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Nuns Facing the Ruler: A Protestant Perspective on the Vatican Conflict with the Sisters
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Nuns Facing the Ruler: A Protestant Perspective on the Vatican Conflict with the Sisters

The Vatican's effort to rein in American nuns achieved a new level of visibility over the last few weeks. On Monday, Stephen Colbert interviewed Sister Simone Campbell, director of Network—a Catholic social justice lobby. When asked about the church's recent censure, Campbell articulated the sisters' shared commitment to "the gospel," particularly "to live as Jesus did in relationship with people at the margins of our society." Colbert appeared to be impressed.

Shortly before that, the Catholic Theological Society of America defended Sister Margaret Farley, a Yale theologian whose book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics recently raised the Vatican's ire. The board defended Farley as a "highly respected member of the theological community," and said that it was "simply a matter of fact that faithful Catholics in every corner of the Church are raising ethical questions like those Professor Farley has addressed."

The Vatican's censuring of Farley's work follows its denunciation in April of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the umbrella group for female religious, representing most of the 57,000 nuns in the U.S. The LCWR, whom the Vatican described as "doctrinally problematic" for its alleged failure to uphold church teaching on abortion and same-sex marriage, rejected this critique defending the social justice work of its members as "the work of Jesus."

Meanwhile, leaders from seven Franciscan provinces in the U.S. expressed support for the LCWR by calling the Vatican's crackdown "excessive, given the evidence raised. … The efforts of LCWR to facilitate honest and faithful dialogue on critical issues of our times must not result in a level of ecclesial oversight that could, in effect, quash all further discernment."

The LCWR's response to the Vatican's criticism—using terms like "unsubstantiated" and a source of "scandal and pain"—along with a veritable chorus of dissent by likeminded Catholics easily casts a less than charitable light upon the Vatican in general and Pope Benedict XVI in particular. This, however, would be unfair. A careful reading of statements by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) reveals a sensitive balance of pastoral care and discipline.

Last month, the Pope praised female religious in the U.S., expressing "'deep gratitude' to American nuns for their 'fidelity and self-sacrifice.'" Addressing bishops from the United States in Rome, "Benedict said he hoped that the current phase of 'discernment' would bear 'abundant spiritual fruit' and revitalize women religious communities 'in fidelity to Christ and the Church.'" In a similar vein, the Prefect of the CDF, Cardinal William Levada, explained the Vatican's critique of these nuns as "aimed at fostering a patient and collaborative renewal of this conference of major superiors in order to provide a stronger doctrinal foundation for its many laudable initiatives and activities."

* * *

One question that asserts itself with increasing relevance is the extent to which members of religious communities are truly at liberty to resist Vatican input. When a nun professes her vow of obedience, for instance, the ceremony unfolds as a kind of wedding. It is not "till death do us part" but rather, "till death is one submitted to Christ and his church," a church at whose head stands the successor of St. Peter, the vicar of Christ, the Roman pontiff. Nuns have a ring placed on their finger and literally assume a posture of prostration as symbolic reminders of this submission.

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