Sister Joan Chittister & Sister Simone Campbell Respond to Vatican Action Against U.S. Nuns

April 19, 2012

We’re continuing our coverage of the news which broke yesterday that the Vatican has appointed an overseer to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the association of heads of nuns’ communities in the U.S.   The National Catholic Reporter (NCR) article on the action highlights the tasks that the appointee, Archbishop Peter Sartrain of Seattle, will undertake:

  • Revising LCWR statutes;
  • Reviewing LCWR plans and programs;
  • Creating new programs for the organization;
  • Reviewing and offering guidance on the application of liturgical texts; and
  • Reviewing LCWR’s affiliations with other organizations, citing specifically NETWORK and the Resource Center for Religious Institutes.

“According to the [Vatican] letter, Sartain’s mandate runs for ‘up to five years, as deemed necessary.’ Sartain is also expected to set up an advisory team including clergy and women religious, to ‘work collaboratively’ with LCWR officers and to ‘report on the progress of this work to the Holy See.’ “

Sister Joan Chittister

LCWR has yet to issue a statement concerning the statement from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), but the NCR article quotes  a response to the announcement from Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, the renowned Catholic author and speaker, who is a past-president of LCWR:

“Although LCWR officers did not immediately return requests for comment on this story, a former leader of the group told NCR that the appointment and the order for the group to revise itself was ‘actually immoral.’

” ‘Within the canonical framework, there is only one way I can see to deal with this,’ said Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, who has served as president of the group as well as in various leadership positions. (Chittister also writes a column for NCR.) ‘They would have to disband canonically and regroup as an unofficial interest group.

” ‘That would be the only way to maintain growth and nourish their congregational charisms and the charism of the LCWR, which is to help religious communities assess the signs of the time. If everything you do has to be approved by somebody outside, then you’re giving your charism away, and you’re certainly demeaning the ability of women to make distinctions.’ “

David Gibson, a premier reporter on Catholic issues, noted in a Religion News Service story appearing in USA Today, that concern about the nuns’ silence on marriage equality was referred to in the Vatican directive:

“. . . ‘[C]rucial’ issues like ‘the church’s biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes church teaching. Moreover, occasional public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals, are not compatible with its purpose.’ “

The criticism of LCWR’s approach to lesbian/gay issues is also explicitly referenced in the Vatican document:

“In this wider context, the CDF notes the absence of initiatives by the LCWR aimed at promoting the reception of the Church’s teaching, especially on difficult issues such as Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis [in which the pope said there could be no discussion on women's ordination in the church] and Church teaching about homosexuality.”

As Bondings 2.0 reported yesterday, the Vatican’s criticism of LCWR’s approach to lesbian/gay issues also included nuns’ support of New Ways Ministry.  From the Vatican document:

“Policies of Corporate Dissent. The Cardinal [William Levada, CDF Prefect] spoke of this issue in reference to letters the CDF received from “Leadership Teams” of various Congregations, among them LCWR officers, protesting the Holy See’s actions regarding the question of women’s ordination and of a correct pastoral approach to ministry to homosexual persons, e.g. letters about New Ways Ministry’s conferences. The terms of the letters suggest that these sisters collectively take a position not in agreement with the Church’s teaching on human sexuality. It is a serious matter when these Leadership Teams are not providing effective leadership and example to their communities, but place themselves outside the Church’s teaching.”

You can read New Ways Ministry’s response to this criticism here.

Sister Simone Campbell

Besides New Ways Ministry, another Catholic organization, NETWORK, a national social justice lobbying group, was also cited in the CDF’s criticism of LCWR.  The New York Times article explains the reference and reports NETWORK’s  reaction:

“ ‘I’m stunned,’ said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby founded by sisters. Her group was also cited in the Vatican document, along with the Leadership Conference, for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping  ‘silent’ on abortion and same-sex marriage.

“ ‘I would imagine that it was our health care letter that made them mad,’ Sister Campbell said. ‘We haven’t violated any teaching, we have just been raising questions and interpreting politics.’ ”

In 2010, NETWORK supported President Obama’s health care bill, while the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposed it.

Bondings 2.0 will be following the news and commentary on the decision about LCWR in the coming days and weeks.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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