The largest group of Catholic nuns in the United States was reprimanded by the Vatican for promoting what the Church claims are "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith," including focusing too much on poverty and economic injustice. An American Catholic bishop has been sent to take charge of the group's conference, set to occur in August of this year.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious is in hot water with the big cheeses for challenging the Church on issues like the male-only priesthood, the Church's teachings about homosexuality, and they're taking heat for their support of President Obama's health-care reform plan.
The heath care bill is a particular sticking point for the head honchos back in Rome. During the debate over the bill, American bishops (all male) came out in opposition to plan. However, a number of sisters, many of whom belong to the Leadership Conference, signed a statement supporting it, which turned out to be crucial element for the Obama administration.
The conference is a larger organization that connects a number of women's religious communities, claiming 1,500 members representing 80 percent of the Catholic sisters in the United States. The Conference was formed in 1956 at the request of the Church in Rome, and as such answers to it. If the Vatican ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.
Sisters within the group were stunned when confronted about these issues, including Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby founded by sisters. Her group in particular was cited in the document, again for their focus on poverty and economic injustice. "We haven't violated any teaching," said Campbell. "We have just been raising questions and interpreting politics."
Additional reprimands have been issued to the group for making public statements that "disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church's authentic teachers of faith and morals." Translation: the men make the rules and the women are supposed to support and follow, not ask questions or interpret policies.
Another supposed problem with the group is that they don't focus enough on abortion or same-sex marriage. It seems like the Church would prefer these women address these key talking points for the church, instead of focusing on actually caring for the poor and disadvantaged.
Oddly enough, Jesus taught about helping the poor, but never once mentioned same-sex marriage or abortion. In terms of religious priorities, the sisters are sticking closer to the foundations of their religion, not breaking away from it. But this isn't really about religious doctrine--it's about the Church itself, which is a whole different animal.
The position coming out of Rome seems antithetical the teachings of Jesus, more political than compassionate. The desire for these women, who have given their lives to serving the church as well as teaching the Gospel, to follow those teachings seems pretty on point, and yet, they are being publicly scolded about their "priorities".
It was the nuns in the trenches that helped build the Church in the United States, setting up hospitals and schools, and keeping the local parishes running. While sisters once lived in convents, wore habits, and worked solely for Catholic institutions, they have begun venturing out into new areas like academia, social and political advocacy, and "grass-roots organizations" that serve the poor, many times habit-less.
The results of the investigation smells strongly of the need to get nuns back into those convents and habits, and out of more secular areas, instead focusing on Catholic organizations.
"They think of us as an ecclesiastical work force," said Sister Sandra M. Schneiders, professor emerita of New Testament and spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, in California. "Whereas we are religious, we're living the life of total dedication to Christ, and out of that flows a profound concern for the good of all humanity. So our vision of our lives, and their vision of us as a workforce, are just not on the same planet."
Translation: The Church wants these women to parrot the Catholic party line to their parishioners and the public without adding any commentary. The Church is saying, in effect, that these women don't have a lot to offer outside of being strong backs to do the labor and mouthpieces to echo what they've been told to say. The sisters clearly disagree.
The investigation began in 2008 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, lead by American Cardinal William Levada, who appointed a team of bishops to lead the process of reforming the sisters' conference. They were given five years to revise statutes, approve every speaker at the group's public programs, and replace a handbook the group used to help dialogue on matters the Church said should be settled doctrine.
Pope Benedict XVI's focus on doctrinal issues began before he became pope. He was previously in charge of the Vatican's doctrinal office. The Leadership Conference is not the only group under the microscope; all Catholic women's religious orders and communities in the United States are being looked at as possible deviants.
The most shocking element here is not that the Church wants to control these women. That feels like the status quo. The fact that the Church still prevents women from becoming ordained priests is only one element that speaks to that truth. The Catholic Church, heavy with tradition and ritual, does take an exceptionally long time to make any changes, so their current positions about these women aren't exactly a surprise.
What is surprising is the admonishment from for this group's focus on taking care of those in great need. Focusing on the poor and the economically disadvantaged is apparently a problem and one that needs correcting.
In the wake of the priest sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Church around the world, the idea that helping and caring is a bad thing says more about who runs the church and what they really believe than any religious text or sermon ever could.