WASHINGTON — 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.
Rome also chided the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) for sponsoring conferences that featured “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
The Vatican’s disciplinary action against the LCWR was announced on Wednesday (April 18), one day before Pope Benedict XVI marked seven years as pontiff.
In many ways, the Vatican’s actions against the LCWR encapsulated the kind of hard line that many expected Benedict — the Vatican’s former doctrinal czar — to take when he was elected in 2005.
“The current doctrinal and pastoral situation of the LCWR is grave and a matter of serious concern, also given the influence the LCWR exercises on religious congregations in other parts of the world,” said the eight-page statement issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Benedict led for a quarter century before his election.
The directive, which follows a two-year investigation by Rome, also comes as the Vatican appeared ready to welcome a controversial right-wing splinter group of Catholic traditionalists back into the fold, possibly by giving the group a special status so that they can continue to espouse their old-line rites and beliefs.
The CDF, now led by American Cardinal William Levada, appointed Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain to lead the process of overhauling LCWR’s governance and reviewing its plans and programs and its relationship with certain groups that the Vatican finds suspect.
One of the groups singled out in the criticism is Network, a social justice lobby created by Catholic sisters 40 years ago that continues to play a leading role in pushing progressive causes on Capitol Hill.
The Vatican announcement said 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.”
It added that “crucial” issues like “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 faith and morals, are not compatible with its purpose.”
Many bishops were angered when LCWR and Network, along with the Catholic Health Association, endorsed President Obama’s health care reform over the bishops’ objections. LCWR and Network recently endorsed Obama’s compromise with the bishop over a mandate to provide insurance coverage for birth control for employees at religious institutions, even as the bishops continue to fight it.
The Vatican said the LCWR defended itself in part by arguing that the group “does not knowingly invite speakers who take a stand against a teaching of the church’when it has been declared as authoritative teaching.’” The LCWR also said that assertions made by speakers at LCWR conferences are not necessarily their own. The Vatican called that response “inadequate” and unsupported by the facts.
While LCWR did not respond to repeated requests for comment, Sister Simone Campbell, Network’s executive director, said she was “stunned” that the Vatican document would single out her group, probably over its support for health care reform.
“It concerns me that political differences in a democratic country would result in such a a censure and investigation,” Campbell said.
Campbell also strongly defended LCWR. “I know LCWR has faithfully-served women religious in the United States and worked hard to support the life of women religious and our service to the people of God.”
Throughout church history, and in particular in the United States, women in religious communities who take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience have directed their work toward charitable and educational ministries — running schools, hospitals, orphanages and a range of social services that have become as much a hallmark of Catholicism as the moral doctrine that the bishops oversee.
Increasingly, however, the hierarchy in Rome and the U.S. is focusing on promoting doctrinal orthodoxy and curbing dissent.
Many women religious (as both sisters in active ministry and cloistered nuns are known) have viewed their ministry as primarily one of service, but some have openly disagreed with church leaders on a number of hot-button issues.
In 2009 the Vatican launched a wide-ranging investigation of all women religious in the U.S., prompted by concern over their commitment to doctrine and tradition as well as the sharp decline in vocations. The number of nuns in America has dropped from 179,954 in 1965 to just 55,000 today.
Some newer, more traditional communities are growing, though they still represent a small minority of the total number of sisters. They are represented by a parallel organization that is considered more Vatican-friendly than the LCWR.
That broader investigation, called a visitation, was seen by critics as a heavy-handed maneuver and prompted widespread resistance among U.S. nuns, which led the Vatican to recalibrate its approach. The final report on that investigation was delivered to the pope in January, and the results are expected to be announced in the coming months.
The LCWR investigation was a separate probe that was begun in 2008 and concluded in 2010. Benedict gave the CDF the go-ahead to take action against the LCWR in January 2011, more than a year ago. There was no explanation for the delay in publicly revealing the crackdown.
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