It seems hard to imagine, but it’s possible this week that American nuns could take a huge — if symbolic — step away from the Vatican.
Many, many Catholic eyes are on St. Louis as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, by far the largest representative body of U.S. nuns, has their annual meeting. On the agenda for the Silver Spring, Md.-based organization: Whether the group should remain an official arm of Rome, or become independent.
This is their first meeting since April, when the Vatican’s doctrine-guarding arm issued a report saying the Conference isn’t focusing enough on abortion and traditional marriage and is dabbling dangerously in “radical feminist” ideas such as whether women could be priests. The report said the group needs to be “reformed” and is calling for essentially a takeover and monitoring of the Conference, whose members represent about 80 percent of the country’s sisters.
The Conference’s leadership this summer has pushed back hard, saying the report has “caused scandal and pain” among American Catholics, who are in a season of polarization over everything from health care and contraception to the Girl Scouts to fidelity oaths.
The women’s meeting begins Tuesday night and runs through Friday, when they are expected to issue some sort of decision about how to respond to the Vatican report. Conference leaders have said the women can choose to accept the Vatican oversight, can look for what President Pat Farrell called “some third way” or can become an independent organization.
The women are not talking about leaving the church themselves, nor disaffiliating their orders. They’re simply talking about making their main industry organization independent, rather than an official part of the Vatican. But still, that this is even on the table is historic.
Members were told not to speak with the media about their hopes or predictions for this week. And it’s possible, in the very collaborative, keep-talking style of the Conference, they will decide at the end of the week to keep talking. The Vatican hasn’t given them thus far a specific deadline to respond.
But off the record the sisters I know and the people close to them describe the vibe in St. Louis as extremely decisive. Huge issues that represent the key breaks in American Catholicism are at issue. What parts of Catholic teaching are “infallible,” or not up for discussion? What role or authority — if any — do laypeople (i.e., non-priests) have in the church? What was the purpose of the Second Vatican Council, whose 40th anniversary is this fall?