The Vatican, American Nuns, and Investigative Reporting

Is the Vatican waging a war on American nuns? Hardly, but that’s what you’d think if you read the headlines of the NY Times, LA Times, BBC, NPR, CNN, or just about any other major news network. “Crackdown” is one of the most popular terms appearing in headlines related to the recent document released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) last month. I guarantee you, though, that the word “crackdown” does not appear anywhere in the document. Most of the articles about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), a group of over 1,500 which represents over 80% of the women religious in the US, contain language that suggests a violent conflict between a power-hungry Vatican and poor, helpless nuns clutching their rosary beads in fear. Take a look at this LA Times headline: ‘Vatican crackdown: U.S. nuns chastised for questioning church’. If you read the actual statement of the CDF I think most people would have a hard time believing that the actions of the CDF come anywhere near “chastisement.” Furthermore, the nuns did not simply “question” the Church. They protested and opposed it.

This recent event is a perfect example of the media’s tendency to turn everything into a controversy. They’re not interested in presenting the unbiased results of investigative research. Instead, they are interested in causing a stir that will attract people to read their articles. How can anyone make sense of all this?  As a wise person once said (though I don’t know who), “If you don’t read the news you’re uninformed. If you do read the news, you’re misinformed.” Furthermore, I did not come across a single article about this issue on the internet which posted a link to the actual Vatican document! Why not let people read the document for themselves and figure out what is going on? Since the articles have links to a host of other websites related to the issue, I can only assume that they are covering for themselves. That is, they’re afraid that you’ll read the document for yourself and realize that they’re lying through their teeth.

Let’s take a look at the Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

The document starts off with a long quotation by Pope John Paul II that speaks about the nature, importance, and duties of religious communities in the Church. It then says,

“The Holy See acknowledges with gratitude the great contribution of women Religious to the Church in the United States as seen particularly in the many schools, hospitals, and
institutions of support for the poor which have been founded and staffed by Religious over the years.”

Great, starting off positive. Thank you, Sisters, for all of the work you’ve done in education, healthcare, and charitable caregiving. After this, the CDF mentions its purpose, the “renewal” of the LCWR. Hardly a crackdown or chastisement. This renewal assessment, says the CDF, concerns a select group of religious superiors, though these superiors certainly affect the lives of many women religious in the US. This means that the Vatican is not reprimanding all of the nuns in the US, as many headlines would have you believe.

Why is the CDF concerned about the LCWR in the first place? The CDF lists three reasons. Firstly, some nuns have given addresses in which they have spoken of things like “moving beyond the Church” or even “beyond Jesus.” This is obviously not Catholic or even Christian. These nuns spoke openly and went unchallenged by the LCWR. Next, the CDF says that some LCWR officers have protested official Church teaching. Lastly, the CDF claims that some presentations and programs sponsored by the LCWR have contained “radical feminist themes” which have led in some cases to an undermining of the doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the inspiration of Sacred Scripture.

It seems to me that the CDF has legitimate cause for concern. While I myself have not personally conducted a survey of the actions of women religious in the US, I can hardly say that I am surprised to hear such a report. I have encountered nuns who have opposed official Church teachings openly, proudly, and usually with a sort of vengeance. Furthermore, I would like to add what while most of the pictures of nuns in the news articles dealing with this issue look like this:


The nuns who are officers in the LCWR look more like this:


Hear me out. Most of the nuns whom I have met who are respectful of Church teaching and joyfully carry out the duties of their community look like the nun in the top picture. They wear their habits. Most of the nuns whom I have met who dress like the woman on the bottom (treasurer of the LCWR) are crotchety, old, and forcefully defiant of the Church. I don’t think that I am overgeneralizing here. I’m just speaking from my experience. I would like to add that the religious orders that wear their habit, live in community, pray in community, and perform service as a community are attracting young women to join. The more liberal orders which have done away with their habit, live in apartments alone or with one or two other women, pray alone, and pursue high-powered careers instead of charitable giving are full of old nuns who are slowly dying off. Why would a young woman want to join a religious order that is going to have her live, pray, and work by herself? Couldn’t she do that on her own?

Anyway, this is, I think, another way in which the media is spinning this issue. If they posted pictures of the nuns whom the CDF was concerned about, readers wouldn’t recognize them as nuns, because they hardly qualify.

The next section of the document concerns the events which led up to its being written. The assessment described in the document was 3-year-long project. The Vatican was not being hasty here. Their work was careful and deliberate.

In enumerating the discovers of the CDF, the document mentions that the LCWR was rather picky when it came to upholding Church doctrine and promoting the Christian message. It was very enthusiastic about social issues, for example, but silent about things like abortion and euthanasia. The CDF states that they are therefore “seriously concerned” about these “grave matters.” Sure! Of course! Women Religious superiors were redefining Catholicism by deciding what issues were important and what issues were of no concern. Shouldn’t the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith be a bit concerned that their faith is being reinvented?

Most of the rest of the document concerns the dialog that has taken place between the LCWR and Vatican officials. It speaks about how the Vatican’s concerns are going to be addressed. An Archbishop Delegate with two Bishops will be sent to review and revise the work of the LCWR for a period of 5 years. See pages 7 and 8 of the document for details.  Now before anyone starts saying that the Vatican is imposing their views on the LCWR and forcing them to conform with their teaching, well, that’s exactly what they’re supposed to do. They are the authority on matters of Catholic faith and morals. Catholics are bound to their authority. However, nobody has to listen to them or obey them. Anybody who wants to can leave the Church. Since many of the nuns in question have all but stripped themselves of their Catholic identity, what should they be up in arms about?

**EDIT May 8, 2012**

Due to a few comments that I have received about this article I feel compelled to state the following: I am not trying to bash nuns. I was afraid that some people might get that impression. My point about the pictures is that, when the media attach pictures to their articles, the pictures evoke a certain emotion in those who read the articles. Picture A makes you think, “Wow, what a holy, sweet, innocent woman. Shame on the Vatican for picking on her!” The media are using pictures which misrepresent the issue. In picture B, you see a woman who would not make you think she was a nun unless you were told that she was. The fact that nuns like her do not wear their habit suggests to me that they consider themselves intellectuals/professionals first and nuns second. These are women who are actively protesting and defying the Vatican. If the media posted pictures of the actual nuns involved, the reaction to the articles would be different.

For an article that gives a very thorough treatment of this issue, click here.

About mattd4488

My name is Matt. I am currently a doctoral student at the Catholic University of America. My specialization is in Christian Ethics / Moral Theology. My aspiration is essentially to be a "translator" who makes the ethical tradition of Catholicism accessible to the lay secular world.
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One Response to The Vatican, American Nuns, and Investigative Reporting

  1. Rev. Andrew P. Carrozza says:

    Amen, Matthew! You hit the nail on the head! I have been a priest for 22 years and have observed precisely what you report. God bless you!

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