LCWR Nuns Respond, Acknowledge Severity of Vatican Mistrust

In a statement released yesterday evening, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious made their most forthright acknowledgement to date of the level of tension that exists between the conference and their Vatican overseers at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:

In our meetings at CDF, LCWR was saddened to learn that impressions of the organization in the past decades have become institutionalized in the Vatican, and these institutionalized perceptions have led to judgments and ultimately to the doctrinal assessment. During the meeting it became evident that despite maximum efforts through the years, communication has broken down and as a result, mistrust has developed. What created an opening toward dialogue in this meeting was hearing first-hand the way the CDF perceives LCWR. We do not recognize ourselves in the doctrinal assessment of the conference and realize that, despite that fact, our attempts to clarify misperceptions have led to deeper misunderstandings.

The statement said that nevertheless the meeting with Cardinal Gerhard Müller was respectful and constructive, “although not an easy discussion.”

It’s always difficult to read between the lines in these episodes of Vatican kabuki theater, with statements from the hierarchy couched in passive-aggressive Vati-speak. Müller tells the LCWR that he is disappointed they honored theologian Sister Elizabeth Johnson—whom he never deigns to mention by name—and that had they checked with Bishop Peter Sartain, who has been appointed to directly oversee the activities of the conference, “he would have added an important element to the discernment which then may have gone in a different direction.” In other words, ladies, he would have told you not to do it. Words like “dialogue” are thrown around but don’t seem to imply give and take as much as “listen to the words that come out of my mouth and do it.”

For their part the LCWR seems reluctant to realize the weight of the forces aligned against them and the deep hostility toward progressive nuns harbored by many in the Catholic right. That it is the Catholic right here in the United States driving the doctrinal assessment has long been suspected. To them, nuns living in autonomous, self-actualized communities are everything that is wrong with the modern church. As theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether has noted: “Control over nuns, particularly American nuns, is seen as a particular priority in this effort to restore a monolithic church.”

It was reportedly Archbishop William Lori (who as head of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty was dissed by the LCWR’s support of the abortion “compromise” in the final version of the Affordable Care Act and their endorsement of the compromise over the contraception mandate) who petitioned the Vatican for the formal review of the LCWR. Lori is close to the Knights of Columbus, who funnel millions of dollars of contributions to the Vatican each year in support of their conservative priorities.

That U.S. conservatives might be literally pulling the strings on the investigation was suggested this week when David Gibson at RNS reported that some of the harshest wording in Müller’s takedown of the nuns appeared to come directly from Anne Carey, a correspondent for the conservative National Catholic Register who is one of the most prominent and harshest criticsof nuns. “[T]he Roman Curia has long relied on information fed to its officials by conservatives and their media outlets in the U.S.,” notes Gibson.

Some observers of the church think this round went to the nuns. After all, they gave their leadership award to their choice of recipient and their August annual conference will go ahead as planned. They put Müller in the position of having to threaten to pull their canonical status, a confrontation that surely can’t be desirable to the Vatican from a PR point of view.

But now the LCWR will have Sartain sitting on their shoulder reviewing everything they do and attempting to purge their materials of “feminist” themes. If the gulf between what the LCWR considers acceptable in terms of theology and doctrine and what the Vatican considers acceptable is as great as this episode suggests—and if influential U.S. conservatives are determined to make an example of the LCWR and Pope Francis has yet to intervene—it’s not clear how this ends well.

Patricia Miller is the author of Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church. Her work on the intersection of sex, religion, and politics has appeared in The Nation, Ms., and Huffington Post. She was the editor of Conscience magazine and the editor-in-chief of the National Journal’s health care briefings.