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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.

Vatican's looming 'Inquisition' reveals a fractured Catholic Church

As Pope Benedict XVI steps down and briefly leaves an empty seat, a conflict over spiritual mission and real estate will pause to await the next pope.

status, which is official recognition within the church as an organization that is considered authentically Catholic. 

LCWR’s Sister Pat Farrell, who was president of the group when it was called to Rome for the investigation last April, said, “Most important to all of us is not just that status, but our being able to live religious life as we feel called to do, with integrity and freedom — and hopefully with a good working relationship with the hierarchy.”

Farrell, who spent many years doing courageous social justice work in El Salvador and Chile, added, “We have not chosen to opt out of canonical status and would rather not rupture the relationship, with all that it would signal. It is very important to us as fidelity to our call as religious.”

Maintaining canonical status carries an implicit hope that the new pope will halt the Vatican-mandated process and drop the supervisory oversight structure imposed last year by William Cardinal Levada when he served as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a kind of prosecutorial arm of the Catholic Church which is housed in the same building where Galileo was brought before the Inquisition for heresy.


The bitterness of the division between the conservatives handpicked by and loyal to former Pope Benedict and the relatively progressive nuns who carry out work on behalf of the poor and sick across America and around the world is in some ways embodied by the small faith community in Westport, Wisconsin, which took the bold step of actually breaking away from the Catholic Church.

And the issue of land and faith at the Holy Wisdom Monastery reflects a larger struggle between a generation of bishops and cardinals who have become more rigid and reactionary, while disaffected communities of nuns have challenged the male authority of the church by ignoring it or going around it, fusing theology and action as Catholic witnesses on their own terms. For the doctrinal office in Rome, the bottom line is obedience; but material questions — who controls the real estate — shadow the larger conflict.

Last April’s Doctrinal Assessment criticizing the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for “radical feminism” used imperious language, but it tap-danced around specifics. It threatened the legal group that helped the Holy Wisdom sisters and other communities of nuns to hold onto their land without naming them or defining any formal ink between property and doctrine.

The takeover, or “supervision,” of the nuns’ leadership group backfired in media coverage as countless Catholics spoke out for the nuns. Just how, or whether, the supervision moves forward will be determined by a new pope and whoever he puts in the DCF.

“Our desire to become ecumenical had nothing to do with the outlandishness of the Roman hierarchy now,” says Walgebach. “We began our ecumenical movement out of our own sense of vision and mission as Benedictine sisters, which grew out of people praying of us from different Christian denominations.”

She said, “Other Benedictine communities encouraged us. How do you deal with canon law, keeping our community, and our property, as a whole?”


The man who provided the answer is a complex character, a Benedictine Father named Dan Ward. He is a canon lawyer with a civil law degree from University of Iowa who has helped many communities of sisters with legal counsel.

Described by one of his former students as a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Ward is heroic in the eyes of many nuns; and he has drawn fire from sex abuse survivors for his defense work for clergy perpetrators.

Ward was a key back-channel advisor in helping the Wisconsin nuns draft their petitions to Rome, requesting formal release from their vows in a Catholic religious order. He also advised them on legal steps to maintain ownership of the monastery and grounds. That transition from a Catholic order, to an ecumenical, or intra-Christian community, took several years and was done quietly, to avoid alerting the bishop of Madison, Wis.

“When a group of nuns in a diocese goes out of existence, then all the temporal goods go to the diocese,” explains Patrick Wall, a canon lawyer and former Benedictine priest who lives in Contra