The clampdown on the nuns began in 2012, when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued its original doctrinal assessment after investigating the organization. Then it chastised the sisters for staying silent on some of the church’s signature issues, including birth control, euthanasia, homosexuality, and the ordination of women. Instead, in their work in schools, hospitals, and centers for the poor, they were just doing what they could to help the population, rather than acting as missionaries for the church. Their silence on the issues was interpreted as an endorsement, which was particularly annoying to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which felt the sisters were undermining the status quo.
According to the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR, the sisters were “moving beyond the Church” and as such, creating “a serious source of scandal” that is incompatible with religious life.
The nuns’ next trial of faith will be their August assembly, which will be seen as a litmus test for just how seriously they are taking the Vatican’s criticism. Their options will be to get in line with with the bishops and cardinals or break away and form their own group outside the Holy See’s jurisdiction. Francis, for his part, does not appear flexible on the topic. In several interviews, including one last September with the Jesuit magazine America, he dismissed the idea of women as equals. “I am wary of a solution that can be reduced to a kind of ‘female machismo,’ because a woman has a different make-up than a man. But what I hear about the role of women is often inspired by an ideology of machismo,” he said then. Now it is up to the nuns to flex their muscles or succumb.
So I tweeted “Catholic sisters teach me what it means to persevere without the benefit of institutional power.” And I added #WhatSistersMeantoMe. Framing things in that way, I thought, meant that people could show their gratitude for sisters, and read other messages of support, without being in any way negative. No need to be anti-Vatican or anti-bishop or anti-anything. Just pro-sister.
A few people commented that the Vatican’s assessment of the LCWR wasn’t intended as a critique of all U.S. sisters. Which is true. The LCWR is a kind of professional organization that often issues statements on behalf of the religious orders it represents. But that observation misses the point that the LCWR assessment came on the heels of a lengthy Vatican investigation of all women’s religious orders in this country-an “Apostolic Visitation,” to use the official term, investigating the sisters’ “quality of life.”
In other words, it wasn’t surprising that many sisters felt beleaguered and demoralized.