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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.

A New Inquisition: The Vatican targets US nuns

The Vatican is reining in the progressive leadership of American nuns, which has led to a global clash over the future of the Catholic church.

VATICAN CITY — Sister Pat Farrell and three other nuns crossed St. Peter’s Square through the fabled white columns, paused for a security check and entered the rust-colored Palace of the Holy Office.

It was April 18, 2012, and on entering the palazzo, they were aware of its history, that in this same building nearly 400 years earlier Galileo had been condemned as a heretic by the Roman Inquisition for arguing that the earth orbits around the sun.

Today, the palazzo houses the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the Vatican office that enforces adherence to church teaching. As president of Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), Sister Farrell and her executive colleagues had an appointment with the prefect, Cardinal William Levada, about a CDF investigation of their group by the forces that control the Vatican, who viewed the nuns as somehow going ‘off the reservation.’

They were walking into what Hans Küng, the internationally renowned theologian who had his own battles in the palazzo, calls “a new Inquisition.”

On the 50th anniversary of the reform-driven Second Vatican Council, the nuns were accused of undermining church moral teaching by promoting “radical, feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” To many nuns, the CDF action is a turn toward the past, causing a climate of fear and a chill wind reaching into the lives of missionary leaders.

“Now there is a stage of deep sadness and concern for the climate in the church and the misrepresentation of religious life.”
~Sister Pat Farrell

The Vatican wants control of the LCWR, an association of 1,500 superiors, representing 80 percent of American nuns. Most of the sisters, long active in the front lines of social justice, dispensed with their black habits and traditional jobs, like teaching school, after Vatican II.

The sisters are in a standoff with the male hierarchy under Pope Benedict XVI. But many leading cardinals and bishops have disgraced themselves by recycling pedophiles in the worst crisis for the church since the Protestant Reformation.

The main leadership council of American nuns embraced the Vatican II social justice gospel that has taken sisters to some of the poorest corners of the world to work with politically oppressed people, particularly in Latin America. But a stark drama of attrition has unfolded as the Vatican II generation reaches an eclipse. Since 1965, the number of American nuns has dropped by more than two-thirds, from 181,241 to 54,000 today.

In contrast, the rate of women joining religious orders has surged in Korea, South Vietnam, sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Caribbean. Nowhere has the increase been more pronounced than in India. Five of the 10 largest religious institutes of women have headquarters in India, where only 1.6 percent of the population is Catholic.

“While India has nearly 50 million fewer Catholics than the United States does, it has over 30,000 more women religious,” wrote Jeff Ziegler in Catholic World Report.

The Vatican crackdown of LCWR has exposed a schizophrenic church. Interviews with missionary sisters in Rome, from India and other countries, register a deep fault line between cardinals immune from punishment, and nuns who work in poor regions with some of the world’s most beleaguered people. Religious sisters from other parts of the world view the LCWR’s conflict with foreboding. How far Benedict goes in imposing a disciplinary culture, policing obedience over nuns as they push a Vatican II gospel of social justice, is an urgent issue to many of these women — and one sure to color this pope’s place in history.

The Doctrinal Assessment delivered by Levada was an intervention plan on how the nuns should pray; he appointed Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle to approve speakers for LCWR gatherings. The Vatican also signaled a striking interest in nuns’ property amid financial convulsions that have seen many American bishops sell churches to stanch deficits.

“You can impose silence, but that doesn’t change anyone’s thinking,” Sister Farrell reflected, several months later at the Franciscan convent in Dubuque, Iowa, where she lives.

“This is about the Vatican II church, how we have come to live collegially with participatory decision-making,” Farrell explains. “When I entered in 1965 we studied and prayed with [the Vatican II] documents, implementing new charters. ... We’re in a line of continuity with the early history of our communities, assessing unmet needs, going to the margins to help the homeless, people with AIDS, victims of torture and sexual trafficking.”