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Nuns Mad As Hell

Pat20 Farrell201 Reasonably Small

As a group of nuns plans to crisscross the country to highlight their work with the poor and powerless, Adele M. Stan explains why we may be witnessing a catalyzing moment in U.S. Catholic history.

Until the 21st century, it was almost unthinkable that a group of Catholic nuns would respond to a Vatican investigation by telling the pope's representatives that they were not only wrong, but had behaved badly. Actually, it was unthinkable until last Friday, when the board of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group for most orders of U.S. Catholic nuns, issued a statement that did just that.

What drew the ire of the nuns was an investigation of their group that concluded with a bishop being appointed to oversee their every move, and to decide which speakers they could have at their conferences, and what sort of programs they could offer. Their sins? According to the investigation ordered by Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the sisters were guilty of advancing "radical feminist themes," not speaking out against same-sex marriage and abortion, and failing to withdraw a 1977 statement that called for the priesthood to be opened to women.

LCWR President Sister Pat Farrell, in an interview with Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times, all but scoffed at the Vatican's accusations:

"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."

In the statement issued by the LCWR board, the sisters assert that the "doctrinal assessment" conducted by the Vatican "was based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency." They go on to say that the Vatican report "has furthermore caused scandal and pain throughout the church community, and created greater polarization."

In the six weeks since Cardinal Levada delivered his report and the nuns delivered their statement, Catholic lay people in 50 U.S. cities have staged demonstrations in support of the nuns. Pope Benedict XVI could only dream of such support for his side in this standoff.

To people outside of Rome and Washington, D.C., the battle between the Vatican and a group representing most of the orders of U.S. Catholic nuns may look like just another skirmish in the battle between a conservative pope and the liberal wing of his church. In reality, the nuns are likely doing penance for having dared to voice their opinion at a critical moment in American politics—an opinion that not only ran counter to that of the church fathers, but ultimately undercut the power of the Catholic bishops in the halls of Congress.

When the Obama administration maneuvered its health-care reform legislation through Congress without the approval of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, members of church hierarchy were mighty miffed. Especially insulting was the administration's claim of a Catholic imprimatur for its legislation, thanks to the backing of Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, as well as from some 55 prominent nuns, many of them LCWR members, who signed onto a public letter in support of the Affordable Care Act.

Never before had a U.S. president shut out the bishops in so public a way and, to make matters worse for the hierarchy, turned to nuns as a source of Catholic authority. The administration was hardly looking to make a statement on Catholic doctrine, of course; its strategists were acting from practical concerns, looking to demonstrate to Catholic voters that the bill had the approval of Catholic leaders. Yet this maneuver may yet prove to be a catalyzing moment in U.S. Catholic history—one that shifted the balance of power in the church in an unforeseen way. Ultimately, the pragmatic bet made by administration strategists was that the Catholic people were no longer within the control of the bishops, but that the nuns still had the people's respect. And they were right.

And it didn't end there. When the administration declined to give big Catholic institutions, such as hospitals and universities, an exemption from the requirement that employers provide contraceptives to employees in their health-care plans, the bishops went into a state of high dudgeon. Again, it was a nun, Sister Keehan, who provided the Catholic sign-off the administration needed on the "accommodation" it made to church-affiliated employers by changing its regulation to make health insurance companies, and not the employers who contract them, cover the costs of prescription contraceptives, and without a co-payment from the patient. Keehan's assent was more than a religious seal of approval; as the president of an organization whose members include some 650 Catholic hospitals and 1,400 health-care facilities, Keehan was speaking for many of the institutions required to live by the mandate.

As an umbrella group for so many orders of nuns, LCWR made for a highly symbolic target. (Notably, the Vatican did not set its sights on Sister Keehan's Catholic Health Association, which is not specific to nuns). The timing of the Vatican's judgment of the sisters of LCWR came just weeks ahead of the filing of multiple law suits against the administration by bishops and Catholic institutions across the country challenging the implementation of the birth control mandate in the health-care law, even though the investigations targeting the group began four years ago. And this week, the Vatican targeted another nun, Sister Margaret Farley, an ethicist and professor emeritus of Yale Divinity School, for a book she published in 2006, Just Love. (Farley's book came under fire for departing from church doctrine on such matters as homosexuality, divorce and masturbation, which the Vatican describes as "a gravely disordered behavior").

In the meantime, the bishops have launched an organizing effort they call a Fortnight for Freedom, through which they hope to rally support for their claim that the contraceptive mandate is an infringement on their religious freedom. The fortnight begins on June 21, the vigil of the Feast of St. Thomas More, and concludes on Independence Day. Overlapping with the bishops rally, a rotating group of nuns organized by Sister Simone Campbell of Network, a social justice lobby, announced a bus tour across the country to emphasize their antipoverty work and protest cuts to services for the poor.

Next week, Sister Farrell will travel to Rome with LCWR Executive Director Sister Janet Mock to meet with Cardinal Levada and Bishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, the cleric charged with implementing what several nuns have called the "hostile takeover" of their organization. Given the outcry from the laypeople over the nuns' shabby treatment by the Vatican, some expect the inquisitors to be in a conciliatory mood. Others fear that the nuns may fold in the face of Vatican threats. Or something truly radical could happen: come August, when the entire LCWR membership gathers in St. Louis for its annual conference, the group could decide to break with the Vatican altogether, and incorporate as a non-profit corporation.

But any way the sisters' saga ends, the church is changed forever by the exposure of the powerlessness of the pope and his ecclesiastical henchmen over the lives of lay people, who clearly want to see Catholic women treated with more respect than the Vatican has been able to muster.

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