Are Americans bishops in Rome behind the Vatican’s crackdown on U.S. nuns?

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RNS File photo

RNS File photo

(RNS) When the Vatican last month announced a doctrinal crackdown on the leadership organization representing most of the 57,000 nuns in the U.S., the sisters said they were “stunned” by the move. Many American Catholics, meanwhile, were angry at what they saw as Rome bullying women whose lives of service have endeared them to the public.

Vatican watchers also were perplexed since a broader, parallel investigation of women’s religious orders in the U.S. was resolved amicably after an initial clash. That seemed to augur a more diplomatic approach by the Vatican to concerns that American nuns were not sufficiently orthodox.

Now it turns out that conservative American churchmen living in Rome — including disgraced former Boston Cardinal Bernard Law — were key players in pushing the hostile takeover of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, or LCWR, which they have long viewed with suspicion for emphasizing social justice work over loyalty to the hierarchy and issues like abortion and gay marriage.

Disgraced former Boston Cardinal Bernard Law.

Disgraced former Boston Cardinal Bernard Law.

Vatican observers in Rome and church sources in the U.S. say Law was “the person in Rome most forcefully supporting” the LCWR investigation, as Rome correspondent Robert Mickens wrote in The Tablet, a London-based Catholic weekly. Law was the “prime instigator,” in the words of one American churchman, of the investigation that began in 2009 and ended in 2011. The actual crackdown was only launched in April.

Law was joined by a former archbishop of St. Louis, Cardinal Raymond Burke, who was named to a top Vatican judicial post in 2008 – a move that was seen as a case of being “kicked upstairs” because Burke’s hard-line views made him so controversial in the U.S. Also reportedly backing the probe was Cardinal James Stafford, a former Denver archbishop who has held jobs in the Roman curia since 1996.

The investigation itself was conducted by Cardinal William Levada, a former archbishop of San Francisco who succeeded Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s powerful doctrinal watchdog, when Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.

The fact that prelates like Burke and Law, who was given a Roman refuge in 2002 after the sexual abuse scandal exploded in Boston, played such a key role in the investigation of the American women has been like salt in the wound for those who support the nuns.

“American Catholics have not forgotten how long it took bishops to wake up to the sexual-abuse crisis they created. And now they see that the Vatican took just three years to determine that it had no other option but to put 80 percent of U.S. nuns — whose average age is 74 — into receivership, an effort led in part by Cardinal Bernard Law,” Grant Gallicho, an associate editor of Commonweal, a liberal Catholic periodical, wrote on the magazine’s blog.

“That decision has unified a good deal of Catholics all right — against Rome,” Gallicho concluded.

The decision also shone some light on the Byzantine maneuvering that can characterize Vatican politics – and hurt the Vatican’s public relations.

A case in point: in 2008, a year before Levada’s office started investigating the LCWR, the Vatican department that oversees nuns and brothers worldwide began a broad investigation, or “visitation,” of all women’s religious orders in the U.S. That was prompted as usual by complaints that the orders were too liberal and so had few recruits.

The nuns pushed back against what was seen as a heavy Roman hand, and in 2010 an American, Archbishop William Tobin, was appointed to head the probe for the Vatican. A few months later, a well-regarded Brazilian, Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, was promoted to lead the curial department that oversees religious orders.

Tobin and Braz de Aviz took a much more conciliatory approach, and the visitation concluded without fireworks. In addition, Sister Nicla Spezzati joined the two men at the religious orders office. Spezzati does not regularly wear a habit – the kind of thing that galls conservative churchmen about so many sisters in the U.S.

“This changing of the guard at the top of the congregation for religious was not at all to the liking of the cardinals from the United States residing in Rome at the time,” wrote Sandro Magister, a longtime Italian Vaticanologist.

The Americans in Rome moved to ensure that Levada’s rival investigation of the LCWR would follow a different path, according to church experts and insiders. The result was that one probe ended with an accommodation and another seemed like an ambush. It was no surprise which one generated more media coverage.

Not that it had to wind up that way. John Allen, Vatican expert for the National Catholic Reporter, reported that a senior Vatican diplomat warned his colleagues earlier this year that launching a crackdown from Rome now would play into the “war on women” theme that has been associated with the American hierarchy’s campaign against the Obama administration’s contraception coverage mandate.

The response from officials in Levada’s office, Allen wrote, was that such concerns were “exaggerated.”


  • gilhow

    And Catholic lay people in this country continue to “Pray, Pay, and Obey” while such villains as Bernard Law, who was extradited by John Paul II to Rome to protect him from the arm of the law in the United States for his profligate violation of human rights, human decency, and U.S. law, joins with Benedict and other bishops to try to violate the rights of the people presumably members of their own community. The evil Cardinal Law continued to be protected by John Paul’s successor, the current occupier of the papal “throne,” Benedict.

    Who are the stupid ones? If any are more evil than the Catholic clergy who were involved in these sins and crimes of sex abuse of the young, popes, bishops, priests, it is the lay people who continue to warm the pews and drop their money in the baskets so bishops can spend it autocratically on sleazy lawyers and accountants to evade as much as possible every effort to make them accountable to our supposedly just, equal, and respectable legal system.

    The abused children belonged to the lay people, not to the offending clergy at the altars and pulpits! The lay people are still not protecting their own children, most now adults. Who is committing the greater sin?

    The lay people are deluded by clergy who continue with their claims of possessing magical sacramental power. This locks the foolish lay people into the creed that they can do nothing to protect themselves or their young ones from the evils of clericalism. They wrongly believe they depend on that sinful, criminal clergy for their salvation without ever giving a single wonder as to how a sinful, criminal clergy can possibly save them.

    The Catholic Church has increasingly increased its obese system of sacraments since 325 when the bishops saw the political advantage of joining with the Roman Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicaea to promptly and vastly solidify their power. Is it any wonder that it was called the Roman Catholic Church after that? Those sacraments were obviously evolutionary, increasing the locks the clergy had on legitimizing the movement of people from cradle to grave. That’s called dependence, and the Vatican continues to work on that principle under the cover of its later development of deceitful canon law, a law that only protects it against the disclosure of scandal it causes itself.

    U.S. Catholics, and some elsewhere, are making lots of noise presently about the attempt by the Vatican and its bishops to dominate the lives of people around the world with its latest attack on U.S. nuns. They are adults. They can speak and fight for themselves. What about the children? we continue to ignore, forget the children, our own children?

    How can anyone consider the Vatican Church to be “holy” when it has violated so many principles of human rights and decency over and over and over throughout the ages. Should we be surprised that the lay People of God, which includes the nuns whose human rights are being violated by the Vatican, will continue to sit back in their pews and continue to dump their money into the baskets so the priests and bishops and the pope can continue in their inhuman, uncivil, evil, non-Jesus ways against them? This is as unholy as it is ignorant.