The Vatican and the Nuns

April 17, 2015 at 3:34 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments
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Well, the word is out. The Vatican has ended mandatory supervision of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the umbrella group representing eighty percent of the 59,000 Catholic sisters in the U.S. Such supervision by three U.S.bishops resulted from a long “doctrinal assessment” of the group, begun in 2009, and a hostile report, or mandate, at the end of that investigation in 2012. The report accused the LCWR of entertaining “radical feminist themes” and mandated episcopal supervision of the group until 2017.

Commentators are ecstatic. Jason Berry, the journalist who previously beat the bishops black and blue over clergy sex abuse, declares on the Global Post, “The Nuns Won!” Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times links the end of the doctrinal process to Pope Francis’s call for “broader opportunities” for women in the church; she also quotes a Vatican expert to the effect that the pope’s meeting with four LCWR leaders on April 17 was “about as close to an apology…as the Catholic Church is officially going to render.” And The Boston Globe’s John Allen, a centristwelcomes the development but claims that it was in the cards almost from the outset.

Some of the activist groups supporting the LCWR are a bit more balanced in their responses. The Nun Justice Project, a coalition of progressive groups that organized to stand up for the nuns after the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published its hostile mandate in 2012, issued a statement in response to yesterday’s  joint communication from the LCWR and the Vatican. Like many others, Nun Justice welcomes the resolution but attributes much of it to “the dogged determination of LCWR sister-leaders to persevere in dialogue with those who unjustly maligned them.” They also restate their conviction that the Vatican owes the sisters an apology.

A number of commentators consider this unexpectedly benign conclusion to the lengthy investigation, hostile report, and mandatory supervision to be a function of “the Francis effect.” Yet it’s worth noticing that Francis by no means stopped Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect of the Vatican office that inaugurated the crack-down, from chastising the LCWR a year ago for giving a leadership  award to Sister Elizabeth Johnson. Johnson is the feminist theologian whose book Quest for the Living God had been previously denounced by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Cynic that I am, I suspect this conclusion to the LCWR investigation, described by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston as a public relations”disaster,”  is as much an attempt to cut off at the pass crowds of demonstrators carrying  “Support Our Sisters” signs during Papa Francesco’s upcoming visit as it is an act of mercy.

I admit, it’s hard not to welcome this end to hostilities, no matter what underpins it. But I would urge those celebrating in the streets to bear something in mind. As Benedictine monk Anthony Ruff said with some astonishment after the Vatican trashed his years of work on musical settings when it rejected the International Commission on English in the Liturgy’s translation of the Roman Missal in 2008, “The Catholic Church is an absolute monarchy.” Nobody at any level is accountable to anyone below him (and I use the male pronoun intentionally).

So if the early suspension of the offensive mandatory supervision of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is a result of Francis’s focus on mercy, or because he was once the superior of a province of a religious congregation and thus understands what a tough job leadership is, or if he’s listening to the bishops who support the sisters as his predecessors didn’t–whatever the reason–he’s still seventy-eight years old.  The vast majority of Catholics have absolutely nothing to say about who will succeed him, or what the attitude of said successor toward nuns (or women, or LGBT people, or mercy) will be. All we can do is pray that Papa Francesco lives a long time and appoints a whole lot of merciful bishops and cardinals while he’s still with us.

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8 Comments »

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  1. THANKS FOR ALWAYS SHARING YOUR THOUGHTFUL INSIGHTS ON THIS ISSUE. IT IS NOT A SIMPLE THUMBS UP OR THUMBS DOWN AND YOU PROVIDE MANY SIDES TO CONSIDER.

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  2. I second your statement: “Like many others, Nun Justice welcomes the resolution but attributes much of it to “the dogged determination of LCWR sister-leaders to persevere in dialogue with those who unjustly maligned them. ” This is what I was celebrating about the announcement — not so much to congratulate the hierarchs but in admiration of the persistent nuns and their supporters (including your admirable book, Marian). Power to the people! In so many ways, a real people’s movement is a-building.

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  3. Thank you as always for keeping us thinking and paying attention! take care, Margaret

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  4. Your final paragraph is sobering – who comes after may not be so generous in spirit as Francis. Still, I’m happy that this mean spirited witch hunt is ended

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  5. I am excited about a joint statement! And I trust in the message of Easter and the reality of The Incarnation.

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  6. I think this might be a useful Fb post for RCWMS.

    Jeanette Stokes Durham, NC stokesnet@aol.com Blog: http://stokesnet.wordpress.com

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  7. Reblogged this on CATHOLIC, Non-Roman Western Style and commented:
    Bottom Line: “The Catholic Church is still a monarchy” and the next pope can turn things around just as easily as any other pope, as Marion Ronan reminds us in this article.

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  8. The problem with being happy about all this is that dear Pope Francis is only a benevolent monarch, but still in full claim of Roman monarchy for the Catholic Church.

    This strategic move, to free the Sisters from continued censoring oversight as long as they comply with issues addressed in the report….drains considerable energy out of the movement for a much needed diverse-rites, council-style Catholic leadership structure as described in Archbishop Quinn’s book, EVER ANCIENT, EVER NEW: STRUCTURES OF COMMUNION IN THE CHURCH.

    Thank you for your article, Marion! I was wondering if anyone would see through this happy picture to the not-so-happy underlying reality in great need of attention.

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