The Catholic Church has come a long way since Vatican II opened the door to reform and loosened age-old restrictions for the modern congregation. And many of the changes have been spearheaded by progressive organizations like the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
Founded in 1956, the LCWR is an umbrella organization representing more than 80 percent of the nearly 60,000 women religious in the United States. It’s been at the forefront of the Catholic social justice movement, advocating for causes like immigration rights, health care reform, economic justice, gender equality and religious leadership training for women.
Last Wednesday, at the bishops’ conference in Rome, the Vatican announced that it is launching an overhaul of the LCWR, which will radically alter its mission of social justice. The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith cited the group for publicly challenging positions contrary to church doctrine on issues like homosexuality, abortion and the priesthood.
"Since the leadership conference of women religious is actually an entity of the Vatican, set up by the Vatican in order to support for the women religious, the Vatican has the responsibility to look at how it's doing its job, and if it thinks that it's not doing its job correctly, to correct that," Donna Bethell, chairman of Christendom College's Board of Directors, said.
Bethell said the Vatican took issue with the speakers and reading material offered to members of their congregation.
Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a national Catholic social justice lobby, said the sisters are completely faithful to the teachings of the church. She describes the conflict as a difference of culture: not understanding the LCWR's democratic process.
"It's not an issue of faith—it's an issue of culture. And there's a culture within the Catholic Church — we come out of a European model of the last few hundred years, and the European model was focused on monarchy," she said. "We know how in a democratic culture, every family has political disputes. When you have good strong arguments, truth emerges. And we find argumentation being a positive way forward."
Bethell added that Vatican officials have no qualms with most of the work the sisters have pursued, they just haven't been vocal enough about lobbying against abortion.
"They're not being criticized for their support for the poor, or for political activities on behalf of the poor. They're being asked to speak out on this first fundamental issue more than they have," she explained. "There is no point in talking about the right to an education, the right to health care, the right to decent shelter if you're dead. So the bishops are simply saying the right to life is the primary human right. They want the sisters to be more evident in that battlefield."
Campbell said she sees the conflict as a trial of perseverance. "Over and over in the Hebrew scriptures we see people being sent into difficult circumstances to speak a truth to power, as best they can, respectfully, with caring, with love and acknowledging that we have different perspectives on this," she said.
Dissenters seem just as firm on their position. "If you take issue with your church's position on how best to lobby for healthcare, for example, or for more food stamps, nobody's going to excommunicate you," Bethell said. "When it's a doctrinal issue relating to the nature of the church, that's different. ... If you find that you simply cannot accept that position, then you have to ask yourself whether you're a Catholic."
Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain has been appointed to oversee reforms, which will include revising LCWR statutes, reviewing their plans and programs and digging into their affiliations with other progressive religious organizations. Women religious leaders are stunned by the move; some have suggested that church leaders are trying to suppress them for publicly supporting Obama’s health care plan, which the bishops object to on the grounds it would provide government-funded abortion.
Why has the Vatican decided to crack down on nuns? With a dearth of priesthood candidates, a dwindling membership and a battered reputation, can the Catholic Church afford to alienate its women leaders, who remain active and engaged? How will Catholic women respond to these reforms?
Donna Bethell, Chairman of the Board of Directors, Christendom College – A Roman Catholic College based in Alexandria, Virginia and Rome Italy
Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director of Network, a national Catholic social justice lobby