The Vatican vs. the Rebel Nuns: A Summit in the Holy See
The meeting had been billed as a showdown. In reality, it had more the flavor of two opponents sizing each other up. Afterwards, the Vatican press office described the encounter, between top officials in the Catholic Church and a group of American nuns the Vatican has accused of straying from official Catholicism, as having taken place “in an atmosphere of openness and cordiality.” For the nuns, representatives of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an umbrella organization that represents some 80% of Catholic nuns in the United States, the meeting was “an opportunity to “express our concerns” directly to officials at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office charged with policing church doctrine now headed by the American Cardinal William Levada.
It’s not surprising little was decided. The standoff is a long standing one, dating back to the period following the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, when the Holy See instituted a series of reforms and liberalizations, among them a call for religious orders, including nuns, to renew themselves. In the following years, many orders began allowing their members to shed the severe habits that date back to medieval times, to work outside of traditional church institutions, like schools and hospitals. Increasingly, nuns began to get involved in social movements, joining the battles for civil rights, setting up AIDS hospices and launching anti-poverty campaigns. “Suddenly the lid was off,” says Kenneth Briggs, author of Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns. “Sisters were deciding for themselves what to do. And back at headquarters, the Vatican and bishops in particular got very nervous.”
For the Vatican, the rebel nuns present a delicate challenge. In the United States, many nuns find themselves politically on the opposite side of the church hierarchy, for instance during the health care debate, when they lent support to president Obama’s policies. Though nuns don’t have a formal position within the Vatican’s ranks — unlike, say, priests, they are considered laypeople — they are nonetheless an important part of the church’s public and popular face. And since their orders are nearly always self-funded, the Vatican has little traction, outside of theological condemnation, in reining them in.