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
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.