From the editor’s desk
Sartain must be a bridge-builder28 April 2012
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has investigated the activities of the organisation which represents the great majority of religious sisters in the United States, and it did not like what it found. As a result, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has been told to accept close supervision of its activities, to bring it back into line with church teaching and policy. Roughly nine out of 10 of the 50,000-plus nuns in America are in communities affiliated to the conference, which is recognised by the Vatican but which now risks losing that status. The conference is alleged to have had a radical feminist agenda, and its unacceptable activities include giving currency in various ways to opinions deemed contrary to church teaching, such as over the ordination of women, the treatment of homosexuals or abortion.
It is fair to say that the discussion of such opinions constitutes only a small part of the conference’s activities, that these are not its official policy but the views of some of its members, and that many nuns in groups affiliated to it may disagree with some or all of them. It is also fair to say that the leadership of the conference has seemed willing to risk or even provoke a reaction from the church authorities. More nuanced critiques might on occasion have been more prudent.
That does not mean the CDF’s reaction is well advised. With its usual indifference to public relations, the Vatican has outraged vast swathes of American Catholics who hold nuns in the highest esteem, not least because of their magnificent work in health care and education and in the alleviation of poverty and hardship.
They are indeed the glory of the American Catholic Church. Unlike the bishops, they were untarnished by the scandal of child abuse and subsequent cover-ups. The Leadership Conference tended to take a different line from the bishops on such matters as President Obama’s health-care reforms, perhaps because they are closer to the people most affected by them. But these are not shock troops. They have devoted their lives to prayer and works of mercy. Nuns have no official preaching role, and no duty to act as agents or advocates on behalf of the bishops on public policy matters. It may be this factor which encouraged the conference to feel it had the liberty to question the Church’s official policies. But if those policies are soundly based, the hierarchy should have nothing to fear. The resort to discipline can easily look like a last-ditch attempt to shore up a weak position. It can even more easily look like bullying.
The conference’s leaders are not sure how to react. A great deal depends on the tact and sensitivity of Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, who has been appointed by the Vatican to oversee the process of reform. This is not a moment for a gesture of defiance, but a patient process to see whether it is possible to satisfy both the Vatican and the conference’s membership. No reform would work without the consent of the majority of sisters. That consent is likely to depend on preserving a forum in which conscientious doubts about church policy can be responsibly aired and discussed – whether the authorities like it or not. To screw the lid down without a such safety valve would be to risk an explosion.
Back to the front page