Beliefs

Nuns reject Vatican takeover but seek dialogue on differences

RNS photo by Sally Morrow

ST. LOUIS (RNS) American nuns facing a Vatican takeover of their leadership organization on Friday (Aug. 10) rejected Rome’s plans to recast the group in a more conservative mold, but declined – for now – to respond with an ultimatum that could have created an unprecedented schism between the sisters and the hierarchy.

From left, Sister Helen Garvey, Sister Marlene Weisenbeck, Sister Nancy Schreck and Sister Annmarie Sanders field questions from reporters during the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in St. Louis, Mo. on Friday, August 10, 2012. 

From left, Sister Helen Garvey, Sister Marlene Weisenbeck, Sister Nancy Schreck and Sister Annmarie Sanders field questions from reporters during the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in St. Louis, Mo. on Friday, August 10, 2012. 

Instead, the nuns said they wanted to pursue a negotiated solution to the showdown that has galvanized American Catholics in recent months and prompted an outpouring of support for the sisters that left the Vatican with a black eye.

The statement from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious came at the end of the LCWR’s annual assembly here and was the first formal response to the Vatican from the entire organization, which represents most of the 56,000 nuns in the U.S.

The Vatican announced in April that it was assigning a team of bishops to take control of the LCWR in order to make the organization – and by extension, most U.S. nuns – hew more closely and publicly to orthodox teachings on sexuality and theology.

Franciscan Sister Pat Farrell, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Photographed before the start of the LCWR national board meeting in Washington May 29, 2012.

Franciscan Sister Pat Farrell, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Photographed before the start of the LCWR national board meeting in Washington May 29, 2012.

Sister Pat Farrell, the incoming president of the LCWR, on Friday read the official response that expressed the organization’s “deep disappointment” with Rome’s verdict. But the statement also said the nuns wanted to keep talking with the hierarchy in hopes of “creating more possibilities for the laity and, particularly for women, to have a voice in the church.”

“Dialogue on doctrine is not going to be our starting point,” Farrell told reporters.

Farrell added, however, that the sisters will reconsider their options if the LCWR “is forced to compromise the integrity of its mission.” That indicated that if the Vatican does not relent on at least some of its plans to revamp the organization, the sisters could make good on the threat to disband the LCWR and reorganize it as an independent body beyond the reach of the Vatican.

The sisters' pointed but measured response seemed to reflect the approach that Farrell outlined in a powerful address on Friday morning to the 900 sisters gathered here. Her talk detailed the nuns’ public “struggle to balance our life on the periphery with fidelity to the center.”

Farrell spoke of how the sisters have historically been committed to serving the poor and marginalized as well as to pushing boundaries within the church. That sometimes led to suppression by the hierarchy, she said, but also to sainthood for many nuns, and to far reaching changes that have benefited Catholics as a whole.

(Left) Sister Helen Garvey, and Sister Marlene Weisenbeck  field questions from reporters during the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in St. Louis, Mo. on Friday, August 10, 2012.

(Left) Sister Helen Garvey, and Sister Marlene Weisenbeck  field questions from reporters during the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in St. Louis, Mo. on Friday, August 10, 2012.

Farrell invoked an array of images to describe the role of religious communities then and now, including that of the lightning rod that “draws the charge to itself, channels and grounds it, providing protection.”

Farrell’s point, and one that seemed to emerge with growing force over several days of contemplation and deliberation, was that the sisters could not continue to expand the church’s frontiers on behalf of lay people and others if they placed themselves beyond the institutional church.

“There is an inherent existential tension between the complementary roles of hierarchy and religious (the nuns) which is not likely to change,” Farrell told the sisters. “In an ideal ecclesial world, the different roles are held in creative tension, with mutual respect and appreciation, in an environment of open dialogue, for the building up of the whole church.”

Stating the obvious, she said the Vatican’s mandate over the LCWR “suggests that we are not currently living in an ideal ecclesial world.”

The next crucial step in the process will come on Saturday, when the LCWR board is set to meet for two hours with Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, the head of a three-bishop team appointed by Rome to oversee the overhaul of the LCWR over the next five years.

That will mark the first official meeting between Sartain and the nuns since the Vatican takeover was announced. Several LCWR leaders said they hope to establish a relationship – if not yet a rapport – that would reduce frictions and lead to a lower-key and perhaps more fruitful dialogue, for the nuns at least.

Sartain is viewed as an approachable bishop who could help steer both sides toward a mutually acceptable resolution.

Attendees admire a 'We (heart) Our Sisters' sign hanging outside of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in St. Louis, Mo. on Friday, August 10, 2012.

Attendees admire a 'We (heart) Our Sisters' sign hanging outside of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in St. Louis, Mo. on Friday, August 10, 2012.

The nuns have enjoyed a “groundswell of support,” as Farrell noted, since the Vatican edict was announced. There have been online campaigns and vigils of solidarity with the sisters across the country, and the LCWR scattered hundreds of letters of prayer and encouragement on the tables in the huge hall where the nuns have been meeting since Tuesday.

Even as some nuns spoke openly about the sense of anger they felt when the Vatican takeover was announced, Farrell and other influential voices pushed the LCWR members to stick with the process.

Sister Donna Markham, a Dominican nun and health care executive, said that after the Vatican takeover was announced in April she felt “extremely, extremely hurt. I felt betrayed by my own church. It took everything in me to go to Mass.”

But she said the priest’s words of encouragement to the nuns in his homily that day prompted a standing ovation from the congregation.

“We were in tears. It was the strength of the laity at that moment that made it possible for us to walk through this time,” said Markham. “It’s been one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in my entire religious life, and that’s 40 years.”

KRE/AMB END GIBSON

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

22 Comments

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  • An excellent, measured, and decent response to the CDF. The sisters should know that innumerable lay women and men in the world stand with them on this.

    Religious women taught me when I was a youth and formed me as an adult Catholic when I was in college. They were my classmates in graduate school, and I’ve been honored to call them colleagues in ministry for over twenty-four years. I value also the witness of men and women who witness to the faith in monasteries and in cloistered enclosures. All serve Christ and give stirring witness.

    The sisters should know that should they choose to disband the LCWR and convene workshops and gatherings they would be no more outside the ecclesial structure of the Church as workshops and gatherings I attend as a lay person. Of course, if they can, as diplomats and peacemakers heal our rift with our bishops, not only would that be a great grace, but it would not surprise me.

  • The problem is contentious but not difficult to unravel. The analogy of faith has been and remains tradition, Holy Scripture and the magisterium. The beneficial movement towards increased social services by the Nun’s is noble, commendable and most deeply loved. The conflict arises with their need to more closely relate to those being helped. Here there have been true and sincerely held beliefs that certain church doctrine hampers or prevents the ability to socially co-mingle with those who they serve. And, there is no question that our Nuns serve the needy with great love and charity
    This impediment should not prevent their service as they as they see it. Rather the distilled question is simply do the Nun’s wish to serve within the constraints of their vows to the church, or not. If not then by all means let us hope they pursue their work in the secular world relieved of religious vows previously taken. And, while the problem is not difficult to unravel, the individual decision each nun faces will not be easy. Prayers for all involved are needed.

  • A problem arises when the Church– or components of it in this case– sees its primary mission as being a vehicle for social change, services, or “social justice” rather than spreading the good news of salvation. In other words, the Church exists to help the poor, save the environment, heal the sick, etc. rather than to build up the heavenly kingdom and serve God.

    Works are a byproduct of faith, brought about by God acting in the world. Do you lack faith that God will see to it that what He wants done, gets done? If adhering to the word of God theologically as understood by the Catholic Church (mind you, I’m not Catholic) would somehow “compromise the integrity of their mission” then it sounds like you have lost your way. Not only may you be wandering into heresy, but you may be missing the entire point of christianity. What exactly is your “mission”?

    There is a movement to throw out whatever parts of scripture that we don’t like. “Catch up with the times, God! We know better than You what’s right and what’s wrong!”

    That’s a very dangerous sentiment.

  • There is a word for people whose conscience does not allow them to follow the Church’s teaching: Protestants. Unlike the middle ages, today anyone is free to dissent from the Vatican and believe whatever they want; they’re just not Catholics. Catholicism does not permit the laity to invent their own dogma; the Church is top-down. That is why Protestant Christianity exists. A Catholic dissident is a contradiction in terms.

  • There is a bit of a disconnect here that is notable, and perhaps needs to be explained. It’s the continual use of the word “takeover” to illustrate the struggle of these “poor women” against that giant tyranny called “the Vatican”.

    Let’s call a spade a spade. LCWR was set up by the “Vatican”, period. It is an organization which is subject to the Magisterium, period. Note to the author of this screed, “Magisterium” is a proper word and the definition can be found on the Internet. On their own, LCWR leaders decided to emphasize the organization’s aim as “social work”, as opposed to “religious work”.

    The Magisterium has requested this organization to fully represent and embrace ALL Catholic teaching, instead of focusing on socialistic errands. Apparently, LCWR leaders have decided it is more important to be social workers than faithful Catholics. On an individual basis, that is a free choice. Calling themselves LCatholicWR is not their choice. If they want to create a new organization, they are free to do so, but they cannot, note, cannot call themselves a Catholic organization if they do not practice Catholicism. To wit, they cannot even belong to the various religious orders they supposedly represent if they refuse to practice faithful Catholicism…..those religious orders are, individually, SUBJECT to the Magisterium of the Church.

    It would be helpful if folks stopped whining about how these “holy and dedicated women” are being treated by that bad old Church organization, and, instead, explained fully the ideas that are in discussion and the need, absolute need, for these discussions to be guided by Bishops in their responsibility as successors of the Apostles. Until that gets done, I am afraid we will continue to be inundated by uninformed writers who believe “takeover” is a useful term.

    Pray for the LCWR, please, that they may become faithful Catholics.

  • The future, barring a miracle, is clear.

    “The Vatican announced ….. that it was assigning … bishops to take control of the LCWR in order to make the organization,… most U.S. nuns – hew more closely and publicly to orthodox teachings on sexuality and theology..” The LCWR responds, ” “Dialogue on doctrine is not going to be our starting point,” and, “…the sisters could make good on the threat to disband the LCWR and reorganize it as an independent body beyond the reach of the Vatican.”

    In a few months, these sisters may cease to be Catholics. Pray for lost souls. Hell still exists and awaits proud heretics.

  • The HRCC no longer regards apostasy as a mortal sin. All God-fearing Christians can enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Baptists are not going to go to hell because they are Baptists. In fact, it isn’t clear to me that Mormons, Jews and Muslims are going to hell for their heresies.

  • Typical anti-Catholic spewage from David Gibson ignores all the facts (see Deacon Stagg’s post above) and rewrites history to play up his liberal Christianity-lite pose. Hardly worth reading. Now about that apostasy remark: Is Gibson a Roman Catholic? Probably not since he refuses to identify as such in his author profile. Attacking the RC Church earns him his paycheck, so who cares about apostasy!

  • “In every age the Church has drawn a fundamental distinction (which, on account of its importance, should never be overlooked) between formal and merely material heretics, and her penal legislation was directed solely against the former category. As the open and obstinate rebellion of a Catholic against the Divinely instituted teaching authority of the Church, formal heresy still remains one of the most grievous sins… .”

    Catholic Encyclopedia

    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14763a.htm

    Baptists are not going to go to hell because they are Baptists, but obstinate rebellious Catholic sisters may.

  • regarding the comments: see how they love one another.
    regarding the sisters: see how they love one another… and all those the Lord loves.

  • I fail to see the value of a group that is undermining Church teaching and giving aid and comfort to the enemies of the Church. The Church was at its best when Pope John Paul II teamed up with President Reagan to bring down the Soviet Empire and free the Polish people and other East Europeans from the tyranny of Communism,

    Here we see the Church at its worst where hysterical naive nuns are teaming up with enemies of the Church to attack religious liberty in the U.S. These rebellious nuns are playing the classic role of “useful idiots” by supporting Obama Care, the most dire threat to religious liberty in American history.

    They blew their chance to shape up. Now its time to ship out. The sooner the Church cuts them loose the better.

  • Good for the nuns that some church members finally stand up to the arrogant, presumptive domination of Benedict, the cardinals, and the bishops of the church and clearly let them know that they are not about to submit to dark age and inquisition tactics by the monster Vatican. It is long past time that all other lay people stand in solidarity with the nuns. The time is past when theological dictates can be handed out by a “supreme” pontiff or anyone else who acts in a supreme way.

    The Catholic Church needs to catch up with the Reformation instead of backtracking into the centuries-old secrecy and silence of presumptuous church managers. We are all the People of God. No one is supreme but God Almighty “itself!” There will be absolute respect for the consciences of all the People of God. Benedict may want to form a smaller church in his image, but catholic is catholic, and Benedict or any other pope is no longer the boss of faith.

  • ““Dialogue on doctrine is not going to be our starting point,” Farrell told reporters.”

    Really? This is the sole point of contention. These few nuns are wayward, giving the rest of the religious a bad name. Doctrine is the sole issue here.

    Really, these elitist “nuns” are causing grave scandal to the Church. This response is a vague, aggressive public-relations response. It provides no information except to calumniate those Catholics who demand Christianity from Christian nuns. Shame on these nuns.

  • More dialogue. Swell. This is the on-going tactic the LCWR has been using for years now… and to not “dialogue” about THE topic that has caused the rift (i.e. doctrine), well, that’s almost unbelieveable. People conveniently forget that the Vatican has warned them about public positions against Church teaching for many, mant years already, and the response from the nuns is always “dialogue,” while they continue on their merry way. Time to fish or cut bait. I truly wonder what the thousands of sisters NOT in the leadership of LCWR feel about all this …

  • Truth is an interesting thing. It strikes at the core and either resonates or deflects. The sisters speak Truth and the Church deflects it. Why does the Church deflect the Truth? Because it threatens the order the Church has established over the centuries. The order is the faithful must go through the Church to God. The new order is the faithful can go directly to God.

  • Roman Catholic Womenpriests-USA (RCWP) commends the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) for their decision to engage in “open and honest dialogue” with Archbishop Sartain, who was appointed to oversee a mandate for reform of the organization issued by the Vatican earlier this year.

    Sister Pat Farrell, current president of the LCWR, said that a dialogue “may lead not only to increasing understanding between the church leadership and women religious, but also to creating more possibilities for the laity and, particularly for women, to have a voice in the church.”

    RCWP believes that justice for women in the church, and indeed, justice for every oppressed group in the world today, will only come about when women and men courageously, yet respectfully, speak out and take action in order to change the structures that maintain and promote injustice. LCWR has given us a fine model to do so.

    We are enormously proud to stand in solidarity with our sisters and will continue to pray with and for them as they move forward.

    Roman Catholic Womenpriests (RCWP) is an international movement within the Roman Catholic Church. The mission of Roman Catholic Womenpriests-USA is primarily to spiritually prepare, ordain in Apostolic Succession, and support women who are called by the Holy Spirit and their communities to a renewed priestly ministry rooted in justice and faithfulness to the Gospel.

  • The tension between magisterial teaching and theological development of doctrine is nothing new. It has gone on even before the Church’s beginning with Jesus confrontation of religious authorities. And it is healthy because it keeps Revelation going forward. But the issue here is authority of the magisterium. That is why it must be addressed before any doctrinal dialogue. May both sides respect one another and be open to the Spirit. In a way, this model is helpful to the laity who have serious faith questions that have not been credibly resolved by magisterial persuasion. We are no longer content to be sheep but rather participating members of the Body of Christ.

  • David Gibson loves to sneak in editorializing comments in the midst of what are supposed to be news articles from RNS. This one is no exception. Farrell’s address is “powerful.” The Vatican has a “black eye.” We have the usual imbalance in sources; here only those supportive of the LCWR are quoted. When it comes to coverage of the Roman Catholic Church, Gibson suffers serious lapses in professionalism in his writings for what is supposed to be a “news” service. Those looking for a balanced appraisal of the current conflict should read John Allen’s columns instead.

  • Deacon Stagg types the reality. The author (D. Gibson) could use a dose of such reality in his account of the struggle between nuns and bishops. The author could also use a dose of reality about us Catholics getting pretty tired of amok Koombaya Catholicism.

    I would add, probably the biggest part of the reason Catholic Bishops now poll 70% favorability (up from 50%) is because they are starting to reign in all the amok universities, wayward religious, and scandalous mal-catecheticists who have claimed to be Catholic but present ideas opposed to 2,000 years of Catholicism. Indeed, whether the wayward sisters like it or not, and regardless if press writers agree, a religious sister’s ministry is first for her own prayerful salvation in obedience to her superiors, secondly to assist the salvation of all us lay people who haven’t as much time to devote to purely spiritual things, and only thirdly to their particular order’s call to specific social assistance. And we must note a reality that nuns are to effect socialism and other anti-Catholic ideas *not at all*… ever.

    It is entirely proper and just for the bishops to re-assert control over amok nuns. It is entirely proper and just for amok nuns to recall their vows, freely made, of obedience even whenit hurts the pride… pride coming before a fall, while salvation from pride enabling ultimate salvation, and all that … And we laity can use all the authentic nuns we can have who, through their voluntarily vowed humility, will lead us authentically to salvation and with a few needed physical alms along the way. At least our bishops recognize we need authentic nuns, even if the subset of prideful sisters are slow to remember this fact.

    Thank God there are now plenty of overflowing convents … authentic young nuns with a crisis of abundance to somehow handle, to counter the dwindling numbers of aging Koombaya LCWR nuns.

  • It is indeed wonderful that the LCWR nuns are using a measured response; to the great degree they have been socialist and disobedient, they are the ones in the wrong. The bishop is right to applaud their slow consideration; it is in this way that they may realize the error and pride they engaged in. Socialism, that they unilaterally chose to champion, is wholly opposed to Catholicism. And, now that socialists via the Obama-Sebelius mandates, are directly and coercively dictating morality to religions, perhaps the bishops will get back to clearly stating the incompatibility of socialism with Catholicism.

    The bishops would not break new gorund, just remind of truths obfuscated during the last few decades. We can charitibly consider that the LCWR nuns went astray due, in part, to decades of almost complete lack of strident & public instruction from the bishops on the inherent evils within socialism.

    It is nothing new, that socialism and Catholicism are wholly and inherently incompatible. Catholicism has noted this opposition since the initial study of the works of Karl Marx. Though there are few clear teachings in the last few decades, Pope John Paul 2nd stomped the attempted socialism-Catholicism blend called “Liberation Theology”. It was when visiting Mexico in 1979 that the pope decisively terminated all attempts to use Catholicism to promote socialism; practically as soon as he’d been installed as pope. But he wasn’t the first to be clear about socialism’s inherent evils. Four decades earlier, Pope Pius 11th (1922-1939) stated, “No one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a true Socialist.” And Pius 11th wasn’t the first, either. Pope Leo 13th (in “Rerum Novarum”, 1891) said, “Socialism does not help the poor. Rather, it reduces everyone to the same lowest common denominator of poverty and misery, while at the same time drying up the sources of capital.” As wise as Margaret Thatcher was (“Socialists always run out of other people’s money”), she clearly was but leading the secular world in catching up to Catholic realization. Popes had studied and been clear on socialism since just shortly after Karl Marx invented it. It’s time America’s bishops clearly teach this truth. It’s time America’s nuns heard this truth clearly, and appropriately reform their behaviors to acceptible works of charity both spiritual and temporal.

    As the LCWR nuns carefully consider thier response, they would do well to remember that each of them voluntarily took vows that included obedience to spiritual direction, and note carefully that the bishops are finally being clear on thier spiritual direction needing to be far more religious and helpful like they were called to be, than secular and socialistic like they’ve been.

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