Nuns' Story

The men who run the Vatican thought they could simply clamp down on what they saw as the wayward activities of American nuns. They didn't realize who they were dealing with.


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Last April, the Vatican issued a sharp repudiation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the organization representing 80 percent of Catholic religious women in this country. It charged that the officers had failed to espouse traditional church teachings on issues such as gay marriage, contraception, abortion and the ordination of women. It also accused them of promoting “radical feminist themes” incompatible with Catholicism. U.S. Cardinal William J. Levada, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF)—once the office of the Inquisition—was appointed to oversee what amounts to a likely hostile takeover of the LCWR.

What hasn’t been widely reported is the role William E. Lori, the former Bishop of the Bridgeport Diocese, played in this crackdown on American nuns.

It was Lori who, in 2003, as a supporter of traditional women’s religious orders, formally petitioned the CDF to launch an investigation into the LCWR. His proposal was reportedly advanced in Rome by Cardinal Bernard Law, a member of a number of important Vatican offices, and ultimately authorized by Pope Benedict XVI. Lori is also chairman of the doctrinal committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, succeeding Levada. In March of this year, Benedict, who has been pushing for a return to doctrinal orthodoxy since being elected pope in 2005, appointed Lori Archbishop of Baltimore, the city where the LCWR is based. (Numerous calls to the Archbishop’s office requesting an interview were not returned.)

While the Vatican claims it is targeting only the organization’s leadership, not American nuns in general, that hasn’t exactly been the case.

On June 4, two months after the LCWR repudiation, the CDF publicly denounced  Sister Margaret Farley, a member of the Sisters of Mercy and a professor emerita of Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School, claiming that the views on human sexuality she expressed in her book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, posed “grave harm” to the faithful.  

As with the widespread sexual abuse that’s come to light in the last decade in an institution ostensibly obsessed with sexual repression and control, the Vatican’s actions against nuns come laden with irony.

The Roman Catholic patriarchy has elevated the Virgin Mary to near divine status but has relegated nuns to second-class citizenship, denying them pastoral roles and a voice in policy while demanding fealty and obedience. Popular culture has long portrayed nuns as dark, if often amusing, dispensers of rigid theology and corporal punishment to generations of Catholic youth, but in reality they’ve been the good shepherds all along.

Meanwhile, the men in the Catholic hierarchy have struggled in vain to manage their own affairs.

In Connecticut, Lori took over a diocese that, under Bishop Edward Egan and Bishop Walter Curtis before him, compiled a horrific record of covering up sexual abuses by local clergy and turning a deaf ear to victims. In an interview that appeared on last February, Egan, now a retired cardinal in New York, recanted a public apology he had previously made for the abuse crisis, saying the church had done nothing wrong. Meanwhile, Cardinal Law, now instrumental in the Vatican statements regarding nuns, had been forced to resign as Bishop of the Boston diocese following allegations that he had mishandled hundreds of complaints against diocese priests who were later convicted of molesting minors.

In its April statement condemning the LCWR, the Vatican also reprimanded the sisters for making public statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.” But the soundness of that approach has been further undermined by recent developments in the never-ending abuse cases in this country.

On June 22, a Philadelphia jury found Monsignor William J. Lynn guilty of endangering children in that diocese by covering up sexual crimes by priests under his supervision. A month later, he was sentenced to three to six years in prison. It marks the first time that a member of the Catholic hierarchy has been sentenced for his role in the crisis. Lawyers and prosecutors say it could open the door to similar actions against senior church officials in other dioceses..

Yet perhaps the greatest irony in the current situation is that, almost overnight, the Vatican’s criticisms have turned nuns into American folk heroes of a kind.
If Vatican II was the seminal event of the 20th-century Church, then the conflict between the Vatican and LCWR may be the defining moment of modern sisterhood.

Nuns' Story

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