Pope Francis orders overhaul of US nuns to continue


Anna O’Connor holds a sign “Honk for Nuns” to passing traffic during a rally to honor American nuns at J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain on the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Mo. on Tuesday June 19, 2012. The event was organized by local residents and the nationwide organization Call to Action, a Catholic movement working for equality and justice in the church and society. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Nearly a year after the Vatican announced a makeover of the largest umbrella group for American nuns, Pope Francis has directed that the overhaul of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious continue.

The decision, while not entirely unexpected, could nonetheless bring an end to Francis’  honeymoon with the many American Catholics who had viewed the crackdown on nuns as heavy-handed and unnecessary.

Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, met on Monday (April 15) with the LCWR’s leadership for the first time since Francis’ election on March 13.

According to a Vatican statement, during a recent discussion of the case with Mueller, Francis “reaffirmed the findings” of the Vatican investigation and the “program of reform” for LCWR that was announced on April 18, 2012.

In what was seen as one of the defining acts of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy, the Vatican’s doctrinal office issued a “doctrinal assessment” that criticized the LCWR for not speaking out strongly enough against gay marriage, abortion and women’s ordination.

The Vatican also chided the women for “serious doctrinal problems” among many LCWR members, and said LCWR conferences suffered from “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain was appointed to overhaul the group’s practices and perceived theological ambiguities.

Monday’s meeting was Mueller’s first with the LCWR since Benedict appointed him to the post last summer, and he thanked the nuns for their “great contribution” to the Catholic Church in the U.S., especially “in the many schools, hospitals, and institutions of support for the poor” that were founded and staffed by religious sisters.

But the Vatican’s doctrinal chief also emphasized that organizations such as the LCWR remain “under the direction of the Holy See,” and that their task is to promote “cooperation” with local bishops and bishops’ conferences.

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. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

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. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

The LCWR, which represents most of the 57,000 Catholic sisters in the U.S., had called the accusations “unsubstantiated” and expressed “deep disappointment” with the Vatican makeover. In a statement issued after Monday’s meeting, LCWR leaders called the meeting “open and frank.”

“We pray that these conversations may bear fruit for the good of the Church,” it added.

LCWR had congratulated Francis on his election for his “great dedication to the mission of the church during his leadership in Argentina.” The group said it looked forward to “working with him in carrying forward the Gospel message.”

Some Catholic observers said Francis’ background in a religious order — the Jesuits — could impact his views of women in religious orders, both in the U.S. and around the world.

Beyond the Monday meeting, the Vatican appears to be getting down to business as Francis crossed the one-month mark of his papacy. On Saturday, he named an informal cabinet of eight cardinals to advise him on running the church and on reforming the scandal-ridden Roman Curia, the church’s central administration.

The group, which includes Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, will meet for the first time in early October in Rome, but the Vatican stressed that the pontiff “is already in contact with the cardinals.”

In the run-up to the conclave that elected Francis, several cardinals had voiced concern about the mismanagement and infighting in the Curia, which is mostly staffed by Italian churchmen.

sean o'malley

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley celebrates Sunday Mass with other American Cardinals and Archbishop Joseph Augustine Di Noia, O.P. at the Pontifical North American College March 3, 2013. RNS photo by Gregory L. Tracy/The Pilot.

According to a Vatican press statement, the pope decided to create the cardinals’ cabinet in order to follow up on a “suggestion that emerged during the General Congregations,” the cardinals closed-door meetings that preceded the conclave.

Only one of the eight cardinals chosen by Francis comes from Italy, Giuseppe Bertello, who currently oversees the Vatican City State.

The other seven lead in different regions of the world. They are:

  • Francisco Javier Errazuriz Ossa, archbishop emeritus of Santiago de Chile, Chile;
  • Oswald Gracias, archbishop of Bombay, India;
  • Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich and Freising, Germany;
  • Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, archbishop of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo;
  • Sean O’Malley, archbishop of Boston;
  • George Pell, archbishop of Sydney, Australia;
  • Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Maradiaga will coordinate the group’s work, while Bishop Marcello Semeraro of Albano, Italy, will have the role of secretary.

In a brief meeting with journalists on Saturday, the Vatican’s chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, stressed that the group will in no way “diminish the role” of the Curia or its responsibilities.

He said that while the Curia remains in charge for the day-to-day task of “helping the pope in the running of the church,” the eight cardinals will “advise” the pope when they are requested to do so.

According to Lombardi, the creation of the cardinals’ group is a “signal of the pope’s reflection and attention on the issues facing the organization of the church.”

About the author

Alessandro Speciale

Alessandro Speciale has been covering the Vatican since 2007 and wrote for Religion News Service from 2011-2013. Born in Rome, he studied literature at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Italy, and journalism at City University, London. He has appeared as an expert on Vatican affairs on CNN, BBC World and Al Jazeera English.


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  • The Nuns on a Bus have been told to sit on the back for years. Now the Church is throwing the nuns UNDER the bus.

  • This is a shame. The nuns have been the foundation of the catholic community. It appears that their voice is being silenced by old men who have no idea what the needs of the community really are. Lastly, could this be retirbution for exposing abusive priests? Shame on them

  • I had high hopes for Francis. I hoped and began to think he would be very different than John Paul and Benedict. But I guess he’s proving that the politics of the high Vatican Church is no different than politics anywhere else, secret and dirty. “You go along to get along.” You go along to climb the leadership ladder. Here’s a warning to all bishops including the bishop of Rome, if you persist in this ugly, un-Jesus-like behavior, you will only continue to see people rushing out of the doors of the churches. They are not your churches! You have no right to dictate!

    There are other places to believe. There are other communities in which to join in seeking and following Jesus, “The Model of the Holy.” This autocratic behavior of the clergy, Vatican included, especially the Vatican, this rank clericalism, must be braked to a screeching halt! The honeymoon is over, didn’t last any longer than any other. True colors are apparent. Red and white still dominate. Both should be eliminated.

    Does Francis not see what a contradiction all this is to the hope he was demonstrating for people during his first month? Forget the black shoes. Forget living in St. Martha House. It’s the actions that matter. And this latest action of Francis is no different than those of John Paul or Benedict! Wouldn’t you like to hear the conversation between Francis and Benedict when they met at Castel Gandolfo? Of course, even the U.S. CIA and or National Security Office can’t match the high secrecy of the Vatican. Tell me. What does secrecy have to do with religion? Unless religion is as evil as it has frequently shown itself to be throughout its history–and that very clearly includes Christianity!

  • If you choose (volitionally) to devote your life to the work of Jesus Christ then you chose not to be a political activist for the left wing. If you decide that your choice was wrong and want to be a political activist then you are free to leave and make that choice. What is hypocrisy is to misrepresent that you are working for Jesus Christ when you are actually working for women’s lib. Honesty actually is the best policy and latent undisclosed agendas really are fraud.

  • Are nuns the foundation of the Catholic community? Too bad it isn’t Jesus Christ. (have you heard about of Him — it’s in the gospels — you know: Matthew, Mark, Luke .. and John)

  • Well he is probably over looking what you know to be forgotten fact. Did Jesus talk about establishing a women’s clergy in Acts? I know he did not talk about it in the synoptics. Did Jesus have 12 apostles? Or more? Was there some instruction that was overlooked? Politics: is the pope running for public office? Is he asking Michael Moore for a video on how to do it? Are there some CNN polls that they need to follow? Is there going to be general election every couple of years? Maybe the Supreme Court can make them reorganize. Maybe Joe Biden can tell them how to run things. How about Reverend Wright; he’s a preacher isn’t he?

  • Jesus taught us how to live in everything He taught while here on earth.He did not ordain women.That is all I need to know.

  • Jesus didn’t talk about any priesthood. Jesus was a faithful Jew who was very disturbed about the corruption in his Jewish priesthood. He spoke out against it. In return, those high priests masterminded his assassination by the Romans as an “enemy of the state.”

    Francis has just demonstrated that he is no different than John Paul or Benedict. That was made clear at the meetings of cardinals before the conclave. That was the only way anyone could win an election with the ballots of those John Paul and Benedict cardinals.

    Those who have left the church because of the despicable sins and crimes of the clergy, including the cover-up by the bishops, all dictated from the Vatican, ought to join with the good nuns in forming another community of followers of Jesus, “The Model of the Holy,” because the Vatican church is corrupt from top to bottom with its clericalism-dominated clergy.

    There is no hope. What has been known as the Catholic Church, with all its ugly, sinful, and criminal history must be dissolved so that another phoenix of good might arise in its place. The Catholic Church is sinful and does not deserve to be considered a model of Jesus in any way.

  • The fact is that Jesus was the original left wing activist. The example of Jesus demands a liberal response.

  • That is all you’ve heard and listened to and accepted from your Vatican high priests. Jesus was a part of his culture, just as you are part of yours. Unfortunately, you have accepted a second-class position for women. That position is not only practiced in our culture, confirmed by law, but it is all you hear in the male-dominated churches you attend and hence you have fallen for that false gospel.

    Jesus didn’t ordain anyone! He was a faithful Jew from start to finish, even though his own corrupt priests arranged for his assassination because they felt threatened by his preaching for decency and honesty.

  • Your nastiness wins no argument because it is a total contradiction of the decency, justice, and honesty practiced and preached by Jesus–the very reason his priests had him slaughtered. Jesus was a Jew, not a “Christian.”

    You betray the fact that you yourself have not studied the gospels, and you undoubtedly know nothing of the other writings of the early Jesus communities or the history of the church–including all the evil sins and crimes committed by the “Christian” priests, both high and low. Most importantly, it is obvious that you don’t even realize there is not a single writing about Jesus that was written by anyone who knew Jesus.

    It is vital to study and learn for yourself, not just listen to and repeat the party line that is preached to pew warmers and money droppers from priests, high and low, drenched in clericalism.

  • I think that these “nuns” who live outside of their communities and still expect the Church and the people to support them are in for a big surprise.

  • The nuns I have known are are happy with their lot. They do not want to deviate from the teachings of the church.

    If you had been following this story for two years, you would realize that most of the nuns are not supportive of the liberal views of the leadership of LCWR. Your example of the activist splinter group Nuns on a Bus is par for the course.

    May we all recognize that we fall short of the holy life, but that is still no excuse for lowering the bar. It just is an opportunity to try harder with more prayer. Amen.

  • In a single move, Francis has destroyed for me and numerous others any hope we had from earlier signs that he would be any different than John Paul or Benedict, that he would not continue their efforts to “reform the reform” of all the good work and results of Vatican II. It matters not a bit what the pope wears or where he lives or if he presumes to bless non-believers from his heart rather than with cross sign. What is quickly destroying good will toward Francis is that he dares to presume the same royal, monarchical, hierarchical right to order the thinking and beliefs of others as his predecessors.

    The archaic days of dictated Catholicism and Christianity are dead. That death started centuries ago with the glory of the Reformation. Every person has a right to study and learn, to think and believe according to her or his own sacred conscience–another inviolate declaration of human right that was also clarified by Vatican II in an effort to gently remove the church from its harmful, Dark Age past like that of Pius IX’s obnoxious presumption of infallibility in Vatican I.

    That was the same Pius IX who also dared to have the small Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara, kidnapped from his family because a silly Christian servant girl presumed she had the right to spill water on the kid’s head and baptize him “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”–yes, it was a “ghost” then–and the pope presumed he had a further right to steal the kid and raise him as a Christian in his papal household, playing hide-and-seek under his huge cape. Why he even managed to guide him into the priesthood. Edgardo no doubt also cleaned and kissed Pius’ red slippers! You know, popes’ feet were kissed in obeisance until not long ago, just as they were carried high on throne chairs with ostrich feather fans waving at their sides.

    How does all this and the Benedict-Levada-Sartain-Francis-Mueller gestapo inspection and ordering of mature religious women in the United States relate? It is an arrogance that was never displayed by Jesus–even though none of the Jesus stories we have, canon or otherwise, were written by people who actually knew him, our “Model of the Holy.”

    How dare Francis follow the John Paul-Benedict royal arrogance of dictating our beliefs and the ways we act in pursuing our individually determined religious belief system. The awful ugliness of daring to think they have a right to declare they “love” us and follow up on that with dictates! Monarchies and dictatorships no longer have any right to exist, not in civil politics nor in religion. It is they who are dead!

    In one fell swoop, Francis has destroyed all the good will that was provisionally offered in response to his first month’s signs of doffing papal monarchy. The presumptive right to dictate the thinking and belief of others is mortally destructive to the church in these times when lay people are just as learned as priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes. Those clergy all suffer from clericalism!

    Francis and other hierarchs are anxious to spread the church in poverty-stricken areas of the globe. Do not mistake the fact that poverty is always bound with illiteracy, and illiteracy is always bound with gullibility. That was not the way of Jesus. It is no coincidence that church officialdom points to the greater number of converts in areas of the world where poverty and its attendant illiteracy reign supreme. The first announced advice from another cardinal to Francis upon his election, “Do not forget the poor!” For what reason?

    Where learning is more prevalent, people are deserting the church. Where illiteracy is more prevalent, conversion and submission are more prevalent. This is a method of madness, not a mere preaching of the Gospel, not a presentation of Jesus as the “Model of the Holy.” I think it was Eugene O’Neill who wrote a play about a king and a lowly subject in which the king announces to the subject, “I am king, and you’re nothing.” The servant showed his greater wisdom in his retort, “If you’re king and I’m nothing, then you’re king over nothing.” Take warning popes, cardinals, and all other bishops and clergy.

  • Yes, indeed. The nuns are the true face of Christianity, and the reactionary men are a fading and irrelevant body of useless bureaucrats. I was in Rome for the election of Papa Francesco, and I had high hopes – but then we heard the real Jesuit speak – not a franciscan. The nuns are the only hope left for the church, and we should all offer them our prayers and our financial support. They may, indeed, bring us to the real purpose of the church – not the squalid mess left in Rome.

  • a literate (:-) and compassionate response, and the true face the original gospel. Misogyny hides behind most ‘traditionalists’, and hatred.

  • “And Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell john what you hear and see…the poor have good news preached to them.” (Matthew 11:4-5).

    “But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:13-14) Think about it. If God is willing to take care of His children every day, we should be willing to also take care of those who need provisions.

    Your ignorance is incredible.

    You keep advocating study but then turn around and say that none of the stories written about Jesus were by people that knew him. The Gospel of John was written or dictated by the Apostle John. Matthew was written (in Hebrew) by the the Apostle Matthew (now believed to be written around 50 AD). If you don’t like the church leave it. Go start your own church and run it your own way.

    The “nuns on the bus” are heretics and anyone that advocates outsourcing the work of the Church to the government really has no idea what Jesus was directing in his parables and the Sermon on the Mount. YOU and ME are to take care of our brothers.

    Read some of Pope Benedict’s books and you will see a truly Christian man

    With love and peace to you,

  • Ur kidding right u nazis elected a nazi Jesuit dope ur so stupid and from what I see gilhcan has u already in line for ur own higher self let’s just say what was the old turm used ah yea reeducation but somehow I just don’t think urs will be in such a pretty n sunny place oh golly hey nazis what is that huge mass coming out in the kipper belt that NASA is so hush hush about hey do u guys also have under the red robe towns 2,300 ft below the deathican or I mean the Vatican hmmm what are u hiding from somebody coming to wip ur little punk ass are they being sent by all ur higher’s selves have ur higher dselves had enough ta ta something’s coming ur in deep do do by urself for urself any thought or action is just more gas on ur big barnfire get lots of marshmallows but I would get vegan ones u already have enough death karma have a great day the few u have left is this all worth it really ask the real nazis in w w 2 damn u kept hitler in that holy place for nine yes don’t u know already ah stupid are stupid is u nazis are so stupid u better read the prime directive everyone agreed to when they gave u that useless soul u poisoned that’s a whole lot of payback on urself by urself is there something stupid there or did it just fly right over my head dump ur selves tomorrow let an earth group of 5 yr olds take over at least they will see right from wrong duh duh duh

  • It is not nasty to be honest. It is nasty to co-opt Christianity to serve your personal agenda (and that is not honest).

  • That is right: he did not ordain women. But he loved and respected them. He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, cried with Martha, appreciated Mary’s ointment and gave eternal life to the woman at Jacob’s well. He honored his mother and respected women. He gave them love and esteem. Women were not unimportant they simply were not Apostles.

  • Incompatible with the male version of the catholic faith — the same faith that gave us the inquisition, and the crusades against anyone who did not agree with this old boys club. Mass murder, and genocide are the very least of what this doctrine accomplished. For the sake of perpetuating their power base, they would have destroyed the divine light of all humanity.

  • Old conservative men clinging to outdated doctrine against the loving women of the church. The RCC and Pope Francis just took a giant backward step. Too bad.

  • Old Dude, you are absolutely correct. These other Pope-Francis-disparagers . . . just a bunch of people with a lot to say about a lot of things they know nothing about. Hey you people, if you don’t like the Catholic Church, and the unchanged and unchangeable Truth handed down from Jesus to His Apostles to their Apostolic sucessors today . . . then just leave. Good luck explaining that to Jesus, by the way. Your arrogance is staggering . . . as if some femi-nazis in the U.S. have a better idea than 2,000 years of unchanged and unchangeable Truth! And your veritable canonization of that vile brood of vipers, the “nuns on the bus” . . . again staggering. They are sinners like everyone else. And your relentless condemnation of Bishops and Priests . . . again staggering. Get out of the Catholic Church and stay out. Go join one of the other 43,000+ different denominations started by some mere mortal, or better yet, start your own new one and call it “The First Church of Your Own Highly Exalted Opinion.” Repent, nuns on the bus, or burn in hell. As Jesus said, “lead My lambs astray, and it would be better for you to have a rope tied around your neck and to a great millstone and be tossed into the deep blue sea.”

  • The average age of these nuns/sisters is over 65 and rising. They’re over 98% White. What sort of future do you think they will have, especially in a church that’s already over 20% non-White?
    Freak show of nuns and male clergy fighting each other-“If only they both could lose”.

  • The Nuns of the LCWR have also been accused of harboring abusers of children and not allowing SNAP to address their LCWR conferences. Considering what’s been revealed in Ireland, I’m not going to rush to the front of the line to cheer these women on. I’d say that I don’t have a dog in this fight and that I’m indifferent to which “side” wins.