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The Vatican has been reining in the progressive leadership of American nuns, creating a political test of wills over the future of a faith with one billion adherents worldwide as it braces for an historic papal transition. Described as a modern ‘Inquisition,’ this punitive campaign against the nuns lands on the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and raises fundamental questions about the mission of a global church and the role of nuns who were inspired by Vatican II in taking the social justice gospel directly to the world’s poor.

On US-Mexico border, Catholic nuns offer migrants rare sanctuary

Displaced and often victimized travelers find respite in Nogales.

NOGALES, Mexico — The hundred men and women sat shoulder-to-shoulder at long, wooden tables, all migrants stranded in the crossroads of despair etched into this dusty town on the US-Mexico border.

Most of those gathered looked exhausted and despondent. Some were in pain, nursing wounds, sprained ankles and blisters from nights traversing the unforgiving Sonoran Desert trying to cross into the United States. Others had just been forcibly removed from their lives in the US, now left hundreds of miles from family and friends without money, a phone or a full set of clothing. Some had already tried unsuccessfully to return to the US only to be captured by the Border Patrol and sent back.

This is El Comedor, a small concrete structure where Roman Catholic nuns of the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist welcome thousands of migrants deported from the United States back into Mexico through Nogales each year. The mission offers spiritual support and two free meals per day in the modest building, where the walls are adorned with inspirational posters encouraging women’s rights and a life-size mural depicting Jesus, Mary Magdalene and disciples as modern-day migrants packed together tightly at a jovial “Last Supper.”

El Comedor — part of the Aid Center for Deported Migrants — represents the kind of direct social service, undertaken by thousands of Catholic nuns in the US, Mexico and around the world, that stands in high relief against the Vatican’s investigation of the US-based Leadership Conference of Women Religious based on what it called a “prevalence of certain radical feminist themes” in the nuns’ work.

In short, the American nuns' leaders are being investigated for heresy to Catholic doctrine. Many of the sisters' sense of mission grew out of the Second Vatican Council a half century ago when the church began to modernize, opening itself to the world with a new commitment to social justice.

“I know the stress levels that my brothers and sisters live.”
~Sister Rosalba Avalos Ramos

The American nuns drawn to field work here on the border, helping AIDS patients in Africa, or assisting victims of human trafficking networks in Asia and Eastern Europe place themselves in direct contact with humanity and suffering. And that field work often puts these nuns up against strict Catholic doctrine on birth control, homosexuality and other thorny issues that always seem more nuanced and complex when they involve real people who are suffering in real time.

Sister Rosalba Avalos Ramos in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico.
(Noelle Haro-Gomez/GlobalPost)

The political backdrop of the tangle between the rigidly conservative hierarchy that runs the Vatican and the more progressive American nuns of the Leadership Conference is defined, Vatican observers say, by a larger clash within the church over Vatican II and how the church will carry itself in the world. There is no attempt by the Vatican to shut down these missions or pull funding for the important field work they do, but the spiritual and social ethos that sustains these nuns is very much under attack. It is an ideological clash that has been compared to a modern ‘Inquisition,’ the Catholic office that investigated and sometimes tortured what it deemed “heretics" in the darker ages of medieval Catholicism.

Sister Rosalba Avalos Ramos hardly seemed heretical as she described the work she and her fellow sisters do serving meals and ministering to the migrants here in Nogales. And she hastened to add that the politics of Rome hadn’t made its way down here to the US-Mexico border. However, the junior sister said she believes the church has strayed from the Catholic teaching of preference for the poor. 

“I believe the church is living a moment of crisis,” Ramos said during a long interview in an apartment near El Comedor. “The church needs to be transformed and live out a more radical commitment to the most needy. If we’re really trying to follow the way of Jesus, there’s a lot of his path that we need to pick up again and start living.” 

The sisters’ work is funded largely by the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits, in partnership with a cross-border humanitarian organization called the Kino Border Initiative. The sisters also run a shelter for women and