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Nuns' battle with Vatican echoes earlier LA battle with cardinal

The Vatican's crackdown on American nuns echoes a 1960s battle in L.A. between the Cardinal and Immaculate Heart nuns. Here the nuns are, protesting at a Mary's Day procession.
The Vatican's crackdown on American nuns echoes a 1960s battle in L.A. between the Cardinal and Immaculate Heart nuns. Here the nuns are, protesting at a Mary's Day procession.
Courtesy of Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles

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The group that represents most of America’s Roman Catholic nuns meets today in Maryland to discuss what to do next after a Vatican report accused the nuns of promoting “radical feminist themes.” The battle is similar to one half-a-century ago between a group of nuns and a Los Angeles cardinal.  

They’re here every Tuesday – singing, praying and waving signs outside the D.C. headquarters of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The two dozen women and men say they came to support the nuns. Jack McCarthy says they have been "at the forefront of the church’s efforts in poverty and justice. I can’t say that for the entire body of bishops."

They’re reacting to a Vatican report that says nuns don’t spend enough time defending the church’s stand against contraception and same-sex marriage.  It accuses the Leadership Conference of Women Religious — which represents most American nuns — of promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”  The clash reminds protester Mary Frances Moriarty of a long-ago fight between L.A.’s Cardinal McIntyre and the Immaculate Heart nuns. "He leaned on them, didn’t he? And they said 'no'.”

That fight had its roots in the Second Vatican Council, the effort to bring the Catholic Church into the modern world.  Sister Karen Kennelly is a church historian and past president of L.A.'s Mount St. Mary’s College.  She says Vatican Two told religious congregations to renew themselves.  "They were given a kind of a general guideline," she says, "which was to look back to their original spirit and to their original purposes and to take a good hard look at the signs of the times."

L.A.'s Immaculate Heart nuns wanted to finish their college degrees and swap woolen habits for contemporary clothing.  But Sister Kennelly says Cardinal McIntyre — the head of the LA — intervened: "He had quite a temper. And words flew and the outcome of it all was that they halt all these reforms."

Immaculate Heart nuns ran Immaculate Heart College (IHC) in Hollywood. Its art teacher was Mary Corita Kent — a USC and IHC grad with a talent for silkscreen and serigraph. Her work is on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in D.C.  Museum curator Kathryn Wat says Corita was inspired by Vatican Two’s message that world peace is impossible without access to food, water and the opportunity for work. Corita and her sisters, in following the teachings of Vatican Two, applied that to their art making, and took subjects that were directly related to inequities that they perceived in contemporary culture and tried to address it through the work."

Wat says in the mid-1960s, Sister Corita mimicked the design of commercial logos — from supermarkets, banks, even Wonder Bread – to present messages with religious or social justice themes.  They were often fluorescent and always eye-catching. One caught the eye of the Cardinal. It's called “The Juiciest Tomato of All” from 1964. Bright red, bright yellow, bright orange. The text was from a letter by a professor inspired by the celebration of Mary he’d seen at Immaculate Heart College. "If a canned tomato company feels justified in saying that they have the juiciest tomatoes," he wrote, "then it isn’t sacrilegious to say that Mother Mary is the juiciest tomato of them all."

Unfortunately, the cardinal who was then leading the Archdiocese of Los Angeles said, “That’s it. I don’t want that shown anywhere.” Wat says it became difficult for Corita to exhibit the work.

She left the Immaculate Heart Community.  Sister Karen Kennelly says the Cardinal then ordered the other nuns to conform to their vows of obedience — or leave. "The great majority of the sisters took that second choice."

In 1968, the Vatican split the Immaculate Heart nuns into two groups. Fifty-one sisters stayed, but 455 left.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious meets this week.  The nuns will discuss whether they’ll toe the Vatican line — or cross it and keep walking, like Sister Corita Kent and the other Immaculate Heart nuns did 44 years ago.