In the latest development of the long-running saga between American Nuns and Rome, the Vatican released a statement on Monday that rebuked the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the largest overseeing organization of the 50,000 American Catholic nuns. In addition to reiterating criticisms of the sisters’ education in and exploration of new theological movements, this time the sisters were also in trouble for honoring a theologian who is not in favor with Rome.
The rebuke comes from Cardinal Muller, the head of the Vatican organization charged with ensuring adherence to Catholic teachings, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) — or, as it was known 500 years ago, the Inquisition. The statement is dated April 30, around the time when he met with the heads of the LCWR and their Vatican-appointed watchdog, Seattle’s Archbishop Sartain.
Notably, he says, he was “saddened” to learn that the sisters were not following their directive to have their annual conference’s speakers and award grantees approved by Rome. In the statement, Muller highlights that the LCWR gave an award to a theologian, Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, whose work — according to the CDF — holds doctrinal errors.
Tensions have been building between the Vatican and LCWR since 2012, when the Vatican accused the LCWR’s members of “radical feminism,” and a tendency to social justice work over speaking out against abortion and gay people.
In the Church’s official view, the LCWR is thinking, learning, speaking, and promoting ideas that are a little too “out there” for the Vatican. On this point, though, Emma Green at the Atlantic has noted that the words and ideas for which the Vatican has criticized the LCWR were in a larger context of garden-variety Catholic faith.
In his press release, Cardinal Muller said he did not wish to silence anyone, saying: “…the last thing in the world the Congregation would want to do is call into question the eloquent, even prophetic witness of so many faithful religious women.”
But, in fact, this is exactly what the LCWR was reprimanded for two years ago; then, the Vatican said that sisters who saw their dissent or disagreement with official Church teaching as a potential prophetic witness to true theology and faith, they were wrong — because only the CDF and the Vatican can verify true prophetic witness. The text hints that they define it as “sticking to the rules.”
Multiple news sites have played down the LCWR’s latest reprimand in Rome, reporting on another German Cardinal — Cardinal Walter Kasper — who spoke at Fordham University on Monday evening and, in response to questions about Muller’s statement, said that he, too, is “also considered suspect” by the Vatican for his writings.
So, why does it matter that a German Cardinal called a group of nuns to Rome for a dressing-down? Because the sisters of the LCWR are — whether they call themselves feminist or not, prophetic or not, radical or not — the voice of women struggling for respect and some mote of equality within (arguably) the oldest patriarchal institution in the world. Unlike Cardinal Kasper, they’ve been told that the recognition of their organization and way of life could depend on toeing the line.
To some, asking a far-out theologian to speak at a conference of 850 women, whose average age is between 73-74, against the wishes of (or rather, without notifying) the Vatican may not seem like much but, in Catholic Church terms, it is a resistance that should be seen as nothing short of inspiring. Catholics still make up the largest single denomination of Christians in the United States (more than one in five adults) and, at times, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops can have an outsize sway in American politics. By fighting for their own integrity and survival, many Catholic sisters are also working to create a more just and equal Church from within. And while it might not fit most traditional definitions of radical feminist activism, it is a fight that could have effects far beyond their lives.
Emily Baxter is the Special Assistant for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress