Nuns Weigh Response to Vatican ; after Searing Rebuke on Doctrinal Loyalty, U.S. Group Examines Options

By Goodstein, Laurie | International Herald Tribune, July 30, 2012 | Go to article overview

Nuns Weigh Response to Vatican ; after Searing Rebuke on Doctrinal Loyalty, U.S. Group Examines Options


Goodstein, Laurie, International Herald Tribune


At a meeting in St. Louis, Missouri, American nuns are planning to try to craft a response to a searing rebuke by the Vatican that questioned their doctrinal loyalty.

American nuns are preparing to assemble in St. Louis, Missouri, next week for a pivotal meeting at which they will try to decide how to respond to a scathing critique of their doctrinal loyalty issued this spring by the Vatican -- a report that has prompted Roman Catholics across the country to rally to the nuns' defense.

The nuns will be weighing whether to cooperate with the three bishops appointed by the Vatican to supervise the overhaul of their organization, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents about 80 percent of women's Catholic religious orders in the United States.

The Leadership Conference says it is considering at least six options that range from submitting graciously to the takeover to forming a new organization independent of Vatican control, as well other possible courses of action that lie between those poles.

What is in essence a power struggle between the nuns and the church's hierarchy has been building for decades, church scholars say. At issue are questions of obedience and autonomy, what it means to be a faithful Catholic and different understandings of the Second Vatican Council.

Sister Pat Farrell, the president of the Leadership Conference, said in an interview that the Vatican seemed to regard questioning as defiance, while the sisters saw it as a form of faithfulness.

"We have a differing perspective on obedience," Sister Farrell said. "Our understanding is that we need to continue to respond to the signs of the times, and the new questions and issues that arise in the complexities of modern life are not something we see as a threat."

These same conflicts are gripping the Catholic Church at large. Nearly 50 years after the start of Vatican II, which was intended to open the church to the modern world and respond to the "signs of the times," the church is gravely polarized between a progressive wing still eager for change and a traditionalist flank focused on returning to what it sees as doctrinal fundamentals.

The sisters have been caught in the riptide. Most of them have spent their lives serving the sick, the poor, children and immigrants -- and not engaged in battles over theology. But when some sisters after Vatican II began to question church prohibitions on women serving as priests, artificial birth control or the acceptance of same-sex relationships, their religious orders did not shut down such discussion or treat it as apostasy. In fact, they have continued to insist on their right to debate and challenge church teaching, which has resulted in the Vatican's reproof.

The former head of the church's doctrinal office, Cardinal William J. Levada, said after his last meeting with the nuns' leaders in June, just before he retired, that they should regard his office's harsh assessment as "an invitation to obedience."

"I admire religious men and women," Cardinal Levada said in an interview with The National Catholic Reporter. "But if they aren't people who believe and express the faith of the church, the doctrines of the church, then I think they're misrepresenting who they are and who they ought to be."

The sisters say they see no contradiction in embracing the Catholic faith while also being open to questioning certain church teachings based on new information or new experiences. The Leadership Conference has not taken a stand in favor of the ordination of women or the acceptance of gay relationships, but it has discussed such topics at its meetings. Members insist that open discussion of church doctrine is not only their right but is also healthy for the church.

They say their approach is no different from that of many Catholic priests and laypeople, not just those in the United States. …

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