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Sisters, Doing It For Themselves

The Vatican is cracking down on the activities of US Catholic nuns. Washington social justice lobbyist Sister Simone Campbell talks about what it’s like to be in the firing line.

Sister Simone Campbell is under no illusions why the organisation she runs has been singled out for special attention in a Vatican report that is highly critical of the activities of Catholic nuns in the United States.

In March 2010, when President Barack Obama signed his landmark Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law he presented her with one of the 22 pens he used to sign his name.

They built the schools and hospitals, and they are the ones on the ground “where the hurt is”. The consequence is that “they’re known, they’re trusted and they inspire an admiration and loyalty that will not be abandoned in this time of testing”.

Campbell is the executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby group, Network, which lobbied vigorously for the healthcare reform bill. But at the same time, the US Catholic bishops were lobbying just as vigorously against it. She says the bishops were incorrectly concerned that the bill would provide funding for abortion. It provides none. But the bishops were prepared to try and block the passage of a bill that gave affordable health care to 30 million Americans who previously had none. The bishops are furious at having been frustrated.

President Obama's healthcare legislation is now being challenged by several states in the US Supreme Court.

Catholic nuns in the United States are still struggling to respond to news of a Vatican crackdown against their activities.

Following a three year investigation into the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the 1500-member body representing the majority of the 57,000 nuns in the United States, the powerful Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a report two weeks ago criticising the organisation for promoting a "radical feminist" agenda and for making "occasional public statements" disagreeing with the bishops.

The Vatican also announced that it had appointed the archbishop of Seattle, Peter Sartain, to revise LCWR's statutes and review its plans, programs and affiliations with other organisations. The president of LCWR, Sister Pat McDermott, has said that the organisation was "stunned" by the Vatican's doctrinal assessment, but there is not expected to be any further formal response until after a meeting of LCWR leadership, due to take place later this month.

Sr Simone Campbell says the Vatican's intervention has international implications. She says it is clear from the document released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that the Vatican has targeted LCWR because of the prestige and influence that it has with Catholic male and female religious all around the world.

Yesterday the umbrella group representing male and female Catholic religious orders in Australia, Catholic Religious Australia (CRA), wrote to LCWR expressing its solidarity and support The letter, signed by the president of CRA, Josephite Sister Anne Derwin RSJ, thanks LCWR "for your example of conducting this discussion calmly, without judgement and in an atmosphere of prayer, contemplation and dialogue".

"We know of the incredible witness to Christ the women religious of the United States, and indeed all around the world, have been for centuries," Derwin writes. "Generation after generation of women religious have continued to be faithful to the gospel way of life, loving God and neighbour and especially the neighbour who is poor, vulnerable, isolated, shunned by society and even at times by our own Church. Women religious have been the compassionate face of Church and, for so many, the only face of Church."

Unsurprisingly, the Vatican intervention has drawn an outpouring of support for the nuns from American Catholics.

For many people, religious sisters represent the positive human face of the Catholic Church. As the editor-at-large of the National Catholic Reporter, Tom Roberts, put it in a long commentary piece, it is a "simple fact" that the Catholic Church in the United States has been built by the nuns. They built the schools and hospitals, and they are the ones on the ground "where the hurt is". The consequence is that "they're known, they're trusted and they inspire an admiration and loyalty that will not be abandoned in this time of testing".

The crackdown highlights just how bitterly polarised the Catholic Church in the United States has become during the culture wars of recent decades. During this period, religious women have frequently been criticised by Catholic conservatives.

In fact, while the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was carrying out its doctrinal investigation into LCWR, a separate investigation was launched by the Vatican Congregation for Religious Life into the 400 orders of religious women in the United States.

That investigation, chaired by Mother Clare Millea, the general superior of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was very poorly handled at first, and met with widespread resistance. Millea's report has not been released, and at least for now there is a widespread feeling that the inquiry was allowed to fizzle out.

Meanwhile, the crackdown on the activities of LCWR says more about the American bishops than it does about the nuns. Back in the Reagan era, the US Bishops' Conference published two extraordinary pastoral letters, one in 1983 against the nuclear arms race, and the other in 1986 on the growing economic injustice in the world's richest nation. Given the present political complexion of the US Bishops' Conference, those pastoral letters would be unthinkable today. That's because, over the past 30 years, while the nuns have steadfastly kept on doing what they were doing, the bishops have drifted far to the political right.

To put it starkly, during the culture wars of the past 30 years, the nuns have remained true to their mission while the American bishops changed sides.

In March 2010, when President Barack Obama signed his landmark Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law he presented her with one of the 22 pens he used to sign his name.

Now the nuns are being criticised, not so much for what they are doing and saying, as for what they are not doing and saying. Specifically, they are being told that they are placing too much emphasis on social justice issues and not enough emphasis on the agenda that the bishops wish to emphasise — the so-called "Life" issues of sexuality, abortion, contraception, euthanasia et cetera. In other words, the hierarchy appears to be stepping back from the strong social justice agenda that has been so characteristic of Catholic teaching since the Second World War.

As I suggest in my interview with Sr Simone Campbell, this raises a key question about the autonomy of religious women and their right to speak their own mind and set their own priorities. Many outsiders would assume that they have no such right, and that their role is meekly to obey the dictates of religious men. Of course, as anyone who has been taught by nuns in a Catholic school can tell you, nothing could be further from the truth. Nuns are the "free radicals" of the Church, and as Australian Catholics know, they have always been very difficult to control.

Although the nuns are yet to see the full details of what the Vatican has in store for them, it is also clear that the intervention represents an attempt to reassert the kind of top-down model of power inside the Church that existed prior to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The Vatican has long denied that it is attempting to reverse the reforms of Vatican II, but during the papacy of Benedict XVI this is now happening more or less openly.

In a way, this episode is also related to the clerical sexual abuse scandal. The US Catholic bishops have been humiliated and their moral authority utterly destroyed by the scandal, but the moral stature of religious women in the United States remains intact. No wonder the bishops are lashing out in their frustration.

Sr Simone Campbell belongs to an order called the Sisters of Social Service, founded in Hungary in the 1920s by Margaret Slachta, who was the first woman to be elected to the Hungarian parliament, so the order has a heritage of political activism that has clearly been there from the beginning.

During the Second World War the order saved a thousand Jews from the gas chambers, and one member, Sr Sára Salkaházi, was murdered by the Nazis for sheltering Jews and beatified as a martyr by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006. Sr Simone says she is part of a tradition of which she is very proud.

"But the irony is that it's that very gift of life, that very working at the margins for those at the margins we're now being told we're wrong for doing. It's very ironic."

But the lobbying continues. At present Sr Campbell is busy battling against the federal budget prepared by Republican congressman Paul Ryan. "He says it comes from Catholic social teaching, but he's decimating programs for those who live in poverty and those who have been traumatised by the current economic crisis."

3 comments on this story
by Graeme

Stephen, asked the right questions and allowed Sr Campbell to respond comprehensibly. She clearly is a class act, and the Bishops will need all their collective might to stifle her.

May 23, 2012 @ 4:45pm
by Carlos

Great feature, but a little too one-sided I thought (evidenced by the prolific use of words like "cracking down"). I get that this article is about the nuns (or the LCWR in particular) and their treatment at the hands of the Church, however at times it just sounded like a bit of old fashioned Catholic (hierarchy) bashing. The article also sheds some light on the immense, difficult and critical work these good women do with such compassion and in the service of a greater cause. Their work certainly isn't glamorous and has little public reward so their commitment is unquestioned. However, the problem here can't just be boiled down to the bishops being "furious at having been frustrated" with the result of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It is clear that the Church has been moving away from a social justice platform to a "Life" issues one for some time now and those issues unfortunately are not accommodated as well by the work the nuns invariably do. The move is away from a socio-polital and towards a religious agenda that had been lacking attention in a changing world according to the Catholic church. It is a difficult spot that they're in because they do not want to give up their power (politically and within the Church) as a group, but they have 'signed up' - so to speak - to an organisation that has rules and regulations/laws like any other. As was noted in the article they are the "free radicals of the Church" and would obviously like to maintain their autonomy. This struggle for power, direction and unity/conformity has more history to it...

Thank you for the read :)

June 24, 2012 @ 8:59am
by Fact Check

Is there a citation to support the assertion in paragraph 2 -- and a large pull quote -- that Sr Simone received a pen from President Obama? The head of the Catholic Health Association did, but I can't find anything to confirm Sr Simone did. Just sayin....

September 14, 2012 @ 2:17pm
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