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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The ultimate outcome of the conflict between the Vatican and American nuns’ representatives is unclear, though control most likely resides in Rome, where the power and the money are.

“These communities don’t necessarily own their buildings and grounds, and they need to be concerned about support for elderly sisters at a time when they have few younger members,” notes Nancy Dallavalle, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Fairfield University.

There also appears to be considerable resistance on the part of a deeply entrenched and embattled hierarchy to negotiate with the nuns.

In June, the board of the LCWR requested and was granted a meeting with CDF officials in Rome. According to a statement posted on the LCWR’s website, the meeting was “difficult.” In an interview following the meeting, Cardinal Levada was quoted as saying that the talks were a “dialogue of the deaf.”

Further clouding the picture is the fact that in early July Levada was replaced as head of the CDF by Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, a conservative German theologian thought to be closely aligned with the German-born Pope Benedict.

The LCWR has said that it will not issue a formal response to the Vatican until some- time after its annual national meeting in St. Louis in August, which is expected to draw some 1,500 sisters from religious women’s communities across the U.S.

But in a July 17 interview on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air,” LCWR president Sister Pat Farrell remarked, “The question is, ‘Can you be Catholic and have a questioning mind?’ That’s what we’re asking. . . . But the climate is not there. And this mandate coming from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith putting us in a position of being under the control of certain bishops—that is not a dialogue. If anything, it appears to be shutting down dialogue.”

Meanwhile, support for the sisters has been building, which could influence decision-makers in the Vatican.

According to Sister Annemarie Saunders, director of communications at the LCWR’s Baltimore headquarters, the organization has received calls and messages from thousands of lay and religious individuals and groups, including those offering to launch campaigns to gather signatures in support of the sisters.

Among the first to side with them were the Franciscan Friars of the U.S., who in a letter made public wrote, “For us, there can be no dispute that God has been, and continues to be, revealed through the faithful and often unsung witness of religious women in the United States.”

In Connecticut, two women in Fairfield, Marion Najamy and Beth Bradley, launched a fundraiser in May that has raised several thousand dollars for local religious orders by selling t-shirts and totes imprinted with the words, “We Are All Nuns. ”

The slogan, which they borrowed from an essay by Catholic theologian Mary E. Hung, is superimposed on a long block of so-called “radical feminist themes”—parodying the Vatican’s charge—that Najamy says she found in the mission statements of women’s religious orders across the country. They include “social justice, education for all, abolishing the death penalty, dignity, charity, ending domestic violence, ecumenism, aiding the poor, the homeless, immigrants, the abused.”  

Such support signals a possible turning point for the estimated 68 million Catholics in this country as the conflict unfolds in Rome in the coming months.

“While American Catholics will readily laugh at jokes about nuns, they also have sort of a gut connection to women in religious life,” says Dallavalle. Arguing that the integrity of religious women is a fixed point in the Catholic imagination, she believes the Vatican’s actions have left U.S. Catholics bewildered. “In terms of the public conversation about Catholicism, the Vatican investigation serves as a deep point of alienation from the hierarchy for rank-and-file Catholics.”

Regardless of the ultimate outcome, nuns in Connecticut appear intent upon carrying on with their missions as they perceive them.

“Our work will not change,” says Sister Barbara Mullen. “This is our reason for being—to serve and advocate. That’s what we do and this is who we are.”

Nuns' Story

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