Nuns reject Vatican takeover but seek dialogue on differences
By DAVID GIBSON
ST. LOUIS (RNS) — American nuns facing a Vatican takeover of their
leadership organization on Aug. 10 rejected Rome’s plans to recast
the group in a more conservative mould, but declined — for now — to
respond with an ultimatum that could have created an unprecedented schism
between the sisters and the hierarchy.
Instead, the nuns said they wanted to pursue a negotiated solution to
the showdown that has galvanized American Catholics in recent months
and prompted an outpouring of support for the sisters that left the Vatican
with a black eye.
The statement from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious
came at the end of the LCWR’s annual assembly here and was the
first formal response to the Vatican from the entire organization, which
represents most of the 56,000 nuns in the U.S.
LCWR PRESIDENTS STAND TOGETHER DURING CLOSING MASS OF ASSEMBLY IN ST. LOUIS — Franciscan Sister Florence Deacon (centre), newly installed president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, is joined by president-elect Sister Carol Zinn (left), a Sister of St. Joseph, and immediate past president Franciscan Sister Pat Farre ll during the closing Mass at the organization's assembly in St. Louis Aug 10. (CNS photo/Sid Hastings)
The Vatican announced in April that it was assigning a
team of bishops to take control of the LCWR in order to make the organization — and
by extension, most U.S. nuns — hew more closely and publicly to
orthodox teachings on sexuality and theology.
Sister Pat Farrell, the outgoing president of the LCWR,
on Aug. 10 read the official response that expressed the organization’s “deep
disappointment” with Rome’s verdict. But the statement also
said the nuns wanted to keep talking with the hierarchy in hopes of “creating
more possibilities for the laity and, particularly for women, to have
a voice in the church.”
“Dialogue on doctrine is not going to be our starting point,” Farrell
Farrell added, however, that the sisters will reconsider
their options if the LCWR “is forced to compromise the integrity of its mission.” That
indicated that if the Vatican does not relent on at least some of its
plans to revamp the organization, the sisters could make good on the
threat to disband the LCWR and reorganize it as an independent body beyond
the reach of the Vatican.
The sisters’ pointed but measured response seemed to reflect the
approach that Farrell outlined in a powerful address on the morning of
Aug. 10 to the 900 sisters gathered here. Her talk detailed the nuns’ public “struggle
to balance our life on the periphery with fidelity to the centre.”
Farrell spoke of how the sisters have historically been committed to
serving the poor and marginalized as well as to pushing boundaries within
the church. That sometimes led to suppression by the hierarchy, she said,
but also to sainthood for many nuns, and to far reaching changes that
have benefited Catholics as a whole.
Farrell invoked an array of images to describe the role
of religious communities then and now, including that of the lightning
rod that “draws
the charge to itself, channels and grounds it, providing protection.”
Farrell’s point, and one that seemed to emerge with growing force
over several days of contemplation and deliberation, was that the sisters
could not continue to expand the church’s frontiers on behalf of
lay people and others if they placed themselves beyond the institutional
“There is an inherent existential tension between the complementary roles
of hierarchy and religious (the nuns) which is not likely to change,” Farrell
told the sisters. “In an ideal ecclesial world, the different roles
are held in creative tension, with mutual respect and appreciation, in
an environment of open dialogue, for the building up of the whole church.”
The nuns have enjoyed a “groundswell of support,” as
Farrell noted, since the Vatican edict was announced. There have been
online campaigns and vigils of solidarity with the sisters across the
country, and the LCWR scattered hundreds of letters of prayer and encouragement
on the tables in the huge hall where the nuns met.
Even as some nuns spoke openly about the sense of anger they felt when
the Vatican takeover was announced, Farrell and other influential voices
pushed the LCWR members to stick with the process.
Sister Donna Markham, a Dominican nun and health care executive,
said that after the Vatican takeover was announced in April she felt “extremely,
extremely hurt. I felt betrayed by my own church. It took everything
in me to go to mass.”
But she said the priest’s words of encouragement
to the nuns in his homily that day prompted a standing ovation from the
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