THIS SUMMER, a group of nuns boarded a bus and undertook to travel to nine states in the US. The bus was painted an unmissable sky-blue, complete with clouds, and it bore their message in large letters. “Nuns on the bus,” it announced, beside the slogan that read more tamely: “Nuns drive for faith, family fairness”.
The purpose of the trip was to highlight the work of a group of religious sisters, but implicitly it was also a protest. In April, the Vatican published its doctrinal assessment, in which it complained that many American nuns did not adequately promote Catholic Church teachings on abortion and homosexuality but focused instead on social work. To many in the church, this looked like a crackdown on nuns in the US.
Last Monday, the largest canonically approved organisation for Catholic sisters in America, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), gathered in St Louis, Missouri, for its annual week-long meeting, at which its members will consider their response.
A preliminary statement, published on its website, said the assessment process had lacked transparency. The report, the nuns said, “caused scandal and pain throughout the church community, and created greater polarisation”.
The doctrinal assessment issued a verdict on the LCWR, which represents 80 per cent of the 57,000 nuns in the US. In an eight-page document, the Vatican thanked them for their contributions to schools and hospitals, but faulted them for staying silent on homosexuality, and avoiding what it called the “lively public debate” about abortion and euthanasia.
It detected “radical feminist themes” in their midst. And it singled out Network, a smaller national Catholic social-justice lobby based in Washington, for additional criticism.
In response, the sisters of Network organised the bus tour as a way of highlighting their work and their causes. “We’re not used to having the spotlight on us and we’re always looking for ways to say ‘It’s not about us, it’s about our mission’,” Sr Simone Campbell, the executive director of Network, told The Irish Times.
Among many nuns, a sense of quiet rebellion is palpable. Sr Campbell is an associate member of the LCWR and does not have voting rights but she is attending the meeting in St Louis this week. “It appears that the Vatican doesn’t understand our lives; how we live in a democratic culture, and why, as educated women, we engage in significant conversations,” she says. “We ask ourselves hard questions and we ask others hard questions. And it seems like the leadership in the Vatican isn’t used to that.”
The past several years have been a period of drama for the church in the US, which has frequently split on issues of gender, sex and politics. In 2010, representatives of Network and LCWR wrote letters to every member of Congress urging them to support Obama’s Affordable Care Act, but the bishops denounced the act, arguing that by forcing Catholic institutions to give their employees health insurance that might cover contraception, it impinged on their religious freedom.
THE NUNS HAVE been subject to two investigations: the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR; and an apostolic visitation of institutes of women religious, of which the results have not been published. Even the Girl Scouts have been caught up in the fray: the bishops’ committee on laity, marriage, family life and youth is scrutinising the organisation following reports that it has associations with Planned Parenthood, a women’s healthcare provider.
These conflicts could be viewed as part of a growing gap between church hierarchy and lay Catholics. “American Catholics are very secure about their religion; they know exactly what they’re doing,” says Jon O’Brien, who is originally from Dublin and is the president of Catholics for Choice, based in Washington DC. “Catholics don’t listen to the bishops; they don’t walk in lockstep with the bishops on all of these social issues. And I think that has been a frustration, as the global church and the hierarchy have lurched to the right.” Surveys have shown that 52 per cent of American Catholics favour gay marriage and that 98 per cent of Catholic women have used birth control.
In terms of media portrayal, the sisters are winning. While US bishops seem to favour making authoritative pronouncements on Catholic news websites, nuns have been popping up across national and international media. To publicise the bus tour, Sr Campbell appeared on the comedy news show, the Colbert Report in a slot entitled Radical Feminist Nuns. The host, Stephen Colbert, was jovial: “Now, sister, you and your fellow nuns have clearly gone rogue. You’re radical feminists,” he began. “We’re certainly oriented towards the needs of women and responding to their needs,” Sr Campbell replied. “If that’s radical, I guess we are.” The clip has had almost 65,000 views.
In the US, nuns tend to be well-liked and less tainted by the sex-abuse scandals than priests and bishops. “Women religious have always been doing what is considered the work of the church,” says Jamie Manson, a writer on the National Catholic Reporter. “Working with the poor, working with the marginalised, working with women who are victims of domestic violence or sexual trafficking. That’s moral credibility: doing the hard work, going to the darkest places in our society.”
On the online petition website Change.org, almost 62,000 people have signed a petition entitled Support the Sisters. Organisations such as the Nun Justice Project, which started the petition, have sprung up, and vigils for the nuns have been held in more than 30 American cities. A crowd of supporters arranged to welcome the LCWR sisters at the airport in St Louis as they arrived for their big meeting.
Yet the director of media relations for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Sr Mary Ann Walsh, says the assessment of the LCRW was a matter for the nuns to resolve. The Vatican’s representative, Bishop Sartain of Seattle, notes: “They should be – they are, I think – in prayerful collaboration at this point.”
The issue had been hijacked by groups with other interests, says Walsh. “A lot of people use this for their own agendas. You have the Women’s Ordination Conference out there making this great defence: the Women’s Ordination Conference really has nothing to do with the Leadership of Women Religious.”
It may be that the structures of Catholicism are colliding with the individualistic spirit of American democracy – and feminism – as Manson suggests. “We come out of this very democratic and individualistic place and we’re hitting up against a radically different culture – a culture that’s still very medieval in its structure.”
If so, the nuns are sticking to their course. Manson, who is gay, in a relationship and who supports women’s ordination, thought that after the Vatican’s edict, her invitation to speak at this week’s LCRW conference might be revoked.
One thing for which the Vatican had chastised the LCRW was hosting speakers who “present a vision or description of religious life that does not conform to the faith and practice of the church”. After the Vatican’s announcement, however, the LCRW leaders contacted her to confirm her appearance.
Whatever the outcome of this week’s meeting, it is unlikely that many nuns will alter their activities. When asked if she would pursue different work, Sr Campbell had a clear answer: “Oh no. Our mission [is that] we were founded to speak for the needs of those who live on the margins of society and we’re going to continue doing that.”
On the case: The Vatican and the US sisters
APRIL 2008LCWR leaders are informed that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will investigate their activities.
JANUARY 2009The Vatican announces a review of American nuns, the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious. In January 2012 the report was submitted but not made public.
MARCH 2010Nuns in the group Network, including representatives of the LCWR, write to members of Congress urging them to support the healthcare bill.
APRIL 2012The Vatican publishes its assessment of the LCWR, criticising its radical feminist perspectives and approach to homosexuality and abortion. It appoints the Bishop of Seattle to review its operations.
MAY 2012US bishops investigate the Girl Scouts, following reports of associations with Planned Parenthood, a provider of reproductive services and sex education.
JUNE 2012The Vatican condemns Sr Margaret Farley for writing Just Love: A Framework for Christian Social Ethics.
AUGUST 2012LCWR nuns hold their annual gathering in St Louis and discuss the Vatican's doctrinal assessment. Catholics hold vigils in support of the nuns.