A conflict that has entangled the Vatican, American bishops and the largest umbrella group for U.S. nuns may seem to have erupted suddenly, but it actually has its roots in decades-old disputes over Roman Catholic teaching.
The headlines came in April, when the Vatican orthodoxy watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, concluded that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the U.S. had strayed far from authentic doctrine and gave three American bishops the authority to overhaul the organization.
The board for the nuns’ group responded by calling the Vatican’s investigation flawed and its conclusions unsubstantiated. Top executives of the sisters’ organization were bringing their concerns to a meeting Tuesday in Rome with Vatican officials.
On the face of it, the Vatican’s timing is baffling. America’s religious sisters are far from the height of their influence. Their numbers have plummeted from about 180,000 in 1965 to 56,000 last year, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Their average age is now above 70. Many orders go for years without any new candidates.
But the contretemps can be explained in the context of long-simmering differences that have also divided the broader church into opposing camps of theological liberals and conservatives - with many Catholics caught in between. Each side is acting consistently according to long-established priorities.
Pope Benedict XVI is on a course correction. Benedict has been trying to restore Catholic traditions he believes were lost 50 years ago in the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council. As he presses for a more conservative Catholicism, the pope has been vigilant about ensuring that groups and individuals that operate in the name of the church are adhering to core Catholic teaching.
Benedict recently approved new statutes for Caritas Internationalis, a global consortium of Catholic humanitarian aid groups, giving the Vatican more authority over the association’s work. He dedicated much of his Holy Thursday homily this year to chastising a movement of Austrian clergy seeking women's ordination and optional celibacy for priests.
Last week, the same Vatican agency that rebuked the U.S. nuns’ group sharply criticized a book on sexuality written by a prominent American nun, Sister Margaret Farley, saying its author had a “defective understanding” of Catholic theology.
The nuns’ conference is accused of taking positions that undermine church teaching on the all-male priesthood and homosexuality while staying mostly silent on abortion and promoting “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
The U.S. bishops
American bishops are struggling to reassert their teaching authority, even as fewer Catholics are listening.
Less than a quarter of U.S. Catholics attend Mass every week. Most reject church teaching on artificial contraception and a majority support same-sex relationships. About one-third of Americans who were raised Catholic have left the church, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
These trends were already shaping Catholic life when the scandal over clergy sex abuse erupted in 2002, further eroding the bishops’ standing.
Still, church leaders have been newly assertive. They have stepped up public condemnation of individuals and groups who call themselves Catholic while dissenting from core beliefs. According to officials involved in the review of the nuns' group, religious sisters are among those who need correction.
“What are the church’s pastors to make of the fact that the (nuns' group) constantly provides a one-sided platform - without challenge or any opposing view - to speakers who take a negative and critical position vis-a-vis church doctrine and the church’s teaching office?” said Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, who conducted the doctrinal review for the Vatican.
After Blair began his inquiry, relations between U.S. bishops and the nuns worsened over the Obama administration's health care overhaul. The bishops said the changes would increase government funding for abortion; the Leadership Conference and other prominent sisters' groups disagreed and said so publicly.
The U.S. sisters
After the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, many religious sisters shed their habits and traditional roles as they sought to more fully engage the modern world.
Many were better trained than ever to carry out the changes. The sisters’ formation movement of the 1950s had emphasized advanced education for the nuns. As a result, sisters started taking on higher-level professional work such as running colleges and hospitals.
Over the decades, the women’s religious congregations focused increasingly on Catholic social justice teachings: fighting poverty and the nuclear arms race, advocating for civil rights and creating AIDS ministries, while continuing in their jobs as social workers and educators. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which the Vatican had created in 1956, became a platform for ideas fueling this activism. The group, based in Silver Spring, Maryland, represents the leaders for about 80 percent of U.S. sisters.
But as the nuns’ advocacy increased, so too did the criticism from theological conservatives. They argued that the sisters’ congregations had become secular and political, while abandoning traditional prayer life and faith. The nuns insisted prayer and Christ were central to their work.
This dispute continued as Pope John Paul II defended Catholic orthodoxy and appointed bishops and Vatican officials who shared his concerns about the proper direction of the church.
In 1992, the Vatican created a separate group for sisters with a traditional approach to religious life and church authority. The Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious is significantly smaller than the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. But a recent study found the traditional religious orders are having greater success attracting new candidates.
Then, under Benedict, the conflict reached a turning point.
Around 2008, the Vatican announced the doctrinal review of the Leadership Conference and also launched an Apostolic Visitation, or investigation, of all U.S. women’s congregations. That inquiry looked at quality of life, the response to dissent and “the soundness of doctrine held and taught” by the women. Results of the wider inquiry have not been released.
But for the next five years, the Leadership Conference will effectively be under Vatican receivership.
Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain and two other U.S. bishops will oversee rewriting the statutes of the Leadership Conference, review the groups’ plans and programs, approve its speakers and ensure the women properly follow Catholic prayer and ritual.
And despite the nuns’ complaints, and the protests around the country organized by Catholics who support them, executives from the Leadership Conference acknowledge a hard reality: As a group created by the Vatican, they have few options for persuading Rome to reverse course.