A group of nuns are reeling over accusations by the Vatican that they have been disobeying church doctrine. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), a group of 1,500 women who represent 80% of Catholic sisters in the United States, received an unpleasant surprise in Rome on Wednesday, 30 May, when church leaders declared they were flouting doctrine on important moral issues. But are church leaders just chafed at the idea that women are helping to redefine church priorities?
Contradicting popular opinion, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has held that the LCWR is paying too much attention to poverty and socioeconomic injustice while ignoring church doctrine on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and euthanasia. According to the special Vatican office, the nuns have been promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith,” reports Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times. Church leaders have also contested a letter signed by LCWR members supporting U.S. president Barack Obama’s 2010 health-care overhaul, which was opposed by American bishops, the “church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals,” Goldstein reports, quoting the church.
In their assessment, the bishops emphasize the church’s age-old values, citing the same “appeal to tradition” fallacy so often used to criticize change in religious institutions. Quoting Raymond Arroyo, a host on the Catholic Cable Channel EWTN, Goldstein reports that “[t]he Vatican is throwing a life line to the leadership of female communities that are not thriving,” and “attempting to facilitate a reform that will allow them to rediscover their initial calling and draw young vocations into the future.” The problem with this position is that a premise is not correct just because it is traditional: male dominance cannot be justified on the basis of church tradition (or on any basis, for that matter).
It might seem counter-intuitive that the Vatican should diverge with the LCWR in their fight for greater economic equality. One might expect church patriarchs to hail the nuns’ efforts to combat poverty, hunger, human rights abuses, and other pressing humanitarian issues. After all, the Universal Church of Rome is known for these kinds of charitable efforts. Nevertheless, the church has imposed an ultimatum on the nuns, as Eric Marrapodi of CNN reports: they can accept the assessment, negotiate, or create a separate organization outside the hierarchy of the church. What really seems to be happening is that the church is re-asserting traditional male dominance over female-driven social and institutional change, clinging stubbornly to tradition merely for tradition’s sake.
The LCWR’s activities seem to terrify the Catholic church for two reasons: first, they reflect a growing acceptance of feminism and homosexuality, and second, they are being spearheaded by women. Both trends threaten to undermine ecclesiastical canon law concerning women, reproduction, and sexuality, but many of the group’s members are mystified by the controversy. “[T]he shock made me numb at first,” Marrodi quotes Sister Simone Campbell as saying, “and then I was profoundly sad that my life as a woman religious and my commitment to serving the poor would be so denigrated by the leadership of our church…. All we do is work for love.” Indeed, the whole furor over nuns putting aside what people do with their own bodies to focus on helping the poor and needy seems bizarre. If we are all children of the same universe, shouldn’t working for love be our chief mission?