph: Getty Images
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After a year of division, a new centre is emerging in Labour

Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds show how factionalism is being transcended. 

On 26 September, Clive Lewis sat onstage at Labour’s conference in Liverpool and puffed out his cheeks in exasperation. He had just been informed that a line in his speech as shadow defence secretary committing the party to Trident renewal had been removed by Jeremy Corbyn’s office. Such was his annoyance that he was said to have later punched a wall in anger ("I punched no walls," he told me when we recently met). 

For Lewis, however, the feud proved to be a blessing. Hitherto hostile MPs hailed his pragmatism and deference to party unity (he is a long-standing opponent of Trident renewal). The former soldier also affirmed Labour’s support for Nato and for collective self-defence. “The values that underpin Nato are social-democratic values: liberty, democracy, freedom of expression,” Lewis, an early Corbyn ally, told me. “Let’s not forget, it was Clement Attlee and the New Deal Democrats who initiated and set up Nato. It’s about being in it to win it. It’s about winning the arguments inside Nato and making sure that it’s a force for good. Some people would say that’s impossible. I say you’ve got to be in it to be able to make those changes.”

In October, Lewis was replaced as shadow defence secretary by Nia Griffith and became shadow business secretary. Many regarded the appointment as a punishment. “Do I think there was an ulterior motive? I’ll never know,” Lewis said. “I’m confident that the reason I was moved – what I was told – is that they wanted me to be able to take on a big portfolio.”

Whatever the truth, Griffith has since said that Labour’s next general election manifesto will include a commitment to Trident renewal and will support multilateral, rather than unilateral, disarmament.

Many MPs had long feared that the divide between them and their leader would prove unbridgeable. Some contemplated standing on bespoke manifestos. Yet with little drama, Corbyn has retreated from a conflict that he could not win. Labour’s conference, at which the largely pro-Trident trade unions hold 50 per cent of the vote on policy and which the leader has vowed to respect, would never have endorsed unilateralism.

“Jeremy Corbyn deserves credit for that,” Lewis said. “Everyone understands that his position hasn’t changed. He still believes in unilateral disarmament . . . But he’s also a democrat, and he’s a pragmatist, despite what people say.”

In policy terms, at least, Labour will contest the next general election as a less divided party than many anticipated. As Corbyn’s team has long emphasised, there is unity around issues such as opposition to spending cuts and support for rail renationalisation. A new centre for Labour, embodied by Lewis, is emerging.

“When I became an MP,” the 45-year-old told me (he was elected in Norwich South in 2015), “to be anti-austerity, to say that cuts don’t work and they’re bad economics, meant you weren’t in touch with reality, and that you had no interest in winning elections. Within the space of 18 months, there’s now a growing consensus that cuts aren’t the way forward and that we need an industrial strategy.”

Theresa May’s support for new grammar schools and “hard Brexit” has given Labour MPs other issues to unite around. After Corbyn’s second landslide leadership victory, many of his opponents have reached the final stage of grief: acceptance. Others, as Lewis noted, are imbued with “an eager enthusiasm to make this work”. Contrary to some predictions, more than half of the 63 frontbenchers who resigned last summer have returned.

An emblematic figure is Jonathan Reynolds. The Liz Kendall supporter, who resigned as shadow transport minister in January 2016, has rejoined the front bench as shadow City minister. Earlier this year, Reynolds backed the introduction of a universal basic income, an idea that is now being explored by John McDonnell’s team (and that Barack Obama has called for “debate” on). In July, Reynolds and Lewis wrote a joint piece in support of proportional representation (PR), warning that without it “a more equal, democratic and sustainable society is less likely”.

Another advocate of PR is Lisa Nandy, the former shadow energy secretary and a friend of Lewis (on 26 October, along with Reynolds, they called for Labour to stand aside in the Richmond by-election to aid the Liberal Democrats). In the view of some, the defining divide in Labour is no longer between left and right but between open and closed. On one side are pluralists such as Lewis, Reynolds and Nandy, while on the other are tribalists such as Ian Lavery (pro-Corbyn) and John Spellar (anti-Corbyn).

The division stretches to the top, with McDonnell in favour and Corbyn opposed. “It’s a work in progress,” Lewis said of his efforts to convert the Labour leader. “There’s a growing movement of MPs who now either support PR or understand the growing necessity for it. They may not be quite there themselves, but they’re moving in that direction.”

At times since Corbyn became leader, the parliamentary party’s divisions have appeared to many to be insurmountable, even as the party in the country has grown and been inspired by Corbyn. Yet a new consensus is being forged in the PLP: anti-austerity, pro-Trident, pro-Nato and, increasingly, committed to political and constitutional reform. If there is any consolation for a becalmed Labour Party, it is that its European counterparts are faring little better. In Spain, France and Germany, an already divided left is further fragmenting.

But Labour is likely to both fight and survive the next general election as a united force. If Lewis can retain his seat in Norwich (he has a potentially vulnerable majority of 7,654), he could one day act as the bridge between the party’s “soft” and “hard” left. After a year of factional skirmishes, the common ground in which Labour’s future will be shaped is emerging.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage