On April 18, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—the modern-day vestige of the Holy Office of the Inquisition—released the conclusions of an investigation begun in 2008 into the sins of our sisters. The congregation issued what amounted to a takeover decree to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a move that “stunned” the organization. With over 1,500 members, all heads of religious congregations, LCWR leans liberal and represents 80 percent of America’s 57,000 nuns.
After giving an obligatory nod to the sisters’ good works in schools, hospitals and social service agencies, the CDF devoted the remainder of its Doctrinal Assessment to attacking the sisters for failing to provide “allegiance of mind and heart to the Magisterium of the Bishops”; focusing on the “exercise of charity” instead of lambasting lesbians, gays, and women who use birth control or have an abortion; refusing to accept the ban on women’s ordination; allowing “dialogue” on contentious subjects; and tampering with the notion of God the “Father” while promulgating other “radical feminist” theological interpretations. The CDF’s solution: send in three men, an archbishop and two other bishops, to take control of LCWR for five years.
This led to an enormous outpouring of support to the sisters. But to anyone who has been watching the nuns closely, an unsettling observation emerges: these charges appear, in some measure, to be true. But that is not because, as the Assessment insists, LCWR has rejected “communion” with the church. Instead, it is evidence of a theological conflict that is raging in the Catholic Church, a conflict that most of us only notice when it spills over into American politics.
Liberal voices in the Church have been under attack ever since Vatican II. A number of vocal Catholic women, including nuns, have been among the most persistent and influential leaders of the fight to save the church from what they see as soul-crushing conservatism. This has galled the hierarchy, which has responded with silencings, firings, excommunications and public denunciations. Seeing that picking their targets off one by one wasn’t working, the Vatican, in taking on LCWR, decided to go for broke.
To understand what is behind the Vatican’s crackdown, go back to the 1970s, when feminism was seeping into the bones of American nuns. In 1971, the vast majority of the nuns who belonged to the Conference of Major Superiors of Women, which had been founded at the Vatican’s behest in the 1950s, moved to change the name of their organization to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious to reflect a commitment to women’s leadership and a more democratic spirit. Nuns were major participants in the first women’s ordination conference in 1975, and in the second, even larger one, three years later. By 1979, LCWR had become so spirited that its president, Sister Theresa Kane, challenged Pope John Paul II from the podium at Washington, DC’s Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to include women “in all ministries of our Church.” She did this while nearly fifty sisters wearing blue armbands, symbolizing women’s ordination, stood in silent protest.
Sister Elizabeth Johnson, who attended the second women’s ordination conference and whose order belongs to LCWR, found feminism too, but she also found theology, becoming the first woman to earn a PhD at Catholic University’s Department of Theology, which had previously granted degrees only to priests. (Catholic University is the only US university under Vatican control.) Upon graduation, Johnson became the first woman to join Catholic University’s theology faculty. She slipped the occasional feminist reading into her course on Christology, inviting forty male seminaries to wrestle with the question of whether a male savior could save women, originally posed by the grandmother of Catholic feminist theology, Rosemary Radford Ruether. In time Johnson became the first woman eligible for tenure in CUA’s theology department. But that’s when her meteoric rise ended. In 1986, her bruising tenure battle began.