A group of mournful nuns in St. Peter's Square

(AP Photo)

In April, the Vatican censured the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCRW), a body that represents more than 80 percent of American sisters. After a two-year investigation, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) alleged that the LCRW had promoted “radical feminist themes” in its programs, had encouraged models of leadership that privileged dialogue over clear exertion of authority, and had tolerated dissent against bishops and other Church officials. In its formal “Doctrinal Assessment,” the CDF also charged that American sisters had failed to give sufficient attention to the Church’s opposition to abortion, euthanasia, and homosexuality, focusing instead on issues of social and economic justice. An archbishop and two bishops will now oversee the LCWR’s “renewal,” attempting to reform the group to align more consistently with what Rome deems to be proper doctrine. Sister Pat Farrell, president of the LCRW, has called the charges inaccurate and unfair and has asked the Vatican to engage in “open and honest dialogue” about the censure and the involuntary renewal process.

In an interview with CNN about the criticisms, author and radio host Sister Maureen Fiedler invoked the Second Vatican Council in defense of her American Catholic sisters and the priorities they hold dear today. She shifted the focus away from politics and toward the history and structure of the church itself. “What’s really at stake here in the larger significance of this [conflict] is the future of the church,” Fiedler said: “whether we’re going to go back to the old church before the Second Vatican Council, which was male and dictatorial and not collaborative, obsessed with issues of sexuality, or whether we’re going to go forward with what the Second Vatican Council called us to, which was collaborative leadership and dialogue and a church where the laity really have a place—and a place where social justice issues are in the forefront of the agenda that we’re carrying forward.”

Sister Fiedler’s appeal to the Council was not a casual reference. Rather, her invocation of the Second Vatican Council goes to the heart of the current conflict between American sisters and the male hierarchy of the church, and it illuminates both what caused the current conflict and what is at stake for both sides in its resolution. Bluntly, if one party has departed from the definition of Church promulgated by the world’s bishops during the Second Vatican Council, it is not the nuns.

THE SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL (sometimes called Vatican II) was a major meeting of the world’s bishops that took place in Rome between 1962 and 1965. Pope John XXIII called the bishops to Rome to facilitate what he termed “aggiornamento” or modernization, literally bringing the church up-to-date. At the Council the bishops wrote, debated, revised, and voted to approve 16 separate documents that addressed topics like the nature of the church, its relationship to the world, the liturgy, ecumenism, and religious freedom.

Most people associate Vatican II with liturgical revisions that changed the mass from Latin to the vernacular langue of the local population, but the Council also sparked deeper systemic reforms in the ecclesiology and self-definition of the Catholic Church. In Lumen Gentium, the Council defined the church as “the Pilgrim People of God,” a phrase that underscored the processual and inclusive nature of the church and defined the Catholic faith as an ongoing journey. This was in contrast to longstanding assumptions that equated the church with the male hierarchy of priests, bishops, and the pope in their role as arbiters of doctrine and morality. Gaudium et Spes affirmed that each human person posses inherent dignity. It also emphasized the foundational solidarity of the Catholic Church for individual persons—and indeed the whole human family—especially those who suffer from poverty, injustice, and war.

Vatican II also addressed the need for aggiornamento or modernization in congregations of vowed religious. The conciliar document Perfectae Caritatis called for sisters to revise their missions, rules, and constitutions to make religious life more relevant to the modern world. Sisters were to be guided in this process by the gospel and through reflecting on the spirit of those who founded their congregations. In successive directives, the Vatican instructed sisters about the proper process for these revisions and established a period where sisters could experiment with changes to established norms in dress, lifestyle, leadership, and ministry.

American sisters responded obediently and often enthusiastically to the immense tasks imparted by the Council. Through the late 1960s and early 1970s, sisters read and debated theologies of religious life and immersed themselves in the deep histories of their congregational founders. They reflected on the meaning of their vows and the role of religious consecration in contemporary society. They formed committees to address different facets of religious life, performed multi-year self-studies, conducted surveys of their entire membership, wrote detailed reports about their findings, and held open chapter meetings where sisters talked freely about the pain and promise of vowed life. In the end, American sisters reached a working consensus about the form and direction vowed religious life should take in light of the Second Vatican Council.

The LCWR is a direct embodiment of these reforms. The Leadership Conference originally was named the Conference of Major Superiors of Women’s Religious Institutes (CMSW). Formed in 1956 in response to Pope Pius XII’s call for the vowed religious to form national organizations, the CMSW’s founding statutes defined its purpose as “the promotion of the spiritual welfare” of American sisters. Following Vatican II, many congregations concluded that true Christian community honors the inherent dignity, ethical autonomy, and moral conscience of its members rather than requiring unquestioning obedience to external authority. By 1971 members believed that the title “superior,” with its connotations of hierarchy and autocracy, no longer reflected the new understanding of authority that had emerged in congregations of sisters through their renewal process. Changing the name of the organization to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, sisters were signaling that they saw leadership as a prayerful, participatory, consensual, and democratic process among sisters rather than an embodiment of monarchical authority in a single person.

Aggiornamento was not easy for American sisters. The process of implementing the mandates of the Second Vatican Council was costly in both time and resources. The airing of diverse ideas about the direction of their collective life sometimes strained the cohesion of religious communities. A significant number of sisters left religious life in the tumultuous period of adaptation and renewal. Most congregations interpreted these challenges as necessary growing pains, a natural result of trying to adapt medieval institutions to the twentieth century. In her influential study of modern religious life, Finding the Treasure: Locating Catholic Religious Life in a New Ecclesial and Cultural Context, Sister Sandra Schneiders compared the conciliar adaptation of sisters to the evolution of prehistoric dinosaurs into modern-day birds. Both dinosaurs and preconciliar convents were large and powerful but ultimately ill-adapted to dynamic environments. Birds and congregations of modern sisters may be less imposing, but they are swift, svelte, adaptable, and much better suited to the contemporary world than their predecessors.

Most Catholics experienced aggiornamento visually, in the image of sisters leaving behind the religious habit for lay dress. The deepest changes that resulted from the renewal process were mostly hidden from casual observers. This is particularly true of the dramatic transformation that occurred in the ways sisters understood the apostolic component of religious life—literally, the ways they would assist in the mission of the Catholic Church—and the kinds of ministries they pursued as a result.

Before Vatican II, the majority of American women religious worked in Catholic institutions as nurses and teachers, a form of service that created an impressive network of Catholic hospitals, parish schools, colleges, and orphanages in the first half of the twentieth century. In the aggiornamento that followed the Council, many American sisters came to the conclusion that the conciliar vision of radical solidarity with the whole human family that is central to Gaudium et Spes meant that they should serve the most downtrodden and disfranchised members of American society, addressing pressing social needs of the time. In the 1970s and 1980s American sisters moved out of Catholic institutions and began to work in a wide variety of social programs. They developed new programs that addressed structural injustices, especially those that disadvantaged women and people of color. They ran shelters for women who were victims of domestic violence, developed educational programs for incarcerated women, counseled people with drug addictions, and opened food banks. Sisters volunteered to teach at traditionally African-American colleges in the South. They opened free summer enrichment schools in housing projects and offered job placement services to the unemployed. They marched at Selma, stood in solidarity with striking farmworkers in California, protested nuclear proliferation, and demonstrated against the School for the Americas. They created programs to encourage environmental responsibility and ecological justice.

The recent “Doctrinal Assessment” of the LCWR criticized sisters for pursuing these kinds of apostolic works instead of speaking out against abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. The assessment observed, “issues of crucial importance to the life of Church and society, such as 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.” True enough. But this criticism disregards the historical fact that the sisters’ current ministries are a natural outgrowth of their obedient and thoughtful response to the mandate the bishops gave them in the Second Vatican Council. Sisters do not see their primary role in the postconciliar church as promoting the church’s recent emphasis on teaching about sexuality. They understand their role as standing in solidarity with humanity, ministering directly to human needs for food, shelter, education, health care, employment, respect, and justice.

From this historical perspective, American sisters have followed a consistent trajectory that stretches from their obedient response to the reforms required by the Second Vatican Council to their present-day focus on works that promote human dignity, social justice, and equality. The Vatican, in contrast, has turned away from the more open conciliar model of ecclesiology and mission of its recent past toward a retrenchment of preconciliar modes. This view insists Church principles be defended by an elite cadre of male bishops and curial functionaries whose authority is absolute.

THE APRIL CENSURE OF THE LCWR is just one facet of an intensifying conflict between American sisters and the Vatican. In June the CDF issued a Notification to Sister Margaret Farley, a professor emerita of Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School and the president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. The Notification criticized Farley’s 2006 book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, finding that it affirmed “positions that are in direct contradiction with Catholic teaching in the field of sexual morality.” Also in June, Network, a progressive Catholic advocacy group named in the negative CDF report, launched the “Nuns on the Bus” tour. In fifteen days, the group traveled through nine states, protesting proposed Republican budget cuts, and visiting sites where sisters serve economically vulnerable communities. Sister Simone Campbell, Network’s executive director, acknowledged that they undertook the bus tour in part as a response to the LCWR censure; it served to harness the publicity Network had attracted and to highlight their mission of advocating for marginalized and oppressed people.

One way of interpreting the Vatican’s censure of American sisters is to observe that American Catholic women religious are one of the last remaining institutional incarnations of the conciliar perspective that was dominant in the Church in the wake of Vatican II. The last two papal administrations have systematically worked to bridle and contest important developments that came out of the Council, with the strongest push directed at reversing definitions of authority that compete with the male hierarchy and emphasizing those doctrines that concern gender and sexuality. For the most part the Church has been successful, silencing dissent, refusing dialogue, and reasserting autocratic power through the branches of the Vatican bureaucracy.

Recall that before his election to the papacy, Pope Benedict XVI, as Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, was the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the same Vatican office that has now criticized American sisters. Many of the theologians censured before and during Cardinal Ratzinger’s tenure in the CDF were contributors to the theological principles that undergirded the new models of church that emerged in the Second Vatican Council. (Cardinal Ratzinger was so enthusiastic in this role, in fact, that he was given the nickname “God’s Rottweiler.”) In his open letter to the world’s bishops in 2010, Hans Küng, a theological adviser to the Second Vatican Council, who later was stripped of his missio canonica (his license to teach Catholic theology), observed, “Time and again, this pope has added qualifications to the conciliar texts and interpreted them against the spirit of the council fathers. Time and again, he has taken an express stand against the Ecumenical Council, which according to canon law represents the highest authority in the Catholic Church.” 

With the hierarchy’s success in de-legitimating conciliar definitions of the church and its mission, American nuns embody the principles the Vatican has been trying to minimize. The LCWR, with its embrace of collegial authority and focus on social justice, now stands as a living reminder of Catholic history that the hierarchy would rather Catholics forget.

A less charitable way of interpreting the Vatican’s negative “Doctrinal Assessment” of the LCWR would be to observe that nuns make a convenient scapegoat to distract Catholics and the media from the ongoing scandal of sexual abuse by priests. If people are talking about those “radical feminist” nuns who aren’t sufficiently riled up about abortion and gay marriage, perhaps they won’t be focusing on clerical sexual predators and the system that too often protected them against discovery and prosecution.

In her interview, Fiedler concluded her remarks by stating, “I think it would be a tragedy for the American Church if we ever went back to that old model, and unfortunately that’s represented in this Vatican document.” American sisters can no more go back to the pre-conciliar model of vowed religious life than birds can devolve back into dinosaurs. The irony of the current persecution of American sisters is that the Vatican bureaucracy fails to acknowledge that the evolution of American sisters into their present form is the fulfillment and realization of the mandate the Church gave them in the Second Vatican Council, not a violation of it.

Amy Koehlinger is assistant professor of North American religious history in the School for History, Philosophy, and Religion at Oregon State University. She is the author of The New Nuns: Racial Justice and Religious Reform in the 1960s