Vatican to sisters: Enough moving beyond Jesus

One of the things I love about being a media critic is watching how a story develops over time. You may remember that years ago the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith launched a review of U.S. women religious communities. Several years ago, then, and before the the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was involved in helping President Obama pass his health care legislation, we were looking at discussions about the health of these religious orders. I remember tmatt's column that included one such discussion:

During this era of crisis and decline, some Catholic religious orders have chosen to enter a time of “sojourning” that involves “moving beyond the church, even beyond Jesus,” Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink told a 2007 national gathering of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

“Religious titles, institutional limitations, ecclesiastical authorities no longer fit this congregation, which in most respects is Post-Christian,” added Brink, a former journalist who is a biblical studies professor at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union. For these women, the “Jesus narrative is not the only or the most important narrative.

The questions being hammered out were whether many sisters had rejected Catholic teachings on the priesthood, sex and salvation. Or as one of my favorite Catholic bloggers put it at the time, “If you’re going to be Post-Christian, then be Post-Christian. I don’t say that with snark. It’s just reality. If you’ve moved on — move on. Step out from the protective mantle of identity that gives you cachet, that of ‘Catholic nun.'"

OK, so where are things now? Well, let's let Laurie Goodstein at the New York Times explain:

The Vatican has appointed an American bishop to rein in the largest and most influential group of Catholic nuns in the United States, saying that an investigation found that the group had “serious doctrinal problems.”

Goodstein's story is great, with many details. We learn that the Vatican found that the LCWR had serious doctrinal problems and that they were reprimanded for undermining Catholic teaching on various issues. The story mentions that the sisters had given "crucial cover" to the Obama administration back during the health care insurance battles of 2010. There's also helpful data, such as that the conference claims 1,500 members who represent 80 percent of Catholic sisters in the U.S. That it was formed at the Vatican's request and answers to the Vatican. I never knew that.

There's also great color. The news of the Vatican's action took the group by surprise (something that Rocco Palmo suggested might be a possibility in his helpful analysis at Whispers in the Loggia). We learn that the Vatican singled out Network as one group that was wrongly "silent" on abortion and marriage issues. Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director there, is quoted and given a chance to respond, including this bit:

“I’m stunned,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby founded by sisters. Her group was also cited in the Vatican document, along with the Leadership Conference, for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage.

“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.”

One key point in that passage is actually not true.

The group was not cited in the Vatican document for focusing too much work on poverty and economic injustice. Far from it. They were actually praised for their work in this regard. In fact, on the first page alone is this line, "The Holy See acknowledges with gratitude the great contribution of women Religious to the Church in the United States as seen particularly in the many schools, hospitals, and institutions of support for the poor which have been founded and staffed by Religious over the years." I read the eight-page document and certainly didn't see anything coming even close to suggesting that the Vatican wants the sisters to focus less work on poverty issues. The document never indicates any problem with that work at all. Instead, it focuses on the sisters' silence on other issues of social justice and fidelity to church teaching.

Cardinal William Levada appointed Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle to lead the reform of LCWR, with assistance from a few other bishops. We learn specifics of what the reform will mean. There is a ton of context and analysis without any favoritism shown to the sisters or the Vatican. It's a very helpful piece, in my view. I also learned that the investigation of LCWR was separate from a visitation of women's religious orders and communities and that it concluded in December with the results not yet made public. I just assumed this was all part of the same thing.

Let's look at another great treatment, this one by David Gibson of Religion News Service. When it ran at USA Today, the web editors put a picture of a bunch of habited nuns attending a Rick Santorum rally in Michigan with it, as if to say "We don't know what we're doing!" But the story itself is also helpful. Although the lede underplayed the drama of the report:

The Vatican has launched a crackdown on the umbrella group that represents most of America's 55,000 Catholic nuns, saying that the group was not speaking out strongly enough against gay marriage, abortion and women's ordination.

You might recall that the New York Times conveyed this not as "not speaking out strongly enough" but as silence. Which is it? I mean, technically both could be true but one obviously gives a very different impression from the other. Well, in the eight-page summary you can read here, we are told:

The documentation reveals that, while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine, it is 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. Further, issues of crucial importance to the life of Church and society, such as the Church’s Biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes Church teaching. Moreover, occasional public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the Bishops, who are the Church’s authentic teachers of faithmorals, are not compatible with its purpose.

And in fact, much of this excerpt is quoted directly or summarized later in the RNS report. The later parts of the report also include some feedback from Sister Campbell as well as some of how the group had attempted to defend itself during the investigation and why that defense was ruled inadequate by the Vatican. The story even goes beyond the context of the health care law's passage in 2010 to point out that the LCWR is currently backing President Obama in his battle with Catholic bishops over religious freedom. That was one omission I thought odd from other reports, given its timeliness. The lengthy report mentions that the more traditional religious orders, while much smaller than those that are part of LCWR, are the ones that are growing. It is obvious that this story is written by someone with deep knowledge of the topic, as all of these details are included in the report.

I did find this line somewhat interesting:

Increasingly, however, the hierarchy in Rome and the U.S. is focusing on promoting doctrinal orthodoxy and curbing dissent.

Now, maybe it's just because I'm Lutheran and have some weight of history bearing down on me on this topic, but what does "increasingly" mean here? How is this measured? And over what period of time? Likewise, it would help to know how similar "unorthodox" teaching or dissent has been treated in the states or elsewhere over the years.

Which brings us to the Associated Press report on the topic. This one was not my favorite. Here's the lede:

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."

See, you might have bristled at the "crackdown" language used by other reporters, but it seems downright tame compared to this lede. Interesting that sanctity of life, whether related to abortion or euthanasia, isn't mentioned in this lede. It does get mention down-story, right before Campbell is quoted claiming the report was linked to her advocacy on behalf of the Obama administration's health care bill. The AP points out that the review of LCWR began in 2009 and doesn't cite the bill.

Perhaps due to the struggles of space constraints, the article includes paragraphs such as this:

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.

Considering how specific these anonymous complaints are, I wouldn't mind something more descriptive than "many" people. Whether you think it makes the sisters or their supporters look great or awful for alleging "misogyny," it's worth backing that up with a real person. We are told that investigators cited the Brink speech mentioned above, as well as other examples of how the LCWR leadership had publicly disagreed with church teaching and embraced radical feminism.

I'm mildly surprised by the way the story ended, with a quote defending the sisters and attacking bishops. Readers usually focus on headlines and ledes, but you can always tell a lot about a story by the kicker. In any case, the quote was set-up in the following manner:

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.

Is it just me or is it kind of weird to mention which political candidate Cafardi supports? Images of nun praying in church and health care paperwork via Shutterstock.

Please respect our Commenting Policy