Nuns reject Vatican takeover but seek dialogue on differences

ST. LOUIS — American nuns facing a Vatican takeover of their leadership organization on Friday (Aug. 10) rejected Rome’s plans … Continued

ST. LOUIS — 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.

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.

Sister Pat Farrell, the outgoing 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.

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.

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.”

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  • amelia45

    ““creating more possibilities for the laity and, particularly for women, to have a voice in the church.” Sister Pat Farrell

    Thank you, Sister, and all the members of the LCWR. We do need that voice and the Church would learn much if it incorporated women’s voices within the Church. What the Sisters do is a toe-hold for all Catholic women. Are we not also created in God’s image?

  • amelia45

    I understand what Sister Farrell means when she says “Dialogue on doctrine is not going to be our starting point.”

    The Catholic world has changed radically in the last 50 years. There has been a massive turning away from the Church by people across Europe, in the Americas, Australia. “Only 47 percent of Irish polled said they were religious people, a 22-point drop from the 69 percent recorded in the last similar poll in 2005…” But it is not just Catholicism or Christianity that has lost adherents. “Average religiosity in the 57 countries included in the poll was 59 percent, a decline of 9 points since 2005.” [Source of both quotes is “Religiosity slides worldwide, plummets in scandal-hit Ireland”, Chicago Tribune News, 8/8/12, by Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor for Reuters.]

    The number of Catholics seeking to be priests, sisters, and brothers has dropped precipitously. All forms of vowed religious life within Catholicism are decimated in the “old world” countries with substantial growth only occurring in Africa and Asia. I am not sure if there is a single old world country in which new vocations equal the death rate of those who are currently vowed – not only as vowed sisters, but more importantly for the life of the Church, in the priesthood. In the U.S., the average age of priests is 59 and the average age of parish priests is 64. It is higher in some other countries.

    Pope John XXIII was prophetic in his intent to open the Church to the new. Those who followed him have utterly failed to engage the world of today, standing on traditions and structural forms that are no longer effective or relevant to millions of people today.

    There is a concept in Catholicism of “sensus fidelium”, the sense of the faithful. That sense of the faithful is part of what guards the faith against error. But the Church hierarchy must pay attention to that sense of the faithful. It must recognize it when it is speaking and showing the hierarchy that the Church is in error.

    Dialogue implies all parties to the conversation both listen and speak. It is time – past time – for the hierarchy to listen with an open heart to the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through the people of the Church.

    The Sisters have my gratitude and my prayers, and acknowledgement for their courage, faithfulness, and tenacity to the truth as they see it and live it.

  • valor5


    You say, “the Sisters have my gratitude and my prayers, and acknowledgement for their courage, faithfulness, and tenacity to the truth as they see it and live it.”

    That’s just it, isn’t it? The truth is not a prism, seen differently through 100 lenses. At least not if you claim to be Catholic. The Truth is unchanging, absolute, created by God Himself and revealed through the Church. These “sisters” are in defiance of 2,000 years of established tradition and, yes, revealed truth. You are keen to mention a concept in Catholicism, do you care to share your views on other established “concepts” such as the Magisterium?

    What exactly are they being faithful to? Certainly not their vows or the Vicar of Christ. No, they are being faithful to their own misguided relativism which “informs” them that slaying the unborn is the way of the Holy Spirit, and that marriage can be whatever they choose it to be.

    How dare they speak for the real Faithful, who are rebuilding seminaries and teaching the Catholic faith in all its Fideltiy.

    You cite declining numbers of religious in European countries, as if that is some sign that the hierarchy is out of touch. You would do well to read some of Cardinal Ratzinger’s commentary on the dictatorship of relativism which has Europe in its death-grip. He has written extensively on Europe.

    You also conveniently fail to mention the massive decline of the LCWR’s own numbers.

    And they are staggering: 180,000 professed sisters in 1965 and less than 56,000 today. Today’s women are choosing orthodoxy and they are choosing the truth, outside of the LCWR’s radical feminist umbrella.