02 Jun

American Nuns Vow to Fight Vatican Criticism

June 1, 2012


The American nuns who were harshly condemned by the Vatican in April as failing to uphold Catholic doctrine finally responded on Friday in their own strong terms, saying the Vatican’s assessment was based on “unsubstantiated accusations” and a “flawed process,” and has caused scandal, pain and polarization in the Roman Catholic Church.

The nuns issued a statement after six weeks of virtual silence, during which their religious communities across the country mulled over the Vatican’s startling pronouncement, and Catholics across the country rallied to support the nuns. The Vatican had announced it would dispatch three American bishops to lead a complete makeover of the sisters’ principal organization, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents about 80 percent of the nation’s 57,000 nuns.

After three days of discussion and prayer in Washington this week, the 21 national board members of the group decided they could not accept the Vatican’s verdict, and would send their president and executive director to Rome on June 12 to open a dialogue with Vatican officials.

Sister Pat Farrell, president of the leadership conference, said in a telephone interview on Friday, “We do want to go and speak the truth as we understand it about our lives.” She said the sisters had been “stunned by the severity” of the Vatican’s pronouncement, which accused them of transgressions that included promoting radical feminism and contradicting the bishops. The sisters were also concerned that the assessment was conducted almost entirely by written communication, she said, with only “minimal contact” with officials at the Vatican office that issued the conclusions, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Among the accusations the nuns considered “unsubstantiated” was the Vatican’s charge of promoting “radical feminist themes,” Sister Farrell said.

“Even large sectors of the church itself have legitimate concern and want to continue to talk about the place of women in the church, and rightful equality between men and women,” said Sister Farrell, who is a member of the leadership team of the Sisters of St. Francis, of Dubuque, Iowa. “So if that is called radical feminism, then a lot of men and women in the church, far beyond us, are guilty of that.”

The Vatican ordered a “doctrinal assessment” of the women’s leadership conference in 2008 after years of concerns about its direction. The conference was formed in 1956 to provide communication and coordination among communities of sisters, and is a canonical organization, which means it answers to the Vatican. The assessment concluded that the leadership conference had hosted speakers who “often contradict or ignore” church teaching; had never revoked a statement from 1977 that questioned the male-only priesthood, and focused their efforts on serving the poor and disenfranchised, while remaining virtually silent on issues the church considers great societal evils: abortion and same-sex marriage.

It also reprimanded the sisters for making public statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.” Many influential nuns who work in hospitals and health care had supported passage of the Obama administration’s health care overhaul, crossing wires with bishops who were working with Congress to forestall the bill’s passage because of their concerns about abortion.

Sister Farrell said they intended to convey their particular objections to the Vatican’s assessment in private in Rome to Cardinal William Levada, an American who leads the Vatican’s doctrinal office, and Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, of Seattle, appointed by the Vatican to lead the reform of the nuns’ organization.

The sisters’ statement said that the Vatican’s actions “were disproportionate to the concerns raised” and “could compromise” the ability of women religious “to fulfill their mission.”

Archbishop Sartain was assigned by the Vatican to spend five years revising the statutes of the sisters’ organization, vetting their speakers and publications, and making sure their events featured the eucharist, which can be administered only by a priest. The archbishop said in a statement on Friday that he was “wholeheartedly committed to dealing with the important issues” the Vatican raised, with “openness, honesty, integrity and fidelity to the church’s faith.”

The nuns’ organization makes decisions slowly and only after broad consultation with its membership. The group will not take any further steps until after its leaders return from Rome and its members gather in regional meetings and at a wider assembly in August.

The sisters also noted the outpouring of affection they had received since the Vatican denounced the nuns’ group. Catholics in more than 50 cities held vigils and more than 52,000 have signed a petition in support of the sisters, organized by the Nun Justice Project, a coalition of liberal Catholic groups. The project is telling Catholics to withhold their donations to Peter’s Pence, a special collection sent to the Vatican, and give the money instead to local nuns’ groups.

Sister Christine Schenk, executive director of FutureChurch, a liberal church reform group that helped to organize support for the sisters in Cleveland, said the laypeople she knew were outraged that the Vatican had barely consulted with the sisters before issuing its assessment.

“Here you see women, very competent, highly educated, doctorates in theology, masters in ministry, C.E.O.’s of hospitals, heads of school systems, being treated as if they were children,” she said. “That in itself goes to the issue of where are the women in the decision-making structures in Rome.”

In Cleveland on Wednesday night, about 650 people, including laypeople, about 100 nuns and a handful of priests in their Roman collars, gathered for a prayer service inside a Catholic church to honor the nuns. When the nuns were asked to stand for a blessing, the congregation responded with a spontaneous standing ovation that lasted nearly five minutes, said several people who attended.

The Nun Justice Project

Six things you can do to
Support the Sisters

1. Petition

Let the sisters know you stand with them! Sign the petition or share it with friends! Let’s get 57,000 signatures — one for every sister in the United States!

2. Write

Tell Church officials that you support the sisters. Write to the Apostolic Nuncio, the Vatican’s ambassador in the U.S., other officials, or to your local newspaper.
Download a sample letter and suggested talking points.

3. Vigil

Join or organize a public vigil Tuesdays in May. If you’re unable to join a vigil in person, join a Virtual Vigil in spirit by posting a photo showing your support!
Find a vigil near you.

4. Share

Follow Nun Justice on Tumblr
Post a photo showing your support
Tweet using #nunjustice
Share the petition on Facebook

5. Pledge

Make a financial pledge to support the sisters by directing or redirecting your Peter’s Pence contribution to your local community of women religious. Help us tally the total amount pledged by recording your pledge amount here.

6. Pray

Pray for the sisters on your own and/or organize a prayer service in your parish or small faith community. A A sample prayer vigil and new prayer service and litany are available to use.

The Nun Justice Project is a grassroots movement supported by the following organizations: American Catholic Council, Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church, Call To Action, Catholics for Choice, CORPUS, DignityUSA, FutureChurch, New Ways Ministry, Quixote Center, RAPPORT (Renewing a Priestly People, Ordination Reconsidered Today), Voice of the Faithful, WATER: Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, Women’s Ordination Conference.
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donna maloney


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